THE RELIGIOUS HOUSES OF DORSET
Dorset enjoyed a unique pre-eminence for the number and importance
of its religious houses founded during the Saxon period. No fewer than nine
monastic establishments are known to have existed in the county prior to the
Norman Conquest; of these the great houses of Sherborne, Shaftesbury,
Abbotsbury, Cerne, and Milton continued after that epoch to rank as Benedictine abbeys; the two abbeys of Cranborne and Horton survived as priories,
dependent respectively upon the abbeys of Tewkesbury and Sherborne; the
famous early nunnery of Wimborne was converted into a college of secular
canons, while at Wareham, where an early house of nuns is said to have been
destroyed by the Danes in 876, a small priory sprang up as a cell to the
Norman abbey of Lire.
The reformed Benedictines of the order of Cluny had a small priory at
East Holme, and the Cistercians an abbey at Bindon, both founded before the
end of the twelfth century. The Cistercians had also a house of nuns of
much celebrity at Tarrant Kaines; and it is probable that the 'Camesterne,'
where, according to the Mappa Mundi
(fn. 1) compiled at the close of the twelfth
century, certain 'white nuns' were established, is a corruption of Kaines
It is remarkable that the canons of the Austin and Premonstratensian
rules, so numerous elsewhere, had no foundations within this county, unless
perhaps the obscure 'priory' or 'chantry' of Wilcheswood in Langton Wallis
belonged to the canons regular. It seems, however, more probable that
Wilcheswood should be considered as a small collegiate church, of which
class the other example in Dorset was Wimborne Minster.
The Templars were unrepresented, but the Knights Hospitallers had a
preceptory at Friar Mayne. The Dominican Friars are mentioned at Gillingham in 1267; their other settlement, at Melcombe Regis, was of far
greater importance, and is remarkable as being the last house of the order
established in England. The Franciscans settled at Dorchester, and the
Carmelites had a short-lived settlement at Bridport. During the fourteenth
century unsuccessful attempts appear to have been made to introduce Carmelites at Lyme, and Austin Friars at Sherborne. A remarkable 'priory
hermitage' at Blackmoor, although stated to have been under the rule of
St. Augustine, does not seem to have belonged to the Austin 'Friars Hermits,'
nor yet to have become a house of Austin canons, as was sometimes the fate
of such hermitages.
Some twelve hospitals are known to have existed in this county, but
they were mostly small, and some were apparently unendowed lazar-houses.
A considerable amount of property was held in Dorset by alien houses,
and in five or six cases the parent house established a cell or small priory
upon its estates. These instances were at Frampton (the abbey of St. Stephen
of Caen), Loders (St. Mary of Montebourg), Spettisbury (the abbey of
Préaux), Wareham (the abbey of Lire), and possibly Povington (the abbey
of Bec Hellouin). The latter is only called a priory in 1467, more than
fifty years after it had been separated from the Norman abbey, and it is
probable that it was never more than a grange or estate managed by the
abbey's chief English cell, the priory of Ogbourne. In the same way the
lands given by Roger de Beaumont in Stour Provost to the nuns of St. Leger
of Préaux, and those in the neighbourhood of Winterborne Wast bestowed
upon the Cluniac priory 'de Vasto,' near Boulogne, were never the site of any
cell and priory. At Muckleford, which estate was granted with the advowson of Bradford Peverell to the Norman abbey of Tiron, (fn. 2) a cell was said to
have been established, (fn. 3) but it is clear that the estate was really under the
control of the abbey's cell of Andwell in Hampshire. (fn. 4) Similarly, the supposed cell of the Carthusian priory of Sheen at Shapwick (fn. 5) was clearly no
more than a grange.