The fifteenth century: Prior John Watford

The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1. Originally published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1921.

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E A Webb, 'The fifteenth century: Prior John Watford', in The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1( Oxford, 1921), British History Online [accessed 24 July 2024].

E A Webb, 'The fifteenth century: Prior John Watford', in The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1( Oxford, 1921), British History Online, accessed July 24, 2024,

E A Webb. "The fifteenth century: Prior John Watford". The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1. (Oxford, 1921), , British History Online. Web. 24 July 2024.

In this section




The congé d'élire on the death of John Eyton resulted in the election of John Watford, a canon of the house who, like William Gedeney, was on the list of canons in the year 1379. (fn. 1) The king gave his assent to the election on the 29th August, 1404. (fn. 2) Robert Braybroke had only died the previous day, and, as Roger Walden was not installed until the 30th June following, the see was vacant; the signification of the royal assent was therefore addressed to the guardian of the spiritualities of the bishopric. The temporalities were restored on the 13th September. (fn. 3)

Though John Watford was one of the canons when William Gedeney was elected in the year 1382, he did not vote on that occasion, for the reason, as we learn from the episcopal register (where the election is recorded in full), (fn. 4) that he was apostate and had gone across the sea, but to what place the convent did not know; they had believed that he intended to remain abroad.

It is however recorded in the Close Roll of 1383 (fn. 5) that instructions were sent to the mayor and sheriffs of Lincoln and others to 'arrest brother John Watford, canon of the priory of St. Bartholomew in the suburbs of London, wherever found . . . and to deliver him to the prior and convent for chastisement according to the rule of their order, as they had signified the king that the said John, despising the habit of the order, is wandering about the country in secular habit, to the peril of his soul and the scandal of the order'. There seems reason for the assumption that this John Watford was the canon elected prior twenty-one years later, in 1404, but no record has been found as to how he became reconciled to his order.

In the year 1407 he was summoned as prior by the archbishop to Convocation from the London diocese at St. Frideswide's, Oxford. There were also summoned the dean and chapter of St. Paul's, the Archdeacons of London, Essex, Middlesex, and Colchester, 10 abbots, 19 other priors, 4 masters—including the master of St. Bartholomew's Hospital—and all the clergy of the diocese. (fn. 6)

The next year (1408) Arundel summoned another Convocation of the whole province, which was held at St. Paul's. It included the archbishop, the Bishops of London, Winchester, Exeter, Lincoln, and Salisbury; the Abbots of St. Albans, St. Augustine's, Canterbury, Peterborough, Bury St. Edmunds, and others; also the Priors of Merton and 'S. Bartholomei extra muros London'. (fn. 7) The Convocation was called to consider the best means of dealing with what was called the 'cursed schism' that had lasted for thirty years or more (that is to say, Lollardism).

One result of the Convocation was the renewed persecution of the followers of Wycliffe, and on the 1st March, 1409, the second victim, John Badby, a humble smith of Worcester, was burnt at the stake before the gates of St. Bartholomew's. Capgrave, a contemporary chronicler, says: (fn. 8)

'He held this conclusion that the sacrament of the altar is not Christ's Body . . . and when he would not renounce his opinions, he was taken to the secular hand for to be 'spered in a tunne' in Smithfield and to be burnt. The prince Henry (fn. 9) had pity on the man and counselled him to forsake this false opinion; but he would not. Wherefore he was put in the tunne, and when the fire burnt he cried horribly. The prince commanded to withdraw the fire, came to him and besought him greatly; but it would not be. Wherefore he suffered him to be burnt into ashes.'

William Gregory, also a contemporary, gives the additional information that—

'The Prior of St. Bartholomew's brought the Holy Sacrament with 12 torches and brought it before him (Badby) and it was asked him how that he believed. And he answered that he wit well that it was holy bread and not God's own blessed body.' (fn. 10)

The year before this, viz. in 1408, the schism in the papacy had become such a scandal that the college of cardinals summoned, on their own authority, a full and independent general council at Pisa, without the sanction of a pope or emperor. (fn. 11) Its opening meeting was on Lady Day 1409. It declared the two popes, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, to be deposed. It then elected a new pope under the name of Alexander V. In the previous December King Henry had announced his intention of sending many representatives of the Church of England to this Council of Pisa, including the two archbishops, four Dominican, two Cistercian, two Augustinian, and two Cluniac abbots. (fn. 12) Passports are said to be extant which were issued on this occasion for Bishop Nicholas Bubbewyth (then Bishop of Bath and Wells, who had succeeded Roger Walden for one year, as Bishop of London in 1406) and for John, Prior of St. Bartholomew's. (fn. 13)

