Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Thorney

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1948.

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'Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Thorney', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 210-217. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]

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According to an early tradition Saxulf, founder and first abbot of Medehamstede or Peterborough (654-75), established a community of anchorites on an island in the fens which was therefore called Ancarig. (fn. 1) Of that community three members, Tancred and Tortred and their sister Tona, acquired posthumous celebrity for the sanctity of their lives, enhanced in the case of Tortred by martyrdom, (fn. 2) presumably at the hands of the Danes c. 870. (fn. 3) The island then lay desolate and overgrown with thorn bushes, from which it derived the appellation of Thorney, until in 972 St. Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, bought it from a woman, Ethelfled by name, into whose hands it had come, and established a monastery there. For its endowment he acquired by purchase or exchange substantial estates, mainly in Huntingdonshire, with the consent and approval of King Edgar. (fn. 4) He at the same time appointed the king patron and protector and expressly forbade that any one should subject the monastery to the power of any layman or bishop. Ethelwold retained for life the nominal abbacy of Thorney himself with the right of nominating his immediate successor, after whom the abbot should be elected in the usual way by the convent. (fn. 5) His nominee, who apparently acted as his representative on the spot during his lifetime and certainly was abbot on Ethelwold's death in 984, was Godeman, his chaplain and a monk of Winchester, (fn. 6) probably identical with the writer of the famous and beautiful Benedictional of St. Ethelwold. (fn. 7)

Ethelwold is said to have intended this secluded spot to serve as a place to which he could retire for prayer and meditation during the season of Lent. Accordingly when he had caused the island to be cleared of its thorns and nettles and a church and buildings for twelve monks to be erected and had endowed it for their support, he enriched its spiritual atmosphere by collecting relics of the former anchorites and other saints. Of these the most famous was Benedict Bishop, the tutor of Bede and founder of the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, whose body he bought at a great price to be laid among the 'more obscure saints' whose barbarous names William of Malmesbury feared to expose to ridicule. (fn. 8) Ethelwold also sent a monk named Ulfketl to bring relics of St. Botolph from Boston, and these, with the body of Botolph's brother, Adolf, were preserved at Thorney, (fn. 9) giving the abbey, which was originally dedicated to the Blessed Virgin alone, its second patron saint. (fn. 10) Relics of Ethelwold's predecessor, Hereferth, Bishop of Winchester, slain in battle with the Danes in 833, were also brought to Thorney, (fn. 11) and sometime during the Saxon period the monks carried off those of Huna, St. Etheldreda's chaplain, from Chatteris. (fn. 12) In 1105 relics of St. Theodore were received from a pilgrim of the name of Heuerard. (fn. 13)

Godeman is said to have contributed to the building of the church at Ramsey and to have been present in 991 at its dedication. (fn. 14) He was succeeded by Leofsi, or Leofsige, who was made Bishop of Worcester about the end of 1016. (fn. 15) His elevation to the see had been one of the first acts of Cnut as King of England, and there is other evidence of that king's interest in the house of Thorney. In the 'Thorney Gospel Book' (fn. 16) are several lists of persons admitted to the religious privileges of confraternity in the abbey, and in the earliest of these the names of Cnut, Harold, Harthacnut, and Queen Emma stand first. Moreover, it is to Cnut and Emma that the curious 'Will of Mantat the Anker', in the Red Book, (fn. 17) is addressed. Mantat informs them that he has bestowed alms for his soul by giving Twywell (in Northamptonshire) to Thorney, 'where our bones (shall) rest', and land at Connington to 'priests and deacons who have merited it of me in my life', in return for a promise of 200 masses and psalters annually, with other prayers; he therefore begs them to see that his gift is not set aside. Twywell appears among the possessions of the abbey in Domesday Book and so remained until the Dissolution: Connington was leased to Turchil of Harmworth, but after the Conquest his lands were forfeit and were given to Waltheof. Waltheof's name is among those of six earls who were 'brethren' of Thorney, and, at the wish of the monks, he held the Connington land on the same terms as Turchil. In the Gospel Book another hand has written et uxor eius after Waltheof's name, but Judith, after his death, kept the land and paid no rent for it. (fn. 18) On her death it was lost to the abbey. All the six earls named in the confraternity list were Cnut's Norsemen— Waltheof and his father Siward, Thurkill of East Anglia, Hakon of Worcester, Eric, Cnut's Viking brother-in-law, and Eglaf, with his brother Ulf who married Cnut's half-sister.

In the confraternity list the name of Emma is followed by that of Aegelnoth, Cnut's chaplain, whom he made Archbishop of Canterbury. Aegelnoth's successor Eadsige is also there, and two archbishops of York, Aelfric and Kynsige, the latter St. Edward's chaplain, but neither the Confessor nor his queen appear, nor any member of the house of Godwin. All the bishops in the list, with one possible exception, were appointed by, or lived on under, the early Norman kings. They include Ethelric II of Worcester, St. Wulstan, Rémi of Dorchester and Lincoln, and the two Lotharingian bishops, Herbert of Norwich and Robert of Hereford. The abbots commemorated include Baldwin of Bury, a Burgundian, Thorold first Norman abbot of Peterborough, and Gosbert of Battle. The list of nobles, Saxon and Norman, is a long one, but no other royal persons appear until the obits of Henry III and his queen, written right across the page under a set of verses in English and followed by those of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.

