Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of Dorchester

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

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'Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of Dorchester', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2, (London, 1907), pp. 87-90. British History Online [accessed 21 June 2024].

. "Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of Dorchester", in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2, (London, 1907) 87-90. British History Online, accessed June 21, 2024,

. "Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of Dorchester", A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2, (London, 1907). 87-90. British History Online. Web. 21 June 2024,

In this section



There is no record of the foundation of Dorchester Abbey, but by piecing together such evidence as we have, we can prove that about the year 1140 Bishop Alexander suppressed the secular canons that had survived from Saxon times, and gave their endowments to Austin canons. An anonymous writer of 1225 (fn. 1) says that the bishop set up 'regular canons' during the reign of Stephen, and as the church of Benson was given to the abbey by the Empress Maud, (fn. 2) we can safely say that it was in existence by 1142. Furthermore, between 1139 and 1145 canons were procured from Dorchester, being of the Arrouasian or stricter form of the Austin rule, for the foundation of what ultimately became Lilleshall Abbey. (fn. 3) The main endowment of the abbey consisted of the churches of the hundred of Dorchester, viz. Toot Baldon, Drayton, Clifton Hampden, Chislehampton, Stadhampton, and Dorchester, with its chapelries of Overy and Burcot. These were the churches which in old days had been served by the prebendaries of Dorchester, and for this reason, even in 1291, were still called 'the chapels of the prebendaries;' (fn. 4) and in fact the abbey-church of Dorchester was known as the 'prebendal church' as late as the dissolution of the monasteries. (fn. 5) The bishop, of course, was patron, and his licence had to be obtained when an abbot was to be elected.

Other benefactions were the church of Benson with its chapels of Nettlebed and Warborough, given by the Empress Maud, no doubt between 1140 and 1142; the church of Pishill given before 1189, (fn. 6) also the churches of Shirburn, Bix Brand, and Warpsgrove. Other gifts were few; the abbey had little property in land, and its income from spiritualities was always twice as much as its income from temporalities.

Nothing is known of the history of the abbey until the thirteenth century, when we find that about 1223 its abbot (no doubt Abbot Roger), after wasting its goods, had retired to the monastery of St. Frideswide, taking with him 48 marks. In consequence there was a lawsuit between the two houses, which at Easter, 1225, had been in progress for some time. (fn. 7) Perhaps it was to divert the attention of the brethren to something nobler that a petition was sent to the pope in 1224 asking that they might move the bones of Birinus to a more worthy place. The pope, in reply, sent a mandate to the archbishop that he was to visit the abbey, and see whether the tomb was really that of Birinus; for that Bede narrated that his bones were taken to Winchester. What followed is described for us by one who was present. The archbishop, on his arrival, was informed that the tomb had been discovered, apparently about fifty years before, through a vision that appeared to one of the canons, telling him to look for the tomb before the altar of the Holy Cross; the tomb was found and opened, and the body of a bishop was discovered; miracles had followed: a leper had been cleansed, a dead man had been brought to life, and one had learned to speak French in three days. The bones which had been taken to Winchester were from a tomb in the corner behind a door, not a likely place to choose for the burial of such a saint as Birinus. Moreover an anchorite of Holywell near Oxford heard a voice saying: 'It is Bertinus behind the door, but Birinus under the pavement,' Bertinus being reputed a bishop of Dorchester, tenth in succession from Birinus. The tomb was thereupon opened again in the presence of the archbishop, the body of a bishop was found, and the conclusion was that Bede trusting to hearsay had make a mistake, and should have said that the bones of Bertinus were taken to Winchester. Unfortunately for this argument Bertinus would have lived after the days of Bede; but at all events there was supposed to be satisfactory evidence that this was the body of Birinus. (fn. 8) In the next century a costly marble shrine was made for the saint, (fn. 9) and in 1301 an indulgence of forty days was granted to those who should visit the bones of Birinus at Dorchester. (fn. 10) At the dissolution the offerings at the shrine were worth £5 a year. (fn. 11)

At the Taxation of 1291 the income of the abbey from churches was about £60, from land about £26; the church of Bix had been appropriated in 1275, (fn. 12) Pishill and Shirburn before 1220. (fn. 13) In 1301 licence was given by the bishop that the churches of Bix, Pishill, and Nettlebed, because of their poverty, should be served by chaplains instead of vicars; (fn. 14) and it is probable that the custom had been followed for some time; at all events in the rolls of Bishop Hugh (1216-36) Shirburn is the only church belonging to Dorchester to which there is an institution. At the visitation of 1445 it is mentioned that canons whose presence was not desired at Dorchester were sent to take charge of these neighbouring parishes. At Warpsgrove there continued to be rectors, and we learn (fn. 15) that in 1453, though there was still a rector of Warpsgrove, yet there were then (as now) no inhabitants. Shortly after (i.e. in 1458) the canons sold the advowson to Edmund Rede, (fn. 16) and the church must have been pulled down.

