House of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Cleeve

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

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'House of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Cleeve', in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2, (London, 1911) pp. 115-118. British History Online [accessed 24 April 2024]

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The monastery was founded by William de Roumara, third Earl of Lincoln, who had a grant of the Crown estate of Cleeve in Somerset, and gave first of all the church of Cleeve to Bishop Reginald of Bath for the endowment of the church of Wells, and afterwards all his lands at Cleeve, with the liberties and customs he enjoyed from them, to God, St. Mary, and to the monks of St. Laurence of Revesby, a Cistercian abbey in Lincolnshire, founded by his grandfather, to the end that Hugh, the abbot of Revesby, might found at Cleeve an abbey of the Cistercian order. The foundation charter is witnessed by Bishop Reginald (1174–91), and in the confirmation of this gift Hugh Bishop of Lincoln (1186–1202) appears as one of the witnesses. The date of the foundation thus falls between the years 1186 and 1191

The buildings of the Cistercian Abbey (fn. 2) seem to have been begun by 1198. A new church was rising, the monastic church as distinct from the parochial prebendal church, and so the distinction arose that the parochial church was called the church of Old Cleeve, a term which is found as early as 1387. (fn. 3)

It was difficult however for a distant monastery like that at Bec, of which the abbot held the prebend of Cleeve, to look after the temporalia of the parish church, and in order to relieve them from such responsibility the Benedictine monastery of Bec (fn. 4) let out on a perpetual lease the church of Cleeve to the Cistercians for an annual rent of 40 marks, and this arrangement was confirmed by Archbishop Hubert (1193– 1207). Thus the two monasteries were linked together in their common interest in the prebendal church of Old Cleeve; and in the 14th century the convent of Cleeve (fn. 5) was called upon as lessee to answer for the alien abbot, the lessor.

The internal history of the abbey is extremely meagre, as the order claimed exemption from the ordinary visitation of the bishops. The convent started with Ralph the first abbot and his twelve companions who had left their house at Revesby (fn. 6) to found in Somerset the only monastery of their order in that county. It was not a large house and was never rich. Holding the two churches of Cleeve and East Camel, the monks had to make provision for the maintenance of the vicars there, and in 1320 (fn. 7) Bishop Drokensford confirmed the ordination of the vicarage of Cleeve. Though the monastery of Bec is mentioned, the Norman abbey had no responsibility, for the convent at Cleeve had the farm of the church.

The church of East Camel had been given to the monks by Hubert de Burgh, (fn. 8) and the gift had been confirmed by King John as early as 1202. A vicarage had been ordained there in 1282, but on account of poverty the abbey had obtained licence to let out the church to farm, and the lessee had apparently appropriated all that he could, regardless of the rights of the vicar. Bishop Drokensford came to the rescue of the latter in 1317, and in 1348 Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, (fn. 9) on his institution of John Moone as vicar, records carefully the details of the endowment.

The monastic church was certainly built as early as 1232, for in that year Henry III (fn. 10) made a grant of oaks from the park of Newton for the choir stalls.

In the grant made to the monks by Reginald de Mohun, 1204–13, (fn. 11) they are described as 'monachi Vallis Floridæ quæ vulgo dicitur Clyva.'

Gilbert de Woolavington, rector of Huntspill, in 1297 agreed with Henry, Abbot of Cleeve, so that the monastery bound itself to provide for two secular priests to serve in the new chapel at Woolavington, and offered the church of East Camel as a pledge; and in return Gilbert de Woolavington endowed the abbey with means for the support of two extra monks, for cowls for fifteen monks and for certain pittances. (fn. 12) In 1400 this foundation comes before us through a papal confirmation. (fn. 13) The prior of the hospital of St. John at Bridgwater was connected with the foundation, as there were three secular priests serving in the chapel at Woolavington, the third being maintained by the hospital, whose agreement with Gilbert de Woolavington is dated 1285, twelve years earlier than that with the abbey of Cleeve. This confirmation states that the number of monks in 1297 was twentysix, and this benefaction provides for two more.

In January 1339 Pope Benedict XII (fn. 14) wrote to the Dean of Wells and others to carry out the papal regulations touching apostates, in reference to Bartholomew Ace, a Cistercian monk of Cleeve, who had left the order and now desired to return to it. In 1390 William Oliver, (fn. 15) a monk of Cleeve, was raised to the rank of a papal chaplain, and in 1424 (fn. 16) the abbot John Stone received the same distinction.

