The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1800.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
'The priory of Christchurch: Jurisdiction, privileges and liberties', in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11, (Canterbury, 1800) pp. 463-485. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-kent/vol11/pp463-485 [accessed 5 March 2024]
Jurisdiction, privileges and liberties
HAVING now finished the account of the priors of this church, as well as of the fabric itself, it will be proper to make some mention of the several privileges, liberties and revenues belonging to this priory, and of other matters relating to the establishment and government of it.
The archbishop himself was reputed the head of this monastery, in the stead of an abbot, who had the superior power over the convent; hence the monks contended, that no one could be duly constituted archbishop, unless he first professed himself a monk of their own order, that is a Benedictine; (fn. 1) and this custom seems to have continued till the year 1123, when the king and bishops, being of the secular clergy, over-ruled it, notwithstanding the vehement opposition made by the prior and convent; and William Corboil, who was a secular, was constituted archbishop. (fn. 2) Certainly, the archbishop being as their abbot and their father, superior or governor, might be a strong reason why, as to that part of his function, the choice of him should belong to the convent, and as such it must have been most satisfactory, as well as most beneficial, to the common interest of the convent.
The archbishop was visitor of the convent, and though the convent elected and presented the persons to him, yet he had the power of approving and constituting the prior, sub-prior, the obedientiaries, and some other inferior officers; but in other respects the chief government of it was committed to the prior.— The disposal of the revenues and the management of all the temporal affairs of it, wholly belonged to the prior and chapter, the archbishop having no concern in them. For the election of a prior, the manner was thus: the death of the late prior being notisied to the archbishop, by letters from the convent, he came, attended by his chaplain only, to the chapter-house, within which the monks were all summoned to attend him, for the creating of a new prior; when, after a short exhortation on the occasion, each gave in the name of the person he voted for to be prior; which, as well as the person naming, the chaplain wrote down in a roll. Next day the archbishop having taken that time to consider of it, named aloud, in full chapter, that person to be prior, whom the great and more discreet part of it had voted for. Upon which, the prior elect, having first pleaded his insufficiency, the precentor began the Te Deum, and all rising from their seats, the convent preceding, the archbishop and prior following, they all chanting, solemnly entered the church, and being come into the choir, the archbishop directly installed the prior in his stall, on the north side; which done, the archbishop being seated in the first stall, on the south side, waited there during the time the Te Deum, and the usual versicles and prayers were repeated; after which they all returned to the chapter house, in the same order as before; where, before the archbishop had seated himself, he placed the prior in the seat next to him, on the north side, and then giving his benediction to the convent, and people, he returned to his apartment in his palace, and the convent to divine service in the church. (fn. 3) In which manner Richard Oxinden was elected prior of this church in 1331. But if the prior happened to die in the vacancy of the see, the monks proceeded immediately to elect one of their own body; which election, the new archbishop, as soon as he came to his church, was obliged to confirm, unless there appeared a legal and justisiable cause to the contrary, by the bulls of the popes Alexander III. Innocent III. Urban III. Celestine III. and Gregory IX. of such value did the privilege of electing their prior by themselves, in the vacancy of the see, seem to be to them. (fn. 4)
The prior, thus seated in his dignity, was esteemed honourable, and received with profound veneration by the convent at all times; Lanfranc's decrees concerning the Benedictines made large provisions for all due respect to be paid to an abbot or prior in these monasteries. This veneration, and even high admiration, was increased, from his being upon all solemn occasions adorned with rich and glorious vestments, and from its being granted to him to bear the honourable ensigns of episcopacy, the mitre, the pastoral staff, the ring, the gloves, the sandals, and the like. From these grants, as well as from his summons to parliament, his stile and title of honour was derived; and he was usually addressed by that of my lord prior.
