Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Burscough

Pages 148-152

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

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The Augustinian priory of Burscough was founded about 1190 by Robert son of Henry, lord of Lathom and Knowsley, and endowed with land in Burscough, the whole adjoining township of Marton, the advowsons of three churches—Ormskirk, Huyton, and Flixtdn—the chapel of St. Leonard of Knowsley, and all the mills on his demesne. (fn. 1) The presence of the prior of the Augustinian house at Norton, near Runcorn, as a witness, coupled with the fact that Knowsley was held of its patron, the constable of Chester, makes it not unlikely that the first canons of Burscough came from the Cheshire priory. (fn. 2) Simon, the founder's father-in-law, became a brother of the house. (fn. 3)

Hugh, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, confirmed the charter, as did his immediate succes sors, Geoffrey de Muschamp (fn. 4) and William de Cornhill (in 1216), (fn. 5) and, finally, in 1228 Pope Gregory IX. (fn. 6) Gregory also gave the canons licence to celebrate the divine offices during a general interdict, and to admit those who desired it to burial in their church, saving the rights of their parish churches. No canon was to leave the house without licence except for a stricter rule. Difficulties had arisen with regard to Robert son of Henry's gift of Flixton church. During the episcopate of Geoffrey de Muschamp (1198-1208) the right of the priory to the advowson was disputed by Roger son of Henry, apparently the founder's brother, and Henry son of Bernard, probably a nephew, who claimed as the heirs of Henry son of Siward, the founder's father. An assize of darrein presentment being held, they obtained a verdict in their favour and presented Henry son of Richard [de Tarbock], which Richard was another brother of the founder. (fn. 7) Henry de Tarbock afterwards released his rights in the church to the canons subject to the payment to him of 2 marks a year during the tenure of the benefice by Andrew 'phisicus,' who was perhaps his vicar. He also promised his good offices in obtaining the appropriation of the church to the priory, which in case of success was to allow him a pension of 3 marks for life. (fn. 8) No appropriation took place, but either before or after the arrangement with Henry the canons secured a pension from the church. (fn. 9) Towards the end of the thirteenth century the advowson passed into the hands of Bishop Roger Longespée, who appropriated the church, about 1280 it is said, as a prebend in his cathedral. (fn. 10)

The canons were more successful in obtaining the appropriation of the other two churches whose advowson had been granted to them. Bishop William de Cornhill (1215-23), 'in consideration of their religion, honesty, and immoderate poverty,' gave them Ormskirk church, saving a competent vicarage. (fn. 11) A few, years later Alexander de Stavenby, his successor, granted Huyton church to the priory in proprios usus, the gift to take effect after the death of the rector in possession, when he reserved the right to ordain a vicarage. (fn. 12) It was not, however, until 1277 that a vicarage was ordained, with a portion taxed as worth ten marks. (fn. 13)

Eight years later the bishop, in view of the proximity of Ormskirk church to the priory, from which it was distant about three miles, consented that on the death or cession of the present vicar the canons should for the future be allowed to present one of their own number, being a priest and suitable. (fn. 14) On a subsequent vacancy the convent,' by negligence,' presented a secular priest, and in 1339 thought it necessary to obtain a renewal of the privilege from Bishop Northburgh, ' in relief of the charges with which they are heavily burdened. (fn. 15) Henceforth down to the Reformation the vicar of Ormskirk was always a canon of the house. In the fifteenth century several canons held the vicarage of Huyton. Disputes between the priory and the vicars as to their portions were not thereby obviated. An episcopal inquiry was held in 1340 on the petition of Alexander of Wakefield, vicar of Ormskirk; (fn. 16) a dispute with John Layet, vicar of Huyton, was settled by arbitration in 1387; and in 1461 Ralph Langley, vicar of Huyton, a canon of the house, secured a revision of his portion, which he alleged to be too small. (fn. 17)

Pope Boniface VIII in 1295 empowered the prior for the time being to nominate six of the canons, even if etate minores, provided they were over twenty years of age, to be promoted by any bishop to sacred orders and minister in them lawfully. On promotion to be priests they were to be allowed a full voice in filling up any vacancy in the office of prior—to which they might themselves be elected. (fn. 18) The same pope granted a general confirmation of the priory's privileges in 1300. (fn. 19)

A few years before the prior and convent had bestowed borough rights on their town of Ormskirk, (fn. 20) and obtained (in 1286) from Edward I and Edmund of Lancaster a grant of a market and five days' fair there. (fn. 21) The grant and other gifts were confirmed by Edward II when at Upholland on 19 October, 1323. (fn. 22) In virtue of its market rights the priory claimed to take fines for breach of the assize of bread and ale; this led to friction with the officers of Henry, earl of Lancaster, who in 1339 conceded the privilege for an annual payment of 6s. 8d. (fn. 23)

A curious episode in the history of the priory is the indictment in 1347 of Thomas of Litherland, then prior, for alleged participation in the lawless proceedings of Sir John de Dalton, who on Good Friday in that year, assisted by many Lancashire men, violently abducted Margery, widow of Nicholas de la Beche, from her manor of Beams, in Wiltshire, killing two persons and injuring others, though the king's own son Lionel, keeper of the realm in the king's absence abroad, was staying there. (fn. 24) A number of Lancashire gentlemen came forward and declared that the prior was innocent. On their bond he was admitted to bail, and seems to have satisfactorily disproved the charge as he retained his office for nearly forty years. (fn. 25)

It was during his priorship that a benefaction intended to extend university education was diverted to the priory and its church of Huyton. John de Winwick (d. 1360), a Lancashire man who enjoyed the favour of Edward III, and held the rectory of Wigan and treasurership of York, 'desiring to enrich the English church with men of letters,' left an endowment including the advowson of Radcliffe on Soar for a new college at Oxford, whose scholars were to study canon and civil law, and, on becoming bachelors or doctors, to lecture on these subjects. (fn. 26) Difficulties arose, however, not perhaps unconnected with the refusal of the pope to sanction an appropriation of Radcliffe church; permission was obtained to transfer the endowment to Oriel College, but ultimately, twenty years after the testator's death (1380), his executors got a licence from Richard II to alienate the advowson of Radcliffe to Burscough Priory, (fn. 27) and in the following year Alexander Neville, archbishop of York, allowed its appropriation to relieve the poverty of the house caused by the pestilence, bad seasons, and other misfortunes, and to increase divine worship by the foundation of a chantry for two priests in Huyton church. (fn. 28) The chantry was established in 1383, the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield fixing the stipend of each chaplain at 10 marks. (fn. 29) The surplus revenuesof the rectory (from which a vicar's portion had already been set aside) yielded a small annual income to the priory. (fn. 30)

A somewhat mysterious letter of Pope Urban, dated November, 1386, refers to certain unknown 'sons of iniquity' who were concealing and detaining the lands and goods of the monastery, and orders the abbot of Chester to enjoin restitution on pain of excommunication. (fn. 31) Possibly the persons in question had taken advantage of the political disturbances of that year.

Boniface IX granted a relaxation of four years and four quadragenes penance to penitents who on St. Nicholas's Day should visit and give alms for the conservation of the church of the priory. (fn. 32)

A scandal which came to light in 1454 affords a curious glimpse into the state of the house at that date. Charges of divination, sortilege, and black art were brought against the prior, Robert Woodward, one of the canons, Thomas Fairwise, and the vicar of Ormskirk, William Bolton, who is described as late canon of the priory. An episcopal investigation revealed strange doings. One Robert, a necromancer, had undertaken for £10 to find hidden treasure. After swearing secrecy on the sacrament of bread they handed it over in the pyx to Robert. Three circuli trianguli were made, in each of which one of them stood, the vicar having the body of Christ suspended at his breast and holding in his hand a rod, doubtless a diviner's rod. The story ends here, but all three denied that any invocation of demons or sacrifice to them had taken place. Bishop Boulers suspended them for two years, from the priestly office and from receiving the sacraments except in articulo mortis. (fn. 33) Bolton was deprived of his vicarage and the prior had to resign. (fn. 34) In a few months the bishop removed the suspension in their case, but they did not recover their positions. The ex-prior was allowed a pension of 10 marks, with a 'competent chamber' in the priory, and as much bread, beer, and meat as fell to the share of two canons. (fn. 35)

The election of a prior always needed confirmation by the diocesan, (fn. 36) but the range of choice in a small house was limited. Half a century later another scandal occurred, apparently more serious, for Prior John Barton suffered deprivation (1511) instead of being allowed to resign. The nature of his offences is not disclosed, but that the priory was not in a healthy state is evident from the fact that the bishop preferred a canon of Kenilworth, a house of the same order, to the vacant office. (fn. 37)

As the income of the priory was less than £200 it was dissolved under the Act of February, 1536. It then contained only five canons (including the prior), all of whom were priests. (fn. 38) One had been reported by Legh and Layton, the visitors of the previous year, as guilty of incontinence. (fn. 39) At first only one expressed a desire to continue in religion, but the others seem afterwards to have changed their minds. The church and other buildings were found to be 'in good state and plight.' (fn. 40) The Earl of Derby was anxious to save the church, in which many of his family lay buried. (fn. 41) His intention was to find a priest there at his own cost ' to do divine service for the souls of his ancestors and the ease and wealth of the neighbours.' (fn. 42) But he complained that the king's commissioners valued not only the glass and bars in the windows and the paving, but all other goods at a higher price than ' they be well worth,' and his plan fell through. In November, 1536, during the disturbances of the Pilgrimage of Grace, he urged delay in pulling down and melting the lead and bells as 'in this busy, world it would cause much murmur.' (fn. 43)

The priory was dedicated to St. Nicholas, and its first endowment by Robert son of Henry consisted of three churches and a plough-land, comprising part of Burscough township (including the hamlet of Ormskirk) and the vill of Marton. (fn. 44) In the next century Robert de Lathom gave a fourth part of the township of Dalton, near Wigan, (fn. 45) and a large number of small rents and parcels of land were added chiefly by the leading local families in the surrounding district. (fn. 46) In 1283, for instance, Henry de Lathom, lord of Tarbock, gave a place called Ridgate, which Richard son of Henry his ancestor had originally set apart for the use of lepers, but which the parishioners had diverted to their own use. (fn. 47) The only property of the house north of the Ribble was at Ellel, a little south of Lancaster. (fn. 48) These temporalities were estimated in the valuation for the tenth made in 1534-5 to be worth £56 1s. 4d. a year. (fn. 49) The three rectories of Ormskirk, Huyton, and Radcliffe-on-Soar yielded an income of £73, and the net revenue of the house after fixed charges had been deducted was stated to be £80 7s. 6d. The new survey made at the Dissolution raised it to £122 5s. 7d. (fn. 50) Inter alia the Commissioners disallowed a fixed charge of £7 for alms distributed yearly for the souls of Henry de Lathom and his ancestors. The buildings with the bells and lead were valued at £148 10s., the movable goods at £230 3s. 4d. (fn. 51) Debts due to the house amounted to £40 6s. 8d., but it owed rather more than double that sum. The site and demesne lands were granted to Sir William Paget on 28 May, 1547. (fn. 52)

Priors of Burscough

Henry, (fn. 53) probably first prior, occurs between 1189 and 1198
William, (fn. 54) occurs before 1199
Geoffrey, (fn. 55) occurs before 1229
Benedict, (fn. 56) occurs 1229 and 1235
William, (fn. 57) occurs 1245
Nicholas, (fn. 58) occurs between 1260 and 1272
Warm, (fn. 59) occurs between 1272 and 1286
Richard, (fn. 60) occurs 1303
John of Donington, (fn. 61) occurs 1322-44
Thomas of Litherland, (fn. 62) occurs 1347-83, resigned 1385
John of Wrightington, (fn. 63) elected 1385, died 1406 or 1407
Thomas [of] Ellerbeck, (fn. 64) elected 16 February, 1406-7, died before May, 1424
Hugh Rainford, (fn. 65) election confirmed May, 1424, died before July, 1439
Robert Woodward, (fn. 66) election confirmed July 1439, resigned 4 October, 1454
Henry Olton, (fn. 67) elected 28 February, 1454-5, died before 9 October, 1457
Richard Ferryman, (fn. 68) elected before 9 October, 1457, occurs down to 1478
Hector Scarisbrick, (fn. 69) occurs 1488, died 1504
John Barton, (fn. 70) election confirmed 6 December, 1504, deprived 1511
Robert Harvey, (fn. 71) preferred 12 May, 1511, on 'just deprivation' of Barton, died before 17 April, 1535
Hugh Huxley, (fn. 72) election confirmed 17 April, 1535, surrendered 1536, buried at Ormskirk, 1558.