During the fourteenth century the abbey was from time to time allowed to acquire lands in mortmain, (fn. 17) especially in the year 1329 when they had permission to acquire lands to the value of 10 marks a year; whereby they acquired the neighbouring manor of Huntercombe.

In 1356 we find that the abbey was neglecting its duties to the parish of Pishill. As we have seen, it had obtained the appropriation of the church before 1220, and in 1301 the bishop had granted leave that instead of a vicar the parish should be served by one of the canons; but even this was not adhered to, and in 1356 the lord of Pishill and the inhabitants, 'parishioners of the church, chapel, or perpetual chantry of Pishill' were conducting a case against the abbot and convent of Dorchester to secure a resident chaplain at the expense of the canons, as was due. (fn. 18)

The record of a visitation, paid by Bishop Alnwick in 1441, gives the number of inmates as eleven, the abbot being John Clyfton. According to the evidence of the older canons everything was well, or nothing more serious amiss than that the prior did not keep the clock in order, in fact had used the clock-ropes for the bells; but at last one gave evidence, which showed that the house could not well be in a worse state. After dinner none of the canons stayed in the cloister, but all went hunting, hawking, or fishing. The house was in debt, not £60 as the abbot had admitted, but £200; the jewels were pawned, but by arrangement were returned to the monastery for the day of the visitation. One of the canons had a bird, 'anglice, goshawk,' which had cost the abbey more than 50s. Another canon had a private room where the canons met after compline and played draughts and sent for good beer (post bonam cervisiam). Finally the abbot and four others were accused of inchastity, and the details given. No doubt at these visitations there was not a little of reckless accusation, but in the present instance there is much to show that the story was true. In the first place the bishop adjourned the visitation, instead of closing it, and when it was resumed three months later, two of those accused had fled and apostatised. Further, when the house was visited in 1445, we find that John Clyfton, though still living at Dorchester, had been deposed from his position of abbot.

Four years later, the condition of the house was unsatisfactory though no longer scandalous. The new abbot, Alan Bateson, elected apparently from outside (an unusual thing at Dorchester) complains of a young canon, Ralph Carnell: he stirred up the younger canons to disobey the abbot; he enticed them to escape from the abbey at night, to eat and drink in the town with women and lay folk; he broke doors and windows, so as to get out; when rebuked he burst into contumely; when imprisoned by the abbot, he brought over scholars from Oxford, so that from bodily fear he released the prisoner; he hit the elderly prior, John Hakeburne, on the ear with such violence that he had been deaf ever since; and he carried long knives under the plea of self-defence. The story of Carnell, on the other hand, was that the abbot hated him, because he had voted against him at his election to the abbacy; that the abbot had sent him against his will to Stadhampton to take charge of the parish; that he had hit him on the head in the second week in Lent, to the effusion of blood; that he had put him in chains for twenty days; that the abbot wished to drive him away; and therefore he petitions the bishop to be allowed to go to the university; he had already studied canon law for four years, and in two years more he could take his degree as bachelor.

The bishop, however, did not grant his request, but ordered that before Michaelmas he should transfer himself to some other house of the same, or a stricter, rule; if he did not, the bishop would. There were other small complaints. It was said that whenever a grant or lease was sealed with the abbey seal, it was the custom that half a mark should be divided between the canons, but that deeds were now sealed in secret and the canons received nothing. The annual allowance for clothing had been reduced from 20s. to 13s. 4d. The sum of 10s. a year, left by a former abbot to be distributed among the canons on the vigil of St. Mary Magdalen, was now withheld. The brethren did not use the refectory—sometimes not once in a quarter—but had their meals in the abbot's chamber, with secular people, and women, and idle talk; and they never had reading at the time of refection. As many as six canons were permanently absent serving churches and chapels appropriated to the monastery. There were grave suspicions again about the late abbot, John Clyfton, but he produced four compurgators, who asserted their belief that he was innocent; but the door from Clyfton's room into the garden was to be closed. The examination into the charges raised by Carnell was postponed until the Wednesday after All Saints' Day, nearly six months later. (fn. 19)

In 1455 when the next abbot was elected, the number of canons was twelve. (fn. 20) Of the visitation held in June, 1517, by the bishop's commissary, our record (fn. 21) only mentions that the dormitory was out of repair; and the canons were forbidden to go into the town without leave of the prior.

