Brinkburn Priory, an Augustinian foundation, is near Rothbury, hidden at the bottom of a valley – and we went it was a glorious sunny day. Brinkburn was founded in 1135 at the end of the reign of Henry I. it was probably a daughter house of Pentney in Norfolk. Brinkburn’s story is largely pieced together from its chartulary.
It’s location meant that in 1419 it was raided and robbed by the Scots. Slightly more than a hundred years later it had still not recovered so was designated a lesser monastery and dissolved. It was granted by Edward VI to John, Earl of Warwick who became Duke of Northumberland when the Duke of Somerset was toppled from power on the regency council.
The Augustinian Canons, “black canons” or Austin canons depending on your preference arrived in England during the Twelfth Century. They were all priests and rather than living in enclosed orders they sought to work within the community.
John was born at Twing just outside Bridlington in 1320. By the time he was twelve he had taken vows of chastity.
His education had begun locally but he went to Oxford from about 1336 to 1339. In 1340 he became a monk in Bridlington Priory. He gradually rose within the priory carrying out different roles: novice master, almsgiver, preacher and sub-prior. Then in 1346 he became a canon. Ten years later he was elected prior.
He served as prior for 17 years before dying October 10, 1379.
Pope Boniface IX canonised him in 1401 – which is unusual I don’t think that there are that many Augustinian saints, unless we include Thomas Becket who was a secular canon rather than a regular canon. Ie John followed the monastic rule. Essentially he miraculously saved fishermen from drowning and on another about to get into trouble for giving the priory bread away as alms to the poor he opened his bag to reveal stones for road mending. His saint’s day should you need to turn bread into stones is October 10th.
He can be found dressed in his Augustinian black cloak in the Beaufort Book of Hours which includes a prayer to him. The Beaufort Book of Hours is in The British Library.
There is another Yorkshire saint – St John of Beverley who gets mentioned by Henry V at Agincourt.
First things first – it should actually be Newstead Priory rather than Newstead Abbey given that it was the home to Austin Canons or Augustine Canons. They are also described as Black Canons because of their robes. All Austin Canons were priests as well as monks. They were not an enclosed order they believed that they should serve within the wider community.
The priory of St. Mary of Newstead in Sherwood was founded by Henry II in about 1170. The charter granted the manor of Papplewick, it’s church and mill to the new priory as well as meadowland at Bestwood and 100s. of rent in Shapwick and Walkeringham.
The charter was confirmed by King John and added to by other Plantagenet monarchs including Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III. Queen Joan of Scotland left many of her goods to the priory.
Despite this the priory faced a variety of financial difficulties across the decades. So it wa probably just as well that the Austin Canons who had a reputation or being good hosts entertained Edward I when he was hunting in Sherwood Forest and also Edward II. The royal hunting lodge at Clipstone isn’t that far away but the relationship between the Plantagenets and the priory protected the canons from the problems of financial constraint.
The Plantagenet desire to ensure that the canons of Newstead Priory could meet their financial obligations meant that they gained more church livings, mortmain lands, tenements, and rents. They were also excused many of the fees that were liable to the Crown due to the priory’s status as Lord of the Manor.
Richard II continued the Plantagenet patronage of the Austin Canons at Newstead by granting them an annual allowance of a tun of wine in the port of Hull in aid of the maintenance of divine service.
Both Henry VI and Edward IV continued the tradition of granting lands to the priory. The rent that Henry VI charged for eight acres within Sherwood Forest was one midsummer rose to be delivered to the exchequer.
There were various visitations across the centuries. Archbishop Ludham of York visited personal in 1259 and whilst he approved the rule of the prior he added a note that the canons shouldn’t drink after compline and they shouldn’t wander around the cloister. In 1280 Archbishop Wickwane required the prior to be more earnest about divine service, canons shouldn’t keep private property and they were still drinking after compline. Later a visitation said that the canons should maintain silence and that when anyone took a new set of clothes they had to return the old ones to the common store.
By 1535 and the Valor Ecclesiasticus that gave a value to the wealth of the monasteries, Newstead was worth £167 16s 11 1/2d of which 20s was given on a Maundy Thursday to the poor in commemoration of Henry II who founded the priory. It was clearly worth less than £200, making it a lesser monastery. The act for their suppression was passed in 1536.
The canons managed to avoid this by paying a fine of £233 6s 8d but on the 21st July 1539 they succumbed to the inevitable. Cromwell’s commissioner – London- took the surrender. The prior received £26 pension, the sub prior £6 and the ten canons who also signed the surrender document received a pension ranging between £3 and £5.
