Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Muchelney

A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

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'Houses of Benedictine monks: The abbey of Muchelney', in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2, (London, 1911) pp. 103-107. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

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The founder of Muchelney Abbey is said to have been Athelstan, King of England, and one tradition says that he founded it in expiation of his complicity in the murder of the Atheling Edwin in 933, and another that it was founded as a thank-offering for his great victory at Brunanburgh in 937. A still earlier origin however has been claimed for the abbey. (fn. 1)

Ine, King of Wessex, lived at the time when the extension of the Church was very rapid, and the munificence of kings and nobles very great, and afterwards when the monks were desirous to regard their foundation as earlier than that of Athelstan, it was not strange that they should have cherished the tradition that the original founder was not Athelstan but Ine himself; nor is there any great reason for supposing that he was not.

The charters of King Ine copied in the cartulary, though forgeries, may contain true history. Moreover, among the charters is a genuine one by Kynewulf, in 762, giving certain land between the Isle and the Earn to the monastery of Muchelney, and this alone proves that Athelstan was not the original founder, though he may have been the restorer of the abbey.

During the 9th and early part of the 10th century this district suffered much from the Danes, and the church life that had begun in the reign of Ine and had been fostered by the generosity of Kynewulf may have ceased; and thus, while we claim Athelstan as being the refounder, there is no historical argument against the tradition that the monastery was founded by the earlier monarch, Ine.

If the charter of Ine is a forgery as it stands in the cartulary, so also is the charter of King Athelstan, which describes him as the founder.

The original gift of Muchelney, with its adjacent islands of Thorney and Middleney, no longer exists.

In the cartulary there are copies of seven charters said to be granted by English kings to Muchelney before the Conquest. Two of Ine, of which the first is in its present shape clearly a forgery (dated 725), granting to Frody, the abbot at 'Mycleneya', 20 mancuses of land, and the other, which is rather a record than a charter, is dated 693, in which Ine is recorded to have granted 37 cassates of land on the banks of the Isle to this said Frody.

The one genuine charter is that of Kynewulf who in 762 granted eight cassates of land between the Isle and the Earn. Then comes the so-called charter of King Athelstan, granting half the manor of Curry Rivel to the monastery.

Then there are two transcripts of charters, of Edgar, one dated 964 granting to 'Miclani' and the brethren there the right to elect their own abbot, and in 966 ten cassates of land at Isle. The last of this group of early royal charters is a confirmation by King Ethelred in 995 of the possessions of the abbey at Ilminster, West Camel and all other lands that they possess.

In the Domesday Survey (fn. 2) the abbey is said to hold Chipstable, Ilminster, Isle Abbots, Cathanger in Fivehead, Drayton, Camel (West) and the three islands of Muchelney, Middleney, and Thorney.

In 1239 (fn. 3) the rectory of Chipstable was granted by Bishop Jocelin for the endowment of the abbey, but how the monastery obtained the advowson we do not know.

In the Taxatio (fn. 4) of 1291 the temporalities were valued at £44.

In the Valor (fn. 5) of Henry VIII the revenues of the abbey were valued at a net value of £447 4s. 11d.

Muchelney never was a large foundation. In 995 (fn. 6) King Ethelred speaks of it as a little monastery, monasteriolum, and our first item of information comes to us through William of Malmesbury's history of Glastonbury Abbey. (fn. 7) There we find Muchelney and Athelney seeking protection under the more powerful monastery of Glastonbury. (fn. 8)

Bishop Giso's manor of Huish joined the land of the abbey of Muchelney, and in a dispute between him and the abbey, Bishop Giso referred the matter to Lanfranc. The Archbishop of Canterbury therefore took occasion to summon the Abbot of Muchelney to appear before a general council of the English Church, (fn. 9) and the abbot replied that he would answer by command of the Abbot of Glastonbury in the chapterhouse of Glastonbury and nowhere else, and he based his answer on the royal privileges which the abbey had received from Kings Ine, Kentwin and Edward. We know nothing of the authority for this assertion, but it is said that the bishop did appeal in the chapter-house of Glastonbury and lost his case, and it seems probable that the action of the abbots of the two smaller houses was due to some arrangement made by the ambitious Abbot Thurstin of Glastonbury.

In 1201 (fn. 10) Abbot Richard was induced to give the church of Ilminster to the cathedral church of Wells. Bishop Savaric of Bath was then also Abbot of Glastonbury, and so the Abbot of Muchelney could not save himself as his predecessor had done more than a century earlier. Bishop Savaric created a prebend out of the church of Ilminster, and made the Abbot of Muchelney for the time being prebendary and a member of the chapter of the cathedral church of Wells, and thus while Muchelney did not benefit by the change, the bishop was henceforth able to claim the obedience of the abbot, because the abbot was a member of his chapter at Wells.

