A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1970.
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14. THE ABBEY OF ROCESTER
The abbey of St. Mary at Rocester in Dovedale was founded at some time between 1141 and 1146 by Richard Bacon, a nephew of Ranulph, Earl of Chester. Few English houses of Austin canons ranked as abbeys, and those mostly the larger ones, so that it is surprising to find Rocester, a small house, among them.
According to the foundation charter Richard gave to Thurstan, the first abbot, and to his canons the church of Rocester together with the vills of Rocester and East Bridgeford (Notts.) and the lands and tenements belonging to them. (fn. 1) A much more detailed account of Richard's endowment is given in another charter (fn. 2) which, although not genuine, (fn. 3) may have been drawn up simply to preserve a fuller account of his gift than that in the more laconic foundation charter. According to this second charter Richard gave the canons the church of Rocester with its chapels of Bradley-in-the-Moors and Waterfall; the vills of Rocester and Combridge and his demesnes there and at Wootton, (fn. 4) with appurtenances and liberties in Nothill (in Croxden), Denstone (in Alton), Quixhill (in Rocester), Roston (Derb.), Bradley-in-the-Moors, Waterfall, and Calton; and, in East Bridgeford, 8 carucates and 2 bovates of land and the third part of 2 mills. Rocester was evidently the centre of a large manor, (fn. 5) for the second charter states that the men of Rocester, Combridge, Nothill, Wootton, Roston, Waterfall, and Bradley were to continue to render the services and suit of court at Rocester which they had rendered successively to Earl Ranulph and to his nephew. The abbey evidently acquired an extensive jurisdiction with these estates: the second charter mentions sac and soc, toll and team, infangentheof, waif, and wreck. Richard's gift was confirmed by Earl Ranulph de Blundeville about 1200.
Details survive of some early privileges and benefactions. (fn. 6) Bishop Clinton freed Rocester church 'from all episcopal custom' and, with the assent of Robert, Archdeacon of Stafford, granted the abbey the same liberty in its parish as Burton Abbey possessed in its parishes. (fn. 7) The advowson of the church of Woodford (Northants.) was acquired from Osmund and William Bassett in the late 12th or early 13th century. (fn. 8) In 1230 the abbot and convent received an annual pension of £3 from the church, but by 1254 (when the rectory was worth 20 marks) this had dropped to £2. (fn. 9) About 1200 one Fulk fitz Fulk gave the church of St. Peter, Edensor (Derb.). (fn. 10) The gift was made to the Abbot of Rocester and the canons of 'Leyes' obedient to the church of Rocester. No other mention of this community is known; (fn. 11) it is possible that some brethren from Rocester were temporarily at Lees Moor near Edensor, but if Rocester did establish such a cell it must have been short-lived. In the time of Bishop Muschamp (1198-1208) Patrick of Mobberley founded a small house of regular canons at Mobberley (Ches.) which he endowed with half the church there. (fn. 12) This foundation was soon handed over to Rocester, but there were irregularities in the endowment and the cell seems to have been given up. (fn. 13) Between 1245 and 1254 William, son of Geoffrey de Gresley, gave the canons the advowson of Kingstone and all the land which Richard the forester held of him there. (fn. 14)
In 1229 Bishop Stavensby gave the abbey permission to appropriate the church of Rocester, with its chapels and appurtenances. The bishop's charter states that the canons of Rocester then suffered greater poverty than any other religious in the diocese, and his grant was made on this account and because their 'immoderate poverty . . ., their holiness of life, their gravity of demeanour, and the grace of their virtuous religious life' had been commended to him. The immunities granted by Bishop Clinton were further defined as freedom 'from all episcopal custom' except 3s. for Peter's pence, and the right to determine all causes involving their chaplains and parishioners. Stavensby also granted the canons the right to serve their parish church by one of their own brethren, provided that he was first presented to the bishop. (fn. 15)
