THE RELIGIOUS HOUSES OF SUFFOLK
The Religious Houses of Suffolk were considerable in number, and in a
few cases of no small importance.
So far as the Benedictine or Black monks are concerned, the great
abbey of St. Edmunds was one of the most important and wealthy houses of
the order either in the British Isles or in continental Christendom. The
amount of original information that is extant with regard to this foundation
is quite unusual, and the little use that has hitherto been made of a great
deal of this material is remarkable.
The other houses of Black monks in the county were of comparatively
small size and importance, and were, one and all, originally cells of some
larger establishment outside Suffolk. The largest of these was the priory of
Eye (with its cell of Dunwich); it was in the first instance an alien cell of
the abbey of Bernay, but it became naturalized in 1385. Felixstowe was a
cell of the cathedral priory of Rochester, and Edwardstone of the abbey of
Abingdon, Hoxne of the cathedral priory of Norwich, and Sudbury of
Westminster Abbey. Snape Priory was subject to the abbey of Colchester; its attempt in 1400 to secure its independence eventually failed.
Rumburgh was a cell of St. Mary's, York; its priors, though removable at
the pleasure of the York abbot and changed with great frequency, were
always presented to the bishop before taking office; there were no fewer
than forty priors between 1308 and the dissolution, their average rule
being only for five years.
There were two houses of Benedictine nuns, namely those of Redlingfield and Bungay, the latter of which was continuously supplied by daughters
of the local gentry.
The Cluniac monks had two small houses, Mendham Priory, which
was a subordinate cell of Castle Acre, and Wangford, a cell of Thetford
Priory, which was naturalized in 1393.
The other great reformed branch of the Benedictines, the White monks,
or Cistercians, had a comparatively small abbey at Sibton, of some local
The Austin canons had a large number of priories in this county, as well as
in Norfolk, which were mostly quite small. Such were the priories of Alnesbourn, Bricett, Chipley, Dodnash, Herringfleet, Kersey, and Woodbridge.
Butley was an Austin house of some wealth and importance, whose members were usually recruited from the gentlefolk. Ipswich had two Austin
priories within its walls, dedicated respectively to the Holy Trinity and to
SS. Peter and Paul; between them they held the advowsons of almost all
the churches in Ipswich and its suburbs, and were otherwise of no small
influence in the administration of the affairs of the town.
Ixworth was next in importance to Butley among these priories, both
in numbers and name; sixteen canons, in addition to the prior, signed the
acceptance of royal supremacy in 1534. The priories of Blythburgh and
Letheringham were also Austin foundations; the former a cell of St. Osyth,
Essex, and the latter a cell of St. Peter, Ipswich.
The Austin nuns had two foundations, Campsey and Flixton. The
former was an establishment of renown, the sisters always being ladies of
birth, daughters of the old landed gentry of Norwich diocese; it seems to
have been always free from the slightest taint of scandal, although it was
unique among all English nunneries in having a small college of secular
priests within the precinct walls.
The Premonstratensian or White canons held the abbey of Leiston, in
the extreme south of the hundred of Blything; the site was changed in 1363.
The Knights Templars had an early foundation at ill-fated Dunwich,
the church of which was known as 'the Temple' long after their suppression.
The Suffolk commandery of the Knights Hospitallers was at Battisford,
whence annual contributions were sought throughout the whole county.
Suffolk was well supplied with the mendicant orders. There were
three houses of Dominican friars, namely at Dunwich, Ipswich, and Sudbury.
There were also three houses of Franciscan friars, namely at Dunwich,
Ipswich, and Babwell near Bury St. Edmunds. The Austin friars had also
three priories in Suffolk, at Orford, Gorleston or South Yarmouth, and at
Clare in close connexion with the castle. This foundation at Clare seems
to have been the most important house of their order in England. The
Carmelites had a single house at Ipswich.
At Bruisyard, founded on the site of a former college in 1366, was an
establishment of Nuns Minoresses, or poor sisters of St. Clare, under the rule
of an abbess. There were only four houses of this Franciscan order in
England, namely the head house at the Minories without Aldgate in the
city of London, this Suffolk abbey, and the Cambridgeshire houses of
Denney and Waterbeach.
