A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.
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HOUSES OF AUSTIN CANONS
9. THE ABBEY OF MISSENDEN
The abbey of Missenden was founded in or about the year 1133 by a certain William of Missenden, (fn. 1) for Austin Canons following the customs of the abbey of St. Nicholas at Arrouaise in Artois. This date is well established by a concurrence of charters of confirmation; from Pope Innocent II. in 1137 and Eugenius III. in 1145, and from Henry I. in 1133, Stephen, and Henry II., (fn. 2) and the connection with Arrouaise is equally well attested. (fn. 3) The charters of Henry I. and Alexander of Lincoln expressly state that there were at first but seven canons in the house, and that they came originally from the church of St. Mary 'de Bosco (or de Nemore) de pago Terresino.' (fn. 4)
The Arrouasian reform of the Augustinian order originated independently of that which is connected with the name of St. Peter Damian; it was begun in 1090 by three hermits, but not ruled by an abbot until 1124. (fn. 5) During the time of Gervase, the first abbot, the order seems to have increased, and several houses were founded in England and Ireland, amongst which we find Missenden and Nutley in this county, Harrold in Bedfordshire, Bourne in Lincolnshire. It was the Arrouasian custom to place new houses under an abbot at once, (fn. 6) and not to keep them in the position of cells to the parent abbey: with the natural result that the Arrouasian Canons tended to approximate more and more to others who kept the rule of St. Augustine, and after a while ceased to be distinguished from them in any way. They never seem to have been really an independent order with special privileges, like the Premonstratensians: and by the fifteenth century the Arrouasian name, where it was still retained, was little more than a convenient excuse for escaping attendance at general chapters and other ordinances of the regular life. (fn. 7)
All the best known names in the county of Buckingham are found amongst the early benefactors of Missenden Abbey: Richard de Urvill the archdeacon, Walter Giffard, Walter de Bolebec, Turstin Mantel, Manasser Danmartin, Simon de Gerardmoulin, Hugh de Gurnay, Robert Mansel, the Turvilles and Cheinduits, and many others. The house was never among the greater abbeys of England, but it was fairly well endowed from the beginning, and was one of the most important monasteries in this county. The number of canons was probably soon increased, and even in the fifteenth century there were as many as twenty. (fn. 8) It seems likely that a later William of Missenden added to the original endowment in the thirteenth century, and so came to be reckoned as founder, and this would explain the result of the inquisition made in 1332, which reported that the house was founded as recently as 1293. (fn. 9) Yet another William of Missenden in 1336 was buried in the abbey with the honours of a founder (fn. 10) : and perhaps these later benefactions obscured the memory of the earlier ones.
At the end of the twelfth century the Abbot of Missenden was proctor to the Abbot of Arrouaise, and had to act for him in a difficulty which arose in connection with the priory of Harrold in Bedfordshire. The priors of this house had been nominated at first by the Abbot of Arrouaise, without contradiction; but near the end of the twelfth century, the nuns, under the leadership of a certain brother 'B.' and Gila the prioress, tried to escape from all subjection to the parent abbey. They tried to get a privilege from the pope for this purpose: the Abbot of Arrouaise indeed alleged that they had forged one, and was inclined at first to believe that the Abbot of Missenden had aided and abetted their plots; but he afterwards cleared the latter of all blame. It was finally arranged that the nuns should pay half a mark yearly to the Abbot of Missenden and be free in future of all subjection to Arrouaise. After this agreement, which took place about the year 1188, (fn. 11) there is no record of any further connection between Missenden and Arrouaise.
This house is mentioned early in the thirteenth century in connection with a few suits of no great importance; in two of these the abbot was convicted of putting forward unwarrantable claims. In 1225 he appeared against Hubert de Burgh the justiciar, and brought forward a charter from Walter de Penn, which granted to him the advowson of Oulton Church in Norfolk, but Hubert was successful in proving that Walter never had any right to make the gift, and the abbot was fined in consequence. (fn. 12) In 1231 the abbot was successful in proving his claim to the chapel of Muswell, (fn. 13) but in 1245 he was again convicted of wrongfully exacting a pension from the rector of Taplow. (fn. 14)
We hear from the chronicler of Dunstable that the convent of Missenden suffered some kind of persecution from Ralf Brito, the king's treasurer, before 1232, but no details are given. (fn. 15) In 1239 Isabel, the wife of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, desired that a part of her body should be buried in this abbey. (fn. 16) The Close Rolls of the reign of Edward I. show the abbots to have been somewhat involved in debt at this time. (fn. 17) And towards the close of the thirteenth century the abbey seems to have fallen into great poverty, for in 1281 Henry Huse and Walter de Agmodesham were appointed to take it under the king's special protection for four years, as it was in danger of dispersion and ruin by murrain among sheep and horses, failure of crops, and accumulation of debts, (fn. 18) and in 1286 a similar order was issued to Master William de Luda, king's clerk, for a period of time unnamed. (fn. 19) In 1276 Abbot William of London received 50 marks from the king to establish a chantry in the conventual church for the soul of Hugh de Sandford, in whose family the patronage of the house had been for some years. (fn. 20) It was probably soon after this that the second William of Missenden became a benefactor of the abbey.