On 23 August 1455 Bishop Beckington (fn. 17) issued a commission to James, Bishop of Bangor, to dedicate the chapel of the B. V. Mary near Old Cleeve, which David the abbot had rebuilt and enlarged. This chapel in the record of the confirmation of the vicarage of Old Cleeve in 1320 (fn. 18) was called the Chapel of St. Mary juxta Mare, and the monks were to receive the oblations made at it. In 1398 (fn. 19) we find Bishop Stafford of Exeter granting an indulgence for its repair, since it had been greatly damaged by the sea, and in 1400 (fn. 20) the pope granted an indulgence to those who should give for its maintenance and repair. In 1466 (fn. 21) the monastery received from the Crown the right to hold a weekly market on Wednesdays and yearly fairs on the festival of St. James the Apostle and of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, to recoup the monks the heavy expenses they had been put to in the repair of the chapel. Owing to the continuous rain a serious landslip had occurred in the adjoining hill, and this had fallen on the chapel which had been built on the sea shore in the manor of Cleeve, and in which miracles had been wrought. The chapel with the adjoining buildings had been crushed to the ground, except the altar of the chapel and the image of the Virgin, which had been miraculously preserved uninjured. The new chapel was not on the site of the older one, but in another place and was afterwards a place of pilgrimage, being coupled in the will of Richard Player, (fn. 22) vicar of Kingston, with St. Joseph's chapel at Glastonbury, and to the time of the Dissolution was a source of considerable profit to the monks. In 1536 (fn. 23) it possessed four bells, and the next year Anthony Bustard, gentleman, offered to give £20 a year rent for the chapel, together with all oblations and profits. In 1542 (fn. 24) it was granted to Robert Earl of Sussex and Mary his wife.

The later years of the existence of the monastery were years of great financial embarrassment. The last two abbots had been extravagant, and leases and grants seem to have been made for the sake of gaining the support of the laity in the neighbourhood. Notwithstanding its poverty the cloisters of the monastery were being rebuilt in 1534, (fn. 25) for in that year Sir Hugh Roper, vicar of Stogumber, left in his will £60 for 'the newe bewylding of the clawsta of the abbey of Clif.' The house was visited preparatory to its dissolution in the autumn of 1535 by Dr. John Tregonwell under orders from Cromwell, and on leaving the monastery for Cornwall he gave injunctions to Abbot Dovell not to depart from his convent. So Dovell wrote on 8 November 1535 (fn. 26) to Cromwell to say how Tregonwell 'hathe by ynjunction commanded me and all my convent to kyype withyn the precyncts of our monasterie the whiche yff I shulde not sometymes see for the provysyon of my pour house being of small landes I cannot be abyll to mayntayne my seyd house nor observe or kype hospitalyte . . . and also I have lycens and commandment of my lord of Bath to preche at certayne places withyn the Dyocese yff yor goodness wyll so suffer me.'

In 1536 (fn. 27) Tregonwell wrote himself to Cromwell to let him have at a convenient rent, whereby he may have some help towards his living and feeding of his wife and children, one of certain underwritten monasteries in Somerset, specifying Bridgwater and Cleeve.

In 1537 (fn. 28) the monastery had not yet been dissolved when Sir Thomas Arundell, the king's receiver, wrote to Cromwell —'riding downward to Cornwall and passing the monastery of Clyffe, hearing such lamentation for the dissolution thereof, and a bruit in the country that the king at your lordship's suit had pardoned it, I sent to Mr. Chancellor of the Augmentations to know whether to dissolve it as I had his letters for the dissolution of the residue of Somerset and it seemed to be omitted by oversight, he being very busy. I beg in behalf of the honest gentlemen of that quarter that the house may stand. In it are seventeen priests of honest life who keep hospitality.' The house however fell that spring, and the abbot William Dovell received a pension of 40 marks, (fn. 29) and John Webbe, the 'sub-prior,' received an annuity of £4 3s. 10d., and thirteen monks received as a present (pro regardo suo) 26s. 8d. Among these was John Hooper, who was probably the same as John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, burnt as a heretic at Gloucester in 1555.

