A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.
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11. THE PRIORY OF WITHAM
In England there were nine Carthusian houses: two in Somerset at Witham and Hinton, Kingston upon Hull and Mountgrace in Yorkshire, Coventry in Warwickshire, Sheen in Surrey, Beauvale in Nottinghamshire, Epworth in Lincolnshire and the Charterhouse in London, and of these nine the earliest foundation was that of Witham.
The rash words which Henry II let fall in his anger at the obstinacy of Archbishop Thomas of Canterbury made him an accomplice in the murder, and the horror which that deed aroused had to be satisfied by an adequate penance on the part of the murderers and all their accomplices. In 1172 (fn. 1) Henry II agreed to perform as a penance a three years' crusade either in the Holy Land or in Spain against the Moors. In 1175 he had not found time to accomplish this, and the punishment was commuted for the foundation of three religious houses, which he reluctantly and in a very niggard spirit performed. (fn. 2) In England he changed the college of secular canons at Waltham into a house of Canons Regular of the Order of St. Augustine, at Ambresbury he turned out some nuns and replaced them with nuns from the convent at Fontevrault, and at Witham he decided to found a house of Carthusians, as representative of the most austere of the monastic orders. The Carthusian annals (fn. 3) represent him as founding two such houses, one at Witham and the other at Liget in Touraine, in expiation of his crime, but the English chroniclers are silent on this point.
When in 1142 William de Moion the earl founded the house of Austin Canons at Bruton he endowed it with the manor of Brueham and very early in their existence the canons of that house erected a chapel in that part which was called Little Witham. In the second half of the 12th century (fn. 4) Witham seems to have passed partly into the hands of the Malet family and partly, as we have said, to the canons of Bruton. Before therefore a new house could be founded here the present owners had to be considered. The interest of the Malet family was bought out by a grant of land in the hundred of North Curry and the canons of Bruton received the advowson of South Petherton and its dependent chapels at Seavington and Barrington. Moreover, the king proclaimed in the boroughs and vills of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire that if anyone claimed land within the limits of the precincts of the new monastery they should come forward within two years of the date of foundation and should receive a fair exchange. (fn. 5)
It was probably in 1179 (fn. 6) that at the request of Henry II a few Carthusian monks, how many we do not know, left their home near Grenoble to found in England the first house of their order. Norbert (fn. 7) came as the leader of the band and the first prior of the new house and with him Aynard and one Gerard of Nevers. But no preparations had been made for them, the villein tenants did not welcome them, for they were foreigners, nor did they agree, except after compensation, to be removed from their houses and lands. For the monks themselves no shelter had been provided. So very soon Prior Norbert gave up in despair and returned to Carthusia, regarding it as impossible to establish a house there unless they had more support than the king seemed disposed to give. In succession to him another, whose name is not given, was sent forth, and he died soon after from exposure and the severity of the climate. Then it was that Henry II took up the matter with some earnestness. He was arranging a marriage for his son John with Agnes the daughter of Humbert III Count of Maurienne and he asked the latter's advice concerning the difficulties at Witham. Count Humbert mentioned Hugh of Avalon, already the foremost of the monks of Carthusia, as the man most likely to succeed, though he warned Henry how he was valued, and how difficult it would be to get him to leave his monastery and come to England. Henry nevertheless persevered and sent Reginald, Bishop of Bath, and others on the errand to the monastery to ask definitely for Hugh of Avalon. At first the prior was unwilling to part with him, (fn. 8) for he was procurator of the house and much valued, and Hugh on his part regarding himself as unfit to undertake the task, definitely refused his consent; but the Bishop of Grenoble, John de Sassenage, had been won over, probably by Bishop Reginald, and at his entreaty the prior gave way and Hugh of Avalon started for England. On his arrival, which seems to have been in 1180, he found that nothing had been done at Witham and all practically had to be begun towards the new foundation. He stipulated that the tillers of the soil, the poor villein tenants, should receive no loss in being compelled to change their abode, and he endeavoured to persuade the king to indemnify them for the houses they had built, which now had to be pulled down. Certainly he seems to have set about the work in earnest, obtaining only after constant pressure on Henry II the necessary means. He is said to have built houses for the monks and the lay brethren, and the metrical life of St. Hugh records that he built the walls of the chapel and vaulted it in stone. The existing church at Witham is generally regarded as the church of the Conversi or lay brethren. The walls seem older than the time of Hugh, and apparently had buttresses attached to them for the purpose of strengthening them to carry the weight of the stone roof.