On the death of abbot Leofwine, first Siward, a Dane, and then Fulchard, a Fleming by birth, were instituted into the abbey without episcopal benediction. (fn. 19) Leofwine's death probably occurred about 1156, and Edward the Confessor then gave Thorney to Leofric, abbot of Peterborough. (fn. 20) Leofric seems to have installed Siward as 'provost', (fn. 21) perhaps to manage the finances and organization of the monastery, but he acquired or assumed the title of abbot (fn. 22) and was apparently so recognized after Leofric returned from the disastrous campaign of Hastings, to die at Peterborough in October 1066. After Siward's death or removal the Conqueror is said to have appointed to Thorney in 1068 Folcard, or Fulchard, (fn. 23) who ruled the abbey for 16 years but, having never received episcopal benediction, (fn. 24) was regarded as also a 'provost' rather than a real abbot; (fn. 25) so that the scribe who wrote the list of prelates into the Thorney Gospel Book about 1450, having written the names of the first five abbots in a large decorative script, wrote the next two, Siward and Fulchard, small and plain before returning to his honorific elaboration for Gunther; and from the 'Red Book', compiled about 1326, everything before Gunther has been cut out in a similar list, while the de Gestis Abbatum towards the end of the book also begins with him. There was, however, quite another side to the story of Fulchard, who was a Benedictine of St. Bertin in Flanders whom Orderic describes (fn. 26) as learned and a merry, kindly man, very charitable, and deeply versed in grammar and music. He was a close friend of Ealdred, Archbishop of York, who apparently came to his assistance when he was in difficulties at Thorney. (fn. 27) Fulchard (fn. 28) had come to England with other continental protégés of the Confessor, and was apparently at Canterbury until he was sent to Thorney. He wrote lives of St. Bertin, St. Oswald, Bishop of Worcester, and St. Botolph, the patron of Thorney, and, according to Orderic, metrical lives of various English saints, adapted for singing. He was involved in certain disputes with Rémi, Bishop of Lincoln, (fn. 29) probably over the question of episcopal benediction, and was deposed by Archbishop Lanfranc at the Council of Gloucester in 1084. (fn. 30)

In 1085 Gunther, or Gontier, of Le Mans, a monk of Battle Abbey, was made abbot of Thorney and received episcopal benediction from Bishop Rémi. (fn. 31) He was, therefore, abbot at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086. That survey shows that in Cambridgeshire the only estate held by the monks was at Whittlesey, (fn. 32) which represented part of the original endowment given by St. Ethelwold, who had bought it, with twothirds of Whittlesey Mere, for 90 pounds of pure silver. (fn. 33) Most of the abbey estates in 1086 lay in Huntingdonshire (fn. 34) at Yaxley, Water Newton, Woodston, Stanground, Haddon, Stubbington, and Sibson. Of these the first three were also given by Ethelwold. Stanground was certainly an early possession of the monks and may be represented by the estate which Ethelwold acquired for them at Farcet (fn. 35) (aet Farresheafde); it was particularly important as being the 'gateway' or main means of access for men and goods coming from the west to the isle of Thorney. (fn. 36) In Bedfordshire they held land in Bolnhurst, which had been held under Edward the Confessor by Ælfleda but had been acquired by the monks before that king's death. (fn. 37) In Northamptonshire they had Twywell, which had been given to them by Mantat, as already mentioned, and a small estate in Charwelton; (fn. 38) and in Warwickshire Sawbridge. (fn. 39)

Shortly after the Domesday Survey was compiled William Rufus granted to the abbey the Huntingdonshire hundred of Norman Cross, (fn. 40) to be held by a rent of £5. Towards this rent the various vills contributed their quotas and when, from 1194 onwards, the abbot of Peterborough withdrew his payment of 20s. for the vills of Alwalton and Fletton the abbot of Thorney reduced his own render to the sheriff to £4. It was not until 1285 that the Crown contested this arrangement, and then the hundred was seized into the king's hands and the abbot was ordered to pay the £5 and 91 years' arrears. In 1292, however, the hundred was restored to the abbey, but at the increased rent of 10 marks. (fn. 41)

During the 12th century numerous gifts of land, mostly not extensive, were received. (fn. 42) About 1137 Adeliz, or Alice, widow of Gilbert fitz Richard of Clare and mother of Earl Gilbert, confirmed a grant of 4 virgates in Raunds (Northants.) which her tenant Tovi had made; (fn. 43) and about the same time Bishop Niel of Ely (1133-69) gave the hermitage of Trockenholt, in the fens near Wisbech; (fn. 44) Robert de Montfort and his brother Thurstan gave half the manor and advowson of Wing (Rutland), (fn. 45) which, with other gifts Robert, Bishop of Lincoln (1148-66), confirmed. (fn. 46) In 1139 Baldwin, son of Gilbert, gave the two churches of St. James and St. Guthlac at East Deeping (Lincs.) with tithes to constitute a small priory as a cell of Thorney. (fn. 47)

Pope Alexander III in 1162 issued a detailed confirmation of the abbey's possessions. (fn. 48) These included the churches of Whittlesey, Stanground, Yaxley, Woodston, Haddon, Water Newton, Stibbington, All Saints in Huntingdon, Twywell, Bolnhurst, Yelden, St. Gregory at Thetford, the two churches at Deeping, and their share of that of Wing. Of these the churches of Yelden, given to Abbot Gunther by Geoffrey de Trailli in return for the spiritual benefits of confraternity extended by the abbey to him and his family, (fn. 49) and Thetford had apparently been lost by 1240, when Pope Gregory IX granted a similar confirmation. (fn. 50) The church of Whittlesey had been given to the abbey by Hervey, first bishop of Ely, at the consecration of the church of Thorney; at which time he also released the lands and tenants of the abbey there from the customs and services due to the Ely hundred of Witchford. (fn. 51) In 1240 Whittlesey and St. James at East Deeping (fn. 52) were the only two churches appropriated to the monastery, and it was not until 1314 that licence was obtained for the appropriation of Yaxley and Stanground; (fn. 53) for some reason nothing was done about it, and it was only in 1398 that the necessary steps were taken. (fn. 54)

