On Friday it was with pleasure that we hosted a group of people from across the UK at Delapré Abbey for the 8th UK Cluniac Conference. “What’s a Cluniac?” you may ask. Well, sorry to disappoint you but it’s not a conference about George Clooney. In this case, ‘Cluniac’ refers to the religious order of the group of women who lived here when the Abbey was first founded in 1145 until it was closed by Henry VIII in 1538. They followed a form of Christianity which took its leadership from the cathedral in Cluny, France. In the UK, there were 29 Cluniac abbeys housing men and only 2 Cluniac nunneries housing women – and Delapré was one of them!
At the conference last year in Thetford, when they asked who might like to host next, we put our hand up. We were excited to share the stories of our nuns with the teams caring for other Cluniac sites in the UK. Especially as since the start of the lockdown in 2020, five of our volunteers had been busy researching and learning about the women who lived here for 400 years and we now have a new permanent exhibition sharing the information they have discovered.
Working with this research team and our trustee Margaret Hawkins who has been a champion of the Abbey’s Cluniac heritage for a long time, we started to draft a programme for the day. We were keen that the conference should create opportunities for general discussion about Cluniac history, as well as sharing the stories of Delapré.
In the morning, following a welcome to Northampton from Cllr John Shephard, Deputy Leader of West Northamptonshire Council, our guests were treated to a tour by “Sister Brigitte” (a member of the research group and one of our volunteer tour guides) which focused on the site’s medieval history and then chanting in the cloisters by our volunteer live interpreters ‘Revelation’.
The group visited the Walled Garden with Antoinette (a member of the research group and a garden volunteer) to look at the herb garden she has been developing with a group of garden volunteers.
After lunch, the delegates heard from our research group on how their project developed, from local historian Ruth Thomas on the coming of the Cluniacs to Northampton, including information about St. Andrew’s Priory in Northampton and the founding of these Cluniac institutions by Simon de Senlis I and II. After a short interval, Prof. James Clark from the University of Exeter presented on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the impact on Cluniac houses. He was followed by his PhD student Naomi Allen who spoke on English Cluniac texts, including one about Delapré.
The day closed with a conversation between the representatives of Cluniac sites on organisational updates and an update on the bid by Sites Clunisiens Fédération Européenne (the Federation of European Cluniac Sites) for UNESCO World Heritage status for sites across Europe.
The Delapré Abbey Preservation Trust team felt it was a success and we’ve since had some lovely feedback. It was an honour to host people from English Heritage, Lewes, Reading and Thetford in addition to staff from Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and medieval history students from the University of Northampton. Our next task is to get the notes from the day sent round to all the sites who were unable to attend due to availability or illness and encourage them to support the European bid for World Heritage status showing the value of this medieval history, which we’re lucky enough to be part of.
– Eleanor Sier, Head of Engagement and Interpretation, Delapré Abbey Preservation Trust
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