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Title: English monasteries : From Saxon days to their dissolution
Author: Baird, William, F.S.A. Scot.
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "English monasteries : From Saxon days to their dissolution" ***



  _Allen & Sons_]                                  [_Nottingham_


[In continuous use since the Dissolution]]


  From Saxon Days to their






In accordance with many requests, the following sketch of some of the
features of monastic life in England is reprinted from _The Church
Times_, in a somewhat extended and slightly amended form.

It has been suggested that it would be helpful to students to give a
list of authorities on which these pages are based. A large number
of authorities, such as monastic chartularies and customaries, and
episcopal registers, only exist in manuscript; but the following are
some of the principal printed books, in addition to the extended
edition in eight vols. of Dugdale’s _Monasticon_:

  _English Monastic Life_ (1904). Abbot Gasquet.

  _Customary of the Benedictine Monasteries of St. Augustine,
    Canterbury, and St. Peter, Westminster_ (1902). Henry Bradshaw

  _Observances of the Austin Priory of Barnwell_ (1897). J. Willis

  _Mediæval England_ (1903), Chaps. 3, 9, 15. Mary Bateson.

  _Rites and Customs of Durham_ (1842). Surtees Society.

  _Halmota Prioratus Dunelmensis_ (1886). Surtees Society.

  _Durham Account Rolls_, 3 vols. (1898-1900). Surtees Society.

  _St. Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertines_ (1902). Rose Graham.

  _Gesta Abbatum S. Albani_, and other monastic volumes of the Rolls
    Series, including Nos. 8, 28, 29, 33, 36, 43, 45, 72, 78, 79, 85,
    and 96.

  _The Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakeland_, of Bury St. Edmunds (1903).
    Sir Ernest Clarke.

  _The Obedientiaries of Abingdon Abbey_ (1902). Camden Society.

  _Records of Wroxall_ (1904). J. P. Rylands.

  _Saint Anselm_ (1888), Chap. 3. Dean Church.

  _A Consuetudinary of St. Swithun’s_ (1886). Dean Kitchin.

  _Obedientiary Rolls of St. Swithun’s_ (1892). Dean Kitchin.

  _Charters and Records of Cluni_ (1888). Sir G. Duckett.

  _Rentalia et Custumaria of Glastonbury._ Somerset Record Society.

  _Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich_ (1888). Dr. Jessopp.

  _Collectanea Anglo-Premonstratensia_ (1904). Abbot Gasquet.

  _Inventories of Christ Church, Canterbury_ (1902). Messrs. Legg and

  _Chartularies of Finchale Priory_ (1837); _of Jarrow and
    Monkwearmouth_ (1854); _of Fountain’s Abbey_ (1863-78); _of Whitby
    Abbey_ (1879); _of Newhouse Abbey_ (1878); _of Rievaulx Abbey_
    (1889); _of Giseburne Priory_ (1889); _and of Brinkburn Priory_
    (1893). Surtees Society.

  _Chartularies of St. Peter’s, Bath_ (1893); _of Bruton and Montacute
    Priories_ (1894); _and of Muchelney and Athelney Abbeys_ (1899).
    Somerset Record Society.

  _Episcopal Registers of Exeter_, 7 vols. (1886, etc.). F. C.

  _Episcopal Registers of Winchester_, 3 vols. (1896, in progress).
    Hampshire Record Society.

  _Episcopal Registers of Worcester_ (1898, in progress). Worcester
    Historical Society.

  _Sede Vacante Register of Worcester Priory_, five parts (1893-7).
    Worcester Historical Society.

  _Episcopal Registers of Bath and Wells_, 4 vols. (1887-1889, in
    progress). Somerset Record Society.

  _Register of Walter Gray, Archbishop of York_ (1872). Surtees Society.

  _Register of Bishop Kellaw of Durham_, 4 vols. (1873-8). Rolls Series.

  _Register of Archbishop Peckham_, 3 vols. (1882-5). Rolls Series.

For the suppression of the monasteries the following should be

  _Letters and Papers of the reign of Henry VIII._ (Domestic State
    Papers). Dr. Gairdner.

  _History of the Church of England_, 6 vols. Canon Dixon.

  _Henry VIII. and the English Monasteries_, 2 vols. (1888). Abbot

  _Henry VIII._ (1901). F. Darwin Swift.

  _Reformation of the Church of England_, 2 vols. (1882.) J. H. Blunt.

The _Victoria County Histories_, now in progress, propose to deal
thoroughly with all the religious houses; up to the present, those of
Hampshire (2nd vol.) have been treated by Rev. Dr. Cox, and those of
Bedfordshire (1st vol.) by Sister Elspeth. The _Times_, in reviewing
the first of these volumes, said that if the scheme was followed up in
other counties after a like fashion with Hampshire, the result would be
the issue of a new ‘Monasticon.’

Possibly it is presumptuous to quote St. Augustine in connection with a
booklet of this description, but the words with which the great Doctor
concludes his treatise _De Civitate Dei_ seem applicable:

“If in these pages there is either too much or too little, the fault is
mine, and may I be forgiven; but if there is just sufficient join with
me in giving thanks to God.”

                                                                F. S. A.

  _October, 1904._


  VOCATION                                  1


  THE MONASTIC TENANTS                     18


  EDUCATION IN MONASTERIES                 32


  MONASTIC CHARITIES                       40


  MONASTIC DIET                            49




  VISITATIONS                              80




  CONCLUDING WORDS                        108

_List of Illustrations_

  I NEWSTEAD PRIORY            _Frontispiece_


  II RIEVAULX ABBEY          _facing_      16

  III FOUNTAINS ABBEY           ”          32

  IV BYLAND ABBEY               ”          48

  V BUILDWAS ABBEY              ”          64

  VI LLANTHONY PRIORY           ”          80




It is proposed, in the course of a few chapters, to put on record
certain facts and statements on the “religious” (using the word in its
technical signification) life of England from the seventh century to
the sixteenth. Such statements, though based on the original study of
a large number of episcopal registers and monastic chartularies, as
well as on a variety of old documents at the Public Record Office or in
private keeping, will, in many cases, only yield evidence familiar to
those well acquainted with a too little studied subject; but some of
the points brought forward may be novel to all.

It may be well, in the first instance, to disabuse the mind of the
low motives that are often supposed to have actuated men and women in
seeking admission to the cloistered life.

A recent American writer of repute, on _Monks and Monasteries_ (Mr.
Wishart, 1900) has said:--

“The jilted lover and the commercial bankrupt, the devoted or bereaved
wife, the pauper and the invalid, the social outcast and the shirker
of civic duties, the lazy and the fickle, were all to be found in the
ranks of the monastic orders.”

Now and again, in a very small minority of cases, such instances
as these found their way into the mediæval monasteries, with the
result that those whose intentions were so poor became the very ones
about whom scandal afterwards arose. But, broadly speaking, such a
statement, as applicable to the monastic life generally, is simply an
impossible libel, that could not be put forth by any genuine student
of monastic life. The notion of a “lazy” man or woman desiring to take
vows is an absurdity; that laziness, and other sins, might of course
attack cloistered as well as uncloistered lives, no one would deny.
The difficulties surrounding the first steps to enter a monastery
were by no means inconsiderable, the harshest side of the cloistered
life was always set sternly before the applicant, and the novices
were severely tested ere they were permitted to take the habit. As
we read the extraordinary and heart-rending methods adopted by the
English Carthusians to keep all save the most devoted out of their
ranks--precautions that were maintained, as can be proved, by the
Carthusians of Sheen up to the very moment of their terrible treatment
by Henry VIII.--who a short time before had praised them as the very
salt of the earth--the marvel is that they could ever find applicants
with sufficient courage to enter their ranks.

Among the Lansdowne MSS. of the British Museum is a small
fifteenth-century manuscript of the rule of the Carthusians of Sheen.
It opens with the form of receiving postulants and novices in English.
After a variety of preliminary questions had been put to the postulant
in chapter, he retired. Thereupon the prior asked each of the chapter
in turn whether they thought the applicant worthy to be admitted. If
the replies were in the affirmative, the candidate was recalled, and
was thus addressed by the prior:--

“The convent hath deliberated of your humble petition. And now our
Statutes doe appoint me breefly to set before your eyes the strictness
and austoritie of our order, and the length and prolixitie of the
divine office as well of the day office as the night office, which in
the wynter is farr longer, beside the office of our Blessed Lady which
you are to say daylie in your cell; morover you are to say yearly a
hundred dead offices in private, likewise many Psalters (or as we
tearme them monachales) which you are yearly to say unless you performe
them in masses. For your cloathing and lodging, after you have received
the habitt, you can make no further use of lynen except handkerchers
towels and the like, but for your body you are to weare a shirte of
heare and a cord aboute your loynes and a wolen shirte. You are to lie
upon strawe or a bed of chaffe with a blanket betweene. For your diet
it is a perpetuall abstinence from flesh, insomuch that in the greatest
or most dangerous sickness you can expect no dispensation theirin.
Also a good parte of the yeare we abstaine from all Whitmeates, as in
Advent, Lent and all the Fridayes of the yeare, besides many other
fasts both of the church and of our order in which wee abstain from

“Likewise from the exaltation of the holie Crosse until Easter wee
fast with one meall a day, except some few days of recreation before
Advent and Lent. For silence and solitude it ought to be perpetuall,
except when our Statutes giveth license or that you aske leave.
These be the generall observances of our order common to all as well
as seniours as juniours. But besides these generall there are some
particular ordained and appointed for novices or newly professed to
exercise them in the purgative way, and for theire soner attaining of
humility and solid vertue, as is the dressing up of Alters, sweeping
of churches and chappels, making cleane of candelstickes, serving
of others and suchlike. Which workes by how much they are more vile
and contemptible in the eyes of the world, by so much they are more
precious and meritorious in the sight of Almighty God, and by how much
that men, wether more noble, better learned, or of greater talents doth
willingly and affectionately perform the same for the love of God by
so much soner they will obtain remission of theire sinnes, be purged
from their reliques, be freed from theire former evil habitts and
obtaine puritie of hart, humility, and other solid vertues, which are
not gotten without humiliation, and therefore those who doe flye or
withdraw themselves from y^e works of humility, doe deprive themselves
of the best meanes to gaine the vertue itselfe. These according to our
Statutes and the Custome of our house I have layed unto you. _Putasne
ista posse performare?_”

In the great majority of cases, it is arguing against fact and reason
to try and believe that aught save a generous Christian enthusiasm
for the higher life led England’s sons and daughters to embrace the
vowed life, from the dawn of monasticism down to its suppression. No
one intending to be true to the rule would be moved to embrace it
through a worldly motive, or to gain any temporal end, or leisured
spiritual ease. Some of the causes that have led men of education,
without perhaps any particular prejudice, and only badly informed, to
adopt such views, or to write such passages as those just cited from
Mr. Wishart’s book are not far to seek. The chief factor in bringing
about such a belief was the desire shown and often carried out by the
high-born founders or benefactors of religious houses to end their days
within the cloister and wearing the monk’s habit. Sometimes such as
these passed the last few years of their life in religious retirement,
and in other cases only months or even days. In the rough days from
which England suffered for some little time after the Conquest, certain
of the monastic founders led lives or committed acts unworthy of a
Christian layman, and their retirement to a monastery when their
powers were failing seems to us, from a modern standpoint, a rather
cowardly proceeding. Thus Hugh d’Avranches, made by the Conqueror
Count Palatine of Chester, whose active military life was disgraced
by many excesses, entered the monastery of St. Werburgh of Chester,
of his own foundation, there to end his days; but his religious life
was of brief duration, for he died on the fourth day of his retirement
from the world. Others beyond doubt entered the monastery, without
any expectation of early death, after particular excesses or special
crimes, with the idea of doing a something by way of satisfaction for
the expiation of their sins, and perchance to put hindrances in the way
of their re-occurrence. Those, however, who are ready to draw large
conclusions from such cases are quite forgetful of the terms under
which those who sought some share in the religious life far on in their
earthly career were admitted. No doubt, in several cases, such as that
of Count Hugh and other founders who entered their monasteries with
the hand of death already on them, the chapter would permit the dying
knight to be clad in a professed monk’s habit--and who can blame their
charity? But such a line of action was an acknowledged irregularity,
and quite at variance with the ordinary custom. Those who study
English monastic terms, and know that in the Cistercian abbeys, and
not infrequently in other religious houses, such as those of the White
Canons, the lay-brothers were termed _conversi_ or converts, sometimes
wonder how it came to pass that those who were not quire-monks, who
wore a different habit, whose hours for manual labour were far more
and for offices and meditation far less, came to be distinguished
by such a title as ‘converts.’ It was indeed a special triumph of
the established religious life that knights and other unruly men of
violent passions should be moved to lead a docile and humble life
within the abbey’s precincts, or working in the fields around; and
such men when they joined a community and proved themselves amenable
to discipline, occasionally joined the _conversi_, or converts, who
were thus originally styled to distinguish them from those who from
their youth had been dedicated to the cloister. It was but very rarely
that such as these were admitted to the priesthood or became chapter
or quire-monks; they only found entrance to the more menial position,
and hence by degrees the term _conversi_ or converts became equivalent
to lay-brothers. Just the same story is true of the quire-nuns and
the working sisters of the other sex. It therefore follows that those
jaundiced minds of Mr. Wishart’s cataloguing would after all, if they
succeeded in gaining admission, find the way open to nought save the
inferior position, and would not become, in any real sense of the term,
either monks or nuns.

Saving for the very few that were directly founded by kings or queens,
every monastic house in England, from the eighth to the thirteenth
century, was founded by men of large landed property, and, after
the Conquest, by those of feudal power. It was in this way, from the
very necessity of the case, that the religious houses obtained the
endowments of land or tithe that were essential for their support.
Not only did such as these found the monasteries, but they largely
helped to fill them. There is not a single old feudal family known
in English history but several of its members can be proved to have
entered the ranks of the religious. Nor were such as these only drawn
from the cadets of families of position or substance. Those who have
tried to study the earlier history of the county families of any of
our English shires will be quite familiar with cases in which the
ordinary succession of primogeniture in manorial or landed descent is
interrupted, because the eldest son had taken monastic vows.

The idea current among certain superficial writers, that there was
a perpetual warfare between the monastic and feudal system, cannot
be maintained by true historical students either in Christendom at
large or in England in particular. It is too often forgotten that the
monasteries were very largely recruited from those who were themselves
members of the feudal aristocracy. Particularly was this the case in
the eleventh century, when the influence of Hugh the Abbot of Cluny,
who was himself of high feudal birth, was so great. Lists or isolated
names of the members of the priories or cells of Cluniac foundation in
our own country of this period prove that these monks who settled on
our shores were, many of them, members of the French aristocracy.

Though it was the glory of the English Church in the most stringent
times of feudal tyranny to call to Holy Orders those who were specially
freed from among her own villeins for the purpose, and though many
of the lowliest birth attained to, then as now, high and responsible
position in the hierarchy, the other side of the shield must not be
forgotten. Columns might readily be filled with the names of those
in England who were members of good families, and did distinguished
service for the Church, though trained in cloistered seclusion. It may
suffice here to mention two or three of considerable mark in early
days. Winfrid of Crediton, who, after years of careful seclusion in
the Hampshire monastery of Nursling, became the renowned apostle of
Germany, under the title of Boniface, was the eldest child of wealthy
and noble parents. Biscop, who at the age of twenty-five gave himself
up to the monastic life, and became the celebrated abbot of the North
of England, so well known as St. Benedict Biscop, was of good birth and
position, and the owner of a considerable estate. “He despised,” says
Bede, “a temporal wealth that he might obtain that which is eternal;
he refused to be the father of mortal children, being fore-ordained of
Christ to educate for Him in spiritual doctrine immortal children in
Heaven.” St. Alphege, the saintly Archbishop martyred by the Danes in
1011, was born to high position and wealth, the only son of a family
of distinction; but he forsook all in favour of a Benedictine monastery.

When the time of the Conquest is passed, the evidence of those of
high birth seeking the cloister is fully maintained. The first two
Archbishops of Canterbury who ruled in the earlier Norman days,
Lanfranc and Anselm, men of great wealth and culture, the one of
senatorial rank and the other of noble origin, made considerable
temporal sacrifices to follow the Benedictine rule. Or once again, the
founder of the remarkable Order of the Gilbertines--who did so good and
pure a work right up to their dissolution, the only Order founded by
an Englishman--was Gilbert of Sempringham, the eldest son of a wealthy
Norman knight, who sacrificed his considerable estates to further his
conception of the monastic ideal. Now all these men, and many others
almost equally distinguished, entered the religious life without any
idea of afterwards emerging from the cloister and attaining to high
spiritual rule or administration; they were but examples of hundreds of
others of equal birth and self-sacrifice, who served God as faithfully
in their limited circles, though their acts remain unwritten on the
annals of mere human records.

