A History of the County of Leicestershire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
5. LEICESTER ABBEY
In 1143 an abbey of Augustinian canons was founded at Leicester in honour of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Robert le Bossu, Earl of Leicester. (fn. 1) The abbey was endowed with the possessions of a college of secular canons, usually known as the College of St. Mary de Castro, established at Leicester by Robert's father. (fn. 2) The new Augustinian house did not altogether replace the college, which continued to exist in a modified form under the control of the abbey. (fn. 3) The endowments which were transferred from the college to the abbey consisted of all the churches of Leicester, (fn. 4) the church of Lilbourne (Northants.}, the manor of Asfordby, (fn. 5) and other property. (fn. 6) To these possessions Earl Robert le Bossu added the Leicestershire churches of Knaptoft, Stoney Stanton, 'Erdesby', (fn. 7) Enderby (fn. 8) with the chapel of Whetstone, Cosby, Shepshed with all the churches of the soke of Shepshed, Thurnby, and Illston, the church of West Ilsley (Berks.), and the churches of Brackley and Earthinghoe (Northants.J. Earl Robert also gave lands at Stoughton and Pinslade (Leics.), and other property. (fn. 9) The manor of Knighton was granted to the abbey by Robert le Bossu, who had obtained it from the Bishop of Lincoln. (fn. 10) After a complicated series of exchanges, during which the abbey's lands at Asfordby and Segrave were for a time handed over to the bishop, Leicester Abbey finally gave up its claims to Knighton in or before 1218. (fn. 11) The abbey's property at Segrave was returned to it, but the lands at Asfordby, with the advowson of the church there, seem to have been permanently lost. Westcotes, near Leicester, which had been given to the abbey by Earl Robert FitzParnell in compensation for the Asfordby and Segrave lands, was retained by the abbey until the Dissolution. (fn. 12) The abbey also obtained, before 1162, (fn. 13) from various donors the churches of Evington, Humberstone, Thorpe Arnold, Narborough, Langton, Barrow, Billesdon, Blaby, North Kilworth, Husbands Bosworth, Barkby, Hungarton, Easton, Eastwell, Knipton, Harston, Bitteswell, Croftj Wanlip, Theddingworth, Thornton, and Queniborough, all in Leicestershire, Clifton-on-Dunsmore, Cudworth, and Bulkington (Warws.), Adstock and one-half of the church of Chesham (Bucks.), Sharnbrook (Beds.), Eydon, Billing Magna, and Syresham (Northants.), Youlgreave (Derbys.), and Cockerham (Lanes.), with the manors of Cockerham and 'Cawkesberia', (fn. 14) and many lesser gifts. (fn. 15) Dishley church (Leics.) was obtained from an unknown donor before 1220. (fn. 16) Leicester Abbey thus acquired within a relatively short time of its foundation the advowsons of many churches, though seven of them passed out of the abbey's hands before the end of the 13th century. (fn. 17) None of the remainder seems to have been regularly served by canons of the abbey, not even those in Leicester itself, (fn. 18) though by a papal privilege granted in 1148 the abbey was empowered to present its canons to the cures of parish churches. (fn. 19)
The tradition that the founder, Earl Robert le Bossu, spent the last fifteen years of his life as a canon of the abbey (fn. 20) is disproved by the known facts about his career, (fn. 21) though he may have assumed the habit of a canon at the abbey shortly before his death. (fn. 22) Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, together with Earl Robert, laid down for the abbey certain regulations, which were confirmed by Pope Urban III. (fn. 23) By the privilege of 1148, already mentioned, Eugenius III exempted from tithe lands newly brought into cultivation and tilled by the canons themselves, and also exempted the increase of their livestock. The same privilege forbade the use of violence or improper means in the election of abbots, and granted free burial in the monastery to those who left bequests to the house, even if they lay under excommunication or interdict. (fn. 24) In 1207 or 1208 a cell, normally occupied by four canons, was established at Cockerham. The cell had ceased to exist by the middle of the 14th century, and probably never became conventual. (fn. 25) The great choir of the abbey church was built by Parnel, wife of Earl Robert és Blanchemains, the founder's son. (fn. 26) Parnel's son, Robert Earl of Leicester, gave the abbey 24 virgates of land at Anstey. (fn. 27) The resignation in 1235 of Abbot Matthias Bray was probably due to pressure exercised by Bishop Grosseteste. (fn. 28) In 1311 the Bishop of Durham granted lands at Ratby to the abbey, (fn. 29) and in 1315 the manor of Lockington (Leics.) was acquired. (fn. 30) In October 1326 a violent attack was made upon the abbey by the Earl of Lancaster's followers, who broke in and seized the property of Hugh Despenser the elder deposited there. (fn. 31)
