A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1948.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
'Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey and cathedral priory of Ely', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 199-210. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp199-210 [accessed 29 February 2024]
HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE MONKS
1. ABBEY AND CATHEDRAL PRIORY OF ELY
Etheldreda, (fn. 1) daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles, was married to Tonbert, ruler of the South Girvii, who bestowed upon her the district afterwards known as the Isle of Ely, and on his death in 955 she retired to this remote spot with a few friends to devote herself to religious meditation. After some five years she was forced into a political marriage with Egfrith the young son of Oswy, the powerful King of Northumbria; but as she had with Tonbert's consent retained her virginity during the three years of their union, so she insisted upon doing during the twelve years of her nominal marriage to Egfrith. When Egfrith, who had succeeded Oswy in 670, became too insistent on his rights as her husband she fled to the monastery of Coldingham, where she took the veil as a nun; and in 673 she returned to Ely with a few followers to found the monastery in which she was installed as abbess by Wilfred, Bishop of York. Here with her community of religious of both sexes she lived a strict ascetic life until 23 June 679, when she died during an epidemic, apparently of bubonic plague. (fn. 2) She was succeeded by her elder sister Sexburg, widow of the King of Kent, during whose abbacy, on 17 October 695, the body of St. Etheldreda was removed from its humble wooden coffin into a marble sarcophagus discovered among the ruins of the Roman town at Cambridge and was translated to a place near the high altar. (fn. 3) Four years later St. Sexburg was buried beside her sister and was succeeded as abbess by her daughter Ermenild, widow of Wulfhere, King of Mercia. With the name of the next abbess, St. Werburg, daughter of St. Ermenild, (fn. 4) the history of this foundation comes to an end, except that it and the neighbouring monastery of Soham were among the religious houses pillaged and burnt by the Danes in 870. (fn. 5)
After the death or flight of the nuns and brethren eight priests are said to have returned to the site. (fn. 6) Gradually the ruined church was repaired and there grew up round it a college or community of secular priests, to whom King Edred in 956 gave the vill of Stapleford and other lands; (fn. 7) Ogga of Mildenhall gave them a hide of land in Cambridge, (fn. 8) and Wolstan of Dalham the estate of Stuntney. (fn. 9)
A few years later this Wolstan was instrumental in dissuading King Edgar from granting his rights over the Isle of Ely to either a foreign bishop or a Danish noble, who were each trying to obtain a grant of them. Instead, the king, impressed by what he was told of the sacred traditions of the place, encouraged St. Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, to restore the church and replace the married secular clergy by a convent of monks. (fn. 10) This Ethelwold did with enthusiasm, buying many estates for its endowment, amounting to 60 hides (fn. 11) (over 7,000 acres) and including Horningsea, where a former 'minster' (apparently collegiate rather than monastic) had been destroyed in 870 and afterwards restored and endowed by the local inhabitants. (fn. 12) In 970 King Edgar granted a charter to the new abbey of Ely, conferring upon it 20 hides of land in the Isle, a yearly render of 10,000 eels from the vill of 'Wyllan', the regalities or entire jurisdiction of the two hundreds of Witchford in the Isle and of the five and a half hundreds of Wicklow (later 'the Liberty of St. Etheldreda') in Suffolk, and the fourth penny of the issues of the province of Cambridge. (fn. 13) The king also gave them a large estate in the woodlands of Hatfield (Herts.) from which to get timber for their buildings, but after his death Egelwin the Alderman proved his right to it and had to be given compensation elsewhere. (fn. 14)
Many other estates were obtained, both within the Isle and outside, by purchase and by gift, the most notable donation being made by Brithnoth the Alderman. When he was leading his forces to meet the Danes, who had invaded East Anglia, he was refused food for his men by the Abbot of Ramsey, but at Ely he and his troops were welcomed and feasted. Before leaving he gave certain jewels to the monks and promised that they should have a number of manors, including Trumpington, Fulbourn, Teversham, Pampisford, Thriplow, and Hardwick, after his death. When he fell in battle at Maldon in 991 the monks brought back his headless body for honourable burial in their church. (fn. 15) His widow Ethelfled gave them other estates and a hanging embroidered with scenes of her husband's heroic deeds. (fn. 16) This was one of many gifts for the adornment of the church which are recorded. St. Ethelwold gave many ornaments and vestments; so did King Edgar, including his own royal robe of purple embroidered with gold, a gold crucifix, and a splendid Book of the Gospels; (fn. 17) and Leofwin, son of Æthulf, who in a fit of anger had slain his mother, as part of his penance rebuilt the south side of the church and erected an altar to the Blessed Virgin Mary in a chapel, where he placed a life-sized image of her and her Son in gold and silver and gems. (fn. 18)
The church of Ely was also rich in relics. The bodies of the sainted abbesses Etheldreda, Sexburg, and Ermenild were soon joined by that of Etheldreda's sister St. Withburg, which the monks, by a combination of trickery and force, stole from Dereham, where she was buried; (fn. 19) and Ælsi, the second abbot, by permission of King Ethelred translated the body of St. Wendred from the church of March to be enshrined at Ely. (fn. 20) The shrine with St. Wendred's relics was carried by monks of Ely with the army of Edmund Ironside in 1016 to the disastrous field of Ashingdon, where the monks were slain and the relics fell into the hands of King Cnut, who later gave them to the church of Canterbury. (fn. 21) As some compensation the monks of Ely stole the body of Ædnoth, Bishop of Dorchester and formerly first Abbot of Ramsey, who had been killed at Ashingdon, when it was lodged for the night in the church of Ely on its way to Ramsey. (fn. 22) A generation later, in 1045, during a scare of a Danish invasion, the Abbot of St. Albans sent the relics of St. Alban to Ely for safe keeping. When the scare was over the monks of Ely were reluctantly forced to disgorge certain bones, but subsequently they said that these were not St. Alban's and that they still had the genuine relics. (fn. 23)