Equally is all this true of the other sex. Re-Christianised England
of the pre-Norman days stands out in bold relief from the rest of
Christendom for the readiness, nay, the eagerness, with which gentle
ladies of royal blood and the proudest estate adopted the monastic
life, discarding all outward pomp and circumstance. Rapin, the French
historian, sneered at the number of royal saints produced by Saxon
England, who knew, as he thought, no suffering; but a much greater
Frenchman, the academician Montalembert, has amply justified their
memory in a chapter of singular beauty of language blended with careful
historical research. Nothing but the fact that the grace of God led
these Saxon ladies of high degree to see the beauty of the sacred life
can account for the way in which, throughout the seventh and early
part of the eighth century, they gave up worldly ease for cloistered
stillness. It was the same in nearly all the petty principalities--in
Kent there were the saints, Eadburg of Lyminge, Eanswith, Sexberga,
and Mildred; in East Anglia, Etheldreda, Wendreda, and Wimburga; in
Mercia, Kyneburga, Kyneswith, Pega, Werburga, and Millburga; among the
East Saxons, Ethelburga of Barking and Osyth; in Wessex, Frideswide,
Everilda, Sidwell and Cuthburga; and in Northumbria, Ebba and Hilda. In
the tenth century, also, there were the Saints Eadburga of Pershore,
Edith of Polesworth, Edith of Wilton, and Wilfrida.

Judged from the mere human standpoint, or even from the common-place
platform of average modern Christianity, conduct of this kind seems
mere foolishness; and worldlings have, forsooth, to imagine that all
such had been crossed in love, and soured with disappointment, or were
merely filled with a narrow-minded and tearful anxiety to save their
own souls. But, after all, the example set by these Christian Saxon
ladies has never died out, and never will, so long as the love of the
heavenly Bridegroom endures. England from the seventh century downwards
has never lacked delicately nurtured ladies, ready to forego worldly
distinction, domestic ease, or intellectual ambition, in favour of a
heart-whole sacrifice to the religious life. When Henry VIII. crushed
out the nunneries in England, a large number of the Sisters belonged to
the best of the nation’s blood; and ladies of the noble and high-born
families who clung to the unreformed faith at once established and
maintained English nunneries across the seas in Belgium or in France.
With the blessed revival of Catholic life within the English Church,
in the middle of the last century, there came about a re-establishment
of vowed Sisterhood life, which has of late made a wondrous growth.
Those best qualified to judge know well how these English sisterhoods
and nunneries have been guided and endowed by those of the gentlest
blood, whose names in religion hide those by which the world might have
recognised them. And what was true of their origin is true of their
present-day life; wealth, position, comfort, and intellect are still
placed by many of these Sisters at the feet of Christ.

There was naturally great anxiety on the part of monasteries to do
their best with the lands bestowed on them, and the monks and religious
canons became almost proverbially the best farmers. Nor was the land
cleared, the cattle tended, the sheep pastured, and the wood thinned
simply with the idea of producing a good revenue to support themselves,
to maintain their church and buildings, and, above all, to minister
to the poor and needy; for it was keenly felt that there must be work
for the hands as well as the head, and that in doing their very best
in manual toil, as well as in worship in quire, they were giving glory
to the Creator. “Idleness,” says St. Benedict in his rule, “is the
enemy of the soul; therefore let the brothers devote certain hours to
work with their hands, and at other times occupy themselves in sacred
reading.” Then the great founder of the religious rule proceeded to lay
down the hours, according to the seasons, during which such work was to
be performed. Nor were his brethren, as he plainly told them, whatever
had been their position, to be disconcerted if the necessity arose for
getting in the harvest or doing agricultural labours with their own
hands. The way in which the monks of England triumphed over nature,
drained the swamps, and brought barren tracts of land into cultivation,
was beyond all praise; thus they found abundant employment for their
tenants and neighbours as well as for themselves, and materially
increased the food supplies for the country at large. Visitors to the
sites of ruined abbeys, such as the Yorkshire houses of Fountains,
Riveaulx, or Byland, are apt hastily to praise the cunning of the
monks in obtaining settlements in such pleasant and well-cultivated
sites, forgetful that it was these very monks who turned comparatively
barren and desolate lands into pasture, plantation, and tillage.
The marvellous drainage works accomplished in the Holderness by the
Cistercian monks of Meaux Abbey, or by the Gilbertine Canons of Watton
Priory, whereby hundreds of acres were rendered capable of tillage,
bear their fruits to the present day. It is difficult now to estimate
the drudgery, toil, and skill required in days comparatively destitute
of mechanical appliances to produce such results.

Perhaps the one spot in all England more than another that would
cure the man who talks flippantly of the lazy, indulgent life of our
mediæval monks in their comfortable quarters is the rarely-visited
site of the once great mitred Benedictine Abbey of St. Benet of Holme,
amid the Norfolk Broads. To visit such a place, particularly in wet or
lowering weather, with the waters swirling round the still well-defined
precincts, the wide dykes filled to the brim, the land oozing with
moisture over hundreds of acres all round--and then to picture the
courage necessary to enable scores of men to give their lives and
pass their days in a continuous round of worship and of battling with
the elements in such a desolate spot as this--cannot fail to shatter
any honest man’s belief in the ease-seeking nature of an English
Benedictine of mediæval days. Such a man, after visiting St. Benet’s,
Holme, might say, “What a fool,” but he could no longer sneer at the
monk as a poor, lazy beggar.

More particularly, too, would this be the case did he know some of the
stories, as yet unknown to print, of the monks of this swamp. How,
for instance, on one occasion (in the winter of 1287-8) the waters
overflowed the lands and outbuildings to such an extent that only the
church, on the highest ground, was unflooded; and how, within the nave,
after much anxious thought, it was considered true charity to stable
the horses to save them from drowning. Or if perchance the thought
should arise that these monks were sustained by good fare against
the damp and chills of their surroundings, the truth as to their
usual meagre dietary, with exact details, can be learnt from various
obedientiary rolls that are still preserved among the stores of the
Bodleian. But more anon as to monastic fare.

We are accustomed to acknowledge that literature was sustained in
the cloister, and to recognise the beauty of the illuminated missals
therein written and painted with such consummate skill; but that the
monastery, particularly the Cistercian House, was the centre of so
many crafts is often unknown or forgotten. Within the large precincts
of such a house would be not only the various storehouses, but the
workshops of the smith, the carpenter, the mason, the shoemaker, the
weaver, the candlemaker, and the winepress. Everything that could be
required for the church and house and its inmates was, if possible,
made on the premises. If anyone is desirous of understanding, by ocular
proof, to what use many of the outbuildings still standing around the
grand ruins of Fountains, Kirkstall, or Furness were put, he cannot do
better than visit the old Cistercian abbey of Maulbraun, in Würtemberg,
within easy reach by train of Heidelberg; for he will there find nearly
the whole of the necessary mediæval buildings of the community still
standing, and in fairly good condition. It was, doubtless, the frequent
communication of the English Cistercian monks with their fellows on the
Continent that moved them successfully to attempt and carry on such
forms of culture as vine-growing, that seem ill-adapted to our climate
and have long since been abandoned. But that vines were grown and wine
made at Beaulieu, and various other monastic centres in England is
beyond a doubt.

[Illustration: THE CHOIR OF RIEVAULX ABBEY (Cistercian)]

It was this very desire after agricultural completeness, and the
thorough farming of all entrusted to their care, that brought about
in England that curious admixture of the two sexes that prevailed in
most of the houses of the Gilbertine order. Houses for Sisters was the
first idea of St. Gilbert, and always remained paramount in his mind;
but in order to secure effective administration of their lands, certain
religious Canons were attached to them, in absolutely separate
buildings, to serve as chaplains, and to superintend or personally
carry out all the agricultural details, on the due sustaining of which
the whole convent depended. This, too, was doubtless the main reason
why we also find two or three canons attached to those great houses
of Hampshire Benedictine nuns of pre-Norman foundation, Nunnaminster,
Wherwell, and Romsey. A like cause was probably the reason why priors,
masters, or wardens, were in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
associated to some extent with the prioresses of such nunneries as
Nuneaton, Warwickshire; Kingsmead, Derbyshire; or Catesby, Wyrthorp,
and Stamford, Northamptonshire--a fact not hitherto, so far as we are
aware, noted or commented upon by any writers on English monasticism.



When the religious houses were possessed of manors--and all save the
smallest houses held at least one or two and frequently many--it
was incumbent upon them to discharge the obligations that rested on
manorial lords; nor was there any difficulty about this, for the
technical obligations of presiding at courts and fulfilling other like
duties were almost invariably discharged, even on secular manors,
by the lord’s steward. Still the lord was responsible, and held
responsible, in the same fashion as a modern landowner and his agent,
and the difference between a good and a bad or careless landlord had
even more striking results in the feudal and sub-feudal days than
in our own. The tenants of the monastic estates were of every kind,
from those who held under the obligation of military service to the
Crown and so many knight’s fees, to the humblest customary tenants or
villeins, who were tied to the soil. The abbot or prior had to carry
out the obligations resting on landholders of the days in which he
lived; he could not, if he would, have upset the land system, but by
just and conscientious administration each manor might become a centre
of comparative content.

If the student of manorial records and customaries compares any
considerable number of manors that were in monastic, or Church,
hands, with those that were in lay control, it will be found, broadly
speaking, that the lot of the tenants generally, and more especially
that of the villeins, was decidedly superior when under monastic
administration. True, tenants of ecclesiastical manors had their
difficulties with the lord from time to time, and were, perhaps,
all the more ready now and again to show dissatisfaction in a more
marked way than they would have dared to do against the more severe
secular lords; but the easy terms on which the assarts or clearings
made by the monks and their lay-brothers were conferred on their
tenants, the commuting of labour customs for quite small sums of
money, the generally light character of the labour for the lord, the
better harvest fare provided, and, more particularly, the far greater
opportunity for manumission or freedom that pertained to the clerical
estates, all these were noticeable in so many instances, that there can
be no doubt it was as a rule far better for each class of tenants to be
on a monastic rather than on a secular estate.

In the valuable chartulary of the abbey of Burton-on-Trent, preserved
at Beaudesert, there are full accounts of the tenantry on their
Staffordshire and Derbyshire manors drawn up about the year 1100, as
well as some like entries of the year 1114. It would be very difficult
to find such easy tenures on any secular manors of approximate date. In
a variety of cases a house was held for which a single day’s harvest
work per week for the lord was the only charge. The proportion of _ad
opus_ tenants on these estates was unusually small; thus at Mickleover,
out of a total of seventy-eight only twenty-two had to make any return
in labour, and in each of these cases the villein held two bovates or
oxgangs of land in return for two days’ labour a week at harvest-time,
the occasional carrying of a load to the lord’s garden, and ploughing
once in the winter and twice in the spring. Their position, too, is
also shown by the fact that they were cowkeepers; for time was allowed
them, when working for the lord, to drive home and milk their cows, and
generally to attend to their stock. In two other Mickleover cases _ad
opus_ tenures of two bovates of land had recently (1100) been commuted
by the abbot for 2_s._ a year, a sum which gives a good idea of the
comparatively small amount of exacted labour.

In the adjoining township of Littleover there were twenty-two villeins,
including Goderic the reeve, the majority of whom held two bovates of
land; but in only four cases did they make recompense to the lord by
labour. On the same manor there were, in 1114, five men in charge of
the plough oxen (_bovarii_); each of them held one bovate of land and
two acres of marsh in return for making or providing the irons of three
ploughs, the amount of demesne land being sufficient for three ploughs.
On another of the abbot’s Derbyshire manors, Willington, there was no
“inland” or demesne land, but there were thirty-two bovates, seven of
which, sufficient for two ploughs, were held by the lord. The remaining
twenty-five bovates were thus held:--One, with part of the church
meadow, by Goderic the priest; Unifred, six bovates for 6_s._; Soen,
four bovates for 6_s._; Serlo, two bovates for 2_s._; Lewin, the reeve,
one bovate for 1_s._; Hotin, one bovate for 2_s._; Godwin, half bovate
for 11_d._; Lewric and Lewin, each two bovates for 32_d._ and two days’
work a week from July to Martinmas; Edwin and three others, each one
bovate for 16_d._ and two days’ work for the like period; Godric, half
bovate for 8_d._ and half day’s work for the like period; and Lewin,
the smith, one bovate by the service of two ploughs, or for 16_d._ and
work as above.

It was easy, too, on most monastic manors, for the native tenant
or villein to obtain leave to live elsewhere on payment of a small
acknowledgment, which was a privilege very rarely granted by a secular
lord. Thus, on the manor of Inkpen, Berkshire, in the time of Richard
I., the Abbot of Titchfield, as lord, licensed three of his native
tenants to dwell outside the manor in return for 6_d._ a year apiece
at Michaelmas; in another case the annual acknowledgment for a like
permission took the shape of a ploughshoe (or iron tip for a wooden
share), then worth about 2_d._; and in a third case, the more costly
service of a pair of cart-wheels, probably worth about 1_s._

The same abbot, according to the customary of the Hampshire manor where
the abbey stood, had an extraordinarily generous scale of dietary for
those tenants who worked at the lord’s autumn harvesting. Those who
worked one day a week for the whole day received at three o’clock a
supply of food (_unum pastum_) consisting of bread, with beer or cider,
broth (_potagium_), and two sorts of flesh or fish, as well as drink
once after dinner. For supper the fortunate labourer also received a
wheat loaf weighing forty ounces, and two herrings, or four pilchards,
or one mackerel. As such a _pastum_ by itself seems to have been
considered as worth 4_d._, this food allowance was certainly remarkably
generous. If three days’ labour was the service to be rendered, the
last of the three was recompensed in a like generous fashion, whilst
on the two first days the _pastum_ was a loaf of barley bread, water
to drink, and two kinds of fish, whilst the change in the supper
consisted merely of the substitution of a forty-ounce barley loaf for
one of wheat. When the customary tenants had to wash sheep or do a
day’s work on the meadows at the lord’s will, they received nothing,
save that they had wheat bread and beer when they had finished; but the
shearers of sheep had cheese in addition to the bread and beer. Those
who dressed the meadows had no food allowance, but when haymaking they
received bread and beer, with flesh or fish. In short, it is admitted
that on several monastic estates the harvest payment in food for
villein labour cost more than the labour was worth.

We have looked in vain through many a customary of secular manors to
find a parallel to this; the only approach to it is in other manors in
monastic hands. As a broad rule there was no food or drink given to
the secular lord’s villeins for labour on the demesne, save at corn
harvest, and then only on a somewhat meagre scale.

One other point of the generous treatment of the tenants on the lands
of Titchfield Abbey may be named. Those who have studied riverside
manorial customs on manors that bordered on the Thames, Trent, Severn,
Ouse (Yorks.), and elsewhere, know that not only the free ferrying of
the lord’s household and his goods by the tenants was usually expected,
but also the water-transit of himself or his property to quays or
places at a considerable distance. But the waterside tenants of
Titchfield, who were boat owners--although they had to take the abbot,
canons, or members of the household and their horses free across the
estuary of the Hamble when necessary--if they had to convey them up the
water to Southampton were always to be recompensed by a _pastum_, or by
4_d._ in money, whichever they preferred.

It may also be mentioned as still further showing the condition of the
_natives_ on these monastic lands that they were forbidden to sell
their horses or oxen that had been bred on the manor without the lord’s
leave. The very statement of this small restriction shows that they
were at liberty to trade in cattle or horses outside those of manorial
breed. Nor were they to fell any oak or ash growing on their holding
without the lord’s leave, save in the case of wood required for the
repair of their houses or the strengthening of their hedges. As a rule
timber, for even these purposes, could not be taken without a permit.
The licence fee for marriage with anyone within the manor was two
shillings, with anyone outside, according to the lord’s discretion.
The reeve elected by the homage was to be free of all service of every
kind, and from payment of churchset, pannage-fee, etc., during his term
of office.

