Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Butley

Pages 95-99

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

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This important priory of Austin canons was founded in honour of our Lady, in the year 1171, by Sir Ralph de Glanville, justiciary of England. It was founded upon lands called Brockhouse, which Ralph held by his wife Bertha, daughter of Theobald de Valoins, lord of Parkham. A chief part of the founder's original benefaction consisted of the churches of Butley, Farnham, Bawdsey, Wantisden, Capel, and Benhall. (fn. 1)

Henry II, at the request of the founder, gave the rectory of Burston, Norfolk, to the canons; but they subsequently resigned the appropriation and appointed a rector, securing a pension of 40s. (fn. 2) It was further endowed, in the same reign, with the rectory of Winfarthing, Norfolk, but in this case the advowson and appropriation were lost in 1425 (fn. 3). In 1209 the two moieties of the advowson of Gissing, Norfolk, were granted to the priory, and the appropriation was sanctioned in 1271. The advowson and appropriation of the church of Kilverstone, Norfolk, together with a fold-course and common of pasture in that parish were granted to the prior in 1217. (fn. 4)

The Norfolk parish of Dickleburgh possessed four rectories; sanction to appropriate one of these portions was granted by the bishop in 1180. The abbot of St. Edmunds drew pensions from two of the other portions. But in 1454, with the consent of all parties, the four portions were consolidated, each rector covenanting to pay a yearly pension of 3s. 4d. to the priory of Butley. (fn. 5)

There was hardly a religious house in the kingdom, save some of the largest Benedictine abbeys, that had so much church patronage, or such a wealth of appropriations in its hands as was eventually the case with the priory of Butley. In the year 1235, William D'Auberville, grandson of Maud, eldest daughter of Ralph de Glanville, the founder, gave to the priory his third (fn. 6) of the churches of Chedgrave, Somerton, Upton, Wantisden, Capel, Benhall, Bawdsey, and Finborough, with a moiety of the church of Glemham Parva. In 1271 Lady Cassandra Baynard gave her share of the church of Chedgrave; and other shares of several churches subsequently fell to the canons. (fn. 7)

The prior and convent of Norwich confirmed in 1249 the church of Little Worlingham St. Peter to the monastery of Butley, which had been appropriated to this house by William de Suffield, bishop of Norwich. (fn. 8) An undated confirmation by Norwich priory, c. 1266, also confirmed the appropriation to Butley of the church of Gissing. (fn. 9)

The taxation of 1291 shows that the priory then held the appropriation of fifteen churches, yielding a total income of £127 6s. 8d.; the most wealthy of these were Debenham, £30; Upton, £16 13s. 4d.; Ashfield-cum-Thorp, £13 6s. 8d.; and West Somerton, £12. The temporalities in about sixty Suffolk parishes, and in a few parishes of Norfolk and Lincoln produced £68 9s. 8d., and give a total annual income from all sources, at that date, of £195 16s. 4d. (fn. 10) By far the largest holding of the priory, under temporalities, was at West Somerton, Norfolk, whence their income amounted to £37 3s. 4¾d.

There were several minor bequests in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. An important but temporary addition was made to the priory's income by Henry VIII, in 1508, when the cell of Snape, which till then had belonged to St. John's, Colchester, was given to the Butley canons, together with the manors of Snape, Scottow, 'Tastard,' Bedingfield, Aldeburgh, and Friston. The Colchester monks, however, showed themselves, not unnaturally, very troublesome over this transfer, and the prior of Butley resigned it in 1509. (fn. 11)

When the Valor of 1535 was drawn up it was found that this priory had an income considerably exceeding £3,000 of our money. The clear annual value of the temporalities amounted to £210 7s. 7¾d. Among the deductions was the sum of £8 16s. 8d. paid in pence to the poor of Chesilford at the chief festivals, out of the rentals of that manor. The spiritualities produced a further clear income of £108 9s. 7½d., leaving a total net income of £318 17s. 2¼d. (fn. 12) The priory had lost in recent years, through various causes, two or three of its appropriated churches; those that it still retained were Butley, Capel, Gedgrave chapel, Wantisden, Glemham Magna, Kesgrave, Shelley, Redisham, Willingham Magna and Parva, Ramsholt, Ashfield-cumThorp, Aspall, Fornham, Harleston, Kylmton, Weybread, Debenham, Finborough, Benhall, Bawdsey, in Suffolk; West Somerton, Gissing, Upton, and Bylaugh, in Norfolk; Byker, in Lincoln; St. Stephen Coleman, City of London; and Debenham, Essex—twenty-seven in all.

