Houses of Carthusian monks: The priory of Axholme

Pages 158-160

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

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The Carthusian monastery of Axholme was founded in 1395 or 1396 by Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, earl marshal of England, and afterwards duke of Norfolk. (fn. 1) Although there were never more than nine houses of this order in England, seven of them were founded between 1343 and 1414, at a time when the popularity of other religious houses was waning, and benefactors chose in preference schools, hospitals, and colleges of secular canons. The motive was no sudden enthusiasm for a new order: the Grande Chartreuse had its origin in 1084, and the English houses of Witham and Hinton had been founded in 1181 and 1227. (fn. 2)

Before 1389 Mowbray entertained the project of founding a charterhouse, and petitioned Urban VI for help. (fn. 3) The priory of Monks kirby in Warwickshire had been founded about 1078 by one of his ancestors as a cell to the Benedictine monastery of St. Nicholas at Angers. (fn. 4) Like other alien priories its history in the fourteenth century was very unsatisfactory. Early in the reign of Richard II the property, which was valued at over £200 a year, is said to have been leased by the monastery for a considerable sum of money to Sir Cannon Robsart, a Warwickshire knight. (fn. 5) The earl represented to Urban VI that religious observance had not flourished for some time at Monkskirby, the expenditure was no longer on pious uses, the French prior and monks had led dissolute lives, and the buildings were in part decayed. (fn. 6) Accordingly a papal mandate was issued to the bishop of Lichfield to transfer the priory and property of Monkskirby to a prior and convent of twelve Carthusian monks to be established in that place. (fn. 7) Apparently no steps were taken in the matter.

In 1396, possibly after consulting the Carthusian priors in England, Mowbray had chosen the isle of Axholme as a suitable spot for a charterhouse, and he then petitioned Boniface IX for leave to appropriate the priory of Monkskirby as part of its endowment. (fn. 8) Robert Waldby, archbishop of York, was commissioned to investigate the matter, and comply with Mowbray's request. (fn. 9)

On the site of the monastery at Low Melwood, in Epworth, stood a chapel dedicated to the Virgin which had long been called the Priory in the Wood. (fn. 10) There the earl planned to erect a new church in honour of the visitation of the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Edward king and confessor, cloisters, monastic buildings and cells for a prior and thirty monks. (fn. 11) With Richard II's licence he endowed the house in frankalmoigne with 100 acres in the manor of Epworth, a rent of 20 marks, and such rights of common of pasture, of turbary, and of fishery as other free tenants held within the isle, the advowsons of Epworth and Belton, and the priory of Monkskirby. (fn. 12) John More by was chosen as prior of the new foundation. (fn. 13)

In June, 1398, in aid of the building of the church and charterhouse, Boniface IX granted the very liberal indulgence known as that of St. Mary of the Angels at Assisi. (fn. 14) Penitents who visited the house on the feast of the Visitation of the Virgin, and gave alms to the fabric, received remission of all sins from their baptism to that day. Only three months later, as the result of his quarrel with Bolingbroke, the Duke of Norfolk was banished for life from the kingdom, and he died at Venice in September, 1399. (fn. 15)

Soon after the accession of Henry IV the prior and convent of Axholme suffered a severe blow. On 29 December, 1399, the priory of Monkskirby was restored to the monastery of St. Nicholas at Angers, (fn. 16) and in 1401 Boniface IX annulled his former mandate by the desire of Henry IV. (fn. 17) The house was in this way deprived of the greater part of its endowment, until Monkskirby was confiscated with the rest of the alien priories by Henry V, and restored to Axholme in 1415. (fn. 18)

Under these circumstances it is probable that the convent consisted only of a prior and twelve monks, the fixed complement according to the earlier statutes of the order, and a certain number of lay brothers.