After the beginning of the 13th century accessions to the abbey's estates seem to have been few and small, the most important being property in Enfield (Middx.) which was valued in 1291 at £8 2s. 2d., (fn. 55) and in Husborne Crawley (Beds.) then producing £2 in rents. (fn. 56) Subsequently the convent had licence to acquire lands to the yearly value of £20 in 1314, (fn. 57) but it was not until 1392 that this amount had been obtained; (fn. 58) a similar licence granted in 1440 for lands up to £40 (fn. 59) seems only to have resulted in their acquiring lands worth £5 in 1451. (fn. 60)

This licence of 1440 was specifically granted because the abbey lands had been injured by incursions of the sea and floods; and its position in the Fens exposed it not only to such risks but also to continual disputes (fn. 61) over boundaries, (fn. 62) rights of way by land and water, the raising or lowering of dykes, (fn. 63) and so forth with the other fenland abbeys of Ely, Peterborough, (fn. 64) Ramsey, and Crowland, and with their neighbours. (fn. 65)

The abbacy of Gunther, from 1085 to his death in 1112, was important, as he introduced the rule of Marmoutier, a modification of the Benedictine rule, and also pulled down the old church and began to build a new one, as well as the monastic buildings. (fn. 66) By 1098 the chancel, tower, and two transepts (porticus) had been completed and the monks were using the church, to which on 1 December of that year they removed the relics of their numerous saints. (fn. 67) In 1108 the church was completed, except for the western towers and stair-vices, which were finished next year; (fn. 68) but it was not until 1128 that the building was ceremonially consecrated (fn. 69) by Bishop Hervey of Ely. (fn. 70) At that date Robert de Prunelai was abbot. He was a man of good birth and abilities and was prior of Noyon, a cell of St. Evroul, when he was selected by King Henry to be abbot of Thorney in 1113, rather over a year after Gunther's death, (fn. 71) which post he held until his own death in 1151. During his time Robert of Leicester, abbot of St. Evroul, being in England on business, died and was buried before the Rood in Thorney Abbey in 1140. (fn. 72)

Four shortlived abbots followed Robert, and on the death of Walter II late in 1169 the king kept the abbacy vacant for six years. (fn. 73) At last, in the first week of July 1175, the prior and monks were summoned to Woodstock to elect an abbot (fn. 74) and chose, or accepted, Salomon, prior of Ely, (fn. 75) who held office for sixteen years. On his death in 1193 Robert, a monk of Gloucester, succeeded. He received the episcopal benediction from Bishop William Longchamp, Legate and Chancellor, at Worms, (fn. 76) where the bishop was consulting with the captive King Richard. (fn. 77) In the following year he was suspended from office by Archbishop Hubert Walter, who in 1195 deposed him and carried him off to Gloucester to be imprisoned in chains, though he appealed to the Pope and also tendered his 'spontaneous' resignation. His deposition seems to have been for maladministration (fn. 78) and incontinence and was upheld by Pope Innocent III after further inquiry; (fn. 79) but this did not prevent his being selected in 1220 as the Pope's messenger to Pandulph and Archbishop Stephen for the ceremonial coronation of Henry III. (fn. 80)

The abbacy remained vacant until 1199, when Ralph 'the Simple', prior of Frieston (Lincs.), a cell of Crowland, was elected. (fn. 81) During his rule, on 15 January 1215, King John made over to Eustace, bishop of Ely, and his successors the patronage of the abbey of Thorney and other Crown rights connected therewith. (fn. 82) This grant, which was a direct violation of the foundation charter of King Edgar, never took effect. Eustace died three weeks later and the see of Ely then remained vacant till 1220; so on the death of Ralph in 1216 the abbey was taken into the king's hands and committed to the custody of the prior, (fn. 83) and the election of his successor Robert, sacrist of Bury St. Edmunds, duly received the king's assent in December 1217. (fn. 84) When Robert died in 1237, and was buried in the Lady Chapel which he had built, (fn. 85) his successor Richard of Stamford, a monk of Thorney and prior of the cell of Deeping, was elected with the licence and assent of the king. (fn. 86) Bishop Hugh de Northwold, however, although he bestowed benediction on Abbot Richard, had begun a suit against the king claiming the patronage of Thorney. In August 1237 the king ordered his Justices to hear the suit; (fn. 87) but in August 1238, when Richard had died and David, also a monk of Thorney, had been elected, (fn. 88) the king cancelled his order, stating that he was seised of the patronage and would not allow the claim, (fn. 89) which was finally settled in the king's favour by a commission sitting at Barnwell Priory in 1261. (fn. 90)

The abbacy of David (1238-54) initiated a century of prosperity, marked by lavish expenditure on building. (fn. 91) David himself built the magnificent great gate of the abbey, as well as a granary and bakehouse; William Yaxley (1261-93), who added extensively to the estates of the house, built a new refectory and a chamber for the abbot but particularly improved the outlying manors, building a hall at Enfield, a hall and a chapel of St. Botolph at Charwelton, a long barn at Sawbridge, and new roofs to the hall and chamber at Stanground. His successor Odo of Whittlesey (12931305) continued his work; and William Clopton (1305-23) excelled all previous abbots, rebuilding the chapter-house, guest hall, and a noble chamber for the abbot, with a chapel annexed to it, the abbot's hall, and the dormitory, as well as other old and shabby buildings. Clopton also adorned the Lady Chapel with stained glass windows and a carved and painted Tree of Jesse over the altar; he replaced the wooden chapel at Eldernall in Whittlesey with one of stone, rebuilt the chapel at Enfield, built a gatehouse at Stanground, and other buildings in many places. At the same time he enriched the abbey with lavish gifts of plate and vestments. (fn. 92)

