A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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4. THE PRIORY OF SELE (fn. 1)
William de Braose, soon after he had obtained his extensive fief in Sussex, appears to have built the church of St. Nicholas at Bramber as a chapel to his castle, and to have founded there a small college of secular canons, under a dean. In 1073 he endowed this college with the church of Beeding and the tithes of a large extent of his lands in Shoreham, Southwick, Washington, Findon, Thakeham and the neighbourhood. (fn. 2) William appears also to have claimed the right of burial for his church, but about 1086 the abbey of Fécamp successfully contested this claim, and Herbert the dean (of Bramber) had to restore the bodies buried at his church and the fees taken for their burial. (fn. 3)
Either in or before January, 1080, William de Braose granted to the abbey of St. Florent, Saumur, the church of Shipley, land at Annington, a vacant prebend in the church of St. Nicholas Bramber, with the reversion of the whole church after the death of the canons then there. (fn. 4) One or two monks were to be sent over and if this endowment should be increased by himself or any other person sufficiently to support an abbey, one should be established there under the control of the abbot of St. Florent. Accordingly a priory was established at the church of St. Peter at Beeding, or Sele as it was thenceforth called, some time before 1096, about which date Philip son of William de Braose confirmed his father's gifts to St. Florent. (fn. 5) By 1150 the priory's possessions in Sussex included the churches of Sele, Bramber, Washington (which had been obtained by exchange for that of Shipley), Old and New Shoreham and the chapel of St. Peter 'de Veteri Ponte' on the bridge between Bramber and Beeding. John de Braose in 1220 confirmed the grants of his ancestors and added other tithes and privileges, and in 1282 his son William gave to the priory, in exchange for the tithes of Shoreham, land at Crockhurst in Horsham, the right of fishing in his river as far as Bramber Bridge, and the use of a ferry if the bridge should be impassable at any time. (fn. 6) This William also in 1282 for a payment of £40 forgave the monks certain offences not specified and took them under his protection again. (fn. 7) There were many other small gifts (fn. 8) made at various times, but the priory was never a rich one, and at the time of the Taxation of Pope Nicholas its temporalities only amounted to £26 12s. 10d. (fn. 9) An extent of the priory made in 1370 shows a total gross income of £145 10s. 10d., (fn. 10) but the value of its possessions in 1535 was only £91 12s. 10d. gross and £64. 5s. 6d. clear. (fn. 11)
Being an alien house Sele was frequently seized into the king's hands during the wars with France in the fourteenth century, and in 1295, when all aliens were ordered to remove from the coast, it was only at the intercession of William de Valence and other influential men that the prior of Sele was allowed to remain in his house. (fn. 12) At last in 1396 Richard II allowed the priory to be naturalized, (fn. 13) the only remaining link with St. Florent being an annual payment of 11 marks made to the abbey.
For sixty years Sele enjoyed an independent existence, but in 1459 Waynflete, bishop of Winchester, acquired the patronage of the priory from John duke of Norfolk, (fn. 14) and obtained the leave of the pope and the bishop of Chichester to appropriate it to his newly founded college of St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford. The appropriation was to take effect upon the cession of the monks, and it was not until 1480 that the last survivor was pensioned off and the priory finally confirmed to the college. For thirteen years the buildings lay unoccupied, and then, in 1493, they were granted to the Carmelite Friars of Shoreham, whose original house was threatened with destruction by the inroads of the sea.
Many records remain of lawsuits and controversies between the monks and the neighbouring clergy, both regular and secular, chiefly on the subject of tithes, but of the internal history of the priory little can be said previous to the fifteenth century. In 1256 there is notice of the bestowal of a corrody and the office of gatekeeper upon an old servant, (fn. 15) and the reversion of another corrody was granted by Prior Gilbert in 1343. (fn. 16) Archbishop Peckham appears to have been there in 1282, (fn. 17) and Edward I stayed here in September, 1302, on his way from Arundel to Patching. (fn. 18) In 1308 the bishop of Enaghdun, acting as a suffragan, dedicated the priory church, which is on this occasion called the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, though in most cases the invocation is given as St. Peter only. Besides the high altar two others, those of St. Mary and St. John, were consecrated at this time, and indulgence promised to all who would visit and enrich the church. (fn. 19) This church served the parish as well as the priory, and by a decree of 1283 the parishioners were made responsible for the repairs of the nave, belfry, bells, and bell-ropes. (fn. 20)
A full inventory of the goods of the priory taken in 1412, during the long rule of Stephen de Sauz, seems eloquent of careful poverty. (fn. 21) The furniture is sufficient but of the plainest description; with the exception of three silver chalices in the church and a piece of silver and six silver spoons in the buttery no article was of more precious material than copper, save that the image of the Blessed Virgin in the chapel at the bridge had three silver rings and six necklaces. Under Stephen's successors the poverty persisted but the care ceased, and the house fell into great disorder, spiritual as well as material.
