A History of the County of York: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1974.
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25. ABBEY OF MEAUX
The abbey of Meaux or Melsa was founded in 1150 by the Earl of Albemarle, William le Gros, lord of Holderness, (fn. 1) in lieu of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land which he had vowed to undertake. Adam, a monk of Fountains, was invited by the earl to select a site for the proposed abbey and decided upon Meaux in Holderness, a wellwooded and well-watered district to the east of Beverley, in the midst of which was an eminence called St. Mary's Hill. Striking his staff into the ground he exclaimed, ' Here shall be ordained a people worshipping Christ.' (fn. 2) This site the earl had already begun to empark for his own use, and he tried to substitute some other place, but the monk remained firm. (fn. 3) Temporary buildings were at first erected, and a chapel close by, and then on 28 December 1150 the earl sent to Fountains Abbey for thirteen brethren, including the monk Adam who was to be first abbot. These ' religious' entered their new home on 1 January, and the abbey became the last of seven religious houses springing from Fountains, ' all daughters of one mother' (fn. 4) and all founded before the parent abbey had attained her majority. (fn. 5)
In the Chronica two well-arranged tables are given of the lands, &c., acquired during the abbacies of the first eighteen heads of the house. In these lists 129 places are particularized where the properties were situated. (fn. 6) Between 1160 and 1182 a stone church and dormitory were begun (fn. 7); in 1182-97 this church was demolished and a new one begun, (fn. 8) and in the same period a stone refectory, wash-house and kitchen were built, (fn. 9) and a refectory for the lay-brethren begun (fn. 10); in 1197-1210 the cloisters were started and another new church, which was finally finished, its high altar being consecrated in 1253 (fn. 11); in 1220-35 the infirmary was taken in hand (fn. 12); in 1249-69 the belfry was erected and the great bell ' Benedict ' hung in it, and a granary also built (fn. 13); in 1286-1310 a chamber east of the cemetery was erected, and the abbot's chamber east of the infirmary. (fn. 14) The fourteenth abbot (1310-39) and one of the monks, John of Ulram, decorated the high altar with paintings, and a chapel was commenced over the abbey gateway; William, the eighteenth abbot (1346-69), made numerous alterations and improvements and founded the great 'Jesus' bell; and in 1396-9 three bells were added. (fn. 15)
This development of the monastic buildings was dictated by the exigencies of the brethren from time to time. During the first abbacy strenuous efforts were made to raise the number of monks to forty; later on it sprang up to fifty; about 1235 another was added by a benefaction ad hoc; another soon followed in the same way; and in 1249 there were no less than sixty monks. A century later, 1349, the number had gone down to forty-two, in 1393 there were only twenty-eight, (fn. 16) and at the Dissolution there were no more than twenty-five including the abbot. (fn. 17)
But besides the monks there were varying numbers of conversi or lay brethren. By the year 1249 there were no less than ninety of them, in 1349 there were only seven, (fn. 18) and in the period 1372-96 there were none. (fn. 19)
The first abbot, Adam, had been one of the little band of monks who in 1132, discontented with the laxity of the Benedictine Abbey of York, had founded Fountains Abbey. Since then he had been active in establishing new foundations at Woburn and Vaudey, (fn. 20) and he now threw himself enthusiastically into the task of fostering the infant community at Meaux. But his zeal outran his discretion, and liberal as were the endowments which he secured for the abbey, they were insufficient to support the forty monks whom he had drawn together. Although he gave up his own tunics to clothe the novices, circumstances were too strong for him, and in 1160 the convent had temporarily to be broken up. (fn. 21) Morti fied by his failure, he meditated resignation, under pretext of a journey to Rome, undertaken in connexion with his unauthorized surrender of certain charters to Archbishop Roger. (fn. 22) Accordingly in 1160 he resigned and retired to an anchorite's cell in the newly-founded priory of Watton, where he lived for seven years, until the church and his cell were burnt down, when he returned to Meaux, dying there in 1180. (fn. 23)
