Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Bisham

A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

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'Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Bisham', in A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2, ed. P H Ditchfield, William Page( London, 1907), British History Online [accessed 22 July 2024].

'Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Bisham', in A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2. Edited by P H Ditchfield, William Page( London, 1907), British History Online, accessed July 22, 2024,

"Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Bisham". A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2. Ed. P H Ditchfield, William Page(London, 1907), , British History Online. Web. 22 July 2024.

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The manor of Bisham (Bustlesham or Bistlesham) was given by Robert de Ferrers, in the time of Stephen, to the Knights Templars, and here they had a preceptory. On the suppression of that order, the estate did not pass to the Hospitallers, for it had previously been granted to Hugh le Despenser. It afterwards came to William Montacute earl of Salisbury, who in 1337 built here a priory for Austin canons.

On 15 April licence was granted for the earl of Salisbury to give in frankalmoign to the prior and canons of the house to be founded on his manor of Bisham, land, rent, and advowsons to the yearly value of £500. The monastery was to be founded in honour of Jesus Christ and St. Mary. (fn. 1) Special licences were also enrolled in the course of the next twelve months for the alienation in mortmain to the new foundation of the manor of Hurcott, in Somerset; of an assart of 104 acres inclosed on the heath of Berendenville in the parish of Cookham, Berkshire; of the advowson of the church of Kingsclere, Hampshire, with an acre of land; of the manor of Bisham, and of the manor of Bulstrode, Buckinghamshire.

The actual foundation charter, dated 22 April, 1337, is explicit in declaring this house of Austin canons to be dedicated 'in honour of Our Lord Jesus Christ and St. Mary the glorious Virgin His Mother,' yet in the time of Richard II and right down to its surrender the dedication is given as the Holy Trinity. We can only conclude that the dedication was changed when the time came for the actual consecration of the conventual church and buildings.

William Montacute, earl of Salisbury, for £100 paid in the Hanaper, obtained licence in 1386 to alienate the advowsons of Curry Rivel, Somerset, and Mold, Flintshire, to the prior and convent of Bisham, and for the priory to hold the appropriation of both. (fn. 2)

The appropriation of the church of Curry Rivel, Somerset, to the priory of Bisham, of a value not exceeding 60 marks, was confirmed by Pope Boniface in August, 1398. This confirmation recites that the appropriation had been consented to by the bishop of Wells, by the chapter of Bath and Wells, by the archdeacon of Taunton, and by King Richard, in accordance with the custom of the realm. The bishop's letters, as recited in the Lateran registers, state that the priory was weighed down with debt, that its rents had diminished through pestilence, that its church was in a great measure unbuilt, that its situation by the highway (along which a great multitude of rich and poor pass to divers markets) rendered much hospitality necessary, that its arable lands, crops, and buildings suffered by the flooding of the Thames, so that the priory's resources were not sufficient for the support of the canons and that of their servants (usually numbering thirty), and for the due discharge of hospitality. Yearly pensions were to be paid of 3s. 4d. to the bishop, 20s. to his chapter, and 3s. 4d. to the archdeacon of Taunton. (fn. 3)

Two days later, Boniface confirmed the appropriation made by the bishop of Salisbury of the church of Hilmarton, Wiltshire, to the same priory, which had been granted in 1396-7. The reasons assigned by the bishop for sanctioning the appropriation are much the same as those put forth by the bishop of Bath and Wells; but there are additional statements as to the priory's loss through murrain among their cattle, sheep, and horses, and also that their nearness to Windsor Castle increased the claims on their hospitality. (fn. 4)

In May, 1401, Pope Boniface confirmed the priory in their rights to the appropriations of the churches of Kingsclere, Hampshire, and of Mold, Flintshire, as well as those of Curry Rivel and Hilmarton, and granted that in future visitations of archbishops, bishops, or others, the prior and convent should not be bound to exhibit other titles than the present papal letters, which were to have the force of the originals. (fn. 5) From this it would appear that at least some of the originals were missing.

Pope Innocent VII directed his mandate, in 1404, to the bishop of St. Asaph to summon the prior and convent of Bisham, who were unduly detaining possession of the parish church of Mold, and to collate John ap Kadegan to its perpetual vicarage, if found fit in Latin; the church had been so long void, that by the Lateran statutes its collation lapsed to the apostolic see. (fn. 6)

In 1409 Pope Alexander sent his mandate to the bishop of Salisbury, at the petition of the prior and convent of Bisham, authorizing the conditional appropriation of the parish church of East Claydon, diocese of Lincoln. It is stated therein that Urban VI, on its being set forth to him that the late earl of Salisbury had been prevented by death from sufficiently endowing the priory, had assented, owing to its great poverty, to the appropriation of East Claydon when it became vacant. The priory afterwards took possession, notwithstanding the general revocation of appropriations of Boniface IX. If the facts were as stated the bishop was to see that the church was duly appropriated, a fitting portion, if that had not been done, being reserved for a perpetual vicar, who was to be a secular priest. (fn. 7)

The chief revenues of this priory came from appropriated rectories. Two more churches were appropriated to Bisham in the time of Henry V, namely Shalfleet, Isle of Wight, in 1413, and West Wycombe, Berkshire, in 1414. (fn. 8) In 1461 the convent paid 20s. in the Hanaper for the inspection and confirmation of the charters granted by Edward III. (fn. 9)

Prior Richard, writing to Cromwell in August, 1533, asked him to receive 'the poor young man' the bearer, in his great necessity, as it had pleased him to show great love to Lord Montagu, the founder of their house. The young man had been good and religious in his conversation among them, and they would gladly have retained him longer, but their many charges and changes of priors had brought their house behindhand. (fn. 10)

Cromwell, in his scheming for his friends and tools, desired to secure the appointment of prior of Bisham for William Barlow, who was at that time prior of Haverfordwest. He ordered the then prior to resign, and sent his instructions to Thomas Benet, LL.D., vicar-general of Sarum, to repair to the priory for the election, doubtless to see that his nominee was appointed. Benet, however, wrote to Cromwell on 16 April, 1535, stating that he would have executed his commands before, only the promised resignation of the incumbent had not been received; nevertheless he would proceed to Bisham on 23 April. A letter of Sir William Carew of 27 April stated that he had heard that the prior, by the persuasion of my Lady of Salisbury and other people, refused to resign, though these very people thought him very unmeet to continue, until they saw that Cromwell meant to prefer one contrary to their minds. (fn. 11)

Cromwell succeeded in forcing Barlow on Bisham Priory, but it is doubtful if he ever visited his new preferment, for he was speedily dispatched on an embassy to Scotland. Whilst absent in Scotland in January, 1536, Barlow was appointed bishop of St. Asaph, the first of the many sees that he held; in April he was translated to St. David's, but was allowed as a court favourite to hold the priory of Bisham in commendam.

The summary of the Valor of 1536 gives the income of this priory as £185 11s. 0½d., which would have brought it within the suppression of the lesser houses; but the full Valor for Berkshire is missing, and the abstract among the first fruits documents is obviously incorrect in some particulars. The ministers' accounts of the Augmentation Office give the total income as £327 4s. 6d.

The obsequious Barlow was ready, however, at once to comply with the desire of Henry and Cromwell, and on 5 July, 1536, he surrendered Bisham to the king. But now came about a singular state of things. Bisham alone among all the monasteries of England was selected by the fickle Henry VIII to be re-established on a much more imposing and wealthy scale, the priory being converted into an abbey.

On 6 July, 1537, John Cordrey, abbot of Chertsey, Surrey, with William the prior and thirteen monks, surrendered, on condition of being re-established as an abbey about to be founded by the king at the late priory of Bisham. On 18 December, 1537, the king granted a charter of portentous length to the new foundation of the order of St. Benedict 'out of sincere devotion to God and the Blessed Virgin His Mother.' It was to consist of an abbot and thirteen monks, and was founded by Henry to secure prayers for his good estate during life, and for the soul of Jane his late queen, also for the souls of his posterity and progenitors, and for the souls of all the faithful departed. This new abbey of the Holy Trinity was to be endowed with the house, lands, and all the appurtenances of the late priory of Bisham, and also with the lands of the late abbey of Chertsey, and of the priories of Cardigan, Beddgelert, Ankerwyke, Little Marlow, Medmenham, &c., to the annual value of £661 14s. 9d. Moreover, to give greater dignity to this new abbey, Henry granted his beloved John Cordrey licence to wear an episcopal mitre. (fn. 12)

What John Cordrey and his monks thought of it all as they entered their new home, and whether they had any doubt as to the permanency of their re-establishment, it would perhaps be idle to inquire. But no sooner had they entered than Cromwell at once pressed his claims upon them. In less than ten days from the receipt of the king's charter, we find the abbot writing to Cromwell, acknowledging the receipt of his letter requesting the office of surveyor and receiver of the lands of the new monastery for his friend Mr. Stydolf, who would, according to precedent, have well requited Cromwell on obtaining the position. The abbot was bold enough to say that there were neighbouring gentlemen whom he would offend if he did not let them have such an office; and he also reminded Cromwell that he had granted Stydolf a charge of 40s. a year on the late abbey of Chertsey before its surrender, and that he was adding another 20s. a year of his own free will. (fn. 13)

This rebuff no doubt angered Cromwell, who would throw in his weight against the new foundation. Moreover, the king's sorrow over the death of Jane Seymour soon evaporated, and with it seems to have gone his short-lived desire for prayers either for the living or for the dead. The abbey of Bisham lasted for exactly six months, and then John the abbot, William the prior, and the convent of monks were called upon to execute a second farcical 'surrender' of all their possessions, which they duly executed on 19 June, 1538, in favour of Richard Layton and Edward Carne, doctors of law, the king's visitors. (fn. 14)

