A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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22. THE ABBEY (fn. 1) OF CHICH OR ST. OSYTH'S
Chich has been the site of two monasteries, one legendary and the other authentic. St. Osyth, it is said, (fn. 2) was the daughter of an English king called Frithwald and his wife Wilburga, the daughter of Penda, king of the Mercians. She was married against her will to Sighere, a king of the East Saxons, but during his absence on a hunting expedition received the veil from two bishops; Sighere consenting to this on his return and making a grant to her of Chich, where she founded a nunnery. A party of Danes invaded the country and beheaded her for refusing to abandon Christianity; but soon she arose and walked, carrying her head in her hands, to the church of Chich, where her remains ultimately rested.
Osyth was afterwards canonized, her day being 7 October. Accounts of her life were written by various persons, including William de Vere, a brother of the first earl of Oxford, who was a canon of the abbey in the middle of the twelfth century. But the whole story is unreliable. There is confusion between the seventh and ninth centuries, and it is extremely doubtful whether the nunnery ever really existed.
An Augustinian priory was founded (fn. 3) in honour of St. Osyth at Chich, probably about the middle of the reign of Henry I, by Richard de Belmeis, bishop of London (1108—27). The founder granted to it the manor of Chich and the churches of Clacton, Southminster, Mayland and Althorne, and Henry I granted the churches of Blythburgh and Stowmarket in Suffolk. Blythburgh afterwards became a cell to St. Osyth's, canons being settled there in or before the reign of Stephen. (fn. 4) The priory at St. Osyth's was converted into an abbey about the middle of the century. It was dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul and St. Osyth. Alice, daughter of Gilbert de Clare and wife of Aubrey de Vere, spent the twenty-two years of her widowhood after her husband's death in 1141 at St. Osyth's, where her son William was canon. (fn. 5)
Henry II in the latter part of his reign granted to the canons an important charter, in which he confirmed the above grants and others and granted that the abbot should be chosen by election of the chapter. They were also to have free warren in their lands of Chich, Bircho and Stowmarket, with two greyhounds and four brachets to hunt the hare and fox, and a market at Chich and various liberties. This was confirmed by Henry III on 11 September, 1268, and also by Edward I and several later kings. (fn. 6) John on 12 February, 1206, granted the advowson of the abbey to the bishop of London. (fn. 7) Henry III on I June, 1227, granted to the canons a market and fair at Brentwood, (fn. 8) and on 1 May, 1252, changed the day of market from Wednesday to Thursday. (fn. 9) On 28 July, 1268, he granted to them free warren (fn. 10) in several of their lands in Essex and Suffolk. Edward III on 23 July, 1347, granted (fn. 11) a market and fair at Stowmarket. The abbots were summoned (fn. 12) to Parliament under Edward I and Edward II, but not afterwards.
