Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Kirkstead

Pages 135-138

A History of the County of Lincoln: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.

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The abbey of Kirkstead was founded in 1139 by Hugh Brito (otherwise Hugh son of Eudo), lord of Tattershall. It is related that the founder, being desirous to build a monastery, visited the abbey of Fountains, and greatly admiring the manner of life which he saw there, humbly besought and finally obtained a colony of monks from thence, which he established at first in a ' place of horror like a vast solitude,' a level plain surrounded by brushwood and marsh at Kirkstead. (fn. 1) This original site was not, however, found to be large enough, and proved unsuitable in other ways; therefore in 1187 Robert the son of Hugh granted leave to the monks to move a little distance off, still, however, remaining on his lands. (fn. 2) The patronage of the house remained for four or five generations in the family of Hugh Brito, and nearly all his successors added something to his benefactions. Conan Duke of Brittany, Robert Marmion, Ralf FitzGilbert, Walter Leydet, William de Cantelow, Robert d'Arcy, Philip of Kyme, and members of the families of Martel, Scotney, Malet, Driby, Bek, d'Eyncourt, Willpughby, were all numbered amongst the benefactors of this monastery. (fn. 3) Its revenues during the thirteenth century would have supported a large number of monks; but like all the Cistercian abbeys of this country it suffered heavy losses during the century which followed, and its revenue was actually less in 1534 than it had been in 1291. (fn. 4) In spite of these misfortunes, however, it was reckoned until the last among the greater monasteries of Lincolnshire.

The lordship over Wildmore was acquired by Kirkstead through grants from the lords of Bolingbroke, Scrivelsby, and Horncastie, who, however, retained common rights of pasture and turbary in the marsh for themselves and their tenants. These valuable rights were the cause of several disputes in the thirteenth century. (fn. 5)

About 1275 the abbot was accused of claiming the right to erect a gallows at Thimbleby, and to have the assize of bread and ale there, without charters sufficient to prove it; he had also encroached on the king's highway at Roughton, by raising a dike. In common with other Cistercians, he was also accused of buying wool throughout the county and selling it to Flemish merchants and others, to the loss of the city of Lincoln. (fn. 6) It was just after this that the monks of Kirkstead began to be impoverished through the failure of their sheep. In 1285 the abbot had to buy wool to satisfy the merchants to whom he had pledged himself, because his flocks had failed through murrain. (fn. 7) In 1315 he had to buy corn in the counties of Cambridge and Huntingdon, not having enough of his own. (fn. 8) In 1321 there were suits with the prior of St. Catherine's, Lincoln, about lands at Canwick and fisheries at Thornton and Marton. (fn. 9) The abbot of Kirkstead, like others of his order, had also a little later to supply King Edward III with wool, on a vague promise of future payment; and these and other losses had by 1341 brought the house into such a depressed condition that the monks were obliged to petition for the appropriation of the church of Woodhall. (fn. 10) In 1365 John de Wodehall quit-claimed to the abbot and convent all right in the manor of Woodhall. (fn. 11) But the manor seems to have been acquired in 1332. (fn. 12) In 1401 the church of Wispington, with lands in the same town, was granted to them by Sir Philip le Despenser to assist them in the maintenance of the abbey. (fn. 13) After this very little is known of the fortunes of the house, except that in 1471 Abbot Roger was arrested with many others for some disturbance of the peace. (fn. 14)

After the rising of 1536 the abbot of Kirkstead, with three of his monks, was arrested and tried at Lincoln by the commission under Sir William Parr. The monks when examined told their share in the rebellion quite simply. The day after the ringing of the alarm bell at Louth news of the disturbance was brought to the abbey by John Parker, the abbot's servant. On the same day sixty persons came and carried off all the serving-men attached to the monastery. On Wednesday John Parker returned with a message that if the monks themselves did not go forth at once to the host their house should be burned over their heads. Accordingly all those who were not too infirm went forth, the cellarer and bursar being horsed and carrying battle-axes. The abbot himself was too ill to go, but he gave the bursar 20s. and a horse laden with victuals. The monks remained with the insurgents until the following Tuesday, 10 October, when the abbot received them again gladly, and ' thanked God there was no business.' (fn. 15) They all told the same story quite straightforwardly, and there seems no reason to question its truth.

The abbot and the other monks arrested with him were at first put to bail, (fn. 16) and it seems that they had at first some hope of pardon, for on 29 January, 1537, the abbot thanked Cromwell for his comforting letter, and begged continuance of his favour. (fn. 17) On 6 March, however, all four were condemned to death, (fn. 18) and the whole monastery was attainted. The buildings were defaced and the leads melted down for the king's use. (fn. 19) The remaining monks apparently received a trifle to buy secular clothing, and were then turned adrift. (fn. 20) Sir William Parr complained that he found very little of value in the house, the plate and ready money were scarce worth 20s., ' through the late abbot's unthriftiness, for which he would have deserved punishment had he not transgressed the laws.' (fn. 21) The poverty of the monastery at this time may have been a partial cause of the abbot's failure to obtain a pardon.

It is always difficult to find out very much about the interior history of a Cistercian abbey, unless it happens to possess a chronicle; we are dependent upon stray notices, and have no regular visitation reports to go by. Some facts, however, stand out clearly in the early history of Kirkstead. The first and second abbots were both members (fn. 22) of that heroic band which went forth from St. Mary's, York, in 1132, (fn. 23) in search of a more perfect life; they could remember the hardships of that first winter under the scanty shelter of a roof of boughs in the wild solitude where the abbey of Fountains was afterwards built. They would bring to the new foundation in Lincolnshire the best traditions of the order; and the monks of Kirkstead must have known in those early days something of the joy which accompanies the first fervour of a great reformation. In course of time, as we know, that first fervour cooled, but the records do not show us any evidence of serious laxity in this abbey. A league of brotherhood, into which the monasteries of Kirkstead and Revesby entered in the year 1257, suggests that there had been some difficulties between them as to their rights on Wildmoor Common, and that the quarrel had been taken up a little too eagerly by the lay brethren and servants of the two houses. They agreed that in future each should perform for the deceased brethren of the other house the same services as for their own, and that if either house should need counsel or help from the other, on account of diminished numbers or resources, it should be gladly given. The lay brethren and servants were especially enjoined not to carry arms, or take large dogs about with them, for fear of damage being done to the men or animals belonging to either convent; any lay brother who offended in this respect should go on foot to the house he had injured, and undergo severe penances for three days; a secular servant should be flogged at the door of the offended monastery, and fast for three days on bread and water. (fn. 24)

Occasional cases of apostasy have to be recorded of every monastery now and again. We hear of one at Kirkstead in 1341, Ivo le Taylour, a lay brother; (fn. 25) and another in 1390 was absolved by order of the pope for going off to Rome on a pretended pilgrimage, and laying aside his habit on the way whenever he felt inclined. (fn. 26) Both of these repented and desired to return to the abbey. In 1429 another lay brother of Kirkstead was roaming about in secular garb; the warden of the Cinque Ports was ordered to arrest him. (fn. 27)

In 1404 an unruly monk caused a good deal of trouble by opposing the election of a new abbot, Thomas by name. The election had been made in all due form; the late abbot had tendered his resignation, according to the custom of the order, to the abbot of Fountains; the new abbot was confirmed and canonically instituted; but a certain William of Louth managed to work up an opposition party against Thomas, and actually ejected him for a time. The case was referred, as usual, to the pope; Thomas was restored, and William condemned to perpetual silence and payment of costs. He appealed twice again to Rome, but only to have the sentence twice confirmed, and at last orders had to be given to invoke the secular arm if necessary. (fn. 28)

In 1441, when measures were being taken for the reform of the whole Cistercian order, the abbot of Kirkstead was appointed, with the abbots of Furness, Byland, Sawley, Hayles, and Morgan, to carry out the work in England. (fn. 29) We may surely infer that these houses were at this time in a more satisfactory condition than the rest, or their abbots would scarcely have been singled out for this purpose.

Nothing is alleged against the abbey at the last except its poverty, because of the ' unthriftiness ' of the abbot. He had not been in office for more than ten years, so that he cannot justly be made responsible for the losses of the house. Nor was he accused, like the abbot of Barlings, of hiding or making away with the plate and jewels of the monastery; his poverty was probably inherited. As to the complicity of the monks of Kirkstead in the Lincoln rebellion, their case was very much the same as that of Bardney, and their guilt or innocence must be inferred from similar data.

