Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Biddlesden

A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.

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'Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Biddlesden', in A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1, (London, 1905) pp. 365-369. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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The Cistercian abbey of Biddlesden was founded in the year 1147 (fn. 1) by Arnold de Bois (or de Bosco), steward to the Earl of Leicester, and one of the keepers of the royal forest. The traditional account of its foundation, if true, does not reflect much credit upon Arnold. For the lands with which he endowed it were a gift from the Earl of Leicester, to whom they had escheated during the civil war by the failure of the former tenant, Robert of Meppershall, to do the homage and service due for them (fn. 2); and it is said that Arnold de Bois determined to found an abbey there in order to avoid the difficulty of a disputed tenure. When peace was restored, Robert did indeed lay claim to the lands, and impleaded Arnold; but the monks paid him ten marks, and persuaded him to grant them a charter of confirmation. Matthew Paris however speaks of Arnold as strenuus, facetus et optimis moribus adornatus, so perhaps his motives in founding the abbey have been misrepresented. At any rate he received all the honours of a founder, and was buried in the conventual church before the high altar. (fn. 3)

The first monks of Biddlesden were probably sent from the abbey of Gerondon in Leicestershire, for the earliest charters were made out to the abbot of that house; but after the custom of Cistercian foundations, it became an independent abbey almost at once. The original endowment was confirmed by Robert, Earl of Leicester, by Stephen and Henry II., by Theobald of Canterbury, and Robert of Lincoln. (fn. 4) Many well-known names in this county are reckoned amongst the benefactors of Biddlesden: William and Ralf de Cheinduit, Roger and Miles de Bray, Roger Foliot, Ralf de Pinkeney, Thomas de St. Waléry, and Beatrice, wife of the younger William de Beauchamp. Their gifts were bestowed for the most part during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The church of Ebrington in Gloucestershire was granted to the abbey as late as 1378. (fn. 5) But it was not a wealthy house at any time, and its revenue never rose much above £100.

Little is known of its external history. In 1260 the vicar of Thornborough complained to the abbot that he did not receive tithes from the monastic lands in his parish; and the abbot, for the sake of peace, granted him three acres out of these, being careful however at the same time to assert the Cistercian pri vilege of exemption, and to explain that he and his convent did this of their own free will. (fn. 6) In 1276 the same abbot was involved in a suit with his tenants of the manor of Boycott on the subject of feudal customs. (fn. 7) In 1280 he had to complain of trespasses and injuries done to him in his house in London, (fn. 8) and at about the same time he was distrained for scutage for his property in Maryland, but it was finally proved that none was really due. (fn. 9) In 1302 the abbey was taken under the king's protection, and as it was greatly burdened with debt, John of Tingewick, rector of Wappenham, was appointed custodian of the house, to aid the monks by his counsel, and to superintend the administration of its revenues. (fn. 10) It seems however that John took base advantage of his position, for in 1308 (fn. 11) a suit was brought by the abbot and convent against him and many others, for breaking down their enclosures in Syresham and depasturing the corn that grew there. In 1325 Abbot Roger de Gotham acknowledged a debt of £200, which however he contrived afterwards to pay off. (fn. 12) In 1392 the house seems to have recovered its prosperity a little; for the abbot and convent were in a position to take over the cell of Weedon Pinkeney from the Abbot of St. Lucien near Beauvais in France, at a pension of 12 marks a year, afterwards commuted for a payment of 300 marks in full quittance. (fn. 13) The purchase of Weedon Pinkeney however involved the monks of Biddlesden in a long dispute with the rectors of Wappenham, in whose parish part of the property of the late priory lay. Two or three attempts were made to settle the question of tithes, but it was not finally arranged until 1406. In this year the rector agreed not to molest the monks in future in respect of any property that had belonged to St. Lucien; and received in compensation two acres of cornland, with two lambs and two cheeses yearly. The final agreement was ratified by Bishop Repingdon and the Archbishop of Canterbury. (fn. 14)

