Religious houses: Introduction

A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1903.

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'Religious houses: Introduction', in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 2, (London, 1903) pp. 104-107. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

In this section



So much interest is taken in the history of the various religious foundations which were suppressed in the days of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. that it is thought better to treat of them in a separate section, arranged according to the Order to which they belonged, apart from the topographical history. (fn. 1) This arrangement will suit the convenience of readers who may be specially interested in the story of the religious houses generally, or of any particular branch; for there will be no necessity to look them up under a number of separate parishes scattered throughout the different hundreds. The account of the site or the condition of the remains and ruins will be given in the parochial history.

Hampshire, with Winchester as its centre, was so pre-eminent in the making of England and of England's Church, that it is not surprising to find that various large and influential Benedictine houses of royal foundation were established in its midst at an early date. Such were the Old Minster (643) and the New Minster (901) for Benedictine monks, at Winchester, and the three large houses, with canonries attached, for Benedictine nuns at Nunnaminster, Winchester (circa 899), and at the abbeys of Romsey (circa 907) and Wherwell (circa 986).

The Cistercian or White monks had three houses in the county, namely Beaulieu (1204) and her daughter Netley (1239) on the mainland, and Quarr (1131) in the Isle of Wight. There was also a convent of Cistercian nuns at Wintney (twelfth century).

The Austin canons had seven houses, namely the great priory of early foundation, termed Christ Church (eleventh century ?), which was of such importance that it absorbed the name of Twyneham, where it was established; St. Denis, Southampton (circa 1124), founded by Henry I.; Southwick (1133) of like royal origin, but originally established at Porchester Church; the smaller houses of Breamore (close of reign of Henry I.), Mottisfont (circa 1200), and Selborne (1233), and the Oratory of Barton (1275) in the Isle of Wight.

There was but one house of Premonstratensian or White Canons, namely that of Titchfield (1222), remarkable for its well-arranged library.

The military orders of both the Templars and the Hospitallers had property in the county, but it was only at North Baddesley (twelfth century) that there was a preceptory of the latter.

The four chief mendicant orders of itinerant friars had houses at Winchester (Dominicans, 1231-4; Franciscans, circa 1235; Austin Friars, temp. Edward I.; and Carmelites, 1278). The Franciscans were also established at Southampton about 1237.

The old hospitals of England were invariably closely connected with religion, and were not infrequently under the control of a master and brethren, or master brethren and sisters who followed the Austin rule; hence they were occasionally termed priories, and the master a prior. They were for the accommodation and relief of poor wayfarers and for the more permanent relief of the sick and infirm; hence they were found in or near towns, or, if for lepers, on the outskirts beyond the gates. Winchester had its three hospitals: the richly endowed St. Cross (1136), whose funds were often so grievously misused; St. Mary Magdalen (circa 1174-89); and St. John Baptist (1275). Southampton had one of special interest in God's House (circa 1197), as well as the lazar house of St. Mary Magdalen (1173-4). Portsmouth had another Maison Dieu (1235-8); Walter de Merton turned the old hospital of Basingstoke (1230-40) into a resting-place for aged and infirm priests; and there was another hospital at Fordingbridge (before 1282) of which but little is known.

Of colleges and collegiate churches Hampshire had but three examples, in addition to the great educational establishment of William of Wykeham. The usual college or collegiate church was in no sense a place of education, save that provision was occasionally made for the instruction of the quire boys. The college, though no two foundations were exactly alike, was a collection of secular priests, guided in their life by certain statutory rules which ensured a certain amount of common life, and whose chief occupation was the rendering of a continuous round of choral worship and the celebration of masses for the souls of the founders. Occasionally the chaplains or fellows had poor brethren living in the college or infirm and sick under their charge, but they were in the main large chantry foundations. The small country college of Marwell owed its origin to Bishop Henry de Blois (1129-71), and the later and more important one of St. Elizabeth (1301) at Winchester to Bishop Pontoise. To these must be added, in its later development, the Gild of the Holy Ghost at Basingstoke (before 1244).

The chief feature however of the religious houses of the county was the number of alien priories. They were more numerous in Hampshire than in any other county, which was doubtless chiefly owing to the easy accessibility of so much of the shire, with its extensive seaboard, to visitors from Normandy.

The influence of these foreign monks from the great abbeys of Normandy, ruling their large estate in the interest of parent communities that owed direct allegiance to a power with which England was so frequently at war, constituted at times a genuine national danger, and must have been a constant cause of local irritation.

There was probably a general feeling of satisfaction throughout Hampshire when these alien priories, that had been ruled with so much fickleness for more than a hundred years, were finally suppressed at the beginning of the fifteenth century; more especially as their revenues were merely transferred to other religious purposes.

The island of Hayling was owned by the powerful abbey of Jumièges, where the abbot established a priory probably in the twelfth century, the site of which is now beneath the sea; the abbey of St. Florent, Saumur, established a priory at Andover during the same period; St. Vigor, Cerisy, at Monk Sherborne (1100-35); St. Sauveur Vicomte, at Ellingham (1160); whilst the abbey of Tiron, Chartres, had three houses, namely at Andwell (early in twelfth century), Hamble (1098-1128), and St. Cross (1120) in the Isle of Wight. In the Isle of Wight the abbeys of Lire and Montebourg also respectively controlled the small priories of Carisbrook (circa 1156) and Appuldurcombe (circa 1100), whilst the house of St. Helen's (circa 1090) was of Cluniac foundation. Not one of these ten houses were conventual, that is, the inmates had no voice in the appointment of their superiors, who were sent across the seas by the Norman abbots and who could be withdrawn at pleasure.

The constitution of these alien priories has already been referred to in the ecclesiastical section, and their individual peculiarities are subsequently briefly discussed under their respective houses; but a word or two may here be permitted as to their treatment by the English Crown. It is easy to understand how they sprang up in England under the first kings of the Norman dynasty, but they soon became settlements of foreign monks, whose sympathies naturally centred in their homes across the seas, and whose main duties were the collecting and guarding of English rents and tithes that were sent year by year out of the kingdom to the parent house. King John was the first to seize the priories that were dependent on foreign houses, compelling them to pay into the royal treasury the sums or tribute—usually termed apport—which they had been in the habit of forwarding to the continent. In 1295, when Edward I. made war upon France to recover the province of Guienne, he had great difficulty in procuring the necessary funds for the campaign. He seized all the alien priories, numbering about a hundred, and used their revenues to fill his war chest. In order to prevent the foreign monks of the Isle of Wight and on the seaboard of Hampshire and elsewhere on the coast giving possible help to invaders, he deported many of them to other religious houses that were twenty or more miles from the coast. Edward II. subsequently followed this example, taking the alien priories into his own hands, but he not infrequently appointed their priors custodians for a consideration, obliging them to pay to the Crown the apport due to their superiors. If other custodians were appointed, reservation was however always made of a minimum sufficient to sustain the prior and the two or three monks who dwelt with him. When Edward III. came to the throne he restored many of the alien priories to their original owners and remitted the arrears of payments due to the Crown. But ten years later, when war broke out again with France, he reverted to the policy of his predecessors, and again seized the property of these French aliens. For twenty-three years these foreign houses remained in his hands; but with the peace of 1361 most of them were restored, only to be again sequestrated eight years later when the war was renewed. In the time of Richard II. the alien priories continued mostly in the hands of the Crown; they finally came to an end under Henry V. in 1414, when those that had not been already assigned with the Pope's assent to other religious purposes, were suppressed and their estates vested in the Crown. The Crown however in the great majority of cases recognized its responsibilities and transferred the property to other monasteries, such as the Carthusian house of Sheen, or to colleges and schools for educational purposes. (fn. 2)

A large number of the religious houses of Hampshire were subject to diocesan visitation, but the three Cistercian monasteries, the house of White Canons, and the alien priories, as well as the priories of the mendicant orders and the preceptory of the Hospitallers, were exempt. It is a little remarkable to find that the Cistercian nunnery of Wintney was subject to the bishop. There were in the county, exclusive of the hospitals and colleges, thirteen houses visited by the Bishop of Winchester, whilst twenty were visited by commissaries of their own order.

The record of the visitations made by the commissary of the prior of Canterbury in 1501 is given under the respective houses for the first time, (fn. 3) nor have the valuable reports of the ' mixed commission' of 1535 been hitherto printed. Numerous references to monastic visitations have also been obtained from the episcopal registers of Winchester. The lists of superiors have in several cases been materially extended from those supplied in the modern Monasticon. Information has been sought not only from the episcopal registers, but from original chartularies, and from the stores of the British Museum and Public Record Office. These sketches of the different religious houses make no pretence to be exhaustive in their treatment. Several of the Hampshire foundations well deserve monographs which have yet to be written.


  • 1. For convenience of reference the Houses are numbered in accordance with the numerals on the map.
  • 2. There is a good summary of the history of the alien priories in Gasquet's Henry VIII. and the Monasteries, vol. i. ch. 2.
  • 3. Kindly supplied by Mr. Leland S. Duncan, F.S.A.