Tewkesbury Abbey (officially the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin) is the second biggest parish church in the country (second only to Holy Trinity, Hull), bigger than many British cathedrals, and equal to them in grandeur, architectural style and historical importance. Like all abbeys, the place was once part of a Catholic priory, established in the 10th century, and enduring until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, but although most of the subsidiary buildings were quickly demolished, the church was not abandoned as was the case for most other abbeys; instead it was sold to the local townspeople (for £459) and henceforth has served as the Anglican parish church.
The abbey is situated near the south edge of town, on a slightly elevated spur of land between the rivers Swilgate and Avon, just upstream from the confluence with a much larger River Severn. Because of all these rivers, the surrounding low-lying fields are very prone to flooding, the high water sometimes encroaching within a few hundred feet of the church, and on at least two occasions (2007 and 1760), seeping within it.
The building is orientated southwest to northeast, and has the standard cruciform design, with an unusually long nave, north and south transepts, central choir and presbytery, and an ambulatory around the outside, ringed by ten chapels. The other monastic buildings were mostly on the south side, the only sign being stonework from the inside of one of the cloister corridors, now forming part of the exterior wall of the nave. The nearest visitor parking is just to the east, along Gander Lane, also used by people walking across the parkland to the south, either side of the River Swilgate. No entry fee is charged to visit the abbey though donations are always welcome.
A Saxon religious centre was established at Tewkesbury in the seventh century, and was upgraded to a Benedictine monastery in the tenth century (associated with Cranborne Abbey in Dorset) though the earliest section of the abbey church is from the start of the 12th century. Construction started in 1102 under the guardianship of Robert FitzHamon, cousin of William the Conqueror, and after his premature death in 1107 the project passed to his son-in-law Robert FitzRoy (illegitimate son of Henry I), later 1st Earl of Gloucester; the majority of the structure was completed by the time he died, in 1147. Several chapels were added in the 13th century, and more in the 14th, together with a new choir area and replacement vaulting for the nave and transepts, this a fine example of the Decorated Gothic Style. The 15th century saw additions to the outbuildings, including the cloisters, and this period is also notable for the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) during which time forces from the House of York attacked and defeated a group of Lancastrians who had sought shelter in the abbey. The last abbot was Sir John Waterman (died 1545); he cooperated in the 1539 dissolution, and was subsequently made Bishop of Gloucester. The subsidiary buildings were soon dismantled and the stones re-used, while the abbey became the parish church. Subsequent changes have largely been superficial, to the decor, windows and internal structures, most extensively by Sir Gilbert Scott in the 1870s.
The abbey church is mostly surrounded by fields, which are protected from development by a local charitable trust. To the north is the graveyard and vicarage, while another old parish building borders the church to the west. The usual approach is from the east, through floral gardens that contain several broad, ancient trees; a path runs along the north side to the main entrance, into the north aisle of the nave. Two blind arches at the east end of the church indicate the height of the original lady chapel, removed shortly after 1539, and its horizontal extent is shown by foundation stones. The site of the nave of another old chapel is evident to the north, adjoining the north transept. The west front of the abbey is notable for the tall, recessed, layered Norman arch, the largest such structure in the UK; this contains and equally impressive, seven-light stained glass window, the framework of which is from the 17th century and the glass from Victorian times. The wooden door at the base, not usually open, is comparatively plain and of relatively recent construction. Buildings on the south side of the church once included a parlour, cloisters, chapter house and monk's dormitory, but no trace remains apart from the internal stonework of the cloister walls Ð along the south side of the nave and a short section of the south transept. An angled buttress at the corner of the south transept was added post-1539; along with the blank wall of the old lady chapel and a few other buttresses, but all the other exterior masonry is 15th century or earlier. Rising high above the church is the great central square tower, apparently the largest Norman (Romanesque) tower in the world; 148 feet high and 46 feet across. This was for several centuries topped by a wooden steeple, until this fell in 1559.
Entry to Tewkesbury Abbey is via a porch, into the north aisle of the nave, separated from the main area by nine huge Norman columns, linked at the top by semi-circular arches. The south aisle is similar, and contains the main font, plus a World War I memorial. High above the nave is a fine, domed ceiling supported by lierne vaulting (characterised by secondary ribs between the main spans), the rib junctions centred on ornate, gilded bosses featuring angels and other heavenly effigies. The long, narrow aisles are lined by large windows filled with Victorian stained glass. The central section of the church, the choir, or crossing, lies beneath a white ceiling fixed by gilded vaulting, in the middle of which is a red decoration featuring ring of small suns around a larger sun, an emblem of Edward IV, and added shortly after the battle of Tewkesbury when Edward's Yorkist factions were victorious against the rival Lancastrians. The choir contains eight tombs, of the de Clare, le Despenser and Warwick families, who were the foremost patrons of the monastery. The choir and chantry are ringed by seven stained glass windows, all dating from the 14th century, and amongst the best surviving glass from this period anywhere in England. The north transept contains the main organ, donated in 1887 by Rev Charles W Grove, while an older, still functioning organ is positioned in the south transept, this built in 1631 and brought to Tewkesbury in 1737. The north and south sections of the ambulatory adjoin the various chapels, and other memorials, all set beneath another spectacularly vaulted ceiling of white, gold, blue and red.