The Surtees Society in 1889 printed a most interesting volume of
extracts from the Halmote Court or Manor rolls of the prior and convent
of Durham from 1296 to 1384. They supply a vivid picture of the life
of the various classes of tenants on the thirty-five vills under the
control of that monastery, of their comparative independence, and of
the merciful dealing of the conventual lord. Mr. Booth, as editor,
writes in warm praise:

“We see them (the tenants) in their tofts, surrounded by their crofts,
with their gardens of pot-herbs. We see how they ordered the affairs
of the village when summoned by the bailiff of the vill to consider
matters which affected the common-weal of the community. We hear
of their trespasses and wrong-doings, and how they were remedied
or punished; of their strifes and contentions, and how they were
repressed; of their attempts, not always ineffective, to grasp the
principle of co-operation as shown by their bylaws; of their relations
with the prior, who represented the convent and alone stood in relation
of lord. He appears always to have dealt with his tenants, either in
person or through his officers, with much consideration; and in the
imposition of fines we find them invariably tempering justice with

Another book that is very helpful in showing the relationships that
existed between a great abbey and its various tenants is the _Rentalia
et Custumaria_ of Glastonbury, printed a few years ago by the Somerset
Record Society. Some of these West-country tenants had to find part
of their rent in labour, and part in kind or in payment. There are
payments in kind of salmon, eels, and honey, whilst not a few who
worked direct for the abbey had stated wages. Even in cases where the
villein had to do as much as three days’ work a week from Michaelmas to
Midsummer, and five days’ work a week during harvest-time, he held in
recompense several acres of arable land that he cultivated for himself
during the free days, and had a small share of every acre of corn that
he reaped or grass that he cut for the lord. The smaller cottagers had
a variety of curious customary services in lieu of rent, mostly of
a trifling character. Thus a woman named Alice held her cottage and
half-an-acre of land by the service of sharpening the reapers’ sickles
and bringing them water at harvest-time. Whilst at work for the abbot
the labourers were, as a rule, entertained at common meals, and they
met at Christmas in the great hall for a special feast.

It may, in short, be taken as a fact, that the best farming and the
greatest degree of fair dealing and generous treatment were to be found
on the monastic lands. The more this subject is studied, the more
thoroughly are such facts established. Nor are the reasons why this
should be the case far to seek. However unworthy the superior or the
leading officials of an abbey or priory may occasionally have been,
the system at all events secured a succession of resident lords for
the most part of high moral and religious character, or of diligently
supervised granges where the estates were at some distance from the
central house. There were no protracted wardships or minorities;
the lords were not frequently absent at wars, or with the court;
and the actual character of the administration could not possibly
have fluctuated in a like way as on secular estates. The heads of
religious houses, and the chief obedientiaries or officials, had almost
invariably some experience of manual labour as well as of agricultural
farming, and could sympathise with the toil of the one and the anxiety
of the other. Not infrequently in the larger houses special lands were
appropriated to the support of the burdens of a particular part of the
monastic life, and where this was the case, the almoner, the sacrist,
or the cellarer, as the case might be, gave his immediate attention to
the cultivation and the produce of such small estates. Hence came about
a continuous contact between the religious and the tenants of various

Into all this work and superintendence the true monk brought the
spirit, and often the actual direction, of his rule. Not only did the
monk learn to do field and garden labour as part of his training, but
to enter upon it as a conventual or common work under the direction of
the prior or one deputed by him. The Cluniacs and the Cistercians gave
a dignity to their work by certain defined usages. When the brethren
were gathered for work, the abbot himself, in a Cluniac house, was
expected to meet them at the cloister door, saying, _Eamus ad opus
manuum_, “Let us go forth to the work of our hands.” Thence they went
in procession, saying a psalm, to the assigned place, and when there,
certain suitable collects with the “Our Father” and versicles were said
ere the work was begun, the superior taking his share.

Wide and general as was the dispersion of England’s religious houses,
it was as nothing compared with the number of their granges, and to
every grange a chapel was attached. These chapels were divided by a
screen; the choir was for the brethren, professed and lay, and the
western part for the tenants and labourers. That so vast an amount of
land came by benefaction into the hands of the monasteries throughout
England in mediæval days may have had certain economic objections; but
one result, at all events, was achieved through that fact, namely, the
removal to a great extent of any idea of the degradation of manual
toil, and the linking together of labour and worship. It was impossible
in old days to go many miles in any direction without alighting upon
a humble chapel specially built for those who tilled the soil. In a
single midland county where there were only seven religious houses
(apart from hospitals), traces, either in stone or records, have been
found of upwards of twenty grange chapels. The mere worldling will
doubtless view with some contempt this association of Divine service
and the weary round of agricultural toil; but for such we are not
writing. Those who have any faith in the reality of religious joy will
realise the blessing of such opportunities, which were so largely
multiplied by the monks of England, not only for their own spiritual
advantage, but for those who worked under and with them.

The great opportunities that the native tenants or villeins had of
securing their freedom, for Holy Orders or otherwise, on the monastic
estates, and the general advantages of all such tenants in the matter
of education, must be left for another chapter, as they both demand
more extended treatment than can be given in a single paragraph or
two. The only other point to be now briefly dealt with is the question
of the tenants of nunneries. Though their numbers were not large, and
many of the houses quite small, still the houses of religious women
suppressed by Henry VIII. were nearly one hundred and fifty.

As to their lands and estates, in their later history they were
sometimes farmed out at mere annual rents with but small control from
the religious, so that they would differ but little from any ordinary
landed property. But this was the exception, and unknown in the earlier
centuries of their existence.

The Gilbertine houses had canons attached to them with the avowed
object of looking after the temporal affairs of the nuns, and in their
elaborate statutes there are the fullest details as to the management
of the granges by the lay-brothers, as lately set forth in English in
Miss Graham’s interesting book on this Order. To most of the older
Benedictine nunneries, as well as to the two large houses of Nuneaton
and Amesbury, dependencies of Fontevrault, special officials were
attached to superintend the tenants.

Nevertheless, the abbess or prioress, if manors pertained to the house,
had all the privileges and responsibilities attached to the position,
notwithstanding her sex, and was the lady of the manor. The abbesses
of Barking, Nunnaminster, Shaftesbury, and Wilton, held of the king an
entire barony, and were actually summoned for a time to parliament as
barons. Now and again the convents had for their superiors ladies who
were as remarkable for their zeal in temporal as in spiritual matters.
In the chartulary of the Hampshire abbey of Wherwell, at the British
Museum, is an interesting and beautiful account of “the blessed mother,
the abbess Euphemia”, who ruled the house from 1226 until her death
in 1257. The following extracts of part of the story of her rule,
written by an inmate of the house shortly after her death, show the
thoroughness of her administration in temporal matters, leaving out the
account of her rebuilding most of the conventual buildings on improved
sanitary lines, and planting and draining the precincts, and doubling
the number of the sisters:

“Euphemia, notwithstanding all her attention to spiritual affairs, and
the good of the actual monastery, so conducted herself with regard to
exterior affairs, that she seemed to have the spirit of a man rather
than a woman. The court of the abbey manor, owing to the useless mass
of squalid buildings, and the nearness of the kitchen to the granary
and old hall, was in much danger of fire; whilst the confined area and
the amount of animal refuse was a cause of offence both to the feet
and nostrils of those who had occasion to pass through. The Mother
Euphemia, realising that the Lord had called her to the rule, not that
she might live at ease, but that she might, with due care and dispatch,
uproot, and destroy, and dissipate all that was noxious, and establish
and erect that which would be useful, demolished the whole of these
buildings, levelled the court, and erected a new hall of suitable size
and height. She also built a new mill some distance from the hall, and
constructed it with great care, in order that more work than formerly
might be done therein for the service of the house. She surrounded the
court with a wall and the necessary buildings, and round it she made
gardens and vineyards and shrubberies in places that were formerly
useless and barren, and which now became both serviceable and pleasant.
The manor house of Middleton, which was close to a public thoroughfare,
and was further disfigured by old and crumbling buildings, she moved
to another site, where she erected permanent strong buildings and a
farmhouse on the bank of the river. She also set to work in the same
way at Tufton, in order that the buildings of both the manor houses in
that neighbourhood might be of greater service and more secure against
the danger of fire.”

A recently published volume on Wroxall Priory, Warwickshire, shows how
admirably that convent managed the affairs of the manor. The tenants
dined with the prioress at Christmas.



A considerable educational work was accomplished by the monks and
regular canons, quite outside the careful claustral teaching of the
novices who were being trained to enter their own ranks. An able
work, published a few years ago, on the early schools of England, the
writer of which, however, never lost an opportunity of decrying the
‘religious,’ attempted to show that English monasteries had but little,
if any, connexion with education outside the actual cloister. But his
own pages of documentary school evidence might be cited against him.
We have, for instance, definite information of the close connexion
of monasteries and schools in documents pertaining to Bruton Abbey,
Somersetshire, Winchcombe Abbey, Gloucestershire, and the celebrated
abbeys of Evesham and Sherborne, as well as the priories of Lewes and
Launceston. At some of the more important hospitals, the heads of which
were often termed priors, and whose brethren were certainly regulars
and followed the Austin rule, education was one of their definite
functions. Thus the hospital, or priory, of Bridgwater educated
thirteen poor boys up to the time of its dissolution, whilst actual
thirteenth-century lists of the names of the boys being taught at the
great York hospital of St. Leonard’s, adjoining the abbey of St. Mary,
are still extant. Wherever the records or rolls of one of the greater
monasteries are extant in any abundance, references to schools and
schooling are almost certain to be found. The accounts, for instance,
of the great priory of Durham show that the monastic funds were used to
further schooling, altogether apart from the instruction or training
of their novices. The boys who attended it were called the Children
of the Almery; they were taught by one of the priory chaplains, who
received a stipend, and they were also fed at the priory’s charge,
but seem to have returned home to sleep. The accounts for 1369-70
show that Nicholas, the chaplain, received a stipend of 56_s._ 8_d._
_pro erudicione puerorum_. In 1372-3 the master of the Almery school
received 39_s._ 3_d._, in addition to a gown, and 2_s._ for coal. John
Garner, master of the grammar school, received 53_s._ 4_d._ about 1430,
payable at Pentecost and Martinmas. George Trewhytt, in 1500, received
a stipend, as grammar schoolmaster, of 60_s._, together with a furred
gown worth 10_s._ 11_d._ In 1536-7 the sacrist’s roll shows that the
boys’ schoolroom was repaired; and in the same year the bursar received
from the almoner 40_s._ to pay for a table for the schoolmaster.

[Illustration: FOUNTAINS ABBEY (Cistercian)

(By kind permission of the Editor of the _Photographic News_.)]

It is as well to set out a few details like this, and they could be
matched, as we know, from rolls of other large foundations; for those
whose business it is to belittle English monasteries continuously
assert that they educated no one but their own novices. Now at Durham
we know that the training of the novices was a matter entirely apart
from that of these boys, as narrated in the well-known _Rites of
Durham_. There were always at least six novices under tuition, who went
daily to their books in the cloister, and were under instruction for
seven years. Their master was one of the older monks, whose duty it was
not only to instruct them but to exercise a general supervision. If
any of them showed marked capacity they were sent to Durham College,
Oxford, which was one of the two exclusively Benedictine colleges. The
rolls have various entries relative to their expenses in going to the
University. Occasionally outside paid help was sought for their further
instruction at Durham; thus one of the very rolls that names the
stipend of the schoolmaster of the Almery boys, also mentions a smaller
sum paid to one _pro erudicione juvenum monochorum_. At Norwich Priory
fourteen boys were educated, and at Winchester eight. At St. Albans
there was a school under secular masters, who were selected and paid by
the abbot of the monastery; early in the fourteenth century there was
a bequest made to this school to release sixteen of the poorest of the
scholars from all payment.

Even so remote a house as that of St. Benet, Holme, in the swamps of
the Norfolk Broads, had boys under education, apart from the novices,
who were probably the more promising children of the humbler tenants.
Here, too, as at Durham, such boys formed part of the almoner’s charge.
It would indeed be passing strange if no such records of schoolwork
existed, for Benedictine and other custumals were not compiled for
amusement or to satisfy hypothetical conditions. Such documents were
practical directions for the times when they were drawn up. If they
are consulted, it will be found that it was the ordinary part of an
almoner’s duty to have control over any monastic school, apart from
the claustral one for the novices. He was enjoined to keep the boys
strictly, and had to provide the rods for their discipline. If they did
not learn sufficiently they were to be discharged, and their places
filled by those who were better disposed.

It is also worth while to mention under this head, that in the highly
interesting volume of fifteenth-century monastic visitations made by
the Bishops of Norwich, edited a few years ago by Dr. Jessopp, there
are various references to the schoolmasters and schoolrooms of small
priories which could not possibly have referred to the cloister-taught
novices. At Westacre Priory, Norfolk, there was a boarding school for
the sons of the county gentlemen.

The question of manumission, or the freeing from serfdom, is almost
too important to take up, save in a separate chapter; but a brief
comment may here be made upon this subject, as it has a distinct
bearing upon monastic education. The freeing of a villein from his
tied condition to a particular manor was very rarely done by a secular
lord, but it was a matter of common occurrence on monastic manors. Mr.
J. Willis Bund, who has recently edited the highly interesting _Sede
Vacante_ register of Worcester, which covers the various intervals when
that see was vacant and administered by the Priors of Worcester, draws
attention to the fact that fourteen cases of manumission occurred on
the priory estates during a very brief period about the beginning of
the fourteenth century, and points out how very large must have been
the instances of freedom-granting by the monasteries if this case
can be taken as a sample. Much evidence can be gained from episcopal
act-books in various dioceses in corroboration of manumission for the
purpose of taking Orders. The register of Bishop Drokinsford, of Bath
and Wells (1309-1329), shows that formal manumission was often granted
at the self-same time as the newly-created freeman was admitted to
the first tonsure. Bishop Hobhouse, in editing this register for the
Somerset Record Society, seems to think that there was something rather
shocking in thus taking a rough country lad fresh from the plough-tail
and admitting him to minor Orders in an uneducated condition. But
there is every probability that the young aspirant for the first step
in clerkship, freed for the purpose, was one of the humbler monastic
tenants who had already received at least the rudiments of a clerkly
education at the hands of his patrons. This, too, is the probable
explanation for the great number of monastic “titles,” or pledges for
the temporal support of those ordained to the sub-diaconate, or the
diaconate, that are to be found in many episcopal registers throughout
the fourteenth century. Those of course who were being ordained to
serve in monasteries required no title; but those who were ordained as
seculars, with monastic titles--and they often formed a large majority
of the whole candidates--had almost certainly received their primary
education (whether from the ranks of the villeins or free tenants) at
the hands of the particular monastery that vouched, if necessary, for
their maintenance. No other explanation of these very frequent monastic
titles for seculars--mostly before the Black Death of 1349--has as yet
been offered.

As to nunneries and education, all the larger houses, and probably all
the smaller ones, in proportion to their capacity, opened their gates
freely for the instruction of young girls, who were not infrequently
accompanied by their brothers when of tender years. The children of
well-to-do parents often arranged for them to be boarders at the
nunneries in mediæval days, as is still the custom. In pre-Reformation
days the nunnery was the popularly accepted place for the education of
girls of different ranks. Thus Chaucer, in describing the miller of
Trumpington, says:--

  “A wyf he hadde, com of noble kyne;
  Sche was i-fostryd in a nonnery....
  What for hir kindred and hir nortelry
  That sche had lerned in the nonnerye.”

In later days, not long after their suppression, John Aubrey wrote with
great appreciation of the educational work of the Wiltshire convents.

“The young maids were brought up at nunneries, where they had examples
of piety and humility, and modesty, and obedience to imitate and to
practice. Here they learned needlework, the art of confectionery,
surgery ... physic, writing, drawing, etc.... It was a fine way of
building up young women, who are led more by example than precept;
and a good retirement for widows and grave single women to a civil,
virtuous, and holy life.”

Much more evidence, if it was required, could be produced as to the
education so generally given by English nuns. Quite recently, in
turning over some little-explored forest accounts at the Public Record
Office, an entry was found (not hitherto referred to in print) of John
of Gaunt sending two bucks from his park at Kenilworth to certain
Spanish damsels at Nuneaton. This led to further investigation, when
it came out that several Spanish young ladies, who had accompanied the
Duke’s second wife to England, were sent to the Priory of Nuneaton for
purposes of education.