Bishop Savaric (fn. 11) seems to have given to the abbey on account of its poverty certain small tithes and dues arising out of the church of Somerton.

In 1315 (fn. 12) Bishop Drokensford appointed William de Dillington and Richard de Forde commissaries with final powers of correction to visit the abbey of Muchelney, but the result of this visit is not recorded.

In the same year (fn. 13) there is a receipt in the bishop's register from the Abbot of Muchelney for the keep of a Knight Templar from Templecombe who had been maintained at Muchelney for 276 days.

In 1329 (fn. 14) we find Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury commissioning Canon Walter de Hull, the rector of Shepton Beauchamp, to go to Muchelney and absolve Henry de Eastcammel, monk.

In 1332 (fn. 15) the bishop writes to the abbot asking him to grant a corrody or pension to William le Iressch, a small squire, who seems to have been an attendant on the bishop, and who was now too old to perform his customary duties. This request must be considered with evidence shown us in the Close Rolls, where we find that for the last 50 years at least the Crown had been forcing on the abbey the maintenance of its aged servants.

In 1309 (fn. 16) Richard le Devenish was sent there to be maintained in the abbey for the rest of his life. In 1325 (fn. 17) John le Foullere, who had long served the king and his father, was sent to occupy the place vacated by the death of Richard le Devenish. In 1328 (fn. 18) John de Trentham, the king's harper, was sent because Foullere was dead. In the next year (fn. 19) however he was removed to Bath. In 1342 (fn. 20) Thomas Prest of Twickenham was sent to occupy the place which his father Thomas Prest (now dead) had enjoyed, and the elder Prest himself had succeeded to the corrody granted by Edward I to Peter le Messayer.

In a monastery that was never large the presence of men like these must have been detrimental to the authority of the abbot, and also to the observance of the rule of St. Benedict by the monks themselves.

In 1335 (fn. 21) Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury wrote to the abbot concerning the comperta of a recent visitation of his. He says he found the monks living in luxury and enjoying private privileges which were quite unauthorized. They were not content with the simple cubicles in the dormitory but had made themselves larger beds in the form of tabernacles, which were too ornate and richly covered. They were in the habit of leaving the convent without permission and rode on horseback through the country, and some were wont to take their meals in private and not as they should, in common with the others in the refectory. Secular men, women and girls were allowed in the cloister area. In the refectory the utensils were far too costly and good for the simple life that should be lived there. All this was to be corrected by the festival of St. Michael. He forbade the monks to leave the precincts of the abbey unless they had obtained the abbot's permission, and if the abbot was absent, they must obtain the licence of the prior, and this licence was only to be granted for very good reasons.

The church of the monastery the bishop had found in a state of bad repair, and he ordered that it was to be restored and made good by that time on pain of a penalty of 100s. which the abbey would have to pay to the poor. The letter is dated from Banwell, 10 July 1335.

The visitation to which the bishop here refers probably took place in the previous year. The abbey had just lost its head, John de Henton, who had been abbot for thirty years, and so prolonged a term of office suggests that the abbot was of great age when he died, and this circumstance would account for a weakened discipline.

His successor, John de Somerton, was a man of great mark, and much valued by Bishop Ralph. Hearne says 'he was of great name in his monastery and also elsewhere.' His efforts at reform clearly had raised an opposition on the part of the monks who had been accustomed to the easy rule of his predecessor, Abbot Henton, and in 1338 (fn. 22) the bishop interfered with reference to John de Worthy, a monk there, who, on account of his disobedience, was ordered to be kept in prison in a separate chamber and to have a limited and prescribed dietary. On feast days as well as on other days he was bound to say one psalter a day. The next year, (fn. 23) hearing that there was some sympathy shown to this monk by his fellow-monks and even by the abbot, he writes to forbid the abbot and convent entering into conversation with him.

Another decade and we find the monastery visited by the Great Pestilence. John de Codeworth, who had been appointed in 1347, died in May 1349, and Thomas de Overton succeeded, and was admitted on 16 June 1349. The new abbot, like his predecessor, Somerton, had to receive a royal clerk, and to maintain him until such time as the monastery could provide him with a competent benefice.

