A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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17. THE PRIORY OF ST. FRIDESWIDE, OXFORD
That there were secular canons of St. Frideswide in 1086 is proved by Domesday Book; nor is there any reason to disbelieve the story that is given in the chartulary (fn. 1) that in 1002 St. Frideswide's, at that time one of the parish churches of Oxford, was burnt down when the Danes were massacred, (fn. 2) that the king in recompense rebuilt it, established secular canons there, and endowed it with lands at Nether Winchendon in Bucks, Cutslow in Oxfordshire, and other places. But the regular canons were not instituted until 1122, in which year Gwymund, a royal chaplain, to whom Henry I had given the church with its endowments, established there an Augustinian priory. (fn. 3) Before 1130 it had the advowsons of seven of the churches of Oxford, (fn. 4) while Henry I gave the churches of Headington, Marston, Elsfield, and Binsey, and permission to hold a fair for a week, beginning on the vigil of the Translation of St. Benedict. (fn. 5) About 1150 it obtained the church of St. Edward and half the church of St. Aldate, (fn. 6) the latter by a discreditable manœuvre, according to the Chronicle of Abingdon. (fn. 7) It also made repeated efforts, first against the canons of St. George's and then against Oseney Abbey, to obtain the church of St. Mary Magdalen. (fn. 8) In 1160 Malcolm, king of Scotland, gave the manor of Piddington to maintain five canons (fn. 9); but, on the whole, it was more from the residents in Oxford than from the nobility that the priory obtained its endowments, as may be seen in the chartulary. The churches of Fritwell, Oxon, and Worminghall, Bucks, were given before 1172; (fn. 10) Oakley, Bucks, in 1141; (fn. 11) Churchill, Oxon, between 1172 and 1181. (fn. 12) Appropriations of the churches of Marston, Headington, Elsfield, Worminghall, Winchendon (fn. 13) and Oakley (fn. 14) were obtained by 1220; but Churchill not until 1340. (fn. 15)
The priory was never a distinguished place; it produced no remarkable men, and had more than its share of disorders and scandals. Standing within a busy and turbulent city, its situation was not favourable to quiet and discipline. It has sometimes been suggested that the origin of the University might be sought in the monastic schools of St. Frideswide; but there is not the least evidence that it was so; the Augustinians as a whole were not a literary order, and we hear of no schools of St. Frideswide. It could, however, boast of one distinguished scholar, Robert of Cricklade, (fn. 16) the second prior (c. 1141-75), who in his old age composed a book on the miracles of St. Thomas à Becket, (fn. 17) and had previously written other works, sacred and profane. (fn. 18) Also his successor, Prior Philip, was an author, in that he has left us an account of the translation of the bones of St. Frideswide, on 12 February, 1180, in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Alexius the pope's legate, and the Bishops of Winchester, Ely, Norwich, St. David's, and the elect of St. Andrew, and has narrated the miracles which preceded and followed the event. (fn. 19)
The fifth prior, Elyas, was deposed by Bishop Grosteste for incontinence; the prior appealed against the bishop's decision, and but for the action of the pope would have been successful. (fn. 20)
Early in the next century the troubles of the priory began. In November, 1318, Henry de Creton complained to the king that he had bought from the late prior of St. Frideswide's for £100 a corrody for himself and a groom, but that the present prior had broken into the chamber in the priory assigned him for his stay and had taken away the charter of the corrody. (fn. 21) In 1330 we hear (fn. 22) that the debts of the monastery were at least £400, and in 1340 it was allowed (fn. 23) a respite from the payment of a tenth 'as the state of the priory is much depressed by accidents in recent times.' In 1336 the prior complains that certain citizens of Oxford besieged the priory, took him and his nine canons and imprisoned them, until through fear of death they were forced to take an oath to observe the statutes of the town of Oxford, (fn. 24) renouncing no doubt the privilege of the priory to have special rights during the fair. In 1344 the prior again complains that the mayor and bailiffs have taken the toll and profits of the six days' fair beginning on St. Frideswide's day, thereby damaging him to the extent of £1,000 (fn. 25) (!).
