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7 Other Famous Abbeys in England

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ITV Studios

The most famous abbey in England right now is not actually an abbey at all — it’s a castle. Highclere Castle is the stand-in for Downton Abbey, the eponymous location of the mega-popular British series about an upstairs-downstairs household in the early 1900s. While Downton might be the only abbey about which people in the U.S. are currently talking, Britain is home to many a famous abbey.

The word “abbey” actually refers to a Catholic monastery or convent – usually operated under the spiritual authority of an Abbot. When divorce-hungry King Henry VIII denounced the Catholic Church in the 1500s, he also ordered the dissolution of all monasteries in England, Wales and Ireland. After stripping the estates of their valuables, the Crown either sold off the property or gifted it to loyal nobility. The only actively religious thing left about the properties was the name. These estates often stayed with families for centuries until a lack of funds or a proper heir forced families to sell – a pressing predicament in the aforementioned show’s plot.

Downton might be the abbey of the moment, but these are some others that have stood the test of time.

1. Westminster Abbey

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Located in the heart of London, Westminster Abbey has been the site of royal weddings and its fair share of funerals. Most recently, it captivated the eyes of hundreds of millions when it hosted the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Westminster is also the go-to site for royal coronations; it was featured in the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech where King George VI must speak publicly during his coronation. More a tourist attraction than functioning house of worship, Westminster also holds the tombs of such luminaries as Chaucer, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens and the ashes of Rudyard Kipling and Sir Lawrence Olivier.

2. Bolton Abbey

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The Bolton Abbey monastery was under construction when the axe of dissolution came down from Henry VIII, and the building was never finished. The estate was passed down through the Dukes of Devonshire, until the 11th Duke gave it to the Chatworth Settlement Trustees. The ruins are now open to the public to tour, which is what Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon did in episode 6 of their series The Trip (released as a film in the US). The estate earlier served as the inspiration for Wordsworth’s poem "The White Doe of Rylstone."

3. Glastonbury Abbey

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In its prime, Glastonbury Abbey was second only to Westminster in its wealth. After the dissolution, however, it was stripped bare and left for ruin. Located in Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey is believed by many to be the mythical Avalon where the famous sword-from-the-stone Excalibur was forged and where King Arthur died from battle wounds. It had long been rumored Arthur was buried at the Abbey, but in 1191 monks decided to confirm suspicions by excavating the rumored spot. Sixteen feet below the ground they found two bodies – the bodies are believed to be those of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. They were later reburied in the Abbey Church where they remain to this day.

If that weren’t enough mystery, it is also believed that the great-uncle of Jesus Christ himself, Joseph of Arimathea, was involved with the founding of Glastonbury. Legend has it that after the death of Christ, he traveled to Britain with the Holy Grail. After arriving on the island of Avalon, he placed his staff in the ground and it took root, growing into the Glastonbury Thorn. While there, he is thought to have buried the Holy Grail somewhere in the area.

4. Battle Abbey

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The bloody 1066 Battle of Hastings left many Anglo-Saxons dead and the Normans victorious. As penance for the slaughter, William the Conqueror promised the Pope he would build an abbey on the site of the battle. Though he died before construction was complete, King William's pledge was ultimately kept in the form of Battle Abbey. It was almost completely demolished by the 16th-century dissolution, gifted to a friend of the king and converted into a private home. Battle Abbey Estate would end up with the Webster family for multiple centuries, though many parts were sold off or fell into disrepair. In the 1970s, the Webster family put the whole thing up for sale and it was bought by the British government.

5. Fountains Abbey

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Fountains Abbey is so important it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unlike many of its peers that were met with ruin by King Henry’s dissolution, Fountains remains to this day one of England’s biggest and best-preserved Cistercian abbeys – an order marked by austere living and deferential architecture. The estate is like a living timeline, with landscaping and various buildings spanning the 12th to 18th centuries.

6. Northanger Abbey

Much like its sister Downton, Northanger Abbey is a fictional estate. It is also one of Jane Austen’s first published novels. The book’s highly imaginative heroine Catherine becomes enchanted with the home of a suitor – Northanger Abbey. Things get complicated with a potential dark secret lurking in the halls of this famous abbey. This is not one of Austen’s most famous works, but it might be one of the most famous literary abbeys.

7. Abbey Road

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It's the name of a world-famous recording studio, title of a classic Beatles studio album, and an actual thoroughfare in north London. Abbey Road might not be an abbey in the traditional sense, but it’s definitely one of the most famous abbeys in Britain. The so-called “zebra crossing” featured on the cover of the eponymous album has since been listed as a cultural heritage site by the National Trust.

This story originally appeared in 2013.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
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Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
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Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
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The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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