Legend suggests that a hermit was living on this site as long ago as the 7th century, and in the early 8th century a small Saxon monastery was in existence. Danish raids were apparently responsible for the destruction and abandonment of this monastery, and it was almost three hundred years later before the vast Norman abbey was founded here by Robert Fitzhamon for the order of Benedictine monks.
Tewkesbury Abbey became one of the richest monasteries in England, and this was largely due to the powerful medieval families associated with the monastery prior to the Dissolution. Lavishly decorated tombs and chantry chapels in memory of those families provide today's visitors with a glimpse of their wealth and influence in the church. When the Tewkesbury Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1540 most of the monastic outbuildings were demolished, but the townspeople were determined to retain the church that they had used for worship during the last 400 years. Within two years they had somehow managed to find £453 enabling them to buy this magnificent abbey church for continuing use as their parish church.
Having survived fire, several periods of reconstruction, a bloody Battle, the Dissolution, and a partial collapse, it is nothing short of a miracle that Tewkesbury Abbey has survived in such an amazing state of completeness. From the unusually fine Norman west front, the impressive nave and the beautiful Romanesque tower it is truly a construction worthy of the highest praise. Standing as the second largest parish church in England, even larger than 14 of the country's cathedrals, it is no surprise to learn that it also claims the highest tower, a feature that still dominates the Gloucestershire market town today.
The original abbey church would have extended even further at its east end with a Lady Chapel, but this was demolished just before the Dissolution, possibly with the intention of reconstructing a further one. A series of mid 14th century radiating chapels surround the high altar, and some of the country's finest examples of medieval stained glass still decorate the windows in the chancel.
If pure Norman architecture is of special interest, then Tewkesbury Abbey surely must be one of the few places remaining in this country where it has survived almost untouched. Even though the original timber vaulted roof of the nave was replaced by the splendid lierne-vault around 1340, it neither compliments, nor detracts the eye, from the immense Norman pillars dominating the length of the nave. Each of the 14 massive, unadorned pillars is over 30ft (9m) high and some 6ft (1.8m) thick and resembles those at Gloucester Cathedral. As for the present roof, it is a beautiful piece of workmanship in its own right, with every rib intersection studded with a pictorial boss, but it does not sit comfortably above the solid starkness of the Norman columns.
In common with many of our great churches, Tewkesbury Abbey has undergone many restorations, including the Gilbert Scott Victorian programme, but despite all later influences it appears to have retained its ancient splendour. It has certainly captured the evocative medieval atmosphere that opens the visitors' minds to witness silently many of the events that may have taken place in the abbey throughout its chequered history.