When the Commissioners visited Nunnaminster, Winchester, in May, 1536,
they forwarded a most highly favourable report of that ancient house,
pronouncing the inmates to be “very clene, vertuous, honest, and
charitable conversation, order, and rule,” as testified by the mayor
and corporation and all the country side. They found there twenty-six
“chyldren of lordys, knyghttes, and gentylmen brought up yn the sayd
monastery.” The list of these girls begins with “Bryget Plantagenet,
dowghter unto the Lord Vycounte Lysley,” and includes members of the
families of Copley, Philpot, Tyrell, Dingley, and Titchborne. There
was also one boy, Peter Titchborne, “chylde of the high aulter.” The
casual references to “the schools” at English nunneries for girls of
all conditions of life might be multiplied almost indefinitely.

No attempt of any kind was made to replace these homes for English
girls’ instruction when the nunneries were blotted out of existence.



The accounts of every monastery show certain definite sums set apart
for charitable distribution, either in money, clothing, or food. These
sums being charged on real property, came within the cognizance of the
Commissioners who drew up the _Valor_ of 1534. The amounts in some
cases were considerable, especially when they are compared with the
total revenue of the house. Bishop Hobhouse has thus tabulated them for

                               £   _s._ _d._
  Glastonbury                 140   16    8
  Wells, St. John’s             3    6    8
  Bruton                       26    6    8
  Taunton                      41    9    0
  Keynsham                     10   15    0
  Worspring                     8    0    0
  Bath Abbey                   10    2    6
  Bath, St. John’s                   8    0
  Muchelney                    11    3    0
  Montacute                    23    8    6
  Athelney                     22   18    2
  Cleve                        26   18    4
  Barlynch                      8    1    0
  Dunster                           14    8
  Bridgewater, St. John        32    6    8
             Total           £356   14   10

For the much smaller county of Warwickshire, the amount of income
assigned of obligation to the poor or in hospitality from the religious
houses was far more considerable, as is shown by the following table:--

                               £   _s._ _d._
  Warwick, St. Sepulchre’s     25    7    0
  Studley                      25    6    3
  Alcester                      6   13    4
  Wroxall                      23    0    0
  Pensley                       9    9    4
  Thelesford                    2   13    4
  Coventry, Benedictines       60   18    6
      ”     Carthusians        77    6    9
  Combe                        45   16    8
  Erbury                       26   19    8
  Kenilworth                   23   17    7
  Stoneleigh                   52   19    8
  Merivale                     12   16    8
  Maxstoke                     22    1    8
  Avecote                      18    0    6
  Nuneaton                     34    6    8
  Polesworth                   31    6    0
  Henwood                       8   10    8
                             £507    9    7

But such tables as these are wholly inadequate if we desire to give a
true idea of English monastic charity.

In addition to these definitely pledged sums, a really much larger
amount was distributed in kind by many a religious house up and
down the country. Nor were these doles the mere lazy handing out of
surplus food to be scrambled for by the sturdiest beggars, as is not
infrequently represented by cynical and ill-informed writers of romance.

All monastic custumals lay down the most careful directions as to the
duties of the almoner. “Every conventual almoner,” says one English
mediæval writer, “must have his heart aglow with charity; his pity
should know no bounds, and he should possess the love of others in a
most marked degree; he must show himself as the helper of orphans,
the father of the needy, and as one who is ever ready to cheer the
lot of the poor and help them to bear their hard life.” As alms were
a chief daily function of every monastic house, the almoner had leave
of absence from the morning offices whenever his duties required him.
He was not only the distributor of the alms of the house to those who
sought them, but he was to visit all the aged, blind, or bedridden poor
within a reasonable distance.

According to the wording of the custumal of St. Augustine’s,
Canterbury, recently printed by the Henry Bradshaw Society, the almoner
was to make the most solicitous enquiry, through some trustworthy
servant, as to the cases of illness and infirmity in the neighbourhood.
When he went in person on visits of inquiry, two servants accompanied
him, carrying the materials for immediate or urgent relief. If
perchance the sick man asked for anything that the almoner did not
possess, he was to do all in his power to acquire it for him. Although
the poor in their need were never sent empty away from the monastery
gate on whatever day they might apply, every house had its general
day or days in the week when a general distribution was made to all
the needy. At St. Augustine’s there were two such days every week
throughout the year, when the needy attended at the monastic almshouse
for the general distribution of food and broken meat that had been
collected from the refectory, the “misericorde,” and the abbot’s
chamber and hall. For this purpose attendants went round after meals
with baskets, and vessels for beer. Moreover, such was their care that
no needy applicant should fall short, that the almoner had full power
to go to the granary and take sufficient grain for the making of fresh
bread for these two days of general relief if there was any probability
of the surplus bread falling short.

In most monasteries the whole commons of a deceased monk were
distributed to the poor for thirty days after his death.

To the almoner and his subordinates were entrusted the old clothes of
the convent for distribution to the necessitous. Nor were such gifts
always second-hand, for the almoner was instructed to lay in a store
of stockings and shoes and other small presents for widows and orphans
before the Christmas season.

In another way also the hospitality of every monastery was bound to be
exercised in proportion to its size, and that was in the entertainment
of travellers of whatever degree. The custumals insist, in differing
terms but with much explicit detail, on the due discharge of this
obligation with all courtesy and kindness. According to the very
wording of St. Benedict’s rule, guests were to be received as if they
were Christ Himself. None were to be refused admission; all were to be
made welcome, but more especially monks, clergy, poor, and foreigners.
Every custumal enjoins on the hosteler or guest-master the primary
duties of having everything ready, clean, and sweet in the guest-house
or the appointed chambers, such as wood for the fire, straw for the
beds, water for the jugs and basins, rushes for the floor, and candles
for lighting. Guests were to be supplied, if possible, with better food
than the ordinary monastic commons. Well-to-do guests, using the house
as a convenience on their travels, would doubtless, from time to time,
make presents to the convent treasury, but such offerings would be
quite the exception.

In almost every English episcopal register of the fourteenth century
occur petitions from monasteries asking the Bishop’s sanction to
the appropriation of churches or rectories, of which they already
held the advowson. In such cases it is generally found that the main
reason given for asking the favour is that the stress of hospitality
on the particular house is so great--owing very often to increase of
traffic on a neighbouring highway--that the income is insufficient.
There certainly were several objections that can readily be urged to
this removal from a parish of the greater part of the income arising
from tithe and glebe; but it may be remarked _en passant_ that in
pre-Reformation days there was, broadly speaking, much more security
for the just administration of the Church revenues of an appropriated
parish rather than of one that remained a rectory. If there is any one
thing certainly established by the study of episcopal Act-books, it is
that the best of mediæval Bishops were practically powerless to prevent
the evils of lay patrons appointing youths in minor Orders to rectories
and of the frequent non-residence of even older rectors. Consequently
the rectories were far too often merely served by parochial chaplains
removable at will. In the case of ordination of vicarages, the vicars
were perpetual, and their residence insisted on; whilst the income from
the greater tithes was, as a rule, fairly used for good purposes by the
religious house to which it was appropriated, a certain portion of it
being definitely assigned to the poor of the particular parish.

Another point to bear in mind with regard to, at all events, the spirit
of monastic charity, as shown in statutes and custumals, was the
endeavour that all the professed religious should cultivate a special
sympathy with the poor, as God’s poor, and that such ideals should not
be the exclusive privilege of the almoner and sub-almoner, or to some
extent of the hosteler. Hence came about the maundy, or washing of the
feet of the poor. This was under the superintendence of the almoner. At
Abingdon monastery there was a daily maundy, when every morning, after
the Gospel of the morrow or early Mass, the almoner went to the door of
the abbey, and selected three from the poor waiting for an alms, whose
feet were washed by the abbot, or by some monk deputed by him; the
chosen almsmen were afterwards fed and given a small present of money.
On the great maundy of Thursday in Holy Week it was the custom in most
Benedictine houses to call in as many very poor men as there were
monks. They were placed opposite each other in two rows, the poor men
on one side, the monks on the other. Then, after certain appropriate
antiphons, psalms, and collects, each brother crossed over to his poor
man, knelt before him, endeavouring to see in him Christ Himself, and
washed his feet; then rising he kissed him on the mouth and eyes, sat
him down to meat and ministered to him.

At the great monastery at Evesham the rule provided for the continuous
support of thirteen poor persons, who were fed from the surplusage of
the abbot’s table; and this in addition to the twelve “maundy” poor
who were clothed as well as fed, and fifty sick persons who were also
supported at the abbey’s expense.

The one only claim to monastic alms and monastic charity was to be poor
and needy. Modern “Charity Organization” methods of subjecting every
claimant to strict interrogatories as to the cause of poverty were
as unknown to England’s mediæval monks as they were to the Christian
Fathers of the sub-apostolic age.

It remains to mention under this heading that many a monastery, in fact
the great majority of the larger houses, were the chief supporters of
subsidiary hospitals under their control, where beds were provided
for the sick and infirm, and where food and lodging were also given
to needy wayfarers. This was specially the case when the religious
house was on the confines of or within a town. Derby, Coventry, and
Northampton are among the many towns that afford examples of this kind
of charitable work. In many other instances a modicum of assistance
to hospital work formed a regular charge on the eleemosynary funds of
the greater foundation. Thus the bursar’s rolls of the great priory
of Durham, for the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, show under
the head of customary alms--in addition to £5 4_s._ 8_d._ distributed
to the poor on Maundy Thursday, and £13 on the thirteen principal
feasts--a sum of about half a mark for shoes for the poor of the Domus
Dei or God’s House, and a furthur sum for a like purpose for five
widows of the hospital of St. Mary Magdalen. The actual almoner’s rolls
of the same priory of the fourteenth century and onwards show that
they maintained a great infirmary at Durham for the poor entirely in
their own management, £5 6_s._ being the annual charge merely for the
garments and shoes supplied to the inmates. There was also a hospital
at Witton, originally designed for lepers, which was managed and
supported by the Durham priory.

Like evidence can be readily produced all over the country. An
interesting item of practical charity in the West of England may
fittingly conclude these brief gleanings as to instances of monastic
charity. The priory of Bath supported the hospital that was designed to
help the poorest to the use of the city’s curative waters.

[Illustration: BYLAND ABBEY (Cistercian)]



One of the commonest and cheapest ways of abusing the religious, and
bringing monastic life into contempt, has always been to depict the
monk, and sometimes the nun, as usually given up to extravagant living
in the satisfying of the appetite for food and drink. The coarse ballad
of older times flung such charges broadcast, and today the tenors and
basses of high-class concerts continue to sustain popular delusions by
songs of “Simon the Cellarer” stamp. Moreover, the modern poster and
smaller advertisements appear to think that nothing tends so much to
increase the sale of wines and spirits as the often cleverly rendered
pictures of jovial monks tippling beer or sampling vintages amid
impossible surroundings.

The Devil, naturally enough, was ever ready specially to tempt the
monk, vowed to a limited dietary, to gluttony and drunkenness, and to
do his work on insidious and gradual lines. Now and again, in some
very rare cases, he succeeded; and occasionally a corrupt superior
infected for a time his flock until sharply pulled up by a visitation.
Such cases, though severely punished, could seldom be kept secret, and
the worldling, whose own conduct was rebuked by the generally high
level of the religious life, took an evil pleasure in retailing and
exaggerating the news. But on the whole, in days when there was much
proneness to coarse sins even among those of high position, the vowed
religious of England led exemplary lives, and occupied a decidedly
higher plane than the secular clergy. We do not take the rest of our
history from scurrilous writers of either prose or verse; the student
who attempted to do this would be laughed out of court; it is merely
the innate and perpetual hatred of the world for Christ that has made
many an historian, or writer of historical sketches, so ready to turn
aside from any patient study of the lives of those who tried specially
to deny themselves for the Master’s sake, and to accept cynical sneers
in the place of sober facts.

Perhaps a few plain statements with regard to the eating and drinking
of England’s religious may tend to dispel views that are far too common
even among those who have no desire unfairly to belittle the cloistered
life. A diet roll for the year 1492 that has been printed _in extenso_,
and was fully analysed by Dean Kitchin, yields interesting results
as to the fare at a large Benedictine house in the days when they
certainly fared better than in earlier periods. On Monday before
Christmas Day there were placed on the refectory tables of St.
Swithun’s for general consumption at the two meals, dishes of moile
made from marrow and grated bread, tripe, beef, mutton, calves-feet,
and 170 eggs. The cost of this food was 8_s._ 4_d._, or about £4 of our
money. On Christmas Day the fare was only a very little better, and
cost 9_s._ 6_d._; the dishes were seasoned vegetables, tripe, brose
or bread soaked in dripping, beef, mutton, and stew or onion broth.
On days of strict fast their fare that year was salt fish, relieved
by dried figs or raisins as an extra, and mustard. “The charge for
mustard, 1½_d._,” says Dean Kitchin, “runs through all the fast days;
it would appear that during the time of a meagre indigestible fish diet
the brethren needed something to warm and stay their poor stomachs.”

One or two remarks are necessary for the due understanding of
Benedictine diet-rolls, of which several are extant besides those of
Winchester. Although there were a variety of dishes, it was usual, save
on feast days, for the monk to partake of only one dish, though the
old as well as those in the infirmary were often allowed a pittance,
or something extra. The general method of serving was for two dishes
to be handed to or placed in reach of each; “if anyone cannot eat of
one dish let him eat of the other, if of neither they shall bring him
something else so long as it is not a delicacy.” The great quantity of
eggs used--eggs not being permitted as an addition to but instead of
meat--seems to prove that even in the somewhat easy-going house of
St. Swithun, towards the end of its days, the large majority of the
professed monks did not follow a flesh dietary but only those who were
dispensed. No. 39 of the old Benedictine rule strictly forbade flesh of
quadrupeds or of birds except to those who were genuinely weak or ill
(_omnino debiles et egrotes_); but this rule was afterwards relaxed by
general councils of the order.

A homely touch occurs in the refectory custumal of the monks of St.
Swithun’s, Winchester. The convent gardener had to find apples as
a slight relief to the severe fare of Advent and Lent on Mondays,
Wednesdays, and Fridays, save when some festival intervened. The
apples were distributed in numerical accordance, with due gradation,
to the monks in official position. It is to be hoped that they were
permitted to distribute the fruit within or without the house! The
prior, if present, had fifteen of the apples, the second prior ten, the
third prior eight, and so on with the rest of the obedientiaries or
officials. In recognition of his trouble in this respect the gardener
was to receive a conventual loaf on the first and last days of each of
these festivals.

In the same house cheese was provided daily in the refectory both at
dinner and supper, from Easter until Lent began. Butter was supplied
after a very limited fashion, namely on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and
that only from May 1st to September 14th.

The three reformed congregations of Benedictines, Carthusians,
Cluniacs, and Cistercians, all made a point of more rigid observance of
the dietary rule. The Carthusians adhered to the absolute and perpetual
refusal of every kind of flesh-meat right up to the dissolution; for
them it was never lawful even in times of the gravest illness. The
Cistercians, whose abbeys were so frequent throughout England, were in
the first instance rigid in prohibiting flesh save in the infirmary.
Their strictness in this respect in England for some time after their
establishment is well illustrated by the following fact. In June
1246, the new conventual buildings of the great Hampshire monastery
of Beaulieu were dedicated by the Bishop of Winchester at a function
which was attended by the King and Queen and by a large assembly of the
magnates of the realm. At the next visitation both prior and cellarer
were deposed from their offices because, even on a supreme occasion
of this kind, they had broken the rule by serving secular visitors
with flesh in the refectory. Early in the fifteenth century power to
dispense from this rule was granted for a time to Cistercian superiors;
but this worked badly, and in 1485 those who desired it (even if well
in health) might have meat three days in the week--namely, Sundays,
Tuesdays, and Thursdays, provided they took it in a separate chamber
built for the purpose, usually termed the _misericorde_, and not in the
refectory or fratry.

By some it was pleaded that the greater coldness of England, as
compared with the rest of Christendom, demanded a better diet; but
this notion did not commend itself to Gilbert of Sempringham, the
devout and yet very practical English founder of the essentially
English order that bore his name. In the guest-houses of the Gilbertine
foundations the canons were prohibited from ever eating or drinking
with their guests, unless it was an Archbishop or Bishop; and as it was
lawful to give obedience to a Bishop, if such a guest invited a canon
to eat or drink, he might do so once or twice to avoid discourtesy.
But even in the guest-houses no flesh was on any account to be served
save for an Archbishop, Bishop, or Papal Legate, or in the case of
real sickness. Supposing a Bishop required it, Gilbert laid down that
none of his canons or lay-brothers were to prepare the meat, but the
prelate’s own attendants, “for,” he adds, “in our houses nothing of the
nature of flesh or blood ought ever to be eaten save by the sick, nor
within the walls of the granges save by the sick and hired labourers.”

