Religious houses: Introduction

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

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, 'Religious houses: Introduction', in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2, (London, 1906) pp. 79-83. British History Online [accessed 18 May 2024].

. "Religious houses: Introduction", in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2, (London, 1906) 79-83. British History Online, accessed May 18, 2024,

. "Religious houses: Introduction", A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2, (London, 1906). 79-83. British History Online. Web. 18 May 2024,

In this section



Northamptonshire was honourably distinguished for the number and variety of its monastic and other religious foundations. The Carthusian order was the only one of any considerable repute which was not represented, but English houses of that order were few.

The magnificent abbey of Peterborough was the one foundation that went back to pre-conquest days. It was a splendid representative of the great order of Black Monks of St. Benedict; to it pertained a neighbouring cell at Oxney, served by the parent house. A small Benedictine priory was founded temp. Henry I at Luffield in Whittlebury Forest. The buildings were in Buckinghamshire, but the church stood in Northamptonshire. It was suppressed by Henry VII, and the trifling revenues annexed to his foundation at Westminster. There were also other small Benedictine settlements in the county, off-shoots of the great abbeys of Normandy, but they were all suppressed before the days of Henry VIII. Such were the cells or small alien priories of Everdon, pertaining to the abbey of Bernay, of Weedon Pinkney to the abbey of St. Lucian, and of Weedon Beck to the abbey of Bec.

The Order of Cluny (reformed Benedictines) was founded in 912 at Cluny in Burgundy, by Berno, abbot of Gigny, with the co-operation of William duke of Aquitaine. The monks of the new order came to England in the following century and established their first house at Barnstaple. (fn. 1) Northamptonshire possessed two important priories of Cluniac foundation, and a nunnery of the order.

This order (fn. 2) was the first to obtain immunity from diocesan visitation; this coveted privilege being granted by Pope Gregory VII, who had himself been a monk of the order. But all the houses, whether abbeys, priories, or smaller cells, had to submit to visitation by commissioners of their own order. Two were selected for this duty for each ecclesiastical province (England and Scotland forming one) at the annual general chapter held at Cluny. The time for meeting was September, and the attendance of the superior of every house was compulsory; the priors, however, of England, Spain, Lombardy, and Germany were privileged, and not obliged to attend more than once in two years, a period afterwards extended to three, with occasional remissions up to seven years. The priors also of dependent houses or cells owed special allegiance to the parent house, and were expected, with some irregularity, to respond to a chapter summons.

None of their priors could be elected by their own convent, but were nominated by the mother-house beyond the seas, which almost invariably sent foreigners to this country. The majority of the monks until the time of Edward III were French, for novices could not be professed by the priors in England. During the wars with France these houses were not unnaturally treated as alien priories, and their revenues and patronage administered by the crown. Some few were altogether suppressed and transferred to other religious foundations, but the majority were gradually made denizen, and discharged from foreign subjection and obedience, while remaining under the discipline of the Order of Cluny. One or two, such as Daventry, took out new foundation charters and united themselves to the general chapter and congregation of the Benedictines; but even these usually styled themselves Cluniac, and the priors (thirty-two in number) at the time of the dissolution surrendered under that title. The great majority of the English houses, however, continued down to the dissolution to make considerable payments or annual pensions to Cluny, the abbot of Cluny drawing from this source an annual income of £2,000. But up to the time of the suppression of the alien houses, the whole income of the English cells or priories was subject to foreign administration, a certain portion only being reserved for local needs.

The Northamptonshire religious houses of Cluny are peculiarly interesting as illustrating the gradual way in which foreign rule was lost, and diocesan control substituted. The story, however, of St. Andrew's will be found to differ materially from that of Daventry; while the record of the convent of Delapré admits of no comparison, for it was one of the very few houses of Cluniac nuns in England.

The austere order of the Cistercians, another reformed Benedictine branch, was first established in England in 1128. In 1142 a colony of these white monks from Newminster in Northumberland (which was itself the eldest daughter of Fountains) established an abbey at Pipewell. This order generally sought out unreclaimed wastes or undrained valleys for their houses, but now and again they were content to settle in some thick-grown forest. The yet unwritten history, for which there is abundant material, of these monks of Rockingham Forest is full of exceptional interest.

