Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Tewkesbury

Pages 61-66

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

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According to the chronicle of Tewkesbury, Oddo and Dodo, two Saxon lords who lived during the reign of three Mercian kings, Ethelred, Kenred, and Ethelbald, founded the first monastery at Tewkesbury. (fn. 1) Modern research has shown that Oddo lived at least 300 years (fn. 2) after Dodo. It may be concluded that Dodo was the founder of Tewkesbury. In 715 he began to build a church in honour of the Virgin at a place which was said to have received its name from Theokus, a hermit, who was reputed to have dwelt there about 655. The endowment consisted of Stanway and other lands. In the course of the next 200 years the monastery was plundered and burnt on divers occasions. About the year 800 a Mercian lord named Hugh is said to have been a patron of the house; he buried Brictric, king of Wessex, within the church and was himself laid to rest there in 812. About 980 Aylward Meaw founded and endowed a monastery at Cranbourne in Dorset for monks who should keep the strict rule of St. Benedict, and he made the priory of Tewkesbury a cell to that house.

At the Norman Conquest the lands of Aylward's grandson, Brictric, were confiscated, and the patronage of Cranbourne and Tewkesbury passed to the crown. (fn. 3) About 1087, by the advice of Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, and Osmund, bishop of Salisbury, William Rufus appointed Gerald, a Norman monk of Winchester, as abbot of Cranbourne. In the same year he gave the honour of Gloucester to Robert Fitzhamon, a Norman lord. The possessions of the priory of Tewkesbury consisted of lands at Stanway, Toddington, Lemington, Great Washbourn, Fiddington, Natton, and Stanley Pontlarge. (fn. 4) It has been conjectured that some of these possessions were the gift of Duke Oddo, who built the Saxon chapel at Deerhurst in 1056, and was a great benefactor of the church. (fn. 5) Under the influence of his wife Sibilla, Robert Fitzhamon began to build a new church and monastic offices at Tewkesbury, and he greatly increased the endowment. (fn. 6) In 1102, Gerald, abbot of Cranbourne, and his monks entered the new monastery at Tewkesbury, leaving only a prior and two monks at Cranbourne, which became a dependent cell. (fn. 7) In 1105, with the advice and consent of Robert Fitzhamon, Abbot Gerald divided the possessions of the house and endowed the offices of cellarer, chamberlain, sacrist, precentor, and almoner. (fn. 8) There were at that time fifty-seven monks, (fn. 9) these with the prior of Cranbourne and his two brethren making sixty, probably the full complement. The gift of the manor of Ampney Crucis was confirmed in 1101. (fn. 10) In 1106 Henry I granted a charter confirming the possessions of the monastery, which already included many churches of which a number were afterwards appropriated. (fn. 11) Tewkesbury profited by the conquests of Norman lords in Wales and received before 1103, amongst other benefices, the parish church of St. Mary of Cardiff with eight dependent chapels. (fn. 12)

In 1109 Abbot Gerald resigned and returned to Winchester. (fn. 13) In 1123 the church was dedicated by Theulf, bishop of Worcester. (fn. 14) About 1137, Robert, earl of Gloucester, founded the priory of St. James at Bristol as a dependent cell to Tewkesbury, (fn. 15) and he is also said to have been the founder of the cell at Cardiff. (fn. 16) Learning and literature probably flourished under Abbot Alan (1186-1202), who had been prior of Canterbury. He himself wrote one of the lives of St. Thomas of Canterbury and made a collection of his letters. (fn. 17) His successor, Walter, found the house in debt to the amount of 700 marks, (fn. 18) but was able to restore its finances to a flourishing condition.

