The priory of Christchurch: Dissolution

Pages 485-496

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 11. Originally published by W Bristow, Canterbury, 1800.

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The DISSOLUTION of this priory of Christ-church was not brought on by one sudden blow, but by slow degrees, left, from the veneration and sanctity in which it was held by all ranks of people, the fall of it might have raised a public tumult and commotion through. out the realm. The first step that appears to have been taken towards it, was the abrogating of certain festivals or holidays, which should fall out in harvest time, which was to be accounted from the 1st of July to the 29th of September; by which, as was intended. the high festival of the translation of St. Thomas, annually celebrated on July 7, was prohibited to be observed, otherwise than by the using the accustomed services of the holidays in churches, though without such formal solemnities as were accustomed on high festivals, this being one of those injunctions given by the king in 1536. Thus the glorious and magnificent shews in lights, rich vestments, and other accustomed splendor, with which those festivals were adorned, and which invited and allured throngs of people to be present at the celebration of their solemnities, being withdrawn; the multitude lost their veneration for them, and abstained from coming to the bare celebration of the church service. Two years after which, a second attack was made upon this priory, more bold and daring than the former; for the blow was directly and openly aimed at the reputed glory of this church, and the honour and veneration paid to the relics of its saint, by not only specially prohibiting the observation of the festivals in memory of St. Thomas, but enjoining the entire omission of the commemoration of him; for the festival service of his days was to be laid aside; instead of which, the festival or ordinary service for the day of the week was to be used; and archbishop Cranmer himself gave a fair precedent of disowning all regard to this feast, by not fasting (as was the custom) on the eve of it, but supping on fleth in his parlour with his domestics; a strange and unusual sight to all who were present. This was in the year 1538.

These alterations being acquiesced in, with a quiet submission, in the following year, the king, determining to bring forward the downfall of this saint effectually, sent forth, in the following year, a new and severe injunction; in the preamble of which archbishop Becket was declared to have been a stubborn rebel, and a traitor to his prince; it enjoined, that he should not be esteemed, or called a saint; that his images and pictures throughout the whole realm should be pulled down, and cast out of all churches; that his name should be razed out of all books, and the festival service of his days, the collects, antiphons, &c. should for ever remain in disuse, upon pain of his indignation, and imprisonment at his grace's pleasure.

As this saint was stripped of the name, honour and adoration, which had for so great a length of time been paid to him; so was this church, most probably a principal allurement to the deed, robbed of all the riches, the jewels of inestimable value, and the vast quantities of gold and silver with which this shrine was splendidly and gloriously adorned: his relics and bones were likewise taken away, and so destroyed and disposed of, that what became of them could not be known, least they might fall into such hands as might still honour them with veneration.

This shrine was built, says Stow, about a man's height, all of stone, then upward of timber plain, within which was a chest of iron containing the bones of Thomas Becket, skull and all, with the wound of his head, and the piece cut out of his skull, laid in the same wound; but this does not appear to be well authenticated. This writer tells us further, that the timber work of it, on the outside, was covered with plates of gold, damasked and embossed with wires of gold, garnished with broches, images, chains, precious stones, and great orient pearls; which spoils, in both gold and jewels of inestimable value, filled two great chests, one of which six or eight strong men could do no more than convey out of the church; all which was taken to the king's use, and the bones of St. Thomas, by the commandment of lord Cromwell, were then and there burnt to ashes, which was in September, anno 1538, being the 30th year of king Henry VIII.

This certainly portended the sudden dissolution of this priory, which accordingly took place in the year following, when a commission, dated at Westminster, on March 20, anno 31 Henry VIII. for the suppression of it, was directed to the archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Richard Rich, chancellor of the court of augmentation; Sir Christopher Hales, master of the rolls; Walter Hendly, attorney of the same court, and five others, that they or any three of them should repair to Christ-church, and draw up a surrender in form, and the same being signed and sealed by the prior and convent, to receive and take possession thereof; and then to take an inventory of all the goods, chattels, plate, jewels, and lead, belonging to the monastery, and to convey to the master of the jewel house, at the tower of London, all the plate, precious ornaments and money, which they should receive, &c. This commission was signed by Thomas Cromwell; the original of which is in the augmentation office.