On the spiritual side one may note under Abbot David the foundation of a chantry in the Lady Chapel for Nicholas Heynton, (fn. 93) who had given property in Stanground, and another at the altar of the Holy Cross for John de Yaxley, (fn. 94) as well as one at Deeping for Guy Wake. (fn. 95) Abbot Odo decreed that the hermitage of Trockenholt (see above) should be served by two or three monks residing there, as it used to be, (fn. 96) and endowed anniversary services for the souls of himself and his parents. (fn. 97) William Clopton endowed similar anniversaries, (fn. 98) and, besides increasing the endowment of the Lady Chapel, assigned funds for a light at the altar of St. Catharine and a pittance of 10s. for the convent on her day. (fn. 99) Licence was given in July 1348 to Mr. Simon of Islip (Northants.) to give property in Yaxley, Woodstone, and Haddon for the maintenance of a chaplain celebrating daily in the abbey church for the souls of his parents, brothers, and kin; (fn. 100) and in November 1349 Mr. Simon, who had meanwhile been elected to the archbishopric of Canterbury, increased the endowment of this chantry. (fn. 101)

The abbot of Thorney was among the spiritual peers summoned to Simon de Montfort's Parliament of 1264-5 (fn. 102) and continued to be so summoned until the Dissolution. (fn. 103) At Michaelmas 1322 Abbot William Clopton excused himself from attending Parliament on the ground of illness, (fn. 104) appointing two proxies, and on 8 March 1323 he died. (fn. 105) His period of rule marks the culmination of the prosperity of the abbey. King Edward II was the first king to visit the abbey, (fn. 106) being there on 13 and 14 April 1314 (fn. 107) and again on 29 October. (fn. 108) On 20 November in that year he granted the manor of Glatton (Hunts.) to the abbot and convent to hold for the term of the abbot's life at a rent of £100; (fn. 109) and on 6 December, at King's Langley, he issued a confirmation of the abbey's charters. (fn. 110) In the following year, 1315, the king was here again on 14 September, (fn. 111) and Archbishop Walter Reynolds had visited the monastery earlier in the year; (fn. 112) but this was a year of disastrous storms and continual rain, as a result of which all the fenland round Thorney was drowned for three years. (fn. 113) Early in 1316 Clopton went on pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella. (fn. 114)

Of Reynold of Water Newton, who was abbot from 1323 to 1347, there is little to record, beyond the fact that when a visitation of the monastery was held by Bishop Montacute in October 1343 all was found in good order. The bishop consecrated the high altar in honour of the Holy Trinity, St. Mary, and St. Botolph, and reconciled the cemetery, which had been defiled by bloodshed in a quarrel between two grooms. (fn. 115) The election of his successor William of Haddon, D.C.L., gives us for the first time some idea of the size of the community, as 33 professed monks, all but 2 of whom were priests, took part in it. These included the prior, sub-prior and third prior, precentor and succentor, almoner, cellarer, fraterer, hostillar or guest-master, infirmarian, kitchener, pittancer, sacrist and sub-sacrist, keeper of the Lady Chapel, keeper of the manors, receiver, and the prior of Deeping. (fn. 116) Most of these, with the exception of the first three and last three, are named again in a list of 1450, (fn. 117) and many of them occur from time to time as holding or receiving estates or rents assigned to their offices. (fn. 118)

The election held on 27 April 1347 was hotly disputed, one party favouring the urbane and eloquent Robert of Corby, the cellarer, the other William of Haddon, who held no office, and each party trying to carry their candidate to the high altar and intoning the 'Te Deum' against the other. (fn. 119) Eventually Corby seems to have renounced his claim, for the sake of peace. (fn. 120) He had been involved in a curious scandal during the previous year. In July 1346, before Bishop Lisle had returned from Avignon, John Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, caused Hugh de Seton, canon of Exeter, who was guardian of the spiritualities of Ely during the absence of the new bishop, to carry out a visitation of the religious houses of the diocese. His injunctions at Thorney came under two heads: (1) no monk was to hold two offices; (2) the suppression of a 'scandalous' book. This book had been stolen from the keeping of the prior and circulated among the monks and the abbot's order that it should be burned had not been obeyed. The visitor denounced sentence of excommunication against the unknown person who was holding the book unless he burned it within six days, and if he copied it or allowed a copy to be made. Any monk found talking of the contents of the book was also to be excommunicated. In June 1347 Lisle himself carried out an adjourned visitation of Thorney. The abbot, probably the new abbot, had appealed, but without success, to Canterbury against the unnecessary adjournment, the needless length of the visitation, which had lasted three days, and the expense of entertaining the bishop and his retinue while it lasted. The bishop reverted to the question of the scandalous book, which was still unburnt. He admonished the prior, at whose bedhead it had been found, Robert of Corby, the cellarer, who took it away and circulated it, and all who read it. He ordered its instant destruction, with any copies that had been made of it, and forbade it or its contents ever to be mentioned. (fn. 121) There is no hint as to whether the book was heretical or obscene, but the latter seems more probable.

