Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of Thornton

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

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, 'Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of Thornton', in A History of the County of Lincoln: Volume 2, (London, 1906) pp. 163-166. British History Online [accessed 28 May 2024].

. "Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of Thornton", in A History of the County of Lincoln: Volume 2, (London, 1906) 163-166. British History Online, accessed May 28, 2024,

. "Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of Thornton", A History of the County of Lincoln: Volume 2, (London, 1906). 163-166. British History Online. Web. 28 May 2024,

In this section


The abbey of Thornton was founded in 1139 by William le Gros, earl of Albemarle and lord of Holderness. The foundation charter states that by the counsel of his kinsman Waltheof, prior of Kirkham, of Simon earl of Northampton and Henry earl of Huntingdon, the founder placed here twelve canons from Kirkham who were at first ruled by a prior; and the house was raised to the dignity of an abbey by bull of Pope Eugenius III in 1148. (fn. 1)

Before 1284 the Albemarle estates escheated to the crown; but the canons of Thornton had already acquired the privilege of administering the estates of the monastery during voidance, without fees to the patron, except such as were due to two servants who kept the great gate and the door of the guest house in his name. This privilege was confirmed by the king, (fn. 2) who also, in consideration of a fine of £10, promised not to grant the advowson of the abbey out of his own hands and those of his successors. (fn. 3) It remained therefore a royal foundation until the dissolution.

The abbey was well endowed with lands and churches by the founder and other benefactors; and in 1291 its temporalities were taxed at £235. (fn. 4) The original number of canons was considerably increased, and even at the dissolution there were still twenty-three.

In 1221 the abbot secured the advowson of Welton-in-the-Marsh in a suit with Walter de Hamby, a descendant of the original donor. (fn. 5) From 1269 to 1292 a good deal of expense was incurred by the purchase of certain manors and advowsons. (fn. 6) In 1275 the abbot was accused of appropriating sixteen acres on the moor of Caistor for his sheepfolds (fn. 7); in 1319 he received a pardon for his trespass. (fn. 8) During the reign of Edward II the canons of Thornton had to contribute provisions for the Scottish war at considerable expense, and were also disseised of some property by Hugh le Despenser, of whose want of reverence for church property this is not the only instance. The land was restored by Edward III, and payment promised for the provisions. (fn. 9) In 1332 losses from inundation, cattle plague, and the burden of hospitality led to the impropriation of the church of Wootton. (fn. 10) Several pensioners were sent successively by Edward I and Edward II to spend their last days at the abbey. (fn. 11) In 1312 the abbot was summoned for the first time to Parliament, but he and his successors made great efforts to escape this duty; in 1341 an exemption was formally granted, (fn. 12) but in 1348 it was revoked, and attendance was thenceforward required. (fn. 13) A petition made by the abbot in 1341, that he might not have to pay a ninth on his temporalities as well as the annual and triennial tenths, was granted for all property acquired before 1292. (fn. 14)

Some of the abbots of the fourteenth century were great builders, and spent on the decoration and improvement of the monastery rather more than their revenues justified. William Grasby, abbot from 1323 to 1347, incurred great expenses in this way; he also purchased the manor of Barrow for £200 and the advowson of Welton for £60, and at his death the house was evidently somewhat embarrassed; (fn. 15) and the bursar at this time was extravagant and suspected even of dishonesty. (fn. 16) The next abbot, Robert of Darlington, spent a good deal on the decoration of the church and monastic buildings generally. (fn. 17)

Little is known of the history of the abbey in the fifteenth century, except that it shared in the general decline of learning and discipline. (fn. 18) Its prosperity, however, was not much diminished. In 1518 the abbot was able to secure from Pope Leo X a bull granting him the privilege of celebrating mass in a mitre with gold plates and full pontificals. (fn. 19) The abbey was described in 1521 as one of the goodliest houses of the order in England. (fn. 20) Some slight losses were suffered by inundation in 1534; (fn. 21) but the revenue was returned in the same year as nearly £600 clear.

