Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Penwortham

Pages 104-106

A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908.

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This cell of the great Benedictine abbey of Evesham was established by agreement between the abbot and convent of that house and Warin Bussel, baron of Penwortham. Bussel transferred to the abbey the whole township of Farington and a fourth part of that of Great Marton in Amounderness, the church of Penwortham with its tithes, and pensions from the church of Leyland and the chapel of (North) Meols. In return the abbey undertook to have Penwortham church served by three of its monks and a chaplain and to receive the profession of Bussel's son Warin should he desire to become a monk. (fn. 1) The abbot who made the agreement is called Robert in the Evesham Chartulary, and as the only known abbot of that name within possible limits ruled the house from 1086 to 1096, the foundation of the priory has usually been assigned to the reign of Rufus. (fn. 2) But the fact that sons of Warin, who are described as children in the agreement, were alive after 1189 is inconsistent with so early a date. We must suppose either that a later abbot, Robert, is omitted from the list of heads of the house or, with much greater probability, that the copyist of the chartulary wrongly extended the initial of Reginald, (fn. 3) who was abbot in the second quarter of the twelfth century. (fn. 4) The mention of Warm's children and other indications point to a date in the reign of Stephen and not much if at all earlier than 1140. Bussel's liberality to the distant abbey of Evesham might seem to be sufficiently explained by the fact that it already owned land in his neighbourhood, the vill of Howick adjoining Penwortham having been given to it by Count Roger the Poitevin. (fn. 5) But there was a closer connexion: his wife held land in Evesham itself and probably belonged to a Worcestershire family. (fn. 6)

Before his death Bussel added further gifts. The whole, with the exception of the Marton estate, were confirmed between 1153 and 1160 by his eldest son Richard, who himself gave several parcels of land, the adyowsons of Leyland and North Meols, and a fourth share of his fishing rights in the Ribble. (fn. 7) Charters of confirmation were afterwards obtained by the abbey from Richard's younger brother and successor Albert, from his son Hugh, and from Pope Alexander III. (fn. 8) In the fourteenth century Queen Isabella, mother of Edward III, who had a grant for life of the Penwortham fief, and subsequently Henry, duke of Lancaster, confirmed the monks of Evesham in their Lancashire possessions. (fn. 9)

The priory never became an independent, or even quasi-independent, house. From first to last it remained a small cell or 'obedience' of the parent monastery, which left it no freedom of action. Its inmates were always monks of Evesham, and their head, though commonly called prior, was often given the more lowly title of 'custos.' (fn. 10) The abbey appointed him without presentation to and institution by the bishop and could at any time recall him or his brethren at Penwortham and substitute others. (fn. 11) Legally the priory had no separate property, though a part of the Lancashire estates might be appropriated to its maintenance, and occasionally a benefactor in earmarking a portion of his gift for this purpose seems at first sight to be treating the cell as a distinct legal person. (fn. 12) lathe sixteenth century the priory paid over to the abbey a fixed sum annually, amounting to more than half the gross income, and had to defray the fixed charges from the rest. (fn. 13) How far back this arrangement went does not appear. The prior granted leases and entered into agreements, but he did so as proctor for the abbey, and usually this was made clear in the deed, (fn. 14) which he sealed with one of the Evesham seals, for the priory had none of its own. As often as not the deed was drawn and signed at Evesham. The abbot and convent, not the priory, exercised the patronage of the Leyland and North Meols livings. Down to 1331 they presented rectors to both, but in that year they obtained the appropriation of the rectory of Leyland to their own uses, subject to a suitable provision for a perpetual vicar. (fn. 15) Penwortham church had been appropriated from the first without obligation to endow a vicarage, being served by monks of the priory or by paid chaplains. (fn. 16)

Owing to the humble status of the priory its history is little more than a record of land conveyances. With but one or two exceptions its priors are mere names to us. Nor do the others stand out from these shadows by reason of their virtues, unless we may credit Prior Wilcote with a good heart on the strength of his bequest towards the expense of feeding up the monks of the abbey after the periodical blood-letting. (fn. 17) They were certainly treated very differently by Penwortham's best-known prior.