It may not be improper to recite here these grants in the same order in which they were made, together with some other concessions of honour and privileges made both to the prior and the convent. In the year 1205, pope Innocent gave the prior licence to wear the episcopal gloves, (fn. 5) for an ornament to his hands. (fn. 6) At the same time he invested him with the robe, called the dalmatia, which was the common habit of all bishops; and by the same bull, the pope gave him licence to use the napkin at the altar; the meaning of which was, when the bishop had put on his habit, in order to administer there, he had a fine napkin or handkerchief fastened to his left arm. The prior therefore had licence to use the like napkin, when he officiated at the altar. Anno 1220, pope Honorius, of his special grace, put the pontifical ring, as a token of honour, on his finger; and the mitre, which was called the sacedotal crown, upon his head, with the licence of wearing them upon all solemnities in synods, at pro cessions, and on the great festivals of the church. Thus the prior appeared in like manner as a bishop. In the year 1378, pope Urban granted him licence, in the absence of the archbishop, to use the pastoral staff, to put on the sandals or slippers, which were richly embroidered, and to give the solemn benediction.
By the rubric of the Roman missal, it was inhibited to wear the dalmatic robe, or to sing the angelical hymn, Glory to God on high; in the stated seasons of fasting, pope Alexander granted a dispensation to this church, that the dalmatic robe might be used, andgloria in excelsis might be sung upon certain seasts of St. Gregory, St. Benedict, and St. Alphage, if they happened to be in the time of Lent; and on St. Andrew's day, when it happened within the time of Advent. (fn. 7)
The prior and chapter had a pre-eminent jurisdiction, which of course devolved upon them as often as the see of Canterbury became void, for the canon law put them in possession of an authority to exercise all jurisdiction, as well provincial as diocesan, during that vacancy, when they acted as the dean and chapter does now, in like manner, and equally the same as archbishops. (fn. 8) They sent forth their commissions according to their power, for the visiting of the dioceses within this province, as well as the abbies, priories, nunneries and collegiate churches. They summoned provin. cial synods, had the archiepiscopal right of the probate of wills, and all other like privileges. (fn. 9)
At the provincial synods, the prior was seated with the mitre on his head, on the bench of bishops, in like manner as one of them; to the parliament he had several times summons by royal mandate; of this the registers of the church do not asford any information; however, from Mr. Selden we learn, that the first summons the prior of this church received to parliament, bore date anno 49 Henry III. at which time above one hundred regular barons, that is, abbots, priors and masters of orders, besides the deans of York, Exeter, Sarum, Wells and Lincoln, were in like manner summoned to parliament. The next summons, which he mentions, wherin the prior of the Holy Trinity in Canterbury was present in parliament, was in the 23d year of king Edward I. when the chief abbots and priors only, about fifty in number, were called to parliament; another summons to the prior of this church was anno 24th of the same reign, and others again in the 25th and 27th of it; others again in the 13th and 14th years of king Edward II. and again in the 5th year of king Henry IV. (fn. 10) after which it does not appear that this prior was any more summoned to parliament.
The last of these summonses seems to have been an act of grace, at the earnest request of Thomas Chillenden, who was then prior of this church, who was one of a high spirit, a zealous promoter of his own honour and greantness, as well as that of his church. It was this prior who obtained the pope's bull for the pastoral staff, and afterwards obtained the repetition of the summons to parliament, a privilege which his suecessors never enjoyed after him.
The prior of this church had a large family, and many officers and servants belonging to his lodgings and his stables; he had his esquires to attend upon his person, as his chamberlain, marshal, &c. He had his clerk, notary, messengers, master of his stables, his chief cook, and butler, with a number of others bearing more menial offices. (fn. 11)
The other officers of account belonging to the priory, were, first, the sub-prior, whose office was to supply the place of the prior in his absence; during which, he took care that all due order should be observed in the monastery. He was much respected by the convent, being next in dignity to the prior himself, not eating or sleeping in common with the rest of the monastery, but having his own proper chamber and apartments, and his table too, to himself.
