House of Cluniac monks: The priory of St James, Derby

Pages 45-46

A History of the County of Derby: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

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The priory of Bermondsey, Surrey (itself a cell of La Charité-sur-Loire), afterwards raised to be an abbey, was one of the most important settlements of the Cluniacs in England. The small priory of St. James, Derby, was in its turn a cell of Bermondsey, and had but little independent life of its own. There was in early days a church or chapel of St. James in the town of Derby, and in the year 1140 the gift of this church by Waltheof, son of Sweyn, to the monks of Bermondsey was confirmed by King Stephen. (fn. 1) It would appear that the Bermondsey monks lost no time after this gift had been made in establishing a small priory at Derby ruled over by a prior of their denomination. In connexion with the priory they established a hospital for the infirm.

A general visitation of the English Cluniac houses was undertaken in 1279, by order of Yves de Chassant, abbot of Cluny. The visitors were the prior of Mont-Didiér in France and the prior of Lenton, Nottinghamshire. The visitors arrived at St. James, Derby, from the Shropshire house of Wenlock, on Monday, 27 August. They described it as a cell subordinate to Bermondsey. The house consisted of a prior and two monks. The prior, who had only come to take charge of the house since the last feast of the Purification, was reported to be a worthy good man and of exemplary report. They also wrote in high terms of one of his colleagues; but the second, who was living disreputably, was expelled by the visitors and sent to do penance at Bermondsey, whence another monk was dispatched to take his place. They found that the church offices were rightly and properly conducted. The prior on his arrival found the cell in debt to the extent of 40s., but, as there was nothing in the house, he was under the necessity of contracting a further debt of £4 10s. The visitors, however, added that he was just on the point of getting in his harvest, which would support him till the next season. The conventual buildings were in a sufficient state of repair, but the church roof was in bad condition, and the visitors directed the prior to have it renewed. (fn. 2) Five years earlier the priory had had other visitors in the shape of the royal commissioners who held their inquest into the state of the borough of Derby, duly entered on the hundred rolls, 'in the church of St. James.' (fn. 3)

The taxation roll of Pope Nicholas, in 1291, gives the annual value of the temporalities of this house, in the archdeaconry of Leicester, as £5 8s. 4d.

Protection was granted, with clause rogamus, for two years in 1335, for the prior and monks and their attorneys and proctors collecting alms in churches for rebuilding their church and priory, together with a hospital pertaining to the priory, which had been accidentally burnt down. (fn. 4)

In 1396 Peter, prior of St. James of Derby, complained against Richard de Staunton, chaplain, and Peter Sincker for unlawfully seizing his hay; they, however, claimed to have taken it as tithes due to the church of All Saints, and the court found in their favour, the prior also losing another action brought against the same and three other chaplains, charging them with having in 1298 broken the doors of his monastery, beaten him and stolen some of his property. (fn. 5)

During the wars with France this priory was subject to a variety of disabilities as the cell of a French house, but in 1325, when the property of almost all the alien monasteries was seized by the king, the commissioners said that they had left the priory's lands at Quorndon in Leicestershire and at Derby in the hands of Nicholas de Clifford the prior, as the king had taken the priory of Bermondsey into his protection—its head, John de Cusancia, claiming to be Burgundian and not French. (fn. 6) And on 14 September, 1330, protection was granted by the crown for a year to the prior of St. James. (fn. 7) But on 3 August, 1337, he was ordered to pay 100s. yearly as a due to the crown, together with 50s. for permission to retain the custody of the house. On the 28th of the same month the sheriff was commanded to proceed to the priory and demand immediate payment of the 50s., or on refusal to levy the money on the goods and chattels of the monks, and to take the prior to London to answer for his contempt. (fn. 8) In May, 1338, the king grew more merciful towards this small priory, and instructed the treasury to forego the demand for 100s. yearly, in consideration of the poverty of the house, and the sheriffs of Derby and Leicester were ordered to deliver all the prior's lands and possessions to him, together with the issue thereof; and as the king understood that the income hardly sufficed for the maintenance of the prior, he was willing to pardon the above payment so long as the priory remained in the hands of the crown. (fn. 9) When a charter of denization was granted to Bermondsey in 1400, the cell of St. James of Derby shared in the privilege, and so escaped suppression as an alien priory. Though no longer sending any tribute to the French house, it remained under Cluniac rule.

John de la Cornere, in 1340, gave the prior an acre and a-half of land for the enlargement of his house. (fn. 10)

The total rental of the priory of St. James for the year 1532 amounted to £11 15s. 11d. The first entry runs—

Item of Master Tomson in the forest of Chernwode in the Countye of Leceyter for Alderman Hawe with the priors fielde with a corne myll and a walk mill both under oone roof on Querne apon the River Soor payeng by the yeere iiii li.

The other rentals were for tenements and gardens in St. James's Lane, the Cornmarket, and other parts of Derby. There were also annual payments of 10s. from the prior of Lenton, 12d. from the master of Burton Lazars, 12d. from master Anthony Babyngton, and two pounds of wax on St. James's Day from the chamberlain of Derby 'for passage over Saint James's brydge.' (fn. 11)

There is no specific mention of this priory or cell under Bermondsey, or among the religious houses of Derbyshire, when the Valor was taken in 1535; but there are incidental references to it under other houses. Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, is reported as charged with a payment of 2s. a year to the hospital of St. James, Derby, for lands at Blackfordby; whilst Lenton Priory, Nottinghamshire, paid 10s. a year to St. James, out of lands in Duston.

Legh and Layton visited this Priory early in 1536, and reported that its rents were £10 per annum. They gave the prior, Thomas Gainsborough, a singularly bad character for incontinency; (fn. 12) but no credence was evidently given to their statement, for on the suppression of the cell a pension of £7 was assigned to this prior on the Bermondsey list. (fn. 13)

Priors of St. James's, Derby

Arnold, temp. Henry III (fn. 14)

Fromund, temp. Henry III (fn. 15)

Peter, occurs 1298, (fn. 16) 1306 (fn. 17)

Nicholas de Clifford, occurs 1325 (fn. 18)

Thomas Gainsborough, surrendered 1536 (fn. 19)


  • 1. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 436.
  • 2. Duckett, Visitations of Engl. Cluniac Foundations, 30, 31.
  • 3. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 294.
  • 4. Pat. 9 Edw. III, pt. 2, m. 25.
  • 5. Assize R. 158, m. 5.
  • 6. Min. Accts. bdle. 1127, No. 18.
  • 7. Pat. 4 Edw. III, pt. 1, m. 4.
  • 8. Close, 11 Edw. III, pt. 2, m. 36, 30.
  • 9. Ibid. 12 Edw. III, pt. 1, m. 4.
  • 10. Inq. a.q.d. 14 Edw. III, No. 31.
  • 11. Add. MS. 6672, fol. 119.
  • 12. Chatsworth MSS.
  • 13. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), 821.
  • 14. Assize R. 167, m. 29d. The then prior, 1330, claims a messuage in Derby as having held by his predecessor Arnold in the time of Henry III.
  • 15. Ibid. A similar claim for another messuage in Derby.
  • 16. Ibid. 156, m. 1 d.
  • 17. Ibid. 158, m. 5.
  • 18. Mins. Accts. bdle. 1127, No. 18.
  • 19. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), 821.