Alien houses: Priory of Swavesey

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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'Alien houses: Priory of Swavesey', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 315-318. British History Online [accessed 14 April 2024]

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Before the Conquest the vill of Swavesey belonged to Edith the Fair, and, like so much of her property, it was given by William I to Alan of Brittany, who granted to the Benedictine Abbey of SS. Sergius and Bacchus at Angers the church of Swavesey with all its offerings free of every kind of episcopal due, except sixpence at Easter for the chrism, and with it the tithes of his other villages, Barham, Papworth, Wimpole, Toft, and Landbeach, except that the priests of these villages were to have one field each of wheat and oats, and all Alan's property in Dry Drayton. (fn. 1) This grant was made before 1086, when the 3 hides in Dry Drayton were duly recorded as held of the count by the monks of Swavesey. (fn. 2)

Count Alan laid down that a monk from Swavesey was to attend on one day of the Archdeacon's Synod, not of prescribed custom, but out of respect for the archdeacon and the bishop, and that the monks' cattle were to be allowed to feed with his own on the Swavesey pastures. Alan's successor, his brother (or, more probably, nephew) (fn. 3) Stephen, confirmed all these gifts, and at the request of Abbot Walter of SS. Sergius and Bacchus gave to his abbey the piece of land before the gate of Swavesey Priory, with the tithes of his fishery there and of his mill at Newnham outside Cambridge. In return Count Stephen was received into the early form of fraternity granted by Benedictine houses whereby the convent undertook to pray for the benefactor-brother after his death in all things as though he were a professed monk of their house. (fn. 4)

Disputes that had arisen between the Abbot of Angers and the Abbot of Savigny about the tithes of Bennington in Lincolnshire were settled by a compromise (confirmed between 1150 and 1153 by St. Bernard as Abbot of Clairvaux) which directed that the prior and monks of Swavesey as representatives of the Angers house should receive 32s. of English money every Michaelmas. (fn. 5)

In 1198 Benedict, Prior of Swavesey, 'and the monks of the same place', bought the advowson of Fen Drayton of a certain Ansell and Ingrith his wife for 2 marks and 1½ virgates of land; (fn. 6) and in 1200 there was suit between the same prior and Ives de Cambridge and his son Simon. The prior 'with the consent of his brethren' agreed to the terms made by the arbitrators appointed by the Pope, who were the Abbot of Sawtrey and the Priors of Royston and St. Ives. 'R. formerly Prior' is mentioned in this agreement. (fn. 7)

John was prior in 1232, when Simon of Wendy granted to the church of St. Andrew of Swavesey and the monks there serving God a messuage in Swavesey with a croft called Fissecroft for the maintenance of a light before the Lady Altar at mass and at all canonical hours. Simon rehearses that his brother John had bound the same messuage to the church for this same purpose in Prior Benedict's time. (fn. 8) In the same year Roger la Zouche, who was the heir of the Counts of Brittany in the Honor of Richmond, granted to John, Prior of Swavesey, the half of a holding there consisting of a messuage, certain lands, the meadow of Gosholme, 3s. rent and the toll of Swavesey bridge. (fn. 9)

In 1249 the Pope commissioned the Prior of Swavesey to deal with a dispute in which the rector of Cottenham was involved. (fn. 10) This may have been Prior Roger, who in 1257 received papal approbation of a composition which he had made with Carlin 'Scriba', merchant of Florence, (fn. 11) but no details are given in Cole's transcript of the document.