The original endowment of Kirkstead Abbey by Hugh Brito consisted of the site of the abbey in Kirkstead. Benefactors of the twelfth century added the granges or manors of Daw-wood, Great Sturton, Snelland, Gayton, Dunholm, Benniworth, Ulceby, Scampton, Sheepwash, Branston, Aneheythe, Linwood, Thimbleby, Scrane, Langton, Langworth, Wildmore, Braken, Torrington, in Lincolnshire, and Sunnolclif and Penistone, Yorks, (fn. 30) with the churches of Gayton, (fn. 31) Thimbleby, (fn. 32) Woodhall, (fn. 33) and Covenham, (fn. 34) to which was added later that of Wispington. (fn. 35) The temporalities of the abbey were valued in 1291 at £369 3s. 9d. (fn. 36) The abbot was returned in 1303 as holding one knight's fee in Scampton, one-quarter and onesixth in Metheringham, one-quarter and one-eighth in Sturton, one-quarter in Govenham, Fulletby and Oxcombe, Gayton and Nocton, one-third in Grimblethorpe, and various fractions from one-sixth to one-fortieth in Scampton, Dunston, Blankney, Timberland, Tathwell, Keddington, Billinghay, Walcot, Thimbleby, Hainton, Langton, Coleby, Canwick, Kirkby-on-Bain, Dunholme, and Scopwick. (fn. 37) The assessment is very nearly the same in 1346 and 1428. The valuation of the abbey in 1534 was £286 2s. 7¾d. clear. (fn. 38) At the attainder of the abbot in 1537 a survey of the lands of the monastery was taken; they included the manors of Kirkstead, Scampton, Waddingworth, Ludney, Woodhall, Covenham, Thimbleby, Gayton, Kirkby-on-Bain, Wildmore, Marton, Benniworth, and the granges of Dunholm, Sheepwash, Westlaby, Snelland, Great Sturton, Linwood, Roughton, Boston, Wrangle, and rents in many other places; as well as the profits of the rectories of Woodhall, Wispington, Thimbleby, Gayton and Covenham churches. The house was burdened with six corrodies. (fn. 39)

Abbots Of Kirkstead

Robert of Sutholme or Southwell, (fn. 40) elected 1139

Walter, (fn. 41) occurs about 1156

Richard, (fn. 42) occurs 1190

Thomas, (fn. 43) occurs from 1202 to 1206

William, (fn. 44) occurs 1208 and 1210

Henry, (fn. 45) occurs from 1219 to 1234

Hugh, (fn. 46) occurs from 1239 to 1245

Henry (fn. 47)

Simon, (fn. 48) occurs 1250

William, (fn. 49) occurs 1253 to 1260

John, (fn. 50) occurs 1266

Simon, (fn. 51) occurs 1275 to 1279

Robert of Withcall, (fn. 52) occurs 1303 to 1310

Thomas, (fn. 53) elected 1312

John (fn. 54) (of Louth), elected 1315, occurs 1331

John (fn. 55) (of Lincoln), elected 1336, occurs 1339

William, (fn. 56) occurs 1347

Thomas of Nafferton, (fn. 57) occurs 1367 and 1372

Richard of Upton (fn. 58)

Thomas, (fn. 59) elected before 1404

Richard Wainfleet, (fn. 60) occurs 1433

Richard Herbotyl, (fn. 61) occurs 1469

Roger, (fn. 62) occurs 1471

Ralf, (fn. 63) occurs 1471

Thomas, (fn. 64) occurs 1504

John Rawlinson, (fn. 65) occurs 1510 to 1521

John Tad caster, (fn. 66) occurs 1522

Richard Harrison, (fn. 67) last abbot, occurs from 1529

The pointed oval seal (fn. 68) of the thirteenth century represents the Virgin seated on a throne in a niche with trefoiled arch, crocketed and pinnacled, with crown, the Child on her left knee. At each side a shield of arms: on the left chequy a chief ermine Tattershall, and over it the letter S with a wavy sprig of foliage and flowers; on the right a cross moline, and over it the letter K and a wavy sprig. In base, under a carved arcade of three round-headed arches, the abbot kneeling in prayer to the right, with pastoral staff, and two monks, half-length, in prayer. In the field, over the head of the Virgin, an estoile; on the carved canopy on the right a bird.


The thirteenth-century seal of Abbot Simon (fn. 69) is a pointed oval, showing the abbot standing on a corbel, in the right hand a pastoral staff, and in the left hand a book.



