...under the Patronage of St Gregory the Great
The largest of the neo-Gothic style churches built in England after the reformation and described as the ‘most splendid demonstration of the renaissance of Roman Catholicism in England’. The monastery is home to an order of Benedictine monks.
The community was founded in Douai, Flanders in 1605 where Saint John Roberts established a new community with other English monks who had entered various Spanish monasteries in the Spanish Benedictine Congregation.
After France took over the Flanders region and following the French Revolution, they were expelled from France and permitted to travel to England in 1795 setting up in Acton Burnell in Shropshire for nearly 20 years before finally settling in Downside in 1814.
The Monastery was completed in 1876 and the Abbey Church in 1925, being raised to the rank of a minor basilica in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.
The Monastery Buildings
The main monastery building is to the west of the church and comprises community rooms on the ground floor and the monks cells on the upper storeys. Although only two floors were built originally with the top two floors added later it offers a spacious living area for the monks set apart from the school but connected by the Petre Cloister.
The East wing has the most modern buildings and a library connect to it by a bridge which is over six floors and houses over 150,000 books. The wing itself comprises the monks refectory, the Bursary, the administrative offices as well as the guest wing. Below is the Weld Cloister, the last gothic construction at Downside.
The Abbey Church
Built in three stages under the direction of different architects it is pleasing to the eye despite the potential to have been a bit chaotic. The church tower dominates the surrounding countryside standing 55 metres tall and completed in 1938 it is the second highest in Somerset. It contains a single bell named Great Bede after Dom Bede Vaughan who came to Downside in 1903 from Beverley Minster.
The monastic Choir is where the monks come six times a day for Divine Office and Mass. There are wooden choir stalls where they sit in order of their entry into the monastery above which each stall has a canopy bearing a monastic or local saint. The lower canopies hold emblems of Christ’s Passion on one side and musical instruments on the other, with the stall ends carved with the symbols of the four evangelists, Mathew Mark, Luke and John.
The Lady Chapel
The chapel was completed before the Choir and opened in 1888. A later redesign put in a 15th century style larger altar with tester, roodscreen riddle posts and an alabaster-gilt reredos showing scenes from the life of Jesus and Mary. The altar front is specially woven French cloth in gold with black orphreys and the stained glass windows show Old Testament figures, scenes from the life of Mary, the four evangelists and the three Mary’s from the New Testament.
The most recent addition to the main structure of the church, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and opened in 1925 as a memorial to the old boys of Downside school who lost their lives in the First World War whose names are recorded on tablets at the West end of the church.
The earliest part of the building to be completed, the Transept or Crossing of the church was opened in 1882. The eight main panels of the reredos in finely carved stone depict biblical events related to the eucharist from the Old and New Testaments. The main feature of the Transept is the shrine of St Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh and the last martyr under the penal laws following the Reformation.
Ambulatory and Side Chapels
The chapels on the North side of the Sanctuary and in the Ambulatory were each conceived independently of each other and have distinctive furnishing and decoration. The Saints of their dedication each have a connection to Downside either with families of their donors or with monastic or local traditions. There are also a number of notable tombs including Cardinal Gasquet, who was Prior of Downside before becoming a Cardinal.
There is accommodation available at the Monastery Guest House and Bainesbury House for those looking for a retreat for silent prayer and worship and the St Bede Centre provides a tranquil setting for conferences, study days and exhibitions.
For further details on availability and visiting please contact the Abbey directly:
Tel: 01761 235161
Other attractions in the area:
Wookey Hole Caves
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015