Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of St Mary, York

Pages 107-112

A History of the County of York: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1974.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


In this section


On the north side of the Ouse at York there stood in pre-Conquest days the church or monasterium of St. Olave, (fn. 1) which in the days of the Conqueror had come, together with 4 acres of land around it, into the hands of Alan Rufus, son of Eudo, Count of Bretagne. (fn. 2) This church and land were given by the earl to Stephen, a monk of Whitby, on which to found a Benedictine abbey. (fn. 3)

Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux and his canons looked askance upon the settlement of Benedictines in York in the neighbourhood of the Minster. (fn. 4) Alan's right to the church and land was disputed by the cathedral authorities, the archbishop himself laying claim to them. (fn. 5) The matter was eventually settled by the king giving to the archbishop the church of St. Stephen in York instead of St. Olave's, and the abbot further propitiated the prelate by a gift of land in Clifton and Heslington. In 1088 King William Rufus visited York and saw how inadequate were the premises at St. Olave's for the requirements of the brethren, and he conferred upon them additional lands adjacent to their dwelling, and the year after he himself laid the foundation stone of a new house, which was dedicated to the honour of the Blessed Virgin, the Danish ascription of their old church being superseded. (fn. 6)

The abbey had not long been founded before a number of cells were established and made dependent upon it. That of Wetheral in Cumberland seems to have been the first. Afterwards there followed St. Bees in the same county, St. Martin's near Richmond, Rumburgh in Suffolk, Sandtoft and Haines in Lincolnshire, St. Mary Magdalen at Lincoln, and later on Warmington in Northumberland and Marsk in Notts. (fn. 7) At what date the cell of Wetheral was founded is not known for certain, (fn. 8) though Drake says it was given to the abbey at the time of the foundation by the Earl of Cumberland. (fn. 9) It was at all events confirmed to the abbey in 1131-2 by King Henry I. Henry I also confirmed to the abbey its various possessions, and made it quit of aids and tallages, enjoying the same privileges as those possessed by the minsters at York and Beverley. (fn. 10)

During the abbacy of Geoffrey, (fn. 11) 1131-2, the Benedictine rule had become somewhat slack, and some of the brethren of St. Mary's were pining for a more rigid rule, such as Cistercian foundations would offer; the prior, Richard, and the sub-prior were among the number. The abbot tried to put an end to the movement, but the malcontents appealed to the archbishop, Thurstan, who sympathized with them; and finally in 1132 thirteen of them left St. Mary's amid a turbulent scene and found their way to the valley of the Skell, where the Cistercian Abbey of Fountains was established, Richard being chosen as its first abbot. (fn. 12)

A trouble of a different kind came to the abbey five years later, when the house was much injured in the great fire of 1137. (fn. 13)

The abbey, as we have seen, was founded in the reign of William I, and on a greater scale by William II. Henry I confirmed its possessions and privileges, (fn. 14) which Henry II afterwards ratified, (fn. 15) as also did Henry III and most of his successors. (fn. 16) These privileges were very great: (1) exemption from royal exactions; (2) immunity from all pleas and quarrels; (3) soc, sac tol, tern, infangthef and utfangthef (fn. 17); (4) freedom from attendance and service at county courts, tithings, wapentakes, and hundreds; (5) the possession of a prison and gallows. Moreover the town of Bootham with its fair, market and liberties belonged to them (fn. 18) : and a vast district in and around York became known as ' the Liberty of St. Mary.'

The Archbishop of York had the right of making an annual visitation of the abbey, but the first extant record of any archiepiscopal survey was one made by the southern Primate. In 1195 Geoffrey, Archbishop of York, was suspended from his spiritual duties, (fn. 19) and Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury, went to York as papal legate. On Tuesday 13 June he visited the abbey of St. Mary, being received by the monks in solemn procession. Afterwards, assembled in the chapter-house, the monks complained of the incompetency of Robert their abbot through weakness and physical infirmity, and Archbishop Hubert deposed him from the abbacy. (fn. 20) After a short vacancy the king gave the abbacy in 1197 to Robert Longchamp, Prior of Ely, brother of the chancellor. (fn. 21) On 6 March 1226 a papal mandate was issued to Archbishop Walter Gray, authorizing him to visit the abbey once a year, or twice if need arose, and correct any abuses by counsel of the religious and sometimes of five or six of the better canons of the cathedral church, (fn. 22) and on 26 February in the following year a papa mandate was issued to the abbot and convent that they were to receive the archbishop in order that he might correct what was amiss according to the rule of St. Benedict. (fn. 23)

