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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9. THE PRIORY OF SPINNEY
In 1086 Wimar, steward of the Count of Brittany, held the manor of Wicken with lands in Fordham and Landwade; these his grandson's daughter, Beatrice, and her husband Hugh Malebiche held in 1208-9. (fn. 1) Before 1227-8 they had founded the priory of St. Mary and the Holy Cross at Spinney in Wicken, and endowed it with the advowson of the parish church of Wicken, 55 acres of land, a marsh called Frithfen, and the fishery of Gormere; Wimar of Thornton (in Yorkshire), the distant cousin who was Beatrice's heir, gave a tillage called Meckhowe. (fn. 2)
The foundation was for three canons only, but, small as it was, the prior was papal commissary in July 1240, when Gregory IV issued a mandate to the three Augustinian priors of Holy Trinity (London), Spinney, and Blackmoor to give effect to the petition of the nuns of Holywell for Wellow Church, which had been given them by St. Hugh, (fn. 3) and again in 1257 under a mandate to defend Nicholas, Archdeacon of Ely, in his rights in England. (fn. 4)
Matthew, son of Wimar de Thornton, was killed in 1259, his heir Roger, in 1263, in the Barons' War. Roger's brothers died childless, and their sister Mary, wife of Humphrey de Bassingbourn, became sole heir of Beatrice Malebiche, and 'foundress' of Spinney. (fn. 5) Besides the chief endowment of Spinney in Wicken, the priory had acquired spiritualities in Whissonsett in Norfolk and temporalities worth 40s. in the manor of Ashley before 1254. (fn. 6) Property in Wisbech had been sold to the rector before 1252 to found a chapel at Kilhouse dyke, (fn. 7) and by 1279 a house in Cambridge had also been sold, (fn. 8) but the prior of Spinney was then holding some 250 acres in Silverley from Geoffrey Arsik. (fn. 9) In 1291 Spinney held the rectory of Wicken, valued at £12, (fn. 10) and had property in Cambridge, Ely, and Wisbech. (fn. 11)
In 1293 Hugh de Cressingham, the king's clerk, had leave to alienate land in Kirtling to the prior and convent of St. Mary of Spinney in alms for the soul of the Queen Consort, (fn. 12) but neither an obligation to celebrate for the soul of Eleanor of Castile nor the possession of lands in Kirtling is heard of again. In 1301, during her widowhood, Mary de Bassingbourn gave some 90 acres of arable and meadow and 60s. of rents in Wicken to the priory, (fn. 13) endowing four additional canons, of whom two were to say mass daily in the parish church and two in the conventual church, and on the death or cession of any one of the four their number was to be made up within the year. Lady Mary afterwards gave them a messuage to house seven men, infirm and poor, and allotted 62 acres of arable, 24 of meadow, the marsh in Upware called Frythfen, and a rent of 13s. 4d. to provide them with a daily allowance of a farthing loaf and a herring apiece, with a pennyworth of ale among them, and also a clothing allowance of 3 ells of linen at 2d. an ell, a pair of shoes worth 5d. every year, and a woollen garment worth 2s. 6d. every other year. The balance was to be expended on a dole to be distributed thrice yearly, consisting of a farthing loaf and a herring to a thousand poor folk 'reckoned by the great hundred of 6 score' at Candlemas, to another thousand on Good Friday, and to a third thousand on the Lady Mary's own anniversary. (fn. 14) It is hardly surprising that in time to come the canons (apart from the rise in prices which they pleaded) found this invasion thrice a year 'grievous and insupportable'. (fn. 15)
In 1318 the convent had licence to acquire lands to the value of 20 marks yearly. (fn. 16) There was perhaps at this time rebuilding at the conventual church, for in October 1319 Thomas de Verdoun and Sir Henry de Praeres gave a rent of 20s. from their manor of Strixton, Northants, to the fabric. (fn. 17) In the same year Humphrey Bassingbourn, Mary's son, confirmed all his ancestors' gifts to the canons. (fn. 18) In 1324 there is mention of a John de Sneyllewelle, canon of Spinney, who had left the Order, but desired to be reconciled. (fn. 19) In 1348 Spinney acquired some 120 acres of land, apparently by purchase, in Snailwell; (fn. 20) land had also been bought in Wisbech in 1347, (fn. 21) for Spinney enjoyed a period of some prosperity in the first half of the 14th century. In Wicken itself Sir Humphrey Bassingbourn had, in 1342, renounced his claim to rights of fishing on the dykes and of cutting sedge in winter-time from the Thornhill dyke 'to le Bek near the water-gate of le Wiske', (fn. 22) but in 1347 he died, leaving the reversion of Wicken manor with the homage and services of the three priories of Anglesey, Spinney, and Fordham to Walter, husband of his granddaughter Margaret and son of Sir Robert Colville of Bytham. Failing heirs of the marriage it was to go to the heirs of Sir Robert Colville. (fn. 23) Quarrels arose among these heirs (fn. 24) and a generation later the advowson of Spinney was involved