7 Other Famous Abbeys in England

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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.

With season three premiering on PBS tonight, 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

March-April 2002 issue of mental_floss magazine

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 last year.

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January 6, 2013 - 4:55am
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