The chief officers, called the obedientiaries, were next to him in dignity; these were in order, the cellarer, the chamberlain, the sacrist, and the treasurer, (fn. 12) to which may be added the precentor and the two penitentiaries; all these officers were constituted by the archbishop, by the convent's nominating three monks to him for each of them, from which he chose one, who was admitted to the office. (fn. 13) These obedientiaries were absolved from their offices by every new archbishop, and they resigned them into his hands, as did the subprior his, and the archbishop then made a new choice of them.
By the antient charters of our kings, this monastery had the grants of divers liberties, immunities, freedoms, and privileges, such as have been usually granted to free boroughs, cities, and other civil corporations in the largest extent; the terms of these grants are obsolete, and but little understood; but the monks were absolute masters of this kind of learning; and being even industrious to procure, and pertinacious to maintain their privileges, they took care to be well skilled in understanding the utmost extent of them. These liberties are all of them, from the change of the times, and the great alteration in the constitution and subsequent laws of this realm, now obsolete, and of no manner of use; I shall therefore only mention, that by the charter of king Henry II. this monastery was exempt, among many other privileges, from the charge of repairing bridges, castles, parks, and inclosures. It was freed from doing suit and service in the county, or shire courts, and in hundred or lath courts, which exemption was extended to all their lordships and villages: it had also a grant of free-warren in all its seudal lands, and free mercats in divers places. (fn. 14)
The papal bulls obtained from time to time by the prior and convent, in which were contained liberties and indulgencies, grants and possessions, and the confirmation of former ones, though now of no use, were once esteemed by all of the greatest value and authority. (fn. 15) The piety and profuse bounty of kings, nobles and other persons had liberally endowed this church with ample possessions and revenues; several bold and strong attempts were made to wrest these possessions at various times from it; to prevent which, the convent betook themselves for protection to the see of Rome, and procured bulls from several popes to confirm to them their manors, lands, appropriations, and other of their possessions and revenues, all which were particularly specified, and were preserved safe and inviolate by them; for these instruments were at that time esteemed superior to the will of the king, or the laws of the land, being armed with a double-edged sword, of earthly and divine vengeance. By other bulls, they became exempted from the payment of tithes of their gardens, of the increase of their cattle, and the like; (fn. 16) by others they were impowered to take of the oblations and obventions of the altars in the church, as they thought sit, which before had been the archbishop's right, according to the canons of the church. By other bulls, they had a power of excommunicating (fn. 17) all those found guilty of sacrilege, committed within the walls of their monastery, and all other malefactors within them, in the absence of the archbishop and vacancy of the see; this was no small safeguard to the monks themselves, as well as to the goods of their church and monastery, and they had by them likewise the liberty of free sepulture of all, who should desire to be buried within their church and cemetery; a privilege which brought in a considerable profit to them.
