A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1904.
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5. THE ABBEY OF WOBURN
The Cistercian abbey of Woburn was founded in the year 1145, (fn. 1) under the patronage of Hugh de Bolebec. It was a colony sent from the abbey of Fountains in Yorkshire, and its first abbot, Alan, was a monk of that house. (fn. 2) To the manor of Woburn other gifts were soon added: Ralf Pirot of Harlington, William of Flitton, Henry and Stephen of Pulloxhill were amongst the earliest benefactors, whose charters were confirmed by Henry II. before 1162; (fn. 3) and Ralf Pirot (who was a considerable feudal tenant of Robert d'Albini) himself became a monk in the abbey before his death. (fn. 4) On the manor of Medmenham in Bucks, granted by the daughter of Hugh de Bolebec, another abbey was built in the reign of King John. (fn. 5)
The early history of the abbey is obscure. A few stray facts relating to the twelfth century and the early part of the thirteenth may be gathered from the annals of Waverley and Dunstable: as, for instance, that a prior of Woburn was made abbot of Combe in 1183 (fn. 6); and that a long suit went on from about the same date until 1225, concerning the advowson of the church of Chesham, between the abbots of Woburn and St. Alban's, and the prior of Dunstable. (fn. 7) The final agreement gave the church to Woburn, the other houses receiving pensions. The abbots of this period, like all other heads of large and well known religious houses, took a considerable part in public affairs, and were made arbiters in local disputes as well as matters of wider interest. In 1202 an abbot of Woburn went to Worcester to inquire into the miracles which were alleged to have taken place at the shrine of St. Wulfstan, and in the next year he was made one of the papal commissioners for the process of canonisation. (fn. 8) In 1215 another abbot is mentioned in one of the Letters Patent of King John, as having been an intercessor with him for Simon de Pateshull. (fn. 9)
In 1234 the house was reduced to great poverty; Abbot Richard, who had evidently been a bad manager, was removed, and Roger, a monk from Fountains, took his place, while nearly all the monks and lay brethren were dispersed amongst other houses until their own abbey should be able to support them again. (fn. 10) The canons of Dunstable did what they could to help their neighbours in distress, and presented them with a mill; they may also have offered a home for the time to some of the monks. But the abbey was not long in recovering its prosperity; for in 1240 a canon of Dunstable fled there, to escape from taking the oath imposed by Bishop Grossetête. (fn. 11) Fifty years later it was one of the wealthiest houses in the county. (fn. 12) There is no indication of the number of monks at this time; but as Warden Abbey, with very nearly the same income, held probably forty or fifty, we may conclude that Woburn had accommodation for about as many. At the time of the dissolution there were it would seem less than twenty.
Nothing can be gathered from the Lincoln Registers as to the internal history of the abbey during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as it was exempt, like all Cistercian houses, from visitation. One of the unfortunate Templars was placed there in 1311, (fn. 13) from which we may perhaps infer that the house was in good order at that time; otherwise its history is almost a blank sheet, except for a few notices of loans to the king, impropriations of churches, etc., such as are common to all religious houses. But the circumstances which led to the suppression of the house furnish us happily with a very full and clear account of its last days. From the depositions taken in May 1538 (fn. 14) it may be gathered that there were at least thirteen monks besides the abbot, all of whom were clerks; there were perhaps others also who were not mentioned by name, and most probably, on the analogy of other houses, a few lay brothers. There seems to have been no prior at the time; the most prominent person after the abbot was the sub-prior; a 'bowser' or bursar had succeeded the old cellarer; among minor officials the sexton and the 'chaunter' or precentor are named, and one monk was secretary to the abbot. Three 'young gentlemen' and their schoolmaster had been recently boarders in the house; and a former abbot of Warden, for reasons unknown, preferred to spend his last days at Woburn. The abbot, Robert Hobbes, (fn. 15) had much friendly intercourse with the gentry of the neighbourhood, and had been the guest of Sir Francis Bryan at Ampthill; the Bishop of Lincoln was often a near neighbour when he visited his manor at Woburn; so that, in one way and another, the house was well known, and its deficiencies would have been easily observed. But there can be no doubt whatever that it was in excellent order, and the rule well kept. Though the abbot's views as to the religious controversies of the time were shared by few of his brethren, they nevertheless yielded him due obedience to the last. The bursar and the secretary might marvel that he kept a dangerous and reactionary book in the abbey (fn. 16); but the one copied it and the other laid it by, according to their obedience. And on the abbot's side there was all the consideration on which the rule of St. Benedict lays such stress; the penitential exercises from which he hoped so much were dropped as soon as he saw that they were offered by unwilling hearts and lips, and his rebukes were always mild and fatherly. Cross-examined by the king's commissioners, the monks reported the words of their superior, and gave their own opinions; but only two had really laid information against him, and not even these had any personal complaint to make. (fn. 17) During the whole trial, indeed, no word of accusation is raised against the personal character of any of the monks; and, so far as we can gather, the divine offices were performed with care and reverence to the last.
