THORNEY ABBEY 
 

CHURCH OF ST MARY & ST BOTOLPH

Church Post Code  PE6 0QA

Church Normally Open to Visitors

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It was a bright and sunny Friday afternoon in May 2022, and a revisit to Thorney Abbey, the church of St Mary and St Botolph. Covid had finally hit me two weeks previously and this was my first trip out since testing negative. It was good to see the abbey again; in fact it was good simply to be able to get out again!

Thorney is a large village with a population of a fraction over 2,400 at the time of the 2011 census. The village is set against the busy A47, which connects Peterborough, eight miles off to the west, to Wisbech in the east. The twin turrets of the church here are a familiar landmark set a little way back from the main road.

I have memories of visiting Thorney as a very small child, as we had a family day out to Thorney Wildlife Park, which was housed in grounds to the west of the abbey. I have sepia tinted memories of standing outside the abbey, looking up in awe at this fantastic building which loomed above me. Those thoughts were replicated some 50 years later! Fond memories as an adult of the bacon rolls from the café close by!

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There was a religious settlement founded here as far back as 662, which was founded by Saxulf; this being a community of hermits on what was, at that time, an isolated island in the fens. This was sacked by the Danes in 870 and was abandoned and overgrown until it was reformed as a Benedictine Abbey in 972.

This was an Abbey of some importance, enjoying royal patronage from King Cnut, with the abbey itself having relics of several local saints. This abbey was pulled down and a larger Norman structure erected, which was consecrated in 1128.

This was expanded in the early 14th century and a measure as to the size of the abbey here is that in 1328 there were no fewer than seven consecrated altars here. The abbey was very badly affected by the Black Death, which struck the area in 1349

The abbey complex was enlarged during the 16th century but was dissolved as part of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, surrendering to the king’s commissioners in December 1539.

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Most of the buildings here were torn down, with only the nave surviving. This was restored as the Parish Church of St Mary and St Botolph in 1638, at which point the aisles were pulled down and the arcades bricked up, leaving us pretty much, with the exception of the east end which dates from the 1840’s,with the structure that we see today.

Looking at the west front, with the same childlike joy that I had some 50 years previously we see the sheer size of what remains and try to visualise what the abbey looked like in its prime.

The impressive west front has two massive Norman turrets to north and south, with the former housing the church clock, in the traditional colours of blue and gold. There is a partially bricked in west window, which in pre reformation days would have been spectacular, possibly filled with medieval stained glass as befitting a structure of such importance!

Entrance is through the west porch, with the date of restoration, 1638, marked across the top. There are four empty image niches to either side of the porch; with a frieze of alternating flower designs and heads, across the top of the porch. This is one of three similar, with further to be seen higher up.

A frieze containing carvings of nine male figures can be seen at the top in between the two turrets. Interestingly, the figure on the far right has lost all of his facial features, unlike the other eight!

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For a building of this size, there is just a single bell here. When JJ Raven compiled his study of the church bells in Cambridgeshire in 1869 he gave Thorney Abbey a six word review which read ‘a small bell in a turret’. The National Church Bell Register has a little more detail, attributing the bell to Bagley with a date of 1720, but there is a question mark against the founder. There were several Bagley’s working as bell founders from several different counties but I am struggling to tie up a particular Bagley with the date of 1720.

In its day there would have been an impressive ring of bells here but I have not been able to find out any information on what bells were here prior to the abbey being dissolved and what happened to them afterwards.

Moving around the exterior, the nave shows clearly the bricked in arches that would have been part of the north and south aisles; these aisles extending out over where many of the gravestones now stand.

The nave is perpendicular and battlemented, with the odd gargoyle to be seen, with one in particular looking in a state of distress, with its face drilled out and modern spout inserted!

The church was open, as it has been on each occasion that I have visited over the years. My hobby is about the churches; that is obvious, but it is also about other things. It’s about the actual travelling; it’s about the animals met along the way, the food and the people.

Here it was the people, or person to be pedantic! As I was shooting the interior a man came in who obviously wanted to talk. We chatted about several things over a 20 minute period. The conservation turned to his depression. Some of you know my own background and why I do what I do, so this is close to my heart. It was good to meet him; ships that pass in the night, with hopefully both parties feeling some benefit!

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There are five walled in bays to north and south, with nave flowing seamlessly in to chancel. The east end dates from 1840 – 1841 and was built in Norman style by Edward Blore, who had an illustrious career, whose work can be seen at Westminster Abbey and cathedrals at Ripon, Norwich, Ely and Glasgow.

The altar, with white altar cloth, stands on a red carpet. The reredos has carved on to it ‘I am the bread of life’. Commandment boards flank the east window, which dates from the 19th century and features scenes copied from the St Thomas A Beckett miracle window in Canterbury Cathedral.

At the east end of the north and south aisles are six very interesting panels from Germany, dating from around 1450. These are as follows…

1. The mocking of Christ prior to crucifixion.

2. The denial of Christ by Peter.

3. The pieta, Mary cradles the body of Christ after He is taken from the cross.

4. The Harrowing of hell, where Jesus rescues Adam and others from damnation.

5. The three Mary’s on their way to the tomb.

6. The risen Christ breaks bread with the two disciples He met on the road to Emmaus.

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The mocking of Christ prior to crucifixion.

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The denial of Christ by Peter.

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The Pieta.

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The Harrowing of hell.

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The three Marys.

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Breaking bread with the Emmaus disciples.

One ladger slab caught my eye; this to one George Smith who was the steward to William Earl of Bedford. The inscription is in beautiful olde English and it reads that ‘Hee Dyed 29 October Anno 1651’.

The church grounds are of interest, with several gravestones featuring carvings of the human skull, crossed bones or the hourglass, all of which are often used symbols of the mortality of Man.

Two gravestones are worth an individual mention, each being double gravestones, inscriptions weathered down to nothing but looking to date from the late 17th century. The first has carvings of two figures holding crossed flaming torches. This was an often used symbol for eternal life.

The second has an angel with wings unfurled across the top, symbolising the safe escorting on the soul of the deceased to Heaven. Nestled under the angel’s wings are two human skulls with crossed bones close by.

Interestingly, on either side of the gravestones there are two human figures, each standing on a plinth. These are very weathered but it appears as if at least one of them is pointing upwards towards Heaven. There is similar at Maxey, but there the figures have a foot resting on a human skull.

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Relative to the bright sunshine that I photographed the exterior of the church in, it was quite dark in amongst the trees and bushes looking through the gravestones. It was nice to see a ladybird on one of the stones, with a ladybird larvae at the side of it. There is nothing in the church grounds that is listed, but the churchyard wall itself does have a Grade II listing.

This is a fascinating and historic building. Those wishing to visit here might care to combine a visit with a trip to Crowland Abbey, which can be found five miles to the North West. Both are normally open to visitors. Please also note that there is a museum in Thorney, which is not too far from the church. Please check their website though for opening times if wishing to visit there.