Residence in monastic cells was generally regarded as banishment and often used as a punishment for monks who had made the mother house too hot to hold them. To this practice Penwortham owed the dubious honour of the headship of Roger Norris, of whom his contemporary and opponent Thomas of Marlborough has left a graphic portrait. (fn. 18) A glutton, wine-bibber, and loose-liver, he was able, unscrupulous, courtly in manner, and his eloquence gave him a show of learning. Originally a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, he betrayed his brethren in their quarrel with Archbishop Baldwin, and was imprisoned by them, but escaped through a sewer. Thrust into Evesham as abbot by Richard I he dissipated its revenues until the monks were reduced to a diet of bread and water, varied occasionally by bread and beer 'which differed little from water,' and for lack of decent clothing many of them could not appear in choir and chapter-house. The learned Adam Sortes was so persecuted by him that in 1207 he retired to be prior of Penwortham. (fn. 19) For many years Norris defied or evaded protests and visitations, but at last in 1213 the papal legate, Cardinal Nicholas of Tusculum, deposed him, 'whom,' adds Thomas of Marlborough, 'may God for ever destroy.' (fn. 20) Nevertheless the convent had no scruples in persuading the legate to make him prior of Penwortham. In five months his excesses obliged Nicholas to deprive him of this post too. (fn. 21) But about five years later the legate Pandulf, out of pity and to prevent his becoming one of the vagabond monks condemned by St. Benedict, again invested him with the priorship. He remained at Penwortham until his death in July, 1223, refusing to the end to be reconciled to the abbot and convent of Evesham and withholding certain revenues which belonged to them. (fn. 22) Between this date and the Dissolution the only outstanding events in the history of the priory are the inquiry of Bishop Northburgh as to its status, already referred to, a dispute with Queen Isabella's steward at Penwortham, who from 1340 to 1343 exacted from the priory 'puture' or entertainment for himself and his train during the holding of the three weeks' court there, and the claim of the sheriff to similar hospitality. A local jury found that the queen's steward had no such right, and on 9 June, 1343, the royal commissioners of inquiry into the oppressions of officers awarded the abbot of Evesham damages. (fn. 23) Seven years later (25 November, 1350) Henry, earl of Lancaster, abandoned his claim to puture for the sheriff and his servants. (fn. 24)

The visitors in the reign of Henry VIII in 1535 accused Prior Hawkesbury, who had been appointed by Wolsey, of incontinence. (fn. 25) The number of monks in the priory is not stated. Originally there had been three, but at the time of Northburgh's inquiry there were only two, including the prior. (fn. 26) Between 1535 and 1539 the abbot and convent of Evesham must have withdrawn the monks, for on 20 February in the latter year they leased the priory or manor and rectory of Penwortham and the rectory of Leyland to John Fleetwood, gentleman, of London, for ninety-nine years at a rent of £99 5s. 3d. (fn. 27) Fleetwood undertook to repair the chancels of the two churches and find an honest priest to serve Penwortham. Hawkesbury is mentioned in the deed as 'late fermour, custos or [prior] of Penwortham.'

The priory was dedicated to St. Mary. Its original endowment, already described, had been increased by subsequent grants. Four oxgangs of land in Longton and one in Penwortham were given by Richard Bussel. (fn. 28) Geoffrey Bussel gave two oxgangs of land in Longton, and his wife Letitia part of her demesne in Leyland. (fn. 29) Small parcels of land in these and neighbouring townships were added by other donors. Hugh Bussel bestowed the tithe of his pannage (fn. 30) and his cousin Robert a portion of his Ribble fishery. (fn. 31) The gross income of the priory when valued for the tenth in 1535 was £114 16s. 10d. (fn. 32) Its lands had a rental of a little over £30, the rectory of Penwortham was worth £36 11s. 10d. a year and that of Leyland £48 12s. 11d. More than half this income, £63 1s. 10d., was paid over to Evesham, and with other fixed charges reduced the net annual revenue of the cell to £29 18s. 7d. The deductions included £3 6s. 8d. for the fee of the earl of Derby, who was seneschal of this as of some other Lancashire monasteries, and £3 each to the bailiffs of Penwortham and Leyland. Twenty shillings a year were given in alms to the Leper Hospital of Preston, and £7 13s. 4d. to the poor at Penwortham and Leyland, the latter by direction of the founder. (fn. 33)

