A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1926.
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HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE MONKS
1. THE ABBEY OF RAMSEY
The abbey of Ramsey was not only the earliest but the most important of the religious houses of this country. There seems no reason for doubting the tradition of its foundation, about the year 969, by Aylwin, foster-brother of King Edgar, and duke of East Anglia, (fn. 1) It was in that year that the founder (as the story goes) met St. Oswald of Worcester, the patron of the monastic revival of that period, at Glastonbury; and, encouraged by his praise of the regular life, confided to him that he had already erected a hermitage on the isle of Ramsey, under the guidance of the blessed Benedict himself. St. Oswald was delighted at the news, and promised to add to the little company twelve monks from Westbury, and a prior experienced in the observance of the holy rule. A wooden chapel was soon built, and in 974 the house was dedicated to Our Lady, St. Benedict and all holy virgins. (fn. 2) For twenty-four years from the foundation, St. Oswald himself was nominally abbot, but the affairs of the abbey were really managed by the two priors Germanus and Aednoth. (fn. 3)
The monastery was munificently endowed by Aylwin the founder, by his wife, by St. Oswald and other benefactors during the first few years of its existence, and all its privileges were confirmed by charter of King Edgar before his death in 975. (fn. 4) A great scholar, Abbo, came from Fleury to instruct the monks in all liberal arts, and the church was enriched with relics of price. (fn. 5) Before the close of the 10th century Ramsey was a notable monastery, famous for its seemly order and discipline, and the children of many noble families were sent to be educated within its walls. Three of its monks became bishops of Dorchester during the 11th century, and another was made abbot of Evesham and afterwards bishop of London. (fn. 6) The chronicles of the house were kept with great care; and from an abstract of these made in the 12th century we have the history of the foundation, and a detailed account of the deeds, good and evil, of the Saxon abbots. The first of these, Aednoth, was a model of zeal and industry to his fellows before he was advanced to any office; as bishop of Dorchester he had the honour of burying the martyred St. Alphege, and fell himself at the battle of Assandune by the side of his successor at Ramsey, Wulsige, who had been called with him to pray for the success of the English host. (fn. 7) Honourable mention is made of nearly all the abbots of this time except the German Wythman, who proved himself a harsh ruler, but atoned for the faults of his earlier days in an anchoret's cell at Northeye. (fn. 8)
A notable benefactor of the 11th century was Aethelric, bishop of Dorchester, who had been trained at Ramsey from his earliest youth. A delightful story is told of his school days, to explain his special affection for the house. One day, in the natural overflow of high spirits which comes with the recreation hour, he with four companions had been seized with a wild desire to ring the great church bell; and they were so carried away by the unwonted pleasure of making a noise that they rang on till the metal cracked. Dismayed at what they had done, they hastened to confess their fault to the abbot, expecting a severe penance; but he, seeing their tears, and mindful perhaps of his own youth, remitted the flogging which the other monks thought they had richly deserved. (fn. 9) So when bishop of Dorchester, Aethelric repaid his friends by many gifts of land (obtained, it must be owned, by rather shady transactions), (fn. 10) and at his death desired to be buried in the abbey church. Aednoth, his successor, another of the guilty four, also desired to be buried at Ramsey, and was a friend to the house all his life. (fn. 11)
Under Cnut and Edward the Confessor the abbey still increased in power and prosperity; one of its special benefactors was Aylwin the Black, who gave four manors in Bedfordshire. (fn. 12) Though Ralf Guader, Eustace the sheriff and other Norman lords dispossessed the monks of some of their property at the Conquest, (fn. 13) their charters were confirmed by King William in 1077, (fn. 14) and they were fortunate enough to keep their English abbots almost without interruption until 1113. (fn. 15)
It was in the time of Aldwin, the last English abbot, that the ordinary regulations for the household expenses of the abbey were made into definite statutes, which formed a standard of reference in all subsequent reforms. (fn. 16) Certain manors were set apart as a revenue for the cellarer, and the amount of food required for the supply of the whole convent fixed in round numbers. The items of daily food named in these statutes show a ménage simple but not unduly austere: the staple articles of diet were bread, cheese, bacon, beef and mutton, eggs, beans and honey, with some poultry and butter added at the great feasts; beer was the ordinary drink of the monks here as in most English monasteries. The full number of monks provided for at Ramsey appears to have been eighty, during the 12th and 13th centuries. (fn. 17)
