Tag Archives: Dissolution of the Monasteries

Derbyshire Monastic houses

In Yorkshire prior to the dissolution of the monasteries there was approximately one monastic house in every one hundred and nine miles. In North Yorkshire that dropped to one in every eighty-two miles. It’s impossible not to think of the great Cistercian establishments and the ruins that still dominate the landscape.

It’s a bit of a different story in Derbyshire.  There were no Cistercian foundations swelling in the area.  Of the seven houses, not counting Bradbourne which was a cell of Dunstable Priory in Bedfordshire, five were Augustinian and two were Premonstratsensian.

Here’s a map. Click on the map to change its size and on the bullet points for further information about each of the monastic foundations in the region:

The pattern of their dissolution followed the national pattern with visitation followed by surrender and suppression.  In addition to which thirty monastic houses held land, manors and benefices in Derbyshire.  Whilst Henry VIII’s change of “ownership” didn’t leave dramatic ruins in its wake it did change land ownership and the balance of power in the area.  Francis Leake and Sir William Cavendish both pocketing valuable estates.  The former’s descendants would become the earls of Scarsdale whilst the latter’s decedents would become the dukes of Devonshire.

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Dr Richard Layton

Visitation_monasteries.jpgI’m still perusing Henry VIII’s letters and papers. One of today’s letters to Cromwell is an eyebrow raiser so I couldn’t resist it. The letter  containing scandalous information about a nun from Syon was written by Richard Layton who has been mentioned many times in this blog but has never had his own post – so I thought that today’s metaphorical advent could be Dr Richard Layton.  This image shows the monastic visitors arriving at a monastery with their cavalcade of out runners or “rufflers” and much fanfare.

Here’s the letter:

Bishop this day preached, and declared the King’s title, to a church full of people. One of the “focares” openly called him false knave: “it was that foolish fellow with the curled head that kneeled in your way when ye came forth of the confessor’s chamber.” Must set him in prison, to deter others. Learnt yesterday many enormous things against Bishop in examining the lay brethren, —that he had persuaded two of them to have gone away by night along with him, but that they lacked money to buy the secular apparel, —that he tried to induce one of them, a smith, to make a key for the door to receive wenches at night, especially a wife of Uxbridge, dwelling not far from the old lady Derby. He also persuaded a nun, to whom he was confessor, ad libidinem corporum perimplendam, and that she would be forgiven if she confessed immediately after each occasion, and was absolved by him. She wrote him many foolish letters, and would have got his brother, the smith, to have pulled a bar of iron out of that window where Cromwell examined the Lady Abbess, and at which they used to commune by night. He got the sexton also to assist him. Intends to make further search this afternoon both of the brethren and of the sisters, and will certify Cromwell tomorrow morning. Most of the brethren are weary of their habit. Such religion and feigned sanctity God save me from!

 

To all intents and purposes Layton presents himself as a loyal subject of the king and a religious reformer.The letter sums up his rather tabloid writing style; his approach to the visitation of the monasteries and his strategy of looking for gossip amongst the lay members of a community. The letter even contains an example of the rather delightful habit of referring to anything carnal in latin in order that messengers carrying his communications to Cromwell might not be tainted with the knowledge of a letter’s contents. In this case the literal translation is “the passion of their bodies fulfilment.”

So who was he? Layton was a Cumbrian descended from the Layton who owned Dalemain at that time.  Dalemain had been in the hands of the Layton family since 1272. It would leave the family in the seventeenth century due to the fact that there were six daughters and no sons.  If you go far enough back up the family tree its possible to find Nevilles  but the Laytons weren’t nobility they would be more correctly defined as gentry. Layton’s mother was a Tunstall – Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of Durham, was his uncle.   He was  born somewhere near the turn of the century. Moorhouse notes that he was supposed to have thirty-two siblings (Moorhouse:27), another one of them became an MP.  It is clear however that with such a large extended family Layton had to look to his own skills for advance.  He was also, somewhat ironically, related to Robert Aske one of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace who rebelled against the dissolution of the monasteries and I think that there’s a priest hole at Dalemain demonstrating that the family weren’t all as keen on reform as Richard.

