A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1971.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE MONKS
1. ST. ALBANS ABBEY
Before The Conquest
The legend of the foundation of St. Albans Abbey has been graphically written by Matthew Paris, a 13th-century monk of the abbey. According to his account Offa II, King of the Mercians, desired to found a monastery in atonement for the murder by Quendreda, his queen, of Ethelbert, King of the East Angles, a suitor for the hand of their daughter. (fn. 1) Being at Bath in 793, Offa, it is said, was visited one night by an angel who admonished him to raise the body of St. Alban, 'protomartyr of the English or Britons,' and place it in a more worthy shrine. (fn. 2) The king told Humbert or Higbert, Archbishop of Lichfield, of his vision, who, taking with him the Bishops of Lindsey and Leicester with a multitude 'of both sexes and divers ages,' went to Verulamium, where they were joined by Offa. There the place of Alban's burial being forgotten, the king was guided to it by a ray of light, and upon digging the ground the body of the martyr with the relics of divers saints left there by St. German were found. (fn. 3) The archbishop and bishops raised the relics from the sepulchre and carried them in procession with hymns and shouts of praise to a church outside the town of Verulamium, built by the early British converts, and consecrated in honour of St. Alban. After this the king called a synod (or provincial council) at 'Celchyth' in 793, at which it was determined to establish a monastery, where the relics of St. Alban should be preserved. For this purpose a large endowment was made by Offa and Egfrith, his son, with the consent of the synod, and extensive liberties, including, as Matthew Paris asserts, freedom from all interference by ecclesiastics or laymen, were granted.
That Offa wished to found a monastery, and that his choice fell upon a spot near Verulamium on account of the sanctity of the memory of St. Alban, is doubtless correct. Nevertheless, a further determining factor in the selection of the site was that the productive lands in England had been at this time granted out and settled, and there only remained the forests and marshes with which to endow any newly-founded monastery. Besides which monks seem to have been the great settlers of unreclaimed land. (fn. 4)
The gift of so many 'manses' or 'mansiones' or land of so many 'manentes' did not indicate a strictly defined area, (fn. 5) but probably a district of waste land such as all the south and south-west parts of Hertfordshire then were. (fn. 6) This manner of endowment led later to many disputes and to the system of forging charters in support of claims. Although Offa's and Egfrith's charters, which the monks of St. Albans proffered as their original title deeds, are probably such forgeries, yet their contents as regards the territorial gifts may be correct in substance. Offa's original endowment (fn. 7) of 34 'mansiones' at Caegesho or Cashio and 6 'mansiones' at 'Heanhamstede,' probably Park, represented the whole of the south-west section of what is now the county, comprising most of the later hundred of Cashio, and forming, roughly, a triangle with Sandridge as the apex and the county boundary from Rickmansworth to Barnet as the base, later representing some twelve ancient parishes containing over 60,000 acres. There was further included in Offa's grant a great area of Middlesex forest expressed as 10 'mansiones' in Stanmore which is said to have extended to London. (fn. 8)
In 795 Offa added a great district around Winslow, in Buckinghamshire, probably comprising the greater part, if not all, of the old hundred of Mursley. The lands are described as 12 'manentes' at Winslow and 3 'manentes' at Salden (Scelfdune) or 'Baldinigotum,' and 10 'manentes' at 'Scuccanhlau' (fn. 9) or 'Fenntunn' with the wood called Horwood, (fn. 10) to which were added 5 'manentes' at 'Lygeton.' (fn. 11) Egfrith, son of Offa, in 796 also granted 5 'manentes' at 'Pinnelesfeld' (fn. 12) and 10 'manentes' at 'Thyrfelde.' (fn. 13) These lands formed the original endowment of the abbey. They were probably very sparsely populated, each of the 'manentes' or 'mansiones' possibly represented the land of a household, and later equated with a hide. (fn. 14)