The leper hospital of West Somerton, Norfolk, was in the charge of the prior of Butley in the time of Edward I. A commission was issued to William de Ormesby and William de Sutton in February, 1299, touching the persons who entered the West Somerton lazar-house—in the custody of the prior of Butley, by the king's orders—and carried away the corn and goods and the muniments of the hospital. (fn. 13) In October of the following year the crown granted to the prior of Butley, keeper of the leper-house of West Somerton, in consideration of a fine of 100 marks, to hold the hospital quit of any account, as his predecessors used to do, but subject, like other hospitals of the king's advowson, to be visited by the chancellor or his deputies to correct defects. (fn. 14)

An inquisition held on 14 November found that Ralph Glanville, whose heir the king was, granted to the prior and convent of Butley the custody of the hospital of West Somerton, on condition that they maintained in it thirteen lepers, with a chaplain to celebrate daily there and a clerk, praying for the souls of Ralph and his father and mother; that the prior for twenty years past had ceased the maintenance of nine of the lepers and of the chaplain and the clerk; that for twelve years the prior had withdrawn from the four lepers who were there on that date seven gallons of ale a week, worth 1d. each; and that the hospital was worth ten marks annually. Thereupon the hospital was taken into the king's hands. In November 1399 the priory informed Henry IV that the hospital at the time of its first endowment was worth £60 a year, and that as it was now worth only 10 marks it could not possibly discharge its first obligations; and that the place where the hospital formerly stood was desolate. Whereupon Henry IV discharged the priory of all its hospital obligations, on condition that two canons of the priory celebrated daily for the good estate of the king, and for the souls of his progenitors and predecessors, and for the souls of Ralph, the founder, and his father and mother. (fn. 15)

Much light is thrown upon the inner working of a fairly large house of Austin canons, towards the close of the monastic system, by the visitations of Bishops Goldwell and Nykke, of which unusually full records remain. (fn. 16) It is evident that here, as elsewhere, the tone of a house depended much upon the character of the superior.

Bishop Goldwell visited this priory on 10 July, 1494, when the prior (Thomas Framlingham) and thirteen canons were examined. Another canon was absent. The report stated that the brethren who had granted 13s. 4d. of their stipends to the prior for the needs of the house, sought restitution; that the prior punishes at his own pleasure, without the consent of the seniors (against the custom of religion); that utensils pertaining to the infirmary ought to be restored to their proper use; that the prior should assign to each canon a certain chamber, but that he takes them away for a light breach of discipline; that many gentlefolk, particularly relatives of the prior, frequent the house to its great detriment; that there is no schoolmaster for the teaching of grammar; and that the prior does not exhibit any statement of account, nor has he any cellarer or other official who knows the state of the house and could act in case of his sickness. The bishop stated, before leaving, that he did not find much worthy of reformation, and therefore dissolved the visitation, promising to forward certain injunctions. (fn. 17)

Bishop Nykke visited in July, 1514. Prior Augustine Rivers said that there was an old debt of £70, as well as one incurred by himself and due to the bishop of £20. He said that all things were laudable so far as the income of the house permitted; but that the buildings and manor houses were out of repair. William Woodbridge, the sub-prior, said that three masses were said daily, and that both day and night hours were duly observed; also that the brethren were obedient and continent, and that all other things were well. John Thetford, having a bachelor's degree, said that he knew but little of the state of the house as he was absent at the university, but he knew nothing but what was creditable of his brethren. He considered that Thomas Orford was a good grammarian and given to letters, and his friends wished him to go to the university at their expense. Richard Wilton, cellarer, spoke warmly of the prior's industry, both in the spiritual and temporal interests of the house so far as income would permit, but that he was overburdened with the dilapidations of the buildings, granges, and manor houses. Seven of the canons simply testified omnia bene. John Norwich said that the service books were sadly worn. James Hillington considered that the sub-prior and some of the older canons were negligent in attending divine offices. Thomas Sudbury complained of the language of Reginald Westerfield towards the younger canons; in this he was supported by another canon who had heard Westerfield call the juniors 'horesons.'