In 1543 we find £8 paid to John Webbe, (fn. 30) 'sometyme religious,' for his year's pension. In February 1556 (fn. 31) the abbot's name still appears in Cardinal Pole's pension list in receipt of his 40 marks yearly.

On 30 January 1538 (fn. 32) Robert, Earl of Sussex, was granted the reserved rent and the site of the abbey which was then held on a lease of 21 years by Anthony Busterd and the same of the chapel and ground of St. Mary of Cleeve.

The abbey of Cleeve was not a wealthy abbey. In the Valor of 1535 (fn. 33) it is entered as only worth £155 9s. 5d. The original grant consisted of the lands, liberties and customs which William de Roumara possessed at Cleeve. These included the hamlets of Lindon, Bilbrook, Washford, Hungerford, Golsencott, Roadwater, Leigh and Binham. Then by arrangement with the abbey of Bec the monks became the perpetual lessees of the rectory and advowson of Old Cleeve. This was confirmed by Bishop Savaric, and therefore belongs to the period 1192–1205. About the same time Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, gave to the abbey the church of East Camel and land in Rougham in Norfolk, and a small freehold in Cleeve and his manor of Poughill near Bude, and Treglaston in Cornwall near Otterham. (fn. 34) Immediately afterwards Reginald de Mohun gave the monks his land at Shortmansford and Slaworth. To this Henry III added his manor of Braunton (fn. 35) near Barnstaple in Devonshire, the monks at first taking it to farm at a yearly rent of £22.

In the Taxatio of 1291 (fn. 36) the temporalia are declared as consisting of the manors of Braunton, Treglast and Poughill in the diocese of Exeter, and the manor of Binham in the parish of Cleeve in the diocese of Bath and Wells.

In 1535 the Valor (fn. 37) records the possessions of the abbey as consisting of the manors of Old Cleeve, Treborough, Brown in Treborough and Sandell, and manorial rights in Luxborough and Clatworthy, and rents from lands at East Oaktrowe and West Oaktrowe, Smallcombe, Northcombe, Dunster, Marsh, Carymore Mede, Watchet, Bagborough, Blackford and West Anstey, Walworthy, Bristol and Taunton, and in the counties of Devon and Cornwall the manors of Braunton Abbots, Poughill and Treglaston.

The spiritualia consisted of the lease of the rectory of Old Cleeve, out of which 40 marks had to be paid to the canon holding that prebend in the cathedral church of Wells, the rectory of East or Queen Camel and the rectory of the Island of Lundy, valued this year as worth 10s. annually.

Out of the endowments of the abbey the monks were bound to distribute £25 a year in alms to the poor.

Abbots of Cleeve

Ralph, first abbot, occurs 1198 (fn. 38)

Hugh (fn. 39)

William, occurs 1219 (fn. 40)

John, occurs 1237 (fn. 41)

Symon, occurs 1253 (fn. 42)

John, occurs 1255 (fn. 43)

Henry, occurs 1297 (fn. 44)

Richard le Bret, elected 1315 (fn. 45)

Robert de Clyve, elected 1321 (fn. 46)

Michael, occurs 1342 (fn. 47)

James, occurs 1344 (fn. 48); 1367 (fn. 49)

John, occurs 1400 (fn. 50)

John Mason, occurs 1407 (fn. 51)

John Plympton, occurs 1416 (fn. 52)

Leonard Lythenerstoke, occurs 1416 (fn. 53)

William Seylake, elected 1419 (fn. 54)

John Stone, elected 1421 (fn. 55)

David Juyner or Joyner, elected 1435 (fn. 56)

Humphrey, occurs 1486 (fn. 57)

Henry, occurs 1494 (fn. 58)

John Paynter, 1506 (fn. 59)

William Dovell, elected 1507, (fn. 60) surrendered 1537

The vesica-shaped seal, 1¾ in. by 1¼ in., of David Juyner, Abbot of the Cistercian house of St. Mary at Cleeve (fn. 61) (c. 1435), has a figure of Our Lady crowned and seated on a throne, holding the Child on her right knee. Below under an arch the abbot with his staff kneels in prayer. To the left of him is a shield of England with a label. To his right are the arms of the abbey, seven lozenges. The legend is:—