During the reign of Henry I the abbey acquired the manor of Walton from Walter de Bolebec, (fn. 18) and another privilege of still more importance—the annual fair at St. Ives. It was granted in the original charter by the king for eight days, beginning from the Tuesday in Easter week; and the number of merchants who congregated there to sell their wares made it a very considerable source of income. (fn. 19)
In the reign of Stephen, a difficult time for all religious houses, the monks of Ramsey suffered severely at the hands of the unprincipled soldiers of fortune who made their gain out of the disorders of the civil war. The house was already vexed by internal discord, being disputed by two rival abbots, Walter and Daniel. The character of Walter, who ruled first, is very differently given by different chroniclers. (fn. 20) One represents him as a man of gentle and pious habits, who was induced by the guileful Daniel to resign, that he might have more leisure for his prayers; the other, without further comment, simply gives a list of Walter's alienations of the convent property for the benefit of his own relations. Whatever was the cause, the fact appears to be that Walter was induced or compelled to resign his office to Daniel, and then, repenting of his weakness, went off to Rome to get a bull of restoration. As soon as he was gone, Geoffrey de Mandeville came with his troops, drove out all the monks, and turned the abbey into a fortress. Driven from his office, abbot Daniel followed Walter to Rome; but the latter had already 'won all hearts by his dove-like simplicity' (backed no doubt by arguments more popular at the court of Rome), and was ready to start home again to resume his rights. (fn. 21)
This must have been about the year 1143, for Walter returned to find the abbey still occupied by Geoffrey de Mandeville, who refused to admit him, and cared nothing for excommunications. But a little later the earl was slain at the siege of Burwell Castle, and his son almost at once withdrew his troops from Ramsey. (fn. 22) Walter found himself once more abbot with full possession, but the house was sorely impoverished, and the abbey lands had suffered from long want of cultivation. He had to work for many years to restore the abbey to its former condition; but he is said to have left it in good standing, and perhaps redeemed in later life the faults of his earlier rule. (fn. 23)
During the reign of John the abbatial chair was vacant seven years, because the monks would not accept the king's nominee; (fn. 24) the abbot of Selby was finally placed in charge by Nicholas, bishop of Tusculum. (fn. 25) Perhaps it was during the vacancy that Archbishop Hubert Walter visited the abbey, and reenacted the constitutions of Aldwin, with additions of his own as to the election of officers. (fn. 26)
Ranulf, who was made abbot in 1231, was a man of considerable capacity. He was the king's justiciar in 1239, (fn. 27) and had mediated with him at one time on behalf of the baronial party. (fn. 28) He was personally known to Matthew Paris the historian, who speaks of his generosity with money and gifts both to the king and to St. Alban's abbey. (fn. 29) It was probably in his time that Ramsey was subjected to a severe visitation from Bishop Grosseteste, who came in person with a crowd of seculars and examined the whole abbey, including the dormitories and the kitchen; and it is some credit to abbot Ranulf that, even under such conditions, no scandal was brought to light. (fn. 30)
One of the most characteristic features in the history of the great fenland monasteries is their perpetual warfare on the subject of boundaries and revenues. They were nearly always at law with one another. As early as 1053 there was a suit recorded between Ramsey and Thorney, as to the marsh of King's Delf, (fn. 31) and the dispute was renewed again in 1245 and 1335. (fn. 32) Quarrels between the abbot of Ramsey and the bishop of Ely went on almost unceasingly from 1175 (fn. 33) to the end of the 14th century. Disputes about the manors of Chateriz and Somersham were settled by law or arbitration, only to break out again in a few years. Fellowships of prayer were entered into by all the monasteries of the fen country; but it is to be feared that there was little love lost among them. (fn. 34) On the other hand, there seems to have been some pleasant intercourse in early days between Ramsey and St. Alban's; (fn. 35) the latter house has a better record in this particular than most monasteries with large possessions.
