Medieval Gloucester: The town and the religious communities

Pages 59-63

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.

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The Town and the Religious Communities

In Gloucester and its suburbs were nine religious houses. (fn. 1) Their interests and involvement in the town affected many individual townspeople and sometimes brought them into conflict with the burgess community as a whole.

The largest religious house, the great Benedictine abbey of St. Peter, was the one most heavily involved in town affairs. It became the principal landlord there after the Crown. In the late 12th century and the 13th its holding of burgages and rents was augmented by many gifts (and in some cases sales) from burgesses, (fn. 2) while suburban development on its lands outside the north and east gates added further to the proportion of townspeople who were its tenants. (fn. 3) By 1291 its rents from property in the town amounted to £54 19s. 4d. (fn. 4) and at the Dissolution, to £155 3s. 5d. (fn. 5) The abbey was also a major landlord in the immediate neighbourhood, holding a number of manors in the outlying hamlets and across the Severn; it increased its influence in the area by securing grants of the hundred of Dudstone in 1316 (fn. 6) and the liberty of King's Barton (which it had held for periods in the 13th century) in 1345. (fn. 7) It was closely involved in the parochial life of the town, where it had the patronage of two churches, St. Mary de Lode and St. John, from ancient times and secured that of St. Michael in 1285 and of Holy Trinity and its chapel of St. Mary de Grace in 1391. (fn. 8)

Such a formidable presence in their midst was not always welcome to the burgesses and provided many causes of tension. There were certain matters of dispute which emerged regularly, though it should not be assumed that they permanently vitiated relations between the monks and the burgesses. There was presumably much unrecorded co-operation. A reasonable working relationship seems to have evolved over the management of the abbey's property in the town, with the bailiffs and leading burgesses witnessing its leases and leading burgesses joining its master of the works in his surveys of houses. (fn. 9) The bailiffs were called in as witnesses when the abbey made an escheat for rent arrears in 1344 (fn. 10) and they sealed and witnessed an agreement about rent arrears made by another abbey tenant in 1382. (fn. 11) There were also, no doubt, family ties which acted as a curb on conflict between the two communities. John Thoky, (fn. 12) John Boyfeld, (fn. 13) and William Farley, (fn. 14) three abbots in the later Middle Ages, may have been from Gloucester families.

Among recurrent sources of dispute were the meadows north-west of the town in which the burgesses shared commoning rights with the abbey and its Maisemore tenants. In 1236 a large body of burgesses was involved in a dispute with the abbey, which subsequently recognized their rights in return for a payment of 35 marks, (fn. 15) but abbey and town were apparently again at law over the meadows in 1292 and 1347. (fn. 16) The southern branch of the river Twyver, or Full brook, was another recurrent cause of dispute, partly because before flowing through the abbey precinct it was tapped at the north-east corner of the town for filling the town moat. The abbey secured confirmation of its right to use the stream from at least three kings during the 12th century. In 1221 it complained that a burgess had diverted the stream (fn. 17) and the town's frankpledge jury made a similar claim against the abbey in 1273. (fn. 18) In 1374 the abbey secured another royal confirmation and an order that nobody should obstruct or divert the stream. (fn. 19) Other disputes arose over fishing rights in the Severn (fn. 20) and over responsibility for the walls which divided the precinct from the town. (fn. 21) Potentially more significant was a dispute in 1247 or 1248 over the bailiffs' right to levy tolls on abbey tenants from outside the town when they came in to trade, (fn. 22) for abbey manors accounted for a large part of Gloucester's local market area. Tension over that question was reflected in 1266 in the abbot's insistence that murage for which his tenants were liable was to be collected by him separately. (fn. 23)

In the late 14th century and the early 15th jurisdiction over abbey personnel and its walled precinct became a major issue between the two communities, apparently because of a more agressive attitude adopted by the town authorities. The precinct had probably caused difficulties in policing the town from earlier times; c. 1247 a suspected murderer against whom the hue was raised took refuge in the abbey, which closed its gates against his pursuers. (fn. 24) In the town charter of 1398 the abbey secured a clause exempting its tenants and servants from the bailiffs' power to attach by the body when distrainable goods were lacking, (fn. 25) and in 1414 it complained to the Crown that the burgesses were challenging its right to hold a court for its tenants and servants and that the borough officers carrying their maces had entered the precinct to make executions in cases where they had no jurisdiction. (fn. 26) Arbitrators chosen in 1429 ruled that the bailiffs and serjeants could enter the precinct but reaffirmed the clause of 1398. (fn. 27) A further wide-ranging agreement between the two parties was found necessary in 1447. The monks then accepted that the precinct was a part of the town and within its jurisdiction but the town officers' powers of execution there were limited to cases of felony and treason and to the holding of coroners' inquests; the monks also agreed not to give sanctuary in the precinct to fugitives from justice. The exemption from attachment was confirmed for the monks themselves, and procedures for dealing with cases concerning tenants and dependants were laid down. Other matters of dispute, including the carrying of soil away from the common meadows and the taking of water from the Full brook, were also covered by the agreement. (fn. 28)

Tension between the town and the abbey led to an outbreak of violence at the beginning of the 16th century, the immediate cause being a recurrence of the ancient commoning dispute. During disturbances which extended over several weeks following the hay harvest of 1513 armed mobs, with the support of the mayor and aldermen, drove off the abbey's cattle, attacked its servants, and dug a ditch across the meadows. Later that year an agreement to end the dispute attempted to set up a system of arbitration. (fn. 29) but another detailed agreement was required in 1518. Among other things it gave the abbey the right to build a new bridge across the Old Severn, guaranteed it access across the meadows to its manors west of the Severn, and confirmed the abbot's right to buy victuals in the town and trade there as a burgess. (fn. 30) The power of the townspeople to besiege the monks in their precinct and starve them of supplies had evidently been demonstrated or at least threatened.

Matters of a similar nature were liable to disrupt relations between the burgess community and Llanthony Priory, a smaller house than the abbey but one that was almost as closely involved in the life of the town. In the 12th and 13th centuries the priory like the abbey was a popular object of pious gifts from individual burgesses, and men pre-eminent in the community, such as Osmund Keys, reeve in the 1170s, were among its benefactors. (fn. 31) Such gifts made the priory a major property owner within the town walls, while a considerable suburban population settled on the land of its original endowment, the area called the Hide south of the town. (fn. 32) The rents from its property at Gloucester amounted to £10 in 1291 (fn. 33) and to £72 14s. 8½d. in 1535. (fn. 34) The priory also had rights as patron in three of the parish churches. (fn. 35)

Disputes over matters of jurisdiction between the town and Llanthony Priory were prompted in 1377 or 1378 by a new perambulation of the town boundaries made by the bailiffs. The canons objected to the inclusion of land in St. Owen's parish, anciently the property of their founder Miles of Gloucester, and apparently claimed that it lay within the jurisdiction of the view of frankpledge that they held at Llanthony for their tenants. Such a claim probably had no more justification in earlier practice than did the counter claim of the burgesses to exercise jurisdiction over land beyond St. Owen's parish in the Hide and in the priory precinct itself. At different times in the late 14th century the borough officers attempted to collect subsidy and hold a coroner's inquest in the precinct, (fn. 36) and on more than one occasion the serjeants entered it carrying their official maces. The burgesses also objected to a court which the priory held in St. Owen's church for its town tenants, claiming it was a recent invasion of their liberties, though it had existed from the early 13th century at least. (fn. 37)

Questions of jurisdiction between the town and the priory were raised in a suit of 1391, the immediate cause of which was a dispute over a plot of land adjoining St. Kyneburgh's chapel. The priory also complained of other matters: the burgesses had exacted toll from its Hempsted tenants, refused to let it exercise full burgess rights when buying provisions in the town, and generally oppressed its tenants and servants and the pupils of its school in the town. The burgesses countered with their own list of grievances against the priory. (fn. 38) Such matters continued to rankle in the mid 15th century when various disputes over land and over the payment of landgavel from property in the town were also in progress. (fn. 39) It was perhaps in an attempt to resolve some of those questions that an elaborate rental of the landgavel was prepared in 1455; it was drawn up, apparently with the co-operation of the borough authorities, by a canon, Robert Cole, the 'renter' of the priory's town property. (fn. 40) The following year, however, grievances between the two communities were once more being aired and an agreement to accept the decision of arbitrators was made. (fn. 41)

Such disputes were sometimes carried on with much bitterness, as in 1391 when the bailiffs were said to have organized armed attacks on the priory's property and servants. (fn. 42) They did not, however, prevent close contacts between the two communities. It was possible for the lawyer Robert Gilbert to hold at the same time the offices of steward of the priory and bailiff of the town, while as arbitrator on their part in a property dispute of 1417 the priory chose John Hamlyn, a leading burgess. (fn. 43) John Hayward, who became prior of Llanthony in 1457, was a native of the town, as probably were several other canons at that period. (fn. 44)

The records of St. Oswald's Priory, if they survived, might reveal similar disputes. It was, however, a poorer house than the abbey or Llanthony and less substantially involved in the town. Its property there produced rents of only £7 13s. 4d. in 1535. (fn. 45) It exercised parochial rights over a suburban parish on the north side of the town.

With the friars who settled in the town the burgesses appear to have had consistently good relations, particularly with the Franciscans, the site of whose friary was vested in the borough community at their arrival in the town c. 1230. (fn. 46) It was the Franciscans who, 'on account of their sincere and mutual affection and esteem for the bailiffs, burgesses, and community of Gloucester' and in return for 'the many benefits' conferred on them by the burgesses, provided the town with a piped water supply in 1438. (fn. 47) Several leading burgesses, including the merchant John Banbury (d. c. 1404), (fn. 48) chose to be buried in Greyfriars church, while others, including the merchant Thomas Pope (d. 1400) (fn. 49) and the mercer Thomas Moore (d. 1421), (fn. 50) were buried in Blackfriars. Legacies to all three orders of friars in Gloucester were a regular item in the wills of burgesses of the 15th century and early 16th, where significantly the larger religious houses were very rarely mentioned. (fn. 51)

Other regular recipients of charity were the three hospitals in the town. The leper hospital of St. Margaret at Wotton appears to have come under the control of the burgess community by the late 14th century: a leading burgess occupied the post of master of the hospital and the chief borough officers and other burgesses were involved in the management of its property. (fn. 52) There were close connexions, too, with St. Bartholomew's Hospital. About 1240 arrangements for the application of a recent endowment were made on the advice of the mayor Richard the burgess and sealed with the borough seal, (fn. 53) and at about the same date a grant of land by the hospital was made with the assent of the burgess community. (fn. 54)


  • 1. For the hist. of Gloucester's religious houses, V.C.H. Glos. ii.
  • 2. For the grants to the abbey, Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc.; Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Froucester B; ibid. deeds and seals.
  • 3. Below, topog.
  • 4. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 231.
  • 5. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii. 417.
  • 6. Cal. Fine R. 1307–19, 304.
  • 7. Below, Outlying Hamlets, man.
  • 8. Below, Churches and Chapels.
  • 9. Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Froucester B, p. 350.
  • 10. Ibid. p. 469.
  • 11. Ibid. pp. 480–1.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. P.R.O., C 115/K 1/6681, f. 169; C 115/K 1/6682, f. 76v.
  • 14. Below, Bailiffs of Glouc. 1200–1483.
  • 15. Hist.& Cart. Mon. Glouc. iii. 240–1.
  • 16. G.B.R., B 8/6, a copy of the agreement of 1236 which is endorsed with notes of legal terms in 1292–3 and 1347.
  • 17. Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc. i. 78; Pleas of the Crown for Glos. ed. Maitland, p. 109.
  • 18. G.B.R., G 8/1.
  • 19. Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Froucester A, ff. 17v.–18.
  • 20. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6682, f. 76v.
  • 21. G.B.R., B 2/1, ff. 195v., 198.
  • 22. Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc. iii, p. xxiii.
  • 23. Close R. 1264–8, 180–1.
  • 24. P.R.O., JUST 1/274, rot. 13.
  • 25. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 14.
  • 26. Cal. Chart. R. 1341–1417, 471.
  • 27. G.B.R., B 2/1, f. 195v.
  • 28. Ibid. ff. 196–8.
  • 29. Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc. iii, pp. xxxix–xlvii.
  • 30. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 421–6.
  • 31. For the grants to the priory, P.R.O., C 115/K 1/6681, ff. 35–169.
  • 32. Below, topog.
  • 33. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 232.
  • 34. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii. 430.
  • 35. Below, Churches and Chapels.
  • 36. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6685, ff. 9–13.
  • 37. Ibid. C 115/K 2/6684, f. 159 and v.; and for the ct., cf. ibid. C 115/K 1/6681, ff. 38, 51v., 56.
  • 38. Ibid. C 115/K 2/6684, ff. 139–41, 144–6, 151–2, 159 and v.
  • 39. Ibid. C 115/K 2/6685, ff. 9–16v.
  • 40. Glouc. Rental, 1455, 3.
  • 41. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6685, f. 17.
  • 42. Ibid. C 115/K 2/6684, f. 145.
  • 43. Ibid. C 115/K 2/6682, ff. 121, 160, 245; cf. below, Bailiffs of Glouc. 1200–1483.
  • 44. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6685, f. 7; the canons Wm. Saunders and Wal. Banknot mentioned then had namesakes among the leading burgesses: below, Bailiffs of Glouc. 1200–1483.
  • 45. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii. 487.
  • 46. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 154.
  • 47. G.B.R., J 1/1112.
  • 48. Glos. R.O., P 154/14/CH 1/19; cf. ibid. 3, 16.
  • 49. Hockaday Abs. ccxiii, 1400.
  • 50. Ibid. cciii, 1421.
  • 51. For the P.C.C. wills for the period, Hockaday Abs., vols. for Glouc. pars.
  • 52. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 360, 370, 376, 386, 407, 429; G.B.R., C 9/6, freemen's roll from 1534, which records the name of the master each year with those of the chief borough officers.
  • 53. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 164–5.
  • 54. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6682, f. 105; cf. ibid. f. 180 and v.