The second abbot, Philip, Prior of Kirkstead, who succeeded in 1160, bore office for twentytwo years and maintained the numbers and spiritual discipline of the house, though he did not greatly increase its wealth. During the rule of his successor the house was involved in a costly lawsuit with the powerful Sir Robert de Thurnham; bad seasons, with a failure of crops, hit the monks hard, and to crown all, they had to raise 300 marks for the ransom of King Richard. Once more the convent had to be broken up, (fn. 24) the monks dispersed amongst the different houses of the order, but after fifteen months William de Rule, rector of Cottingham, feeling the approach of his death, became a novice in the abbey, bringing with him £200. This enabled the convent to reassemble, but Abbot Thomas, a worthy man of no great ability, feeling his own incompetence, resigned in December 1197. (fn. 25) By the advice of the father Abbot of Fountains the monks elected Alexander, a monk of Ford Abbey, who was intimate with the justiciary, Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury. By his influence the justiciary was induced to appeal to Robert de Thurnham on behalf of the monks, but it was not until the sudden death of his master, King Richard, in 1199 that Sir Robert consented to restore the lands in dispute. Other costly lawsuits followed, and Abbot Alexander, a man of character and courage, led the opposition of the Cistercians to King John's demands for an aid or grant of money. (fn. 26) He further instigated Archbishop Geoffrey and the expelled bishop to complain to the pope against the king; and on a second demand for an aid from the Cistercians he alone resisted this infringement of their privileges. Meaux was also one of the three English houses which maintained the privileges of the order by continuing to celebrate mass during the Interdict. (fn. 27) His courageous conduct made him a marked man and brought down the king's vengeance upon his house, so that once more almost all the monks had to leave the abbey, fortunately obtaining hospitality from Earl Baldwin of Albemarle. To avert further catastrophe Abbot Alexander resigned in 1210 and retired to Ford, where he died two years later. (fn. 28) Meanwhile the abbey had purchased the king's goodwill by a fine of 1,000 marks. The payment of this large sum by the succeeding abbot, Hugh, formerly Prior of Meaux, so crippled the abbey that the monks had once more to abandon it for a short time, and as all the English Cistercian houses were suffering from the king's exactions and could hardly support their own members, some of the monks went to St. Mary's, York, some to Bridlington Priory, some to Cistercian houses in Scotland, and the rest were quartered in batches in neighbouring castles and villages. (fn. 29)
The convent reassembled at the beginning of November 1211, and settled down to their normal life, building, acquiring property, and quarrelling with their neighbours. About 1260, during the abbacy of William of Driffield, the sub-prior of Meaux was instrumental in averting an armed struggle between the military tenants of Holderness and the royal forces sent to coerce them into rendering certain disputed feudal services. (fn. 30) Abbot William, a man of wonderful sanctity but inferior as an administrator to his predecessor, Michael Brun, died in 1269, and a few years later we find the abbey burdened with a debt of nearly £4,000. (fn. 31) Roger, the thirteenth abbot, who succeeded in 1286, considerably reduced the debt, but the most important event of his rule was the surrender to the king in 1293 of the abbey's manor of Wick, where Edward I founded the port of Kingston-on-Hull. Besides granting lands in exchange the king caused Master Richard of Ottringham to place under Meaux a chantry which he was founding and endowing. (fn. 32) By the terms of this chantry seven monks were to reside at Ottringham, but as this resulted in a scandalous relaxation of the monastic rule the chantry was removed, thirty years after its foundation, to a chapel just outside the gates of the monastery. (fn. 33)
Abbot Adam of Skyrne by the time of his death in 1339 had reduced the debt of the house to below £400, but it was speedily brought up again by the mismanagement of his successor, Hugh de Leven, and by the inundation of the monastic estates on the sea-coast. (fn. 34) During Abbot Hugh's rule a crucifix was carved for the quire of the lay brethren by a man who was so much of a religious enthusiast that he only worked upon it on Fridays, fasting, and so much of an artist that he employed a nude model. (fn. 35) The crucifix proving miraculous, leave was obtained for women to visit it, but as a source of income this expedient proved disappointing, as more came out of curiosity than devotion, and their entertainment cost more than their alms brought in.