At a visitation in September, 1530, conducted by the bishop in person, the house consisted of Roger Smith, abbot, William Goldyngton, prior, six canons, and two novices. The prior was negligent about rising for mattins, and the other canons as well; sometimes only two were present, and it was not often that all were there, except on double feasts. Thomas Wytney was excitable (elate mentis); three or four times he was ready to fight with the prior; every day he went abroad, hunting or fishing. Frequently there were opprobrious words between the canons. The teacher of grammar was usually drunk after midday; there was no instruction in grammar, nor had been for a long time. The dormitory, cloister, and other buildings were out of repair. There was a public thoroughfare through the cloister used by men and women by day and night. The gates of the cloister were never closed. At night the canons did not go to the dormitory all together, but some walked about the cloister, the church, and the abbot's chamber, and went to their cells late. John Willys, a secular priest of evil fame, had been admitted to the dormitory, to the discredit of the house; he was also suspected of felony, and various possessions of the monastery had been missing since his coming. Thomas Wytney had been to mattins only thrice since the feast of St. Lawrence, and to compline and collation only six times in three months. He would sit up late at night, till ten or eleven o'clock; and would rise at three or four in the morning. He was ignorant and full of words; he had stayed for a long time in his brother's house in Dorchester. No doors were shut at night, and anyone could go in and out at will. There was a strong suspicion (as the bishop phrased it) of the incontinence of the prior, and something more of a canon, named Wytney. The bishop gave injunctions that all doors should be provided with locks and keys—in particular the gates between the nave of the parochial church of Dorchester and the choir of the conventual church of the monastery; the keys were to be kept by the sacrist, and the doors were to be locked at five o'clock in the afternoon in winter, at six in summer, and were not to be opened until six in the morning. The public way through the cloister was to be stopped. The aged abbot—who was in bishop's orders, having been suffragan bishop of Lydda—for his open negligence, contumacy, and disobedience was suspended from the celebration of divine service; also Thomas Pyner, one of the canons, suspected of incontinence, was suspended in like manner until he had purged himself; and the prior, 'because of the strong suspicion of his incontinence,' was suspended from his office and from the celebration of divine service for a fortnight. Pyner and the prior were not to go outside the monastery until the bishop gave them leave; while Wytney was not to go outside for a year, and was to have the lowest place in the choir for at least a fortnight. The visitation ends with the revocation of the sentence against the abbot and his 'restitution to the celebration of divine offices.' It may be pointed out that this record is particularly interesting as showing that Dorchester was one of those churches where part belonged to the parish and part to the monastery. As the outer doors into the parish church would never be closed, nor the entrance from the monastery into the choir, it was necessary at night to lock the gates (ostia) between the nave (which belonged to the parish) and the choir (which belonged to the convent).

In 1526 the income of the abbey was returned as £123, of which £92 was in 'spirituals,' and £31 in temporals and demesnes. (fn. 22) In 1535 the spiritualities are put at £134, the temporalities and demesnes at £84, and the net income at £190. (fn. 23)

The abbey was under the patronage of St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Birinus.

Abbots of Dorchester

Alvred, occurs in 1147 (fn. 24) and after 1173 (fn. 25)

Eustace, before 1185 (fn. 26) and after 1213

Roger, occurs 1217, (fn. 27) probably fled about 1223

Richard, about 1223, (fn. 28) deposed 1236 (fn. 29)

Richard de Wurthe, elected 1236, (fn. 30) died 1259

John Warewik, elected 1259, (fn. 31) resigned 1269

Walter de Burgo, elected 1270 (fn. 31)

Ralph de Dudcote, died 1293

William de Rofford, elected 1294, (fn. 32) died 1298

Alexander de Waltham, elected 1298, (fn. 33) deprived 1304

John de Caversham, elected 1304, (fn. 34) died 1333

John de Sutton, elected 1333, (fn. 35) died 1349

Robert de Wychingdon, elected 1349, (fn. 36) died 1380

Robert de Codesdone, elected 1380 (fn. 37)

. . . . . . .

John Winchester, (fn. 38) late abbot in 1441

John Clyfton, occurs 1439, (fn. 39) and 1441, deposed before 1445

Alan Bateson, occurs 1445, resigned 1455

Thomas, elected 1455, (fn. 40) occurs 1458 (fn. 41)

. . . . . . .