Abbot Peter was engaged in a number of lawsuits in defence of the rights of the house. (fn. 19) In 1221 owing to disturbances in Wales, he was obliged to recall the monks from the cell of Cardiff and let the priory on lease for some years. (fn. 20) The Irish lands at Dungarthan held of the gift of John, brought no profit and were sold for £80 to the bishop of Dublin in 1224. (fn. 21) There were several disputes with the bishops of Worcester. (fn. 22) In 1231, in virtue of a papal privilege of 1221, (fn. 23) several of the monks of Tewkesbury entered into possession of the vacant church of Fairford with the object of appropriating it for the monastery. (fn. 24) They were expelled by the nominee of Bishop William of Blois and the whole convent was excommunicated. Early in 1232 the abbot died and was buried within the church. The bishop ordered his body to be cast out as he was still under sentence of anathema, (fn. 25) and as the monks refused he again excommunicated them. He then attempted to hinder their right of freedom of election which they obtained from Hubert de Burgh as the guardian of Richard de Clare, the patron of the house. (fn. 26) On I May he absolved the convent, (fn. 27) and a week later the prior, Robert of Forthampton, was elected. He was an able and vigorous abbot, bent on maintaining the rights of the monastery against both episcopal and lay encroachments, and in developing its resources in all directions. There was no saint's shrine to which the report of miracles attracted pilgrims and their offerings, but Tewkesbury possessed a number of relics, and accordingly the feast of the Holy Relics was celebrated on 2 July, and a number of miracles are said to have occurred in 1232 (fn. 28) and 1250. (fn. 29) At the second dedication of the church, 18 June, 1239, Walter Cantilupe, bishop of Worcester, granted an indulgence to those who visited it during the feast of the dedication and its octave and on the feast of the Relics. (fn. 30) He subjected the house to a very strict visitation in 1251 (fn. 31) and again in 1253, (fn. 32) but on each occasion it was triumphantly recorded in the annals that he found nothing amiss.

Between 1271 and 1276 the abbot and convent petitioned Gregory X for his support in effecting the appropriation of the church of Fairford. In addition to the usual plea of the heavy expense of hospitality, they urged that the nave was in so dangerous a condition that it could not be used for service, and that its repair would be very costly. (fn. 33) Gregory X granted the request.

The condition of the house was unsatisfactory when Godfrey Giffard visited it in 1279. (fn. 34) Extravagance and maladministration roused his indignation. He ordered that gluttony and drunkenness should cease; that the monks should eat to live and not live to eat; and that no drinking should take place except in the frater. The great obedientiars and other officers were bidden to fulfil their duties with more care.

Soon after the death of Giffard, which took place on 26 January, 1302, the prior of Worcester determined to exercise his rights of visitation in the diocese during a vacancy. On 13 March, 1302, he was refused admission at Tewkesbury, (fn. 35) because the monastery had been visited twice within a year. (fn. 36) The prior of Worcester at once excommunicated the abbot and nine chief officers of the house. They appealed to Robert Winchelsey, archbishop of Canterbury, against the sentence, and the prior wrote to the archbishop, asking him to preserve his lawful jurisdiction. The official of the archbishop inhibited the prior of Worcester from proceeding with the excommunication of the abbot and convent of Tewkesbury, and cited the prior to appear before the Court of Arches, and the sentence of excommunication was removed. No resistance was made to the visitation during the next vacancy in 1308.

In 1314 a licence was obtained from Edward II for the appropriation of the churches of Thornbury and Fairford. (fn. 37) Bishop Maidstone allowed the licence for Thornbury to take effect immediately, on the ground that, although the monastery was amply endowed by Gilbert de Clare, it was so much oppressed by misfortunes and the attacks of enemies, that speedy succour was needed. (fn. 38) There were outstanding debts, and a fire had wrought havoc among the monastic buildings. Indeed, the main interest of Tewkesbury in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is in the progress of the new building.

In 1332 the abbot and convent petitioned John XXII to urge the bishop of Worcester to act on the papal licence, which had been granted more than sixty years before, for the appropriation of Fairford, (fn. 39) and in 1333 Orlton consented.

