Leicester Abbey

From Academic Kids

Leicester Abbey, the Abbey of Saint Mary de Pratis ("St Mary of the Meadows"), standing about a mile (2 km) north of the city of Leicester in the riverside meadows of the navigable Soar, was built under the patronage of Robert le Bossu, Earl of Leicester. It was founded as a community of Augustinian Canons, the canons regular of the Order of Saint Augustine. Canons regular follow a similar, but perhaps less rigid rule than monks, following a rule set down by Saint Augustine in a letter to a convent in his diocese.

The abbey was one of the largest and most influential land owners in Leicestershire, thanks to contributions by important patrons such as the Earl of Winchester, Simon de Montfort, Alan la Zouche, Ernard de Bosco and, finally, the Crown. The abbey certainly held more manors than any lay lord.

Cardinal Wolsey

The abbey is perhaps most famous for its connection to Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England, who was for a time the most powerful man in England, second only to the King. In spiritual terms, his power even surpassed that of the Archbishop of Canterbury (the Primate of England). Wolsey, at one part, was a candidate for the papacy on the death of Leo X, when Clement VII was elected.

And yet, he fell out of the King’s favour. As he returned to York, he stopped at Leicester Abbey. As he arrived, he told the abbot, "I am come to leave my bones among you.” The archbishop died that night November 26 1530. He was buried within the walls of the Abbey church, and today a monument stands on his supposed resting place. From the disgrace of Wolsey, the path to schism from Rome was short, and the inevitable fall of the Abbey of St Mary de Pratis of Leicester.

Post-Reformation

The canons regular in fact supported the Oath of Supremacy of the King, and the abbey would have become the cathedral of Leicester. However, it had problems of its own, far from the reaches of spiritual politics. The Abbey was in debt. The canons owed £411 10 s 0 d (£411.50). The last abbot, John Bourchen, surrendered the abbey to Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s old secretary. He set up what was believed to be a scheme to save the Abbey (despite his firm belief in the dissolution of the monasteries)—the sale of the abbey’s land and possessions. The scheme (unsurprisingly) failed. The canons disbanded, and the land was granted to the Marquis of Northampton, who later sold it to the Earl of Huntingdon, who built a house in the grounds of the abbey, using the Abbey's stone. The Abbey's main gatehouse, which gave access to the cloister that flanked the abbey church, some boundary walls and later farm buildings have survived.

In 1613, William Cavendish, the first Earl of Devonshire, acquired the property, and it became known as Cavendish House. It was used as the headquarters of Charles I before the Battle of Naseby. After the loss at Naseby, what Royal troops remained plundered the house and fired it.

The excavated remains of Leicester Abbey, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and of ruined Cavendish House now stand in the Victorian landscape of Abbey Park, Leicester, laid out in 1877, where the grounds and 52 acres (210,000 m²) of the adjacent park, with its Chinese garden and model railway form the premier parklands of the city of Leicester.

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