After the election of Nicholas of Hungerford in 1349 the troubles increased. In November, 1352, the bishop writes to the prior that he hears that through his negligence the canons wander about the town of Oxford, enter the houses of secular people, and do not observe regular discipline. (fn. 26) In 1354 he issued a commission to inquire concerning the excesses of the prior, who with diverse armed laymen, about the middle of the night on 1 July, assaulted the sub-prior and canons, while they were chanting mattins in the choir, broke the door of the church, dragged some of the canons from the choir and others from the dormitory, to the effusion of blood. (fn. 27) We next learn from the register of Archbishop Islip that the sub-prior and convent complained to him, the bishopric of Lincoln being vacant, that 'Nicholas of Hungerford, pretending he is prior, wastes the goods of the monastery, and religion is at a low ebb.' In consequence he ordered the chancellor of Oxford to hold a visitation of the monastery in January, 1363. (fn. 28) Two years later the Bishop of Lincoln heard that, in spite of the rebukes that he administered at his recent visitation, the canons went abroad without leave, absented themselves from the services both by night and day, drank heavily and came to blows; he therefore issued a commission to discover their names. (fn. 29) About the same time the prior made an effort to exchange his post. In December, 1365, the Prince of Wales writes to the pope that whereas his chaplain Nicholas of Hungerford, formerly prior of St. Frideswide's, after governing the priory sixteen years, had exchanged it with John de Dodford, Austin canon of Carlisle, for a certain vicarage, in which transaction the trickery of John and his own simplicity caused him unconsciously to be guilty of simony, and whereas when he laid the matter before the pope, the judge to whom the case was committed had deprived Nicholas of both vicarage and priory, the pope is petitioned to absolve Nicholas from the crime, which arose from his simplicity, and to replace him in the priory, or at least to recommit the matter to the judge who had previously dealt with it. (fn. 30) The pope adopted the latter course, and Nicholas must have been reinstated, for the death of Nicholas the prior is recorded early in 1370. Meanwhile in 1368 the king took the monastery into his hands because of its large debts and granted the custody of it to two of his servants (fn. 31); in 1377 the same post was granted for three years to John, king of Castile, (fn. 32) who was to allow the canons a maintenance and with the residue to pay the debts of the monastery.
John de Wallingford, who was elected in 1370, resigned three years later, whereupon the canons applied on 24 July for leave to elect a successor. (fn. 33) When there was some delay in granting it, John de Dodford, in March, 1374, thrust himself into the post, saying that he was prior. (fn. 34) This caused further delay, as the king seized all the possessions of the monastery; but ultimately licence was given in November, (fn. 35) and John de Dodford was lawfully elected. In 1375 the king for the sum of £20 pardoned the prior his past transgressions, and renounced all the profits of the long vacancy. (fn. 36) In February 1378 we hear that John de Dodford is to be brought to trial before the king about the felonies of which he is accused. (fn. 37) According to his own petition, he had done nothing, but the mayor, the chancellor of Oxford, and many scholars, through enmity towards him, had threatened to make a public thoroughfare through the gate in the city wall, which belonged to the priory. (fn. 38) Next we find that five months later the mayor of Oxford is commanded to aid the prior against John of Wallingford and three other rebellious canons, who,
'pretending that the said John is Prior, have with certain laymen wasted the goods of the house, and carried away its treasure, and hold the Priory by main force, like a castle, with armed men and archers, against John de Dodford and his men.' (fn. 39)
The mayor is to arrest them, imprison them, and deliver them to the prior for punishment. In 1380 the king issued a commission to Edmund de la Pole and others
'to examine what corrodies have been granted, what books, ornaments and jewels have been sold, as the king is informed that the house is fallen into such poverty that the dispersion of the canons is threatened;' (fn. 40) and the temporalities seem to have been retained in the hands of the king for several years, as we find him in 1386 and 1389 appointing to churches in the gift of St. Frideswide. (fn. 41) In June 1382 certain canons of St. Frideswide, with the aid of laymen, made a plot to murder the prior, and so severely was he wounded that his life was despaired of. (fn. 42) We see from their names (fn. 43) that they were the canons who had rebelled against him four years before.
In November 1382 the prior and the university had a dispute about the assize of bread and beer during the six days of the fair, (fn. 44) which the king was called upon to settle. Finally, in 1389, John de Dodford was appointed supervisor of the works at Wallingford Castle, (fn. 45) and in 1391 he died.
