A History of the County of Suffolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1975.
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16. THE PRIORY OF BLYTHBURGH (fn. 1)
The real founders of the priory of the Blessed Virgin were the abbot and canons of the important Austin house of St. Osyth, Essex. Henry I bestowed on that abbey the tithes of the widespread parish of Blythburgh, and here, aided by the support of the Claverings, the lords of the manor, a priory or dependent cell of St. Osyth was established at an early date. (fn. 2)
Blythburgh is an instance of one of those important cells which had a double life, being partly independent of the mother house, but in the main, dependent. The priory presented to several neighbouring benefices and to one in Norfolk, and it also possessed a good deal of property both in spiritualities and temporalities uncontrolled by St. Osyth's; moreover it was subject to the visitation of the diocesan, the Bishop of Norwich. But, although it was thus to a certain extent conventual, the most important function of a chapter or conventual gathering was the choice of a superior on the occurrence of a vacancy, and in this respect Blythburgh was voiceless. The appointment of the prior always rested with the abbot and convent of St. Osyth's, though in the formal presentation to the bishop, the lord of Blythburgh, as lay patron of the priory, was always associated with the abbot. (fn. 3) Moreover the prior and his two canons were always expected to attend the visitations of St. Osyth whenever they were held by the Bishops of London or their commissaries; they also took part in the election of an abbot over the mother house.
The elaborate charter of confirmation granted to the priory by Richard I recites all their benefactions up to that date. It makes no reference to the mother house of St. Osyth's. (fn. 4)
The Taxation Roll of Pope Nicholas (1291), about a century later, shows that the priory had gained several small benefactions during that period. The house held lands or rents in about forty Suffolk parishes, as well as in Great Yarmouth, yielding an annual total of £36 3s. 1½d. Of this sum £20 19s. 6½d. came from Blythburgh and Walberswick. In addition to this there were the then appropriated churches of Bramfield, Wenhaston, and Blyford, which yielded collectively £23 6s. 4d. (fn. 5) Moreover the appropriate tithes of Blythburgh-cum-Walberswick were omitted in that list, but shortly afterwards taxed as of the annual worth of £28 6s. 8d.; (fn. 6) so that by the end of the thirteenth century the priory was worth the fairly large annual sum of £88 6s. 1½d., though the total would be considerably reduced by a variety of outgoings.
John Fovas, vicar of Claxton, and Henry Brid of Halesworth had licence in 1345 to alienate to the priory 61 acres of land and 3 acres of pasture in Spexhall, Westhall, Thornton, and Blythburgh, towards the support of a chaplain to celebrate weekly in the priory church for the souls of Henry de Harnhull, and his father, mother, and ancestors. (fn. 7) The priory obtained licence in 1347 to appropriate the church of Thorington, which was of its advowson. (fn. 8)
The value of the property pertaining to the priory suffered severely from the Black Death of 1349, and never recovered from the deterioration that then ensued. There was also much loss experienced from the sea encroachments at Dunwich and on the coast line of Blythburgh parish.
The Valor of 1535 gives the annual value of the temporalities as £28 13s. 4d., but the outgoings brought the clear value down to £22 14s. 4d. The spiritualities or tithes of the parishes of Blythburgh-cum-Walberswick, Bramfield, Thorington, and Blyford were then worth £28 a year; but from this deductions of over £6 had to be made for pensions to the abbot of St. Osyth and the prior of St. Bartholomew, Smithfield, as well as for procurations and synodals. The clear total value of the priory was thus reduced to £48 8s. 10d.
The office of prior, notwithstanding its dependent position on St. Osyth, was esteemed a position of some importance. Thus in 1217, Pope Honorius III considered the prior of Blythburgh to be a sufficiently noteworthy person to be associated with the abbots of Sibton and Leiston in a commission appointed to report as to the conduct of Peter, archdeacon of Lincoln. (fn. 9)
Whatever may have been the number of the canons of this house prior to the Black Death, they do not seem to have ever exceeded a total of four, including the superior, at subsequent dates. In 1473 there were three canons and a prior; for in that year John Woley of Blythburgh left 40s. to the prior and convent, viz., 20s. to the prior, and 6s. 8d. to each canon. (fn. 10)
The injunctions consequent on a visitation in 1308 enjoined on the abbot and convent of St. Osyth to be careful in the election of canons suitable to be sent to Blythburgh. (fn. 11) In 1317, when the commissary of the dean and chapter of St. Paul's was holding a visitation at St. Osyth, sede vacante, certain irregularities at the cell of Blythburgh were condemned. (fn. 12) The prior of Blythburgh and his canons attended at the election of an abbot of St. Osyth by scrutiny in 1427, when four were present from Blythburgh. (fn. 13)
The several sixteenth-century diocesan visitations of this priory show that the number of the religious was then four. The house was in debt, and the old chapter-house had disappeared.