The patronage of the abbey belonged to the earls of Chester until the death of Earl John in 1237. (fn. 16) In 1246 the earldom was annexed to the Crown, (fn. 17) and the patronage of the abbey evidently passed to the Crown at the same time. In the same year the abbey received royal confirmation of Richard Bacon's gift and of liberties which Earl Ranulph had granted. (fn. 18) In 1399 the abbey was described as 'of royal foundation and patronage as of the principality of Chester'. (fn. 19)
The house never became wealthy. Its comparative poverty is shown by its assessment at 10s. for the aid of 1235-6: Calwich, the smallest Augustinian house in the county, was similarly assessed at 10s., while the priories of Stone and Trentham were assessed at 2 marks. (fn. 20) Even the character of the gifts which the abbey received from its royal patrons seems to reveal the poverty of the house. In 1240-1 the sheriff was ordered to give the canons 12 marks for their clothing and 2 marks to buy a pipe of wine for the celebration of divine service. (fn. 21) In 1246 the king presented a silver-gilt communion cup, and in the next year he gave the abbey 10 marks. (fn. 22) In 1269 the prior and canons secured the right to keep the temporalities of their house during the next vacancy of the abbey; in return, however, they had to pay the king 10 marks when they sued for a licence to elect. (fn. 23) In 1277 the abbey was given royal protection for a year; the effect of this grant seems to have been to exempt the abbey from contributing to the supply of the king's army in Wales under a recent purveyance order. (fn. 24)
In the later 13th century the abbey received more substantial grants which probably improved its economic condition considerably. In 1283 the canons were granted the right to hold a Thursday market at Rocester and a yearly fair on the vigil, feast, and morrow of St. Edmund (15-17 November). (fn. 25) The abbey's right to this market and fair was upheld at the quo warranto proceedings of 1293, as was its right to view of frankpledge in 'Wystanton'. (fn. 26) In 1284 Bishop Meuland granted the canons the right to appropriate Kingstone church on the next vacancy. He had evidently found during a visitation that the abbey was burdened with debt and was maintaining hospitality for poor travellers beyond its means. A few weeks later the then rector, Henry of Marchington, assigned the abbey an annual pension of £2 from the church. (fn. 27) The importance of the abbey's spiritual endowments appears from its assessment in the Taxation of 1291. It is clear that parish churches provided over half of the abbey's total income which was then £28 16s. 4d.; temporal property accounted for only £11 9s. 8d. of this, while the parish church of Rocester was valued at £13 6s. 8d. and annual pensions of £2 were received from the churches of Kingstone and Woodford. (fn. 28) The church of Edensor was appropriated to the abbey at some time after 1291. (fn. 29)
In 1299 the abbot, about to travel overseas, was granted protection for two years and power to appoint attorneys. (fn. 30) He evidently visited the papal Curia for in 1300 a confirmation of the possessions and privileges of Rocester was granted by Pope Boniface VIII. (fn. 31) The spiritual possessions of the abbey consisted of the site of the monastic church with all its rights and appurtenances; the separate parish church of St. Michael, Rocester, and its chapels at Waterfall and Bradley; the church of St. Giles, Holywell, in Churchover (Warws.), in which the canons were bound to maintain divine service; and the privileges which had been granted to the abbey by bishops Clinton and Stavensby. Other spiritualities confirmed to the abbey were the churches of Edensor, Kingstone, Mobberley, (fn. 32) and Woodford, (fn. 33) with their appurtenances in various places, and a small part of the tithes of Haddon Vernon (Derb.). The temporal property of the abbey consisted of the vills of Rocester and Combridge; lands in Wootton, Nothill, Denstone, and Quixhill; 1 bovate of land in Bradley and 4 bovates in Waterfall; and land in Kingstone, Swinscoe (in Blore), and Stanton (in Ellastone). Outside the county the abbey possessed temporalities in Edensor, Chatsworth, Clownholme, and Somersal (all in Derb.). These lands were confirmed to the abbey together with whatever other lands, rents, jurisdictions, and rights the house possessed in the dioceses of Coventry and Lichfield and of Lincoln.
The church of St. Giles, Holywell, mentioned in the privilege of 1300, although sometimes called a priory, seems in fact to have been a chantry chapel. (fn. 34) It was founded, probably in the mid 13th century, for the souls of Robert of Coton and Richard Fiton, and in 1291 was worth £1 6s. 8d. a year. In 1318 Richard de Bruggeford was licensed to grant a messuage, 3 virgates of land, and 2 acres of meadow in Holme (in Clifton-on-Dunsmore, Warws.) to Rocester Abbey; this was probably in effect a grant to the chantry of Holywell. (fn. 35) The chantry, however, was causing the canons some trouble about this time. In 1320 an inquisition revealed that the abbot had ceased to maintain services in the chapel because his canon, Geoffrey Spagurnel, had been robbed there. The chantry and its lands were taken into the king's hands for a short time. (fn. 36) In 1325 the king allowed the canons to transfer the chantry to the precincts of their house from its former lonely situation near Watling Street where robbers abounded. The bishop gave his approval to this arrangement in the following year. (fn. 37)
In 1318 the canons of Rocester alleged that cattle plague and bad harvests had reduced them to such poverty that they were obliged to go out and seek alms 'like beggars'; (fn. 38) they were doubtless victims of the famine and plague which had ravaged all Europe during the previous three years. (fn. 39) Rocester was engaged in the wool trade by the early 14th century, but whatever profit the abbey had derived from wool was probably wiped out by the animal pestilences of these famine years which attacked sheep as well as cattle. (fn. 40) There were, however, other reasons for the continued poverty of the canons in the earlier 14th century. In 1315 they were fined £20 for having appropriated the church of Kingstone without royal permission, and in 1333 they were in trouble again for having acquired 400 acres of land in the Peak without royal licence. (fn. 41) In 1327 the Crown licensed the appropriation of Woodford church, and in 1329 the canons secured a bull from the Pope commissioning the Bishop of Lincoln to appropriate this church to them and to ordain a vicarage. This was done, apparently in 1331. (fn. 42) In 1334, however, during a visitation, Bishop Northburgh found that the canons were in debt and that this was caused by the expenses of seeking this appropriation. (fn. 43)
In 1331 a glimpse is provided of the relations between the canons and their parishioners. The inhabitants of Rocester claimed that on Easter Day by ancient custom they should receive the sacrament in the parish church of St. Michael, not in the conventual church as the canons claimed. The bishop decided that the parishioners might attend either church. (fn. 44) The canons, occasionally at least, served the parish church by one of their number. (fn. 45)
The communal life of the canons seems to have been much troubled in the mid 14th century. In 1334 the abbot complained at the General Chapter of the order that one of his canons, sent to the king's court on business, had neglected his work and, contrary to his obedience, was wandering about spending much of the abbey's money and retaining its documents. (fn. 46) The canon's initials are given as G.S., so that he may be the Geoffrey Spagurnel mentioned above. If so he was soon in trouble again, for in 1337 Geoffrey was accused, along with the abbot (perhaps cited for technical reasons) and a number of laymen, of breaking into Bolingbroke castle and, among other things, of imprisoning there Alice, Countess of Lincoln, and taking away 20 horses. (fn. 47) The result of the case is not known. In 1375 another canon, Richard of Foston, was causing trouble. He was said to be wandering from place to place posing as Abbot of Rocester. (fn. 48) It may have been some aftermath of this that in 1385 led to an order for the arrest of three canons of Rocester — Walter Osbern, Richard Foster (perhaps the Richard of Foston just noted), and Robert of Bakewell. (fn. 49) The abbot, John Cheswardine, had earlier been accused of harbouring men guilty of killing one William Verneye, though by 1385 he had established his innocence. The accusation seems to have been connected with the hostility towards the abbot of some of the canons who had expelled him from the abbey and hoped to elect a new abbot in his place. Cheswardine in fact resigned in 1386 and Robert of Bakewell was elected. (fn. 50) There seems also to have been some dispute over the election of Bakewell's successor, Henry Smyth. Although the bishop confirmed the election in 1407, there was an appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury who confirmed it in 1408; the temporalities were not restored by the Crown until after the archiepiscopal confirmation. (fn. 51)
Little is known of the finances of the abbey. Occasionally it was burdened with the maintenance of a royal servant. (fn. 52) In 1399 the abbey was said to be heavily in debt owing to the negligence and default of its canons, officers, and ministers and grievous oppression by neighbouring malefactors. Royal commissioners were given custody of the place and ordered to examine its condition and to inspect, audit, and control its finances. (fn. 53) The resources of the abbey were increased in 1440 by the grant of a market at Rocester on Fridays, a fair there on Whit Monday and the two days following, and another on the feast of St. Maurice (22 September) and the two days following. (fn. 54)
The community (including the abbot) numbered 6 in 1377, 5 in 1381, 7 in 1524, and 9 at the dissolution in 1538. (fn. 55) A visitation of 1524 shows that the house was being efficiently run, but it was £60 in debt as a result of payments to the Crown. Observance was generally satisfactory, although the abbot complained that the brethren visited alehouses after divine service. There was also some dissension among three of the brethren. (fn. 56) Three years after this visitation one of the canons, John Hulme, was admitted Vicar of Woodford and must have ceased to live as a member of the community. (fn. 57)
The valuation of 1535 shows that the gross annual income of the house was £111 11s. 7d. (£100 2s. 10½d. net). Spiritual possessions produced £46 13s. 10d. while temporal property produced £64 17s. 9d., of which £23 16s. was reserved for the guest-house. In addition to this money spent on hospitality £1 17s. 4d. ex fundacione monasterii was set aside each year for doles of food to the poor. Other regular payments included a pension of £3 6s. 8d. to a chantry in Lichfield Cathedral, a fee of 13s. 4d. to the steward of the court at Rocester and one of £2 to the receiver. (fn. 58) The abbey property as listed in 1539 after it had passed to the Crown (fn. 59) consisted of the manor of Rocester, lands and rents in Combridge, Quixhill, Ellastone, Stanton, Denstone, Swinscoe, Kingstone, Clownholme, Hognaston (Derb.), Sedsall (in Doveridge, Derb.) and Scropton, and land near Somersal Heath (in Doveridge); (fn. 60) the appropriated churches of Rocester (with chapels at Waterfall, Calton, and Bradley-in-the-Moors), Kingstone, Edensor, and Woodford and tithes at Denstone. The gross annual value of the abbey estates was then £131 12s. 2d.
