Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of St Augustine, Bristol

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

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, 'Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of St Augustine, Bristol', in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 2, (London, 1907) pp. 75-79. British History Online [accessed 27 May 2024].

. "Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of St Augustine, Bristol", in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 2, (London, 1907) 75-79. British History Online, accessed May 27, 2024,

. "Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of St Augustine, Bristol", A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 2, (London, 1907). 75-79. British History Online. Web. 27 May 2024,

In this section



The monastery of St. Augustine was founded as a house of Augustinian canons by Robert Fitzharding, (fn. 1) a rich citizen of Bristol. During the civil war he supported the cause of the Empress Matilda and her son, and in reward was granted the lordship of Berkeley. (fn. 2) In 1142 he resolved to found a religious house in his manor of Billeswick. (fn. 3) The church and monastic offices were six years in building. On 11 April, 1148, the church was dedicated by the bishops of Worcester, Exeter, Llandaff, and St. Asaph, and six canons from Wigmore entered into possession of the new monastery. (fn. 4) The endowment consisted of the manors of Billeswick, Almondsbury, Horfield, Ashleworth, Cromhall, Leigh near Bristol, Cerney, Fifhide, lands and tenements at St. Katherine's of the fee of Portbury, at Arlingham, at Blakenford, rents in Bristol, the churches of Tickenham, Were, Poulet, Portbury, Berkeley, Wotton, Cromhall, Beverstone, Ashleworth, Almondsbury, Cheshull, Portishead, Langstone, Rualach, and St. Nicholas, Bristol, the gift of Robert Fitzharding and his sons. (fn. 5) As some of the manors were held by Fitzharding of the crown in chief, and were confirmed to the canons 'in perpetual alms' by Henry, duke of Normandy, he was reputed a founder of the house. (fn. 6) He granted the canons a rental of 10 marks, and promised another gift of equal value when he came into his kingdom. (fn. 7) The monastery prospered greatly; before 1189 the canons had received numerous other benefactions, including the churches of Clevedon, Finemere, Halberton, Grantendon, All Saints, Bristol, and in Wales lands at Penarth and the church of Romeney. (fn. 8) In or before the reign of Richard I they acquired lands and several churches in Ireland. (fn. 9) Thus it is clear that the monastery was liberally endowed, and successive lords of Berkeley (fn. 10) showed themselves generous patrons of the foundation of their ancestor, Robert Fitzharding, who died a canon of the house. (fn. 11) However, its history is marked by financial embarrassment and a lack of governance which led to internal dissensions.

The monastery was subject to the visitation of the bishops of Worcester. In 1234 William of Blois deposed Abbot David on account of his quarrels with the convent. (fn. 12) One of the first acts of his successor, William of Bradstone, was to conclude an important agreement in 1234 with the mayor and commonalty of Bristol, by which they acquired for nine marks sufficient land on St. Augustine's Marsh to make a new quay. (fn. 13) In the following year the abbot and convent began to build the church of St. Augustine the Less for persons dwelling on their side of the new quay. (fn. 14) Abbot Bradstone was compelled to resign after a visitation of the convent by Walter Cantilupe, bishop of Worcester, in 1242. (fn. 15) His successor was William Longe, the chamberlain of Keynsham. During his rule there were lawsuits and disputes with the hospital of St. Mark's, Billeswick, about rights of pasture and of burial on the land between the two houses. The question was finally settled by Bishop Cantilupe in 1259. (fn. 16)

