Houses of Gilbertine canons: Priory of St Edmund, Cambridge

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 Gilbertine canons: Priory of St Edmund, Cambridge', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 254-256. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

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The first experiment in the collegiate system was the foundation of Walter de Merton at Oxford, but in 1233 another 'House' was founded in Oxford for the monks of Gloucester Abbey, and this, in 1291, was thrown open to all Benedictines; but the Gilbertine Canons had a house in Cambridge which anticipated the expansion of Gloucester Hall in 1291, at least by several months, and, being from its beginning as much college as monastery, has precedence in point of time over all Cambridge colleges except Peterhouse, its neighbour, and over all monastic colleges except Gloucester Hall in its first form.

On 9 June 1290 Pope Nicholas IV instructed the Archdeacon of Stow to grant the place held by the Friars de penitencia, which, as he believed, they were then about to leave, to the Master and Brethren of Sempringham, who were 'wont to send members of their order to study at the castle at Cambridge' and needed a house in which to form a canonry there. A fair price was to be paid for the site and deposited in safe keeping for the subsidy for the Holy Land, or other purposes at the Pope's pleasure. (fn. 1)

The Pope assumed that the Friars of the Sack, who had been technically 'suppressed' 16 years before, could no longer need their friary outside Trumpington Gates; in fact they remained there for more than another 16 years. (fn. 2) The White Canons, however, had already found a neighbouring site, the first licence to grant them property there being dated only 3 days later than the papal mandate. (fn. 3) Cambridge furnishes more than one example of a family of wealthy townsfolk owning a church as a piece of personal property, (fn. 4) and of these families one of the most notable took its name from its proprietary chapel of St. Edmund, (fn. 5) which stood opposite the house of the Friars of the Sack, (fn. 6) and was served by wardens, of whom John de Ry and Robert de Horningshethe had business dealings with the friars. (fn. 7) In 1279 the head of this family was Luke, who had 70 acres in demesne (besides many tenements in Barnwell held of him), (fn. 8) brother and heir of Master Thomas, a member of the University and benefactor of the Friars of the Sack. (fn. 9) By 1290 their inheritance had passed to their sister Cecily, who, on 12 June, obtained licence to alienate to the Master and Brethren of Sempringham 2 acres of her patrimony and the advowson of St. Edmund's Chapel. (fn. 10)

The canons appear to have at once begun to adapt the property, which retained its name of the Chapel of St. Edmund. (fn. 11) The wording of the mandate, that they were accustomed to study 'at the castle of Cambridge', suggests some connexion with the first Carmelite centre near the castle before the Gilbertines had a house of study of their own. Their priory founded at Stamford in 1292, with the same purpose of fostering the study of theology within the Order, is said to have been a direct result of the fame of the Carmelite schools there. (fn. 12) On 29 August 1290 Nicholas IV licensed the conventual Prior of Sempringham to have in the mother-house 'a discreet and learned doctor of theology, to teach those of the brethren who desired to study that science'. (fn. 13) The intention would seem to have been that the doctor should obtain his degree through the faculty of theology established within the last 40 years at Cambridge. In the 15th century at least one Gilbertine scholar is described as having studied 'at other Universities' as well as at Cambridge, (fn. 14) but in 1290 faculties of theology were rare, and there is nothing to show that White Canons were going abroad for the degrees they could obtain at home.