It would appear that Layton, having finished his education and been received into the priesthood, entered Wolsey’s service.  This was a conventional enough progression in the   Tudor civil  service which still drew on the Church for its clerks at this time.  He appears to have had a number of livings in London including on at the Tower of London but as it required his presence he resigned from it fairly swiftly when better opportunities arose.

He came to the forefront of the changes that were occurring in the 1530s because of his acquaintance with Cromwell.   As the King’s Great Matter became ever more pressing he found himself interrogating the likes of Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher – his education and ordination giving his  questions legitimacy.  Cromwell must have found his old colleague efficient and effective because he sent him along with Thomas Ap Rice to the University of Oxford to undertake an investigation there as well.

The following year, August 1535, he found himself heading up the team of visitors rootling through the monastic houses of England and Wales with a list of pre-prepared questions in hand but always reporting back to Cromwell who arranged their findings into two groups: firstly, the Valor Ecclesiasticus which contained the accounts and lists of relics; secondly, the Comperta or ‘Black Book’ which contained all the monastic misdeeds. Layton had a hand in the construction of the questions and also in the injunctions which were issued at each visit.  An example of the latter would be the prohibition on leaving the monastic enclosure.  This prompted many letters to Cromwell complaining about the unreasonableness of the strictures involved.  It should be noted that  Layton was the only ordained cleric on the team of visitors.  Initially there seems from Cromwell’s letters to have been some jockeying for position between Layton and Legh, another visitor.  Both told tales and complained about one another but generally speaking Layton emerges in history as Cromwell’s chief visitor.

Layton gathered confidence with each foundation he visited.  His task was to inspect the accounts, uncover any poor practice from failure to obey the rule of St Benedict to encouraging superstitious practices as well as administering the oath of supremacy.  He seems particularly good at sniffing out scandal amongst the monks and nuns of the places he visited – much of it with a tabloid quality!  The letter above is a case in point – it reads like a particularly bad bodice ripper; although interestingly he did sometimes note a blameless monastic foundation.  Bristol and Durham received a clean bill of health from Layton. Having said that it is worth remembering  that Layton  was related to Cuthbert Tunstall who as bishop was also the titular abbot. Having finished visiting the southern monasteries, narrowly avoiding being burned in his bed whilst visiting Canterbury, he volunteered to visit the northern monasteries – it was after all a lucrative task. He set off just before Christmas 1535. As a consequence of his dependence on Cromwell for advancement his letters are often toadying and nearly always full of tales of naughty nuns and monks.

Layton managed to make himself so disliked that he together with Thomas Cromwell and  Legh are identified in the list of the pilgrims grievances in 1536 with a request that these “wicked” advisers be punished.  Not that this had any effect! As the monasteries closed it was Layton who journeyed around the country accepting the surrender of many of the monasteries that he’d inspected earlier.  It is impossible to know how many bribes he took for recommending former monks to new posts.

Layton became rector of Harrow-on-the-Hill and rather lucratively in the north he was appointed Dean in York on 23 July 1539.  He helped himself to rather a lot of York’s plate and pawned it for his own benefit. This only surfaced after his death when the deanery were forced to redeem the items in question.

By now he had a reputation as a ‘can do’ man so he found himself on the team  investigating the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. He’d already had a role at Anne Boleyn’s trial.  In short his career follows the path of many Tudor administrators but it was through his work on the monasteries that he attained notoriety.

His career as a diplomat began to extend in the period that followed. He became English Ambassador in the Court of the Netherlands. He was with the Queen of Hungary in March 1544 dealing with safe conduct passes.   We know this because he receives a mention in one of her letters to Chapuys. It is from the Spanish archives that we can learn about his illness and his death. He died in June 1544 in Brussels.

For those of you who are a little Henried out I will try to find something less Tudor tomorrow.

