Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Walden

Pages 110-115

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

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Walden was founded as a priory by Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex. An account (fn. 2) of the foundation and early history of the house and of the family and heirs of the founder is preserved, and also a small chronicle. (fn. 3) The possessions belonging to it can be traced in detail in the magnificent chartulary (fn. 4) in the Harleian collection. It was dedicated to the honour of St. Mary and St. James the Apostle.

The date of the foundation is not certain. The two chronicles put it in 1136, which is in itself quite possible; but they speak of Geoffrey as earl of Essex, and he is so styled in his foundation charter. He was probably created earl in 1140, and he died in the autumn of 1 44, so that the foundation may lie between these dates. It is also said that the site was consecrated in the presence of the earl and Rose his wife, and Robert, bishop of London, Nigel, bishop of Ely, and William, bishop of Norwich. Robert did not become bishop of London until 1141; so that from this we might argue for the later date. But William did not become bishop of Norwich until 1146, two years after Geoffrey's death; and this fact seriously damages the credibility of the whole account.

The site was chosen on the west of the town at the confluence of two streams and at the meeting of four roads, for the convenience of the poor and of travellers. (fn. 5) The founder endowed the monastery with no fewer than nineteen (fn. 6) churches, Walden, Great Waltham, High Easter and Chishall in Essex, Sawbridgeworth, Thorley, Gilston, Shenley and Digswell in Hertfordshire, Enfield, Edmonton, South Mimms and Northolt in Middlesex, Chippenham in Cambridgeshire, Amersham in Buckinghamshire, Streatley in Berkshire, Kingham in Oxfordshire, Aynho in Northamptonshire, and Compton in Warwickshire; and also 120 acres of arable land at Walden, 100 acres of wood, a meadow called Fulefen, a mill at Walden and another at Enfield, the hermitage of Hadley in Middlesex and common of pasture in the park there, and pannage for pigs. King Stephen confirmed the grant, and in addition granted to the monks a fair at Walden on the vigil and feast of St. James, to which Henry III in 1248 (fn. 7) added a third day. The possessions of the house were also confirmed by Henry II.

When Earl Geoffrey, the founder, died in 1144 unshriven and excommunicate, the Templars took his body to London and placed it in a leaden coffin, which they kept somewhere within their grounds. William, prior of Walden, after much labour and expense, persuaded Pope Alexander III to absolve Geoffrey in 1163, but when he went to claim the body for burial in his church the Templars, hearing of his intention, secretly buried it themselves in their new cemetery. (fn. 8)

Earl Geoffrey the second, the son of the founder, came often to Walden and advised the prior to be content with a small church and little buildings. The monks ascribed this to the influence of his mother Rose, who had founded the house of Chicksand, and wished to divert the benefaction of her sons and friends to that. The prior, however, moved most of the buildings to higher ground on the south side of the church and made a new cloister and chapter-house; and after pressure the earl confirmed all his father's grants except a piece of glebe belonging to the church of Edmonton. On his death in 1167 he was buried at Walden, as were also a large number of his successors and their relatives.

William de Mandeville, his brother, succeeded to the earldom, and at first was hostile to the monks, often complaining that his father had granted to them all the churches of his fee, so that he could not grant any to his clerks. But after a journey to the Holy Land, in the first part of which he was accompanied by Prior Reginald, he became reconciled, and before his death granted to them the half of his lordship of Walden adjoining the abbey, and his little park and mill, as well as numerous goods, jewels and moneys. The grant was confirmed by Richard I on 7 May, 1190.

On 1 August, 1190, the priory was made into an abbey, and the patronage came to the crown. Geoffrey FitzPeter, who succeeded to the Mandeville inheritance and was afterwards created earl of Essex, was very wroth with the monks, declaring that they had disinherited him in this; and he deprived them of the possessions granted by Earl William. King John, however, granted the patronage of the abbey to him, the grant being confirmed (fn. 9) by William, bishop of London, and Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury. The abbot and convent granted (fn. 10) to him and his son Geoffrey for their lives the advowsons of the churches of Pleshey, Amersham, Streatley, Compton, Aynho, Kingham, Digswell, Shenley and Sawbridgeworth; and, perhaps in return for this, he granted to them 100 acres of arable land and a meadow and a mill. The remainder of the possessions were afterwards restored by his second son William. The patronage of the abbey remained with the earls of Essex, coming eventually to the duchy of Lancaster.

