Minster Abbey was founded by Domneva, the great-granddaughter of King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha, in 670 AD, and the fascinating story about murder, “wergild” (blood money), and Domneva’s choice of land to found her monastery, with high strategic importance, can be found on the Priory’s website here. Domneva was the first Abbess and was succeeded by her daughter Mildred. The original monastery stood in the place of the present church of St Mary the Virgin, just across the road. Under the third Abbess, Edburga, of which we know little, the monastery moved to the place of the present St Mildred’s Priory, a lovely, peaceful home for a community of eleven nuns. Mother Nikola, the current Prioress, visited Minster Abbey aged just 16. The visit left a deep impression, and she came back to this place from the German motherhouse at Eichstatt. She kindly offered to tell me more about the history of the place and show me around. She is a treasure trove of knowledge on the history and development of the place and has compiled this information in a small exhibition located in the former tithe barn next to the Abbey. There, they also run a small, lovely tea room supporting people with additional needs. The Priory and the tea room are set in a landscape which still reflects the monastic life of earlier times, with surrounding fields and fish ponds. The nuns also offer accommodation and facilities for day travellers. St Mildred’s Priory is a very warm and welcoming place. I find it especially wonderful how every nun and the people involved with this place, live in harmony with nature and are able to develop their talents to contribute to the community, for example, spinning the wool of the small flock of sheep the nuns own and producing beautiful shawls, creating sculptures, growing vegetable and working with the local community on various art projects.
I am intrigued by the many fantastic details and insights Mother Nikola is gives me. The new chapel, dedicated in 1993 after a disastrous fire destroyed the earlier chapel, is a beautiful combination of old and new, incorporating the original fabric into the new building. The altar is made of one of the ancient trees destroyed during a storm, and the chapel houses relics of St Mildred. One of the remnants of the 11th century parts of Minster Abbey, which currently houses the Lady Chapel, consists of a Norman vault passage and the remains of what could have been a watchtower looking out across the Wantum Channel. I am leaving the Priory with new inspirations for my project, for example, to add the many female Anglo-Saxon missionaries that undertook the long and dangerous journey to the continent to spread their message. I will definitely add St Walburga and Eichstatt to the interactive map. Furthermore, I very much enjoyed the positive and encouraging discussion with Mother Nikola about the meaning of the values that saints embodied, inspiring people through millennia to follow their example to make the world a better place for everyone.
Once this project is completed, I very much hope to come back to this peaceful place and present my findings to the nuns and the community, returning some of the kindness I have experienced at Minster Abbey…and perhaps, I will stay a little bit longer to help with the spinning.
The Church of St Mary the Virgin in the location of the first monastery with Queen Bertha window: