A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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3. THE PRIORY OF BOXGROVE (fn. 1)
The priory of the Blessed Virgin and St. Blaise of Boxgrove was founded by Robert de Haye, to whom Henry I had granted the honour of Halnaker, and who in 1105 bestowed upon the abbey of Lessay the church of St. Mary of Boxgrove, with 2½ hides of land around it and tithes, timber, and pasture, in the parish, as well as the churches of St. Peter of West Hampnett, St. Leger of Hunston, Birdham, Walberton, St. Mary of Barnham, St. Catherine of 'Henitone' on the Thames, and Belton in Lincolnshire, the tithes of Todham in Easebourne, and the measure of corn called 'chorchet' or church scot from all his manors. (fn. 2)
The mention in Domesday of 'the clerks of the church' may be taken to show the existence at that date of a small college of secular canons at Boxgrove. Upon the subordination of the church to Lessay they were doubtless replaced by monks, of whom there were at first only three, but whose numbers were increased to six upon the occasion of the marriage of Cecily, daughter and heiress of Robert de Haye, to Roger St. John. William son of Roger St. John increased the endowment of the priory sufficiently to allow of thirteen monks being maintained, and subsequently added a gift of tithes in Kipston and Strettington to raise the number to fifteen. He also confirmed his ancestor's gifts in 1187, and made agreement with the abbot and convent of Lessay that they should maintain the priory honourably, and not remove the prior so long as he should live honestly, and that the prior should have power to fill up vacancies by receiving monks, who should, however, make their profession to the abbot. The abbot retained the power of withdrawing from the priory any monk likely to be of use to the mother house, unless he held the office of sub-prior or cellarer. (fn. 3)
Robert brother of William St. John granted to the priory lands in Barnham and Walberton to support a sixteenth monk, and arranged that one of the brethren should act as chaplain in his house of Halnaker, receiving his board in the house during Robert's residence there, and returning to the priory when he was absent. The number of monks continued to increase, and about 1230 William de Kainesham, canon of Chichester, added a nineteenth. (fn. 4) Many other local magnates and landowners made grants to the monastery, and in 1291 the temporalities of the prior of Boxgrove were valued at £23 16s. 5d., exclusive of £5 10s. for the manor of Merrow in Surrey, (fn. 5) which had been acquired of Simon de Seintlyz in the time of Richard I without royal licence, for which omission Edward III graciously pardoned the convent in 1345 on payment of 100 shillings. (fn. 6) By 1535 the priory's possessions were worth £185 19s. 8d. gross, and £145 10s. 2½d. clear. (fn. 7)
Of the churches already mentioned as granted by Robert de Haye, those of St. Catherine and Belton do not appear in the confirmation charter of Hilary, bishop of Chichester (1145-69), which however mentions the church of St. Nicholas of Itchenor. Belton reappears in the charter of William St. John in 1187 but is not referred to again, and afterwards became the seat of a nunnery. William St. John added the church of Mundham to his other gifts, and in 1189 William earl of Arundel made a grant of the church of Bilsington in Kent, which was transferred by the priory to the canons of Bilsington in 1226, a rent of ten marks being reserved. In 1344 William de Langeton obtained leave to alienate to Boxgrove Priory lands in North Mundham on the condition that they should provide a chaplain to celebrate daily at the altar of St. Lawrence in Chichester Cathedral for the soul of John de Langeton, the late bishop. (fn. 8)
As an alien house Boxgrove was liable to be seized into the king's hands during war with France, and in 1337 the prior was ordered to pay a fine of £60 as well as an annual payment of £30 for the custody of his house. (fn. 9) The monks, however, obtained respite of these payments on the plea that they were all English and had always the right of electing one of their number to be prior, and that their priory had never been seized until the time of the present prior, who was an alien appointed by the pope, John XXII. (fn. 10) Upon inquiry it was found that the priory had only been seized once before, in 1324, and accordingly the king remitted the charges made and restored the temporalities to the prior. It was, however, again seized by Richard II, who at last in 1383 restored the temporalities and confirmed the decision of 1339 affirming the independence of Boxgrove, (fn. 11) which was further confirmed by the popes in 1402 and 1413. By the decree of the former date it was granted that the prior might in future receive the profession of all postulants in the priory, and that the convent might elect their prior and nominate him to their patron for presentation to the bishop, independently of the mother house of Lessay which was 'in the hands of schismatics and enemies of the realm.' (fn. 12) The papal decree of 1413 simply repeats this concession and confirms the profession made by five monks to the prior. (fn. 13)
A letter exists from Seffrid, bishop of Chichester, to the abbot and convent of Lessay announcing that he had duly instituted their monk, Brother G., to the office of prior of Boxgrove as they had requested, and praying that his rule might be blessed. (fn. 14) This was probably Seffrid I (1125-45), but if it was the second of that name (1180-1204) his benevolent hopes would seem to have been disappointed, for Bishop Simon (1204-7) after visiting the priory at the abbot's request sent no good report of the house. He found some of the brethren quarrelsome and contentious, others had been long in the priory and even held office without having made their profession, and some were under his sentence of excommunication. With the assent of the prior, whom he believed to be an honest and faithful man, he had taken steps to remedy these faults, and to ensure the obedience of the monks to the abbey and the prior. (fn. 15)
At the end of the thirteenth century the abbey of Lessay endeavoured to interfere with the priory's right of election and sent a monk of their own, Ralph de Dumo, to occupy the post of prior. The bishop of Chichester refused to admit him, but confirmed the election of Robert, a monk of Boxgrove. Appeals were made to Popes John XXI (1276-7), Nicholas III (1277-81), Martin IV (1281-5), and in 1286 to Honorius IV, (fn. 16) all of whom appointed persons to hear the case. Meanwhile Robert had resigned, as had his successor William. John of Winchester, the next prior elected by the monks of Boxgrove, was in 1283 found guilty of incontinency, and first fined by the bishop of Chichester, and then, on the protest of Archbishop Peckham that such punishment was both uncanonical and unjust to the convent, who would have to pay the fine, removed from office and sent to do penance at Battle Abbey, whence he returned in March, 1284. (fn. 17) Thomas, who succeeded on John's deprivation, was prior when Pope Honorius appointed the prior of Arundel and dean of Chichester to hear the case between Lessay and Boxgrove in January, 1286, and still retained office at least as late as 1288.
Boxgrove was visited in 1275 by the archbishop, who as a result issued a series of injunctions. Several of these deal with the eating of flesh, which was only permitted under strict conditions, nor was any monk to give away part of his allowance of food to the boys or others. Discussions in the cloisters were to be abandoned except such as led to better life and knowledge, all frivolous and taunting words being set aside. Also the room next the refectory was not to be used for idle enjoyment lest that room which was called 'misericordia' should become 'judicium.' The use of brown robes and hoods was forbidden, and regulations as to the admission of women were given, great ladies with retainers being allowed to lodge in the priory, but other women being kept to the outer church, or, if admitted to offer at the high altar, obliged to dispatch their business quickly and not speak to the monks. Orders were given to avoid all cause of suspicion in connexion with the granary barn, and that the brother serving at Halnaker chapel should not turn aside on his way except for stress of weather. These injunctions were found to have been disregarded in 1299 and were restated with certain additions, the prior being further enjoined to fill up four vacancies amongst the brethren. (fn. 18)
In 1409 a dispute between the priory and the vicar of Boxgrove was settled by the bishop of Chichester, who decided that all oblations of the church not specially assigned to the vicarage by the deed of ordination belonged to the monks; that the vicar ought to advance the interest of the convent to the best of his ability, and to walk in procession with the monks, having a special place assigned him by the prior, and also to assist them in the performance of divine service, being given a stall in the choir as a mark of respect.