The bishop, in his consequent injunctions, cautioned Westerfield against the use of opprobrious terms, and ordered the prior to permit both Thetford and Orford to go to the university. (fn. 18)

The priory was visited in July, 1520, by the suffragan Bishop of Chalcedon and three other commissaries of the diocesan. Prior Rivers was able to say that the debt was reduced to 40s.

William Woodbridge, the sub-prior, said that everything was well and industriously observed, and one other canon was equally content. The rest had various complaints, but of no very serious character. Their nature can be gathered from the subsequent injunctions, which ordered that a suitable place should be at once provided for the infirm; that a sufficiency of food should be daily provided in the refectory; that the quire books should be properly repaired before Christmas; that an inventory should be exhibited at the next Michaelmas synod; and that the brethren should observe silence in the refectory, dormitory, and cloister. (fn. 19)

At the visitation of 1526 the same prior and sub-prior again gave good testimony and knew of nothing worthy of reform. Five of the fourteen other canons were equally satisfied. The only complaint was that they had no scholar at the university. John Debenham, who suffered severely from gout (podagra cruciatus), sought to be excused from matins during the winter. Thomas Orford (vexatus morbo gallorum) exhibited a dispensation to retire from the religious life granted him by the Lord Cardinal (Wolsey). The sacrist stated that the main sewer could not be flooded. The sub-sacrist complained that the prior scolded the brethren before laymen, and that the roof of the church admitted rain. The third prior said that the seniors confessed to whom they liked, that the quire books were insufficient, that due food for the infirm was not provided, that they had no porter, and that the roof of the church was defective. These and other minor irregularities were duly dealt with in the injunctions. (fn. 20)

The last visitation of Butley priory before the dissolution was held on 21 June, 1532, by Bishop Nykke, and entered at great length in his visitation register. The sub-prior gave a good report and spoke of the wise administrative powers of the prior (politicus et circumspectus). The precentor and sacrist said that the prior kept everything pertaining to the different offices of the house in his own hands, and a like complaint was made by others. The third prior reported that neither doctor nor surgeon were provided for the infirm; that the quire books had not been repaired; that junior candidates seeking holy orders were sent on foot, instead of on horseback; that the prior made no annual account in spite of the bishop's injunctions; that the presbytery of the church and both the porches were out of repair; and that the food was too sparse, with a too great frequency of salt fish. The refectorian complained that the refectory was too cold in the winter, from which cause the brethren suffered from the gout and severe colds (alias gelidas infirmitates); that there was not a sufficiency of food; that certain pewter cups for the use of the infirm had been removed by the sub-prior; and that no statement of accounts had been rendered by the prior for thirty years. Among the complaints of other canons (in all sixteen were examined) were the badness of the food and the dirty methods of serving it; the faulty nature of the prior's accounts; the lack of due provisions for the sick; the poor quality of the beer; and the lack of necessary garments for the novices.

This visitation also brought to light a grave case of fraudulent letters to obtain orders. Thomas Woodbridge, one of the canons, proceeded to Norwich and received priest's orders without the licence or knowledge of the prior, presenting letters forged in the prior's name. Thomas Ipswich confessed that he had written these letters for Woodbridge last Whitsuntide.

