The fifteenth century: Prior William Coventry

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 William Coventry', The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1, (Oxford, 1921), pp. 203-211. British History Online [accessed 17 June 2024].

E A Webb. "The fifteenth century: Prior William Coventry", in The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1, (Oxford, 1921) 203-211. British History Online, accessed June 17, 2024,

Webb, E A. "The fifteenth century: Prior William Coventry", The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1, (Oxford, 1921). 203-211. British History Online. Web. 17 June 2024,



The licence granted on the 13th July to elect a prior in the place of John Watford resigned, resulted in the election of William Coventry, a canon of the house. (fn. 1) John Yonge, the sub-prior, was his senior, for he was a canon in the year 1379, (fn. 2) and William Coventry not until 1382, but only four days later he obtained a similar dispensation to that of Watford. (fn. 3)

On the 28th July the royal assent to Coventry's election was signified to Richard Clifford, the Bishop of London; (fn. 4) and on the 17th August the king issued a mandate to the Mayor of London (who was always the escheator for the city) and to the escheators of Middlesex, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire, for the restitution of the temporalities. (fn. 5) But the escheators replied that they had not been in possession of them because the prior claimed exemption. (fn. 6)

William Coventry was prior for over twenty-one years. The most important record we have during his priorate is the ordinance made in the year 1433, by Robert Fitzhugh, Bishop of London, by the consent of the prior, for the better management of the church and priory: (fn. 7) to this we have already alluded. (fn. 8)

There are several instances in which, owing to the burdens placed upon them, or to mismanagement, the monasteries got into financial trouble; thus Holy Trinity, Aldgate, in the year 1532, surrendered to the king because the house was so much involved in debt and its revenues and profits had come, in effect, to nothing. (fn. 9) And Burton Abbey, in Staffordshire, in the fifteenth century, was insolvent and put into commission for seven years, (fn. 10) having for long been impoverished by the many claims on its hospitality. St. Bartholomew's at the same time was in much the same condition, and by this ordinance of the Bishop of London was also put into commission, though the period was for only three years. At the end of that time, however, the house was still so poor (as will be seen (fn. 11) ) that in the year 1440 the prior and convent obtained exemption from paying and collecting subsidies.

It is more than probable that the insolvency was brought about by claims on hospitality, as well as by the great building operations at the commencement of the century, for (as will be seen presently (fn. 12) ) a debt was contracted for beer amounting to £293 (fully £1,500 of our money), which was settled by compromise in the year 1439, though the acquittance was subsequently disputed. The Bishop's ordinance seems to have made no provision at all for entertaining guests.

The ordinance was made, the bishop says, for the advantage of the church, for the restoration of the position of the priory, and for the reformation of defects found by the bishop on his regular visitation; and particularly in reference to the temporalities and spiritualities of the monastery, which had been disposed of and managed in an extravagant and irregular manner. The bishop emphasizes that the ordinance was made, not only with the consent and assent, but also at the special request and instance, of the prior and convent.

The ordinance provided:

(1) That the rents and profits, both spiritual and temporal, should be collected for a period of three years by Master John Druell, the commissary of the bishop, under the supervision of Walter Shirington, the chancellor of the king for the Duchy of Lancaster.
(2) That as the total revenue did not exceed the sum of £500 a year, out of which had to be paid yearly £107 for fees, annuities and corodies, and £58 for rents, these amounts should continue to be paid out of the revenue.
(3) That as the debts of the priory in arrear far exceeded the true yearly value, it was ordered and agreed that the prior and convent should be satisfied with a fixed reasonable sum for the support of themselves and their servants from the above revenue, viz.,
£ s. d.
For the prior, his chaplain and servants 20 0 0
" each canon himself and attendants £5, say 15 canons (fn. 13) 75 0 0
" each clerk that served in the church £10 8s. 4d., say three clerks (fn. 13) 31 5 0
" a certain Dom Rd. Sutton, (fn. 14) Chaplain, for his support 10 3 4
" the convent for pittance 1 13 4
" the infirm and ailing canons, the rent of the infirmary 2 4 0
" repairs to the church and priory, and not more without reasonable and necessary cause first shown 40 0 0
£180 5 8
Add annuities and rents above 165 0 0
(4) That the debts of the priory be paid from the residue 154 14 4
£500 0 0
(5) That, during the three years, the prior and convent were not to interfere with the receipts, management, and disposition of the goods of the priory without the consent of the chancellor and commissary; nor were the latter to interfere with the observance of religion without the consent of the prior and convent.
(6) That in order to protect the priory from any alienation of its revenues, goods or jewels, the common seal of the priory, together with the jewels, except those that were in daily use, should be placed in a locked chest with three different keys, of which the prior was to have one, the sub-prior one, and the chancellor or commissary the third.
(7) That Master John Druell in the presence of Walter 'Shirington' should give a full account of the receipts and payments at Michaelmas and Lady Day each year.

