Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Warden

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

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'Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Warden', A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904), pp. 361-366. British History Online [accessed 19 June 2024].

. "Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Warden", in A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904) 361-366. British History Online, accessed June 19, 2024,

. "Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Warden", A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904). 361-366. British History Online. Web. 19 June 2024,

In this section



The abbey of Warden or Saint Mary de Sartis (so called from the 'assarts' or forest clearings which formed its first endowment) was the earliest house of the Cistercian order founded in Bedfordshire. Walter Espec, the founder of Rievaulx, one of the most famous houses of the order in England, had lands in Bedfordshire at Old Warden; (fn. 1) and it was he who invited the monks to settle there. Warden was not however a cell to Rievaulx: the primitive Cistercian custom was to send out monks with an abbot at their head to form a new and independent house, as St. Bernard did when he left Cîteaux for Clairvaux, and twelve were considered sufficient for this purpose. The foundation charter of Warden was confirmed by Stephen in the first year of his reign, and witnessed by Thurstan of York and Alexander of Lincoln. (fn. 2) There are several interesting names found amongst the benefactors of this abbey: Henry Braybrook (a very well known name in Bedfordshire) and his wife Christine, (fn. 3) the lady of West Warden in Northamptonshire, with their son Wischard Leydet; (fn. 4) Simon, Hugh and William de Beauchamp, (fn. 5) lords of Eaton, and benefactors also of Bushmead, and Sir John Engayne, (fn. 6) to whom their property passed in the fourteenth century; Malcolm IV. of Scotland (fn. 7) and Roger de Quincy, constable of Scotland. (fn. 8) Like the majority of Cistercian houses, Warden depended mainly for its prosperity upon its pasture lands: among the earliest grants are 'twenty acres in Warden, with pasturage for two hundred sheep, and for eight days in shearing time, eight hundred.' (fn. 9) It had no churches except the parish church of Old Warden, and even to secure that the abbot had to go through one of the usual Curia Regis suits with the grandchildren of Walter Espec. (fn. 10) His claim in 1225 to the church of Eyworth was unsuccessful. (fn. 11) The temporalities of the abbey in 1291 (fn. 12) (as well as in the sixteenth century) lay chiefly in the counties of Huntingdon, Hertford, Northampton, Norfolk and Suffolk, and were valued then at about the same amount as those of Woburn; these two, with Elstow, Dunstable and Newnham, were the richest houses in Bedfordshire.

Abbots of Warden were made commissioners by the pope to inquire into some matters of importance—the election of an abbess at Shaftesbury in 1217, (fn. 13) and the case of the abbot of Tewkesbury who was under suspicion of having forged papal letters in 1224. (fn. 14) King John also authorised the abbot of Warden, with the prior of Dunstable and others, to inquire into an election at St. Edmunds in 1215. (fn. 15) A little later, in 1242, (fn. 16) Adam, abbot of Warden, was made Bishop of Connor in Ireland; but he returned to his old monastery to die in 1244. (fn. 17)

None of the religious of Bedfordshire suffered more severely from the outrages and brutal violence of Fawkes de Bréauté than did the monks of Warden. They dared to dispute with him the ownership of a certain grove, and he set upon them with his retainers, killing one and wounding others; and finally dragged about thirty of them 'through the mud' to his castle at Bedford. But even Fawkes de Bréauté was sometimes aware that he had gone too far; not long afterwards he submitted to penance in the assembled chapter of the monastery, and gave up the disputed grove. (fn. 18) At the siege of the castle the monks of Warden sustained further losses from injuries done to their woods by the royal forces; but these were carefully made up to them by the king. (fn. 19) In 1254 the abbot (perhaps Alexander de Reynes, whose name occurs in 1259, (fn. 20) or William de Sheldwick, his predecessor) had the courage to attack another enemy of the public peace— William de Beauchamp, son of the founder of Newnham Priory. As many as seventeen writs were issued by the abbot against him before the justices itinerant at Bedford: and when he contemptuously refused to answer any of these, the case was carried before Richard, Earl of Cornwall, then guardian of the kingdom, and William's barony was seized in consequence. (fn. 21)

