The Ledger Book of Vale Royal Abbey. Originally published by Manchester Record Society, Manchester, 1914.
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The Ledger-Book or "Green Book" of the Cistercian Abbey of Vale Royal in Delamere Forest appears to have been lost in comparatively recent times. It was in the possession of Thomas Marbury of Marbury in 1658, when the historical portion of it, forming Part I of the present volume, was copied from it to be printed in Dugdale's Monasticon. In 1662 it was at Sir Thomas Mainwaring's at Peover, though it is not clear that he was the owner, and from it was made the transcript now preserved in the British Museum as Harl. MS. 2064. Seventy years later, according to Tanner, the original was at Vale Royal. Another transcript is said to have been owned by the Duttons of Dutton, but nothing is now known of it.
The copy made in 1662 is therefore the only one available. It is the work of Randle Holme III, and numbered by him AAA. It was the second part of a larger work, and the list of "Things of note in this book" at the beginning proves that some thirty folios have been lost, for the numbering began at 211 originally, whereas the first numbered folio is now 241. The lost portion related to the colleges and chantries in Cheshire suppressed at the Reformation. The "coppy of Vale Royall Leger book" occupies folios 241 to 301; at folio 306 begins a series of Stanlow Abbey charters, many of them from the original deeds, drawings of the seals being added.
The transcriber did not perform his task well, so that there are numerous difficulties in his text; but Mr. John H. Cooke of Northwich obtained a careful translation of it from Miss Ethel Stokes, and has generously placed it at the disposal of the Record Society. It is this translation of Holme's transcript which is now offered to the members of the Society.
Holme carefully noted the folios of the original in making his
copy, but unfortunately that is not enough to enable us to reconstruct the original. The Ledger-Book appears to have been begun
in the time of the fifth abbot, Peter, perhaps about 1338, and its
plan is set forth clearly in the title. There were to be three
I. A history of the abbots;
II. An account of the various pleadings, &c., in which the abbey had been involved;
III. A collection of the papal bulls conferring special privileges upon the Cistercian Order.
The account was intended to be systematic, and therefore numerous blank folios were left to allow of later documents being entered in their right places. Such later records have indeed been inserted, but no order was observed, and the volume is in the greatest confusion.
Hence in preparing the translation for the press some alteration was necessary, for the convenience of the student. On the other hand, it is the obvious duty of a Record Society to print the records as they have come down to us. The compromise here adopted will, it is hoped, meet with approval, as reducing the necessary transpositions to a minimum. The order of the original design has been followed, and the first part therefore contains the history of the monastery under its first abbots, being folios 6/243 to 11d/248d of the Holme MS. The second part contains records of disputes, revenues, and other matters touching the possessions and rights of the abbey, being folios 11d/248d to 46d/283d of the original, to which are added the miscellaneous documents entered in the beginning on folios 4/241 to 5d/242d, and at the end on folios 57d/294d to 64/301. The confusion in this part may be remedied to some extent by the use of the table of contents; the index will enable a complete survey to be made. Among the more important documents are the account of income in 1336, the rental of the abbey, the records of the customs of Darnhall and Over, and the account of the appropriation of Llanbadarnfawr. The statute of Bishop Alexander concerning tithes is also worthy of mention; it applied to the whole diocese of Lichfield.
The third part occupies folios 47/284 to 57d/294d of the manuscript, but as it concerns the privileges of the Cistercian Order in general, with no special reference to Vale Royal, it has been deemed unnecessary to print any of it except one portion— the record of a case in which the official of the archdeacon of Chester thought he had found a weak place in the immunities of the monks, and took advantage of it to excommunicate one Arnold de Embsay, a monk of Whalley. After trial before the Abbot of Westminster, the protector of the Order, the official was found to be in error, and his sentence was revoked accordingly.
It is to be regretted that very few charters are found in the volume. The plan does not seem to have embraced such documents, for the royal charters and papal bulls have not been transcribed in it. This is all the more to be regretted, as very few deeds relating to the abbey's lands are known from other sources; even the important bull appropriating Kirkham Church to the abbey is unknown except from the references to it herein printed. Possibly the abbey's charters were not numerous. (fn. 1) It was of royal endowment, and few smaller benefactors came in to assist; in fact, the foundation appears to have been very unpopular in the district in its early days. This may have been due to the lawless character of the inhabitants of a forest district, for the site had been a haunt of desperadoes; and in some degree to the fact that the establishment of an abbey there in various ways diminished the customary liberties. The resolute struggle made by the bondmen of Darnhall for enfranchisement may indicate that under the rule of the bailiffs of the earls of Chester they had had in fact a large amount of freedom, while with abbot and monks living in their midst legal rights were more strictly enforced against them. On the other hand, it is possible to take the view that the rule of the monks was so much milder than the older one that the bondmen took advantage of it, and supposing this religious mildness to be an indication of weakness resolved to ignore the monks' rights altogether, with the results described in the narrative.
