A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.
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17. THE PRIORY OF TAUNTON
The connexion of the Bishops of Winchester with the manor of Taunton most probably dates back to the days of the undivided bishopric of Wessex. In 904 we have a charter of King Edward, which proves that a settlement of clergy then existed here. He grants (fn. 1) to Bishop Denewulf of Winchester for the perpetual freedom and protection of the monastery which is called Taunton, that it shall be for ever exempt from royal and comital dues. There are also three charters of King Athelstan, 938, and King Edgar, 978, which recognize this endowment, and make additions to it for the benefit of the clergy there. (fn. 2)
In 1086 (fn. 3) we find from the Domesday Survey two priests holding a portion of this estate. The house of Austin Canons absorbed the endowment of these priests, and occupied their place. Its foundation was due to William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, about the year 1115, but its early history is very obscure. About 1180, when the house of Austin Canons at Buckland in Durston was dissolved and the land granted to the Hospitallers, (fn. 4) the two canons who lived there were transferred to the priory at Taunton. We are indebted however to an inquisition of the king's escheator (fn. 5) of 6 January 1317 for the formal proof of the foundation. The evidence then given went not merely to claim William Giffard as the founder, but to assert a date for the foundation before the time of King Edmund Ironside, i.e. 1016. This latter statement of course is impossible, but it probably points to the fact that the college or monastery of resident priests which existed before the Conquest and had been endowed by the English kings was continued in the later foundation of the Bishop of Winchester. The extent of the endowment is therefore to be judged from the evidence of the later documents. Prior Stephen (fn. 6) made certain arrangements with Bishop Reginald, 1174, in reference to the bishop's claim on the churches that formed the early endowment of the priory. He granted that all the churches and chapels belonging to the priory were to be answerable to the bishop and his officials, but he reserved as being, with the house itself, free from these claims the churches of St. James, Taunton, St. Margaret's 'infirmorum,' Wilton, and St. Peter de Castello. Ash Priors and Withiel were to be answerable as mother churches, and the canons who served those churches were to obey as other clerks in the diocese would.
On 1 October 1334 (fn. 7) Edward III confirmed by an inspeximus the charters and grants of the priory, which by that time numbered 130 charters. Of these the earliest is that of Henry II who granted the house a charter of confirmation which gives us a list of the gifts which the priory had received up to that time. It is witnessed by Richard de Beaumes, Bishop of London, who died in 1161. The gift of the founder is said to have consisted of all the churches of Taunton with their dependent chapels, of Kingston Church and its chapel, and of the churches of Lydeard St. Lawrence, Angersleigh, and Bishop's Hull. To these Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester (1129–74), added the church of Pitminster, and its chapels. Robert Arundel gave two hides at Ash, and a church at Ash, which then became known as Ash Priors. William Fitz Otho gave the church and land at Willand, in Devonshire, William de Moion land at Lydeard St. Lawrence, and Richard de Turberville the church of Dulverton, and land at 'Gelialand' in the parish of Tolland. Then, by a charter of 17 July 1204, King John gave to the priory the pastures of King's Hull in the Quantocks.
In 1249 we find (fn. 8) the archdeacon of Taunton holding his visitation in the church of St. Mary Magdalene, and as the confirmation charter of Henry II refers to the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, we have here our first evidence of the existence of the two churches, the priory church and the parish church. This was also the case at Keynsham, where there were two distinct churches, whereas at Bruton the two churches were structurally one, the parishioners having the use of the north aisle.
In 1278 (fn. 9) Bishop Bronscombe of Exeter authorized the canons of Taunton to collect within this diocese alms for the rebuilding of the conventual church.
Bishop Drokensford (fn. 10) in April 1314 duly confirmed by inspeximus the ordination by Bishop Walter Hasleshaw on 5 November 1308 of the vicarage of the church of St. Mary Magdalene, and recognized it as a parish church, Simon de Lym being the first vicar. To him was assigned as his stipend a weekly supply of bread and ale from the convent, 15s. a year, and food for his horse; he was to receive freely all legacies made to him in the parish, but to serve at his own cost by himself or his curate the churches of St. Mary Magdalene and of Trull, and of the Castle, and St. George at Wilton, and to find a priest to reside constantly at Trull. On the other hand the prior was to provide a secular priest for the chapels or parish churches of Stoke St. Mary and Ruishton, and another secular priest for the churches of Staplegrove, and St. James, Taunton; also a further secular priest for the church at Bishop's Hull. At St. James and at Ruishton, on Sundays and holy days, the prior might, if his help should be required, send, with the permission of the bishop of the diocese, some well reputed of his brethren to help the priest at mass.