The abbots of the fourteenth century were generally of families well known in the county: two of the Marshalls of Missenden held this office, and in 1340 a brother of Thomas De la Mare, afterwards Abbot of St. Albans, ruled the abbey of Missenden for a short time. In 1361 Ralf Marshall earned for his house a most undesirable notoriety: he was convicted of falsifying the coinage of the realm in his manor at Lee, and condemned to be drawn, hanged and quartered. He was afterwards pardoned, (fn. 21) and the sentence commuted to a term of imprisonment, first in the castle of Nottingham, and afterwards in the monastery of Bourne. (fn. 22) About 1369 however he returned again to Missenden, (fn. 23) which had been ruled by the prior in the meanwhile, (fn. 24) and died in his London house in 1374.
There was another abbot, Robert Risborough, who brought much discredit and trouble upon the house during the reign of Edward IV. His name occurs in connection with leases and other transactions of a formal character as early as 1448 (fn. 25); but at the beginning of the new reign, in June 1462, he appealed to the king for protection against the prior and canons of his monastery, who were summoned to appear in Chancery and give sureties that they would not injure him or set fire to his house. (fn. 26) It is evident however that this order was given hastily and without sufficient inquiry, for in July of the same year Robert Risborough was deprived of his office by the vote of the whole convent for simony and other crimes of which he had been convicted, and Henry Honor of Missenden was elected in his place. (fn. 27) The process of deprivation and election was duly and formally reported by the prior to the Bishop of Lincoln, and both were confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, (fn. 28) so for a while Henry Honor was able to maintain his position quietly. But about the year 1469 Robert appealed to Thomas Rotherham, then Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of the kingdom, and managed so to present his case that the Chancellor, though he had really no jurisdiction in the matter, reinstated him and imprisoned Henry Honor for three years in the Fleet. In 1471, when Rotherham became Bishop of Lincoln, and seemed likely to go into the matter more carefully, Robert thought it wiser to resign, on condition that the canons would allow him the manor and church of Great Kimble for his maintenance. So Henry Honor again became abbot: but after five years Robert made another attempt to regain his old place. He complained to the king that he had been wrongfully deposed by George Neville, late Archbishop of York, for no other cause than sympathy with the Lancastrian party, and a writ was issued to the sheriff for his restoration. But in a very short time the king, probably through Rotherham, who had now become Archbishop of York, found out the true facts of the case and ordered Henry to be confirmed in his office and protected him from further molestation. (fn. 29) Mandates were issued to the Bishop of Lincoln and the rector of Ashridge to see this final sentence carried into effect. (fn. 30)
Henry Honor was abbot from this time almost until the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII. During the last few years before the dissolution the number of canons diminished, and the monastic buildings were allowed to fall out of repair. (fn. 31) In 1530 besides the abbot there was a prior, a vicar, a chanter and sub-chanter, a kitchener, a refectorian, and a sacrist, besides another canon and five novices. (fn. 32) The Acknowledgment of Supremacy was signed by John Fox and thirteen canons in 1535 (fn. 33); the final surrender was made by John Otwell in 1538. (fn. 34) The abbot received a pension of £50, and the canons annuities ranging from £5 to £7, or else benefices in the gift of the monastery. (fn. 35) Four of them besides the abbot were still alive and drawing their pensions in 1552. (fn. 36)
We have unusually full information as to the internal history of this house, which serves to illustrate a point of interest. There is a modern theory that one chief cause of the degeneracy of the religious houses in England before the dissolution was the exemption of so many among them from episcopal visitation; but this is not supported by any solid basis of facts, and, like some other theories as to the comparative advantage of great and little monasteries, is built rather upon a general idea of what ought to have happened than upon what actually did happen. The whole Augustinian order was subject at all times to episcopal jurisdiction, and none of its abbeys or priories ever obtained any exemptions: the episcopal registers survive to witness that the bishops did visit them continually; and yet it was this order which was solemnly warned of the 'impending ruin of all religion' among them in 1518—a warning uttered not by their enemies, but by their true friend, Cardinal Wolsey, who did his best to help them in the work of reformation. (fn. 37) Of course not all the Augustinian houses were degenerate: some have a quite satisfactory record even at the end (fn. 38); but Missenden was not one of these. Nevertheless its failure was in no sense due to lack of episcopal supervision.
