Godstow Abbey: Background information when reading La Belle Sauvage

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La Belle Sauvage

The Book of Dust #1

by Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman X
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2017, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2019, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michelle Anya Anjirbag
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About this Book

Godstow Abbey

This article relates to La Belle Sauvage

Print Review

Godstow AbbeyIn his first trilogy, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman brings readers into the story through an intense use of space; he gives us a fantastical Oxford, but described in such a way that readers could visit the real place and trace Lyra's adventures around the city and colleges and thus bring the fantasy world into their own. Pullman's new book, La Belle Sauvage is no different; Godstow Priory, which plays such a large role in shaping the plot and setting of the text, is based on a real place: the Godstow Abbey or Nunnery. The Trout Inn is also real.

Godstow Abbey WindowGodstow is a hamlet on the River Thames about 2.5 miles northwest of the center of modern day Oxford. The abbey (in our world, at least) was built in the 1130s. Founded by Edith of Winchester, sometimes known as Dame Ediva (widow of Sir William Launceline of Winchester), it was built on what was then a small island between two streams that ran into the Thames. According to local tradition, Edith had a vision in which she was told to go live near Oxford and wait for a sign from God directing her to build a place in his name. One night while staying at Binsey, a village in Oxfordshire, she heard a voice tell her to go where the light from heaven reached the ground and build a nunnery for 24 gentlewomen. The light she saw was over Godstow, so she went to King Henry I with her vision to ask for approval for the new nunnery. It became a Benedictine nunnery for aristocratic ladies, and enjoyed patronage from many noble families, including the royal family. Rosamund Clifford, who was King Henry II's mistress for many years, is buried there.

The abbey was entered through a two-story gatehouse with two gates: a large one for carts and a smaller one for foot traffic. Inside were multiple buildings, including a guest house, nunnery, a priest's lodging, St. Thomas's chapel which was used by the servants at the abbey, the abbey church and cloisters.

George Price Bryce

Henry VIII, through Parliament and the Second Act of Dissolution, dissolved the abbey in 1539. His physician, George Owen, then converted it into Godstow House, which was occupied by Owen's descendants until 1645. Though in Pullman's book it is ruined by a flood, in our world the buildings were damaged during the English Civil War, after which they fell into disrepair as locals removed and repurposed the stone into other buildings. However, remnants of Godstow Abbey can still be seen, and Pullman's association with it is not its only artistic connection; the Godstow site was painted by George Price Boyce, a Victorian Pre-Raphaelite watercolor painter; and Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, brought the Liddell sisters to Godstow for picnics and river trips - where the ideas for Alice in Wonderland are said to have been formed. It was also well known to such Oxford writers as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who frequently traversed the footpath that runs past it.

The trout InnSince 1924 the site has been held in trust by Oxford University and can be visited easily from central Oxford. Just as in Pullman's book, it sits opposite The Trout Inn - a popular and active pub – directly on the Thames Path, a 184-mile hiking and biking trail that follows the Thames from its source in the Cotswolds through London to the sea.

Remains of Godstow Abbey and its best preserved window, both courtesy of www.britainexpress.com
George Price Boyce's Godstow Nunnery, Oxfordshire, 1862, courtesy of arthistory.wisc.edu
The Trout Inn, courtesy of www.dailyinfo.co.uk

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

This "beyond the book article" relates to La Belle Sauvage. It originally ran in December 2017 and has been updated for the June 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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