The reformanda of the bishop, consequent on this visitation, ordered that a master was to be provided for instructing the novices and boys in 'priksong' and grammar; that one canon should be sent to the university; that an annual statement of accounts was to be presented in the chapter-house before three or four of the older brethren; that a proper place was to be assigned for an infirmary, with a sufficiency of healthy food and drink and of medical and surgical assistance for the infirm; that the prior was to pay each novice 20s. for clothing according to old custom; that horses and a servant be provided for canons when they seek orders; that the presbytery be at once repaired; that one brother be sacrist and another precentor; that the same drink be supplied to the brethren as to the prior; that warning be given to the servants as to being insolent; that the roof and walls of the chapterhouse be repaired; and that the refectory be supplied with footboards and backs to the benches to lessen the cold in winter. The visitation was adjourned until the ensuing feast of the Purification to see if the various reformations were carried out. (fn. 21)

John Thetford, prior of the Holy Sepulchre, Thetford, was a benefactor to Butley priory about 1534. He gave them two chalices, one for the chapel of All Saints and another for the chapel of St. Sigismond. He also gave them a relic of special value, namely the comb of St. Thomas of Canterbury and a silver box of small relics. (fn. 22)

Thomas Manning alias Sudbury, who had been elected prior in 1528, was appointed suffragan Bishop of Ipswich in March 1536, having been nominated along with George, abbot of Leiston, by the Bishop of Norwich. (fn. 23) In December 1536 the new suffragan bishop got into trouble with Cromwell over some alleged complicity in the escape of a canon of Butley imprisoned on a charge of treason, whereupon he dispatched his servant to the Lord Principal, two days after Christmas, with two fat swans, three pheasant cocks, three pheasant hens, and one dozen partridges:—the weather had been so open and rainy that he could get no wild fowl. In his letter he told Cromwell that divers were busy to get him to resign his house, but that with the king's favour he would never surrender it. (fn. 24)

However, the prior-bishop found it impossible to resist—all pensions would have been forfeited if he had remained obstinate—and on 1 March, 1538, Manning and eight of the canons signed the surrender. (fn. 25) A list of the household drawn up at the same time shows that there were then twelve canons, two chaplains, an under-steward, twelve men-servants, including a barber, a master of the children, seven children kept of alms to learning, three scullions, a slaughterman, two sheep reeves, two horse-keepers, a church clerk, a cooper, five wardens of the boats—ferry and river—a smith, two warreners, three bakers and brewers, two maltsters, a porter, a gardener, six women in laundry and dairy, twelve husbandmen, five carters, three shepherds, two woodmakers, a swineherd, two plough-and cart-wrights, two for making candles and keeping the fishhouse, and two impotent beadsmen. (fn. 26)

This list shows that the canons retained up to the end, in their own hands, the direct control of the adjacent lands, treating them as a 'home farm.' Moreover, it is quite clear that they not only kept school for others besides their own novices, but that they had also a certain number of poor boarding scholars.

Prior Manning does not appear to have had any direct pension granted him, but shortly after the dissolution of his house he was appointed warden of Mettingham College, and was also granted for life (with reversion to the Duke of Suffolk) considerable manors and lands that had belonged to the monasteries of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, and Axholme, Lincolnshire. (fn. 27)

The site of the priory, with adjacent lands, was granted to William Naunton, treasurer of the Duke of Suffolk's household, in July 1538, on a twenty-one years' lease. (fn. 28)

Priors of Butley

Gilbert, 1171 (fn. 29)

William, elected by priory 1195 (fn. 30)

Robert, 1213 (fn. 31)

Adam, 1234 (fn. 32)

Peter, 1251 (fn. 33)

Walter, 1263 (fn. 34)

Robert, 1268 (fn. 35)

Richard de Yaxley, 1303 (fn. 36)

Nicholas de Wittelsham, 1307 (fn. 37)

Richard de Hoxne, 1309 (fn. 38)

William de Geytone, 1311 (fn. 39)

Alexander de Stratford, 1332 (fn. 40)

Matthew de Pakenham, 1334 (fn. 41)

Alexander de Drenkiston, 1353 (fn. 42)

John Baxter, resigned 1374 (fn. 43)

William de Haleworth, 1374 (fn. 44)

William Randeworth, 1410 (fn. 45)

William Poley, 1444 (fn. 46)

