Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of St James, Northampton

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

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, 'Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of St James, Northampton', in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2, (London, 1906) pp. 127-130. British History Online [accessed 21 May 2024].

. "Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of St James, Northampton", in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2, (London, 1906) 127-130. British History Online, accessed May 21, 2024,

. "Houses of Austin canons: The abbey of St James, Northampton", A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2, (London, 1906). 127-130. British History Online. Web. 21 May 2024,

In this section



On the further side of the Nen, across the west bridge, in the suburbs of Northampton, still known as St. James's End, William Peverel founded an abbey for black canons of the order of St. Augustine at the commencement of the twelfth century. He endowed it with 40 acres in Duston, the church of Duston, and the mill of the same parish. The grant is undated, but was confirmed (probably in the same year) by Henry I. in the fifth year of his reign, 1104-5. (fn. 1)

The endowments of this house were speedily increased. Within a century of its foundation the abbey of St. James, in addition to Duston, was in possession of the Northamptonshire churches of Bozeat, Cranford, Heyford, Horton, Roade, Rothersthorpe, Wakerley, and Watford, as well as of the church of Gaddesden Parva in Hertfordshire. The whole of these rectories became appropriated to the abbey, save Cranford and Heyford, which had been either surrendered or resumed by the heirs of the donors before the end of the thirteenth century. The abbey also held farms or received rents in about thirty different parishes of Northamptonshire. The Valor of 1291 gives an income of £65 2s. 8d. derived from temporalities. The only spirituality reckoned is a pension of £3 6s. 8d. from the church of Roade. (fn. 2) On the forfeiture of Peverel the manor of Duston was granted by Henry II. to Walkelin de Duston, who afterwards adopted the religious habit and entered the abbey of St. James, of which he subsequently became abbot. He did not bring his estate to the community, for by charter of 10 February, 1206, the year of his death, William de Duston, his son, obtained a confirmation from king John of all the lands his father possessed on the day when he became a religious. (fn. 3)

The canons, as was usually the case with early monastic foundations, occupied in the first instance temporary buildings, in all probability of wood. On 16 April, 1173, Abbot Ralf and his canons first worshipped in their new stone church, and found the new conventual buildings sufficiently advanced for occupation. (fn. 4) In 1229 an order was sent by Henry III. for the abbot of St. James to be allowed two oaks towards building the tower of his church. (fn. 5) The abbot and convent obtained from the king in 1268 a grant to hold an annual fair within the abbey precincts on the vigil, day, and morrow of the feast of St. James. (fn. 6) This privilege was allowed during the 'quo warranto' proceedings at the commencement of the reign of Edward III., (fn. 7) and must at one time have been a source of considerable profit, but it was stated in 1538 that it yielded no return beyond what was sufficient to pay expenses. (fn. 8) The fair survived the dissolution, but was moved into the town of Northampton about the year 1690. During the short rule of John Lupus, 1266-1269, the church of Spratton was appropriated to the abbey, and a vicarage ordained. (fn. 9)

The abbot was summoned to attend Parliament in 1265, (fn. 10) and again in the year 1319. (fn. 11) On the latter occasion the abbot, being an old man, appointed one of his canons, Henry of Blisworth, to act as his proxy, and the proctor was instructed to procure, if possible, a revocation of the costly privilege of attendance. Representation was made to the chancellor, the bishop of Ely, and the court of chancery that the abbot of St. James did not hold of the king, either by barony or in chief, but in frankalmoigne, and that neither he nor his predecessors had been summoned hitherto save in the case of the year 1265. The plea was accepted by the court, and an order given for the abbot's name to be expunged from the roll of those to be summoned. (fn. 12)

An order was sent in the early part of the reign of Edward I. to the barons of the Exchequer to acquit the prior and convent of £6 13s. 4d., in which they made fine with the late king to have the custody of their house during a recent voidance. (fn. 13) The king in April, 1291, granted to the abbot and canons the site of various houses that had belonged to the Jews before the order for their banishment from the kingdom in 1290, situated before the entrance to their synagogue (scola), as well as of the houses that had belonged to Sarra of London, a Jewess. (fn. 14) It appears from various deeds that the synagogue and Jewish settlement lay close to the precinct walls of the abbey; the cemetery of the Jews lay beyond the north gate of the town.