in a complicated case of disputed inheritance, the heirs being the issue of two aunts of Sir Robert Colville, Sir John Gernoun successfully claiming as son of one of these ladies, Alice Gobaud, by a second marriage. (fn. 25) In 1476 his great-grandson, Thomas Peyton, declared that Sir John's tomb in Spinney Church not only bore the inscription 'ici gist Jon' Gernoun chivaler de la counte de Essex qe fu la fize Dame Alys Gobaute priers a Dieu p. charite q. de sa alme ait pite'—thus asserting his right of inheritance—but that his brass lay 'before the high altar at Spinney in the place where they begin the Confiteor before mass, which is the principal place of sepulture of the Founders of any religious house, and so they took the said Sir John Gernoun in place of their Founders, as appears there to this day'. (fn. 26) These dissensions about the patronage seem to have been connected with the appointment of a canon of Anglesey as prior in 1390, his subsequent murder, and the final absorption of Spinney in the priory of Ely. In February 1390 Henry Wylmyn, or de Cambridge, who had been prior since 1366, resigned and was succeeded by William Gilbert, called in religion de Lode, a canon of Anglesey. (fn. 27) In 1395 he and his convent sought relief from the clause in Mary Bassingbourn's foundation by which two of the canons were to say mass daily at Wicken parish church. (fn. 28) The letter of Pope Boniface IX, replying to the petition for the replacement of the canons by secular priests, ordered investigation by the Prior of Anglesey, stating that both day and night hours were sung at Spinney, but maintained with difficulty, because there were only eight canons (fn. 29) beside the prior. The canons were recalled, but no seculars were found to take their place. In 1400 Thomas Colton sought licence to grant the advowson of Kingston Church to Spinney, (fn. 30) but nothing came of it.
On Sunday 12 May 1403 the prior was murdered by three of his own canons. (fn. 31) Two of these (one, John Lode, alias Catesson, probably a native of his own village, and the other Thomas Smyth) stabbed him in the priory church with their knives. The prior fled, mortally wounded, into the hall and shut the door upon himself, but they, and William Hall, another canon, broke down the door, and Smyth killed him with a dagger. The inquest was held on the following Sunday, and on 12 June John Botelesham, the sub-prior, he and all his convent having compromitted the election to the Bishop of Norwich as ordinary, was appointed William Gilbert's successor. (fn. 32) At the jail delivery at Cambridge Castle on 20 July the jury found the three canons guilty of the murder, but the official of the Bishop of Ely claimed them as clerics, (fn. 33) and no more is heard of their fate.
In 1401 the house appears to have consisted of William, the prior, and five canons, John Bodekesham, John Lode, Thomas Smyth, William Hall, and Richard Eversdoun: (fn. 34) on 28 March 1411 Bishop Fordham of Ely ordained priest a canon of Spinney named John Lenne, who had been made sub-deacon and deacon in the preceding year. (fn. 35) On 23 August 1414 John of Bottisham resigned, and the supprior et concanonici having carried out an election which William Westacre, Vicar-General of Norwich, pronounced canonical, their nominee, Thomas Ely, LL.B., canon of Anglesey, was confirmed as prior, and installed by Westacre. (fn. 36) Before the end of 1420 Thomas Ely had either died or resigned, (fn. 37) and there is no sign of any increase in the number of regulars in the house in spite of a further attempt at reorganization. Margaret Peyton, daughter of Sir John Gernoun (who had exercised founder's rights, although not entirely without friction), died 5 July 1414. (fn. 38) In 1418 Richard Atthelwald and Maud his wife (daughter of Sir Richard Coleville) made an indenture with Prior Thomas by which the convent was released from the obligation of serving Wicken Church, but not less than five canons were to celebrate within the priory for the souls of Maud and Richard Atthelwald and for the two foundresses. Their number was to be made up within the year after a death and the advowson was to remain with Maud's heirs. The seven poor men were to have their corrodies, but there is no express mention of a living-house for them nor of the livery of clothing, but only of provision of bread and ale. Instead of the 'grievous and insupportable' doles the canons were to distribute a penny each to the most needy in Wicken, Fordham, and Soham on Good Friday and Friday in Whit-week to the value of one mark. A jury had found that the original charges had come greatly to exceed the value of the land upon which they were charged. (fn. 39) An undated petition of certain tenants of Wicken, complaining that a dole of a thousand loaves and a thousand herrings thrice in the year had been withheld by Spinney, (fn. 40) may refer to this modification of Mary Bassingbourn's charity, or may reflect the earlier inability of the canons to fulfil their obligation.
