A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1971.
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HOUSES OF AUSTIN CANONS
10. ROYSTON PRIORY
The priory of St. John Baptist and St. Thomas the Martyr of Royston seems to have originated in a chapel built by Eustace de Merk in his fee of Newsells for three chaplains; this was enlarged or rebuilt at his request by his nephew Ralph de Rochester, who placed there seven canons regular, and gave them in frankalmoign the site, the green before the door and wall of the close, 140 acres of arable land near the precinct and pasture for 120 sheep in his manor. (fn. 1) The licence granted by Walter Abbot of St. John Baptist, Colchester (c. 1164-79), (fn. 2) to the poor brothers at Rose's Cross to build a chapel and consecrate a cemetery in the parish of Barkway (fn. 3) probably relates to Eustace's house. (fn. 4) The date of Rochester's foundation is fixed as earlier than April 1184 by the bull of Pope Lucius III, (fn. 5) then directed to Simon the prior and the canons, taking under the protection of St. Peter the church of St. John Baptist and St. Thomas the Martyr (fn. 6) at Rose's Cross, and ordering the rule of St. Augustine to be observed there inviolably. They might receive as brothers any clerks or laymen who were free and without ties; those who made profession there must not depart except to enter a stricter order; the election of the prior was to be free; during a general interdict divine service might be celebrated there with closed doors; there was to be free burial there saving the rights of other churches; the convent could present to the parish churches which belonged to them priests who should answer to them for the issues; sentence of excommunication, suspension or interdict was not to be published against them or their church without reasonable cause; and interference with them and their property was forbidden. The pope also confirmed to them their possessions, among which were specified the churches of Coddenham (co. Suffolk) and Chesterton (co. Huntingdon) with certain small tithes and land given by Eustace de Merk, the grant of Ralph de Rochester, and land worth 20s., the gift of Ralph Walensis.
From the charter of Richard I to the priory in November 1189 (fn. 7) it appears that Eustace de Merk's endowment included also the church of Owersby (fn. 8) (co. Lincoln) and land in 'Lagefare,' 'Haclinges,' Owersby and Thornton, and that the canons had acquired from other donors small pieces of land in 'Ruyt,' possibly Reed, and Barley (co. Herts.), Melbourn, Bassingbourn and Kneesworth (co. Camb.), 'Halsewic,' probably Alswick in Layston, and 'Wanlinton,' perhaps Wallington. The king confirmed these to the convent and granted them a fair at Royston throughout the week of Pentecost and a weekly market according to the custom of the canons of Dunstable; he gave them sac and soc, tol and team, infangthef and utfangthef and murder; freedom for them and their men and tenants from all scot and geld, aids, hidage, danegeld, shires and hundreds, wardpenny and burghpenny, works of castles; and acquittance of all toll in fairs and markets and crossing of bridges throughout the kingdom; the canons were to have the chattels of thieves and all forfeitures which occurred in their lands or those of their men, and they were not to be impleaded as to their property except before the king and his chief justice. The charter was confirmed in February 1272 (fn. 9) and several times afterwards, (fn. 10) and the important privileges it conferred were claimed by the prior and allowed in 1277. (fn. 11)
Improvements were being made to the house in December 1225, for the king then gave the prior leave to inclose the road beneath the west wall of the priory for its enlargement, (fn. 12) and granted him timber to build a chamber for himself. (fn. 13)
For the rest, information about the priory during the 13th century relates either to difficulties with other religious bodies (fn. 14) over conflicting liberties or to its additions of property. The canons obtained in 1242 a second fair at Royston to be held on the vigil and feast of St. Thomas the Martyr, (fn. 15) and in 1254 a weekly market and annual fair at Chesterton. (fn. 16) Part of the manor of Hamerton was acquired c. 1221-2 (fn. 17); before 1251 they received the manor of Eriswell in Suffolk from William de Rochester, (fn. 18) their patron, (fn. 19) who gave them besides land in the neighbourhood of Royston (fn. 20); from Peter de Rochester they had the mill of 'Beriton' with multure and fishery in Eriswell and Coclesworth (fn. 21) and a holding in Lakenheath, and from two others land in East and West Reed; and c. 1255 a carucate of land in Chesterton from Giles de Merk. (fn. 22) Houses in Fleet Street, London, were bequeathed to them in 1290 by Richard de Staunford, clerk of the Exchequer, to maintain a chantry in their church, (fn. 23) a rent of £4 14s. in Royston was alienated to them in 1292 by Isabella de Harleston, (fn. 24) and land and rent in Coddenham in 1293 by Geoffrey Lenvyse. (fn. 25)
The priory was not badly off compared with most religious houses in the county, but its resources were perhaps hardly equal to its responsibilities, judging from the constant disturbances within its area of administration. (fn. 26) Some men of Bassingbourn about 1269 knocked down the walls of Royston and broke the gates (fn. 27); and business at the Whitsuntide fair in 1292 was suspended by rioters, among whom was the lord of Newsells' steward. (fn. 28) Some of the convent indeed about 1308 came to close quarters with a gang of robbers. (fn. 29) The prior and sub-prior, Robert de Bernwell, on this occasion were set upon near Royston; Bernwell ran to the town, collected a band of men, headed the pursuit and took an active part in the affray, during which one robber was killed and others wounded and captured. Without any dispensation for this bloodshed, Bernwell continued to exercise his priestly functions, and was sent by the Bishop of London in 1308 to the pope for absolution.
