A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.
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4. THE ABBEY OF ATHELNEY
The island of Athelney is on the north side of Stanmoor, and on the north bank of the River Tone, being about 4 miles south-west of Bridgwater. It consists of two low hills divided by a shallow depression, containing 24 acres in extent, of which the eastern and slightly higher hill where was the monastery of our Blessed Saviour, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Athelwine, comprises 11½ acres. It is still often in winter-time an island to which people have to go by boats.
It was to this place that Alfred retreated in the autumn of 877, and in the spring of 878 he built here a fortress called Ethelingaeigge. (fn. 1)
Asser, (fn. 2) whose account is vivid and valuable, having visited the place as chaplain to Alfred himself, describes it as a small island in the midst of an impassable morass, and says that Alfred, while he often thought of the needs of his soul, among other good deeds ordered that two monasteries should be built, of which the one for monks was at Athelney. In this monastery he collected monks from every quarter, and placed over them, as their first abbot, (fn. 3) John, an Old-Saxon priest and monk, and certain other priests and deacons from beyond the sea, of whom, finding that he had not as large a number as he wanted, he procured as many as possible from the same race in Gaul, and among them Asser tells us he had seen a young lad who was born a pagan, who had been educated in the monastery and was by no means the least in advancement of the monks there.
It has been questioned (fn. 4) whether Alfred really founded the monastery—or whether he did not enlarge a hermitage or monastery already in existence. The dedication of St. Egelwine or Athelwine, the brother of King Kenewalch, suggests a greater antiquity, and the charter which Alfred granted to the monastery suggests that he rather enlarged than founded the house.
Asser, however, who is our best authority, speaks of the monastery as recently founded by Alfred. He tells us that the monks who were gathered at first under Abbot John were not all men devoted to the service of God, and some of them resisted the discipline which the abbot would impose upon them.
On one occasion (fn. 5) a priest and a deacon of Gallic birth, having laid their plans, hid at night in the chapel waiting for the abbot to come alone in the early morning for his prayers, and intending then and there to slay him before the altar and carry his dead body and lay it before a house of ill fame. When the abbot, John, appeared that night they attacked him, but his efforts to resist them and his shouting roused the brother monks, and though the men wounded their abbot, he was rescued, and his assailants were ultimately caught and imprisoned.
William of Malmesbury, (fn. 6) writing in the first half of the 12th century, tells us of a church which was there built, which seems to have been erected on piles and to have had apsidal chapels attached. He says the monks there in his time were few in number and poor, but they were consoled in their poverty by their love of a quiet solitude.
The early history of the abbey is very obscure. There was a cartulary in existence in the first half of the 18th century, of which a transcript (fn. 7) of the earlier portion was made by Dr. Harbin in 1735, and this is now in the Phillipps library at Cheltenham. The original however has disappeared, and it seems as if probably the second portion contained the story of the abbey rather than copies of its charters.
Collinson quotes the names of one or two Saxon abbots, which seems to suggest that he had actually seen the vanished manuscript. The Harbin transcript has been published by the Somerset Record Society, and it gives us a considerable group of early charters. A charter of King Alfred granting the manor of Sutton to the monastery is given in this cartulary in which he describes the place as 'the Island of Nobles.' (fn. 8)
At the time of the Conquest, we find the abbey allied, together with Muchelney, to the great monastery at Glastonbury, so that the three foundations were acting together to resist Bishop Giso, who attempted to assert his visitorial authority as bishop of the diocese over Muchelney and Athelney but was compelled to do so through the medium of the Abbot of Glastonbury.
In 1160 (fn. 9) we find the abbey providing for the conduct of its legal affairs by assigning to Robert de Beauchamp their lands in Frogmore, on condition of his representing them at the county assize and going to the pleas and business of their church whenever he should be called.
Soon after a considerable change took place in the position of the abbot. (fn. 10) Bishop Savaric, as we have shown in our general historical sketch, persuaded Abbot Benedict II of Athelney to give the church of Long Sutton to found a prebend in the cathedral church of Wells; the Abbot of Athelney for the time being was to be ex-officio prebend of Sutton, with the stall next to the sub-dean. (fn. 11) It was also decided that he should not be bound to reside in Wells, but must provide a vicar with four marks a year stall wages.