It is possible that John Botelesham and Richard Eversden, canons of Spinney, who on 19 November 1420 went to the Bishop of Norwich at Thorp and there resigned to him their right of choosing a prior, (fn. 41) were proctors for the convent, but more probably they were the only professed members of the house. The bishop provided John 'of Bottisham', who may have been the same individual who was collated in 1403. In April 1430 John Botelesham resigned, and the Bishop of Norwich, in the chapel of his palace at Norwich, collated John Kirkeby, canon of Barnwell. (fn. 42) In 1431 Kirkeby granted a special corrody to Richard Baker alias Dobin for good service already rendered by him. He was to have 'the house of the late William', with its solar over it and the garden attached, for life, and a daily allowance of food; in return he was to 'work in the office of baker, to cook our food and brew our beer', to fill the office of miller and grind the grain and malt of the convent, working for others in his spare time only, and for the benefit of the priory; he was also in charge of the sedge and fuel. He was allowed free access to his business 'by the midst of the great garden'; he might keep one pig in the prior's close and might employ carpenters and other workmen about his house, who were supplied by the priory with food and drink. (fn. 43) About this time, in 1436, Thomas Catton left to the priory one set of bed furniture of blue worsted and another of green, with a 'coverlyt' with white roses; he also gave his vestment of saye for use on festivals in the chapel. (fn. 44)
John Kirkeby died in 1442 and the choice of a new prior again devolved upon the Bishop of Norwich 'by reason of the submission of Brother Richard, sub-prior of the said priory and his convent', and on 26 October the bishop collated Robert Fyvyan, canon of St. Osyth. (fn. 45) On 27 January 1443 Sir John Tiptoft, who by this time had acquired the advowson of Spinney, also died. (fn. 46) He had provided for an obit, or chantry, for himself and his wives Joyce and Philippa, at Ely, and was buried in the cathedral, and this enabled the Prior of Ely to state, seven years later when Spinney was to be incorporated into his house, that the 'founders' of the Augustinian priory lay there. John Tiptoft's heir, the future Earl of Worcester, was a minor at his father's death, but when he came of age his consent was obtained for the absorption of Spinney. (fn. 47) The union was effected in 1449. Expenses connected with the legal business involved appear in the Ely accounts, (fn. 48) and licence was obtained for Robert, Prior of St. Mary and St. Cross of Spinney, to hand over his priory and its estates to William Welles, Prior of Ely, and for the Prior of Ely, with his convent, to receive them on 31 March. (fn. 49) Walter Lyhart, Bishop of Norwich, confirmed the union of Spinney with Ely on 4 December 1449, reserving a pension of 3s. 4d. in respect of Spinney and 6s. 8d. from Wicken Church to succeeding Bishops of Norwich, and ordaining that any monks who might happen to be at Spinney should be under the obedience of Ely, and released from any right of visitation, or other claim that the Bishop of Norwich had over them. (fn. 50) The Prior of Ely further provided that two monks of Ely should celebrate in perpetuity in the cathedral church for the souls of William and Elizabeth Castleacre, receiving 'by the hand of the Prior of Spinney, out of the issues of that priory', 6s. 8d. a year, and that another monk should celebrate for the souls of John Tiptoft and Joyce and Philippa his wives 'at the altar of the ancient chapel of Blessed Mary in the Cathedral church', receiving from the Prior of Spinney 13s. 4d. a year, and that the Prior of Spinney himself should receive 40d. to celebrate in Ely on the Sunday in the octave of St. Gregory for the souls of Richard Andreas and Idonea his wife, the parents of Prior William Welles, and should that day distribute 3 quarters of wheat among the poor and almsmen. (fn. 51)
On 12 June 1453 Pope Nicholas V confirmed the appropriation of Spinney with Wicken to the 'capitular mensa' of the Priory of Ely by the Bishop of Norwich, with the consent of Henry VI and John, Earl of Worcester, 'in virtue of which appropriation the Prior and chapter obtained possession . . . and keep four monks in Spinney Priory, and are making great repairs in the benefice'. (fn. 52) No provision was made for any memorial to other benefactors of Spinney than Castleacre and Tiptoft, but in 1476 Thomas Peyton the elder, who had made over his claim to the manor of Wicken to Thomas Grey (later Marquess of Dorset) in 1459-60, (fn. 53) claimed to be still founder of Spinney. His statement about the tomb of Sir John Gernoun has already been quoted; it continues: 'item: Have in mind that the Prior of Ely hath put out of the gable window at Spinney the armes of Sir Hugh Malebisse, the first founder of the house of Spinney, in the middest of the third and greatest round of stonework in masonrie in the one part of the said window; and in the bordure of the said rounde masonworke, in the said window, was round about the said Sir Hugh Malebisse and Sir Robert Colvyle's arms, and 8 escochions with the arms of Sir John Gernon; and now, daubed in with clay, instead of the said armes be other glass,' and the witness adds that this was 'first seen and espyed by Tho. Peyton the elder, founder of the said house of Spinney die Jovis in festo S. Etheldrede 16 Ed. IV' (1476). (fn. 54)
