A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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HOUSES OF CISTERCIAN MONKS
12. THE ABBEY OF FLAXLEY
The Cistercian monastery of Flaxley, sometimes called Dean, was founded between 1151 and 1154 by Roger, son of Milo Fitzwalter, earl of Hereford. (fn. 1) According to tradition he chose as a site the spot on which his father had been killed while hunting in 1143. (fn. 2) Between 1151 and 1154 Henry, duke of Normandy and count of Anjou, confirmed to the monks of the Cistercian Order the grants which Roger, earl of Hereford, had made to them according to the tenor of their charter, viz. a place in the valley of Castiard, the land called Westdean, a forge at Edland, all the land under the old castle of Dean which remained to be assarted, and the assarts, a fishery at Rodley called Newerre, a meadow in Pulmede, all easements in the Forest of Dean, all the demesne of Dymock, and the lands belonging to Walfric, half the wood at Dymock, all the tithes of chestnuts in Dean, the lands of Geoffrey son of Walfric and of Leofric de Staura, which the earl of Hereford released. (fn. 3) It is clear from this charter that the site had been given but the buildings, even if they had been begun, were not sufficiently advanced for habitation. There was as yet no convent of monks at Flaxley, and Henry therefore confirmed the grant to the Cistercian Order. There can be little doubt that the first monks of Flaxley came from Bordesley in Worcestershire, which had been founded in 1138. (fn. 4) In 1158 Henry II gave the monks of Flaxley a charter confirming his former grant. (fn. 5) In aid of the building which was in progress Henry II granted the right of taking wood and other materials without committing waste in the forest. (fn. 6) The monks had already built for the lay brothers granges at Westdean and Wallmore, where the king had given them 200 acres of his assarts, with meadows and pastures. They had the right of common of pasture for their cattle, swine, and all other beasts within the forest.
When the visitors of the order came to England in 1187 Abbot Waleran resigned, and Alan, a monk of Bordesley, was elected in his stead. (fn. 7) Towards the end of the twelfth century the abbot and convent were rapidly increasing their possessions. Many of these lay in the parish of Westbury-on-Severn, which was only two miles from Flaxley. (fn. 8) Like other houses of the Cistercian Order, Flaxley was exempted by papal bulls from the payment of tithes from land which they brought into cultivation or cultivated at their own expense, and of all tithes of the young of their animals. (fn. 9) It was a privilege which pressed hard on the parish priests. Diminishing tithes probably kindled the bitter animosity of Walter Mapes, archdeacon of Oxford (ob. circa 1210), who, amongst other preferments, held the rectory of Westbury-on-Severn. (fn. 10) The abbot and convent of Flaxley were willing to pay sums of ready money and take lands for a term of years in pledge. In 1195 Walter Mapes witnessed an agreement by which Philip de Dunie pledged lands in Westbury for terms of eight and twelve years for 4 marks down. (fn. 11) As the monks of Flaxley were sheep farmers, it was obviously to their advantage to secure fresh pastures; the wool trade was a great source of profit, and money in hand allowed them to make bargains profitable to themselves. A notable case occurs in the acquisition of land at Ragel, afterwards called Rochelbury. In 1193 Philip de Burci gave all his land at Ragel to William de St. Leger in perpetuity at a fee farm rent of 2s. (fn. 12) As his part of the bargain William de St. Leger paid a debt of 87½ marks which Philip de Burci owed to Manasser, a Jew of Bristol, gave him 15 marks down, and paid the rent for three years in advance. William de St. Leger granted the land to the abbot and convent of Flaxley to be held at 2/3 of a knight's fee, and for a yearly rent of 2s., which after thirty-one years had elapsed was to be paid, with an additional 2s., to Philip de Burci and his heirs. At the time of this grant the abbot and convent gave 20 marks to William de St. Leger, and he expressly stated that he paid the debts of Philip de Burci to Manasser the Jew, out of the money of the monks of Flaxley.
In 1193 Abbot Alan obtained a bull from Pope Celestine III confirming the liberties and immunities which his predecessors had granted to Flaxley. (fn. 13) As a Cistercian house, Flaxley was exempt from the visitation of the bishops of Hereford.
In the exercise of their privileges in the Forest of Dean, the abbot and convent came into conflict with the keeper, the constable of St. Briavel's Castle. Mandates were sent to him by Henry III in 1226, in 1231, and again in 1232 and 1234, to allow the abbot and convent of Flaxley to have all their rights of common of pasture. (fn. 14) In 1217 the constable of St. Briavel's was ordered to allow them to take timber according to their charters. (fn. 15) In lieu of the right to take fuel for their use throughout the forest, in 1227 Henry III granted the woods around the abbey, strictly defining their bounds. (fn. 16) Henry II, by the charter of 1158, had allowed the monks to set up their forge where they willed, (fn. 17) and they had secured the right of taking two dry oaks for fuel for the forge every week. (fn. 18) It was represented to Henry III that this was greatly to the detriment of the forest, and in 1258, after an inquisition, he withdrew the privilege and gave them instead the 'abbot's' woods. (fn. 19)
In 1234, on the occasion of the movement against Henry III's foreign favourites, the monastery was embarrassed by the presence of the followers of Richard Earl Marshal who had taken refuge there. (fn. 20) On 6 March Henry III commanded the sheriff of Gloucester to take with him the constable of St. Briavel's and the king's coroners of the county, and go to the abbey of Flaxley to offer to persons there who were against the king that they should come out to stand their trial or else abjure the kingdom. The sheriff's men, armed with bows and hatchets, kept watch around the abbey and took fuel in the abbot's woods. The constable of St. Briavel's seized the abbot's horses, and was in consequence excommunicated by Hugh Foliot, bishop of Hereford. On 20 March Henry III sent a mandate to the constable to deliver up the horses, and to the bishop to remove the excommunication. On 28 March he ordered the constable to recompense the abbot for his burnt hedges, and commanded that the keepers of Richard Marshal's servants should remain outside, not inside, the gates of the monastery.