This commission was put in execution without delay, viz. on April 4, next following, when the surrendry was signed in their chapter-house, by the prior and twenty-four other members of the convent, and sealed with their common seal. All these on quitting the monastery, had yearly pensions, and many of them had offices and places in the new foundation established in this church.

The following is a list of those assigned to the prior and twenty-four members, signed Rich. Rich. First to the late prior there,

£. s. d.
Thomas Goldwell, with office of one of the prebendaries there, yearly lxxx. -- --
Nicolao Clement x. -- --
Johanni Gerard viii. -- --
Wilhelmo Gyllyngham xiii. vi. viii
Johanni Cross xxx. -- --
Johanni Langdon x. -- --
Johanni Oxny x. -- --
Johanno Elphe, besides one of the offices of the peti-canons iii. vi. viii.
Wilhelmo Lichsield, besides the office of a peti-canon there x. -- --
Roberto Boxly viii. -- --
Ricardo Godmersham x. -- --
Ricardo Bonyngton viii. -- --
Nicolao Herstey vi. xiii. iv.
Johanni Thoroughley viii. -- --
Wilhelmo Causton vi. -- --
Quintino Denysse vi. xiii. iv.
Wilhelmo Gregory vi. -- --
Roberto Authony vi. -- --
Wilhelmo Goldwell vi. -- --
Wilhelmo Canterburn vi. -- --
Johanni Stone vi. -- --
Johanni Lamberherst vi. xiii. iv.
Edwardo Glastenbury vi. -- --
Johanni Ambrose, besides the office of a peti-canon -- xl. --
Thomæ Goldstion vi. -- --
Johanni Morton vi. -- --
Summe of the yerely pensions (Signed) Rich. Rich. cclxxxxi. vi. viii (fn. 1)

There is another list in the augmentation-office, but without date, of the names of the members of this monastery, at the time of the surrendry, the offices they then held in the convent, and the pensions and rewards allotted to them, together with the preferments intended for them in the new foundation; the particulars of which are as follows:

The NAMES of the Monks of the late Monastery of Christ-church, in Canterbori, with their Offices, Rewards and Pensions.

