Houses of Premonstratensian canons: The abbey of West Dereham

Pages 414-418

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

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Hubert Walter, dean of York, who afterwards became successively bishop of Salisbury and archbishop of Canterbury, founded at his birthplace of West Dereham, in the year 1188, an abbey for Premonstratensian canons, which was colonized from Welbeck. The canons were to pray for the souls of the founder and his parents, his brothers and sisters and all his relatives and friends, as well as for the souls of Ralph de Glanville, justiciary of England, and Bertha his wife. (fn. 1)

King John, on 7 September, 1199, confirmed all the grants made to the abbey by the founder and by other early benefactors; at the same time, at the request of the founder, who was then archbishop of Canterbury, he conferred on the abbey and its tenants exemption from all kinds of service, tolls and dues. (fn. 2) In the same year John granted to the abbey a weekly Wednesday market, and an annual fair of four days, namely on the festival of St. Matthew and the three following days, (fn. 3) and in 1201, the king confirmed to them the grants of half the church of Holkham and of the church of Ringland. (fn. 4)

Peter, son of Peter de Nerford, granted in 1280, to the abbot and canons of St. Mary of Dereham, Richard de Ayssepele, Simon le Wodewide, and Simon the carter of Saham, with their tenements, belongings, and services, and 12d. of rents; to hold the same in free alms for the sustentation of one canon to celebrate in the abbey of Dereham for the souls of the faithful departed. (fn. 5)

The abbot and convent obtained leave in 1285 to enclose eight acres of land in West Dereham, adjoining the abbey on the west side, to wit from the stone bridge of West Dereham to the end of their close called Fishercroft, for the enlargement of their site. (fn. 6) Other grants of lands and rents were made by various benefactors so that by 1291, when the ecclesiastical taxation roll was drawn up, the endowments of this abbey were considerable, being of the clear annual value of £169 3s. 8½d. Their chief possessions were in Norfolk, scattered over thirtythree parishes, but they had also property in the dioceses of York, Ely, and Lincoln.

Elizabeth de Burgo, the king's kinswoman, had licence in 1336 for alienation in mortmain of 7 messuages, 112 acres of land, 8 acres of meadow, 10 acres of pasture, and 10s. 8½d. of rent in West Dereham and adjacent towns of Norfolk, together with the fair of Wynwale, to the abbey of Dereham, to find a chaplain to celebrate daily in the chapel of St. Wynwale for the soul of Gilbert de Clare, late earl of Gloucester, and for the souls of herself, her ancestors, and heirs. (fn. 7)

Boniface IX, in 1399, sanctioned the appropriation to this abbey of the church of Grimston, value not exceeding 90 marks, and that of the monastery, not exceeding 400 marks. On the resignation of the rector the church might be served by one of their canons. (fn. 8) In the same year the pope confirmed the decision made by the late bishop of Ely with regard to a dispute between the abbey and the priory of Barnwell as to the tithes of the sheaves of 'Nunne Court fee' pertaining to the church of Holy Trinity, Cambridge. The decree ordered the priory to pay 30s. yearly to the abbey for these tithes. The pope completed the ordinance by enjoining the priory to keep the chancel of Holy Trinity in repair and to pay synodals. (fn. 9) Two years later, September, 1401, this Cambridge church was fully appropriated to the abbey, by sanction of Boniface. At the same time the two parishes of St. Peter and St. Andrew, West Dereham, situate close together in one churchyard, were united. It was stated that St. Peter's was so diminished in income that a priest could not be maintained. The convent and the parishioners of St. Peter's were freed from the repair of the church and chancel, and considered parishioners of St. Andrew's. (fn. 10)

Another church about the possession of which the abbey had some little trouble and litigation at an earlier period, was that of Holkham, which had been given them by Aymer de Valence, who had made good his claim to it against the abbot of. Viterbo. In 1341 the latter abbot endeavoured to reclaim it from the abbot of West Dereham, and the king ordered the prior of Walsingham to do justice in the case, (fn. 11) which was evidently decided in favour of the Norfolk house as they are found in possession of the rectory in 1535.

When the abbey was visited in 1478 by Richard Redman, bishop of St. Asaph and abbot of Shap, and by Hubert, commissary-general of the abbot of Prémontré, it was reported that the abbey held five churches, the cures of which were sometimes held by canons in perpetuity, sometimes by seculars, and sometimes by canons removable at pleasure. (fn. 12)

When the Valor Ecclesiasticus was taken in 1535 the clear annual value was declared to be £228 0s. 0¾d.

On 20 September, 1323, Canon Geoffrey de Driffield, from the abbey of Egleston, was sent to Dereham by the king, with the request that he might stay with them for a time, as the house of Egleston had been so destroyed by the Scotch rebels that the canons could no longer live there. At the same time, seven other canons of Egleston were distributed among the like number of Premonstratensian houses, including the Norfolk abbey of Langley. (fn. 13)

In May, 1325, the county escheator was ordered not to further intermeddle with this abbey, which he had taken into the king's hands on the death of the last abbot on the plea that the lands that belonged to Aymer de Valence, late earl of Pembroke, were in the king's hands. The king had learnt by inquisition that the abbey was of the advowson of the earl as of the inheritance of Monchesney, and that from the time of its foundation until then the patrons of the abbey, when it was vacant, had no custody there, and that the convent did not seek licence to elect from any patron, and did not present him whom they had elected to the patron before the installation. It was further ascertained that the patron did not receive any profit at the time of voidance, but that whenever a patron died, the abbot and convent celebrated mass and distributed alms for his soul on the same scale as at the death of an abbot, namely each canon-priest of the house celebrated three masses, and each canon not a priest said a psalter, and each lay brother (conversus) said 150 Our Fathers and as many Hail Marys, and they distributed to the poor daily for thirty days after his death a loaf, a gallon of ale, and a dish of meat or fish, such as a canon is wont to receive daily. (fn. 14) In 1328 protection was granted for the abbey of Dereham, which was of the advowson of the heir of John de Hastings, deceased, a minor in the king's custody, in consequence of its being impoverished and in debt through injudicious management. Richard Coppe, a parson of the church of Oxborough, and Richard de Depham were appointed custodians, under whose direction the abbot was to apply the revenues to the payment of the debts, saving a reasonable sustenance for himself and the canons and their servants. (fn. 15)

In 1325 the abbot of Dereham was prohibited by the king from leaving the kingdom to attend the general chapter at Prémontré, (fn. 16) but in September, 1327, Bartholomew de Burghersh, constable of Dover Castle, was directed to permit the abbot of Dereham to cross the seas from that port to attend the chapter general at Prémontré, and to allow him 20 marks for the expenses of himself and attendants. (fn. 17) On 26 June, 1328, an exactly similar order was made for a like purpose, save that £20 instead of 20 marks was contributed for expenses. (fn. 18)

On 15 May, 1325, John, abbot of Welbeck, as father abbot of Dereham, wrote to the bishop of Norwich to inform him of the death of the late abbot, Paul de Tilney, and of the election of John de Rutham, in his presence and that of the abbots of Seiston and Wendling, and to ask for his episcopal benediction. (fn. 19) Although the White Canons were specially exempt from diocesan visitation, and their elections were held independently of the bishop, it was usual for the abbot-elect, after he had been chosen by his convent and installed by the father abbot of the house, to promise canonical obedience to his diocesan, saving all rights of his order, and to ask for episcopal benediction. In the case of John de Rutham, the bishop's blessing was given on 21 May.