Brithnoth, Prior of Winchester, had been selected by Ethelwold as the first abbot for the new community, and he at once set about restoring the church, which seems to have been burnt by the Danes but not destroyed and had been partly patched up by the secular priests. It was sufficiently completed to be consecrated by Archbishop Dunstan on 3 February 972, the high altar being dedicated in honour of St. Peter and the south aisle of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (fn. 24) The abbot was ably assisted by one of his monks, Leo, to whom he committed the control of the abbey's temporalities. Leo laid out the estates in the neighbourhood of the monastery, planting gardens and orchards, and in particular defined the exact limits of the Isle of Ely and of its two hundreds, as well as digging the great ditch known as the Abbot's delf, which served as a boundary and assisted the drainage of the fenland. (fn. 25) After ruling the abbey for eleven years Brithnoth died while on a visit to the court of King Ethelred, and tradition asserted that he had been murdered by the order of the king's wicked mother Elfrida. (fn. 26)
Ælsi was then appointed abbot through the influence of King Ethelred, (fn. 27) who is said to have subsequently shown his favour to the house by appointing the Abbot of Ely, with those of St. Augustine's and Glastonbury, to serve as royal chaplain, each for a term of four months, the Ely term beginning at the feast of the Purification. (fn. 28) During, the thirty-five years, or thereabots, of Ælsi's abbacy the monastery continued to prosper and to receive further gifts of estates. (fn. 29) Athelstan, Bishop of Elmham, who during his life had been closely connected with the abbey, performing the episcopal offices of professing and ordaining the monks, at his death in 1001 (fn. 30) left his body to be buried in the church, to which he bequeathed rich ornaments and vestments. (fn. 31) His successor Ælfgar resigned the see c. 1015 and retired to Ely, where he lived for some ten years as a monk, and the next Bishop of Elmham was himself a member of the convent, Ælfwin, whose parents had given at his admission the manors of Walpole and Wisbech and other lands, (fn. 32) and he in turn resigned and returned to Ely. In 1023 the body of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, was brought to Ely to be buried on the spot which he had chosen in his lifetime. (fn. 33)
The Danish conquest did not affect the royal favour shown to Ely. The stories are well known of how King Canute listened to the chanting of the monks as he was rowed to the island, and of how he crossed the frozen mere of Soham, preceded by the stout and burly Brithmer Budde. (fn. 34) Emma, the wife first of King Ethelred and then of Canute, and her son Edward the Confessor showed a specially intimate devotion for Ely and its shrine. Emma's gifts of feretory cloths of silk and cloth of gold with precious stones and embroidery, her great green frontal for the high altar 'with golden spangles', as well as the 'pall spotted with small, pale green circles' in which her infant son, the future saint, was wrapped to be offered upon the altar of the church, (fn. 35) were among the treasures long preserved and shown to pilgrims.
It was to Ely that Edward's elder brother Alfred was sent to die when he had been brutally blinded. (fn. 36) The connexion of the Confessor with this house affords a very early glimpse of some kind of school within the monastery. 'The seniors of the church,' says the author of the Liber Eliensis, 'who know and were there, are wont to relate that he (that is the atheling Edward) was brought up with the boys in the cloister there and learnt the psalms with them, and the Sunday office hymn.' (fn. 37) After he became king Edward gave to the monks the vill of Lakingheath and issued a charter confirming their privileges and listing their estates. (fn. 38)
There was, however, a more unfortunate side to King Edward's patronage, for on the death of Abbot Leofsin in 1044 he sent his own cousin Wlfric, Abbot of Winchester, to succeed him, and Wlfric involved himself in a most dishonourable scandal; for when his brother Guthmund was unable to marry a noble lady because his wealth was not proportionate to his birth, Wlfric helped him out by making over Livermere and other estates of the abbey to his brother 'without consent of the Convent'. He was forced to retire and is said to have died 'very penitent' in 1065. Guthmund was at last brought to agree to hold his plunder only for life, but Stigand of Canterbury, taking occasion, as was his custom on a vacancy, to seize the abbey and administer its estates for his own benefit, and the Norman Conquest further supervening, the church lost the lands, which came into the hands of Hugh de Montfort. (fn. 39)
It is added that Stigand, to palliate his robbery of the church, was very liberal of gifts of ornaments to those monasteries he held any considerable time in his hands: 'as particularly to that of Ely, he gave largely both in Gold and Silver plate for the service of the Altar; and divers ornaments to the church, a large Crucifix overlaid with silver with the image of our Lord as big as life; and the images of the Virgin Mary and St. John of brass; besides several Vestments esteemed the richest and most costly in the kingdom'. (fn. 40)
Thurstan, the last Saxon abbot, was appointed by Harold. He was of Witchford in the Isle and a man of learning. For four years after the crowning of the Conqueror nothing is heard of him or of Ely; then came the rising of 1070, when Hereward and his associates held the Isle against the Normans. (fn. 41) Eventually, after the surrender of the garrison and the Isle, the abbey was fined the enormous sum of 1,000 marks, (fn. 42) but Thurstan was not displaced, and the king visited and venerated the shrine of St. Etheldreda. He waited until the abbot's death in 1072 to appoint Theodwin, a monk of Jumièges, to be his successor, and to seize into his own hands almost all the treasure and ornaments of the church.