They had besides those above-mentioned, other bulls which provided for their safety, quiet and honour, especially against such attempts as the archbishops upon every displeasure might make to vex and molest them; an attempt they had at times experienced, and it therefore seemed prudent to make the best provision they could against the like in future. Archbishop Theobald had, by his own authority, deposed two of their priors, an instance never before heard of; his successor Baldwin was forced upon them, to be elected their archbishop, against their will; and there were continual disagreements between him and the monks; and the convent was fearful left he might do as Theobald had done before, and take upon him to depose their prior at pleasure. For which reason, anno 1187, being the third year of archbishop Baldwin's pontificate, they obtained a bull from pope Urban, that the prior should not be deposed, or suspended by any one, unless upon manifest and reasonable cause. This privilege was confirmed by the bulls of the popes Alexander III. Celestine III. and Honorius III.— They further obtained licence of appealing to the see of Rome, against all grievances; an injunction likewise, that no monk should be punished for any irregularity, but within the chapter house; and a declaration, that the prior and convent should not be bound to pay any debts contracted by the archbishop after his consecration. (fn. 18) They obtained an inhibition, that no archbishop should impose on the convent new and undue exactions investments, and the like, and a licence and power of a free administration, disposition of their own affairs, and of keeping their own seal, and of committing to the sub prior, in the absence or vacancy of the prior, the care and administration of the concerns of the convent; the express reason for which was declared to be, that the archbishop should have no pretence to administer, dispose of, or intermeddle with the affairs of the convent at any time. There was also a papal injunction, that in the vacancy of the see of Canterbury, the comprovincial bishops, or any others, should not withdraw the obedience which they owed to the metropolitical church; and a power was given to the convent to send for any one of the suffragan bishops of the province, the see of Canterbury being vacant, to celebrate the episcopal duties within this church, in case the bishop of Rochester could not come for that purpose; they had also a licence, that whenever the kingdom should lie under a general interdict, to celebrate divince service with a low voice, no bell being tolled, the doors being shut, and excommunicated and interdicted persons being excluded; besides these abovementioned, there were numbers of papal bulls, licences and provisions, which were granted to this convent upon more trivial matters and occasions, which are too immaterial to insert here; but it ought to be remembered, that all privileges, rights, liberties, and jurisdictions whatsoever, which belonged to, or were used by the prior and convent of this church, and are not now disconsonant, or prohibited by the laws and established religion of this realm, are at this time, by the foundation charter of king Henry VIII. in which they are granted in as full and ample a manner as they were ever at any time enjoyed and used by the prior and convent, vested in the dean and chapter of this church.
Besides the above-mentioned papal grants, there are among the archives of this church, numbers of grants of manors, lands, possessions and appropriations of churches, and of privileges likewise made and confirmed to this church in former times, by the several archbishops of this see. One noted privilege ought not to be omitted, as it survived the dissolution of the monastery itself, for this church has an undoubted right to it at this day. This privilege was, that no suffragan bishop of the province of Canterbury might be consecrated any where, but in the metropolitical church at Canterbury, (fn. 19) to which he was bound to profess obedience and subjection, unless the chapter of it gave him, under their commonseal, a dispensation and licence to be consecrated in some other church.
In antient times the archbishops resided chiefly in their palace at Canterbury, or in some of their manors near it, and the suffragan bishops elect came directly to this church for consecration. From common practice this grew up into a general custom, and thence into a privilege claimed by this church; for archbishop Becket perceiving how much it tended to the honour and advantage of it, established this custom as a rule or privilege, by his charter granted to this church, decreeing by it that the suffragan bishops of the province should be consecrated, as ever had been the custom, in it, and no where else; which charter was confirmed by pope Gregory the ninth; and the privilege was established still firmer by the example of archbishop Edmund, who, when he was going to consecrate Robert Grosthead, elect bishop of Lincoln, in the church of Reading, was opposed in it by the monks of this convent, when yielding to them, he forebore to consecrate the bishop, until he had, by entreaties, obtained their consent, and adding a soleman protestation and acknowledgment, that the consecration of a suffragan bishop could of right be celebrated no where but in the metropolitical church of Canterbury, unless by the dispensation and common consent of the whole convent; which acknowledgment he gave under his own seal, and the seals of the bishops, who were then present at the consecration, namely, Jocelin, bishop of Bath; Robert, bishop of Sarum; Roger, bishop of London; Hugh, bishop of Ely, and Ralph, bishop of Hereford. After which this privilege remained, unviolated, so long as the priory continued. In the registers of this church, many of these dispensations or licences for the consecration of suffragan bishops in other churches or cha pels, are recorded, for which every bishop had a separate one. At first these licences were not easily obtained; the king, the archbishop, the bishop elect, or some other great persons sent their petitions or requests; without which they were never granted. (fn. 20)