Henry III confirmed (fn. 11) the possessions of the abbot and convent on 26 November, 1248; and Edward I granted to them free warren (fn. 12) at Ashdon and Thunderley on 12 June, 1293, and a market (fn. 13) on Tuesdays at Walden on 30 June, 1295. Henry IV on 30 November, 1399, granted (fn. 14) to them two tuns of wine of Gascony yearly in the port of Lynn.

In 1217 three monks complained to the pope that the monastery was ruined spiritually and temporally by the neglect of the abbot, and accordingly the abbot of Westminster and the priors of Stoke and Hatfield Peverel were ordered (fn. 15) to go to it and make a papal visitation, and correct what was amiss. In 1262 the pope granted (fn. 16) an indult to the abbot to absolve his monks and postulants from any sentence of suspension, interdiction, or excommunication which they might have incurred, and to dispense them on account of irregularity, though postulants might not make profession within a month from such absolution.

In July, 1281, Archbishop Peckham wrote to the bishop of London (fn. 17) saying that he had heard with much surprise that on the occasion of his visitation of Walden Abbey he had completely upset the arrangements made by the archbishop when he visited the monastery. Those whom he had exalted as reputed by the majority of the chapter to be most worthy the bishop had deprived, while those whom he had ordered to be kept in strict constraint he had exalted, and, above all, the bishop had appointed as prior a monk whom Peckham considered an enemy to religion. He therefore orders the bishop to send by the bearer of this letter a copy of his proceedings at the abbey. There is a reference to some disagreement about Walden in a letter (fn. 18) written by the archbishop to the bishop of London in the preceding January, when he assures him that he has not acted to his prejudice in the matter of Walden. Peckham's visitation of Walden may have been held in January, 1280, when he was certainly at the abbey. (fn. 19)

Robert Winchelsey, archbishop of Canterbury, issued injunctions, (fn. 20) dated 6 Id. February, 1304, consequent on his metropolitical visitation, whereby he enjoined silence in the accustomed places; the beds in the dormitory to lie open; two parts of the whole convent always to take their meals in the refectory; bleeding to be done on three days in each month; proper food to be supplied for the infirmary; officials whose duty called them outside the precincts always to have a companion; remnants of meals to be reserved for the poor; pittances to be taken in the refectory; a statement of accounts to be made yearly before the chapter; old clothes to be given up when new ones were served out; and when the solemnity of the dedication of the church clashed with St. Mark's Day due reverence (instead of being almost or altogether omitted) was to be done to the latter festival on the first vacant ferial day of that week. The statutes and these injunctions were to be read four times a year distinctly and intelligibly in chapter.

Abbot John had a grant of protection (fn. 21) from the king for one year on 29 October, 1311, when going beyond the seas to the general council.

The abbey church appears to have been built about the middle of the thirteenth century. In 1237 Edmund, archbishop of Canterbury, granted indulgences in aid of the fabric. The church was dedicated on St. Mark the Evangelist's Day, 1258, by Fulk, bishop of London, who had visited the abbey in 1254, and Hugh de Balsham, bishop of Ely; and Bishop Hugh consecrated the chapel in the infirmary and granted indulgences to visitors on the feast of the dedication. Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford and Essex, who died in 1361, made a cloister. Joan, countess of Hereford, who died in 1419, was a great benefactress to the abbey after her husband's death, adorning the nave of the church with sculptures of stone and covering the roof with lead. She built a new belfry, enriched the church with precious vestments, and adorned the altars with ornaments, and gave to the abbey a golden cross containing a piece of the wood of the true Cross. She also helped the works of the house, gave food and wine at festivals, and procured the grant of wine from Henry IV.

