Houses of Cluniac monks: The priory of Bromholm

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

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'Houses of Cluniac monks: The priory of Bromholm', in A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, (London, 1906) pp. 359-363. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]

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The priory of Bromholm, dedicated to the honour of St. Andrew, was founded in 1113 by William de Glanvill, and was made subordinate to the Cluniac house of Castle Acre. Bartholomew de Glanvill, son of the founder, confirmed and increased his father's endowments. The charter enumerates the lands of Stanard, the priest of Keswick together with the church, the churches of Bromholm, Dilham, and Paston, with the tithes of many neighbouring estates. He also bequeathed to the priory, after his death, Gristcombe and all he possessed in the fields there, with his villeins. (fn. 1)

Henry III granted the priory, in 1229, a fair on Holy Cross Day and two days after, and a Monday market. (fn. 2) The same king in 1234 granted them rights of tumbrel and pillory, and relieved them of various tolls and duties. (fn. 3) An indult was granted to the prior and convent of Bromholm in 1239 to hold to their uses the church of Haninges, value under 20 marks, the patronage of which they already possessed. This grant was to take effect on the next voidance of the rectory, and a vicar's portion was to be reserved. (fn. 4)

The taxation of 1291 shows that this priory was then valued at £109 15s. 11d., and owned property in fifty-six Norfolk and sixteen Suffolk parishes. Pope Celestine in 1295 confirmed to the priory the appropriated churches of Bacton, Keswick, Paston, Witton, and Dilham. (fn. 5)

The Valor of 1535 estimated the clear annual value at £100 5s. 3¼d. The endowment at that time comprised the impropriation of seven Norfolk and two Suffolk churches, and the manors, pensions, lands or interests in fifty-eight parishes. The offerings at the cross of Bromholm amounted that year to £5 12s. 9d.

As early as 1195 Bromholm was relieved by Pope Celestine of most of its subjection to Castle Acre. (fn. 6) In 1225 a dispute arose between the priories of Bromholm and Castle Acre as to the right of the latter to impose a prior on the former, and next year Pope Honorius III issued his mandate to commissioners with power to summon both parties and to adjudicate in the dispute between the two priories. Castle Acre asserted that Bromholm was subject to them, and that they had in the past obtained papal letters with regard to the election of a prior of Bromholm, when it was decided that the prior of Acre should nominate three monks of Acre, one of whom was to be chosen prior. The convent of Bromholm had, however, petitioned the pope to allow them on the death of their present prior to have a free election notwithstanding the previous composition. (fn. 7) The dispute now became further complicated by the interference of the prior of Lewes, of which house Castle Acre was in its turn a cell. In 1229 Gregory IX referred the matter to the judgement of the abbot of Olveston and the deans of Stamford and Rutland, with the result that the prior of Castle Acre was for the future, on a vacancy arising, to nominate six monks, three of Acre and three of Bromholm, out of whom the convent of Bromholm should elect one for their prior. (fn. 8) During these four years the office of prior had been in abeyance, but on an election being held on the basis of the compromise of 1229, Vincent was chosen prior. All grievances were not, however, healed at once; for ten years later Prior Vincent was writing to the abbot of Cluni on the differences between himself and the priors of Lewes and Castle Acre. (fn. 9)

In 1275-6, Yves de Chassant, twenty-eighth abbot of Cluni, ordered a visitation of the English houses, and appointed for that duty John, prior of Wenlock, and Arnulph, the lord abbot's equerry. The visitors reached Bromholm on 12 March, 1276. They reported that the number of the brethren was sixteen, who lived sufficiently well and regularly. The debts amounted to £120. The same orders were issued by the visitors as are detailed under Castle Acre. (fn. 10)

In February, 1285, Roger, prior of Bromholm, wrote to, the abbot of Cluni excusing himself from personal attendance at the chaptergeneral at Cluni in consequence of his having legal business to attend to before the justices on circuit in Norfolk. In 1293 the same prior again excused himself from attendance at the chapter-general on the ground of his serious ill-health. (fn. 11)

