21 December 2023

Searching for the
ruins of Osney Abbey,
‘the greatest building
Oxford has lost’

All that remains of Osney Abbey, once an important mediaeval monastic house and briefly the cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Diocese of Oxford has more church buildings than any other diocese in the Church of England and has more paid clergy than any other diocese except London. The diocese includes Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, with another five churches in nearby counties.

The Diocese of Oxford was formed out of part of the Diocese of Lincoln in 1542, and Osney Abbey was designated the original cathedral. This was changed in 1545 to Saint Frideswide’s Priory, which became Christ Church Cathedral.

During my visit to Oxford last week, I went in search of Osney Abbey, later Osney Cathedral. But the site was difficult to find and there few remains of the ruins of the former abbey or cathedral could be sees. The site is south of the Botley Road, down Mill Street and close to Osney Cemetery. I found it a few steps west of the railway line, just south of Oxford Station and 300-400 metres south-west of the Church of Saint Thomas the Martyr – although the two are now separated by the railway line, linked to each other by a lengthy footbridge.

Osney Abbey was one of the four great monastic houses of mediaeval Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Osney Abbey was founded as an Augustinian priory in 1129, and became an abbey in 1154. It was one of the four renowned monastic houses of mediaeval Oxford, along with the Augustinian Saint Frideswide’s Priory (now Christ Church), Rewley Abbey of the Cistercians, on the north side of Osney Island, and the nunnery at Godstow Abbey.

Visiting the few sparse remains of Osney Abbey last week, it is difficult to imagine how this was also one of the great houses of the Augustinian Canons Regular in mediaeval England, alongside Saint Osyth’s Priory in Essex, Cirencester Abbey in Gloucestershire, and Holy Trinity Priory, Aldgate, in London, as well as Llanthony Priory in Wales.

At the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation, Osney Abbey was surrendered and briefly served as the cathedral of the new Diocese of Oxford, and the last Abbot of Osney, Robert King, became the first Bishop of Oxford.

However, little remains of the abbey today, and what is still standing is difficult to find, at the end of a narrow street, between the railway line and the river. The current navigation of the River Thames, replacing the old navigation to the east side of Osney Island, is believed to have been engineered by the canons of the abbey to turn their mill.

Osney Abbey was founded as Saint Mary’s Church on Osney Island, immediately west of Oxford Castle, almost 900 years ago in 1129 by Robert D’Oyly, Governor of Oxford and nephew of Robert D’Oyly, who built Oxford Castle. His wife Edith Forne wanted to atone for her past life as the mistress of Henry I, and encouraged her husband to found the priory.

The foundation of the priory is associated with her story of chattering magpies, interpreted by a chaplain as souls in Purgatory who needed the foundation of a monastery to free them from their sins.

Edith was buried in Osney Abbey in a religious habit. John Leland describes seeing her tomb on the eve of the dissolution: ‘Ther lyeth an image of Edith, of stone, in th’ abbite of a vowess, holding a hart in her right hand, on the north side of the high altaire’. The legendary dream of magpies was painted near the tomb.

Osney Abbey was the venue of the Synod of Oxford in 1222 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

When the Augustinian Priory in Osney was founded 1129, it was a house for 26 canons. After the priory became an abbey in 1154, it became one of the most important monastic houses in England.

The Augustinians of Osney provided six of the canons for Henry II’s re-foundation of the Church of the Holy Cross, Waltham, as an Augustinian house in 1177. When this became Waltham Abbey in 1184, the first abbot was a canon of Osney. The church of Saint George in Oxford Castle was translated and annexed to the abbey in 1199.

By the 13th century, Osney Abbey had 50 canons, and the Synod of Oxford met there in May 1222. The synod was called by Archbishop Stephen Langton, and is notable for a number of decisions. The Synod implemented the anti-Jewish decrees passed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, including laws that banned social relations between Jews and Christians, levied church tithes against Jews, forced English Jews to wear an identifying badge, and banned building new synagogues.

These laws passed at Oxford in 1222 were the precursor to further anti-Jewish statutes, in particular those passed in 1253 and 1275. This increasing intolerance culminated in the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290.

For many centuries, it was thought that the decision that Saint George’s Day should be celebrated on 23 April as a holy day in England was made at this synod, although, since the 1960s, historians have regarded this as an invention. The Synod also established celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, building on long-established celebrations of the start of the Julian calendar year.

When the papal legate, Cardinal Otto Candidus, visited Osney in July 1237, a brawl broke out between a group of scholars from the university and the cardinal’s men. During the brawl, the legate’s cook was killed, and the cardinal was locked for safety in the abbey tower. When he emerged unscathed, he placed the city under interdict in reprisal.

Osney Abbey was extensively rebuilt and enlarged by Abbot Leech in 1247. In the 13th century, the abbey was engaged in a large banking business, enabling it to invest in property in Oxford. The abbey’s endowments included the Manor of Water Eaton, the Island of Osney, some rents and property in Oxford, churches in Watlington, Kidlington, Hook Norton, Weston-on-the-Green, Chastleton, with Claydon in Buckinghamshire, and Shenstone near Lichfield in Staffordshire.