Of the internal history of the house nothing whatever is known until just before the dissolution. An abbot was deposed in 1192, (fn. 15) but his offence is not recorded. The house was exempt from episcopal visitation, like all Cistercian monasteries, so that the Lincoln registers throw no light upon its condition from its foundation to its surrender. As its yearly income was under £200, it would naturally have been dissolved with the smaller monasteries in 1536. In this year the local commissioners reported that there were eleven monks in the house, of whom nine were priests, and none guilty of any immorality. There was a former abbot living in the house, with a pension of £13 6s. 4d. for his maintenance, and there were as many as fifty-one servants attached to the monastery, of whom twentyfour were 'hinds' or farm labourers, thirteen did the work of the house, nine were children (possibly servers at mass), and four were women who came in by the day. (fn. 16) The commissioners stated further that only one of the monks desired a capacity to depart to another house of religion, but this does not seem very consistent with the fact that they petitioned for the monastery to be continued, and actually paid as much as £133 6s. 8d. for this privilege. (fn. 17) The house was not surrendered till 25 September, 1538. The form of the surrender is not of the ordinary type, and is in English. As it has been more than once printed in full, there is no need to reproduce it here verbatim. (fn. 18) It has received the more attention because it is not, like so many others, a merely formal declaration that the surrender is quite voluntary and that there are many excellent but unnamed reasons why it should be made; but it contains a certain amount of vague self-accusation. Summed up, it is a confession that the 'manner and trade of living' of the monks of Biddlesden and others of their 'pretensed religion' for many years past did most principally consist in 'dumb ceremonies': that they had been exempt from their own ordinaries and diocesans and subject to 'forinsecal potentates' such as the bishops of Rome and abbots of Citeaux, 'which never came here to reform such discord of living and abuses as now have been found to have reigned amongst us': and that they had never been taught in the true knowledge of God's laws, but now had happily discovered by the study of the gospel that it was most expedient for them to be ruled by their Supreme Head the king. Even if this document had been composed by the monks themselves and not merely handed to them to sign, it would prove very little against them, and over against it may be set not only Dr. London's approval of the house (fn. 19) —which might be a poor compliment—but the favourable report of the local commissioners.

The abbot received a pension of £40; the cellarer, £6; the rest, eight in number, £5 6s. 8d. each; and the old abbot, Richard Benet, apparently kept his original pension of twenty marks. (fn. 20) One of the monks, Richard Taylor of Northampton, was still living in 1552 as Vicar of Thornborough, and had never married. (fn. 21)

The original endowment of the abbey included the vill of Biddlesden, 5 virgates in Whitfield, and the manor of Maryland in Syresham, Northants, as well as the advowson of half the church of Houghton, Northants, with lands and a mill in the same parish. (fn. 22) The manors of Charwelton and Preston Capes in Northants were granted by William and Ralf de Cheinduit at the end of the twelfth century (fn. 23); the manor of Boycott, Oxon, was the property of the abbey early in the thirteenth. (fn. 24) In 1379 the church of Ebrington, Gloucestershire, was granted to the monks by William la Zouche of Harringworth in memory of his kinsman, William de Bosco (fn. 25); and Sir Richard Corbett relinquished his rights in the same church on condition that a certain number of masses should be said for his soul. (fn. 26) In 1284 the Abbot of Biddlesden held three fourths of a knight's fee in Dodford and a share in one half of Thornborough (fn. 27); in 1302 he was returned as holding Dodford and Stowe with the Abbot of Osney, and half the village of Evershaw (fn. 28); in 1316 his lands were the same as in 1302, with the addition of one third of Thornborough. (fn. 29)

In 1291 the temporalities of the abbey amounted to £66 9s. 3d. (fn. 30) The Valor Ecclesiasticus estimates its revenues at £125 4s. 3d. (fn. 31); the local commissioners in 1536 at £130 4s. 3d. or £138 7s. 6d. (fn. 32); the Ministers' Accounts of 1538 at £164 1s. 7d., including the manors of Boycott, Oxon, and Dodford, Bucks, with Charwelton, Preston and Gorall, Northants; and the church of Ebrington. (fn. 33)