In May, 1313, a royal grant was made to the monks of Bromholm to put them in the same position which they had held during previous voidances. Upon the voidance of their house by the death of their late prior, William de Tutingdon, the king, believing that the temporalities belonged to him during such voidance, caused the priory to be taken into his hands and placed in the custody of John de Norton, king's clerk, and John Pike. Afterwards it was found, by inquisition, that William de Glanvill, the first founder of the priory, and his heirs, and also Ralph and Edmund, earls of Cornwall, to whom the advowson of the priory successively fell, did not during voidance receive anything out of the issues of the priory, but that on each voidance there had been a porter appointed, who was accustomed to have his sustenance out of the goods of the priory during voidance as a sign of dominion. Whereupon the king commanded John de Norton and John Pike not to interfere with the custody of the priory, and to deliver without diminution to the sub-prior and convent all the issues they had levied or received. (fn. 12)

Adam Lumbard, who had long served the king and his father, was sent to the priory in 1319 to receive life sustenance in the place of Adam Pullehare, deceased. (fn. 13)

In 1350, John de Karleton, monk of St. Andrew's, Bromholm, obtained an indult to choose a confessor for plenary remission at the hour of death. (fn. 14)

Early in the reign of Richard II, the priory was in much distress. They paid 50 marks to the king, in 1385, to secure the appropriation of the church of Berdwell, of their own advowson, valued at 26 marks yearly; it is stated in the licence that the priory lands had been much wasted by the sea, and their house recently burned, and that if not relieved they would shortly have to cease divine service. (fn. 15)

The brethren of.Bromholm in 1298 numbered twenty-five, but they were reduced to eighteen by the time of a visitation held in 1390. At the latter date the house is described as directly subordinate to the mother house of Cluni. There were five masses celebrated daily, three were sung and two were said throughout. The visitors found that all statutes and monastic duties were well and thoroughly observed. (fn. 16)

On 15 April, 1418, John Paston was collated to the priory of Bromholm, vacant by the resignation of Clement Chandellier. (fn. 17) This was apparently a papal appointment, and meanwhile Nicholas had been elected by his own convent. Prior Nicholas is the first witness to the will of Clement Paston, dated June, 1419. An undated letter, probably somewhat later than this, from Prior Nicholas to William Paston, states that John Paston had posted letters on Christchurch gates summoning the writer to Rome. (fn. 18) There can be no doubt that Nicholas, after a brief rule, was deposed in favour of the papal nominee.

This prior was of some notoriety because of his connexion with the celebrated judge William Paston. Paston Hall was about a mile from the priory, and the Paston family regarded it with special interest. This John Paston claimed to be a kinsman of the lawyer, but the claim was never admitted, William Paston always maintaining that his true name was Wortes. He was originally a monk of Bromholm, and Prior Chandellier took action against him as an apostate, engaging William Paston as his counsel in the prosecution. John retaliated by bringing the matter before the Roman court, and proceeded against both the prior and William Paston, with the result that the former was called upon to resign his office, and the latter condemned in the heavy penalty of £205. Contrary to the advice of his friends William Paston contested the validity of the sentence, but only with the result of being for a time excommuni cated. In 1426 John Paston or Wortes, who seems to have had great influence at Rome, was appointed, by papal provision, bishop of Cork; but a private letter of William Paston of that year, writing of him as ' this cursed bysshop for Bromholm,' states that there were two other persons ' provided to the same bysshopricke yet lyvyng,' and that Prior John being still apostate would be unable to hold it. When the bishopric did become vacant, in 1430, Jordan chancellor of Limerick obtained the see; Prior John and others in vain endeavoured to oust him. (fn. 19)

In 1430 John Paston resigned Bromholm; it seems that he had not resided there for many years. In that year Judge Paston wrote to the English vicar-general of the abbot of Cluni, who alone had power over the profession of Cluniac monks in this country, stating that there were divers virtuous young men in the garb of monks but unprofessed at the priory of Bromholm, some of whom had been there for nine or ten years, and praying that the prior of Thetford might be empowered to receive their profession. (fn. 20)

John Tyteshall succeeded as prior in 1460. Among the Paston Letters are two from this prior, one of the year 1461, and one circa 1480. (fn. 21) The great event during his rule was the burial at the priory, of John Paston, the son of Judge Paston. He died in London on 21 or 22 May, 1466, and everything connected with his obsequies was carried out on a sumptuous scale. The interment at Bromholm took place on 29 May. £5 13s. 4d. was spent as a dole, and immense quantities of food and drink were supplied. A London chandler received £5 19s. 4d., and another chandler 55s; 11¼d., in addition to many torches of local supply; it is not therefore wonderful that a glazier had to be paid 20d. for taking out, and afterwards resetting, two panes of the windows of the conventual church ' to late owte the reke of the torches.' (fn. 22) By his will John Paston left to the prior 40s., and to each of the nine monks 6s. 8d.