The Office Their Names. Rewards. Pensions.
£ s. d. £ s. d.
Prior Thomas Goldwell 10 0 0 3 6 8
Johannes Menys, (Præb.) 3 solut. nil
Nicholaus Clemente, 3 solut. 10 0 0
Bartonar, Johannes Gerard. 3 solut. 8 0 0
Granitor, Withelmus Wynchepe, (Præb.) 3 solut. nil
Camerarius, Withelmus Gyllyngham, 3 solut. 3 6 8
Celerarius, Johannes Cross, 3 solut 30 0 0
Mr. of the frator, Johannes Langdon, 3 solut. 10 0 0
Supprior, Withelmus Hadleigh, (Præb.) 3 solut nil
Thesaurarius, Johannes Oxny, 3 solut. 10 0 8
Chaunter, Johannes Elphe, (Peti-canon) 3 solut. 3 6 8
Master of the table, Robertus Boxly, 3 8 0 0
Sexton, Wilhelmus Lichfield, 3 solut. 10 0 0
Mr. of the firmary, Ricardus Godmersham, 3 solut. 10 0 0
Ricardus Bonyngton, 3 solut. 8 0 0
Penitentiary, Nicholaus Herste, 3 solut. 6 13 4
Penitentiary, Johannes Lamberherst, (Peti-canon) 3 solut. 6 13 4
Gardian of the manors, Ricardus Thornden, 3 solut.
Johannes Charisburn, (Peti-canon). 3 solut. nil.
Gardian of Canterbury college, Wilhelmus Sandwich, (Præb.) 3 solut. nil.
Master of the table, Johannes Chart, (Peti-canon). 3 solut.
Second chaunter, Johannes Cranebrook, (Peti-canon) 3 nil.
Mr. of the anniversary, Edward Glastenborn, 3 solut. 6 0 0
Chanclere Johannes Ambrose 3 solut 2 0 0
Quarte prior, Henricus Audoene, (Peti-canon) 3 solut. nil.
Tertius prior, Thomas Ickham, (Peti-canon) 3 solut. nil.
Chaplain, Johannes Chillenden, (Præb.) 3 solut. nil.
Thomas Morton, 3 solut. nil.
Wilhelmus Caustry, 3 solut. 6 0 0
Wilhelmus Austen, (Peti-canon) 3 solut.
Sub-sexton, Quintinus Denysse, 3 solut. 6 13 4
Wilhelmus Gregory, 3 solut. 6 0 0
Fruyterer, Thomas Faversham, (Scholar) 3 solut. nil.
Robertus Anthony, 3 solut. 6 0 0
Thomas Wyffride, 3 solut.
Subcelerer, Wilhelmus London, 3.
Johannes Warham, (Præb.) 3 nil.
Johannes Cross, (Scholar) 3 nil.
Wilhelmus Goldwell, 3 solut. 6 0 0
Wilhelmus Canterborn, 3 solut. 6 0 0
Tertius cantor, Thomas Anselm, (Peti-canon) 3 nil.
Thomas Becket, (Scholar) 3. nil.
Johannes Stone, 3 6 0 0
Sub-chaplain, Georgius Frebel, (Scholar) 3 nil.
Peter Langley, (Scholar) 3 nil.
Thomas Bowser, (Scholar) 3 nil.
Wilhelmus Sudburn, (Chorist.) 3 nil.
Sub-Chaplain, Jacobus Newenham, (Chorist.) 3 nil.
Thomas Goldston, 3 6 0 0
Stephanus Giles, (Scholar) 3 nil
Bartholemæus Otford, (Peti-canon) 3 nil
Robertus South, (Scholar) 3 nil
Ricardus Marshal, (Scholar) 3 nil. (fn. 2)

This list contains fifty-three names, of which six were promoted to prebends, ten to be peti-canons, nine to be scholars, and two to be chorists, in all twenty-seven, on the new-intended establishment; their rewards amounted to one hundred and sixty-three pounds, and their yearly pensions to 184l. 0s. 8d. (fn. 3)

This great change could not but seem strange to the people who had still a veneration for their reputed saint; and the violence offered to his shrine could not but fill their hearts with inward regret, and private murmurings; but their discontent did not break out into open rebellion here; as it did on some like occasions in different places in the kingdom. To quiet the people, therefore, and to convince them of the propriety, and even necessity, of these changes, the monks were in general cried out against, as given to every shameful and abominable vice; and reports were industriously spread abroad, that the monasteries were receptacies of the worst of people. Such reports had their effect, and they created a general detestation of all the monastical orders. It must be owned, that there were some of the smaller religious houses, that gave but too much occasion for this scandal; but the greater monasteries were, for the most part, well governed, and lived under the strictest discipline; nor could they be charged with any gross immorality.— They promoted learning, they educated youth, and dispensed charity with a liberal hand to all around them. (fn. 4) Nor are the crimes which many of them ac knowledged themselves to have been guilty of, in the surrenders which they signed, to be looked on as the truth; for the craft, promises, persuasions, intreaties and threats, in short, every art and subtle cunning and knavery, that could be, was used to induce or compel them to surrender their houses, and set their names to the instruments, which were frequently brought by the subtle commissioners ready drawn up for the purpose. Policy, and the general welfare of the state might dictate the necessity of their dissolution; but no necessity whatever could palliate the unjustifiable means made use of, to put these measures in execution.