The prior evidently took an active part in the work of the Council, for the General Chapter of the Augustinian order, held at Northampton, granted a subsidy 'to the Prior of St. Bartholomew, London' 'from every pound of spiritual goods taxed, and likewise temporal, on account of his great labour and the expenses which he had beyond sea in the election of Pope Alexander'. (fn. 14)

Alexander V, who was pope only from the 26th June, 1409, to the following May, on St. Bartholomew's Day (August 24th) made the following important grant of indulgences, to which we shall have frequent occasion to refer: (fn. 15)

'Grant during ten years of the same indulgence and remission of sins as is gained by those who visit St. Mark's, Venice, on Ascension Day, to penitents who on Holy Thursday, (fn. 16) Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and on the Assumption from the first to the second vespers of that feast, visit and give alms for the repair and conservation of the Augustinian Monastery of St. Bartholomew in West Smythfeld in the diocese of London, the Pope having learned that through the malice of the times the monastery is in great part destroyed in its houses and buildings; that its said houses are greatly ruined with age; that its tenements in the city of London, which ten or twelve years ago were wont to bring in more than 100 marks a year, hardly bring in to-day, on account of the penury of men, half that sum; that the monastery, a short time ago, through the enmities of a certain powerful enemy, lost 60 marks out of which (marks) (quarum occasione) the prior was and is bound to find two priests for the celebration of masses for the soul of a certain person deceased, and to minister to them the necessaries of life; that on account of the frequent impulse of the sea and its floods many goods of the monastery within the parish of Sowthton of Jernemuth (fn. 17) in the said (sic) diocese have been and are so much annihilated that for several years the prior has received from them little or nothing; that the same prior has rebuilt the cloister, bell tower, high altar, and chapter-house of the monastery church, at no small cost, whence he has many creditors; that the monastery requires several reforms which cannot be carried out for want of money; and that the monastery, being situate in a very famous place of the realm, very many resort thither from the realm and from divers other regions, to its grave burden.' (fn. 18)

We may assume that Prior John Watford, being in Pisa for the great council in the spring, was personally instrumental in obtaining this grant from the new pope. The reasons for which funds were required, it will be seen, were to rebuild the houses destroyed; to restore those fallen into decay; to make up the revenue lost by the reduction of rents and the loss of the 60 marks; to reinstate the losses in South Town, Little Yarmouth, and to pay off the debt incurred by the restoration and alteration of the fabric of the church.

We are led to suppose, by the wording of the grant, that the prior who is described as having received little or nothing in the way of revenue from South Town for several years, and who had done the rebuilding, was the then prior, John Watford. If that is the intention, seeing that Watford's priorate did not commence until August 1404, we cannot attribute the work in the church to an earlier year than 1405; but there are indications, as we have already shown, (fn. 19) that work was commenced under John Eyton, if not under William Gedeney, and that it was merely completed by John Watford.

The work on the high altar referred to consisted of the remodelling of the east end of the quire and the rebuilding of the clerestory. (fn. 20) The rebuilding of the bell tower involved the reconstruction of the north and probably the west arches and part of the great north-east pier of the crossing, but, as mentioned later, (fn. 21) there are indications that the tower was not rebuilt over the crossing but was erected as a separate bell tower on the north side of the church. With the roof off the quire and crossing, with the apse and clerestory demolished, and at least two of the great arches of the crossing down, it is no wonder that some 200 years later (in 1603) (fn. 22) John Stow should have written 'this priory of St. Bartholomew was again new built in the year 1410'.

The rebuilding of the cloister included at any rate the east walk, but not necessarily the other alleys; in fact, thirteenth-century work remained in the south walk up to the end of the eighteenth century. (fn. 23) The rebuilding of the chapter-house involved, as we know from excavations made in 1912, the rebuilding of the west wall, with its central doorway and two side arched openings in conjunction with the reconstruction of the east walk of the cloister. (fn. 24) We also know that a considerable amount of twelfth and thirteenth century work remained.