Little more is heard of Spinney, but it appears that the use of the hospital for almsmen was not at once abolished. In 1480 Roger Westminster, Prior of Ely, leased 2 acres of the Wicken estate, abutting at one end on the 'Almshouse of Wyken', the rent of 2s. to be paid to the Prior of Ely or his custos of Spinney for the time being. (fn. 55) In 1489 Spinney was assessed for a clerical subsidy at 4s. 6d. as against 80s. from the Priory of Ely itself, and 2s. 3½d. from the little priory at Fordham. (fn. 56) Again, about 1511, the Cambridge vintner who supplied the friars sold a bottle of sweet Lisbon wine to the Prior of Spinney, (fn. 57) and in 1521-2 John Cottenham, Prior of Ely, leased land in Wicken for a rent of 5s., to be paid, like the other, to the prior and convent seu custodi Prioratus de Speney. (fn. 58) Shortly after this Richard Hunt, a London mercer, sued Michael Barningham, Prior of Spinney, on the ground that on 21 February 1529(30) he agreed to grant to him under the convent seal the messuage called the Unicorn in the city of London for 70 years after the expiry of a lease made to Edmund Burwell, at a rent of £3 6s. 8d. payable at Chesterton on Holy Rood day during Sturbridge Fair, and to obtain the confirmation of the prior and convent of Ely. Barningham replied that he was 'pryor of Spyney datyffe and removable at the pleasure of Robert Pryor of Ely' and that Spinney had no conventual seal; but Hunt maintained that he was reputed to be prior and had the governance of 4 or 5 monks, and that the priory had always made leases of its London property. (fn. 59)
There is no evidence that a Prior of Spinney ever attended a General Chapter of Augustinian canons. The house appears in all the lists of Augustinian monasteries which were drawn up for these, even for those of 1460 and 1510, (fn. 60) after it had become a cell of the Benedictine Priory of Ely, but its only appearance in the acta occurs when the prior was cited to appear before the chapter at Newnham in 1340 to answer for disobedience to statutes made at the chapter at St. Frideswide in 1337. (fn. 61)
When the dissolution of the lesser houses was in progress, on 20 March 1536, Richard Southwell wrote to Cromwell that he had spent Friday night at Newmarket: 'Mr. Bestney . . . furnished us with meat and fish sufficient for our entertainment. . . . I asked him if I could send any message to you from him. He asked me to remind you of the Priories of Lygyn (Biggin, or Fordham) and Syverneye (Spinney) a cell to the house of Ely, for which he lately wrote to you. . . . He desires his suit for the latter to be secret. Your pains will not be unremembered.' (fn. 62) Mr. Bestney, however, did not obtain either house. In 1538 Robert Steward, then Prior of Ely, and his convent leased the site of the house and 'Priory or selle of Spyney' to George Carleton of London, gentleman, reserving to the 'Prior and convent of Spynney and to their farmer' the farm called Cotton's in Wicken and all other lands previously let to them at farm with the timber growing 'about the Priory of Wykyn'. (fn. 63) Ely itself was surrendered on 18 November 1539. In the survey of the monastery property made at the time the property of the cell of Spinney, with the exception of their messuage called the Unicorn in Cheapside, London, (fn. 64) is marked as granted to Edward North; (fn. 65) but no such grant was actually made, and the lease which the prior had granted to George Carleton in 1538 was replaced in 1542 by a grant from the Crown, in reward for Carleton's services to the young Prince Edward, (fn. 66) and the property descended in his family. (fn. 67) The greater part of the canons' house survived until 1774, and parts are incorporated in the present building.
A 'Leiger book of Spinney Abbey' was among Bishop Tanner's MSS., and may have been identical with the register of Spinney Abbey given by Isaac Barrow to Sir Simon D'Ewes. (fn. 68)
Priors of Spinney
Hervey, occurs 1227-8, 1231-2 (fn. 69)
Henry Malebisse, occurs 1272 (fn. 70)
Simon de Lydgate, before 1286 (fn. 71)
Robert de Isleham, elected May 1339 (fn. 78)
Henry Wylmyn, elected Feb. 1366 (fn. 79)
Henry of Cambridge, resigned Feb. 1390 (fn. 80)
Robert Fyvyan, collated 26 Oct. 1442 (fn. 91)
The 13th-century seal is a large pointed oval and shows a cross surmounted by a star. Above the transverse bar of the cross are the letters A ω, and below MA RIA. Legend: S . SCE . MARIE ET SCE . CRVCIS DE SPINETO DE WIKES. (fn. 92)