Besides the churches already mentioned the abbey owned those of Little Holland, Ramsey, St. Osyth's, Shopland and Ugley in Essex and Petham in Kent and chapels at Brentwood and Moulsham, and also the advowson of the rectory at Abberton and a moiety of the rectory of Tolleshunt Knights. The advowson of the church of Elmstead was acquired and the church appropriated in 1383. (fn. 13) The spiritualities mentioned in the Taxation of 1291 included portions in the churches of Shalford, Tendring and Weeley in Essex and the churches of Denham and Brent Eleigh (fn. 14) in Suffolk. The temporalities were then valued at £135 11s. 6¼d. yearly. The total for Essex amounted to £117 14s. 10d., of which £35 18s. 7d. came from St. Osyth's, £13 0s. 2d. from Bircho (in Kirby), £8 18s. 5d. from Colchester, £8 11s. from Layer Marney, £8 3s. 10d. from Weald, £7 6s. 7d. from Michaelstow, £6 10s. 3d. from Ramsey, £6 5s. 9d. from Abberton, and smaller sums from more than thirty other places. Outside the county the principal items were £7 1s. 1¾d. from Stowmarket and £3 17s. 8d. from Brent Eleigh. The abbey owned the manor of Bircho in Kirby le Soken in 1303. (fn. 15) Several licences to acquire land afterwards are recorded on the Patent Rolls, 200 acres in Michaelstow being granted them in 1380 for finding a wax taper to burn daily before the high altar during the celebration of high mass. (fn. 16) Sir John Groos, who died in 1383, bequeathed (fn. 17) half the manor of Reveshall in East Mersea to the abbot and convent to keep his anniversary; though a definite agreement as to the division of the manor does not appear to have been arrived at until May, 1421. (fn. 18)
In 1272 the abbot of St. Osyth's made an agreement with Cecily the recluse of St. James's, Colchester, by which he undertook to pay her an annual rent of five quarters of wheat, as well as certain arrears. (fn. 19)
The abbey was visited by Robert, archbishop of Canterbury, during his metropolitical visitation, with the result that an elaborate series of injunctions were forwarded to the abbot and convent on 8 January, 1304. It was therein complained that the ancient number of thirty canons had been reduced to less than twenty. The canons were enjoined to keep all the hours night and day; at times of conversation to talk of things pertaining to the rule of their religion, instead of indulging in unworthy gossip; never to go out alone, but with a brother canon as companion; to observe uniformity of clothing, their garments being all of the same price and colour; to receive regular accounts from the obedientiaries; never to suffer any diminution in the portions set aside for the poor 5 not to allow any women to be admitted to the bakehouse or other offices; the abbot and prior to frequently visit the infirm in the infirmary for their solace; the doors of the cloister to be duly kept. The abbot and canons were not to entertain their friends in the town, by which practice the funds of the house had been wasted; not even visits of the king or queen or of those in high authority were to be made the excuse for such entertainment.
Bishop Baldock visited St. Osyth's and issued consequent injunctions (fn. 20) on 4 February, 1308. The first point that he made was to urge the diligent observance of the archbishop's orders of four years before, which he had transcribed in his own register. On his own account he enjoined that they were not to alienate any possessions, rents, or servile labour under plea of ameliorating the condition of their villeins, nor under plea of affection for relations or kinsfolk to grant them money or clothes, etc.; and that the chamberlain should have £20 a year for providing clothes and shoes, the cellarer £20, to be paid quarterly, and the pittancer and warden of the infirmary the lands and rents specially assigned to them. Other injunctions related to care as to sending canons to the cell of Blythburgh, to the reception of canons, the appointing of them to benefices, and the appointing of obedientiaries by a majority of the general chapter.
A curious incident (fn. 21) occurred in 1306. The abbot carried off a cross belonging to the hospital of Dunwich in Suffolk, and took it to the abbey. The brethren of the hospital complained to the king that they had suffered serious loss through this by the diminution of the alms given by visitors, and the case was tried in Chancery, with the result that the abbot was defeated and the cross restored to the hospital.
When the bishop was visiting (fn. 22) the priory of Royston in 1307, a grave scandal came to light with regard to John de Walden, one of the canons. After a period of imprisonment in his own house the canon was sent in April, 1308, to the abbey of St. Osyth to be kept there in confinement for three years and to be dieted on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays. The priory of Royston was ordered to pay the abbey 12d, a week for his maintenance. In January, 1310, the bishop decided to mitigate Walden's punishment, and sent him back to Royston, but instructed the prior not to suffer him to pass outside the precincts.
In the spring of the same year, 1310, an affray (fn. 23) took place in the same priory, in the course of which Walter de Kelishulle, one of the canons, drew a sword against his prior, with the result of effusion of blood within the church. Kelishulle obtained leave from his diocesan to go to Rome to endeavour to get absolution. On his return he was sent in September to St. Osyth's, where he was to be last in order in cloister, church, refectory or dormitory, to celebrate daily whenever it could be arranged, and to be dieted on bread and cheese and pottage on all Wednesdays and Fridays, save when they fell on solemn feasts. The priory of Royston was to pay to the abbey 14d. for each week that he remained there.
