A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.
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HOUSE OF BONHOMMES
16. THE COLLEGE OF ASHRIDGE.
The College of Bonhommes at Ashridge, was founded in 1283 by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall (fn. 1) in honour of The Precious Blood, on one of his manors which lay on the Hertfordshire border, and now forms a part of that county. It was the only house of this order in England, except the small college at Edington in Wiltshire (fn. 2) : the rule obeyed by the brethren differed however very little from that of the Austin Canons, though the dress they adopted was more distinctly monastic, consisting of a grey habit and scapulary, with a long grey cloak and cowl. (fn. 3)
The endowment was not at first very large, and provided only for seven brethren who were to be all priests, (fn. 4) and were to receive six marks yearly from the Earl's treasury for their support. (fn. 5) The chronicler of Dunstable tells us that there was at the time little hope that the house would continue, as the foundation was so insufficient, and some of the brethren had not at first a very good character, in spite of their name. (fn. 6) The founder however seems to have been satisfied with his work; the conventual church was dedicated in 1286 by Bishop Sutton, (fn. 7) and enriched by a very valuable relic—a phial containing a portion of the Precious Blood, bought in Germany by Richard King, of the Romans and divided between this house and the Abbey of Hailes. (fn. 8) In 1290, Edward I. kept Christmas here with his Court. (fn. 9) In 1300 the founder died at Ashridge, (fn. 10) and his heart, embalmed in a casket, was placed beside that of St. Thomas de Cantilupe in the Conventual Church; other parts of his body were buried separately here and at Hailes. (fn. 11)
In 1307 the rector and brethren of Ashridge received the custody of the hospital of St. Thomas of Acon in London (fn. 12); but in 1315 it was alleged that they had obtained this by falsehood and suppression of the truth, during the absence of the master, and it was taken away from them. (fn. 13) They were cited at the same time to appear before the pope in person or by proxy to clear themselves of this charge, and to bring all papers relating to the suit between them and the master of the hospital. (fn. 14) It does not appear that they recovered possession of it.
In 1323 there was a suit with the Prior of St. Bartholomew's, London, who finally surrendered to the brethren all his rights in the church of Hemel Hempstead. (fn. 15) In 1346 a chantry was founded in the conventual church for the soul of Sir Bartholomew Burghersh, at the appropriation of the church of Ambrosden. (fn. 16) After the Great Pestilence the endowment of the house was found to be so diminished in value as to be quite insufficient; and in 1376 the Black Prince increased it so considerably that he was reckoned as the second founder. At the same time the statutes were revised, and the house set on quite a new footing. From this time forward the ordinary number of the brethren was twenty, (fn. 17) and even at the dissolution there were still seventeen.
In 1380, just after the re-modelling of the house, the rector, Ralf of Aston, claimed on behalf of his convent to hold one half of the roads or paths that led from Redbourne to Hemel Hempstead, and the Abbot of St. Albans ceded this without making any difficulty. Afterwards, on examination of the evidences, it was found that those rights had belonged from time immemorial to the abbey, but it was too late to take back what had been formally granted, and the monks of St. Albans had to endure their loss with as good a grace as they might, while 'the brethren' of Ashridge, says the chronicler, 'gloried in the success of their fraud.' It is of course possible that the whole transaction might have been very differently described by a chronicler of Ashridge: it is given by Walsingham from the point of view of his own house. (fn. 18)
In the year 1381 the brethren of Ashridge suffered considerable losses on their manors at Berkhampstead and Hemel Hempstead, from the violence of the revolted peasantry, who extorted from them new charters of liberty, and treated them and their property in much the same way as they had the monks of St. Albans and the canons of Dunstable. (fn. 19) It may have been partly in consequence of this as well as other causes that they found themselves 'overwhelmed with great necessity' in 1413, when the Bishop of Winchester granted them the church of Ivinghoe, and a clerk of his household gave them £100 towards the rebuilding of the choir. (fn. 20)
During the last years of its existence, the conventual church was a notable place of pilgrimage in the county; and those convicted of heresy were sometimes ordered to do their penance there, or even to pass some time in the monastery itself. (fn. 21) The last rector, Thomas Waterhouse, assisted at the trial of the relapsed heretic, Thomas Harding of Chesham, who was condemned to death in 1532. (fn. 22) He signed the Acknowledgment of Supremacy in 1535, (fn. 23) and surrendered his house 6 November, 1539, (fn. 24) receiving by way of pension the rectory of Quainton. (fn. 25) The rest of the brethren, sixteen in number, received benefices or pensions of £6 or £7 a year; two of them were living in 1552 as incumbents of Ayot St. Peter and Dachworth, and both of these were married. (fn. 26) The old rector himself lived till 1554, and seems to have held steadily to the religion in which he had been bred, bequeathing to several churches at his death the vestments which he had contrived to keep as personal property all through the reign of Edward VI. There was until recently a fine brass on his tomb in Hemel Hempstead Church, representing him in the vestments of the priesthood, (fn. 27) it is now in the chapel at Ashridge.