List of Abbots (fn. 34)

Richard, (fn. 35) occurs 1151

Alexander, (fn. 36) occurs 1157 and 1166

Richard, (fn. 37) died 1192

William, (fn. 38) deposed 1198

Adam of Bath, (fn. 39) elected 1198, occurs till 1209

Maurice, (fn. 40) occurs 1219 and 1222

Henry, (fn. 41) occurs 1226, died 1228

Thomas, (fn. 42) occurs 1230 and 1232

Giffard, (fn. 43) resigned 1236

Walter, (fn. 44) occurs 1238 and 1240

Henry Mallore, (fn. 45) occurs 1241

Philip, (fn. 46) occurs 1245 to 1250

William, (fn. 47) occurs 1254 to 1257

Roger, (fn. 48) occurs 1259 and 1262

William Bisham, (fn. 49) occurs from 1264 to 1286

John Thornborough, (fn. 50) occurs from 1290 to 1296

Walter, (fn. 51) elected 1296, occurs till 1300

John of Salisbury, (fn. 52) occurs 1301 to 1307

Thomas of Buckingham, (fn. 53) elected 1308, occurs till 1315

John, (fn. 54) elected 1317, occurs till 1321

Thomas of Buckingham, (fn. 55) occurs 1324

Roger of Gotham, (fn. 56) occurs 1325 to 1332

Griffin, (fn. 57) occurs 1341

William of Loughborough, (fn. 58) occurs from 1346 to 1357

Peter, (fn. 59) occurs from 1378 to 1396

John, (fn. 60) occurs from 1397 to 1400

Stephen, (fn. 61) occurs 1428

John, (fn. 62) occurs from 1469 to 1480

William, (fn. 63) occurs 1481

Richard Benet, (fn. 64) occurs 1495, resigned 1535

Richard Green, (fn. 65) last abbot, elected 1535

Seal of St. Mary and St. Nicholas of Biddlesden:

A pointed oval seal (fn. 66) of the late twelfth century, creamy white, imperfect. The obverse is wanting, the reverse represents a sinister hand and vested arm issuing from the left and holding a pastoral staff in pale. The legend, of which only a part remains, runs: +SIG . . . S DE BETLESD.'

A very similar one, (fn. 67) light brown in colour, representing a hand and vested arm issuing from right, grasping a pastoral staff in pale. Legend: +SIGILLVM DE BEHTLESDENA.

A dark green pointed oval seal or counterseal, 1264-1286, (fn. 68) represents a dexter and vested arm issuing from the right and holding a pastoral staff in pale. In the field on the left a crescent enclosing an estoile. Legend: [C]ONTRA S' ABB'IE DE BETLESDENE.

A pointed oval seal or counterseal, pale yellow in colour, and imperfect, attached to a charter bearing date. 1275, (fn. 69) represents a dexter hand and vested arm issuing from the right, holding a pastoral staff with large crook in pale. In the field on the left two crescents and an estoile. The legend is defective: [C]ONTRA S' . . . ESDEN . . .

A very small green pointed oval seal attached to a charter of 1265. (fn. 70) The impression, which is very imperfect, represents a crescent enclosing an estoile of many points. Legend: AVE MARIA GRA.

Later seal of the fourteenth century. (fn. 71) Two partial impressions, one containing the upper, the other the lower part of a pointed oval seal, represents a saint standing in a canopied niche. In base a shield of arms: a fesse and quarter: ERNALDUS DE BOSCO, founder. Legend: SIG ... NT' DE.

Seal of Abbot Giffard 1228-1236. (fn. 72) Pointed oval, dark green, represents Minerva helmeted, in profile to the left holding a spear. Legend: +VIVE: VT: PLACEAS: DEO.

Seal of Abbot Thomas about 1238-1240. (fn. 73) Pointed oval, opaque yellow in colour, the impression is fine but very imperfect, represents the abbot full length, in his right hand a pastoral staff, in his left a book. Legend: . . . BATIS . . . TO NICHOL . . .