‘Henry VIII: December 1535, 11-20’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 9, August-December 1535, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1886), pp. 318-340. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol9/pp318-340 [accessed 6 December 2016].

http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1509-1558/member/layton-william-1514-5152

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The Dissolution of the Monasteries – a timeline

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1526-1529

Cardinal Wolsey suppressed 29 monasteries with the permission of the Pope to fund Ipswich College and Cardinal College in Oxford which became King Henry VIII college and then Christchurch College. It was founded in the grounds of one of the suppressed monasteries (St Frideswide’s). The monastic foundations Wolsey suppressed totaled an income of £1800 and were generally very small.

1529

October 9: Cardinal Wolsey falls from power due to his failure to secure a divorce for his master from Katherine of Aragon. He is arrested on a charge of praemunire.  Praemunire involves taking orders from foreign powers rather than the king.  Being a cardinal means that it was inevitable that Wolsey could face this charge.

1530

January: Wolsey falls ill and is attended by Henry’s doctor.  Wolsey does not give up hope of being reinstated to Henry’s favour.

November 4: Wolsey is arrested.  He cannot help dabbling in politics and has sent some injudicious letters to Rome.  Thomas Cromwell speaks on Wolsey’s behalf in Parliament.

November 29: Cardinal Wolsey dies in Leicester on his way back to London from York. Edward Hall hints at suicide in his account of Wolsey’s last days but it was most likely a bowel infection. He was certainly on his way back to the Tower and execution.

1532

January 15: Commons Supplication Against the Ordinaries also known as the Submission of the Clergy.

What this means is that the king and his ministers are now able to review all Church, or canon, law. They could prevent the enforcement of any canon law they wished and they could veto the passage of any new Church law if they were so disposed.   Sir Thomas More resigns from the Chancellorship as a consequence of the passage of this act.

 

Act Restraining Payments of Annates – An annate was a tax levied on newly appointed clergy and payable to the pope (usually half or a whole year’s income – annates are also known as first fruits).  Parliament withholds the payments of annates from Rome but gives Henry the option of allowing them to continue.  This is effectively a form of blackmail in an attempt to get Henry his divorce from Katherine of Aragon.  The act also states that the Pope cannot delay consecration of bishops or excommunicate Englishmen in retaliation for the withholding of the annates.

 

Augustinan Canons of Holy Trinity, Christchurch in London surrender to the king because they are overwhelmed by debt. An Act of Parliament recognises the Crown as Holy Trinity’s founder which means that no one else has any claim to the land or property that has been surrendered to the king.

1533

March: Act in Restraint of Appeals 1532. This act was somewhat confusingly passed in 1533.It means that the highest authority legally speaking in England is the King because Parliament doesn’t recognise any higher authority. “This realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same.” Katherine of Aragon can no longer make an appeal to Rome against an English court’s decision.

1534

This year is a busy year for Parliament.

  • The Act of Dispensations –  All payments to Rome are now stopped. Licenses and dispensations previously attainable through the Church are now being administered by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • An act is passed which Monks forbidden to travel outside the country on official business
  • Act for the Submission of the Clergy, 1534
  • Act in Absolute Restraint of Annates. Payment of all annates to Rome are now forbidden and Engishmen are forbidden to obtain papal bulls for the consecration of bishops. Instead, the King nominates and Archbishop consecrates bishops. In some respects England has always been an anomaly in this regard. The Crowns right to nominate archbishops was one of the reasons Henry II fell out with Thomas Becket.
  • The Act of First Fruits and Tenths. First fruits is another name for the first year’s income from a benefice.  Every year thereafter the tax was a tenth of the incumbent’s income.  This is still collected but now it makes its way into the King’s coffers rather than to Rome.
  • The First Succession Act – Succession is vested in heirs of Henry and Anne (Princess Elizabeth and hopefully a male heir).  This is the act which bastardises Princess Mary.
  • Act of Supremacy King Henry VIII is declared to be Supreme Head of the English Church.
  • Treason Act
  • Act Extinguishing the Authority of the Bishop of Rome – which deals with a loop hole that the other acts haven’t covered.

1535

January: Cromwell is made Viceregerant.  He orders a national visitation of all monastic houses.  This leads to the Comperta or ‘Black Book’ which lists all monastic transgressions.  Monastic transgressions are also enumerated in the letters that Cromwell’s visitors sent to him and in the various acts of parliament that followed.  The other text, the Valor Ecclesiasticus  identifies the worth of the monastic houses– 80% of monastic houses are registered in the Valor. Half the monasteries had less than £200 p.a. The net annual income of the Church is valued at £320,000. The king only receives £40,000.

 

September 18: In Yorkshire in 1534 and 1535 Archbishop Lee of York, who signed the Act of Supremacy and who is keen on the Bible in English begins to make a visitation of the monasteries in his diocese. His visitation is eventually halted on this day on the orders of Cromwell. He visited 8 Yorkshire foundations of which 5 were nunneries.

1536

March: Act of Suppression of the Smaller Monasteries – All monastic houses with fewer than 12 monks or nuns or less than £200 p.a. are suppressed on the grounds that these establishments were centres of “manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living.”

Many abbeys had already been coerced into surrendering during the visitation of 1535 but now the smaller abbeys of England were forced to close. Their number includes:

Abbey Dore- Hereford and Worcester;  Beeliegh, St Botolph (Colchester), Little Dunmow, Prittlewell and Tilty in Essex; Birkenhead, Jarrow and Monkwearmouth; Bisham and Hurley in Berkshire; Blyth and Rufford in Nottinghamshire; Bourne and Tupholme in Lincolnshire; Boxgrove, Easebourne, Michelham and Shulbred in Sussex; Brinkburn in Northumberland; Broomholm, Horsham, Ingham and Langley in Norfolk; Bungay and Sibton in Suffolk; Bushmead in Bedford, Canons Ashby in Northampton; Cartmel in modern Cumbria but I think Tudor Lancashire; Chirbury in Shropshire; Coverham and Nun Monkton in Yorkshire; Dorchester in Oxfordshire; St Radegund’s in Dover, Minster-in-Sheppey and Monks Horton in Kent; Upholland in Lancashire; Exeter St Nicholas and Frithelstock in Devon; St Oswald’s in Gloucester; Maxstoke, Pinley and Stoneleigh in Warwick; Mottisfont in Hampshire; Norton in Cheshire; Owston in Leicestershire; Quarr on the Isle of Wight; Waverley in Surrey.

In Wales the following abbeys were suppressed:  Cwmhir,Beddgelert, Caldy, Chepstow,Haverfordwest,Llantarnam,Margam,Penmon, Pill, Talley and Usk.

 

The Court of Augmentations is set up to take control of the confiscated property and monastic loot. This covers the sale of everything from the lead on the roof to the floor tiles as well as the collection of holy relics and sale of all the plate and any other valuables.

October 3: Pilgrimage of Grace begins in Lincolnshire. It is led by Robert Aske. The Pilgrims march under the banner of the five wounds of Christ.  They wish for a return of the monasteries and of Catholicism.  They’re not terribly impressed by the rent hikes made by some of the new landowners who have taken over the suppressed monasteries.  Cromwell and other ‘bad advisors’ are blamed for Henry’s policies.

October 9: The Pilgrimage spreads to the East Riding of Yorkshire and by the end of the week it has crossed the Pennines. Unrest sprouts in Westmorland and Cumberland.

October 12: Sawley Abbey  which was suppressed in the spring of 1536 is restored.

December: Duke of Norfolk partially accepted the demands of the rebels including the promise of a parliament in York – pardon given providing there was no more rebellion.

1537

January 16 Sir Francis Bigod leads new uprising which effectively nullifies the terms of Norfolk’s December agreement. In total about 200 men executed including Robert Aske who has taken no part in the 1537 uprising.

March: Abbot Paslew and two of his monks are executed at the gates of Wally Abbey for their part in the Pilgrimage of Grace following trial at Lancaster.  The remaining 13 monks are kicked out of their home with no pension as Walley is forcibly suppressed.

April 9: Furness Abbey surrenders.

Easby Abbey near Richmond is suppressed.  It had 18 monks including the abbot. Jervaulx is also suppressed.  Their abbot, having been involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, is hauled off to London where he is executed at Tyburn.  In Cumberland, Lanercost Priory surrenders.

1538

Jan-Sept: 38 large monasteries voluntarily surrender.

Visitation of the friaries now begins but it is discovered that many friars have already taken themselves abroad.

November 21: Monk Bretton Priory  in South Yorkshire surrenders. Some of the monks band together, buy 148 books from the library and continue to live a communal life at Worsborough.  They were still a community in 1558.

November 30: Byland Abbey surrenders.

1539

An act of Parliament hands all the monastic land already surrendered or suppressed into the hands of the Crown.

November 22: Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds surrenders. There are 31 monks.

December 14: Whitby Abbey surrenders.

December 24: Guisborough Priory signs the deed of surrender. Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire surrenders on the same day.

Fountains Abbey also surrenders in 1539.  It is pictured at the start of this post. Double click on it for an outline history of Fountains Abbey.

1540

January 5: Egglestone Abbey near Barnard Castle is dissolved.

January 6: Henry marries Anne of Cleves

January 9: Carlisle Priory surrenders.  The cathedral will be reconstituted in May 1541 along with Chester Cathedral.

January 29: Bolton Abbey surrenders.  In addition to the prior there are 14 canons.  The church becomes the parish church.

March 23: Waltham Abbey surrenders.  It is the last monastery in England.

April 3: Guisborough Priory is formally dissolved.

June 10: Thomas Cromwell arrested at a council meeting.

July 28: Cromwell executed.

 

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Quarr Abbey

DSC_0202According to the Wotton Bridge Historical website medieval Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight was originally called the Abbey of our Lady of the Quarry because there was a stone quarry in the nearby Binstead. Also according to the website, and quite interestingly, Quarr stone was used in the Tower of London, Winchester Cathedral and Chichester Cathedral.

Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Exeter and fourth lord of the Isle of Wight founded the abbey in 1132. The abbey was founded originally as a daughter house of Savigny. Savignac monks joined with the Cistercians in 1147 -white monks on the Isle of Wight. Their monastery, the largest on the island, was enclosed by a wall which stretched around the thirty-acre site- much of the wall still stands. Part of the reason for the sturdy wall, which can be seen from the sea, was the monastery’s maritime nature. Ready to offer care to passing mariners the monks were also prepared to defend themselves from passing marauders- principally fourteenth century French types. The wall apparently contains two of the earliest gunports in Britain (http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/English%20sites/1571.html accessed 2/7/2015 21:59).

It is a matter of contention as to whether Princess Cecily, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was buried in Quarr Abbey. She was married first to Viscount Welles (if we discount the marriage that Uncle Richard III arranged to Ralph Scrope which was annulled in 1485 so that Henry VII could marry her off to his adherent).  Her second marriage was to Thomas Kyme of the Isle of Wight unfortunately this love match irritated Henry VII because Thomas was no match for a Plantagenet princess especially when she hadn’t asked nicely first. However, apparently, Cecily got on very well with Margaret Beaufort –Henry’s illustrious mother. She intervened on Cecily’s behalf. The problem is that Thomas Kyme’s links to the Isle of Wight are unclear and Cecily died on the mainland in 1507 – in Hatfield.

More practically demonstrable is the fact that in June 1513 Lord Howard, in command of the Mary Rose took station off Quarr.

DSC_0203

At its height there were fishponds, granges and extensive abbey buildings of which very little remains today. In 1535 the annual net income of the abbey was valued at £134. It’s value meant that it was suppressed in 1536. The islanders tried to save the abbey by demonstrating to the commissioners that the monks who lived there did much to relieve the poor as well as offering food and shelter to passing seamen.  Their words fell on stony ground.  By 1540 the abbey had been completely demolished and the stone used to build new coastal fortifications at East and West Cowes. There are few remains of the monastic buildings apart from a section of the lay brothers’ dormitory which is now part of a barn.DSC_0205

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Darley Abbey

lh_derbyshire_darleyabbey_fsWright’s Discovering Abbeys and Priories lists the principal monastic sites in England.  It’s alphabetical.  Devon follows Cumbria.  There are no significant monastic sites remaining in the county but in medieval England as with the rest of the country Derbyshire was home to more than one monastic foundation.

Darley Abbey, confusingly a priory rather than an abbey as it housed Augustinian canons, was founded by Robert Ferrers, who was the seond Earl of Derby. The Victoria County History for Derbyshire is quick to point out that there is no evidence for a claim that there was an earlier abbey closer to Derby. Perhaps this was because the abbey was founded during the reign of King Stephen – so the “Nineteen years when Christ and all his apostles slept.” In any event Robert Ferrers survived the demise of Stephen and continued his abbey building with the approval of King Henry II. Funds came in part from the church at Crich which was in Ferrers’ possession. The land itself came from a Rural Dean of Derby. So, Hugh is the abbey’s joint founder. It was populated as a daughter house to the Augustinian Canons of Calke Abbey.

The Victoria County History goes on to explain:

Other gifts speedily flowed into the new foundation, so that in a very short time the abbot and canons, in addition to lands at Crich, Wessington, Lea, Dethick, Tansley and Little Chester, and various mills, held the advowsons of the churches of Bolsover, Pentrich, Ripley, Ashover, South Wingfield, and the three Derby town churches of St. Peter, St. Michael, and St. Werburgh.

So, while there may not be many – okay none- great abbeys in Derbyshire remaining it is evident that their influence covered the religious needs of many villages in the region.

Over the next three hundred years the abbey gained more land and many more gifts including one man who was seeking to avoid giving all his possessions to a moneylender in return for his debts. Some of its abbots gained reputations as arbitrators amongst their fellow clergy but by 1538 the writing was on the wall. Thomas Cromwell needed to fill his master’s treasury.

Darley Abbey had escaped the cull of 1536 being worth considerably more than £200 per annum but in October 1538 Abbot Thomas Page and twelve other Augustinians signed the surrender document and handed the abbey nto the hands of Dr Leigh who sold off the granges, the harvest and the livestock that belonged to the outlying farms. In the abbey itself he calculated the worth of the paving and the glass in the windows. He even sold off the cooking utensils.

As was usual all the monks received a pension, in 1555 the prior and sub-prior were still receiving their pensions. What is more unusual was that a certain “Doctor Legh” who has featured elsewhere in this blog appeared on the list in receipt of £6 13s 4d per year. Cromwell spotted the addition and had stern words with his commissioner for his dodgy accounting.

In 1541 the site of the abbey was granted to Sir William West who built himself a rather nice house on the site of the priory. As is the way of these things the house passed through several hands and each owner and each new generation wished to place their own mark upon Abbey House so that in the end no evidence of the abbey which had once been so important to the economy and faith of the people of Derbyshire. Ultimately the house was demolished in 1962. The image at the start of this post comes from a website entitled England’s Lost Country Houses which not only lists all the demolished stately stacks in the country but provides photographs of many as well as an informative discussion about their demise. Click on the image to follow the link in a new window.

However, there are other remnants of the monastic foundation. The Abbey Pub is housed in a former abbey building – the abbey guest house as it happens.

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Cleeve Abbey

Cleeve Abbey TileCleeve Abbey was a Cistercian foundation.  Cistercians were initially an order of Benedictine monks who felt that the rule of St Benedict had slackened over time. A group of these reformers founded the abbey at Citeaux in 1098. They placed emphasis upon prayer, manual labour, austerity and poverty.

 

The Cistercians or White Monks, named after their undyed rough woolen habits came to England in 1132. They arrived from Clairvaux in order to establish a ‘daughter house’ to the abbey in Clairvaux.  The abbot and his twelve companions (the usual number for a new daughter house) journeyed north until they arrived at the River Rye.