We have it on the testimony of Harpsfield that the Bonhommes of Ashridge were in very deed what their name implies—boni homines (fn. 28) : nevertheless there are some serious flaws in their record, as preserved in the episcopal registers and elsewhere. It has been already noticed that certain of the first chaplains of the house, according to the chronicles of Dunstable, se habebant minus bene. (fn. 29) At the election of Ralf of Aston in 1368, there was some dispute and opposition, and a commission was ordered to inquire into the matter; the rector was specially enjoined to reside, which looks as if his predecessor had been at fault in this respect. It is natural to suppose that the revision of the statutes at the new foundation in 1376 brought about a renewal of religious fervour, and a fresh desire for the careful observance of the rule. (fn. 30) It was the rule of St. Augustine to which the brethren of Ashridge were professed, with the addition of a few customs proper to their house. They were placed under the government of a rector, instead of an abbot or prior, and he was to be supported by a corrector. As the brethren were all priests, their time was to be given mainly to the divine office, to prayer and to study;—a granger superintended the temporal property of the house outside the limits of the cloister, and a cellarer had charge of all domestic affairs within the college. The life of the brethren was to be strict and regular, but not what would have been considered then very austere, either in respect of fasting, vigil or enclosure. They rose indeed, as all religious were bound to do, for the midnight office; but it was the Use of Sarum they observed (fn. 31) —the ordinary office of secular priests—and they might retire again to rest till prime if they desired. (fn. 32) They had ordinarily two meals in the day, and were not altogether forbidden the use of linen for their undergarments. Only a few women were ever allowed to enter the cloister—the founder's wife, the queen, the mothers and sisters of the brethren—but with these they might speak, so it were briefly, and in the presence of a companion. Their profession, like that of Augustinians generally, took the form of a promise of obedience made to the rector personally: the novice knelt and placed his hands between the rector's hands, saying: 'I promise obedience to God, to Blessed Mary, to thee, N., Rector of Ashridge, according to the rule of Blessed Augustine and the institutions of the Boni homines of this place;—and that I will be obedient to thee and to thy successors unto my life's end.'
It was a simple and a moderate rule, and we may hope that for the most part the brethren continued faithful to its observance, and so earned the character which Harpsfield gives them. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, however, they seemed to have shared in the general laxity that marked so many religious houses, as well as the life of the clergy of that period. Bishop Smith visited the house and laid certain injunctions upon the brethren, but the record of these is not preserved. (fn. 33) At the visitation of Bishop Atwater in 1519 it was observed that silence was not well kept, nor were the bells regularly rung. Complaint was made that the rector and corrector sometimes used bitter and opprobrious words in the exercise of discipline; they were enjoined to use more self-restraint in this respect. The bishop also ordered that the younger brethren should be more diligent in study, and should not give themselves to idleness, to sport or to drinking: all were to sleep in the dormitory according to rule, and the accounts were to be more carefully kept. (fn. 34) It seems that the last rector, Thomas Waterhouse, and perhaps his predecessors, took some pains to secure the observance of these injunctions, and to improve the discipline of the house. The last visitation report, that of Bishop Longland in 1530, is very instructive as showing the natural results of such efforts of reform, and also the freedom of speech which was allowed on such occasions, so that anything like grave scandal would have been exceedingly difficult to hide.