The revenues of Flaxley were never large, and in 1276 it was one of the poorer houses of the southern province, assessed only to pay £8 towards the 'courtesy' of £1,000 to Edward I, when Kingswood paid £13 16s. and Hayles £14 13s. 4d. (fn. 21) Like a number of other Cistercian monasteries, (fn. 22) it was heavily in debt. Building was going on in the reign of Henry III, for on several occasions the king granted oaks for the church and buildings of the abbey. (fn. 23) In 1277 Edward I appointed his steward, Ralph of Sandwich, to the custody during pleasure, of the abbey of Flaxley, because it was in debt to the king for a considerable sum, and would so continue for a long time, also on account of a loan contracted in the Jewry and elsewhere, and of various immense debts to merchants alien and denizen, and others. (fn. 24) In 1281 the king issued a mandate to Grimbold Pauncefort, the keeper of the Forest of Dean, to take the abbey of Flaxley under his special protection for three years, because it was burdened with debt and impoverished both by murrain among the sheep, upon which the monks mainly depended for their subsistence, as well as by sheriffs, bedels, foresters, and others consuming their goods by faculties, so that the abbey could no longer perform its customary distribution of alms or other works of mercy, and the monks were in danger of dispersion. He was bidden to apply the revenues thereof to the use of the said abbey, except such as were necessary for the maintenance of the abbot and convent and their households, and for the distribution of alms to the poor. (fn. 25) The situation appears to have been one of special difficulty, and two years later Edward I gave the custody of Flaxley to Thomas de Basing, a citizen of London, bidding him apply the issues to the satisfaction of the multifarious and immense debts of the house. (fn. 26) A great murrain among sheep began in 1276 and lasted for several years. (fn. 27) The debts of Flaxley probably prevented the convent from restocking their pastures, and perhaps explain the fact that about the beginning of the fourteenth century the annual average sales of wool amounted only to six sacks a year, the prices varying from 15 to 8½ marks a sack, when Kingswood was selling forty sacks and Hayles twenty sacks. (fn. 28)
In 1335 misrule as well as misfortune brought the monastery once more into grievous pecuniary difficulties. Edward III gave the custody of Flaxley during his pleasure to the abbots of Bordesley and Dore, and the prior of the house. (fn. 29)
In 1353, in consideration of the great losses which the abbot and convent had sustained from the deer and other wild beasts of the forest, and from the expense incurred by many visits from the king, Edward III granted a yearly payment of £36 9s. 1d. out of the rents of newly assarted crown lands in the Forest of Dean. (fn. 30)
As one of the lesser monasteries Flaxley came under the Act of 1536. On 4 September a commission was issued for a survey of all those monasteries in Gloucestershire of which the revenues fell below £200 a year, with a view of taking them over on the king's behalf. (fn. 31) The commissioners reported that at Flaxley there were seven monks, all priests, 'by report of convenient conversation.' (fn. 32) Three of them desired to have 'capacities' that they might hold benefices, the other four wished to continue in religion. There was one lay brother, and the household consisted of eighteen servants. The house itself was in ruin and decay, and the church had been destroyed by fire; the bells had been melted and the metal sold for the restoration of the building. There is no evidence to show how soon afterwards the house was dissolved; on 21 March, 1537, the site and possessions of the late monastery were granted to Sir William Kingston. (fn. 33) The abbot, Thomas Were, retired to Aston Rowant in Oxfordshire. (fn. 34) Under the Act pensions were only provided for heads of houses; in the case of the Cistercian monasteries the monks who wished to continue in religion were usually received into the larger houses of the order, when possible into the mother house. (fn. 35) Nothing is known of the fate of the four monks of Flaxley who did not seek 'capacities.' Possibly they were received at Bordesley.
In 1535 the clear yearly value of the property was £112 3s. 1d. (fn. 36) The possessions of the monastery in Gloucestershire included the manors of Blaisdon, Wallmore, and divers lands and rents in Newnham, Polton, Howle, Goodrich, Climperwell, Arlingham, Dymock, Newland, Coleford, Staunton, and Little Dean, and the manor of Rochelbury, in Somerset. (fn. 37)
Abbots of Flaxley (fn. 38)
Waleran, resigned 1187
Alan, el. 1187
Richard, el. circa 1200
William, el. Feb. 1277 (?)
William de Rya, 1314
Richard Peyto, 1372
— Berkeley, occurs 1476
John, el. 1509
William Beawdley, 1528
Thomas Were, 1532
The abbot's seal, (fn. 39) attached to a deed dated 1316, is in shape a pointed oval, and represents an abbot standing erect under a canopy, slightly ornamented, with a pastoral staff in his right hand, and holding with his left a book on his breast.
The legend is:—
S. ABBATIS DE FLAXLE.
The counterseal represents a hand with a pastoral staff and other ornaments, and the legend is—
CONTA SIGILL' ABBATIS DE FLAXLE.