Under Abbot William Clowne, elected in 1345, (fn. 32) Leicester Abbey enjoyed a period of great prosperity. Clowne's character is described in very favourable terms by a canon of the abbey. (fn. 33) In his time canons of Leicester became heads of four other Augustinian houses, (fn. 34) while the abbey's endowments were increased by the acquisition of the Leicestershire manors of Ingarsby and Kirby Mallory, with the advowson of Kirby Mallory (fn. 35) and other property, and by the appropriation of the churches of Hungarton and Humberstone. (fn. 36) Clowne also secured for the abbots of Leicester exemption from attendance at Parliament, to which the heads of the house had been summoned intermittently since 1265. (fn. 37) Thanks to his friendly relations with Edward III, Clowne was able to obtain in 1363 for the prior and convent the right of having custody of the abbey with its temporalities during future vacancies. (fn. 38) The abbey had previously obtained this privilege at times for particular vacancies, (fn. 39) but Clowne secured the right for the whole period of all future voidances. It was also probably during Clowne's abbacy that Henry of Knighton, a canon of Leicester Abbey, began to write his chronicle. (fn. 40)
After Glowne's death at the beginning of 1378, (fn. 41) the abbey entered a difficult period; It is probable that the late 14th century saw a decline in the income derived from the abbey's lands. (fn. 42) During the 15th century the abbey, once active in producing corn and wool, leased out most of its demesne lands, so that by 1477 the only property still in the canons' hands for cultivation was the demesne in the immediate vicinity of Leicester, and the demesnes of Stoughton and Ingarsby, not far from the abbey. (fn. 43) A canon of the abbey, Philip Repyngdon, became, while studying at Oxford, one of the most notable of Wycliffe's followers, and in 1382 certain of his opinions were declared heretical. Repingdon recanted, (fn. 44) and lived to become Abbot of Leicester and eventually Bishop of Lincoln. When Archbishop Courtenay visited Leicester in 1389 during his metropolitical visitation of Lincoln Diocese, he ordered the election of four persons to form a council for the abbot. (fn. 45) Repingdon, elected Abbot of Leicester in 1393, (fn. 46) became Bishop of Lincoln in 1405. It was perhaps felt that as bishop he was inclined to interfere in the internal affairs of the house, for in 1412 the canons of Leicester Abbey obtained a royal licence permitting them to obtain from the Pope exemption from the Bishop of Lincoln's jurisdiction, so long as Repingdon should be bishop. (fn. 47) Such exemption, if ever obtained, was nullified in the following year, when Repingdon obtained from the Pope a declaration that Leicester Abbey should be fully subject to him and his successors. (fn. 48)
The state of the abbey as revealed by Bishop Alnwick's visitation in 1440 was not altogether sound. (fn. 49) The number of canons had fallen to fourteen, besides the abbot, William Sadyngton, and one other canon who was studying at a university. There had been not long previously as many as thirty or forty canons in the house. Similarly the number of boys in the almonry had been reduced from about twenty-five to only six, and the abbot was accused of having admitted unsuitable boys in return for money. Abbot Sadyngton kept a tight grip on financial affairs, pocketing various minor revenues, keeping the offices of treasurer and cellarer in his own hands, and failing to render account to his canons. He also kept many lay servants, some of whom he favoured excessively, and he was said to indulge in magical practices. The abbot was negligent in preventing private ownership of property by the canons, and there were features of the abbey's life which must have encouraged this sin. Each canon received a yearly allowance of 5 marks, and it had been customary for the goods of a deceased canon to be divided amongst the most needy of his brethren. The abbot was obviously on bad terms with many of his canons. The general financial position of the abbey was, however, satisfactory. Its net annual revenue was then estimated at £780, while a further £400 or more yearly was derived from what were apparently casual profits. The conventual buildings had been extensively rebuilt. No