Houses of Gilbertine canons: Priory of Fordham

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 Fordham', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 256-258. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]

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At the time of the Domesday Survey Fordham was divided between the king and Count Alan, of whom his part was held by Wimar the Steward. (fn. 1) In 1204 King John as patron of the church gave the perpetual vicarage to Henry the (Rural) Dean of Fordham, reserving a pension of 5 marks to Baldwin the rector; (fn. 2) and in 1227 Henry III granted the church to the nuns of Sempringham. (fn. 3) Meanwhile Henry the Dean had begun to build a monastery in honour of St. Peter and St. Mary Magdalene in a field which had belonged to Aluric Grye, called Hallemclue croft, but had not decided to what Order of religion he should give it. Accordingly Hugh Malebisse, lord of the fee in right of his wife Beatrice, heiress of Wimar, confirmed to 'the brethren, of whatever Order they be, dwelling or about to dwell' therein a mill and the land which Richard Waleys and Maisent his wife held of him in Fordham, with the progeny of Richard and Maisent and her children by her previous husband William the Smith, and also gave them rights of common in the meadows, marshes, and turbaries of Wicken, Soham, and Fordham. (fn. 4)

Exactly when the Gilbertine canons were installed here is not known, but in March 1227 when Henry III confirmed the liberties granted by John to Sempringham and its subordinate priories he extended the confirmation to three recently founded houses, of which Fordham was one. (fn. 5)

By 1279 the prior was holding in Fordham of Humphrey de Bassingbourne, then the representative of Wimar, the original endowment of a messuage, a watermill, and 14 acres of arable; (fn. 6) he also held in alms 125 acres given by various persons; and from Walter son of Robert 60 acres of arable and 5 of meadow, given by Walter's ancestors, by service of maintaining 14 poor persons with food and clothing in the hospital of Fordham. (fn. 7) The Prior of Fordham also held the church of St. Andrew at Burwell, with 36 acres of land, paying for it 40s. yearly to the alien Priory of Stoke-by-Clare, (fn. 8) and its chapel of St. Nicholas at Landwade, given with 50 acres by the younger Robert de Hastings. (fn. 9) This church was valued at 12 marks in 1254, (fn. 10) and at £12 in 1291, when the Stoke portion was entered at £3. (fn. 11) In 1291 the temporalities of the priory amounted to £31 15s.—the largest items being in Fordham (£17 5s. 5½d.), Snailwell (£6 10s. 6d.), and Landwade (£4 6s. 3d.). (fn. 12)

For the next two centuries the history of the priory is a blank. In 1535 its estates were valued at £40 14s. 4½d.; the rectory of Burwell St. Andrew, with its chapel at Landwade, is entered, but with no value assigned to it. (fn. 13)

Robert Holgate, a Gilbertine, was Cromwell's chaplain, and some time before 10 June 1534 he was made Master of Sempringham, doubtless to arrange the future of the community in his charge in accordance with the king's wishes. The 'general visitation' by Cromwell's commissioners began at the end of October 1535, and Fordham was one of the first houses visited. On 1 November Dr. Legh wrote to Cromwell from Ely that there was 'a pryory namyd Byggyn (fn. 14) in the towne of Fordham' where there was no community 'but the prior and his moncke, (fn. 15) and the moncke is in extreme age and at dethes door'—this last seems, as in other cases, to have been an exaggeration. He declared that the two had prayed him on their knees to be dismissed from their religion 'which they ar not able lenger to endure—but shuld fall into dysperatyon or elles ronne awaye'. (fn. 16) On 4 November Edward Bestney wrote to Cromwell that the 'little religious house' in Fordham had a prior and one canon and a yearly income of £26 and that 'for their naughty observance of their foundation and their enormities' they were likely to fall into the king's hand; and that 'this house and the land thereunto pertaining adjoineth to my land so commodiously and pleasantly that if you will help me to the farm thereof I shall esteem it more than a thing more profitable'. (fn. 17) Legh had also said that it was 'a propre house, and yt stand commodyously and pleasauntly, and it may spend xxx li. by the yere in temporall landes, besyde spyrytualtyes, whyche ys a benefyce of xvi li. by the yere'. On 20 March 1536 Richard Southwell, who had spent the night at Newmarket, wrote that he had met Bestney there, who 'asked me to remind you of Lygyn and Syverney' [Byggin and Spinney]. (fn. 18)

Earlier in this same month a Bill had been introduced for the suppression of the lesser monasteries, but although it was, as Legh himself wrote 3 years later, impossible to find a poorer house in all England, (fn. 19) Fordham was spared, the whole Order being exempted from the operation of the Act, possibly for the benefit of the master. When in 1538 the surviving monasteries were dissolved there was no resistance from the Order of Sempringham. Holgate had become Bishop of Llandaff in 1537 and was holding the mastership of the Order and the priory of Watton in commendam. He did not surrender his own house until 9 December 1539, but Fordham surrendered on 1 September 1538. (fn. 20) It is curious in view of Dr. Legh's account of the priory in 1535 that three canons, Richard Brown, John Culey, and William Taylor, as well as the prior, William Baynton, signed the surrender. The prior was assigned a pension of £13 6s. 8d. and the canons £5 6s. 8d. (fn. 21)

Priors of Fordham

William, occurs 1246-7, 1257-8 (fn. 22)

Robert, occurs 1321 (fn. 23)

William, occurs 1365 (fn. 24)

John, occurs 1456 (fn. 25)

William Baynton, surrendered 1 Sept. 1538 (fn. 26)

A seal is attached to the deed of surrender, but the device and legend are indecipherable.


  • 1. V.C.H. Cambs. i, 360, 378.
  • 2. Rot. Chart. (Rec. Com.), 115.
  • 3. Cal. Chart. R. i, 65.
  • 4. Cole MS. xviii, fol. 129: transcript of the original deed.
  • 5. Cal. Chart. R. i, 18.
  • 6. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 503.
  • 7. Ibid. 502.
  • 8. Ibid. 499. The advowson of St. Andrew seems to have been given by Herluin le Franceys and Avice his wife in 1246: Rye, Cambs. Fines, 27. Stoke was a cell of the Norman Abbey of Bec.
  • 9. Hund. R. ii, 506.
  • 10. Lunt, Valuation of Norwich, 431.
  • 11. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 121. In 1535 the priory was still paying £3 to what had become the College of Stoke (Valor Eccl. iii, 470), although St. Andrew's Church no longer existed.
  • 12. Tax. Eccl. 130.
  • 13. Valor Eccl. iii, 504.
  • 14. This alias occurs in all the references to the priory at this time. A reference to 'Byggynscroft' in Fordham is recorded in 1379: Camb. Univ. Lib. MS. 3824, fol. 152 v.
  • 15. William Baynton and Richard Brome (recte Brown) 'and no more': L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, p. 144.
  • 16. Ibid. ix, 735.
  • 17. Ibid. 761.
  • 18. Ibid. x, 507.
  • 19. Ibid. xiii (2), 275.
  • 20. Ibid. 260.
  • 21. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), 260.
  • 22. Rye, Cambs. Fines, 27, 36.
  • 23. Cal. Close, 1318-23, p. 375: acknowledgement of a debt of £24 to merchants of Florence.
  • 24. Camb. Univ. Lib. MS. 3824, fol. 153.
  • 25. Ibid. fol. 153 v.
  • 26. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), 260.