THE RELIGIOUS HOUSES OF ESSEX
In Essex, one of the larger English counties, the number of religious
foundations was naturally above the average. None of them were exceptionally wealthy, the revenues even of Waltham and Barking falling far short of
those of Glastonbury or Westminster, and being surpassed by about twenty
others; but the total amount of their possessions was considerable.
The early monasteries in England, as elsewhere, were under no real system.
Each had its own regulations, and was governed only by its own head.
But here it is sufficient to say merely that all founded before the Conquest
eventually joined the Benedictine order. The influence of St. Benedict and
his famous rule, established in 529, was so great that it practically absorbed
or supplanted all other forms of monasticism in Western Europe, and for four
or five centuries remained supreme. It appears first to have been introduced
into England in the seventh century, but to have gradually become extinct
before the reign of Alfred. In the tenth century, when Odo, archbishop of
Canterbury, and Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury, made their great reforms,
not a single house in England lived under the rule. Dunstan introduced it at
Glastonbury about 950, and thenceforward it spread among the remaining
monasteries, its adoption being finally ordered by Lanfranc in 1075.
In Essex there were eight houses of the order. The earliest and richest
was Barking Abbey, founded in the second half of the seventh century, the
period of the great conversion of the English to Christianity. It is notable
as being both the earliest monastery in the county, and by far the most famous
and important nunnery in England. Wix and Hedingham Priories, the only
other nunneries in the county, also belonged to the order, dating from the first
and second halves respectively of the twelfth century. The abbey of St. John
at Colchester was founded in 1096, and the priory of Hatfield Peverel,
a cell or dependency of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, in the same reign.
Colne Priory was founded at the beginning of the twelfth century, and
(Saffron) Walden Priory, afterwards an abbey, and Hatfield Regis Priory a
few years later.
The Cluniacs were the first great offshoot of the Benedictines. By the
tenth century the discipline and reputation of the latter had greatly declined,
and the foundation of the abbey of Cluni, near Mâcon, in 910, was the
beginning of a newly reformed order. The Cluniac rule was much the same
as the Benedictine, though stricter in several respects, such as fasting and
silence. The essential difference between the orders was in the matter of
discipline. The Benedictine monasteries were independent of each other,
and to this the decay of discipline and morality was largely due. Each
Cluniac house, on the other hand, had an immediate superior to which it was
subject; and all were also under the central authority of Cluni itself. In
England, where the order was first introduced at Lewes in Sussex about 1077, (fn. 1)
it never attained any great importance. Probably this was due to the excessive
power of the abbot of Cluni, and to the fact that the monks, and the priors
especially, were mostly French. There were three Cluniac priories in Essex,
all founded in or before the reign of Henry I—viz., Prittlewell and Stanesgate,
cells to Lewes, and Horkesley, a cell to Thetford in Norfolk. On the Continent the Cluniacs became very wealthy, but the movement was comparatively
short-lived, and their influence declined before that of the Cistercians.
This order was founded at Cîteaux, near Dijon, by Robert de Molesme
in 1098, but its constitution really dates from the publication of the 'Charter
of Charity' by the third abbot, an Englishman named Stephen Harding, in
1119. Its central idea was austerity, as opposed to Cluniac magnificence and
ceremonial splendour. Asceticism was carried even into divine service,
ornaments and vessels of gold and silver being forbidden. The Cistercians (fn. 2)
planted their houses in desolate spots, far from towns, and became the chief
agriculturists among the monks. Their method of discipline combined the
affiliation system of Cluni with the greater degree of independence of the
Benedictines. The supreme authority of the order was the general chapter
held each year at Citeaux on 14 September, Holy Cross Day; but while the
Cluniac chapter was monarchical in principle, the Cistercian was republican.
Otherwise each house was independent except for the visitation of its
immediate superior, Cîteaux itself being visited by four other abbeys jointly.
The order was first introduced into England at Waverley in Surrey in 1128.