Blythburgh was visited by the suffragan Bishop of Chalcedon and other commissaries of the diocesan in 1520, when the prior and brethren assembled in a certain chapel of the conventual church which they used as a chapter-house. They were severally examined as to the state of the house and the essentials of religion, and their answers were in every way satisfactory. (fn. 14)
Bishop Nykke visited in person in June, 1526. Prior John Righton, Thomas Chapet, sub-prior, and three other canons attended. All made satisfactory replies save Robert Francis, who said they had given up the singing of mass, and complained that the prior was too lenient in correction towards those he favoured, but cruel and severe towards those whom he disliked. (fn. 15) The bishop again visited Blythburgh in July, 1532, when Prior Righton stated that the house was in debt to the amount of £30, of which £10 was due to the bishop. The three brethren, on examination, stated that they knew of nothing worthy of reformation. (fn. 16)
Between the two visits of Bishop Nykke this priory narrowly escaped dissolution. It was included in the bull of Pope Clement, granted to Cardinal Wolsey in 1528, among minor houses to be suppressed in favour of his proposed college at Ipswich, which was never carried out. (fn. 17)
On 6 October, 1534, the priory's acceptance of the supremacy of Henry VIII was signed by John Righton the prior, and by John Baker, George Thurstan, and Robert Sprot, the three canons.
Although strictly speaking Blythburgh priory, as a cell of St. Osyth's, did not come under the act for the suppression of the smaller monasteries, it was placed in that category, and the suppression was carried out on 12 February, 1537. (fn. 18) In the previous August an inventory of the priory's goods had been drawn up by the three suppression commissioners for Suffolk. The priory was in a somewhat poor plight even for a small house; the total value was only £8 2s. 8d., including 40s. for five horses and an old cart. All the vestments in the vestry were valued at 36s. 6d. There were two silver chalices with patens and a cross of copper gilt. The contents of the house were apportioned between the kitchen, pantry, hall, and parlour, and there is certainly no sign of luxurious living. (fn. 19)
On 29 February, 1537, a pension of £6 was assigned to John Righton the ex-prior; and the three canons were turned out penniless. (fn. 20)
The house, site, and all the possessions of the priory were originally granted by the crown to Walter Wadelond, of Needham Market, for twenty-one years, at a rental of £59 9s., and in November, 1548, the reversion was granted to Sir Arthur Hopton. (fn. 21)
Priors of Blythburgh
Nicholas (fn. 22)
Thomas (fn. 23)
Osbert (fn. 24)
Roger (fn. 25)
Richard (fn. 26)
Elias (fn. 27)
Wyth (fn. 28)
Guy, occurs 1200, &c. (fn. 29)
William, occurs 1260, &c. (fn. 30)
Adam, occurs 1290 and 1294 (fn. 31)
Alexander de Donewych, appointed 1310 (fn. 32)
Nicholas de Daggeworth, appointed 1332 (fn. 33)
John de Norton, appointed 1361 (fn. 34)
Walter de Stanstede, appointed 1371 (fn. 35)
John de Alveley, appointed 1374 (fn. 36)
William de Wykeham, appointed 1382 (fn. 37)
Lawrence de Brysete, 1395 (fn. 38)
John Hydyngham (Hethyngham), appointed 1395 (fn. 39)
John Lacy, appointed 1418 (fn. 40)
Thomas Hadley, resigned 1427 (fn. 41)
Roger Okham, appointed 1427 (fn. 42)
William Kent, appointed 1431 (fn. 43)
John Sompton, died 1483 (fn. 44)
John Newton, appointed 1483 (fn. 45)
John Brandon, appointed 1497 (fn. 46)
John Marham, appointed 1500 (fn. 47)
Robert Park, appointed 1506 (fn. 48)
John Righton, appointed 1521 (fn. 49)
An impression of the common seal of the priory is attached to the acknowledgement of the supremacy at the Public Record Office. It is of large oval shape, and bears the Blessed Virgin, with sceptre in right hand, and Holy Child on left knee, with the legend:—
SIGILLUM . SANCTE . MARIE . DE . BLIEBURGH