The abbey incurred serious loss by the rebellion of John d'Eyville in the Isle of Ely in 1267, when some of the rebels took refuge at Ramsey. At this time the abbey became so burdened with debts to the king that their tenants were requested to contribute an aid, and the king to assist them gave them quittance from prises on their corn taken to London. (fn. 36)
Visitations of Ramsey were made by Archbishop Kilwardby and by Bishop Sutton (fn. 37) near the end of the 13th century; their results are not recorded, but if there had been anything seriously wrong it could scarcely have escaped notice. Indeed, it seems that at this time the house had recovered from its misfortunes and was in a very prosperous condition, though the danger of worldliness, to its superior officers, must have been a real one. William of Godmanchester and John of Sawtry were both remembered for the buildings they raised, and other good deeds: though the royal patronage and the wide lands of the abbey involved losses as well as gains. In 1286 Ramsey was expected to contribute more than any other house in England to the expedition in Wales, (fn. 38) and it cost 2,000 marks to buy a grant of custody of the monastery during voidance. (fn. 39) Personal friendship with the king and queen, and having a prince for godson, did not save John of Sawtry from continual impositions, against which he protested in vain. Like other abbots, he objected strongly to receiving the king's old servants in his almonry; but they continued to be sent. His own household expenses, while he had to entertain so many royal visitors and make so many journeys on the king's service (including an expedition to Gascony), were so heavy that in 1300 his prior and convent insisted on his signing an agreement which freed them from all liability for his debts. Yet his letter-book, still carefully preserved, shows him to have been a man of business-like habits and a lover of the regular life. His devotion to the stately office of the choir is seen in the curious threat made by the monks when they wanted to bring him to terms in a matter of finance, that they would simply recite the psalter sine cantu until he would sign the required charter. (fn. 40)
His successor, Simon of Eye, was another magnificent prelate of the same type, who travelled up and down the country and beyond seas on affairs of state. He obtained from Edward III a confirmation of all the most important of the charters of the abbey, but failed like his predecessor to win any relief from the maintenance of royal pensioners. In his time there were many law-suits, ending mostly in his favour; but the most important of these was with the bishop of Ely. In the first year of Simon's rule the bishop obtained from the king a grant of a fair at Ely in Ascension week, accompanied by a brief forbidding merchants to tarry at St. Ives beyond that time on pain of heavy fine. Simon went up to the king and explained the whole history of his own fair, and the new one at Ely was revoked: but the bishop remained a bitter enemy. (fn. 41) In 1335 it was complained that the prior of Ely, the abbot of Thorney and their men had invaded the lands of the abbot of Ramsey, driven away his cattle and spoiled his meadows; but the accused parties retaliated by a similar accusation, and it is probable that there was much aggression on both sides. (fn. 42) Simon's term of office was accompanied by expenses almost as heavy as those of John of Sawtry: he entertained the king and queen and their whole household four days in 1334, and the queen and Princess Eleanor two days in 1330. There is an interesting record of his expenses on a journey to London to spend the Christmas of 1336, giving minute details of the provisions consumed by his retinue. He had clerks and servants, and thirty-seven horses in his train: but the whole outlay only amounted to £26 19s. 1d. (fn. 43)