Three days later Layton wrote to Cromwell from Bisham, with a not unnatural air of contempt for these twice surrendering monks. 'We have taken,' he writes, 'the assurance for the king, the abbot a very simple man, the monks of small learning and less discretion.' The plate and household stuff was but little. Layton had to borrow a bed from the town for Dr. Carne and himself. Cattle none but a few milch kine, grain none, vestments few. The abbot, he thought, had sold everything in London, and, doubtless, within a year would have sold house and lands, for 'white wine, sugar, burrage leaves and sake, whereof he sips nightly in his chamber till midnight.' For money to dispatch the household and monks they must sell the copes and bells, and if that sufficed not even the cows, plough oxen, and horses. The grain crop was the fairest he had ever seen, and there was much meadow and woodland. The carters and ploughmen were retained because of the hay harvest. That day (22 June) they dispatched the monks, who were desirous to be gone. On the previous day, when they were selling the vestments in the chapter-house, the monks cried a new mart in the cloister and sold their cowls. (fn. 15)

It may at first seem surprising that a house so well endowed should have been in so poor a plight, but it must be remembered that it had not lasted long enough for the revenues to come in. Moreover, the goods of Bisham had been sold at its first suppression as an Austin priory.

The most revolting charges were made against Cordrey and his monks by Dr. Legh when he visited them at Chertsey in 1536. Out of their small number, if Legh is to be believed, seven were incontinent, four guilty of unnatural offences, and two apostate. But this is in direct contradiction to the visitation report about the same time of the bishop of Winchester and Sir W. Fitzwilliam. (fn. 16) The matter is of considerable importance as affecting the general credibility of the monstrous accusations made by Legh and Layton against monasteries up and down the country. Had the king and his advisers really given credit to the Comperta of these two visitors, is it possible to conceive that the abbot of Chertsey and his monks could have been transferred en bloc to the new foundation at Bisham? Moreover, John Cordrey was placed on the commission of the peace for Berkshire the year after these outrageous accusations had been presented.

Priors of Bisham

Thomas Wiltshire (first prior), 1337

Richard de Marlborough (fn. 17)

John Preston, appointed 1378 (fn. 18)

Adam Wargrave, elected 1398 (fn. 19)

Edmund Redyng, elected 1423 (fn. 20)

Hugh Somerton, elected 1433 (fn. 21)

John Blissett, elected 1442 (fn. 22)

Richard Sewy, occurs 1483 (fn. 23)

Richard, occurs 1533 (fn. 24)

William Barlow, appointed abbot 1536 (fn. 25)

John Cordrey, 1537

The seal (fn. 26) of the first foundation is a pointed oval, bearing the Coronation of the Virgin under a double-arched canopy. Legend:—

C . . . IMI D . . . TLESH . .

The pointed oval seal of the re-foundation (1537) as a Benedictine abbey shows the Trinity in a renaissance niche, and bears in base the royal arms of Henry VIII. The lettering is:—



  • 1. Pat. 10 Edw. III, pt. i, mm. 30, 29. See also Chart. R. 11 Edw. III, 35, 37; by these charters every possible right and exemption was conferred upon this house and its tenants; the foundation charter was witnessed, inter alia, by the archbishop of Canterbury, two bishops, and three earls. The charter is recited in Sar. Epis. Reg. Beauchamp, i, 46–8.
  • 2. Pat. 9 Ric. II, pt. ii, m. 21.
  • 3. Cal. Papal Let. v, 157.
  • 4. Ibid. 162–3.
  • 5. Cal. Papal Let. v, 430.
  • 6. Ibid. vi, 60.
  • 7. Ibid. 157.
  • 8. Pat. 1 Hen. V, pt. iii, m. 10; pt. v, m. 20; 2 Hen. V, pt. i, m. 3.
  • 9. Ibid. 1 Edw. IV, pt. v, m. 41, 3.
  • 10. L. and P. Hen. VIII, vi, 971.
  • 11. Ibid. viii, 553, 596.
  • 12. Pat. 29 Hen. VIII, pt. iv. Cited at length in Dugdale, Mon. vi, 528–534.
  • 13. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii, pt. ii, 1267.
  • 14. Rymer, Foedera, xiv, 607.
  • 15. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii, pt. i, 1239.
  • 16. Ibid. ix, 472; V.C.H. Surrey, ii.
  • 17. Dugdale, Mon. vi, 527.
  • 18. Pat. 8 Ric. II, pt. ii, m. 4.
  • 19. Cal. Papal Let. v, 357.
  • 20. Sar. Epis. Reg. Chandler, fol. 38b.
  • 21. Ibid. Neville, fol. 13 b.
  • 22. Ibid. Aiscough, fol. 20.
  • 23. Harl. MSS. 433.
  • 24. L. and P. Hen. VIII, vi, 971.
  • 25. See above.
  • 26. Harl. Chart. 44, B. 40.