The Abbot of Missenden was one of those deposed by Bishop Grosstête in his severe and searching visitation of 1236 (fn. 39); whether for maladministration or for more serious faults does not appear; but indeed the house seems from first to last to have been singularly unfortunate in its abbots. There is an interesting letter of Grosstête to the monks of Missenden, giving them advice as to the election of a new superior in 1240, and speaking of the qualifications to be desired in one who was to bear rule in a house of religion. (fn. 40) Bishop Sutton had occasion twice to write to the abbot and convent to receive back apostate but repentant canons. (fn. 41) It does not appear that in his time there was any laxity in the house, but rather the reverse: for a certain novice cut his own throat in 1297 for fear of discipline. (fn. 42) The monastery was visited in 1338 by order of Bishop Burghersh, (fn. 43) and in 1343 an inquiry was made into its rights and liberties by Bishop Bek. (fn. 44) There was another inquiry made in 1347 to see which of the monks were trying to impede the election of John of Abingdon (fn. 45); and again in 1348 the bishop had to intervene and collate an abbot after a lapse of six months. (fn. 46) In 1361 the scandals connected with Abbot Ralf Marshall's attainder brought the house under the notice of Bishop Gynwell, who had to appoint the prior to rule the house for a time. (fn. 47) In 1369, when Ralf Marshall returned, he found his position a difficult one, and perhaps tried to enforce his authority by rough measures, for some of the canons complained to the bishop. A commission was sent in 1370 to inquire into their grievances, and the abbot was ordered to take no proceedings against those who had complained (fn. 48); but in 1372 there was a fresh commission which suggests that the monks and not the abbot were the aggressors. (fn. 49)
Bishop Gray visited the abbey between 1431 and 1436, but found no special laxity. The number of monks seem to have been insufficient at this time for the due performance of the divine office: they were to be increased as soon as possible, and certain of the conventual buildings were to be repaired. (fn. 50)
In the time of Robert Risborough, if the abbot was unworthy of his office, public opinion in the monastery was certainly against him, though the prior and canons were obliged to wait until he could be canonically deposed, and the credit of the house restored by a better appointment. It may fairly be supposed that Henry Honor, who was elected in Robert's place, was chosen because he upheld a higher standard of religious observance. It was probably during his long term of office that the Sloane chartulary (fn. 51) was compiled, though it contains some entries of later date. It is a curious book, in which leases and royal writs are mixed up indiscriminately with scraps of general information of all kinds—a table of the kings of England, the way to find Easter and to understand the signs of the weather; lists of Christian virtues, deadly sins and colours for painting; prescriptions for divers diseases containing such strange ingredients as 'oil of black snails' and 'marrow of horse bones,' with the exorcisms for the falling sickness and the fever; the ten commandments in English and many rhymed adages and rules for the conduct of life generally. (fn. 52)
At the beginning of the sixteenth century the discipline of the house became sadly lax, and the visitation of Atwater in 1518 reveals a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. The bishop noticed that licences to go into the town were much too readily granted to the canons. These he ordered to be restricted in future to cases of necessity. The refectory was to be repaired, and until it was ready the abbot must appoint some other place where the canons could eat together and hear the Rule read. The infirmary was to be put in order, and five at least among the canons must in future be priests. They were to have a proper place where they could receive their friends two or three times in the year. There was a monk from another house living here who was non utilis monasterio. Richard Gynger, a novice, was too prone to ease and gave neither his time nor his attention to heavenly things; he must occupy himself laudably. There was want of care too even in the appointments of the conventual church. The bishop found it necessary to order a lamp to be alight continually before the Blessed Sacrament. The very servants of the monastery were insolent and abusive to the canons, and refused to attend to their needs. (fn. 53)
In the lists of those who abjured and did penance in 1521 for heresy, Foxe names a canon of Missenden. (fn. 54) It is by no means improbable at such a time, when the monastery was in such complete disorder.