In 1449 the charterhouse was very flourishing, the numbers had increased, but there were not enough cells for the monks, and buildings begun 'with wondrous skill and great cost' were still unfinished. (fn. 19) The prior and convent desired to add to their endowment, and in 1450 succeeded in appropriating to their own use the church of Sileby in Leicestershire, which after the ordination of a vicarage was worth at least 14 marks a year. (fn. 20) In 1461 they obtained from Edward IV a confirmation of former charters, and as his special gift two pipes of Gascon wine to be taken each year at the port of Hull, and licence to acquire property in mortmain to the annual value of £50. (fn. 21)

Of the internal history of the house there is nothing to record. The life in a Carthusian monastery was one of prayer and contemplation. (fn. 22) Each monk had a small house of two stories with a little garden ranged around a cloister. The ground floor was occupied by a workroom in which he kept his tools; in the two rooms above it he prayed, read, ate, and slept. His food was passed into the lower room through an opening so constructed that he could not see the lay brother who brought it.

Three times in the day he went to the church for the services of mattins, mass, and vespers, but the other hours he said in his cell. On Saturdays he might take a walk within the grounds of the monastery. On Sundays and feast-days most of the services were held in the church, and the monks dined together in the frater. The chapterhouse was used for service on certain feast-days, and there the monks assembled for a necessary discussion about the temporal affairs of the monastery. The officers were the prior, vicar, proctor, and sacrist. The prior had supreme power, but was subject to the prior of the Grande Chartreuse, and to the visitors of the province, when they came to his house. The vicar was spiritual head of the monastery in the prior's absence. The proctor was responsible for the general administration of "the house, and bore rule over the lay brothers and servants. In the statutes of the order the number of lay brothers was limited to sixteen. The offices held by them were those of kitchener and cellarer, baker, cobbler, proctor of agriculture, and master of the shepherds. A number of hired servants were employed.

The nine houses in England formed a separate province of the Carthusian order, and two visitors chosen from among its priors were appointed at intervals by the general chapter, which met yearly at the Grande Chartreuse. The visitors performed their office in each house once in two years. Every other year one at least of them was bound to attend the general chapter, and the expense was borne by all the houses of the province. In 1415 (fn. 23) it was conceded that the visitor should only attend in leap year, in other years letters from the province were to be sent to the nearest priors across the sea.

The numbers at Axholme declined before the dissolution, when there were not a dozen monks in the house. There is no reason to think that discipline was not strictly maintained, and under such a prior as Augustine Webster the spiritual and moral condition cannot have been other than satisfactory. The revenues amply sufficed for the needs of the house. When the difficult questions of the succession arising out of the divorce of Catherine of Aragon and the marriage with Anne Boleyn were under discussion, a determined effort was made to force the monks of the London Charterhouse to assent to the king's will. Under the rule of Prior Houghton, the house was a model of religious observance. Although the monks were so strictly enclosed they had considerable influence, as many persons resorted to them for spiritual advice. The story of their troubles has often been told. (fn. 100) About the middle of April, 1533, when they were expecting to have the oath of supremacy tendered to them, Augustine Webster, prior of Axholme, and Robert Lawrence, prior of Beauvale, arrived at the Charterhouse. They determined to go to Cromwell with Prior Houghton in the hope of perhaps obtaining some modification of the royal demands. Cromwell refused to listen to them, and gave orders that they should be arrested on the spot and taken to the Tower. On 20 April the priors of Axholme and Beauvale were examined by Cromwell at his house in the Rolls. (fn. 26) When questioned as to the royal supremacy both declared that they could not assent nor so believe. Accordingly they were taken back to the Tower. On 28 April they were tried together with Prior Houghton and Dr. Reynolds, a Brigettine monk of Sion, on the charge of treason. (fn. 26) Whether the jury were influenced by Cromwell's threats or not, they brought in a verdict of guilty on the 29th, and the prisoners were condemned to death. On the next day Cranmer wrote to Cromwell on behalf of the prior of Axholme and Dr. Reynolds. ' I marvel at both' he said, ' as they are learned men, and Webster promised he would never support that opinion. If no other offence, it will much more tend to the conversion of others to convert their consciences by sincere doctrine, and so for them to publish it than to suffer penalty of law. If they were sent to me, I suppose I could do much on their behalf.' (fn. 27) If Cromwell allowed Cranmer to exert his influence it was of no avail. On 14 May, 1535, the three Carthusian priors and Dr. Reynolds were executed at Tyburn.