Like most of William's Norman monks Theodwin was upright and faithful. He refused to accept the abbacy of Ely until the king had returned all its valuables, and, although his rule was so short that he never received formal benediction, he did a good deal to reduce the unfortunate monastery to order. On his death in 1075 the king sent Eudo dapifer and other commissioners to make an inventory (fn. 43) of all the movables of the church of Ely and appointed Godfrey, one of Theodwin's Norman monks, to adminster the monastery during the vacancy. In 1080 Odo of Bayeux was ordered by his brother the king to call an assembly of great lords spiritual and temporal having feudal rights in the east of England to deal with the whole question of the confiscated lands of the abbey. The assembly met at Kentford and was followed by a number of royal writs ordering the return of all the lands which had been proved to belong to the abbey and the confirmation of its privileges. (fn. 44) These orders, however, were only partly complied with.
The work of Godfrey was done and in 1081 he was sent by the king to rule Malmesbury as abbot. The new Abbot of Ely was Simeon, a former monk of St. Ouen and Prior of Winchester. He was of the Conqueror's blood, and his brother, Walkelin, had been appointed Bishop of Winchester by William to replace Stigand. Simeon, although he was 80 years old, at once set about rebuilding the conventual church of Ely. He was also extremely active in recovering the possessions of the house which should have been, but in many instances were not, returned as a result of the council at Kentford. (fn. 45) Picot, the Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, was the worst of those who refused to restore the abbey lands, (fn. 46) but in his case, as in that of others, Simeon eventually succeeded in making him acknowledge that he held of the abbot and convent by knight service.
King William, having appointed Simeon, assessed his abbey at the service of 40 knights, and the abbot at first tried to fulfil the obligation by supporting his 40 knights within the precincts, where they received their food from the cellarer. The presence of these armed laymen proved disastrous to monastic discipline, so the abbot arranged for the discharge of most of the abbey's obligation by the render of knight service from various tenants, including some of those who had been most unwilling to acknowledge themselves tenants of the monastery on any other terms. (fn. 47) One of the first of the oppressive acts of William Rufus was an attempt to double the knight service due from Ely, to raise it from 40 to 80 knights, (fn. 48) but Henry I restored the old quota and in a charter dating from 1127, which is still among the muniments at Ely, ordered that all barons and lesser lords who held lands which were held of the church of Ely at the time of the Domesday Survey should acknowledge that they held of the church by military service. (fn. 49) About the same time the king allowed the service of castle-ward, hitherto performed by the Ely knights at Norwich, to be rendered 'at the castle of the (recently created) bishopric of Ely'. (fn. 50)
It was during the abbacy of Simeon that the great Domesday Inquest was held, and from it we may see the wealth and wide estates of the monastery, (fn. 51) as well as something of the disputes in which these great possessions involved them with neighbouring landowners. Nor was it only over their temporalities and with lay lords that the monks were at variance. Ely was within the enormous diocese which centred first at Dorchester and then at Lincoln, but as the monastery was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction the abbots had always claimed the right to receive benediction not necessarily from the diocesan but 'from any Catholic bishop'. Rémi the bishop was very tenacious of the claims of his see, and the monks were particularly jealous of admitting that any right over the monastery, even that of blessing their abbot, lay with Rémi. The dispute lasted almost to the end of Simeon's life. Even the authority of the Conqueror failed to bring it to an end, for in spite of writs addressed to the archbishop and others, one of which directed Lanfranc to give the benediction himself unless the right of former bishops of Dorchester could be proved, (fn. 52) Rémi was as determined to assert his right as the monks were determined to resist it. At last the Bishop of Winchester, fearing that his brother, who was nearly 100 years old, would die without receiving the benediction at all, persuaded Simeon to go secretly to Rémi and receive his blessing, on the condition that no precedent was established. This concession resulted in strained relations between the abbot and his convent. Simeon was fully 100 years old when he died on St. Edmund's day in 1093. His death revealed the fact that the Norman or 'foreign' monks whom he had brought from Winchester had never been assimilated to their brethren, for hardly was the abbot dead when seven of these 'foreigners', getting their fellow monks out of the church where they were keeping watch by his body, broke open the shrines of the saints (it is said that they smashed the relics of St. Botolph in their haste), plundered the church, and set out to return to Winchester with their spoil. They reached Winchester safely indeed, but empty handed, for at Guildford the inn at which they slept was burnt down—it is suggested that the monks were drunk and careless— and their plunder was burnt with it. (fn. 53)
On the death of Simeon William Rufus sent his notorious minister Ranulf Flambard to take the abbey and its possessions into his hands. He made an inventory of the treasures of the church in the presence of the 72 monks who constituted the convent; and it is of interest to note that these included 287 books, of which 78 were service books. (fn. 54) The king, as was his custom, kept the abbacy vacant till his death seven years later, appropriating the revenues beyond what was required for the support of the convent. The latter sum seems to have been settled by an agreement made by Ranulf with Abbot Simeon in which £70 was assigned for the clothing of the brethren, and for their food £60 and 200 pigs, as well as all the pigs maintained in the precincts (in curia), all the cheese and butter from their estates, and 7 measures (treias) of wheat and 10 of malt weekly. If there was sufficient wine they should have it for their pittance on Saturdays and feasts of twelve lessons, but if not, half the pittance should be of mead. For their lights were assigned the offerings at the shrine of St. Botolph and burial fees in the town. (fn. 55)
Henry I on the day of his coronation, 5 August 1100, filled the vacant abbacy by appointing Richard, a monk of Bec,son of Richard de Clare. (fn. 56) Again the claim to bestow the benediction on the abbot was put forward by the Bishop of Lincoln, now Robert Bloet. (fn. 57) Abbot Richard (fn. 58) stood out against his claim and was in fact never blessed by any bishop. At the Council of Westminster in 1102 King Henry, moved apparently by hostility to the great families of Clare and Giffard from which he derived, deprived him of his office and demanded the surrender of his staff and ring. (fn. 59) The Investiture conflict was at its height, and Richard asserted his independence of royal investiture by laying up the insignia of his abbacy in the church of Ely. In April 1103 St. Anselm set out for Rome and Richard went with him to lay his own case before the Pope. The deposition was quashed, and Richard on his return regained the king's favour and received at his hands investiture on his restoration. To the last years of his life belongs a charter of February or March 1105, which survives in the original, reciting that by a verdict of the king's court the abbey of Ely has secured the manor of Little Hadham in Hertfordshire against Ranulf, Bishop of Durham. (fn. 60)
Abbot Richard lived until 1107, and when he died the great tower of the abbey church, which fell in 1322, the transepts, three bays of the present nave, and the choir which Simeon had begun were probably complete. (fn. 61) All his energy after his return from Rome was devoted to the building of the great church and to preparing for the translation of St. Etheldreda and the three sainted abbesses from their tombs in the old Saxon church to shrines behind the high altar of the new. The day, 17 October, on which this was accomplished in 1106 (fn. 62) is still marked in the Book of Common Prayer as the day of St. Etheldreda.