Besides the churches already mentioned the abbey owned the church of Lindsell with the chapel of Latchley, though the chapel was afterwards lost to them. Beatrice, Lady Say, granted the church of Elsenham, Geoffrey de Say the church of Rickling, and Eudo de Arkesden and William son of Ernulph the church of Arkesden. Thomas Picot granted the advowson of the church of Heydon in 1260, but it appears afterwards to have come back to his family. The chapels of Litlehey in Great Waltham and Eynesworth in Arkesden complete the list of spiritualities. The temporalities amounted in 1291 to £81 12s. 4½d. yearly. The chief items were £26 2s. 9d. in Walden, £13 17s. 3d. in Arkesden and £10 7s. 11½d. in Thunderley, and Chippenham, London, Enfield, Hadley, Littlebury, Edmonton, Great Chishall, Lindsell and Barkway each contributed over £1, smaller sums coming from sixteen other places.

The abbot and convent had licence (fn. 22) in 1316 to appropriate the church of Compton, and Abbot John assigned it to the office of the pitanciary. His successor, Andrew, ratified (fn. 23) this in 1329, with the provision that it should be put to the common uses of the monastery if the other goods proved to be insufficient. In 1317 they had licence (fn. 24) to appropriate the churches of Aynho and Kingham to hold in augmentation of alms for the soul of Elizabeth, late countess of Hereford, the king's sister. The manor of Siwardesende (or Pouncyns in Walden) was acquired (fn. 25) in 1324.

Licence (fn. 26) was obtained on 1 March, 1343, for William de Bohun, earl of Northampton, and Elizabeth his wife to grant in frankalmoin the advowson of the priory of Berden and the reversion of the manor of Berden, which Christina, late the wife of Robert de Rocheford, held in dower. In return for this Abbot Andrew and the convent on January, 1344, undertook (fn. 27) to find five additional monks in the monastery to pray for the souls of the earl and his wife and the king and several other persons. There had been twenty-six monks in the time of Prior Reginald, but probably the number was now smaller. The transfer of the manor and advowson took place at the beginning of 1345, (fn. 28) William Coleman being then abbot. Under him also the manors of Mateines in Walden and Menchens in Arkesden and various lands were acquired in 1364; and on 1 July, 1374, Abbot Peter de Hatfield ordained that the manor of Menchens should be set apart for pittances on the day of William's death. (fn. 29)

The abbot sent notices (fn. 30) to the abbot of Westminster of intended visitations on 16 August, 1369, and 20 June, 1378.

In 1393-4 the abbot and convent granted (fn. 31) certain lands and the advowson of the church of Pleshey to Thomas, duke of Gloucester, and Eleanor his wife in aid of the foundation of the college of Pleshey; and received in exchange (fn. 32) a rent of 10 marks from the manor of Haddiscoe in Norfolk. Through the influence of the duke they also had licence (fn. 32) on 30 July, 1396, to acquire in mortmain additional property to the value of 20 marks yearly.

An interesting notarial instrument, (fn. 33) dated 4 December, 1423, throws light on the conditions of teaching at that period. John Bernard and William Brynge, chaplains of the parish church of Walden, gave instruction to the young sons of the inhabitants of the town, but without having obtained a licence from the abbot and convent. These claimed that this was necessary, and apparently were strong enough to compel the submission of the chaplains. Public opinion, however, was against them, and the abbot either yielded, or, more probably, was bought over; for he granted that each priest celebrating divine service in the church might receive one son of each inhabitant and instruct him in the alphabet and graces, though not in any higher studies.

In 25 Henry VI, Richard Wytlesey, abbot, in the third year of his installation, on account of the connexion of the abbey with the church of Compton, was appointed collector in the archdeaconry of Worcester by the bishop, and there was trouble for a year. (fn. 34) He satisfied the king of the due sum, and on 7 March, 1449, obtained letters patent exempting him from collection in future.