In 1334 John de Feriby had received this benefit on the 'new creation' of Abbot Somerton, and now William de Okebourne profited by the new creation of Abbot Overton. (fn. 24) Unable however to find a benefice for him they had to keep him until 1352 when he went to Cirencester. (fn. 25) During his abbotship Overton granted a corrody to Ralph Drake, (fn. 26) the cantor, whose duty it was to sing at high mass, and to teach four boys, and one monk to play the organ.

The intimate relationship (fn. 27) between Abbot Somerton and Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury is shown by the perpetual chantry which was founded in the chapel of St. Martin in the church of Wells by the convent of Muchelney for the soul of their late abbot, and it is an instance of the close interconnexion between these religious foundations in mediaeval times that, in return, Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury founded a chantry in the chapel of the hospital of St. John in Wells on behalf of himself and Abbot Somerton, on condition that the prior and brethren of the hospital should pay a chaplain 6 marks a year to celebrate at the altar of St. Martin in the cathedral church.

It is interesting to note also that in 1433 (fn. 28) the abbot and convent established a chantry on behalf of Bishop Nicholas Bubwith, late Bishop of Bath and Wells, because he had gone to their aid when they were burdened with debt and had given them certain valuable vestments.

During the 15th century we know very little of the history of the monastery. Early in the century there seems to have been a rebuilding of the monastic church, and probably of the greater part of the monastic buildings. (fn. 29)

In the middle of that century, there were thirteen monks present at the election of Thomas Pipe in 1463, and in 1489 fifteen monks took part in the election of William Wyke as abbot. At the time of the Dissolution there seem to have been eight monks in addition to the abbot and prior. The election of the last abbot reveals the disgraceful pressure that was put upon the monastery by the ministers of the Crown, and the extraordinary dishonesty that existed among them. John Shirborne was induced to resign on 28 August 1532, (fn. 30) and on 11 June Henry Thornton wrote to Cromwell that he had received his and the king's letters to the abbot and convent, and that as soon as the resignation actually took place he would proceed to carry out the directions given therein. Inde or Yve was the ablest monk of the abbey, but he was young, and it was questionable whether he was of canonical age. He was certainly the ablest in wit and learning of the monastery. 'There are many among his elders who would fain be abbot, and make friends in these parts as Sir Nicholas Wadham and others, and so by the obstinacy of two or three simple monks of the king's foundation little regard shall be had to the king's letter. (fn. 31) If they are wilful cleave the more to the poor monk you have begun withal.'

A few days later (fn. 32) Thornton wrote another letter to Cromwell, and he adds 'no creature living shall know what shall be done between you and me touching Muchelney. I hope that my Lord Chief Justice will say something for my truth. I marvel where the fond monks have comfort; they are so full of cracks. If Dan Ine obtain it, as I trust he shall, he will prove a good husband to the monastery.'

Then again on 12 July (fn. 33) he writes:—

Four of the monks are put in comfort to be abbot, and all their efforts are set against dan Thomas Ine; so that the bishop, if he can, will make a monk of another place abbot there, perhaps from Glastonbury. Divers Canons residing in the Cathedral Church of Wells say that Ine shall never 'rejoise' that room; but I do not fear them as I remember your promise. It is necessary that the King's letter should be speedily sent to the Bishop of Bath, with another from you before the doctor comes into these parts. Rather than I should fail I had liever be where I shall be a thousand years hence.

On 13 August (fn. 34) he writes again:—

The time of Mr. Dr. Lee is being at Muchelney he that is vicarie of the same parish is godfather to dan Thomas Ine. Much labor hath been made by various monks of the house, especially by dan John Michell, who would fain be abbot, and has so laboured with the vicar that he now affirms that Ine is only 23 years old. The contrary can be proved by many in the parish of Ilminster, among them by Thomas Caslyn, his god-father, who are ready to be examined, who will state that at Christmas last he was 24 years old.

Then on 16 August (fn. 35) another letter was sent by Thornton: 'As touching dan Thomas Ine, monk of Muchelney, unless that your master cleeve according to my lowly and meek suit before this made unto you in his favour, he shall have so much wrong in such a matter as ever poor religious man had. He is 25 years old, which can be proved by a hundred besides the fourteen names I sent you. If Ine fails my credit will fail also.'

On 19 August 1532 (fn. 36) the licence was issued by the Crown for the election of an abbot in the place of John Shirborne. Then shortly afterwards came out the ground for Thornton's anxiety. He died that autumn, and it appears that Serjeant Thornton had promised to Cromwell a fee of £40 in the event of Ynde or Ine being elected, but he had obtained £100 from Ine to procure his election. (fn. 37) Ine had paid the money to Thornton, and had to pay again to Cromwell, and so the revenues of the abbey (fn. 38) were pledged to provide the illegal bribe.