Meanwhile the king grew weary of the importunities of St. Hugh, and though several messengers were sent from Witham only vague and evasive promises of assistance were received. Then the prior himself went to see the king and took with him his brother monks Gerard and Aynard. Gerard was impatient and used very forcible language, and threatened to leave the country, but St. Hugh told the king he did not despair of him and ultimately he obtained from him all that was necessary. The monks bewailed also that they were in want of a copy of the Holy Scriptures (fn. 9) and the prior told the king of their need. Henry asked him why he did not make his monks copy one or hire a writer to do it. Hugh replied that he had no parchment. To this the king replied by asking how much money he wanted for that, and when he heard that a mark of silver would go a long way he bade an attendant give to one of St. Hugh's monks ten marks and he promised the prior a complete copy of the Old and New Testament as soon as he could meet with one. Soon after King Henry heard that the monks of St. Swithun's monastery at Winchester had just completed a very fine copy which they intended for their refectory, and having put all the pressure he could upon the prior, succeeded in obtaining it as a gift. Thereupon he sent the book to Witham and there was great joy among St. Hugh's monks at so valuable a gift. (fn. 10) Then after a time there came a monk from St. Swithun's and he recognized the volume and told them how the king had forced them to give up their treasure. (fn. 11) So St. Hugh sent the volume back and it remained to the time of the Dissolution one of the most treasured possessions of the monastery of St. Swithun at Winchester.
At the Council of Eynsham in May 1186 Henry II nominated Hugh the Prior of Witham to the bishopric of Lincoln. The canons who announced this promotion were sent back by Hugh to inquire whether it was the real wish of the chapter or only their acceptance of the king's pleasure. His reception of them had greatly impressed them, and in a free election the objection that he was a foreigner and ill acquainted with the English language was set aside and he was again elected. Strong letters were then sent to the Prior of Carthusia in whose obedience the Prior of Witham of course was, and as he gave permission, St. Hugh was consecrated by Archbishop Baldwin at Westminster on 21 September 1186, and enthroned at Lincoln on 29 September. As a bishop he still observed the severities of the Carthusian monk, and was wont to return twice a year to this lonely house at Witham and live with his brethren once more the simple austere life of a Carthusian. His immediate successor was Bovo, and a later successor Prior Albert admitted into the order Adam Scotus, the Præmonstrant, Abbot of Dryburgh, one of the most learned churchmen of the age in England and the writer of many theological books. (fn. 12) He is said to have spent the last twenty years of his life here and was a source of comfort and help to St. Hugh during his yearly retreat at Witham.
Another visitor who stayed for a short time but did not take the vows as a Carthusian was the Benedictine monk Walter Prior of Bath (1191–8), and formerly sub-prior of Hyde (fn. 13) near Winchester. At Bath he had done good work, but he was dissatisfied with himself and yearned for the spiritual peace hoped for from monastic austerity. When at Witham he was visited by a monk of Hyde who rebuked him for deserting his post, and Prior Walter returned to Bath to carry on the good work interrupted by his flight.
At first certainly the monastery was an experiment. It attracted men, but time only would show whether they could adopt the rigid rules of the order. Hence from time to time we read of desertions, and St. Hugh, when prior, took a very definite line in reference to those who turned away. Among the early recruits were Andrew a monk of Muchelney and Alexander of Lewes. (fn. 14) Soon they began to rebel, and Andrew was wont to reproach the prior for his harshness, and Alexander did so in no moderate terms. So both retired, or according to the language of the biographer became apostates and left the priory. Andrew went back to the Benedictines at Muchelney. Alexander after a time repented and sought readmission, but was refused, and so he joined the Cluniacs in his native town. Other desertions are referred to, but the names are not given. In 1339, (fn. 15) however, we find a lay brother John Russell forsook them and in penitence sought readmission and obtained a papal recommendation to help him, and in 1341 (fn. 16) we read of William de Standish, a fully professed monk who had gone off ad limina Apostolorum without permission from his superior, and so was guilty of apostasy. In September of that year the pope sent him back with an order for his case and penitence to be considered, and his readmission obtained.
