A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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11. THE PRIORY OF MICHELHAM (fn. 1)
The priory of the Holy Trinity at Michelham was founded in 1229 by Gilbert of Laigle, lord of the honour of Pevensey, who in that year gave to the prior and convent of the Holy Trinity at Hastings 80 acres of land at Michelham, with other lands, that they might establish a religious house there. Although Michelham was thus founded under the auspices of Hastings, it was apparently from the first an independent house; indeed, it is only from the royal licence for its foundation that we learn of its connexion with Hastings. The founder endowed it with the rectories of Laughton and Hailsham, with lands and rights of pasture in the same parishes and in Willingdon, and his park of 'Peverse'— afterwards Michelham Park. He subsequently added the manor of Chinting in Seaford, and his brother-in-law, the Earl Warenne, gave the manor of Northease. Lands in Arlington were obtained from John de la Haye and William de Bracklesham, dean of Chichester; William Montague gave a chapel at Jevington with its appurtenances, and Hugh Baudefar eight virgates in Brighton. There were other grants of lands in the neighbourhood of the priory and a few in Hartfield and Cowden in Kent. In 1280 Richard de Pagham, chancellor of Chichester, gave 50 acres of land at Horsey, but no further additions to the endowment were made before the Taxation of 1291, when the priory's estate was valued at £81. The fourteenth century brought considerable accessions in the form of numerous small grants, mostly in the neighbourhood of Pevensey Level. Two extensive grants in 1377 and 1395 by Roger Gosselyn and others completed the temporalities of the priory, except for a grant by the prior of Lewes of Highlands in Hailsham in 1376, and a lease from the same of the manor of Sutton by Seaford in 1392. At the time of its dissolution the estate of Michelham Priory was valued at £191 19s. 4d. gross, or £160 12s. 6d. clear.
In spiritualities this house was never rich. We have seen that the founder gave the rectories of Laughton and Hailsham. The former of these remained in the priory's hands till the dissolution, but that of Hailsham was the cause of a long and fierce struggle with the Premonstratensian abbey of Bayham, to which it was finally ceded in 1288. An account of this dispute will be found in the notice of Bayham. In 1365 negotiations were apparently opened with Lewes for the church of Ripe, as the prior of Lewes that year obtained the royal licence to grant the advowson of that church to Michelham. (fn. 2) This, however, evidently came to nothing, as the church continued in the hands of Lewes Priory till its suppression; but in 1398 Prior John Leem, pleading the poverty of his house, brought about by decay of buildings, inundations of the sea, and expenses of hospitality, obtained from the bishop of Chichester (fn. 3) and Richard II (fn. 4) —with further confirmation from Henry IV (fn. 5) — licence to appropriate the churches of Alfriston and Fletching.
With the exception of the dispute with Bayham concerning the church of Hailsham, the early history of Michelham was quite uneventful, and the first incident that calls for notice is the visit of Archbishop Peckham in June, 1283. The state of the house seems to have been not altogether satisfactory, as the archbishop subsequently empowered the archdeacon of Lewes to levy fines imposed on the convents of Michelham and Hastings for non-residence and other causes. While he was here John de Kyrkeby, bishopelect of Rochester, appeared before him and renounced his claims to the bishopric, Peckham having refused him consecration as a notorious pluralist. Twenty years later, on 14 September, 1302, Edward I spent a night at the priory on his way from Lewes to Battle.
About this time other visitors, less honourable but more permanent, began to appear; thus, in 1317 Robert Henry, 'who served the late king,' was sent to the priory, to be maintained, (fn. 6) but was refused by the prior, who, when summoned for this contempt of the royal mandate, pleaded that he held in frankalmoign. (fn. 7) The failure of this plea is evident, as in 1327 William Alvered, usher of the king's kitchen, was quartered on the convent. (fn. 8)
The fearful ravages of the Black Death in
1350 seem to have been felt here as elsewhere,
and three years later the priory was still suffering
from its effects, as we read that—
the prior of Michelham holds of the Queen (as lady of the honour of Pevensey) by service of finding thirteen canons to celebrate divine rites for the souls of Gilbert de Aquila, his ancestors and his heirs for ever; and of these canons eight are now lacking. (fn. 9)
The monks would seem also to have suffered from the lawlessness which was one of the results of the plague, as in 1351 the bailiff of Pevensey by threats and violence extorted an annuity of 30s. from the prior. (fn. 10)
A later instance of outside interference occurred in 1437 when Sir Roger Fiennes, the builder of Herstmonceux Castle, ejected the prior and seized the common seal and all the goods of the house. (fn. 11)
The commissioners appointed to inquire into the matter replaced the prior and restored the seal and property to him, (fn. 12) though before the end of the next year he had been deposed and a successor elected. (fn. 13)
As important landowners in the Saltmarsh district of Pevensey Level the priors of Michelham were frequently appointed on commissions of sewers for the coast of Eastern Sussex, the earliest instance being in 1290 (fn. 14) and the latest in 1534. (fn. 15) Thus in 1402 the prior of Michelham with John Pelham and William Makenade drew up the statutes of Pevensey Marsh. (fn. 16) The prior at this date was John Leem, who held the office of receiver of the honour of Aquila in the duchy of Lancaster from 1377 to 1382, (fn. 17) and again in 1408; he was also on a commission of array in 1415, (fn. 18) and acted as collector of the clerical subsidies in 1380, 1402, and 1410. (fn. 19) An earlier prior, in 1335, is found in a commission for the examination of Queen Philippa's manors and parks in the honour of Aquila; (fn. 20) in 1340 the prior of Michelham was one of the four assessors first appointed for Sussex to draw up the returns of the ninth of lambs, sheaves, and fleeces. (fn. 21) The priors also appear as contributing towards all the usual aids, loans, and grants squeezed from the clergy by the different kings.