Rievaulx Abbey would become one of the greatest abbeys in the country founding daughter houses of its own in England and Scotland.  Patrons of Rievaulx included kings of England and Scotland. Little wonder that they began with twelve choir monks but exceeded one hundred and fifty less than a century later. Much of this expansion was due to the influence one of Rievaulx’s abbots – a monk called Aelred who later became a saint.

 

Rievaulx’s own daughter houses can be found north and south of the border between England and Scotland. Melrose Abbey in Scotland was a daughter house, as were Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire, Revesby in Lincolnshire and Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire. A second abbey was founded in Scotland – Dundrennan.

 

Each of these abbeys in their own turn founded daughter houses; grand-daughter houses to Rievaulx. For example Melrose Abbey is the mother house of Hulm Cultram Abbey in Cumbria. In England, Revesby Abbey created a daughter house in Somerset – Cleeve Abbey to be precise – so you can take a blogger out of Yorkshire but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the blog for very long as I discovered this morning.

 

Having listened to the aftermath of Hurricane Bertha pass overhead in the night in the form of a heavy downpour and a thunderstorm we ventured coastwards to Cleeve Abbey in Washford with our fingers firmly crossed that we would avoid any rain.

 

The information that follows comes from the very informative display at the beginning of the tour and the ever helpful Victoria County History.

 

The 3rd Earl of Lincoln, William de Roumare,  was the founder of the monastery in the late twelfth century when abbey building was at its peak. His own grandfather had been one of the patrons who founded Revesby.

The abbey was known as Vallis Florida meaning ‘flowering valley’ – it still does have plenty of flowers.

 

The first abbot was called Ralph. He and twelve monks arrived from Revesby to found the only Cistercian abbey in Somerset. It was never wealthy but by 1300 there were twenty-eight monks. In the years that followed monks from this picturesque community toiled on the land, studied (rather than the usual cupboard of books, the brothers at Cleeve had an entire room of them) and a couple were even raised to the rank of papal chaplain.

And so things might have continued but Henry VIII was a man in need of a son. In Autumn 1535 Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners came knocking on the gatehouse door. The man of the moment was Dr John Tregonwell. He liked what he saw –even if it was only worth in the region of £155 a year- in fact he liked it so much that he wrote a politely worded note to Cromwell asking if he could rent it as he had a wife and children to support. Given that the monastery hadn’t even been dissolved his request seems to be ‘a bit previous’ as my step-son would say.

 

The plot thickened as there’s also a letter in existence dated 1537 written by Sir Thomas Arundell, the king’s receiver who was writing to ask what Cromwell intended with Cleeve as it was still operational and rumour said that King Henry VIII had ‘pardoned it.” He went on to ask for clarification and to comment that Cleeve contained “seventeen priests of honest life.”

It was to no avail. The abbey was required to submit. The abbot received a pension of 40 marks a year (about £9000 these days apparently). One of the monks – John Hooper- went on to become Bishop of Gloucester. He managed to irritate Queen Mary in 1555 and was burned as a heretic.

 

Tregonwell was not successful in his suit. Still, there were plenty of other abbeys for him to lay hands upon. He acquired Milton Abbas in 1540 and numerous other Dorset properties. According to his parliamentary biography there appears to have been some irregularity about the number of leases he handed over for the nunnery of St Giles at Flamstead which must have been resolved and not to his credit. He went on to become Chancellor of Wells Cathedral and later,  during the reign of Queen Mary, the MP for Scarborough.

As for Cleeve Abbey itself, it was granted in January 1538 to Robert Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex by way of a thank you present.

Radcliffe was a loyal servant to the Tudors. He was the privy councilor who suggested that Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son with Bessie Blount, should be named heir to the crown ahead of the legitimate but female Mary. He was an active agent in promoting Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and later after the suppression of the minor monasteries he helped to put down the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536) in Lancashire.