In 1249 the then abbot realized the loss of freedom which ensued from his holding the prebendal stall at Wells.
On the morrow of St. George, 24 April, 1249, (fn. 12) he was summoned to a chapter meeting at Wells, and sent as his proctor one of the monks of his abbey. The chapter refused to accept the proxy because the monk was not a canon, and they condemned the abbot for a breach of the customary rules and laws of the chapter, because he had also made complaint before one of the lords of assize concerning some fishery dispute the abbey had with the dean and chapter about their estate at North Curry, without first making application to the chapter itself.
There are two other entries in the chapter manuscripts which are not easy of explanation, as they involved loss of estate to the abbey itself. During the episcopate of Bishop Jocelin (fn. 13) Abbot Benedict gave him the advowson of Ilton to form a prebend in Wells. The gift could not have been popular with the convent, for we find them soon after quarrelling with John, Chancellor of Wells, who held that prebendal stall. Benedict's successor, Abbot Roger, (fn. 14) gave also to Bishop Jocelin the tithes of Pitney and Wearne in the parish of Huish to support the endowments of that prebendal church.
In the 14th century we have a good deal of evidence concerning the extent to which monastic houses were burdened by royal pensioners.
In 1304 Gilbert de Ragun went to the monastery with a royal letter, bidding them receive him as a pensioner, and they appealed against this, claiming exemption because already they had two of the aged servants of the king, John de Hanele and Nicholas Freyn, living there and provided with board and lodging at the expense of the abbey.
On 6 September 1325, (fn. 15) John de Blebury also arrived with a similar request from Edward II. On 17 November 1327 (fn. 16) William de Rainton, the king's yeoman, came demanding such maintenance as Philip de Redynges had received in the late king's time.
On 8 September 1341, (fn. 17) Edward la Chamberleyn, clerk, came with a royal request which was based on the fact of the creation of a new abbot and the king's claim to a corrody on each such occasion.
In 1342 (15 December), (fn. 18) the abbey was called upon to receive Henry de Acum, 'Spygurnel,' to house, to provide, and to maintain him by reason of his previous good conduct to the king himself, and six years after, 5 March 1348, (fn. 19) as Henry de Acum was dead, Walter de Stodley, yeoman of the king's kitchen, was to receive such maintenance as Henry de Acum was wont to receive there, and there was a complaint added that Henry de Acum did not receive, through his own modesty and humility, all that was due to him.
In 1314 Bishop Drokensford's (fn. 20) register introduces us to a disciplinary case. He received a letter from John Dalderby, Bishop of Lincoln, asking him to place William de Walton, a monk of Peterborough, in Athelney Abbey, or some other Benedictine house at the cost of his own abbey. He was sent away on account of his wickedness and disobedience to his abbot. The bishop asks that he may be placed in a separate cell and suggests fetters for his better keeping.
On 13 June 1319, Bishop Drokensford wrote to the Bishop of Lincoln to say that Walton had twice escaped from his fetters, and that as he caused a great scandal to Athelney, he must go back to his own abbey.
In 1321 (fn. 21) Bishop Drokensford issued a pastoral letter to his officials, the archdeacons, the rural deans and the rectors in the diocese, concerning the ruinous state of the conventual church of Athelney. There were no funds, he said, to repair it, and he begged them to allow the monks to plead their cause in the churches on holy days after the Gospel, and he would assure contributors vere contritos of 30 days' indulgence ab injunctis penitentiis.
On 22 October 1322 (fn. 22) the bishop appointed Roger de Stalbridge, the rector of Aller, and two monks as a commission to visit and inspect and report on all the buildings belonging to Athelney Abbey.
In 1349 the abbey seems to have been devastated by the plague. On 15 September Abbot Richard de Gothurst fell a victim; (fn. 23) on 23 September John Stoure was appointed but died on 22 October on his way to the king, and Robert de Hache (fn. 24) succeeded him.
In January 1401 (fn. 25) there is a strange entry of a licence to Robert Wynchestre, a monk of Athelney, to whom Pope Boniface IX grants for life a room formerly assigned to him by the abbot and still in his possession, and the right to dispose, without requiring licence of the abbot and convent or others, of the goods acquired in the monastery from his offices or salary, or acquired without the same. This recognition of private property seems to be a direct annulling of the Benedictine rule.