Sir John Paston, by will of 1477, left his body to be buried in the conventual church of Bromholm by the founder's arch on the north side, near his father's tomb; an altar and tomb were to be erected at a cost of £20, and a like sum to be spent on ' a closette made at my cost over my father's body.' His desire for his father's memorial was that there should be none like it in Norfolk. (fn. 23)

Prior John Tyteshall ruled for many years. Shortly before his death he was engaged in rebuilding the dorter of his house. At that time he wrote to John Paston, begging for his good offices with the duchy of Lancaster to obtain him a grant of timber; his special desire was to have 'viii princypall beemys everych on (sic) in length xj yerds.' (fn. 24)

Prior Tyteshall was succeeded by John Macham, who was followed in 1509 by John Underwood, who became suffragan to the see of Norwich under the title of bishop of Chalcedon. William Lakenham, who was the last prior, occurs in 1530.

That which made this remote Norfolk priory celebrated throughout England, and through many parts of continental Christendom, for upwards of three centuries, was its possession of a famous cross made from fragments of the true cross. It was brought to England in 1223, and its story is told with some detail by Matthew Paris. (fn. 25) An English priest who served in the emperor's chapel at Constantinople, having in his charge a cross made of the wood of our Saviour's cross, absconded on the emperor's death and brought it to England, and made it a condition of bestowing it on any monastery that he and his two sons should be admitted as monks. To this condition the sceptical monks of St. Albans and other great houses demurred, but at last the monastery of Bromholm, poor in worldly goods but rich in faith, believed the priest's story and agreed to his terms, and the cross was set up in their church. Its fame rapidly spread, and it soon became a place of pilgrimage. In the 'Vision of Piers Plowman ' occur the lines—

And bidde the Roode of Bromholm,

Bryng me out of dette.

In the ' Reeve's Tale ' of Chaucer is the pious ejaculation:—

Helpe, holy cross of Bromeholme.

The miracles associated with this pilgrimage were numerous. It is mentioned in the annals of Dunstable and Tewkesbury, and by other early chroniclers.

About 1313 Edward II visited this monastery, on account of his special devotion to ' the glorious cross' of Bromholm, and granted them the manor of Bacton, worth £12 9s. 7¼d. a year, for an annual payment of 20s., (fn. 26) but it had a royal pilgrim at a far earlier date in the daughter of Margaret countess of Kent, sister of Alexander of Scotland, who visited Bromholm in 1233, when her mother and Henry III were at Bury St. Edmunds.

Boniface IX, in August, 1401, granted an indult to the prior of Bromholm and his successors, and other fit priests, religious or secular, deputed by them, to hear the confessions of and grant absolution to (saving reserved cases) the multitude who resort from afar to their church, on account of a certain notable piece of the wood of the true cross. The reason for this piece of the cross being ' notable ' is explained by the statement that some, their sins it is supposed being the cause, are unable to look perfectly upon the said piece, thereby sometimes incurring infirmities of divers sorts. At the same date the priory received the papal confirmation of the appropriation of the churches of Bardwell, Crostwick, and Tuttington, with leave for one of the monks to serve Crostwick as it was near the monastery. The priory, in asking for this confirmation, assured the pope that they had suffered grievously through the sea irrevocably absorbing many of their lands and tenements, through long pestilences, and through fire. (fn. 27)

In order to still further help the priory of Bromholm in this their special distress, Boniface took the unusual step of granting indulgence equal to that of the church of St. Mark's of Venice to penitents who, on Passion Sunday, or on the three days preceding and following, visit and give alms for the conservation of this Cluniac house in England. This grant also authorized the prior of Bromholm to nominate six priests, secular or religious, to hear the confessions of such penitents. (fn. 28)

Fox gives a curious account of the alleged burning of this cross at the beginning of the fifteenth century. He states that one Sir Hugh Pie, chaplain of Ludney, was accused before the bishop of Norwich on 5 July, 1424, for holding that people ought not to go on pilgrimage or to give alms save to beggars at their doors, and that the image of the cross and other images ought not to be worshipped. He was also accused of having ' cast the cross of Bromholm into the fire to be burned, which he took from one John Welgate of Ludney.' However Sir Hugh utterly denied these articles, and purged himself by the witness of three laymen and three priests. (fn. 29) At any rate the cross was not burnt, for it is in evidence more than a century later.