Abbot Richard had tried to get the questions at issue with the Bishops of Lincoln settled once for all by the elevation of Ely into a bishopric, and he was in negotiation with the king to that end when he died. On his death Henry sent Hervey, Bishop of Bangor, who had been driven out of his diocese by the Welsh, to administer the abbey, and in the following year Hervey persuaded the convent to agree and the king to grant permission for the erection of the new see. The Bishop of Lincoln was to be compensated with the rich manor of Spaldwick (Hunts.), and the property of the monastery equitably divided between the convent and the bishop. Hervey was sent to Rome and returned with letters from the Pope approving the scheme and recommending Hervey himself for the new see. (fn. 63) Hervey was accordingly consecrated first Bishop of Ely in 1109.
The division of the monastic estates between the see and the convent inevitably led to complaints. The monks' share included six manors within the Isle, another six in the county of Cambridge, twelve in Suffolk, with the jurisdiction over the five and a half hundreds; from Stuntney they were to receive yearly 23,000 eels and from Dunwich 30,000 herrings; other estates were to provide cheese, salt, and logs; they retained their vineyards at Ely, the church of St. Mary at Ely with its tithes, and all the offerings at the altars in the conventual church, or cathedral. (fn. 64) The monks grumbled that the bishop had kept all the best manors and only given them the worst, and that the yield of their estates would not support more than forty instead of seventy brethren. This need not be accepted as entirely true, but Hervey had certainly made Ely one of the richest sees; and William of Malmesbury, writing about 1125, puts the total revenues of Ely at £1,400, out of which the bishop gave to the monks £300, besides what he expended on the needs of his own household, the servants, and guests. (fn. 65) Even this probably exaggerates the disproportion, as in the 16th century the estates of the bishopric were valued at £2,314 against £1,084 for those of the monastery. (fn. 66)
The statement, often repeated, that after the foundation of the bishopric of Ely the bishop was abbot of the monastery, had a theoretic justification in that the monks formed the bishop's chapter. Hervey and his earlier successors undoubtedly regarded themselves as heads of the monastic community, and appointed the executive head, the prior. It was not until 1198, when Ely was left without a bishop and without a prior to conduct the canonical election of a bishop by the death of Bishop William Longchamp and the installation of his brother, the prior, as abbot at York, that the archbishop, by issuing a mandate to the convent to elect themselves a new prior, in order to proceed to the election of their bishop, (fn. 67) treats the convent for the first time as governed by a conventual prior who must be chosen by themselves, and not by an episcopal abbot through his domestic prior appointed by himself. It was only after the revenues of the priory had been seized in 1229, in 1271, and in 1298 during the vacancy of the see, that the prior and convent eventually, by a fine of 1,000 marks, obtained from the king that a vacancy in the see or in the priorate should not result in the temporalities of priory as well as of the see escheating to the Crown. (fn. 68) But, though the theoretical right of the prior and convent to elect their 'abbot' was not taken from them, every bishop after John Hotham (1316) down to the Dissolution, except Goodrich, who was elected by them on a royal congè d'élire nominating him, was appointed by papal provision, usually disregarding elections duly made by the convent. Although Hervey was constantly following the king's court and can have been seldom at Ely he used his influence to obtain fresh privileges and recover lost estates. (fn. 69) One concession gained by him shows that work was still proceeding on the great church, for it freed the monks from toll in all towns which they should pass through when conveying materials for its building to Ely. (fn. 70)
Hervey died on 30 August 1131, and the see was taken into the king's hand for two years. In 1133 Henry I consented to appoint a bishop, but only if the monks would elect Niel, or Nigel, (fn. 71) his treasurer, and in October of that year Niel was duly consecrated. That powerful and turbulent administrator plays a great part in English history and in the development of the monastery. The death of King Henry in December 1135 ushered in a wretched period for the religious houses of East Anglia, and the ghastly picture of misery drawn by the Peterborough chronicler must have been true of this part of England. During Niel's support of the Empress the Isle was twice fortified against King Stephen and captured by his troops; but the pious king showed mercy, and even favour to the monks. The seizure of his estates, however, and financial difficulties forced the bishop to raise money by stripping the cathedral church of many of its treasures. (fn. 72)
Twenty-three of Bishop Niel's charters have survived, five originals in the muniment room of the dean and chapter and the rest in cartularies. Nearly all these documents show Niel as a benefactor, but all but one date from the last ten years of his life, when, in the reign of Henry II, order had been restored and the powerful bishop was able to make reparation for the plunder of his early years.
