House of Cluniac monks: The priory of Montacute

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

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'House of Cluniac monks: The priory of Montacute', in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2, (London, 1911) pp. 111-115. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

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Tofig, the great Danish standard-bearer of King Cnut, had large estates in Essex and in Somerset. On the hill-top of his land at Lutgaresbury in Somerset there was found about the year 1035 (fn. 1) a wonder-working crucifix safely concealed under a large slab of stone, and this was regarded by Tofig as so precious that he determined to build a church for its preservation on his estate in Essex, and to endow two priests to act as guardians of it. This was the origin of the church of Waltham, which ultimately developed into an abbey of Austin Canons. The finding of this relic at Lutgaresbury made the site precious to the minds of churchmen, and Tofig handed it over to the church and so it became known as Bishopston. (fn. 2) Before 1066 we find it had been given to the Abbot and convent of Athelney. (fn. 3) The site however was a hill site, naturally suited for fortification, and William the Conqueror gave it to his halfbrother Count Robert of Mortain, who built a castle there.

The English monks at Athelney prudently surrendered the place and received as an exchange the count's estate at Purse Caundle, in Dorset. (fn. 4)

Towards the end of the 11th century William the son of this Count Robert of Mortain, gave the church at Montacute and his castle and burgh and market and the manor of ' Biscopestune' with its hundred and mill to the abbey of Cluny. The first charter in the Montacute Cartulary (fn. 5) belongs to the period between 1091 and 1104. The deed must be earlier than 1104, when William of Mortain was banished by Henry I.

We know little of the history of the earlier priors. The first who comes into special notice was Durand, prior at the end of the 12th century. (fn. 6) He was accused by Bishop Savaric (1192–1205) of maladministration, and suspended (1207–17), and though afterwards restored, was eventually expelled. (fn. 7)

In 1261 the Prior of Montacute was appointed visitor of the Order in England, (fn. 8) and next year it was reported that the service of God was well performed here, that there were twenty-five monks and that the house owed 300 marks. (fn. 9) In 1275 the debt had been reduced to 190 marks, but the buildings were in bad repair. The maintenance of a lamp burning before the Sacrament was neglected, as was the reading of the lesson during meals; moreover the monks ate meat in the houses of laymen and did not wear the footgear ordered by their rules when riding. (fn. 10) By 1279 the debt had risen to 260 marks, but the buildings had been repaired and there were now twenty-eight monks of honourable life. 'A clerk called Solomon of Rochester,' the well known justice of that name, was said to have 'violently despoiled' the prior during the last two years, and it is apparently in connexion with this that the visitor continues, 'the fame of the prior has been somewhat, nay rather very much, blackened and incurably injured and I believe unjustly. The prior seems to have been somewhat careless so far as externals are concerned, whatever he may have been in truth, now by the grace of God he both is and appears an excellent, faithful, humble, discreet, obedient and devout person.' (fn. 11) The blackening of the prior's character seems to be explained when we find that in 1279 Prior Guy de Mereant (fn. 12) was accused of clipping coins and fined 60 marks. The injustice of the charge seems rather doubtful, as he was again charged with the same offence, and with uttering counterfeit money and receiving goods of the Jews in 1284, and fined 200 marks. (fn. 13) This seems to have resulted in Prior Guy's removal, for the office of prior was evidently vacant in 1285, when the sub-prior was appointed visitor of the order. During the last years of the 13th century the priory seems to have been in good reputation, as the Prior of Montacute was made visitor on six occasions between 1288 and 1300. (fn. 14)

Prior John Cheverer, or Caprarius, in 1317, (fn. 15) was accused with Stephen, the late prior, Philip the chamberlain, the sub-prior, and two of the brethren of sending corn, victuals, and arms to the Scots who were then at war with Edward II. An order was sent out for his arrest, but this was afterwards withdrawn. In 1325 (fn. 16) he had licence from the pope for a year's nonresidence, and he shortly afterwards resigned.

Though the priory had powerful friends, it must be remembered the Cluniac order was never popular in England because it was regarded as a foreign order, not too loyal to the English people. All the brethren were aliens, owing service and making payment to an abbot who was a subject of the French king.

Among the Petitions to the Crown in 1330 (fn. 17) is one called Supplicatio Cluniacensium, which condemns this dependency on Cluny as the cause of the great reduction of monks at Montacute, and protests against the large sums of money derived from English estates which were sent to support subjects of the French king. (fn. 18) It is moreover stated that there were only twenty professed monks in the English priories, because by the law of the order a monk could only be professed at the mother abbey of Cluny, and some monks it was stated had been in their priories forty years without being professed.