Roger resigned in 1272 and was succeeded by Geoffrey de Brynkeley, who, in spite of his local name, is specifically described in Bishop Fordham's register as 'monk of SS. Sergius and Bacchus,' (fn. 12) presumably being one of the small convent at Swavesey. He made an agreement with Andrew Scot, his man, by which Andrew gave the prior a messuage with a croft and 2 roods of land, in return for which he should have food and drink at the servants' table and 6s. for clothing yearly. (fn. 13) The document is said to have had 'part of the seal of the Priory' attached to it, but the seal of a religious might easily have been mistaken for a conventual seal. If there was such a seal this is the only record of its existence. There seems to be no further mention of a 'convent' at Swavesey or of 'monks serving God there'. It seems possible that whereas a priory at Swavesey in any real sense had always had a precarious existence, some attempt to colonize it with monks from Angers and to say the choir offices in community—even if only a community of two or three—may have been made until the Treaty of Paris in 1259 and the abandonment by the King of England to all claim to sovereignty in Anjou severed a link between the Angevin abbey and its English cell and increased the difficulty of effective control. It may be observed that the first prior appointed after this event was apparently a Cambridgeshire man; nothing is said of the consent of any brethren to his taking 'his man' into the 'house of the Priory'. Nor, in his dispute about the tithes of Arrington with the Prioress and Convent of Ickleton (q.v.), is there any hint of a convent or brethren. The 'priory' was a rich living and early in the next century a vicar of Swavesey is heard of for the first time. It seems clear that from the second half of the 13th century onwards, at all events, no attempt to support a religious community at Swavesey was made, although the right of the Abbot and Convent of SS. Sergius and Bacchus to administer the cell by one of their own monks went unquestioned for some time longer.

An Assize Roll of 1285 shows that the prior had been overstocking the hide of land which he held in Dry Drayton to a very large amount and was feeding there a herd of 120 cattle and 600 sheep. (fn. 14)

John de Seys, or Ponteseye, the next prior, acquired from Alan de la Zouche an acre of land in the field of Swavesey in exchange for land which had been used for making a ditch, (fn. 15) and a rood of ground for enlarging the churchyard. He received the royal pardon in 1306 for obtaining this last in mortmain without licence. (fn. 16)

John de Ponteseye resigned in 1311 and was succeeded in March of that year by another monk of S. Sergius, Oliver 'Britonis' of Fougères, (fn. 17) who died before August 1314. In 1313 a suit was brought in the Court of King's Bench to decide whether he as Prior and parson of the church of Swavesey was the sole owner of 3 messuages in Swavesey or whether they were of the lay fee of Pelagice, the daughter of William Legg, Roger, vicar of Swavesey, and others. The prior's attorney claimed that Geoffrey the former prior had been seised of the property. (fn. 18) On his death Richard Burgeris, a monk of St. Sergius, was presented by Alan la Zouche. (fn. 19)

In 1325, with the rebellion of the queen and Mortimer, the alien priories which were 'in the power of the King of France', Isabelle's brother, were temporarily taken into the king's hand, but on this occasion the Priory of Swavesey was among those exempted from seizure, (fn. 20) Prior Richard having in the previous year received a grant of the king's protection, at the special request of the Earl of Richmond. (fn. 21) Some years later this prior was kidnapped by Nicholas Medifray and others, who also stole some silver vessels belonging to him. For this offence Nicholas and one of his assistants obtained the king's pardon by serving in the forces overseas in 1339. (fn. 22) In the following year Prior Richard obtained licence from the Bishop of Ely to be absent from his rectory for 2 years. (fn. 23)

In 1343 Stephen Guyntrand, a monk of another alien priory, was petitioning the Pope, Clement VI, for provision to the priory of Swavesey. In his petition (fn. 24) he sets forth that he is a monk of Conques in the diocese of Rodez of which house the priory of St. Faith at Horsham in the diocese of Norwich was a cell, and declares that he has for 25 years discharged the office of Custos at Horsham and at personal risk defended the rights of the monastery, whose convent is unable to assign him a benefice. The mandate issued by the Pope at Avignon in November 1343 in answer to this petition states that the priory of Swavesey is vacant by the death of Oliver 'Britonis' of Fougères who died (in 1314) at Carpentras, 2 days journey from the papal court, and that it is now occupied by Richard 'Bozionis'. (fn. 25) Accordingly on 15 January 1345, Richard apparently having not returned from his 2 years' leave of absence, Stephen Guyntrand was admitted prior under the Pope's mandate. (fn. 26) In 1346 the Bishop of Ely, making a return of all aliens beneficed in his diocese, gives Brother Stephen, Prior and Rector of Swavesey, as resident and his benefice as worth 100 marks a year. (fn. 27) In 1347 Stephen Guyntrand obtained leave of absence for 2 years. (fn. 28)

