Sharp-eyed readers will note that the name of the abbey and the village are spelled differently. The discrepancy is rumoured to be the result of a mistake in spelling by a medieval monk.
The abbey was founded in the early 8th century. The story goes that St Guthlac chose Crowland, which was then little more than an island rising out of the surrounding fens, as the site for a hermit’s cell. Guthlac came to Crowland on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 699 AD, so he dedicated his cell to St Bartholomew.
Guthlac gained a reputation for holiness, and pilgrims began to descend upon his remote cell. Among his followers was Aethelbald, one of several men who had a claim to the throne of the powerful kingdom of Mercia. Guthlac made a prophecy that Aethelbald would one day become king of Mercia, and Aethelbald vowed that if Guthlac was correct he would found a monastery in his honour.
You can surely guess the rest of the tale; Aethelbald did indeed become king of Mercia, and on St. Bartholomew’s Day 716 AD, two years after Guthlac passed away, Aethelbald fulfilled his vow and founded Croyland Abbey.
The abbey was attacked several times by the Danes during the following two centuries. In 870 an attack surprised the monks while they knelt at prayer, the abbot was killed and the abbey buildings burned. A 10th century abbot by the name of Turketyl restored much of the abbey, but a devastating fire in 1091 destroyed Turketyl’s buildings.
Like the proverbial phoenix, Crowland rose from the ashes once more, though this time it was rebuilt in Norman style. Once again, disaster struck, and the abbey buildings were destroyed, by earthquake in 1118 and in 1143 by yet another fire. Some remnants of the first Norman abbey can still be seen; notably the font and the west arch of the tower.
The final blow of Croyland’s tumultuous history came at the hands of Henry VIII. In 1539 much of Croyland was destroyed during Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The north aisle of the abbey church survived as the parish church for the villagers of Crowland. Enough of the original abbey remains to give us a good idea of Croyland’s past splendour.
Over the west door is a detailed carving depicting scenes from the life of St Guthlac, surrounded by statues of saints associated with the abbey.
The village of Crowland is located off the A1073, 10 miles north of Peterborough. The exterior of the abbey can be accessed at any reasonable time, and the interior of the parish church is open regularly during daylight hours.