In the form of these licences granted by the convent, it is said, that this privilege was granted by St. Thomas, the glorious martyr, and St. Edmund the consessor, (fn. 21) according to custom of antient date. In the time of archbishop Cranmer, before the dissolution of the priory, the form of these licences was altered, to what is still continued to be made use of.— At this time a licence is applied for to the dean and chapter of Canterbury by each bishop elect, and immediately granted and returned by their chapter clerk, as a matter of course, (fn. 22) so that there has not been a suffragan bishop consecrated in the church of Canterbury for a great number of years past. In every one of these licences of consecration, there was a provision made, that a new decent cope, such as was becoming the dignity and quality of the consecrated bishop, should be given, delivered and sent by him to the metropolitical church, as a token of that obedience and subjection, which he solemnly prosessed to it, at the time of his consecration; hence it was called the professional cope; this the church claimed and received of antient right from the time, as was asserted, of archbishop Lanfranc to the dissolution of the priory, without any considerable interruption. (fn. 23)
The professional cope may have ceased to be paid since the reformation, because such a garb is not now in use, but the obedience and subjection to the me tropolitical church must, and does remain the same as it did before that time. (fn. 24)
AMONG THE REVENUES of this convent, THE JUBILEE ought to be first mentioned; for though it came but once in fifty years, and was purchased at a dear rate, at the court of Rome, yet it brought incredible gain. The origin of it was, the murder of archbishop Becket in 1170; whose body being buried in the undercrost, was solemnly translated from thence to a shrine prepared for it in the upper part of the church in 1220, being the fiftieth year after the murder; this solemnity was attended with the grant of a jubilee, by the bull of pope Honorius III. the copy of which is preserved in the church registers; the second jubilee was anno 1270, and the third in 1320, both which have no records left concerning them; the fourth jubilee happened in the year 1370, at which time Simon Sudbury, then bishop of London, being upon the road, overtook a vast multitude of people journeying towards Canterbury, to celebrate the jubilee there; to numbers of them he called out and told them, that the indulgence which they expected to find there, could be of no benefit or value to them; upon this, though many returned back, yet numbers continued their journey, having given him much abuse for his stopping them in their progress, by advice so contracy to their inclinations. (fn. 25) The fifth jubilee was in the year 1420; the city records inform us, that the confluence of people, who came to it, were no less than one hundred thousand, who were all provided for with meat, drink and lodgings at easy rates, and the estimate of their liberal oblations was almost incredible; (fn. 26) the sixth jubilee was anno 1470; great suits were made at that time for plenary indulgencies, as had been formerly on like occasions, granted to the church of Canterbury. There is in one of the registers of this church, the copies of two letters, full of the most pressing importunities on this occasion, from the king to the pope, and of two other letters from him to the college of cardinals; of another letters from the queen, and another from the prior and chapter to the pope, containing their most humble and earnest addresses and solicitations, for this grant of plenary indulgencies, without which there could be no jubilee; for in the bull of pope Honorius, by which the translation of the body of the martyr, and the first jubiliee was granted, it is expressed, that although several popes had desired it, and the church of Canterbury had from time to time requested the translation of the body of the martyr, yet it could never be accomplished until the fiftieth year, which was esteemed to be a work of Divine Providence and not of human contrivance; for in the bull it is said, that the fiftieth year is a jubilee; a jubilee is a year of remission, and in that sense in which it was understood in the law, he the pope, remitted; and as in the year of jubilee burthens and bondages were relieved, so also in the jubilee of the translation of the martyr, the burthens of all penitents were remitted. The arguments (fn. 27) made use of in the above letters, obtained at last a bull of indulgence from pope Urban, dated at Rome, on July 4, 1470.