The abbey church was rebuilt on a large scale during the reign of Edward I. He forwarded the work by ordering eight oaks fit for timber to be allowed the abbot of the king's gift, (fn. 15) an indulgence was granted by Bishop Dalderby in 1301 to all who should contribute towards the fund for the fabric, (fn. 16) and a licence was issued for the dedication of two altars in the conventual church in 1310, the date probably of its completion. (fn. 17) The bishop's register records in 1312 the dedication of altars of SS. Katherine and Margaret in the church of St. James of Northampton. (fn. 18) The abbey was sometimes used on state occasions. On 2 July, 1318, Sir William de Aremyn, keeper of the rolls of chancery, brought the great seal to Northampton, and delivered it to the chancellor, John de Hotham, bishop of Ely, in his inn in St. James's Abbey, and writs are dated from the abbey on the 4th of the same month. (fn. 19)

No entries in the diocesan registers throw light on the internal condition of the abbey. In 1309 the bishop had occasion to excommunicate John de Horewood, one of the canons, for apostasy in leaving the convent. (fn. 20) Various wills of the fourteenth century are entered in the chartulary of the house containing various small bequests to the canons. (fn. 21) Denise, wife of Walter Passelew, by her will dated 1340, and proved 1342, left 6s. 8d. for a single pittance to the house. John Passelew, of Northampton, butcher, by his will of 1349 left a chest (unam cistam) to St. James's, and his seal to Canon Passelew of the monastery. Many persons of rank and distinction sought interment within the abbey church. In 1485 Sir John Catesby of Arthingworth, justice of the common pleas, willed his body to be buried here. In 1490 Richard Woodville, Earl Rivers, bequeathed his body to be buried in the abbey church of St. James, Northampton, 'in a place made ready for the same.' In 1496, Thomas, Lord Borough, directed in his will 'that a stone be laid upon my mother lying interred in the abbey of St. James at Northampton, somewhat raised in height, with the arms of my father and mother thereon, and an inscription; for the doing whereof I bequeath x li.' (fn. 22)

On 2 May, 1501, 'Richard Berde, doctour of the lawes sogournand in the monastery of synt James beside Northampton,' left his body to be buried in the conventual church. He bequeathed for his mortuary his best gown with the hood belonging thereto, £10 in money in recompense for the cost and charges to which he had put the monastery, 20s. to the abbot, and 10s. to each of the canons. He also bequeathed to the abbot and his successors his 'best surplus of Raynes,' (fn. 23) to the abbot and convent his best breviary, to the prior a silver spoon, his signet of silver, and his 'beds of Mistelden'; to Robert Chamberleyn, one of the canons, a double bottle of a quart, a little pillow, his 'harnist gardill,' his gilt knives, a little coffer, and his red mantle; to Sir John, another of the canons, a coffer; to the conventual church, his 'mustardeviles (fn. 24) hoode with the lynyng of grene silk for the cross-bearer on Seynt Nicholas nyght'; (fn. 25) to fourteen servants of the convent, mentioned by name, 8d. each, and to the other servants 4d. each; to the infirmary two pewter dishes; to the monastery for his month's mind, 20s., and for his anniversary 5s.; to the poor of St. James's End, Dallington and Duston 20s. in bread and 10s. in money; to the poor in the most need seven hangings of linen and the money resulting from the sale of his great mases, his great salt, and four silver spoons; to the four alms-children of the monastery 2d. each, and to the poor alms-men of the monastery 4d. each; and to John Mason the hermit, his printed mass book for use in the hermitage chapel. (fn. 26) The chartulary of the abbey gives various special bequests to the lady chapel and infirmary. (fn. 27)

The esteem in which the house and its inmates were held is borne out by the report of George Giffard, the leading member of the first local commission for the suppression of the monasteries. His letter to Cromwell, dated 19 May, 1536, states that on the 17th they had formally visited the abbey, of which the head was a right discreet man, a good husbander, and well beloved of all. (fn. 28) By his alms there three or four score folk of the town and country were daily relieved. The yearly value of the lands was £270. The house was stately, in very good repair, and standing much to the relief of the town of Northampton. In consideration of the great good done to the poor he begged Cromwell's favour for the abbot, and advised that the king should reasonably redeem it. (fn. 29) Simultaneously a joint formal report was forwarded from Northampton by Giffard and his co-commissioners, Edward Knightley, John Lane, and Robert Burgoyne. They stated again that St. James's was a goodly solemn house in church and choir, meet for one of treble the lands, in substantial repair, of old foundation, and possessing the goodliest barn that ever was seen for stone and timber; that there were many poor in Northampton, and that they were greatly relieved by this house, which was of good report through the whole town. They assured Cromwell that he would do a very meritorious deed with much honour to the king if he should allow this house to continue. (fn. 30)

This unexpectedly good, and it would seem unwelcome report drew from the king the remark 'that it was like they (the commissioners) had received rewards.' In spite of the report of the commissioners, and the Valor of 1535 declaring its clear annual value at £213 17s. 2½d., (fn. 31) the house was scheduled as of 'a less yearly value than £200,' and brought within the scope of the earlier Act for suppression. (fn. 32)