Cromwell had applied to Dr. Lee to obtain this, and Ine seeing that he had lost his £100 could only promise to pay again the £40 to Cromwell 'besechyng you for a tyme to take hytt yn good worthe.'

On 2 July 1534 (fn. 39) Thomas Ynde, with Robert Coscob, prior, John Montacute, and eight others, subscribed to the king's supremacy.

On 3 January 1538 (fn. 40) the monastery was visited by Thomas Legh:—'When I found the abbot negligent and of doubtful character; and ten brethren which all war ignorant and unlernyd and in manor no servauntes maynteynyd or hospitalite kept and after examynation withe theym had they all subscrybid to the instrument of their submyssion and surrender and sealyd the same withe their common seale and delivered the same as their acte to me to thuse and pleasure of our soverayne lord the kyng, etc.'

The surrender was made in the presence of Sir Thomas Speke, John Sidenham, William Wittcombe, Nicholas Seger, John Southwood, John Crosse, Thomas Philippes, and Robert Warmington, (fn. 41) who seem to have sat as a commission of inquiry for two days previously and had arranged for the surrender before Legh arrived. The deed of surrender is no longer in existence, but in Cardinal Pole's pension list (fn. 42) George Moore and John Plumber are entered as in receipt of pen sions of £3 a year. The abbey and its site (fn. 43) were granted to the Earl of Hertford in the spring of that year.

Abbots of Muchelney

Frody, 693 (fn. 44)

Edwald, 762 (fn. 45)

Alfwold, 964 (fn. 46)

Leofric, 995 (fn. 47)

Liward, temp. Edward the Confessor (fn. 48)

Eadulf, temp. William II (fn. 49)

Alan, occurs 1159 (fn. 50)

Hugh, occurs 1175 (fn. 51)

Richard, occurs 1198 (fn. 52)

Richard, elected 1235 (fn. 53)

Walter de Cerne, occurs 1237–8 (fn. 54)

John de Barnville, occurs 1251 (fn. 55)

William de Gyvele, 1274 (fn. 56)

Ralph de Muchelney, 1294 (fn. 57)

John de Henton, 1305 (fn. 58)

John de Somerton, 1334–47 (fn. 59)

John de Codeworth, elected 1347, (fn. 60) died May 1349 (fn. 61)

Thomas de Overton, elected May 1349 (fn. 62)

William de Shepton, December 1 1371, (fn. 63) cf. October 30 1394

Nicholas Strotton, 27 February 1397 (fn. 64)

John Bruton (fn. 65)

John Cherde, 1433 (fn. 66)

Thomas Pipe, 1463 (fn. 67)

William Crokethorne, 1465 (fn. 68)

John Bracey or Bracy, 1470–89 (fn. 69)

William Wyke, 1489–1504 (fn. 70)

Thomas Broke, 21 January 1505 (fn. 71)

John Shirborne, 1522–32 (fn. 72)

Thomas Inde, Ynde or Yve, 1532–8 (fn. 73)

The 14th-century seal of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul at Muchelney (fn. 74) is circular, 2¾ in. in diameter. It shows two niches with St. Peter, habited as pope in the left, and St. Paul with his sword and book in the right. Outside these in smaller niches are two angels holding shields. That to the left has the arms of the abbey which were (Argent) St. Peter's keys crossed with St. Paul's sword (gules); the shield to the right is charged with a saltire. Very little remains of the legend.

The seal of an unknown abbot of the 14th century (fn. 75) is a tiny vesica, 7/8 in. by ¾ in., with a figure of St. Paul holding his sword and the model of a church, and the abbot kneeling before him.

Of this seal also the legend is much broken.