Seal of Abbot Philip 1245. (fn. 74) Pointed oval, dark green, represents the abbot standing on a platform, holding in his right hand a pastoral staff, in his left a book. Legend: + SIGILL': ABATIS: DE: SANCTO: NICHOLAO.

Seal of Abbot William 1264-1286. (fn. 75) Similar to seal of Abbot Philip. Another seal of Abbot William, a pointed oval, represents the Virgin half length, the Holy Child on her left knee. In base under an arch the abbot half length in prayer. (fn. 76) Legend: [M]ATER DEI [MEM]ENTO ME[I].

Another seal of Abbot William, (fn. 77) oval, impression of a bust couped at the neck, in profile to right, wearing a double tiara. Legend: IHESV: MERCI.

Seal of Abbot John Sarum. (fn. 78) A pointed oval seal attached to a charter dated 1304, the impression is very fine but imperfect. It represents the abbot standing on a carved corbel under a trefoiled canopy supported on either side by a slender shaft, in his right hand a pastoral staff, in his left hand a book. Legend: . . . I . . . BVTLESDENE.

Only a fragment remains of the seal attached to the Deed of Surrender. (fn. 79)


  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. v. 364, from the Annals of Peterborough.
  • 2. The land had changed hands two or three times before this, being first granted by Robert of Meppershall to Geoffrey de Clinton in return for certain benefits and then restored to Robert again as a dowry with a kinswoman of Geoffrey's. Ibid. 365-8. Robert's charter of confirmation is extant. Harl. Chart., 85 g. 48.
  • 3. Chron. Majora (Rolls Series), v. 487.
  • 4. Harl. MS. 4714, 1-3. This chartulary is of late date, but the originals of many of the charters contained in it are extant, and prove it to be very correct on the whole, with the exception of a few obvious blunders, such as the date 1251 attached to the charter of Henry II., witnessed by Thomas Becket as chancellor.
  • 5. Ibid. 267d. The advowson was disputed by a certain Henry Bemys and his wife until 1399, when they finally surrendered their claim. Harl. Chart. 84 F. 14, and 84 H. 23.
  • 6. Harl. MS. 4714, f. 133d. There was a similar dispute about tithes in Syresham in 1382. Ibid. 156-161.
  • 7. Abbrev. Plac. (Rec. Com.), 192.
  • 8. Pat. 8 Edw. I. m. 18.
  • 9. Dugdale, Mon. v. 366.
  • 10. Pat. 30 Edw. I. m. 26.
  • 11. Ibid. 2 Edw. II. m. 26d.
  • 12. Close, 19 Edw. II. m. 24d.
  • 13. Harl. MS. 4714, f. 250d.
  • 14. Ibid. ff. 221d-242.
  • 15. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), ii. 251.
  • 16. Dugdale, Mon. v. 365; from Browne Willis.
  • 17. L. and P. Henry VIII. xiii. (2) 422 and 457.
  • 18. Deed of Surrender (P.R.O.) 22: and see L. and P. Henry VIII. xiii. (2), 421.
  • 19. L. and P. Henry VIII. xiii. (2), 422.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Exch. Mins. Accts. Bdle 76, no. 26.
  • 22. Harl. Chart. 84 H, 45-48, 85 g, 48, and Harl. MS. 4714, ff. 1-3.
  • 23. Harl. MS. 4714, ff. 58, 59d, 100, 101d.
  • 24. Abbrev. Plac. (Rec. Com.), 192.
  • 25. Harl. MS. 4714, f. 267d.
  • 26. Harl. Chart. 84, F. 5. Alms were still distributed to the poor in his name in 1535, and also for Arnold de Bois. Valor Eccl. iv. 238.
  • 27. Feud. Aids, i. 79, 81.
  • 28. Ibid. i. 100.
  • 29. Ibid. i. 108, 109.
  • 30. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.).
  • 31. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv. 238.