At his visitation in 1278 Bishop Giffard discovered that the monastery was in a most unsatisfactory state. (fn. 17) There was neglect in the services; the abbot had not enough learning to preach; the canons broke the rule of silence in cloister, frater, and elsewhere, and indulged in slanderous talk. They even feigned illness as an excuse for drinking together in the farmery. Discipline had broken down and the temporal affairs were in great disorder. The abbot had too large and extravagant a household, and by collusion with him the bailiffs evaded rendering accounts of their manors. The bishop made a vigorous effort to reform the house. He insisted that the canons should keep the rule of silence, and devote their time in the cloister to study and meditation. They were only to go beyond the precincts when urged by necessity, and then two together, with the leave of the abbot or prior. Corrections in chapter should be made without respect of persons. The abbot was ordered to have only a moderate household, consisting of one or two chaplains and two or three squires. Superfluous and useless persons were to be removed from the household of the convent, and the grainger, vendor of corn, and the porter who collected the rents were to be deprived of their offices. To ensure better financial management the bishop enjoined that the abbot should appoint two canons as treasurers with the consent of the greater part of the convent. The treasurers should receive all the money of the house, keep account of the same, and deliver by tally to the abbot and obedientiars as much as was needed for the use of the community. (fn. 18) All obedientiars and bailiffs were bound to present their accounts to be audited at the beginning of the year. No corrodies might be sold without the consent of the bishop. Two years later as Abbot John de Marina was unable through illness to attend to the government of his house, Giffard sent his official, together with William le Rous, a canon of Westbury, to do what they deemed necessary for the honour of the convent. (fn. 19) The abbot resigned soon afterwards. (fn. 20) In 1284 Giffard visited the house again and found that under Abbot Hugh all was in good order, except that the late abbot was living on one of the convent manors, and that the house was burdened with a debt of £300 because Bogo de Clare had taken away a church worth £100 a year. (fn. 21) In 1285 the abbot complained to Edward I that, being at Cardiff, he was seized and imprisoned by Gilbert and Bogo de Clare, and the king issued a commission for his release. (fn. 22) A compromise was effected. The abbot and convent agreed to pay Bogo de Clare a hundred marks a year for his life, and they recovered possession of the churches of Romeney and St. Melan which had previously been appropriated to them. (fn. 23) In the same year the king intervened to restore the financial stability of the house. He sent a mandate to the constable of Bristol Castle, directing him with the advice of the abbot, prior, chamberlain, and older canons, to remove all unnecessary members of the household, to retrench the expenditure, to depute one or two canons to collect the revenues, and after providing for the reasonable maintenance of the house to apply the remainder to the payment of its great debts. (fn. 24)

The rule of Abbot Knowle (1306-32) was eventful. In 1307 the abbot and convent were involved in a struggle with the prior of Worcester over the right of visitation, which he claimed to exercise during a vacancy of the see. (fn. 25) On 20 December the prior wrote stating his intention of visiting the monastery on 16 January, and the abbot acknowledged his letter. Through pressure of business the prior could not come in person, but sent commissioners, who were not admitted, and as they could get no reply of any kind they excommunicated the abbot and convent. Appeals were made to the court of Canterbury and to the papal curia. The abbot successfully defended his conduct, for that occasion only, on the plea that the prior had not come in person. (fn. 26)

The new choir was built in great part during Knowle's abbacy. (fn. 27) Other works were also under taken and the cost was a heavy charge upon the revenues of the house. In 1311 the abbot and convent petitioned Bishop Reynolds to appropriate the church of Wotton to their needs. (fn. 28) They stated that the greater part of the church was destroyed from the foundations on account of its age and weakness, and that the rest threatened ruin. They had already spent large sums, and would be obliged to spend still more on the new work. Hospitality in a port like Bristol was a serious burden; owing to the persecution of powerful enemies their income had been diminished by one-third for the last eighteen years, (fn. 29) and they were heavily in debt. The bishop sent a commissioner to inquire into the matter, and he reported that the truth was well known in Bristol. (fn. 30) Some years ago the poverty of the house was so great that the canons, having nothing to eat or drink, went out into the town to borrow food or get it from charity. In 1313 the appropriation of Wotton was effected, and about £30 was added to the revenues. (fn. 31) After his visitation in 1320 Bishop Cobham expressed grave dissatisfaction. (fn. 32) He insisted that the convent should give up keeping hounds, and that the almoner should be removed from office because his administration gave cause for scandal. The bishop also ordered that an inquiry should be made about one canon who was charged with evil living, and another who was said to sow discord among the brethren. He enjoined that proper care should be taken of the sick in the farmery, that a sufficient allowance of food should be provided for the brethren, instead of money to buy what they needed for themselves, that the dorter should be roofed as quickly as possible, and that the mass of the Virgin should be celebrated with due solemnity. When Bishop Wulstan de Bransford visited the house in 1339 he found, 'God be praised,' that its condition was far more worthy of commendation than of correction, but nevertheless he was constrained to issue some injunctions. (fn. 33) It was unseemly that the church should be ruinous (patere ruinis) and he bade the sacrist see that a roof was put on to it. He forbade the canons, both young and old, to go out of the precincts without leave, and insisted on regular attendance at divine service. As reading without understanding profited nothing, he said that the canons must either speak Latin or French to each other. In 1341 the abbot secured exemption from attendance at Parliament. (fn. 34)

There is no exact evidence of the mortality at St. Augustine's, when the Black Death visited Bristol in 1349. When William Coke was elected in 1353, the convent consisted of eighteen canons, of whom fifteen were priests and three subdeacons. (fn. 35) It is probable that several of them died during the second visitation of the plague in 1361, for in 1363 Abbot Coke obtained a bull from Urban V by which canons might be ordained priests at the age of twenty-two. (fn. 36) In 1365 he resigned and was succeeded by Henry Shellingford. On 1 April, 1366, Edward III took the monastery under his special protection, and entrusted the custody to Maurice of Berkeley IV and three other commissioners. (fn. 37) He intervened because it was likely that the poverty of the house would compel the canons to disperse. The abbots had resorted to disastrous financial shifts. They had sold corrodies to persons of evil life who were then living within the precincts; they had made bad bargains for the convent in the leases which they had granted, and the expenses of their households were excessive. The monastery was heavily in debt. The commissioners were ordered to collect and receive all the revenues, make sufficient allowance for the canons and a moderate number of servants, apply the residue to the payment of debts and remove all suspected persons from the house. Five years later, on 26 October, 1371, Edward III wrote to William of Lynn, bishop of Worcester, attributing the misfortunes of the monastery to the misrule of Abbot Henry Shellingford. (fn. 38) The king sent a mandate to the bishop to make a personal visitation with the object of reforming the house. At the same time the abbot, canons, and servants were bidden to obey the bishop (fn. 39) William of Lynn died in 1373, apparently without fulfilling the king's mandate. Walter Legh, prior of Worcester, acted during the voidance of the see, and in 1374 issued a series of injunctions for the better government of the monastery, by which the arbitrary power of the abbot was limited. (fn. 40) It was provided that five of the elder and more discreet canons should be elected to act as the abbot's council for the transaction of the important business of the house. The obedientiars were to be chosen from among the members of the council and bound to render an account of their administration at least once a year. The abbot was to appoint seven canons to have the custody of the common seal. Two or three canons should be chosen by the abbot and council to act as receivers and treasurers, and the revenues should be expended by order of the abbot and council. Two other receivers were to be appointed in like manner to keep the moneys due from the spiritualities. The abbot and council were to appoint the secular officers. Provision was also made for the supply of better bread and ale, and of sufficient meat and fish, also for the care of the sick in the farmery. The secular clerks, who sang in the Lady chapel, were to have their maintenance, 'as was accustomed of old time.' Order was thus restored, and the monastery prospered under the rule of Abbots Cernay and Daubeney (1388-1428). In 1398 Boniface IX granted the right of wearing a mitre to Abbot Daubeney and his successors. (fn. 41) In 1399 the revenues did not exceed 800 marks, (fn. 42) and the abbot and convent obtained papal bulls enabling them to appropriate the perpetual vicarages of St. Nicholas, (fn. 43) Bristol, and of the parish church of Berkeley, (fn. 44) valued together at 45 marks, with leave to serve the churches by a canon or a fit priest of their appointment. Much rebuilding on the manors of the convent went on during the abbacy of Walter Newbery, (fn. 45) but dissensions again broke out, (fn. 46) and in 1451 he was deposed and one of the canons named Thomas Sutton usurped his office. For five years Sutton wasted the goods of the house and sold quit rents for money to defend his position. He was expelled, and Walter Newbery restored to office by Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1456; Sutton appealed to the pope in vain. (fn. 47) During the next eighty years the history of the convent was untroubled and the abbot and canons concentrated their attention on the care of the fabric of their church, on new monastic offices and the rebuilding of houses and granges on their manors. (fn. 48) In 1491 the convent consisted of seventeen canons, of whom eight were novices. (fn. 49) The vicar of St. Augustine the Less was paid to teach the younger canons and other boys in the grammar school within the abbey. (fn. 50) The clear income of the monastery amounted to £667 5s. 5d., the expenditure to £488 10s. 4½d. In 1498 the number of canons had increased to twenty-four. (fn. 51) Abbot Newland was keenly interested in the history of the monastery. In or about 1489 he compiled and translated into English a chronicle of the abbots of Bristol and of the lords of Berkeley, which is known as 'Abbot Newland's Roll.' (fn. 52)

'Full much convenient it thinketh me,' he wrote, 'that all religious men know by name their foundators and special benefactors for whom they ought most devoutly to pray for, which for the love of God and in perpetual alms have given and procured to be given unto them great possessions and liberties. And for this cause moved I the foresaid John Newland Abbot for my more larger knowledge and information of my brethren canons present.' (fn. 53)

Dissensions, which lasted for some years, broke out between the monastery and town in 1515. The cause of the first dispute is obscure. Fox, bishop of Winchester, who intervened, suggested to Wolsey that as it was a perilous matter he should send for some of the canons and order them 'after his wisdom,' or appoint a commission; 'and that three young fools which sue for voices in the choir, though they be not in sacris, shall be expelled.' (fn. 54) During the rule of Abbot Somerset (1526-33), two choristers refused to pay the 'King's silver,' and their goods were distrained by the collectors. (fn. 55) The abbot arrested the officers, the mayor and commonalty imprisoned the servants of the convent. The abbot, 'with a riotous company,' attempted to force the prison but failed. The matter was finally referred to arbitration, and the award was that the choristers should pay their taxes; that the prisoners of both parties should be released; that the mayor and council should attend service in the college as usual; and that the abbot and his successors, 'in token of submission for their contempt,' should thenceforth, upon Easter Day, in the afternoon, and on the Monday in the forenoon, meet or wait for them at the door of the grammar school at Froom Gate, and bear them company to the college.

In 1534 the abbot and eighteen canons subscribed to the royal supremacy. (fn. 56) In the following year the house was visited, under the royal commission to Cromwell, by Richard Layton, who gave the abbot the irritating injunctions framed by his master. (fn. 57) Shortly afterwards the abbot wrote to Cromwell, pleading for some relaxation. (fn. 58) He desired licence for himself, for his health's sake, to walk to his manor places near Bristol, and also within the green and canons' marsh adjacent to the precincts. He prayed for himself and his brethren that, if they kept away from the town, they might walk three or four together, juniors with seniors, about the hills and fields, to refresh their minds and to 'laxe their veynes,' whereby they might be more apt for the service of God night and day. 'Further,' he added, 'we desire to have some poor honest woman to keep us if any pestyfer plague or distress of sickness do fall amongst us.'

In 1536 the Irish possessions of the monastery were confiscated under a statute of 3 Ric. II concerning the lands of absentees, although the abbot and convent had hitherto been licensed to hold them. (fn. 59) On 9 December, 1539, the royal commissioners arrived to receive the surrender. (fn. 60) The abbot secured a pension of £80 a year, and eleven canons received sums varying from £8 to £6. Wages were paid to forty-six officers and servants. The custody of the church, houses, and buildings was entrusted to Mannyng, the king's farmer, until His Majesty's pleasure was further known.

The clear yearly value of the property in 1539 was £692 2s. 7d. (fn. 61)

Abbots of St. Augustine, Bristol (fn. 62)

Richard, 1148

John, 1186

David, 1216

William of Bradstone, 1234

William Longe, 1242

Richard of Malmesbury, 1264

John de Marina, 1275

Hugh of Dadington, 1280 (fn. 63)

James Barry, 1294

Edmund Knowle, 1306

John Snowe, 1332

Ralph Asch, 1341

William Coke, 1353

Henry Shellingford, 1365

John Cernay, 1388

John Daubeney, 1393

Walter Newbery, 1428, deposed 1451

Thomas Sutton, 1451

Walter Newbery, restored 1456

William Hunt, 1472

John Newland, 1481

Robert Elyot, 1515

John Somerset, 1526

William Burton, 1533

Morgan ap Gwilliam, 1537

Deans of Bristol

William Snow, last prior of Bradenstoke, 1542

John Whiteheare, or Whythere, 1551

George Carew, 1552, deprived 1553

Henry Joliffe, 1554, deprived 1558

George Carew, restored 1559, resigned in 1570, on being made dean of Exeter

John Sprint, archdeacon of Wilts 1571

Anthony Watson, 1590. In 1596 he was made bishop of Chichester, but held the deanery in commendam until 1597

Simon Robson, 1598

Edward Chetwynd, 1617

Mathew Nicholas, 1639. Dean of St. Paul's, Lond., 1660

Henry Glemham, 1660. Bishop of St. Asaph, 1667

Richard Towgood, 1667

Samuel Crossman, 1683

Richard Thompson, 1684

William Levett, 1685

George Royse, 1694

Robert Boothe, 1708

Samuel Creswick, 1730. Dean of Wells, 1739

Thomas Chamberlayne, 1739

William Warburton, 1757. Bishop of Gloucester, 1759

Samuel Squire, 1760

Francis Ayscough, 1761

Cutts Barton, 1763

John Hallam, 1781. Appointed Canon of Windsor, 1775

Charles Peter Layard, 1800

Bowyer Edward Sparke, 1803

John Parsons, 1810

Henry Beeke, 1813

Thomas Musgrave, nominated 1837. Promoted to see of Hereford, 1837

John Lamb, 1837, ob. 1850

Gilbert Elliott, 1850

Francis Pigou, 1891

A seal of the fourteenth century represents the priory church with two saints, an archbishop on the left and a bishop on the right, in doorways; in base, under a niche on the left, a bishop with pastoral staff; under a similar niche on the right, a destroyed subject; in the field over the roof, two estoiles and as many sprigs of foliage. (fn. 64)

The legend is—

SIGILLE . CO . . . A . . . STOLIA(?)

An abbot's seal of the twelfth century represents the abbot, full-length, with vestments, partly embroidered: in the left hand a pastoral staff, in the right hand a book.

The legend is—



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. vi, 363; Smyth, Lives of the Berkeleys (ed. Maclean), i, 36.
  • 2. Ibid. i, 42.
  • 3. Ibid. 26.
  • 4. There is some confusion about the date; cf. Ricart's Calendar (Camd. Soc.), p. 22. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiv, 125; Smyth, op. cit. i, 35; Dugdale, op. cit. vi, 344.
  • 5. Dugdale, op. cit. vi, 366; Smyth, op. cit. i, 36, 45, 51, 66. Some of these possessions were granted at the dedication. The manor of Berkeley and Berkleherness was not made over to Robert Fitzharding by Henry, duke of Normandy, until 1152; Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. viii, 205.
  • 6. Red Book of St. Augustine's, Berkeley Castle MSS. fols. 17, 18.
  • 7. Ibid. fol. 18.
  • 8. Ibid. fol. 18–20.
  • 9. Ibid. fol. 21v. The possessions in Ireland included the rectories of Casteldonagh, Dissert, and Kilferagh, the rectory of Inhorollyn, besides lands; L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii, pt. ii, No. 1310 (26) and (39).
  • 10. Smyth, op. cit. i, 86, 109, 127, 201.
  • 11. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiv, 125.
  • 12. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 93.
  • 13. Ricart's Calendar (Camd. Soc.), 28, 29; cf. Bickley, Little Red Book of Bristol, i, 22.
  • 14. Britton, History and Antiquities of Abbey and Cathedral of Bristol, 9.
  • 15. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iv, 433. Barrett (History of Bristol, p. 261) states that in 1237 Cantilupe removed the prior and other officers, and that William of Bradstone then resigned. It is clear that the abbot did not resign until 1242.
  • 16. Red Book of St. Augustine's, Berkeley Castle MSS. fol. 206 v–9 v.
  • 17. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 100-2.
  • 18. The common treasury, out of which all expenses were met, was an essential feature of observances of Augustinian canons of St. Victor. Martène, De Antiquis Ecclesie Ritibus, iii, 70; cf. Clark, Customs of Augustinian Canons, p. 188, cap. xl. Giffard added that, although many times ordered, this was not observed.
  • 19. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 123.
  • 20. Cal. of Pat. 8, Edw. I, m. 3; 9 Edw. I, m. 30.
  • 21. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 233.
  • 22. Cal. of Pat. 13 Edw. I, m. 2d.
  • 23. Ryley, Pleadings in Parliament, 165.
  • 24. Cal. of Pat. 13 Edw. I, m. 2.
  • 25. Worc. Reg. Sede Vac. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 117-20.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiv. 128.
  • 28. Worc. Epis. Reg. Reynolds, fol. 27d.
  • 29. Ann. Mon. iv, 542.
  • 30. Worc. Epis. Reg. Reynolds, fol. 76.
  • 31. Pope Nich. Tax (Rec. Com.) 220b.
  • 32. Worc. Epis. Reg. Cobham, fol. 68 d.
  • 33. Ibid. Bransford, fol. 14 d.
  • 34. Cal. of Pat. 15 Edw. III. pt. i, m. 13.
  • 35. Worc. Reg. Sede Vac. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 197.
  • 36. Nicholls and Taylor, Bristol Past and Present, ii, 63, n. 1.
  • 37. Pat. 40, Edw. III, pt. i, m. 36.
  • 38. Worc. Epis. Reg. Lynn, fol. 51.
  • 39. Ibid.
  • 40. Worc. Reg. Sede Vac. (Worc. Hist. Soc.) 318-20
  • 41. Cal. Papal L. vi, 161.
  • 42. Ibid. 191.
  • 43. Ibid.
  • 44. Ibid.
  • 45. Britton, Bristol Abbey and Cathedral, 48-51; Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiv, 130; Worc. Epis. Reg. Alcock, fol. 77 d.
  • 46. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiv, 129; Britton, Bristol Abbey and Cathedral, 16.
  • 47. Britton, op. cit. and loc. cit.
  • 48. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiv, 130; xv, 71-5.
  • 49. Britton, op. cit. 17-20.
  • 50. Ibid.
  • 51. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Morton, fol. 170 d.
  • 52. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiv, 117-30.
  • 53. Ibid. 119.
  • 54. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ii, 194.
  • 55. Britton, op. cit. 21, 22.
  • 56. Dep. Keeper's Rep. vii, App. ii, 17.
  • 57. L. and P. Hen. VIII, viii, No. 215.
  • 58. Ibid.
  • 59. Ibid. xii, No. 1310 (26, 39).
  • 60. Aug. Off. Bk. 494, fol. 47.
  • 61. Ibid.
  • 62. The list of Abbots has been taken from Abbot Newland's Roll, Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiii, 126-30. It differs slightly from the list in Dugdale, Mon. vi. 364; there, Philip, who became abbot of Byland, is said to have been the second abbot of Bristol. The statement occurs in the first edition of the Monasticon. It is unlikely that if Philip were the second abbot, he would be omitted from Abbot Newland's Roll.
  • 63. Cal. of Pat. 8 Edw. I, m. 3; 9 Edw. I, m. 30. Not 1286 as in Newland's Roll.
  • 64. Birch, Catalogue of Seals in British Museum, i, 460.