Robert of Nassington, who followed Simon, fell a victim to the Great Pestilence, which doubtless brought other losses to the monastery: we can scarcely wonder that Richard of Sheningdon in 1349 found the house 2,500 marks in debt. (fn. 44) The discipline of Ramsey abbey had evidently grown a little lax at the end of the century, under the long prelacy of Edmund of Ellington, and Bishop Buckingham's report gives us an unsatisfactory picture. The abbot himself was accused of alienating property for the benefit of servants who were unprofitable to the house; the choir was not duly attended; too many hunting dogs were kept by the monks. The bishop ordered the unnecessary servants to be dismissed, and the buildings to be repaired; money left for definite objects was to be used according to the original purpose, and the abbot was to have a co-adjutor. (fn. 45)
Abbot John Tichmersh was another great builder, whom the chronicler calls a nobilis pater: (fn. 46) Bishop Grey's injunctions, delivered between 1431 and 1435, contain no complaints of ruin or neglect. They were indeed mainly of a formal kind, such as might have been delivered in any house of the order. No women were to be admitted to the cloister, and the monks were not to eat outside the limits of the monastery without special leave. The divine office was to be sung without discord, and the obedientiaries were to see that the monks occupied themselves with contemplation at the times appointed. (fn. 47) Even in the episcopate of Bishop Alnwick, when so many religious houses were in need of reform, no serious complaint was made of Ramsey. It was said that the almoner was extravagant and wasted the goods of the house, and that the monks in general were allowed too much liberty in visiting their friends at Bury: also that the great silence after Compline was not well kept. It was enjoined that the rule in general should be more strictly observed; (fn. 48) but there seems little doubt that the standard of life was fairly high for the 15th century. The abbey had a magnificent library, and even at this time one monk was found scholar enough to compile a Hebrew Lexicon. There were books on all approved branches of learning and science, and for those who aspired to high contemplation there were the works of Bernard and Aelred, Bonaventure and the Victorines. (fn. 49) All through its long history there is no grave scandal connected with the name of Ramsey, and its chief reproach, from the point of view of the religious life, was the title of 'Ramsey the rich.' It has been seen, however, that its riches brought burdens with them, at least to those who had the charge of affairs. For the rest, there is no doubt that in the 14th and 15th centuries there is little trace of the austerity and fervour which marked the days of Benedict and Bernard; the monks were on the whole warmly housed and well fed: still there were opportunities which many valued highly in the monastic life for quiet works of charity and for the cultivation of personal holiness.
In the course of the first visitation by the royal commissioners of 1535-6 Thomas Bedyll wrote to Cromwell (fn. 50) that he found the abbot and convent well content with the royal supremacy: 'as true and faithful obedientiaries to the king's grace as any religious folks in this realm, and live as uprightly as any other, after the best sort of living that hath been among religious folk these many years: though more given to ceremonies than was necessary.' Two of the monks had asked license to forsake the cloister, and would probably depart on their own account unless it was formally given: there never was a large monastery yet where a few such cases might not be found. The visitor concludes, 'I pray God I may find other houses in no worse condition.' It is hard to know the exact value of this statement; but it seems that at this time the abbot and convent were on the whole desirous of securing the king's favour, that they might remain as they were. In 1537 the abbot of Ramsey was one of those appointed to assist in the funeral rites of Queen Jane. (fn. 51) A year later Richard Cromwell wrote to his uncle to say that he found both abbot and convent 'conformable to everything that shall be at this time put in ure': (fn. 52) it was evident that they were ready to surrender for the sake of securing their pensions. They had no reason