  • 32. Dugdale, Mon. v. 365.
  • 33. Dugdale, Mon. v. 368-9.
  • 34. This list is almost the same as that made out by Browne Willis. As it is mainly a list of occurrences (only three elections appearing in the episcopal registers), it is an evidence of his general care and accuracy, at any rate in dealing with his own county; and the verification of nearly all the names and dates which he gives is a presumption in favour of those which cannot so easily be traced. He seems to have had a considerable acquaintance with old wills, from which he may have obtained some of these.
  • 35. Harl. MS. 4714, f. 2.
  • 36. Browne Willis, History of Buckingham, p. 157.
  • 37. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), ii. 248.
  • 38. Ibid. ii. 251.
  • 39. Ibid. Called Adam of Bath in Harl. MS. 4714, f. 33, and occurs with the date 1209 on f. 155d.
  • 40. Harl. MS. 4714, f. 26d: the second date is given by Browne Willis.
  • 41. Browne Willis, History of Buckingham, 157, gives the date 1226, and adds 'Stephen of Canterbury died 1228.' The mistake may easily be traced. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iii. 109, has 'Eodem anno obiit Stephanus Cantuariensis; abbas de Bitlesden,' etc. It was probably Henry who died in 1228, if he was abbot in 1226.
  • 42. Feet of F. 16 Hen. III. 14.
  • 43. He was made abbot of Waverley in this year. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), ii. 316.
  • 44. Harl. MS. 4714, f. 20d; and Harl. Chart. 84 d, 32, have W. dated 1239 and 1240.
  • 45. Browne Willis, History of Buckingham, 157.
  • 46. Harl. MS. 4714, f. 20; Feet of F. 35 Hen. III. no. 3.
  • 47. Feet of F. 39 Hen. III. no. 4, and 55 Hen. III. no. 4.
  • 48. Harl. MS. 4714, ff. 6, 11d.
  • 49. The earliest reference, in Harl. MS. 4714, f. 338, is dated 1266; the latest, in f. 105, is 1286.
  • 50. Harl. Chart. 84 E, 20, 25.
  • 51. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Sutton, 159; Harl. Chart. 84 E, 29.
  • 52. Harl. Chart. 84 E, 28, 38.
  • 53. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, 121; and Harl. Chart. 84 E, 43 (1315).
  • 54. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, 347; Harl. Chart. 84 E, 47 (1321).
  • 55. It is uncertain whether this was the same Thomas of Buckingham, re-elected, or another of the same name. He occurs only in 1324 (Harl. Chart. 84 E. 50); but the references to his predecessor John are very numerous.
  • 56. Close, 19 Edw. II. m. 24d; Harl. Chart. 84 E, 60.
  • 57. Harl. Chart. 84 F, 1.
  • 58. The earlier date is given by Browne Willis; Ibid. 86 B, 8, and 84 F, 2 give 1355 and 1357.
  • 59. Ibid. 84 F, 4; 86 G, 11. There are numerous references to him between these dates.
  • 60. Harl. MS. 4714, ff. 242d and 293d.
  • 61. Harl. Chart. 84 F, 15.
  • 62. Ibid. 85 G, 59 and 84 F, 16.
  • 63. Harl. MS. 4714, f. 342d.
  • 64. The earlier date is given by Browne Willis: there are several later references.
  • 65. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Longland, 191d.
  • 66. Harl. Chart. 84 G, 12.
  • 67. Ibid. 84 D, 21.
  • 68. Harl. Chart. 84 E, 11.
  • 69. Ibid. 84 E, 4.
  • 70. Ibid. 86 E, 48.
  • 71. Ibid. 83 F, 20.
  • 72. Ibid. 84 D, 25.
  • 73. Ibid. 84 D, 28.
  • 74. Ibid. 84 D, 36.
  • 75. Ibid. 84 E, 14, 15.
  • 76. Ibid. 84 E, 13.
  • 77. Ibid. 84 E, 10.
  • 78. Harl. Chart. 84 E, 36.
  • 79. P.R.O. Deed of Surrender, No. 22.