The monks at Axholme did not emulate the example of their prior, and none of them were included among the Carthusians who suffered death for their opinions. It is probable that the vicar (fn. 28) of the house, Michael Mekeness, became prior by Cromwell's appointment. His rule was very unquiet. (fn. 29) A certain Henry Stokwith, who, in view of the coming surrender, desired the lease of the demesne lands, stirred up strife between the prior and the monks. The prior appears to have looked only to his own interests and to have purposed to surrender his house. He kept the convent seal and quarrelled with the monks who refused their consent to a lease of certain property to one of his kinsmen. Cromwell heard, perhaps from the monks, (fn. 30) that the prior was wasting the goods of the house, and it was rumoured that he intended to depose him. (fn. 31) In February, 1538, a letter signed by eight of the monks was sent to Cromwell stating their belief that he had elected brother Thomas Barningham as prior, and asking that he might be put into possession as soon as possible. (fn. 32) On 21 March they wrote again. (fn. 33) The prior, expecting to be deprived, had by Stokwith's advice laid hands on all the money he could, collected the rents, sold all the valuable horses, and gone away, leaving them only £3. ' Dan Thomas Barningham is a sad and very religious man,' they said, 'would God we had him.' Nothing was done. Cranmer interposed and urged the willingness of the prior to surrender the house. (fn. 34) A letter to the prior of Shene Charterhouse, written in utter despair, and signed by two monks and a lay brother, discloses the pitiful condition of the house. (fn. 35) ' Our husbandry is not looked upon, our land is not tilled, muck is not led, our corn lyeth in the barn, some is threshed and some is husbanded, and much is yet to thresh, and taketh hurt with vermin; and as soon as our father came home, he shewed our servants that he had given up the house and bade them shift for themselves, and so at Easter they went many of them away. And shortly hay-time shall come, and when it should be sped, other things shall be to do.' They heard, too, that the prior was going to send Stokwith to London with the convent seal, and dreaded the worst.

Their fears were shortly justified. When the commissioners arrived to take the surrender, there was no resistance. It was signed on 18 June, 1538, by the prior and eight monks. (fn. 36) The prior was awarded a pension of £20, and seven of the monks received small yearly sums. (fn. 37) The lay brothers got nothing.

The clear yearly value of the property in 1535 amounted to £237 15s. 2¾d., of which £157 12sd. was drawn from the temporalities and spiritualities of Monkskirby. (fn. 38) The remainder included lands and rents in the Isle of Axholme, in Owston, Kinnard's Ferry, Gunthorpe, and Kelfield in Lincolnshire, and small rents in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, and the rectory of Sileby. The demesne lands were worth £3 18s. 4d. a year. In the hands of the crown bailiff four years later, the property brought in £323 2s. 0½d. (fn. 39)

Priors of Axholme

John Moreby, elected 1396 (fn. 40)

Henry, occurs 1449 (fn. 41)

Richard, occurs 1469 (fn. 42) and 1472 (fn. 43)

Augustine Webster, 1535 (fn. 44)

Michael Mekeness, 1535 to 1538 (fn. 45)

A seal of this priory is attached to a charter of 1450. (fn. 46) It is in shape a pointed oval, and represents the Salutation of the Virgin, in a niche with carved canopy, and tabernacle work at the sides, on which are two shields of arms of the founder: a lion rampant, Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, afterwards duke of Norfolk. In base, under an arch, a shield of arms: England with a label of three points. (fn. 47) The legend is:—



