Jedburgh Abbey

This past Saturday, my wife and I rented a car with friends and fulfilled a desire we’d had almost since we arrived — we visited Jedburgh and Melrose Abbeys. Also, I drove on the left and succeeded in killing no one. Accident free. That alone made it a success.

Our first stop, after lunch at the Buccleuch Arms in St Boswells, was Jedburgh Abbey. We had seen Jedburgh Abbey driving up from a trip to England with the in-laws back in May of 2011. When you approach Jedburgh from the South, you are immediately struck by the long, three-tiered, Gothic nave of the abbey church. And it is pure awesome. Light and beautiful and … here, I’ll skip a thousand words:

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Of course, as this picture demonstrates, Jedburgh Abbey is one of those interesting places that is not a single architectural style. It has some Romanesque and some Gothic aspects. It was begun in 1138 under the patronage of Scotland’s great abbey builder, King David I (son of Queen St Margaret and Malcolm III [‘Canmore’], yes, of Macbeth fame) as an Augustinian Priory. By 1154, Jedburgh’s religious house was large enough to qualify as an abbey.

It was built from East to West (right to left in this pic). The chancel, where building began, was originally two Romanesque levels, but was modified and had a third Gothic level added in later years, along with an extension. I seem not to have a clear photo of this aspect, so this will have to do, looking West from the very end of the chancel — the walls are just visible on right and left before reaching the transept:

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Augustinians — who also had abbeys at Holyrood near Edinburgh Castle and Cambuskenneth near Stirling, places that, like Jedburgh, had royal castles — were not like the Benedictines (first in Scotland at Dunfermline in 1070 under Margaret & Malcolm) or the reformed orders that followed Benedict such as the Cistercians (first in Scotland at Melrose, also founded by David I) or Tironensians (first reformed order in Scotland Britain at Selkirk, later moved to Kelso, also founded by David I, also at Arbroath).

Technically, you see, Augustinians are canons not monks like Benedictines and the reformed orders (who follow the Rule of Benedict as well). Monks are meant to live in seclusion, away from the world, devoting their lives to simplicity and prayer. Augustinian canons, on the other hand, are all priests, and they take on responsibilities in local parishes. They, too, are meant to lead simple lives, but they combine the ministries of pastoring and prayer in a way that traditional monks do not.* They follow the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo, which was designed for parish clergy in the 4th-5th centuries; as an order, they were established in 1059.

This means that Jedburgh Abbey Church was also the local parish church. Local lay folks worshipped in the nave, on the other side of the Rood Screen from the monks. They entered through this Romanesque door:

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And they stood in this Gothic space:

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The canons, on the other hand, lived to the south of the church (so on the other side from the picture above). They entered from the cloister through either the East processional door, that went to the clergy-only area:

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Or the West processional door, leading to the nave (highly restored in 1876):

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Sadly, this abbey did not have an easy time of it. King David built it in the Borders, and he built it big and beautiful, specifically as a way of showing the authority and power of the King of Scots. Later centuries would see that power and authority challenged and hammered. The abbey was besieged and taken by the English on many occasions; Edward I even installed his own abbot.  It had to be repaired extensively in the 1400s, and in 1523, the Earl of Surrey, who had earlier slain King James IV at Flodden, set fire to the abbey. By the 1540s, only eight canons remained at Jedburgh.

In the 1560s it was converted into the local parish kirk, and operated in such a fashion until 1876.

Next up: Melrose Abbey. Then maybe some reflections on Augustinians and Cistercians.

*Mind you, the Benedictine monks I stayed with in Austria were involved in a lot of parish ministry, but that is not Benedict’s ideal.

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3 thoughts on “Jedburgh Abbey

    • Hi, Sally Ann! You’re welcome for the photos, and thanks for the kind words. I recommend the ruined Border Abbeys of Scotland; we’ve visited three of four: Jedburgh, Melrose, and Dryburgh (not yet Kelso).

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