On 14 July, 1536, Giffard wrote to Cromwell from Kettering informing him that Abbot John Dasset, of St. James's, Northampton, had died on Thursday night. He supposed he had left the house in debt, and that it was like to be suppressed, and begged that he might be the farmer thereof; the demesnes were worth £14 a year, and he proposed to give Cromwell £20 if he would secure it for him. He added that he feared no man's labour to strive and obtain the farm, save his colleague sergeant Edward Knightley. (fn. 33)

The original good reports, or possibly the greater inducement of a handsome fine of £333 6s. 8d., which the canons were ready to pay for its redemption, (fn. 34) secured the house a respite, and provided a check for the schemes of Giffard and Knightley. (fn. 35) William Brokden was appointed abbot-elect, or master of St. James's, after an irregular fashion by Cromwell. On 20 January, 1536-7, Brokden wrote to Cromwell entreating that he and his brethren might have their confirmation and other seals, or that word might be sent by the bearer when the writer should wait upon his lordship. (fn. 36) Thomas Edwards, the prior, and four of the canons wrote to the commissioners, 5 May, 1538, representing how well Brokden had governed the house as master for a year and a half, showing good hospitality, and bringing it out of much debt. They begged that he would obtain the king's seal for the redemption of the abbey, for the town and country marvelled that he took such pains having no seal. (fn. 37) The seal of office appears to have been gained between the date of the last letter and 25 August, 1538, the same year when it was used for the deed of surrender executed by Abbot Brokden, Prior Edwards, and four other canons, before Dr. Layton. (fn. 38) The muchtried abbot was rewarded with a pension of £11 6s. 8d., the rectory of Watford, and the tithes of Gilsworth. (fn. 39)

Abbots of St. James, Northampton

William, (fn. 40) elected 1119

Ralf, appointed 1158, died 1176

William Paveley, elected 1176, died 1180

Walkelin of Duston, elected 1180, died 1206

Thomas, elected 1206, died 1220

Adam, elected 1220, died 1231

Walter of Melton, (fn. 41) elected 1231, died 1237

Osbert of Luffenham, elected 1237, resigned 1241

Adam Grilly or Grully, elected 1241, died 1266

John Lupus, elected 1266, died 1269

Adam de Keylmersch, (fn. 42) elected 1269, died 1274

Ralf of Hecham, elected 1274, died 1298-9

Nicholas of Flore, (fn. 43) elected 1298-9, died 1334

Gerard of Combes, (fn. 44) elected 1334, died 1354

William of Thorp, (fn. 45) elected 1354, died 1378

John Cayno, (fn. 46) elected 1378, died 1410.

John Bacon, (fn. 47) elected 1410, died 1430

John Watford alias Margyory, elected 1430, died 1445

William Young, elected 1445, died 1471

John Grauntwell, (fn. 48) elected 1471, died 1476

John Wykeley, (fn. 49) elected 1476

Henry Cocks, elected 1498, died 1532

John Dasset, (fn. 50) elected 1532, died 1536

William Brokden, appointed 1536-7

A creamy white pointed oval seal, chipped and injured, attached to a charter of Abbot Walkelin, 1180-1206, (fn. 51) represents St. James fulllength with a cope, in his right hand a long cross, in his left hand a book. In the field on each side an estoile of eight points.

Legend defaced : SIGIL. . . . . .

Later seal attached to a deed of Abbot John Lupus or de Lou, (fn. 52) 1266-1269. The obverse, pointed oval, represents St. James standing, under a carved trefoiled arch with a canopy crowned with two pinnacles, between which is a conventional representation of a cruciform church, showing three gables and a central tower supported on slender shafts, on a carved corbel, habited as a pilgrim with cloak, cap, and wallet, in his right hand a pilgrim's staff, in his left hand a book. On each side under the canopy four escallops, in the field outside an estoile of six points, a crescent, a bust, and an escallop. In base under a cusped arch the abbot with pastoral staff, half length in prayer.


The reverse of the same seal gives the counterseal of the abbot. It is a smaller pointed oval and represents the abbot standing on a carved corbel, holding in his right hand a pastoral staff, in his left hand a book. In the field on the right an escallop, on each side several pierced cinquefoils.

Legend : ✠SIG . . . . ABBATIS . SANTI . IACOBI . NORD . . .

The obverse of the seal attached to a charter of Abbot Ralf of Hecham, bearing date of the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist 1298, (fn. 53) is the same as the seal given above. (fn. 54) The reverse is the counter-seal of the abbot, a smaller pointed oval. The subject is indistinct, but represents two figures standing under a tree, and is probably intended for a representation of the Fall.