During the four years' vacancy of the see of Ely which followed the death of Niel in May 1169 the convent was ruled by Prior Salomon. He probably belonged to the family who were hereditary goldsmiths to the priory, and he and his convent granted to Salomon the Goldsmith and his heirs and successors in that office a rentcharge of 5 marks on the estate of Brame, or Braham, 'que pertinet ad aurifabricacionem ecclesie'; and this was confirmed by Henry II, (fn. 73) who visited Ely in May 1177 and shortly afterwards promoted Prior Salomon to be Abbot of Thorney. (fn. 74)
In September 1189 William Longchamp, the able and detested Chancellor of Richard I, was elected Bishop of Ely, and not long afterwards his brother Robert became prior. When the bishop died in 1197 the prior accepted the abbacy of St. Mary's, York. (fn. 75) During John's war with the Barons at the end of his reign, the Isle changed hands several times, the keep being destroyed and new fortifications built by Fawkes de Breauté in 1215; (fn. 76) Robert of York, whom the monks had elected as bishop, favoured the party of Louis of France and could not obtain either consecration or the king's assent, and in 1220 the Pope provided John, Abbot of Fountains, to the see. (fn. 77)
Hugh Northwold, Abbot of St. Edmundsbury, 'the flower of Black Monks', was consecrated Bishop of Ely on 10 June 1229. He spent twenty years of his life as bishop and helped Ely to become one of those cathedrals whose architectural glory dates from the reign of Henry III. In 1234 the building of the new presbytery began, and on 17 September 1252 the 'new work' was dedicated in the presence of Henry III, the young 'Lord Edward' his son, and a crowd of prelates and nobles. (fn. 78) In this same year Henry III, who visited Ely on several occasions, (fn. 79) gave the prior and convent free warren in all their demesne lands in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, (fn. 80) and in 1233 the king had granted the bishops special hunting-rights in the royal Forest of Somersham; (fn. 81) he had also in the previous year confirmed to the prior and convent the 120 acres of Bluntisham assarts which Bishop Ridel had given them to feed 1,200 poor on his anniversary (fn. 82) and had granted an inspeximus and confirmation of the second edition of Richard I's charter. (fn. 83)
The full establishment of monks at Ely was nominally 70, but it is improbable that that number was ever reached after the 12th century. In 1349, just before the Plague, there were 53 monks, and immediately after the Plague there were 28. (fn. 84) For several years about 1360 the chamberlain's clothing accounts enable the average to be fixed at 47, and in 1378 the clerical poll-tax was paid by the prior and 45 other monks, (fn. 85) while in 1427 there were 44, including the prior. (fn. 86) Seven years before the Dissolution there were still 37 monks; (fn. 87) 24 were pensioned after the surrender. (fn. 88)
Of the monks about 20 were obedientiars. The earliest surviving account roll is one of the cellarer which dates from 1278-9. (fn. 89) An unusually large number of the Ely accounts exist, and with the statutes of 1300 they give a picture of the life of the house as fully developed in the later Middle Ages. Twenty-one Treasurer's Rolls survive, 45 Sacrist's Rolls, (fn. 90) 10 of the Precentor, 39 of the Cellarer, 53 of the Granger, 17 of the Pitancer, 34 of the Chamberlain, 7 of the Seneschal of the Prior's Hospice; 16 are connected with the Almonry and its school and grange; the Hostilar and the Hostilar of monks (that is the Guest master for religious visitors from other houses) have separate rolls, of which 8 survive of the former: and there are 23 rolls of the 'Roscarius' which afford a curious sidelight on the immense value of the sedge to these fenland monasteries; 5 rolls survive for the Guardian of St. Etheldreda's shrine, who lived in a chamber against the north wall of the presbytery, and 15 of those of the Guardian of the Lady Chapel, of which the first is dated 1356-7. Only one roll has come down from the Infirmarian. (fn. 91)
The management of the property of the prior and convent at Ely shows much the same course of development as at Canterbury. The obedientiary system took shape a little late because of the upheaval which the Anarchy caused in the Isle, but it was full fledged by the end of the 12th century. In the 14th century it appears as an economy in which the Sacrist alone has a considerable estate, and relies not at all on the common fund. The rest of the greater officers own churches and lands, which they manage themselves, but receive a large grant from the Treasurers, who administer a central fund derived from a large rent roll. By this date a system of audit was fully established, but full centralization of receipts was never achieved. Archbishop Arundel's attempt to force the monks into a central exchequer system in 1403 was a failure. (fn. 92)
The precentor at Ely was, as usual, the librarian, but his ten surviving rolls do not give much information about the library. The armarium, or book cupboard, which is still in place, is an exceptionally elaborate one and occupies the usual place to the west of the east door of the cloister. It dates from the great 13th-century period of rebuilding and it was not replaced by anything more adequate, (fn. 93) so far as we know, until the prebendaries of the new 'College' built a library. Bishop Niel had assigned tithes in Whittlesey, Impington, and Pampisford, and rents in Huntingdon and Ely to 'the making of books', (fn. 94) and there appears to have been a separate scriptorium; Some 40 volumes of manuscripts from the convent library are known to exist in various collections, (fn. 95) but whether any of these, except those of local historical content, were written at Ely does not appear. That books were occasionally lent outside the monastery, appears from an entry in 1320 of the return by the executors of Roger de Huntingfeld, late rector of Balsham, of eleven volumes which he had borrowed, including a work of Avicenna on Medicine. (fn. 96)
A quarter or more of the whole number of the brethren were thus partly or wholly employed on business which took them outside the cloister. The obedientiars even absented themselves from the choir-offices—the original aim and object of a Benedictine's life—and a custom grew up of sending 'vicars' to represent the heads of departments at the services, because the heads were too busy with external affairs to go themselves. Those who held no office came to be called 'cloisterers', so that it is possible for Chaucer to draw a contrast between 'som officer, som worthy sexteyn or som cellarer' and a 'poore cloisterer'. Probably the official with whom this process went farthest at Ely was the treasurer's steward or seneschal. In 1304 (fn. 97) it is laid down that the seneschal must be a monk, but that a secular must be associated with him. They are to pay rents over to the treasurer, and they are to be appointed by the prior and convent and not by the prior alone. They should have a sworn clerk in their office, a suitable lodging must be provided for them, and they are to have reasonable travelling expenses.
The mention of the 'sworn clerk' is a reminder of the presence of paid laymen of various ranks of life in large numbers about the inclosure of a house like Ely. The prior had his generosi or gentlemen, (fn. 98) the great officials their clerks, there were superior and inferior servants in every department, (fn. 99) and besides these there were various secular office-bearers whose functions tended to become hereditary as well as permanent. Among these latter at Ely were the porter, the butler, and the baker. (fn. 100) There would also be a number of corrodarians, or pensioners, receiving lodging and food; most of these were old servants or minor benefactors of the priory, (fn. 101) but the king had the right to have one such pensioner always in the monastery, and he not infrequently tried to impose others upon them. (fn. 102)
The less permanent members of this large staff possibly came under the charge of the hostilar. (fn. 103) The provision for hospitality was unusually large at Ely, and had been increased by Bishop Eustace's appropriation of the church of Meldreth to the prior and convent 'in proprios usus domus Hospitalitatis eorum'. (fn. 104) The concern of the hostilar was with the Guest Hall and he was responsible not only for food for the lay people who ate within the monastery but for light, rushes for the floor, and other furnishings: the retinue of distinguished visitors, the reeves and bailiffs from the farms, the clerks and any visiting tenants were in his charge for entertainment, and the going and coming both by water and by the causeways must, during a great part of the monastery's later existence, have been almost incessant.
Although only seven of the Almoners' rolls survive, (fn. 105) these accounts make it clear how large was the distribution of gifts in kind, including cloth, and how small a proportion of the alms of the house is represented by the occasional casual doles of petty cash which appear in the compoti of other officials than the almoner. There are also extant four accounts of the serjeant of the almonry grange; of these the earliest covers the years 132731. These contain much the same matter as the Almoners' rolls proper, except that they do not show gifts of cloth and cash and they do deal with very large quantities of mixed corn for the poor which passed through the serjeant's hands. (fn. 106)
One of the most interesting aspects of the almonry, however, is its use here, as in other large religious houses, as a school. The roll of the serjeant of the grange for 1327-8 shows 30 quarters of wheat for 23 boys and 2 masters—an establishment unusually large for a 14th-century monastery school. (fn. 107) The number of scholars varies, but the boys and the schoolmaster appear in every Almoner's roll that has survived. The flourishing condition of the school in 1328 may have owed something to the ordinances of 1314. By these the almoner was not to allow any scholar, whether introduced by a secular or a religious, to remain for longer than four years: no scholar might be introduced by a secular without the leave of the prior and convent: the day and year of the entry of every scholar was to be kept in writing and scholars must leave when their time expired. The same ordinances lay down that the boys and their masters were to be provided for out of 'the better food and drink', i.e. of the quality provided for the monks and not that issued to the servants or to the poor, and also that the almoner was to be more liberal in giving alms to the poor, and that he was to render account like any other obedientiary and not to give money to the prior nor to any one else for any purpose without the consent of the convent. (fn. 108) Two appointments of 'Grammar masters', in 1403 and in 1405, (fn. 109) being made by the bishop, were presumably to a grammar school in the town; but in 1448 John Dounham was collated to the 'Grammar School in the Almonry' (fn. 110) and in 1475 the Treasurer's Roll refers to Dns. Thomas the Grammar master, who was one of the prior's chaplains. During Henry VI's reign a Feretrar's Roll shows a payment of 3s. during St. Audrey's Fair to four schoolboys 'for calling up the pilgrims and minding the candles'.
Prior John de Crauden (fn. 111) (1321-41) played an important part in the history of Benedictine education, for it was by his means that a hostel for the monks of Ely was first set up in Cambridge. This Hostel of the Prior and Convent of Ely was built on the site of what is now Trinity Hall, adjoining the foundation of the Lady Clare, and there the two students from Ely, with possibly one or two Benedictines from other houses, resided while they proceeded to their degrees. The monks did not, however, remain very long in this particular spot. Prior Crauden died in 1341, and in 1350 Bishop Bateman, in the process of founding Trinity Hall, bought it from the prior and convent for £300 and the appropriation of the church of Sudbourne in Suffolk. (fn. 112) About this time—for it was while Ralph Kerdynton was Master of Clare Hall (1342-59)—Master Robert Spaldyng, one of the original fellows of University Hall, got into trouble with his society for alienating Spaldyng's Inn (later Borden Hostel) which adjoined other property of the prior and convent of Ely in St. Michael's parish. (fn. 113) There seems little doubt that it was to the monks of Ely that he sold it. In 1397-8 a registrum of Peterhouse refers to a tenement belonging to the college, which was in St. Michael's parish 'next to the Hostel of the Convent of Ely'. The Ely monks seem to have stayed at Spaldyng's, or Borden Hostel for nearly eighty years, and then, about 1428, they moved once more, to the 'hostel called Monkes Place', which was later to become Buckingham College [q.v.]. Payments to monks studying at Cambridge occur sporadically in the sacrist's accounts. Thus, for example, in Alan de Walsingham's last roll as sacrist (Michaelmas to 30 November 1340) 11s. 11d. was paid 'in pension' to Brothers John Beccles and Walter Walsoken, scholars, and 6s. 8d. given to the same two by way of extra gratuity. (fn. 114) Robert of Aylesham in 1345-6 pays as 'pension to the two scholars for thirteen weeks, at the rate of a penny in the pound 2s. 11¾d'. (fn. 115) In 1357-8 and 135960 only one Ely monk, Brother Simon of Banham, receives an allowance, 5s. 10¾d. in the sacrist's account. (fn. 116)
The convent's purchase of the manor and advowson of Mepal in 1361, of which the detailed accounts have been preserved, (fn. 117) is of much interest. The manor was bought, subject to an annuity of 20 marks payable to the widow of Sir William de Colne for her life, for £236 13s. 4d., of which £30 was paid for the stock. It was bought under a licence of 1309 to acquire in mortmain lands to the yearly value of £40 and was rated towards this sum at the favourable figure of £4. Expenses, mainly consisting of gifts to a multitude of clerks and officials, came to £12 6s. 2½d. To the costs the prior, Alan de Walsingham, contributed £67 13s. 4d., the subprior £6, and the sacrist £8 13s. 4d. These amounts might have come from their official revenues; but 20 other monks (fn. 118) are named as contributing sums mostly ranging between 10s. and 20s. That about half the convent should be in a position to contribute in cash shows how far the strictness of the rule against the possession of any private property had been relaxed. As early as 1300 payments of pocket money (gracie) by the prior or other obedientiaries were connived at, and a monk might receive certainly as much as 4s. during the year. Each of the brethren would also have his own goblet, mazer bowl, and silver spoon, which every novice had to bring with him on entering the convent, as well as an outfit of clothes and bed furniture named in a list (fn. 119) almost as formidable as that for a new boy at a public school.