The seventh and last jubilee, was celebrated in the year 1520, in the time of archbishop Warham. Mr. Battely has inserted in his history of this monastery, some original letters, (fn. 28) which were sent from the agent of this convent from Rome, to the archbishop and the prior of it. These letters, which are written in English, discover the whole mystery of the actings of the court of Rome, in granting these indulgencies; what arts were contrived to enhance the price of this grant; what delays were invented and made use of, and what gratuities were given from time to time, to buy off these delays. However, after a tedious and dilatory proceeding, and the expence of a vast sum of money and riches, the jubilee was granted, but upon such terms as seemed hard and unreasonable, yet such as could not be resisted; namely, that the pope should receive half the offerings or oblations made in the church, during the whole year of the jubilee; which was the last ever celebrated in this church. (fn. 29)
AS TO THE MANOR, lands, possessions and appropriations of churches belonging to this convent, they were many, and very great and extensive; such of them as lay in this county, which were by far the greatest part of them, are mentioned in the course of the history of the county, in the description of the several parishes in which they were situated; (fn. 30) the others lay in the counties of Surry, Sussex, Oxford, Buckingham, Essex, Suffolk, Norsolk and Devon, besides several advowsons in the city of London and its suburbs. (fn. 31) Their revenues amounting, at the time of the dissolution of it, as they were then valued, to 2489l. 4s. 9d. gross yearly revenue; or 2349l. 8s. 5¼d. clear yearly income. (fn. 31)
The small rents, which from time to time were given and duly paid for lights and other uses of the church, and the altars in it, were more in number than can easily be computed. The copies of the deeds of gift of these rents fill up some of the largest registers of this church, and swell them to a large bulk; these annuities or rents payable out of different lands and tenements, were of considerable value in former times, when they were given, though at this day they appear small and inconsiderable. For this use they had like. wise given numbers of small pieces of lands or tenements in the city of Canterbury and its suburbs, (fn. 33) most of which now belong to the dean and chapter. Notwithstanding the greatest part of the lands belonging to this priory were at first given by the several benefactors in early times to the different archbishops themselves, and continued in common between them and the convent, till archbishop Lanfranc, in the Conqueror's reign, made a division of these estates, reserving one part to himself, and allotting the other to the convent for their separate use, yet the latter was always understood to be held by the prior, of the king in capite, and not of the archbishop. (fn. 34)
There was a college or hall in Oxford, called Canterbury hall or college, (fn. 35) which was a nursery of learning for the use of the junior monks of this priory, whence it derived its name.
It was founded by archbishop Simon Islip in the year 1363, being the 36th year of king Edward III. with the king's licence, which had been obtained the year before, by which leave was given to appropriate the church of Pageham, then belonging to the archbishopric, towards the maintenance of the students of it. The archbishop likewise purchased eight houses at his own expence, for the dwellings of those who belonged to the college; and of his nephew William Islip, the manor of Wodeford, in Essex, which he gave to the college for the use and support of it. (fn. 36)
The society was to consist of twelve members, a custos or master, three fellows, who were to be professed monks, and eight students. The election of the custos or master was made in the same manner that the officers called the obedientiaries of the monastery, mention of which has been made before, were elected; that is, the convent nominated three of their own members to the archbishop, who making choice of one of them, committed to him the care, government, and whole concern of this college. (fn. 37)
The college remained in this state at the dissolution of the priory, when it came into the king's hands, where it continued till the king settled it by his dotation charter, in his 33d year, on his new-founded dean and chapter of Canterbury; but it was with all its lands, houses and appurtenances belonging to it, resigned again by the dean and chapter into the king's hands, who afterwards settled it on the new-founded college of Christ-church in that university, to the library of which, and the buildings of it, called Peckwater, it adjoins. It is still known by the name of Canterbury quadrangle, and continues part of the possessions of that college at this time.
As the above college was a nursery for the young students of this priory, so the priory of St. Martin in Dover, was a cell to it, and continued so till the dissolution of this monastery; the prior of it being usually elected from one of the obedientiaries of Christ-church; and the monks, who were also of the benedictine order, were taken likewise from thence; a full account of which, and of that priory, may be seen under the description of Dover, in the history of the county.