General history: Religious houses

Pages 322-332

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1797.

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Religious houses

THE RELIGIOUS in this kingdom, as well bishops as others, in the time of the Saxons, held their possessions by a tenure, called in French, frankalmoign, in Latin, libera eleemosyna, and pura et perpetua eleemosyna, that is, in free alms, or pure and perpetual alms, to them and their successors for ever. This is the tenure by which almost all the antient monasteries and religious houses held their lands, and by which the deans and chapters, clergy, and many other ecclesiastical and eleemosynary foundations hold them at this day; for frankalmoign is excepted by name in the statute of king Charles II. for abolishing tenures, and therefore subsists, in many instances, at this day. It is a tenure of a nature very distinct from all others; being not in the least feodal, but merely spiritual, and was materially different from what was called tenure by divine service, in which the tenants were obliged to do some special divine services in certain. (fn. 1) It was an old Saxon tenure, and continued under the Norman revolution (excepting as to the bishops and greater abbots, whose possessions were made subject by the Conqueror to knights service in capite, through the great respect that was shewn to religion and religious men, whose prayers (as the laws of king Edward II. express) ought to be looked upon as more effectual than the assistance of the secular arm, which is the reason that tenants in frankalmoign were discharged of all other secular services, except the trinoda necessitas of repairing highways, building castles, and repelling invasions, like as the Druids, among the antient Britons, had omnium rerum immunitatem.

The clergy of this realm, in antient times, were of two sorts, regular and secular. The former were so called because they lived under the certain rules of some order, and made a vow of true obedience, perpetual chastity, and wilful poverty, of which sort were all abbots, priors, and others professing any of the religious orders, called in law hommes de religion, men of religion, or religious. The latter were persons ecclesiastical likewise, but because they did not live under the certain rules of some of those orders, nor were votaries, they were, for distinction's sake, called secular, of which sort were bishops, deans, and chapters, archdeacons, prebendaries, canons, parsons, vicars, and the like.

To give a general history of the several orders of the regular clergy, such as monks, friars, canons, nuns, &c. with their particular origin, habit, and rules of each, would swell this work much beyond my present design, I shall therefore content myself with observing what relates to their dissolution; in the course of which will be found the number of each order in this county, the amount of their revenues, and the time of their being suppressed, and I must refer the reader for the time of their foundation, and other local particulars, to the parishes in which their several houses were situated.

There were in this county, of the Benedictine order, two abbies, three priories, and five nunneries; of the Cluniac, one priory; of the Cistercian, one abbey; of secular canons, five colleges; of regular canons, four abbies and five priories, one of which was Premonstratensian. Of the different sorts of friars; of the Dominicans, one priory and one nunnery; of the Franciscans, two priories; of the Trinitarians, one priory; of the Carmelites, three priories; of alien priories, four. Two commanderies of the knights of St. John of Jerusalem, and fifteen hospitals, besides several hermitages, chauntries, and free chapels. These houses were suppressed at several different times. The first of which, in this county (for I do not men- tion those which were united to other houses) was in the reign of king Henry VI. a time when learning had began to revive, and great men grew fond of founding colleges and houses of learning, which they got leave to endow with lands given to the maintenance of monks. (fn. 2)

In the 16th year of the above reign archbishop Chicheley founded All Souls college, in Oxford, and after the example of William Wickham, bishop of Winchester, in his foundation of New-college in that university, obtained leave to settle the revenues of several alien priories on it, among which was one at New Romney, in this county.

Several other colleges, both in Oxford and Cambridge, were founded and endowed in the same manner. And about the 21st year of king Henry VII. anno 1508, Margaret, countess of Richmond and Derby, began the foundation of St. John's-college, in Cambridge, which her executors, one of whom was John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, carried forward, and at his desire the nunnery of Littlechurch, alias Higham, and an hospital of Regulars at Ospringe in this county, were among others suppressed, and the revenues settled upon that college.

