House of Premonstratensian canons: Abbey of Leiston

Pages 117-119

A History of the County of Suffolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1975.

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The abbey of Leiston was founded for the white canons of the Premonstratensian Order, in the year 1182, by Ranulph de Glanville, who was also the founder of Butley priory. By the foundation charter, this abbey, dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin, was endowed with the manor of Leiston, and with the advowsons of the churches of St. Margaret, Leiston, and St. Andrew, Aldringham. These churches, as stated in the charter, Glanville had first granted to the Austin canons of Butley, but they had been by them resigned. The founder stated that he made these gifts for the good estate of King Henry, and for his own soul's sake, and for that of his wife Bertha, and their ancestors and successors. (fn. 1)

The next benefactions were the church of St. Mary, Middleton, (fn. 2) by Roger de Glanville, confirmed by Roger Bigot, earl of Norfolk, and the church of St. Botolph, Culpho, (fn. 3) by William de Valoines, confirmed by William de Verdun. Pope Honorius III, in 1224, confirmed to the abbey the four churches of Leiston, Aldringham, Middleton, and Culpho, (fn. 4) and on 26 February, 1280, John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury, who was staying at the abbey, confirmed to the canons the appropriation of the same four (fn. 5) churches.

The taxation roll of 1291 gave the annual value of the priory as £130 15s. 7¼d. Of this sum £56 13s. 4d. came from the appropriated rectories, by far the largest amount (£34 13s. 4d.) coming from the wide-spread parish of Leiston. (fn. 6)

John Underwood of Theberton and Matthew Broun of Knoddishall obtained licence in 1342 to alienate to the abbey of Leiston a messuage towards the sustenance of a canon to celebrate once a week in the abbey church for their souls, and for the souls of the faithful departed. (fn. 7)

The abbey obtained licence in 1344 to acquire lands or rents to the value of £20 yearly, in consequence of their impoverished state through the frequent inundations of the sea over their lands. (fn. 8) Lands and rents in Leiston and neighbouring parishes to the value of 55s. yearly were granted under this licence to the abbey in the following year. (fn. 9)

In 1347 the royal sanction was obtained for the appropriation to the abbey of the church of St. Peter, Kirkley. (fn. 10) On 1 May, 1380, Henry, bishop of Norwich, and Nicholas, prior of Norwich, gave their assent to the appropriation of the church of Theberton to the abbey and convent of Leiston, (fn. 11) and in the following year an agreement was sealed securing to Norwich priory a pension of 4s. from Theberton church, (fn. 12) but in 1382 Margaret countess of Norfolk effected an exchange with the abbey, giving the canons the advowson of Kirkley, and taking Theberton. (fn. 13)

John the abbot and the convent of Leiston indemnified the Bishop of Norwich and the cathedral priory in 1367, by reason of the appropriation of the parochial church of Corton, of their patronage, for first fruits, &c. (fn. 14) A notarial instrument at the Bodleian concerning the appropriation of this church is dated 27 November, 11 Pope Urban VI (1389). (fn. 15)

The Valor of 1535 gave the clear annual value of the abbey as £181 17s. 1¾d. The temporalities of the manor of Leiston and its members produced £124 11s., and lands and rents at Culpho, Laxfield, Clavering, and Pettaugh added about £24. The spiritualities from the four churches of Leiston, Middleton, Aldringham, and Corton, realized a clear income of £37 0s. 5d.

In 1350 the advowson or patronage of this abbey, which had escheated to the crown by the death of Guy de Ferre without issue, was granted to Robert de Ufford, earl of Suffolk. A few years later the new patron became the munificent refounder of the abbey; for the first abbey church and the buildings, which were placed inconveniently near the sea, becoming too small, Robert earl of Suffolk, in 1363, erected new and larger buildings about a mile eastward, in a better and somewhat higher situation. This new abbey was unhappily, ere long, almost destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt on the same site on a finer scale in 1308-9. (fn. 16)

The old abbey near the sea was never quite abandoned, but treated as a small cell. Legacies were left to our Lady of the old abbey in 1511 and 1516, (fn. 17) and John Green, the penultimate abbot, relinquishing his office by choice, was consecrated anchorite at the chapel of St. Mary in the old monastery near the sea. (fn. 18)

Richard II, in 1388, granted to the abbey an ample charter of confirmation, adding the privilege of electing their superior on a vacancy, without seeking licence of the crown or any other patron, and that during such vacancy no one should seize their temporalities or in any way whatsoever meddle with them. It was further provided that no abbot of the house should ever henceforth be compelled to grant any corrody or pension. (fn. 19) At this time the Uffords had become extinct, and Michael de la Pole, the new earl of Suffolk, is named in the patent as the patron of the abbey, which was, however, at that time a purely nominal and honorary office.