In 1326 the Abbot of Cluny appointed Guichard de Jou as prior. (fn. 19) The pope however claimed the right to appoint and nominated a Benedictine monk, Robert Busse of Tavistock, (fn. 20) but neither the convent at Montacute nor the abbey of Cluny would recognize him. The pope then appointed Peter de Mortemart and summoned Guichard to Avignon. Guichard went to Avignon in October 1328, (fn. 21) and eventually appealed to King Edward for help, and in February 1331 Edward III declared him to be rightly the Prior of Montacute. (fn. 22)

The next year the pope appointed Guichard Prior of Lenton, and Philip de Chintraico Prior of Montacute. (fn. 23) The story, however, is somewhat complicated, for soon after, John de Henton, a monk of Sherborne, (fn. 24) charged Guichard, as prior, with betraying the secrets of the realm, communicating with the Abbot of Cluny, and taking in at Montacute certain aliens, namely, the priors of Carswell and of Barnstaple without licence from the Crown. The matter was ultimately referred to Thomas de Marleberge and Ralph de Middelneye, who in 1339 acquitted Guichard and declared John de Henton's charges false. (fn. 25)

Montacute as an alien priory under the Acts of Edward II and Edward III naturally came into the king's hands, and the prior and convent had to pay rent to the Crown equal to the amount which they would have transmitted to Cluny. (fn. 26) In 1339 Edward III granted the advowson and custody of the priory of Montacute to William, Earl of Salisbury, Marshal of England, (fn. 27) and the priory had to pay to Earl William the rent which it had for a short time paid to the Crown. To this grant to Earl William was also added the custody of the four dependent cells of Montacute, viz. of Carswell in Devonshire, Holme in Dorset, St. Karroc in the parish of St. Veep in Cornwall, and Malpas in Monmouthshire. (fn. 28)

In 1362 Francis de Baugiaco, who had been appointed prior of Prittlewell in Essex in the previous year, applied to the pope (fn. 29) for the priorship of Montacute, and in 1371 agreed to pay £120 a year to the Crown on condition of his being recognized as prior, but afterwards he was expelled from the priory on the ground of his French sympathies, and he was succeeded by Nicholas Hornyk de Montibus, a Friar Minor, who in 1399 tried to get his predecessor arrested for treason. (fn. 30)

Henry IV seems to have given back the priory of Montacute to Francis, who appears again as prior in January 1403. (fn. 31) The close relationship between the monks and the papal court is shown by the fact that in 1393 Thomas Samme of Montacute, and in 1398, Francis, a monk of Montacute, were made papal chaplains. (fn. 32) Francis died in January 1404 and was succeeded by William Cryche. (fn. 33) Up to this time it will be noticed that all the priors had been foreigners or had foreign names, and they were appointed by the Abbot of Cluny, or occasionally by the pope.

In 1407, under this new prior, Montacute renounced allegiance to Cluny, became denizen and ceased to be an alien priory, recognizing as the head of the Order in England the Prior of Lewes, who now began to be looked upon by the English Cluniacs as holding the authority over them which formerly had been exercised by the Abbot of Cluny, (fn. 34) and from that time to the Dissolution Montacute was regarded as an English monastic house. The priory had to pay for this recognition of their English citizenship the sum of 300 marks. (fn. 35) In the reign of Henry V the convent was given permission to elect its own prior, and was released from all dependence on the Abbot of Cluny.

In 1458 the monks gave the right of election of the prior to the Bishop of Winchester and the Earl of Winchester, and received from them Robert Newton, a Benedictine monk from Glastonbury. (fn. 36)

Thomas Chard, who became prior in 1514, was already a bishop in partibus, having been consecrated Bishop of Selymbria in Thrace in 1506, and was also warden of the College of St. Mary Ottery. (fn. 37) He resigned in 1532, and in lieu of a pension, took the office of Prior of Carswell, a cell dependent on Montacute. (fn. 38) He must not be confounded with Thomas Chard, an almost contemporary abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Ford. (fn. 39)

Robert Shirborne, the last abbot, who seems to have gone under the three names of Whitlocke, Shirborne, or Gibbs, had agreed to pay £100 to Henry for his recognition as prior. (fn. 40)

On 10 March 1538–9 the priory was visited by Hugh Pollard, under a commission issued by Cromwell in the name of Henry VIII. He went there to try and bring about his surrender, but the following letter from him and Petre to Cromwell shows that the prior was not inclined to yield (fn. 41) :—

Or most bownden duetyes remembryd it may please yor lordeshipp to bee advertised that this day wee resortyd to the priorie of montigue for the execution of the Kinges highnes commission ther, wher after long (? communication) wt the prior and as many persuasions for the setting forthe of the King graces pleasure in this behalf as wee cowd devise wee fownd the prior in lyke obstinacy as wee hadd befor fownd thabbott of Bruton. And by so moche as by his awnswars we might conjecture ther hadd byn some pryvey conference between them in this mater, before our commyng he hadd leassyd allmost all his demeynes to dyvers persones.

We may infer from the fact that Pollard in his letter brings no charges against the prior or the monks that the monastery was in good order. All he seems to have to complain about was the unwillingness of the priory to surrender to the king. However, it was visited again on 20 March 1539, and surrendered to Dr. Petre, and pensions were awarded to sixteen monks, while the prior received a pension of £80, and a dwelling-house at East Chinnock. (fn. 42)

The priors of the cell at Malpas, John Clerke, and of the cell at Holme in Dorset, John Walles, were also included in the list. The pension list amounted to £186 a year.

In Cardinal Pole's pension list, (fn. 43) 24 February 1556, twelve of the monks were still alive, including the prior Whitelock or Sherborne. The parishioners of Montacute purchased for their own use five of the bells of the conventual church and paid £8 18s. 8d. for them. (fn. 44)

The incident recorded in the following remarks of Leland, (fn. 45) who visited Montacute between 1540 and 1542, does not appear in the Cartulary. It preserves however an interesting tradition of the priory.

This Counte of Moreton began a Priory of Black Monkes, a 3 or 4 in number under the rootes of Montegue Hille, enduing it with 3 faire lordeshippes, Montegue and Titenhul joining to it. The 3rd was Criche a 10 miles from Montegue W. S. W. The Counte of Moreton toke part with Robert Curthose agayn king Henry the first and after was token put in prisone and his landes attainted; at the which time the 3 lordeshippes given to Montegue priory were taken away and then were the monkes compellid to beg for a certain season. At the last king Henry the firste had pyte on them and offered them their own landes again and more so that they would leave that place and go to Lamporte, wher at that time he entendid to have a notable monasterie. But the monkes entredid him that they might kepe theyr old house: and upon that he restorid them their lordshippes, translating his minde of building an abbay from Lamporte to Readyng.

Then cam one Reginaldus Cancellarius, so namid by likelihood of his office, a man of great fame about king Henry the first, and he felle to Relligion and was prior of Montegue and enlarged it with buildings and possessions.

The Montacute Cartulary begins with the foundation charter of William son of Count Robert of Mortain. First comes the gift of the founder himself, the church at Montacute and the castle, burgh, market, mill, manor and hundred of 'Biscopestune,' the manor, church, hundred, mill and fair at Tintinhull, the manor and church of (East) Chinnock. To this is added the churches of Nynehead, Yarlington, Brympton, Odcombe, Closworth and Mudford, in Somerset, of Elerky in the parish of Veryan, Altarnun, Sennen and St. Cadoc in Cornwall, of Gussage All Saints in Dorset and Monkleigh and Frizenham in Devonshire. This was increased also by the manors of Creech and Closworth and lands at Ham, Widcombe in Montacute, Adbeer in Trent parish and Dene Woldesham in Devonshire, and the whole or portions of the tithes of Child Okeford, Purse Caundle, the three Cernels in the parish of Charminster, Toller, Loders, Thorpe, Hooke and Durweston in Dorset, and of Chiselborough, Cloford, Norton Fitzwarren, Marston Magna, Hascombe, Bickenhall, Chilthorne Domer, Carnicott or Carlingcott (Cridelincot) and Poyntington in Somerset.

There are three charters of confirmation by Henry I given in the cartulary. There is also a charter of confirmation by King Stephen and five charters of Henry II of which four are recorded in the Inspeximus of Henry IV (12 Feb. 1400). (fn. 46)

These gifts of churches and tithes are confirmed to the monks by charters of Bishop Robert (1135–66), Bishop Reginald (1174–80) and Bishop Jocelin dated 29 September 1239.

In the Taxatio of 1291 (fn. 47) these endowments are recapitulated, the temporalia and spiritualia of the priory being valued at £163 11s. 1d., and we find in addition to those already recorded pensions out of the endowments of the churches at Camerton and Yeovil and in the temporalities, additional lands and tenements at Yeovil, Preston, Ilchester, Wadeford and Stringston in Somerset, and at Wyke, Gillingham and Melbury in Dorset.