The author of the Liber Memorandorum records that the canons of Sempringham were living at St. Edmund's Chapel first in 1291, and that they were instant in attending lectures and in disputations, (fn. 15) and a papal indulgence of 17 April 1291 gave remission of penance for a year and 40 days to those who devoutly visited the chapel of St. Edmund on his feast day, or that of St. Gilbert, or on the anniversary of the dedication. (fn. 16) In 1293 Cecily St. Edmund gave to the Order a house with 60 acres of land, and 40s. of rent, subject to the annual payment of 15s. 10¾d. to the bailiffs of Cambridge towards the farm of the town. (fn. 17)

The demesne of the St. Edmund family thus became the 'Canons Close', which covered, roughly, the present site of Addenbrooke's Hospital. The original chapel had had right of burial: Master Walter, an early graduate, had given it land before 1272 'with the body of his mother', wife of John the Clerk of Cambridge. (fn. 18) Excavators found female bones on the site in 1896, and a number of human remains had already been turned up in the hospital garden in the 18th century. (fn. 19) Although these discoveries may mark the canons' graveyard, it is more probable that they go back to the days of the proprietary chapel. Fuller wrote of the church in 1643 that it 'lay buried in its churchyard, and the churchyard in oblivion' although the name 'White Canons' was still in use. (fn. 20)

The direct dependence of the individual priories upon the 'Prior of Priors' at Sempringham, together with the very complete exemptions enjoyed by the Order, makes the history of the Gilbertine houses obscure. That of St. Edmund's Chapel continued, until the time of the Black Death, to receive augmentations of its property, which lay entirely in Cambridge and in the open fields about it; in June 1299 Nicholas de Bolingbrok had leave to grant a messuage and 67 acres of land in Cambridge, (fn. 21) and in the tallage of 1312 the Prior of Sempringham paid 14s. 4d. on the Cambridge possessions. (fn. 22) Edward II in 1314 granted the canons licence to acquire further property to the value of £10 a year, (fn. 23) and under this they obtained 4 more messuages with a little land and rent in 1318, (fn. 24) and 9 messuages with more land and rent in 1332. (fn. 25) In addition to this purely urban property they acquired, before the middle of the 14th century, numerous strips in the open fields, and especially in the eastern or Barnwell field, which, after the dissolution of the monasteries, were bought by the corporation of the town. Probably a good deal of exchanging was done to bring the various sections given by different small benefactors into more convenient shape: one such exchange was that of nearly 5 acres lying in three parcels in Barnwell Fields, which the canons gave to the nuns of St. Radegund for about 3½ acres lying in four parcels in Swinecroft, nearer their priory. (fn. 26) By 1341 the prior seems to have had town property detached from the conventual buildings, for the warden and scholars of King's Hall appropriated part of a lane running between the garden of St. John's Hospital and 'tenements of the Prior of St. Edmund's, which part extended from the lodging of the prior opposite All Saints' church (fn. 27) . . . to the King's Ditch'; and in January 1341 the king also gave them more land to increase their site, including a garden bought from the Prior of the Gilbertines, (fn. 28) which must have been near the present boundary between Trinity and St. John's.

In 1348 the priory seems to have suffered from an outbreak of fire, as it was alleged in 1381 that all their charters and muniments had been burnt by misfortune in that year. (fn. 29) To the subsidy of 1379 'the chapel of St. Edmund', rated as under £20, made a single payment of 5s., ranking with the other colleges, immediately after which it is entered; (fn. 30) no canons are, therefore, named and there is nothing to show the number then, or at any time, in residence. Money for the support of two priest canons at Cambridge until they had each acquired the degree of Bachelor of Divinity was left to the Master of Sempringham in 1435 by John Leventhorp, a lawyer of eminence. (fn. 31)

Of the canons' library the only survival is an imperfect copy of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, now in the British Museum, given to the priory by Master John Hanworth. (fn. 32) It is an early-14thcentury copy, but there is nothing to show at what date it was given to the canons.

St. Edmund's, being the house of study for the whole Order, was maintained, over and above its endowments in Cambridge, by contributions from the various monasteries of the Order. (fn. 33) Among the earlier Gilbertine scholars at Cambridge was the most eminent, Robert Manning of Bourne in Lincolnshire, (fn. 34) the only writer of the Order, except the biographer of St. Gilbert, whose works have survived. Although he was a student, Robert wrote in English 'for unlearned men', (fn. 35) and his Handlyng Synne has been said to have exercised more influence on the English literary language than any other poem before Chaucer. He wrote it in 1303, when he had been professed 15 years, and at some period he appears to have studied at Cambridge, but whether before he joined the Order is not clear; so that it is not possible to claim him definitely as a member of St. Edmund's.

