Abbey of the Buried Heart

Abbey Wood is 200 acres of ancient forest; the resting place of pagan lords in bronze-age burial mounds…… There are even older, weirder graves too: fossil beds from the Eocene era containing the remains of some of the earliest known primates, horses, sharks, bats and Coryphodon (think a 2-metre tall cross between a tapir and a hippo).

Isolated from the world by surrounding marshland, Abbey Wood now overlooks the bleak housing estates of Bexley, South London – their uncompromising brutalism making them the perfect locations for Stanley Kubrick when he filmed ‘A Clockwork Orange’ there in 1971.

But the jewel in the crown of this unearthly isolated hill is Lesnes Abbey: a spectacular Norman ruin from 1178. Founded in shame by Richard de Luci, the Chief Justiciar of England. Such remorse he felt at his support of the famous ‘murder in the cathedral’ of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170, that he retired from public life and formed this Augustinian priory. He lived out the last 3 months of his life a broken man, here at ‘The Abbey of St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr at Lesnes’ and was buried in the Chapter House in 1179.

A ‘priory of penance’, the clergy of this Abbey were Augustinian monks who specialised in praying for the soul of the founder, burying the dead and administering redemption through hard work. The chief concern of the priory was to drain and reclaim the marshy, boggy land that effectively cut abbey wood off from civilisation, and created its previous isolated Eocene ecology.

Unfortunately the work was expensive and the priory never grew much beyond 12 members. After eking out a meager existence for nearly 350 years, the Abbey was one of the first to be seized by cardinal Wolsely during the reformation in 1525. Being considered unprofitable it was pulled down and ransacked for building materials.

And here the ruins have remained over the past half-millennium. The land has seen mixed use as a farm, medicinal herb garden and park; being purchased as a public space by the London Borough of Bexley in 1986.

During archaeological digs in 1910, not only was the body of Richard de Luci discovered buried in the Chapter House; but the mummified heart of his great great granddaughter Roesia of Dover was unearthed, buried in a metal box in the Lady Chapel. She grew up in Lesnes Abbey and loved the priory: when she died she bequeathed her heart to the Augustinian Monks as a relic to pray upon, hastening her soul’s journey through purgatory.

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