During the rising in 1381 the convent at Ely suffered comparatively little. On 15 June the court rolls of the prior of Ely at West Wratting were destroyed by Robert Randesson and others, and two days later those of the bishop at Balsham were burnt by Thomas Ixning and Thomas Lyncoln of Littleport. (fn. 120) On the same day that the Wratting rolls were destroyed Richard Leycester of Ely went about Ely proclaiming that all men were to rise and join with him 'on behalf of the king and his faithful commons' in destroying certain traitors, to be named thereafter; and on the next day, Sunday, 16 June, he with John Shethe, a glover, Thomas Lister, and other townsmen whom he had compelled to join him, marched boldly into the cathedral church, and mounting into the pulpit again denounced 'the said traitors' in the king's name. (fn. 121) On the Monday there was a riot in which the bishop's prison was broken, the prisoners released, and Edward de Walsingham, a Justice of the Peace, murdered; (fn. 122) but an attempt to seize the sacrist at his manor house at Wentworth was unsuccessful. (fn. 123)
That Richard II came over to Ely, probably during the sitting of the parliament at the Black Friars 9 September to 17 October 1388, is shown by a note that a dung-heap was removed from the door of the hostelry 'because of the coming of the king' sometime in the year 1387-8. (fn. 124) It is possible that he only visited the shrine and did not spend the night at Ely, or more probably he stayed with his friend and supporter Bishop Fordham and the hostelry was hastily required for some of his retinue. Henry VI when he visited Ely from Cambridge in 1446 stayed with William Welles, the prior, for a day and a night, as is shown by a roll of the seneschal of the Prior's Hospice for 24 Henry VI, and in 1476-7 the treasurer bought wine for the coming of the queen, then Elizabeth Woodville.
The high status of the prior of Ely is shown by his being summoned to the parliament of Simon de Montfort in 1265, (fn. 125) the Model Parliament of 1295, (fn. 126) and that of the following year, (fn. 127) and by the fact that in 1401 William Powcher, who had been abbot of Walden since 1390, accepted the post of prior in his old convent—he had been sacrist of Ely before his election to Walden. Powcher, twelve years later, petitioned for, and obtained, the logical papal recognition of his position. In 1413 John XXIII granted to him and his successors the mitre and pastoral staff. (fn. 128) Powcher, who probably died early in 1418, had in December 1417 seen brought to a decision the great controversy over their relative jurisdictions which had raged between the bishop on one hand and the prior and convent on the other since 1400; a piece of litigation which is said to have cost the bishop 3,000 marks and the priory 2,000. (fn. 129)
In 1446 the decayed priory of Molycourt, in the Norfolk portion of the parish of Outwell, was acquired by Ely. (fn. 130) Three years later the Cambridgeshire priory of Spinney (q.v.) (fn. 131) was similarly acquired. The latter became definitely a cell of Ely. (fn. 132) Molycourt is called a cell in a valuation of c. 1540, (fn. 133) but it may be doubted if it was more than a grange.
During the last century of its monastic existence there is little to record of the priory. The obedientiary accounts show life continuing normally, and the death of each bishop as a rule brought bequests of plate and ornaments and vestments to enrich the treasures of the church. (fn. 134) Even as late as 1534, when licence was granted for the acquisition of lands to the value of £30, (fn. 135) additions were made to the estates of the priory; but of the internal life of the convent we know nothing and can only assume that it was at least free from notorious scandals.
Thomas Goodrich was elected bishop of Ely by the prior and convent on 17 March 1534, and consecrated by Cranmer at Croydon on 19 April. (fn. 136) On 10 September he made an episcopal visitation of Ely, having summoned the whole community individually by name on the 8th. The summons is enrolled in his register, (fn. 137) and shows 33 names, of whom 23 besides the prior are called dominus, showing that they were professed monks and probably in priests' orders, and 10 are not so described, being either novices, or only in minor orders, or both.
