A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908.
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HOUSES OF AUSTIN CANONS
8. THE PRIORY OF CONISHEAD
The Augustinian priory of Conishead was originally founded as a hospital in the reign of Henry II and before 1181, the year of the death of Roger, archbishop of York, who licensed the appropriation to the brethren of the churches of Pennington in Furness and of Muncaster and Whitbeck in Cumberland, (fn. 1) the gift of Gamel de Pennington. (fn. 2) Gamel, who also gave the church of Orton in Westmorland and the vill of Poulton in Lonsdale and whose manor of Pennington adjoined the estate on which the hospital was built, was probably its founder; he is so described in several late mediaeval documents. (fn. 3) That honour has, however, been claimed for William de Lancaster II, baron of Kendal (1170-84) and tenant of the manor of Ulverston under Furness Abbey, who granted to the house all Conishead, the church of Ulverston, and 40 acres in its fields; a salt-work and rights of turbary, pasture, pannage, and timber-taking in his wood of Furness and manor of Ulverston; and whose descendants held the advowson or patronage of the priory. (fn. 4) But Mr. Farrer suggests that as far as Conishead was concerned he was only confirming as superior lord an original gift of Gamel de Pennington. (fn. 5)
This suggestion is open to the objection that he does not mention Gamel and that Conishead is not enumerated among the latter's gifts in Edward II's inspeximus. Possibly the true explanation of these contradictions may be found in a remark dropped by a visitor to the priory in 1535. After stating that it was founded by Gamel de Pennington in 1067 (? 1167) he adds:— 'It was in strife for some time being built upon the land of William Lancaster, baron of Kirkby Kendal and Ulverston.' (fn. 6) If there was a dispute William de Lancaster may have ignored Camel's grant and made a new one.
On the death without issue in 1246 or William de Lancaster III, and the division of his lands between the sons of his sisters Heloise de Bruce and Alice de Lindsay, the patronage of Conishead formed part of the Lindsay moiety and so passed by marriage into the possession of the family of Couci (or de Guines). (fn. 7) William de Couci dying childless in 1343 it may be presumed to have followed the fortunes of this fief, which was frequently regranted by the crown and as frequently escheated again. The last subject who held it before the dissolution of the monasteries was the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, Henry, duke of Richmond, but in 1536 it was once more in the hands of the crown.
William de Lancaster II followed up his charter by further gifts, and before his death in 1184 the promotion of the house to the dignity of a priory seems to have taken place. (fn. 8) His grandson William de Lancaster III was also a generous donor, and finally gave the advowson and custody of the leper hospital of St. Leonard at Kendal on his death-bed. Other early benefactors were John son of Punzun, who gave the church of Ponsonby in Cumberland to the priory while it was still a hospital; Maldred son of Gamel de Pennington, Alexander son of Gerold and his wife, Alice de Romilly, William de Bardsey, John de Copeland, and Anselm son of Michael (le Fleming) de Furness, from whom they obtained the chapel of Drigg, near Ravenglass on the Cumberland coast. (fn. 9) Most of these grants are only known from the general confirmation of their charters which the canons secured from Edward II at York in 1318. (fn. 10) In 1256 Magnus, king of Man and the Isles, had freed ' his special friends the prior and convent of Conishead' from all toll throughout his dominions. (fn. 11)
That so considerable a part of their endowments lay remote from the priory in South Cumberland (Copeland) was not wholly an accident. The monks of Furness were naturally jealous of the rise of another religious house so close to their own and on land of which they were chief lords. Earl William de Warenne had, indeed, at their instance forbidden the establishment of a second house within the bounds of Furness, (fn. 12) and the original form of a hospital may possibly have been intended to get round this prohibition. The abbey and the priory were soon involved in a dispute, the former claiming the churches of Ulverston and Pennington as chapels of their appropriate church of Urswick, and the canons asserting their right to Hawkshead chapel, as dependent upon the church of Ulverston, (fn. 13) and to the fishery at Depestal. An amicable settlement was, however, arrived at in 1208 by the mediation of certain magnates and the advice of the abbot of Savigny and other heads of Cistercian houses. The claims in question were respectively abandoned and the opportunity was taken to impose restrictions on the younger house which would avert future quarrels. The number of canons was never to exceed thirteen without the permission of Furness Abbey; no woman must dwell in the house, and any future acquisitions of land in Furness must be confined (except by the abbey's consent) to the Ulverston fief, and even here were not to amount in the total to more than a third of its area. Monks and canons agreed to live in relations of brotherly affection, each giving the other advice and help when need arose. This settlement being considered specially favourable to the priory, it was required to pay to Furness an annual pension of 50s. (fn. 14) Yet the affair did not end here. The rector of Ulverston still asserted the rights of his church over Hawkshead chapel; the monks of Furness apparently thought they had got the worst of the compromise. But the former ultimately admitted their contention on condition of being allowed to hold the chapel from Dalton for the rest of his life, (fn. 15) and the archdeacon of Richmond completed the pacification by raising the pension payable by the canons to Furness to £6. (fn. 16) Henceforth the two houses seem to have lived on good terms.