The remarkable series of obedientiary rolls of every kind pertaining
to the great Benedictine priory of Durham, which have recently been
printed for the Surtees’ Society in three volumes by Canon Fowler
(1898-1901), throw remarkably full light on the dieting of monks
in a great house whose funds were never lacking. The accounts are
exceptionally complete for the year 1333-4. The cellarer’s roll
contains each week’s expenditure for food. The roll begins with
the week after Martinmas, when the following were the cellarer’s
purchases:--1000 herrings, 6_s._ 9_d._; a horse-load of whiting,
4_s._; 7 salmon, plaice, and smelts, 4_s._ 2_d._; pork and veal,
9_s._ 0½_d._; 7 sucking pigs, 14 geese and 17 fowls, 7_s._ 4½_d._;
wildfowl, 3_s._; butter and honey, 10_d._; 48 fowls, 8_s._; and 700
eggs, 42_s._ 6_d._ The following are the entries for the week that
included Christmas Day:--8 horse-loads of whiting, 26_s._ 9_d._; 2
horse-loads of plaice, smelts, and lobsters, 17_s._ 1_d._; 2 turbots
and 1 salmon, bought in the town, 6_s._ 9_d._; veal, 3_s._ 2_d._; 68
fowls for gifts, 5_s._ 4_d._; 10 ducks and wildfowl, 9_s._ 9_d._; 4
stone of cheese and 4 stone of butter, 7_s._ 6_d._; and 12 fowls,
2_s._ 2_d._ There were no eggs bought in Christmas week, but in the
following week 900 were purchased. Throughout the whole of Lent the
weekly purchases were strictly confined to fish, not even eggs being
allowed; the week before Lent 900 eggs were bought, and in Easter week
300. It may here be mentioned that the eggs purchased by the cellarer
in the whole year amounted to 44,140. The purchases made in the second
week in Lent were:--9 horse-loads of whiting, bought at the seaside
and elsewhere, 43_s._ 6½_d._; 9 fresh salmon and 3 turbot, 26_s._
10_d._; and 27 crabs, plaice, smelts, and mussels, 6_s._ 7_d._ The
third week’s purchases were:--1000 red herrings, bought at Newcastle,
9_s._; 9 horse-loads of whiting, bought at the seaside and in the town,
55_s._ 9_d._; 2 salmon, 5_s._ 2_d._; 80 salt fish bought at Newcastle,
16_s._ 6_d._; and 140 salt mackerel and mussels, for the servants,
6_s._ 7_d._ Lent was evidently rigorously kept, for twice during the
great fast the prior entertained an earl and his household without
any change in the fish diet. This monastery was certainly fortunate
in being within easy distance of the best part of England’s fishing
coast. The Durham monks and their retainers and guests could always
procure a considerable variety of fish diet. During this particular
year, in addition to the varieties already named, the cellarer was able
to supply for the tables, whelks, kippers, cod, codling, trout, skate,
sturgeon, eels, lamprey, fresh herrings, and porpoise.

There must have been a very moderate and occasional use of both cheese
and butter; the year’s purchase of the former only amounted to 32 stone
2 lbs., and of the latter to 25 stone. Rice, which was imported in
large quantities from the East, has been mentioned as a pittance at
Winchester; on two occasions in the whole year it seems to have served
as a delicacy for a few at Durham, for there are two entries of the
purchase of 12 lbs. of rice.

When the number of mouths to be filled at this great monastery are
considered, it is obvious that the weekly purchases of the cellarer,
which averaged about £5 a week, must have been wholly inadequate
for the bare support of life. It is therefore a relief to find that
he had a well-stocked larder of salt flesh and fish to fall back
upon. In this year William Hexham, the cellarer, had in the larder
202 “Marts” or Martinmas cattle, killed and salted for winter and
subsequent consumption, some from their own manors, and others bought
at Darlington and elsewhere. A large stock of mutton, and occasionally
lamb, beef, and pork, was also received at intervals from the manors,
and now and again purchased, which was also salted down for larder
purposes. Moreover, upwards of sixty barrels of herrings, and 1000 cod
fish were bought to be salted as larder storage, as well as 205 dried
fish (probably large cod) for the servants.

This seems a mighty store; but how many were there to support? The
ideal number of monks for a large Benedictine establishment was
seventy, but it was seldom realised. We know the exact numbers at
Durham on various occasions; probably at this date it was sixty. Then
there were the chaplains, the lay-brothers, the singing boys, the
almonry boys, and a considerable number of paid servants of the house,
as well as those of the priors’ lodgings, and of the great and roomy
guest-house, and the monks’ infirmary. The cellarer had to provide food
for all these, as well as for the large infirmary outside the gates,
and to a considerable extent for a hospital in the town. Altogether,
the mouths that had to be provided for (inclusive of guests of all
ranks) may be safely estimated as averaging at least 250 a day. The
great guest-house, with its courtly sets of apartments (the principal
of which were termed the King’s chambers, the knights’ chambers, and
the clerks’ chambers) were frequently filled, and this irrespective
of humbler lodgings for middle-class folk and the poorer wayfarers.
Moreover, “the releefe and almesse of the hole Convent was alwaies open
and free, not onely to the poore of the citie of Durham, but to all the
poore people of the countrie besides.”--(_Rites of Durham._) During
1333-4, the King paid three visits to the priory, once accompanied by
the Queen. The King’s justices tarried with the prior when visiting
Durham; on one of these three occasions during this year they stayed at
the monastery for four days, and on another for a whole week. During
another whole week the prior entertained the members of his council;
visits were also paid by bishops and earls, on one occasion by two
bishops at the same time. The retinue of these distinguished visitors
was always considerable. It may also be remembered, when thinking
of the two hundred salted “marts” that found their way into the
larder during the year, and the carcases of sheep bought for salting
or occasionally for fresh use, that the cattle of those days were
decidedly smaller than what are now seen in butchers’ shops, whilst the
sheep resembled the small Welsh mutton.

It is no guess-work that the Durham cellarer provided all the necessary
food for the hostelries and for the prior’s table, or even an assertion
based upon the usual custom of Benedictine houses. It is testified to
in extant rolls. For this year, 1333-4, Brother Robert de Middleham
was hosteler, and his expenses show that he found--in addition to
wine, of which more anon--nothing save diverse special pittances
for guests and for prior, sub-prior and their companions, at diverse
special occasions, at the small cost of 21_s._ 3_d._; a pittance made
to the convent in the refectory on the first Rogation Day at the price
of 26_s._; and a pittance of 11_s._ 6_d._ provided for the chaplain
who heard the confessions in Lent of the parishioners of St. Oswald’s.
Everything else, even for kings, bishops, or earls, was provided by the
cellarer; and we find at the end of his roll, under the heading _Empcio
specierum_, various small purchases of almonds, pepper, saffron, mace,
cinnamon, sugar, rice, honey, figs, and raisins, of much of which it
is expressly stated that it was for the prior’s table. In later days
delicacies of confectionery were occasionally provided by the priory
cooks or purchased, such as anise comfit, madryan, gobett reall,
pinyonade, sugar-in-plate, chardecoyne, or geloffors, but always for
the guests.

So far as the Durham rolls are concerned, a close study of them proves
beyond doubt that the fare of these monks was (for the times in which
they lived, when meat was plentifully enjoyed by the poorest) simple
in quality, and moderate in quantity, and further, that the fasts were
most carefully observed. Neither in amount nor in variety of food did
the monks of Durham fare so well as the inmates of an average English
work-house of the present day.

A recent most capable historical writer (Miss Bateson) has said:
“At St. Albans the diet seems to have been very severe; it was an
innovation there in the thirteenth century to allow the sick in the
infirmary to have meat. It is clear from the detailed custumals of
Abingdon and Evesham that mutton and beef were not eaten in their
refectories, but bacon was generally consumed, and all kinds of fat.”

The pittance was an occasional relief to the usual strict dietary
in the way of some exceptional or extra food or delicacy. In some
monasteries, as at Durham, it was customary for the chief officials or
obedientiaries to give a pittance to the whole convent on some special
festival. In not a few monasteries there were special endowments
for certain pittances, usually of early origin. This is a matter of
decided interest in connexion with monastic fare; for it shows that
early benefactors were so impressed with the usual ascetic fare of
the religious that they desired to secure for them an occasional
alleviation. The word “pittance” has been by some, rather absurdly,
derived from _picta_, a small coin of Poitiers, imagining that it was
originally a dole of that value; but almost every monastic roll with
which we are acquainted spells it _pietancia_, and the true derivation
comes from _pietas_ and implies pity or commiseration. There are
lists of provisions made for pittances both on flesh days and fish
days at St. Albans in the second volume of the annals of that house
in the Rolls Series. In some houses it happened that a fashion set
in of giving lands or rents for pittances, and their very frequency,
as lands increased in value, and the sternness of rules of dietary
relaxed, became an embarrassment. In these circumstances the whole
question of the pittances required rearrangement, for it would have
been extravagant and luxurious to continue to use such funds according
to the primary intention of the pious founders. In such cases the whole
funds of this kind were sometimes put in the custody of a particular
obedientiary who expended them in accordance with the decision of the
chapter and visitor, and was himself termed the pittancer.

A good instance of this occurs in the later rolls of the abbey of St.
Benet’s, Holme, many of which are at the Bodleian, and have never been
published or printed. John Takylston was both prior and pittancer of
this abbey at the beginning of Henry VIII.’s reign. His accounts for
1511-12 show that his total receipts as pittancer for that year were £9
17_s._ 1½_d._, which would have been a monstrous sum to spend on extra
fare. In genuine food-pittance the only expenditure was in providing
figs and other fruit for the convent at a cost of 3_s._ 4_d._, and in
a sum of 12_d._ spent on peas and beans and butter, probably for some
tasty dish of vegetables specially cooked, for peas and beans had for
some time been considered only fit for cattle. The seven principal
feasts of the year were brightened by a very moderate expenditure on
wine; the total cost for the whole seven occasions was but 16_s._, and
as the monks of St. Benet’s then numbered twenty-three, the individual
consumption on each occasion, even if the wine was strictly confined
to the professed monks, must have been diminutive. Three definite
pittances, of early bequest, intended to provide an extra dish for
each inmate, were at this time commuted for money payments, each monk
receiving at different periods of the year the respective sums of
6_d._, 10_d._, and 12_d._, the abbot and prior both receiving double
the amount. Small sums of money for each religious to provide personal
necessaries, or to serve as pocket-money when on exterior service,
were not unusually allowed in the later days of English monasticism.
The considerable balance still left in the hands of this pittancer was
used in a variety of ways towards the relief of the needs of the house.
Thus the pittancer that year found his own clothes and the wages and
clothes of his servant; made payments for collection of rents, for
felling trees and making faggots for fuel, for mowing the grass of the
cloister-garth; discharged the abbey’s share of 33_s._ due to the King
as voted by Convocation, and the sum of 4_s._ as the abbey’s subsidy
to the general chapter of the Benedictines; paid for the repairing
of the glass windows of his own apartments, and the re-thatching it
with reed; and had withal 3_s._ left to distribute in alms during
Lent. Those who know the dreary swamps and general surroundings of St.
Benet’s will not be surprised that early benefactors desired to fortify
the inmates against damp and chills by the relief of a more generous
diet; and we cannot but admire the self-restraint and wise economy
that directed the superfluity of these pittances into other channels.
The Benedictines, in their practical dealings with the benefactions of
the piety or pity of former centuries, set an example which might with
profit be followed by modern Charity Commissioners.

This brings us to the consideration of what the religious drank. It
is scarcely necessary to say that the solace of tea, coffee, or cocoa
was utterly unknown to the monks and nuns of Old England. Water as
a regular beverage was almost equally unknown; home-brewed beer was
the usual drink that accompanied every meal. Most of the religious
formed no exception in this respect to the general rule. Beer-drinking
was accepted in England as a matter of course, and when we learn
occasionally of the limit allowed, it does not seem to err on the side
of niggardliness. Number 40 of the old Benedictine rule laid down
that an _emina_ of wine was to suffice for the day, save when extra
labour or the heat of summer made more desirable, in which case it was
left to the judgment of the Superior. Much discussion used to arise
on the continent as to the true interpretation of an _emina_, and it
was generally agreed that it meant about two-thirds of a pint of our
liquid measure. But so rarely was wine used in England that this rule
was but seldom required. Among the mitigations of the rule sanctioned
by the Pope for the English province, as cited in the customary of St.
Augustine’s, Canterbury, was the permission to drink “beer, which, as
the rule mentions no particular measure, may be had daily as commons
without any precise limit (_in communi sine taxacione aliqua_).” This
does not, of course, mean unlimited beer, but that it was left to each
house to regulate the quantity. The brewhouse was a general adjunct of
the outer conventual buildings; in the larger houses beer was brewed
in two qualities. The ordinary beer was very light. Pious Gilbert
of Sempringham, in his minute regulations, could scarcely imagine a
grosser or more awkward piece of carelessness on the part of the canons
who supplied the temporal needs of the nuns than a failure in beer.
In that portion of the Gilbertine rule that concerns itself with the
provision of beer it is laid down that: “For the avoiding of scandal,
if the nuns, having no beer, are obliged to drink water, it is only
just that the masters of the house who provide the supplies shall share
in their deprivation. Whenever the nuns, through the negligence or
carelessness of the proctors, have to drink water, the four proctors
are to associate themselves with them in their water-drinking, even if
on a journey or absent from the house, unless across the seas.”

[Illustration: BUILDWAS ABBEY (Cistercian)]

With regard to wine, irrespective of the much stricter dieted reformed
congregations, the ordinary Benedictine monk or the regular canon but
rarely tasted it, and only on special festivals or at times of illness.
Gilbert of Sempringham enjoined on his canons never to take wine unless
it was well watered. The higher class guests were responsible for
the lion’s share in the consumption of wine at the larger monasteries.
These houses served, _inter alia_, as inns, _minus_ the bills, for
the magnates of the land, including royalty, when on their travels.
For such visits they were usually well prepared. Those who study the
itineraries of our kings as gained from the date places of public
documents know how frequent was the entertainment of royalty within
monastic precincts. Even in Northamptonshire, where there were several
royal residences, kings sojourned with the Cistercians of Pipewell and
the White Canons of Sulby, as well as with the lordly Benedictines of

The wine for entertaining guests was in the joint charge of the abbot
or prior and the hosteler. In the already cited Durham hosteler’s
account for 1333-4 there occurs an expenditure of 35_s._ 10_d._ for
sixty-five gallons of wine, bought for the prior’s lodgings, for the
solar, and for the guests who attended at the time of audit. The
practice of giving wine at the time of drawing up the accounts, when
the bailiffs of different manors and other external officials attended,
was usual. Even the pittancer of St. Benet’s expended 8_d._ in wine
when his accounts were made. At Durham there were occasional large
purchases of wine, intended to last for some considerable time, and
there always appears to have been a good store. In 1299 nine casks
of wine were bought at Hull and seven at Hartlepool and Newcastle at
a cost, including carriage, of £36 7_s._ Just a century later the
bursar bought fifty-two gallons of red wine for the prior for filling
up a cask. When the Justices were entertained by the prior, certain
special and more costly wines were generally set upon the guest table;
thus in 1528-9, although £9 had been spent that year on ordinary red
wine, the bursar bought malmsey and claret in the town, at a cost of
20_s._, on an occasion when the Justices and the Bishop happened to be
among the prior’s guests. Wine was also offered to the confraters, or
well-to-do lay associates of the house, when they were admitted to the
confraternity, or when they visited the house. The _Rites of Durham_
expressly says of the prior that “for ther better intertaynement he had
evermore a hogsheade or two of wynes lying in a seller appertayninge to
the halle to serve his geists withall.”

Wine was probably always on the prior’s board, and would be set before
him when he dined in the refectory. Its use by the Durham monks at
large was rare in occurrence, and then in most moderate quantities.
A curious custom prevailed on St. Aidan’s Day (August 31st), when
wine and pears were provided for the whole establishment; the usual
amount was 900 pears and nine gallons of wine. The wine was of a cheap
light character, for on one occasion, when the separate price of this
pittance is given, the pears cost 2_s._ 9_d._ and the nine gallons of
wine only 6_s._ 6_d._ In 1413 four gallons and a pint of wine were
given to the convent on the feast of the Purification, at a charge of
4_s._ 1½_d._, entered in the almoner’s accounts. A small quantity of
wine was usually given to the novices in the common room on the day of
their profession.