The later history of St. Edmund's is almost a complete blank except for a few unimportant transactions in the way of leases of parts of their property. In 1499 the town treasurers paid 40s. to the prior 'for his robe' and for having his friendship for this year; (fn. 36) this may have been connected with the fact that the priory held part of the ground covered by Sturbridge Fair. (fn. 37) A further payment that year of 16d. for wine given to 'the Lord of the White Canons' (fn. 38) may indicate the presence of the Master of Sempringham on visitation. No surrender of the priory is recorded, but the last prior, Humphrey Spensley, was awarded a pension of £5 in November 1539. (fn. 39)

The estates of the priory, which had been rated at £8 4s. in 1340, (fn. 40) were valued in 1535 at £14 18s. 8½d. (fn. 41) Parts of them seem to have been leased to Peterhouse, Christ's, and Corpus, and to have been retained by those colleges. (fn. 42) The actual site was granted in 1544 to Edward Elrington and Humphrey Metcalf, (fn. 43) who at once transferred it to Ralph Bicardyke. (fn. 44)

Priors of St. Edmund's

Olbert, occurs 1304-5 (fn. 45)

Henry de Gretford, before 1341 (fn. 46)

John de Leccheworth, occurs 1355 (fn. 47)

John Burton, occurs 1428 (fn. 48)

Richard, occurs 1456 (fn. 49)

James Bolton, occurs 1474 (fn. 50)

Jonson, occurs 1492 (fn. 51)

William Gayton, occurs 1498, (fn. 52) 1501-2 (fn. 53)

Roger Felton, occurs 1508 (fn. 54)

Humphrey Spensley, surrendered c. Nov. 1539 (fn. 55)

A seal used in 1474 and 1498 is sketched and described by Cole (fn. 56) as oval, bearing the figure of St. Edmund, crowned and holding two arrows in his right hand, standing under a canopy surmounted by a cross; in a niche below, a canon kneeling. Legend: + REX EST EDMŪDUS P . . . S.