More than one of the brethren complained that the granger was unfaithful in the exercise of his office, and sold poultry and other goods of the convent for his own profit. One or two brethren complained that the seniors were not sufficiently consulted nor held in due honour by the rector; nor did the juniors reverence or bow to them as custom required. Others however were ready to bear witness that the chief complainant was disobedient, impatient, and wont to contend with the rector. Another simply stated his opinion that the rector's rule was beneficial to the college. (fn. 35) There were smaller complaints as to eating and drinking between meals; that a woman had once spent two nights in the monastery; that a brother had once been out in secular habit.
The injunctions show a real grasp of the situation. The brethren are exhorted to live in virtue, in concord and in charity, and to be pure alike in heart and body. They are gently reminded that the reform of all disorders lies with the rector and corrector, and that complaining serves no good purpose. All, under pain of contempt, are to abstain from eating and drinking between meals without reasonable cause; those who do so without licence of the rector or corrector shall fast upon bread and water. The rector and corrector are to see that all women are kept outside the cloister; they are to repress all murmuring by prudent government. The accounts are to be shown yearly to four senior brethren; the granger and cellarer are to give a faithful account of their stewardship. Licences to go out are to be rarely given, and the juniors are never to go alone. (fn. 36)
In 1538 one of the brethren of Ashridge incurred some danger by rash words spoken against 'Mr. Dr. Petre' (fn. 37) —probably in connection with the dissolution of some neighbouring houses (fn. 38) —and a letter was sent up to Cromwell by Sir John Russell on his behalf, saying that he was but a simple man, and that what he did was for lack of discretion. It is probable that no proceedings were taken against him; but the danger of such words at that time was a very real one. (fn. 39)
The Deed of Surrender, now lost, probably acknowledged that the brethren with unanimous consent gave up their house to the king. The last entry in their register, for which the rector was probably responsible, speaks their mind more truly. Hoc anno nobilis domus de Asscherugge destructa fuit et fratres expulsi sunt in die S. Leonardi. Hoc anno decapitatus fuit ille eximius haereticus et proditor Thomas Cromwell, qui causa fuit destruccionis omnium domorum religiosorum in Anglia. (fn. 40)
The original endowment of the house included the manors of Ashridge, Pitstone (Bucks), Little Gaddesden and Hemel Hempstead (Herts), with the advowson of the church of Hemel Hempstead. Before his death the founder added the manors of Ambrosden and Chesterton (Oxon), with their churches. (fn. 41) The church of Pitstone with Nettleden chapel was appropriated in 1381, (fn. 42) and that of Ivinghoe in 1420. (fn. 43)
From 1302 until 1346 the Rector held one quarter of a knight's fee at Ashridge, half a fee in Hemel Hempstead, a quarter of a fee in Flaunden, and half a fee in Little Gaddesden. (fn. 44)
The temporalities of the house in 1291 were valued at £72 5s. 7d. (fn. 45); in 1535 its clear income was £416 16s. 4d. (fn. 46) The Ministers' Accounts give a total of £467 3s. 7½d., including the manors of Aldbury, Ambrosden, Chesterton, and Hemel Hempstead, and the churches of Hemel Hempstead, Pitstone, Ambrosden, Chesterton and Ivinghoe. (fn. 47)
Rectors of Ashridge
Richard of Watford, (fn. 48) first rector, elected 1283, resigned 1297.
Ralf of Aston, (fn. 49) elected 1297, resigned 1336
Richard of Saretta, (fn. 50) elected 1336, died 1346
Gilbert Boweles, (fn. 51) elected 1346
Ralf of Aston, (fn. 52) elected 1368, died 1396
John of Tring, (fn. 53) elected 1396
Abel (fn. 54)
Robert Farneburgh, (fn. 55) occurs 1416 and 1428
John (Audelee), (fn. 56) occurs 1435 and 1445
John Whytton or Wilton, (fn. 57) occurs 1482 and 1492
Ralf (fn. 58)
John of Berkampstead, (fn. 59) resigned 1521
John Malden, (fn. 60) elected 1521, died 1529
Thomas Waterhouse, (fn. 61) last rector, elected 1529
Red pointed oval seal of the fourteenth century, of which only a fine fragment remains attached to the Acknowledgment of Supremacy 1534. (fn. 62) The impression represents on an altar with large cover the Agnus Dei. In base a lion rampant in allusion to the arms of the founder, Edmund, son of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, 1283. Legend: COMVN . . . VIR.