In 1345 the abbot and convent were able, with the aid of Hugh Despenser, to appropriate the church of Llantrisant in the diocese of Llandaff. (fn. 40) Out of its revenues twenty marks were assigned for the keeping of his anniversary, and thirty marks for a pittance for the monks. (fn. 41) In 1347 the number of monks in the house was thirtyseven. (fn. 42)

When Henry Wakefield, bishop of Worcester, made a visitation in 1378, he found much to criticize. (fn. 43) No yearly statement showing the financial position of the house was made by the abbot to the chapter. Some of the obedientiars were respecters of persons, sparing some and unduly chastising others. The monks were ill-fed, the bread was poor and badly baked, the ale was weak and very new. Sick brethren in the farmery were neglected and had no doctor. The education of the younger monks was neglected. Relations and friends were badly served in the hostelry, neither vessels, napkins, nor towels were provided for their use; the office of hostiller was not filled, and the revenues of the church of Ampney Crucis, which had been appropriated for the purpose of hospitality, were diverted to other uses. The bell-tower was in a dangerous condition. The bishop ordered the abbot to produce the annual account without fail, to appoint a doctor immediately, and a competent teacher before Michaelmas; to remove indiscreet obedientiars and appoint others within a month, among them an honest and discreet hostiller, to see that everything was provided for the comfort of guests before I August. It was to be the abbot's duty to know that bread and ale of the quality and quantity formerly provided for the monks were baked and brewed by the servants, and as the monks used to get capons, chickens, or pigeons for supper, he was to see that their needs were supplied. The bishop bade the sacrist repair the bell-tower, so far as his means allowed, before the feast of St. Andrew. It had become customary for the monks once a year, on one of the occasions when they were bled, to withdraw to the Mythe for a change from Sunday to the following Friday. The bishop decided that the stay was too long, and said that the monks must content themselves with their wonted comforts at that time.

The Despensers and Beauchamps, who in turn succeeded to the honour of Gloucester, were, like the De Clares, generous patrons of the monastery, and some, at least, of the new building in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was at their expense. Henry VI granted the patronage of the alien priory of Goldcliff in Mon mouthshire to Henry, earl of Warwick, with licence to appropriate it to Tewkesbury. In 1442, with the full approval of Eugenius IV, Goldcliff Priory was made a cell of Tewkesbury. (fn. 44) It was stated that the revenues of the monastery did not then exceed 2,000 marks, and the priory was worth £200 a year. The abbot and convent were bound to maintain a prior and two monks in priest's orders at Goldcliff. In 1445 the three monks of Tewkesbury were expelled from Goldcliff by the Welsh, but in 1447 they again took possession of it. (fn. 45) Their enjoyment of its revenues was short, for in 1450 the priory was granted by Henry VI to Eton College. (fn. 46) In 1462 Edward IV revoked the grant of Henry VI and restored Goldcliff Priory to Tewkesbury. However, in 1467, he again granted Goldcliff to Eton College, and compensated Tewkesbury by the gift of the alien priory of Deerhurst. (fn. 47) The condition of the grant was that the abbot and convent of Tewkesbury should maintain a prior and four monks at Deerhurst, and a secular priest to serve the parishioners as vicar. The union of Deerhurst with Tewkesbury was confirmed by Carpenter, bishop of Worcester, in 1469. (fn. 48)

In 1471 some of the fugitives from the battle of Tewkesbury fled to the church and were there slain by the pursuers. On 30 May the bishop of Down and Connor purified the sanctuary after its pollution by blood. (fn. 49) Among the dead who were buried by the monks was Prince Edward, the only son of Henry VI.