Abbot John Moor signed the acknowledgement of supremacy, with twenty-three canons. (fn. 22) He was accused after the Lincoln rebellion of having provided the insurgents with money; (fn. 23) but he was not brought to trial. His successor, William Hobson, surrendered the abbey in 1539, receiving a pension of £40. The canons received annuities of £5 to £7 each. (fn. 24) The revenues of the house were employed for a short time in maintaining a college for secular priests. (fn. 25)

From the thirteenth century onwards this house was one of the largest and most important in the county. There is no precise record of the number of canons in its most prosperous days, but the order of Bishop Alnwick that one canon out of twenty should be maintained at the university looks as if there were more in his time than at the dissolution. The Chronicle transcribed by Tanner gave lists of obedientiaries which imply a very considerable household. (fn. 26) A school of fourteen boys, who had to serve at mass, was kept in the almonry, with a master to instruct them, and a large number of corrodyholders claimed maintenance from the Court of Augmentation at the surrender of the monastery. (fn. 27)

The house had its vicissitudes, as might be expected, in point of order and discipline. The abbot of Thornton was one of those deposed by Bishop Grosteste in 1235 for causes not specified. (fn. 28) There were cases of apostacy and other individual delinquencies from time to time. In 1298 a canon named Peter de Alazun, having a greater zeal for learning than for holy obedience, forsook his monastery and joined the scholars at Oxford in secular habit. He was excommunicated by the chancellor throughout the schools, but apparently did not repent and return till 1309. (fn. 29) Another canon, Peter Franke, was involved in 1346 in a discreditable fracas between the servants of the monastery and those of a knight of the neighbourhood. The knight's servants had seized a boatload of victuals on its way to the abbey, and Peter, being the knight's kinsman, thought he could induce them by fair words to give up the booty; but though he urged the ringleader 'in the sweetest possible way' to restore the boat, he was answered in such rude fashion that he lost his temper, snatched up the nearest weapon, and wounded the man mortally. The Earl of Lancaster interceded for the canon, who would naturally for this act have been disabled from exercising any ecclesiastical function; and the pope allowed him to retain the exercise of minor orders, and to hold a benefice. (fn. 30)

Cases of this kind show us nothing of the general condition of the house. (fn. 31) The abbot at this time was William Grasby, who was at any rate zealous for the exterior adornment of the monastery, (fn. 32) and his appointment jointly with the prior of Kirkham in 1340 by Pope Benedict XII to convoke a general chapter of the order (fn. 33) seems to imply that he enjoyed a good reputation among his brethren. The next abbot, Robert of Darlington, had been made cellarer previously by Bishop Gynwell expressly on account of his 'honest and laudable conversation,' (fn. 34) and an order given during his time that 'no woman, however honest,' should be allowed to live in the monastery, (fn. 35) does not necessarily imply that any serious wrongdoing had been discovered. His successor, Thomas Gresham, was however a man of very evil life, (fn. 36) and those who followed for a while, though less unworthy of their office than he, do not seem to have been capable of restoring the credit of the house. Bishop Flemyng's injunctions in 1424 show that the number of boys educated in the almonry had diminished, and that the poor and infirm were not succoured as in days gone by. (fn. 37) When Walter Moulton succeeded in 1439 he was evidently quite unable to cope with the laxities and disorders of the house. At Bishop Alnwick's visitation of 1440 he complained that the obedientiaries did not render their accounts. The canons said that the abbot was thoroughly incompetent, that manors, granges, &c., were let without consent of chapter, that the sick were not provided for, that there were only two boys in the almonry, and no scholar at the university. The brethren did not eat regularly in the refectory, and the sacrist had lent the sacred vestments to seculars for games and spectacles. The bishop's injunctions ordered reform on all these points: after personal examination of the abbot, he appointed him a coadjutor elected by the convent. (fn. 38)

After this the house seems to have recovered a higher standard. Bishop Atwater in 1519 had no remarks to make at all. (fn. 39) Nothing is alleged to the discredit of the abbot and convent at the end, except sympathy with the popular movement in 1536; and even if this is true, it does not prove that there was anything wrong in the lives of the canons.

The original endowment of the abbey of Thornton by the founder consisted of the vills of Thornton, Grasby, Audleby, Burnham, 'Helwell' (Linc.), and Frodingham (Yorks.), with the churches of Audleby, Ulceby, Frodingham, Barrow-on-Humber, 'Heccam' and 'Randa.' Other benefactors added the vill of Humbleton and half that of Warham, with divers other parcels of land, and the -churches of Thornton, (Linc.), Humbleton, Garton, Welton, and half that of Wyner (Yorks.), and 'Ulstikeby.' (fn. 40) The patronage of the churches of Carlton, Kelstern, Worlaby, and Wootton was acquired later, with the manors of Halton, Barrow, and Mersland. (fn. 41)