Of these 34 persons, 10, including prior Robert Wells, had taken part in the election of prior John Cottenham in 1516, (fn. 138) and most can be traced at the dissolution of the monastery on 18 November 1539. (fn. 139) Ten of the professed are certainly among those who were 'appointed to remain in the said monastery' and form the nucleus of the king's 'New College' there, (fn. 140) while three more can probably be identified among these: prior Robert was not the only monk who used his paternal name (Steward) after the Dissolution instead of his place of origin (Wells) used as a surname 'in religion', and Nicholas Ely may well be the same as Nicholas Duxford, Edmund Denter as Edmund Coots, while 'John Bury' may be a clerical error for 'William' Bury —if so, it is not the only slip of the kind. The three—possibly four—last of the professed monks on the list, who appear in this case to have been those who had been the least time in religion, and five of the ten who were not domini in 1534 appear in the list of those 'removed and departed', together with the two whose names appear next after the prior's and who, in 1539, are both described as sick and very old: of these 'removed and departed' juniors two priests, including Thomas Wilberton (who was one of the two students) and the senior novice, were nevertheless among the appointments to the new college in 1541. Only four of the fully professed priests are left unaccounted for in the two 1539 lists, and just half the others: there are no new names which did not appear in 1534.
A curious glimpse of two of the younger priests who were 'appointed to remain' is given in two complaints lodged by Thomas Dale of Yorkshire, one against Robert 'Willis', Prior of Ely, and one against Robert Dereham and Richard Denys, monks at Ely. (fn. 141) They are in almost identical words. The complainant states that he, being but a child and going to the Grammar School at Ely, was passing the monastery gates in the evening on 12 September 1527, when a number of monks— Dereham and Denys among them—rushed out 'not lyke any men of god relegyon, but lyke furyous persons', knocked him down and seriously hurt him. The complainant had applied to the prior for compensation, but the prior 'nothing regarded the said approbrious demeanour of his said monks'. No answer to either charge is recorded. It is rather interesting to note that of the monks who were 'appointed to remain' in 1539 only these two—and that although Robert Dereham was 'a good choirman'—received no appointment under the constitution of 1541.
Priors of Ely (fn. 142)
Vincent, c. 1109, died in or before 1131
Henry, until 1133
William, appointed 1133
Tombert, c. 1144
Alexander, appointed c. 1154
Salomon, occurs 1163, resigned 1177 (fn. 143)
Richard, appointed 1177, occurs 1189
Robert Longchamp, occurs 1194, resigned 1198 (fn. 144)
John de Strateshete, (fn. 145) elected 1198
Hugh, occurs 1200, 1206
Roger de Brigham, occurs before 1210, (fn. 146) died 1229
Ralph, elected 1229, occurs 1235
Walter, occurs 1241, died 13 May 1259
Robert de Leverington, occurs 1260, died Sept. 1271
Henry de Bancis, elected 1271, died Dec. 1273
John de Hemmingston, elected Jan. 1274, died 9 Nov. 1288
John de Shepreth, elected 1288
Robert de Orford, elected 1299, resigned 1302 (fn. 149)
William de Clare, elected and died 1303
John de Fresingfield, occurs 1303, resigned 16 Feb. 1321
John de Crauden, elected May 1321, died 25 Sept. 1341
Alan de Walsingham, elected 25 Oct. 1341, died 1363 or 1364
William Hathfield [?]
John Bucton, occurs 1366, died 1397
William Walpole, elected 1397, resigned 1401
William Powcher, elected 1401, occurs Dec. 1417
Edmund Walsingham, occurs Aug. 1418, Oct. 1424
Peter Ely, elected 1425, occurs July 1429
William Wells, elected 1430, occurs May 1460
Henry Peterborough, occurs July 1462, resigned 26 July 1478
John Westminster, elected 28 July 1478, occurs Nov. 1499
Robert Colvyle, occurs Oct. 1500, Aug. 1510, resigned
William Wittlesey, occurs Sept. 1510, resigned (fn. 150)
William Foliott, resigned March 1516
John Cottenham, elected 29 March 1516, died c. 1522
Robert Wells alias Steward, elected 1522, surrendered 1539
The 12th-century seal of the priory bears the figure of St. Etheldreda, veiled, seated on a throne the sides of which terminate in animals' heads and feet, holding in her right hand a pastoral staff, in the left an open book. Legend: SIGILL . . . ELDRYDE. (fn. 151)
The seal used by the priory as chapter of the cathedral dates from the 13th century and is circular, 3¼ inches in diameter. Obv. In a shrine of three niches, with canopy and tabernacle work at the sides, St. Etheldreda, crowned and holding a pastoral staff and a book, between her two husbands: dexter, Tonbert, as a youth holding a falcon by its jesses; sinister, King Egfrid, with crown and sceptre. Over the canopy two censing angels; in base an arcade of trefoiled arches. Legend: SIGILLVM : CAPITVLI : ECCL'IE : SCE : ETHELDREDE' DE ELY. Rev. In a similar shrine St. Peter, with keys and book, between a bishop [?St. Ethelwold], holding staff and book, and St. Etheldreda, crowned, with sceptre and book. In base, under an arch, a boat, riding on waves, with five persons in it. Legend: S'SB;I : PETRI : ET SBE : ETHELDRIDE : VIRGINIS : ET REGINE. On the edge was inscribed : PETRVS : ET O ELDREDA : MOLLIS : SVB : O TEGMINE : CERE : ELY : S O ECRETA : CELARE : SIMVL : O STATVERE:—with four gaps for attaching the appending cords. (fn. 152)
A pointed oval seal ad causas of the 13th century shows St. Etheldreda standing on a carved corbel, crowned and holding a staff and a book. Legend: . SIGILLVM : PRIORIS : ET : CONVENTVS : ELYENSIVM : AD : CAVSAS. (fn. 153)