The ordinance was sealed by the bishop and by the prior and convent in triplicate: one copy to remain in the possession of the bishop (this is probably the copy now at St. Paul's, another in that of the prior and convent, and the third in that of the chancellor and commissary. The ordinance, which was to last for three years, was dated at the chapter-house of St. Paul's the 1st May, 11 Henry VI (1433).

This Walter Shirington has already been referred to (fn. 15) in connexion with the missing volume of the Tanner MSS. at the Bodleian. The injunctions of Walter Shirington there mentioned we consider to be this ordinance of Bishop Richard.

Shirington was a wealthy man and lived within the precincts of St. Bartholomew's, for in his will he directed that his household should be kept together 'at St. Bartholomew's' for a year and a day after his death. Besides being the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, he is described as the king's clerk. In the year 1420 he was prebendary of Lincoln Cathedral, and later a canon of St. Paul's. At the time of his death, he had in an iron chest at St. Paul's no less a sum than £3,233, of which £319 was in groats, the rest in gold. (fn. 16) He began building a library at St. Paul's upon the west walk of the cloister, which enclosed the Pardon Church Haw; he also commenced the building of a chapel near the north door of the cathedral. (fn. 17) In the year 1446 he obtained a licence to found a perpetual chantry, either there or at St. Bartholomew's: in either case it was to be called 'Shiryngton's Chaunterie'. (fn. 18) After his death, in 1448, his executors completed the building of the library and of the chapel, known as 'Shiryngton's Chapel', where the chantry was founded; the advowson of this the executors gave, in the year 1457, to the dean and chapter of St. Paul's. (fn. 19) He willed, however, to be buried at St. Bartholomew's:

'I Waulter Shirington preest unworthy . . . my wreched body to be beried in Waldon's Chappelle within the priorie of Saint Bartilmew on the northside of the auter in a Tombe of marbil there to be made adjoining to the wall on the northside aforesaide of the length of two poules fete (fn. 20) for men to knele and leve upon the same tombe for to here masse atte the saide auter. Item y wel that myne obit be do in the saide church of Saint Bartilmew with placebo dirige and commendacions.'

The existing tomb of Chaucer at Westminster, which was presented to the Abbey by Nicholas Brigham in the year 1556 (as stated on the tomb), in many points corresponds to this description of Walter Shirington's tomb and dates from Shirington's time, but it cannot be his because Chaucer's measures more than two Paul's feet and it was evidently built for a south and not for a north wall. It has been suggested that the tomb may have come from some other monastery. (fn. 21)

The will mentions the chest within St. Paul's, and another in his chamber in 'Ivelane'. He directed that there should be distributed at the end of his three days' obit. 20d. to the prior, 10d. to the subprior, 8d. to every canon, 6d. to every chantry priest, and 10d. among the clerks; 7s. to the high altar, and £7 to be given amongst the poor at St. Bartholomew's. He also left 7 marks, or an ornament of the same value, to the cathedral churches of Wells, Lincoln, Chichester, Lichfield, and St. Patrick's, Dublin. The will is dated 16th January 1447/8, 26 Henry VI, and was proved 14th February, 1448/9. (fn. 22)

To return to the records: in the year 1426, Walter Honyngton, the vicar of St. Sepulchre's from the year 1407 to 1449, obtained by petition from the pope confirmation of the letters of the previous Bishop of London (Richard Clifford) which had been granted under the circumstances recounted in his petition as follows: (fn. 23) Considering that St. Sepulchre's had more than 2,000 parishioners, and that it was a long, wide, and scattered parish, and that single-handed neither he (Walter Honyngton) nor any other vicar could exercise the cure without the aid of a chaplain, and seeing that the oblations, tithes, and other emoluments of the church commonly amounted to £60 a year, of which the vicarage had not been endowed with a sufficient portion, the bishop had warned and required the prior and convent of St. Bartholomew's, to which the church was annexed, to assign to the vicar and his successors an adequate portion of the income; and that upon the prior and convent neglecting to do this the bishop himself had, as the result of a visitation, assigned (by sealed letters dated at Fulham 1st February, 1422 (fn. 24) ) a portion of £20 of the money to be paid annually on behalf of the prior and convent by the parish clerk or whoever else collected the oblations. Seeing that the vicar had already received the pension for four years without opposition from the prior and convent, the pope confirmed the bishop's apportionment. (A further award was made by Bishop Stokesley in 1531. (fn. 25) )

Among the less important records in Prior Williams's time are those from the Clerical Subsidy Rolls showing that the prior was a collector of the second of the two tenths granted to the king from the clergy of the province of Canterbury, both in the year 1414 (fn. 26) and in that of 1416. (fn. 27)