Of the inner life of this house previous to the
fifteenth century we have no details, and the
first appearance of what we may call the personal note is in 1423, when, at a provincial
chapter of the Augustinian Order at Northampton (fn. 22) —
there was read a long letter rhetorically written by the prior of Michelham . . . directed against the new abbot of St. Augustine's, Canterbury; but because it appeared most certain that it had not sprung from the root of charity, but on the contrary had been designed with no small degree of malice to the disparagement of the said venerable father; therefore the lords-president ordered that it should be 'buried with those that sleep.'
A visitation was held in September, 1441, when Laurence Wynchelse was prior; a subprior, precentor, cellarer, and four canons are mentioned, and the first of the bishop's injunctions ordered the immediate addition of three more canons. They were further commanded that the canons should keep silence and not frequent the tavern outside the priory gate; that the prior should go over the accounts regularly, should repair the buildings, and provide a literate man to teach the younger canons; also that he should sell no corrodies, and should limit his personal household to one chaplain, one squire, one chamberer, one cook, one valet, and one page of the kitchen, and be content with four horses in his stables. The disorders implied in these injunctions are set forth in detail in a further visitation in January, 1442—by which date two more canons had been admitted. It was then found that the prior was acting in all things without consulting the canons, whom he kept ill-supplied with money and food; he had run the house into debt to the amount of nearly £70, and had permitted dilapidations which could not be repaired under £100. Also he had sold, without consulting the chapter, timber, millstones, building material, cattle, and other things; had granted corrodies and gifts to many persons—including Sir Roger Fiennes, Sir Thomas Echingham, and John Devenish; and had alienated many books, amongst which are mentioned 'a book called Apocalipsis' and 'the Chronicles of England.' In spite, however, of his 'standing condemned of perjury and disobedience' Laurence does not seem to have been deprived of his office, as he was still prior in 1447.
On the occasion of the next visitation, in 1478, Edward Marley was prior and there were six canons, including a cellarer, but no subprior or sacrist, for lack of whom the vestments and ornaments of the church had fallen into great decay. The whole moral tone of the convent was very low; silence was not kept, and even the services were disturbed by talking, they did not eat together in the refectory, but frequented the tavern, and two at least of the canons were incontinent. Three of them had at different times left the convent without leave, one was still wandering apostate and another was absent for fifteen years, 'and afterwards returning poisoned the whole convent with his strange and evil arguments.' One of the canons petitioned the bishop to send a certain worthy canon of Tortington—Ellis by name—to be their subprior, which he accordingly did. As the result of another visitation in 1481, Edward Marley resigned his office on the plea of old age and infirmity.
On 13 September, 1482, Ellis Parker the sub-prior, with seven other canons and one novice met to elect a successor to Edward Marley and chose, almost unanimously, John West, who after many protestations accepted the office.
Three visitations were made during the priorship of Thomas Holbeme; at each the only thing that was wrong was the ruinous condition of the house; in 1521 the officers were prior, sub-prior, sacrist, precentor, and master of the novices, four of these latter completing the convent. In 1524 the numbers were eight altogether, as one of the canons was acting as vicar of Alfriston, but in 1527 there were besides the five officers three brethren and two novices, and at the time of its dissolution eight priests and one novice. (fn. 23)
The gross value of the priory being only £191 19s. 4d. it was dissolved with the other lesser houses in 1536; the prior, Thomas Holbeme, receiving a pension of £20. (fn. 24) A preliminary survey (fn. 25) mentions twenty-nine servants—eleven being labourers and eighteen domestic; values the movables at £55 13s. 4d., the bells and lead at £30, debts owing to the house £9 15s. 2d., against £26 11s. 1d. owed by them. A more detailed return (fn. 26) shows 203 ounces of silver and silver-gilt valued at £27 0s. 4½d., church ornaments including the paving stones sold for £15 13s. 2d., five bells weighing 40 cwt. worth £26 13s. 4d., and other items yielding a total of £162 0s. 0½d. Out of this the canons received for a quarter's salary £13 13s. 4d., and of the king's great charity—their beds. The site and property of the priory was granted to Cromwell. (fn. 27)
Priors of Michelham (fn. 28)
Roger, first prior, occurs 1236 (fn. 29)
Peter, c. 1239, occurs 1256 (fn. 30)
John de Worth, died c. 1350 (fn. 35)
The only known seal is attached to a deed by Prior John Leem in 1376, and is imperfect. It shows Christ seated, right hand raised in blessing, in the left hand a book, in the field A and ω; legend destroyed. Counterseal, an angel facing towards the left. Legend:—