Thomas Frankingham, 1483 (fn. 47)

Robert Beeches, 1497 (fn. 48)

Edmund Lydefield (bishop of Chalcedon), 1504 (fn. 49)

Robert Brommer, 1508 (fn. 50)

William Woodbridge, 1509 (fn. 51)

Augustine Rivers, 1509 (fn. 52)

Thomas Manning alias Sudbury, suffragan bishop of Ipswich, 1528

The pointed oval fourteenth-century seal of this house bears the Blessed Virgin seated beneath an elaborately carved niche with sceptre in right hand, having birds billing in the foliage at the top, and with the Holy Child on the left knee. Outside the niche, on each side, is a palm branch. Under an arch in the base is the kneeling figure of a prior. Legend:

:S'. C'E. ECCE. SC'. MARIE. DE. BUTTELE. (fn. 53)


  • 1. The foundation charter is among the MSS. of C. C. C. Camb., and is cited in full in Dugdale, Mon. vi, 380.
  • 2. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. i, 125.
  • 3. Ibid. i, 181.
  • 4. Ibid. i, 543.
  • 5. Ibid. i, 191-3.
  • 6. The founder's property had been divided between his three daughters and heiresses.
  • 7. Add. MS. (Davy), 19100, 19096.
  • 8. Bodl. Chart. Suff. 190.
  • 9. Ibid. 191.
  • 10. Pope Nich. Tax (Rec. Com.), 19, 24b, 74, 78b, 79, 83b, 97b, 104b, 105, 113, 115b, 117, 119, 123, 129b, 131b, 133b.
  • 11. Dugdale, Mon. vi, 381, where Henry VII's charter of transfer is cited in full.
  • 12. Valor. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 418-22.
  • 13. Pat. 27 Edw. I, m. 37d.
  • 14. Ibid. 28 Edw. I, m. 3.
  • 15. Ibid. 1 Hen. IV, pt. iii, m. 10.
  • 16. Bodl. Tanner MSS. 108, 132, 210 (ed. Dr. Jessopp for Camd. Soc. in 1884).
  • 17. Bodl. Tanner MSS. 53-5 (ed. Dr. Jessopp for Camd. Soc. in 1884).
  • 18. Ibid. 131-3.
  • 19. Ibid. 177-9.
  • 20. Ibid. 216-20.
  • 21. Jessopp, Visit. 285-9.
  • 22. Add. MS. 19050, fol. 216.
  • 23. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 597 (2).
  • 24. Ibid. xi, 1337, 1357.
  • 25. Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii, App. ii, 13.
  • 26. L. and P. Hen. VIII, viii, pt. i, 394.
  • 27. Ibid. xiv (1), 651; xiv, pt. ii, 442.
  • 28. Ibid. xiv (1), 603.
  • 29. Appointed by the founder; Proc. Suff. Arch. Inst. iv, 406, 408.
  • 30. Ibid. 412, taken from a chartulary in private hands.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. Ibid.
  • 34. Proc. Suff. Arch. Inst. iv, 412, taken from a chartulary in private hands.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. Norw. Epis. Reg. i, 12. This and the following are dates of election.
  • 37. Ibid. 25.
  • 38. Ibid. i, 33.
  • 39. Ibid. i, 46.
  • 40. Ibid. ii, 51.
  • 41. Ibid. ii, 58.
  • 42. Ibid. iv, 48.
  • 43. Ibid. vi, 36.
  • 44. Ibid.
  • 45. Ibid. vii, 27.
  • 46. Ibid. x, 55.
  • 47. Ibid. xii, 99.
  • 48. Add. MS. 19000, fol. 216.
  • 49. Tanner, Norw. MSS.
  • 50. L. and P. Hen. VIII, i, 233; Proc. Suff. Arch. Inst. iv, 413. This prior committed suicide at Ipswich.
  • 51. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ii, 325, 746. Royal assent in July, but cancelled by the bishop in December.
  • 52. Norw. Epis. Reg. xiv, 90.
  • 53. B.M. Cast, lxxi, 99.