Houses of Gilbertine canons: Priory of St Margaret, Marlborough

Pages 316-319

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1956.

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The Gilbertine priory of St. Margaret at Marlborough stood about 200 yds. south-east of the ancient boundary of the town on the south bank of the Kennet. (fn. 1) Unlike many Gilbertine houses it appears to have been from the start a house for canons only. The earliest surviving mention of it is in a list of Gilbertine houses which King John took under his protection in 1199-1200, (fn. 2) and this is the first date mentioned in Dugdale's account of the priory, (fn. 3) but a confirmation of 1229 suggests that it dated from the reign of Henry II. (fn. 4) If so it may have been that king who was the founder, for Richard II claimed that it was a royal foundation (fn. 5)

However, it was Henry III who was to prove the house's greatest benefactor. In 1222 he ordered the Constable of Marlborough to allow the prior and canons 7s. 4d. a year which they had had in his father's time; (fn. 6) and in 1224 he gave them leave to gather firewood in Savernake Forest, and granted 3½ acres in the barton of Marlborough for 6d. a year. (fn. 7) In the winter of 1225-6 the king was seriously ill in Marlborough castle, and he may well have become interested in the priory at that time. (fn. 8) The grant of 3½ acres was terminated in 1229, but the right to take toll on the brewing of beer in the barton, called 'tolsester', which dated from Henry II's reign, was renewed. (fn. 9) In 1232 Henry III granted a tenth of the bread, the flesh or fish of the first course, and the ale consumed by his household, whenever he or his heirs stayed at Marlborough; (fn. 10) not an insignificant gift in the 13th century, when the king often stayed at Marlborough Castle. In 1235 Henry confirmed Geoffrey Esturmey's gift of 30 acres of his demesne wood in 'Folghet'. (fn. 11) He granted in 1236 a fair next to the priory on the vigil and feast of St. Margaret; (fn. 12) in 1246 a silver-gilt cup to contain the Eucharist; (fn. 13) in 1265 50s. a year for a canon to celebrate daily in the chapel of St. Nicholas in the castle; (fn. 14) in 1269 40 marks out of the first fines in pleas then pending; (fn. 15) and in 1270 leave to pasture 16 oxen and 4 cows daily in Savernake Forest. (fn. 16) He showed especial interest in the fabric of the priory. He gave 30 rafters out of Savernake Forest to repair its houses in 1223. (fn. 17) In 1231 he gave wood for building the belfry, and in 1232 for building the house and church. (fn. 18) He allowed the prior and canons in 1234 to enlarge their cemetery and court by enclosing part of the public highway from Savernake to Marlborough, (fn. 19) and in 1248 he gave them 2 acres of land to the east of their court at 2s. a year. (fn. 20) He gave timber for repairing their houses in 1235, for building in 1244, for roofing in 1246, for unspecified purposes in 1252, for repairing the belfry in 1269, and in 1271 for repairing the dormitory. (fn. 21)

Property was acquired from private sources at the same time. About 1235, in redemption of the 'tolsester', Robert of Elcot granted two separate acres of land in the barton, for which it was shown in 1276 that the priory had failed for 30 years to render suit and service. (fn. 22) In 1249 the priory bought a mill at Manton in Preshute. (fn. 23) In 1260 they obtained from Alan and Margaret FitzWarin a messuage and a carucate of land in West Grafton, and they granted to the donors and their heirs daily commemoration, the admission of a suitable nominee as a canon of the Order, and to them for their lives a rent of £10 a year. (fn. 24) Roger Hodi gave a burgage in Marlborough at £1 a year about 1266, and John Rockley another at 1s. a year four years later. (fn. 25) From William Macy the priory obtained property at Lockeridge in Overton in 1281, (fn. 26) and from Philip le Fraunceys and Richard le Eyr 40 acres and a messuage in the same place in 12934. (fn. 27) The canons received two mills and a dovecote in Marlborough from Sir William de Harden in 1317, in order that they might find two canons to celebrate; (fn. 28) and in 1318 and 1336 2 messuages, 70 acres of land, 8 acres of meadow, and rents of £1 and £2 10s. in Marlborough and the barton from John Godhyne. (fn. 29) Thomas Poulton, Bishop of Worcester, bequeathed to them in 1348 two ornaments for the altar, his Summa Summarum, and £5. (fn. 30)

