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A wealth of historical architecture and a maze of narrow roads can only prepare the visitor in part for the magnificent showpiece at the centre of this gentle Dorset town. Sherborne Abbey, built of the rich creamy Ham stone quarried across the county border in Somerset, is visually striking in colour, size and architectural detail. Incorporating features from Saxon, Norman and Perpendicular periods gives an important indicator to the various forms this building has taken over the last 1200 years.
Prior to the Norman Conquest, Sherborne served as the seat of the Saxon bishops and for almost 350 years there was a Cathedral church on this site. Towards the end of the 10th Century a Benedictine monastery was established at Sherborne, but full abbey status was not created until 1122. Sherborne Abbey remained a monastic church until the time of the Dissolution in 1539. Subsequently it was returned to the town for use as the parish church, a function it continues to the present day. But the real sense of peace and pride felt in the preservation of this ancient building has not always been so apparent.
Late in the 14th Century the west end of the abbey church was substantially extended to create a new church, dedicated to All Hallows, for use by the general parishioners. When, during the 15th Century, work commenced on rebuilding the abbey church, the local people rebelled against the abbot's decision not to allow them in the monastic church for public worship. As a result, the nave roof and tower were badly burned in 1437, and the walls of the crossing and choir carry a permanent scarring of this revolt.
Punished severely for this act, the townsfolk were made to pay for the entire cost of rebuilding the abbey church. It was only at the turn of the century that the grand reconstruction was completed. The next disaster for the monks of Sherborne Abbey was the Dissolution in 1539. Having started to enjoy their lovely new church, they then had to surrender it to the Crown. In a strange twist of fate, it was later re-purchased by the local people of Sherborne so they could finally worship in the building they had so dearly paid for.
With the abbey church converted to use as the parish church All Hallows was soon demolished, but little else was changed. During the mid 19th Century it was sympathetically restored and, in the late 1970s, a three year programme of repair work was undertaken but it remains essentially a superb example of a medieval church.
Look beneath the canopied Victorian stalls to see the skilled carving employed in the 15th Century misericords, and investigate the modern glass reredos in the Lady Chapel that was designed and engraved by Laurence Whistler in 1968. More examples of the three distinct periods of building can be found throughout the internal structure of Sherborne Abbey from Saxon doorways and Norman arcading to the elegant lines of the Perpendicular choir. Great windows full of Victorian glass lighting the main body of the church, an abundance of Purbeck marble, and numerous decorated capitals and corbels give an invitingly luxurious feel to what could easily have been another 'lost' monastic church.
As Chancellor to King Henry I, and the greatest landowner in the area, Roger de Caen (Bishop of Salisbury) had a grand, fortified palace built at Sherborne at the beginning of the 12th century. However, Sherborne Castle was quickly taken into Royal possession and remained so for the next 200 years or more. During this period only repairs, and some alteration to the castle defences, were undertaken, but the structure remained virtually untouched.