In the reign of king Henry VIII. cardinal Wolfey, being desirous of founding two colleges, one at Ipswich, and another at Oxford, and finding there were several mean monasteries in England, where both the revenues and the number of religious were too small to keep up regular discipline, church-service, and hospitality, obtained leave of the pope, in the 16th year of that reign, anno 1524, for suppressing, with the king's good will, as many small monasteries as were needful to raise a revenue, not exceeding three thousand ducats per annum. To this the king next year consented, and above thirty religious houses, most of them very small, were suppressed for this purpose; among which were the priories of regular canons at Lesnes and Tunbridge in this county.

About the same time a bull was granted by the pope to cardinal Wolsey, for the suppressing monasteries, where there were not above six monks, to the value of eight thousand ducats per annum, for endowing Windsor and King's colleges, Cambridge, and two other bulls were likewise granted to cardinals Wolsey and Campejus, for suppressing those where there were less than twelve monks, and annexing them to the greater monasteries; another was likewise granted to the same cardinals, to enquire of abbies to be suppressed, in order to their being made cathedrals, but nothing appears to have been done in pursuance of these bulls.

Afterwards another bull was granted to the same two cardinals, with fuller powers relating to the new cathedrals, for that some of the dioceses were thought too large, and wanted much to be reduced, as it was said, that the bishops might the better discharge their offices. The chief intent of cardinal Wolsey, and of most others, in suppressing these houses, seems to have been the promoting of learning, though probably some, both then and afterwards, might encourage it with other views. Archbishop Cranmer, in particular, is said to have been much for it, because he could not carry on the reformation without it; and the increase of learning having made the corruptions of the church more visible, many also might promote the dissolution of them, as nurseries of superstition. But many other causes which concurred to bring on their ruin; for many of the religious were certainly loose and vicious, though not near so bad as the visitors represented them, who, to make their court to their superiors, and perhaps in conformity to private instructions, made use of every art to run them down, and set them in the most odious light. Lord Her- bert tells us, that some societies behaved so well, that their lives were not only exempt from notorious faults but their spare time was bestowed in writing books, painting, carving, graving, and the like exercises, and the preamble to the first act of dissolution sets forth, that in the greater monasteries religion was right well observed and kept up.

The casting off the pope's supremacy was urged as another cause for the suppression of these orders, who, notwithstanding their subscriptions, were generally thought to be against it in their hearts, and ready to join with any foreign power that should invade the nation, whilst the king was excommunicated by the pope. Their revenues not being employed according to the design and intent of the donors, was also alledged against them. The discoveries of several cheats in their images, miracles, and counterfeit reliques, is said to have brought the monks everywhere into disgrace, and to have contributed much towards their overthrow. Yet, notwithstanding these specious reasons were, and might well be urged, it is very likely a principal inducement to their ruin was their large revenues, and the moveables in money, jewels, &c. which they were possessed of.

However, their suppression being resolved on, after some debate in council, how to proceed with these houses, the king appointed commissioners to visit them, and take the value of every religious house in the kingdom, their lands, and revenues; and the report of these visitors was such, that when a motion was made in parliament shortly after, that, in order to support the king's state and supply its wants, all the religious houses, which were not above the clear value of two hundred pounds per annum, might be utterly suppressed, and the same, together with their lands, tenements, and other hereditaments, conferred on the crown, after some opposition in the house of commons, an act passed for that purpose, in the 27th year of king Henry VIII. which not only gave these to the king, but all such as within one year next before had been surrendered to the king, or otherwise dissolved. (fn. 3)

By this act, and the proceedings of the visitors, about three hundred and eighty houses were dissolved, and their revenues of upwards of thirty thousand pounds per annum came to the crown, besides a hundred thousand pounds in plate and jewels. As to the religious in them, though some were allowed to go to the greater monasteries, yet it is said that ten thousand persons were hereby sent to seek their fortunes in the world, without any other allowance than forty shillings and a new gown to some few of them. Among the above was the Franciscan priory at Greenwich, which was suppressed August 11, anno 26 Henry VIII.