The Austin or Black Canons, an order of conventual clergy following the rule of St. Augustine of Hippo, were next in numbers in this country to the Benedictines. The abbey of St. James, on the west side of Northampton, was their largest house in the county, and of some importance. They had three priories in Northamptonshire: at Canons Ashby, Chalcombe, and Fineshade. There was also a hermitage or small priory at Grafton Regis, the brethren of which, in its earlier days, probably followed the Austin rule. On the Northamptonshire side of Stamford there was a twelfth-century house of St. Sepulchre.

The Premonstratensian, or White Canons, a reformed order of canons regular, founded their first English house in 1140 at Newhouse, Lincolnshire; thence a colony established themselves at Sulby in 1155.

Four of the six chief orders of nuns found in England had houses within the county. The Benedictine nuns were at Stamford Baron and Wothorpe. The Austin nuns had a small settlement at Rothwell. The Cluniac nuns had a house of some importance, termed an abbey, at Delapré on the south side of Northampton. The most strictly cloistered order were the Cistercian nuns; they had a house, under exceptional rule, at Catesby, also a small convent of early foundation at Sewardsley.

The two great orders of knights following the rule of St. Austin had each possessions in Northamptonshire. The Knights Hospitallers had a commandery at Dingley, founded temp. Stephen. The Knights Templars had three 'camerae' at Blakesley, Guilsborough, and Harrington, which were all transferred to the Hospitallers when the Templars were suppressed in 1312.

The strange and terrible suppression of the Templars occurred during the episcopate of the saintly Bishop Dalderby, who was nominated by the pope as one of the commissioners to try the accused in England. The bishop avoided acting with the other commissioners, but held a private inquiry, so far as his own diocese was concerned, in the Lincoln chapter-house, and subsequently declined to take any further part in the proceedings. From letters in his register, it is concluded that he believed in their innocence. When, however, the Provincial Synod of Canterbury passed sentence against the Templars in 1311, the bishop of Lincoln had to carry out the archbishop's sentence in consigning the knights to the various monasteries as prisoners to fulfil their penance. Seventeen of the order were sent to as many monasteries of the diocese. The monks of St. Andrew, Northampton, were ordered to receive William de Pocklington, but the monastery refused to receive him and sent a letter to that effect to the bishop. The bishop repeated his order in sterner tones, but the priory again refused obedience. Bishop Dalderby then took the grave step of writing to the rural dean of Northampton, bidding him to cause to be published in every church of the deanery the excommunication of the prior, sub-prior, precentor, cellarer, and sacristan of St. Andrew's. This apparently secured the desired result, for there is no further reference to the matter in the bishop's register. (fn. 3) There is no other incident in the jurisdiction of this great diocese during the fourteenth century that shows in such a marked way the strength of the episcopal power, for the priory of St. Andrew dominated the town of Northampton, and almost every church in the deanery was in their gift.

Those great evangelizers of the towns, the friars, who, theoretically at least, rejected endowments and lived on the alms of the faithful, naturally found their way with speed to Northampton, as one of the chief towns of the kingdom. The Franciscans established themselves in 1224, the very year of their first arrival in the kingdom, at Northampton, where they eventually had one of the largest and most handsome churches of any pertaining to the mendicant orders in England. They were closely followed by the Dominicans, whose friary at Northampton was subsequently chosen as the place for holding provincial chapters. Somewhat later in the century, the Carmelites and Austin Friars started houses in the same town, so that Northampton shared the distinction with eleven other boroughs of having settlements of all the four great orders of mendicant brethren. Stamford, on the northern verge of the county, was another of these twelve boroughs, so that the smaller towns and villages of Northamptonshire would speedily be stirred by the earnest eloquence of these vagrant missioners. Bishop Grossetête was a great patron of the friars, urging the parish clergy to give them ready access to their pulpits, and a free hand in the hearing of confessions. The impression that they made on the religious life of the shire in the thirteenth century could not fail to be considerable.