Evesham Abbey being surrendered to the king nine months after its lease of the priory estates to Fleetwood, (fn. 34) the lessee from November, 1539, paid his rent to the crown. (fn. 35) In January, 1543, however, he bought the property, with the advowsons of Leyland and North Meols and the manor of Calwich and rectory of Ellastone in Staffordshire, for the sum of £893 18s. 8d. (fn. 36) The Penwortham estate remained in the Fleetwood family down to 1749, when it was sold to John Aspinall. (fn. 37)

Priors of Penwortham

Henry, (fn. 38) occurs between 1159 and 1164
William of Winchcombe, (fn. 39) occurs between 1180 and 1195
Robert of Appleton, (fn. 40) occurs between 1194 and 1207
Adam Sortes, (fn. 41) appointed 1207, resigned or withdrawn 1213
Roger Norris, (fn. 42) appointed 27 November, 1213, removed about April, 1214, reappointed 1218, died 19 July, 1223
John (fn. 43)
Thomas of Gloucester, (fn. 44) elected abbot of Evesham 1243
Philip of Neldesle (fn. 45)
Walter of Walcote, (fn. 46) occurs between 1282 and 1316
Ralph of Wilcote, (fn. 47) occurs April, 1320
Thomas of Blockley, (fn. 48) occurs May, 1321
Ralph of Wilcote, (fn. 49) occurs 1332 and 1341
Ralph of Whately, (fn. 50) occurs 1350
Roger, (fn. 51) occurs 1371
William of Merston, (fn. 52) occurs 1383
Thomas Newbold, (fn. 53) occurs 1385
John of Gloucester, (fn. 54) occurs 1397
[Thomas, (fn. 55) occurs 1399]
John of Gloucester, (fn. 56) occurs 1409
Thomas Hanford, (fn. 57) occurs 1422
John Power, (fn. 58) occurs 1472
John Staunton, (fn. 59) occurs 1477
Robert Yatton, (fn. 60) occurs 1502
James Shrokinerton, (fn. 61) 1507
Robert Yatton, (fn. 62) occurs 1509
Richard Hawkesbury, (fn. 63) appointed 1515 or 1516, withdrawn before 1539


  • 1. Evesham Chartul. Harl. MS. 3763, fol. 89; Farrer, Lanes. Pipe Rolls, 320.
  • 2. Hulton, Priory of Penwortham (Chet. Soc. O.S. xxx), 1-2. The volume contains many of the priory charters from the Worden and Penwortham muniments.
  • 3. Abbot Reginald is usually stated to have succeeded Maurice in 1122, but the Continuator of Florence of Worcester (ii, 91) and the Register of the abbey (Cotton MS. Vesp. B. xxiv, fol. 27) make his abbacy begin in 1130 (Farrer, op. cit. 321). It is scarcely likely, however, that the chroniclers of the house omitted an abbot.
  • 4. Ibid. Constantine, the abbot's chamberlain, one of the witnesses, occurs elsewhere in connexion with Abbot Reginald, who died 25 August, 1149; Harl. MS. 3763, fol. 169.
  • 5. Harl. MS. 3763, fol. 58; Lancs. Pipe R. 318-19. His gift was . confirmed by Ranulf Gernons, earl of Chester, who was in possession of the land 'between Ribble and Mersey' in 1147 if not earlier; Tait, Mediaev. Manchester, 169.
  • 6. Priory of Penwortham, 6.
  • 7. Lanes. Pipe R. 322-5. In exchange for the plough-land and a half of land at Marton, the abbey had received two oxgangs of land at Longton, twothirds of the tithes of the demesne at Warton and Freckleton, and certain fishing rights. The priory afterwards used to send salmon to Evesham on the feast of St. Egwin, but this was ultimately commuted for a money payment; Priory of Penwortham, 105.
  • 8. Ibid. 5-8.
  • 9. Ibid. 29, 16.
  • 10. e.g. Priory of Penwortham, 21, 53; 'temporalis custos' (ibid 97); 'prior qui potius custos' (ibid. 99).
  • 11. Ibid. Several priors had two terms of office. For a case of papal provision of a prior and prohibition of his removal without reasonable cause see Cal. of Pap. Letters, v, 190 and below, p. 106. The last prior was appointed by Cardinal Wolsey, perhaps as papal legate.
  • 12. Priory of Penwortham, 9-10.
  • 13. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v, 233.
  • 14. Priory of Penwortham, 21, 54, 56.
  • 15. Ibid. 41-6; licence of Edward III, 26 June, 1330, that of Pope John XXII, 13 Jan. 1331, Bishop Northburgh's ordination of the vicarage, 4 Feb. 1332.
  • 16. This privilege was admitted, after inquiry, by Bishop Northburgh; Priory of Penwortham, 97-105. In 1394 the prior obtained episcopal licence to celebrate divine service in the parish church without prejudice to the oratory in the priory for two years; Lich. Epis. Reg. Scrope, fol. 131b.
  • 17. Priory of Penwortham, 105.
  • 18. Chron. Abbat. de Evesham (Rolls Ser.), 103 sqq. See also Dict. Nat. Biog. xli, 139.
  • 19. Sortes is described by Thomas of Marlborough as 'in literatura apprime eruditus, qui antequam esset monachus rexerat scholas artium liberalium per multos annos'; Chron. Evesham, 147. He was twice sent to Rome on convent business; on the first of these visits (1205) Abbot Roger compelled Adam to follow him home on foot; ibid. 148.
  • 20. Ibid. 250.
  • 21. Ibid.
  • 22. Marlborough asserts that he and Sortes with others begged him in vain to lay aside his rancour and ask the abbot to take him back as a monk of Evesham.
  • 23. Cal. of Pat. 1343-5, p. 213; Priory of Penwortham, 36-9.
  • 24. Ibid. 39.
  • 25. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 364.
  • 26. Priory of Penwortham, 97.
  • 27. Priory of Penwortham, 79. Possibly Fleetwood had already had a shorter lease. On 4 July, 1536, Richard Rich, chancellor of Augmentations, wrote to the abbot and convent requiring them to let his friend John Fleetwood, servant to the Lord Chancellor, have a lease of the farm of Penwortham at once since no more of their convent should have the same (L. and P. Hen. VIII, xi, 25.)
  • 28. Lanes. Pipe R. 323.
  • 29. Priory of Penwortham, 6.
  • 30. Ibid. 7.
  • 31. Ibid. 9.
  • 32. Valor Eccl. v, 233.
  • 33. Ibid.
  • 34. Dugdale, Man. ii, 9.
  • 35. Mins. Accts. 3 3 Hen.VIII.
  • 36. Priory of Penwortham, 112.
  • 37. Ibid. p. lxix.
  • 38. Lanes. Pipe R. 375.
  • 39. Ibid. 411; Priory of Penwortham, p. xl. The editor of the latter makes Robert of Appleton precede William.
  • 40. Ibid.
  • 41. Chron. Evesham, 224, 253.
  • 42. Ibid. 251, 253; Priory of Penwortham, 89.
  • 43. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 53. Prior John witnesses a grant made by Elias de Hutton (living 1226) and his wife Sapiencia, along with Robert Bussel, Robert son of Elias, Walter de Hoole and others.
  • 44. Dugdale, Man. ii, 6. He died 15 December, 1255.
  • 45. Priory of Penwortham, 53. Mentioned as a former prior in an Evesham charter executed between 1282 and 1316.
  • 46. Ibid. 28.
  • 47. Ibid. 21.
  • 48. Ibid. 22.
  • 49. Ibid. 54, 97; Cal. of Pat. 1330-4, p. 244. Doubtless a second term of office.
  • 50. Priory of Penwortham, 55.
  • 51. Coram Rege R. 442, m. 24 d.
  • 52. Priory of Penwortham, 56.
  • 53. Ibid. 57.
  • 54. Ibid. 58.
  • 55. Cal. of Pap. Letters, v, 190. A papal provision, which may possibly not have been carried into effect.
  • 56. Priory of Penwortham, 59.
  • 57. Ibid. 60. A prior Thomas, perhaps the same, occurs 1436-7 (Final Concords, iii, 127).
  • 58. Priory of Penwortham, 61.
  • 59. Ibid. 62.
  • 60. Ibid. 65.
  • 61. Ibid. 67.
  • 62. Ibid. 69. A second term apparently.
  • 63. Ibid. 71, 82. Duchy of Lanc. Rentals and Surv. ptfo. 5, No. 15. He seems to have held the office continuously until its extinction.