 

The church of Cleeve Abbey was swiftly demolished but the cloister remains as do many lovely, if cracked thirteenth century floor tiles, which lay hidden beneath the soil for many centuries. The display in the abbey buildings includes tiles showing Richard the Lionheart and Saladin on horseback. The display also explains how the tiles were made.  Other tiles are heraldic and reflect the names of the abbey’s patrons including Richard of Cornwall who was the brother of  Henry III.  His tiles are the ones with the lion rampant on them.

Henry III was also a patron.  He gave the monks of Cleeve Abbey the right to any wrecks that arrived on Cleeve’s stretch of shoreline.

 

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Muchelney Abbey

Tiles from Muchelney AbbeyMuchelney Abbey on the Somerset Levels was founded by the Saxon Kings of Wessex.  Unfortunately it is impossible to be precise about which one, as some of the charters granting land to Muchelney are medieval forgeries.  Evidence does suggest that King Ine of Wessex founded the abbey and then King Athelstan refounded it when he gave gifts to the abbey – in thanks for his victory over the Vikings at Brunanburgh or possibly as an ‘oops I’ve been a bit of a naughty boy’ offering in relation to his involvement in the murder of the Atheling Edwin in 933. The confusion about the abbey’s foundation may be because the area suffered under the Vikings.  After all, Muchelney is in the vicinity of the hovel where Alfred the Great burnt the cakes. Wedmore, where there was once a royal palace and where Alfred made a treaty with Guthrum is just up the road.

 

The ruins that remain today date from the twelfth century and reflect the Norman desire to found or support existing monastic houses.  There is also a very smart sixteenth century staircase in the abbot’s residence that must have looked a bit out of place when it became a farm house after the dissolution as well as some wonderful recumbent lions over the fireplace which date from a century earlier.

 

Muchelney is mentioned in the Domesday Book.  It turns up again some five hundred years later in Thomas Cromwell’s Valor Ecclesiasticus as being worth £447 with eight monks in addition to the abbot and prior. It had never been a large monastery – Glastonbury was too close for that to happen.

 

There were earlier visitations. The Victoria County History for Somerset mentions a visit in 1335 when the Bishop of Shrewsbury found the Benedictine monks sleeping in richly covered beds and going off for their meals on horseback rather than eating in the monastery itself. In addition the cloisters were being polluted with the presence of the laity – and not just men either. The Bishop also noted that the church was in a bad state of repair. The monastery was swiftly reformed by a new abbot but it didn’t spare the monks from a visit by the Black Death.

 

Cromwell’s commissioners also sent many letters about Muchelney.  The commissioner who arrived in January 1538 was Thomas Leigh (he made himself deeply unpopular during the first phase of the dissolution in Yorkshire.)   By 1538 Leigh had a handy assortment of damning phrases with which to write to his master. He described the abbot as being of “doubtful character” and the monks “unlernyd.” Unlearned or not the brethren at Muchelney could see which way the wind was blowing and swiftly surrendered the abbey into Leigh’s hands.

Henry VIII granted the abbey to his brother-in-law the Earl of Hertford.  The Earl, Edward Seymour whose sister Jane Seymour married the king two years earlier, went on to become Protector of England during his nephew Edward VI’s minority.

Seymour kept the abbot’s lodging turning it into a farm house which he let out to tenants. He used the rest of the monastery as a quarry.

When Seymour was executed for treason Muchelney returned to the Crown where it remained until 1614 when it was sold off by James I.

The church of Muchelney which stood next door to the abbey was not part of the abbey itself – so Seymour couldn’t strip the lead from the roof or take away its dressed stone!  However, the abbey had the living for the church. This meant that they could appoint the priest. An informative display also mentions the fact that the abbey was responsible for providing the vicar with bread and ale every day, meat twice a week, and eggs and fish on the other five days.

 

Victorian excavation of Mucheleny Abbey revealed medieval floor tiles belonging to the Lady Chapel. These were placed inside the church where they remain today as a reminder of how beautiful English abbeys must have once been.

 

 

 

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Filed under Dark Ages, Monasteries, Sixteenth Century