serious immorality was disclosed by the visitation, a charge of incontinence against the abbot being apparently not sustained, while he was allowed to clear himself by his unsupported oath of the charge of having practised divination. In the injunctions issued after the visitation, Bishop Alnwick ordered that the number of canons should be raised to thirty, and that there should be at least sixteen boys in the almonry. The abbot was ordered to render proper accounts to his brethren, to grant no corrodies without the bishop's licence and the convent's consent, and to take vigorous action to prevent the canons owning private property. The abbot was further enjoined to behave more charitably to his canons. (fn. 50)
In or shortly before 1485, the abbey was granted the church of Stoke (Staffs.), with licence to appropriate it, (fn. 51) but the grant does not seem to have taken effect, as the church is not amongst the abbey's possessions as listed in 1535. (fn. 52) Little is known of the internal affairs of the abbey between 1440 and 1518, when another visitation took place. It was at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century that William Charyte, Prior of Leicester, drew up an elaborate record of the possessions of the house. (fn. 53) A catalogue of the books in the abbey's library, drawn up by Charyte, lists more than 900 volumes. (fn. 54) Many of the faults discovered in 1440 were still to be found when the abbey was again visited in 1518. Abbot Pescall, like Sadyngton, was charged with keeping financial control too much in his own hands. As in 1440, complaints were made about the excessive number of hounds kept in the abbey, and about the failure to educate the boys in the almonry properly. In 1518 it was further said that the prior was too old to perform his functions properly, and that some canons were in the habit of eating and drinking at unaccustomed hours. Bishop Attwater, in his injunctions, dealt with some of the defects revealed by the visitation. (fn. 55) At an unknown date Bishop Longland, who succeeded Attwater in 1521, made his first visitation of Leicester Abbey. There is no record of the visitation itself, but certain injunctions, which probably followed it, have survived. (fn. 56) These injunctions show the state of the abbey in a most unfavourable light. The abbot, Pescall, was extremely remiss in his attendance at the divine offices in the conventual church, and when he did enter the church he was often accompanied by his fool, who disturbed the services by his buffoonery. The prior too was evidently unsuitable, for the bishop had to order him to be present at the divine offices and in the refectory. The canons, following the example of their superiors, were also lax in their attendance in choir, so that out of at least twenty-five canons in the house not more than eleven were usually present. The canons were accustomed to roam about outside the monastery, and two of them were suspected of incontinence. The finances of the house were in no less need of reform than its spiritual state. At some time before the issue of the injunctions Bishop Longland had found it necessary, on account of the abbey's indebtedness, to appoint two administrators to control its business affairs, but Pescall had removed the bishpo's two nominees. One of the administrators, Richard Lichefeld, had proved unworthy, and the bishop in one of the injunctions removed him from the office of cellarer. The other administrator was reappointed, and together with a new cellarer was given control over the abbey's finances. The bishop forbade the abbot and prior to grant out property at farm without the convent's consent, and ordered that the abbey's common chest should have three keys, to be kept by the abbot, the prior, and one of the two administrators. When in 1528 the abbey was visited by the chancellor of the diocese Pescall's conduct was found to have improved but little. His attendance in choir was still lax, and he had a burdensome habit of taking his meals apart from the canons, at irregular times and in unusual places. Complaints were made about the excessive number and the conduct of the abbot's lay servants. It was further said that the novices, though diligently taught, were unwilling to learn, and were disrespectful to their seniors. While the prior was commended by his fellow canons for having done much to relieve the abbey's financial position, Richard Lichefelde, who was once again cellarer, was said to be of little use to the house. The canons were still in the habit of going out of the abbey without leave. There were in 1528 twenty-four canons in the house, not including the abbot. (fn. 57)