That Thorney was reasonably supplied with books of a normal and orthodox kind is clear from surviving lists of books on loan to members of the convent in 1327 and 1330. (fn. 122) The Bible is represented by a Pentateuch, the 'Parabolus Salomonis', a glossed Psalter, a complete New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles of St. Paul. Two works by St. Ambrose, seven or eight by St. Augustine, and a Commentary on Isaiah by St. Jerome are named; also books of St. Isidore, St. Ephrem, St. Anselm, and St. Bernard. There was a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict, the inevitable 'Sentences' of Peter Lombard, a Life of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Miracles of the B.V.M., and the Deeds of Barlaam. There was also a copy of Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History', which may have been the fine 10th-century manuscript now in the Bodleian, but is more likely to have been the early-12th-century copy now belonging to St. John's College, Oxford. (fn. 123) These, and a few other books listed, were obviously only a fraction of the library, of which a few items have survived, (fn. 124) as works of Cicero, Persius, and Sedulius in the Advocates Library at Edinburgh, Sulpicius Severus in the Bodleian, and Walter de Châtillon's romance of 'Alexandreis' in the British Museum, where is also a tractate on the practice of alchemy by John Sawtre, monk of Thorney. (fn. 125)

When Gloucester College was being established at Oxford for Benedictine monks, the abbot of Westminster, as president of a chapter of the Order (probably in July 1290), wrote to the abbot of Thorney urging him to contribute. (fn. 126) The university connexion of Thorney was definitely with Oxford rather than Cambridge, and it is noteworthy that Abbot William of Haddon was a Doctor of Canon Law and five of the next six abbots were Bachelors of Canon Law.

Soon after Haddon had entered on his abbacy the Black Death swept over England. At Thorney 13 monks died, as well as 100 of the household (familia), (fn. 127) which probably includes servile tenants on the manors. The convent, however, appears to have recovered, as in 1379 there were 28 monks, not including those at Deeping, who contributed to a clerical subsidy. (fn. 128) There is no evidence that the Peasants' Rising of 1381 affected the abbey, but early in 1390 it was alleged that the bond tenants in Yaxley, Water Newton, and Stanground had been refusing to pay their services and forming leagues to resist the abbot. (fn. 129) At the election after the death of Abbot John Ramsey on 6 August 1457 there were 25 monks, who chose William Ryall, (fn. 130) and on his resignation in 1464 there were 24, including himself, at the election of his successor Thomas Wysbech, who had been steward. (fn. 131) Of these 24 no fewer than 14, including the prior of Deeping, were obedientiaries, and one a scholar, while two others were seniors and had probably retired from office.

It was during Ryall's abbacy that Reynold Pecock, who had been compelled in 1458 to resign his bishopric of Chichester because of his heretical writings, was sent to Thorney to be kept in close confinement; and there he apparently died soon afterwards. (fn. 132)

As in the case of Augustinian canons so occasionally in that of the Benedictines the practice of licensing regulars to serve a benefice with cure of souls was exercised in the 15th century. Such licences were given to monks of Thorney in 1456 (fn. 133) and 1467 (fn. 134) and to the abbot himself (Thomas Wisbech) in 1468; (fn. 135) one is of particular interest as apparently dispensing a Benedictine from the vow to his Order. A letter of Pius II dated 8 June 1459 grants the usual permission to John Hunt but adds that 'the Pope's will is that as soon as he has obtained such benefice he shall be wholly exempt alike from the said Order and the abbot of the said monastery as from any other his superior of the said monastery and Order'. (fn. 136)

The last years of the abbey's existence seem to have been uneventful. Robert Moulton was elected abbot in March 1513 (fn. 137) and was succeeded by Robert Blythe in or before 1523. (fn. 138) Blythe, who was Bishop of Down and Connor from 1520 to 1541, (fn. 139) was a monk of Thorney and a supporter of the king, being one of the signatories of a letter to the Pope on 13 July 1530 urging that the divorce should proceed. (fn. 140) He reaped the reward of his complacence when, on 1 December 1539, he surrendered the abbey to the king's commissioners and received a pension of £200 a year, (fn. 141) which he held till his death in 1547, when he left instructions for his body to be buried before the Blessed Sacrament in Whittlesey Church. (fn. 142)

Of the state of the monastery at the time of its surrender no details are available; as there was no resistance to the king's will it was unnecessary for Cromwell's commissioners to hunt up any scandals, and pensions were assigned to 20 monks, besides the abbot. Of these, Maurice Carter, the prior, received £9; William Lee, late prior of Deeping, £8; four seniors, including Thomas Hake the steward, £6 13s. 4d.; three others £6; nine £5 6s. 8d. each; and Robert Bayte, 'being no priest', 40s. (fn. 143) There seems to be no evidence that any of them later accepted benefices, and seven, including Hake and Bayte, were still drawing pensions in 1553. (fn. 144)

There is no detailed valuation of the abbey; the Valor of 1535 merely states the value as being £411 12s. 11d., (fn. 145) perhaps a net figure, as a rental of the estates compiled just after the Dissolution shows an income of £542 13s. 7d. (fn. 146) Unfortunately it gives no information as to expenses, so that we do not know, for instance, what proportion of their income the monks spent on alms. In 1349 William de Thorneye, pepperer of London, made bequests to the abbot of Thorney and to the poor called 'Bedemen' in the abbey, as well as the poor and infirm living on the dairy farms (vaccarias) round the abbey. (fn. 147) These 'bedemen' were presumably identical with the 'poor brethren of the hospital' for whose footgear Abbot Robert III (1216-20) assigned a rent of 6s. 8d. to the almoner; (fn. 148) but there is no trace of their later existence.