In Essex there were three Cistercian abbeys. Tilty, founded in 1153, was
affiliated to Warden in Bedfordshire; and Stratford Langthorne and Coggeshall, founded in 1135 and 1140 respectively, joined the order in 1147 with
their parent house of Savigny in France.
The most important order in Essex, as in the three eastern counties
generally, (fn. 3) was that of the Augustinian canons, with twelve houses. Canons
regular occupied an intermediate position between monks and secular canons.
They differed from the latter in living together under rule, whence their name,
and observing statutes; but their rule was less strict than that of the monks.
Practically, however, they resembled the monks more closely than the seculars.
They are generally considered to have been first constituted in 760 by
Chrodegang, bishop of Metz, but it was not until the eleventh and twelfth
centuries that the Augustinian rule absorbed other forms, as the Benedictine
had done in the case of monks. St. Botolph's Priory at Colchester, founded
under William II, claimed to be the first house of the order in England, and
the claim was allowed and precedence granted by a bull of Pope Paschal II
in 1116. Dunmow Priory dates from 1104 and St. Osyth's Abbey, the third
in size in the county, a few years later. Waltham Abbey, the richest
foundation in the county, was also the most important house of the order in
the whole of England. It was founded originally for secular canons by
Harold in 1060, but in 1177 these were expelled by Henry II and replaced
by regulars. Thoby Priory was founded under Stephen, and Bicknacre Priory
under Henry II. The remaining priories of Berden, Blackmore, Latton,
Leighs, Thremhall and Tiptree date mostly from about the end of the
twelfth century, but the foundations of some are not certain.
The Premonstratensian canons, (fn. 4) a reformed branch of the Augustinians,
and standing much in the same relationship to them as the Cistercians to the
Benedictines, had a single house in the county, Beeleigh Abbey. They were
founded in 1119 at Prémontré, between Rheims and Laon, and introduced
into England about 1140. Parndon was the site of their first settlement in
Essex in or before 1172, but in 1180 they migrated to Beeleigh.
The Cluniac, Cistercian and Premonstratensian orders early in their
history obtained exemption from episcopal control, and consequently their
houses are seldom mentioned in the bishops' registers.
Besides the houses already mentioned, there were three alien priories in
Essex. Mersea, a cell of the abbey of St. Ouen at Rouen, was founded by
Edward the Confessor; Panfield, a cell of St. Stephen's, Caen, under
William I; and Takeley, a cell of St. Valery in Picardy, in the same reign.
They were little more than estates yielding profit to their absentee landlords,
and except for the fact of a few monks residing at them they do not differ
much from manors, such as Felsted, held by alien houses. The two alien
hospitals of Hornchurch, belonging to the famous 'hospice' of St. Bernard of
Mont Joux in Savoy, and Writtle, belonging to the hospital of the Holy Ghost
at Rome, come into the same category.
The friars came into England in the reigns of Henry III and Edward I.
They were quite different in theory from the monks and canons, the principle
of whose life was seclusion from the world. The friars were to go out into
the world and preach, they were to live on alms and have no endowment, and
they were not bound in the same manner to their houses. The idea of poverty
broke down to a certain extent in practice, and they did acquire property;
but, with a few exceptions, their possessions were always comparatively
insignificant. Four orders were represented in Essex—the Black Friars at
Chelmsford, the Grey Friars at Colchester, the Crossed Friars at Colchester,
and the White or Carmelite Friars at Maldon.
The two military orders were founded originally for the protection of
pilgrims to Jerusalem. The Hospitallers, instituted about 1092, had a
commandery at Little Maplestead dating from the reign of Henry II. The
Templars, instituted about 1118, had a preceptory at Cressing, granted to them
by Stephen and his queen Maud; and at their suppression in 1309 it was
granted to the Hospitallers.