indeed to complain of the provision made for them, at least as it appeared on paper. The abbot was to have an annuity of £266 13s. 4d., with a house at Bodsey, and fuel from the woods near Ramsey for his hearth; the prior, John Driver, was to have £20 a year; the rest, to the number of 28, had pensions varying from £12 to £5. (fn. 53) Of these sixteen were still entitled to pensions in 1554; (fn. 54) and one of them at least entered the newlyfounded monastery of Westminster in Mary's reign, only to find himself homeless once more in 1558. This monk, Hugh Philips by name, lived on till 1576 or later, ministering to the needs of his recusant fellow-countrymen. (fn. 55)
At the time of the Domesday Survey, the abbot of Ramsey held 24 manors in Huntingdonshire; in Hertfordshire the manor of Therfield; in Cambridgeshire the manors of Stow, Graveley, Ellsworth, Knapwell, Over, Burwell; in Bedfordshire those of Cranfield, Barton Hartshorn, Shillington, Holwell, Pekesdon, Wyboston and Barford; in Lincolnshire those of Connington and Trickington; Walsoken in Norfolk and Lawshall in Suffolk; besides several other parcels of land not then reckoned as manors. The total value of these lands under the Survey was £311 17s. 4d. (fn. 56) Pope Alexander II in 1178 confirmed to the monastery the churches of Upwood, Bury, Hemingford Abbots and Hemingford Grey, Sawtry, Great Stukeley, Warboys, St. Ives, Houghton with Wyton, Ellington, Bythorn, Brington, Weston, Wood Walton, Great Staughton, Yelling, Steeple Gidding, Kings Ripton and Abbots Ripton, Broughton, Elton, Diddington and St. Andrew in Huntingdon, in. this county; Helgay, Walsoken, Brancaster, Downham, Deepdale, Burnham, Fordham and Ringstead, in Norfolk; Chatteris, Ellsworth, Graveley, Burwell, Barnwell, Knapwell, Girton, Over and Stow in Cambridgeshire; Therfield in Hertfordshire; Shillington, Barton Hartshorn, Barford and Holwell in Bedfordshire; Lawshall in Suffolk; Quarington, Wykington, Cranwell in the county of Lincoln. (fn. 57) A charter of Henry III names also the church of Wimbotsham, Norfolk. (fn. 58) King Edgar is said to have given the church of Godmanchester, (fn. 59) but it never appears among the property of the abbey after the Conquest.
The temporal and spiritual revenues of the abbot amounted in 1291 to £1,310 13s. 3½d. (fn. 60) The clear value of the revenues of the abbey in 1535 was given as £1,715 12s. 3d., including the cells of Modney and St. Ives. Alms were at this time still distributed for the souls of the founder Aylwin, and of abbots Ranulf, Robert, William of Godmanchester, Hugh de Sulgrave, John Tichmersh, John Huntingdon, William of Wittlesey. (fn. 61)
The first return of the Crown Bailiff only gave a total of £1,451, exclusive of the priory of St. Ives, and including the manors of Broughton, Upwood, Little Raveley, Ripton Abbots and Kings Ripton, Wenington, Elton, Weston, Ellington, Little Stukeley, Haliwell, Hemingford Abbots, Old Hurst, Houghton and Wyton, Warboys, Wistow, Walton, Abbots Gidding, Bury, Well, Over, Graveley, Ellsworth, Knapwell, Burwell, Chatteris, Girton, Cranfield, Shillington, Barton Hartshorn, Gravenhurst, Barnwell, Brancaster, Ringstead, Papenhoo, Wimbotsham, Helgay and Lawshall. (fn. 62)
Abbots of Ramsey (fn. 63)
Aednoth, first abbot, (fn. 64) appointed 992,
Wulsi, elected 1008, died 1016.
Wythman, (fn. 65) elected 1016, resigned 1020.
Ethelstan, (fn. 66) elected 1020, died 1043.
Alfwin, elected 1043, ruled till 1080.
Ailsi, elected 1080, ruled till 1087.
Herbert of Lorraine, (fn. 67) elected 1087, resigned 1091.
Aldwin, (fn. 68) elected 1091, died 1113.
Bernard of St. Albans, elected 1102, died 1107.
Reynold, elected 1114, died 1133.
Walter, (fn. 69) elected 1133, died 1161.
William, (fn. 70) elected 1161, resigned 1177.
Robert Trianel, elected 1180, died 1200.
Eudo, elected 1200, ruled till 1202.
Robert de Reading, elected 1202, resigned 1207.
Richard de Selby, (fn. 71) elected 1214, ruled till 1216.
Hugh Foliot, elected 1216, died 1231.
Ranulf, elected 1231, died 1253.
William de Hacholt or Akolt, elected 1253, died 1254. (fn. 72)
Hugh de Sulgrave, elected 1254, died 1267.