Roger Smith, before 1513, (fn. 42) resigned 1533

John March, elected 1533, (fn. 43) surrendered 1536

The twelfth-century seal of the abbey is a pointed oval; St. Peter, full-length, with episcopal vestments, in the right hand a double key, in the left hand a book. (fn. 44) Legend:—


The seal of Richard, abbot of Dorchester, attached to a deed at Magdalen College of the year 1248, is a pointed oval, representing the Virgin seated with Child, over her head a crescent and a star; two pinnacles rise on either side of her seat; below in adoration is the halflength figure of an abbot. Legend:—



  • 1. Surius, vi, 688.
  • 2. Cal. Chart. R. (Rec. Com.), 6 John (p. 142).
  • 3. Eyton, Hist. of Shrops. ii, 204. In 1518 'the statutes of the monastery of Dorchester' are mentioned as if they were the pattern for English Arrouasians; Priory of Hexham (Surtees Soc.), i, p. cxv.
  • 4. Taxatio (Rec. Com.), 30.
  • 5. Leland, quoted in the account of Dorchester in the Monasticon.
  • 6. Cal. Chart. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 150.
  • 7. Bracton's Note Book (ed. Maitland), i, 551; ii, 109.
  • 8. Surius, vi, 689.
  • 9. See Addington's Hist. of Dorchester, 63, 137.
  • 10. Linc. Epis. Reg. Dalderby, Mem. fol. 48.
  • 11. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 170.
  • 12. Linc. Epis. Reg. Gravesend's Roll of Institution.
  • 13. Liber Hugonis Wells, 11.
  • 14. Linc. Epis. Reg. Dalderby, Mem. fol. 48.
  • 15. Ibid. Chedworth, Mem. fol. 16.
  • 16. Addington, Hist. of Dorchester, 87.
  • 17. A complete list is given in Addington's Hist. of Dorchester, 140-52.
  • 18. Linc. Epis. Reg. Gynwell, Mem. fol. 64.
  • 19. The document suffices to show that it would be erroneous to think that all cases of gross scandal in the monasteries were entered in the bishop's memoranda, for they contain no word of this case.
  • 20. Willis, Abbeys, ii, 176, but he gives no authority.
  • 21. MS. at Lincoln.
  • 22. MS. at Lincoln.
  • 23. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 170.
  • 24. An Oseney deed.
  • 25. Eynsham Cartul. No. 58.
  • 26. i.e. in the time of Pope Lucius III (Hist. of Croke Family, i, 425).
  • 27. Oseney Chartul. 167 A.
  • 28. MS. Cole, vol. xxvii, fol. 82b, is said to give his election in 1225; but reason is given above for an earlier date.
  • 29. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 143.
  • 30. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iv, 83. In a charter at Christ Church (St. Michael N., No. 16), this abbot, about 1245, describes his predecessor as 'bone memorie Ricardus.'
  • 31. Roll of Bp. Gravesend. Abbot John joined the Friars Preachers.
  • 32. Linc. Epis. Reg. Sutton, Inst. fol. 132.
  • 33. Ibid. fol. 138.
  • 34. Linc. Epis. Reg. Dalderby, Inst. fol. 147.
  • 35. Linc. Epis. Reg. Burghersh, Inst. fol. 268.
  • 36. Linc. Epis. Reg. Gynwell, Inst. fol. 196.
  • 37. Linc. Epis. Reg. Buckingham, Inst. fol. 372.
  • 38. Alnwick's Visitations; MS. Lincoln.
  • 39. Addington, Hist. of Dorchester, 86.
  • 40. Willis, Abbeys, ii, 175.
  • 41. Addington, Hist. of Dorchester, 87.
  • 42. He was consecrated bishop of Lydda in this year, as suffragan to the bishop of Salisbury; the inscription on his tomb says he was abbot of Dorchester before he became bishop (Hist. of Dorchester, 15). Bishop Stubbs is in error in saying that he died in 1518 (Reg. Sacr. Angl. 97); he ceased to be bishop of Lydda by 1520, but there is a lease at Shirburn Castle granted by him in April, 1533, as abbot of Dorchester.
  • 43. Linc. Epis. Reg. Atwater, Inst. 173. There is a brass at Dorchester representing a bishop, and below it, but detached, are these words:—'Here lieth Sir Richard Bewforeste' (Hist. of Dorchester, 15). There might have been an abbot of this name, but as Sir Richard Bewforeste is known as a prominent layman, who bought the abbey church at the dissolution, it is more probable that the name on the inscription has no connexion with the figure of the abbot.
  • 44. B.M. lxx, 71.