There were nine hospitals in the county, viz., Bocking, Braintree,
Colchester, Hedingham, Ilford, Maldon, Newport, East Tilbury, and Brook
Street in South Weald. In each was a master, one or more chaplains, and a
number of poor, sick, infirm, or leprous persons. Some were independent,
while some belonged to other houses.
Lastly, there were colleges of secular canons at Pleshey and Halstead, a
few hermitages such as that of Writtle, and a large number of free chapels
It will be seen that the majority of the religious houses date from the
century and a half following the Conquest. At the time of that event the
monastic revivals were in full flood on the Continent, and consequently a great
impulse was given to monasticism in England by the invasion of the Normans.
In the thirteenth century the movement slackened considerably, and at the time
of the taxation of Pope Nicholas in 1291 every house in Essex of monks or
regular canons and every hospital except Bocking was already in existence.
The end of the thirteenth century marks roughly the zenith of monasticism.
The wealth of the church had increased enormously during the last two
centuries, and the consequent jealousy of the laity brought about the Statute
of Mortmain in 1279, forbidding further grants of real property to religious
corporations. This did not stop the monasteries from acquiring lands, for
licences were obtained by payment to the crown, but it was a distinct check.
A more serious blow was the rise of the friars. The monks and canons were
now little more than wealthy landowners, and the contrast in the life of the
friars was too great. The latter in their turn afterwards degenerated into
vagabonds or beggars, but at first they did much good work, and the
enthusiastic reception they met with is almost unparalleled in religious
The attitude of the people towards the monasteries in the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries is clearly shown by the nature of the religious grants.
Those to the monasteries become steadily fewer, and they are also less often
associated with charges of masses and obits. The inference is obvious that
they are now sales rather than gifts. On the other hand, the habit of
founding chantries and free chapels increases. A chantry was an endowment
of a chaplain to celebrate daily masses in a church for the souls of the founder
and his relatives; and the chantry priests appear to have acted to a certain
extent as curates to the parish priests. A free chapel was a similar endowment
in an independent building; and a college practically a church or chapel with
a corporation of a number of priests. Halstead was founded in 14 Edward III
and Pleshey in 17 Richard II. Most of the hospitals appear to have eventually degenerated into free chapels, the lepers or other poor inmates being
squeezed out by the masters.
During this period the prosperity of the monasteries and the number of
their inmates were in general diminishing. This is, no doubt, partly due to
mismanagement, but more to the increased standard of luxury. Also the
monastic life no longer attracted as much as it had done of old. It should be
remembered that poor persons without influence had no chance of admission
to the wealthier monasteries. In 1362 £200 yearly were guaranteed to
Barking Abbey during the life of a single nun. This amount was probably
quite exceptional, but many other smaller grants are known. In the next
century the break up of feudalism by the wars of the Roses and the beginning
of modern civilization hurried on the decay. The long list of aristocratic
abbesses of Barking ends with the death of Katharine de la Pole in 1473.
The rich no longer cared to enter monasteries, and the poor were not as
acceptable to the existing inmates. The richer houses met their difficulties
partly by reducing their numbers, but the poorer ones could not continue this
process indefinitely. Three Essex houses thus went under before the dissolution. In 1396 the reversion of the hospital of St. Giles, Maldon, on the death
of its warden, was granted to Bicknacre, but the grant never took effect. In
1481, however, the hospital was united to Beeleigh Abbey. In 1507 Bicknacre also succumbed to poverty, and was granted to the priory of St. Mary
without Bishopsgate, London; and Latton came to a somewhat similar end
But the idea of dissolution was earlier still. The alien priories (including the Cluniac houses) had been a constant source of irritation. They were
filled principally with foreigners, and subject almost entirely to their French
houses. In some parts of England we meet with priories which paid a fixed
tax, and were otherwise practically independent; but in Essex this was not
the case. A large income went from them to France, and naturally the sight
of this was not regarded with favour. The rolls of Parliament show a constant
succession of confiscations and restitutions. In 1295 alien monks dwelling
within thirteen miles of the sea or any navigable river were removed to at least
twenty miles. In 1306 the Statute of Carlisle forbade the superiors of alien
houses to tax them, though they might visit them for purposes of discipline.