A letter (fn. 35) of the abbot to Cromwell on 2 October, 1532, in answer to a complaint of a quarrelsome neighbour against the cellarer, is a sign of the troubled times that were now on the monasteries. In January next, being very aged, he determined to resign, and the king immediately announced his intention (fn. 36) of taking the matter into his own hands and preferring 'a person of learning, virtue, and wisdom' to be abbot. The king's nominee was solemnly elected in the usual way, and had to pay £50 for the temporalities. (fn. 37)

The oath of supremacy was taken (fn. 38) on 1 July, 1534, by Robert Baryngton, abbot, Simon Walden, prior, Robert Aschden, Denis Henham, Richard Wallden, John Cambryge, Thomas London, John Wymbysche, Thomas Roston, Henry Thaxsted, John Walden, Thomas Litilbere, Thomas Wallden, William Ikilton, John London, Thurstan Walden, Thomas Haulsted, Thomas Lyncolne and Edward Some.

Walden is one of the few Essex houses of which we have a complete valuation. (fn. 39) The net value is given in the Valor as £372 18s. 1d. yearly. The gross value was £406 15s. 11d., from which deductions amounting to £33 17s. 10d. were made, including a fee of £2 to Henry, earl of Essex, as chief steward. It was consequently left untouched by the Act of 1536, dissolving the smaller monasteries. But decay was rapidly setting in through the general influence of the time, and partly through the power exercised by the visitors of releasing the younger religious from their vows. John ap Rice, writing (fn. 40) to Cromwell from Cambridge on 22 October, 1535, says: 'I have sent you an abridgement of the comperts of the places we have visited since we came from London . . . When we were late at Walden the abbot, a man of good learning, as I examined him alone, showed me secretly "upon stipulation of silence, but unto you as no judge," that he had secretly contracted marriage because, though he might not do it by the laws of men, he might do it lawfully by the laws of God for avoiding of more inconvenience. He trusts you will not do anything prejudicial to him, but that, as many good men who dare not speak would be glad to have that remedy, you might be induced to help them. Rather than he should live in a monastery contra conscientiam, he would yield it to you. There are now only seven persons left, and they very old; he had so persuaded the rest in his lecture which he kept daily among them that there was no sanctity in monkery. You might soon have the house clean abandoned if you would. You may see by the comperts of that house how all live that profess chastity, for this house was of as good name as others whereof we have no comperts, and here they declared the truth because their master always exhorted them to do so. But in other houses they did not.'

Evidently the report on Walden was unfavourable. Ap Rice's statement is borne out by a letter (fn. 41) of the abbot to Cromwell, though his words are vague: 'I have made effort to speak with your mastership, but could not by reason of your business. I have made you secret to my infirmities, and you were very good to me, commanding me to use my remedy wisely, without slander of the world, which I have done. But though it may be hid for a time, it will be very hard to keep it long. Wherefore I beseech you to continue me in my abbey, with this my remedy, if it be possible; or provide me with some honest living, which may be done without reproach of my name or hindrance of my preaching.' And again, after the dissolution, writing (fn. 42) to Cromwell on 17 July, 1539, he 'desires only to be set out of danger of the king's laws, either as a layman or in (after some fashion) the state that he is in now, and so released from the fear he has long been in.'

As usual, we know nothing more about the last days of the abbey than we can gather from these glimpses. The abbot either resigned or was removed, probably on account of the scandal; and the abbey was granted to William More, suffragan of Colchester, to hold in commendam. On 22 March, 1538, he and the convent surrendered (fn. 43) to the king the monastery with various manors, rectories, and churches (named), pensions from various churches, and all other possessions belonging to it in England. The whole was granted (fn. 44) on 27 March to Sir Thomas Audeley in fee.

Priors Of Walden (fn. 45)

William, the first prior, died 1164. (fn. 46)

Reginald, (fn. 47) 1164-90.


Reginald, (fn. 47) made abbot 1190, died 1200.

Robert, second abbot, died 1210.

Roger, (fn. 48) third abbot, died 1222.

Robert, fourth abbot, died 1231.

Thomas, occurs 1236. (fn. 49)

Richard, (fn. 50) died 1241.