Under Henry III Gilbertine houses were not normally taxed, but Marlborough was assessed in 1254 for the 'Valuation of Norwich'. The Malton Cartulary seems to have reversed the assessment for St. Margaret's, giving the spiritualities as £58 13s. 4d. and the temporalities as £10 a year. (fn. 31) Under Edward I the Crown was not so kind to the priory. Henceforth the Gilbertines were taxed, (fn. 32) and in 1281 the priory had to give up an acre of land in the town on a plea of quo warranto. (fn. 33)

Henry III's grant of a tithe of the rations of the royal household when in Marlborough lasted for a century. The treasurer of the Wardrobe obtained its revocation in 1334, and in return the king released a rent of 16s. 8d. for property in Newbury Street by Marlborough (the London Road), for two mills, and for 9 acres of the king's assart in Savernake Forest. (fn. 34) In 1337 the priory was robbed and partly burned. (fn. 35) Seven years later Queen Philippa visited Marlborough and assigned to the prior and canons local rents and services, and common of pasture in Savernake Forest, quit of pannage, for 100 swine of their demesne. In 1350 the king confirmed her charter, granted the reversion of the rents and services, and gave licence to John of Holt to grant a messuage and a carucate of land in East Grafton, to be held in petty serjeanty. (fn. 36)

The licence to John of Holt referred to the leanness and poverty of the prior and canons, for this was the period of the Black Death, and woolgrowers were suffering losses from sheep-scab. The priory had also suffered from a long and expensive dispute with the Constable of Marlborough over the regulation of the flow of water to their mills and to the castle mill. From this struggle they had relief in 1356. (fn. 37) As early as 1291 Nicholas IV had granted an indulgence in their favour, (fn. 38) and in 1376 and 1383 the Bishop of Salisbury gave further indulgences for their pardoners to carry round to the churches. (fn. 39) In 1383 they also had royal licence, obtained by Sir John Lovel for a fee of 20 marks, to appropriate East Kennett church, which was valued at 6 marks a year. (fn. 40) The acquisition of lands continued. In 1390 William Wroughton paid £10 for a licence to John Stillyng and Robert Cricklade to grant the priory a messuage, 40 acres of land, 6 of meadow, and a rent of £1 4s. in East Kennett; in return they were to find a canon for the daily commemoration of Wroughton and his wife. (fn. 41) They received bequests of £1 in 1396 and 6s. 8d. in 1404. (fn. 42) In or before 1399 Sir John Lovel gave them, in free alms, 3 messuages, a toft, 3 carucates and 40 acres of land, 1½ acre of meadow, and a rent of £1 in Winterbourne Monkton, Burbage, and West Grafton; (fn. 43) and in 1412 Thomas Calston and others had licence to grant them 2 messuages, 2 tofts, 269 acres of land, 8½ acres of meadow, 12 acres of wood, and a rent of 5s. in Yatesbury, Isbury, and Elcot in Preshute, worth in all £2 13s. 4d. a year. (fn. 44) Another gift, less obviously useful, was the leper hospital of St. Thomas by Marlborough, 'of small value beyond the charges incumbent upon it', of which they obtained the reversion in 1393, (fn. 45) and upon which their later records are silent.

The history of the priory is no more than a list of isolated incidents. About 1486 John Wroughton (their tenant of Kennett manor) and his sons, with 40 armed followers, broke into the priory in pursuit of John Seymour the younger, warden of Savernake Forest, and his brother. (fn. 46) In 1514 the prior and Robert Nutting were each fined 2s. at the Marlborough court of pie-powder for charging excessive tolls at their mills. (fn. 47) A dispute with Nutting over a trespass by the prior's grey horse ended in 1525 with the distraint of the horse, worth 5s. 4d., and a quarter of barley, worth 3s. 4d. (fn. 48) In 1518 John Bayle of Preshute left 6s. 8d. for repairs to the priory church. The prior was summoned to Convocation in 1397 and 1529. (fn. 49)