The house fell for purely political reasons. The full account of its tragic ending is found in the State Papers, and the story has been told more than once. (fn. 18) But there has been a good deal of confusion about the dates of the various stages of proceeding (fn. 19); it seems therefore best to set down the events quite simply in the order in which they occurred, and to let them speak for themselves.
In 1534-5 (fn. 20) there was a preliminary visitation by Dr. Petre, who administered the oath of supremacy to the whole convent, ordered the delivery of all papal bulls to himself, and the erasure of the pope's name from all service books. These orders were carried out; but the abbot, as he afterwards confessed, had the bulls copied before he delivered them, and also expressed a wish to some of his monks that the pope's name might be struck out with a pen and not erased. He did not however press the latter point. (fn. 21)
During the three years that followed, the new laws and the great events of the time, political and religious, were much discussed in the monastery, and there was a tendency amongst the monks to fall into two parties. It seems however to have been no more than a tendency; there were only two (fn. 22) who were decidedly in favour of the new learning, all for the king and the council, and two or three also (fn. 23) (including the sub-prior) who were with the abbot in holding to the old way. The rest had no strong opinions at all, and the discussions in the shaving house and elsewhere, though free, were apparently not violent. At the death of More and Fisher, and again at the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, the abbot imposed certain penitential exercises (fn. 24) upon the whole convent, which were performed, though not with good will; when murmuring arose they ceased.
Meanwhile the abbot was growing more and more troubled as he saw the course events were taking; more and more consciencestricken at his own cowardice in accepting the oath of supremacy, which better and braver men had refused. He did not hide his troubles from his brethren; but they were for the most part irresponsive to his appeals. He confided to the sub-prior that his conscience grudged him daily for taking the oath; he said to more than one of his neighbours and friends that he felt it was their own shameful lives that were bringing so many troubles upon the religious. (fn. 25) In Lent he fell ill of the 'stranguilion,' and in his extreme bodily pain he said that he wished he had died with More and Fisher and the other good men who would not take the oath. And when his mind wandered a little in his illness the words that came to his lips most naturally were quotations from the fathers which seemed to prove the pope's supremacy. (fn. 26) Yet, characteristically, at Easter he put the sub-prior on his obedience 'to bid the beads' before the sermon for the king as supreme head of the Church.
The death he desired was indeed nearer than he thought. It was during Lent that one of the assistant priests of Woburn chapel (which served as the parish church) came upon some bulls which had not been delivered up to Dr. Petre, and went straight up to London with them. This man had been engaged by the abbot in the previous summer (fn. 27); he was originally a friar, (fn. 28) who had been dispensed from his obedience by the pope, and was now a violent partisan of the new learning; he had already been rebuked by the abbot for his railing against the pope, and against images. With the bulls he took a letter from Dan Robert Salford, one of the monks who shared his views. On his return he told the abbot what his errand had been, and was dismissed in consequence; but the precaution came too late. Early in May Dr. Legh and John Williams arrived, bringing grave charges against the abbot and convent; on the 8th the house was surrendered. (fn. 29) John Williams, who had taken the deed of surrender up to London, (fn. 30) together with a letter from the abbot (in which he and his brethren protested their innocence and cast themselves on the king's mercy), (fn. 31) returned again at once accompanied by Dr. Petre; and on 11 and 12 May depositions were taken, and with articles of accusation appended were submitted to the council. (fn. 32)
Four monks were examined besides the abbot and sub-prior; also Sir John Mylward, warden of the hospital at Toddington, and Sir William Sherborne, chaplain of Woburn, to whom allusion has already been made. The substance of the depositions has been already given; they recounted the events of the last few years. The abbot practically confessed all that he was accused of; he had failed to preach the king's supremacy on divers occasions, and openly expressed his opinions on the subject to a great many people. The sub-prior had also failed to preach the king's supremacy, and had prayed publicly for the pope when he went up to Oxford to take his degree of B.D. The depositions of Dan Robert Salford, who had sent the letter up to Cromwell, and of Sir William Sherborne, who had carried it, implicated others within and outside of the monastery.