At this time the affairs of the convent would seem to have been in a bad state, as in 1410 the prior and brethren made over to the bishop and other trustees, including Thomas Chaworthe the prior's brother, all their movable goods with full power to dispose of them by gift or sale. (fn. 19) Presumably this assignment was made with the view either of avoiding distraint or of liquidating their debts. However this may be, when Bishop Story visited the priory in 1478 the prior and nine brethren then resident stated that the house and all things connected with it were in a good state, and had not been so satisfactory for the last forty years. (fn. 20)
As a result of a visitation held in July 1518, Bishop Sherborn issued a series of injunctions to the prior and convent of Boxgrove. (fn. 21) The first thirteen heads of these appear to be general rules of conduct and were addressed also to the priories of Tortington, Hardham, Shulbred, Michelham, and Hastings. They enjoin the maintenance of the full number of monks; the appointment of a master of the novices; the regulation of dress, diet, and employment, an order being given that the brethren should have gardens in which to work and refresh themselves; the exercise of hospitality; behaviour in the refectory, the care of the dormitory, which should be well lighted and cleaned, and the custody of the common seal under three keys. The remaining injunctions seem to have been addressed to the particular prior of the time. He was ordered to keep his accounts more regularly, not to maintain unnecessary servants, and to see that the women employed in the laundry and dairy work were above suspicion. The prior was further enjoined that, whereas he was noted as an archer and wasted his time in shooting matches even outside the priory with laymen, he is in future not to indulge in such matches outside the priory, and if he desire such recreation to restrict it to the private grounds of the monastery; also as 'it is not good to take the bread of our children and give it to the dogs to eat' he shall not keep any dogs, birds, or hawks, but bestow the fragments upon the poor. Moreover he is to see that his brethren do not play cards, dice, or hunt, and to prevent drinking and gossiping in the church or cemetery on the occasion of funerals. But that which most rouses the horror of the bishop, so that he can hardly believe it to be true, is a report that some of the monks wear boots with turned-down tops (caligis diploidibus) and tied with many laces. Finally he concludes with the stern words:—
Also, because it is ascertained that the honour of the order, its rules, constitutions, ceremonies, and other observances have long passed away into disuse among you, not without your great peril, my lord prior, we enjoin you by the bond of obedience, diligently and effectually to watch . . . . so that in reward for your burdens you may be esteemed as a good shepherd in the sharp and terrible day of judgement.
Considerable improvement appears to have occurred in the state of the priory before the next visitation in 1524, when the only irregularities noted were the absence of an instructor in grammar and the fact that the cellarer was a layman. (fn. 22) At the last recorded visitation, that of 1527, the prior, six brethren, and five novices, appeared and reported that all was well, the priory in fair repair and free from debt, and the monks virtuous and religious. (fn. 23) Unless then the monks had perjured themselves, or their decadence was rapid, we may treat as a gross libel the suggestion in the letter which Layton, who visited the priory in the autumn of 1535, wrote to Cromwell (fn. 24):—'This bringer the prior of Boxgrave "habet tantum duas." He is a great husband and keepeth great hospitality. "Ejus monachi omnes sunt ejusdem farinae." His lands is £100.'