In 1327 the conventual church was not completed, for Bishop Stratford of Winchester (fn. 11) issued a licence to some of the canons to beg for alms in his diocese for the completion of the church, and notified his sanction to the archdeacons of Winchester and Surrey.
Again, in 1335, Ralph of Shrewsbury, (fn. 12) Bishop of Bath and Wells, allowed the canons to collect alms in his diocese for a period of two years for the completion of the new work of the fabric of the conventual church of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, and he further, in 1337, granted an indulgence to all those who contributed to the completion of the conventual church.
In the Taxatio of 1291 (fn. 13) we find the prior in possession of the churches of Taunton (seven in number) and of Pitminster, Nynehead, Kingston, Combe Florey, West Monkton, Thurlbear, Lydeard St. Lawrence, Ash Priors, and the advowsons of Angersleigh, Runnington, Thurloxton, Willand and Clannaborough.
In 1340 (fn. 14) they obtained from Nicholas de Beleville an interest in the manor of Dulverton, amounting to one-third, to which, however, was attached a payment of 10 marks to the Prior and convent of Bisham, and 5 marks for the chapel of Donyatt. The Valor of 1535 (fn. 15) give us the value of the lands, tenements, and rents of the priory as £286 8s. 10d.
The priory never seems to have consisted of more than twenty-six canons at a time. That number was recorded in 1339, (fn. 16) at the time of the election of Robert de Messingham as prior. At later times, in 1377 (fn. 17) and in 1476, (fn. 18) fifteen canons are recorded. At the time of the dissolution (fn. 19) there were twelve canons, all of whom received pensions. In 1315 we find that the priory had received Richard Engayne, (fn. 20) a Knight Templar, as a prisoner on the dissolution of his order, for whose maintenance the Crown was paying.
In 1332 (fn. 21) the conventual church was polluted by bloodshed, and Bishop Ralph issued a commission to Roger, the prior, to purify it. On 19 March 1342 (fn. 22) Bishop Ralph sanctioned a morning mass for St. Mary Magdalene's Church. This seems to indicate the completion of the new conventual church, and the distinct separation of the worship of the townsfolk from that of the canons.
In 1351 (fn. 23) a letter written by Bishop Ralph to the vicar of St. Mary Magdalene seems to point to inappreciation on the part of the parishioners of West Monkton of the ministry of one of the canons acting as rector in their church. They were flocking to the church of St. Mary Magdalene, and the vicar was ordered to refuse them admission to his church.
In 1345 Canon John de Payton (fn. 24) was pardoned for a rape on the wife of Hugh de Holdon and for robbing him of his goods, and in 1353 (fn. 25) Bishop Ralph had to interfere on account of the evil conduct of one of the canons, Robert Cundyt. In his late visitation of the house, the bishop had discovered that he, as one of the obedientiaries, had been disobedient to the prior, wasteful of the goods of the priory, and guilty of immorality. His rebellious conduct made his removal necessary for the good order of the house, and he was transferred, under the instructions of the bishop, for stricter custody into the hands of the prior and convent of St. German's, Cornwall.
In 1377, (fn. 26) again we find Bishop Harewell holding a commission of inquiry into the affairs of the convent. Walter Grateley the prior and fifteen canons were present, and the commission had to inquire into certain controversies and discords that had arisen, and disobediences which had been shown towards Walter the prior whose age, weakness of body, and great simplicity seem to have made him unable to maintain good discipline. Grateley, as the result of this inquiry, was induced to resign, and the next year John de Kyngesbury was elected prior in his place.
Prior Kyngesbury in 1382 (fn. 27) had to bring an action against the abbey of Glastonbury in reference to the Bathpool Mills on the River Tone, a short distance below the priory. These mills had been rebuilt in 1364, and commanded more than ever the flow of the water of the river. The priory complained that boats and fish were obstructed in their course up and down between Taunton and Bridgwater, and the abbey was compelled to make arrangements that would satisfy them.