  • 1. Pat. 19 Ric. II, pt, i, m. 36. Exch. K.R. Eccles. Doc. (P.R.O.) 9/15, fol. 2, 7. This is only a part of the chartulary, and ends abruptly before the conclusion of the foundation charter, so the exact date is missing.
  • 2. Dugdale, Mon. vi, 1-24.
  • 3. Exch. K.R. Eccles. Doc. (P.R.O.) 9/15, fol. 2.
  • 4. Ibid. Cf. Dugdale, Warw. (ed. 1730), 1,75.
  • 5. Ibid. 76.
  • 6. Exch. K.R. Eccles. Doc. (P.R.O.) 9/15, fol. .2.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Exch. K.R. Eccles. Doc. (P.R.O.) 9/15, fol. 8; Dugdale, Mon, v, 26, No. ii.
  • 11. Exch. K.R. Eccles. Doc. (P.R.O.) 9/15, fol. 7.
  • 12. Ibid. fol. 3 v. 4, 5, 7, 8. The endowment of Monkskirby included the manors of New bold on Avon, Coppeston, and Walton, the appropriated churches of Monkskirby and New bold, and the advowsons of Withy Brook, Warpenbury, and Sharnford.
  • 13. Ibid. fol. 5 v. 6, 7.
  • 14. Dugdale, Mon. v, 27.
  • 15. Dict. Nat. Biog.
  • 16. Cal Pat. 1 Hen. IV, pt. ii, m. 13.
  • 17. Cal Papal Letters, v, 438.
  • 18. Pat. 3 Hen. V. pt. ii, m. 39.
  • 19. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo.' Lumley, fol. 49.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1 Edw. IV, pt. vi, m. 39 and 38.
  • 22. It is only possible here to indicate a few of the features of life in a Carthusian monastery. The statutes of Guigo, fifth prior of the Grande Chartreuse, were printed in 1510, Statuta Ordinis Cartusiensis a Damno Guigone Priore Cartusiae edita; of. also Disdplina Ordinis Cartusiensis auctore R. P. D. Innocentio le Masson, (nova editio), 1894. For a summary of. Laurence Hendrik, The London Charterhouse (ed. 1889), 26-35, 55-8, and E. Margaret Thompson, The Somerset Carthusians (ed. 1895), 31-44.
  • 23. The Somerset Carthusians, 109.
  • 100. Laurence Hendriks, The London Charterhouse, 115-240. F. A. Gasquet, Hen. VIII and the English Monasteries (ed. 1899), 45-74.
  • 25. L. and P. Hers. Vlll, viii, No. 565.
  • 26. Ibid. No. 609.
  • 27. L. and P. Hen. VIII, viii, No. 616.
  • 28. Wright, Suppression of the Monasteries (Camden Soc.), 174.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ibid. 176.
  • 31. Ibid. 173.
  • 32. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (i), No. 489. This and the following letter were probably written in 1538, not 1537. Cf. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (i), No. 1025.
  • 33. Ibid. No. 693.
  • 34. Wright, Suppression of the Monasteries (Camden Soc.), 173.
  • 35. Ibid. 174-6.
  • 36. Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii, App. ii, p. viii.
  • 37. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (i), 597.
  • 38. Valor Eccles. (Rec. Com.), iv, 135, 136.
  • 39. Dugdale, Mon. v, 28.
  • 40. Exch. K.R. Eccles. Doc. (P. R. O.) 9/15, fol. 5 v. 7.
  • 41. Linc. Epis. Reg. Lumley, fol. 12.
  • 42. Cal. Pat. 9 Edw. IV, pt. 1, m. 12.
  • 43. Cole MS. xxviii, fol. 204b (B.M.).
  • 44. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, No. 565.
  • 45. Wright, Suppression of the Monasteries (Camden Soc.), 174.
  • 46. Add. Chart. 20612 (B.M.).
  • 47. W. de Gray Birch, Cat. of Seals, i, 430. The seal attached to the surrender (Deeds of Surrender, Aug. Off. No. 9) is exactly similar.