To this we find from the Valor of 1535 (fn. 48) further increments of endowment at Cadbury, Gillingham, Leverleigh, Erlestoke, Wylye and Monkholme and among the spiritualia, the rectories, or pensions out of them, of the churches of Chilthorne Vagge, Ermington, Holme, East Holme, Carswell, Carrock or St. Cadoc, Malpas, St. Neots and Launceston.

The net income of the house was valued at £456 14s. 3d., and they were bound to distribute in alms for the soul of William Count of Mortain their founder, and for the soul of King John and for Richard de Chilthorne the sum of £23 8s. 7d.

Holme in Dorset near Abbotsbury, Carswell in Devonshire near Exeter, Carrock, St. Cadoc. or as it is called in the pension list St. Cyrus in Cornwall near East Looe (in the parish of St. Veep), and Malpas in Monmouthshire were cells of the priory having their own priors and forwarded all excess of income to the mother priory.

Priors of Montacute

R., occurs 1120 (fn. 49)

E., occurs 1136 (fn. 50)

Durand (fn. 51)

Arnold (fn. 52)

Reginald (?) (fn. 53)

William, occurs 1159 (fn. 54)

Thomas, occurs 1169, (fn. 55) resigned 1775

Guy, occurs 1179 (fn. 56)

Oliver, occurs 1186 (fn. 57)

Jocelyn, occurs 1187 (fn. 58)

Durand, 1192–1205 (fn. 59)

Mark, occurs 1237, 1245 (fn. 60)

Roger, occurs 1260 (fn. 61)

Hugh de Noyen, 17 September 1260 (fn. 62)

Gibert de Bexolio, 30 January 1266 (fn. 63)

Guy de Mercant, occurs 1269 (fn. 64)

Peter Gandemer, occurs 1290 (fn. 65)

John de Bello Ramo, appointed 1292 (fn. 66)

Geoffrey de Dosa, appointed 1293 (fn. 67)

Stephen Raulun, 1297–1316 (fn. 68)

John Cheverer or Caprarius, appointed 1316 (fn. 69)

Guichard de Jou, appointed 1326 (fn. 70)

John de Porta I, died 1345 (fn. 71)

John de Porta II, appointed 1345 (fn. 72)

Gerald de Roche, occurs 1362 (fn. 73)

Francis de Baugiaco, 1371 (fn. 74)

Nicholas Hornyk de Montibus (fn. 75)

Francis de Baugiaco, restored 1399, died 1404 (fn. 76)

William Cryche, appointed 1404 (fn. 77)

John Bennet, occurs 1449 (fn. 78)

Robert Montague, appointed 1452 (fn. 79)

Robert Newton, 1458, resigned 1462 (fn. 80)

Robert Criche, appointed 1462, (fn. 81) died 1467 (fn. 82)

John Dove, appointed 1467 (fn. 83)

John Walter or Water, appointed 1483 (fn. 84)

Thomas Chard, appointed July 1514, (fn. 85) resigned July 1532 (fn. 86)

Robert Shirborne, Whitlocke or Gibbes, appointed 1532, (fn. 87) surrendered 1539

The 14th-century seal of the Cluniac Priory of St. Peter and St. Paul at Montacute (fn. 88) is a vesica, 23/8 in. by 15/8 in., with figures of Our Lady crowned and seated with the Child on her left knee, between St. Peter and St. Paul standing with their emblems. Beyond them are the sun and moon. Below, under an arch, is the Prior in prayer. Of the legend there only remains—

S' . . . . . MONTIS ACVTI.