  • 1. A cartulary of the abbey at Savernake Park, the property of the Marquess of Aylesbury, seems to have gone with the abbey itself to the Protector Somerset and found its way to Savernake, and so it remained in the Seymour family when that property came to the Earls of Aylesbury, and when the site of Muchelney passed to the Long family, the cartulary seems to have been overlooked. It has been printed by the Somerset Record Society, vol. xiv.
  • 2. V.C.H. Somers. i, 468, 469.
  • 3. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. xiv, charters 13 and 15.
  • 4. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.) 203, 204.
  • 5. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i, 193.
  • 6. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. xiv, 44.
  • 7. Will. of Malmesbury, Antiq. Glaston. (ed. Gale) 331.
  • 8. See above, 'Eccl. Hist.' p. 16.
  • 9. Probably Synod of Gloucester, 1085.
  • 10. Cal. Wells D. and C. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Com.) i, 48.
  • 11. Ibid. 57.
  • 12. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. i, 93.
  • 13. Ibid. 98.
  • 14. Ibid. ix, 26.
  • 15. Ibid. 127.
  • 16. Cal. Close, 1307–13, p. 232.
  • 17. Ibid. 1323–7, p. 508.
  • 18. Ibid. 1327–30, p. 365–6.
  • 19. Ibid. p. 567.
  • 20. Ibid. 1341–3, p. 475.
  • 21. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. ix, 194.
  • 22. Ibid. 342.
  • 23. Ibid. 347.
  • 24. Cal. Close 1349–54, p. 85.
  • 25. Ibid. p. 507.
  • 26. 16 June 1349; Cal. Pat. 1348–50, p. 306.
  • 27. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. x, 633; Cal. Wells D. and C. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Com.) i, 257.
  • 28. Cal. Wells D. and C. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Com.) i, 458.
  • 29. These were excavated in 1873 by the Rev. S. O. Baker. Proc. Somers. Arch. Soc. xix (2).
  • 30. L. and P. Hen. VIII, v, g. 1370 (11).
  • 31. Ibid. 1088.
  • 32. Ibid. 1089.
  • 33. Ibid. 1167.
  • 34. Ibid. 1225.
  • 35. L. and P. Hen. VIII, v, g. 1229, 1230.
  • 36. Ibid. 1270 (7).
  • 37. Thornton was serjeant in the Court of the King's Bench, and had obtained a lease of the house of the Buckland Sisters. Cf. Somers. Arch. Soc. Proc. x (2), 42.
  • 38. Cf. Ellis, Orig. Letters (3rd ser.) ii, 334.
  • 39. Cf. Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii.
  • 40. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (i), 27, 42.
  • 41. Cf. Crom. Corres. (P.R.O.) xxii.
  • 42. Exch. K. R. Misc, Bks. vol. 32, fol. 30.
  • 43. Pat. 29 Hen. VIII, pt. ii.
  • 44. Somers. Rec. Soc. xiv, Charter 5.
  • 45. Ibid. Charter 6.
  • 46. Ibid. Charter 3.
  • 47. Ibid. Charter 4.
  • 48. Domesday Survey of Ilminster, Exon. Domesday (Rec. Com.), 174.
  • 49. Ibid. Charter 126.
  • 50. Cal. Wells D. and C. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Com.) i, 27.
  • 51. Witnesses a charter of Bishop Reginald, Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. viii, 192.
  • 52. Witnesses a Bath Abbey Charter, Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. vii, 18.
  • 53. Pat. 19 Hen. III, m. 9.
  • 54. Feet of F. 22 Hen. III, Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. vi, 105.
  • 55. Pat. 36 Hen. III, Somers. Pleas (Somers. Rec. Soc. xi), 434.
  • 56. Cal. Pat. 1272–81, p. 58; Cal. Wells D. and C. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Com.) i, 282.
  • 57. Cal. Pat. 1292–1301, p. 78.
  • 58. Ibid. 1301–7, pp. 310, 315; cf. Cal. Pat. Ibid. p. 231; Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. ix. 300.
  • 59. Cal. Pat. 1330–4, p. 567; Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. x, 630.
  • 60. Cal. Pat. 1345–9, pp. 375, 403.
  • 61. Ibid. 1348–50, p. 293.
  • 62. Ibid. p. 295, Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. x, 611.
  • 63. Cal. Papal Letters, iv, 490.
  • 64. Ibid. v, 154.
  • 65. Cal. Wells D. and C. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Com.), i, 458.
  • 66. Cal. Pat. 1461–7, p. 285.
  • 67. Ibid. p. 457.
  • 68. Ibid. pp. 457, 478.
  • 69. Ibid. 1467–77, p. 266. Cf. Wells Epis. Reg. King, fol. 24; Stillington, folios at end.
  • 70. Wells Epis. Reg. Hadrian, fol. 1.
  • 71. Summoned to Convocation 26 Jan. 1506 and 24 June 1514. Installed as preb. of Ilminster 6 Feb. 1505. Wells Epis. Reg. Hadrian, fol. 10.
  • 72. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. xiv. 23.
  • 73. See above.
  • 74. Cat. of Seals B.M. 3666, lxxi, 69.
  • 75. Ibid. 3667. Harl. Chart. 57 G. 18.