In 1344, Mary de Sancto Paulo, countess of Pembroke, obtained the sanction of Clement III, on behalf of the Premonstratensian abbot of West Dereham, for faculty to confer the office of notary public on six persons to be nominated by the countess. (fn. 20) Pope Urban V, in 1366, granted, during ten years, an indulgence of a year and 160 days to penitents visiting the chapel of the Holy Trinity in this monastery on the principal feasts. (fn. 21)

William de Holt received the episcopal benediction as abbot on 6 April, 1368, in the manor chapel of Heningham, and promised canonical obedience, saving the rights of his order. (fn. 22) His obedience, however, seems to have been somewhat incomplete if he is the person referred to in 1387, when the crown appointed seven officials to arrest William Holt, an 'apostate vagabond canon' of Dereham Abbey, signified as such to the king by John, abbot of Barlings, and George, abbot of Welbeck, visitors of the English Premonstratensian houses. If arrested, he was to be delivered to his abbot, or to one of the visitors or their attorney. (fn. 23)

Abbot John Saresson alias Wygenhale acted as vicar-general to the bishop in 1436, as well as on many later occasions. In 1444 he was collated to the deanery of the college of St. Mary-in-the-Fields, Norwich, as well as to the rectory of St. Mary's, Great Massingham; which preferments he held in conjunction with the rule of the abbey. He died about 1455, and is particularly memorable on account of the survival of the precatory or mortuary roll that was issued by his convent at the time of his death. It is a class of documents of which very few examples are extant. On the death of a religious, and more especially of a religious superior, a roll was prepared on which was written a statement of the death, together with some eulogy or description of the deceased, with religious reflections, and a request for the prayers by other houses. The roll was then carried round, sometimes only to neighbouring houses, or those of the same order, but in the cases of superiors or distinguished personages these brevia or briefs were multiplied, and sent about throughout the kingdom at large. The monk or canon who carried the brief was termed a breviator, and on its reaching each monastery it was inscribed with the titulus or description of the house, accompanied by a promise of their prayers for the departed. On Abbot Wygenhale's death a beautiful roll was prepared. That which now remains (but it was doubtless originally longer) is 4 ft. 5½ in. long by about 12 in. wide, formed of two membranes. On the upper membrane is an illuminated architectural design divided into three compartments. At the top is the Eternal Father supporting a crucifix, and at the right side is the small figure of an abbot kneeling, with a scroll asking the divine protection and guidance for John Lynn, who was the abbot that succeeded the deceased. In the centre is the Blessed Virgin. At the base is the scene of the interment of John Wygenhale, most interestingly portrayed. (fn. 24)

The encyclical letter from the abbey of West Dereham, which follows the illumination, is a warm eulogy of the deceased. The terms were probably not entirely complimentary, or as a matter of course, for Abbot Wygenhale was evidently highly esteemed outside his convent. When he attended the bishop in 1449 as vicargeneral, at the ceremony of making the priory of Wymondham into an abbey, he is described by John of Whethamstede, the chronicler of St. Albans, as vir altae discrecionis et suorum gravitate pollens. (fn. 25)

The tituli or descriptive endorsements that can now be traced on the back of the roll are those of the Austin house of Christ Church, Hampshire; of the Premonstratensian abbey of Titchfield, Hampshire; of the great abbey of Bury St. Edmunds; of the Cistercian monastery of Lowth Park, Lincoln; of the Benedictine abbey of the cathedral church of Worcester; and of the Austin house of St. James, Northampton.

Bishop Redman's first visitation of West Dereham occurred in June, 1475; he arrived at the abbey at the dinner hour on the 26th, and left for Wendling on the 28th. (fn. 26) The visitation of 1478 extended from 28 to 30 June, when he found everything in good order. The visitor enjoined the presence of a deacon at the high altar daily; also that on recreation days the brethren were to go out and return unless otherwise ordered by the abbot: anyone leaving the precincts without permission was to be punished the same as an apostate.

There was an abundant supply of all necessaries, and the debt was but slight. In addition to John Lynn, the abbot, and John Harnes, the sub-prior, thirteen other canons were present at the visitation. (fn. 27)

On 23 July, 1482, William abbot of Welbeck wrote to Bishop Redman to tell him of the death of John Lynn alias Clerk, abbot of Dereham, in which he pleaded the poverty of his daughter-house of Dereham as a reason for pressing on with the new election with all possible speed, and asking that on this occasion only he might proceed without delay in ordering a new election, and in admitting and installing the abbot elect. (fn. 28) Accordingly at the next visitation in August, 1482, the election of William Maxey as abbot took place in the bishop's presence.

