Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Eynsham

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

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'Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Eynsham', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2, (London, 1907), pp. 65-67. British History Online [accessed 21 June 2024].

. "Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Eynsham", in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2, (London, 1907) 65-67. British History Online, accessed June 21, 2024,

. "Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Eynsham", A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2, (London, 1907). 65-67. British History Online. Web. 21 June 2024,

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The Benedictine abbey of Eynsham, under the patronage of St. Mary, was first founded in 1005 by Æthelmar, the Ealderman, and endowed with the manors of Eynsham, Shifford, Shipton-on-Cherwell and Yarnton in Oxfordshire; Esher and Ditton in Surrey; Mickleton in Gloucestershire; and the church of St. Ebbe in Oxford with land adjoining. (fn. 1) The first abbot was Ælfric, the grammarian. (fn. 2) At the Norman Conquest the monks fled and the place was deserted; but Bishop Remigius, (fn. 3) who seems to have received the lands which the abbey once held in his diocese, restored and re-endowed it, and by 1086 it was in possession of Eynsham, Shifford, Yarnton, Mickleton, and Little Rollright with the church of St. Ebbe, (fn. 4) Columbanus being the abbot. In 1091 the bishop, who was building a cathedral for himself at Lincoln, determined to transfer his monastery to Stow in Lincolnshire. Eadnoth I, bishop of Dorchester (1005-16), had founded a monastery there, retaining for himself and his successors in the see of Dorchester a certain share of the offerings made at the monastery; between 1055 and 1057 Earl Leofric and Godiva had enriched it with the manors of Fledborough, Newark, and Brampton; (fn. 5) but with the advent of the Normans the foundation came to an end. The Conqueror, however, assented to the refoundation of the house and to the union of Eynsham with it, and gave Sleaford to the bishop in compensation for the offerings he had hitherto received at Stow. (fn. 6) William II not only renewed his father's grant, but renounced all claim to the patronage of the new monastery; (fn. 7) and in 1091 the bishop nominated Columbanus, abbot of Eynsham, to be abbot of Stow. (fn. 8) But two or three years later the next bishop, Robert Bloett, who had no affection for monks, determined to keep Stow and its endowments for his own use, and to send the monks back to Eynsham; but the king insisted that he should grant in compensation the churches and manors of Histon in Cambridgeshire, and Charlbury and South Stoke, Oxon, with tithes from Banbury and Thame. (fn. 9)

Eynsham therefore was finally established in 1094 or 1095. Of the original possessions it retained the manors and churches of Mickleton and Eynsham; it held Little Rollright (probably in exchange for Shipton-on-Cherwell), the manor of Shifford and the church of Yarnton, but in the manor of Yarnton nothing beyond the feudal lordship. It had also the three large and rich manors given by Bishop Robert. Other possessions, which followed in the course of the twelfth century, were the churches of Merton (given by David king of Scotland), of South Newington (given by Hugh de Chesney about 1160), Combe (by the Empress in 1141), Cassington (by its builder Geoffrey de Clinton about 1120), Tetbury in Worcestershire (by Reginald of St. Walery), Brize Norton (by Walkelin Hareng), Cornwell, Westcot Barton, Whitfield in Northants, Souldern (fn. 10) (by Jordan de Sai), and others. Histon and Brize Norton churches were appropriated in 1268, Whitfield in 1240, Charlbury in 1293, Merton in 1354, (fn. 11) Eynsham, Yarnton, and Cassington before 1200. One donation of Bishop Alexander, received in 1138, deserves special mention; the ancient offerings called processionals, smoke-farthings or Pentecostals, a farthing from every house, which were made to the cathedral at Pentecost, were as regards the county of Oxford assigned to Eynsham. (fn. 12)

In 1291 the income of the abbey was about £325, of which three-quarters came from properties received before 1100.

A peculiar feature of Eynsham, easily explicable from its history, was that the patron was not the king, as with other Saxon monasteries, but the bishop. In 1196 King Richard claimed to be patron, but St. Hugh resisted him and won the day. (fn. 13)

Of the inmates of Eynsham none have secured any prominence except Adam, abbot 1213-28. He is well known now as the author of the Vita Sancti Hugonis (published in the Rolls Series), having been taken by St. Hugh from Eynsham in 1197 to become his chaplain. He was also author of another work more highly valued in the Middle Ages, the account of the vision of Edmund the monk of Eynsham, which is extant in no less than twelve manuscripts. The occurrence is mentioned by Matthew Paris and Roger of Wendover. On Thursday before Easter 1196 a young monk fell into a trance, and only returned to life on the Saturday evening; whereupon he related how he had visited the other world in the company of St. Nicholas, and what he had seen. His own brother Adam, at that time sub-prior, put it into literary form with no little skill, (fn. 14) evidently at the suggestion of St. Hugh. These works show that Adam was a man of scholarship and earnestness, though he lived to be deposed for mismanagement and perjury. (fn. 15)