  • 1. The place name appears in the documents as Clyve, Clive, Cleve, Cliffe and Clyffe and in Latin as Clyva or Cliva.
  • 2. Cotton MSS. Faustina, B. viii, fol. 36.
  • 3. Cat. Pat. 1385–9, p. 370.
  • 4. Ibid.; Cal. D. and C. Wells MSS. (Hist. MSS Com.) i, 489.
  • 5. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. x, 404.
  • 6. Cotton MSS. Tib. E. viii, fol. 208.
  • 7. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. i, 185.
  • 8. Cleeve Register, chart. 3.
  • 9. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. x, 720.
  • 10. Cal. Close, 1231–4, p. 77.
  • 11. Cleeve Register, no. 687.
  • 12. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. ix, 358.
  • 13. Cal. Papal Letters, v, 280.
  • 14. Cal. Papal Letters, ii, 545.
  • 15. Ibid. iv, 274.
  • 16. Ibid. v, 20.
  • 17. Wells Epis. Reg. Beckington, fol. 208.
  • 18. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. i, 186.
  • 19. Reg. Edm. Stafford Bp. of Exeter, 62.
  • 20. Cal. Papal Letters, v, 400.
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1461–7, p. 527.
  • 22. Weaver, Wells Wills, 98.
  • 23. P.R.O. Exch. Aug. Off. Accts. 27–8 Hen. VIII. 169, m. 2.
  • 24. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xvii, g. 220 (84).
  • 25. Weaver, Wells Wills, 153.
  • 26. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ix, 790.
  • 27. Ibid. 796.
  • 28. Ibid. xii, 4.
  • 29. Exch. Aug. Off. Mins. Accts. 27–8 Hen. VIII, 169, m. 2.
  • 30. Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. No. 248.
  • 31. Card. Pole's Pension Book, P.R.O.
  • 32. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), g. 190 (42).
  • 33. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.) i, 218.
  • 34. Cleeve Charters in Monasticon, v.
  • 35. Hund. R. Devon (ed. 3), i, 65.
  • 36. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.) 152b, 153b, 205b.
  • 37. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.) i, 217, 218.
  • 38. Charter xi, Cleeve Reg.; Dugdale, Mon. v, 734.
  • 39. Somers. Arch. Proc. lii, pt. ii, 38.
  • 40. Feet of F. (Somers. Rec. Soc. vi) 1228, p. 35.
  • 41. Cal. Pat. 1232–47, p. 191.
  • 42. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. vi, 157; xi, 306.
  • 43. Cal. Pat. 1317–21, p. 581.
  • 44. Cal. Papal Letters, v, 279; Somers. Rec. Soc. ix, 356.
  • 45. Somers. Rec. Soc. i, 85, 97.
  • 46. Ibid. 193.
  • 47. Cal. Close, 1341–3, p. 469.
  • 48. Ibid. 1343–6, p. 458.
  • 49. Nettlecombe Charters 41 Edw. III.
  • 50. Cal. Pat. 1399–1401, p. 413.
  • 51. Nettlecombe Charters.
  • 52. Nettlecombe Charters; Memoranda Easter 4 Hen. V. Rec.
  • 53. Rowe, Cist. Mon. of Devon, 155.
  • 54. Confirmed 28 Sept. 'ad instanciam Nicholai Abbatis Mon. Be. Marie de Newham Ord. Cist. Exon. Dioc.' Wells. Epis. Reg. Bubwith. In one of the windows of Dunster Church is an ancient quarry inscribed 'W. Donesterre abbas de Cliva ' (MaxwellLyte, Hist. of Dunster). This abbot may perhaps be identified with William Seylake.
  • 55. Profession received by Richard 'Episcopus Katensis.'
  • 56. Exeter Epis Reg. Stafford, 1466; Cal. Pat 1461–7, p. 527.
  • 57. Dunster Castle MSS. bdle 13, no. i.
  • 58. Ibid.
  • 59. Summoned to Convocation 26 Jan. 1507. Star Chamb. Proc. Hen. VII, vol. i, p. 4, no. 77. Cf. Wells Epis. Reg. Hadrian, unnumbered folio at end.
  • 60. Surrendered 1537.
  • 61. Cat. of Seals B.M. 2960, xlvii, 473.