The temporalities of the abbey were taxed in 1291 at £235 0s. 9d. (fn. 42) In 1303 the abbot held a knight's fee in Wootton and Goxhill, another in Barrow, one and a half in Killingholm, a half in Owmby and in Wootton and Little Limber, one quarter in Worlaby, and smaller fractions in Barton, Croxton, Killingholm, Searby, Welton, and Great Sturton. (fn. 43) In 1346 his lands were almost the same, except that he had two fees in Barrow (fn. 44); in 1428 he had a small fraction of a fee in Hamby as well. (fn. 45) In 1431 he held the manors of Barrow and Ulceby, acquired since 20 Edw. I. In 1534 the clear revenue of the abbey amounted to £591 0s. 2¾d., and in the Ministers' Account of the year 1542-3 includes the churches of Thornton, Barrow, Ulceby, Worlaby, Wootton, Carlton, Kelstern, and Grasby in Lincolnshire, Elstronwick, Danthorpe, Garton, and Hinton in Yorkshire, and the manors of Thornton, Wootton, Barrow, Carltonle-Moorland, Halton, Killingholme, Gothill, Ulceby, Owersby, and Stainton-le-Hole in Lincolnshire, and Garton, Ottringham, Frodingham, Humbleton, Faxfleet, and Wyncetts in Skeffling (Yorks.). (fn. 46) There was a small cell of this abbey at Thwayte, in Welton in the Marsh, of which a single canon had charge, during the fifteenth century. (fn. 47)

Abbots of Thornton (fn. 48)

Richard, first prior in 1139, abbot in 1148, died 1152

Philip, elected 1152

Thomas, elected 1175

John Benton, elected 1184

Jordan de Villa, elected 1203

Richard de Villa, elected 1223

Geoffrey of Holme, elected 1233

Robert, elected 1245, died 1257

William Lincoln, elected 1257

William Huttoft, elected 1273, resigned 1290

Thomas of Glanford Bridge, elected 1290, died 1323

William Grasby, (fn. 49) elected 1323, resigned 1348

Robert Darlington, elected 1348, died 1364

Thomas Gresham, (fn. 50) elected 1364

William Moulton, elected 1394, died 1418

Geoffrey Burton, elected 1418, died 1422

John Hoton, elected 1422, died 1439

Walter Moulton, elected 1439, died 1443

William Medley, elected 1443, died 1473

John Beverley, elected 1473, died 1492

John Louth, elected 1492, died 1517

Thomas Butterwick, elected 1517, died 1526

John More, elected 1526, occurs till 1534

William Hobson, (fn. 51) last abbot

The thirteenth-century seal (fn. 52) has a pointed oval obverse representing the Virgin, with crown, seated on a throne, in the right hand a lily sceptre, topped with a bird, in the left hand a book. The Child on her lap. [Her feet on a footboard.]

. . . SBE . . . TO . . .

The reverse is a smaller oval counter seal impression of an antique oval intaglio gem representing a helmeted figure seated on a bench; to the left on the ground a shield.


The thirteenth-century seal of Abbot William Lincoln (fn. 53) has a pointed oval obverse showing the Virgin half length with a crown under a trefoiled arch with churchlike canopy, the Child on the left knee. In base under a pointed and trefoiled arch with pinnacled gables, the abbot half length with pastoral staff to the right.


The reverse is a smaller pointed oval counter seal showing the Virgin seated with the Child; in base, under a trefoiled arch, the abbot kneeling in prayer to the right.