Eventually the house had property in more than 120 places, scattered across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Northamptonshire, with small possessions in Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Middlesex, and Bedfordshire. It also had two churches in Ireland, Kiltevenan (now Kiltinan), near Fethard, Co Tipperary, and Balibrenan, and other lands.

The number of canons was reduced from 50 to 27 after the Black Death in 1377. By 1445, the abbey consisted of the abbot and 26 canons, two of whom were absent, in Bibury and in Ireland.

Osney Island included Osney Abbey and Osney Mill, and the place plays a minor but significant role in the notoriously bawdy ‘Miller’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Osney plays a minor but significant role in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In 1481, the Abbot of Osney was granted permission to wear a mitre, and to confer minor orders on the novices.

When the Bishop of Lincoln made a visitation to Osney in 1499, the abbey was in debt and the buildings were out of repair. The abbot was ordered not to spend more than 40 marks a year on clothes, food and fire, until the debts of the house were paid. He was to have but one cook and one butler, and was to have the manor of Medley for his residence. No strangers were to be invited to feasts at the expense of the abbey, no canon was to be allowed to go into Oxford except for study or for reasonable cause, and the prior was not to frequent taverns and disreputable places.

The visitations in 1518 and 1520 show the abbey had an abbot, 19 canons, including one in Ireland, and six novices. One of the canons, named Taunton, was described as utterly irreligious and unwilling to rise to mattins more than once in a month. After he had been corrected many times, he was banished to the property of the monastery in Ireland, but then fled to the Bishop of Lincoln. The abbot excommunicated him for this, and the bishop in return excommunicated the abbot. The canons complained that by excommunicating the abbot the bishop had brought discredit on their house.

Another canon is described as utterly irreligious, a fomenter of strife, one who threatened with a dagger those with whom he disagreed. The debts of the house were estimated by one canon at £500, by another at £800, while the income was estimated at £730.

One of the canons had spoken contumelious words of the bishop in 1520, saying 'that he caryd not a teide for his malice.' By then, Taunton was back at Osney and incarcerated, but the bishop showed that he was not entirely satisfied with the state of things, by adjourning his visitation for nine months instead of dissolving or closing it.

The abbot resigned in 1524, and was allowed a pension of £60. He was succeeded by the Prior of Saint Frideswide’s, which at the time was in the process of suppression.

Sir John Tregonwell and Dean Richard Layton were the principal agents of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. They visited Osney in September 1535, and issued injunctions that no canon should leave the precincts for any cause.

Against these orders the abbot, John Burton, protested to Cromwell, saying he could not receive his rents nor see to the repairs of his manors. He said Osney stood very low and in a wet situation, ‘and I was brought up in wholesome ground of the King’s College, sometime called the monastery of Saint Frideswide.’ He argued that if he remained continuously at Osney his life would be shortened.

The abbots of Osney and Eynsham were accused in January 1537 of speaking ‘obtrectuous’ words against the king, but this was dismissed as merely the wild invention of a crazy talebearer, John Parkyns.

Great Tom, the ‘loudest thing in Oxford,’ was taken from the tower of Osney Abbey and hangs in Tom Tower at Christ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Osney Abbey was surrendered to the king in November 1539 and dissolved. The last abbot was Robert King, a suffragan Bishop of Lincoln who subsequently became the first Bishop of Oxford. As he was a Cistercian monk and Abbot of Thame, he must have been temporarily appointed to Osney, with his elevation to bishop in view.

From September 1542 until June 1544, Osney Abbey was the seat of the new Bishops of Oxford. However, Osney was costly to run as a cathedral and in 1545 the bishop moved to the smaller and cheaper cathedral at Christ Church. Later, during the reign of Queen Mary, King was one of the judges at the trial of Thomas Cranmer.

The abbey buildings soon fell into decay and were despoiled for the sake of the new foundation. Much of the stone found its way into local buildings, including Saint Frideswide’s as it was transformed into Christ Church.

Osney Abey has been described as the greatest building Oxford has lost. Great Tom, the bell described as the ‘loudest thing in Oxford,’ now hanging in Tom Tower at Christ Church, was taken from the tower of Osney Abbey at the dissolution. A good deal of the monastic property was also transferred to Christ Church, and the remains of the abbey became a source of building material for the city.

During the Civil War, the former abbey was used to fortify the city and an explosion in a powder house in 1643 caused further damage. The remaining west tower was pulled down a few years later.

The site was leased to a clothier, the iron, glass and woodwork were removed and most of the old buildings were demolished. The much reduced ruins were later drawn by Thomas Hearne of Saint Edmund Hall in 1720.

All the buildings have since been destroyed, apart from a rubble and timber-framed structure that may date from the 15th century. The remnants were Grade II listed in 1954.

Osney has about 200 households today, mainly in 19th-century terraced cottages built on a grid pattern by George Hester to house railway workers. The island also has two public houses, and is part of the Oxford ward of Jericho and Osney.