In 1540 the property passed into the possession of the Byron family – as in mad, bad and dangerous to know.
In later years, the eighteenth century, whilst the monk’s fish pond was dredged a medieval lectern was discovered. It appears to have been thrown there by the canons hoping to save it from Henry VIII’s commissioners. It can now be seen in Southwell Minster.
In 1817 the property was sold to Colonel Thomas Wildman and from him into the Webb family. It was finally bequeathed together with its gardens to the City of Nottingham in 1931.
‘Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Newstead’, in A History of the County of Nottingham: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1910), pp. 112-117. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/notts/vol2/pp112-117 [accessed 27 December 2020].
Brinkburn is an Augustinian Priory. Usually I’m not terribly keen on buildings that have been restored during the Nineteenth Century. The Victorians were not always terribly sensitive in the changes that they made. However, in this instance the priory church is a truly splendid thing.
Augustinian monasteries, as a rule, were always smaller than their Benedictine and Cistercian counterparts. Exceptions include Carlisle and Hexham. The twelfth century was the apex of the monastery building period in England and Brinkburn fits nicely into the timeframe being founded in the early 1130s, during the reign of Henry I, by William Bertram.
The first prior came from Pentney Priory in Norfolk. In addition to their riverside dwelling which can be accessed down a tree dappled hill the monks also owned approximately 3500 acres nearby. They had other pastureland elsewhere in Northumberland as well as buildings in Newcastle including an inn. Pilgrim Street in Newcastle is supposed to have gained its name from the pilgrims who lodged there. They came to worship at Our Lady’s chapel at Jesmond. There was also a Franciscan Friary where there were supposed to be relics of St Francis. In the copy of a grant of a house to BrinkburnPriory in Northumberland, dated 1292, this street is called Vicus Peregrinorum. In 1564, after the Dissolution of the monasteries the inn, or one of the inns on the street, was mentioned for coining false money. In any event whilst the canons at Brinkburn may have not had the huge amount of acres of their Cistercian counterparts they knew how to turn a profit as in addition to the inn they also owned a shop in Corbridge. More traditionally they gained income from bequested advowsons, that is to say the right to appoint the priest, at Felton and Longhorsely.
So far, so straight forward. Unfortunately Brinkburn is north of Newcastle and it became apparent during the reign of Edward II that living anywhere near the Scottish border wasn’t necessarily a very good idea. In 1315 Robert Bruce destroyed Brinkburn and its thirteen canons had to flee their home and beg for their bread.
The story goes that on one occasion the Scots raided as far south as Brinkburn but the priory was spared because of a thick fog. The raiders passed them by. The canons being a grateful sort of bunch rang the bells to give thanks to God and in so doing directed the Scots to priory. The canons having realised that ringing the bell wasn’t necessarily the smartest move they could have made had fled to the other side of the River Coquet. The story continues to say that as the Scots burned the priory the bell which had summoned them ended up in the river – I’m not sure if this was as the result of the fire or some enterprising Scottish person trying to remove them for their scrap value. In yet another version of the story it was the monks who hid the bell in the river – presumably not wanting one of their number to ring it anymore. And finally, the poor monks were so strapped for cash that they sold the bells to the Bishop of Durham but when they moved the bells up the hill one of them ended up in the river. Take your pick!
The canons must have been delighted by the news that the Scots had been defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. Unfortunately three years later the Black death arrived and killed half of Northumberland. Things really seem to have gone from bad to worse for the canons. During the early years of the Fifteenth century they suffered from reiver cattle raids and in 1484 the Scots turned up again and having stripped the place burned it to the ground. Then there was the murder. In 1521 Richard Lighton, one of the Canons, was killed by Humphrey Lisle in a property dispute.
When Cromwell’s visitors arrived the priory was valued at only £69 so it was suppressed in 1536. There were only six canons left at that time. After the dissolution Brinkburn changed hands several times. On two occasions, Brinkburn’s owners lost their heads. For a fair portion of the time the property was in the hands of the Fenwick family. Eventually it passed into the hands of Richard Hodgson. His son did some demolition work on the old manor house which contains the west range of the monastery. The manor house he rebuilt was designed to be a picturesque building so much of the monastic masonry remains in situ.
The style of the church, for those folk who like to know these things, is somewhere between Norman and Gothic – the correct term is transitional.