Abbots of Thorney (fn. 149)

Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, 972-84

Godeman, occurs 991

Leofsi, occurs 1016 (fn. 150)

Leofsin (fn. 151)

Oswy, died 1049

Leofwine, c. 1050-c. 1056

Leofric, abbot of Peterborough, (fn. 152) died 1066


Fulchard, c. 1068, deposed 1084

Gunther of Le Mans, 1085, died 1112

Robert I, de Prunelai, 1113, died 1151

Gilbert, 1151, died 1154

Walter I, 1154, (fn. 153) died 1158

Herbert, (fn. 154) 1158, died 1162

Walter II, (fn. 155) 1163, died 1169

Solomon, 1175, died 1193

Robert II, 1193, deposed 1195

Ralph 'the Simple', 1198, died 1216

Robert III, 1217, died 1237

Richard of Stamford, 1237, died 1238

David, 1238, died 1254

Thomas de Castre, 1254, died 1261

William of Yaxley, 1261, died 1293

Odo of Whittlesey, 1293, died 1305

William Clopton, 1305, died 1322

Reynold of Water Newton, 1323, died 1347

William of Haddon, 1347, died 1365

John of Deeping, 1365, died 1396

Nicholas of Islip, 1397, resigned 1402 (fn. 156)

Thomas of Charwelton, 1402, died 1426

Alan Kirketon, 1426, died 1437

John Kirketon, 1437, died 1450

John Ramsey, 1450, died 1457

William Ryall, 1457, resigned 1464

Thomas Wisbech, 1464, died 1484

John Murcot, 1484, died 1485

Richard Holbech, 1485, resigned 1513

Robert Moulton, 1513

Robert Blythe, occurs 1523, (fn. 157) surrendered 1 Dec. 1539

The seal of the abbey is a pointed oval, of 13thcentury date, showing in high relief the Blessed Virgin seated on a carved throne with the Child on her left knee. Legend: [SIG]ILLV[M T[HORNI[E N]SIS EC[CLESIE]. (fn. 158)

The seal of Abbot David (1238-54) shows the abbot standing on a carved platform, holding a pastoral staff and a book. Legend: SIGILL'. DAVID . DEI . GRACIA . ABBATIS THORNEIE. (fn. 159)

The seal of Abbot John de Kirketon shows the abbot standing in an elaborate canopied niche; below is a shield charged with a thorn bush. Legend: S . . . . TON [DEI] GRA : ABBATIS : DE : THORNEY. (fn. 160)


