A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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11. THE ABBEY OF THAME
'The abbey of Thame was founded 22 July, 1138,' according to the Annals of Waverley, (fn. 1) but the words probably mean that on that day was founded the abbey, which ultimately was settled at Thame, for the monastery was first built at Otteley in the parish of Oddington. (fn. 2) The founder was Robert Gait, or Gai, or Geyt, or le Gai (for his name had these and many other forms), who granted five virgates in Oddington and built an abbey (construxit ibi abbatiam), having obtained from the abbot of Waverley a promise to furnish monks for a monastery. (fn. 3) One of the first of the charters is dated 'on the day on which the convent came to Otteley,' (fn. 3) the day no doubt being 22 July, 1138. But it is evident that the abbey spoken of was nothing more than a temporary residence, for a charter of the son of the founder releases the monks from their obligation 'to build an abbey,' as the site was unsuitable; while the grandson, reverting to the language of the original charter, permits that 'the abbey should be a grange.' (fn. 4) The permanent buildings and the abbey church were erected on land given by Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, three carucates in extent, (fn. 5) being his park of Thame, so that henceforth the abbey was called 'sancte Marie de Parco Thame,' and was reckoned to be of the bishop's foundation. The change cannot have been later than 1140, as the park was confirmed to the monks by Pope Innocent in March, 1141, (fn. 6) and a probable date is autumn, 1139, when Alexander and Roger his uncle, either voluntarily or by compulsion, divested themselves of much of their wealth. Other early benefactors were the knights that held fees under the bishop of Lincoln within the hundred of Thame, who gave largely of their lands in Morton, Tetsworth and Attington; and before 1146, William, son of Otho, brother of Everard the first abbot, gave seven hides in Sibdon, Buckinghamshire. King Stephen also gave them land at Worth near Faringdon, but Henry II, on his accession, deprived them of it, as having been given by his enemies, (fn. 7) though he recompensed them with a grant of land at Wyfold, Oxon. (fn. 8) Popes Eugenius and Alexander granted them privileges such as that no one might interdict their monastery from divine service, but that even if excommunicated they might say the office with closed doors. They had also the regular privilege of the Cistercian order, that they need pay no tithes on land which they tilled themselves. This naturally was much resented by rectors and by monasteries which owned tithe, and many attempts were made to evade it, so that Pope Alexander had to write in defence of Thame more than once, and point out that the privilege did not merely mean that tithes were not to be paid by the monastery on newly enclosed land, but that the monks need not pay on any land that they cultivated. (fn. 9) The natural result was that Cistercians became large farmers, not from love of agriculture, but because their land was worth nearly 20 per cent. more if they kept it in their own hands. Already in 1179, as a papal confirmation tells us, they had four granges in Oxfordshire, at Wyfold, Otteley, Stoke Talmage, and Chesterton; and two in Bucks, at Saunderton and Sibdon; and they had obtained from the king the concession that their horses and goods need pay no toll at Hastings, Dover or Southampton on the one coast, and Dieppe, Barfleur and Oistreham on the other. Henry III renewed this privilege, (fn. 10) and granted in 1224 that the ship of the abbot of Thame might carry abroad a cargo of wool. (fn. 11)
Of the internal history of a Cistercian house it is difficult to learn anything. They were not subject to episcopal visitation, nor had the bishop the power of examining into the election of an abbot. We cannot, therefore, tell the numbers at Thame, but we know from the Chartulary that there were lay-brothers (conversi) as in other Cistercian houses, and one of them is specially mentioned by William of Newburgh as being of such sanctity that he was supposed to have the gift of prophecy, and foretold in 1167 that there would never be a bishop of Lincoln again. (fn. 12)
In 1291 the income of the abbey was returned at £116, none of it coming from tithe. The first church they obtained was Chalgrove, granted to them by Edward II in 1317 to maintain six monks to pray for the souls of the king's ancestors and of Peter de Gaveston, earl of Cornwall. (fn. 13) Two years later the bishop granted that, as the abbey was loaded with debt, partly from bad seasons, partly from the duty of hospitality, partly from the murrain of sheep, partly from the heavy subventions imposed by those in power, it might appropriate the church, and he ordained a vicarage. (fn. 14) His arrangements, however, did not prove satisfactory, for in 1392 the pope wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the vicar of Chalgrove had sent a petition, saying that his vicarage was insufficient, that the monks of Thame had extorted an oath from him that he would not try to increase his portion, although their portion was worth £40 a year; 'He fears them greatly and with reason, and cannot meet them with safety in the city or the diocese;' the archbishop, therefore, was to summon the abbot of Thame, to release the vicar from his oath, and increase his vicarage if it be insufficient. (fn. 15)
The abbey obtained a second church in 1398, when the pope gave them permission to appropriate the church of Stoke Talmage. (fn. 16) There was also a chapel at Latchford, in Haseley, built in 1300 by the rector of Haseley; (fn. 17) when this afterwards came into the hands of the abbot of Thame with the obligation of supplying a monk to perform the service, the men of Latchford complained to Parliament that he embezzled the charters and allowed the chapel to fall to pieces. (fn. 18) During the course of the fourteenth century the abbey was allowed to acquire certain lands in mortmain, the chief of which was the neighbouring manor of Towersey. (fn. 19)