  • 1. Cal. Papal Letters, i, 514.
  • 2. Cf. Section on the Friars de penitencia, below, p. 290.
  • 3. Cal. Pat. 1281-92, p. 363.
  • 4. The le Rus family had so owned the chapel of St. Lucy before it was given to the Friars of the Sack: H. P. Stokes, Outside Trumpington Gates, 39. The original claim of the family of Maud de Walda to St. Michael's (H. P. Stokes, Bedells, 50), of Absalom to St. Peter outside Trumpington Gates (F. W. Maitland, Township and Borough, 175), and of Blancgernon to All Saints by the Castle (ibid. 176) seems to have been similar.
  • 5. Cf. Maitland, op. cit. 163. Walter de Sancto Edmundo is also called 'at St. Edmund's Church' (Hund. R. ii, 397). He was the father of Thomas, Luke, and Cecily. There were family connexions with Blancgernon and Absalom, or Aspelon (Arthur Gray, St. Radegund, 115, 121), and Leonius Dunning (Stokes, op. cit. 59).
  • 6. See Stokes, Outside Trumpington Gates, passim for topography.
  • 7. Ibid. 27, 59.
  • 8. Maitland, loc. cit.
  • 9. Stokes, op. cit. 25.
  • 10. Cal. Pat. 1281-92, p. 363; List of Inq. a.q.d. (P.R.O.), 22.
  • 11. The prior was still known as 'Prior of St. Edmund's Chapel' in 1483 (Cooper, Annals, i, 227).
  • 12. Rose Graham, St. Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertines, 45. With the exception of Poulton in Wiltshire, Cambridge and Stamford were the latest Gilbertine houses founded.
  • 13. Cal. Papal Letters, i, 516.
  • 14. Thomas Mersche, 1425; ibid. vii, 456.
  • 15. Lib. Mem. de Bernewelle, 212.
  • 16. Cal. Papal Letters, i, 534.
  • 17. Cal. Pat. 1292-1301, p. 25.
  • 18. Stokes, op. cit. 60.
  • 19. Ibid. 62-3.
  • 20. Ibid. 62.
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1292-1301, p. 421. It is not clear whether this was a new grant or confirmation of the earlier grants by Cecily St. Edmund, as she was associated with Nicholas in making it; List of Inq. a.q.d. (P.R.O.), 42, 44.
  • 22. Cooper, Annals, i, 73.
  • 23. Cal. Pat. 1313-17, p. 177.
  • 24. Ibid. 1317-21, p. 110.
  • 25. Ibid. 1330-4, p. 321.
  • 26. Arthur Gray, Priory of St. Radegund (C.A.S.), 138 (no. 346).
  • 27. The church is here said to be 'in Trumpington Ward'.
  • 28. Cal. Pat. 1340-3, p. 84. In May 1449 more land was granted to the king's scholars in Cambridge which abutted on the land of the Prior of St. Edmund's Chapel on the north, and part of the property of Corpus on the south: Ibid. 1446-52, p. 257.
  • 29. Ibid. 1381-5, p. 81.
  • 30. East Anglian, xiii, 121.
  • 31. Reg. Chichele (Cant. and York Soc.), ii, 528-9.
  • 32. Add. MS. 18,899: see Catalogue 1848-53, p. 164.
  • 33. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.): 16s. from Sempringham (iv, 103), St. Catherine's outside Lincoln (34), Bullington (84), and Chicksand (195); 13s. 4d. from Alvingham (38), Nun Ormsby (59), and Clattercote (ii, 197); 10s. from Shouldham (iii, 278), Haverholme (iv, 118), Mattersey (v, 178); and 4s. from Marmont (iii, 379) and Newstead (iv, 72): a total traceable of £7 2s.
  • 34. 'The most skilful story-teller of his time': Cambridge History of English Literature, i, 344-52. Cf. Rose Graham, op. cit. 158-61; Dict. Nat. Biog.
  • 35. Handlyng Synne, ed. F. J. Furnivall (Roxburghe Club), 3.
  • 36. Cooper, Annals, i, 250.
  • 37. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), 1188. Cf. Cole MS. xli, fol. 221: a lease of 'Penchest Croft in the Fairyard' to the mayor and burgesses in 1474.
  • 38. Cooper, loc. cit.
  • 39. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), p. 600.
  • 40. Inq. Non. (Rec. Com.), 218.
  • 41. Valor Eccl. iii, 506.
  • 42. Cal. Pat. 1553, p. 162.
  • 43. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xix (1), 442 (16).
  • 44. Ibid. 385.
  • 45. Gray, Priory of St. Radegund (C.A.S.), 138.
  • 46. Cal. Pat. 1340-3, p. 84.
  • 47. Cat. Michaelhouse Muniments (Trin. Coll.), M. 11.
  • 48. Trin. Coll. Muniments, K.H. 69.
  • 49. Lloyd, Early Hist. of Christ's Coll. 184.
  • 50. Ibid.; Cole MS. xli, fol. 221. Prior of Watton (Yorks.) 1479: Grace Bk. A, 140.
  • 51. Grace Bk. B, 40.
  • 52. Cole MS. xli, fol. 222.
  • 53. Grace Bk. I, 9. He was already a canon when ordained acolyte in 1443 (Ely Epis. Reg. Bourchier, fol. 45; E.D.R. 1903, p. 198), and was Prior of Watton in 1458 (Grace Bk. A, 14).
  • 54. Trin. Coll. Muniments, K.H. 70.
  • 55. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), p. 600.
  • 56. Cole MS. xli, fol. 222.