Although under the terms of the Act of 1536 the abbey was liable to dissolution, by March 1538 exemption had been purchased for £100. (fn. 61) Nevertheless in August of the same year Cranmer wrote to Cromwell urging that commissioners be sent to suppress Rocester, Tutbury, and Croxden. (fn. 62) Action followed quickly, and in September Abbot Grafton and eight other canons surrendered the monastery with all its possessions to the Crown. (fn. 63) A pension of £13 6s. 8d. was assigned to the abbot. (fn. 64)
An account has survived of the sale of St. Michael's Chapel, Rocester, in October 1538. (fn. 65) The glass and iron in its windows were sold to John Forman for 3s. 4d., the timber to William Loghtonhouse for 7s. 6d., and 'the shyngle' of the chapel to William Bagnall for 8d. The parishioners claimed the three bells, alleging that these had been used for parochial services as well as for those of the abbey. The 'house and site' of the monastery, leased in March 1539 for 21 years to Edward Draycott, one of Cromwell's servants, was sold the following July to Richard Trentham. (fn. 66)
There are no remains of the abbey above ground, but the site evidently lies on the south side of the present churchyard. (fn. 67)
Thurstan, abbot at the foundation. (fn. 68)
Ivo, occurs probably 1155. (fn. 69)
Henry, occurs 1210. (fn. 72)
William, occurs at some time between 1215 and 1224. (fn. 73)
Philip, occurs at some time between 1233 and 1238 and in 1251. (fn. 74)
Richard, elected 1256. (fn. 75)
Walter, elected 1258, resigned 1269. (fn. 76)
Walter de Dodele, elected 1269, resigned 1285. (fn. 77)
Robert, elected 1286, died 1289. (fn. 78)
Roger of Loughborough, elected 1289, resigned 1316. (fn. 79)
Walter of Aston, elected 1316, died 1324. (fn. 80)
Gilbert de Bosco, elected 1324, resigned by January 1335. (fn. 81)
Henry of Hopton, elected 1335, died 1349. (fn. 82)
William of Cheadle, appointed 1349, died 1364. (fn. 83)
Thomas of Rocester, elected 1364, died 1375. (fn. 84)
John Cheswardine, elected 1375, resigned 1386. (fn. 85)
Robert of Bakewell, elected 1386, resigned 1407. (fn. 86)
Henry Smyth, elected 1407, resigned 1443. (fn. 87)
John Hambury, elected 1443, resigned 1466. (fn. 88)
Robert Twys, elected 1466. (fn. 89)
John Quinten or Quynton, occurs 1475, resigned 1486. (fn. 90)
George Caldon, elected 1486, occurs 1496. (fn. 91)
William John, died 1507. (fn. 92)
Roger Rolleston alias Stathum, elected 1507, occurs 1510. (fn. 93)
Thomas Bromley, occurs 1521. (fn. 94)
William Grafton, occurs 1524, surrendered the abbey in 1538. (fn. 95)
A seal of the abbey in use in 1490 is circular, 2½ in. in diameter. It shows an abbot standing in a canopied niche. He holds a pastoral staff in his right hand and a book in his left. On either side in similar niches are eight canons surmounted by an estoile. The Virgin, with the Child on her knee, is enthroned above the abbot's canopy; on either side, above the canons' niches, are censing angels. (fn. 96) Legend, lombardic: