A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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7. THE ABBEY OF CIRENCESTER
In the reign of Edward the Confessor there was a collegiate church of secular canons at Cirencester, (fn. 1) but it is impossible to write of its origin with any certainty. When Christianity was introduced into the province of the Hwiccas in the middle of the seventh century, the Roman city of Corinium still lay waste. (fn. 2) On the authority of a manuscript, which cannot now be traced, Collinson declared that the minster was founded by Alwyn, a Saxon thane, in the reign of King Egbert. (fn. 3) In the middle of the thirteenth century the tradition of the monastery was that it had been founded for three hundred years. (fn. 4) The college was but slenderly endowed, possessing in the reign of Edmund the Confessor, and again in 1086, only two hides of land in the hundred of Cirencester, six acres of meadow, and a vill in Wick, besides a portion of wood given by King William. (fn. 5) The dean of Cirencester (fn. 6) was Regenbald, the chancellor of Edward the Confessor, who has been called the first great pluralist; (fn. 7) in 1086 he held sixteen churches, and lands in five different counties.
Henry I was a great benefactor of the Order of Augustinian canons, which was first established in England in 1108. (fn. 8) At Cirencester, as in a number of other minsters, they were introduced in place of the secular canons. In 1117 Henry I began to build a new church and monastery at Cirencester. (fn. 9) Though the church was not dedicated until 1176, (fn. 10) the buildings were so far advanced in 1131 that Serlo was consecrated as the first abbot, and the Augustinian canons entered into possession of them. (fn. 11) In 1133 Henry I gave a charter to the abbot and convent, granting them all the possessions of Regenbald. (fn. 12) The endowment included two hides in Cirencester, a third part of the toll from the Sunday market, two-thirds of the tithe of the royal demesne of Cirencester, and the whole tithe of the parish; the churches of Preston, Driffield, Ampney St. Mary, and Cheltenham, besides lands in those places, and at Norcote, Driffield, Wadle, Aldsworth, Elmstone, and Wick in Gloucestershire; the churches of Latton, Eisy, Penesey, and Avebury, with lands in those places, and two houses in Cricklade in Wiltshire; the churches of Milborne, Frome, and Wellow, and lands in Somerset; the church of Pulham with ten hides, wood and meadow in Dorsetshire; the churches of Cookham, Bray, Hagbourne, Shrivenham, besides ten hides at Eston in Berkshire; Boicote, with one hide and a mill in Oxfordshire; the churches of Rowell and Brigstock in Northamptonshire; and three messuages in Winchester. The king added from his own demesne 'the sheriff's hide,' in Cirencester, for gardens and a mill; a stream and the wood of Oakley, reserving to himself the right of hunting and of making assarts. He also reserved among Regenbald's possessions the life interests of Roger, bishop of Salisbury, William FitzWarin, and Nicholas, nephew of the bishop of Winchester; and he safeguarded the life interest of the secular canons in their prebends.
During the greater part of the reign of Henry II the abbot and convent held the manor of Cirencester of the crown at a fee farm rent. (fn. 13) In 1190 they purchased from Richard I the town and manor of Cirencester with Minety, the seven hundreds, for £100, and a fee farm rent of £30 a year. (fn. 14) In 1203 the abbot bought the right of excluding the sheriff from his liberties except for pleas of the crown. (fn. 15) In 1222 Henry III allowed the abbot to build a gaol. (fn. 16) The trade of the town, which increased rapidly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, (fn. 17) was entirely under the abbot's control. He took the profits of the weekly market in virtue of Richard I's grants of the manor. In 1215 Abbot Alexander Neckham obtained the right of holding a fair for eight days at the feast of All Saints, (fn. 18) in 1253 Abbot Roger secured the privilege of holding another fair on the vigil, feast, and morrow of St. Thomas the Martyr, and the five following days. (fn. 19) These successive grants of privileges put the town entirely into the abbot's power. (fn. 20)
Alexander Neckham, one of the most learned men of his age in England, was abbot from 1213 to 1217. He was a Master of Arts of the University of Paris, and had taught in the grammar school at Dunstable and St. Albans before he entered the monastery at Cirencester. (fn. 21) He was interested in science rather than in history, and in his chief work, 'De Naturis Rerum,' (fn. 22) he aimed at compiling a manual of scientific knowledge. There is no evidence to gauge his influence at Cirencester, no writings of the canons are known to have survived, and it nowhere appears that they kept a chronicle.
Cirencester was subject to the visitation of the bishops of Worcester. The letter written by Bishop Giffard, after his visitation of the monastery in 1276, reveals maladministration and weak government. (fn. 23) Under the rule of Abbot Henry de Munden, the prior, William de Haswell, had exercised, or perhaps usurped, great power, and it is likely that he held the office of treasurer. At the visitation he was accused of being a drunkard, to the damage of the house and the scandal of many. He was negligent and remiss in spiritual and temporal matters, being himself a man of evil life. Discipline was relaxed, and he was charged with having spent a great part of the substance of the house on his kinsfolk; with alienating the silver vessels and ornaments of the church; with pledging the credit of the house for debts of other persons. The bishop was told that owing to his conduct the monastery was so seriously embarrassed that the most discreet abbot would find difficulty in redeeming its fortunes. In 1298 Giffard restored the church of Ampney St. Mary to the monastery on the ground that it had been appropriated since the foundation of the house, and had been lost through the nepotism of a former abbot. (fn. 24) When the prior of Worcester attempted to visit the abbey in 1302, during the voidance of the see after the death of Giffard, he was refused admittance because the house had already been visited twice within two years. (fn. 25) During the rule of Abbot Henry de Hamptonet there was a crisis in the relations of the convent with the town. (fn. 26) In 1301 Edward I issued a commission of oyer and terminer to William de Bereford and Henry Spigurnel on the complaint of the poor men of Cirencester that the abbot, two canons, and others, had extorted from them, for the first time, great sums of money by undue distraints; had entered their houses, assaulted and imprisoned some of them; consumed the goods of some, and carried away the goods of others; taken some of their beasts and impounded others, detaining them until a great part died of hunger, and driving some to places unknown. (fn. 27) A number of tenants attempted to avoid the obligation of taking their corn to be ground at the abbot's mills by using handmills in their houses. At different times between 1300 and 1305, the abbot's bailiff and others broke into the houses of several men of Cirencester and seized their mill-stones; some they broke, others they carried off to the monastery. (fn. 28) When the jurors presented their complaint before the justices of Traylbaston at Gloucester in 1305, they replied that it was a question of tenure. The town was at the abbot's mercy, and it was agreed that twenty men of Cirencester should execute a deed on behalf of themselves and the whole community, stating that they had made a false complaint, and binding themselves to pay 100 marks to the abbot. (fn. 29)
In 1306 the convent secured the important privilege of retaining the custody of the property of the house during the voidance on the death of an abbot. For the right of excluding the escheators they covenanted to pay the king £100 for a voidance of three months or less. (fn. 30) In the following year the abbot died. Forty canons were present at the election of Hamptonet's successor, Adam de Brokenborough. (fn. 31) It took place during a voidance of the see of Worcester, and probably owing to some informality in the proceedings the prior of Worcester declared the election invalid, but understanding that Adam de Brokenborough was 'a discreet man, esteemed for his learning and virtuous habits and actions . . . and circumspect in spiritual and temporal matters,' he collated him to the office of abbot. (fn. 32) The penalty for disregard of the statute of mortmain was heavy, and in 1313 the abbot and convent were compelled to pay a fine of £200 for the royal pardon because they had received a number of parcels of lands, tenements, and shops in Cirencester without the late king's leave to acquire them in mortmain. (fn. 33) In 1314 they paid another fine of £20 for obtaining the appropriation of Ampney St. Mary from Bishop Giffard without licence, (fn. 34) and £5 for acquiring lands in Minety in mortmain in the reign of Edward I. (fn. 35) Heavy law costs were incurred in defending the abbot's rights to take tallage from his tenants. In 1312 Master Nicholas de Stratton impleaded the abbot for an illegal tallage, and although according to the townsmen of Cirencester he was afterwards beaten and slain by the abbot's servants, the suit dragged on until 1321, when Edward II granted a charter confirming the abbot's right. (fn. 36)
In 1325 during the rule of Richard of Charlton (1320-35), disquieting rumours of evil-living among the canons reached Cobham, bishop of Worcester. (fn. 37) Although he had visited the monastery nothing sinister had come to his knowledge. Nevertheless, on account of popular reports, which may, indeed, have been spread by the resentful townsmen, the bishop bade the abbot discover the truth of the matter; if any of the canons were found guilty and remained contumacious their names were to be sent to him. The bishop's aid was not invoked.