In 1361 the alien priories, including Swavesey, were ordered to be 'restored to their priors and proctors to hold as before the war without any farm to be rendered'. (fn. 29) Probably by reason of this John Walkelyn, a Benedictine monk of Westminster, was collated by the Bishop of Ely to Swavesey, through lapse, on 31 August 1362. (fn. 30) In the following year he successfully petitioned the Pope to be allowed to keep the priory, although he was not a monk of Angers. (fn. 31) In October 1369, in which year the alien priories were again seized into the king's hand, (fn. 32) the estates of Swavesey were made over to Richard Downham, clerk, the prior's proctor, to hold at a rent of 50 marks. (fn. 33) This was a favourable valuation, as early in the same year Prior Walkelyn leased the manor of Dry Drayton and the other priory lands to Aumary, rector of Boxworth, for 3 years on a repairing lease at a rent of £100. (fn. 34) An interesting clause in the lease stipulates that if any monk or monks are sent by the abbot of the mother convent 'to abide as fellows of the said prior' their expenses shall be borne by the prior's agents and not by the lessee. This lease probably did not take effect, as Walkelyn left England for the papal court shortly after it was drawn up (fn. 35) and had ceased to be prior by 22 January 1370, when John Goldale, a monk of Selby, was presented to the priory by Sir Hugh le Zouche. (fn. 36) The king, however, as holding the possession of aliens, nominated Laurence Russell, a monk of St. George 'de Hulso', to Sir Hugh for presentation and he was duly admitted by the bishop on 6 December 1370. (fn. 37)

It is difficult to assess the real value of the priory's possessions. The rectory of Swavesey with its tithes was valued in 1291 at £33 6s. 8d. (50 marks) and the temporalities of the priory at £14 15s., (fn. 38) and in 1325 the temporalities estimated at £27 15s. 8d., of which £20 was the value of fishing rights. (fn. 39) In 1340 a more detailed inventory (fn. 40) which was made before handing the priory over to William Fraunk, one of the king's creditors, (fn. 41) shows at Swavesey £13 13s. 4d. from tithes, £2 14s. 4d. from rents and services, and no less than £113 11s. 7d. in stock, live and dead; at Dry Drayton the lands and tenements produced £7 4s. 10½d. and there was stock worth £21 8s. 6d. The farm of 50 marks fixed in 1369 was still rendered in 1379, when it was assigned to the Duke of Gloucester, (fn. 42) but in 1384 the Bishop of Durham and Henry Englyssh thought it worth while bidding an extra £20 and obtained custody at 80 marks. (fn. 43)

In November 1393 Richard II licensed the Abbot of SS. Sergius and Bacchus to alienate the manors of Swavesey and Dry Drayton and the advowson of the church of Swavesey to the Carthusian Priory of St. Anne at Coventry, recently founded by William, Lord Zouche of Haringworth, saving the farm of 65 marks which the king had assigned from the priory estates to King's Hall, Cambridge. (fn. 44) The payment of this farm was not to begin until 6 years after this date, and in May 1399 King Richard released the Carthusians from its payment, provided that they maintained twelve poor young clerks from the age of 7 to 17 who should pray for his soul and the soul of the late Queen Anne. (fn. 45) Meanwhile John Thorndon, the Prior of Swavesey, released his rights in the priory estates to St. Anne's in return for a pension of £10. (fn. 46) In February 1400 Henry IV confirmed his predecessor's grants, (fn. 47) but in 1401 John Judde, D.D., was presented to the priory of Swavesey by John Knightley and others, who claimed to be patrons; and subsequently he effected a forcible entry, seizing the goods and chattels found in the house and on the estates. (fn. 48) Restitution was ordered, and presumably Judde lost or resigned his title to the priory; but in 1407 William Penreth was presented in the name of the Prior and Convent of St. Anne, but fraudulently and without the knowledge of the brethren, so that in 1411, on 27 May, the presentation was annulled and the priory or church of Swavesey was appropriated to the Carthusians. (fn. 49) In their hands it remained until the suppression of their house in 1539. (fn. 50)

Priors of Swavesey (fn. 51)

R., before 1198

Benedict, occurs 1198

John, occurs 1232

Roger, occurs 1257, resigned 1272

Geoffrey de Brynkeley, appointed 10 Dec. 1272

John de Seys, or Ponteseye, occurs 1298, (fn. 52) resigned 1311

Oliver Briton of Fougères, appointed 16 Feb. 1312, died 1314

Richard Burgeris (Burgensis), appointed July 1314

Stephen Guyntrand, appointed Jan. 1345

John Wittleseye, monk of Thorney, appointed 21 June 1355

John Walkelyn, monk of Westminster, collated 31 Aug. 1362

John Goldale, monk of Selby, appointed 22 Jan. 1370

Laurence Russell, monk of St. George 'de Hulso', appointed 6 Dec 1370, resigned 1389

