Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, an almost magical place of pilgrimage

If you happen to pass by the Cotswolds you can visit Winchcombe in Gloucestershire a delightful town which used to be the Saxon capital of Mercia.

It flourished throughout the mediaeval period because pilgrims travelled through it on their way to see the shrine of St. Kenelm at Winchcombe Abbey. St. Kenelm was a martyr in this area in the 700s after being put to death by his envious sister. His shrine was only surpassed in popularity by that of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury as a destination for pilgrims; yet, while being mostly forgotten now (in contrast to Thomas a Becket, who is still widely known), it was of critical significance in the past.

The prominence of Winchcombe increased to the point that it became a walled town ruled by an abbot who also had a political function. The Dissolution of the Monasteries took place in 1539, which resulted in the destruction of Winchcombe Abbey. All that is left of the abbey now is a portion of a gallery that is a part of the George Inn. Not even close to enough.

Pilgrims weren’t the only thing the abbey was responsible for bringing in; it also spawned a booming commerce in wool and sheep, as well as silk and paper production, and for a period of time tobacco was grown on the premises. This practise was put to an end in the year 1670 when a legislation was enacted that prohibited the production of tobacco in England. Instead, tobacco had to be imported from Virginia, which at the time was a colony with significant economic issues.

winchcombe in the cotswolds

Just outside Winchcombe to the north are the ruins of the Hailes Abbey, founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall.

When Richard was trapped in a storm at sea, he pledged that if he lived through it, he would establish a monastic convent. In 1245, his brother Henry III handed him the manor of Ave so that he might fulfil his promise. You are able to tour the ruins, which are magnificent in their own unique manner. The museum at the abbey houses a selection of the numerous antiquities that were discovered at the location. These objects include painted tiles and sculptures from the middle ages.

After Richard’s son Edmund donated a vial said to contain Christ’s blood (later revealed to be a fake) to the abbey, it quickly became an important pilgrimage site and was even mentioned in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The abbey was built on such an ambitious scale that Cistercian monks were forced to maintain it.

Pilgrims were really quite vital to the city’s economy, and when the abbey was shut down in 1539, many merchants found themselves without clients and without job. This led the city to suffer significant economic loss.


The destruction of the abbeys had the effect of halting the development of the town and the profits made from the pilgrimage, so many of the old buildings have survived largely unaltered. These include St Peter’s Church, built in 1460 and notable in particular for its 40 grotesque gargoyles, which are called Winchcombe Worthies.

If you are interested in the history of this town you can visit Winchcombe Folk & Police Museum, located in the Tudor-style Town Hall. This museum tells the history of the city from the Neolithic to the present day and if that weren’t enough it also holds a collection of uniforms and equipment from the British police and from other parts of the world.

Sadly the lovely Winchcombe Railway Museum which was a mecca for railway lovers is no more, it had to close as the owners were too old to continue it.

Winchcombe Pottery it was established in 1926 on the site of an old country pottery dating back to the early 1800s. The pieces were fired in a bottle kiln, which still stands but is not now used. You can visit it and if open take a look at the craftsmen at work.

Less than two miles from Winchcombe is the Sudeley Castlewhich has royal connections dating back over 1,000 years.

This magnificent palace was the final resting place of Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII. King Charles I stayed at the castle and his nephew Prince Rupert established his headquarters here during the Civil War.

The interior of the castle, restored by the Dent family in a sumptuous Victorian style, contains important paintings (Turner, Rubens, Van Dyck), tapestries, period furniture, costumes and toys, and the beautiful gardens include a lake and much more.

How to get to Gloucestershire’s Winchcombe?

Winchcombe is less than 10km from Cheltenham, once you arrive there from London or other parts of the country, you can take the W1 bus.

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