Before dealing with the history of the monastery during the Anglo-Saxon period it may be well to state that the main sources of information are the various works of Matthew Paris, whose material for this period is evidently scanty. It is clear that the lists of the abbots set out in the 'Vitae Abbatum' (fn. 15) and 'Gesta Abbatum' (fn. 16) are unreliable. Only two abbots' names are given for a period covering a little over a hundred years beginning early in the 9th century, and there is a confusion regarding the abbots in the 10th century. Matthew Paris viewed the conduct of the 9th and early 10thcentury abbots from a 13th-century standard. He could not appreciate the life in a Saxon monastery in the 9th century. If, as he asserts, the abbey was founded for the Benedictine rule, that rule was soon afterwards very laxly kept or abandoned before its revival in the 10th century, for it is obvious from what he tells us that the abbots, like other Saxon abbots, lived in the abbey with their families, and their manner of living savoured more of the secular than monastic life. The abbey was always distinctly an aristocratic house. All the Saxon abbots were drawn from the nobility, many of them being kinsmen of the reigning monarchs. The monks came from the same class, and Abbot Leofric would not receive any as monks unless they were well born. (fn. 17) Like many other Saxon abbeys, St. Albans was a double monastery and comprised both men and women. (fn. 18)
Willigod the priest, a faithful minister of Offa, was appointed the first abbot. He was to teach the monastic life, and after his death the brethren with the counsel of the bishop should elect one of themselves as his successor, but if it should happen that no one worthy should be found, the bishop, with the consent of the brethren, was to appoint a successor. It was determined at this time (fn. 19) that Offa should himself visit Rome to treat with the pope for the canonization of Alban and to procure special liberties for the monastery then to be built. Offa went to Rome, and Pope Adrian I granted all that he asked, and adopted, it is said, the monastery as a daughter of the Roman Church, making it subject only to the apostolic see without interference of any archbishop or bishop, (fn. 20) which claim to exemption overriding the provisions of Offa's first charter is probably a later invention. (fn. 21) Offa at the same time granted Peter's Pence from his lands in England, excepting to St. Albans Monastery the Peter's Pence collected in its lands. (fn. 22)
On his return to England Offa granted further lands to St. Albans in 795. In the meantime Willigod had brought together monks specially selected for their holiness, (fn. 23) and a church was built by Offa and apparently finished in that year, for Offa then appears to have visited it and laid his charter upon the high altar in the presence of the convent and a great gathering of magnates. (fn. 24) Offa died shortly afterwards, in July 796, and Willigod within two months later died of remorse for not having secured the burial of the founder of their house at St. Albans. (fn. 25)
Willigod was succeeded as abbot in 796 by Eadric, a kinsman of King Offa, who seems to have met with some opposition to his rule, but governed the monastery with a firm hand. (fn. 26) Wulsig, called the third abbot, is said to have succeeded in the time of St. Edmund (856-70), and ruled till the time of Athelstan (925-40). He was one of the royal house, and is described as a proud man, dressing in silks and living rather as a prince than a monk. He excited scandal by inviting noble women to his table, and wasted the substance of the abbey on his female relations, probably his daughters, whom he married to nobles and gave them portions from the possessions of the abbey. The convent rose against him, and he is said to have died from poison. His kinsmen, who had fattened on the goods of the abbey, were dismissed and the property of the house rescued. (fn. 27)
Wulnoth, called the fourth abbot, was elected apparently in the time of King Athelstan (925-40). He spent two or three years in correcting the evil doings of his predecessor, and changed the colour and form of the habit of the monks. He ordained that the nuns (sanctimoniales semisaeculares), whom his predecessor had placed in a house too near the church, should live together in one house in the almonry to avoid suspicion, and should hear matins and the daily hours in the greater church (in majori ecclesia), and should be restricted in their eating of meat. (fn. 28) Wulnoth later relinquished his zeal for reform and indulged in hunting and sport, neglecting the care of the monastery to the scandal of religion. Matthew Paris refers to the plundering of the abbey by Danes in the time of this abbot and the carrying off of the relics of St. Alban to Denmark, (fn. 29) but the account is an interpolation and with little doubt refers to a later episode, which will be dealt with hereafter. Abbot Wulnoth afterwards repented of his evil ways, and after ruling the monastery for eleven years died from a stroke of paralysis. He was succeeded by Eadfrith, the fifth abbot, (fn. 30) a member of the Saxon aristocracy who had been prior. He is described as good-looking in appearance, but vain and despicable in conduct, constantly in his chamber, rarely in the cloister and never in the quire. He presented a precious chalice to the monastery, and with his permission Ulf, the prior, built the chapel of St. German on the site of the house where St. German was supposed to have dwelt and where the body of St. Alban was found. Here he lived the life of a hermit, and after his death Abbot Eadfrith, repenting from his evil living, resigned his office of abbot and retired to this hermitage. (fn. 31)
