2. THE PRIORY OF ST. NEOTS
The foundation of the priory of St. Neots
is so involved in legend that it is almost
impossible to separate what is true in it
from what is merely the work of imagination.
It may be that there was a monastery founded
in this place before the period of Danish
invasions in the 9th century; but of this
there is no proof beyond the tradition
recorded by Thomas of Ely. At any rate,
the monastery known by the name of St.
Neots Priory cannot be dated earlier than
the reign of Edgar, under whose patronage
so many religious houses were restored or
built. The traditional date, between 972
and 975, would place this priory a little
later than the abbey of Ramsey. (fn. 1)
The founders are said to have been a
certain earl Alric or Leofric, and his wife.
Whether they founded the house in honour
of the relics of St. Neot, which had fallen
into their hands, as the chronicler declares,
by an unexpected piece of good fortune,
or whether they built their monastery first,
and obtained the relics by some means afterwards, is a matter of little moment. (fn. 2) The
foundation was apparently made, like that
of Ramsey, with the assistance of St. Oswald
of Worcester, and the first monks were sent
partly from Thorney and partly from Ely,
being made subject to the latter house. (fn. 3)
It is probable that the monastery was
destroyed wholly or in part by the Danes
in the later invasion of 1010; (fn. 4) but it seems
that a few monks lived on there till the
Conquest. The manor of Eynesbury, in
which St. Neots lay, belonged in 1086 to
Roys, wife of Richard, son of Gilbert. (fn. 5)
Richard, her husband, it is said, expelled
the English monks, and placed the house
under the dominion of the Norman
abbey of Bec. The first monks of the new
foundation were sent by no less a person
than St. Anselm himself, who had recently
been elected to the chair left vacant by the
appointment of Lanfranc to the see of
Canterbury. The historian of Ely alleges
that the three English monks, unable to
accept the new régime, were sent across
channel and placed in durance at Bec for
the rest of their lives. (fn. 6)
Some few years after the foundation of
the new priory doubt was expressed whether
the relics treasured in the shrine were really
those of St. Neot. St. Anselm had the
chest opened in his presence, and expressed
his opinion that they were true relics. (fn. 7)
It would be interesting to know upon what
token his verdict was based; the relics
had had almost as chequered a history as
those of St. Alban, and their character might
well be considered doubtful. (fn. 8)
Roys, wife of Richard, son of Gilbert, in her
widowhood endowed the priory with more
lands, and persuaded her children to follow
her example. Her son Robert chose it for
his burial-place; his wife, Maud de Senliz,
gave the monks one-third of the manor
of Cratefield, Norfolk; William d'Albini,
son of Maud by a second marriage, (fn. 9) King
Malcolm and King William of Scotland,
Henry Earl of Huntingdon, and Alan Dapifer,
steward of Countess Roys, were all benefactors in the course of the 12th century. (fn. 10)
Here, as elsewhere, there were suits on the
subject of lands and churches in the 12th
and 13th centuries. But the value of the
priory seems to have decreased rather rapidly
from this time, owing to the constant change
of superiors. The earliest prior whose name
is recorded, Martin, had been a man celebrated for his humility and holiness; so
much so that when he was made abbot of
Peterborough by Henry I without the consent of the convent, he soon earned the love
and respect of his new subjects. (fn. 11) Herbert,
prior from 1159 to 1173, seems to have been
mindful of the interests of the house under
his charge; (fn. l2) but after this there were constant changes, and the tone of the house was
lowered, as in most of the alien priories.
The abbot across the sea looked upon his
English cells as merely a source of revenue;
the alien priors knew they might be recalled
at any time, and took no interest in the welfare
of the house. During the 14th century,
through the wars with France, the priory
was constantly in the hands of the king's
escheators, (fn. 13) and things went from bad to
worse. Finally, in 1412, the priory was
declared independent of Bec, on the ground
that divine service was neglected and revenues diminished by maladministration. An
English prior, Edward Salisbury, was placed
in charge, under obedience to the diocesan,
and the house entered upon a new career. (fn. 14)
There had been early in the 14th century twelve to fifteen monks at St. Neots, (fn. 15)
but just before it was declared independent
of Bec, all the French monks but two had
gone home. (fn. 16) It seems to have begun again
with about twelve monks. Bishop Grey
visited the house a few years after the denization, but his visitation may not have been very
thorough. The injunctions are all formal,
and show no bad signs; he ordered seats in
the cloister, called carels, to be put up for
the convenience of the monks in study,
and two bells were to be hung, one in the
cloister and one in the refectory. (fn. 17) The
condition of the priory at this time could
not, however, have been very satisfactory, as
in 1439, only a little later, Bishop Alnwick
found a good deal that was amiss. The
cloister and the church were both in bad repair, so that the rain came in on the choir
books; the debts of the house were so serious
that the monks were afraid to go out for fear
of their creditors; the prior was neglectful of
his office, and was accused of having obtained
it by unfair means. The night office was not
regularly said, and there was some suspicion
of unchaste living. (fn. 18)
The results of the visitation are not known,
but the report of Bishop Smith in 1506 again
implies a low standard. The accounts were
not duly stated; deeds were sealed without
the consent of the chapter; the brethren
were not cheerful in their obedience, and they
were not strict about wearing the habit of
the order. Reform was ordered on all points,
and the prior, having confessed his irregularities to the bishop in the chapter-house,
was put to penance. (fn. 19)
The commissioners who visited Ramsey and
the neighbourhood in 1535-6 make no mention
of St. Neots. They may perhaps have put
out some monks professed under the age of
twenty-five, according to their instructions;
for as many as 11 signed the Acknowledgment
of Supremacy, (fn. 20) and only 7 surrendered with
the prior in 1539. The value of the house
was over £200, so it was not dissolved under
the first Act, but lingered on till 21 December
1539, The prior then received a pension
of £40, and his companions annuities varying
from £7 to £6 6s. 8d. (fn. 21) Five of them were
still living in 1554. (fn. 22)
The priory was endowed by Countess Roys
with the whole manor of St. Neots, and the
manor of Cratefield in Norfolk was given by
other members of her family, with parcels
of land and churches in the counties of Bedford, Cambridge, Suffolk and Northampton.
