Lesnes Abbey

By the time the hangover had worn off yesterday, it was almost dark, but I didn’t want to let the day go without doing anything some way useful – somehow it would have set a bad precedent for the year ahead. So we decided to try to find the abbey at Abbey Wood…

Lesnes was founded in 1178, eight years after the murder of Thomas a Becket, by one of the naughty boys who was involved. I can’t tell whether Richard de Luci actually plunged the dagger into Becket’s heart, or just held the big boys’ coats while they did the dirty deed with the dirk, but he certainly felt bad enough about it to build an abbey in penance.

It was an Augustinian order, which, it would seem, mainly meant the Vatican’s admin department. They did burials, baptisms, giving of penances – that kind of thing. The original Augustinians were pretty strict, but according to the sign-boards placed all over the site, this lot were more relaxed about the rules – presumably this translates that they were good-time monks.

They can’t have been very good-time. They were always in financial trouble (though of course that could have been from being good-time monks, though it’s politely implied it was more to do with constantly having to rebuild river defences) and by the time of the Dissolution, they were prime targets. Lesnes (do we pronounce this lez-nez, less-ness or even le-ney, French stylee?) was one of the first to cop it. Cardinal Wolsey strode in, the (presumably meagre) spoils intended for a new college he was building at Oxford.

Over the centuries the place was gradually plundered for building materials, but the foundations remain almost intact, giving a very pleasing layout map of what it would have been like. It’s a sweet little place with all the necessary rooms you would expect in an abbey – a no-frills, EasyMonk monastery. A simple church with a raised altar and pillars, a cloister, somewhere to eat, somewhere to sit and and somewhere to ablute. The Abbot’s own lodgings were next door to the bogs, not a layout I would have chosen, but maybe that was part of Richard de Luci’s penance…

De Luci’s great granddaughter, Roesia, was so fond of the abbey that she had her heart buried there. In a slightly icky-moment, the casket containing said heart was discovered in one of several archaeological digs and that, along with sundry bits of stone carvings, tiles and a monument are apparently in Greenwich Borough Museum – a place I haven’t visited yet, its being situated most inconveniently in Plumstead, but which is definitely on my list for this year. Apparently there are also some finds in Erith Library, even less convenient, but I’ll be making a trek out there too at some point.

In the meanwhile, despite it being almost dark yesterday afternoon and the place being virtually deserted, a little, non-vandalised, ‘visitor centre’ was open, with some faded photographs and info, which, along with close-cropped grass somehow made the whole place seem a little less abandoned.

I have to say that labelling this as a “day out” in itself might lead to a small amount of disappointment unless you are some kind of ruined-monastery nut, but as one of those things to do when you’ve, ahem, wasted most of the day but want to do something interesting, it’s perfect.


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