  • 1. Cott. MS. Tib. E. viii, fol. 49d.; Ibid. Vesp. E. xviii, fol. 2.
  • 2. Cott. MS. Tib. E. 52, and Dodsworth MS. lxxv (a transcript of a chartulary of Kirkstead) for that date.
  • 3. See Dodsworth MSS. lxxi, 25; xxx, 12; Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xviii.
  • 4. The reverse is usually the case with Cistercian abbeys; but all those in the county of Lincoln seem to have grown poorer after the thirteenth century.
  • 5. Boyd and Massingberd, Final Concords, 162, 163, 302; Lincs. N. and Q. vii, 137; and Weir, Horncastie, 116, quoting Harl. MS. 4127.
  • 6. All these accusations are found in Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 299, 317.
  • 7. Pat. 13 Edw. I, m. 23.
  • 8. Ibid. 9 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 10. There are some complaints by the abbot and against the abbot at this time of trespasses of divers kinds. Ibid. 3 Edw. II, m. 6d.; 7 Edw. II, m. 15 d.
  • 9. Ibid. 17 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 19d. 18 d.
  • 10. Ibid. 14 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 36.
  • 11. Harl. Chart. 58 C. 2.
  • 12. Cal. of Pat. 1330-4, p. 282.
  • 13. Pat. 2 Hen. IV, pt. iii, m. 22.
  • 14. Ibid. 11 Edw. IV, pt. i, m. 24 d.
  • 15. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xi, 828 (viii).
  • 16. Ibid. 827 (ii).
  • 17. Ibid. xii (1), 278.
  • 18. Controlment Roll, 30 Hen. VIII, m. 6 (dated Lincoln, Tuesday in third week of Lent, 28 Hen. VIII). Marginal note that they were drawn and hanged.
  • 19. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (1), 676.
  • 20. Ibid. 700. Sir William Parr wrote that he took £20 with him to pay monks, canons, and servants of Kirkstead and Barlings. As there were twelve monks left at Kirkstead, and about the same number at Barlings, to say nothing of the servants, they could not have had the usual 20s. each.
  • 21. Ibid. 677.
  • 22. Lans. MS. 207, C. fol. 132 d.
  • 23. Ibid. 404, fol. 4.
  • 24. Lans. MS. 207, E. fol. 301.
  • 25. Cal. of Pap. Letters, ii, 552.
  • 26. Ibid. iv, 328.
  • 27. Pat. 7 Hen. VI, pt. i, m. 5 d.
  • 28. Cal of Pap. Letters, v, 610.
  • 29. Acts of P. C. (Rec. Com.), v, 151.
  • 30. Cal. of Chart. R. i, 383 and 394.
  • 31. Gale, Registrum Honoris de Richmond, 103.
  • 32. Cal. of Pap. Letters, i, 324.
  • 33. Pat. 14 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 36.
  • 34. Ibid. 10 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 12.
  • 35. Ibid. 2 Hen. IV, pt. iii, m. 22.
  • 36. Dugdale, Mon. v, 416.
  • 37. Feud. Aids, iii, 131-305.
  • 38. Valor Eccles. (Rec. Com.), iv, 34 et seq.
  • 39. Harl. MS. 144.
  • 40. Lans. MS. 207 C, fol. 132 d.
  • 41. Ibid. and Cott. MS. Vesp. E.xx, fol. 38. Dugdale's list sets ' Geoffrey, occurs 1154,' between Robert and Walter, who are called, however, first and second abbots in Lans. MS. 207 C, 132 d.
  • 42. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xviii, fol. 97 d.
  • 43. Boyd and Massingberd, Abstracts of Final Concords, 41,57,69.
  • 44. Ibid. 88, and Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xviii, fol. 207 d.
  • 45. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xviii, 106 d, 207 d, and Lans. MS. 207 C, fols. 126, 156.
  • 46. Boyd and Massingberd, Abstracts of Final Concords, 301; Lans. MS. 207 C, fol. 153.
  • 47. Mentioned as predecessor of Simon in Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xviii, fol. 190; but may not be the immediate predecessor.
  • 48. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xviii, fol. 190.
  • 49. Ibid. 190, 191 d.; Lans. MS. 207 C, fol. 114.
  • 50. Harl. Chart. 44, F 1.
  • 51. Ibid. F 3, and Pat. 9 Edw. I, m. 7.
  • 52. Lans. MS. 207 B, fol. 143.
  • 53. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, 241.
  • 54. Ibid. 314d. and Harl. Chart. 44, F 7.
  • 55. Lans. MS. 207 B, fol. 143, and Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Burghersh, 337.
  • 56. Cal. of Pap. Letters, iii, 246.
  • 57. Lans. MS. 207 B, fol. 143; Harl. Chart. 44, F 9.
  • 58. Mentioned as predecessor of Thomas, next in order.
  • 59. Cal. of Pap. Letters, v, 610.
  • 60. Lans. MS. 207 B, fol. 143.
  • 61. Harl. MS. 6952, fol. 88 (from Linc. Epis. Reg.).
  • 62. Pat. 11 Edw. IV, pt. i, m. 24 d.
  • 63. Comm. of Peace, 49 Hen. VI, m. 24 d.
  • 64. Dugdale, Mon. v, 416.
  • 65. Harl. MS. 6953, fol. 14 (from Linc. Epis. Reg.); L. and P. Hen. VIII, i, 663, and iii, 1379 (16).
  • 66. Linc. N. and Q. v, 36.
  • 67. L. and P. Henry VIII, iv (3), p. 2698.
  • 68. B. M. Seals, lxii, 92.
  • 69. Harl. Chart. 44, F 3.