From the very first the order received the protection and good will of the bishops of the diocese. Reginald gave them a charter to this effect, and this charter was confirmed by Bishop William de Button and in 1254 (fn. 17) by Innocent IV.
Though there are no details of the mortality at Witham caused by the Great Pestilence in 1349, the convent felt the loss of the Conversi or Lay Brethren, for they petitioned on two occasions, 16 January 1354 and 20 October 1363, (fn. 18) for licence to bring labourers from other parts to supply the needs of the priory and to pay their men more than the wages sanctioned by statute.
In 1441 a charter of confirmation of Henry VI (fn. 19) declared the house at Witham to be the first house and mother of the order in England.
In 1443 (fn. 20) Bishop Beckington of Bath and Wells gave the monks permission to build a dormitory for the convenience of the guests and lay brethren who should visit them, and on 20 May 1458, (fn. 21) at the petition of the prior he granted licence for the placing of a baptismal font in the chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, being the chapel of the lay brethren.
About the year 1531 (fn. 22) Richard Peers, the Prior of Witham, wrote to the prior of the London Charterhouse concerning a monk William Bakster who had been sent from London to Witham for correction: 'owre geste danne William Bakster desyreth you to have an answer of his letter late sent unto you; he is vere busy desyning to come home to you agayne. God knawyth if he wold stabyll himselff he myghte lyve with us in grete reste and quietness and I am sure non of our cloyster gyveth hym contrary cause.'
There was a rumour that the liberties of the Carthusian house at Beauvale were questioned, and Peers thought fit to state what liberties had been enjoyed at Witham (fn. 23) where for thirty years he had acted as prior. He claimed them as the gift of the founder Henry II which had been confirmed to the priory by Henry III. First, he said, we have been accustomed to have within all our bounds sanctuary to all manner of persons for murder and felony and to tarry at their pleasure and in case at any time the said felons have been taken out our bounds by violence they have been afterward restored unto us again and the parties that so violently have taken them have made satisfaction for so doing . . . all the king's deer that have come within our bounds we have hunted and killed and licensed gentlemen our neighbours being our friends and lovers to hunt and kill at our liberty . . . no sheriff, bailiff or constable, but only our own bailiff at all intermeddles or executes any manner of thing within our said bounds.
To what extent there was a general inquiry or attack on the liberties of the Carthusians we are not informed, but in 1532 the Abbot of Glastonbury, whose land adjoined on the west that of the priory of Witham, had been asserting some claim or other and Prior John Huse, the successor of Peers, wrote to Cromwell to secure the protection of Henry VIII against any attempt to infringe the privileges granted in the past to the priory. He hopes to 'obtain the king's letters patent for my lord of Glastonbury that he doo not enquiet us any mor herafter.' (fn. 24) Huse did not stay for long as prior at Witham in succession to Peers, for almost as soon as he had obtained restitution of the temporalities he seems to have gone off to London to join Prior Stafford in the Charterhouse there.
His successor Henry Man has the distinction of being with St. Hugh the only Carthusian appointed to an English bishopric. In 1546 he was appointed Bishop of Sodor and Man. (fn. 25) In his early life he seems to have been an earnest enthusiastic man and a great admirer of Elizabeth Barton the Maid of Kent. Soon after we find him the faithful servant of Cromwell, and as proctor of the house at Sheen he seems to have made the way easy for the acceptance by the monks there of the Act of Submission and Succession to the throne.
Meanwhile, and probably during the vacancy after Huse had gone and before the appointment of Man, Edward Lord Stourton as a royal commissioner went to Witham to administer to the monks the oath for the Supremacy and Succession Act. He wrote to Cromwell (fn. 26) that he found the 'prior is gone in pylegremage and this xiii dayes hath byn from home and vij of hys monkes will not take no othe untyll they see the sayde priore comythe home.' Since however we hear no more of this it is probable that Lord Stourton went again when Man had arrived and met with no obstinacy among the monks. It was probably in this year 1534 (fn. 27) that Peter Watt, a Carthusian of Witham, told Lord Stourton that the Prior of Hinton had come to Witham and related how he had dreamed that he saw as it were a stage royal and all the nobles of England stood on it, and they with one consent drew up on to the stage the queen's grace that now is (as he thought) by a line. Whereupon he put forth his hand to aid the same and then suddenly came again into his remembrance and sore repented his folly that he had so much done in prejudice to the law of God and holy church.