At this time he ordered that silence was to be better observed. Nineteen canons, including the abbot and prior, were present on this occasion. (fn. 29)

The bishop's next visit was on 22 June, 1486, when he arrived at West Dereham at suppertime. The house was formally visited on the morrow, and he tarried there quietly over 24 June for the solemn observance of the feast of St. John Baptist, supping at Walsingham on the 25th. (fn. 30)

At a visitation just two years later, John Martyn, abbot, William Maxey, the late abbot, eleven other priests, and three deacons were present. The visitor reported that the abbot was provident and circumspect; that the debt of £200 at the time of his election had been reduced to £100; and that there was a good supply of stores and cattle.

George Lytylport, priest, was found in prison for theft and other sins; he was penitent, but ordered to remain in prison until next general chapter. (fn. 31)

The next visitation was on 22 September, 1491, when John Wysbech, abbot, William Maxey, late abbot, nine other canons, and a novice were present. The novice, William Faryeley, had struck a brother and flung him into the grate; the visitor ordered him forty days of bread and water, and then to be sent to Halesowen; but at the unanimous prayer of the abbot and convent the last part of the sentence was revoked. (fn. 32)

In 1494 the house was again visited, when John Martyn (an alias of Wysbech), the exabbot, and ten others attended. The visitor reported well of the house. (fn. 33) Again, in October, 1500, the visitor was at this house, when John Wysbech is entered as the abbot. The report was quite excellent.

The last recorded visitation took place 10 August, 1503; the same abbot and ex-abbot were present, and fourteen other canons. Bishop Redman found several insufficiently taught; therefore he recalled Brother Robert Watton from the university, to be joined in office with the prior, and diligently to teach his brethren. Thomas Fychele was removed from the subpriorship for his negligence in his duty; otherwise the condition and discipline of the house were good. (fn. 34)

Legh and Ap Rice, Cromwell's tools and visitors, surpassed themselves in their comperta as to this abbey, on which they reported in 1536; according to their preposterous return the canons were all incontinent, and were ready to confess themselves as such, longing to marry, and believing that the king had been divinely sent on earth to bring this about. (fn. 35) John Ap Rice, in whose handwriting these comperta were drawn up, made earnest suit for a grant of this house, which it was thus his interest to vilify. In 1538 he petitioned Cromwell for the lands. He pleaded that there was no fee attached to his office; that he had been concerned in drawing up divers great instruments in the process of divorce of Queen Anne; and that he wrote to the king the abridgements of the comperta of the late visitation. He stated that the manor of West Dereham was worth £52 12s. 8d., and the residue of the rent was £200, and the movables worth £600. He promised if his petition was granted to retain only £50, giving Cromwell the other £200 a year, and movables to the value of £400 or £500. It is scarcely necessary to say that the chance of so great a share of the spoils was accepted by Cromwell, and the slanderous visitor obtained his grant. (fn. 36)

It is not in any way credible, if the visitors' report of the condition of this house had been true or credited, that Abbot Roger, who presided over a convent charged with these outrageous offences, would have been assigned the unusually large pension of £66 13s. 4d. This pension, as well as smaller sums to five of his canons, was granted on 6 November, 1539. (fn. 37)

