THE RELIGIOUS HOUSES
In considering the religious houses of Hertfordshire the main impression
is that of the overwhelming pre-eminence of St. Albans Abbey. The
abbey indeed had more than a great local position, which was of
course insured by its possessions and its ecclesiastical and secular
jurisdiction. In virtue of the saint over whose relics it arose it held the first
place among English abbeys, while the fame of its culture and discipline
at one period reached foreign countries. Its name deserves to be honoured
to-day for the service rendered to history by the literary labours of its
monks. The other Benedictine monasteries were all dependent houses:
Hertford and Redbourn Priories were cells of St. Albans, the second practically
an annex of the abbey; the priory at Ware, the one alien priory in the
county, was a cell of the abbey of St. Evroul in Utica; and the small
community at Salford in Standon, a dependency of Stoke in Suffolk. From
a reference about the middle of the 12th century to 'the monks serving
God in the church of Sawbridgeworth' (fn. 1) it is possible that the priory of
Hurley or Walden, owners respectively of the tithes (fn. 2) and church of Sawbridgeworth, (fn. 3) may have maintained a cell here at one time. The existence
of this house is, however, quite problematical. Richard Abbot of St. Albans
(1097-1119) contemplated the foundation of a subject monastery at Langley, (fn. 4)
but the project was not carried out.
There were Benedictine nunneries at Cheshunt, Rowney in Little
Munden, Flamstead and Sopwell near St. Albans, all founded during the
12th century, though, if the convent placed at Sopwell was an offshoot of
the abbey, as seems likely, it could claim an earlier origin. All were more
or less small and poor, but Sopwell's connexion with St. Albans saved it no
doubt from pecuniary cares and difficulties and gave it a certain standing.
The Cistercians were not represented in Hertfordshire; nor were the
Carthusians, in spite of the avowed intention of the Countess of Pembroke
in 1362 to establish monks of this order either at Westmill, Meesden or
Little Hormead. (fn. 5)
The only Gilbertine house, the priory of New Bigging, Hitchin, did
not arise before 1361 and had few inmates.
There were two houses of Austin Canons, the one at Royston, founded
shortly before 1181, of some importance on account of its privileges, but
the other at Little Wymondley never anything but insignificant.
The Knights Templars had a preceptory at Dinsley, probably as early
as the reign of Henry II; the Knights of St. John, who succeeded them
there, maintained for a time a community at Standon on the estate given to
them at the end of the 12th century.
A hospice especially for Franciscans and Dominicans was built shortly
before 1247 within the precinct of St. Albans, (fn. 6) but the Mendicants, perhaps
on this account, never got a permanent footing in the town. The three
friaries of the county were of rather late date : the priory of Friars Preachers
within the royal manor of Langley was founded in 1308 by Edward II, who
was probably also responsible for the establishment of Carmelites in 1317 at
Hitchin; the Friars Minors did not settle at Ware until 1339. Langley,
of which the king was patron in a very special sense, must have had a considerable position; the other two houses were obscure. The sole nunnery
of a Mendicant order was the priory of Langley, refounded by Queen
Mary for Dominican sisters.
Counting St. Nicholas Royston, which seems, however, to have been
within the boundary of Cambridgeshire, there were eleven hospitals. (fn. 7) Five
or six of these besides St. Nicholas were for lepers: St. Julian's and
St. Mary de Pré near St. Albans, St. John Evangelist at Berkhampstead,
St. Mary Magdalene, Clothall, (fn. 8) St. Mary Magdalene near Hertford, and
perhaps St. Laud and St. Anthony, Hoddesdon. The first two were
dependent on and closely connected with the abbey: for instance, sisters
of three successive abbots in the 14th century entered St. Mary de Pré.
The hospital outside Hertford about 1261 was transformed into a house
of Maturine friars; St. Mary de Pré before the end of the 14th century also
underwent a change and became a Benedictine nunnery. The other hospitals
were at Anstey, Cheshunt, Berkhampstead and Royston, none apparently
earlier than the 13th century.
The one college was that in the church of St. Margaret, Thele.
From time to time there must also have been many cases of persons
living a religious life in solitude. The oratory of St. German, St. Albans,
was used as a hermitage in Saxon days (fn. 9) ; a recluse called Roger (fn. 10) and Sigar,
a hermit of Northaw, who lived in Abbot Geoffrey's time, (fn. 11) established such
reputations for sanctity that pilgrimages were made to their tombs in the
conventual church of St. Albans (fn. 12) ; the anchorite living in 1258 at
St. Peter's (fn. 13) had successors in the 15th century, when there is mention
too of recluses at St. Michael's. (fn. 14)
Of the communities very few lasted until the General Dissolution.
With the exception of Hoddesdon, which continued up to 1575 as a kind
of almshouse, all the hospitals mentioned had disappeared before 1530, or
survived only as chantries; the college at Thele had come to an end in
1431, the preceptories of the Hospitallers before 1500; and the monastery at
Salford had ceased to exist in the 14th century; Rowney Nunnery and the
alien priory at Ware had been dissolved in the 15th century; Redbourn
Priory had been abandoned before the Act of 1536, under which the houses
of Cheshunt, Flamstead, Sopwell, Royston and Wymondley were suppressed.