The annual revenues of St. Margaret's were returned in 1535 as £38 19s. 2d. gross, or £30 9s. 6d. net. The spiritualities were the rectory of Kennett and a portion from the chapel of East Grafton. Kennett was the most valuable of the nine manors; the others being in Marlborough, Winterbourne Monkton, Yatesbury, Lockeridge, Clatford, Manton in Preshute, and East and West Grafton. There were also lands in Burbage, Puthall, and Allington. The outgoings included 13s. 4d. a year to the prior of students at Cambridge, 13s. 4d. to the chief steward, Sir John Seymour, 6s. 8d. to the under-steward, and £2 to the receiver. (fn. 50) Had the Act of 1536 been allowed to operate the priory would have been doomed, but Robert Holgate, Master of Sempringham, became chaplain to the king and Bishop of Llandaff. The Gilbertine houses were reprieved for three years. Roger Marshall, Prior of St. Margaret's in 1535, visited Holgate in London in July 1536, (fn. 51) and became Master of Sempringham before the end.

John Sympson, the prior, and four canons surrendered St. Margaret's to William Petre in January 1539. (fn. 52) Sympson took £9 10s. 1d. from the revenues collected by the king's local receiver to pay the expenses from Michaelmas 1538. (fn. 53) He received a pension of £10 a year; the canons received £2 13s. 4d. a year each, and one of them was appointed to East Kennett church. (fn. 54) The site, buildings, and certain other property were assigned to Anne of Cleves in 1539 as part of her jointure. (fn. 55)

There is no real evidence as to the number of canons before the Dissolution. Eight canons received one or more of the three major orders between 1398 and 1428. (fn. 56) One of these eight was ordained sub-deacon in the Salisbury Diocese in 1398 and apparently again at Farnham Castle a year later, another was presented by Poulton Priory for deacon and by Marlborough for priest, and a third by the Trinitarians of Easton Royal for acolyte and by Marlborough for deacon. Alexander III had authorized the canons to serve cures in 1170, (fn. 57) and a canon was presented by the prior to East Kennett church in 1422. (fn. 58) The priory precinct with its gardens and orchards covered 3 acres. (fn. 59) Near at hand were a few houses in the town and barton belonging to the priory, the common of Marlborough on which the prior pastured his sheep, (fn. 60) the corn water-mill called portmill, castle mead, and a pasture close by Newbridge on Kennet water. Farther away, though still conveniently accessible, were the fields near Savernake Forest and other properties along the Kennet valley and the Calne road. (fn. 61) In the priory's later years many of the estates were let on long leases. (fn. 62) About the priory buildings nothing is known. Rebuilding went on from 1231 to the middle of the century, when repairs began. There are frequent references to the use of timber from Savernake Forest, but where stone was quarried is not known.

Priors of St. Margaret's, Marlborough

Alexander, occurs 1249-52. (fn. 63)

Richard, occurs 1260. (fn. 64)

Robert, occurs 1281. (fn. 65)

Nicholas de Insula, occurs 1331. (fn. 66)

Thomas, occurs 1337. (fn. 67)

Walter Swindon, occurs 1397-1411. (fn. 68)

Henry, occurs 1438. (fn. 69)

Andrew Hulse, occurs 1451. (fn. 70)

Richard Browne, occurs 1520-7. (fn. 71)

Roger Marshall, occurs 1528-35. (fn. 71)

John Sympson, occurs 1538-9. (fn. 72)

An oval seal of the priory, measuring 7/8 by ¾ in., is attached to a document of 1431. (fn. 73) It shows on the left St. Margaret of Antioch, crowned, trampling on a dragon and piercing its head with a long cross held in her left hand. On the right, the prior kneels in prayer holding up two four-leaved flowers. In between them is a tree. The inscription reads:



  • 1. Leland, Itin. ed. L. Toulmin Smith, iv, 130; a short account of the priory with a list of charters is in W.A.M. xxxiv, 253-71.
  • 2. Rot. Chart. (Rec. Com.), 18; Cartae Antiquae (Pipe R. Soc. N.S. xvii), no. 57.
  • 3. Dugd. Mon. vi, 981.
  • 4. Close R. 1227-31, 190.
  • 5. Cal. Pat. 1396-9, 560.
  • 6. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i, 498.
  • 7. Ibid. 587.
  • 8. W.A.M. xxxiv, 246; Pat. R. 1225-32, 9-12.
  • 9. Close R. 1227-31, 190.
  • 10. Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 145.
  • 11. Ibid. 194.
  • 12. Ibid. 219.
  • 13. Cal. Lib. 1245-51, 36.
  • 14. Cal. Pat. 1258-66, 448.
  • 15. Ibid. 1266-72, 397.
  • 16. Cal. Chart. R. 1257-1300, 156.
  • 17. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i, 528.
  • 18. Close R. 1231-4, 2, 16, 53, 199.
  • 19. Ibid. 415.
  • 20. Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 332.
  • 21. Close R. 1234-7, 127; 1242-7, 272, 486; 1251-3, 164; 1268-72, 161, 444.
  • 22. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii, 263.
  • 23. Cal. Feet of F. Wilts. 1195-1272, ed. Fry, p. 37; CP 25(1) 251/15/5.
  • 24. Cal. Feet of F. Wilts. 1195-1272, ed. Fry, p. 53; CP 25(1) 251/20/7.
  • 25. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii, 262.
  • 26. Feet of F. Wilts. 1272-1327 (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 15.
  • 27. Cal. Pat. 1292-1301, 127.
  • 28. Ibid. 1317-21, 59.
  • 29. Ibid. 1317-21, 190; 1334-8, 241.
  • 30. W.A.M. xxvi, 60.
  • 31. B.M., Cott. Claudius D. XI, f. 278v.
  • 32. Rose Graham, S. Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertines, 89.
  • 33. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 795.
  • 34. Cal. Pat. 1330-4, 522; Cal. Close, 1333-7, 307; SC 8/2972.
  • 35. Cal. Pat. 1334-8, 510.
  • 36. Ibid. 1348-50, 443-4.
  • 37. Ibid. 1358-61, 292-3.
  • 38. Cal. Pap. Lett. i, 523.
  • 39. Sar. Reg. Erghum, f. 4; Reg. Waltham, f. 8.
  • 40. Cal. Pat. 1381-5, 339.
  • 41. Ibid. 1388-92, 328.
  • 42. Sar. Reg. Metford, f. 9v., 11.
  • 43. Cal. Pat. 1396-9, 560; C 66/352, m. 18.
  • 44. Cal. Pat. 1408-13, 450; Isbury is in the south-east corner of the town: W.A.M. liii, 294.
  • 45. Cal. Pat. 1391-6, 320.
  • 46. Cal. Inq. Hen. VII, i, 1152; Lord Cardigan in W.A.M. li, 510-11.
  • 47. Ct. Bk. 'B' in Borough Chest (communicated by Mr. E. G. H. Kempson).
  • 48. W.A.M. xix, 77-78.
  • 49. Sar. Reg. Metford, f. 117; L. & P. Hen. VIII, iv, p. 2700.
  • 50. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 148; E 315/400.
  • 51. Dublin Review, cxiv, 274.
  • 52. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv, (1), p. 31.
  • 53. SC 6/Hen. VIII/3985.
  • 54. W.A.M. xxviii, 314.
  • 55. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv, (2), p. 154.
  • 56. Sar. Reg. Metford, f. 156v.; Reg. Chandler, ord. ff. 32, 34, 37v., 38v., 44; Reg. Neville, ii.
  • 57. Rose Graham, S. Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertines, 111-12.
  • 58. Phillipps, Wilts. Inst. i, 113.
  • 59. E 315/400.
  • 60. Cal. Pat. 1553, 116.
  • 61. E 315/400; SC 6/Hen. VIII/3993.
  • 62. C 1/543/32; E 315/400.
  • 63. Cal. Feet of F. Wilts. 1195-1272, ed. Fry, p. 37; B.M., Campb. Chart. xxii, 11.
  • 64. Cal. Feet of F. Wilts. 1195-1272, ed. Fry, p. 53.
  • 65. Feet of F. 1272-1327 (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), p. 15.
  • 66. T. Phillipps, Exc. ex Reg. Episc. Sar. 23, but the entry in Wyville's Reg. has not been traced.
  • 67. Cal. Pat. 1334-8, 510.
  • 68. Sar. Reg. Metford, f. cxvii; Cal. Close, 1409-13, 210.
  • 69. Phillipps, Wilts. Inst. i, 128.
  • 70. Cal. Pat. 1446-52, 554.
  • 71. E 315/400.
  • 72. Ibid.; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv, (1), p. 31.
  • 73. B.M., Harl. Ch. 46H, 10.
  • 74. B.M. Cat. of Seals, i, no. 3617.