In 1323 the monks began to rebuild their church, as many other religious of the neighbourhood were doing at the same time, but with more zeal than discretion; for before they had completed their buildings they found themselves at the end of their funds, and had to apply to the bishop for a licence to collect alms. (fn. 22) Although such licences were numerous at this time, (fn. 23) they seem to have been successful, for the church was apparently completed in 1366, when indulgences were granted by Bishop Gynwell to pilgrims who should visit its various chapels and altars. (fn. 24)

Of the history of the house during the fifteenth century it is difficult to find any trace. The internal history is even more obscure. As the Cistercians were exempt from ordinary visitations, there is little allusion to them in the episcopal registers, beyond the occasional notice of the benediction of an abbot. There are just a few indications of the state of this house from time to time. Early in the fourteenth century one of the Templars was placed by Bishop Dalderby at Warden (fn. 25) to do his penance; the choice would scarcely have been made if the house had been in an unsatisfactory state of discipline. Again, towards the end of the same century, when there seems to be no doubt that the abbey of St. Alban's was in excellent order under Thomas Delamere, and the general faithfulness to rule bore indeed its natural and proper fruit in the desire of a few to 'live more perfectly,' one of those who left the house with the abbot's permission to follow a more ascetic ideal went 'to the white monks at Warden.' (fn. 26) This is not proof, but it furnishes at any rate a strong probability that the Cistercian rule was really well kept at Warden at this time, and that the restoration of the monastic buildings had been followed, as it should be, by an increase of fervour within the monastery.

Such notices as we possess of the life of the house just before the dissolution are far from happy ones; at the same time they form an interesting illustration of the effect produced by the royal visitors and their injunctions upon a monastery where 'true religion and sound learning' no longer flourished. The royal visitors, Legh and Ap Rice, (fn. 27) delivered the injunctions at Warden, where the abbot, Henry Emery, was well inclined to the new learning, and had only lately (fn. 28) been elected by the influence of the Duke of Norfolk. (fn. 29) It was probably not long after the departure of the visitors that he wrote a letter (fn. 30) to Cromwell, complaining bitterly of the conduct of the brethren, and desiring to resign his office. The injunctions (fn. 31) which seem to have caused most discontent were those which enjoined 'that no monk or brother of this monastery by any means go forth of the precincts of the same'—a restriction which had never been customary amongst English monks; and that which ordered a lesson of Holy Scripture to be read and expounded daily to the assembled convent. His brethren, said the abbot, told him that he was the cause of their being shut up in this way: as for the lecture, he seldom now attempted it, for they would not come and hear it. Dan Thomas London, whom he had appointed to read it, had substituted the book of Ecius Omelies which were 'all carnal and of a brutal understanding, and entreat of many things clean anenst the determination of the Church of England.' The abbot, discovering this, sent Dan Thomas up to London to Dr. Legh, and made his own brother lecturer instead; but then few or none would attend. Thinking this might be ignorance, he bought every one a grammar book, but only two were willing to be instructed. He could not even enforce obedience. One monk who had been sent out on business and had stopped away a whole night (in an alehouse, the abbot said) refused to be corrected on his return, and said the abbot had no authority to rebuke him; further than this, he stirred up all the rest to such violent opposition that the abbot was afraid for his life and had his door guarded by servants for three nights. Besides these offences against order all but four out of the fifteen monks were in 'total ignorance of their rule' and the statutes of their order; five were 'common drunkards'; one, the sub-prior, was guilty of immorality with the connivance of others. It was a case where an abbot might well be willing to resign: whether his accusations were true or false, he had fairly proved himself incapable of governing the house. But his evidence loses something of its value in the light of subsequent events. The surrender of the house did not immediately follow; if the letter was written some time during the summer of 1536, there was a year and a half still before it was decided whether Henry Emery, supported by the Duke of Norfolk, or Thomas London, supported by Sir John Gostwick, was to be the last abbot of Warden. Letters from all of these parties are preserved amongst the State Papers, and give some idea of the order of events, though the story is at best a confusing one.