It was part of the arrangement of 1208 that the priory should enjoy the same rights in the churches of Ulverston and Pennington as Furness had in Urswick. Archbishop Roger had, we have seen, already appropriated Pennington to the house, but, the archdeacon of Richmond was induced to confirm his charter. (fn. 17) He proceeded to appropriate Ulverston to the use of the canons at the instance of the patron, Gilbert Fitz Reinfred, son-in-law of William de Lancaster II. (fn. 18) No vicarage was ever ordained here or indeed in any of the Conishead churches in the diocese of York. With the exception of Ulverston, whose proximity to the priory supplied a ground for appropriating it in spirituals as well as temporalities, none of them was worth more than £10 a year. (fn. 19) They were served by stipendiary chaplains. (fn. 20) At Orton in the diocese of Carlisle, which was more valuable, Bishop Hugh (1219-23) in sanctioning an appropriation insisted on the appointment of a vicar, but the living was sometimes held by canons of the house. (fn. 21) In 1220 Orton, in spite of the appropriation, was withheld from them by one J. de Rumeli, clerk, but a commission named by Pope Honorius III decided in their favour. (fn. 22)
Early in the fourteenth century the priory's right to Orton church was again assailed. The abbot of Whitby claimed if as a chapel of his appropriate church of Crosby Ravensworth, and in 1309 took forcible possession. Next year both parties agreed to arbitration, which resulted in favour of Conishead. (fn. 23) The priory suffered severely during the Scottish invasion of 1316. The taxable value of Ulverston rectory had to be reduced by five-sixths, and its other churches in the archdeaconry of Richmond entirely relieved of taxation. (fn. 24) In 1341 a royal licence was granted to the canons to appropriate the church of Hale in Gopeland, the gift of Adam son of Richard of Ulverston. (fn. 25)
A century later (1440) they were obliged to go to law to recover their rights in the hospital of St. Leonard at Kendal, of which they had been disseised by Sir Thomas Parr, who inherited part of the Bruce moiety of the Lancaster estates. (fn. 26) As early as 1525 the house was threatened with dissolution. Certain persons brought pressure to bear on Wolsey to take it into the king's hands, apparently as one of the small monasteries which the cardinal was authorized by Pope Clement VII to suppress in order to endow his college at Oxford. The Duke of Suffolk intervened on its behalf; 'the house,' he said, 'is of great succour to the King's subjects and the prior of virtuous disposition.' (fn. 27) For the moment the danger passed. The next prior, Thomas Lord, was represented in a much less favourable light in 1533. Dr. Thomas Legh, afterwards too well known as the visitor of the monasteries, accused him in a letter to Cromwell as having contrived the murder with circumstances of great barbarity, on 18 July in that year, of his (Legh's) kinsman, John Bardsey, a neighbour of the priory. The crime had been reported to Mr. Justice Fitz Herbert at the ensuing Lancaster assizes, but no indictment was put in as the matter was 'colourably borne by divers gentlemen.' (fn. 28) Legh does not mention the motive of the assassins, and the charge against the prior can hardly have been sustained, for no action seems to have been taken against him. The only corroboration, if it can be called such, is contained in a petition to the chancellor of the duchy from Richard Johnson, who asserted that the prior had maliciously ejected him from the office of 'Carter or Guyder of Levyn sands in Furness,' which his father and grandfather had held before him, because he arrested Edward Lancaster, who by the prior's command had murdered the petitioner's master, John Bardsey. (fn. 29)