After which the following houses were suppressed in this county in the course of the next year:—West Langdon abbey, Folkestone priory, Dover priory, Bilsington priory, Minster in Shepey nunnery, Canterbury priory, St. Gregory's, Dover, St. Radigund's abbey, and the priories of Cumbwell, Horton, Hedcorne, Mottenden, Canterbury, Aylesford, Newenden, and Sandwich.

The suppression of these houses in different parts of England, occasioned great discontents, fomented probably by the secular as well as regular clergy, which at length broke out into open rebellion, which being appeased, the king thought it the properest opportunity of putting his resolution in practice, of suppressing the rest of the monasteries, and thereupon appointed a new visitation of them, requiring the visitors to examine whatever related either to their conversation, or their affection to himself and the supremacy, or to their cheats, impostures, or superstitions, or how they were affected during the late com- motions, and in short to discover all that was amiss in them.

This caused the greater abbies to be surrendered apace, for some of the religious having been faulty in the late rebellion, were liable to the king's displeasure, and surrendered their houses and possessions to save their lives. Some began to like the reformation, or, at least, a secular life, or were persuaded to it by promises of pensions and preferments. Others, seeing their dissolution approaching, had so much embezzled their revenues, that they were scarce able to keep up their houses. A great many monks were executed for having been in the rebellion; and many were prevailed on, by the threats and promises of the visitors, to sign their resignations. (fn. 4)

In pursuance of this management the following houses were surrendered in this county: viz. Canterbury priory, Boxley abbey, Canterbury, St. Sepulchre's nunnery, in the 29th year of that reign, and Faversham, St. Austin's (Canterbury) abbies, and Malling nunnery, in the course of the next year.

Many petitions were made, even by those that were for the reformation, that some of these houses might be spared, but a resolution being taken at court to extirpate them all, the petitions were rejected; and though there was no law to oblige the abbots to resign, yet by means, some of which were not the most honest, they were all wrought upon to do it. And the next year, 31 Henry VIII. 1539, an act passed, by which all the religious houses which since the former act had been suppressed or given up, or which after this act might be surrendered or given up, were confirmed to the king and his successors. In which act is a clause respecting privileges and exemptions, which was not in the former one. This clause gave the houses, lands, and hereditaments to the king and his successors, in as full and as ample a manner as the governors of those houses held the same in right of their said houses; and that such of their lands as before the dissolution were discharged of tithes, should continue in like manner discharged of the same afterwards.

By this act no houses were suppressed, but all surrenders, which either were or should be made, were confirmed. The mitred, or parliamentary abbots were, most of them in being and present at the passing of it, and were every one, shortly after, brought to surrender, except the abbots of Colchester, Glastonbury, and Reading, who could not be prevailed upon so to do, and were therefore accused of high treason, and executed, and their abbies seised, as forfeited to the king by their attainder.

The remainder of the religious houses suppressed in this county was, in Canterbury, Christchurch priory, Dartford nunnery, Leeds priory, and in Rochester, St. Andrew's priory.

The next year an act passed for the suppressing the order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, commonly called the Knights Hospitallers, in consequence of which, among the rest of their revenues in this county, there were two of their commanderies in it given up to the king, viz. the commandery or preceptory at West Peckham, and the like at Swingfield.

By the suppression of these greater houses by the two above-mentioned acts, the king obtained a revenue of above one hundred thousand pounds per annum, besides a very large sum in plate and jewels. However he was not in possession of the whole of this income; for the religious of most of these houses had something given them for their present subsistence, and pensions assigned to them for life, or until they should be preferred to some dignity or cure, of as great or greater value than their pensions, which were generally proportioned according to their readiness to promote the king's measures.