The spirit of violence had infected the cloister. At the same visitation the bishop found that Ralph de Ashwell, another canon, in the course of a quarrel had badly wounded Bernwell, 'causing great scandal in many parts of England.' Ashwell had also to go to the pope. (fn. 30)
John de Waldene confessed that he had raised his hand against the late prior, and, although he was thereby excommunicate, had celebrated mass, and he therefore begged to be sent to the papal court to obtain dispensation. (fn. 31) The bishop, however, suspected that Waldene would have preferred the journey to the penance already imposed for other misdeeds, so refusing his request he sent him, as he had intended, to the abbey of St. Osyth, there to be kept in prison and to fast on bread and water twice a week. (fn. 32)
These cases give point to some of the episcopal injunctions, (fn. 33) viz., plotting among the canons, revelation of the secrets of the house, insults and quarrels were to be sharply checked by the prior without respect of persons, and a prison was to be built in a safe place in the house for the punishment of delinquent canons. The others, as might be expected, indicate general carelessness and slackness in discipline, religion and management. Money in lieu of clothes was not to be given to the canons; the sick were to be provided with suitable food; silence was to be kept according to the rule; the decrease in the number of the convent must be remedied as soon as possible; the prior on pain of deprivation was to enforce a better observance of the injunctions of the Archbishop of Canterbury and of the Bishop of London; canons were not to wander about the town or enter the houses of laymen without good cause, the prior's leave being first obtained, nor eat and drink except in the refectory, infirmary or the prior's room; women, especially those of the neighbourhood, were not to eat within the precincts nor enter the cloister and other places reserved to the convent, unless the prior gave permission in the case of women of good repute coming with a proper escort; the brothers were to eat and sleep together and be present at the services day and night; no office was to be committed to a canon not instructed in his rule; obedientiaries and those receiving the goods of the house must render accounts at least once a year, and the prior must make known the state of their affairs and consult the most experienced of the convent about expenditure.
In 1310 another canon had to seek papal absolution for celebrating service while excommunicated for violence. (fn. 34) This man, Walter de Kelishulle, had behaved like one frenzied: he had assaulted the prior and a clerk so as to draw blood, attacked one of the convent with drawn sword in the church, and dragged the sub-prior about the room, tearing his clothes off his back. In September he was consigned by the bishop to St. Osyth's, (fn. 35) with directions that he was to be last in quire, cloister, chapter, refectory, and dormitory, attend all the services, and celebrate mass daily; and except at the most important festivals he was to have only bread, soup and ale on Thursdays and Saturdays. The punishment in this instance appears light for the offence, and it would be interesting to know all the circumstances. It is evident that Bishop Baldock considered the prior most unsatisfactory. Geoffrey Hakoun seems to have had a special faculty for surrounding himself with undesirable familiars and servants. By an injunction of 1308 Robert Cook was to be removed from all office. Later (fn. 36) the prior was ordered to avoid the company of John Loth, who was to be deprived of office after rendering account, and to remove the warden of Eastwood, putting in his place a trustworthy person with the convent's consent. He himself was forbidden under pain of deprivation to alienate property without urgent necessity, as he had done, or contract heavy loans without the convent's assent; and in future he must neither receive nor spend the issues of the priory save in the presence of a canon deputed by the rest.