Roger. (fn. 51)

Absalom, (fn. 52) occurs 1247, died 1263.

Thomas, (fn. 53) resigned 1270.

John Feryng, (fn. 54) died 1285.

William de Poley, (fn. 55) died 1304-5. (fn. 56)

John de Plesseto, (fn. 57) occurs 1309, 1321.

Andrew, occurs 1329, (fn. 58) 1344. (fn. 59)

William Coleman, (fn. 60) occurs 1345, 1364.

John de Fynyngham, elected 1366, (fn. 61) resigned 1374. (fn. 62)

Peter de Hatfeld, elected 1374. (fn. 63)

John Pentelowe, appointed 1385, (fn. 64) deprived 1390. (fn. 65)

William Powcher, elected 1390, (fn. 66) resigned 1401.

John Hatfeld, occurs 1423. (fn. 67)

Thomas Benyngton, occurs 1433, (fn. 68) resigned 1438. (fn. 69)

John Horkesleygh, (fn. 70) collated 1438.

Richard Wytlesey, (fn. 71) elected circa 1445.

John Halstede, died 1484. (fn. 72)

John Sabysforth, died 1509. (fn. 73)

John de Thaxted, elected 1509, (fn. 74) resigned 1533. (fn. 75)

Robert Baryngton, elected 1533. (fn. 76)

William More, the last abbot. (fn. 77)

The seal of the abbey attached to the acknowledgement of supremacy (fn. 78) is a pointed oval of dark green wax measuring 27/8 by 17/8 inches, and represents St. James the Greater holding in his right hand a book, and in his left hand a crozier. In the field are three escallops. Legend:—



