History of Downside
Downside Abbey is the senior Benedictine monastery of the English Benedictine Congregation. Originally founded in Douai, in 1606, the community of St Gregory the Great settled at Downside in 1814.
Downside Abbey Church, one of only four Minor Basilicas in England, has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the Abbey as “the most splendid demonstration of the renaissance of Roman Catholicism in England”.
History of the Community of St Gregory the Great
Douai, in 1606, was part of the Spanish Netherlands and the English Catholics, who were given sanctuary there, were escaping anti-Catholic legislation in England, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1530.
St Gregory’s, Douai, was the first community of men to revive the English Benedictine tradition. Its founders organised a school for English boys, and provided a base for Benedictine run parishes or missions in England.
By 1794, Douai was being supressed by the French Revolutionaries who were at war with Great Britain, and the Monastery and School were temporarily rehoused at Acton Burnell Hall in Shropshire, the home of a former pupil. Mount Pleasant, in Somerset, was purchased during this time (as another temporary home), with the community moving in 1814.
The early years at Downside were uncertain: France was still an attractive option, school (and monastic) numbers were low and the local Catholic bishop, Augustine Baines, despite being a Benedictine himself, was hostile. Nevertheless, within a decade the community had adjusted to their life at Downside, and by 1823 had opened a chapel and new school buildings; designed by Henry Goodridge in the Gothic style to recall medieval monastic life.
During the 19th-century monastic numbers increased, whilst the community worked on ‘missions’ around industrial England, centres included Liverpool, Warrington, Whitehaven, and South Wales. Abroad the community forged links with New South Wales: the two first Archbishops of Sydney were former Downside monks; Bede Polding and Bede Vaughan. By 1900 most of the missions had transferred to diocesan clergy, with the exception of Little Malvern and East Anglia, which both remain as Downside parishes today.
The great missionary effort of the 18th and 19th-centuries was replaced by tbe resident community’s growing size and internal life. School replaced mission as the principal work. The quest for a clear community vision, always illuminated by the Benedictine Rule, is an open-ended one and the way ahead remains unknown. The search for God continues.
Architectural History of the Abbey Church
Plans for a great new Abbey Church began in 1840, during the priorship of Dom Bernard Murphy. By the end of the century, when the monastery, until then a priory, was elevated to the status of an abbey, the work was well in hand. The church, still lacking a complete west front, was consecrated in 1935 and was raised to the rank of minor basilica in the same year.
It is one of England’s great neo-Gothic churches with the work of several distinguished architects including Thomas Garner, Ninian Comper and Giles Gilbert Scott contributing to its beauty and originality.
What to look for when you visit
- The Giles Gilbert-Scott designed Nave, with its ‘unfinished’ West front: spot the arches
- The magnificent gate to the Lady Chapel; itself one of the most complete and successful schemes of Ninian Comper.
- The Garner-designed woodwork of the quire, modelled on the stalls in Chester Cathedral.
- Listen to the Compton organ with its 142 speaking stops and casework by Giles Gilbert Scott. The console is made from timber from HMS Bellerophon which transported Napoleon to after the Battle of Waterloo.
- The decorated transepts, the oldest part of the Abbey Church, designed by Dunn and Hansom in 1882.
- The relics of St Oliver Plunkett