Religious houses: Introduction

A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1904.

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'Religious houses: Introduction', A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904), pp. 349-351. British History Online [accessed 21 June 2024].

. "Religious houses: Introduction", in A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904) 349-351. British History Online, accessed June 21, 2024,

. "Religious houses: Introduction", A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904). 349-351. British History Online. Web. 21 June 2024,

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The county of Bedford was unusually rich in religious houses in proportion to its size, but none was of very ancient date. The abbey of Elstow was founded before the compiling of Domesday, and followed the Benedictine rule, which was as yet the only one introduced into England; other houses of the same order were the priories of Beaulieu and Markyate, both founded about 1145. The two Cistercian abbeys of Warden and Woburn were founded respectively in 1135 and 1145. Austin canons had been introduced into this country some twenty-seven years, when Henry I. founded the priory of Dunstable about 1132; the canons of St. Paul's, Bedford, were transferred to Newnham and brought under the same rule about 1166; Bushmead Priory was founded a little later. Under the general heading of the Augustinian rule should be reckoned the priory of Caldwell, of the order of the Holy Sepulchre, founded some time during the reign of Stephen or of Henry II.; and the priory of Harrold, which followed the Arrouasian form of the rule, was founded about 1140. The Gilbertine priory of Chicksand dates from about 1150. There was one alien priory, La Grave or Grovebury, at Leighton Buzzard, which was founded under Henry II.; this, with the Preceptory of Hospitallers at Melchbourne, makes a total of twelve houses in all. The Templars had lands in Sharnbrook (fn. 1) and elsewhere, and the churches of Langford and Little Stoughton; but they had no Preceptory in this county.

Besides these, there were certainly eight hospitals: four for lepers or the sick at Bedford, Luton (two) and Dunstable; and four for the destitute poor at Bedford, Farley, Hockliffe and Toddington. All of these were probably founded in the twelfth century except Toddington, which belongs to the reign of Henry VI. In the thirteenth century the Friars Minor settled at Bedford, and the Friars Preachers at Dunstable. And in the reign of Henry IV. the church of Northill became collegiate.

It may be noted here that besides these regular and ordinary forms of the religious life, Bedfordshire had also from time to time its hermits and anchorets. The distinction between these two forms (fn. 2) of solitude is of course not primitive, but it was clearly marked in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. From the time when the religious life in community began first to be well organised, we know by the testimony of Cassian and later of St. Benedict (fn. 3) that men were always discouraged from attempting solitude until they had been first exercised in the ordinary discipline of the cænobium; but it was not found possible to enforce this rule in all cases. Roger of Markyate had been a monk of St. Albans (fn. 4) before he was a hermit, and was carried back after his death to the abbey church, where the place of his burial is still marked by an inscription; but of Ralf the hermit, (fn. 5) whose oratory and cell were granted by Robert d'Albini to the priory of Beaulieu; of Simon the hermit, (fn. 6) who bequeathed his little property to Newnham Priory; of the hermit of Bletsoe (fn. 7) and of the hermit who was traditionally the founder of Bushmead, (fn. 8) nothing further is known. Amongst solitaries of the other type (more severe in its restraint, but less apart from the common life of men) were 'Simon anachorita,' who came from Lichfield to Dunstable and lived six years beside the priory church, (fn. 9) and doubtless others whose names are not recorded. This form of solitude was as a rule the only one possible for women; 'Isabella inclusa,' (fn. 10) who died at Bedford near the beginning of the thirteenth century, was probably an anchoress of the ordinary type; but Christine of Markyate, for many years a strict recluse, was not attached to any church. Her career belongs to the history of the house of which she was first prioress.

The Religious Houses of Bedfordshire, if we except Woburn and Dunstable, have few points of contact with general history, and only one produced a chronicle. Little that is definite can be said even of their local influence. The abbey of Elstow had its school, and the Austin canons were patrons of a large number of churches, and must have been well known figures in the county. The canons of Dunstable had many difficulties with their tenants; but these were connected with their feudal lordship of the town rather than with any matter of religion. One point however may be worth noting: in spite of much that has been said of the mutual jealousies of the different orders, in this little county they lived together for the most part (fn. 11) on very friendly terms. The Chronicler of Dunstable, who records all the gossip of his neighbourhood, as well as much genuine history, has seldom anything to say of his brethren in other orders but what is sympathetic and kindly. (fn. 12) He is on the whole least friendly to the Cistercians: he says once that the monks of Warden 'did us much harm,' (fn. 13) and there were occasional disputes with Woburn about tolls and tithes, (fn. 14) but he has plenty of sympathy with the misfortunes of both. (fn. 15) Suits there were occasionally amongst them all, and they must have been difficult to avoid, when fields belonging to different houses lay so close together in the same parish, as in many parts of the Bedford, Fleete and Dunstable deaneries; but they are in very small proportion to the suits with seculars. Especially noteworthy is the fact that though the monks of St. Albans had a school in Dunstable, and wide lands at Luton close to those belonging to the canons, not a single suit between the priory and the abbey is on record. The friars indeed, here as elsewhere, were the object of much jealousy to the old religious: and yet their intercourse with Dunstable and Markyate priories was not altogether unfriendly, as will be shown in detail under the history of their houses.


  • 1. Rot. Charta (Rec. Com.), 1 John, p. 2b; Chart. R. 37 Hen. III. pt. i. m. 3.
  • 2. It has been so often made that there is no need here to repeat it; e.g. Dalgairns' essay on 'The Spiritual Life of Mediæval England,' which is the preface to Hilton's Scale of Perfection, ed. 1901.
  • 3. Rule, cap. i. Anachoritæ vel Eremitæ, horum qui non conversionis fervore novitio, sed monasterii probatione diuturna didicerunt contra diabolum . . . pugnare'.
  • 4. Matth. Paris, Gesta Abbatum (Rolls Series), i. 97-105.
  • 5. Foundation Charter of Beaulieu Priory.
  • 6. Harl. MS. 3656, f. 11.
  • 7. Cat. of Anct. Deeds (P.R.O.), C. 2188. His name was Robert Parage: and as he had 'brethren' with him in the hermitage, it does not seem likely he had been previously a monk. The same might be inferred of the hermit of Bushmead, if he really existed. Those who began as solitaries were more likely to gather a following than those who had left a monastery to seek solitude.
  • 8. Leland, Collect. i. 68.
  • 9. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Series), iii. 77, 109.
  • 10. Harl. MS. 3656, f. 22b.
  • 11. Except Elstow, of which a great many suits with other houses are recorded.
  • 12. Between the four houses of Austin canons there seems to have been much intercourse, and their constant general chapters must have had the effect of promoting corporate feeling amongst them.
  • 13. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Series), iii. 180.
  • 14. Ibid. 74, 93, etc. Mostly about the tithes of Chesham.
  • 15. Ibid. 32, 140, 192.