About 1342 the strife with the town broke out again. (fn. 38) Owing to the development of the wool-trade many of the men of Cirencester were very prosperous, and keenly resented their position as the abbot's tenants. They preferred a bill of complaint into chancery charging the abbot, William Hereward, and his predecessors with encroachments on the king's rights and their own. In 1342 the abbot and his followers imprisoned several of the townsmen by pretext of their suit 'until they made very grievous fines for their ransoms.' In 1343 twenty men of Cirencester were summoned to Westminster and swore to the truth of the bill of complaint. They declared that the king was the patron of the parish church, but that since the reign of John the abbot and convent had taken possession of it. They also administered the hospitals of St. John and St. Laurence to their own advantage. Other encroachments on the rights of the crown were enumerated; but the townsmen put forward a monstrous claim on their own behalf. They swore that Henry I gave a charter to the burgesses of Cirencester granting them the same liberties as the burgesses of Winchester. They had only a copy of that charter to produce, because they alleged that in 1292 the abbot bribed the burgess who had the custody of it, got possession of it and burnt it. The charter was a forgery, though it is possible that it was first produced when the abbot purchased the manor from Richard I and the burgesses of Cirencester were fined for false presentment. The case was several times adjourned. Finally the abbot compounded with the king for £300 and obtained a charter in 1343 confirming and defining his franchises. (fn. 39) Abbot Hereward had other claims on the gratitude of the canons besides the victory over the townsmen. (fn. 40) He freed the convent from the heavy load of debt with which it was burdened at the time of his election in 1336. In the first ten years of his rule a new nave was built, and houses within the precincts and on the manors were erected at great cost. In 1346 he made provision for the maintenance of a chaplain to sing mass daily in the Lady Chapel, and for the keeping of his anniversary. Thus shortly before the Black Death the monastery was very prosperous. There is no record of the mortality among the canons or in the town of Cirencester. Bishop Wulstan de Bransford died on 8 August, (fn. 41) and only a week afterwards the prior of Worcester began to exercise his right of visiting the diocese during the voidance of the see. (fn. 42) In October he proposed to visit Cirencester, but the abbot and convent declined to receive him on the plea that they were only subject to visitation by a papal legate, the metropolitan, and the bishop of the diocese. (fn. 43) They were supported by the official of the court of Canterbury. However, an agreement was made shortly afterwards strictly defining and limiting the prior's rights. He might only inquire whether the mass of the Virgin was celebrated daily with devotion, and whether a chapter was held each day. He might only enter the house with one monk and one secular clerk. His procuration was fixed at 4 marks, he had no right to any hospitality, and he could not lodge in the monastery with his household and carriages. It is probable that the discipline of the house was lax, Abbot Hereward was an old man, and in 1350 Edward III exempted him from attendance at Parliament on account of his age and infirmity. (fn. 44) In 1351 Thoresby, bishop of Worcester, wrote to him grieving that there were evil reports of the canons, and that he did not do his duty as abbot. (fn. 45) Thoresby told him to reform the convent by his own power without appealing to the bishop for help. He ought to forbid the canons to leave the kingdom on any business without permission, and to see that, unless they were fulfilling the duties of their office, they remained within the cloister. He should compel the officers to render a yearly account of their receipts and expenditure. Abbot Hereward died soon afterwards, and his successor, Ralph of Estcote, was elected in May, 1352. (fn. 46) Owing to the scarcity of labour the abbot and convent had, perhaps, unusual difficulty in exacting the services of the townsmen of Cirencester. In 1370 they obtained an exemplification under the great seal of the record of 1225, in which the services of tenants of the manor were defined. (fn. 47)
Lack of governance and discipline characterized the rule of Nicholas of Ampney when Bishop Wakefield visited the monastery in 1378. (fn. 48) William Tresham held the office of sub-prior, treasurer, and keeper of the parish church. The bishop ordered that another keeper should be appointed because in the discharge of that office he was often outside the monastery. Within six days the abbot was bidden to choose another canon to act as treasurer with William Tresham. The whole of the revenues from manors, churches, and other sources were to be paid to the treasurers instead of to any other officers. The almoner was to be removed from office on account of the scandal caused by his maladministration. The precentor was also to be removed. Within six days the abbot was to make new appointments to the offices of almoner, precentor, and keeper of the parish church, with the advice and consent of the older and wiser canons. The bishop found that the bread was badly baked, and that the beer was weak. He enjoined the abbot to see that the cellarer provided good bread, fish, and beer. The conduct of some of the canons had given rise to grave scandal, among them the keeper of the parish church of Cheltenham, who was to be deprived of his office. The abbot was ordered to see that these disobedient brethren did not go beyond the precincts and that they underwent canonical penance. He must have succeeded in restoring order for some years, as when Courtenay, archbishop of Canterbury, came to Cirencester on metropolitical visitation in 1384 he apparently found no cause for censure. (fn. 49) Yet in 1389 the abbots of Lanthony Secunda and Oseney received a special commission from the general chapter of Augustinian canons to visit the monastery of Cirencester on account of disorders therein. (fn. 50)
