A riddle about Abingdon Abbey

Twenty hides – a gift from Cissa – by gravel terrace three rivers meet – two swans rise. You may like to close your eyes to see if you guess the answer first but this is what I think …

This was the land Cissa, a Saxon King, granted to his nephew to found a monastery. Abingdon sits on a gravel terrace, and the three rivers that meets here are the Stert, Ock and Thames. There are two swans rising on the town’s coat of arms. The Abbott of Abingdon Abbey may have been entitled to keep swans on the river – usually a royal prerogative.

A little further on from the stone riddle at Neave Mews is a sculpture – an A shape, and on one side are the bronze faces of Hean and Cilla.

In the Historia Ecclesie Abbenonensis (The History of the Church of Abingdon) are Charters from which the earliest origins of Abingdon Abbey can be traced. A charter in the year 675  granted land by Cissa to Hean (or Haeha) to build a monastery. It does not look like a lot happened at first. King Cissa was followed by King Caedwalla who in another charter gave back to Hean the land which King Cissa had once given to him (for a monastery) and to Cilla his sister (for a nunnery). Then a bit later the next King Ine took away the land and then it back to Hean  again to build a monastery.  So I am not sure what took Hean so long. One legend, told by Mieneke Cox (The Story of Abingdon part one), says Hean started building the monastery  near Boars Hill and then it kept falling down, and he was told by a hermit it was in the wrong place and was directed to build it down where Abingdon is now.

So he could have built his first monastery in the Abbey Grounds around 699, having delayed for  24 years for whatever reason. I don’t think anybody has ever found any physical evidence of that first Saxon monastery.

6 thoughts on “A riddle about Abingdon Abbey

  1. Janet

    A GROUP of poets have launched a competition to find and publish some of the best verse written about Abingdon. Abingdon Share a Poem group are looking to publish a book called ‘Ten Poems About Abingdon’, and the writers are seeking entries from other people in the town.Poet and group member Alastair Fear said he has already written 15 poems about the town and he is on the look out for 10 good quality poems from other writers to publish in the book. To enter end poems about Abingdon people, places and memories to: Alastair.Fear@gmail.com

  2. One of the Rachels

    The earliest monastery is probably under St Helen’s, although it would be a bit tricky to do a dig to find out. Abingdon Archaeological Geophysics discovered a Saxon site on Boar’s Hill which may well be the original site (bearing in mind that Abingdon means Aebbe’s Hill). No dig there yet either. AIn fact according to the medieval historians the settlement we know as Abingdon was called Seveksham. However just to confuse matters the earliest documents to do with Abingdon Abbey are in large part not from here at all but from Bradfield Abbey. So much to find out….

  3. Hester

    If anyone would like a copy of Mieneke Cox’s book (individual volumes or full set) the Abingdon Area History and Archaeology Society and the Friends of Abingdon have plentiful supplies. They are easy to read and fascinating.

  4. tony legge

    after the romans left it’s probable that there was no new building in stone in england until about 670AD because we’d forgotten how to. Wilfred, who had spent a lot of time in Rome was responsible for hiring men from the continent to build ecclesiastical structures in stone, often in the north. So i feel sceptical about abbey buildings falling down at hat time. if they did, all the traces would just be post holes. Interestingly, 10 hides was enough to support a household with servants and agricultural labour to run it. my understanding is that paulinus, an “archbishop” sent from Rome collected statistics on “hideages” – the areas occupied by landholders throughout england and areas of scotland and ireland in the seventh century.


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