A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
HOUSE OF PREMONSTRATENSIAN CANONS
17. THE ABBEY OF SULBY
The abbey of Sulby was founded about the year 1155 for canons of the Premonstratensian order by William de Wideville, who gave them the church of Welford and nine carucates of land in the parish of Sulby. (fn. 1) Their endowments were speedily increased by the gift of the church and manor of Sulby from Sir Robert de Paveley, and many later grants set forth in a confirmation charter of Edward II. (fn. 2) At the time of the dissolution the gross annual value of the abbey amounted to £305 8s. 5d., the net income to £258 8s. 5d. The canons held the Northamptonshire churches of Welford, East Haddon, Little Addington, Sibbertoft, and Great Harrowden, as well as a pension of 53s. 4d. from the rectory of Guilsborough, and the churches of Lubenham and Wistow, in Leicestershire, and a pension of 100s. from the rectory of Wappenbury, Warwickshire. (fn. 3)
Robert, earl of Leicester, granted the canons remittance from toll for goods bought or sold by them in Leicestershire, and a like exemption was granted by Roger, earl of Clare, for goods within the market of Rothwell. (fn. 4)
Unfortunately the early records of Sulby are very meagre, and no chartulary or register is extant. We know that the abbey was originally founded in Welford parish, and subsequently moved to Sulby. The confirmation charter of Edward II., already referred to, describes the abbey as formerly of Welford, and now of Sulby. (fn. 5) The change probably took place in the reign of Henry III., when Sir Robert de Paveley bestowed on the canons the church and manor of Sulby, comprising upwards of fifteen hundred acres. The buildings must have been on a considerable scale. Bridges describes the wellwooded and watered site of the house, with the grounds and pools, as covering a large area, and Edward II. found the abbey convenient and suitable as a royal lodging, and during progresses frequently broke his journey here, and transacted official business. Entries in the patent rolls record that he stopped the night at Sulby, 12 October, 1309; (fn. 6) and again in 1310, on his way north for the Scotch expedition, the king stayed at Northampton for the 1st and 2nd of August, proceeded to Selby on the 3rd, arrived at Leicester on the 4th, and reached Nottingham on the 5th. (fn. 7) It was during his stay on 14 March, 1315-6, that the abbot obtained from him that charter of confirmation to which reference has already been made. (fn. 8) The king tarried at Sulby for two nights in July, 1317, and he was here again in March, 1322-3. (fn. 9)
In the year 1300 the abbots of Peterborough and Sulby made a composition whereby the former granted to the latter the manor of Little Addington, or Addington Waterville, for an annual rent of 6s. 8d. at Easter, in return for which each successive abbot of Sulby was bound to do homage to the abbot of Peterborough, and pay a fine of ten marks in the same manner as Humphrey de Bassingburn had been wont to do service for the same manor. (fn. 10) In 1316 the abbot obtained from the king a grant of free warren over the manors of Sulby, Welford, and Little Addington. (fn. 11) In 1326 the canons obtained the advowson and appropriation of the neighbouring church of Sibbertoft. (fn. 12) In 1349 Pope Clement VI. issued a mandate to the bishop of Lincoln to appropriate to the abbey the church of East Haddon of its patronage, and of the yearly value of sixteen marks. (fn. 13) This grant was made at the request of Henry, earl of Lancaster, on account of the 'small income' of the community and their many debts. (fn. 14) In 1360 Edward III. allowed the abbot and convent to appropriate the church of Sulby of their own advowson, and taxed at five marks. (fn. 15) More than a century later, in 1481, the king's chamberlain, Sir William Hastings, obtained a licence to grant the advowsons of the churches of Wistow and Lubenham, Leicestershire, with lands not held in chief, to the value of five marks yearly, to the abbot and convent of Sulby, and for the latter to appropriate the churches provided a sufficient vicarage were endowed in each, and a sum of money set apart for distribution to poor parishioners. (fn. 16)
The connexion of this Premonstratensian house with the head abbey of Prémontré appears at the earlier stages of its existence to have been a close one. In 1232 Abbot Walter was removed from the rule of the abbey by order of the chaptergeneral at Prémontré, and William, a canon of the house, appointed. In 1310 Edward II. sent an order to Robert de Kendal, constable canon of Dover and warden of the Cinque Ports, desiring him to permit the abbot of Sulby, who had the king's licence to attend the general chapter of his order in parts beyond the sea, to cross from Dover with his household, horses, and equipments, and to furnish twenty marks for his expenses, provided that he should carry with him nothing contrary to the ordinance prohibiting contributions being carried to foreign superiors. In the following month of September Abbot Henry obtained protection to last until Easter. (fn. 17)
Abbot Henry of Sulby played so important a part in the disputes between Prémontré and the English province that it will be well to give a brief summary of those events. The Abbot General of Prémontré claimed under the rule of St. Norbert to occupy a like position of those of Cîteaux and Cluny over their respective congregations of reformed Benedictines. National complications and jealousies materially interfered with the smooth working of this foreign headship in the case of the White Canons. From the English canons Prémontré made three claims: (1) attendance of the abbots at the general annual chapter at the mother-house, (2) the appointment of a visitor to report to the abbot-general, and (3) the taxing of the houses for the benefit of the order in general and of Prémontré in particular. The last claim was the cause of many disputes. A quarrel of this nature came to a head when Adam de Crecy was abbot of Prémontré (1304-1327). The English abbots, in obedience to a royal proclamation of 1306 against making payments to foreign superiors, had been defaulters for some time when they were summoned by the abbot-general, in 1310, to a general chapter at Prémontré, and ordered to bring with them the arrears of tallage. Thereupon the English abbots met and sent a joint letter to their superior informing him that they were unable to obey, as Parliament had prohibited their leaving the kingdom, and if they disobeyed they would certainly be outlawed and unable to return to their houses.