The master of the conventual infirmary gave a pittance of spices and
wine to those in his department of the monastery on St. Andrew’s Day;
but he also regularly provided it for the sick and weakly in special
cases. The quantity used for this purpose was but small; for several
years in succession in the fifteenth century the infirmarian’s charge
for wine only amounted to 5_s._ or 6_s._; but perhaps this was the wine
for the altar of the infirmary chapel, that for the sick coming from
the cellarer’s stores.

The constant round of Masses in a religious house required a
considerable supply of wine. Though sometimes a succession of sacrist
rolls are found wherein there is no wine entry--in which cases the
church wine would come from the common store--it is usual to find
that the sacrist purchased specially for this purpose. At Durham, in
the fifteenth century, this officer’s roll for many years contains
the annual entry of a pipe of red wine for altar use. A pipe was 126
gallons, so that this works out at about three pints a day; from such
a quantity as this, when the great number of altars and Celebrations
are remembered, there could have been but little, if any, surplus.
Henry III. granted charters to the great Cistercian Abbey of Beaulieu,
and four of the other large monasteries of the south of England,
bestowing on each of them a yearly tun of wine, out of the prisage
wine of Southampton, for sacramental purposes. The sacristan of St.
Benet’s spent 26_s._ 8_d._ on wine for the church in the very year that
preceded the Dissolution.

About the most interesting wine entry in the whole of the voluminous
accounts of Durham priory is one on the roll of Adam of Darlington,
bursar, for the years 1355-6. Edward III. returned hastily from the
north of France in November, 1355; for whilst he was invading France,
the Scots invaded English territory and surprised Berwick. In January
Edward, in his turn, invaded and ravaged Scotland and recovered
Berwick. On his march to the north the priory sent forth one of their
monks, William de Masham, to join the King, in charge of the sacred
banner of St. Cuthbert, and with him he also took a pipe of wine. May
we not conclude that this was intended for the relief of the wounded on
the expected battle-fields?

The last monastic record relative to wine that shall be here named
tells of the self-denial of the monks of St. Albans. At a time when
funds were sorely needed for the rebuilding of the refectory and
dormitory, the monks agreed to forego their allowance of wine on
festivals altogether for fifteen years, the value to be added to the
building fund.



Seeing that a well-occupied life is always acknowledged to be the least
likely to fall into mischief and sin, the rule of St. Benedict--which
required a monastery to be, as far as possible, complete in itself,
equipped with workmen of every requisite trade and industry, and
independent of external supplies--was one of great wisdom. Prayer,
labour, and study, with brief occasional pauses for recreation and
rest, filled up the entire day. The Austin Canons were not bound to
manual labour like the monks; but in every well-ordered house of
regular canons the necessity for a full occupation of time was one of
the very first principles of the religious life. On the very eve of
the utter and violent overthrow of monastic life in England, when,
according to the average run of historians, religious life was in a
state of considerable decadence, the commissioners for dissolving
the Austin priory of Ulvescroft describe the canons as engaged in
“embrothering [illuminating] or writing bookes in a very fair hand;
making their own garments, carving, painting, and graffing; the house
keeping such hospitality that except by singular good provision it
would not be maintained; and the relief of the poor inhabitants.”

The continuous round of work with head or hand, blended with the
frequently recurring services of prayer and praise by night as well as
by day, regularly practised by those who were leading well-ordered,
disciplined, and chaste lives, served to produce not a few of the
finest characters that the world has ever known. Such as these were
brought into prominence by some adventitious circumstances, and
were but samples of thousands of others of equally pious life and
conversation, but unknown outside their own precincts or the area to
which their relief of the poor extended. The general attachment and
devotion of the religious to their own houses, wherein they found so
deep-seated and genuine a joy, and so true a knowledge of the higher
life in the midst of evils and turmoils that rent the world around
them, is not infrequently expressed in terms of almost ecstatic
delight by chroniclers who wrote from within the walls with no idea
of publicity. The genuineness of their utterances, after making due
allowance for the flamboyant exuberance of the Latinity of the day, is
amply shown by the freedom with which they at the same time commented
on the occasional littleness displayed by superiors, or still rarer
lapses from virtue. Thus, a fourteenth-century Cistercian monk
who wrote glowingly of the general peace and happiness within his
cloisters, and how the lives of his predecessors and contemporaries had
made the whole district into a valley odorous with the sweet flowers of
virtuous living, told a quaint tale of a recent abbot who would have
his own name stamped on the silver spoons given to the community by a
predecessor. There can indeed be no doubt that the great majority of
the religious of mediæval England led a well-occupied and busy life,
and found therein some measure of the true happiness they sought.

Montalembert, in an eloquent passage in his _Monks of the West_, when
writing of happiness in the cloister, cites about forty place-names
given in early days by the religious of France to their earthly homes,
which are expressive of the joy or heavenly delights they therein
experienced. Nor is England, considering its more limited area, one
whit behindhand in the selection of names for monastic sites that tell
more of gleams of spiritual joy than of mere natural beauty. Such
names were peculiarly dear to the stern Cistercians. It was the White
Monks who gave to Netley on the Southampton Water its first name of
Lutley or Place of Joy. Beaulieu was the title chosen for their house,
not only by the Cistercians of Hampshire, but by the Benedictines of
Bedfordshire, and by the White Canons of Sussex; whilst Beauvale, or
the Fair Valley, was the choice of the Nottinghamshire Carthusians,
Belvoir of the monks of the Leicestershire cell from St. Albans,
and Bella Landa, or Byland, of the Yorkshire Cistercians. To their
house near Leek the White Monks gave the name of Dieu l’Encresse, or
Dieulacres, and Gracedieu to their abbey near Dean Forest; the latter
title was also chosen by the Cistercian nuns of Leicestershire. One of
their Lincolnshire houses was known as Vaudey, a corruption of Valle
Dei. Both in Somerset and Cardigan these White Monks termed their home
a Vale of Flowers, whilst in Warwickshire they had the happy Valley of
Merevale. Mountgrace expressed the thankfulness of the Carthusian Monks
for their Yorkshire Charter-house, and the Austin Canons’ name for
their Norfolk cell at Heveringham was Mountjoy.

It is the aim, however, of these chapters to deal with facts in an
endeavour to dispel fictions, and not to rest on generalities or
vague assertions. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to admit that
scandals from time to time occurred within the cloisters in England as
elsewhere, and were indeed bound to do so as long as sin exists. Sin
cannot be walled out. It is wicked to gloat over sin, it is diabolical
to exaggerate it. There is no good in unnecessarily dwelling upon sin,
but there is also distinct evil in denying it. “It is better,” said St.
Gregory the Great, who was monk as well as Pope, “to have a scandal
than a lie.” That there were abuses must be frankly and honestly
admitted, but in that connexion it is well to recollect the bold and
vigorous writings of Lacordaire. “Abuse,” he writes, “proves nothing
against any institution; if it is necessary to destroy everything
subject to abuse--that is to say, of things which are good in
themselves, but corrupted by the liberty of man--God Himself ought to
be seized upon His inaccessible throne, where too often we have seated
our own passions and errors by His side.”

When undoubted monastic evils come to light through visitations, they
bring to mind a graphic story that was a favourite pulpit illustration
of that saintly French parish priest of last century, the Curé d’Ars,
showing the fierce and persistent temptations that beset the earnest
strivers. A hermit, who doubted of the reality of the powers of
darkness, had a prayer granted that he might for one day be able to
see these hidden forces. Taking a journey that day to a distant city,
mainly heathen, he had to pass a house of religious men of great
repute. To his horror he noticed devils hovering over the roofs, and
perched on every point of vantage on the walls, and at first thought
that it was a terrible abode of hypocrisy. But journeying on to the bad
city, and finding only one sleepy imp over the gateway, he realised
that Satan knows well the power of goodness, and how best to distribute
his forces.

We believe, with emphasis, after a close and absolutely candid study of
the whole of the episcopal act-books of several of our more important
English sees, and of a great variety of monastic records, as well as
of all that has been printed pertaining to England’s old religious
houses, that no unprejudiced person could possibly follow such a
line of study without coming to the conclusion that goodness of life
very largely predominated, and that the records of evil--all things
considered--were singularly few and far between. It also appears to
be well established that the general morality and uprightness of the
regular clergy was a good deal in advance--as it ought to have been--of
that of the secular clergy.

In proof of the last point a singular and quite novel piece of
evidence can be adduced. Hitherto but little attention has been given
by general, county, or local historians with regard to England’s old
forests, or royal wastes appropriated to sport, which were often of
vast extent and to be found in almost every shire. There is, however, a
very considerable store of documents, from King John’s time downwards,
dealing with the exceptional and somewhat severe forest legislation,
wherein are recorded the forest offences that were brought before the
Justices at the occasional sittings for Forest Pleas, and also at the
constantly recurring smaller courts of Swainmote or Woodmote. With
England’s forests the religious houses were most intimately associated.
There was not a single forest wherein several monasteries had not
particular and exceptional privileges conferred in early days by royal
charters--privileges that brought their inmates or their servants into
the closest connexion with these great game-stored preserves. Over
the great wild stretch of Peak Forest, Derbyshire, or certain parts of
it, the abbeys of Basingwerk, Beauchief, Darley, Dernhall, Dieulacres,
Leicester, Lillenhall, Merivale, Roche, and Welbeck, together with
the priories of Kingsmead, Launde, and Lenton all had rights. When
Forest Pleas were held and chartered claims had to be put in, it almost
invariably happened that those of monasteries far exceeded those of the
laity. Not only had the surrounding monasteries, and sometimes those at
a distance, particular rights, but, as a rule, there was at least one
religious house within the forest bounds, to say nothing of the granges
of more distant convents. Thus there was Ivychurch Priory in the centre
of the Wilts Forest of Clarendon, Flaxley Abbey in Dean Forest, Rufford
Abbey and Newstead Priory in Sherwood, Tutbury Priory in Needwood,
Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest, Pipewell Abbey in Rockingham Forest,
or Chertsey Abbey in the Forest of Windsor.

These rights, for the most part, referred to wood, sometimes permitting
the felling of all timber necessary for their conventual buildings,
churches, and farmsteads and fences, but more usually applying to
undergrowth or dead wood for fuel. One house might have the right to
send a horse and cart daily for a load of fuel, and another to do the
same once a week or fortnight. The agistment of cattle at certain
seasons and the pannage of swine were granted here and there, whilst
venison-rights were by no means unknown. Occasionally the abbot or
superior had certain rights granted him over the game or deer in a
chase bordering on a royal forest, as was the case with the abbot of
Whitby and Pickering Forest--a grant of much higher value than the far
commoner right of free-warren, which covered hares and rabbits, and
which pertained to a variety of manors. But such a grant as this did
not imply that the abbot sent his monks hunting through the chase.

Venison-grants, when made, usually took the form of a tithe of the
hunting. The tithe of the wild boars killed in Dean Forest went
to the abbey of St. Peter’s, Gloucester; the tithe of the deer
hunted in Pickering Lythe went to the abbey of St. Mary’s, York;
and that of Duffield Frith and Needwood to the priory of Tutbury.
As a result of these and like grants, venison pasties no doubt very
occasionally smoked on the common tables of those laxer monasteries
where flesh-eating was permissible; but, as a rule, the only venison
consumed within conventual buildings would be reserved for guests of
considerable distinction, or for use in the infirmary.

Next to charges of deep drinking, charges of hunting, poaching, and
venison-gorging have always been the commonest and most generally
accepted accusations against England’s religious. This notion was not
only one of the mainstays of ribald contemporary ballads, or used to
lend point to the rollicking jests of such writings as “Ingoldsby
Legends,” but has even been gravely endorsed and circumstantially
told both in the poetry and the prose of writers of repute. Now it
so happens that an opportunity of testing the truth of such charges,
after a dry legal fashion, has just recently occurred. It has long been
known that in the very few cases where hunting or deer-stealing of
any form came to the knowledge of monastic Visitors, it was severely
condemned and punished; but how about the general records of the
various forest courts, wherein “benefit of clergy” could not be pleaded
after the same fashion as elsewhere, and where clerks of every kind
were subject to presentment? Within the past twelve monks almost the
whole of the muniments at the Public Record Office have been overhauled
for an historical purpose altogether apart from any such question as
the one now under discussion. The proceedings of forest courts were
extraordinarily thorough, and screened none. The verderers who sat
in judgment at the smaller courts were elected by the freeholders in
county court, but subject to removal by the Crown; the foresters were
partly hereditary and partly Crown appointments; the reeves and four
chief men had also to attend from each township, as well as bailiffs
and jurors from each hundred in the forest precincts. Moreover, before
each Eyre or Forest Pleas before the Justices, a “regard” of the
whole forest was undertaken, which was a most thorough and exhaustive
investigation under many heads, carried out and duly scheduled by
twelve resident knights. Nor would there be any disposition, but the
contrary, to screen monks or canons, for they were often regarded with
keen jealousy by high-placed officials and seculars of influence.
From the temptations that lay at the very threshold of the majority
of the monastic houses--the inmates of many never being able to set a
foot outside their walls which was not on forest ground--and from the
genuine excuse that not a few would have of entering forest thickets
in search of fuel for their hearths and ovens, it might have been
naturally expected that the charges against them of venison-trespass
would be fairly frequent. But what is the case? Throughout the length
and breadth of England, in the extant forest documents extending over
several centuries, only three or four charges of venison-trespass
against the religious have been found, and about a like number for the
receipt of venison, or the harbouring of forest offenders. It is not
to be understood that the examination has been quite thorough, save
of a certain number of forests; but it is highly improbable that the
charges against monks or canons regular, if the search was exhaustive,
could not be counted on the fingers of both hands. And yet at the same
time the charges against rectors, vicars, or parochial chaplains, and
the heavy fines, sometimes exceeding a whole year’s income, are fairly
common. No charges have been noticed against the monks of Rufford or
the canons of Newstead, though both in Sherwood; and yet there was
hardly a parish pertaining to that forest whose rector or vicar was
not, at some time, convicted of deer-slaying with bow and arrows, or
with greyhounds.

Such a result as this may fairly be claimed as an official testimony to
the superior morality of the vowed religious in a matter wherein there
was often great laxity of principle and practice even among those of
high-standing and good position.



In accordance with the various Canons and Councils, both general and
particular, all English monasteries in pre-Norman times were subject
to the Bishop as visitor; but after the Conquest, when special houses
gained in power, and new or reformed congregations obtained a lodgment,
the diocesan’s right of visiting became materially abridged. Up to
their end all the English Benedictine houses of men or women, which
numbered about 200, were subject, save for a few exceptions, to the
Bishop. In fact, so great was the Benedictine influence in England
that no fewer than nine of the old cathedral foundations had monastic
chapters, whilst another one (Carlisle) belonged to the canons regulars
of St. Austin. In these cases, which were peculiar to England, the
Bishop was regarded as taking the place of the abbot, whilst the
acting superior of the house itself was only termed prior. All the
Austin houses, save one, were also subject to their diocesan. The
exempt Benedictine abbeys were Westminster, St. Albans, Bury St.
Edmunds, Battle, St. Augustine’s, Canterbury, and Peterborough; the
last named was, moreover, subject to the Primate. To these must be
added the Austin abbey of Waltham. In these cases the cumbrous and
costly custom prevailed of either very heavy fees or a journey to Rome
for confirmation; their exemption seems to have proved a hindrance to
discipline and good order.

[Illustration: LLANTHONY PRIORY (Austin Canons)]

The two great orders of the reformed Benedictines, the Cluniacs,
and the Cistercians--the latter of whom were a great power in
England--were free from diocesan visitation, and the appointment of
their superiors had not to be confirmed by the Bishop, though his
benediction was usually sought. The exemption in each of these cases
arose from the central houses, which were respectively at Cluny and
Citeaux, in Burgundy, obtaining general powers of visitation throughout
Christendom. The White or Premonstratensian canons, who were subject to
some extent to their central house at Prémontré in the diocese of Laon,
also obtained papal exemption from their diocesans, although it was
not unusual for the abbot and chapter-general of Prémontré to appoint
a Bishop as visitor-general of the whole of the English province. The
Gilbertines, as well as all houses of mendicant friars, were also

It thus came to pass that in certain dioceses where the Benedictines
or Austins were not very strong, the Bishop only visited a minority
of the religious houses of his diocese. It has sometimes been assumed
that these exemptions of whole orders conduced to disorder and
carelessness. Although it would seem that the episcopal supervision of
the diocesan of each religious house was on the whole most desirable,
the supposition of laxness in its absence cannot be sustained; and the
visitations made by the Commissioners of particular orders were, as a
rule, more regular in occurrence, and, for the most part, as searching
in character.