There is a peculiarly interesting memorial of the subject of the Bromholm pilgrimage in a fourteenth-century 'Hours of Our Lady' in Lambeth Library. (fn. 30) To one of the pages an illuminated leaf has been attached; upon it is painted a heart, containing within it a crucifix having the two transverse beams of the patriarchal shape. Above the heart is written ' Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judeorum,' and on each side one of the two lines forming this couplet:—

This cross yat here peyntyd is

Signe of ye cros of bromholm is.

Beneath the heart in a later hand, the concluding line being partly erased:—

Thys ys the holy cros that yt so sped

Be me ... in my need.

Within the outline of the heart and round the cross is written, in minute and much contracted characters, the following hymn, which is also given in full on an adjacent page:—

Oracio Devota de Cruce,

O crux salve preciosa,

O crux salve gloriosa,

Me per verba curiosa

Te laudare, crux Formosa

Fac presenti carmine

Sicut tu de carne Christi

Sancta sacrata fuisti

Ejus Corpus suscepisti,

Et sudore maduisti,

Lota sacro sanguine

Corpus, sensus, mentem meam,

Necnon vitam salves ream

Ut commissa mea fleam,

Ne signare per te queam

Contra fraudes hostium.

Me defendas de peccato,

Et de facto desperato,

Hoste truso machinato

Reconsignas Dei nato

Tuum presiduum.

V. Adoremus Te Xpe. Quia per crucem, etc.

Oratio. Adesto nobis, Domine Deus noster, et quos sancte crucis letari facis honore ejus quoque perpetuis defende subsidiis. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Dominus dedit, Dominus abstulit, sicut Domino placuit ita factum est. Sit nomen Domini benedictum.

The so-called visitation of Legh and Leyton, undertaken early in 1536, noted a cross called ' The Holy Cross of Bromholm,' the girdle and milk of the Virgin, and pieces of the crosses of SS. Peter and Andrew. They also alleged that Prior Lakenham and three of his monks had confessed to them their incontinency.

The county Commissioners for Suppression, later in the same year, described Bromholm as a head house of the Cluniac order, of the clear yearly value of £109 0s. 8d. They found four religious persons, all priests and requiring dispensations, adding that ' they bene of very good name and fame.' There were thirty-three other persons having a living there,' namely, four waiting servants, twenty-six labourers and hinds, and three almoners. The house was in good repair, and the bells and lead valued at £200. The movable goods, cattle, and corn were valued at £49, and a hundred acres of wood at £66 13s. 4d. (fn. 31)

On 2 February, 1537, Richard Southwell wrote to Cromwell that he had in his charge the cross of Bromholm, which he would bring up after the suppression was finished, or sooner if Cromwell wished it. On 26 February he wrote again to Cromwell, saying that he had delivered the cross of Bromholm to the late prior of Pentney, the bearer of both letter and relic. (fn. 32)

On 20 February Robert Southwell, solicitor to the Court of Augmentation, had a grant made to him by royal warrant of Bromholm Priory with all its manors, lands, advowsons, and pensions. (fn. 33)

Prior Lakenham obtained a pension of twenty marks. (fn. 34)

Priors Of Bromholm

Vincent, temp. Hen. I. (fn. 35)

Philip, c. 1210

Vincent, (fn. 36) 1229

Clement, (fn. 37) occurs 1258

John, (fn. 38) occurs 1268, 1272

Roger, (fn. 39) occurs 1285, 1293

William de Tutington, (fn. 40) died 1313

William de Witton, (fn. 41) elected 1313

John de Hardingham, (fn. 42) elected 1334

Clement Chandellier, (fn. 43) resigned 1418

John Paston, (fn. 44) elected 1418

Nicholas, (fn. 45) occurs 1419

John Paston, (fn. 46) resigned 1430

Robert York, (fn. 47) elected 1430

John Tyteshall, (fn. 48) elected 1460

John Macham, (fn. 49) elected 1504

John Underwood (fn. 50) (bishop of Chalcedon),1509

William Lakenham, occurs 1530, last prior.