This brings us to the middle of the 10th century, to the time of the revival of the Benedictine rule and the introduction of reform into the English monasteries. In consequence probably of these changes the abbey remained vacant for a year owing to discord among the monks as to the election of a successor, the greater number favouring the prior and the minority, probably the party of reform, opposing him. At length the discord was compromised by the intervention of the bishop, and Wulsin was elected abbot. His appointment, however, was but a compromise, and on that account he is unlikely to have effected any great changes in the monastery. Besides which he was evidently an old man when he undertook the office, as his rule was not a long one, and we are told that he died full of days. He is described as a pious man, and it is said that he established the market-place at St. Albans and encouraged people to settle there, assisting them with money and material. It is also recorded that he built the churches of St. Peter in the north, St. Stephen in the south, and St. Michael in the west of the town. (fn. 32)
Great confusion follows from this date in the account of the abbots given in the Gesta Abbatum. It is here stated that Wulsin, the sixth abbot, was succeeded by Ælfric, the seventh abbot, Ealdred, the eighth abbot, Eadmer, the ninth abbot, Leofric, the tenth abbot, Ælfric II, brother of Leofric, the eleventh abbot, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, and Leofstan, the twelfth abbot. (fn. 33) From other evidence, however, a more probable succession seems to be that here suggested.
When St. Oswald, then Bishop of Worcester, desired a place in which to establish the regular monks, for whom there was not room at Worcester and Westbury, he was offered by King Edgar the choice of the monasteries of St. Albans, Ely, or Benfleet, in Essex. Instead, however, of selecting any of them he founded in 968 the monastery of Ramsey. (fn. 34) At the same time he did not lose the opportunity of furthering the interests of reform, and used his influence with the king to procure the appointment of men of his own views to fill the vacancies at these abbeys. The monasteries of St. Albans, Ely and Benfleet, we are expressly told, were emptied of secular clerks, who were replaced by professed monks, and Ælfric, son of an ealdorman of Kent, was made Abbot of St. Albans. (fn. 35) Ælfric had been a monk at Abingdon, where we may be sure he had imbibed the views of Æthelwold with regard to monastic vows, and was evidently a friend of Dunstan, for the Sancti Dunstani Vita Auctore B is dedicated to him. (fn. 36) Matthew Paris states that he was chancellor to Æthelred while he was a layman (saecularis); so that he was apparently middle-aged when he became a monk. It is probable that he brought in some monks from Abingdon or elsewhere to teach and enforce the Benedictine rule, and those in the monastery who would not accept it were expelled. We have unfortunately no authentic information as to his life at St. Albans. We are told that he purchased Kingsbury from the king, destroyed the castle and drained the fishpool, (fn. 37) but there is some doubt even as to this small item of information. Having regard to the confusion existing between Ælfric and his brother Leofric, it seems probable that much attributed by Matthew Paris to the latter refers to the former. The famine mentioned as in the time of Leofric (fn. 38) is probably that of 976, (fn. 39) when Ælfric was, so far as we know, still abbot, for he was not made Bishop of Ramsbury till 990. The abbot at the time of this famine is said to have spent the treasure and goods of the monastery in the relief of the starving poor, which caused much dissent among the monks. (fn. 40) After being at Ramsbury for a few years Ælfric was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 995, (fn. 41) and at his death in 1005 he left considerable property to St. Albans Abbey, and appointed his brother Leofric, then Abbot of St. Albans, his executor. (fn. 42)
It is clear from Matthew Paris that one brother succeeded the other, and such dates as we have also point to this. Leofric, we are told, was a handsome and stately man, but despised all worldly vanities and refused to be Archbishop of Canterbury, asserting that his brother Ælfric was more worthy of the honour. (fn. 43) At the same time he was a respecter of persons, and would not admit as a monk of St. Albans anyone who was not well born.
Leofric was undoubtedly Abbot of St. Albans in 997, when he is so described as a witness to a charter. (fn. 44) He is again mentioned in 1005, (fn. 45) 1006 (fn. 46) and 1007, (fn. 47) which is the last date when reference to him has been found. During his abbacy St. Albans seems to have been wealthy and many gifts and purchases of land were obtained. At one of the threatened invasions by the Danes at the end of the 10th century, when Æthelred was compelled to buy off the invaders, the abbot lent the king a large sum of money on security of lands. In redemption of this loan the king granted to the abbey in 1006 a 'cassata' of land at Flamstead and 5 'cassatae' at Verulamium. (fn. 48) The two brothers besides this grant acquired from the Crown lands at Kingsbury, Burston and Childwick, all near to St. Albans, Oxhey, Weston, Norton, Upton, Rodenhanger and elsewhere in Hertfordshire. (fn. 49)
Abbot Leofric was probably succeeded about 1007 by Ealdred and he by Eadmar. Both these abbots, of whose dates there exists no independent evidence, are placed by Matthew Paris before Abbot Leofric, but as we have a definite date for Ælfric, who, as has been shown, was succeeded by his brother Leofric, there is no room for them unless they come after Leofric; besides which all we know about them is with regard to their excavations and searches at Verulamium, which was not granted to St. Albans till the abbacy of Leofric. Matthew Paris gives an account of the remains found during the excavations by Ealdred and tells a story of a cave at a place called 'Wormenhert,' which was the habitation of a dragon. This abbot collected a great store of stones, tiles and wood for the fabric of the church, but was prevented by his death from carrying out his intention of rebuilding the abbey. (fn. 50) Eadmar continued the work of his predecessor and collected more material from Verulamium. During the searches it is said some books were found, one of which was the life of St. Alban written in the ancient British language, and after being translated by a priest, Unwona, it fell to pieces. As no known manuscript has ever been discovered in the ancient British language the story is apocryphal. Like his predecessor, Eadmar left his intention of rebuilding the church unfulfilled. (fn. 51)
Matthew Paris gives a second Abbot Ælfric, but as some of the events attributed to his abbacy, such as the loan to King Æthelred, above referred to, appear from more authentic sources to belong to the time of Leofric, it seems probable that his existence forms a part of the confusion already mentioned. To the time, however, of this abbot, and in the reign of Edward the Confessor, Matthew Paris attributes the well-known story of the removal of the relics of St. Alban to Ely for security during a threatened invasion of the Danes, probably that of Magnus, King of Norway and Denmark, in 1045. The scare being over, the Abbot of St. Albans demanded the return of the relics, but the monks of Ely refused to restore them. After appeals to King Edward and the pope, the monks of Ely were induced to return what they professed were Alban's bones, retaining, however, what they considered were the true relics. The Abbot of St. Albans then declared that he had only pretended to send the real relics to Ely and the authentic bones he had concealed in his church. Later St. Alban, it is said, appeared to one of the monks and declared that his true relics had been hidden in the middle of the church, from which they were publicly and solemnly taken. (fn. 52) Arising out of this story is the further legend of the carrying off of the bones of the saint to Odense in Denmark, where they were deposited in a monastery. This episode is given by Matthew Paris under the abbacy of Wulnoth (fn. 53) in the first half of the 10th century, but as the Danes were then heathen and the priory of Odense was not founded till the 11th century, it is obvious that it belongs to a later date. By the recent researches of Mr. W. R. L. Lowe it has been shown that St. Canute or Knud came to England in the Danish expedition of 1069-70 to assist the English refugees under Hereward at Ely, and according to an 11th-century MS. 'Passio of St. Canute' and a tablet erected at Odense the Danish king St. Canute then carried back with him some of the supposed relics of St. Alban probably from those retained by Ely. These were deposited in the priory of St. Mary at Odense, which thereupon received the additional dedication to St. Alban, and it was in the church of this monastery that Canute was murdered in 1086. (fn. 54) The further story how Egwin the sacrist, after receiving a message from St. Alban in a dream, became a monk at Odense, where he stole the relics and sent them to England, is perhaps an adaptation from the legend as to the relics of St. Oswald taken from Peterborough. (fn. 55)
