Niklaus Pevsner, in his Buildings of Britain volume on the county of Wiltshire, described the Priory Church at Edington as being ‘so freely embattled that it looks like a fortified mansion’. Pevsner’s choice of words was apt, because in fifteenth-century Edington a complex was built to resemble Jerusalem: the heavenly mansion, so frequently depicted in medieval art as a fortified city with a crenellated wall.
Edington Priory was built in the 1350s, possibly as a college for priests. It then became an Augustinian priory. The building as it stands today is much altered from its medieval form, but it’s still a fascinating site, which once embodied a vision of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre, built according to the designs of William Wey, a scholar, author and pilgrim. Wey visited the Holy Land in the 1460s and then, in his retirement in Wiltshire, set about building a mnemonic recreation of the sites he had seen. Wey had undertaken two pilgrimages to Palestine and one to Santiago in northern Spain.
William Wey’s chapel was ‘made to the liknes of the sepulkyr of owre Lorde at Jerusalem’. A detailed inventory of the chapel’s furnishing and decoration survives in a manuscript in Oxford (Bodleian Library MS Bodley 565): it shows that the installation had numerous hangings and painted-cloths, showing bible scenes (‘owre Lorde with a spade in his hande’, ‘the tempyl of Jerusalem’), relics (in particular, stones from the Holy Land), and furniture for the liturgy (candles, candlesticks, an osculatory, dishes and chalices). There was also a ‘mappa Mundy’ world map, velvet and silk vestments, and various books, including a copy of Wey’s own Itineraries. More theatrically, Wey had several topics depicted ‘in bordys’ – that is planks or panelling: lengths show- ing the measurements of Christ’s sepulchre, the height and width of its door, Christ’s footprint. In the Chapter House there were models of the Church of Bethlehem, the Mount of Olivet and the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Moreover, there was ‘the sepulker of oure Lorde with too howses’, apparently next to the ‘clokke howse’.
The ‘stage-set’ built at Edington shows the importance of ‘virtual pilgrimage’, of imaginary experience, of simulation, and of remaking in medieval Christianity. It now powerfully provides another kind of prompt to the imagination: in the drizzle of the Wiltshire countryside, we need to imagine the artefacts which once animated this quiet rural corner, as the edge of Europe was re-thought as the centre of the world.
You’ll notice the little motif over the door, a delicate Trinity to mark the divinity of the place. This motif, and similar ones, feature throughout the church’s decoration and may have marked some kind of ‘route’, an imaginative pilgrimage, around the building.
An excellent article by Pnina Arad, published in February 2012, sheds a great deal of new light on Wey and his installation. Arad, focussing on the art-historical background of the Edington chapel, shows how Wey’s project was connected to English Easter sepulchres and also indebted to a map of the Holy Land in a medieval manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 389). See further Pnina Arad, ‘Pilgrimage, Cartography, and Devotion: William Wey’s Map of the Holy Land’, Viator 43:1 (2012), 301-22, with appendices of Wey’s inventory of the Calvary chapel’s fittings and the relevant maps.