The first part is of much interest. As already stated, it was probably composed about 1338, in the time of Abbot Peter; indeed, if one phrase be pressed—qui ante nos prefuerunt—it seems likely that this abbot himself was the author. It appears from it that some persons were living at the time of writing who could remember what happened at the building of the church, which began in 1277. The writing was after 1330, when the new conventual buildings were blessed, but no later date occurs in this first section. On the other hand, the writer was not accurately acquainted with the origin of the monastery, for he states that it was founded by Edward I when Prince of Wales (sic) in fulfilment of a vow made by him when shipwrecked on his return from one of the crusades. Mr. Cooke, in the preface to Ida, corrects this as follows:
"Prince Edward only went to the Holy Land on one occasion, namely, when he set sail from Dover on 20 August 1270. He did not return to England until after the death of his father, Henry III, which occurred on 16 November 1272, and the news of that death reached him in Sicily. The date of the foundation charter of the abbey of Darnhall . . . is 2 August [1270, a few days] before the prince set sail for the Holy Land. Moreover that charter, granted by Prince Edward, states that 'we, being sometime in danger at sea,' have founded the abbey at Darnhall (as) a monastery of the Cistercian Order. No mention is made in the charter connecting the shipwreck with the prince's voyage to or from the Holy Land; indeed, it could not be correctly referred to. The charter issued by King Edward in respect of Vale Royal Abbey is dated 1299, 'upon a vow once made, being in danger of shipwreck.' Again no reference to the Holy Land. We are therefore compelled to look for some shipwreck prior to 1270 as the occasion when the vow to build a monastery was made at sea. The Dictionary of National Biography, in an article written by the Rev. W. Hunt, under the head of Edward I, states that he as Prince Edward in the year 1263, immediately after Christmas, set sail for France and 'had a stormy passage and made vows for safety.' Sir James Ramsay in his Dawn of the Constitution (p. 210) says Henry III crossed from Dover to Calais on the 2nd January 1263–4, and Prince Edward his son had gone over a few days before. It seems therefore certain that the vow could not have been made on his return journey from the Holy Land in 1272, but was made shortly after Christmas 1263."
It is in the Dunstaple Annals that the prince's vow is recorded, and then by a hostile writer, who states that in the terrific storm Edward made ever so many vows in his fear: (fn. 2) behaviour as unlike that of so brave a knight as it is unlike the story of the Vale Royal historian. The public events of the years 1264 and 1265 would prevent him fulfilling his vow, and it may have been overlooked until a resolve to go to the Holy Land caused him to "set his house in order" before starting. The charter of 1270, printed in Dugdale and Ormerod, shows that the manors of Over and Darnhall and certain churches had been appropriated to the monks, and speaks of the abbey as already existing. Whether any beginning had been made or not is uncertain; according to the Vale Royal chronicler the monks did not leave the mother-house of Dore, in Herefordshire, until January 1273–4, but for some reason he ignores Walter, the first abbot of Darnhall. The plan may not have been carried forward with any vigour until Edward's return from the Holy Land; his preservation from the assassin's dagger there would give him a further reason for this offering of thanks to God. It will be observed that the charges fell mainly, almost exclusively, upon the revenues of the earldom of Chester, (fn. 3) which were no doubt regarded as Edward's private revenues, distinct from the national taxation.
Had the reign been peaceful the king would probably have carried out his design in all its splendour; with constant wars with Welshmen and Scots it is surprising to find how much could be spent upon Vale Royal. The excavations recently made on the site show that the buildings were large and beautiful. (fn. 4) Still there never seems to have been anything like the projected hundred monks in the abbey, which, so far as can be judged from the few notices of it, had little prosperity. In the time of Edward III further considerable sums were spent upon the completion of the buildings, (fn. 5) and the Black Prince gave a second tun of wine from the Chester customs, (fn. 6) while in 1359–60 an important addition to its revenue was made by the appropriation of the rectory of Llanbadarnfawr in South Wales; but in 1439 it was recorded that the abbey of Vale Royal was so wasted by misrule that £1000, it was thought, would be needed to repair its estate. (fn. 7) Other signs of decadence appear. In 1428–9, when the abbey was vacant, an order was issued to arrest those who were interfering with the freedom of election. (fn. 8) Again in 1436 the sheriff and others were ordered to keep the peace at the approaching visitation of the abbey, for those who had been appointed to make the visitation feared that they would be obstructed in their duty. (fn. 9) It may perhaps be inferred from these entries that there was a zealous and reforming party in the monastery, fighting with a prevalent corruption supported by some of the lay magnates of the district. (fn. 10) Thomas, made abbot about 1438, possibly as a consequence of the visitation referred to, seems to have had a good reputation, for he was appointed Bishop of Sodor and Man in 1458, most likely as an assistance to the revenues of the monastery. Trespasses in Delamere Forest in 1485 and later were charged against some of the monks— Geoffrey Weverham, Richard Letham, John Whalley, Hugh Birmingham, and Henry Ledes. (fn. 11) Some building is recorded at the end of the fifteenth century, but little further is known until the final tragedy: the surrender of the abbey to the king on 7 September 1538, and the trial and conviction—not necessarily a fair trial and an honest conviction—of the last abbot for the death of one of his monks. He and his monks appear to have been suspected at least of sympathy with the recent popular insurrections in favour of the monasteries, but if so, they soon made peace with the king, as the allowance of pensions demonstrates. At this time the net revenue was a little over £500, and the establishment consisted of an abbot, a prior, and thirteen monks; of these eight were living and receiving their pensions in 1556.
Speaking generally, it is to the credit of a monastery that nothing is heard of it, for its members are supposed to retire from the world to pursue a life of religious contemplation. The story of Vale Royal shows that at least it began well, under worthy abbots, and if after a time scandals are found, there seems to have been a recovery. No crimes, except that mentioned, were alleged against its latest members. It is but seldom that the abbot was employed either as a royal official or a papal delegate; but this may have been due to the comparative poverty of the house and not to any supposed incapacity of its head. It is to be regretted that no complete list of those heads can as yet be given; but it is lawful to hope that the issue of the present volume may provide both aid and stimulus to fuller researches into the history of this favourite creation of one of our greatest kings.