In November, 1284, Archbishop Peckham visited Eynsham and found that the late abbot, John of Oxford, who had resigned some three years previously, had been provided for by Oliver, bishop of Lincoln, on an unwisely liberal scale, which the archbishop ordered to be reduced. His daily allowance of four loaves and four gallons of beer was in future to suffice for the monk assigned him as a companion as well as for himself, and on Sundays and feast days he was to dine with the convent—unless invited to the abbot's table; no secular was to eat with him and what was left over from his meals was to be added to the convent's alms. His money allowance was reduced from 10 marks to 100s., and although not forbidden to keep a secular squire the desirability of his attendant being a clerk was strongly urged. Peckham at the same time ordered that the 'outside cellarer,' or monk to whose care the abbey's manors were entrusted, should not have a staff of servants or horses, and when taking meals at any manors should charge them to the bursars. (fn. 16)

In 1296 on the Tuesday after Pentecost 'certain clerks, scholars of Oxford, were attacked at Eynsham; some were wounded, others killed'; the unknown perpetrators were to be excommunicated. (fn. 17) It was the day on which the Pentecostals were brought to Eynsham, and also the first day of the fair, which the abbey was allowed to hold by the grant of Henry II.

In 1344 there were great disturbances at the abbey. Abbot Nicholas de Upton was deposed by the bishop, but returning with a band of 1,500 armed men, as his enemies said, drove out the new abbot and many, if not all, of the monks. Fourteen of them complained to the pope that they had fled in fear of their lives; (fn. 18) two others were 'vagabond in secular habit.' (fn. 19) It seems that Nicholas remained master of the field, and the monks returned; but in 1351 he resigned, and lived for many years at Eynsham in honoured retirement with a liberal allowance. (fn. 20)

In 1353 the abbey owed to Edmund de Bereford the sum of £1,000. (fn. 21)

In 1380 the bishop conducted a visitation. The allowance of each monk was to be £4 6s. 8d. for clothes, meat, and wine; in addition to this the abbot was bound to supply them with salt, oatmeal, beans, butter, cheese and firewood; and the number of monks was to be raised to thirty as soon as suitable persons could be found. (fn. 22) A roll (fn. 23) of about 1405, unfortunately incomplete, gives the names of twenty-two inmates, and there is reason to think there were about four more.

In 1435 the monks made proposals to the bishop for the discharge of the debts of the abbey; the abbot, his servants, and the monks were to have £64 for their food and drink; the wages of the servants were £40, the expenses of the kitchen £60, repairs £40. In all, they estimated that out of an income of £390, there would be £132 available for the paying of debts. (fn. 24) But shortly after this, the bishop writes that the abbot has been openly guilty of adultery, fornication, &c., and asks whether he can show cause why he should not incur the penalties of the crimes, which indeed he had confessed at the last visitation. (fn. 25) Whether he was deposed we do not know. A few months later the bishop ordained that the monks were to have no more than two marks a year for clothing, until the debts of the monastery were paid. (fn. 26)

At the visitation of 1445 there were fourteen monks besides the abbot; all was well, except that one of the monks, turning apostate, had fled with a nun of Godstow; he had, however, repented and returned. (fn. 27)

At the visitations held in 1517 and 1520 the members were sixteen; the income of the house was £469; one of the monks was 'communis mendax,' he liked to get drunk and stirred up strife. There were the usual complaints that the abbot's relatives were burdensome to the monastery, but there was nothing seriously wrong. (fn. 28) In 1526 the net income was £434; in 1535 it was £421, at which date the house contained nineteen inmates. (fn. 29) The condition of the house at this date seems to have seriously deteriorated, as Tregonwell, who spoke favourably of all the other Oxford houses, reported to Cromwell,

At Ensham I found 'a raw sort' of religious persons and all sorts of offences among them, etiam crimen pessimum, for which they have been punished by the ordinary. The abbot is chaste in his living, looks well to the reparation of the house, but is negligent in overseeing his brethren, which he excuses by his daily infirmity. (fn. 30)

An attempt to involve the abbot was shortly afterwards made by one John Parkyns, whose rambling accusations are endorsed with the succinct and apparently accurate description, 'a fole of Oxford or thereabout.' (fn. 31)

In December, 1539, when the house was surrendered, it seems that there were only ten monks. (fn. 32) The abbot was granted the unusually large pension of £133 6s. 8d., and was subsequently made bishop of Llandaff, acquiring some notoriety for being able to retain his see under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth.