During the reigns of Edwards II and III the insisting on the support of royal pensioners by the abbey had been a severe tax. In 1309, Simon de St. Giles, a servant of the late king, was sent to Leiston Abbey to be provided for life with food and clothing and a suitable chamber. In 1314 the great burden was laid on this convent of supporting for life Thomas de Varlay in food, clothing, shoe-leather, and all necessaries, together with suitable maintenance for two horses and two grooms. (fn. 20) In 1334 William de Banbury was sent by the crown to receive maintenance; (fn. 21) and in 1343 John de Lech, one of the king's mariners, was sent on a like errand. (fn. 22)

The houses of the white canons were all exempt from diocesan visitation, but they were always rigidly and regularly visited by commissaries from the parent house of Prémontré. When Bishop Redman held the office of visitor he proved himself to be a singularly painstaking and somewhat stern official. His visits to Leiston, according to his register at the Bodleian, were almost entirely satisfactory.

The abbey was visited by Bishop Redman in 1478, when Richard Dunmow was abbot and Robert Colvyll prior and cellarer. Fourteen other canons were present. It was stated that the five churches appropriated to the abbey were served by the canons, and that their appointments were not perpetual. (fn. 23)

The next visit of the bishop was on 22 August, 1482, when high praise was given to the abbot for his administration. The debt on the house, which was £140 in 1478, was reduced to £80, and there was abundance of grain and other necessaries. (fn. 24)

At the visitation of 1488 sixteen canons were present, exclusive of Abbot Thomas Doget (Doket). The visitor enjoined a day's punishment on Robert Colvyll and three others for breaking silence, and complained about the tonsures; otherwise he gave the house the highest praise. (fn. 25)

The visit paid to the abbey on 30 September, 1491, found everything satisfactory; there was a superabundance of all necessaries. (fn. 26) The next visitation was in 1494; there were twelve priests besides the abbot and six novices, and the report was entirely favourable. (fn. 27)

The return for this abbey in 1497, when the abbot, fifteen priests, a deacon, and sub-deacon were present at the visitation, pronounced everything to be excellent. (fn. 28)

The visitation report on 13 October, 1500, was somewhat longer; Abbot Thomas Doket and fourteen other canons were present. The bishop enjoined that there was to be a little window to each cell or chamber of the dormitory. No canon, either within or without the house, was to use hoods with either white or black tails, (fn. 29) but simple cowls. Thomas March, an apostate, was condemned to twenty days of penance, but sentence was remitted at the prayer of the convent. Everything else was excellent. (fn. 30)

This abbey came within the number of the smaller houses suppressed by the Act of 1536. The Suffolk commissioners came here on 21 August, 1536, and drew up a full inventory. The conventual church was fairly well supplied with ornaments and vestments. Details are given of the high altar, and those in the Lady chapel, St. Margaret's chapel, and the chapel of the Crucifix. The last three altars were supplied with alabaster tables, and there was another small alabaster sculpture on the south side of the quire door. The censers and candlesticks were of latten, but there were three pairs of chalices (that is chalices and pattens) of silver gilt. The vestments in the vestry were fairly numerous, but chiefly old and of small value. 'A lyttell pair of old organs' in the quire was valued at 10s. The furniture and utensils of the chambers, cloister, buttery, kitchen, were of an ordinary character, and of very little value. The only large items of the inventory were the cattle of the home-farm £22 3s. 4d., and the corn £10 8s. 8d. The total of the whole inventory only reached £42 16s. 3d. (fn. 31)

George Carleton, the last abbot, received a pension of £20, (fn. 32) but his fellow canons were turned out penniless, the Act only providing pensions for the superiors of the suppressed houses.

The abbey and its possessions formed a part of the vast monastic grants made by the crown to Charles, duke of Suffolk; they were granted to him on 7 April, 1537. (fn. 33)

Abbots of Leiston

Robert, (fn. 34) occurs 1182, 1190

Philip, (fn. 35) occurs 1190, 1235

Gilbert, (fn. 36) c. 1240

Matthew, (fn. 37) occurs 1250

Robert, (fn. 38) occurs 1253

William, (fn. 39) c. 1280

Gregory, (fn. 40) occurs 1285

Nicholas, (fn. 41) occurs 1293

John de Glenham, (fn. 42) occurs 1308

Alan, (fn. 43) occurs 1310

Robert, (fn. 44) occurs 1312

Simon, (fn. 45) occurs 1316

Robert, (fn. 46) occurs 1326

John, (fn. 47) occurs 1344

John, (fn. 48) occurs 1390, 1399

Thomas de Huntingfield, (fn. 49) occurs 1403, 1412

Clement Bliburgh, (fn. 50) occurs 1437, 1445

John of Sprotling, (fn. 51) occurs 1456, 1459

Richard Dunmow, (fn. 52) occurs 1475, 1482

Thomas Doget, (fn. 53) occurs 1488, 1500

Thomas Waite, (fn. 54) occurs 1504

John Green, (fn. 55) occurs 1527

George Carleton, (fn. 56) last abbot, 1531

The seal of Abbot Philip, c. 1200, shows the abbot standing on a corbel, with crozier in right hand, and book in the left. Legend:


The conventual seal, attached to a charter (fn. 58) of 1383, also shows an abbot on a corbel, with a crozier and book. Legend:



  • 1. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xiv, fol. 34b. This MS. is a small quarto chartulary of the abbey, covering 83 fols.; it begins with papal and archiepiscopal confirmations of privileges, and includes confirmation charters of Henry II, Richard I, and John.
  • 2. Ibid. fol. 4a.
  • 3. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xiv, fol. 45, 69b.
  • 4. Add. MS. 8171, fol. 62-3.
  • 5. Bodl. Chart. Suff. 226.
  • 6. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 116, 117b, 118, 118b, 124, 124b, 125b, 126, 126b, 127, 127b, 128, 128b, 129, 129b.
  • 7. Pat. 16 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 4.
  • 8. Ibid. 18 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 21.
  • 9. Ibid. 19 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 24.
  • 10. Ibid. 21 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 22.
  • 11. Bodl. Chart. Suff. 227.
  • 12. Ibid. 221, 224.
  • 13. Ashm. MS. 804.
  • 14. Bodl. Chart. Suff. 222.
  • 15. Ibid. 196; see also 223.
  • 16. Suckling, Hist. of Suff. ii, 433-4.
  • 17. Ibid. 444.
  • 18. Add. MS. 19081, fol. 162.
  • 19. Pat. 12 Rich. II, pt. i, m. 19.
  • 20. Close, 2 Edw. II, m. 7 d.
  • 21. Ibid. 7 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 12 d.
  • 22. Close, 16 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 23d
  • 23. Ashmole MS. 1519 (Bodl. Lib.).
  • 24. Ashmole MS. 1519 (Bodl. Lib.), 35.
  • 25. Ibid. 74.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. Ibid.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. 'Liripiis nigris aut albis.'
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Proc. Suff. Arch. Inst. viii, 102-4.
  • 32. Misc. Bks. (Aug. Off.), ccxxxii, 31.
  • 33. Pat. 28 Hen. VIII, pt. iv, No. 8.
  • 34. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xiv, 10, 39.
  • 35. Harl. MS. 441, 24; Vesp. E. xiv, 10b, 38. &c.
  • 36. Addy, Beauchief, 25.
  • 37. Suckling, Hist. of Suff. ii, 431.
  • 38. Cal. Chart. R. I. 426.
  • 39. Bodl. Chart. Suff. 226.
  • 40. Add. Chart. 10274.
  • 41. Add. MS. 8171, fol. 82b.
  • 42. Pat. 1 Edw. II.
  • 43. Pre. Reg. No. 3.
  • 44. Addy, Beauchief, 47.
  • 45. Close, 10 Edw. I.
  • 46. Pat. 19 Edw. II.
  • 47. Close, 18 Edw. III.
  • 48. Suckling, Hist. of Suff.
  • 49. Cal. Pap. Reg. v, 620; Add. Chart. 12651.
  • 50. Suckling, Hist. of Suff.
  • 51. Pre. Reg. No. 80.
  • 52. Ibid. Nos. 496, 500.
  • 53. Ibid. Nos. 501, 507.
  • 54. Suckling, Hist. of Suff. ii, 402.
  • 55. Ibid.
  • 56. Ibid.
  • 57. B.M. Cast, lxxii, 6.
  • 58. Harl. Chart. 54 I, 4.