A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
14. THE ABBEY OF OSENEY
In 1129 Robert d'Oilly the younger, at the instigation of his wife Edith Forne, founded an Augustinian priory in the island of Oseney, lying immediately west of the castle of Oxford. (fn. 1) By his foundation charter he gave them the manor of Water Eaton, and all he had in the island of Oseney, namely the southern half, some rents in Oxford and other small possessions; but the chief endowment consisted of all the churches which were in his hands, Watlington, Kidlington, Hook Norton, Weston-on-the-Green, Chastleton, with Claydon in Buckinghamshire, and Shenstone in Staffordshire. (fn. 2) More valuable was the grant made in 1149 by Henry d'Oilly his son, and John de St. John, when they gave to Oseney the collegiate chapel of St. George's, of which they were the patrons. (fn. 3) Small donations followed in quick succession, so that ultimately the house had property in more than 120 localities, scattered over Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Northamptonshire, with small possessions in Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Middlesex, and Bedfordshire. It also had two churches in Ireland, Kiltevenan and Balibrenan, with land in the neighbourhood, of the gift of Roger of Worcester, and Richard of Bristol.
During the twelfth century Oseney was much occupied with a dispute about the church of St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford, which was claimed by the priory of St. Frideswide. The struggle lasted from 1149 to 1200, and involved many appeals to the pope, all the decisions being in favour of Oseney. In the course of this, Oseney, about 1154, was raised by the pope to the rank of an abbey, having previously been, like most Augustinian houses, a priory. (fn. 4)
During the next century the growing importance of Oxford was not without influence on Oseney. With its extensive premises, close to Oxford, yet shut off by the river, it was found to be a convenient place for councils. In 1222 a general council was held there under Stephen Langton (fn. 5); in 1238 the Cardinal Otho was staying there, when the scholars attacked his retinue; (fn. 6) in 1252 even the Benedictines had a council at Oseney. (fn. 7)
The chartulary (fn. 8) of Oseney shows that between the years 1220 and 1270 the abbey was doing a large banking business, receiving from residents in Oxford sums of money on deposit, sometimes over £100, to be repaid either on demand or with a week's or fortnight's notice. Trustees and guardians were glad of an institution, honest and financially sound, where money could safely be left until it was wanted. The abbey of course gave no interest, for that would be un-Christian usury, but it was able to obtain interest itself by investing the money in house property in Oxford.
It cannot of course be proved that the money was used in this way, but the charters of the abbey, of which over a thousand are still preserved at Christ Church, Oxford, and 400 in the Bodleian Library, show that it acquired many houses in Oxford in the thirteenth century, and that, though nominally by gift, they were often really by purchase. The Mortmain Act, which made it difficult for monastic houses to invest their savings profitably, put an end to this, and by removing this inducement to thrift, did much to bring about that indebtedness which was the permanent state of so many monasteries.
Oseney, the wealthiest of the houses of Oxfordshire, was also one of the best in discipline. On no occasion do we hear of scandal in connexion with it, and rarely of anything that is unsatisfactory. Certainly about the beginning of the thirteenth century its reputation stood high. When Waltham was founded in 1177, Oseney supplied six canons out of sixteen, (fn. 9) and in 1184 the abbot as well. (fn. 10) In 1213 when so many religious houses, which had been vacant during the interdict, were filled up, the heads of four houses were taken from Oseney. (fn. 11) In 1225, 1230, and 1247, the priories of Newenham, Chacombe and Ivychurch elected as their heads canons of Oseney, (fn. 12) and so did the abbeys of Dorchester and Owston in 1236: (fn. 13) and the step taken by the abbot of Oseney in 1235, when he joined the Friars Minors, would generally be reckoned a sign of religious earnestness, though Matthew Paris saw nothing in it but 'levity of mind.' (fn. 14)
Unlike some large monasteries, Oseney had no quarrels with neighbours about jurisdiction. It claimed no right to interfere with the city or university, and while these two were at bitter enmity, Oseney was able to live on good terms with both.