There are two seals of the monastery; the earlier, a pointed oval, represents the Virgin seated on the left, and the Lord on the right beside her with the right hand raised as though to crown her; below is a figure with a pastoral staff in adoration facing to the right. (fn. 33) Legend:—


The seal (fn. 34) of Adam, abbot 1213-28, is a pointed oval, showing, within a double inscribed border, an abbot standing on a carved bracket with pastoral staff in his left hand, under a cusped and pinnacled niche, above which is the Virgin with the Child on her right knee. Legend:—

Inner border : EDITUS . EX . ADAM . TUEATUR . A . . . N . DEUS . ADAM

Outer border : . . . . LUM . ADE . GRA . . . . . . HAM . . .

The fourteenth-century seal is a pointed oval: the Virgin, seated on a throne in a carved and canopied niche, the Child on the left knee. In a niche over the canopy Our Lord, also seated on a throne, with nimbus and orb, lifting up the right hand in benediction. At each side a smaller canopied and pinnacled niche, containing on the left St. Peter, with keys, on the right St. Paul, with sword. The bracket on which each of these side niches is supported, is ornamented with a trefoiled panel. In base, under an arch, the abbot, kneeling, with pastoral staff, to the left. (fn. 35) Legend:—


There is also in the British Museum the seal of an abbot. Pointed oval: a left hand, and vested arm, issuing from the left, and holding a pastoral staff. (fn. 36) Legend:—


Abbots of Eynsham (fn. 37)

Columbanus, occurs 1086 and 1094

Walter I

Walter II

William, c. 1150-2

Godfrey, 1152-96

Robert, 1197-1208

Vacancy, 1208-13

Adam, 1213-28

Nicholas, 1228-39

John of Dover, 1239-41

Gilbert of Gloucester, 1241-64

Alexander of Brackley, 1264-68

John of Oxford, 1268-81

Thomas of Wells, 1281-1307

Adam of Lambourne, 1307-16

John of Cheltenham, 1317-30

John of Broughton, 1330-8

Nicholas of Upton, 1338-44 and 1344-51

William of Stamford, 1344

Geoffrey of Lambourne, 1351-88

Thomas Bradingstock, elected 1388, alive in 1409

James of Ramsden, elected 1414, alive in 1429

Thomas Oxinford, elected 1432, alive in 1436

John Quynyngton, in 1441 and 1449

Robert Faryndone, 1457-69

William Walwayn, 1469, alive in 1483

Miles Salley, occurs 1499, died 1516

Thomas Chaundler, (fn. 38) elected 1517

Henry Reading, occurs 1519, died 1530

Anthony Dunstone alias Kitchin, 1530-9


  • 1. Eynsham Cartul. (Oxf. Hist. Soc.), chart. 1, 7.
  • 2. Leechdoms (Rolls Ser.), iii, p. xxiii.
  • 3. Vita Sancti Hugonis (Rolls Ser.), 189.
  • 4. Dom. Bk. fol. 166.
  • 5. Cartul. chart. 1.
  • 6. Chart. 3, 27.
  • 7. Linc. Cath. Stat. (ed. Wordsworth), ii, 3.
  • 8. Chart. 5.
  • 9. Chart. 6, 7.
  • 10. Chart. 15, 17, 19, 29, 60, 104, 116.
  • 11. Chart. 235a, 356, 372, 503, 575.
  • 12. Chart. 8.
  • 13. Vita Hugonis (Rolls Ser.), 190.
  • 14. It has been printed in Analecta Bollandiana, tom. xxii. Also Prof. Arber has reproduced an old English translation of it.
  • 15. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 109.
  • 16. Reg. Epis. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), iii, 843.
  • 17. Linc. Epis. Reg. Sutton, Mem. fol. 153.
  • 18. Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 174.
  • 19. Pat. 18 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 46d.
  • 20. Chart. 642.
  • 21. Cal. of Close R. (1349–54), p. 604.
  • 22. Linc. Epis. Reg. Buckingham, Mem. fol. 198.
  • 23. Harl. Roll F. 27.
  • 24. Linc. Epis. Reg. Grey, Mem. fol. 153.
  • 25. Ibid. fol. 111 and 167.
  • 26. Ibid. fol. 201.
  • 27. MS. at Lincoln.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Valor (Rec. Com.), 212.
  • 30. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ix, 457.
  • 31. Ibid. xii (1), 79, 261, 264.
  • 32. Willis, Hist. of Abbeys, 178 and App. 23.
  • 33. Found on a deed at Lincoln of about 1290, and one at Westminster of 1213–28. See B.M. civ, 58.
  • 34. B.M. civ, 59.
  • 35. B.M. lxx, 72.
  • 36. B.M. lxvi, 95.
  • 37. See preface to the Eynsham Cartul. (Oxford Hist. Soc.), vol i.
  • 38. Called by Wolsey 'the flower of St. Benet's order;' L. and P. Hen. VIII, ii (1), 2724.