At the end of August 1535 Dr. Layton visited Witham under the Act for a general visitation of the monasteries, and he wrote to Cromwell on 24 August (fn. 28) evidently not anticipating any difficulty in the future—'Witham the Charterhouse has professed and done all things as I shall declare unto you at large to-morrow.' The Prior Man was the 'assuryd bedesmen and servant of Cromwell,' (fn. 29) and it seems as if Layton had hoped the monastery would be classed with the smaller houses whose fate was already decided and whose dissolution took place six months later on.
Man however was too useful an agent for Cromwell to be left at Witham, and in 1536 John Michell was appointed to succeed Henry Man. There must have been certainly an interval when the priory was again without its prior, for Man and Michell were both sent for to argue with Maurice Chauncy and John Fox, Carthusian monks in London, and were further commissioned to act as visitors of their order in England. (fn. 30) The monks as a body petitioned (fn. 31) the vicar-general 24 September, through Layton, to give them some relief 'for the grete payments that we have payede and must paye for the whiche we have solde plate off owre Churche stoke off catell a grete parte, sale of woode to the moste that I can and also borrowyd and browghte our house in dette for the same.' Similar letters for time to arrange for a reduction of the charges were written to Cromwell and Dr. Layton on 11 October. (fn. 32) Cromwell had desired the lease of a farm belonging to the monks and was endeavouring to procure it through the commissioner, and the monks were unwilling to make any grant while the prior was absent, but on 17 October Layton wrote to Cromwell from Harrow as if he had secured the farm for his master and was anxious that all he had done and said should not be known to his master. (fn. 33) He begs him not to listen to a 'brabullyng felowe one basyng' who seems to have been defrauded of his right in it.
The last year of the existence of the priory there seems to have been some difference between the prior John Michell and the proctor Tristram Hyckemans, for Walter Lord Hungerford, who had been appointed under the Act for the restraint of the sale of monastic lands steward of Witham, was called in and on 10 September 1538 wrote (fn. 34) to Cromwell recommending the removal of the proctor as no good husband for the said house. The house is undone if he remain in office.
On 15 March 1539 (fn. 35) John Tregonwell and William Petre, the commissioners to take the surrender of the greater houses, came to Witham, and in the presence of Petre the prior and twelve monks signed a surrender. (fn. 36) All of the monks received pensions (fn. 37) and some of them also obtained gifts of money, and the prior the pension of £33 a year and a cash payment of £8 6s. 8d. In Cardinal Pole's Pension List (fn. 38) the prior John Mychell was still in receipt of his large pension, and two monks, John Cliffe and John Swymestowe, were alive and drawing their pensions in 1556.
In the reign of Queen Mary (fn. 39) Thurstan Hyckmans, another of the Witham brethren, joined Prior Chauncy in the revived monastery at Sheen, but in 1559 retired with him to Bruges and died there 6 December 1575.
The foundation deed of Henry II, which we have shown reason for assigning to the year 1179, carefully defines the boundaries of the estate which the king granted to the monks. (fn. 40) To help them in their building Henry gave largely though somewhat reluctantly during his life, but in his will he left 2,000 marks to the order of Carthusians (fn. 41) and a part of this would certainly come to Witham.
In 1229 (fn. 42) Henry III confirmed to them the charter of his grandfather reaffirming all their rights, privileges and exemptions.
In 1250 (fn. 43) the lands of the priory were exempt from forest dues, and the royal forester was forbidden to enter the seclusion of the 'desert,' and this afterwards included the grange and its lands on Mendip near Cheddar.
In 1293 (fn. 44) Edward I confirmed the Inspeximus and Confirmation of Henry III in 1264, and in 1295 the house was exempted from aids, tallages and customs levied by the Crown.