In 1462 (fn. 26) Abbot Robert Hill was granted a licence to have divine service celebrated in his oratory; this suggests that some sort of rebuilding of the church was taking place at that time.
On 17 August 1499 (fn. 27) the Feast of the Dedication was changed from 20 December to 30 August, and it is probable that this coincides with some extensive repairs, if not the entire rebuilding of the conventual church, the new dedication day being the day when the church was once more capable of being used for public worship. The buildings, however, do not seem to have been completely restored, for in 1503 (fn. 28) Bishop King issued a commission to inquire into their state.
In the Valor of Henry VIII the house is said to be in debt to the king to the extent of £33 6s. 8d. which was possibly some outstanding portion of the fine of 100 marks levied on Abbot John George (fn. 29) and the convent in 1498 because of the assistance he gave to the insurgents under Perkin Warbeck in 1497.
On 17 September 1534 (fn. 30) the convent subscribed the Act of Supremacy and the Succession Act. The deed was signed by Robert Hamblyn, the newly elected abbot, Richard Welles, the prior, and eleven other monks.
On 4 November 1535 (fn. 31) Robert Hamblyn, the abbot, wrote to Cromwell to inform him of the visit of Dr. Tregonwell and to express his joy that the house had been found ' yn metely good order.' The visitor had however enjoined him to remain in the monastery, and Hamblyn desired from Cromwell permission to go abroad on the necessary business of the abbey, and to take a chaplain with him.
On 10 April 1536 (fn. 32) he wrote again to Cromwell, lamenting the debts of the house, and requesting Cromwell to devise some means that every man may the sooner be paid. 'Yff Y cowlde have a frynd that wolde lene me iiii. or v hundret poundes without ony prophete or lucoure, Y wolde gladly bynde me and my howse for the repayment of a hundret poundes yerely untyll the full some be payde.' To this letter he adds a schedule or book of the debts. He owed the Abbot of Dunkeswell £80, and the Abbot of Tavistock £40, and it is evident that he had borrowed recklessly when he became abbot. The Prior of Taunton and the Prior of St. John's Bridgwater had also lent money. Various sums also are due to Ilton, North Curry, and Thurloxton Churches, and the prebendal vicar at Wells was in arrear of his stipend for two years. The sum total of debts is reckoned at £869 12s. 7d.
On 2 November 1538 (fn. 33) John Dycensen, rector of Holford, went to Athelney apparently to sound the abbot about resignation. He wrote afterwards to Cromwell, giving a report of the abbot's words. To him and to the convent he had held out hope that neither religion nor the poor would suffer by the surrender of the house, for the Lord Chancellor Audley would probably settle down there. The abbot held out however for something more than a bribe of 100 marks, though the monks 'ware all glade to be advysed by my Lorde and to yelde thare howse and landes ynto ye kynges handes.'
On 20 February 1539 (fn. 34) John Tregonwell, William Petre, and John Smyth, the royal commissioners, wrote to Cromwell and told him that with as much expedition as possible they had taken the surrender of the abbey. It had indeed been surrendered on 8 February, (fn. 35) and the deed was signed by Robert Hamblyn, the abbot, Richard Wells, the prior, John Athelwyne, Henry Ambros, Robert Edgar, John Laurens, and Thomas Genynges. The abbot was awarded a pension of £50 a year, and on 24 February the prebend of Sutton was confirmed to him by Letters Patent. In Cardinal Pole's pension List of 1556, (fn. 36) pensions were still paid to Robert Hamblyn, Robert Edgar, Henry Poynings, and Thomas Genynges.
After the surrender (fn. 37) the materials of the buildings were valued at £80. The site of the abbey had been leased to Lord Audley, but on 17 August 1544 (fn. 38) it was sold to John Clayton, gentleman, for £182 15s. and in April (fn. 39) of the following year he obtained a licence to sell it to John Tynbere.
The charter of Alfred of the manor of Sutton (fn. 40) exists with a careful statement of the boundaries of the manor. In 1007 King Ethelred (fn. 41) granted Ham to the small monastery (monasteriolum) of Athelney and to Alfric, the abbot. A charter of King Cnut, (fn. 42) witnessed by Earls Leofric and Godwin and Stigand, the priest, grants the manor of Sevenhampton (Seavington) to Athelney, and belongs to the period 1020–5.