The customary time for visitations was once in every three years;
but in the cases where the diocesan was visitor the period was not
unfrequently deferred; though sometimes, in cases of delinquency,
repeated at much shorter intervals. The object of the visit was
twofold--namely, to ascertain the temporal as well as the spiritual and
moral conditions of the house. The former was a most important part of
the inquiry, for not only were houses taught to be as far as possible
self-contained, but in the days when funded property was almost
unknown, the very existence of the house depended upon the condition
of its pasturage and tillage, and the amount of cattle, grain, and
general stores for the sustaining of life. The visitor was received
with peculiar honour, met at the gates in procession, and conducted
to church and chapter-house. In addition to the usual services, the
Bishop preached a sermon in the chapter-house to the inmates, and his
secretary often entered the text in the brief entry of the visitation
made in the episcopal register--possibly with a view to check the
Bishop giving the like discourse on the next occasion. The Bishop,
with whom was generally associated some diocesan official as assessor,
began the visitation by asking for a report from the superior as to
the general condition of the house, both temporal and spiritual, and
as to the conduct of the inmates. Then the obedientiaries, or those
who held office, were called before him in due gradation, each one
being specially questioned as to the affairs of his own office. After
this each religious inmate, novices as well as the professed, was
called up in turn before the visitor, the examination being always
conducted severally and separately, so that the communication might be
unchecked and frank. All were expected to be absolutely open in their
declarations without fear or favour, and to conceal no evil of any kind
of which they were aware. Meanwhile the Bishop’s secretary took notes
of the evidence given by each. Where everything seemed going smoothly,
and there was no reason to suspect any hidden mischief, the visitor
sometimes allowed inmate after inmate merely to testify his _Omnia
bene_, or that all was well; on the contrary, the questions became
searching if there appeared to be any attempt at concealment.

It was difficult under such a system, not only for scandals to escape,
but even for the milder forms of disorder or laxity to avoid detection.

The most complete record of English monastic visitation is to be found
in a volume at the Bodleian, pertaining to Norwich diocese during
the episcopates of Bishops Goldwell and Nicke; it covers a period
of forty years, namely from 1492 to 1532. The number of religious
houses, exclusive of hospitals and collegiate churches, under episcopal
visitation in this diocese was 34; those that were exempt, including
thirty friaries, were 38. Details are given of 141 formal visits paid
to the religious houses of Norfolk and Suffolk, the actual statements
of each inmate being briefly recorded. In the large majority of cases
the visitor found that no reform of any kind was needed. Fifteen
visits, or about one in nine, brought to light matters that certainly
required mending, and for the reformation of which strict injunctions
were issued.

Out of thirty-four visits paid to the eight nunneries of the diocese,
one resulted in detecting a case of grievous sin, and there was a
painful scandal brought to light in one of the inspections of the
Austin canons of Westacre. By the end of the fifteenth century the
numbers had become much reduced through poverty in many of the houses
of East Anglia, particularly in the small settlements of Austin
canons. It is estimated that there were then in Norfolk diocese about
230 Austin canons, 120 Benedictine monks, and 80 Benedictine nuns.
There seems no reason whatever to doubt that the vast majority of
these were leading exemplary lives. As an evidence of the patience of
the visitor in hearing every kind of complaint, it may be mentioned
that the older nuns of Flixton complained to the Bishop of the mutton
served in the refectory being burnt, and the beer being too weak; the
further complaint as to the too rapid repetition of the psalter at the
offices would probably appeal to him as more worthy of the attention
of the diocesan. The whole of these visitations were printed a few
years ago for the Camden Society, under the capable editorship of
Dr. Jessopp. In commenting upon this valuable proof as to the real
condition of England’s religious houses just before their fall, the
learned editor cordially welcomes all possible publicity being given
to further documentary evidence from any known source, adding that
“... then it may happen that we shall be forced to confess that in the
sixteenth century there were creatures in human form who exhibited as
shocking examples of truculent slander, of gratuitous obscenity, of
hateful malignity, as can be found among the worst men of any previous
or succeeding age, but we shall have to look for them, not within the
cloisters, but outside them, among the robbers, not among the robbed.”

The Worcestershire Historical Society has done good service in printing
the important _Sede Vacante_ Register in the possession of the Dean
and Chapter of Worcester. When there was a vacancy in the see, the
spiritualities were administered by the Prior of Worcester, who then
had the right to visit both the parochial clergy and the religious
houses subject to diocesan control. This register covers all the
vacancies--sometimes extending over more than a year--between the death
of Bishop Giffard in 1301 to the enthronement of Bishop Bourchier
in 1435. During this period the prior, either in person or through
two commissioners, visited the episcopally-controlled monasteries,
eighteen in number, on eleven different occasions. Eighty-four of these
visits are duly recorded; only two of them revealed any special cause
of offence, one of them being at Wroxall nunnery and the other at
Studley priory. This voluminous register has been fully edited, with
prolonged introductions, by Mr. J. Willis Bund, chairman of Quarter
Sessions, etc.; a gentleman entirely free from mediæval proclivities.
Commenting on the usually received supposition of monastic immorality,
he considers that this register disproves such charges, and gives it
as his opinion that the English monastic clergy were not one bit more
immoral “than the secular clergy of the nineteenth century.”

The jests and jeers of cynical and satirical writers of mediæval
days, who were themselves usually men of depraved lives, as to the
supposed laxity of life of monks and nuns, based upon the actions
of a few degraded and disgraced religious, coupled with the foul
slanders of Henry VIII.’s self-interested tools, have so long succeeded
in saturating unreflective minds with scandal that it has become
difficult for even well-intentioned writers (who have made no personal
investigations) to escape from the evil and lying atmosphere with which
the whole subject has been so long surrounded.

A particularly fine and exhaustive topographical work has recently
appeared entitled _The Records of Wroxall_. Wroxall Priory,
Warwickshire, was a small house of Benedictine nuns with an interesting
history. In these pages full extracts are given (with one overlooked
omission) of all the visitations of the priory recorded in the
Worcester diocesan registers. The earliest of these is 1268, and the
latest in 1433. There are fourteen recorded visitations in all, made
either by the Bishop or by the prior of Worcester’s Commissaries
_sede vacante_, and in only three of the fourteen was any evil
detected--namely, in 1323, 1339, and 1410. Yet Wroxall is by far the
worst case of any nunnery in the Worcester diocese, so far as extant
visits are concerned. Its character was remarkably good on the eve
of its suppression. Henry VIII.’s own Commissioners of 1536, six in
number, reported that the nuns then numbered five with the prioress,
and were all “off good converssacion and lyvyng, and all desyer yf
the house be suppressed to be sent to other religious houses.” The
priory itself is described as “a propre litle house, and in convenyent
and good repaire.” The writer of this Wroxall book, who is evidently
not desirous to go beyond the truth, has failed to find a scrap of
evidence between the visitation of 1433 and that of 1536; and yet,
although not a breath of scandal is known to have rested on the nuns
of Wroxall since 1410, he actually ventures thus to libel the last
days of this house entirely out of his own imagination: “Idleness
had crept within its walls, together with the vices of the world; it
had become more a source of danger than a blessing to the community
itself and to the public outside.” Such an unsupported statement is a
blot on the book where it occurs, and it is cited here as a proof of
the usual unfairness of the average English mind, saturated with over
three centuries of reckless misrepresentation, when it approaches the
question of the vowed religious life.

During the vacancy between the death of Archbishop Morton in October,
1500, and the election of his successor in the following April,
the prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, asserted his right to hold
metropolitical visitations _sede vacante_. At this time the sees of
Winchester and Ely were also both vacant, and Dr. Hede, as commissary
of the prior, made a visitation tour of both dioceses. The results,
giving the details of the individual statements of the inmates, are
extant in a volume at Canterbury, which, it is hoped, may ere long be
printed. The record of this series of visits, unknown save perhaps
to half-a-dozen ecclesiologists, is of considerable value in bearing
remarkable witness to the general integrity of the religious houses.
Such evidence is all the more valuable, because of the obvious
thoroughness of the work undertaken by Dr. Hede; in a single case, the
large nunnery of Romsey, there was a sad scandal, and the investigation
led to the dismissal of the abbess.

With regard to the visitations scattered throughout episcopal
registers, the few who are acquainted with the whole series of these
act-books will agree--and they only are competent to judge--(1) that
only those cases where injunctions were issued are entered in any
detail, in order that it might be seen whether the _reformanda_ were
carried out; (2) that where injunctions on one or two points were
required, it was usual for the Bishop’s official to introduce a variety
of customary decrees, which were for the most part a summary of the
salient points of the general rule, and which were considered suitable
for the admonition of the religious all over the country; (3) that
allowance must always be made for the stilted and hyperbolical phrasing
of official ecclesiastical Latin--a fact universally admitted by all
mediæval scholars; and (4) that incidental mention is made in these
registers of a very great number of visitations taking place of which
there is no detailed record, and in which it is but common sense to
conclude there was nothing to redress.

To these reflections may be added the caution that ought to be obvious
to everyone of intelligence, that the object of a visitation is to
detect laxity and possible evil, and not to record devoutness and good
discipline. To judge of the bulk of the religious from a few given up
to bad living, and who were heavily punished for their misdeeds, is as
monstrous and childish as it would be to condemn the inhabitants of
some given area by the actions of the minute minority who figure in the
police-court records.

So far as the visitation of monasteries by delegated ecclesiastics
from the parent house is concerned, we are not aware of any general
record of that character having come to light, either at home or on
the continent, with regard to the Cistercians. As to the visitations
of English Cluniac foundations, Sir G. F. Duckett did good service in
printing a great amount of matter of the thirteenth century, together
with some of later date, from the original records in the National
Library at Paris. As these important visitations have recently been
the subject of controversy, it is not necessary to allude to them
any further, save by saying that it is best to consult Duckett’s two
volumes in Latin, rather than the abbreviated English rendering; and
that they cannot possibly fail to carry conviction to every unjaundiced
mind of the good lives that were on the whole led by the monks under
alien rule amid circumstances of peculiar difficulty.

The Royal Historical Society has lately printed the first of two
volumes entitled _Collectaneæ Anglo-Premonstratensia_ by Abbot Gasquet,
which are devoted to the contents of an original register of the order
of White Canons, in the Bodleian and other documents in the British
Museum. The second volume will contain also details of Richard Redman’s
visitations of all the English Premonstratensian houses. Redman was
originally Abbot of Shap, Cumberland. In 1478 he was nominated by the
Abbot of Prémontré to be vicar of the English province; at that time he
had been already Bishop of St. Asaph for ten years, and thence he was
successively translated to Exeter and Ely, dying Bishop of Ely 1505.
He remained visitor of the Premonstratensians till the time of his
death. Redman’s visitation register, well known to the writer of these
chapters, shows that there was often much to correct; but the houses
far oftener could show a clean bill of health, and where there was evil
it only affected one or two individuals. It will also be found that the
punishment of the guilty was usually most genuine and severe.

For serious sins Redman’s usual punishment was forty days _gravioris
culpa_, with the further penance of being sent to another house of
the same order for seven years, during which long period the offender
was under a certain amount of particular discipline and observation,
and never allowed to leave the precincts. The chief points of the
preliminary forty days’ punishment were:--To sit alone in the refectory
on the ground at meal-times, with bread and water as the only fare;
to lie prostrate at the entrance to the choir when the canons were
entering or departing at the various hours; to be spoken to by no one;
and to be excluded from the Communion.



Moved, as he chose to assert, with a desire “to purge the Church from
the thorns of vices and to sow it with the seeds and plants of virtue,”
Henry VIII., the most immoral and covetous king that England has
ever known, determined towards the end of 1534 to take active steps
to secure the suppression of the religious houses. The Supreme Head
Act of that year had conferred visitatorial powers on the Crown. For
this purpose Henry appointed Thomas Cromwell as his Vicar-General,
suspending meanwhile all episcopal or other forms of visitation. This
absolutely unscrupulous minister, well worthy of the king who appointed
him, and who never lost an opportunity of obtaining bribes in money,
goods, leases, or estates, had the fullest authority and jurisdiction
conferred upon him, with power to visit and exercise such control
through his appointed commissaries. The visitation of Cromwell’s agents
began in August, 1535, and extended to February, 1536. The chief
visitors were the notorious Legh, Layton, and London. They had not
completed the visitation of the Northern Province when Parliament met,
but reports were forwarded to Cromwell of the visited houses, both
small and great. They had also during this period managed to frighten
some houses into making “voluntary surrenders,” and, by imposing a
series of harsh and unreasonable injunctions, had endeavoured to drive
out the remainder. Legh, writing to Cromwell with reference to these
injunctions, had no hesitation in showing his hand: “By this ye see
that they shall not need to be put forth, but that they will make
instance themselves, so that their doing shall be imputed to themselves
and no other.” In March 1536 a bill for the dissolution of the smaller
houses under £200 a year was introduced and forced through Parliament
by royal threats--“I hear that my bill will not pass, but I will have
it pass, or I will have some of your heads.” About 400 houses then
fell; the superiors receiving pensions, and the monks, notwithstanding
their alleged depravity, obtaining admission to the larger houses or
leave to act as secular priests. This first suppression was hateful to
the majority of English folk, save those who profited by the spoils,
and brought about the Pilgrimage of Grace, with the execution of twelve
abbots, as well as many monks and sympathetic laymen of all ranks.

The main excuse for this step in the general suppression was the report
of Cromwell’s visitors as to the condition of the monasteries. This
was the infamous _Comperta_, a pestiferous document of unrivalled
mendacity and malignity, which for three-and-a-half centuries
surrounded the memory of the latter days of England’s religious
with a miasma of noxious effluvia. If any unscrupulous or hasty
controversialist desires to think evil of monks and nuns, he will
herein find a surfeit of garbage. But with the printing of the Domestic
State Papers, and the revelations therein afforded of the character
of the visitors as displayed in their own letters, the falsity of
most of their statements has been manifested beyond gainsaying. Dr.
Gairdner’s cool judgment in editing the official Letters and Papers of
Henry VIII.’s reign gave the first definite blow to the possibility
of placing any reliance on the _Comperta_ documents, as they are
flatly contradicted in so many places, and are obviously incredible in
others. Abbot Gasquet has further exposed their worthlessness after a
masterly and searching fashion; but it has been reserved for scholarly
members of the Anglican communion, such as the late Canon Dixon and
Dr. Jessopp, to denounce the authors of the monastic Black Book in
terms of extraordinary but justifiable severity. In short, it would
not be possible for anyone of a decently-balanced mind--we care not
whether he is English Catholic, of the Roman obedience, nonconformist,
or agnostic--to make a careful documentary study of the times of the
suppression of the monasteries of this country, without rising from
the task with a feeling of almost unqualified disgust for the actual
visitors, and of indignation with a king and a minister who could use
such miscreants as their tools.

“When the Inquisitors of Henry VIII. and his Vicar-General, Cromwell,”
writes Dr. Jessopp, “went on their tours of Visitation, they were men
who had had no experience of the ordinary forms of inquiry which had
hitherto been in use. They called themselves Visitors; they were,
in effect, mere hired detectives of the very vilest stamp, who came
to levy blackmail, and, if possible, to find some excuse for their
robberies by vilifying their victims. In all the _Comperta_ which have
come down to us there is not, if I remember rightly, a single instance
of any report or complaint having been made to the Visitors from anyone
outside. The enormities set down against the poor people accused of
them are said to have been confessed by themselves against themselves.
In other words, the _Comperta_ of 1535--6 can only be received as the
horrible inventions of the miserable men who wrote them down upon
their papers, well knowing that, as in no case could the charges be
supported, so, on the other hand, in no case could they be met, or were
the accused even intended to be put upon their trial.”

On another occasion, when criticising minutely Legh’s reports of the
Papist houses, the same scholar says:--

“This loathsome return bears the stamp of malignant falsehood upon
every line, and it could only have been penned by a man of blasted
character and of so filthy an imagination that no judge or jury would
have believed him on his oath.”

Such testimony is all the more remarkable, for Dr. Jessopp tells us
that few men in their early days had the current views against the
monks more firmly fixed in their minds, and few had more difficulty in
surrendering them under the stern pressure of historic facts.

The _Comperta_, or abstracts of minutes drawn up by the visitors,
are almost entirely concerned with questions of morality; lists of
offenders were compiled, with the charge against the name. The charges
are absolutely unsupported, as a rule, by a shadow of evidence,
save that the odious sins are said, absurdly enough, to have been
voluntarily confessed by the culprits.

