A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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HOUSE OF CISTERCIAN MONKS
8. THE ABBEY OF ROBERTSBRIDGE (fn. 1)
The Cistercian abbey of St. Mary was founded in the vill of Robertsbridge within the parish of Salehurst in or about 1176 by Alvred de St. Martin, sheriff of the rape of Hastings and 'dapifer' to Richard I, who married Alice widow of John count of Eu. Besides the site of the abbey and the adjoining lands he bestowed upon the monks estates in Ewhurst and Sedlescombe, and land lying between Winchelsea and 'Cliveshend,' and other lands belonging to the Ewhurst prebend of Hastings college. These gifts Seffrid II, bishop of Chichester (1180-1204), confirmed so far as was in his power, taking the abbey and its possessions under his protection. (fn. 2) The Countess Alice associated herself with her husband in his foundation, and her son Henry count of Eu so liberally followed in her steps that the abbots of Cîteaux and Clairvaux, by the advice of Denis abbot of Robertsbridge, conferred upon him and upon his mother's soul the benefits of the Order. (fn. 3) Other benefactors added their gifts of lands and rents, the most prominent being the families of Bodiam and Echingham. It would seem that as a consequence of their increased wealth the monks removed to another site, as a charter (fn. 4) of 1314 refers to 'the chapel in the said vill (of Salehurst) on the spot where the abbey was originally founded.'
Besides grants and purchases from laymen the abbey was frequently brought into contact with other religious houses, several agreements being made with the canons of Hastings, the abbot of Battle, the prior of Leeds in Kent, and the abbot of Tréport in Normandy, from whom the Sussex abbey purchased lands in Playden and Bexhill. Though their lands were thus increasing there was the drawback that many of them lay exposed to the ravages of the sea, entailing heavy expenditure for the maintenance of seawalls—towards which the earl of Arundel left a sum of £20 in 1396 (fn. 5) —and even then not always proving productive, so that in 1257 Pope Alexander IV, considering the sterility caused by influx of the sea, excused the monks from payment of tithes upon those lands which they had 'inned' and brought under cultivation. (fn. 6) But in spite of losses the abbey at the time of the Taxation of 1291 held property worth nearly £110.
The ravages of the sea, however, during the great storm of 1287 and in subsequent years so reduced the monks' revenues that in 1309 they obtained the royal licence to acquire lands to no less a value than £100, (fn. 7) and in the same year their patron, Sir William de Echingham, obtained licence to grant them the advowsons of the churches of Salehurst, Udimore, and Mountfield with their appurtenances, valued at 50 marks. (fn. 8) This valuable gift, however, proved for some time a source of expense rather than profit, as it involved twenty years' litigation, (fn. 9) and necessitated journeys to the papal court, where the abbot had to make a longer stay than he had intended, as money gave out and he had to send to England for further funds, and to the royal court at London, Waltham, York and elsewhere— one abbot dying suddenly while engaged upon the business. At last, after they had gained the consent of the bishop of Chichester, the dean of Hastings College—of which the three churches formed a prebend—and Sir Simon de Echingham as patron of the churches and prebend, the king, whose claims as patron of the college of Hastings had been the cause of all the difficulty, allowed the abbey to appropriate the three churches in 1333. In the course of the negotiations the monks had incurred in addition to monetary losses, considerable obligations of a spiritual nature. In 1314 Sir William de Echingham bargained that in return for his benefactions they should maintain two chaplains, monks or seculars, to perform service for the souls of himself, his wife Eva and his heirs in the chapel in Salehurst where the monastery was first founded, providing vestments and other necessaries. (fn. 10) These privileges were extended in 1325, when the abbot undertook to find two chaplains to celebrate daily—except on Good Friday and Easter Eve—for the souls of Sir William and Lady Eva, the one at the altar of the Holy Cross the other at that of St. Giles, and a third in the chapel of St. Mary at the abbey gate, besides two others to do service in the abbey church at the altar of the Holy Martyrs on the right side of the choir where the bodies of Lady Eva and of Sir William's daughter Joan lay; all these chaplains were further to say before the said altar of the Holy Martyrs 'Placebo' and 'Dirige' with the commendation on the days customary in the Cistercian order. (fn. 11) By a further agreement in 1356 the monks were relieved of the maintenance of the two chaplains for the original chapel of Robertsbridge, but continued bound to provide the other five. (fn. 12) Moreover, the abbot, in return for the privilege of being a non-resident canon of Hastings, was bound to provide a fit secular priest to serve the prebend, (fn. 13) and in 1501 the abbot agreed to pay the dean of Hastings 4 marks yearly for the celebration of services and in discharge of all claims. (fn. 14) Another obligation had been incurred in 1304, when the abbot had secured the bishop of Chichester's favour by a gift of a yearly rent of 100s. for the support of two clerks in the cathedral church to cense the host at the time of its elevation during high mass. (fn. 15)