  • 1. Mon. Angl. ii, 571.
  • 2. Ibid. 599, from the Register now in the University Library, Cambridge, and known as 'The Red Book of Thorney'.
  • 3. Flores Hist. (Rolls Ser.), i, 433.
  • 4. Mon. Angl. ii, 599.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid. 594.
  • 7. Archaeologia, xxiv, 20, 22.
  • 8. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum (Rolls Ser.), 326–9. Printed in Acta Sanctorum, Jan., vol. ii, 28.
  • 9. Mon. Angl. ii, 597.
  • 10. Ibid. 599 (B. V. Mary); Cartul. Rames. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 39 (St. Botolph); ibid. ii, 167 (B.V.M. and St. Botolph).
  • 11. Lambeth MS. 99, fol. 194v.
  • 12. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, i, 600.
  • 13. Cott. MS. Nero C. VII (Annals of Thorney).
  • 14. Chron. Rames. (Rolls Ser.), 93, 95.
  • 15. Flores Hist. (Rolls Ser.), i, 548.
  • 16. Add. MS. 40000: see Cat. of Adds. to MSS. in Brit. Mus. 1916–20, pp. 276–9.
  • 17. Printed in Thorpe, Diplomatorium, 555; Kemble, Cod. Dipl. no. 1329. As it stands it is probably a corrupt copy of a genuine original. Possibly the 'priests and deacons' were those in the western part of the church of Thorney dedicated by St. Ethelwold in honour of St. Peter and assigned to the use of the cleri et populi: Mon. Angl. ii, 599.
  • 18. V.C.H. Hunts. i, 351, 355.
  • 19. Red Book, fol. 416. It is here stated that neither had been regularly professed: this is certainly untrue of Fulchard and probably of Siward.
  • 20. Two Saxon Chrons. (ed. Earle and Plummer), i, 198.
  • 21. Cartul. Rames. (Rolls Ser.), i, 188.
  • 22. Ibid.
  • 23. Mon. Angl. ii, 594.
  • 24. Ordericus Vitalis, Hist. Eccl. (ed. Prevost), iv, 281–2.
  • 25. Cf. Hardy, Materials for Hist. of Great Britain (Rolls Ser.), i, 377 (Fulchard's Life of St. Botolph).
  • 26. Loc. cit.
  • 27. Historians of the Church of York (Rolls Ser.), i, pp. lii, 239 (Life of St. John of Beverley).
  • 28. Dict. Nat. Biog. (Folcard).
  • 29. Ordericus Vitalis, loc. cit.
  • 30. Red Book, fol. 416. Orderic says that he resigned; he apparently retired to St. Bertin.
  • 31. Ibid. fol. 414v. He had been archdeacon of Salisbury (Ordericus Vitalis, op. cit. iv, 282) and was head of the Battle cell of St. Olave at Exeter when promoted: Chron. Mon. de Bello (Anglia Christ.), 31–2.
  • 32. V.C.H. Cambs. i, 371.
  • 33. Mon. Angl. ii, 599.
  • 34. V.C.H. Hunts., i, 345–6.
  • 35. Farcet was formerly part of Stanground: ibid. iii, 166.
  • 36. Mon. Angl. ii, 571.
  • 37. V.C.H. Beds. i, 229.
  • 38. V.C.H. Northants. i, 319.
  • 39. Surveyed under Northamptonshire: ibid.
  • 40. V.C.H. Hunts. iii, 131.
  • 41. Ibid.
  • 42. Mon. Angl. ii, 600–10.
  • 43. Ibid. 601, 603; Stenton, Facsimiles of Early Charters (Northants. Rec. Soc. iv), pl. xviii.
  • 44. Mon. Angl. ii, 600.
  • 45. Ibid. 604.
  • 46. Ibid. 602.
  • 47. V.C.H. Lincs. ii, 129.
  • 48. Mon. Angl. ii, 604–5.
  • 49. Ibid. 601; V.C.H. Beds. iii, 179.
  • 50. Cal. Papal L. i, 187.
  • 51. Mon. Angl. ii, 607–8.
  • 52. Details of the vicarage ordained at East Deeping are given in Rolls of Hugh de Welles (Cant. & York Soc.), iii, 56.
  • 53. Cal. Pat. 1313–17, p. 199.
  • 54. Ibid. 1396–9, p. 138; Cal. Papal L. v, 164, 611.
  • 55. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 14.
  • 56. Ibid. 48.
  • 57. Cal. Pat. 1313–17, p. 183.
  • 58. Ibid.; ibid. 1391–6, p. 21.
  • 59. Ibid. 1436–41, p. 487.
  • 60. Ibid. 1446–52, p. 502; Red Book, fol. 38.
  • 61. V.C.H. Hunts. iii, 263–4.
  • 62. The bounds of Kingsdelf were agreed between Ramsey and Thorney in the time of the provost-abbot Siward, c. 1053 (Cartul. Rames. i, 188), but still caused trouble in 1345 (ibid. i, 77–9; Chron. Rames. 352; cf. Cat. Anct. Deeds, iii, A. 5166). Bishop Niel of Ely settled the bounds between the marshes of Thorney, Wisbech, and Whittlesey, which had long given rise to disputes (Mon. Angl. ii, 609).
  • 63. e.g. Cal. Pat. 1301–7, pp. 196, 357.
  • 64. Chron. Rames. 374–5.
  • 65. Certain unknown malefactors were excommunicated in 1481 for breaking down the dyke of Knarediche and so drowning the lands and destroying the crops of the abbot of Thorney: Cartul. Rames. ii, 166–9.
  • 66. Ordericus Vitalis, op. cit. iv, 282; Red Book, fol. 414v.
  • 67. Mon. Angl. ii, 611.
  • 68. Ibid.
  • 69. Ibid.
  • 70. Ibid. 605.
  • 71. Ordericus Vitalis, op. cit. iv, 280–2; Red Book, fol. 415v.
  • 72. Ordericus Vitalis, op. cit. v, 123–4.
  • 73. Pipe R. 16–21 Henry II. The king's motive can hardly have been financial, as Robert, the clerk of Yaxley, who was responsible for the abbey, produced a surplus beyond the cost of sustaining the convent of only from £10 to £12 for the Treasury.
  • 74. Pipe R. 21 Hen. II (Pipe R. Soc. xxii), 143; Rad. de Diceto (Rolls Ser.), i. 401.
  • 75. Red Book, fol. 421v.
  • 76. Ibid. fol. 424.
  • 77. Ibid.; Roger of Hoveden (Rolls Ser.), iii, 199; Walter of Coventry (Rolls Ser.), ii, 89.
  • 78. Gervase of Canterbury (Rolls Ser.), i, 530.
  • 79. Cal. Papal L. i, 11, summarizing the story told in detail in the Pope's letter to the archbishop: Migne, Innocentius III (Patr. Lat.), i, 1026–9.
  • 80. Walter of Coventry (Rolls Ser.), ii, 244. He was also sent on business to Rome by King John and, in 1219 and 1223, by Henry III: Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i, 381, 408, 534.
  • 81. Red Book, fol. 424. He received benediction from Bishop Eustace of Ely at Amberley, a seat of the Bishop of Chichester in Sussex.
