William gave the holding of Elstow to Judith, who founded the nunnery and endowed it with the revenue from the village. Henry II granted the nuns of Elstow the right to hold a fair, which became so popular in the region that respectable Bedford merchants assaulted Bedfordites on their way to Elstow!
The convent church was begun sometime in the 12th century and an elaborate facade was added in the 13th century - though it was never completed. What we see today is only a part of the original abbey church. At the height of its wealth in the 14th century the nunnery church was twice its current size. Like other monastic institutions, Elstow Abbey was dissolved at the Reformation by Henry VIII. At the time it was dissolved, Elstow was assessed with an income of £280 per year, making it the 8th wealthiest nunnery in England. After the abbey was dissolved, a truncated part of the nunnery church was put to use as the parish church.
The church is unusual in maintaining a campanile, or detatched bell tower, which was erected after the nunnery tower was demolished. The bell tower makes an apppearance in The Pilgrim's Progress, written by John Bunyan, a native of Elstow. Bunyan is said to have delighted in listening to the 5 bells which still ring out from the tower, and the seat that he used while attending services is still proudly displayed to visitors. He was baptised in the abbey font in 1628, followed later by his daughters Mary (in 1650) and Elizabeth (in 1654). As a child Bunyan used to play on the wide village green outside the churchyard wall, where the stump of a medieval market cross now stands.
The other major feature of historic interest inside the church is the vestry, located in the south wesrt corner. This remarkable chamber dates from the 13th century, with a lovely stone-vaulted roof supported on a central pillar, like a cathedral chapter house. This chamber was originally a cellar, or perhaps a small parlour for the Abbess of Elstow.
I've already mentioned the detatched tower, but there are several other interesting things to look for outside the church. Facing the tower, set in the north wall of the church is an exact replica of the original Norman doorway. While the doorway is late Victorian, it has a Norman tympanum dated to 11th century. The tympanum carving shows Christ giving a blessing, flanked by St Peter and St John. A small blocked doorwa just opposite the tower has a piece of its original medieval door. This is traditionally said to be Bunyan's 'Wicket Gate', used by Christian.
In the early 17th century the abbey buildings were lying in ruins, and the lord of Elstow, Thomas Hillersdon, used the stone to build a manor house to the south west of the church. That house itself is now in ruins, but there is a very nicely carved Elizabethan entrance arch still standing amid crumbling walls.
The abbey at one time owned Elstow Moot Hall, which was used as a storage place for the annual May Fair and a court for disputes arising from the fair.
Address: Church End,
England, MK42 9XT
Attraction Type: Abbey
Location: just south of Bedford, off the A6
Website: Elstow Abbey
OS: TL048 474
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