The appetite of the abbot and convent for the appropriation of churches was insatiable. Tarrant Monachorum in Dorsetshire had been appropriated before 1439, (fn. 50) Penmark in the diocese of Llandaff between 1420 and 1443, Sherston before 1471. (fn. 51) On the plea that the revenues of the Lady Chapel had declined in value, and that they desired to increase the splendour of the services therein, in 1470 the monks appropriated the church of Holy Trinity, Bristol, but two years later they consented to a revocation and received instead the church of Compton Parva. (fn. 52) However, there is evidence in 1494 that the convent was seriously embarrassed, for heavy legal expenses had been incurred in suits about both Goldcliff and Deerhurst. (fn. 53) The number of monks in the house in that year was thirty-three; (fn. 54) a survey of their finances obliged them to seek an increase of their revenues, and a further appropriation of churches was the easiest method. Fields, meadows, and rich pastures in their manors of Kingston and Wyke in Sussex had been swallowed up by the sea. Some of their lands in other parts of England were untilled and unoccupied, and they received £100 a year less on that account. In 1494 William Smith, bishop of Lincoln, allowed them to appropriate the church of Great Marlow, which they had attempted in 1242, when Robert Grosseteste rebuffed them. At the beginning of the sixteenth century they were confronted with further difficulties. The great bell-tower, the cloister, and other houses and buildings in the monastery were said to be in a ruinous condition; some of their manor houses and barns were in the same plight. On account of insufficient revenues the number of monks and servants had been greatly diminished, and hospitality, a heavy burden, was not maintained as it should have been. (fn. 55) Accordingly, in 1500, the church of Taynton was appropriated, with the consent of William Smith, bishop of Lincoln, (fn. 56) and the church of Eastleach Turville, by the permission of the vicar-general of Silvester de Giglis, bishop of Worcester. (fn. 57) Five years later the church of Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire was also appropriated. (fn. 58)

The clear value of the possessions of the monastery, including the cells of Deerhurst, St. James Bristol, and Cranbourne, amounted in 1535 to £1,598 10s. 3d. (fn. 59) The revenues of the great officers of the religious houses are but rarely indicated in the Valor Ecclesiasticus. At Tewkesbury they are set forth with admirable clearness. The lands and churches assigned in the ordinance of 1105 remained in the hands of the same officers. The abbot received £253 14s. 7¼d. He had acquired for his office several of the most profitable manors formerly belonging to the priory of Deerhurst, and all the five recently appropriated churches. It is clear that before the dissolution, as at Winchcombe, he also administered the revenues of the cellarer, which amounted to £842 18s. 11d., and thus had entire control over two-thirds of the income of the house. (fn. 60)

He seems to have acquired arbitrary power, for it is noted in the Valor that he had the right of appointing and removing all the officers of the house at his sole will and pleasure. The visitations of the vicars-general of the four Italian bishops who held the see of Worcester from 1497 to 1535 appear to have been of a purely formal character, and the abbots therefore met with no interference. The household management was conducted on the generous if not extravagant scale of a great Benedictine monastery, and included maintenance and wages for 144 servants. The provision of spices, always an important item in monastic accounts, had been assigned to a special officer, the master of the spices, who had £47 13s. 11d. for that purpose. The kitchener received £32 13s. 1d., the master of the frater £1 4s. 4½d. The exercise of hospitality must have fallen to the abbot and cellarer, for the hostiller had only £3 5s. 2d., the clear proceeds from the church of Ampney Crucis. The almoner after setting aside £15 6s. 4d. in special alms, which included clothing for sixteen poor scholars, and provision for a number of boys who were clothed, fed, and educated at the expense of his office, had £35 13s. 4d. It would, however, be misleading to suppose that this sum represented the charity of the monastery, for fixed alms occur as a charge on the revenues of most of the other officers. The income of the chief prior was £9 9s. 8d. The chamberlain who furnished the clothes of the house and probably the liveries of many of the servants received £83 1s. 6d. The sacrist had £42 4s. 7d., the master of the Lady Chapel £12 3s. 1½d.

