Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page

Tavistock Abbey

N the tenth century a magnificent abbey for the order of St. Augustine arose on the Tavy. Orgarius, Earl of Devonshire, may have been its original founder, but it has also been ascribed to his son, Ordulph. Orgarius, tradition tells us, began Tavistock on account of a dream he had had, and dedicated it to St. Mary. He began it in 961, but did not live to finish it. It was completed in 981 by Ordulph, his son, and endowed by him with the manor of Tavistock and many others. Ordulph was nephew to King Ethelred, and is said to have been a giant able to stride across a river ten feet wide.

But Orgarius had not only a gigantic son, he had a daughter of such surpassing beauty that England rang with her praises. Edgar, the king, heard of the wondrous beauty of Elfrida, and sent his favourite thane, Athelwold, to the castle of her father, the Earl of Devonshire, to ascertain if report spoke truly of her. But her fatal beauty bewildered Athelwold, and he wooed her for himself instead of his master, representing to Edgar when he returned to court, that Elfrida was not beautiful but rich, and therefore a good wife for a subject, but not for a king. Edgar consented to his favourite's wedding her. But some time after the king was told how he had been deceived, and insisted on paying Athelwold a visit in his far-off Devonshire home. The unhappy courtier craved permission to precede his royal lord, that he might arrange matters for the king's visit. It was granted. Athelwold hastened at the speed of life or death, and kneeling before his wife confessed his fault and besought her to aid him in prolonging the deception; if she would conceal her charms by dress or by an awkward bearing he might owe her his life. But love was a stranger to Elfrida; and she was secretly enraged at the loss of a crown. Instead of seeking to obscure her beauty, she dressed herself magnificently and becomingly, and as she hoped, the royal Edgar was captivated. A day or two after Athelwold was found murdered in a wood, and soon after Edgar married his widow. The union, begun in crime, led to terrible results, even to eclipsing the glory of the royal house for ever. The king survived his marriage only six or seven years; died at the age of thirty-two, and was buried at Glastonbury, which he had greatly enriched.

The abbey founded by Elfrida's father flourished greatly, and seems to have had learned monks within it, for we read that soon after its re-establishment (it had been burnt down by the Danes) the abbot established a school for the study of Saxon, which was getting disused and corrupted. As soon as printing was introduced, the abbey established a press, from which many books were issued, amongst them a Saxon grammar.

Richard Barham, the thirty-fifth abbot, obtained from Henry VIII., in 1513, the privilege of sitting in the House of Peers.

The next abbot resigned the abbey to Henry at the dissolution of the monasteries on being allowed 200 per annum for life.

The lands were granted by Henry VIII. to John Lord Russell, whose descendants still possess it.

The revenues of the abbey, when given up, amounted to 9,020 5s. 7d.; but this is scarcely a fair statement, for the abbot and priors, foreseeing their fate, had set the rents low, and the fines very high, retaining the latter for the purpose of having some support when cast out on the world.

A considerable addition was made to the wealth of the abbey by the following singular circumstances.

"It is left us by tradition," says Risdon, "that one Childe of Plimstock, a man of faire possessions, having no issue, ordained that wherever he should happen to be buried, to that church his lands should belong. It so fortuned that he, riding to hunt in the forest of Dartmoor, casually lost his companye and his waye; likewise, the season being so cold, and he so benumbed therewithe, that he was enforced to kill his horse, and having so killed him to creep into his inside to get heat, which not being able to preserve him, he was there frozen to death; and so found, was carried by the Tavystoke men to be buried in the church of the abbey, which was not so secretly done but that the inhabitants got knowledge thereof, which to prevent they resorted to hinder the carrying of the corpse on the bridge, where they concluded necessitye compelled them to passe. But they were deceived by guile. For the Tavystoke men forthwith builded a slight bridge and passed on at another place, without resistance, buried the body, and enjoyed the lands; in memory whereof the bridge beareth the name of Gyle bridge to this day."

Neither bridge nor abbey is now in existence, although there are still some remains of the latter-part of the walls, the refectory, the still-house, Ordulph's tomb and a small gateway. Some huge bones, said to be those of the giant brother of Elfrida, are still preserved in Tavistock Church.

The printing press set up in Tavistock Abbey was the second put up in England.

Tavistock is delightfully situated on the western bank of the Tavy, from which it takes its name. The rich vegetation, the gardens and meadows, and the grand foliage of the old trees surrounding it are a strong contrast to the wild and dreary moor, so near it. The remains of the old abbey, still to be seen, attest its former magnificence. The north or principal gateway now supports a building containing the Tavistock Library; the refectory is used as a Unitarian chapel: considerable portions of the old battlemented walls remain, and near the vicarage is a gateway over a vaulted passage between two towers. One is called Betsey Grimbal's tower, from a tradition that a woman of that name was once murdered here; and the Still House, also at the back of the Bedford Hotel, has an elegantly carved porch with four lofty pinnacles. Most of these ruins are covered with ivy, and are very picturesque.

In 1591, when the plague raged in Exeter, the summer assizes were held at Tavistock, and thirteen criminals were executed on the abbey-green. At the commencement of the civil war, Tavistock was the scene of much contention. Its representative in Parliament then was John Pym; he and the Earl of Bedford and most of the citizens were in favour of the Parliament, while the county gentry were extremely loyal. Fitzford, a castellated mansion in the neighbourhood, held out for the king, but was taken by Essex. Prince Charles - afterwards Charles II. - held several councils at Tavistock, while Plymouth was blockaded by the Royalists and Exeter by the Parliamentarians. Tavistock is a very ancient borough; it sent members to one of the first Parliaments of Edward I.

The patriotic Lord William Russell was member for Tavistock.

The town is not incorporated, but is governed by a portreeve, who is the returning officer for parliamentary elections. He is chosen annually at the court leet of the lord of the manor.

Tavistock is one of the principal stannary towns of the county, and several mines are working very successfully in its vicinity.

The whole district, including many parts of Dartmoor and the valley of the Tamar, is rich in minerals.

There is a large iron foundry carried on at Tavistock, and a smelting establishment at Crowndale, where Sir Francis Drake was born.

Sir John Glanville and the poet Browne, author of " Britannia's Pastorals," were born at Tavistock.

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004