  • 82. Mon. Angl. ii, 605–6; Rot. Chart. (Rec. Com.), 204.
  • 83. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i, 294.
  • 84. Ibid. 347.
  • 85. Red Book, fol. 437v.
  • 86. Ibid.; Cal. Pat. 1232–47, pp. 193, 194.
  • 87. Cal. Close, 1234–7, p. 563.
  • 88. Cal. Pat. 1238–47, pp. 226, 228.
  • 89. Cal. Close, 1237–42, p. 82.
  • 90. Red Book, fol. 445.
  • 91. Mon. Angl. ii, 595, notes, extracts from the Red Book.
  • 92. Red Book, fols. 459–61.
  • 93. Ibid. fol. 439.
  • 94. Ibid. fol. 440v.
  • 95. Ibid.
  • 96. Ibid. fol. 450v.
  • 97. Ibid.
  • 98. Ibid. fol. 453v.
  • 99. Ibid. fol. 454.
  • 100. Cal. Pat. 1348–50, p. 127.
  • 101. Ibid. p. 422.
  • 102. Cal. Close, 1264–8, p. 85.
  • 103. Palgrave, Parly. Writs, i, 862 (1295–1306); iii, 1498–1500 (1308–25); Rep. on Dignity of a Peer, passim.
  • 104. Palgrave, op. cit. iii, 1499.
  • 105. Red Book, fol. 464v.
  • 106. a Cott. MS. Nero C. VII (Annals of Thorney). His first visit was on his way to fight the Scots; on his return 'after the war was finished' he was apparently received into the fraternity of the convent (but the entry is barely legible).
  • 107. Cal. Pat. 1313–17, p. 146.
  • 108. Ibid. p. 199.
  • 109. Ibid.
  • 110. Cal. Chart. R. iii, 242–5.
  • 111. Cal. Pat. 1313–17, p. 349.
  • 112. Cant. Archiep. Reg. Reynolds, fol. 64.
  • 113. Mon. Angl. ii, 611.
  • 114. Ibid.; Cal. Pat. 1313–17, p. 440.
  • 115. Red Book, fol. 467v.
  • 116. Cole MS. xxiii, fols. 164–7.
  • 117. Mon. Angl. ii, 597.
  • 118. e.g. Whittlesey church appropriated to the kitchener (Cole MS. xli, fol. 95); those of Yaxley and Stanground to the abbot and chamberlain respectively (Ely Epis. Reg. Fordham, fol. 197; E.D.R. 1900, p. 178). Rents in Bolnhurst to hostillar (Red Book, fol. 432), in Sibson to almoner and cellarer (fol. 434v.), in Grafham to sacrist (fol. 435), in Huntingdon to precentor (fol. 435v.), in Raunds to prior and keeper of the Lady Chapel (fols. 434, 436). Cf. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.) ii, 632, 641–2, 644, 661.
  • 119. Red Book, fol. 472.
  • 120. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 219.
  • 121. Cole MS. xxiii, fols. 95–6; Ely Epis. Reg. Lisle, fol. 47.
  • 122. Tanner MS. (Bodl.), 10.
  • 123. N. R. Ker, Medieval Libraries of Gt. Brit. 105.
  • 124. Ibid.
  • 125. Harl. MS. 1747. John Sawtre was probably the prior of Thorney who resigned in 1402: E.D.R. 1900, p. 178.
  • 126. W. A. Pantin, Chapters of Engl. Black Monks, 128; Cott. Chart. Roll xiv, 13.
  • 127. Red Book, fol. 8.
  • 128. East Anglian, xiii, 102.
  • 129. Cal. Pat. 1388–92, p. 217.
  • 130. Ely Epis. Reg. Gray, fol. 134; Cole MS. xxv, fol. 137.
  • 131. Ibid. fol. 154.
  • 132. Mon. Angl. ii, 596. A pension of £40 yearly was to be paid to the abbey for his support; no trace of any such payment has been found, so that his death may have occurred shortly after his arrival.
  • 133. Cal. Papal L. xi, 115.
  • 134. Ibid. xii, 565.
  • 135. Ibid. 614.
  • 136. Ibid. xi, 537.
  • 137. L. and P. Hen. VIII, i, 3800, 3803, 3963.
  • 138. Gough MS. (Bodl.), Cambs. 30, fol. 7.
  • 139. He acted as suffragan to Bishop West of Ely, who licensed him in 1526 to minister confirmation and the first tonsure in the Deanery of Wisbech, and to ordain his own monks: Ely Epis. Reg. West, fol. 30.
  • 140. L. and P. Hen. VIII, iv (3), 6513. He officiated at the funeral of Katharine of Aragon on 15 January 1536: ibid. x, pp. 105–6.
  • 141. Ibid. xiv (2), 621.
  • 142. Mon. Angl. ii, 596.
  • 143. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), 621.
  • 144. Gough MS. (Bodl.), Cambs. 30, fol. 8.
  • 145. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Con.), iii, 499.
  • 146. Mon. Angl. ii, 612–13.
  • 147. Sharpe, Cal. Wills in Ct. of Hustings, i, 650.
  • 148. Red Book, fol. 434v. This hospital was in existence towards the end of the 12th century, when Eustace de Merch of Stibbington assigned tithes to the support of the poor therein: Mon. Angl. ii, 602.
  • 149. List from Mon. Angl. ii, 594–6, checked by authorities there given and lists in the Red Book.
  • 150. It is not clear whether he resigned the abbacy on becoming bishop of Worcester in that year.
  • 151. Red Book, fol. 415v.
  • 152. For Leofric, Siward, and Fulchard see above.
  • 153. Red Book (fol. 420) says 1 Henry II, but apparently Stephen made the appointment originally; Cal. Chart. R. iii, 243.
  • 154. A monk of St. Nicholas, Angers.
  • 155. Prior of Ramsey: Chron. Rames. (Rolls Ser.), 341.
  • 156. a He died in January 1403 and was buried near the chapel of SS. Christopher and George: Cott. MS. Nero C. vii.
  • 157. Gough MS. (Bodl.), Cambs. 30, fol. 7. No congé d'élire or other record of his election or appointment has been found. A lease was executed by Robert Molton, Abbot of Thorney, in 1530 (Pat. 34 Hen. VIII, pt. 9, m. 27). As the 'Robert, Abbot of Thorney', upon whom the Irish see of Down and Connor was bestowed on 16 April 1520 (W. M. Brady, Episcopal Succession, i, 262) is known to have been Robert Blythe, the two Roberts must be identical; Blythe was his family name and Moulton presumably his name 'in religion'. Robert Blythe passed from Eton to King's in 1499, proceeded B.A. 1503–4, and did not become a monk until 1507 at earliest (Venn, Alumni Cant.); Robert Multon, monk, was Bachelor of Canon Law in 1507–8 (ibid.).
  • 158. Brit. Mus. Cat. of Seals, i, no. 4165.
  • 159. Ibid. no. 4167.
  • 160. Cast at Society of Antiquaries, from original (of 1444) at Christ's College.