The monastery, including the three cells, was surrendered on 9 January, 1540. (fn. 61) It is probable that the number of monks then in the house was about thirty-seven; thirty-six were included in the pension list, (fn. 62) and of these a prior and two monks lived at each of the cells. John Wakeman, the abbot, received a pension of £266 13s. 4d., and drew it until September, 1541, when he was consecrated to the newly-founded see of Gloucester. The prior got £16 a year, the priors of the cells of Deerhurst and St. James, Bristol, £13 6s. 8d., the prior of Cranbourne and one other monk £10, two of them £8, another £7, and the remaining twenty-seven £6 13s. 4d. each. Wages were paid up to date to 144 servants. (fn. 63)

The possessions (fn. 64) of the monastery included the manor and borough of Tewkesbury, the manors of Coln St. Dennis, Compton Parva, Preston-upon-Stour, Alvescot, Welford, Washbourne, Prescot, Gotherington, Tredington, Fiddington, Oxenton, Walton Cardiff, Forthampton, Ampney Crucis, Hosebridge, Lemington, Church Stanway in Gloucestershire, the manor of Pull Court, a moiety of the manor of Queenhill, the manors of Bushley, Pirton, Ashton Keynes and Leigh, in Worcestershire, the manor of Burnet in Somerset, the manor of Taynton in Oxfordshire; in Dorsetshire the manors of Cranbourne, Chettle, Upwimborne, Boveridge with Estworth, Tarrant Monachorum; in Sussex the manors of Kingston and Wyke; in Devon the manors of Loosebeare and Midlande; rents in Gloucester, Cardiff and other places; and the rectories of Tewkesbury, Fiddington, Walton-Cardiff, Aston-upon-Carron, Southwick and Tredington, Compton Parva, Preston-uponStour, Washbourn, Forthampton, Thornbury, Ampney, Fairford, Eastleach, Wotton-underEdge, Marshfield in Gloucestershire, Sherston and Aldington in Worcestershire, Taynton in Oxfordshire, Great Marlow and Chetelhampton in Buckinghamshire, St. Wenne and Crewenne in Cornwall, Tarrant Monachorum in Dorset, Kingston in Sussex, in Wales Llantwit, Llanblethian, Llantrisant, Penmark with the chapel of St. Donat and Cardiff, and tithes and pensions in a number of other churches in England and Wales, and the priories of Deerhurst, St. James Bristol, and Cranbourne.

Abbots (fn. 65) of Tewkesbury

Gerald, appointed by William Rufus

Robert, 1110, ob. 1123

Benedict, 1124

Roger, 1137

Fromund, 1162, ob. 1178

Robert, 1182

Alan, (fn. 66) 1187

Walter, (fn. 67) 1202

Hugh, (fn. 68) 1214, ob. 1215

Bernard elected but not consecrated

Peter, 1216

Robert III, (fn. 69) 1232

Thomas of Stoke, 1255

Richard of Norton, 1276

Thomas of Kempsey, 1282

John Coles, 1328

Thomas of Legh, 1347

Thomas of Chesterton, 1361

Thomas Parker, 1389

William of Bristol, 1420 or 1421

John of Abingdon, (fn. 70) 1444

John Galeys, (fn. 71) occurs 1453, ob. 1468

John Strensham, 1468

Richard Cheltenham, 1480

Henry Beeley, 1509, occurs 1529

John Walker, ob. 1531

John Wakeman, 1531

A seal of the fifteenth century represents three heavily canopied niches; in the centre the Assumption of the Virgin, standing with hands uplifted in prayer, within an oval vesica of clouds, upheld by an angel above it; on the left St. Peter with nimbus, book and keys; on the right St. Paul with nimbus, sword and book, each saint slightly turned to the virgin; over the central canopy a smaller niche containing the Trinity; in base an angel holding in front a shield of arms, a cross engrailed supported by two lions couchant guardant addorsed. (fn. 72)