  • 1. Cf. De Invent. Crucis (ed. Stubbs), 1–10.
  • 2. Cf. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. xiv, 182.
  • 3. V.C.H. Somers. i, 483.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Printed by Somers. Rec. Soc. vol. viii.
  • 6. Rot. Lit. Pat. (Rec. Com.) 78.
  • 7. Annals of Lewes in Monasticon v, 163
  • 8. Duckett, Visitations of Cluni, 222.
  • 9. Duckett, Rec. of Cluni, ii, 123.
  • 10. Ibid. 126.
  • 11. Ibid. 133.
  • 12. Cal. Pat. 1272–81, p. 318.
  • 13. Ibid. 1281–92, p. 147.
  • 14. Duckett, Visitations of Cluni, 235. Ibid. 239, 242, 249, 252, 256, 263.
  • 15. Cal. Close 1313–18, p. 395.
  • 16. Cal. Papal Letters, ii, 216, 248, 249.
  • 17. Anct. Pet. (P.R.O.) 4 Edw. III.
  • 18. Montacute Priory was supposed to send 12 marks yearly to the mother abbey. Duckett, Rec. of Cluni, i, 184.
  • 19. Cal. Pat. 1324–7 p. 274.
  • 20. Cal. Papal Letters, ii, 257, 277 and 278.
  • 21. Cal. Close 1327–30, p. 415.
  • 22. Rymer, Foedera, ii, 807.
  • 23. Cal. Papal Letters, ii, 346, 347.
  • 24. R. of Shrewsbury's Reg. (Somers. Rec. Soc. ix) 368.
  • 25. Anct. Pet. (P.R.O.) no. 10,488.
  • 26. Montacute Cartul. (Somers. Rec. Soc. viii) 211.
  • 27. Rymer, Foedera, viii, 104.
  • 28. Parl. R.; Cal. Pat. iii, 409; 1399–1401, p. 453.
  • 29. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 393.
  • 30. Cf. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. viii, 218, and Anct. Petitions (P.R.O.) no. 6,219, 9,917.
  • 31. Acts of P.C. i, 192.
  • 32. Cal. Papal Letters, iv, 286 and 302.
  • 33. Cal. Pat. 1401–5, p. 335.
  • 34. Parl. R. iv, 27.
  • 35. Cal. Pat. 1405–8, p. 337.
  • 36. Pat. 37 Hen. VI, pt. i, m. 14.
  • 37. Oliver's Mon. Exon. p. 261.
  • 38. L. and P. Hen. VIII, vi, 504; Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.) 196.
  • 39. Proc. Somers. Arch. Soc. xlii, 67.
  • 40. L. and P. Hen. VIII, v, 1213; vi, 1613.
  • 41. Ibid. xiv. (1) 491.
  • 42. Bodl. Lib. Rawlinson MSS. B. 419; Aug. Off. Bks. vol. 245, fol. 72.
  • 43. Exch. R. Misc. Bks. vol. 32, fol. xxix.
  • 44. Mins. Accts. Exch. 30–31 Hen. VIII, no. 224.
  • 45. Leland, Itin. ii, 92.
  • 46. Cal. Pat. 1399–1401, p. 196.
  • 47. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.).
  • 48. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.) i, 195.
  • 49. Mont. Cart. (Somers. Rec. Soc. viii) charter 47
  • 50. Ibid. charter 48.
  • 51. Ibid. charters 141 and 142.
  • 52. Ibid. charter 155.
  • 53. Leland, Itin. ii, 92.
  • 54. Mont. Cart. charter 130; Cal. Wells D. and C. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Com.) i, 27.
  • 55. Cal. Doc. France, 320; Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.) ii; he became Abbot of Hyde that year.
  • 56. Mont. Cart. charter 38.
  • 57. Ancient Charters (Pipe Roll Soc.), 78, 79.
  • 58. Mont. Cart. charter 58.
  • 59. Cal. Wells D. and C. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Com.) i, 57.
  • 60. Cott. MSS. Tib. A. 10, charters 102, 187.
  • 61. Mont. Cart. charter 152.
  • 62. Pat. 44 Hen. III, m. 3.
  • 63. Pat. 50 Hen. III, m. 32.
  • 64. Mont. Cart. charter 95; Abbrev. Rot. Orig. (Rec. Com.) i, 33.
  • 65. Cal. Pat. 1281–92, p. 348.
  • 66. Ibid p. 493.
  • 67. Ibid. 1292–1301, p. 33.
  • 68. Ibid. 1292–1301, p. 288, occurs as 'late prior' in Feb. 1317.
  • 69. Ibid. 1313–17, p. 553.
  • 70. Ibid. 1324–7, p. 274.
  • 71. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 42; Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 15.
  • 72. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 90.
  • 73. Mont. Cart. charters 200, 204; R. of Shrewsbury's Reg. (Somers. Rec. Soc. x) 778.
  • 74. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 393; Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. viii, 218; Mont. Cart. (Somers. Rec. Soc.) charter 217.
  • 75. Cf. P.R.O. Anct. Pet. no. 6,219, 9,917 and 12,495.
  • 76. Cal. Pat. 1401–5, p. 335.
  • 77. Ibid.
  • 78. Cf. Willis, note in the Monasticon.
  • 79. Wells Epis. Reg. Beckington in Monasticon, v, 164.
  • 80. Cat. Pat. 1461–7 p. 137.
  • 81. Ibid. p. 107.
  • 82. Ibid. 1467–77, p. 14.
  • 83. Ibid. p. 15.
  • 84. Ibid. 1476–85, p. 349.
  • 85. Pat. 6 Hen. VIII, pt. ii, m. 25.
  • 86. Pat. 24 Hen. VIII, pt. ii, m. 17.
  • 87. Ibid.
  • 88. Cat. of Seals B.M. 3660, lxxi, 68.