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. vi, 324; from a chronicle of which a transcript exists in the Bodleian Library, Tanner MSS. 166.
  • 2. Pat. 12 Edw. I, m. 11; and Close, 16 Edw. II, m. 22.
  • 3. Pat. 6 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 9; Abbrev. Plac. (Rec. Com.), 73.
  • 4. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 68b.
  • 5. Boyd and Massingberd, Abstracts of Final Concords, 162.
  • 6. Dugdale, Mon. vi, 324, Charter i.
  • 7. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 266.
  • 8. Pat. 12 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 14. Perhaps it was for assault made by his porter and others on the goods of Richard of Pontefract at Winterton; ibid. 7 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 3 d.
  • 9. Ibid. 2 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 2; Close, 1 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 24.
  • 10. Cal. of Pap. Letters, ii, 354.
  • 11. See Close, 24 Edw. I-13 Edw. II. There were probably many more.
  • 12. Close, 15 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 22.
  • 13. Ibid. 22 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 7 d.
  • 14. Ibid. 15 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 22.
  • 15. Tanner MS. 166.
  • 16. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Gynwell, 22 d.
  • 17. Tanner MS. 166.
  • 18. Visitations of Alnwick (Alnwick Tower), 70 d.
  • 19. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Smith, 76.
  • 20. L. and P. Hen. VIII, iii (1), 510.
  • 21. Ibid. vii, 589 (1). The abbot had a suit about 1532 against the inhabitants of Barrow, for driving his cattle off their pastures, and threatening to destroy them. Star Chamb. Proc. (1332-8), bdle. 18, No. 308.
  • 22. L. and P. Hen. VIII, vii, 1121 (46).
  • 23. Ibid. xi, 853 (2).
  • 24. Add. MS. 8102.
  • 25. See Thornton College.
  • 26. There are lists of cellarers, sub-cellarers, bursars, chamberlains, almoners, masters of the works, sacrists, kitcheners, infirmarers, as well as minor officials, in regular succession for a long time. Tanner MS. 166.
  • 27. Add. MS. 8102.
  • 28. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 143.
  • 29. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Sutton, 210, 214; ibid. Memo. Dalderby, 134d.
  • 30. Cal. of Pap. Pet. i, 112.
  • 31. The same may be said of the permission granted to a canon, William of Louth, in 1401, to abide within the cloister for life, and to be exempt from holding any office, that he might give himself entirely to devotion. Cal. of Pap. Letters, v, 493.
  • 32. Tanner MS. 166.
  • 33. Cott. MS. Vesp. D. i, 40-7.
  • 34. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Gynwell, 22 d.
  • 35. Ibid. Memo. Bokyngham, 20. He had been a definitor at the general chapter of 1362. Cott. MS. Vesp. D. I, fol. 55.
  • 36. The chronicler was evidently more honest and reliable than Tanner's friend who tore out the record of his life, 'to prevent ye scandall of ye church.' 'The truth is,' says Tanner, 'the account given of him was that he was a very wicked man, a Sodomite and what not.' Tanner MS. 166. It may be that his iniquities were for some time kept secret, for in 1383 he was made a definitor at the general chapter, Cott. MS. Vesp. D. I, fol. 63 d. He was abbot 1375-94.
  • 37. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Flemyng, 235.
  • 38. Visitations of Alnwick (Alnwick Tower), 70d. One of the canons stated that when the coming visitation was announced some of them met in chapter to try to set things straight a little; but when a tumult arose the abbot could do nothing but wring his hands and cry 'Woe is me! What shall I do ? I am undone!' and would have fled from the house as one demented. The bishop's decision that he was really incompetent tends to confirm this statement, and his feeble government and incapacity seems to have been greatly resented by the canons, for when he died in 1443 no obit was appointed for him—he was to be remembered only amongst the ordinary brethren departed, and even the place of his burial was unmarked by any inscription. Tanner MS. 166.
  • 39. Visitations of Atwater (Alnwick Tower), 54d.
  • 40. Dugdale, Mon. vi, 326-7.
  • 41. Tanner MS. 166; confirmed by entries on the Pat. Rolls and Linc. Epis. Reg.
  • 42. Pope Nich. Tax (Rec. Com.), 68b.
  • 43. Feud. Aids, iii, 131-74.
  • 44. Ibid. 215-57.
  • 45. Ibid. 257-308.
  • 46. Valor Eccles. (Rec. Com.), 73; and Dugdale, Mon. vi, 328.
  • 47. It is mentioned only in the visitation of Bishop Alnwick.
  • 48. This list is taken from Tanner MS. 166. The general trustworthiness of this manuscript can be proved in so many places by comparison with the Lincoln Registers and the Patent Rolls, &c., that its evidence may be accepted where they fail.
  • 49. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Gynwell, 22 d, says he resigned in July, 1348. The Chronicle places his death on 10 February, 1347. He probably died within the year of his resignation. The date would be taken from the lists of obits, and the difference in the year is very likely a slip, for Robert Darlington's election is dated 1348, as in the bishop's register.
  • 50. The date of his election, missing in the Chronicle, is supplied from Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Bokyngham, 21.
  • 51. The Chronicle breaks off in 1532. John More's name is on the acknowledgement of supremacy, and William Hobson's is only found in the pension list. Add. MS. 8102.
  • 52. Harl. Chart. 45, A 3.
  • 53. Ibid 44, B 56.