The seal of the priory was round, and bore a representation of the south front of the monastery buildings with the roof and tower of the church, rising above them. On each side of the tower is a six-pointed star. (fn. 73) Legend:—


The priory arms, adapted from the Lathom. shield, were: indented per fesse azure and or, in chief between two croziers three annuletsargent. (fn. 74)


  • 1. Foundation charter in the register of the priory (P.R.O. Duchy of Lancs. Misc. Bks. No. 6, fol. 1); the charter is printed by Farrer, Lancs. Pipe R. 349. Its date lies between July, 1189, when John, count of Mortain, who is included in the movent clause, received the honour of Lancaster, and November, 1191, the date of Bishop Hugh de Nonant's confirmation; Reg. of Burscough, fol. 68b.
  • 2. Farrer, op. cit. 352. Prior Henry and Robert, archdeacon of Chester, attested Bishop Hugh's confirmation as well as the founder's charter.
  • 3. Lancs. Final Conc. (Rec. Soc.), ii, 138.
  • 4. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 69.
  • 5. Ibid. Duchy of Lanc. Anct. D., L. 271.
  • 6. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 63.
  • 7. Lancs. Pipe R. 353-6. It is not easy to see how the claimants had a better ' hereditary right' to the patronage exercised by Henry son of Siward than the eldest son and his heirs.
  • 8. Duchy of Lanc. Anct. D., L. 617. The date is after 1232. About the same time Robert de Hulton resigned to the priory all right and claim in the presentation of Flixton church; Duchy of Lanc. Cart. Misc. i, fol. 17; Dep. Keeper's Rep. xxxvi, No. 347. The rights of the priory are described by Bishop Alexander de Stavenby as' Jus quam habent tam a patronis quam predecessoribus nostris in ecclesia de Flixton'; Duchy of Lanc. Anct. D., L. 272.
  • 9. Ibid. L. 618.
  • 10. Le Neve, Fasti Eccl. Angl. i, 602.
  • 11. Duchy of Lanc. Anct. D., L. 108.
  • 12. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 69b.
  • 13. Ibid. fol. 67-68b. Three selions of land and a competent manse which the chaplains used to have' were included.
  • 14. Ibid. fol. 106b.
  • 15. Ibid. fol. 107; Duchy of Lanc. Anct. D., L. 275.
  • 16. Ibid. L. 588; Reg. of Burscough, fol. 108. The vicarage was declared to consist of a manse, 4 acres of land, and £10 a year in money, the priory bearing all charges.
  • 17. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 104b; Duchy of Lanc. Cart. Misc. iii, fol. 74.
  • 18. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 66b.
  • 19. Ibid. fol. 103.
  • 20. Ibid. fol. 15.
  • 21. Chart. R. Edw. I, No. 23; Duchy of Lanc. Cart. Misc. i, fol. 45; Reg. of Burscough, fol. 13.
  • 22. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 56.
  • 23. Ibid. fol. 13b.
  • 24. Cal of Pat. 1345-8, pp. 310, 312, 436.
  • 25. John de Dalton, in his flight north, perhaps took refuge in one of the prior's houses; see the account of Upholland.
  • 26. Cal. of Pap. Letters, i, 458.
  • 27. Cal. of Pat. 1377-81, p. 560; Reg. of Burscough, fol. 73.
  • 28. Ibid. fol. 76b.
  • 29. Ibid. fol. 88, 91b. So many interests were involved that the documents beginning with Winwick'sacquisition of the advowson and ending with Urban VI's consent to the appropriation, which was not granted until 1387, fill over sixty pages of the Register (fol. 71-102b).
  • 30. Just before the Dissolution the rectory wasleased by the priory at a rent of £20 a year; Mins. Accts. bdle. 136, No. 2198,01. 10d.
  • 31. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 104b.
  • 32. Cal. of Pap. Letters, iv, 397.
  • 33. Lich. Epis. Reg. Boulers, fol. 55.
  • 34. Ibid. fol. 38.
  • 35. Ibid. 70.
  • 36. This was sometimes given by a commissary on the spot.
  • 37. Robert Harvey. He was summoned to convocation in 1529; L. and P. Hen. VIII, iv (iii), p. 2700.
  • 38. Duchy of Lanc. Rentals and Surv. ptfo. 5, No. 7. They had twenty-two waiting servants and household officers and eighteen ' hinds of husbandry.' Two persons enjoyed board for life.
  • 39. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 364.
  • 40. Duchy of Lanc. Rentals and Surv. ptfo. 5, No. 7.
  • 41. Lancs. Chantries, 68. His uncle Sir James Stanley was steward of the priory and received an annual fee of £5 from the house; Duchy of Lanc. Rentals and Surv. ptfo. 5, No. 2. The first Earl of Derby was a great benefactor of the priory; Testamenta Vetusta, 459.
  • 42. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xi, 517.
  • 43. Ibid, xi, 1118. In May, 1537, the earl was endeavouring to obtain a lease of the priory and its demesne lands; ibid, xii (1), 1115.
  • 44. Lancs. Inq. (Rec. Soc.), i, 16.
  • 45. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 31b.
  • 46. The Register contains numerous charters of donation, the originals of some of which are extant among the ancient deeds of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Record Office.
  • 47. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 45b. The priory kept up a hospital for lepers. Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln (1272-1311), stipulated for a perpetual right to admit to it one of his tenants in his fee of Widnes; Trans. Hist. Sec. (New Ser.), v, 131.
  • 48. In leasing a messuage and land here in 1338, a solar and stable were reserved for the canons' visits to Lancaster and Ellel; Duchy of Lanc. Anct. D., L. 644.
  • 49. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v, 222.
  • 50. The ' Brief Certificate' of the Commissioners, whose instructions bear date 24 April, 1536, is in Duchy of Lanc. Rentals and Surv. ptfo. 5, No. 2, and, with some additions, in Duchy of Lanc. Mins. Accts. bdle. 158, No. 7.
  • 51. The ornaments of the church were valued (omitting shillings and pence) at £97, plate and jewels £27, chattels of all sorts £37, stuff and implements of household £31, stock of corn £35.
  • 52. Duchy of Lanc. Misc. Bks. xxiii, 10 d.
  • 53. A grant of lands by him was confirmed by the founder, Robert son of Henry, who died in 1198 or early in 1199; Lancs. Pipe Rolls, 353.
  • 54. Ormerod, Lathom of Lathom, 66.
  • 55. Mentioned as a predecessor of Benedict; Reg. of Burscough, fol. 7b.
  • 56. Ibid. fol. 5, 6; Final Concords (Rec. Soc.), i, 60.
  • 57. Reg. of Burscough, fol. 44.
  • 58. Ibid. fol. 19b; Duchy of Lancs. Anct. D., L. 592, 601.
  • 59. Ibid. L. 601, 610.
  • 60. Dep. Keeper's Rep. xxxvi, 199; Reg. of Burscough, fol. 20.
  • 61. Ibid. fol. ii; Assize R. 1435, m. 38d.
  • 62. Cal. Pat. 1345-8, pp. 384,436, and next note.
  • 63. His election (on resignation of Litherland) was confirmed by the custodian of the spiritualities of the diocese of Lichfield after the death of Bishop Stretton on 28 March, 1385; Reg. of Burscough, fol. no. He was sub-prior as early as 1381; ibid. fol. 84.
  • 64. Cellarer in 1383; Reg. of Burscough, fol. 87b. Sub-prior at time of his election, which was confirmed on 26 July, 1407; Lich. Epis. Reg. Burghill, fol. 95b.
  • 65. Lich. Epis. Reg. Heyworth, fol. 113b, 125.
  • 66. Ibid, and Reg. Boulers, fol. 38. Resigned the priorship into the bishop's hands on being convicted of necromancy; see supra.
  • 67. Sub-prior before election; Lich. Epis. Reg. Boulers, fol. 38b.
  • 68. Public proclamation of his election was made in the priory on Sunday, 9 October, and in Ormskirk church on the following Thursday. Certificate, of confirmation by bishop's commissary dated 31 October; ibid. fol. 42. He is last mentioned under 1478; Pal. of Lanc. Plea R. 48, m. 5 d.
  • 69. Ibid. 88.
  • 70. Lich. Epis. Reg. Blyth, fol. 57b.
  • 71. Canon of Kenilworth (ibid. fol. 56).
  • 72. Lich. Epis. Reg. Lee, fol. 34b. At Whitsuntide 1536 the farmer of Radcliffe rectory was excused half his rent, which was expended on the necessaries of Hugh Huxley, late prior; Mins. Accts. bdle. 136, No. 2198, m. 10 d.
  • 73. Figured in Vetusta Monumenta, and in Trans. Hist. Soc. (New Ser.), v, 144; xii, Plate xxii, No. 5; cf. vol. xiii, 194. See also B.M. Cat. of Seals, i, 471, and for a different seal, Dugdale, Mon. vi, 458.
  • 74. Ibid. Watson MS. 5, fol. 123, gives argent per fesse between three annulets sable, and throws doubt on the two croziers having been part of the blazon.