Two, however, of their number were deputed to cross the seas and attend the general chapter to explain more fully their position. The choice of the convention fell on Abbot William of Langdon, and Abbot Henry of Sulby. The two abbots proceeded to Prémontré as proctors for their brethren, but their statements made no impression on the general chapter. Their excuses were rejected, and sentence of excommunication was pronounced on all English abbots who had not paid the customary dues by the following Easter. Moreover, the abbots of Langdon and Sulby were ordered, under heavy penalties, to publish this sentence of the chapter-general in every English house before the end of the year. Consequently on 18 October, 1310, the two abbots summoned a general chapter of the English province to be held on 1 December at Lincoln, at which each house was expected to be represented by a delegate among the canons as well as by the abbot. Meanwhile Edward II. issued letters, on 10 November, absolutely prohibiting the levying or sending any subsidy or tallage to Prémontré; the king also warned the abbots of Langdon and Sulby of the grave penalties they would all suffer if they ignored the statute of the realm of 30 Edward I. Sheltering themselves behind this royal letter, the representatives of the English Premonstratensians, when they met at Lincoln, boldly denied that the superior or chapter-general could legally claim this tallage. They admitted previous payment, but claimed that they had only done that in a spirit of brotherly charity. A spirited protest was forwarded to Prémontré, stating that they were appealing to the Holy See for protection against excommunication. Proctors were appointed to carry out the appeal, and victory for the most part lay with the English. Eventually, at the general chapter held in 1316, a final agreement was arrived at to terminate the protracted dispute, whereby the English abbots were to be represented at the annual chapter at Prémontré by certain delegates, and the question of apport or tallage to the mother-house was held over until the law of England should be changed. (fn. 18)
Bishop Redman was nominated in 1475 by the abbot of Prémontré his vicar in England. He was abbot of the small house of White Canons at Shap, Cumberland, and allowed to retain that office when consecrated bishop of St. Asaph in 1471, and afterwards when translated to Exeter in 1496, and to Ely in 1501. From 1475 up to his death in 1505 he held the post of vicar to the abbot of Prémontré, and was hence the visitor of the English Premonstratensians. This duty Redman discharged with exemplary diligence, visiting, as a rule, each house about every three years.
Sulby Abbey was visited eight times by Bishop Redman, as recorded in his register preserved at the Bodleian. It will be noted that on one of these occasions real scandals came to light, whilst in one or two other cases there was need for individual penance.
Redman first visited Sulby on 19 June, 1475, arriving there from Leicester at the dinner hour; he left Sulby on 21 June, dining that day at Northampton at the expense of the Sulby House. He found no occasion to make any other entries save that John Halley was abbot, John Howden prior, and Robert Bredon sub-prior, and that there were five other canons then in residence and one novice.
At the visitation of 1478 the number of churches in the abbey's gift is entered as six, all served by curates, and it is stated that the house was founded in 1155. There were then, in addition to the chief officers, seven canons in residence and one novice.
The visitation of Sulby in 1482 produced fuller notes. The bishop inspected the repairs and rebuilding of half of the whole cloister from floor to roof. He found that two great antiphonars had been provided for the two sides of the quire, as well as five bells of one accord, and many other praiseworthy things too long to be recited by a single pen. Between the abbot and the brethren mutual charity abounded, there was a happy lack of abuses, and the only injunctions applied to a few ritual details. On the occasion of the last visitation the debts of the house were twenty-one marks; they then stood at £13 9s.
When Redman was at Sulby in June, 1488, he found John Middleton abbot and Robert Bredon sub-prior, and there were also four priests, one deacon, and two novices. The injunctions issued after this visitation prohibited all games for money under pain of the greater excommunication; there was to be no eating or drinking in the dormitory under pain of ten days' silence; and going outside the precincts, even to the cowhouse, was prohibited. The keeping or feeding of birds or little dogs was forbidden, as such things pertained more to curiosity than utility. The visitor then entered that he had no further fault to find, that the debt had all been paid off, and that there were then excellent supplies of stores and cattle. Sulby was again visited on 15 September, 1491, when sad laxity came to light. Some of the canons had been drinking at Welford; this, and the permitting of women to enter the precincts, were prohibited under pain of forty days' penance and greater excommunication. Robert Bredon was convicted in a case of incontinence, and was condemned to forty days' severe penance and seven years' banishment to Alnwick Abbey. Bredon, the former sub-prior, seems to have abandoned religion, for he was at the same time condemned to an additional three years at Shap Abbey for apostasy. Thomas Wylers was also convicted of incontinence and sentenced to forty days' severe penance, and to ten years' banishment to the abbey of St. Agatha, Yorkshire. The abbot was severely reprimanded, and complaint made of the paucity of the number of canons. Drinking after compline was to be punished by ten days' penance, and eating or drinking in any secular house by twenty days' penance. There was no debt, and the supplies were good. The numbers, in addition to Abbot Middleton, were six priests, and three deacons who were novices.
When the bishop was next at Sulby, in 1494, there were nine other canons in addition to Abbot Middleton. Edward Melling, for a defect at mass, was ordered to say a nocturn in cloister. William Bromen, for talking to women relatives, and for receiving a black instead of a white habit, had to say a psalter. Robert Bredon's case came up again as an apostate, so that he apparently had not been arrested or had again departed; he was condemned to forty days' penance, and ten years' banishment at St. Agatha's Abbey.
The last recorded visitation paid to Sulby by Bishop Redman took place on 28 October, 1500. In addition to Abbot Middleton and Sub-prior Robert Haddon, eight other canons were present and two novices. Thomas Wright had been detected in the study of certain illicit books of experiments, apparently of the 'Philosopher's Stone' type. He owned to the study of them, but denied that he had attempted to put them in practice. At the intercession of the superior and brethren, the visitor allowed him to continue at the monastery up to the next provincial chapter, but enjoined on him meanwhile the saying of a psalter. The bishop made further orders enjoining the wearing of amices when silk copes were used, and the providing a house suitable for the infirm. The use of ample and wide burses by the religious was to be abolished, whilst those who wore loose slippers (fn. 19) were threatened with excommunication. (fn. 20)
The last abbot, Ralphe Armonte, succeeded in 1534. Robert Bryer, in his confession as to the northern rebellion made before Sir Edmund Walsingham in October, 1536, stated that he had visited Sulby and that the abbot gave him 3s. 4d., and asked him whether any more abbeys would be suppressed, to which he replied 'Nay.' (fn. 21) The monastery with all its possessions was surrendered to Thomas Legh, 20 September, 1538. The surrender deed was witnessed by Ralphe Armonte abbot, Robert Buckley prior, Thomas Hyle sub-prior, and nine other canons. (fn. 22) Five days later Cromwell received a letter from Sulby Abbey, addressed by John Hales, clerk of the firstfruits, and one of the commissioner's most accommodating agents, stating that he was in possession according to order, and that 'the papistical den of idle and utterly unlearned beasts at Soulbie' was broken up. Sir Francis Bryan, steward of the dissolved abbey, wrote to Cromwell on 27 September, begging his favour in the matter of a pension for the abbot. (fn. 23) The superior was granted, on 26 November, the large pension of £50, the rest of the canons £6 each. (fn. 24) The Valor of 1535 testifies to various distributions made regularly to the poor by these so-called 'idle beasts.' On Maundy Thursday the abbot was wont to wash the feet of twenty-six poor men and give to each a penny, a farthing loaf, and a red herring. On the same day five hundred other poor folk received a loaf and a herring from the convent. (fn. 25) The church or chapel of Old Sulby, dedicated to St. Botolph, was given, as has been already stated, to the abbey with the manor. In the Valor Old Sulby is described as a free chapel, and the abbey paid the incumbent a pension of £2 16s. 8d. (fn. 26)
Abbots of Sulby
John, (fn. 27) occurs 1207
Walter, (fn. 28) deposed 1232
William, (fn. 29) elected 1232
Hugh, (fn. 30) elected 1276
Henry, (fn. 31) occurs 1301
John of Welford, (fn. 32) elected 1314
Walter, (fn. 33) occurs 1326
William Gysburgh, (fn. 34) occurs 1414
John Coventry, (fn. 35) resigned 1447
William Knolles, (fn. 36) elected 1447
John Halley, (fn. 37) admitted 1452
John Middleton, (fn. 38) occurs 1487 and 1500
Robert Goodall, (fn. 39) occurs 1513
Ralphe Armonte, (fn. 40) admitted 1534
The conventual seal with counter-seal of Abbot William, date about 1240-1250, has a fine but imperfect impression. (fn. 41) The obverse is a pointed oval representing the Virgin with nimbus, seated on a carved throne, the Holy Child, also with nimbus, on her left knee, in her right hand a lily branch. Her feet on a footboard. Legend:
Another seal of about 1276-1280 has the legend in full. (fn. 42)
There is also an impression of the chapter seal dated 1257, of which only a fragment of the upper part remains, (fn. 43) a pointed oval representing the Virgin crowned. Legend:
Of the seal of Abbot Walter, 1232, only a fragment remains. (fn. 44) Obverse, a pointed oval, represents the abbot standing, in his right hand a pastoral staff. Legend defaced:
Of the pointed oval seal of Abbot Hugh, about 1276-1280, only a fragment remains, representing the Virgin half-length, the Holy Child on her knee. (fn. 45)