In the wills are records of various small legacies being left to the prior and to the canons. In the year 1415, Richard Brigge, Lancaster King of Arms, who willed to be buried here, left 20s. to the prior, 3s. 4d. to each canon that was a chaplain, and 1s. 8d. each to the other canons. (fn. 28) Richard Banks, in the same year, who also willed to be buried at St. Bartholomew's, left the prior 100s. (fn. 29) Margaret Deyster, in the year 1419, left the prior 13s. 4d. and the convent 40s. (fn. 30) Idonia Walden (already referred to) left the prior (who is called John Coventry in error) 20s. and to the canons that were novices 3s. 4d. each. (fn. 31) Katharine Lancaster, widow of Richard Brigge referred to above, in 1436 left 20s. to the prior, 3s. 4d. to each priest, 1s. 8d. to each canon not a priest, and 1s. to each clerk. (fn. 32) She also bequeathed 3s. 4d. for the support of the brotherhood of the Holy Trinity in the church. This is the first mention we have found of any guild here. In 1374 the guild of the brotherhood of Holy Trinity was founded in the adjoining parish of St. Botolph's, Aldersgate, with 53 brethren and 29 sisters. (fn. 33) They were the proprietors of the 'Saracen's Head' Inn and the 'Falcon on the Hoop' brewery. One William Martyn, who dwelt in the close in the year 1537, willed that his patent of brotherhood of the Chapel of St. Bartholomew should be given to the Charterhouse to pray for his soul; (fn. 34) otherwise we have met with no reference to guilds at St. Bartholomew's.

In the year 1432 Prior William Coventry acted as executor to the will of Richard Gray. (fn. 35)

In the year 1419 (September 27th) King Henry V granted to the prior and convent and to the master and brethren of the hospital Letters Patent (fn. 36) inspecting and confirming no less than nine different charters or Letters Patent which will be found enumerated in the appendix. (fn. 37) This inspeximus, being addressed to the hospital as well as to the priory, was entered by Cok in the cartulary of the hospital. (fn. 38)

Five years later, on the 8th June 1424, the priory was put to the needless expense (as it seems) of obtaining from King Henry VI further Letters Patent inspecting and confirming this inspeximus of Henry V, in which all the nine charters are set out again at full length. This time the prior and convent only, and not the hospital, were addressed. (fn. 39)

But even this long list of confirmations did not satisfy the lawyers, for in the year 1429 the prior had to obtain Letters Patent (fn. 40) inspecting over again the first charter of King Henry I (1133). What necessitated this repetition, seeing that the charter was inspected in 1419 and in 1424, we do not know.

In the year 1420, the year after the hospital had obtained this inspeximus, they obtained, as already mentioned, (fn. 41) from the Bishop of London, Richard Clifford, a new ordinance granted, the bishop says, on the petition of the master and brethren of the hospital, in order that divine worship might be increased, and that causes of dissension and strife might be removed. It revised the ordinance made by Simon of Sudbury in the year 1373, but in only three matters. It provided first that the brethren must still obtain licence to elect from the prior, but that, after election, they were to go straight to the bishop for confirmation; but the prior was still to be asked to induct after confirmation. (fn. 42) Secondly, that only one of the brethren need attend to offer the wax candles at the high altar of the priory on St. Bartholomew's Day; and that even that one brother need not join the procession. (fn. 43) And thirdly, that there should be one wax candle only, weighing six pounds, instead of two weighing four pounds each. (fn. 44)

In the year 1425 the hospital, in order, as the master says, to keep in memory the agreement between the hospital and priory, obtained from Pope Martin V a confirmation and recital of the ordinances of Bishop Eustace made in 1224, of Simon of Sudbury in 1373, and of Richard Clifford in 1420; (fn. 45) and the master's successor in the year 1453 obtained from Pope Nicholas V a confirmation of Martin's deed. (fn. 46) John Cok remarks in the hospital cartulary that the prior of St. Bartholomew's most falsely had this bull cancelled 'per breve premunire facias'.

Three times during his priorate Prior William had to grant his licence to the hospital to elect a master. In the year 1415, on the resignation of Dom Robert Newton, Dom John Bury, rector of the church of Missenden, Bucks, was created master by means of a composition by the Bishop of London. When Bury died in 1417 the election of John White, canon and rector of Paternoster church, apparently followed Bishop Simon's ordinance in the usual way. (A note in the hospital cartulary against the entries of the election of these two rectors states that they were at once professed to the Augustinian order.) Before Dom John White retired in 1423, the new ordinance was in force, and in accordance therewith Dom John Wakering, alias Blakberd, was presented for confirmation direct to the bishop.

Sir Richard Whittington, before he died in 1423, began to rebuild St. Michael's Paternoster church and to transform it into a combined college and hospital, whence it was called Whittington's college; there John White retired from the hospital in that year (1423), and in 1424 he was one of the five chaplains of the college. (fn. 47)

As regards his successor at the hospital, John Wakering, John Cok in his cartulary (fn. 48) speaks of his renowned deeds and of his remarkable sagacity and discretion. One of his renowned deeds was to recover from the executors of Sir Richard Whittington, who had rebuilt more than half of the hospital, (fn. 49) a valuable cross, an antiphonar, two large breviaries, a psalter and a large Bible, all of which belonged to the hospital. (fn. 50)

Another of the renowned deeds, which more closely concerns the priory, was the arrangement he came to, in the year 1433, concerning the water supply. (fn. 51) The water came from the estates of the priory in Islington, and the overflow from the priory had always served the hospital; but now the financial position of the priory was such that they could not do the necessary repairs to the pipes and conduits, so Wakering arranged that the master and brethren should be allowed access to the conduit head, and should be allowed to carry out the repairs to the pipes at their own charge, and that they should in future have half the water supply, which should be brought direct to the hospital.

Three years after this, in January 1436, the prior resigned, and on the 26th January licence was granted for the sub-prior and convent of the priory, here called the 'free chapel', (fn. 52) to elect a prior in his room.


  • 1. Cal. Pat., 2 Hen. V, 28 July (1414).
  • 2. See above, p. 172.
  • 3. Cal. Pap. Reg. vi, 466, 6 Kal. March, 1415.
  • 4. Cal. Pat., 2 Hen. V, 28 July, 1414.
  • 5. Ib., 2 Hen. V, 17 Aug. (1414).
  • 6. See above, p. 141.
  • 7. MSS. St. Paul's Lib., Box 25, n. 645, 11 Hen. VI, 1 May (1433).
  • 8. See above, p. 199, and App. I, p. 493.
  • 9. Dugdale, Mon. Ang. vi, 150.
  • 10. Hibbert, Diss. of the Monasteries, p. 17.
  • 11. See below, p. 212.
  • 12. See below, p. 216.
  • 13. These were the numbers in 1379.
  • 14. In a return of benefices in London in 1420 there were five chaplains returned as enjoying salaries here, viz. John Galby, John Sutton, John Bernande, Richard Sutton, and Thomas Gardener: Add. MSS. Mus. Brit. 35096; and above, p. 34.
  • 15. See p. xxxiii.
  • 16. There is a list of these bags at St. Paul's: App. to vol. ix, Rep. Hist. MSS. Com., p. 58 a.
  • 17. Dugdale, St. Paul's (Ellis), p. 92.
  • 18. Cal. Pat., 24 Hen. VI, 12 Mar.
  • 19. Hist. MSS. Com., Rep. 8, Queen Anne's Bounty, p. 634 a (13).
  • 20. Paul's feet.
  • 21. Bond, Westminster Abbey, p. 276.
  • 22. App. I, p. 535.
  • 23. Cal. Pap. Reg. vii, 474, 9 Martin V, 7 Kal. May (1426).
  • 24. Probably an error for 1420/1, as Bishop Clifford died in Nov. 1421.
  • 25. See below, p. 232.
  • 26. Cler. Sub., 42/89 a, 2 Hen. V, 1 Oct.
  • 27. Ib., 42/104, 4 Hen. V.
  • 28. App. I, pp. 532, 534.
  • 29. Ib., p. 534.
  • 30. Ib., p. 532.
  • 31. Ib., p. 535.
  • 32. Ib.
  • 33. Founded at first as a guild of Corpus Christi: see Westlake, Parish Gilds, pp. 66–72, and Stow, p. 160.
  • 34. App. 1, p. 540.
  • 35. Ib., p. 533.
  • 36. Cal. Pat., 7 Hen. V, 27 Sept.
  • 37. App. I, Charter No. 24, p. 488
  • 38. Hosp. Cart., ff. 72–9.
  • 39. App. I, Charter No. 25, p. 488
  • 40. Pat., 8 Hen. VI, pt. 1, m. 8, 8 Oct.: App. I, p. 488, Charter No. 26.
  • 41. See above, p. 83.
  • 42. See above, p. 84.
  • 43. Ib., p. 90
  • 44. Ib., p. 90.
  • 45. See above, p. 83; also Hosp. Cart., f. 58.
  • 46. N. Moore, Hist. St. B.'s Hosp. ii, 18; Cal. Pap. Reg. viii, 642.
  • 47. Newcourt, Rep. i, p. 491.
  • 48. Hosp. Cart., f. 63.
  • 49. Holingshed, Chron., p. 540 a, 60; Rapin, Hist. Eng., p. 504, n. 1.
  • 50. Hosp. Cart., f. 63.
  • 51. For particulars, see Vol. II, chap. xi, Water supply.
  • 52. Cal. Pat., 14 Hen. VI, 26 Jan.