This week: Monasteries

King Offa of Mercia from the Benefactors Book of St. Alban’s Abbey c. AD 1380. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

When the painter Stanley Spencer unveiled his masterpiece, The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27), The Times called it ‘the most important picture by any English artist in the present century’. In this famous, dreamlike composition, now one of the highlights at Tate Britain, Spencer imagines biblical figures rising up from the dead in the tranquil setting of the graveyard of his local church, Holy Trinity, nestling by the Thames in the Berkshire village where he lived.

Almost a century on, Holy Trinity still makes a quietly picturesque backdrop – but this summer, a different kind of resurrection has been taking place within its grounds. As we learn this week on The Past, new excavations there may finally provide the answer to a centuries-old archaeological puzzle: the precise location of Cookham minster, the important but long-lost monastery associated with Queen Cynethryth, the powerful Anglo-Saxon queen who was the widow of King Offa of Mercia.

In the new issue of Current Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, Gabor Thomas, the project’s leader, explains what has been found at the site and how a community effort is providing tantalising new clues about the fate of the monastery and its part in a decades-long power struggle between the early medieval kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia.

We’ve also been delving into the archives to explore the wider history of monasteries: we journeyed to the Hebridean island of Iona to catch up on new research into the tiny settlement that became one of medieval Europe’s most influential Christian centres; we visited London’s Charterhouse to understand how this former Carthusian community played an influential role over centuries of life in the capital; and we travelled to Roche Abbey in South Yorkshire to study a rare contemporary account of how Thomas Cromwell’s methodical destruction of monasteries was carried out with such deadly precision during the mid-16th century.

And finally, if all that leaves you with a hunger for more about monasteries, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of these religious communities around the world. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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