All this work must have entailed a large expenditure, and the obtaining of this grant of indulgence was the prior's method of paying off the debt incurred and of raising money to carry out the other objects mentioned above; but that it was not so effectual in its purpose (to say nothing of its morality) as the appeal made to the Christian public for the equally great restoration of the nineteenth century, is clear; because, whilst in the latter case every account was paid when due, in the fifteenth century the finances of the priory were so crippled that twenty-four years later, in the year 1433, the whole income and expenditure was, at the request of the prior, taken over and managed for three years by the commissary of the Bishop of London. (fn. 25)

What is exactly implied by 'the malice of the times', to which the partial destruction of the houses and buildings is attributed, is not clear, for we have no record of damage by the Wat Tyler rioters, but in 1404 the House of Commons had pleaded for the confiscation of the revenues of the higher clergy. The great prevalence of Lollardism in London probably withdrew many oblations from the altar and so diminished the funds available for the necessary repairs of the buildings; damage done by the earthquake of 1382 could hardly have been described as 'malice of the times'. The visitations of the Black Death and the protracted 100 years' war with France are sufficient to account for the reference to the 'penury of men' which had caused so great a fall in the rents in the city. Who was the powerful enemy to whom is attributed the loss of 60 marks, or which chantry was affected thereby, we have no evidence; we have already referred to several wills in which provision was made for two priests to celebrate for the soul of the testator, (fn. 26) to any of which this remark might apply. Of the inroad of the sea at Yarmouth we have no other record, though the prior in the year 1322 had successfully contested his right to the dole of fish there, and thus secured that particular revenue. (fn. 27) Neither have we exact knowledge of the several reforms needed by the monastery, though we are inclined to think that 'the very many' who resorted to the monastery 'from the realm and from divers other regions to its grave burden' rendered necessary an enlargement of the guest quarters; and that it was to effect this that Prior Bolton, in the sixteenth century, removed the prior's house to the south-east end of the church.

In pursuance of this grant a further indult was granted at the same time (fn. 28) for the prior to choose six priests, secular or regular, who might hear the confessions of such penitents as are referred to in the first grant, and give them absolution, enjoining a salutary penance, except in cases reserved to the Apostolic see. No doubt this grant was made in view of the increased number of penitents likely to arise by the publication of this grant of indulgences. It is noteworthy that friars are not mentioned as being eligible for choice as confessors, but seven weeks later (on the 12th October) Pope Alexander, himself one of the order of Friars Minor, issued a bull investing the four orders of friars with full and uncontrolled power of hearing confessions and of granting absolution in every part of Christendom, without the consent of the parish priest: a bull which caused universal discontent.

John Wakering, who we have seen was made master of the hospital in the year 1387, (fn. 29) outlived John Eyton the prior, and died in the same month and year as Bishop Roger Walden, viz. in December 1405. His successor, Thomas Lakenham, whose election was approved by Prior John Watford in 1406, died on the 31st August, 1412. His successor, Dom Robert Newton, was not appointed until nine months later, on the 13th June, 1413, and then not by election in the usual way but by the Bishop of London, Richard Clifford, the friend of Roger Walden.

By the ordinance of Bishop Simon of Sudbury in 1373, it was agreed that neither the seal of the hospital, which was wont to be kept under three keys, nor the disposal of the property should be in the hands of the prior. But the prior was accused, in February 1413, of trying to avoid this agreement by prolonging the vacancy by actions in the ecclesiastical courts, as thereby, being the custodian of the temporalities during a vacancy, he would for a longer period secure the custody of the keys and the disposal of the property of the hospital. What the real object of the prior may have been in this seemingly unreasonable delay in presenting the master-elect to the bishop for confirmation, we do not know; if the assumption is correct that the prior was the apostate of earlier days it may not be unpardonable to think it had some connexion with his desire to satisfy the 'many creditors' referred to by the pope at the expense of the hospital; but as the Hospital Cartulary says that 'the right of mastership' devolved on the bishop, it is probable that the prior was considered to be in the wrong, and for that reason Bishop Clifford intervened as he was empowered to do by Simon's ordinance. Seven years later, in 1420, to avoid the recurrence of such a trouble, the bishop ordained, as was shown in the chapter on the hospital, (fn. 30) that in future the brethren should, after the election, go straight to the Bishop of London for confirmation, and not through the prior.

The record of this accusation against the prior comes down to us through a dispute as to whether the matter appertained to the ecclesiastical or civil court, and it forms an interesting example of such disputes, which were constantly occurring.

The king on this occasion issued a writ of prohibition, addressed to the ecclesiastical court, (fn. 31) in which a suit was already pending upon Simon of Sudbury's agreement, commanding the ecclesiastical court to cease to entertain the suit, on the ground that it did not belong to the jurisdiction of that court to discuss the agreement, but that it belonged to the cognizance of the King's Court. (fn. 32) The prior, here called John Waterford, repeated his declaration, notwithstanding the prohibition; so a further writ was issued to the sheriffs to hold John the prior to bail to come and show why he had disobeyed. The prior still did not give way, so, on the 5th June, the king issued a further writ to the sheriffs to distrain John the prior by all his lands in the city at the king's pleasure, and to account to the king for the proceeds; also that the sheriffs should make the prior appear before the justices at Westminster within 15 days from Holy Trinity (June 18th–July 3rd). But on the 13th June the bishop appointed the new master, and so we assume the dispute was ended.

John Watford seems to have been a man of a somewhat quarrelsome nature, if the following entry, written in French in a formulary among the MSS. in the University Library, Cambridge, (fn. 33) refers to him, as it probably does; because, although the MS. is undated, it is written in an early fifteenth-century hand. (There is nothing to indicate the nature of the original document concerning the dispute. (fn. 34) )

'For the protection of the prior and convent of St. Bartholomew in Smithfield, impropriators of the church of St. Sepulchre without Newgate, against whom, on refusing to give up to the parish a vestment room called the Cruddes within the church, the parishioners had conspired to forbid any greater offering to be made at any burial, anniversary, churching or wedding than one penny, and had by threats and force of arms hindered the same prior and convent from prosecuting their rights by due course of law.'

The prior and convent of St. Bartholomew's, besides being the patrons of St. Sepulchre's, (fn. 35) were also interested in the oblations, tithes, profits, &c., of the church, (fn. 36) so that the prior would seem to have been ill-advised in withholding the vestry room.

There is no record of any property being acquired during the priorate of John Watford, but we learn from a grant made by the king in the year 1412 that a tenement in Smithfield had, in the time of King Richard, been forfeited to the Crown, because one Alan, who granted it to the prior and convent, had done so without licence. (fn. 37)

There is a record in the Regesta at Rome (fn. 38) that the successor to Pope Alexander V, John XXIII, granted indults to a number of persons to have portable altars; among them was 'John Yonge, Augustinian canon of St. Bartholomew's'. A portable altar was a small thin stone, bound in a wooden frame and consecrated. It could be carried about, and thereby it enabled a priest to say mass or other divine service where he would, though it were in an unconsecrated place, and it could be done without prejudice to any other church or chapel. This John Yonge appears in the list of canons of the year 1379, and in the year 1413 he is styled sub-prior in the will of Margaret Goodchepe, (fn. 39) who appointed him executor of her will and residuary legatee. Yonge may have wished for such a portable altar when visiting the various manors and other possessions of the priory.

He was not elected prior when John Watford retired in 1414, and in the following February (1415) he obtained from Pope John XXIII 'dispensation to hold any benefice with or without cure, wont to be governed by secular clerks or Augustinian canons, even if a parish church or a perpetual vicarage, and to resign it simply or for exchange'. (fn. 40)

John Watford had apparently contemplated retirement as early as the year 1406, for, on St. Bartholomew's Day in that year, Pope Innocent VII granted him 'dispensation, in the event of his resigning his priory, to hold a benefice with cure, wont to be served by secular clerks, even if of lay patronage, and to resign it, even simply, and hold instead a similar or dissimilar benefice'. (fn. 41)

In the year 1412 Watford again made provision for retirement; for he obtained 'dispensation to hold, for three years only, with the priory (which had cure, was conventual, and was independent) a benefice with cure, wont to be governed by secular clerks'. Within the three years he was to resign the priory. (fn. 42) Not content with this dispensation, however, he obtained in addition an indult to exchange within the same term whichever of the two he preferred for another benefice compatible with the remaining one, and to retain for life, with such remaining one, the one obtained by exchange, even if wont to be governed by secular clerks. (fn. 43)

The prior resigned in July 1414, within the allotted period. It is recorded that he received as prior the attorneys of the Abbot of Osney on July 1st (fn. 44) of that year, and on July 13th licence was granted by the new king, Henry V, to John Yonge, the sub-prior, and convent, to elect a prior 'in the place of John Watford resigned', (fn. 45) so the resignation took place between those dates.

After his resignation Watford received, in 1415, a further dispensation to hold a benefice with or without cure, and to resign it as often as he pleased. He was still styled an Augustinian canon of St. Bartholomew's. (fn. 46)

Stow, writing in the year 1598, in his list of monuments, mentions a monument to a John Watforde, which probably refers to this prior.


  • 1. See p. 172.
  • 2. Cal. Pat., 5 Hen. IV, 29 Aug. (1404).
  • 3. Ib., 13 Sept. (1404).
  • 4. Reg. London, Braybroke, p. 264.
  • 5. Cal. Close, 6 Rich. II, 20 June (1383).
  • 6. Reg. Lond., Walden, Bp. Clifford, f. xxxiii. See above, p. 11.
  • 7. Wilkins, Concil. iii, 308, quoting Reg. Lond. Arundel, i, 71.
  • 8. Capgrave, Chron. of Eng. (R. Ser.), p. 297. See also Walsingham, Hist. Ang. (R. Ser.) ii, 282; Fox, A. & M. i, 595 (9th ed.).
  • 9. Afterwards Henry V.
  • 10. Chron. W. Gregory, Camden Soc., p. 105.
  • 11. Milman, Lat. Chris. viii, 108 (4th ed.).
  • 12. Rymer, Foedera, viii, 567, De ordinationibus super conciliis Pisae, 10 Hen. IV.
  • 13. Wylie, Hist. Eng. under Henry IV, iii, 367.
  • 14. Blomfield, Deanery of Bicester, pt. II, p. 168: 3s. 5d. was the share paid by the Prior of Erdbury, as appears in the accounts of Prior Richard Parantyn.
  • 15. Cal. Pap. Reg., vi, 151, 1 Alexander V, 6 Kal. Sep. Pisa (24 Aug. 1409).
  • 16. Maundy Thursday, not Ascension Day. Walsingham says: 'Scilicet Die Coenae Domini Die Parasceues sive Sancto Sabbato Paschae,' Hist. Anglic., Rolls S. 28. i, ii, 282.
  • 17. Jernemuth = Little Yarmouth.
  • 18. This grant is also referred to in Capgrave, Chronicle, p. 297.
  • 19. See above, p. 180.
  • 20. See chapter on the architecture, Vol. II, chap. i.
  • 21. Ib., Vol. II, chap. vii, Tower.
  • 22. Not in the 1598 edition.
  • 23. Vol. II, chap. viii.
  • 24. See Vol. II, chap. ix, Chapter House.
  • 25. See below, p. 204.
  • 26. See above, p. 168.
  • 27. See above, p. 151.
  • 28. Cal. Pap. Reg. vi, 151.
  • 29. See above, p. 180.
  • 30. See above, p. 184.
  • 31. As already stated above, p. 89; see also Hosp. Cart., f. 56 d, 14 Hen. IV, 2 Feb. (1413).
  • 32. The ecclesiastical courts exercised jurisdiction over the conscience of litigants, the King's Court over their persons or property. The keeping of an agreement would seem to belong to the former court, but the remedy for its breach to the latter.
  • 33. MS. Deeds, 3, 53.
  • 34. Communicated by Sir A. E. Shipley, Master of Christ's Coll.; Cat. of MSS. Cambridge Lib., p. 120, No. 158. p. 76.
  • 35. See above, p. 77.
  • 36. See above, p. 232.
  • 37. Cal. Pat., 13 Hen. IV, 12 May (1412).
  • 38. Cal. Pap. Reg., vi, 10, 3 Kal. Nov. (Oct. 30).
  • 39. App. I, p. 532.
  • 40. Cal. Pap. Reg. vi. 466, 6 Kal. March (24 Feb. 1415).
  • 41. Ib. vi, 76, 9 Kal. Sept. (24 Aug. 1406).
  • 42. Cal. Pap. Reg. vi, 277, 9 Kal. Apr. (24 Mar. 1412).
  • 43. Ib., 392. Id. Dec. (13 Dec. 1412).
  • 44. Cal. Pat., 2 Hen. V, 1 July (1414).
  • 45. Ib., 2 Hen. V, 13 July (1414).
  • 46. Cal. Pap. Reg. vi. 466, 2 Kal. Mar. (28 Feb. 1415).