Having an income of less than £200 a year, the priory was dissolved under the Act of February 1536. There were then eight canons including the prior, an ex-prior with a pension, and one canon who was 'keeping cure' at Orton church, but revocable. The two latter desired to be released from their vows. (fn. 30) If Doctors Legh and Layton, the visitors of the previous autumn, are to be believed, five of them were guilty of incontinence, two in an aggravated form. (fn. 31)
Two persons, one a widow, 'had their living' of the house. Alms to the amount of nearly £9 a year were given to the poor, the greater part by the direction of the founder. Nine waiting servants, fourteen common officers of household, and sixteen servants of husbandry were employed. Church and buildings were found in 'good state and plight.' (fn. 32) The prior was provided for by the vicarage of Orton, the others were allowed pensions of £1 17s. 8d. (fn. 33) They were not yet dispersed or had returned when on 16 October, 1536, they wrote to certain of the northern rebels asking for their help. (fn. 34)
The priory was dedicated to St. Mary. Its original endowments as a hospital had since been largely increased by successive benefactors, chiefly in Furness, Westmorland, and Copeland. William de Lancaster III extended their demesne lands in the parish of Ulverston, and his other gifts included fishery rights in Thurstan Water (Coniston Lake) and the rivers Crake and Leven. (fn. 35) In Furness, lands were given at Bardsey by the family of that name, (fn. 36) at Torver, by John son of Roger de Lancaster, (fn. 37) in Copeland, lands at Whitbeck by the Morthyng family, and others, (fn. 38) at Hale by Adam son of Richard de Ulverston. (fn. 39) In Westmorland, besides Kendal hospital and Baysbrown in Langdale, another gift of William de Lancaster III, they possessed a moiety of the vill of Patton, the gift of John son of Richard de Coupland, (fn. 40) the manor of Haverbrack (in Beetham parish), given by Margaret de Ros, (fn. 41) niece of William de Lancaster III, and other lands. Poulton in Lonsdale was alienated by the priory in 1235, (fn. 42) but at the Dissolution it had some valuable property in Lancaster. (fn. 43) These temporalities were valued for the tenth in 1535 at about £52, seven churches and the chapel of Drigg at a little over £72, and after all deductions the clear annual income of the house was estimated to be £97. (fn. 44) The commissioners who made a re-valuation at the Dissolution raised it to £161 5s. 9d. (fn. 45) They valued the bells and lead at £44 18s., and movable goods at over £288. The debts owed by the house were nearly £88.
Thomas Burgoyn, one of the commissioners, sought to purchase the site of the priory and other lands, (fn. 46) but the negotiations fell through, and the demesne lands were at first farmed by Lord Monteagle, and in 1547 granted to Sir William Paget. (fn. 47)
Priors of Conishead
R. prior, (fn. 48) occurs between 1194 and 1199.
Thomas, (fn. 49) occurs before May, 1206, and in 1208
John, (fn. 50) occurs 1235 and 1258-9
Thomas of Morthyng, (fn. 51) occurs between 1272 and 1292
Robert, (fn. 52) occurs 1292
William Fleming, (fn. 53) occurs 1309 and 1318
John, (fn. 54) occurs March 1343
Richard of Bolton, (fn. 55) occurs 1373, 1376, and 1401
John Conyers, (fn. 56) occurs c. 1430
John, (fn. 57) occurs 1505 and 1507
George Carnforth, (fn. 58) occurs 1515-16, pensioned 1527
Thomas Lord, (fn. 59) occurs 1535, surrendered 1536