Muchelney Abbey on the Somerset Levels was founded by the Saxon Kings of Wessex. Unfortunately it is impossible to be precise about which one, as some of the charters granting land to Muchelney are medieval forgeries. Evidence does suggest that King Ine of Wessex founded the abbey and then King Athelstan refounded it when he gave gifts to the abbey – in thanks for his victory over the Vikings at Brunanburgh or possibly as an ‘oops I’ve been a bit of a naughty boy’ offering in relation to his involvement in the murder of the Atheling Edwin in 933. The confusion about the abbey’s foundation may be because the area suffered under the Vikings. After all, Muchelney is in the vicinity of the hovel where Alfred the Great burnt the cakes. Wedmore, where there was once a royal palace and where Alfred made a treaty with Guthrum is just up the road.
The ruins that remain today date from the twelfth century and reflect the Norman desire to found or support existing monastic houses. There is also a very smart sixteenth century staircase in the abbot’s residence that must have looked a bit out of place when it became a farm house after the dissolution as well as some wonderful recumbent lions over the fireplace which date from a century earlier.
Muchelney is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It turns up again some five hundred years later in Thomas Cromwell’s Valor Ecclesiasticus as being worth £447 with eight monks in addition to the abbot and prior. It had never been a large monastery – Glastonbury was too close for that to happen.
There were earlier visitations. The Victoria County History for Somerset mentions a visit in 1335 when the Bishop of Shrewsbury found the Benedictine monks sleeping in richly covered beds and going off for their meals on horseback rather than eating in the monastery itself. In addition the cloisters were being polluted with the presence of the laity – and not just men either. The Bishop also noted that the church was in a bad state of repair. The monastery was swiftly reformed by a new abbot but it didn’t spare the monks from a visit by the Black Death.
Cromwell’s commissioners also sent many letters about Muchelney. The commissioner who arrived in January 1538 was Thomas Leigh (he made himself deeply unpopular during the first phase of the dissolution in Yorkshire.) By 1538 Leigh had a handy assortment of damning phrases with which to write to his master. He described the abbot as being of “doubtful character” and the monks “unlernyd.” Unlearned or not the brethren at Muchelney could see which way the wind was blowing and swiftly surrendered the abbey into Leigh’s hands.
Henry VIII granted the abbey to his brother-in-law the Earl of Hertford. The Earl, Edward Seymour whose sister Jane Seymour married the king two years earlier, went on to become Protector of England during his nephew Edward VI’s minority.
Seymour kept the abbot’s lodging turning it into a farm house which he let out to tenants. He used the rest of the monastery as a quarry.
When Seymour was executed for treason Muchelney returned to the Crown where it remained until 1614 when it was sold off by James I.
The church of Muchelney which stood next door to the abbey was not part of the abbey itself – so Seymour couldn’t strip the lead from the roof or take away its dressed stone! However, the abbey had the living for the church. This meant that they could appoint the priest. An informative display also mentions the fact that the abbey was responsible for providing the vicar with bread and ale every day, meat twice a week, and eggs and fish on the other five days.
Victorian excavation of Mucheleny Abbey revealed medieval floor tiles belonging to the Lady Chapel. These were placed inside the church where they remain today as a reminder of how beautiful English abbeys must have once been.