There was worse to come. The visitations of Longland in 1530 and 1531 revealed mischief of a still more serious kind. In 1530 (fn. 55) it was complained that the abbot, John Fox, was wholly under the influence of a secular, John Compton, who cut down trees and did as he pleased with the goods of the monastery. The prior was remiss in correction, and did not set an example of regular attendance at the divine office. The buildings were all out of repair, and the house £60 in debt. The abbot had no book or rental to show his lands, and did not know what his possessions really were. The gate between the nave and choir of the conventual church was never closed, so that seculars could enter the choir at their will. No lessons from Holy Scripture were read in the refectory. One canon, John Slythurst, was accused by three or four of his brethren not merely of being 'verbose, of elate mind, and a sower of dissension,' but of the crime condemned beyond all others in Holy Scripture; and the late abbot, William Honor, had shared his guilt.
It was a terrible indictment, and the bishop's commissary, Thomas Jackman, met it with stringent regulations. John Slythurst was to be kept apart from all the brethren, in the custody of the abbot and prior; he was never to go out of his cell without a licence from the bishop, and no one was to be admitted to see him except those who came for the good of his soul. No boys were to be allowed in the dormitory or any part of the monastery on any account whatever: if the prior were to infringe this rule he was to be put on bread and water. For the rest, it seemed best to report the whole case to the bishop, and Longland was not the man to treat it lightly. (fn. 56) In June 1531 he visited the house in person. More searching inquiries elicited from the abbot himself a more complete confession. He was evidently a man of feeble character, not a hardened sinner, but incapable of standing against any strong temptation. His sister was living in the monastery as brasiatrix, and he had dismissed her daughter from the house because of her evil conversation; yet his own life had not been wholly pure. He owned also that he had squandered the goods of the monastery. Roger Palmer, the refectorar, who had piously complained of the want of lectures in Holy Scripture at the last visitation, was a very different character: not the victim of temptation, but one who deliberately broke his vows. He had been seen more than once at midnight coming out of a house in the village (fn. 57) in doublet and jerkin, with a sword by his side, and this he confessed to be true.
The bishop ordered that the abbot should be suspended from his office until further notice, and the charge of the monastery was committed to John Otwell, afterwards abbot. Roger Palmer was to be kept under lock and key. The injunctions finally delivered to the whole convent were written in 'vulgar English,' that the canons might have no excuse, and might not say they could not understand what was desired of them. The injunctions are of the usual nature and relate to the due observance of the rule of the order, particularly that a learned man in grammar should be appointed to teach the canons and young priests; that the doors from the church into the quire and cloister and the door of the Lady Chapel be kept locked; that no canon should have a key of the cloister door leading into the fields, and that the door only be opened at such times 'as the covent shalbe licensed to goo into the feldes to sport togydre'; that the buildings, especially the belfry, be repaired; that they be more sparing in their board till the house be in a better state, and that the abbot should no more suffer his kinsfolk 'to hang upon the monasteryes charge as they have done'; whereas it was found at the late visitation that John Compton 'ruleth thabbot' and 'cutteth down trees,' that he meddle not further till 'he doth use himself uprightly'; that the brethren are not to wear 'garded or welted hose or stuffed codpese or jerkyn or any other shorte or courtely fashioned garment,' and that Dom John Slithwise be committed to prison till 'ye knowe our further mynde.' (fn. 58)
John Fox died some time between 1535 and 1538, and Otwell became abbot de jure as well as de facto, but he had little opportunity of reforming the house before its dissolution. (fn. 59) He lived till 1552, and was married some time before that date; so was Thomas Bernard, the kitchener, who had the vicarage of Little Missenden assigned to him by way of pension. Three other canons living in 1552 remained unmarried: Roger Palmer was one of them. (fn. 60)