The mistaken surmises and prejudices of Dr. Burnet, owing perhaps to his fondness for defamation, seem now to be pretty well understood, and his authority appears to be estimated accordingly; it certainly is held very light in relation to his defamation of this convent of Christ-church. (fn. 5)

For a true prospect of the state of it, at the time of its suppression, let us remember, in vindication of it, that the archiepiscopal throne had been adorned with a succession of great and good men for a length of time; some of whom were of an honourable and noble descent; all of them were men of a public spirit, of competent learning, of good conversation and an unspotted reputation. These prelates often visited this monastery and strictly examined the manners and behaviour of the monks; these had a right likewise, which they never failed to exercise, of placing over the convent their chief officers, supervisors, and go vernors. The prior, who at the time of the dissolution, had presided over this convent for three and twenty years, was a learned, grave and religious man, and his predecessors had been such for a length of time before. The convent was a society of grave persons; the aged were diligent to train up the novices both in the rules of their institution, and in gravity and sobriety, and the younger were placed in the cells of the dormitory, among the elder; so that they were continually under a kind of guard to prevent them committing any thing unseemly. All their revenues and gains were expended, either in alms and hospitality, or in the stately and magnificent building of their church, of which the present fabric is a convincing proof, or else in decking and beautifying it with the richest ornaments, in which they abounded and exceeded, even to prosuseness. Their time was for the most part spent in exercises of fasting, penance and devout meditations, and in attending the divine offices in the church; in the superstitious formalities of which they perhaps placed too much merit, and mistook for godliness itself; certainly they were sincere in it, and intended well; it was the religion they had been brought up in, nor was there any other for them to follow.

In those times there was but little learning in the world, that age being commonly stiled the dark, or illiterate age; but whatever learning was then, was mostly to be found in the cloysters of the monks, where some attained to great reputation for their proficiency in knowledge.

From the above representation, which is a series of facts, the character of this priory, and the state of it. even at the time of its dissolution, may be pretty well ascertained, especially when we call to memory that Dr. Goldwell, a man of acknowledged learning, virtue, and strictness of character, had been prior for a length of time; that archbishop Cranmer had filled the patriarchal chair of this church for near seven years; that he was visitor of this priory, and had been so much with the members of it, as to know them well, and the manner of their behaviour; and that when this church was new founded and new modelled, the same archbishop being employed in it by the king, took into this new foundation eight prebendaries, ten peti-canons, nine scholars, and two choristers, in all twenty nine, who had been members of this dissolved priory, besides several others, among whom were Dr. Goldwell and William Wynchepe, who were marked out and assigned for prebends, but did not accept of them, others were preferred in other churches, and all of them had pensions and rewards.

After the surrendry of the church and priory into the hands of the king's commissioners, the members of it being turned out, the whole was left in a desolated condition, a mere heap of ruin and confusion, for those who took possession of it, made quick havock of their lodgings and houses, and carried away for the king's use all the jewels, plate, rich ornaments, and whatever else was valuable from the church and monastery, and all their manors, lands and possessions were seized on and put under the management of the king's new court of augmentation, for his use.


  • 1. See Battely's Somner, pt. 2, p. 117, appendix, No. xxivb. from an original in the Augmentation-office.
  • 2. See Battely, pt. ii. appendix, No. xxiv. c
  • 3. The prior's pension was vacted by his death, before the year 1553; at which time there remained only 32l. 6s. 8d. payable in annuities, and several pensions to 17 unpreferred monks, whose names Willis enumerates in his Mitred Abbeys, vol. i. p. 247, amounting in the whole to the sum of 129l. 6s. 8d.
  • 4. It has generally been supposed, though there have been some few who have thought otherwise, that the dissolution of monasteries occasioned that provision made for the poor, some years afterwards, by the statutes in queen Elizabeth's reign, passed for that purpose, the necessity for which arose from their being left destitute from that event. That this was the fact, and that king Henry foresaw this would happen, plainly appears from the express clause and covenant, which was generally inserted in the first grants of the scites and lands of most of these dissolved houses, several of which I have seen, viz. that the grantees should continue the like hospitality and alms to the indigent travellers and poor, which had usually and constantly been afforded to them by the religious, before their houses were suppressed; but these estates often changing owners, and many of them through fear of their uncertain tenure, the above injunction was after some time but little observed, and at length neglected and entirely laid aside; by which means the distress of the poor was felt the heavier, and gradually increasing, at last induced the legislature to make provision for them by those statutes.
  • 5. Willis's Mitred Abbeys, vol. i. p. 37, for a further vindication of this and some other religious houses, from the defamation of such testimonies.