In the 37th year of king Henry VIII. the parliament, in order to supply the king's wants, granted to him all colleges, chantries, free chapels, hospitals, and guilds, some of which had been before surrendered. This act was made so general that even the colleges in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, with those of Eaton and Winchester, were not exempted in it; and upon the breaking up of the parliament in February, notice was sent to both universities, that their colleges were at the king's disposal, upon which they petitioned for mercy, which was soon obtained. But the commissioners, named in this act, for giving the king possession of the colleges, &c. had not time to enter upon many of them before his death, which happened in the January following; so that most of them remained till the first year of king Edward VI. anno 1548, when they were granted by another act, in which the colleges of both universities, those of Eaton and Winchester, were excepted, as some few others were to the king; they were consequently most of them soon destroyed, to the number of ninety colleges, one hundred and ten hospitals, and two thousand three hundred and seventy-four chantries and free chapels.

In this county were the following hospitals and colleges, in Canterbury, Eastbridge, Maynard's, and Northgate hospitals; in Chatham, St. Bartholomew's hospital; Harbledown, Hythe; in Sandwich, St. Bartholomew's hospital; in Canterbury, St.Laurence and St. Margaret's, poor priests, hospitals; in Dover St. Bartholomew and Maison Dieu hospitals; in Thanington, St. James's hospital; Sevenoke, and Strood hospitals, Bredgar, Maidstone, Wingham, Cobham, and Wye secular colleges.

The following is a list of the chantries, free chapels, guilds, fraternities, &c. in this county:
Ash, by Sandwich, chantry.
Bapchild, Radfield free chapel.
Chidingstone chantry.
Cranbrook, Milkhouse free chapel, Herne, Virgin Mary, chantry.
Horton, Kirkby, chantry.
Maidstone Fraternity of Corpus Christi.
Malling, East, a free chapel, called Newhyth, Orpington chapel, two chantries.
Orpington, Rufferth chantry, in Crofton.
Penshurst chantry.
Pepenbury chantry.
Petham, Depden chantry.
Reculver, Holy Trinity chantry.
Sandwich, in St. Peter's church, chantry.
Sevenoke chantry.
Sittingborne chantry, and Teynham chantry.

The total clear revenues of the above monasteries, and other religious foundations in this county, were about nine thousand pounds per annum; and the number of houses suppressed, from first to last, were three thousand one hundred and eighty-two; and their clear yearly revenue about one hundred and forty thousand seven hundred and eighty-five pounds; the persons they contained were estimated at forty-seven thousand seven hundred and twenty-one.

As there were pensions paid to almost all those of the greater monasteries, the king did not immediately come into the full enjoyment of their whole revenues. However, out of what did come to him, he founded six new bishoprics, and in eight other sees he founded deans and chapters, by turning the priors and monks into deans and prebendaries; among which were those of Canterbury and Rochester. He founded two colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, and several professorships in both universities, and was a munificent benefactor to the city of London. Besides which, he laid out great sums in building and fortifying the forts and castles on the sea-coast, and intended to have done more, but by the continual grants he made of these lands to his courtiers, and an unbounded lavishness in his expences, he soon wasted the whole of this immense revenue, and nothing farther was done by him.

It is much to be lamented, that, in the hurry of this dissolution, great numbers of excellent books, and other manuscripts, were made away with and destroyed, to the unspeakable loss of the learned world; for there was scarce any religious house that had not a library, and several of them had very good ones. From their chronicles, registers, and other books relating to their own houses and estates, the history and antiquities of the nation in general, and of almost every particular part of it, might have been more fully discovered. The many good accounts of families, of the foundation, establishment, and appropriation of parish churches, and the endowment of their vicarages; of the antient bounds of forests, counties, hundreds, and parishes; of the privileges, tenures, and rents of many manors and estates, and the like, which we meet with in such of their books as are still remaining, are sufficient testimonies how great the advantage would have been had there been a greater number of them preserved.


  • 1. Blackstone, vol. ii. p. 102.
  • 2. Coke's Inst. part i. p. 93. Tan. Mon. Præf. p. xxxiv.
  • 3. Tan. Mon. Præf. p. xxxv. xxxvi.
  • 4. Burn's Eccles. Law, vol. ii. p. 462.