In view of the facts concerning Pescall given in the visitation records, it is hardly surprising that Bishop Longland concluded that the abbot's deposition was essential. Some time elapsed before this could be achieved, and in the interval the bishop seems to have harassed Pescall by constant interference in the internal affairs of the house. (fn. 58) Pescall, on the other hand, tried to secure his position by presents to Thomas Cromwell. (fn. 59) It was in 1530, while Pescall was still abbot, that Cardinal Wolsey died at Leicester Abbey. Pescall finally resigned at the end of 1533 or the very beginning of 1534. (fn. 60) He was granted a pension of £100 a year. (fn. 61)
The new abbot, John Bourchier, elected by acclamation in January 1534, was apparently Cromwell's nominee. (fn. 62) Bourchier must have had a difficult task, for the house was £1,000 in debt, and Pescall's pension was an additional burden. (fn. 63) Bourchier's term of office was, however, to be short. In 1534 with twenty-five canons he acknowledged the royal supremacy over the Church. (fn. 64) The abbey's clear yearly income was assessed in the following year at £951. 14s. 5¾d., (fn. 65) making it by far the richest religious house in Leicestershire. The abbey therefore survived the dissolution of the smaller monasteries. Richard Layton, visiting the house in 1535, reported that Bourchier was an honest man, but that the canons were factious, and refused to confess anything. Layton therefore intended to prefer charges of adultery and unnatural vice against them. (fn. 66) Bourchier took steps to secure Thomas Cromwell's favour. The canons objected to the proposal to grant Richard Cromwell a lease of Ingarsby, which had been retained as the abbey's demesne, but the abbot sent Thomas Cromwell £100 in 1536, and later a present of sheep and oxen. (fn. 67) The abbey was finally surrendered in October 1538 by Bourchier and nineteen canons. (fn. 68) Bourchier seems to have reduced the debts of the house considerably, for the money owing in 1538 only amounted to £411. 10s., apart from debts to the king. (fn. 69) Bourchier was granted the large pension of £200 a year. (fn. 70)
The lands held by the abbey at the Dissolution lay mostly in Leicestershire. (fn. 71) Of the churches granted to it at various times, some had been lost. (fn. 72) The abbey abandoned the advowson of Adstock in the 15th century, (fn. 73) while the advowson of Billing Magna was exchanged for land at Cossington (Leics.). (fn. 74) The advowson of Blaby was lost shortly before 1424, after prolonged litigation, (fn. 75) but the abbey continued to receive a pension from Blaby church. (fn. 76) The church of Dishley was transferred to Garendon Abbey in 1458, (fn. 77) and the advowson of Hathern was alienated, in or shortly after 1379, to the college of St. Mary de Castro, at Leicester. (fn. 78) The advowson of Narborough is listed in the Matriculus of the Archdeaconry of Leicester as disputed between Leicester Abbey and Fulk Fitzwarine, (fn. 79) and by 1329 the patronage was in. lay hands. (fn. 80) The abbey continued to possess until the Dissolution (fn. 81) the churches of All Saints, St. Leonard, St. Martin, St. Mary de Castro, St. Michael, St. Nicholas, and St. Peter, at Leicester. These churches all seem to have been appropriated at an early date, probably in the 12th century. (fn. 82) The church of St. Clement at Leicester was also once part of the abbey's possessions, but there is no record of the abbey having presented a vicar later than 1221-2. (fn. 83) The other churches which the abbey retained were Barkby, (fn. 84) Barrow on Soar (fn. 85) with the chapels of Quorndon and Mountsorrel, (fn. 86) Queniborough, (fn. 87) Shepshed, (fn. 88) Bitteswell, (fn. 89) Lockington (fn. 90) with the chapel of Hemington, Thorpe Arnold (fn. 91) with the chapel of Brentingby, Eaton, (fn. 92) Hungartoh (fn. 93) with Baggrave and Ingarsby, Enderby (fn. 94) with the chapel of Whetstone, Billesdon (fn. 95) with the chapels of Goadby and Rolleston, Thurnby (fn. 96) with the chapel of Stoughton, Theddingworth, (fn. 97) Thornton (fn. 98) with the chapels of Bagworth and Stanton, Cosby, (fn. 99) Humberstone, (fn. 100) Evington, (fn. 101) North Kilworth, Husbands Bosworth, Croft, Harston, Eastwell, and Long Whatton. (fn. 102) The last was probably one of the churches of the soke of Shepshed. Besides these churches, all of which are in Leicestershire, the abbey possessed the churches of Bulkington, (fn. 103) Cliftonon-Dunsmore, (fn. 104) Cudworth, (fn. 105) Brackley (fn. 106) with the chapel of Halse, (fn. 107) Farthinghoe, (fn. 108) Clay Coton (Warws.), (fn. 109) Eydon (Northants.), (fn. 110) Rugby (fn. 111) with the chapel of Brownsover (Warws.), (fn. 112) Lilbourne, (fn. 113) Syresham, (fn. 114) Chesham (with a moiety of the advowson), (fn. 115) Sharnbrook, (fn. 116) Youlgreave, (fn. 117) and Cockerham. (fn. 118) The First Minister's Account lists property with a net annual value of £786. 16s. 1¾d., but this probably does not include all the abbey's endowments. (fn. 119)