Some writers have assumed that Oseney was a place of learning with important schools, and the germ from which the university started. But this is to reverse the order of things; people did not come to Oxford to study at Oseney, but came to Oseney to study at Oxford. We hear of no schools at Oseney, nor of any canon that could claim to be a man of learning. It is true that there is a chronicle, extending to 1289, attributed by Bale to Thomas Wykes, one of the canons; (fn. 15) but he must have acquired his learning elsewhere; for among the deeds of Oseney, preserved at Christ Church, Oxford, is a grant of six cottages to Oseney by 'Thomas de Wyke, rector ecclesie de Castre sancti Edmundi,' and in 1270 the abbey made him a grant (fn. 16) of one mark a year 'as long as he lives in secular habit.' It was not until twelve years later that he was admitted a canon, as he tells us in his own chronicle. (fn. 17) Another record emanated from Oseney, called the Annals of Oseney. Of this the earliest form is found in Cott. MS. Vitell. E, xv, fol. 2-4, written by the earliest scribe (i.e. 1196-8), being brief entries for the years 1066 to about 1180. (fn. 18) These were afterwards slightly expanded from other writers and were continued in a much fuller form to 1293. Its authority therefore for the twelfth century is very much better than has hitherto been supposed.
The following were some of the privileges granted to Oseney by various popes. Their canons might receive orders from any catholic bishop: (fn. 19) the prior and sub-prior could not be compelled to act as judges-delegate in ecclesiastical cases: (fn. 20) the abbey might establish three or four of the canons in any of its rectories; (fn. 21) but this custom, if ever followed, was soon discarded, Bibury in Gloucestershire and Kiltevenan in Ireland being the only churches that were served by canons; finally in 1481 the abbot was granted leave to wear a mitre, and to confer minor orders on the novices. (fn. 22) But one of the papal decisions given in 1399 was much to be deplored. The abbot had taken an oath to the canons to divulge to the older canons the names of all creditors of the monastery, never to borrow money without their consent, to reveal where the goods of the monastery had been pledged and what they were, and to appoint the four 'officiarii' with the counsel of the elder canons. These were certainly steps that would have conduced to good government. But when the canons, on the pretext of this oath, maintained that the abbot had no right to borrow money 'for the relief of the monastery and to remunerate his friends,' the pope, agreeing with the bishop of Lincoln, decided that he should be absolved from the oath, cunningly extorted, and once more he was free to borrow for the benefit of his friends. (fn. 23)
The honour of a seat in Parliament, unlike the honour of a mitre, was not coveted by the abbot. In 1341 he petitioned that as he held no lands of the king by barony, he might not be summoned to Parliament as had been the case since 1319. (fn. 24) In 1345 he obtained exemption; (fn. 25) but three years later we find him summoned once more. (fn. 26)
At the visitation held in 1445 the convent consisted of the abbot and twenty-six canons, two of whom were absent, at Bibury and in Ireland respectively. The state of the house was quite satisfactory, the chief complaint being that when the canons were ill in the infirmary they were not supplied with light food, but had the same as the hale. (fn. 27)
In February 1499 the bishop of Lincoln made a visitation of Oseney. The abbey was in debt and the buildings were out of repair; the abbot was ordered not to spend more than 40 marks a year on clothes, food, and fire, until the debts of the house were paid. He was to have but one cook and one butler, being allowed for each 4 marks a year for wages, and 10d. a week for maintenance. If he had other servants he must pay them himself. He was to have the manor of Medley for his residence. The prior and canons were to be allowed not more than 18d. a week for their diet and firing; and besides, every canon in priest's orders was to have 40s. a year, those in lower orders 26s. 8d. for stipend. No strangers were to be invited to feasts (ad solacia) at the expense of the abbey. No canon was to be allowed to go into Oxford except for study or reasonable cause. The prior was not to frequent taverns and disreputable places. The temporals of the abbey were to be administered by John Awdeleye, bachelor of law. (fn. 28)
The records of visitations in 1518 and 1520 tell us that besides the abbot and six novices there were nineteen canons, one of them being in Ireland. The canons complain that the bishop by excommunicating the abbot had brought discredit on the house. One of the canons, named Taunton, described as utterly irreligious and unwilling to rise to mattins more than once in a month, after he had been corrected many times, had been banished to the property of the monastery in Ireland; whereupon he fled to the bishop of Lincoln. For this the abbot excommunicated him, and the bishop apparently in return excommunicated the abbot. Another canon is described as utterly irreligious, a fomenter of strife, one who threatened with a dagger those with whom he disagreed. The debts of the house were estimated by one canon at £500, by another at £800, while the income was reckoned to be £730. In 1520 it is recorded that one of the canons had spoken contumelious words of the bishop, saying 'that he caryd not a teide for his malice.' Taunton, we find, was by that time at Oseney and incarcerated, but the bishop showed that he was not entirely satisfied with the state of things, by adjourning his visitation for nine months instead of dissolving or closing it. (fn. 29)
In 1524, when the abbot resigned, he was allowed a pension of £60, his successor being the prior of St. Frideswide's, which was at that time in process of suppression. (fn. 30) In 1526 the income of the abbey was only £586 gross, £345 net, from which £63 had to be deducted for the pension of the retired abbot; but in 1535 it is returned at £755, with a clear value of £654. It may be concluded that for the subsidy of 1526 certain properties were exempt, perhaps house property in Oxford.