In 1346 the Commons pray that friars alien be expelled the realm, and in 1347
they complain of the pope collating aliens to religious houses. In 1373 they
pray that no French prior alien dwell within twenty miles of the coast. In
1376 they pray that no alien be made head of any house, and that the religious aliens be banished. These are only a few of the petitions and enactments. Finally, in the reign of Henry V, all the alien houses were dissolved.
When taken into the king's hands they had usually been let to the priors at
farm at amounts varying according to their wealth. Thus in 1338 the rents
vary from £126 for Takeley to £4 for Stanesgate. It is needless to trace the
seizures and restitutions in detail, but in 1373 Prittlewell and Stanesgate, as
cells of Lewes, were made denizen, and in 1377 Horkesley, as a cell of Thetford. In 1391 we have the first dissolutions of houses in Essex, Takeley,
Hornchurch and Writtle being purchased with others in other counties by
William of Wykeham for the endowment of New College, Oxford. In 1400
Mersea was leased to John Doreward under the condition of maintaining divine
service, a provision which does not seem to have been repeated when it was
transferred later to the college of Higham Ferrers. Panfield was similarly
conveyed to John Wodehous in 1413. Thus all the five alien houses in the
county changed hands before the general dissolution, their foreign owners
having wisely anticipated this and secured their price in time.
More than a century later the example of Wykeham was followed on a
larger scale by Wolsey in the foundation and endowment of his college at
Oxford. There were now no more alien priories to be bought up cheap, so
Wolsey had recourse to the dissolution of existing denizen priories. In September, 1524, he obtained a bull from the pope authorizing him to suppress
monasteries to the total yearly value of 3,000 ducats and apply their revenues
to the endowment of his college, and in October the assent of the king was
given. In all cases he was to get the sanction of the patrons, and the inmates
were to be transferred to other monasteries. Nearly thirty small priories were
thus dissolved, including six in Essex. Blackmore, Horkesley, Stanesgate,
Thoby and Tiptree came to an end in February, and Wix in March, 1525.
After this, with the exception of Latton, no more houses fell in the county
until the general dissolution, eleven years later.
In England the Reformation, of which the Dissolution was merely an
incident, was precipitated by the dispute about the nullity of the marriage of
Henry VIII and Queen Katharine, although in no way caused by it. Hence
at first under Henry, aiming at no change of doctrine, its chief feature was not
the popular movement but the autocratic legislation directed against the pope.
Reformation and Dissolution must inevitably have come about in any case in
a short time as in other countries, but in a different manner. As it was,
Henry's legislation was largely in advance of the feeling of the people, which
varied considerably in different parts of England according to the extent to
which the new ideas had spread.
The actual legislation begins in 1529. From thence to 1534 a succession of statutes was passed, the net result of which was the assertion of the
national independence of the English Church, the abolition of papal interference, and the declaration that the king was the supreme head of the church
in England with power of visitation. In 1534 a stringent oath to this effect
was administered to the religious orders. They were to accept and preach the
validity of the king's marriage with Anne Boleyn, and to acknowledge that
the king was head of the church and that the pope had no more authority than
any other bishop. Many of the actual acceptances by the monasteries under
their conventual seals are still preserved. Certain Observant Friars and Carthusians refused to take the oath and were dissolved, but with this exception
it must have been taken everywhere, for it is quite certain that we should
know of any omission. At the end of the year the Verbal Treason Act was
In the same year Parliament took from the pope and granted to the
king the first-fruits and tenths of all ecclesiastical property. Hitherto they had
been assessed by the valuation known as the 'Taxation of Pope Nicholas,'
which had been made in 1291 on account of the temporary grant of the
tenths by that pope to Edward I. This was now superseded by the new
valuation called the 'Valor Ecclesiasticus,' made in the first half of 1535.