A letter written to Cromwell at the same time by Lord De La Warr, (fn. 25) patron of the priory, speaks in favour of the prior and sets out his great losses and expenses. Within the last four years the house had been robbed of jewels to the value of £80, and this very year not only had they had the expense of making five new bells for the church, but a novice had stolen 100 marks of the money for which the prior, as collector of the clerical subsidy, was responsible. Lord De La Warr wrote again to Cromwell in March, 1536, begging that the priory of Boxgrove, where many of his ancestors lay buried, and he himself had prepared 'a poor chapel to be buried in,' might be spared, or at least transformed into a college, but that if that might not be, he might at least have the farm of it. He further petitioned, when its dissolution had been definitely decided upon, that (1) the church might be left unspoiled as the parish church; this seems to have been so far granted that the choir, which formed the monastic church, was retained as the parish church, the parochial nave being pulled down; (2) that he might buy the church ornaments; these are recorded as sold for £23 13s. 2d. to 'divers persons,' this being exclusive of 339 ounces of silver, mostly gilt, reserved for the king's use (fn. 26); (3) that the bells might be left; three of the bells were sold to Lord La De Warr for £25 6s. 8d. (fn. 27); (4) that the 'founders' lodging' might stand, and (5) that he might have the demesnes to farm. John Mores, reporting the completion of the work of dissolution on 26 March, 1537, tells Cromwell that, thanks to Lord De La Warr, the king has received greater profit from Boxgrove than from any other house in Sussex. (fn. 28)
At the time of the suppression there were in the priory eight priests and one novice, as well as twenty-eight servants and eight children. (fn. 29) The latter item evidently implies the existence of a school, and the monastery would seem also to have played the part of an almshouse, for there were six poor persons, ibidem inbabitantes, receiving a farthing each daily in accordance with the ancient statutes of the house. (fn. 30) Altogether the fall of Boxgrove Priory is a good example of the injury done in many cases to the cause of charity and education in the dissolution of the religious houses.
Priors of Boxgrove (fn. 31)
Ralph, occurs 1179 (fn. 32)
Ansketill, occurs 1232 and 1249 (fn. 33)
Walter, occurs 1256, (fn. 34) 1257
Walter, occurs 1271 (fn. 35)
Ralph de Dumo, intruded, c. 1275 (fn. 36)
William, resigned c. 1281 (fn. 36)
John of Winchester, deposed 1283 (fn. 38)
John, occurs 1323 (fn. 45)
Robert atte Strode, elected 1328 (fn. 46)
John de Warenge, occurs 1339, (fn. 47) died 1348
Nicholas de Stanlygh, elected 1348 (fn. 48)
Richard Boneham, occurs 1355 (fn. 49)
Walter Marshall (fn. 52)
John Chaworthe, elected 1398, (fn. 53)died 1409
John Rykeman, appointed 1409 (fn. 54)
John, occurs 1421 (fn. 55)
John Costune, died 1438 (fn. 56)
Robert Chamberlayn, elected 1438 (fn. 57)
John Joye, occurs 1465, (fn. 58) died 1485
Richard Chese, elected 1485 (fn. 59)
John Peccam, occurs 1510 (fn. 60)
The first seal, of the twelfth century, is a pointed oval: The Virgin, seated on a churchlike throne, the Child on her right knee. At each side a small finial turret, on which is a bird. (fn. 63) Legend indistinct.
The second, thirteenth century, seal is of great artistic merit. Obverse—Pointed oval: The priory church; under the central tower of three pinnacles, the Annunciation in two trefoiled niches; above, in a triangular pediment with trefoiled opening, our Lord half-length, lifting up the right hand in benediction; in the side niches on each side a monk, half-length; above, a quatrefoiled panel. In base, in a lozenge-shaped panel, with quatrefoiled opening, the head of St. Blaise. Legend:—
Reverse—The Virgin, crowned, and with nimbus, seated on a carved throne between box trees, on each side of which is a small bird; the Child on the left knee, in the right hand a fleurde-lis. Overhead a carved and trefoiled canopy. In base, the corbel elegantly carved with foliage. Legend:—
(fn. 64) DICIy : EX : LIGNO : UIRIDI : BOXsVIA : DIGNO : NOÎE : Nq : CRESCIT : tTVTIB ·ATQ · VIRESCIT
A seal of one of the priors is attached to a deed of 1421; circular, showing two figures (possibly SS. Mary and Elizabeth) under a canopy. (fn. 65) Legend:—
The oval seal of the sub-prior in 1254 shows the Virgin and Child, with a kneeling figure beneath. (fn. 66) Legend:—