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Dorchester Abbey

Dorchester  on Thames, Oxfordshire

Location Guide

Dorchester abbey has a number of unusual features, firstly entry is free and its open every day. It is a former Anglo Saxon cathedral, and a later abbey church in the place of a cathedral. Today its a village church.

Photo By Angila Tuff  

Dorchester, an important Roman city of Mercia, about nine miles from Oxford, had been the seat of a bishopric from 634, when Saint Birinus, the first bishop, was sent to that district by Pope Honorius I, in AD 635, after having converted the local Saxon King, Cynegils of Wessex to the teachings of the Christian Church. Cynegils gave the saint an old deserted Roman town and its walls made a fine enclave for Birinus' new cathedral. Dorchester was the centre of the See of Wessex until AD 660, when the bishop moved to Winchester. The Mercians took over Dorchester and, after periods with the cathedral in Lindsey and Leicester, the bishop returned to the town in the AD 870s. The church there remained the cathedral of a vast diocese spreading all the way north to Lincolnshire, until just after the Norman Conquest in 1085, when the See of Mercia was transferred to Lincoln.

Dorchester Abbey was re-founded in 1140 by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, for an Augustinian order, or Black, canons.  It was dedicated in honour of Saints Peter, Paul and Birinus, was richly endowed out of the lands and tithes of the former bishopric, and had twelve parishes subject to it, being included in the Peculiar of Dorchester, until the suppression of peculiars.  Most of the current building dates from this time.  It was a popular place of pilgrimage in medieval times, despite the fact that Winchester claimed to have appropriated the bones of St. Birinus when the see moved south at one point earlier.

The first abbot appears to have been Alured, whose name occurs in 1146 and again in 1163, the last was John Mershe, who was elected in 1533, and in the following year subscribed to the King's supremacy, with five of his canons, and was given a pension of £22 a year. The revenues of the abbey were valued at the time of its suppression at about £220. Henry VIII reserved the greater part of the property of the house for a college, erected by him in honour of the Holy Trinity, for a dean and prebendaries, but this was dissolved in the first year of his successor.

The church of Dorchester Abbey, as it stands today, was built entirely by the Augustinian Canons, although there are traces on the north side of Saxon masonry, probably part of the ancient cathedral. The whole length of the church is 230 feet, its width 70 feet and its height 55 feet.

The north transept with its doorway is of the Norman period, the north side of the nave and chancel arch, early English, the south side of nave, south aisle, and quire, Decorated, the south porch, late Perpendicular. The extraordinarily rich sanctuary, with its highly decorated windows and beautifully carved sedilia and piscina, dates from 1330. One of the very few existing leaden fonts in England is in this church. Other special features include medieval stained glass (1225+ including a Jesse Tree), its superb effigy of a swaggering knight (possibly Sir John de Holcombe (d.1270) or William de Valance the Younger (d.1282)), its excellent frescoes (1340), its fine brass (1510) to Abbot Bewforest, indents, however, showing that there were once much better examples in the building.

Besides being a parish church, the abbey church acts as an atmospheric venue for concerts and cultural events of all kinds.

Photo by Pam Brophy 

Location: Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester on Thames, Oxon

Grid Reference: SU579941 Ceremonial County: Oxfordshire

Map Link: StreetMap 

Aerial photo: Google

Getting there: From A34 at Abingdon take the A415 to Burcot, go through village and take the next right to Dorchester, the Abbey is on the man road going through the centre of the village.

Access: Free public car park in Bridge End, directly opposite the Abbey.
Website: Own
Other Useful Websites: wiki 
Email: enquiries@dorchester-abbey.org.uk 
Address: Dorchester Abbey, High Street, Dorchester
Postcode: OX10 7HH Telephone: 01865 341192
Opening Times: Every day 8am to 6pm, but check there are no events on.

Charges: entry is FREE

Nearby Locations:

Other Location Pages:

List of all Anglican cathedrals and other major Anglican churches in the UK

Abbey Section, including all major Christian buildings, regions orders, normal layouts and history.

Notes: Photography for private use is allowed and there are no charges.

Museum  Old School Room, in the Abbey Guest House, Sat 7th Apr-30th Sept 2pm-5pm daily. Cloister Gallery, in the Abbey, 1st Jan-31st Dec, 8am-6pm daily


The Museum has displays in the oak-panelled, 16th century Old School Room in the Abbey Guest House and in the Abbey’s Cloister Gallery. The intention is for these displays 'to be a guide to the past and present of the village of Dorchester-on-Thames and its environs', bearing in mind that the area has been continuously occupied by man for the last 6,000 years.


They have simulated the look of the Old School Room by furnishing it with school desks, each with a commentary and items relevant to schooling from the 17th century to WWII. Around the panelled walls they have display boards and artefacts illustrating the Neolithic Big Rings, the famous Iron Age oppidum (the Dyke Hills), and comparisons between Dorchester today with life in the 19th century. New displays on the Roman, Saxon and medieval periods are in preparation, and a touch screen is gradually being loaded with a wide range of historical information. There is also a classified archive of photographs, published articles and original documents about Dorchester.


Admission Free

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By: Keith Park Section: Abbey and Religious Buildings Key:
Page Ref: Dorchester_Abbey Topic: Abbeys Last Updated: 02/2011

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