Bishop Praty visited Sele in October, 1441, (fn. 22) and again in the following January. (fn. 23) John Lewis was then prior, and there were three other brethren. The prior was found guilty of having obtained his office by simony, and of gross immorality; he was seldom present at mattins, allowed the daily mass of the Blessed Virgin to be omitted, and often left the church without bread and wine, so that the Eucharist could not be celebrated; nor was he more careful in temporal matters, for he wasted the property of the house and had involved it deeply in debt, retaining the common seal in his own hands and making grants without consulting his brethren. As a result of this visitation Prior Lewis was removed from office; but matters were little improved, and when John Grigge, who was prior for fourteen years, was forced to resign in 1463 the house had almost been crushed out of existence by debt and mismanagement. In November, 1462, the duke of Norfolk wrote to the dean of South Malling, certain gentry, and all other persons having fees or pensions from the priory of Sele, that, as the house had fallen into such great poverty that divine service was like soon to be omitted, therefore they should refrain from taking the fees which they claimed, on pain of his displeasure. An attempt seems to have been made to improve the administration of the priory by putting its temporalities into the possession of John Lamport, clerk, Edmund Fitzwilliam, Thomas Toftes and Robert Dalling, esqs., who granted a lease in 1462 as 'ministers for the house and priory of Sele.' During his period of office Prior Grigge had alienated more than a hundred cattle and eighty swine, all the carts and the furniture of the house, a quantity of plate, including three silver chalices and a gilt box for the Sacrament, and had compiled a debt of over 300 marks, reducing the income of the house to £8. (fn. 24)
On John Grigge's resignation Richard Alleyne, cellarer of Battle, bribed one Thomas Tofts to use his influence with the bishop for his election, and was accordingly appointed prior of Sele. He then agreed, for a payment of £20, to resign his office to Ralph Alleyne, a monk, who at once, without obtaining episcopal confirmation, acted as prior and caused a seal to be engraved for his use, with which he made grants of the priory lands. The bishop caused a letter to be read in all the churches of the diocese denouncing this seal as a forgery. Ralph however continued to exercise the office of prior until March, 1467, when Richard Alleyne again bribed Thomas Tofts to secure his re-election, and was at once constituted prior by the bishop although the right of election lay with the monks, of whom there were then four. (fn. 25) Prior Ralph's grants of bonds under a forged seal, and other matters, promised so plentiful a crop of litigation that Richard Alleyne was afraid to undertake the temporal administration of the house; the bishop therefore sequestered it and placed it for a time in the hands of the prior of Boxgrove and the rector of East Lavant. (fn. 26) When Alleyne took over the management of the priory he proceeded to convert it entirely to his own use, suffering all the buildings to go to rack and ruin, selling the lands, vestments, and ornaments of the church, and giving nothing to the brethren, so that they had all betaken themselves elsewhere and service was no longer performed. At last, in 1474, after repeated vain appeals to the bishop of Chichester—who seems to have done nothing more than appoint commissioners to inquire into the charge of non-residence against Alleyne, who held the living of Midhurst in plurality with the priory—the president of Magdalen obtained the appointment of papal commissioners to examine the matter, and Richard Alleyne was deposed. (fn. 27) No other prior appears to have been appointed, but Richard Grigge, the last surviving monk, refused to surrender his claim, and it was not until 1480 that Sele Priory was finally absorbed into Magdalen College. Bishop Waynflete having thus endowed his foundation with property in Sussex ordained that a certain number of rooms in the college should be reserved for the use of students from Sussex.
Priors of Sele (fn. 28)
Robert, occurs c. 1110, resigned before 1153
Daniel, occurs 1153
Thomas, occurs c. 1160
'Guar',' occurs between 1174 and 1184
Peter, occurs 1190-4
William Malherbe, occurs c. 1224
Robert, occurs c. 1225 (fn. 29)
Walter, occurs 1232
Walter de Colevile, occurs 1254 to 1276 (fn. 30)
David, occurs 1282-8
John de Pomerfis, appointed 1341 (fn. 35)
John de Pomeriis, occurs 1358-63
Gerald, occurs 1373 (fn. 38)
Stephen de Sauz, appointed 1378, resigned 1429 (fn. 39)
John Welles, appointed 1429 (fn. 40)
William Lewes, occurs 1437, resigned 1444 (fn. 41)
John Twyford, elected 1444 (fn. 42)
John Grigge, appointed 1451, resigned 1463
Richard Alleyne, appointed 1463, resigned same year (fn. 43)
Ralph Alleyne, intruded 1463-7 (fn. 43)
Richard Alleyne, re-appointed 1467, deposed 1474 (fn. 43)
A seal of the eleventh century attributed to this house is circular, and shows the priory church, with a central tower and two side turrets, that on the right topped with a cross. (fn. 44) Legend:—
+ SIGI . . . . . . NSIS ECCL'E
The twelfth-century seal is oval, bearing a figure of St. Peter. (fn. 45) Legend:—
+ SIGILL' · MONACHORUM · SANCTI · PETRI · D · SELA
A seal of the fifteenth century is a pointed oval: St. Peter, with triple crown, seated in a canopied niche, in the right hand a long cross, in the left hand two keys. Overhead in a smaller niche the Annunciation of the Virgin. On tabernacle work on each side a shield of arms: left, England, with label of three points for King Richard II; right, a fesse nebuly with a demi-lion on a chief crusilly. In base, under an arch, the prior, kneeling in prayer. (fn. 46) Legend:—
SIGILLŪ : CŌMUNE : PRIORATUS : SANCTI : PETRI : DE : SELA
Two other seals of very similar design are amongst the deeds at Magdalen. The one, used by Prior John Grigge, shows St. Peter with the triple crown and keys, seated in a canopied niche; in base, a kneeling figure of a monk. Legend:—
SIGILLŪ COMUNE DOM . . . SANCTI PETRI DE SELA
The other seal, that of Ralph Alleyne, denounced by the bishop as a forgery, shows St. Peter seated in a canopied niche, with a long cross in his right hand and the keys in his left; in base, a shield of arms—ENGLAND with a label of three points—and a half-length figure of a monk. Legend:—
S' COE' DOM' ET ECCLIE SBI PETRI DE SELA
The seals of two priors are known:
ROBERT, c. 1225. Oval; the Lamb with the flag. (fn. 47) Legend:—
S. ROB'TI · PRIORIS · DE · SELA
Walter de Colevile. Draped head of an old man (? a gem). (fn. 48) Legend:—
+ S · WALTERI · PRIORIS · DE · SELA ·