Legend : . . . . EVAM . RAMO . PDIT . ADAM

Signet of Abbot Henry Cocks, 1498-1532, oval; the impression, which is indistinct, represents an escallop of St. James within an orle of six ermine spots (?) in a cusped border. (fn. 54)


  • 1. Cart. Antiq. T. n. 30, and Cott. MS. Tib. E. v. This last has been a fine chartulary of the abbey, containing 247 folios, but sadly damaged by the fire of 1731. It was compiled in 1313, but contains many later additions. The list of abbots is brought down to 1430. Bishop Kennet's copy of the foundation charter is to be found in Lansd. MS. 973, p. 107, and a copy of the confirmation charter in Harleian MS. 6748, f. 9b. There are a large number of extracts from this chartulary in the Bodl. MSS. Top. Northants E. v. ff. 277–497.
  • 2. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), f. 38b.
  • 3. Harl. MS. 84.
  • 4. Cott. MS. Tib. E. v. 234.
  • 5. Close, 14 Hen. III. m. 21.
  • 6. Harl. Chart. 58.
  • 7. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 570.
  • 8. Mins. Accts. (Aug. Off.), 30 Hen. VIII.
  • 9. Bodl. MSS. Top. Northants, E. v. ff. 335–6.
  • 10. Selden, Titles of Honor, 724.
  • 11. Parl. Writs (Rec. Com.), ii. div. iii. p. 1230.
  • 12. Ibid. His name, nevertheless, is given for 1321, 1322. Ibid. 1231.
  • 13. Close, 2 Edw. I. m. 7.
  • 14. Pat. 8 Edw. II. pt. 1, m. 11.
  • 15. Close, 18 Edw. I. m. 4.
  • 16. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. of Dalderby, f. 37.
  • 17. Ibid. f. 179.
  • 18. Ibid. f. 235d.
  • 19. Cal. of Close, 1313–8, p. 620.
  • 20. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. of Dalderby, f. 133.
  • 21. Cott. MS. Tib. E. v. ff. 195b, 197b.
  • 22. Nicolas, Test. Vet. p. 428. He was himself, however, buried at Gainsborough.
  • 23. A striped or rayed cloth.
  • 24. 'Mustredevilliars' was a kind of mixed grey woollen cloth.
  • 25. The hood with the green lining intended to deck a youthful cross-bearer for the boy-bishop burlesque on St. Nicholas's Day.
  • 26. Prerog. Ct. of Canterbury, Blamyer, f. 4. There was a hermitage pertaining to the west bridge into Northampton at St. James's End.
  • 27. Cott. MS. Tib. E. v. ff. 190, 191b.
  • 28. This was John Dassett, who, with nine other canons of the house, subscribed to the king's supremacy 17 August, 1534. L. and P. Hen. VIII. vii. 1121 (28).
  • 29. Ibid. x. 916.
  • 30. Ibid. 917.
  • 31. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv. 319.
  • 32. L. and P. Hen. VIII. x. 1166.
  • 33. Ibid. xi. 87.
  • 34. Ibid. xiii. pt. 2, 457.
  • 35. Aug. Off. Accts. 28–30 Hen. VIII.
  • 36. L. and P. Hen. VIII. xii. pt. 1, 168.
  • 37. Ibid. xiii. pt. 1, 932.
  • 38. Ibid. pt. 2, 183.
  • 39. Ibid. xiv. pt. 1, p. 597.
  • 40. A list of abbots up to the year 1430 is given in the chartulary, Cott. MS. Tib. E. v. f. 234. In this Ralf is given as the 'first' abbot, that is to say the first after the canons 'leaving their former dwelling entered into the new church of St. James' in 1173.
  • 41. His promotion, 'with the consent of the king,' is recorded in the Lincoln Episcopal Registers, Roll of Wells.
  • 42. Ibid. Roll of Gravesend.
  • 43. Pat. 28 Edw. I. m. 30, and Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. of Dalderby, f. 101.
  • 44. Pat. 8 Edw. III. pt. 2, m. 34.
  • 45. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. of Gynwell, f. 154.
  • 46. Pat. 2 Rich. II. pt. 1, m. 41.
  • 47. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. of Repingdon, f. 243d.
  • 48. Pat. 11 Edw. IV. pt. 1, m. 1.
  • 49. Ibid. 16 Edw. IV. pt. 1, m. 13.
  • 50. L. and P. Hen. VIII. v. 1139 (23).
  • 51. Harl. Chart. 84 F. 39.
  • 52. Add. Chart. 6043. Another fine impression of the obverse is attached to the deed of surrender, No. 173.
  • 53. Add. Chart. 21,586.
  • 54. L.F.C. x. 3.