The churches of St. Neots, Everton and
Eynesbury in this county, Tempsford, Turvey, Edworth, Melchbourne in Bedfordshire,
Barton Bendish, Beecham Well, Wimbish
and Cratefield in Norfolk, Brampton Dingley
and Hemington in Northamptonshire, Ubstone in Suffolk, Wing in Rutland, Cottesford in Oxfordshire, Pillerto in Warwickshire,
East Boscombe and Cheldreton in Wiltshire,
Ayot St. Peter in Hertfordshire, were all at
one time in the possession of the priory. (fn. 23)
The churches of Melchbourne and Eynesbury were very early lost; (fn. 24) the history of
these and the others in relation to St. Neots
has been so fully described by Gorham that
it is not necessary to give any details here.
The valuation of the temporal and spiritual
property of the prior at the end of the 13th
century was about £227: (fn. 25) in 1535 it was
£241 11s. 4½d., including the appropriate
rectories of St. Neots, Everton, Hemington,
Turvey, Upstone, Cratefield, and the manors
of Crendon, Charlton, Barford, and Turvey
in Bedfordshire, and Upstone in Suffolk. (fn. 26)
The first report of the Crown Bailiff gave
a total of £256 15s. 8d. (fn. 27)
Priors of St. Neots
Martin, resigned 1132.
Herbert, occurs 1159 to 1173.
Geoffrey, occurs 1200 to 1204.
William, occurs 1206 to 1210.
Roger, occurs 1218 to 1223.
William, occurs 1224.
Reginald, elected 1226.
Hugh de Fagernum, occurs 1236, resigned
Henry de Messeville, resigned 1258.
William de Bonesbor, elected 1258.
Elias de Ponte Episcopi, monk of Bec,
elected 1262, resigned 1262.
Henry of St. Neots, elected 1264.
Walter de Bernay.
Thomas de Bensend, elected 1275.
John de Bosco Reynoldi, elected 1285,
John de Secheville, elected 1292, died 1302.
William de Bec, elected 1302.
Geoffrey de Bec, elected 1317.
Clement of St. Stephen, (fn. 28) elected 1322,
occurs till 1331.
Peter de Falk, elected 1341.
William de Beaumont, elected 1349.
Geoffrey de Branville, elected 1352.
Peter de Villaribus, elected 1353.
Christian de Troarn, elected 1364, died
Robert de Glanville, monk of Bec, elected
1372, claimed to be prior 1373, (fn. 29) resigned
1377. (fn. 30)
William of St. Vedast, had custody 1377
Edward Salisbury, elected 1405.
William, occurs 1422.
John Turvey, (fn. 31) resigned before 1439.
John Eton, occurs 1447.
Henry, occurs 1459 to 1461.
William Eynesbury, occurs 1464 to 1486.
Thomas Raundes, resigned 1508.
John Raundes, last prior, elected 1508.
An oval seal (fn. 32) representing the crowned
figure of the Virgin delivering a pastoral staff
to the abbot, who is about to kneel. Legend:
SIGI . . . . . MARIE . . . . . ABB.TIS
A counter seal of prior Reginald [1226 to
c. 1235], on the reverse showing an antique
REGINALD': DE: SBO: NEOTO
A pointed oval seal (fn. 33) of the 13th century
showing, under a trefoil canopy, the Virgin
crowned and seated, with the Child on her
left knee and with her right hand delivering
a pastoral staff to the kneeling figure of the
abbot. The field is diapered with lozenges
having a flower in each. Legend:
SIGILLVM: PRIORIS: ET: CONVENTVS: [ECCLE]SIE: SBI: [NE]OT[I]