The long disused Osney Mill has been converted to housing, close to Osney Lock. To the east is Osney Cemetery and the site of the abbey includes Osney Mill Marina, on a 500 metre long island originally formed for the mill. To the north are Oxford railway station and Botley Road, the busy road west out of Oxford.

Last year, the 800th anniversary of the Synod of Oxford at Osney in 1222 was marked at a service in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in May 2022, attended by Christians and Jews. Archbishop Justin Welby described it as ‘an opportunity to remember, repent and rebuild.’

Osney Marina is beside the ruins of Osney Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Advent with
Leonard Cohen and USPG:
(19) 21 December 2023

‘And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond … In the Tower of Song’ (Leonard Cohen) … angels in a window by Ninian Comper in the south porch in Saint Mary’s Church, Bletchley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in the final stages of countdown to Christmas, with just four days to go to Christmas Day. The last week of Advent began on Sunday with the Third Sunday of Advent or Gaudete Sunday (17 December 2023), and this is a very short Advent this year.

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer, reflection and reading this morning.

Throughout Advent this year, my reading and reflection each day includes a poem or song by Leonard Cohen. These Advent reflections are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a poem or song by Leonard Cohen;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

‘I’m just paying my rent every day / In the Tower of Song’ (Leonard Cohen) … the Shard at London Bridge at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen: 19, ‘Tower of Song’:

‘Tower of Song’ by Leonard Cohen is the keynote work on his 1988 album I’m Your Man. In a readers’ poll in 2014, Rolling Stone listed it as the eighth favourite Cohen song.

The origins of ‘Tower of Song’ are described in Ira Nadel's Cohen memoir Various Positions (1996). Cohen wanted to ‘make a definitive statement about the heroic enterprise of the craft’ of songwriting. In the early 1980s, he called the work ‘Raise My Voice in Song.’ His concern was with the ageing songwriter, and the ‘necessity to transcend one’s own failure by manifesting as the singer, as the songwriter.’

Cohen had abandoned the song, but then one night in Montreal he finished the lyrics, called an engineer and recorded it in one take with a toy synthesiser.

Cohen later revised the song, which contains the self-deprecating claim,

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice

Cohen was constantly aware of his reputation as a ‘flat singer’ among critics. But his audiences responded with warmth and humour when he sang or spoke these lines in his concerts.

Cohen admired for Hank Williams, a songwriter he refers to in the song, describing how, when they are both dead and have passed to the their eternal reward, Hank Williams is ‘coughing all night long … a hundred floors above me.’

The lyrics also hint at Cohen’s social conscience, and his engagement with the Jewish mystical concept of tikkum olam or divine justice:

The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there’s a mighty judgement coming

In this song, he also expresses his religious hopes for eternal life, not just for himself but also for these he loves and has loved in the past:

I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We’ll never, we'll never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window
In the Tower of Song

Cohen recited the lyrics of Tower of Song’ in full when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

‘Tower of Song’ has been covered by many artists, notably on the tribute albums I’m Your Fan, with separate covers by Robert Forster and by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and on Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, with separate covers by Martha Wainwright and U2.

The song appears on Marianne Faithfull’s album Vagabond Ways and on Tom Jones’s album Spirit in the Room. Shaar Hashomayim Choir, Willie Nelson, CĂ©line Dion, Peter Gabriel and Chris Martin performed the song at the concert Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen, in Montreal in 2017.

Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen is a tribute album to Leonard Cohen, released in on A&M Records in 1995. It takes its name from this song by Cohen on his album I’m Your Man. Oddly, though, the song ‘Tower of Song’ does not actually appear on this tribute album.

The tribute album Tower of Song included Elton John, Sting with the Chieftains, Billy Joel, Peter Gabriel and Bono of U2. The album was the initiative of by Cohen’s manager, Kelley Lynch, who, a decade later, was found liable for fraud, having drained almost all of Cohen’s life savings.

‘I don’t know how the river got so wide … And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed’ (Leonard Cohen) … London Bridge and the River Thames at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Leonard Cohen, Tower of Song:

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
In the Tower of Song

I said to Hank Williams, ‘How lonely does it get?’
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all
I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah they don’t let a woman kill you
Not in the Tower of Song

Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there’s a mighty judgement coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices
In the Tower of Song


I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We’ll never, we’ll never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window
In the Tower of Song

Yeah my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
In the Tower of Song.

‘Mary set out and … she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth’ (Luke 1: 39-40) … the Visitation in the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 1: 39-45 (NRSVA):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

The Presentation depicted in a window in Saint Mary the Great Church, Saffron Walden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 21 December 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘The Joy of Advent.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (21 December 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

We ask you God to heal us, restore our relationships, and finish Your good work in us. Mend this broken world so joy can be felt by all nations.

The Collect:

O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

We give you thanks, O Lord, for these heavenly gifts;
kindle in us the fire of your Spirit
that when your Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns now and for ever.

Additional Collect:

God for whom we watch and wait,
you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son:
give us courage to speak the truth,
to hunger for justice,
and to suffer for the cause of right,
with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Leonard Cohen, ‘Tower of Song,’ Live in London

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org