In the Taxatio (fn. 45) of 1291 the temporalia of the Prior of the Charterhouse of Witham in Selwood were valued at £30 a year.
That same year 1318 (fn. 48) a livery was granted by Prior Walter to John the Fisher and Edith his wife for their lives. John was to work at his craft as a fisherman and a plumber or on any other honest work whatever to which he might be appointed by the prior.
In 1377 (fn. 49) the monks gained a charter of confirmation which cited a charter of 1282 granting to the priory the right to dig any lead found on their estates.
The second half of the 14th century brought to the monks many benefactions of lands, houses and rents. In 1362 (fn. 50) Robert Cheddar of Bristol gave them 10s. rent-charge and four houses in Bristol, and in 1376 (fn. 51) the monks acquired by purchase from the same Robert and a William Cheddar fourteen houses, and four shops in Bristol as part of an endowment for a chaplain at Charterhouse on Mendip, and in 1379 (fn. 52) Isabel Tannere of Wells gave three houses and six acres of land at Wookey, and Robert Neel of Maiden Bradley gave two houses.
The possession of this new class of property of course compelled the prior or the procurator of the monastery to be often absent from his place and explains how the house in process of time and regardless of the example set by St. Bruno came into touch with the outside world.
In 1413 (fn. 53) they received the largest benefaction that had been made to them since the foundation of the priory in the gift by Henry V out of the lands of the Alien Priories, which had reverted to the Crown, the manors of Warmington in Warwickshire, Spettisbury in Dorset and Aston in Berkshire with all the revenues, woods, vicarages, chapels and chantries belonging to the same. These estates had formerly belonged to the Benedictine monastery of Préaux in Normandy.
Henry VI in the Act of Resumption in 1455 exempted Witham from all harm and loss and in 1461 (fn. 54) Edward IV confirmed all charters, privileges and possessions.
On 3 December 1461 (fn. 55) Edward IV granted a tun of wine yearly in the port of Bristol for the sustenance of their bodies, weakened by their vigils and fasts, that they may pray for the good estate of the king.
In the Valor Ecclesiasticus (fn. 56) of 1535 the possessions of Witham were valued at £215 15s. yearly and consisted of
The manors of Aston, Warmington and Spettisbury and rents at Fonthill Gifford, Marston, Clink, Bradley, Bristol, Newbury, Wookey and Yarley, Chilthorne Vagg, Morland, Witham and 'Hidon,' Billerica, West Barn, Quarr, Monksham, East and West Poundhays, Hollymead, 'Newhichyns,' Hicks's Park and Drowfe.
Priors of Witham
Norbert, c. 1178 (fn. 57)
Hugh of Avalon, c. 1180–86 (fn. 58)
Bovo, appointed 1186 (fn. 59)
Hamo, occurs 1190 (fn. 60)
Albert, 1191 (fn. 61)
Robert, occurs 1200 (fn. 62)
Giles, occurs 1226 (fn. 63)
John, occurs 1242 (fn. 64)
William, occurs 1279 (fn. 6)
John, occurs 1279 (fn. 66)
Walter, occurs 1318 (fn. 67)
John de Evercriche, 1387 (fn. 68)
Nicholas de la Felde, 1402 (fn. 69)
William Fitzwilliam, occurs 1415 (fn. 70)
John Cobham, occurs 1421 (fn. 71)
Richard Vyell, occurs 1449 (fn. 72)
John Porter or Perter, occurs 1458 (fn. 73)
John, occurs 1476 (fn. 74)
Richard Peers or Perys, appointed 1500 (fn. 75)
John Huse, appointed 1532 (fn. 76)
Henry Man, appointed 1534 (fn. 77)
John Mychell, appointed 1536 (fn. 78)
There are two seals of this Carthusian house. The earlier is of the 13th century, (fn. 79) a vesica. 17/8 in. by 11/8 in., and has the unusual design of the Holy Rood with Our Lady and St. John. The legend is:—
The later seal (fn. 80) is 15th-century work, a vesica, 21/8 in. by 13/8 in. It also has the Rood with Our Lady and St. John. Below is a bishop in prayer, a figure thought to represent Prior Hugh, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, 1186–1200, and canonized as St. Hugh. The legend is:—