Salford testified how the abbot had summoned them all to chapter and exhorted them not to forsake their house or habit, and had advised him personally, in confession, not to complain to the royal visitors against those of his brethren who had railed on the council and spoken against their oath. He gave it as his own opinion that six of these, besides the sub-prior, were papists. But the name which most frequently occurs in all the depositions is that of Dan Laurence Blunham, the sexton, who had evidently made open boast that he had never taken the oath, and never would. It was natural that when the final selection of names was made he should appear beside the abbot and sub-prior as one of the chief offenders. These three were tried at Bedford at the summer sessions, and condemned to suffer the ordinary penalties of treason. (fn. 33) They were probably executed at the end of June (fn. 34); tradition says that an old oak tree outside the abbey gates served them for a gallows. (fn. 35) The whole course of proceeding, from the accusation to the execution, only occupied two or three months, instead of being spread over two or three years, as has been supposed. It was an ordinary case of verbal treason under the law of 1535, and is parallel to the case of Friar Forrest who was hanged and burned about a month earlier; but it is an even better illustration of the extreme rigour of that law. The Carthusians and Forrest, who finally refused to take the oath, after having it several times tendered to them, might perhaps be looked upon as dangerous men, and enemies to the commonwealth; but there was little enough to fear from the monks of Woburn. The abbot in his final deposition pleaded that he did all he had done 'out of a scrupulous conscience that he then had, considering the long continuance of the Bishop of Rome in that trade being, and the sudden mutation thereof'; he was ready to renounce some of his opinions (fn. 36) at once, and begged the king's mercy, and Cromwell's intercession. (fn. 37) On 27 May (fn. 38) Laurence Blunham sent in a similar plea for mercy, on the ground of his 'foolish scrupulous mind' ; he had indeed escaped taking the oath formally, for he did not kiss the book, being passed over in the crowd; but now he was put out of all doubt of the truth ' by the instruction of my Lord Privy Seal.' In June (fn. 39) the sub-prior sent in his petition for mercy, also announcing himself converted, by the reading of the Obedience of a Christian Man and the Glass of Truth. But verbal treason, once committed, could not be undone.
It is a pitiful story from any point of view. Robert Hobbes and his monks were no heroes: they were clear enough in their convictions and could admire the steadfastness of More and Fisher; but when it came to the test they found it easier to admire than to imitate. Yet they were good religious; the character of the abbot in particular is a very attractive one, (fn. 40) and if he had fallen upon happier times it would have secured to him the love of all his brethren and an honourable memory.
The abbey was endowed by the founder with the manor of Woburn, and other parcels of land in the neighbourhood were added by various benefactors before 1162. (fn. 41) The manor of Medmenham (Bucks), for building another abbey, was confirmed to the abbot in 1200-1 (fn. 42); and in 1202 Hugh Malet granted the manors of Swanbourne and Mursley (Bucks) in pure and perpetual alms, with the church of Swanbourn, to be held of him and his heirs for ever. (fn. 43) The church of Chesham was in the gift of the abbey in the twelfth century, (fn. 44) and the churches of Birchmore, Whitchurch and Soulbury at a later date. In 1291 (fn. 45) the temporalities of Woburn amounted to £121 10s. 8¼d., and the spiritualities may have added another £50. A taxation of the property of the abbey taken in 1338 valued it at £132 19s. 9¼d. (fn. 46)
The abbots held in 132 (fn. 47) one knight's fee in Eversholt, and smaller fractions in Potsgrave, Hare, Holcutt and Harlington ; in Buckinghamshire (fn. 48) one fee in Swanbourne and another in Stewkley, and a part of Drayton. In 1316 (fn. 49) they held half of each of the three vills of Milton Bryan, Eversholt and Birchmore, with Woburn; in 1346 they held half a fee in Woburn, Milton Bryan and Pulloxhill (fn. 50); in 1428 one fee in Eversholt and another in Holcutt, with one half in Milton Bryant, Hare and Pulloxhill (fn. 51); the Buckinghamshire fees remaining much the same, except the one in Stewkley which had passed to the abbess of Fontevraud. The valuation in 1535 of the whole property of the abbey was £391 18s. 2d. clear. (fn. 52) The movable goods of the monastery, including plate, money, jewels, church ornaments, household stuff, corn, cattle, and debts owing to the house were valued in June 1538 at £509 17s. 4d.; and at the survey of the lands taken at the same time a total of £450 14s. 31/8d. in temporalities and £78 14s. 0d. in spiritualities was obtained. (fn. 53) The report of the Crown bailiff four years later gave a total of £427 8s. 3d., including the rectories of Birchmore with Woburn chapel, Soulbury, Chesham and Whitchurch in Buckinghamshire, and lands in Beds, Bucks, Oxon, Herts, Northants and London, and the manors of Eversholt, Pulloxhill, Grenfield, Westoning, Potsgrave and Swanbourne. (fn. 54)
Abbots of Woburn
Alan, (fn. 55) first abbot, 1145
William, (fn. 56) occurs circa 1180
Peter (fn. 57) " 1202, died 1204
Nicholas (fn. 58) " 1208
Richard (fn. 59) " 1217, 1228, deposed 1234
Roger (fn. 60) of Fountains, elected 1234
Adam of Luton, (fn. 61) died 1247
Nicholas, (fn. 62) elected 1247
Roger, (fn. 63) died 1281
Hugh of Soulbury, (fn. 63) elected 1281
William, (fn. 64) occurs 1286
Robert de Stokes, (fn. 65) elected 1297
Henry, (fn. 66) elected 1312
Thomas de Thornton, (fn. 67) elected 1336
William Manepeny, (fn. 68) " 1396
William Hawburth, (fn. 69) " 1436
John of Ashby, (fn. 70) " 1458
Robert Charlet, (fn. 71) " 1463
Robert Hall, (fn. 72) " 1483
Thomas Hogeson, (fn. 73) occurs 1499
Robert Hobbes (fn. 74) " 1529
No seal of this abbey remains so far as is known.