The celebrated William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, did not forget the priory (fn. 28) in his will, leaving them in 1403 100 marks as a gift that they might pray for his soul. On 1 March 1415 (fn. 29) Thomas Ulfcome the prior received a papal indult for a portable altar.
In 1452 Bishop Beckington, on the report of a visitation commission, ordered the sub-prior to improve the supply of bread and cheese for the canons. (fn. 30) Another commission of inquiry was issued in 1459. (fn. 31)
In 1499 the Prior of Taunton, in a bull granted by Pope Alexander VI, gained the privilege (fn. 32) of using the ring, the pastoral staff, and other pontifical ornaments, except the episcopal mitre, and of pronouncing solemn benediction after mass, vespers and compline; also of admitting to minor orders the canons and choristers of the said monastery.
In 1524 one of the canons of Taunton, William Grendon, was elected Prior of Stavordale, a small house of Austin Canons near Wincanton. (fn. 33) Stavordale was never rich, its finances had been badly managed, and external help was needed. Grendon had not been prior for many years before he induced his fellow canons to desire a union of their house with that at Taunton, and on 9 April 1533 (fn. 34) Henry VIII sanctioned this union and placed the cell of Stavordale and six canons under the authority of William Yorke, Prior of Taunton. The next year saw a change of priors. William Wyllyams (or Andrewes) had succeeded William Yorke, and on 15 September 1534 the prior and fourteen canons subscribed to the act of the King's Supremacy. On 12 February 1539 the prior and canons surrendered their house and all its possessions into the hands of the royal commissioner, John Tregonwell. The deed is signed by William Wyllyams, the prior, and William Gregory, the sub-prior, and ten canons. (fn. 35) The same day somewhat substantial pensions were assigned. The prior received £60 a year; the sub-prior £10 William Dale was allowed £5 6s. 8d. which was to be deducted from his stipend of £8 8s. as vicar of St. James. Similar pensions of £5 6s. 8d. were allowed to William Baylye, Nicholas Beram, John Heywarde, Thomas Matthewe, William Parson, John Warren, William Brinsmede, William Culronde and John Cockeram. The pension list for the first half-year is signed by Thomas Cromwell, and the three commissioners John Tregonwell, William Petre, and John Smith.
In Cardinal Pole's pension list of 1553 (fn. 36) we find the same list of names, with the exception of Thomas Matthewe and William Culronde.
During the years 1540 and 1542 Leland, (fn. 37) the antiquary, passed through Taunton, and, as was his wont, inspected the library. He mentions among the books three which seem to him rare, namely Chronicon Ivonis, Philaretus de Pulsibus and Theophilus de Urinis.
Priors of Taunton
Stephen, occurs 1159 . . . 1189 (fn. 38)
Robert, occurs 1197 (fn. 39)
John, occurs 1204 (fn. 40)
John, occurs 1313 (fn. 41)
Stephen de Pycoteston, died 1325 (fn. 42)
Robert de Messingham, elected 1339, died 1346 (fn. 45)
Thomas Cok or le Coke, elected 1346, occurs 1353 (fn. 46)
Thomas de Pederton, died 1362 (fn. 47)
John de Kyngesbury, elected 1378, died 1391 (fn. 50)
Walter Coke, elected 1391, died 1408 (fn. 51)
Robert Newton, elected 1408, died 1413 (fn. 52)
Thomas de Ufculme, elected 1413, occurs 1429 (fn. 53)
Thomas Benet, occurs 1438 (fn. 54)
Richard Glene or Gleve, occurs 1449, died 1476 (fn. 55)
John Asshe or Ayshent, elected 1476 (fn. 56)
Nicholas Peper, elected 1514, died 1523 (fn. 59)
William Yorke, nominated 1523 (fn. 60)
William Wyllyams or Andrewes, 1533–9 (fn. 61)
The 13th-century seal of the Austin Canons' Priory of St. Peter and St. Paul at Taunton (fn. 62) is a vesica, 2¾ in. by 15/8 in. It shows two niches, with St. Peter in the right, holding his keys and the model of a church, and in the left St. Paul with his sword. The legend is:—