The first letter, (fn. 32) dated 16 July [1537], is from Henry Emery to the Duke of Norfolk's treasurer. He alludes in it to a plan they had devised, whereby a secular steward should manage the pecuniary affairs of the monastery, and the abbot should have a regular allowance for his living, and also an opportunity of dealing with troublesome monks without incurring suspicion. He adds that Sir John Gostwick had been at the monastery, and at first appeared to be his friend; but now he had joined with his enemies and had a commission to sequester the goods of the house.

The next letter, (fn. 33) dated 5 August, from Norfolk to Cromwell, states that the bearer, Henry Emery, has resigned in favour of Dan Thomas London of the same house; but London, in breach of the agreement between them, had 'procured the repair of Dr. Petre for the taking of his resignation.' Cromwell's favour was requested for Emery.

On 23 August Dan Thomas London (fn. 34) wrote to Cromwell to ask if it was really by his authority that the 'late deposed abbot, Father Emery,' had returned and demanded the keys back again. Norfolk on 3 October (fn. 35) again wrote to Cromwell to thank him for his kindness to his protégé, who was evidently reinstated, and Sir John Gostwick also wrote, (fn. 36) in a letter undated, to thank him for his kindness to 'the poor monk of Warden,' who was probably London. The house was finally surrendered (fn. 37) on 4 December by Henry Emery as abbot, and his convent. It is impossible in reading these letters to avoid the conclusion that all these different persons had been working for their own ends, though it is difficult to see exactly what they were. The total impression left to us of the house in its last days is discreditable and unsatisfactory.

The surrender (fn. 38) is in the conventional form, the same as that of Elstow Abbey; and contains the signatures of Henry Emery and thirteen monks, who probably all received pensions. The abbot in his first letter already quoted speaks of fifteen monks and refers to another who had lately left the monastery. (fn. 39) In the thirteenth century, as has been seen, the numbers were much larger; the thirty monks whom Fawkes de Bréauté dragged to Bedford Castle were not the whole convent; there may have been as many as fifty or sixty altogether. The prior and cellarer are often alluded to in early documents; and the last abbot mentions an official called the 'custos ordinis.'

The original endowment of the abbey comprised all the assarts of Warden and Southill with the wood between those two vills, with permission to cut what wood was wanted for the use of the monastery, and including pannage and herbage, etc., granted by Walter Espec; also the church of Old Warden; and part of the wood of Middleho which the abbot of Ramsey granted. These grants were confirmed by Stephen, Henry II. and Richard I., and Henry III. added the right to assart or enclose the wood of Middleho, Hunts. (fn. 40) Henry Braybrook and his wife granted lands in Westwarden, their son Wischard Leydet and his wife altogether forty-two acres of pasture. (fn. 41) The income of the house in temporalities and spiritualities in 1291 was about £200. (fn. 42) The manor of Steppingley came into the possession of the abbey some time in the fourteenth century, (fn. 43) and in 1387 the granges of Ravensholt and Burdon (Cambs) were exchanged for the manor of Beeston. (fn. 44)

In 1284 the abbey had only one knight's fee, held of the barony of Bedford, and two other small fractions. (fn. 45) In 1302 (fn. 46) the abbot had one fee at Putnoe in Goldington, and one fee at Renhold grange, both of which still were reckoned as the property of Warden in 1346 and 1428. (fn. 47) There were some small fractions besides at Northill, Southill and Stanford, (fn. 48) and Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire; (fn. 49) in 1428 (fn. 50) the abbot had three whole fees—Putnoe, Renhold grange and Warden —one half in Beeston, one half in Northill, threequarters in Southill and small portions in Goldington and Stanford.

The clear value of the property of the abbey in 1535 was reckoned at £389 16s. 6½d. (fn. 51) The report of the Crown bailiff in 1539 showed the abbey to have been in possession of the manors of Putnoe, Ravensden, Rowney, Odsey, Westwarden and Egton (Northants), and Middleho (Hunts), besides other granges, farms, parcels of land and rents in Bedford, Norfolk, Suffolk, Herts, Hunts, Northants and London, amounting altogether to £428 6s. 11½d., after the deduction of two manors conceded to John Gostwick. (fn. 52)

Abbots of Warden

Simon, (fn. 53) first abbot, occurs about 1150

Payn, (fn. 54) occurs 1186 and 1195

Warin, (fn. 55) occurs 1199

Roger, (fn. 56) occurs 1200-1

Warin, (fn. 57) occurs 1204-5

Laurence, (fn. 58) occurs 1209-10

Henry, (fn. 59) died 1216

Roger, (fn. 60) occurs 1223

Adam, (fn. 61) occurs 1234 and 1242, died 1244

William (fn. 62) de Sheldwick, occurs 1254

Alexander (fn. 63) de Reynes, occurs 1259 and 1262

John, (fn. 64) occurs 1290

Ralf of Harrold, (fn. 65) elected 1304, died 1313

Geoffrey of Stanford, (fn. 66) elected 1313

Robert of Odell, (fn. 67) occurs 1324

William, (fn. 68) occurs 1331 and 1346

John, (fn. 69) occurs 1428

John Fraunceys, (fn. 70) elected 1447, occurs 1454

Augustine London, (fn. 71) occurs 1509 and 1529

Henry Emery, (fn. 72) surrendered 1537

The common seal of the abbey is attached to the deed of surrender, (fn. 73) and represents our Lady crowned and seated in a canopied niche, with a sceptre in her left hand, and the holy Child standing on her knee. On the left an abbot with crosier, and another figure on the right, under smaller canopies. Legend: S. COVUNE ABBATIS ET CŌVĒTUS DE WARDEN.

The counter-seal shows a shield bearing a crosier between three Warden pears. Legend: SPES MEA IN DEO EST.