With regard to alien priories, in addition to Eye and Stoke-by-Clare,
whose denization saved them from extinction, and the semi-alien Cluniac cell
of Wangford, there were in Suffolk three small cells of foreign Benedictine
abbeys, which fell at the time of the general suppression of the alien houses.
These were Blakenham, pertaining to the great abbey of Bec, Creeting
St. Mary to the abbey of Bernay, and Creeting St. Olave to the abbey of
The hospitals of the county—for such establishments ought always to
be included in lists of religious houses, as they were under the rule of those
who led vowed lives, and usually of the Austin profession—were fairly
numerous. They were to be found at Bury (5), Ipswich (3), Dunwich (2),
Orford (2), Beccles, Eye, Gorleston, Sibton and Sudbury. Out of these
seventeen, no fewer than eleven were founded for the use of lepers.
The examples of colleges or collegiate churches in Suffolk are not many,
but they were fairly representative of different classes of such foundations for
the promotion of a common life amongst those serving a particular church.
The oldest of these was that of Mettingham Castle, which had been
originally established in 1350 at Raveningham, in Norfolk, by Sir John de
Norwich; his grandson, about 1387, moved these secular canons and the
rest of the establishment to Mettingham. The college of Bruisyard, established in 1334 and removed here after an existence of seven years at
Campsey, had but a short life, being suppressed in favour of a nunnery in
1356. The college at Wingfield was founded in 1362; and that of Sudbury
was founded by Simon of Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury, and his
brother in 1374. Stoke-by-Clare, originally a Benedictine cell, was changed
into an establishment of secular canons with vicars, clerks, and choristers in
1415. Jesus College, Bury St. Edmunds, was founded in the time of
Edward IV, for the common life of certain chantry priests; and Denston
College was a like foundation about the same time, but on a smaller scale.
The ill-fated Cardinal's College, Ipswich, 1522, fell at the time of its
founder's downfall, ere it was completed.
As to the colleges, it is usual for many writers on monastic subjects to point with no little approval to the founding of collegiate establishments instead of monasteries, seeing therein a love of education and
culture rather than of cloistered life. But a closer study of these colleges in
any given area would probably lead to a revision of such opinions; certainly
in Suffolk the life and work of the monasteries would compare favourably
with that of the colleges. The promotion of learning was little advanced by
these collegiate establishments, and certainly the monasteries were doing
something in that direction. The later administration of Sudbury College
was most wasteful, and the funds squandered by non-resident secular canons
at the wealthy college of Stoke-by-Clare could not possibly have been thus
misused when in Benedictine hands.
Perhaps other bishops, besides Bishops Goldwell and Nykke, kept special
registers of monastic visitations, but none are extant save those of these two
prelates, whose visitations from 1492 to 1532 are among the Bodleian
manuscripts. Their visitation records were printed by the Camden Society
in 1884, under the editorship of Dr. Jessopp. To that volume the ensuing
notices of the particular religious houses are much indebted.
After studying, with as much closeness and frankness as is possible, the
records of the latter days of the religious houses of East Anglia and their
suppression, we find the opinion at which other investigators have recently
arrived become more and more strengthened, namely that the condition of
England's monasteries was better, and the general fulfilment of the solemn
obligations more faithfully observed, in the last fifty years of their life than
at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries.
The record of the exceedingly faithful and severe visitations of the White
canons of Leiston Abbey shows that the extra-diocesan visitations of religious
houses of those of their own order could be thorough and genuine, and sternly
punitive in cases of offence. Nor, so far as we are aware, is there any
reason to suspect that visitations of both Benedictines and Austins, by their
own duly authorized visitors, to which even the 'exempt' abbey of St. Edmunds
had to submit, were on less scrupulous lines. Such visitations were made
every three years, whereas those made by the diocesan were, as a rule, only
undertaken every six years.
The amount of material that has had to be digested before producing
the following brief sketches of the different houses has, in some cases, been
exceptionally large. The extant records of St. Edmunds are almost overpowering in their number, whilst the chartularies or registers of the houses
of Eye, Sibton, Blythburgh, Campsey, and Leiston, with Clare Friary and
Stoke-by-Clare Priory, are considerable in extent. The endeavour has been
made in each case to point out to the student the source or sources of
further information. (fn. 1)