What was the character of the chief visitors, on whose word the average
uneducated Protestant is still inclined to believe in all that is
odious against both monks and nuns? Cromwell himself was steeped in
peculation and in the giving and taking of bribes. All England knew
that he had his price for everything, great or small; his own papers
reek with it; and when he fell so suddenly, and earned a well-merited
scaffold death, his selling offices and grants “for manyfold sums of
money” was one of the chief charges against him.

As with the master, so with the men.

Visitors Legh and Layton, and, in a smaller degree, those less busy
visitors London and Ap Rice, were only too ready to extort money from
the houses on which they reported, and to appropriate all they could or
dared of the confiscated spoils. The evidence of this is overwhelming.
Dr. Gairdner, writing some years ago in his preface to the tenth volume
of the Calendar of Letters and Papers, expressed the guarded opinion
that “we have no reason, indeed, to think highly of the character of
Cromwell’s visitors;” and since then very much more evidence has come
to light.

Layton--a man from the ranks, and entirely dependent on Cromwell’s
favour and support, to whom he showed a blasphemously expressed
servility--lost no opportunity of obtaining and extorting bribes.
Moreover, he was ever ready to sacrifice truth to please his masters;
and wrote filthy suggestions and coarse jests with obvious relish.
Cromwell rewarded him with much ecclesiastical preferment, which
included the deanery of York. He utilised his position by pawning the
cathedral plate, which the Chapter had to redeem after his death. He
died at Brussels in 1545; England became apparently too warm a place
for him, for he pestered Cromwell to get him “placed beyond the seas.”

Of Legh we have a vivid picture drawn by his occasional
assistant-visitor, Ap Rice. He was a young man of “intolerable
elation,” and of an “insolent and pompatique” manner. He dressed
himself after a most costly fashion. At his visitations he was
accompanied by twelve liveried attendants; he bullied and browbeat the
Superiors, rating certain abbots most roundly for not meeting him at
the abbey gates, even when they had had no intimation of his visit.
The almost open way in which he extorted heavy fines, passed to his
private account, was systematic. His accusations and bullyings went so
far that his colleague Ap Rice felt constrained to write a protest to
Cromwell, but he implored Cromwell to keep his communication private,
as otherwise he felt confident that he would receive “irrecoverable
harm” (a euphemism for murder) from “the rufflers and serving men”
by whom Legh was surrounded. Legh took equal delight with Layton
in telling coarse tales which were his own invention. Sanders, the
Roman Catholic historian, does not hesitate to lay still more serious
accusations against him. As a reward for his unhallowed zeal, Legh was
made master of the Hospital of Sherburn, co. Durham, an office which
he disgracefully abused, to “the utter disinheritance, decay, and
destruction of the ancient and godly foundation of the same house,” as
was stated in depositions made in 1557 before a Commission of Inquiry.

Ap Rice himself, the accuser of Legh, had been in certain grievous
trouble, was abjectly subservient to Cromwell, and was obviously, from
his own letters, willing, nay eager, to give his reports the necessary

Dr. London, who made for himself a greater reputation as a spoiler than
a maligner of monasteries, and who was particularly cruel towards the
friars, held considerable preferments. He was canon of Windsor, dean
of Osney, dean of Wallingford, and from 1526 to 1542 warden of New
College. London also distinguished himself as a visitor of nunneries,
a position for which he was eminently unfit through the coarseness of
his life. Archbishop Cranmer calls him “a stout and filthy prebendary
of Windsor.” “I have seen complaints,” writes Bishop Burnet, “of Dr.
London’s soliciting nuns.” His after-life was peculiarly odious; he was
put to open penance for double adultery with a mother and daughter; and
being subsequently convicted of perjury had to ride with his face to
the horse’s tail through Windsor, Reading, and Newbury, and was then
committed to the Fleet prison, where he died in 1543.

Another reason for distrusting the report of the visitors, even if
their letters and other extant disproving documents did not exist, is
the hasty nature of their visits. Is it for one moment credible that
these two or three men, in those days of difficult locomotion, could
have made any true examination into the affairs and morality of some
10,000 monks and nuns in less than six months? The rough estimate of
the religious of those days is usually put at 8000; but it is forgotten
that the visitors’ injunctions ordered the instant dismissal of the
inmates under twenty-four years of age, as well as those who had been
professed under the age of twenty; so that about 2000 more would be
driven out by Legh and Layton and their colleagues, without a fraction
of pension, in addition to the 8000 still resident when the actual
suppression was enforced.

Bad as are the reports of the extant _Comperta_, there was a limit
even to the eager credulity or the lying imagination of the visitors.
For very shame’s sake in many cases, particularly where the house was
under the patronage of some highly-placed nobleman, such men as Legh
and Layton could not, or dare not, allege any grave misconduct. Out
of 155 houses on which they report, 43 escaped with no reflection on
their morality. In the visited dioceses a number of houses are not even
named, presumably, as Dr. Gairdner thinks, because there was nothing
to say against them. Even in the numerous houses where gross evil was
reported, the charges were only levelled, on the average, against a
decided minority.

Happily, however, for the general and particular character of England’s
religious houses and their inmates in the sixteenth century, it was
found to be impossible to carry out the work of suppression of even the
smaller houses on the vague charges of the visitors, who had confined
themselves, for the most part, to scandal and slander, and had made no
regular financial statements.

On the passage of the Bill for suppressing those foundations under
£200 a year, in the spring of 1536, only a few months after the
completion of the visitors’ _Comperta_, the Crown issued a commission
to report on the number of professed inmates and their dependents,
and the “conversation of their lives,” together with a statement as to
the income, debts, and condition of the buildings. The commissioners
were to be six in number for each district--three officials, namely,
an auditor, the receiver for each county, and a clerk; whilst the
remaining three were to be nominated by the Crown from “discreet
persons” of the neighbourhood. The returns of these mixed commissions
for the counties of Huntingdon, Leicester, Rutland, Sussex, and
Warwick, with a condensed form for Lancashire, were known to exist
when Dr. Gairdner issued the Calendar dealing with the documents
of 1536. Some of the very houses against which Legh and Layton had
breathed forth their pestilential tales were found by the second set of
visitors--who were not Cromwell’s tools, but now that their suppression
was resolved the Crown cared little or nothing whether the moral report
was good or bad--to be “of good and virtuous conversation,” and the
whole tone of the reports is for the most part so favourable that Dr.
Gairdner remarks: “The country gentlemen who sat on the commission
somehow came to a very different conclusion from that of Drs. Layton
and Legh.”

A few years after Dr. Gairdner had thus expressed himself, Abbot
Gasquet came upon the reports of the mixed commissions relative to the
religious houses of Gloucestershire (and city of Bristol), Hampshire,
Norfolk, Suffolk, and Wilts, which had been misplaced. Those for
Norfolk have been printed by Dr. Jessopp in the _Norfolk Miscellany_,
those for Hampshire by Dr. Cox in Volume II of _Victoria County History
of Hants._, and the whole of them by Dr. Gasquet in the _Dublin
Review_ for April, 1894. Space forbids mentioning more than that house
after house is named as “of good conversation,” “of good religious
conversation,” “of honest conversation,” “of convenient conversation,”
“of very good name and fame,” or “of virtuous living.” Occasional
defaulters from a virtuous or orderly life are named, which make the
generally favourable reports all the more valuable. The extant reports
deal with 376 religious men and women; of this number only twenty-two
men and three women are noted as not of good repute. The great relief
that the houses were to the poor and distressed of the district is
mentioned time after time by the commissioners, who were occasionally
bold enough to beg for the continuance of a particular foundation.

The foul charges of Legh, Layton, and their colleagues had served
their turn; many copies of the abstracts of their minutes were made
for circulation, several of which are still extant, and amid the odium
of these malignant lies the suppression of the monasteries became
possible. But it is quite clear that those in power believed in their
hearts the reports of the mixed commissions of officials and country
gentlemen instead of the egregious tales of Cromwell’s tools. Had the
charges made in the first visitation been accepted as true, it is quite
impossible to believe that the guilty ones would have been pensioned,
as was so frequently the case. Thus it can be proved that out of
twenty-seven nuns accused of incontinence seventeen were pensioned.
Various Superiors accused by the first visitors of criminal offences
were afterwards given high secular preferment in the Church.

One of the specially bad cases, if Legh is to be believed, who visited
the house on 29 September, 1535, was Chertsey Abbey; he reported that
seven were incontinent, four guilty of unnatural sin, and two apostate.
The house at that time only consisted of an abbot and fourteen monks,
so that there were but two of virtuous life! Two years later Chertsey
was surrendered. The fickle King at that time was establishing “King
Henry VIII.’s new monastery of Holy Trinity, Bisham,” to consist of an
abbot and thirteen Benedictine monks, who were to pray for the King and
Queen Jane. To this short-lived new foundation Henry VIII. actually
transferred the abbot of Chertsey and his whole convent in their
entirety, although Legh two years before had solemnly reported them to
be the foulest set of monks that he had anywhere discovered! The King
had wit enough to use the lies of his first set of visitors to further
his own covetous ends; but he could never have done more than pretend
to credit them.

Among all the foul scandals set afloat by the King’s first visitors,
and afterwards supported by the discredited Bale, none was worse than
that charged against the last abbot of St. Augustine’s, Canterbury,
John Essex (alias Vokes). Another of the monks, who was incriminated
with his superior, was John Digon, the last prior of the house. If the
odious charges had been true, it is hardly possible to believe that
they would have been pensioned; but recently a strong piece of evidence
has unexpectedly been brought to light through Abbot Gasquet drawing
attention, in the _Downside Review_, to a small volume published in
1590 by Thomas Twyne, a learned doctor of medicine, containing a Latin
tract by his father, John Twyne, the celebrated antiquary. It is
entitled _De rebus Albionicis Britannicis atque Anglicis Commentariorum
libri duo_. In the introduction we are told that John Twyne, who
died in 1581, and left this tract behind him relative to the early
antiquities of this island, was in the opinion of competent judges a
most learned man. But it is the form in which the treatise is drawn
up, and not the actual contents, that is of so much interest from a
monastic standpoint. It is cast in the shape of a conversation supposed
to be held between Abbot Essex, Prior Digon, and Nicholas Wotton,
the first Dean of Canterbury after the ejection of the monks, a man
of brilliant gifts. Though the conversation is imaginary, John Twyne
tells his son that he had often heard these three men carry on similar
learned discussions, and was evidently on terms of intimacy with them.
The son entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1560, and this
treatise was written for his information when on the eve of proceeding
to the University. Had two of these men been odious reprobates, the
father could not possibly have held them up to his young son as models
of good scholarship. Moreover, he goes out of his way to praise
them in no slight terms, telling his son that “above all the many
people whom I have ever known I have especially revered two, because
in their days they were above all others remarkable for the high
character of their morals (_morum gravitatem summam_), and for their
remarkable acquaintance with all antiquity; they were, if you know
not already, John Vokes and John Digon. The first was the most worthy
(_dignissimus_) abbot, and the second the most upright (_integerrimus_)
prior of the ancient monastery of St. Augustine.”[A]

When the time comes for the writing of a true and fearless Life
and Times of Henry VIII. (a monarch who has been aptly dubbed “the
professional widower”) by some thorough and conscientious student of
history, there can be no reasonable doubt that Canon Dixon’s statement
will be amply substantiated when he wrote:--“I am inclined to believe
that in the reign of Henry VIII. the monasteries were not worse, but
better, than they had been previously, and that they were doing fairly
the work for which they had been founded.”

Be this as it may, the time has surely come for all educated English
Churchmen to cease to gird at monks and nuns, or to sneer at the vowed
life; for it is to such as these that England owes its conversion to
the Faith, whether we think of the Celtic missionaries from the North,
or of St. Augustine and his forty companions from the South--all
trained in the “School of the Divine Service.”

[A] Those who wish to see this exceedingly rare book for themselves,
and to read other particulars of the last abbot, may like to know that
there is a copy at the British Museum, press-mark 600, _b_, 47.



Altogether apart from the outrageously scandalous way in which the
suppression of the English monasteries was carried out--a fact that any
historian worth his salt is now bound to admit--it is a wholesome sign
of the times to find that English Churchmen are gradually coming round
to a general acceptance of the religious and social blessings that came
to this country through monasticism during the many centuries in which
it played so important a part in the national life. This is certainly
the estimate formed by those amongst us who study the history of the
vowed religious life with sober devoutness. There are few churchmen of
the immediate past whose judgments can be followed with more implicit
trust than the late Dean of St. Paul’s; and there are none among our
living churchmen, who, from patient research, are more capable of
uttering a reliable opinion on monasticism than the present Dean of

Dr. Church penned a beautiful and comprehensive chapter on the
discipline of a Norman monastery in his _Life of St. Anselm_. From it
we borrow a single paragraph:

“In an age when there was so much lawlessness, and when the idea
of self-control was so uncommon in the ordinary life of man, the
monasteries were schools of discipline; and there were no others. They
upheld and exhibited the great, then almost the original, idea, that
men needed to rule and govern themselves; that they could do it, and
that no use of life was noble and perfect without this ruling. It was
hard and rough discipline, like the times, which were hard and rough.
But they did good work then, and for future times, by impressing on
society the idea of self-control and self-maintained discipline. And
crude as they were, they were capable of nurturing noble natures,
single hearts, keen and powerful intellects, glowing and unselfish

Dean Kitchin, when commenting on the division of administration among
the obedientiaries or office-holding monks of St. Swithun’s, writes:

“It must never be forgotten that this organisation of offices within
the convent was useful in its best days. Where in the whole world of
the thirteenth century can we meet with so completely framed and active
a system as that of a Benedictine House? Not, certainly, in the feudal
castle, with its fierce warrior-lord and turbulent horde of ‘devils,
not men,’ as the English Chronicle calls them; not in the mediæval
city, with powers and privileges still uncertain and precarious, though
there was here, perhaps, a nearer parallel than elsewhere; not even in
King’s courts, which came and went, and had not yet developed their
complete _chancellerie_, nor had learnt the importance of ministers
and departments of administration. In a well-ordered monastery, with
its eighteen or twenty obedientiaries, life went on smoothly and
prosperously. There only were the divisions of time fully understood,
and the importance of time appreciated; there only were the departments
of work, the directions of industry, carefully marked out; there
too the main principle of official responsibility began early to be

As to “the stories of corruption and immorality on which sinful minds
have ever fastened greedily,” writes the Dean in another place, “they
have attracted far more than a fair amount of notice and attention, and
have given the excuse for those interested and truthless persons, who,
in the Reformation time and in later days too, have thought to honour
God by blackening wholesale the monastic character. _Deo per mendacium
gratificari_ is still far too often the guiding line of many a polemic,
who tries to win his battle by flinging dirt in the faces of his
opponents.... In these respects the brethren at St. Swithun’s may look
the world in the face without fear.”

It is not within the province of an English Churchman to deal with
the maintenance of monasticism on our shores by those of the Roman
obedience, save to say that its flickering stealthy flame survived
continuously in glimmers of light in spite of bitter and now obsolete
statutes; and further to note that the oppressive action that drove
large numbers of “religious” men and women from France to England a
century ago has been renewed in recent days. Those most competent
to judge have no hesitation in believing that the various orders
of religious men and women of the Roman communion in this country
are doing an inestimable service--educational, charitable, and
spiritual--to those of their own faith. Our best literary critics
recognise too the genuine work that not a few are doing in elucidating
history, and in other ways adding to the general sum of human
knowledge; whilst all Englishmen can well afford to be proud of the
attainments and researches of Dr. Gasquet, the abbot-president of the
English Benedictines.

With regard to the marvellous growth of community life in the Church of
England during the past half-century, it is only necessary to consult
the pages of the _Official Year Book_. In the issue for 1904, seven
closely-printed pages are occupied with terse accounts of the houses
and work of Sisterhoods living under the vowed life, whose members are
the very salt of the Church in their devotion to the religious life and
to the discharge of corporal works of mercy.

As to Brotherhoods, the growth has been steady; whilst certain rash
attempts to establish communities of men have had but an ephemeral
existence, others (notably the Cowley Fathers, the Order of the
Resurrection at Mirfield, and the Society of the Sacred Mission) are
doing a noble and apparently an abiding work.




  Italicized text is surrounded by underscores: _italics_.

  Superscripted characters are preceded by a carat character: y^e.

  Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.

  Inconsistencies in hyphenation have been standardized.

  Archaic or variant spelling has been retained.

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