It may perhaps be considered a point of generosity in the king and his agents, that pensions were dealt out so impartially to guilty and innocent alike; but it was a strangely undiscriminating zeal for reform which set John Slythurst free from penitential discipline, and promoted him to a benefice with cure of souls. (fn. 61)
The original endowment of the abbey included the demesne land at Great Missenden with other parcels of land in the counties of Buckingham, Oxford and Huntingdon, as well as the churches of Great Missenden, Great Kimble, Chalfont St. Peter, Weston Turville and its chapels, in Bucks; Glatton and Aldbury, Hunts; Caversfield and Shiplake, Oxon; Swynford, Radenhall and Porlaine. (fn. 62) The temporalia of the abbey in 1291 (fn. 63) amounted to £60 5s. 5d., and included lands in Bucks, Oxon, Herts, and London; the manor of Peterley was added not long after. (fn. 64)
In 1284 the abbot held only one knight's fee in Great Kimble with four acres besides (fn. 65); in 1302 (fn. 66) the same; in 1316 half the vill of Broughton and Holcutt with one third of Great Kimble (fn. 67); in 1346 one fee in Great Kimble and a small part of Little Kimble. (fn. 68) The Valor Ecclesiasticus gives for this abbey a clear revenue of £261 14s. 6d., including the churches of Great Missenden, Great Kimble, Chalfont St. Peter, Caversfield, Shiplake and Glatton. (fn. 69) The Ministers' Accounts amount to £240 11s. 4½d., including the manors of Great Kimble, Hughenden, and Little Missenden. (fn. 70)
Abbots of Missenden
Daniel, (fn. 71) first abbot, occurs 1133 and 1145
Peter, (fn. 72) occurs about 1163
Adam, (fn. 73) occurs 1198 and 1206
William, (fn. 74) occurs 1217
Martin, (fn. 75) occurs 1219, deposed 1236
Robert, (fn. 76) elected 1236, resigned 1240
Roger of Gilsburgh, (fn. 77) elected 1240, occurs till 1248
Simon of London, (fn. 78) elected 1258, resigned 1262
Geoffrey de Welpesle, (fn. 79) elected 1262, resigned 1268
William of London, (fn. 80) elected 1268, occurs till 1278
Matthew of Tring, (fn. 81) died 1306
Richard Marshall, (fn. 82) elected 1306, died 1323
Robert of Kimble, (fn. 83) elected 1323, resigned 1339
William Delamere, (fn. 84) elected 1339, died 1340
Henry of Buckingham, (fn. 85) elected 1340
John of Abingdon, (fn. 86) elected 1347, died 1348
William of Bradley, (fn. 87) elected 1348, resigned 1356
Ralf Marshall, (fn. 88) elected 1356, died 1374
William of Thenford, (fn. 89) elected 1374, died 1384
John Marsh, (fn. 90) elected 1384, died 1398
Richard Meer, (fn. 91) elected 1398
Robert Risborough, (fn. 92) occurs 1448, deposed 1462
Henry Honor (fn. 93) or Missenden, elected 1462, occurs till 1503
William Smith, (fn. 94) died 1521
William Honor, (fn. 95) elected 1521, died 1528
John Fox, (fn. 96) elected 1528, occurs 1535
John Otwell, (fn. 97) last abbot, surrendered 1538
Dark green, pointed oval seal of the twelfth century attached to a charter of Abbot Martin and the convent of Missenden. (fn. 98) The impression is a very fine one, and represents the Blessed Virgin with crown seated on a throne with carved ends, in her lap the Holy Child with cruciform nimbus. In her right hand she holds a sceptre fleur-de-lizé, in her left hand a staff which is surmounted by a bird. Her feet are resting on an ornamental footboard. Legend: +SIGILLV IBARIE DE ME[SSENDEN]A.
A seal of similar description is attached to a charter of about 1240, (fn. 99) the impression is less perfect, and much of the legend wanting. Attached to the same charter is the seal of Abbot Roger de Aylesbury, (fn. 100) dark green, pointed oval, representing the abbot standing on a carved corbel, in his right hand a pastoral staff, in his left hand a book. In the field on the left an estoile, on the right a crescent.Legend: +SIGILL' ROGERI . A . . . DE . MESSENDENE.
A mottled green seal, the impression of which is very imperfect, but similar to the first seal, and the legend wanting, is attached by a woven cord of red silk strands to a deed of 1242 exhibited in the British Museum. (fn. 101) To the same document is also attached by another cord of red silk strands the seal of Abbot Roger as described above. (fn. 102)
A red pointed oval seal of the fifteenth century, (fn. 103) attached to the Acknowledgment of Supremacy, 1534, represents the Blessed Virgin with crown seated in a canopied niche, in her right hand the Holy Child with nimbus, in her left hand a sceptre. In the field on each side, three trees, one above, two below. In base, under an arch, an abbot and three monks in adoration. Legend: S' CŌĒ. AGGIS. ZZ. CŌUET' MONAST' . BEATE . MARIE. DE. MISSYNDEN.
An oval seal of Abbot William, taken from a cast in the British Museum, (fn. 104) represents the Blessed Virgin standing in a canopied niche with tabernacle work at the sides, the Child on her right arm, in her left hand a sceptre fleur-de-lizé or flowering branch. The legend is indistinct: . . . de . . . enden.