Drs. Tregonwell and Layton visited Oseney in September, 1535, and gave injunctions that no canon should leave the precincts for any cause. Against these orders the abbot, John Burton, protested to Cromwell, pointing out that he could not receive his rents nor see to the repairs of his manors, and adding that Oseney stood very low and in a wet situation, 'and I was brought up in wholesome ground of the King's College, sometime called the monastery of St. Frideswide,' so that if he were obliged to remain continuously at Oseney his life would no doubt be shortened. (fn. 31)
In January, 1537, we find the abbots of Oseney and Eynsham accused of speaking 'obtrectuous' words against the king, (fn. 32) but it was only the wild invention of a crazy talebearer, John Parkyns. (fn. 33)
In November, 1539, the abbey was surrendered into the king's hand, the abbot being Robert King, suffragan of Lincoln, and afterwards first bishop of Oxford. As he was a Cistercian monk, and abbot of Thame, (fn. 34) he must have been temporarily appointed, with his elevation to the bishopric in view.
Abbots of Oseney (fn. 35)
Wygod, prior until about 1154, then abbot; died 1168 (fn. 38)
Edward, elected 1168; died 1184 (fn. 39)
Hugh, elected 1184; died 1205 (fn. 40)
Clement, elected 1205; died 1221 (fn. 41)
John de Reading, elected 1229; resigned 1235 (fn. 44)
John de Leche, elected 1235; resigned 1249 (fn. 45)
Adam de Berners, elected 1249; died 1254 (fn. 46)
Richard de Appeltre, elected 1254; resigned about 31 December, 1267 (fn. 47)
William de Suttone, elected January, 1268; died 1285 (fn. 48)
Roger de Coventry, elected 1285; (fn. 49) died 1297
John de Bibury, elected 1297; (fn. 50) resigned 1317
John de Oseneye, elected 1317; (fn. 51) died 1330
Thomas de Cudelington, elected 1330; (fn. 52) died 1373
John Bokeland, elected 1373; (fn. 53) died 1404
William Wendover, elected 1404; (fn. 54) resigned 1430
Thomas Hooknorton, elected 1430; (fn. 55) died 1452
John Walton, elected 1452; (fn. 56) resigned 1472
Richard Leyceter, elected 1472 (fn. 57)
Robert Oseney, elected 25 November, 1485; (fn. 58) resigned 1505
William Barton, elected 28 November, 1505; (fn. 59) resigned 1524
Robert King, elected 1537; (fn. 62) surrendered 1539
The twelfth-century seal is a pointed oval, the Virgin with crown and nimbus, half-length under the round-headed arch of a church, with central tower, and side aisles; in the hands a scroll inscribed:—
EGO MATER MI-E (Misericordie). (fn. 63)
There is a later seal, made in the time of Abbot Roger de Coventry (1285-97), when the Jews had counterfeited the old seal. (fn. 64) Pointed oval: the Virgin, with crown, seated in an elegant canopied niche, with trefoiled arch, crocketed, with buttresses and pinnacle at the sides; on the left knee the Child with cruciform nimbus, in her right hand a round object. (Along the plinth of the niche the inscription: DE OXONIA, nearly obliterated). In base, under a round-headed arch, with an arcade on each side, an ox passant guardant, in allusion to the city of Oxford, adjacent to the abbey. (fn. 65) Legend:—
The seal of Abbot Hugh (1184-1205), found on a deed at New College, Oxford, is a pointed oval, the full-length figure of an abbot, a pastoral staff with the head turning inwards, in the right hand, an open book in the left. Legend:—