  • 1. See Domesday Translation. 'Willelmus Spech' had 9 hides in Warden and 3½ virgates in Beeston.
  • 2. Exch. Trans. of Charters, 13 Edward I. No. 5. The charter is clearly dated 1135 (Dugdale, Mon. v. 280 [under Rievaulx] has 1136).
  • 3. Add. MS. 24465 (a modern and not very reliable transcript of a chartulary formerly in the possession of B. H. Bright, Esq., of Lincoln's Inn, from which some extracts are given in Dugdale, Mon. vi. 370), f. 27.
  • 4. Add. MS. f. 27b. Christine Leydet was an heiress and her son took her name. (From notes kindly furnished by Mr. Round.)
  • 5. Ibid. ff. 37-9.
  • 6. Ibid. f. 28b.
  • 7. Ibid. 26b.
  • 8. Ibid. 35.
  • 9. From Wischard Leydet and his wife Margery (ibid. f. 27, 27b).
  • 10. Palgrave, Rot. Cur. Reg. (1 John), i. 199; and Cur. Reg. R., 2 John, 22. The abbot complained in 1199 that the advowson of a moiety of the parish church had been wrested from him, though it had been granted by Walter Espec in pure alms: he produced Walter's charter and also the charter of William de Bussey, heir of Walter. The two daughters of William de Bussey, Cecily and Maud, now claimed the advowson, in the person of their respective husbands, on the ground that the last parson, Nicholas de Trailly, granted it to them. The result of the suit is not given, but the church remained finally with the abbot, to whom the foundation charter certainly assigned it: though it seems that the de Busseys had made the last presentation.
  • 11. The question here was whether the last parson, Nicholas de Trailly, had been presented by William de Bussey's son Bartholomew. The jurors found that Walter Espec had given to his nephew, Nicholas de Trailly (father of the said parson) the advowsons of all his churches south of Humber, and that this Nicholas had given Heyworth church to his son Nicholas 'ad se sustendandum ad scolas.' The advowson, they held, had reverted to the heirs of William de Bussey as Walter Espec's heir. See Bracton's Note Book, iii. 107. (This note is kindly furnished by Mr. Round.)
  • 12. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.)
  • 13. Cal. of Pap. Letters, i. 49, 62.
  • 14. Ibid. i. 95. A mandate of Pope Innocent III. in 1205 shows that even in the days when the rule was strictly kept men sometimes assumed the religious habit for their own convenience. A certain W. persuaded his wife to retire to a convent, and he himself took the habit at Warden. Soon afterwards he returned to the world; but when she (who had taken no vow) would have come back to him, he refused to have her, and treated her very badly. The pope however insisted on his taking her back (Cal. of Pap. Letters, i. 21).
  • 15. Rot. Litt. Pat., 16 John, m. 13.
  • 16. Matth. Paris, Chron. Maj. (Rolls Series), iv. 227.
  • 17. Ibid. iv. 390.
  • 18. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Series), iii. 52.
  • 19. Pat. 8 Hen. III. The care with which all the religious who suffered from the violence of Fawkes de Bréauté, or in any way helped forward the siege, were recompensed is worthy of notice (see the histories of Elstow, Caldwell and Newnham).
  • 20. Add. MS. 24465, f. 27, 27b. His sister Sibyl was lady of Langford.
  • 21. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Series), iii. 192.
  • 22. Linc. Epis. Reg., Memo. Burghersh, 108.
  • 23. Bishop Bek had to issue a warning against those who collected alms without episcopal licence (ibid. Memo. Bek, 53); and yet the registers show that many licences were issued.
  • 24. Ibid. Memo. Gynwell, 31.
  • 25. Linc. Epis. Reg., Memo. Dalderby, 194 (1311).
  • 26. Matth. Paris, Gesta Abbatum (Rolls Series), iii. 416.
  • 27. Named in the abbot's letter.
  • 28. At the Convocation of 1529, the abbot of Warden was Augustine (London). At his resignation he went to live at Woburn, and seems to have had most sympathy with the old learning (Depositions of the Abbot of Woburn, L. and P. Hen. VIII. [P.R.O.], xiii. pt. i. 981).
  • 29. Norfolk himself says so in a letter to which allusion must be made presently.
  • 30. Wright, Suppression of Monasteries, letter xxi. pp. 53–5.
  • 31. The injunctions are fully described in Canon Dixon's History of the English Church, i. 378-81. Some of them only enforced the ordinary rules of community life: but others, like this one of enclosure, and the order that the divine office should be said and not sung, and that in a low voice, could not have been framed except with a view to making the religious life less attractive— especially when delivered by such men as Legh and Layton. So also with the order that each rule should be tested by Holy Scripture, which looks well enough at first sight. Saint Benedict's rule is largely drawn from Holy Scripture and would stand the test well, but the point to consider was the effect among the religious of such criticism. All real reformers of the religious life have found their best success in appealing to the rule itself and the high ideals of holy founders, and contrasting these with the degenerate practice of later days—never in depreciating the rule, or the institution itself. As an attempt to reform the monasteries such injunctions were foredoomed to failure, and their results are excellently shown at Warden. Wolsey's efforts to reform the Augustinians were planned on very different lines.