It is probably quite fair, though the more careful valuations of the
monasteries made a little later are in most cases slightly larger. Unfortunately, for almost the whole of the county only the net totals are known. (fn. 5)
It will be convenient to pick out and arrange in order the yearly values of
the religious houses. They are as follows:—
|Colchester, St. John's
|Colchester, St. Botolph's
|Colchester, St. Mary Magdalen's
|Colchester, Crossed Friars
|the sum of which amounts to
The values of some the houses have been lost. From another source we
find that the values of the six priories dissolved by Wolsey were—
The total value of these thirty-four houses is thus £6,006 18s. 1½d. For a proper
comparison with the present time these figures should be multiplied by twelve
or fifteen on account of the difference of prices and values; and the total
value of the Essex houses would not be much less than £100,000 yearly.
In the autumn of 1535 the attack on the monasteries was begun. It is
certain that the reason of this was the fact that they were the stronghold of
the papal power; but it is not so clear whether dissolution or merely reform
was originally contemplated. The power of visitation granted to the king
two years before was now used, and commissioners were deputed to make a
searching examination into the state of the religious houses. Minute and
detailed articles of inquiry and injunctions of reform were laid down for
them. These appear for the most part very reasonable, although their
exhaustive and inquisitorial nature must have made them highly unpalatable
to the monasteries. The due observation of divine service, the number of
inmates, the founders, the property and the care taken of it, the state of the
evidences, the manner in which the rule was kept, and the morality of
the inmates, were the chief subjects about which information was to be
obtained. Most notable of all was the power given to the commissioners to
release from their vows all 'religious' under the age of twenty-four, and all
who had been professed under the age of twenty. A case in point is that of
Thomas Solmes, canon of St. Osyth's, who complains to Cromwell that he
had been professed at thirteen, and had never willingly borne the yoke of
religion. There must have been many who, like him, had joined the orders
at an early age against their will or without real knowledge or vocation, and
wished to leave them. On the other hand, many had probably by the
routine of residence in the monasteries become unfitted for an active life
The commissioner for Essex was Thomas Legh, assisted by John Ap
Rice. We have a few references to their visitation, but their 'comperta' or
reports have entirely disappeared. They were certainly taken and sent in for
some houses at least, for Ap Rice distinctly says so in a letter to Cromwell
about the state of Walden. However, out of the whole of England only a
few are preserved. Canon Dixon suggests that the remainder were destroyed
by order of Cromwell; but there is no evidence for this, and the common
theory attributing the destruction to Queen Mary is much more probable.
The extant reports, if correct, form a scathing condemnation of the monastic
system. But it seems clear that, though based on fact, they were greatly
exaggerated and hastily compiled from doubtful evidence, and must be
received with caution. On the other hand, the charges made against the
commissioners by the clerical apologists are equally to be mistrusted.
Parliament met in February, 1536, and the case of the monasteries was
debated at length. They were by no means friendless, for every patron of a
house had a direct interest in its preservation, and the bishops and abbots
formed a large proportion of the Lords. It was not the first time that
dissolution had been proposed, for the Commons had urged it more than a
hundred years before. Then, however, the position of Henry IV and
Henry V had been so insecure that they could not afford to quarrel with
the church. Now the force of the crown was against the monasteries, and
the reports of the commissioners settled the matter. Parliament declared
that the lesser monasteries were rotten, though in the larger ones religion was
well kept, and a bill was passed dissolving all the lesser monasteries and
appropriating their revenues to the state. The line was drawn at the yearly
value of £200. Richer houses were exempted, and the Act did not apply to
colleges, hospitals or chantries, nor (though it is not clear why) to the friars.