In 1525 Bishop Longland sent to the abbot of Waverley, who at the time held the post of visitor of the Cistercians in England, a list of articles against the abbot and monks of Thame. (fn. 20) It is evident that during a visit to his manor of Thame he had heard the common talk of the doings of the monks, and, as the founder or patron of the monastery, he could demand that a visitation should be made. The accusations were as follows: that the monastery was full of idle boys, who had no business there, to the infamy of the house; that the buildings were in ruins; that the debts were immense, but nevertheless much money was spent on feasts; that the abbot lived in great style; that he produced no accounts; that he and his monks were ignorant and did not know their rule; that the monks were allowed to engage in archery with lay people and to have elaborate feasts at taverns; that after visitations there were no corrections, so that the neighbours said that the visitations were of no use. The prior was charged with idleness; he gave no instruction in rules and ceremonies, and through his fault there was neither study, nor silence, nor seriousness. Two of the monks were accused of incontinence. In consequence, the abbot of Waverley held a visitation in February, 1525, and remitted to the bishop the answers that had been made to his accusations, and the injunctions which had been promulgated. He was evidently intent on shielding his own order, and implied that he was satisfied with the replies of the abbot of Thame. The bishop was far from satisfied, and in his letter, which was copied into his register, he pointed out that the abbot had contradicted himself in several of his answers; that he had admitted that he was guilty of vice (the crimen pessimum which figures largely in the reports of Cromwell's visitors); that his answers were, to say the least, insincere, and where he had to confess that the articles were true, there was no punishment awarded. The letter ends as follows:—
Though the abbot is ignorant and useless, he is not removed; though religion has been violated it is not restored. The possessions of the house, once so ample, will shortly be all dissipated, unless a remedy is quickly applied. . . . The crimes of the abbot and brethren are notorious, and cannot be concealed or obscured by any devices; yet they remain unpunished. Injunctions are made, but they are only commemorations of old rules, and much less perfect. Seeing, therefore, that I am the founder of the house, I cannot allow this monastery, famous of old for men of holiness, probity, and religion, endowed with adequate possessions, set up that sanctity of life, the monastic rule and the service of God should be for ever observed there, should totter to ruin under an evil shepherd, and with an irreligious flock. Therefore, holy Father, let it be your care, and that speedily and without subterfuge, that whatever is needful according to the rule and constitutions of the fathers for a worthy reformation be introduced; else of a surety without your aid we ourselves will think of a remedy, and if you are determined to break the rules of the holy fathers to such an extent that this monastery cannot be renovated with monks of the Cistercian rule, we shall apply its possessions to some use more acceptable to God.
The register also contains the list of jewels and furniture of the monastery that was shown to the visitor drawn up by John Warren, the abbot; the debts of the house he declared to be only £74; but, even without the testimony of the bishop, it would be clear from the abbot's bombastic and evasive answers to the articles of the visitor, that he was not a man of accuracy or truth.
In 1529, when the abbot died, the bishop, as patron of the abbey, wrote to Cardinal Wolsey that there was no one in the monastery fit for the office, and the house was greatly in debt; he asked that the abbot of Waverley, visitor of the Cistercians, should be urged to appoint Robert King, abbot of Bruern, otherwise the house would be undone. (fn. 21) This suggestion was accepted, and Dr. King, who was already suffragan of Lincoln, became abbot of Thame, and, in December, 1537, abbot commendatory of Oseney. In 1526 the gross income was £203, net £141; (fn. 22) in 1535 the more exact valuation raised the net income to £256. In November, 1539, the house was surrendered to the king by the abbot and twelve monks. (fn. 23)
Abbots of Thame
Everard, 1138 (fn. 24)
William of Ford, 1184 (fn. 25)
Lawrence, 1225 (fn. 26)
Richard Bartone, 1259 (fn. 27)
William Strattone, 1302 (fn. 28)
John de Thame, 1316 (fn. 29)
William Steyning, 1349 (fn. 30)
John de Esingdon, 1355 (fn. 30)
Richard de Wath', 1361 (fn. 30)
John Blackthorn, died 1457 (fn. 36)
Richard Syndesey, elected 1457 (fn. 36)
William Hode, elected 1464 (fn. 37)
Robert King, elected 1529, (fn. 44) surrendered 1539
The British Museum has a cast from a poor impression of the thirteenth-century seal. Pointed oval: the Virgin, with crown, standing in a canopied niche, the Child on the right arm, in the left hand a sceptre. On each side a smaller canopied niche, containing a saint, full length. In base, a destroyed subject. (fn. 45) Legend:—
The private seal of the abbots of Thame in use by Abbot William in 1200, (fn. 46) and Abbot Robert in 1283, (fn. 47) is a small pointed oval with a half-length figure of an abbot, wearing a (?) cowl; a pastoral staff in the right hand, the left hand resting on the breast. Legend:—
There is also a small circular counter-seal (fn. 48) of this abbey, representing an arm vested coming from the right, and in the hand a pastoral staff. Legend:—