  • 32. L. and P. Hen. VIII. (P.R.O.), xii. 264.
  • 33. Ibid. No. 452.
  • 34. Ibid. 572.
  • 35. Ibid. 828.
  • 36. Ibid. 576. This letter is placed by Dr. Gairdner just after the letter from London to Cromwell; but it is of course possible that it does not refer to London. But it seems likely that it does, and that the kindness referred to was the promotion of London to some living, as his name does not appear amongst the signatures on the deed of surrender.
  • 37. Ibid. 1171.
  • 38. Deeds of Surrender (P.R.O.), No. 253.
  • 39. A young monk named Hugh, who had probably been sent out under the new regulations as being under twenty-four years of age.
  • 40. All these are found in the Inspeximus of Edward I. (Exch. Trans. of Charters, No. 5).
  • 41. Add. MS. 24465, ff. 27, 27b, 28. A certain Ralph Fleet and his wife gave the monks of Warden land in front of St. Martin le Grand, London, for a hospice, at a rent of 5s. a year. Date unknown (Dugdale, Mon. v. 373).
  • 42. Pope Nich. Tax (Rec. Com.)
  • 43. Add. MS. 24465, f. 30b.
  • 44. Pat. 10 Rich. II. m. 24.
  • 45. Feudal Aids, i. 6.
  • 46. Ibid. 9, 14, 15.
  • 47. Ibid. 34, 45.
  • 48. Ibid. 19, 27, 28.
  • 49. Ibid. 160.
  • 50. Ibid. 41, 43, 45.
  • 51. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.) Amongst the liabilities of the abbey are reckoned: For the support of seven poor people of both sexes in the almonry or infirmary of the abbey, £13 13s. 4d. For the poor on Maundy Thursday, by the gift of the founder, 35s. 4d. For seven poor of each sex twice a year, 33s. 4d.
  • 52. Dugdale, Mon. v. 375.
  • 53. Mentioned in the privilege of Innocent II. (1130–43) (Add. MS. 24465, f. 25); and witnessed the Foundation Charter of Chicksand, about 1150.
  • 54. Gorham, History of St Neot's, II. lxxiv. (P. abbot of Warden); and Hunter, Feet of F. 8 Rich. I. (Rec. Com.), 5.
  • 55. Harl. MS. 3656, f. 60; and Add. MS. 24465, f. 26b (duplicates of the same charter).
  • 56. Hunter, Feet of F. 2 John (Rec. Com.), 27.
  • 57. Ibid. 59.
  • 58. Add. MS. 24465, f. 25.
  • 59. Died at Rochford 1216, and was buried there' (From a list of abbots of this house, compiled by F. A. Page-Turner, Esq.)
  • 60. Add. MS. 24465, f. 27.
  • 61. Harl. MS. 3656, f. 62 (A. abbot of Warden), and Matth. Paris, Chron. Majora (Rolls Series), iv. 227, 390.
  • 62. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Series), iii. 192 (footnote).
  • 63. Add. MS. 24465, ff. 35b, 62b.
  • 64. Pat. 18 Edw. I. m. 20.
  • 65. Linc. Epis. Reg., Memo. Dalderby, 255.
  • 66. Ibid. 83
  • 67. From the description of the seal once attached to Harl. Ch. 45, A 27, but now lost, it is probable that the abbot alluded to in this charter was Robert of Odell. It is dated 'the seventeenth year of the king'—probably Edward II. 'Dominus Robertus de Wodhulle' is named as the predecessor of the next abbot in Add. MS. 24465, f. 30b.
  • 68. Cal. of Pap. Letters, iii. 222 (1346); Add. MS. 24465, f. 30b (William, abbot of 'Helmesle,' abbot of Warden in the 'twentieth year of King Edward'); and William, abbot of Warden, dated 4 Edw. III. (earlier in the same chartulary). It is most probable that all these are references to the same person.
  • 69. Pat. 6 Henry VI. pt. 1, m. 29.
  • 70. Linc. Epis. Reg., Memo. Alnwick, 76; and Reg. Bourchier (from Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, No. 219, p. 179).
  • 71. Add. MS. 5827, f. 174b, gives the dates 1488 and 1509 for Augustine London. The second is from the will of John Fisher, a judge, who was to be buried at Warden; but the earlier date, which comes from Browne Willis without reference, seems almost impossible, as Augustine was certainly still alive in 1537 (L. and P. Hen. VIII. xiii [1], 981).
  • 72. Deed of Surrender (P.R.O.), No. 253. Besides the names mentioned above 'Helyas' occurs without any indication of date in Add. MS. 24465, f. 35; 'W. abbot of Warden' in Harl. MS. 3656, f. 62, under 1225; 'H. abbot of Warden' in 1272, in Harl. MS. 3656, f. 64; and Laurence in Add. MS. 24465, f. 28b, dated 30 Edw. I.
  • 73. Deed of Surrender (P.R.O.), 253; casts of the same B.M. lviii. 42, and lix. 65. The seal of Robert de (Wodhul)le, once attached to Harl. Ch. 45, A 27, no longer exists. A small seal of the twelfth century in white wax, representing an abbot with staff and book, encircled by the legend SIGILLVM . ABBATIS . DE . SARTIS. GARDONI, is mentioned by Gorham, History of St. Neot's, II. lxxiv. as existing among the evidences at Montague House, Pyx xxv.