During the early years of its existence the abbey of Robertsbridge plays some considerable part in history, its head being sent with the abbot of Boxley in 1192 to search for King Richard, whom they found in Bavaria, and by whom they were sent back to England with the news of his treaty with the emperor. (fn. 16) The same two abbots in 1198 acted as the archbishop's agents to the pope on the occasion of his quarrel with the monks of Canterbury over the church of Lambeth. (fn. 17) In 1212 the abbot of Robertsbridge was dispatched abroad as the king's messenger, and was given 2 marks with which to buy a palfrey, (fn. 18) and he was selected for the same purpose in 1222, (fn. 19) and again in 1225, (fn. 20) in which latter year the king paid a visit to the abbey. (fn. 21) Henry III was again at Robertsbridge in 1264, when at the head of his troops marching to the disastrous battle of Lewes, he extorted large sums of money from the unfortunate monks. (fn. 22) A later royal visitor was Edward II, who was there on 27 August, 1394. (fn. 23) By this time, however, the fame of the house seems to have dwindled, as when John, bishop of Exeter, purchased a book (now in the Bodleian Library), whose flyleaf contained an anathema upon anyone alienating it from the house of St. Mary of Robertsbridge, he relieved his conscience by noting that he did not know where that house was. (fn. 24)
Of the inner history of this house little is known. It appears to have had a good reputation, as it was frequently selected by pious monks of Canterbury who wished to leave the Benedictine for the stricter Cistercian order. (fn. 25) On the other hand Giraldus Cambrensis in his article 'on the secret luxury of the Cistercians' tells the following story (fn. 26) :—John who succeeded Odo as abbot of Battle (in 1200) happening to pass an abbey of that order in Sussex called in to see the abbot, whom he knew. While passing through the cloisters he insisted upon going into the refectory, although the abbot tried to dissuade him, saying that they would disturb the servers who were having their meal after having waited upon the other members of the convent. Going in the visitor saw the tables laden with fine fat joints, and turning to the abbot completed his confusion by asking of what saint those bones were the relics, further pointing his humorous rebuke by at once leaving the abbey. A case of apostasy is mentioned in 1344, when the pope gave orders for the reconciling of Robert Coumber, who had left the monastery but now desired to return; (fn. 27) and in 1351 another monk, John Crompe, was permitted to return to the abbey, which he had left without leave in order to go to Rome for the general indulgence which had been in operation the previous October; (fn. 28) and in 1363 another apostate monk was reconciled. (fn. 29) That these instances do not point to any laxity of discipline is suggested by a record of 1403 which tells that John Holmborn, a monk of Robertsbridge, having been found in a wood with an unmarried woman was beaten to the effusion of blood and then sent by his abbot to Coggeshall Abbey, in Essex, where he long lived a miserable life; now he was old and longed to return to Robertsbridge, he had therefore gone to Rome, where he had obtained absolution from the pope, who further ordered that he should be restored to his former stall and place in chapter and to have the room, books, clothes and other things formerly his.
The income of the abbey being £248 10s. 6d. (fn. 30) it escaped the first suppression and survived until 16 April, 1538, when it was surrendered by the abbot, Thomas Taylor, and his brethren, who were then eight in number, the same number of monks as were resident in 1418. (fn. 31)
Abbots Of Robertsbridge
Denis (fn. 32)
William de St. Noet, occurs 1222 (fn. 35)
John, occurs 1223-30 (fn. 36)
Mainard, occurs 1280 (fn. 41)
Walter, occurs 1288 (fn. 42)
Thomas, occurs 1293 (fn. 43)
Robert, c. 1300 (fn. 44)
John de Wallyngfelde, elected 1311 (fn. 47)
Nicholas, occurs 1320 (fn. 50)
John, occurs 1324 (fn. 51)
John de Lamberhurst, died 1333 (fn. 52)
John de Wormedale, elected 1333 (fn. 53)
John Wysdon, occurs 1340 (fn. 54)
John, occurs 1345 (fn. 55)
Simon, occurs 1349 (fn. 56)
Adam, occurs 1357 (fn. 57)
Giles (fn. 58)
Thomas, occurs 1427 (fn. 63)
John, occurs 1435 (fn. 64)
John Whitton, died 1442 (fn. 65)
Thomas, occurs 1474-78 (fn. 68)
William, occurs 1483-6 (fn. 69)
Thomas Taylor, occurs 1529, (fn. 74) last abbot
The interesting thirteenth-century circular seal shows the church, with tall central spire and each gable topped with a cross: standing on a bridge of three arches pointed and trefoiled, and with round tower embattled at each end; over water. In the field the letters P.R. for 'Pons Roberti.' Legend:—
HEC: PRESENS : CELLA : DOMVS : EST : DE : MATRE : PVELLA
Reverse: The Coronation of the Virgin, in a carved and canopied niche with tabernacle work at the sides. In base, under an arcade of three round-headed arches, the abbot, half-length, with pastoral staff, to the right between two monks' heads. (fn. 75) Legend:—
S' CŌE : ABBATIS : ET : CONVENTVS : DE : PONTE : ROB'TI
The early thirteenth-century seal used by the abbot was a pointed oval: the abbot, standing on a corbel, holding up the right hand in benediction, in the left hand a pastoral staff. (fn. 76) Legend:—
+ SIGNUM : ABBATIS : DE : PONTEROBERTI :
This occurs among the Penshurst charters with a counterseal (fn. 77) :— a hand, cuffed at the wrist, issuing from the left, holding between finger and thumb an ornamental cross. Legend:—