An abstract of the Domesday Survey is entered in the cartulary, describing the possessions as in Long Sutton, Ilton, Sevenhampton, Hamp, Lyng and Montacute, and records the encroachment of the Count of Mortain in Ashill, of Roger de Curcelle in Sutton, and of Ralph de Limesey in Bossington. The manor of Purse Caundle (fn. 43) in Dorset came to them just before the Survey by an exchange with the Count of Mortain. The abbey had previously received the manor of 'Biscopestone' on which the earl desired to build his castle of Montacute, (fn. 44) and he exchanged his manor of Purse Caundle for this manor.
In 1267 Henry III (fn. 45) granted the abbey a weekly market on Mondays in their manor of Lyng, and a yearly fair on the eve, day and morrow of St. James the Apostle, in their manor of Sutton.
Roger de Mandeville (fn. 46) had given 'Andresia,' with fishery rights on the Parrett to the abbey and convent of Athelney, at the request of Herduin, the venerable hermit, and these rights being somewhat indefinite were constantly causing quarrels between the abbey and the dean and chapter of Wells who held the adjacent manor of North Curry.
In the Taxatio of 1291 the abbey is recorded as enjoying pensions in Bawdrip and Selworthy churches, and in possession of the manors of Sutton Abbots, Hurcot, and lands in North Curry, Combe Florey, and 'Hyda,' Hamp, Lyng, 'Hoggestle,' Clavelshay in North Petherton and Bossington.
On the election of Robert de Hacche, (fn. 47) a monk of Athelney, to be prior in 1349, the property consisted of Sutton, Lyng, Ilton and Hurcot in the county of Somerset, and Purse Caundle in the county of Dorset. These are returned as worth £25 6s. 5d.
In the Valor (fn. 48) of Henry VIII, 1535, the endowments of the house are returned as worth £209 a year.
Abbots of Athelney
John, the 'Old Saxon,' temp. Alfred (fn. 49)
Seignus, occurs 937 (fn. 50)
Alfric, occurs 1007 (fn. 51)
Alfward (fn. 52)
Athelwin, occurs 1020–5 (fn. 53)
Ralph Maledoctus, occurs 1125 (fn. 54)
Simon, occurs 1135 (fn. 55)
Benedict I, occurs 1159 (fn. 56)
Roger I, 1174–92 (fn. 57)
Benedict II, 1198–1227 (fn. 58)
Roger II, elected 1227 (fn. 59)
Osmund de Reigny (fn. 62)
Richard de Derham, occurs 1267 (fn. 63)
Richard de Gothurst or Cotehurst, 1341–9 (fn. 70)
John Stoure, 23 September–22 October, 1349 (fn. 71)
Robert de Hache, elected 1349 (fn. 72)
John Hewish, 1390 (fn. 73)
John Brygge, 1399 (fn. 74)
John Petherton, 1424 (fn. 75)
Robert Hylle, 1458 (fn. 76)
John George, 1485 (fn. 77)
John Wellington, 1503 (fn. 78)
Richard Wraxall (fn. 79)
John Herte, 1518 (fn. 80)
Thomas Sutton, 1527 (fn. 81)
John Maior, 1531 (fn. 82)
Robert Hamlyn or Hamblyn, 1533–9 (fn. 83)
The earliest extant seal (fn. 84) of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Saviour, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Athelwine of Athelney is a vesica of the 11th century, 2 in. by 1½ in., with a design of the abbey church. Of the legend there remains only—
✠ SIGILLUM SCI SA . . . . HELING . . . E.
The second seal (fn. 85) is circular, 2½ in. in diameter, and is 15th-century work. It shews the three principal patrons of the house in canopied niches. In the middle is Our Lord, blessing with His right hand and holding in His left an orb from which rises a long cross and flag. On the left is St. Peter, habited as pope, and on the right is St. Paul with sword and book. On either side of the niches are shields—that to the left charged with a horn between three crowns, that to the right has three crowns set palewise quartered with a cross formy throughout. The legend is—
SIGILLUM COMUNE ABBATIS ET CONUENTUS DE ATHELNEY.
The seal of Abbot Benedict (fn. 86) (1159) is a vesica 23/8 in. by 1½ in., and shews the abbot standing and holding his staff and a book.