The abbey was visited by the commissary of the dean and chapter of St. Paul's, sede vacante, on 19 March, 1317. In the consequent injunctions (fn. 24) the orders of Bishop Ralph were briefly recapitulated, and certain irregularities in connexion with the cell of Blythburgh were condemned. The abbot and convent were also ordered in all their receipts to make tallies divided into three parts, one of which was to be delivered to the payer, the second to the receiver, and the third to the abbot. These injunctions deal solely with the temporal side of the abbey's administration.
Corrodies were claimed by the crown in the abbey. When William de Topclyve was sent (fn. 25) by the king in 1313 with a request for maintenance in the place of Roger Giffard, deceased, the abbot and convent begged to be excused on the ground that their house was much in debt; but the king did not consent. Edward III, however, in 1336 granted (fn. 26) that a corrody lately given should not be taken as a precedent.
Laurence de Tonebrigg, canon, was sent (fn. 27) by the king in 1325 from the Tower of London, where he had been imprisoned, to the abbey, with orders that he was not to be allowed to leave the enclosure of the cloister and church or to hold conversation with any suspicious person.
In 1345 order (fn. 28) was given by the pope that John de Thaxstede, canon of St. Osyth's, should be re-admitted to the abbey. He had left it for the Friars Minor, with whom he remained for four months, and was then refused admission to St. Osyth's, as he had taken an oath never to return. In 1390 the pope granted (fn. 29) to Robert Stowe, one of the canons, that he should not be removed against his will to any other priory or dependent cell. Probably he had had fears of being sent to Blythburgh.
On 8 June, 1391, the king gave orders (fn. 30) for John Stury, an apostate and vagabond canon, to be arrested and delivered to the abbot for punishment.
In 1386 the abbot was detained in prison at Colchester for trespass of vert in the forests of Kingswood and Waltham, but order (fn. 31) was given by the king that he should be released on finding sufficient security.
Pope Boniface IX granted licence on 29 March, 1397, for the abbot to use the mitre, ring and other pontifical insignia and to give solemn benediction provided no bishop or papal legate be present, (fn. 32) and on 1 February, 1400, for him to confer on the canons all minor orders and those of deacon, subdeacon and priest; (fn. 33) but on 6 February, 1403, he revoked (fn. 34) these indults at the petition of the bishop of London, who represented that they were prejudicial to his jurisdiction. Pope John XXIII, however, on 14 April, 1412, granted (fn. 35) licence for the abbot to use the insignia and give the benediction.
Abbot Thomas de London joined the abbot of Colchester and others in the conspiracy (fn. 36) for the restoration of Richard II in 1403. When the plot became known in the next year a warrant was issued (fn. 37) for his arrest; but on 6 November he received a pardon, (fn. 38) with a grant of his forfeited goods. John Fowler, a canon of the abbey, was also pardoned (fn. 39) at the same time, most probably for connexion with the same affair.
Abbot Thomas and John Mauncer, one of the canons, seized some goods as wreck of sea at Little Holland on Thursday before All Saints, 1413; and in 1419 Abbot John and the canon, who meanwhile in the time of Abbot Henry had been made prior of Holy Trinity, Ipswich, were called upon to account (fn. 40) to the king for the goods. These consisted of golden cloths, furs and an image of gold, and were valued at £100. It was shown that no such claim by the abbey to wreck of sea had been allowed in 13 Edward I. The case dragged on for a long time, and ultimately it was found that the goods had been seized to the use of the individuals and not of the house.