John de Thorndon, monk of Ely, appointed 6 Sept. 1389

John Judde, D.D., appointed 28 May 1401 [William Penreth, fraudulently presented 2 Mar. 1408]


  • 1. Mon. Angl. vi, 1001.
  • 2. V.C.H. Cambs. i, 377.
  • 3. G.E.C. Complete Peerage (1st ed.), vi, 343–4.
  • 4. Mon. Angl. vi, 1002.
  • 5. Round, Cal. Docts. France, 296–7.
  • 6. W. M. Palmer, 'Swavesey Priory', Cambs. and Hunts. Arch. Soc. i, p. 34. These may be the 1½ virgates in Ertemanelot and Oxendale given to Prior Benedict by Richard Olf for the soul of Ingrith his wife, probably previously wife of Ansell: ibid. 35.
  • 7. Ibid. 35.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Matthew Paris, Chron. Major. (Rolls Ser.), vi, 170.
  • 11. Palmer, op. cit. 36. Carlin was presumably Carlin Ghiberti, who was charged with collecting money for a crusade (see e.g. Cal. Pat. 1247–58, p. 514).
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Ibid. 37.
  • 16. Cal. Pat. 1301–3, p. 444.
  • 17. Palmer, op. cit. 37.
  • 18. Ibid. citing De Banco Roll 201, m. 293.
  • 19. Cole MS. xxiii, fol. 26.
  • 20. Palmer, op. cit. 37.
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1324–7, p. 59.
  • 22. Ibid. 1338–40, p. 338.
  • 23. Palmer, op. cit. 38.
  • 24. Cal. Papal Petitions, i, 30.
  • 25. Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 124. The Pope claimed to appoint to benefices vacated by the death of their holder at the papal court (at this time at Avignon), and apparently this covered any place within two days' journey.
  • 26. Col. MS. vol. xxiii, p. 26.
  • 27. Ely Epis. Reg. Lisle, fol. 67, 69.
  • 28. Palmer, op. cit. 38.
  • 29. Cal. Pat. 1358–61, p. 559.
  • 30. Palmer, op. cit. 38.
  • 31. Cal. Papal Petitions, i, 422.
  • 32. Rot. Parl. ii, 333; ibid. iii, 300 and 302.
  • 33. Cal. Fine R. viii, 23.
  • 34. Cal. Close, 1369–74, p. 70.
  • 35. Cal. Pat. 1367–70, p. 215.
  • 36. Ely Epis. Reg. Fordham, fol. 130; E.D.R. (1899), 94.
  • 37. Ibid.; Cal. Pat. 1370–4, p. 14.
  • 38. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 249.
  • 39. Palmer, op. cit. 44–6. The additions and subtractions are, as so often in medieval accounts, incorrect.
  • 40. Ibid. 46–8.
  • 41. Cal. Pat. 1340–3, pp. 52, 73.
  • 42. Ibid. 1377–81, p. 372.
  • 43. Ibid. 1381–5, p. 397.
  • 44. Cal. Pat. 1391–6, p. 352.
  • 45. Ibid. 1396–9, p. 580.
  • 46. Palmer, op. cit. 39.
  • 47. Cal. Pat. 1399–1401, p. 246.
  • 48. Rot. Parl. iii, 551; Palmer, op. cit. 40. Knightley and the others were trustees of Sir Hugh la Zouche, who had died without issue, and claimed to hold the advowson of the priory: Cal. Close, 1399–1402, p. 144.
  • 49. Palmer, op. cit. 40. In January 1407 the Zouche property, alleged to include the advowson of the priory, had been conveyed to Sir Hugh Burnell: Cal. Close, 1405–9, p. 244.
  • 50. V.C.H. Warw. ii, 85.
  • 51. Palmer, op. cit. 34–40. A return of former Priors of Swavesey from 1272 to 1401 was made by Bishop Fordham (Chan. Misc. bde. 16, file 5, no. 18), a copy of it being entered in his Register.
  • 52. Assize R. 96, m. 15.