The next abbot was apparently Leofstan 'surnamed Plumstan', who was appointed shortly after the accession of Edward the Confessor, possibly about 1048. (fn. 56) He had been a member of the royal household, and was the confessor of King Edward and Queen Edith, with both of whom he had considerable influence. (fn. 57) Possibly on account of his court interest he obtained numerous grants of lands from the nobility and others, and very largely from wealthy Danes, many of whom appear to have settled in the neighbourhood of the monastery. (fn. 58) He further improved the estates of the abbey by clearing the woods from the confines of the Chiltern district almost to London, at the same time securing the safety of travellers and pilgrims to St. Albans by repairing Watling Street and the bridges on it. That the road might be maintained in safety he granted the manor of Flamstead to Turmot, a knight, who with two fellow knights was bound to keep those parts free from thieves and wild beasts. Leofstan died 'immediately after' (fn. 59) Edward the Confessor (5 January 1065-6), leaving the abbey 'overflowing with all good things.' (fn. 60)
After, or perhaps a little before, the death of Leofstan the abbey seems to have been seized by that rapacious prelate Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, (fn. 61) who at this time was obtaining the revenues of many of the larger monasteries. Besides St. Albans he held in this way the abbeys of Winchester, Glastonbury, St. Augustine and Ely. (fn. 62) They did not, however, remain with him for many months, for Harold seems to have filled the vacancies. To St. Albans he appointed Frederic, who was descended from the old Saxon nobility, and was also a kinsman of King Cnut and a friend of King Edward and of Harold. We know nothing of what happened at St. Albans during Harold's brief reign. William the Conqueror must at once have recognized the abbey as a source of danger. Its great wealth and reputation and the intensely national and aristocratic tendency of its inmates, many of whom were of noble blood, compelled him to lessen its power and influence. (fn. 63) It is clear that he promoted the rivalry between St. Albans and Westminster by conveying to the latter much of the St. Albans property and giving to it lands adjoining those of St. Albans. In this way and by grants to his Norman followers William impoverished the abbey. Thus St. Albans lost its property in Middlesex, at Flamstead, Studham, Bushey, and probably Aldenham and other places in Hertfordshire. (fn. 64)
Abbot Frederic was openly opposed to William, and immediately after the battle of Hastings and the death of Harold he gave the influence of his birth, position and wealth to the English party, headed by Aldred Archbishop of York, Earls Edwin and Morcar and the townsmen of London to place Edgar Etheling on the throne. (fn. 65) At that memorable occasion when William was met at Berkhampstead by Aldred Archbishop of York, Edgar Etheling, Edwin and Morcar and all the chief men of London (fn. 66) who submitted to him, Abbot Frederic, according to Matthew Paris, administered the oath (fn. 67) whereby William swore on the relics of St. Alban that he would be a loving lord to them.
Abbot Frederic appears to have been looked upon as one of the leaders and spokesmen of the English party. A story is told that William one day taunted the English with being so easily conquered, and the English knights and nobles not being ready with an answer Frederic replied for them that the king owed the easiness of his conquest to the Church, which, by the gifts of his predecessors, held so much of the land and could not rebel against him. The king made answer that if that was the case he would not be safe from the King of Denmark, or any other who might wage war upon him, and therefore 'out of your own mouth I judge you, and I begin with you, resuming the possessions with which you are so abundantly supplied, that knights may be provided from them for the defence of the kingdom.' The king thereupon seized all the lands which the abbey held between Barnet and London to a place called 'Londonestone.' (fn. 68) Whether this story is true or not is uncertain, but there is no doubt that William did seize extensive property of St. Alban in Middlesex. Frederic was evidently the cause of suspicion with William and Archbishop Lanfranc, as one of the chief favourers of the English. It is possible that he was connected with the rebellions of Earl Waltheof, Roger Earl of Hereford and Ralph Earl of Norfolk in 1075-6, for Wulfstan Bishop of Worcester, who had taken part against the earls, offered to make peace between him and the king and Lanfranc. The abbot, however, fearing treachery and that he might be imprisoned or put to death, in 1077 suggested to the chapter that he should flee from his persecutors. By the licence and advice, therefore, of the convent he fled to the Isle of Ely, where a few days afterwards he was taken ill and died. (fn. 69)