On the Friday before Passion Sunday 1349, as the monks were singing ' He hath put down the mighty from their seat' they were flung to the ground by an earthquake shock, and the meaning of the portent was seen later in the year when on 12 August Abbot Hugh and five monks died of the Black Death, which in that one month carried off twenty-two monks and six lay brethren, and at its departure left only ten survivors out of a congregation of fifty. (fn. 36) With rents diminished by the death of tenants and lands untilled for lack of labour the new abbot, William of Dringhow, was forced to raise ready money by ruinous sacrifices, and the cellarer, John Ryslay, was not slow to turn this to his own advantage. Ryslay bribed the Abbot of Fountains to visit Meaux in 1353 and deprive Abbot William, and when the monks elected Thomas of Sherborne the visitor refused him because he was blind in one eye and appointed John Ryslay. (fn. 37) The new abbot continued to persecute his deprived predecessor and tried to take away his allowance, but Dringhow escaped and fled to Rome, where he got himself reappointed and issued a citation against Ryslay, who at once resigned, in July 1356, and eventually retired to Roche Abbey. (fn. 38) Robert of Beverley was at once elected, and Dringhow was persuaded to acquiesce in his election by the grant of a very liberal allowance. On the death of Abbot Robert, in November 1367, William of Dringhow was again elected. Ryslay was then at Rome and commenced proceedings against Dringhow, but the latter obtained his adversary's recall by the Abbot of Roche, and held office till his death in 1372. (fn. 39)
William of Scarborough, who was elected in 1372, appears to have had an artistic temperament; he enriched the fabric of his church, but was extravagant and lax in discipline. After more than twenty years' rule, when he was nearly eighty, he desired to resign, but his monks, who appreciated his laxity and feared the advent of a stricter disciplinarian, refused their assent, and it was only by the intervention of the Duke of Gloucester, patron of the abbey, that he was able to retire from office in 1396. (fn. 40) The ensuing election was hotly disputed, but eventually the bursar, Thomas Burton, a man of considerable ability, was appointed. Very soon, however, a faction within the convent began to try to unseat him, and two monks were sent to a general chapter of the order which was sitting at St. Mary of Graces, London, to protest that Burton had been forced upon the abbey by the Duke of Gloucester and the Abbot of Fountains. The Abbots of Roche and Garendon were appointed to inquire into the matter, but upon arriving at Meaux found the abbey held against them by armed force by Robert Burley, Abbot of Fountains, and Abbot Thomas Burton, who had meanwhile sent to Rome to procure a bull annulling all the commissions issued by the chapter held at St. Mary of Graces. This bull appears to have been brought to them by a foreign monk, Sigismund; (fn. 41) and when the visiting Abbots of Roche and Garendon returned, accompanied by the representative of the patron, the Duke of Albemarle, they were admitted and confronted with the bull annulling their powers. By their good offices, however, a compromise was effected and peace restored. Soon afterwards Abbot Burton went to Vienna to represent the Yorkshire abbots at a general chapterand had the honour of taking the place of the absent schismatic Abbot of Clairvaux. On his return the Abbot of Fountains held a visitation and revived all the old trouble by trying to punish those who had formerly disobeyed Abbot Burton. The offenders appealed to Rome, and Burton, to save his house the expenses of protracted litigation, resigned on 24 August 1399, and devoted himself to writing the history of his abbey until his eyesight failed, some eight years before his death, which occurred in 1437. (fn. 42)
The successor of Burton was William Wendover, who had been degraded from the post of prior for his opposition to the late abbot. (fn. 43) He was a man of learning and many merits, but unbusinesslike, and during his rule the officials of the convent abused their powers, the bursar, Robert Lekynfeld, even accumulating so much money that he was able to go secretly to Rome and get himself appointed Bishop of Killaloe, in which capacity he acted as suffragan to the Bishop of Lichfield. (fn. 44)
Meaux had a splendid library and a wonderful collection of relics, a list of books and treasures being given in the Chronica. (fn. 45)
The abbey was surrendered on 11 December 1539 by the last abbot, Richard Stopes, who received a pension of £40. (fn. 46) The prior, George Throstyl, received a pension of £6, fourteen of the twenty-three monks pensions of £6, and the remaining nine pensions of £5 each, all being in priests' orders. (fn. 47)
The gross value at the Dissolution was £445 10s. 5½d., and the net £298 6s. 4½d. (fn. 48)
Abbots Of Meaux (fn. 49)
John Ripon, resigned 1413 (fn. 50)
John Hoton, occurs 1436, died 1445 (fn. 51)
An abbot's seal (fn. 52) has an abbot with his crozier. Legend—
The early 14th-century seal (fn. 53) is circular, 2 in. in diameter, having the Virgin enthroned in a niche with trefoiled pointed arch, crocketed and supported on slender shafts; the Child, with nimbus, on the left knee. In the field on each side a lion, and above them on the right a crescent, on the left a sun. Legend—