A few years later a papal letter throws some light on the arrangements of the house. Richard Montagu, canon of St. Frideswide's, who had obtained from the late prior the chapel of St. Margaret at Binsey, to hold for life, which was accustomed to be served by canons appointed and removed at the pleasure of the prior, appealed to the pope for a confirmation of the grant, and obtained it. (fn. 46)
In January, 1423, the bishop issued injunctions after a visitation of the monastery. The excessive and 'voluptuous' expenses that had impoverished the house were to be discontinued. No corrodies were to be sold or granted, nor any serious business undertaken without the consent of the majority of the convent. The canon resident at the chapel of Margaretwell (i.e. Binsey) should have proper allowance for himself and his servant. The jewels were to be recovered from pawn. No sporting dogs were to be kept within the precincts of the monastery. The canons were not to take part in archery meetings with secular people, nor even to be present at them. There was to be no drinking and gossiping in private rooms after compline, but all were to go to the dormitory, and, except for mattins, not to leave it until the clock struck seven next morning. (fn. 47)
At the visitation of 1445 the prior and eleven canons appeared, and probably there were about six absent, serving the appropriated churches. The income of the house was stated to be £160, and no complaints were made except that the prior's relatives stayed too much in the monastery. (fn. 48)
At the visitation of 1520 the priory had nine inmates, while six more were absent, serving the churches of Fritwell, Marston cum Headington, Churchill, Oakley, Worminghall, and Winchendon. (fn. 49) The income was returned at over £260, though in 1482 it was £302. (fn. 50) The prior was accused of retaining all the offices in his own hands, and of transacting the business without consulting the brethren; (fn. 51) but from the fact that when St. Frideswide's was suppressed he was made abbot of Oseney, we conclude that he was considered a good administrator. The suppression took place in April 1524, in accordance with Wolsey's scheme for the erection upon its site of a great college, of which the endowments were to be obtained by the suppression, authorised by Pope Clement IV and King Henry VIII, of a number of small monastic establishments, of which the Oxford nunnery of Littlemore was one. (fn. 52) For the subsidy of 1523 the income of the priory was stated to be gross £204, net £165, and in 1535 the possessions of the late monastery were reckoned to be worth £220. (fn. 53)
Priors of St. Frideswide, Oxford
Wymund, 1122-41 (fn. 54)
Robert de Cricklade, 1141; occurs 1171 (fn. 55)
John de Lewknor, elected 1278; (fn. 66) resigned 1283
John de Sandon, elected 1283, (fn. 67) but the election was not confirmed
Alexander de Sutton, elected 1294, (fn. 70) died 1316
John de Littlemore, elected 1337, (fn. 73) died 1349
Nicholas de Hungerford, elected 1349, (fn. 74) died 1370
John de Wallingford, elected 1370, (fn. 75) resigned 1373
John Dodeford, elected 1374, (fn. 76) died 1391
Thomas Bradwell, elected 1391 (fn. 77)
Edmund Andever, elected 1434 (fn. 80)
John Westbury, occurs 1462, (fn. 83) died 1479
George Norton, elected 1479, (fn. 84) resigned 1484
Richard Walker, elected 1484, (fn. 85) died 1495
Thomas Ware, instituted 1496, (fn. 86) died 1501
William Chedhill, appointed 1501, (fn. 87) resigned 1513
The twelfth-century seal of this priory is a pointed oval: St. Frideswida, seated on a carved throne, in the right hand a flower, in the left hand an open book. Overhead a round-arched canopy with central tower and two side turrets. (fn. 90) Legend:—
+ SIGILLVM: ECCLESIE: SANCTE: FRIDESWIDE OXENEFORDIE:
The seal of Prior Simon (1195-1228) is an oval gem, with the figures of a bird and a snake facing each other, with the inscription round it ESTO VTRVMQVE CAVE VTRVMQVE. Outside, in a pointed oval, was added the legend:—
SIGILL' SIMONIS PRIORIS DE SCA FRIDESWIDA
This seal must also have been used by his predecessor, as it is found attached to a deed of 1180-90, but the outer legend is in this case a round oval, not pointed. The only legible words are . . . NON EXCEDAS . . . The inner legend and the figures are the same.
The seal of Prior Robert of Olney is a pointed oval, a figure with both hands raised as if in blessing; two spires rise on either side, a crescent above that on the right, a star above that on the left. Legend:—
S' ROBERTI [PRIORIS DE SCA FRID]ESWID' OXON'