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. iv, 133.
  • 2. B. M. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. vi. ff. 25-70; partly printed in Mon. There is another copy in the Norfolk MS. (Royal Soc.), No. 29.
  • 3. B. M. Cott. MS. Titus D. xx, ff. 66-89.
  • 4. B. M. Harl. MS. 3,697. A list of its contents is given in Mon.
  • 5. For this early history see the Liber de Fundatione, referred to above.
  • 6. Some of these were afterwards lost.
  • 7. Chart. 33 Hen. III, m. 7.
  • 8. Round, Geoffrey de Mandeville, 224-226.
  • 9. Anct. D. LS. 5; L. 8.
  • 10. Ibid. LS. 6.
  • 11. Chart. 33 Hen. III, m. 7.
  • 12. Ibid. 21 Edw. I, No. 15.
  • 13. Chart. 23 Edw. I, No. 16
  • 14. Pat. 1 Hen. IV, pt. 5, m. 26.
  • 15. Cal. Papal Letters, i, 50.
  • 16. Ibid. 376.
  • 17. Reg. Epis. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), i, 212.
  • 18. Ibid. 173.
  • 19. Ibid. iii, 1017.
  • 20. Transcribed in Lond. Epis. Reg. Braybrook, 20.
  • 21. Pat. 5 Edw. II, pt. 1, m. 12.
  • 22. Ibid. 9 Edw. II, pt. 2, m. 14.
  • 23. Chartul. 244. Details are given of the pittances.
  • 24. Pat. 11 Edw. II, pt. 1, m. 20.
  • 25. Ibid. 17 Edw, II. pt. 1, m. 1.
  • 26. Ibid. 17 Edw. III, pt. 1, m. 3.
  • 27. Anct. D. LS. 17.
  • 28. Chartul. 261-2.
  • 29. Ibid. 151.
  • 30. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. iv, 184.
  • 31. Anct. D. L. 251.
  • 32. Pat. 20 Ric. II, pt. 1.
  • 33. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. viii, 281.
  • 34. Chartul, f. 37d.
  • 35. L. and P. Hen. VIII, v, 1382.
  • 36. Ibid. vi, 48.
  • 37. Ibid. 228.
  • 38. Ibid. vii, 1024 (2).
  • 39. Rentals and Surveys, Roll 202. Printed in the appendix to the Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), vol. vi. A rental and survey of the manors and lands of the abbey in 1 Henry IV is preserved at Audley End.
  • 40. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ix, 661.
  • 41. L. and P. Henry VIII, x, 389.
  • 42. Ibid. xiv (1), 1276.
  • 43. Ibid. xiii (1), 575.
  • 44. Ibid. xiii (1), 1115 (23).
  • 45. The names and dates of the earlier heads are given in the Cott. MS. Titus D. 20 mentioned above, but the list is clearly not quite reliable.
  • 46. On 12 December.
  • 47. He succeeded William, and ruled as prior for twenty-six (sic) years, six months, and some days, and as abbot for nine years, six months, and some days; dying on 5 February. He was made abbot on 1 August, 1190.
  • 48. Occurs 1214. (Cal. Feet of F. [Essex Arch. Soc.] 47.)
  • 49. Ibid. 115.
  • 50. Called fifth abbot.
  • 51. Called sixth abbot, and said to have died in 1251.
  • 52. Called seventh abbot; occurs 1247 (Chartul. 159) and 1263 (Ibid. 25).
  • 53. Called eighth abbot. On his resignation he joined the Friars Preachers at Cambridge.
  • 54. Called ninth abbot.
  • 55. Called tenth abbot.
  • 56. Duchy of Lanc. Anct. Corresp. 9. The convent asked licence to elect on 6 February.
  • 57. Chartul. 97, 83. John, probably the same, occurs 1305, 1307 (Chartul. 255, 111), and 1322 (Anct. D. A. 14,864).
  • 58. Chartul. 244.
  • 59. Anct. D. L. S. 17; Chartul. 258.
  • 60. Chartul. 261-2, 151.
  • 61. Lond. Epis. Reg. Sudbury, 118. On 20 October.
  • 62. Ibid. 131-3. On 2 May.
  • 63. Ibid. On 31 May. Peter, probably the same, occurs 1382 (Chartul. 108).
  • 64. Ibid. Braybrook, 276-7. He was sacrist, and was appointed abbot by the bishop, hac vice jure devoluto, on 17 June; receiving the episcopal benediction on 24 June in the parish church of Great Hadham.
  • 65. Ibid. 288.
  • 66. Lond. Epis. Reg. Braybrook, 288. He was a monk of Ely, and became abbot on 11 January. He was appointed prior of Ely on 21 October, 1401 (Anglia Sacra, i, 684).
  • 67. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. viii, 281.
  • 68. Ibid. 71, 79.
  • 69. Lond. Epis. Reg. Gilbert, 113-5. On 7 August, through blindness and other infirmities. A pension of 100s. yearly was assigned to him, with board and lodging for himself and his servant.
  • 70. At the election John Clavering, the prior, received two votes; John More, four; Andrew, four; and Richard Widelsey, ten. As this voting left no majority, much discussion and dissension ensued, which continued for several months until the appointment devolved upon the bishop, who collated John Horkesleygh, prior of Colne, on 14 December.
  • 71. See above. Richard was abbot in 1459 (De Banco, Mich. 38 Hen. VI, 298 d.).
  • 72. Pat. 2 Ric. III, pt. 3, m. 9. The convent had licence to elect on 18 December. John was abbot in 1462 (De Banco, Trin. 2 Edw. IV, 175 d.).
  • 73. Lond. Epis. Reg. Fitz-James, 4-7. On 8 June.
  • 74. Ibid. He was prior and was elected abbot by eighteen monks on 18 June.
  • 75. Ibid. Stokesley, 93.
  • 76. Lond. Epis. Reg. Stokesley, 93. He was elected on 5 February 'by way of inspiration' by seventeen monks, all priests save two sub-deacons. He took the usual oath of obedience to the bishop, undertaking to allow a sufficient pension to the late abbot for life (L. and P. Hen. VIII, v, 1791). He is also called Robert Kynge (Ibid. xiv [1], 1276.)
  • 77. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), 575. He was bishop-suffragan of Colchester, and held the abbey in commendam.
  • 78. Acknowledgements of Supremacy, S. A. 3, 112, xx.