Coggeshall Abbey, Abbot Ralph and early bricks

   
In the Museum there is a display of Coggeshall bricks as well as a collection of different types of medieval tiles. There is information about Coggeshall abbey with pictures and the works of G. F. Beaumont and J. S. Gardner (both eminent Coggeshall historians) about the Abbey and its bricks are available for study.

The abbey from the river bank

The abbot's house in use as a stable

The foundation of the abbey around 1140 was made possible by Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen. The manor of Coggeshall was part of the inheritance left to her by her father, Eustace of Boulogne, and she endowed this to the abbey. The Abbey was originally Sauvignac but soon became part of the Cistercian order. It was an ideal situation for a Cistercian abbey as they always built in quiet valleys and by a river for fishing and building water mills to grind the corn they grew on the fertile agricultural soil. The sheep farming undertaken by the Cistercians (or white monks) gave great impetus to the woollen and cloth trade that was eventually to make Coggeshall so prosperous.
Apart from being farmers the monks were also millers, brewers, tanners and most importantly,makers of bricks. Bricks had not been made in this country since the Romans had left, so those bricks, or tiles as they were then termed, which can be seen in the abbey and St Nicholas' Chapel (the abbey's gatehouse chapel) today, are the oldest post-Roman bricks in the country. They were made locally in Tilkey, a corruption of tile kiln, many of them being moulded varieties of specific shapes that are seen nowhere else.

 

Coggeshall bricks on show in the museum

 

Log sawing outside the Guest House

 

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  When the monks built their complex the church took pride of place. It was always very simple, very large and built in the shape of a cross and was without exception dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The interior would have been very austere and unpretentious. As well as the church they had quadrangular cloisters enclosed by various buildings: the Chapter House, Refectory, the Library and the Dormitory. Adjoining them were the Frater house (great parlour) and the Hospitium or Guest house. A little separate from these were the Infirmary and Abbot's lodgings. At the head of affairs was the Abbot. The list of Abbots is incomplete but Ralph is the one that is most well-known.

Ralph was the sixth, and most eminent, Abbot of Coggeshall's Cistercian abbey. His incumbency lasted for 11 years and 2 months between the years 1207 and 1218 and he succeeded Abbot Thomas. An Englishman by birth he was, unusually so for the agriculturally biased Cistercian order, a man of considerable learning and knowledge with a high degree of erudition in literature. He was at one time canon of Barnwell near Cambridge.  It is his Chronicle of the Holy Land and later his Chronicle of English Affairs which sets him apart from other abbots. His recorded accounts of both render him important both nationally and locally. He was already a celebrated member of the order due to his exploits in the Holy Land where he was present at the fall of Jerusalem to the Saracens under Saladin in 1187. It was here that he suffered a head wound during the siege from which he was to suffer severely in later life. He had travelled with the Crusaders in 1185 "amongst other pious men, who were needed to comfort the weak, instruct the ignorant and animate the brave in the battle of the Lord".
The final entry in his Chronicle of the Holy Land was in 1191, after which he returned and retired to monastic life at Coggeshall abbey. Here he set down his Chronicle of English Affairs without which we would know very little of the events during the early and formative years of the Coggeshall abbey.
In 1218, suffering from increasing bouts of indisposition, he renounced his title and was superseded by Coggeshall's seventh abbot, Benedict. Ralph continued to live in Coggeshall for a further ten years until his death in 1228.

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A medieval tile found near this brick-lined grave in the cloister walk at the Chapter House door. It contained the skeleton of a man who had at some time received a serious head wound. J. S. Gardner, in his 1955 paper for the journal of the British Archaeological Association states that the position of the burial could indicate that the occupant of the grave may be an abbot.
  Medieval water pipes found in a field near the Abbey. A close-up view is to be found at the bottom of this page.
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The Dissolution of the monasteries began in 1535. They were the strongholds of the Pope and therefore perceived to be the enemy of the King (Henry VIII). Whereas once the abbeys were the oases of learning and peaceful sanctuary, they had by now become the abodes of ignorance and corruption. Because of their accumulated wealth they could not command the reverence their former piety had guaranteed, making them easy prey to political necessity. The Reports of the Commissioners showed them to be full of vice and corruption, so in 1535 all those abbeys whose annual revenues did not exceed 200 were suppressed. Three years later the same fate befell the larger abbeys, of which Coggeshall was one, and before the year 1538 was ended, almost 400 years exactly since its conception, this abbey was no more. The abbey church was destroyed and the stones carted away, the Abbots house and other parts were incorporated into a Tudor mansion and the gatehouse chapel became a barn.

 

The abbey house, c1900

Corridor showing the moulded bricks

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In 1860 the chapel of St Nicholas, together with the land on which it stood was purchased from the then owner, Jonathan Bullock. The doorway was restored and the place re-thatched. In the 1890s a more extensive restoration was undertaken and the chapel was given a tiled roof. Restoration of the window surrounds was undertaken and matching bricks were specially moulded for this, and finally the windows were glazed. The chapel was used as Coggeshall's parish church for a while during World War Two as St. Peter's had been bombed in 1940. The chapel is still in use today.

There are more pictures of the chapel on the 'Historic Walk'.

St Nicholas' chapel, c1895, before full restoration..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Close-up of medieval water pipe