Today I joined members of the Oxford University Heraldry Society on a visit to Dorchester on Thames.
Dorchester has a remarkable history. The bishopric established there in 634 by St Birinus began the conversion of Wessex and the mid-Thames valley. Had it remained the centre of the power of the Kings of Wessex, who, faced with Mercian pressure to the north, moved south to Winchester, it has been suggested it might have become the capital of England when the House of Wessex unified the kingdom three centuries later. Why St Birinus brought King Cynigils there for baptism, a journey of some twelve miles, and settled at Dorchester may well be explained not just by the fact that it had Roman remains which afforded shelter, but possibly or probably a continuing Christian presence. In addition there is evidence that long before the Romans what is now Dorchester was a Neolithic cult centre. The bishopric, with some intermissions remained there until 1072 when it was transferred to Lincoln, and the former cathedral re-established as an Augustinian priory of the Arrouaisian congregation.
Dorchester is a beautiful and charming small town, which has an old fashioned quality rare in modern England, but more than that, a sense of the numinous to those who reflect upon its history
Our first visit was to the abbey church. Here, despite preparations for a choral concert this evening, we had a guided tour of this extremely interesting building. Dorchester is a somewhat unusual survivor of a medium-sized monastic church from the middle ages - not on the scale of Tewkesbury or Sherborne, or those which became cathedrals. It has retained some wonderful specimens of medieval art - carvings, glass, tombs and brasses and wall paintings - some of the last only being recovered in the recent restoration. We also looked at the fine display of architectural fragments in the reconstructed cloister walk. This display was largely the work of a friend and fellow Orielensis, David Kendrick.
One thing that irritated was that the information boards in the abbey all referred to 'monks' being there in the period after 1072 until the Dissolution - but Dorchester was served by Augustinian canons - do they think their visitors so stupid that they cannot understand the subtle difference of nomenclature and function? It would be simple enough to explain.
Something that had appeared since my last visit to Dorchester was a rather fine reconstruction of the monastery as it might have been in the fourteenth century by Dominic Andrew - for his work look at www.archeoart.co.uk
We then moved over to the Catholic presbytery for tea and cakes on the lawn courtesy of Fr Osman, the parish priest, before visiting his wonderful church of St Birinus. Built in 1849 its website is St Birinus, Dorchester. In recent years Fr Osman has undertaken a marvellous work of restoration in the Puginesque church, and has enhanced it with much care and thought. Not least amongst this has been introducing a decorative scheme of heraldry reproducing the arms of benefactors of the abbey which still survive there or are recorded in Heraldic Visitations together with others from the recusant period as well as more recent contacts.
These were all described to us by Fr Mark Elvins OFM. Cap., Warden of Greyfriars in Oxford, and the inspirer of the revival of the Heraldry Society. As a pointer he used a crozier once owned by St Frideswide - well, one that once belonging to a statue of St Frideswide that was stolen some time ago from Greyfriars in Oxford. As we were leaving, Fr Elvins, who was providing me with a lift asked me to hold the crozier. Friends will not be surprised to learn that I immediately turned my cravat into a wimper with which to hold it.