In 1311 Hakoun practically set the bishop at defiance by procuring from the general chapter of the order the reversal of his commands about John de Waldene and the administration of the conventual property, (fn. 37) and in April 1313 was threatened with excommunication and deprivation by the bishop if he did not observe his injunctions, hitherto utterly neglected. (fn. 38) What happened in the end is not known. Bishop Baldock died shortly afterwards, and Hakoun remained in possession until November 1314 and then resigned, (fn. 39) possibly under pressure, for the choice of a canon from another house to succeed him hints at reform. (fn. 40)
Surrounding conditions probably made maintenance of discipline and management of property particularly difficult here. The prior complained in 1313 that the gates and doors of the priory had been broken and the bailiff of his market assaulted, (fn. 41) and in 1314 that his goods had been carried off. (fn. 42)
The house continued to add to its possessions. The manor of Reed was bought in 1303 from Adam de Twynham (fn. 43); in 1354 land and rent in Cockenhatch and Reed were acquired from William de Norton (fn. 44) and 70 acres in Cockenhatch from Michael de Spayne the next year (fn. 45); and grants of land in West Reed, Royston and Buckland were made to the convent by Thomas Palfreyman between 1358 and 1368, (fn. 46) partly to maintain a lamp at the high altar of their church and to endow a chantry and obit. The prior and convent also received from William Slyng and his wife Maud in 1363 a messuage in Holborn worth 8s. a year to find a candle at high mass on Sunday before the high altar. (fn. 47) In 1385 they obtained licence to acquire property in mortmain to the annual value of £10, (fn. 48) and in 1386 William Koo gave them messuages in Royston to half the amount. (fn. 49) Edmund Earl of March, their patron, (fn. 50) bequeathed 40 marks to the house in 1382-3 that a daily mass might be celebrated for his soul for a year. (fn. 51)
William Pynchbek, who had been made prior in March 1398-9, (fn. 52) was accused with two of the canons, John Burgh and Walter Adam, in 1401 of having procured his election through secular power and simony. (fn. 53) They denied the charge, and cleared themselves before the bishop's commissary by bringing beneficed clergymen to testify to their life and conduct.
Except as regards its temporal jurisdiction, (fn. 54) very little is heard of the house for a century.
In 1517 two changes were made at the priory by Bishop Fitz James at the request of Robert White, the prior. (fn. 55) To replace more easily the service books now worn out, the adoption of the Sarum use was authorized instead of that of Bangor. The feast of the dedication of the conventual church was at the same time transferred from 22 June to 19 October, because the former date came too near St. John Baptist's Day, the festival of the place.
The church was then undergoing repairs, which must have extended over some time, for Thomas Gery in 1517 left 40s. for that purpose, and in 1527 a bequest of £10 was made by William Lee to complete the chancel roof. (fn. 56)
When White died on 1 April 1534 (fn. 57) a difficulty arose between the convent and the Earl of Oxford, who as owner of Newsells believed he had a voice in the selection of the prior. Richard Bretten, one of the canons, he told Cromwell, was canvassing the gentlemen and yeomen of the district ostensibly to have a free election, but really to get the post for himself (fn. 58); and in Cromwell's statement that the king was founder he could only see the result of Bretten's intrigues. (fn. 59) But Bretten was right on both counts. The patronage of the priory had long since passed from the lords of Newsells, and belonged to the king as heir of the Mortimers (fn. 60); and the choice of the prior rested with the convent. The congé d'élire was given on 14 May, (fn. 61) Richard Bretten was chosen, and the king assented on 12 June to his election. (fn. 62) The affair, however, was evidently not yet settled. Bretten appears to have been absent when the acknowledgement of the royal supremacy was made by the house, 1 July 1534, (fn. 63) and although he was styled prior in October, when he borrowed 20 marks for his monastery 'in his great necessity,' (fn. 64) the royal assent was given a second time in December. (fn. 65)
The Earl of Oxford had called him unthrifty and unfit for rule, and declared that he would ruin the house, but his opinion is too biased to be trustworthy, and the available evidence is all in Bretten's favour. The commissioners who received the surrender of the priory in 1537 pronounced the convent to be of very good report and name and the building in very good repair. (fn. 66)
At the dissolution of the house on 9 April 1537 Bretten received an annual pension of £16 13s. 4d., but the other six canons were dismissed with a small present. (fn. 67)
The goods were worth £132 13s. 6d. (fn. 68) and the plate £30 3s. 2¼d. (fn. 69); the lead was valued at £28 and the three bells at £29. (fn. 70) The income of the priory in 1291 was about £61 (fn. 71) ; in 1535 it was reckoned at £89 16s. net, (fn. 72) perhaps a low estimate, as its gross revenues in 1537 were at least £133. (fn. 73)
Priors of Royston
Simon, occurs April 1184 (fn. 74)
W., occurs October 1229 (fn. 75)
Osbert, occurs 28 October 1254 (fn. 76)
Thomas, occurs May 1302 (fn. 80)
John de Beauchamp, occurs 1339 (fn. 85)
Thomas, occurs 1346 (fn. 86)
John Adam, died 10 March 1398-9 (fn. 93)
Walter (Adam), occurs 15 October 1413 (fn. 96)
George Wright, elected 23 February 1441-2 (fn. 101)
John Kyrkeby, occurs temp. Henry VII (fn. 104)
The seal of this priory, of 15th-century date, (fn. 111) is vesica-shaped, with a design of two niches with elaborate canopies and having tabernacle work at the sides; in the one on the right stands St. Thomas of Canterbury with mitre and crozier, blessing with his right hand; in that on the left is another saint, presumably St. John Baptist. Below under the round-headed arch supporting the niches is a little figure of a prior praying. Legend: SIGILL[um] . COMMUNE . [p]ORAT . . . DOMUS . . . [..] · THOME · DE · RO . . .