Abbots of West Dereham

Augustine, (fn. 38) appointed 1188

Ralph, (fn. 39) occurs temp. Richard I, John, Henry III

Remigius, (fn. 40) occurs 1231

Angerius, (fn. 41) occurs 1232

Roger, (fn. 42) occurs 1268

Denis Walter, (fn. 43) occurs 1286

Simon, (fn. 44) occurs 1304

Walter de Donton, (fn. 45) elected 1306

Paul de Tilney, (fn. 46) elected 1313

Bartholomew, (fn. 47) occurs 1316

John de Rutham, (fn. 48) elected 1325

Nicholas de Dereham, (fn. 49) elected 1339

William de Holt, (fn. 50) elected 1368

Constantine, (fn. 51) occurs 1393

John Flete, (fn. 52) occurs 1398

John, (fn. 53) elected 1412

Robert, (fn. 54) occurs 1428

John Wygenhall alias Saresson, (fn. 55) elected 1429

John Lynn, (fn. 56) elected 1455

William Maxey, (fn. 57) elected 1482

John Martyn (fn. 58) alias Wysbech, (fn. 59) occurs 1488

William Norwich, (fn. 60) elected 1511

Roger Forman, (fn. 61) elected 1522, last abbot


  • 1. Foundation Charter (Dugdale, Mon. vi, 899-900).
  • 2. Chart. R. 1 John, m. 10.
  • 3. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. vii, 331.
  • 4. Chart. R. 2 John, 18 April.
  • 5. Bodl. Chart. 169.
  • 6. Cal. of Pat. 13 Edw. I, m. 25.
  • 7. Ibid. 10 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 22.
  • 8. Cal. Papal Reg. v, 196.
  • 9. Ibid. 197.
  • 10. Cal. Papal Reg. v, 197.
  • 11. Chanc. Misc. bdle. 18, file 4, No. 7.
  • 12. Stowe MS. 4935, fol. 9.
  • 13. Cal of Close, 17 Edw. II, m. 37 d.
  • 14. Cal. of Close, 18 Edw. II, m. 6.
  • 15. Cal. of Pat. 2 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 12.
  • 16. Ibid. 19 Edw. II, m. 30 d.
  • 17. Cal. of Close, I Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 16.
  • 18. Ibid. 21 d.
  • 19. Add MS. 4935, fol. 7.
  • 20. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 155; Cal. Papal Reg. iii, 275.
  • 21. Cal. Pap. Reg. iv, 56.
  • 22. Norw. Epis. Reg. v, 80.
  • 23. Cal. of Pat. 10 Ric. II, pt. ii, m. 20 d.
  • 24. This roll was illustrated and described by the late J. Gough Nichols in the Norfolk volume of the Arch. Inst. (1851), 99-114. It was exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries in Jan. 1861, by Rev. G. H. Dashwood, F.S.A. (Proceedings (ser. 2), i, 289-90).
  • 25. Reg. Whethamstede, 151.
  • 26. Redman, Visit. (Bodl.), fol. 5.
  • 27. Ibid. fols. 13, 21.
  • 28. Stowe MS. 4935, fol. 9.
  • 29. Redman, Visit. (Bodl.), fob. 33, 34.
  • 30. Ibid. fol. 64b.
  • 31. Ibid. fol. 72.
  • 32. Ibid. fols. 99, 100.
  • 33. Ibid. fols. 118, 124.
  • 34. Ibid. fol. 110.
  • 35. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 144.
  • 36. L. and. P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), 512.
  • 37. Ibid. xiv (1), 598.
  • 38. Stowe MSS. 929.
  • 39. Ibid. Bodl. Chart. 30b.
  • 40. Anct. D. (P.R.O.), A. 3074.
  • 41. Ibid.
  • 42. Tanner, Norf. MSS. i, 565.
  • 43. Ibid.
  • 44. Ibid.
  • 45. Ibid.
  • 46. Ibid.
  • 47. Close, 10 Edw. II, m. 28d. As, however, Paul de Tilney was abbot in 1325, when he died (Stowe MS. 4935 fol. 7), this name must be a mistake, unless Abbot Paul temporarily vacated the office.
  • 48. Norf. Epis. Reg. i, 117; Add. MS. 4935, i. 7.
  • 49. Norf. Epis. Reg. iii, 52.
  • 50. Ibid. v, 80.
  • 51. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. vii, 335-6.
  • 52. Ibid.
  • 53. Norf. Epis. Reg. vii, 52.
  • 54. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. vii, 335-6.
  • 55. Ibid.
  • 56. Norf. vol. Arch. Inst. (1851), 99-114.
  • 57. Redman, Visit. (Bodl.), fols. 9, 33.
  • 58. Ibid. fol. 72.
  • 59. Ibid. fol. 99.
  • 60. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. vii, 336.
  • 61. Ibid.