Abbots of Leicester (fn. 120)
Richard, elected 1143 or 1144, ruled twentyfour years. (fn. 121)
William of Kalewyken, elected 1167-8, ruled ten years. (fn. 122)
William of Broke, elected 1177, resigned 1186. (fn. 123)
Paul, elected 1186, ruled nineteen years. (fn. 124)
William Pepyn, elected 1205, ruled nineteen years. (fn. 125)
Osbert of Duntun, elected 1222, (fn. 126) died 1229. (fn. 127)
Matthias Bray, elected 1229 (fn. 128) resigned 1235. (fn. 129)
Alan of Cestreham, elected 1235. (fn. 130)
Robert Furmentin, elected 1244. (fn. 131)
Henry of Rotheleye, (fn. 132) elected 1247, (fn. 133) resigned 1270. (fn. 134)
William of Shepheved, (fn. 135) elected 1270, (fn. 136) died 1291. (fn. 137)
William of Malverne, elected 1291, (fn. 138) died 1318. (fn. 139)
Richard of Tours, elected 1318, (fn. 140) died 1345. (fn. 141)
William of Clowne, elected 1345, (fn. 142) died 1378. (fn. 143)
William of Kereby, elected 1378, (fn. 144) died 1393. (fn. 145)
Philip of Repingdon, elected 1393, (fn. 146) resigned 1405. (fn. 147)
Richard of Rothely, elected 1405, (fn. 148) resigned 1420. (fn. 149)
William Sadyngton, elected 1420, (fn. 150) died 1442. (fn. 151)
John Pomery, elected 1442, (fn. 152) died 1474. (fn. 153)
John Sepyshede, elected 1474, (fn. 154) died or resigned 1485. (fn. 155)
Gilbert Manchestre, elected 1485, (fn. 156) died 1496. (fn. 157)
John Penny, elected 1496, (fn. 158) resigned 1509. (fn. 159)
Richard Pescall, elected 1509, (fn. 160) resigned
December 1533 or January 1534. (fn. 161)
John Bourchier, elected 1534, (fn. 162) surrendered the abbey 1538. (fn. 163)
The 12th-century seal (fn. 164) of the abbey is round, 2½ in. in diameter. It shows the Virgin Mary seated on a throne, crowned and holding a sceptre in her right hand, with the infant Jesus, holding a book, on her left knee. The legend is:
SIGILLUM SANCTE MARIE DE PRATIS
The counterseal, a circle 1¾ in. in diameter, shows the half-length figure of an abbot, with a crosier and book, between two ecclesiastics. In the base of the design are three half-length figures of ecclesiastics, under a triple arch.
Another 12th-century seal, (fn. 165) 1¾ in. in diameter, has a half-length figure of the Virgin Mary crowned, holding a fleur-de-lis in her right hand, and a book in her left. The legend reads:
SIGILLUM SANCTE MARIE DE PRATO
It is, however, not certain that this seal belongs to Leicester Abbey.
Another seal, (fn. 166) on a 16th-century document, is very similar to these two. It is round, 2½ in. in diameter, and shows the Virgin seated beneath a canopy, holding the infant Jesus on her left knee and a fleur-de-lis in her right hand. The legend reads:
SIGILLUM SANCTE . . . DE PRATO.
The counterseal shows the same design as that mentioned above, with the legend:
PONIMUR A TERGO SIGNI TESTES SUMUS ERGO.
A 14th-century seal, (fn. 167) apparently used by the proctor of the abbey's revenues, is circular, with a diameter of 1⅕ in. It shows an enthroned abbot, holding a crosier and book, between the heads of four ecclesiastics. All that now remains of the legend is:
S PROCURA .... CONVQCIONF ABB' IS ET CONVE .... RE . (fn. 168)
The counterseal, a circle ⅞ in. in diameter, has the Virgin Mary enthroned, with the Child on her left knee, and a star on either side of the figures. The legend reads:
AVE MARIA GRACIA
A large vesica-shaped seal (fn. 169) of the 15th century, 3 by 1¾ in., shows the Virgin standing crowned, between the letters 'T. R.', and surrounded by four angels. The scene is perhaps a representation of the Assumption. In the base is a kneeling abbot, holding his crosier, between two seals each bearing a cinquefoil ermine. Of the legend all that remains is:
SIGILLF .... IE
A 13th-century seal (fn. 170) of the abbey is a large oval, 2 by 1½ in., and shows a full-length figure of an abbot, holding crosier and book. All that can be deciphered of the legend is:
.... ABBA .... YRCEST ....
Another seal (fn. 171) of the house, probably of about 1300, is of very similar size and shape to that just described. It shows the figure of the Virgin Mary, seated on a throne in a canopied niche, having on her left knee the Child with His right hand raised in blessing.