In 1385 some of the townsfolk attacked the abbey. Richard II issued a commission to the keepers of the peace in Gloucestershire upon information that divers of the king's lieges of Cirencester had assembled and gone to the abbey and done unheard-of things to the abbot and convent and threatened to do all the damage they could. (fn. 51) The townsfolk were kept in check for a few years, but in 1400, when they rendered Henry IV a signal service by crushing the rebellion of the earls of Salisbury and Kent, whom they beheaded in the market-place, (fn. 52) they seized the opportunity to put forward their complaints against the abbot and his predecessors. (fn. 53) At the king's command an inquisition was held by the sheriff. Five juries from the town and the neighbourhood testified against the abbot, and it was claimed that the town of Cirencester had not been parcel of the manor until 1208, when the abbot compelled the townsmen to perform villein service. The king's decision was postponed, and there is no record of it. In 1403 the townsmen petitioned Henry IV to allow them to have a gild merchant. (fn. 54) The sheriff held an inquisition at Gloucester in 1403, and twelve knights of the county set forth the abbot's franchises. Nevertheless, the king gave a charter to the men of Cirencester granting their petition, so that the abbot and convent were obliged to submit. The townsmen established their gild merchant, and entirely controlled the trade of the town; but they had no justification for withholding their services and absenting themselves from the manorial courts. In 1409 Abbot John Leckhampton obtained a further confirmation of Richard II's confirmation of the charters concerning the lands, manors, and liberties of the abbey. (fn. 55) In 1410 Henry IV ratified the charters of John and Henry III, granting the right of holding the two yearly fairs to the abbot. In 1413 the abbot attempted to distrain for services due to him; a riot followed, and his officers were beaten and wounded. Henry IV died on 20 March, and on 5 June the abbot secured another exemplification of the record of 1225, defining the services of the tenants of the manor. (fn. 56) The townsmen saw that further resistance was useless. The abbot impleaded a number of them for withdrawing their services for thirteen years, and heavy damages were awarded. In 1414, with the abbot's consent, Henry V granted them a general pardon. In 1418 the abbot petitioned that the charter granting the gild merchant might be made void. The Court of Chancery found that Henry IV's charter was contrary to the previous rights of the abbot, and annulled it. The strife thus ended in the complete triumph of the monastery over the town.
The history of the monastery during the last hundred years of its existence is quite obscure. At a visitation during the voidance of the see of Worcester in 1428, there were twenty-four canons, of whom one was a scholar at Oxford. (fn. 57)
In 1534 the abbot and twenty canons subscribed to the royal supremacy. (fn. 58) Five years later, 19 December, 1539, they surrendered their house to the royal commissioners. (fn. 59) The abbot received a pension of £200 a year, the prior £13 6s. 8d., the cellarer £8, twelve canons £6 13s. 4d. each, and another £5 6s. 8d., while William Phelps became vicar of the parish church. (fn. 60) Wages were paid to 110 officers and servants of the household. (fn. 61)
In 1535 the clear yearly value of the property of the monastery was £1,051 7s. 1¼d. (fn. 62) The abbot also held the office of cellarer, and had control over £859 17s. 6d. of the revenues. These were drawn from the bailiwicks of the town and seven hundreds of Cirencester, the manors of Cirencester, Minety, Driffield, Preston, Ampney St. Mary, Nutbeme, Walle, Salperton, Througham, and lands at Cheltenham, Daglingworth, Shipton Moyne, and Weston Birt, in Gloucestershire; the manors of Frome and Milborne Port, in Somerset; Pulham, in Dorsetshire; Latton, in Wiltshire; Shrivenham, Hagbourne, and Eston, in Berkshire; Bradwell and Abberbury in Oxfordshire; Brigstock and Rowell in Northamptonshire; rents in London, Bristol, Cirencester; and the rectories of Cirencester, Cheltenham, Frome, Milborne Port, Latton, Wellow, Milton, Avebury, Eton in Wiltshire, Cookham, Bray, Hagbourne, Stanyarn, Brigstock, Rowell, besides tithes in other places.
Abbots of Cirencester (fn. 63)
Serlo, 1131 (fn. 64)
Richard of Charlton, 1320, resigned 1335 (fn. 65)
William de Lynham, 1361 (fn. 66)
John Leckhampton, 1393 (fn. 67)
A seal of the fourteenth century represents the Coronation of the Virgin, in a canopied niche on a carved corbel. (fn. 68)