William de Godmanchester, sacristan, elected 1267, resigned 1285.
John de Sawtry, elected 1285, died 1316.
Simon de Eye, elected 1316, died 1343.
Robert de Nassington, elected 1343, died 1349.
Richard de Sheningdon, elected 1349, died 1379.
Edmund de Ellington, elected 1379, died 1396.
Thomas Butterwick, elected 1396, died 1419.
John Tichmersh, elected 1419, died 1434.
John Crowland, elected 1434, died 1436.
John Stow, elected 1436, resigned 1468.
William Wittlesey, (fn. 73) elected 1468, died 1473.
John Wardboys, (fn. 74) elected 1473, died 1489. (fn. 75)
John Huntingdon, elected 1489. (fn. 76)
Henry Stukeley, (fn. 77) elected 1506.
John Lawrence, alias Wardboys, last abbot, elected 1507. (fn. 78)
A pointed oval seal of the 12th century (fn. 79) shows the standing figure of St. Benedict, his right hand raised in benediction and his left holding a pastoral staff. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of the 14th century (fn. 80) showing the standing figures of St. Oswald or St. Ivo wearing a mitre, with his right hand raised in benediction and his left holding a pastoral staff; and St. Benedict with a pastoral staff in his right hand and a book in his left. Each figure stands under a trefoiled ogee arch with floreated finial. Above, between the arches is the Virgin and Child. Below are two rams on an island, a rebus on the name of the abbey. Legend:
A small pointed oval counterseal (fn. 81) of the 13th century representing the seated figure of the Virgin crowned, and the Child, under a trefoiled canopy with crockets and pinnacle. Below is the kneeling figure of the abbot under a trefoiled arch. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of abbot Richard of Selby [1214-16] (fn. 82) representing the seated figure of St. Benedict, with his feet on a demon, holding a pastoral staff in his left hand and delivering a like staff to the abbot who is about to kneel to receive it. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of abbot Ranulf (fn. 83) appended to a document of 1247 representing the abbot standing on a bracket with a pastoral staff in his right hand and a book in his left. On the field is a reticulated pattern with roses for knots and a crescent in each space. On either side are two lozenges each containing perhaps the impression of an antique gem. Below is the rebus of rams on an island. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of abbot Hugh of Sulgrave [1254-67] (fn. 84) representing St. Benedict standing on a corbel with a book in his right hand and a pastoral staff in his left and St. Ivo with his right hand in benediction and in his left a pastoral staff. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of abbot William of Godmanchester [1267-85] (fn. 85) representing the standing figure of St. Benedict with a book in his left hand and a pastoral staff in his right. The field is diapered lozenges with a crescent in each lozenge. On each side is a countersunk panel with the head of a monk. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of abbot John of Sawtry [1285-1316] (fn. 86) showing the abbot standing on a corbel under a canopy holding a pastoral staff in the right hand and a book in the. left. Below is a ram. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of abbot Simon of Eye [1316-43] (fn. 87) showing a full length figure of the abbot under a trefoiled canopy with two lozenge-shaped panels on each side containing heads, the mitred head in lower panel on the left representing possibly St. Ivo or St. Oswald and that crowned in the upper panel on the right, Aylwin duke of East Anglia. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of abbot Robert of Nassington [1343-49] (fn. 88) representing the Virgin crowned and Child under a canopy. In the base is the abbot in prayer. On the left side is a shield of arms a bend between six martlets for Nassington(?), and on the right the arms of the abbey. Legend:
A pointed oval seal of abbot Richard of Shenington [1349-79] (fn. 89) showing a full length figure of the abbot under a canopy; below is the head of a monk under a carved arch. Only the letters YNG can be read in the legend.
A pointed oval seal of abbot John Stow [1436-68] (fn. 90) showing the crowned figure of the Virgin holding a fleur de liz with the Child standing on her left knee. An undecipherable shield of arms on the left side, and on the right the arms of the abbey. In the base the abbot, with pastoral staff, kneeling in prayer under a round-headed arch. Legend: