A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1971.

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'RELIGIOUS HOUSES: Introduction', in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4, (London, 1971) pp. 365-367. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

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In considering the religious houses of Hertfordshire the main impression is that of the overwhelming pre-eminence of St. Albans Abbey. The abbey indeed had more than a great local position, which was of course insured by its possessions and its ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction. In virtue of the saint over whose relics it arose it held the first place among English abbeys, while the fame of its culture and discipline at one period reached foreign countries. Its name deserves to be honoured to-day for the service rendered to history by the literary labours of its monks. The other Benedictine monasteries were all dependent houses: Hertford and Redbourn Priories were cells of St. Albans, the second practically an annex of the abbey; the priory at Ware, the one alien priory in the county, was a cell of the abbey of St. Evroul in Utica; and the small community at Salford in Standon, a dependency of Stoke in Suffolk. From a reference about the middle of the 12th century to 'the monks serving God in the church of Sawbridgeworth' (fn. 1) it is possible that the priory of Hurley or Walden, owners respectively of the tithes (fn. 2) and church of Sawbridgeworth, (fn. 3) may have maintained a cell here at one time. The existence of this house is, however, quite problematical. Richard Abbot of St. Albans (1097-1119) contemplated the foundation of a subject monastery at Langley, (fn. 4) but the project was not carried out.

There were Benedictine nunneries at Cheshunt, Rowney in Little Munden, Flamstead and Sopwell near St. Albans, all founded during the 12th century, though, if the convent placed at Sopwell was an offshoot of the abbey, as seems likely, it could claim an earlier origin. All were more or less small and poor, but Sopwell's connexion with St. Albans saved it no doubt from pecuniary cares and difficulties and gave it a certain standing. The Cistercians were not represented in Hertfordshire; nor were the Carthusians, in spite of the avowed intention of the Countess of Pembroke in 1362 to establish monks of this order either at Westmill, Meesden or Little Hormead. (fn. 5)

The only Gilbertine house, the priory of New Bigging, Hitchin, did not arise before 1361 and had few inmates.

There were two houses of Austin Canons, the one at Royston, founded shortly before 1181, of some importance on account of its privileges, but the other at Little Wymondley never anything but insignificant.

The Knights Templars had a preceptory at Dinsley, probably as early as the reign of Henry II; the Knights of St. John, who succeeded them there, maintained for a time a community at Standon on the estate given to them at the end of the 12th century.

A hospice especially for Franciscans and Dominicans was built shortly before 1247 within the precinct of St. Albans, (fn. 6) but the Mendicants, perhaps on this account, never got a permanent footing in the town. The three friaries of the county were of rather late date : the priory of Friars Preachers within the royal manor of Langley was founded in 1308 by Edward II, who was probably also responsible for the establishment of Carmelites in 1317 at Hitchin; the Friars Minors did not settle at Ware until 1339. Langley, of which the king was patron in a very special sense, must have had a considerable position; the other two houses were obscure. The sole nunnery of a Mendicant order was the priory of Langley, refounded by Queen Mary for Dominican sisters.

Counting St. Nicholas Royston, which seems, however, to have been within the boundary of Cambridgeshire, there were eleven hospitals. (fn. 7) Five or six of these besides St. Nicholas were for lepers: St. Julian's and St. Mary de Pré near St. Albans, St. John Evangelist at Berkhampstead, St. Mary Magdalene, Clothall, (fn. 8) St. Mary Magdalene near Hertford, and perhaps St. Laud and St. Anthony, Hoddesdon. The first two were dependent on and closely connected with the abbey: for instance, sisters of three successive abbots in the 14th century entered St. Mary de Pré.

The hospital outside Hertford about 1261 was transformed into a house of Maturine friars; St. Mary de Pré before the end of the 14th century also underwent a change and became a Benedictine nunnery. The other hospitals were at Anstey, Cheshunt, Berkhampstead and Royston, none apparently earlier than the 13th century.

The one college was that in the church of St. Margaret, Thele.

From time to time there must also have been many cases of persons living a religious life in solitude. The oratory of St. German, St. Albans, was used as a hermitage in Saxon days (fn. 9); a recluse called Roger (fn. 10) and Sigar, a hermit of Northaw, who lived in Abbot Geoffrey's time, (fn. 11) established such reputations for sanctity that pilgrimages were made to their tombs in the conventual church of St. Albans (fn. 12); the anchorite living in 1258 at St. Peter's (fn. 13) had successors in the 15th century, when there is mention too of recluses at St. Michael's. (fn. 14)

Of the communities very few lasted until the General Dissolution. With the exception of Hoddesdon, which continued up to 1575 as a kind of almshouse, all the hospitals mentioned had disappeared before 1530, or survived only as chantries; the college at Thele had come to an end in 1431, the preceptories of the Hospitallers before 1500; and the monastery at Salford had ceased to exist in the 14th century; Rowney Nunnery and the alien priory at Ware had been dissolved in the 15th century; Redbourn Priory had been abandoned before the Act of 1536, under which the houses of Cheshunt, Flamstead, Sopwell, Royston and Wymondley were suppressed.


  • 1. In a letter of William de Albini Brito to his men of Sawbridgeworth (Madox, Hist. of Exch. i, 120).
  • 2. Newcourt, Repert. i, 867.
  • 3. Geoffrey de Mandeville granted the church to Walden Priory, which he founded in 1136 (Dugdale, Mon. iv, 133).
  • 4. Gesta Abbatum Mon. S. Albani (Rolls Ser.), i, 149.
  • 5. Inq. a.q.d. file 365, no. 18.
  • 6. Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.), iv, 600.
  • 7. a There were perhaps more. A hospital is mentioned once in connexion with Offley (see p. 310) and there is reference to one at Therfield in 1566 (Cler. Subs. R. bdle. 40, no. 820), but this may have been a house of post-Reformation foundation.
  • 8. The hospital at Baldock mentioned by Tanner is the same as this house, which in the course of its history was transferred from one site to another.
  • 9. Gesta Abbat. i, 21.
  • 10. If he really lived at Markyate (ibid. 97), he does not belong to Hertfordshire (see Sopwell Priory).
  • 11. V.C.H. Herts. ii, 358.
  • 12. Gesta Abbat. i, 105.
  • 13. Ibid. 388-9.
  • 14. V.C.H. Herts. ii, 403 n. In 1530 there was a hermit or anchorite in the chapel of St. Mary Magdalene (ibid. 401).