Reference to the 'Valor' above will show that seven monasteries in Essex
were above the limit of wealth, and so survived. The remainder were
dissolved and soon afterwards leased, sold or granted away. Liberal pensions
were paid to the heads of these, ranging generally from a sixth to an eighth
of the income of the house. Thus, for example, the prior of Prittlewell had
£20 a year, the prior of Leighs £16, the prior of Thremhall £10, and the
prioress of Hedingham £5. The rest of the monks, however, were not so
fortunate. A few received pensions and some were given gratuities, while
several were afterwards presented to benefices. But many appear to have been
turned out into the world to shift for themselves. Meanwhile, the entire lack
of sympathy of the laity in Essex with the monasteries is most remarkable.
In some parts of the north there were serious risings in the autumn of 1536.
But this was not the case in England generally, and in Essex especially not a
finger was lifted and hardly a voice raised on behalf of the monks, although
in no other county do they appear in a more favourable light. The reason is
no doubt to be found in the proximity of the county to London and to
the Continent, and the consequently greater influence of the humanists and
The seven greater abbeys had only a short respite. They were untouched
in 1536 and 1537, but though direct action was not taken against them,
pressure was put upon them individually. The abbots of Coggeshall and
Walden were deposed, the ostensible reasons probably being that charges of
sedition had been brought against the former, while the latter was known to
have been secretly married. Their successors had, no doubt, been carefully
chosen by Cromwell to suit his purposes. In 1538 three abbeys were
surrendered to the king, Coggeshall in February, and Stratford and Walden in
March. The desperate position of the others is shown by a letter in
September of Sir Thomas Audeley, who offers large bribes to the king and
Cromwell for the continuance of Colchester and St. Osyth's, not as monasteries
—this was evidently past hope—but as secular colleges. Audeley must have
been merely the agent (no doubt paid) of the two abbeys, for he was one of
the chief spoilers of the monasteries, and it is incredible that he should have
been willing to pay the money himself. The attempt was of no avail, for
two months later an order was issued for their dissolution, though it did not
take effect at once. St. Osyth's was surrendered in July, 1539, but the abbot
of Colchester stood firm. He was a strong supporter of Rome and the
northern rising, and this cost him his life, for evidence of treasonable
utterances was produced against him and he was executed in December.
Barking was surrendered in November, and in the same year another Act of
Parliament was passed confirming all surrenders past and future, and granting
all monasteries, colleges, and hospitals to the king. Finally Waltham, the
last abbey to fall in England, was surrendered in March, 1540. As in the
case of the smaller monasteries, pensions were granted. The abbot of
Waltham was allowed the large yearly sum of £200, the abbess of Barking
£133 6s. 8d., and the abbot of Coggeshall £66 13s. 4d. Even the Colchester monks were pensioned, in spite of the treason of their abbot. The
friaries had meanwhile fallen in 1538. The colleges and hospitals, as
mentioned above, came under the Act of 1539, but most of them
remained until a more comprehensive Act was passed in 1545, granting
colleges, chapels, chantries, fraternities, and all other similar institutions, to
the king. Under this and another Act to much the same effect, passed
on the accession of Edward VI in 1547, the remaining colleges and
chantries came to an end.
The numbers of the monks, canons or nuns in the various houses are
of some interest. At Barking there were thirty-one at the dissolution, at
Waltham eighteen. At St. Osyth's there were twenty-one at the time of the
oath of supremacy, but only sixteen at the dissolution. Other numbers are:
nineteen at Walden, seventeen at St. John's, Colchester, fifteen at Stratford,
eleven each at Colne, Dunmow and Leighs, ten at Hatfield Regis and six at
Tilty, and eighteen in the six houses dissolved by Wolsey. It will be noticed
that the numbers are only very roughly in proportion to the wealth of the
houses. Probably in the whole twenty-seven monasteries in the sixteenth
century there were something less than 250, while in the four friaries
there may have been perhaps twenty-five more. In earlier times the
numbers would have been considerably greater than this.