Among religious foundations must also be included the hospitals, for the church blended the spiritual with the corporal works of mercy. A hospital without a chapel and a priest was unknown, and the regular inmates were always vowed to certain religious observances. The terrible prevalence, even in this midland shire, of mediaeval leprosy, and the zeal of the church in providing for the victims, are testified by the founding, in the first half of the twelfth century, of eight lazar-houses. Six of these, at Northampton, Peterborough, Towcester, Brackley, Thrapston, and in Rockingham Forest, were dedicated, as was usual with leper hospitals, in honour of St. Leonard; the seventh, at the Northamptonshire end of Stamford Bridge, was dedicated in honour of St. Giles; whilst the dedication of the eighth, by the north gate of Northampton, is unknown. In the same century the large hospital of St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist was founded at Northampton; that of St. John and St. James at Brackley; that of St. John the Baptist and St. Thomas of Canterbury at Stamford Baron; that of St. Thomas of Canterbury at the abbey gate of Peterborough; and the well-endowed hospital of St. John and St. James at Aynho under episcopal institution. In the year 1200 another largely-endowed hospital, the masters of which were presented by the adjacent priory of St. Andrew to the bishop for institution, was founded at Kingsthorpe; to this foundation were attached two chapels, dedicated respectively to St. David and the Holy Trinity. A small hospital was also founded at Armston in the year 1232, and another at Pirho about the same time. All these hospitals were for the three-fold object, in varying degrees, of providing for the aged, the sick, and the wayfarer. Another hospital of some importance, that of St. Thomas of Canterbury, is said to have been founded in Northampton by the burgesses about 1450; but this was in all probability a revival of a far older foundation made soon after the canonization of Thomas à Becket.

Northamptonshire, like other counties, affords numerous examples of the gross diversion of those early hospital or almshouse establishments from their original purposes.

Monastic foundations had become so numerous throughout England that munificently-disposed people sought other channels for the disposal of their wealth. A method of doing this was suggested by the growing practice of establishing chantries for one or more priests. The custom became prevalent of turning parish churches into collegiate institutions. It has been pointed out by one of the most comprehensive writers on such subjects that these parochial colleges were really chantry chapels of a larger size; the chancel being usually allotted to the community as rectors, whilst the nave remained congregational under a vicar of their appointment. (fn. 4)

The similarity of chantry to college is nowhere more strikingly illustrated than in the episcopal registers of the archdeaconry of Northampton. In 1327 Gilbert de Middleton, archdeacon of Northampton, founded a chantry in the church of Wappenham, in honour of the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin, and All Saints, for six priests, one of whom was to be termed the warden (custos), whose first duty it was to celebrate masses for the founder's family. This foundation is expressly termed a chantry; but in 1337 John Gifford, a canon of York, founded a 'college' at Cotterstock for a provost and twelve chaplains, endowing it with the manor and advowson of the church and other property. This is an exceptionally early instance of a parochial college. Northamptonshire, for its size, was rich in foundations of this nature; at Irthlingborough in 1373 there was a foundation of a dean and five canons; at Higham Ferrers, Archbishop Chicheley established his famous college of a master and seven canons in the year 1415; in the same year the royal college of Fotheringhay, with its master, eight clerks, and thirteen choristers, was established; whilst at Towcester in 1448, and at All Saints, Northampton, in 1459, colleges of much smaller dimensions were instituted. Though the distinctive feature of these colleges was, as a rule, that of large chantries for the repose of the soul of the founder or founders—a fact which secured their complete destruction under Edward VI—it will be found that the Northamptonshire examples afford evidence of their members being engaged in definite parochial work, in education, and in the care of the aged. Their numbers, too, enabled them (on the larger foundations) to provide for the parish and neighbourhood examples of the highest form of worship, such as could otherwise only be found in the cathedral churches.

Taken as a whole, the extant records of the visitations of the religious houses of the county bear no small testimony to the general morality and devout living of the inmates; the testimony in favour of the good works and moral lives of the inmates, as supplied by county gentlemen and others, immediately before the dissolution, is particularly strong in several cases, notably with regard to the abbeys of Pipewell and St. James's Northampton, and the nunnery of Catesby. As to their suppression, the main features of the dissolution in Northamptonshire have been already set forth, and certain other particulars are given under the respective houses.


  • 1. Pignot, Ordre de Cluni, iii. 419. Lewes is generally named as the first English house, but this is an error.
  • 2. See tabulated list of affiliated foundations in England and Scotland, reproduced in Duckett, Charters and Records of Cluni, 196.
  • 3. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. of Dalderby, ff. 195d, 198.
  • 4. Mackenzie Walcott, Engl. Minsters, ii. 39.