Houses of Augustinian canons: The priory of St Oswald, Gloucester

Pages 84-87

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

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The minster of St. Oswald at Gloucester was founded and richly endowed by Ethelfleda, the Lady of the Mercians, and her husband Ethelred. (fn. 1) In 909 they brought thither from the ruined monastery of Bardney the body of Oswald, king of Northumbria. (fn. 2) Their church was served by a body of secular canons. (fn. 3)

In the reign of Edward the Confessor, Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, a great pluralist, obtained possession of the lands of the canons. (fn. 4) After his disgrace in 1070, the property passed into the hands of Thomas, archbishop of York, (fn. 5) and was entered under the estates of the church of York in the Domesday Survey of Gloucestershire, together with the lands of the monastery of St. Peter, which had been appropriated by Archbishop Aldred. (fn. 6) For a long period before the Norman Conquest, the sees of Worcester and York were held jointly; the house of St. Oswald, Gloucester remained under the jurisdiction of the see of York until 1536. In 1094 Thomas, archbishop of York, claimed jurisdiction in the diocese of Lincoln, and to end the controversy William Rufus gave the new monastery of Selby and the minster of St. Oswald, Gloucester to the see of York. (fn. 7) The minster was accounted a free chapel royal, (fn. 8) and by the act of the king was created a peculiar of the see of York. In 1095, Archbishop Thomas was compelled to restore the manors of the monastery of St. Peter at Gloucester, (fn. 9) and William of Malmesbury said that the canons of St. Oswald's raged because the archbishop parted with lands which ought to have been theirs. (fn. 10) It is certain that they had a real grievance because the archbishop retained for his see a considerable portion of the lands of the canons, which was afterwards known as the barony of Churchdown. (fn. 11)

The jurisdiction of St. Oswald was confirmed to the archbishop of York by Pope Paschal II in 1106, by Calixtus II in 1120, and again by Alexander III in 1177. (fn. 12) The archbishops of Canterbury and the bishops of Worcester were unwilling to surrender their claims, (fn. 13) and did not finally abandon them before the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Until the accession of Henry Murdac to the see of York in 1147, the minster of St. Oswald was served by secular canons who were supported out of their own prebends. (fn. 14) The church was in great part rebuilt by Archbishop Thurstan (1119-40). (fn. 15) Archbishop Henry Murdac (1147-53), who had been abbot of Fountains and was full of zeal for the new religious orders, changed the minster of St. Oswald into a priory of regular canons of the Order of St. Augustine with the full approval of Pope Eugenius III. (fn. 16) He chose Humphrey, a canon of the Augustinian house of Lanthony by Gloucester, as prior with the consent of two of the secular canons, Nicholas and Aelward. (fn. 17) Nicholas became a regular canon of the new foundation, Aelward received a prebend at Beverley, two others resigned their prebends into the archbishop's hands, and he dispossessed the two remaining canons of their prebends on the ground that they had received them from a lay hand. (fn. 18) He endowed the convent with these six prebends and two fisheries on the Severn near the church of his own gift, and property at Cerney. As however the endowment was insufficient, he lent them his possessions at Compton for four years or until he came to Gloucester, promising either to grant them Compton in perpetuity or to give them an equivalent. The dependence on the see of York was strictly emphasized; unlike other Augustinian houses, the canons of St. Oswald never acquired the right of free election to the office of prior. (fn. 19)

The monastery was at no time prosperous. It was frequently visited by Archbishop Walter Gray (1214-55); in 1231 he sent the prior and several of the canons into exile because, through their maladministration, the house was heavily in debt to the Jews. (fn. 20) In 1230 they had sold their lands at Culkerton to the Cistercian house of Kingswood for £100. (fn. 21) However in 1232 the archbishop allowed the canons to return. (fn. 22) After a visitation in 1250 he sent a number of injunctions for the government and administration of the house. (fn. 23) He insisted that the prior should only transact important business with his consent, or that of a deputy whom he might appoint, and with the advice of the wiser members of the convent. No canon or lay brother might be admitted without the bishop's consent. The common seal was to be in the custody of three or four canons. Accounts were to be rendered at least twice a year. It appears that there was some friction between the canons and the lay brothers, for the archbishop declared that the canons should always and everywhere have dominion over the others. At the same time he forbade the canons to make hay or take any share in agricultural labour. He ordered the prior to be with the canons in the dorter and frater, and to be diligent in correcting his brethren in chapter, but in all charity, not reproaching them before seculars, or punishing them severely without the consent of the convent. It is probable that the prior neglected the admonition, for in 1251 the archbishop deposed him, and appointed the sub-prior in his stead. (fn. 24) At the same time he restored certain benefices to the convent. In 1280 Archbishop Wickwane appointed Richard of Bathampton as prior, hoping that so good and skilful a ruler would be able to restore the fortunes of the priory. (fn. 25) The rule of Richard of Bathampton and his successors was marked by an acute conflict with the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Worcester. In 1280 Bishop Giffard promulgated a sentence of excommunication against the prior for contempt in not appearing at the citation of Archbishop Peckham. (fn. 26) The prior relied on papal support. By apostolic authority he forbade the bishop under grave penalties to execute the mandate of the archbishop of Canterbury, his official, or the dean of Arches, or the mandate of the precentor or the sub-prior of St. Bartholomew, Smithfield, against himself, the abbot of Winchcombe or others adhering to them. (fn. 27) On 23 March 1283 Archbishop Peckham charged Bishop Giffard to promulgate his sentence of excommunication against the prior and six canons. (fn. 28) Edward I intervened and bade the archbishop revoke his sentence. (fn. 29) The archbishop replied that the king had been deceived; although royal free chapels were exempt from episcopal visitation, when they were alienated from the king's hands and given to others they returned to their first nature of subjection to the prelates and lost their exemption. He had excommunicated the prior and senior canons, because they did not receive him at his visitation. 'We do not wish,' he wrote, 'saving your reverence, to revoke the aforesaid sentence except by form of law.' (fn. 30) In 1287 Peckham sent another mandate to Giffard to promulgate the sentence of excommunication in his diocese, to cause the prior and canons to be denounced as excommunicate, and to forbid all the faithful in Christ to eat, drink, buy, sell or communicate with them in any way until they should receive absolution. (fn. 31) He bade the bishop inquire in the town of Gloucester and the neighbourhood, and cite all who should have communicated with them. (fn. 32) Apparently the sentence was revoked by the keeper of the spiritualities of Canterbury after Peckham's death. (fn. 33) Bishop Giffard was not deterred from attempting to exercise rights of jurisdiction over the prior and canons. In 1300 he appointed two commissioners to visit the priory. (fn. 34) He excommunicated the prior, subprior, sacrist, precentor, cellarer, and elder canons, because they refused to admit John, bishop of Llandaff, to hold an ordination in their church, by his authority. They claimed an exemption but it was well-known that Walter de Cantilupe, bishop of Worcester, had held an ordination there in 1242. (fn. 35) The convent suffered from the effect of the excommunication. In 1301, one of the canons appeared before the justices at Worcester, and declared that the bishop had done them much evil that year, causing them to be so straitened that the greater part of the convent had suffered from illness. (fn. 36) At the instance of the prior and convent, Edward I summoned Giffard to appear before him and his justices, but he died very shortly afterwards. (fn. 37) To avoid further trouble with the bishops of Worcester, Corbridge, archbishop of York, bade the prior and canons get the chrism and oil from Southwell, and pay pentecostals and Peter's pence to the dean of the archbishop's jurisdiction of St. Oswald. (fn. 38) Accordingly they did so. Gainsborough, bishop of Worcester, complained of their action to the king at the Parliament of Carlisle in 1307, (fn. 39) but he was inhibited from exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the priory, (fn. 40) and in 1318 Edward II issued a general prohibition against any encroachment on the liberties and privileges of St. Oswald's Priory. (fn. 41) In 1374 when the see of York was vacant, and the prior of Worcester was visiting the diocese of Worcester during a voidance of that see, Edward III forbade him to act to the prejudice of the archbishopric of York. (fn. 42)

The rapid appointments and removals of priors in the first few years of the fourteenth century testify to misfortune and lack of governance. (fn. 43) After a personal visitation of the monastery in 1309, Archbishop Greenfield ordered that the injunctions of Archbishop Gray should be strictly observed, and he made further provision to insure financial stability. (fn. 44) He insisted that a full statement of the rents, revenues, and stock should be presented to him every year, and that no corrodies should be sold, no manors or granges let, no lands alienated without his special permission. Two bursars should be appointed by the convent as receivers of all moneys, and the muniments like the common seal should be under the charge of three or four of the canons.

There are only glimpses of poverty in the later history of the priory. In 1335 Archbishop William of Melton granted a licence to the prior and convent to borrow £100 for the foundation of a chantry. (fn. 45) In 1417 the prior and convent petitioned Edmund Lacy, bishop of Hereford, to appropriate the church of Minsterworth to them. (fn. 46) They pleaded dire distress, their house was ruinous, their rents and profits were so diminished that the canons had but a bare living. Their losses were very heavy from pestilences and murrains, and they had also suffered from the misgovernment of former priors, and they were oppressed by an insupportable load of debt. The bishop ordered an inquisition to be made into the state of affairs at the priory. He was satisfied of the truth, (fn. 47) and consented to the appropriation of the church. (fn. 48) In 1462 the canons of St. Oswald were reduced to such penury that they were exempted from payment of tenths. (fn. 49)

The priory came under the Act of 1536 for the suppression of the lesser monasteries. On 23 April, 1536, Edward Lee, archbishop of York, besought Cromwell to spare the house.

It is not of foundation a monastery of religious men, he wrote, but is libera capella archiepiscopi. No man hath title in it but the archbishop: the prior thereof is removable at my pleasure and accountable to me, and the archbishop may put there if he will, secular priests, and so would I have done at my entry, if I had not there found one of mine acquaintance whom I judged meet to be there under me. (fn. 50)

His appeal was of no avail. On 4 September a commission was issued for a survey of those monasteries in Gloucestershire of which the revenues fell below £200 a year, with a view of taking them over on the king's behalf. (fn. 51) The commissioners reported that at St. Oswald's there were seven canons, all priests, 'by report of honest conversation.' (fn. 52) Five of them wished to continue in religion, only two desired to have 'capacities' that they might get benefices. Their household consisted only of eight servants. The church was ruinous, though the house had been lately repaired, and the priory was in debt to the amount of £124 9s. It was dissolved not long afterwards. The prior received a pension of £15, (fn. 53) but the other canons had nothing. (fn. 54)

In 1535 the clear yearly value of the possessions amounted to £90 10s. 2½d. (fn. 55) The property included the manors of Pirton, Norton, and Tulwell, rents in Gloucester and elsewhere, the rectory of Minsterworth, and the chapels of Churchdown, Norton, Sandhurst, and Compton Abdale. (fn. 56)

Priors of St. Oswald, Gloucester

Humphrey, canon of Lanthony by Gloucester, 1153 (fn. 57)

Anketil, occurs circa 1155-9 (fn. 58)

William, occurs 1230 (fn. 59)

William, occurs 1260 (fn. 60)

Richard, ob. 1281 (fn. 61)

Richard of Bathampton, 1281 (fn. 62)

Guido, ob. 1289 (fn. 63)

Peter de Malburn, 1289, removed 1301

Walter of Bingham, 1301, removed 1310 (fn. 64)

Humphrey of Lavington, 1310

Walter of Bingham, removed 1312 (fn. 65)

John of Ayschwell, 1312 (fn. 66)

Richard of Kidderminster, 1312, removed 1314 (fn. 67)

John of Ayschwell, 1314 (fn. 68)

William Heved, 1352

Thomas Dick, 1398

John Players, 1404

John de Shipston, 1408

John Suckley, 1433

John Higins, 1434

John Inglis, canon of Cirencester, 1447

Nicholas Falkner, canon of Lanthony by Gloucester, 1491

William Jennings, 1530

A seal of the twelfth century is in shape a pointed oval, and represents a saint full length, in vestments partly embroidered, lifting up his right hand in benediction, in his left hand a book; before him a church with porch or transept, masoned walls, ornamental tiles or shingles on the roof, and a cross at each gable end; in the field, on the left a crescent, on the right an estoile. (fn. 69)


  • 1. William of Malmesbury, esta Pontif. Angl. (Rolls Ser.), 293.
  • 2. Ibid. Angl. Sax. Chron. (Rolls Ser.) ii, 77.
  • 3. Hunt, History of the English Church, 291. There is no evidence to support William of Malmesbury's statement that Ethelred and Ethelfleda put monks at St. Oswald's.
  • 4. Taylor, Domesday Survey of Gloucestershire, 95.
  • 5. Ibid. 95.
  • 6. Ibid. 94.
  • 7. Historians of the Church of York (Rolls Ser.), iii, 21; Wharton, Anglia Sacra, i, 295.
  • 8. Suppression of the Monasteries (Camden Soc.), 124.
  • 9. Hist. of Cartul. S. Petri Glouc. (Rolls. Ser.), i, 11.
  • 10. William of Malmesbury, Gest. Pontif. Angl. (Rolls Ser.), 263 n.
  • 11. Taylor, Domesday Survey of Gloucestershire, 95. In 1536, the archbishop's barony of Churchdown was valued at £186 18s. 0¼d., while the temporalities and spiritualities of St. Oswald's were only worth £90 10s. 2½d., cf L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, No. 86. Valor Eccles. (Rec. Com.), ii, 487.
  • 12. Historians of the Church of York (Rolls. Ser.), iii, 28, 43, 85.
  • 13. In 1174, Richard, archbishop of Canterbury, coming to Gloucester, suspended the clerks and officials of the archbishop of York because they refused him the canonical obedience of other clerks of his province. Strife between the archbishops followed, the canons successfully appealed to the pope cf. Twysden. Decem. Scriptores, 1100, 1101, 1102, 1167. In 1242 Walter Cantilupe, bishop of Worcester, held an ordination at the priory, cf. Wharton, Angl. Sac. i, 491.
  • 14. Historians of the Church of York (Rolls Ser.) ii, 386. The prebend then held by Nicholas consisted of a mill, a hide and a virgate at Norton, and the tithe of a hide at Pirton; York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, 425.
  • 15. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontif. Angl. (Rolls Ser.) 293.
  • 16. Simeon of Durham, Opera (Rolls Ser.), ii, 328.
  • 17. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 425.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Ibid. Wickwane, fol. 574, provision of Richard of Bathampton to the office of prior, 'nostro prioratui S. Oswaldi Glouc. iam vacanti et ad provisionem seu collacionem nostram ordinariam libere et plene pertinenti.' Cf. Suppression of the Monasteries (Camden Soc.), 124.
  • 20. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 78.
  • 21. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. App. i, 335. Cf. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xxii, 182.
  • 22. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 87.
  • 23. The injunctions are entered in York Archiepis. Reg. Giffard (Surtees Soc.), 203; 'ea quae in aliis nostris visitationibus ipsis iniunximus renovantes, superaddentes quaedam nova.'
  • 24. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 146.
  • 25. York Archiepis. Reg. Wickwane, fol. 574.
  • 26. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 122.
  • 27. Ibid. 154. In consequence, in 1282 Giffard forbade the dean of Pershore to execute his mandate.
  • 28. Reg. Epis. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), ii, 527; Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 192.
  • 29. Reg. Epis. Peckham (Rolls. Ser.), ii, 547.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 309.
  • 32. Ibid. 310.
  • 33. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiii, 126.
  • 34. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard, (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 531.
  • 35. Ibid. 532.
  • 36. Ibid. 543.
  • 37. Historians of the Church of York (Rolls Ser.), ii, 224.
  • 38. Ibid. 225.
  • 39. Ibid. 224.
  • 40. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiii, 126, York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield bet. fols 34, 35.
  • 41. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiii, 126.
  • 42. Worc. Reg. Sede Vac. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 306.
  • 43. Cf. list of priors, and York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, i, fol. 45 d; ii, fol. 44.
  • 44. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, i, fol. 45.
  • 45. Ibid. Melton, fol. 546.
  • 46. Heref. Epis. Reg. Lacy, fol. 4.
  • 47. Ibid. fol. 16.
  • 48. Ibid. fol. 17.
  • 49. Worc. Epis. Reg. Carpenter, i, fol. 178; 'per casus fortuitos . . . quasi destruct. seu nimium deminut. et depauperat'
  • 50. Suppression of Monasteries (Camden Soc.), 124.
  • 51. Dublin Review, April, 1894, p. 250.
  • 52. Dublin Review, April 1894, p. 276.
  • 53. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii, pt. i, p. 575.
  • 54. Gasquet, Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, ed. 1899, 181.
  • 55. Valor Eccles. (Rec. Com.), ii, 487.
  • 56. Ibid.
  • 57. Simeon of Durham Opera (Rolls Ser.), ii, 328.
  • 58. Round, Cal. of Doc. in France illustrative of the History of Great Britain and Ireland, i, 377.
  • 59. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. v, App. i, 335.
  • 60. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiii, 128. He is not the same as William occurring in 1230, for a prior was deposed in 1251; cf. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 146.
  • 61. York Archiepis. Reg. Wickwane, fol. 574.
  • 62. Ibid. fol. 574.
  • 63. Brist. and Glouc. Arch. Soc. Trans. xiii, 128.
  • 64. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, i, fol. 45d.
  • 65. Ibid. ii, fol. 44.
  • 66. Ibid.
  • 67. Ibid. fol. 50d.
  • 68. Ibid.
  • 69. Birch, Catalogue of Seals in the British Museum, i, 568.