The thirteenth-century fine circular seal (3 in.) of this priory bears the priory church; in the centre, under a round-headed arch is St. Andrew seated, with a patriarchal cross in right hand (the holy cross of Bromholm), and a book in the left. In the pediment overhead, in a sunk trefoiled opening, is the half length Virgin and Holy Child. Over the roof is a pierced sixfoil. Legend:—

. . . M ✠ SANCTI ✠ ANDREE ✠ DE ✠ BROMHOLM (fn. 51)


  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. v, 63; cited from Register of Castle Acre, fol. 62.
  • 2. Chart. 13 Hen. III, pt. i, m. 12.
  • 3. Ibid. fois. 1, 1b.
  • 4. Cal. Papal Reg. i, 183.
  • 5. Chartul. fol. 9.
  • 6. Ibid. fol. 59b. There is a small chartulary of Bromholm in the University Library, Cambridge Dugdale, Mon. ii, 20), consisting of 91 folios, in a hand of the first half of the fourteenth century; the first two charters are illegible. For an analysis of this chartulary see Catahgue of Camb. University Library MSS. iv, 144-72.
  • 7. Cal. Papal Reg. i, 108.
  • 8. Duckett, Chart, and Rec. of Cluni, i, 198.
  • 9. Ibid, ii, 202. Nos. 451-3 of the Cluni charters.
  • 10. Ibid, ii, 127.
  • 11. Ibid. 145-6.
  • 12. Pat. 6 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 5.
  • 13. Close, 12 Edw. II, m. 12 d.
  • 14. Cal. Papal Reg. iii, 372.
  • 15. Cal. of Pat. 8 Ric. II, pt. ii, m. 4; also 9 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 40.
  • 16. Duckett, Visitations of English Cluniac Foundations, 41-42.
  • 17. Ibid. Chart and Rec. of Cluni, ii, 198.
  • 18. Paston Letters, iii, 448, 484.
  • 19. Paston Letters (Gairdner), i, xxv, 21, 25-6; Cotton, Fasti Eccl. Hibernie.
  • 20. Paston Letters, i, 29-30.
  • 21. Ibid, i, 541-3; iii, 275-6.
  • 22. Ibid, ii, 266-71.
  • 23. Ibid, iii, 207-8, 224. Sir John Paston, however, died suddenly in London in 1479, and was buried at the White Friars. Ibid, iii, 202.
  • 24. Ibid, iii, 277.
  • 25. Matth. Paris, Chron. Majora (Rolls Ser.), iii, 80.
  • 26. Chartul. fol. 5b.
  • 27. Cal. Papal Reg. v, 432-3.
  • 28. Ibid. 384.
  • 29. Fox, Acts and Monuments, iii, 586.
  • 30. Lambeth MSS. 545. It was first noted by the late Dr. Sparrow Simpson in 1873, and described and illustrated by him in the Journ. of Arch. Assoc. xxx, 52-61.
  • 31. Chant. Cert. Norf. No. 90.
  • 32. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (1), 145, 239.
  • 33. Aug. Off. Books, ccix, fol. 30 b.
  • 34. Ibid, ccxxxii, fol. 36.
  • 35. Blqmefield, Hist, of Norf. xi, 26.
  • 36. Cluni Chart, ii, 202.
  • 37. Camb. Chart. 52.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. Cliuni Chart, ii, 154-6.
  • 40. Pat. 6 Edw, II, pt. ii, m. 20.
  • 41. Ibid. m. 15,14
  • 42. Norw. Epis. Reg. ii, 71.
  • 43. Cluni Chart, ii, 198.
  • 44. Ibid.
  • 45. Paston Letters, iii, 448, 484.
  • 46. Ibid, i, 29.
  • 47. Add. Charters, 141-313; 14, 571.
  • 48. Paston Letters, ii, 541-3; iii, 275-6.
  • 49. Norw. Epis. Reg. xiii, 23.
  • 50. Ibid, xiii, 100.
  • 51. Top. Ch. 54; Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. xi, 23.