HOUSE OF CISTERCIAN MONKS
5. THE ABBEY OF SAWTRY
The abbey of Sawtry was founded in 1147
by Simon de Senliz, Earl of Northampton,
grandson of Earl Waltheof and Judith, the
Conqueror's niece, who held the manor when
the Domesday Survey was compiled. A
colony of monks from Warden in Bedfordshire came to the new monastery, which was
at once established, after the manner of the
Cistercian order, as an independent abbey. (fn. 1)
The grants of the founder were confirmed by
his successors in the manor; by Malcolm IV
of Scotland between 1153 and 1165, by
William the Lion and David, Earl of Huntingdon before the end of the 12th century. (fn. 2)
Several papal bulls of the same period are also
extant, placing the traditional account of the
foundation beyond doubt. (fn. 3) Ivo Le Moyne
and other local lords added to the original
endowment; (fn. 4) but the house seems never to
have been a large or wealthy one.
In the 13th century came the inevitable
lawsuits. There was a suit with the son of
David, Earl of Huntingdon, about eight
virgates of land in Conington which had been
given to the. abbey when the earl chose it for
his burial-place. (fn. 5) Disputes with the abbots
of Ramsey and Thorney were only too probable where the lands and fisheries of all
three houses lay so close together; numerous
suits of this kind are on record, settled sometimes in favour of one monastery and sometimes of another. (fn. 6) There were suits with
the rectors of parishes, where the monks
had property, on the subject of tithes; (fn. 7) the
Cistercian privilege of immunity being here
as elsewhere constantly called in question.
About 1278 the abbot of Sawtry was made
proctor for the abbot of Bon Repos in
Brittany, and had to guard his rights in the
churches of Honingham (Norf.) and Fulbourn
(Camb.). The abbot of Sawtry was to pay
£40 annually for the farm of the two churches. (fn. 8)
But in the 13th century he had little profit
by this bargain, as the property of aliens
was constantly being seized by the Crown in
time of war, even though Bon Repos was
within the English dominions. In 1345 the
abbot had to pay the £40 to one of the
king's creditors; (fn. 9) and in 1378 it was finally
made a part of the revenue of King's Hall,
Cambridge. (fn. 10)
During the 14th century the abbot of
Sawtry was often in debt; (fn. 11) but the cause is
unknown. Practically nothing is recorded
of the inner history of the house. It was
complained in 1303 that the abbot admitted
apostates from the Dominican order without
sufficient inquiry; (fn. 12) it seems to have been a
common fault of Cistercian houses at this
time, that they were too ready to admit
those who sought an escape from another
kind of discipline than their own.
In 1534 abbot William Angell wrote to
Cromwell, thanking him for past kindnesses,
and begging to know the reason of his present
displeasure. The letter was accompanied by
one of those little gifts which were being
showered upon Cromwell by many religious
at this time, in the hope of securing his
favour. (fn. 13) As the abbey was worth less than
£200 a year it had, however, no chance of
escape save by payment of fine for continuance. Bedyll's letter from Ramsey suggests that the house had been much thinned
by the first visitation: Dr. Legh, he said,
had given leave to 'half the house of Sawtry'
to depart. (fn. 14) What this 'leave to depart'
from Dr. Legh may mean is hard to say. The
whole convent was disbanded before December 1536, only the abbot receiving a pension
of £10 (fn. 15)
The original endowment included the
whole manor of Sawtry Judith, with the
church of St. Mary; smaller parcels of land
were added later, and the churches of Honingham (Norf.) and Fulbourn (Camb.). The
temporalities of the abbot in 1291 amounted
to £122 11s. 7¾d. (fn. 16) In 1534 the clear value
of the house was £141 3s. 8d., including the
lands in the counties of Cambridge, Norfolk,
Bedford, Lincoln, Northampton, and the
churches above-named. (fn. 17) A survey taken,
just after the Dissolution, of all the furniture
and household stuff is still preserved; it
does not suggest any luxurious appointments,
though the abbot's chamber had a feather
bed and white curtains. (fn. 18)
Abbots of Sawtry
Hugh, (fn. 19) occurs 1157 and 1164.
Payn, (fn. 20) occurs about 1164 and 1176.
Alexander, (fn. 21) occurs 1195.
Ralf, (fn. 22) occurs before 1228.
Adam, (fn. 23) occurs 1278.
William, (fn. 24) occurs 1289.
Laurence, (fn. 25) occurs 1299.
John, (fn. 26) elected 1303.
John, (fn. 27) elected 1314.
Roger of Hertford, (fn. 28) occurs 1320 to 1338.
Ralf Beville, (fn. 29) elected 1340, occurs to 1348.
William, (fn. 30) occurs 1351.
Thomas de Spalding, (fn. 31) occurs 1391.
Robert de Spalding, (fn. 32) occurs 1409 to 1413.
John Fulborne, (fn. 33) occurs 1444.
John Alconbury, (fn. 34) occurs 1452.
Henry, (fn. 35) occurs 1524, 1527.
Richard, (fn. 36) occurs 1529.
Robert, (fn. 37) occurs 1531 and 1533.
William Angell, (fn. 38) occurs 1534.
A 15th century circular seal (fn. 39) showing
under a triple canopy with diapered background, the Virgin crowned and seated on a
throne with the Child in her left arm. On
the left side is a vine and on the right a lily
growing out of a pot. Legend:
SIGILLVM: COMVN . . . . . GTE . . . . RIE: DE: SAVTREE
A 13th century pointed oval seal of an
abbot (fn. 40) showing the full length figure of the
abbot with a book in his left hand and a
pastoral staff in his right. Legend:
SIGILL' ABB . . . . . . . TEREIA
A pointed oval seal of abbot Henry (fn. 41)
attached to a document dated 1527, showing
the figure of the abbot standing on a corbel
under a canopy with a pastoral staff in his