The legend is—



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. ii, 59.
  • 2. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xxv, 78; Blunt, Tewkesbury Abbey, 15-17.
  • 3. Dugdale, Mon. ii, 60.
  • 4. Dom. Bk. (Rec. Com.), 163b.
  • 5. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xxv, 81.
  • 6. Dugdale, op. cit. ii, 60.
  • 7. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 44; Dugdale, op. cit. ii, 60.
  • 8. Dugdale, op. cit. ii, 81.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid. 65.
  • 11. Ibid. 66.
  • 12. Ibid. 67.
  • 13. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 43.
  • 14. Ibid. i, 45.
  • 15. Dugdale, op. cit. iv, 333; ii, 70.
  • 16. Ibid. iv, 632.
  • 17. Hardy, Catalogue of Materials (Rolls Ser.), ii, 322; Materials for the Hist. of Thomas Becket (Rolls Ser.), ii.
  • 18. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 56.
  • 19. Ibid. 64, 65, 70.
  • 20. Ibid. 65.
  • 21. Ibid. 67.
  • 22. Dugdale, op. cit. ii, 79; Cal. Papal L. i, 95; Ann. Mon. i, 68.
  • 23. Cal. Papal L. i, 81.
  • 24. Ann. Mon. i, 82.
  • 25. Ibid. 83, 84.
  • 26. Dugdale, op. cit. ii, 81.
  • 27. Ibid. 80.
  • 28. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 84-6.
  • 29. Ibid. 141.
  • 30. Ibid. 112.
  • 31. Ibid. 146.
  • 32. Ibid. 152.
  • 33. Worc. Epis. Reg. Orlton, fol. 54d.
  • 34. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 104.
  • 35. Worc. Reg. Sede Vac. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 62, 63.
  • 36. Ann. Mon. iv, 551.
  • 37. Cal. of Pat. 8 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 12.
  • 38. Worc. Epis. Reg. Maidstone, fol. 7d.
  • 39. Ibid. Orlton, fol. 54d.
  • 40. Cal. of Pat. 19 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 1; cf. ibid. 17 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 27.
  • 41. Dugdale, Mon. ii, 62.
  • 42. Worc. Epis. Reg. Bransford, fol. 137. Forty monks, including the priors of three cells, were present at the election of Thomas of Legh.
  • 43. Ibid. Wakefield, fol. 133.
  • 44. Dugdale, Mon. vii, 1021.
  • 45. Ibid. ii, 64.
  • 46. Ibid. vii, 1021.
  • 47. Ibid. iv, 664.
  • 48. Worc. Epis. Reg. Carpenter, ii, fols. 1-6.
  • 49. Massé, Tewkesbury Abbey, 14.
  • 50. Dugdale, op. cit. ii, 64; cf. Cal. of Pat. 7 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 44.
  • 51. Dugdale, op. cit. ii, 64.
  • 52. Worc. Epis. Reg. Carpenter, ii, fol. 7 d, 28.
  • 53. Linc. Epis. Reg. Wolsey and Atwater, fol. 61-65.
  • 54. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Morton, fol. 169.
  • 55. Worc. Epis. Reg. Silvester de Giglis, fol. 128.
  • 56. Linc. Epis. Reg. Smith, fol. 37-52.
  • 57. Worc. Epis. Reg. Silvester de Giglis, fol. 128.
  • 58. Ibid. fol. 183.
  • 59. Valor Eccles. (Rec. Com.), ii, 471-86. The revenues of the cells of Deerhurst, St. James Bristol, and Cranbourne were valued respectively at £134 8s. 0¾d, £55 7s. 4d., £37 19s. 5d. The apparent decline in the value of the priory of Deerhurst is accounted for by the appropriation to the abbot of several of its manors.
  • 60. Ibid. 480-6.
  • 61. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xv, No. 139, iv.
  • 62. Dugdale, op. cit. ii, 83.
  • 63. Ibid. 58.
  • 64. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 471-86.
  • 65. The list is taken from Dugdale, Mon. ii, 53–6. It has been carefully checked, and additions are noted.
  • 66. Ann. Mon. Rolls Ser. i, 53.
  • 67. Ibid. i, 56, 57.
  • 68. Ibid. 61.
  • 69. Ibid. 83.
  • 70. Heref. Epis. Reg. Spofford, ii, fol. 4.
  • 71. B.M. MS. Cole, xxvii, p. 206. It has been suggested, with great probability, that John of Abingdon and John Galeys are identical.
  • 72. Birch, Catalogue of Seals in the B.M. i, 768.