On 6 May, 1433, the abbey was visited (fn. 41) by Dr. Zanobius Mulakyn, as commissary for Bishop Fitzhugh. Abbot John Fowler was examined and stated that at the monastery, granges and manors there was sufficient stock of cattle and grain; that the house with its buildings and the granges and mill dams were well maintained; and that £40 was due to the house in arrears and debts. The commissary, however, from his own observation and the examination of other members of the house reported very differently to the bishop. He stated that a building called the larder had been removed by the abbot, and its leaden utensils used (sold) for voluptuous purposes; that wood had been sold by the abbot; that much had been alienated by the abbot without the consent of the ordinary; that there was utter irregularity in the accounts of the granges; that two chalices had been put to profane uses by the abbot; that certain necklaces and jewels offered in honour of St. Osyth and affixed to her shrine had been removed by him and assigned to other uses; and that he had been prodigal in wine and in convivial excess. On being charged with these offences the abbot said that he acknowledged his sin in many of these things, and promised amendment. Thereupon the visitation was adjourned until the Wednesday after Holy Trinity. On that day Dr. Thomas Weston resumed the visitation as commissary, when it was again adjourned until 31 August to enable the abbot to produce his accounts. But even at that date the abbot had no accounts forthcoming; and eventually the bishop pronounced him contumacious and an evil administrator of the abbey of St. Osyth and the cell of Blythburgh, which were notoriously dilapidated. He therefore suspended him from all temporal and spiritual jurisdiction. A few months later the graver step of deprivation was taken. On 21 January, 1434, the abbot was once more formally asked to produce his accounts, and on 23 January he and the whole convent were assembled in the chapter house; when the officials, Robert Galton and Thomas Weston, asked if he had anything to say, and on his remaining silent they pronounced sentence of deposition. But on the morrow, in a chapel of the monastery vulgarly called 'Bisshopschapel,' Fowler before the bishop in person pleaded that he had that night been much harassed and distressed in mind because of the wrong he had done to that holy virgin St. Osyth, and that he was then prepared to submit himself entirely to the bishop. He then produced a formal schedule of resignation, and only asked that sufficient might be allowed him to sustain life. This plea was apparently accepted, and he was permitted to resign rather than suffer deprivation, by which all right to any kind of pension would be extinguished. On 25 January steps were taken to elect a successor. Ten canons, including the ex-abbot, together with the prior of Blythburgh and his canons, assembled in the chapter house; but the only action they took was to place the appointment of the next abbot in the hands of the bishop.
The king on 13 February granted protection (fn. 42) for five years for the abbey, and committed it to the custody of the bishop, the abbot of Colchester, John Dorward, Robert Darcy and William Petworth.
John Depyng, prior of St. Botolph's, Colchester, was nominated abbot. He found the abbey so bare that before his consecration he assembled the canons of St. Botolph's in their chapter house and asked permission from them to take with him certain goods and chattels belonging to the priory and also to receive the moneys due from certain debtors. He gave a bill of the details and received the desired permission, promising speedy repayment. This, however, was never made by him, and after his death the canons of St. Botolph's appealed in vain for restitution to William Kent, who succeeded him as abbot; finally bringing a suit in Chancery, (fn. 43) in which they valued the goods at £173 8s. 8d., and the debts at £306 1s. 4d. The result is not known.
Perhaps the most interesting document relating to St. Osyth's is the detailed balance-sheet (fn. 44) drawn up by Abbot John Sharp for the year ending Michaelmas Eve, 1491. The receipts under the heading of Chich and its members amounted to £270 7s. 3¼d., but from this £204 13s. 2d. had to be deducted for payments and allowances. £69 12s. 4d. was paid to the bailiff for wages of servants, etc., and allowances were made of £26 6s. 3d. for corn for sowing, and £39 14s. 10d. for corn supplied to the granary, besides other details. Deductions, chiefly for cattle, poultry, cheese, butter, milk and cream supplied to the household, were also made from the receipts from Westwyk, Hoowyk, Leewyk, Coketwyk, Holwyk, Wyberwik, Beverstonwik, Canon's Hall, Earl's Hall and Guy's Hall. Southflete was assigned to the pittancer. The office of the cellarer brought in £10 19s. 6d., but £2 15s. 4d. was spent on the purchase of vessels and utensils. The whole sum of the receipts already mentioned was £456 17s. 4¾d., and that of the deductions £351 9s. 11d.; and in addition other possessions of the abbey were let at farm for sums amounting to £258 6s. 8d., so that the whole available income was £363 14s. 1¾d. Out of this £133 1s. 3¾d. was spent on fish, wine and other necessaries for the household, £81 6s. 10d. on clothing for the canons and clothing and wages for the servants, £45 13s. 9d. on repairs to the abbey and manors, and £29 11s. 5d. on miscellaneous expenses. Feesamounted to £18 6s. 8d., and pensions to £47 7s. 7¾d., and £21 12s. 0d. was repaid to creditors for debts incurred in the time of the late abbot, John Neuton. There was thus a deficit of £13 5s. 5¾d.
In 1505 the prior was apparently adjudged guilty of heresy; for we read (fn. 45) that 'Anno MDV upon the second Sonday in Lente stood in Poules crosse the priour of Seynt Oyses and fyve other heretykkes.'
The first signs of the coming dissolution troubles are to be found in two letters of the abbot to Cromwell, dated 16 December, 1532, (fn. 46) and 3 February, 1533, (fn. 47) in which he refuses to grant requests for favours, though it is evident that pressure had been put upon him. On 19 April he died, and a few days later the abbot of Waltham wrote (fn. 48) to Cromwell to ask that the cellarer of St. Bartholomew's, Smithfield, might be promoted to the position. But this was not granted, and John Colchester, prior of St. Osyth's, became abbot. He and John Russull, prior, John Haruwyche, Cornelius Ypshyche, Ralph Dale, John Sherman, John Thorpe, Edmund Graie, Richard Paynter, Robert Hoy, John Fennyng, Thomas Sollmes, Richard Synyll, Robert Sprott, Robert Lyes, William Newman, Thomas Haywod, Nicholas Bushe, Richard Wood, William Joly and Thomas Clyflande took the oath (fn. 49) of supremacy on 9 July, 1534.
The abbey was visited by Dr. Thomas Legh in 1535. No record of his visitation is known, but an interesting and significant letter (fn. 50) from Thomas Solmes, one of the canons, is preserved. In this, by the advice of Legh, he writes to Cromwell for licence to leave his religious order, which he joined in consequence of the threats of his schoolmaster. He received the habit at thirteen years of age, and was professed before he had completed his fourteenth year. During the twelve years he had been in the abbey he had never willingly borne the yoke of religion, and he would rather die than lead such a miserable life any longer. Solmes does not appear among the canons at the time of the surrender, and so it may fairly be concluded that his request was granted.
In 1538 the convent had licence (fn. 51) to exchange lands, including the manor and rectory of Abberton, with Sir Thomas Audeley; and in the same year an attempt was made through him, as has already been said elsewhere, (fn. 52) to secure the continuance of Colchester and St. Osyth's in the form of secular colleges. But this failed, and on 6 November Cromwell gave orders (fn. 53) for their dissolution. No resistance appears to have been offered by St. Osyth's; for Sir John Seyncler in a letter (fn. 54) to Cromwell on 21 November mentions the abbot as one who was a true subject, and would obey the king without grudge. The abbey, however, did not actually fall until 28 July, 1539, when it was formally surrendered (fn. 55) by John Whederykke, alias Colchester, abbot, Cornelius Williamsun, William Neuman, John Russull, prior, Ralph Dale, Nicholas Bushe, John Harwyche, John Sherman, Richard Wood, John Thorpe, Richard Synyll, William Jolly, Edmund Grai, Robert Sprott, George Thurston and Thomas Haywod. It will be observed that the numbers of canons was five less than in 1534.
We have a fuller knowledge of the state of St. Osyth's at the time of the dissolution than of any other Essex house. A complete valuation (fn. 56) of its possessions gives its gross income as £758 5s. 8d. yearly, the items agreeing roughly with those of 1491. From this, deductions were made of £11 5s. 0d. in rents, £21 18s. 10d. in fees (including £3 to Henry, earl of Essex, as chief steward), £9 14s. 2d. in pensions, £27 6s. 6d. in alms distributed at the anniversaries of several deceased persons, and £11 in augmentation of benefices; so that the net value was £677 1s. 2d. yearly. An elaborate inventory (fn. 57) of the jewels, plate, lead, furniture and other goods of the monastery was made by the royal commissioners at the time of the surrender. Among the treasures were 'the skull of Seynt Osithes closyed in sylver parcel gylte' and 'a croune of sylver gylte too sett apon the sayd skull garnysshyd with counterfett stones.' The plate was valued at £185 8s. 6d., and the ornaments of the church at £40 6s. 10d. The lead on the roofs amounted to 261 fodders, valued at £1,044; and from the details some idea of the proportions of the buildings can be formed. The church consisted of a nave with a south aisle, a choir, two transepts, a steeple, a chapel on the south side, a chapel and a vestry adjoining on the north, and a chapel at the north-west. There were five bells, valued at £40. The chapter-house was on the north side. The cloister, the gatehouse, the old hall, the new hall, the frater, the dorter, the bishop's lodgings, the great chamber over the hall, the prior's, sub-prior's, sacristan's and bailiff's chambers, the kitchen and several other chambers and offices are also mentioned. The whole of the plate, ornaments, goods, chattels, lead and bells were worth £1,353 17s. 3d., besides the jewels, which were not valued, and £59 0s. 10d. for the price of plate delivered to creditors in payment of their debts. The expenses of the valuation and of defacing the shrine were £12 6s. 8d.
The officials of the abbey consisted of the abbot, a prior and chamberlain, a cellarer, a sub-prior and infirmarer, a bailiff, a third prior, precentor and almoner, a succentor, a sacristan, a chaplain, a sub-chamberlain and a sub-sacrist. The abbot received a pension of £100 yearly, besides a gift of plate worth £12, and the prior a pension of £10; while the next five canons had pensions of £8, and the remaining nine pensions of £6 13s. 4d. each. Gratuities were also given to the canons and to the remainder of the household, which included the curate of the church of Little Holland, eighteen lay-brothers, of whom one is described as a schoolmaster, fourteen yeomen, five brewers, eight cooks, six waggoners, five boys and three laundresses.
A number of articles in the inventory are marked as delivered to the use of Sir Thomas Audeley. He appears to have been given the abbey during the king's pleasure, and to have desired a fuller grant. Writing (fn. 58) to Cromwell on 12 August he says that he spoke to the abbot before the dissolution and urged him to surrender, and asks Cromwell to further his suit. But Cromwell himself had his eye on St. Osyth's. The monastery and a great part of its possessions, including all in the immediate neighbourhood, were granted (fn. 59) to him in fee on 10 April, 1540. On Cromwell's attainder the monastery reverted to the crown, and on 1 June, 1553, it was sold (fn. 60) to Thomas, Lord Darcy.
Priors of St. Osyth's
William de Corbeuil, the first prior, resigned 1123. (fn. 61)
Fulk. (fn. 62)
Abbots of St. Osyth's
Ralph, the second abbot, died 1205. (fn. 65)
Richard, occurs 1207. (fn. 66)
Robert de Glotinges, removed 1299. (fn. 77)
William, occurs 1333. (fn. 78)
John Story, died 1373. (fn. 82)
Thomas de London, occurs 1404. (fn. 83)
Henry Corton, occurs 1416. (fn. 84)
William Kent succeeded, occurs 1464. (fn. 89)
John Neuton, occurs 1473. (fn. 90)
John Sharp, (fn. 91) consecrated 1482 or 1483, occurs 1491.
John Henningham, (fn. 92) occurs 1495.
John Colchester, alias Whederykke, elected 1533, (fn. 94) the last abbot.
The seal (fn. 95) of the abbey ad causas is a pointed oval representing St. Osyth standing on a corbel under a carved canopy supported on pillars, to the left holding her dissevered head. In the field on the right is the sword of St. Paul, and on the left the key of St. Peter. Legend :—