About this time there seems to have been some abuse on the part of the abbey authorities with respect to their indults and privileges. These were suspected by the archbishop and certain skilled lawyers as being false, and on 5 May 1225 the pope ordered them to be submitted to himself for purposes of examination. (fn. 24) On 15 March next following a papal letter was directed to the archbishop quashing an indult in the name of Pope Celestine giving power to the abbot to excommunicate invaders of the abbey properties, as it had been found to be false, and revoking anything that had been done by its aid. (fn. 25)

Pope Honorius III, it appears, had ordered the abbot and convent to make provision for twelve Roman clerks in churches of which the patronage belonged to them. This impoverished them considerably, so that some who wished to join them had to buy their own habits. In consideration of this Pope Gregory IX granted licence to the house to convert to their use the church of Kirkby Lonsdale and to put in a chaplain to serve it. (fn. 26) Similar licences were granted in connexion with the churches of St. Michael, Appleby, (fn. 27) and Gainford, in the diocese of Durham. (fn. 28) An indult to the abbot to use the mitre, ring, pastoral staff, sandals, and other pontifical insignia, with the faculty of blessing vestments and giving solemn benediction when no bishop or legate was present, (fn. 29) granted by Innocent IV in 1245, was confirmed by Pope Martin V on 13 January 1418, Thomas the then abbot receiving the further privilege for himself and successors to bless altar linen, &c., to receive vows of chastity, to bless and give the veil, &c. and to give solemn benediction at mass and after matins and vespers and at table, in the absence of a Catholic bishop or papal legate. (fn. 30)

Many of the dissensions and troubles of the house arose from its relations with the mayor, council and citizens of York. In 1262 a number of the abbot's men were actually killed in a quarrel, some of his houses in Bootham destroyed, and the abbot, Simon de Warwick, took to flight and was absent from the house for a period of two years. (fn. 31) A commission was granted in 1311 on complaint by the abbot that the mayor and bailiffs ' levied toll, murage, pontage and pavage on his men coming to the city with their goods, and also carriage, although by the king's confirmation of the charters of his predecessors the abbot's men are exempt from such; (that they) hindered his men coming to the city to buy provisions for him and his convent, compelled his men staying within his liberty of Bouthum to contribute, together with the commonalty of the city, divers aids, tallages, and contributions assessed upon the commonalty, and carried away their goods, and did not permit them to replevy the same.' (fn. 32) In this same year one of the monks, Stephen de Oustwyk, was assaulted at the cell of 'la Maudeleyne ' at Lincoln and imprisoned. (fn. 33)

On 22 March 1319 Archbishop Melton held a visitation of the abbey, and on 4 May 1319 (fn. 34) he issued a long decretum to the abbot and convent. No serious offences had been disclosed at the visitation, but emphasis was laid on the unsatisfactory financial condition of the house, which was owing no less a sum than £4,029 2s. 1½d. Needless expense, therefore, was strictly prohibited, and in the matter of granting corrodies and pensions the convent was to be consulted. The monks were forbidden to shave one another, and the abbey was forthwith to be provided with uno barbitonsore artificiali, who was to shave both young and old monks. Once a year at least, twice if possible, the abbot, prior, or the presiding monk was to call to his aid two of the senior monks and cause each monk to open his chest and carol for inspection. In case of refusal they were to be broken open, and any article illicitly received and secreted was to be confiscated to the common use. The sacrist, as formerly, was to have the tithes, rents and provisions pertaining to his office, and was to keep in order the church ornaments, the clock, the ornaments of the stalls, the lectos sacristarum, &c. He was to provide tapers, wine, light and other essentials, especially the fourteen tapers on every great festival. The service which the abbey was under obligation to perform for John de Ponte and Thomas de Fridethorp was to be duly said. The tithes of the chapel of Croom, and an annual rent of 20s. for the benefit of the sick in the infirmary (fn. 35) was being used for the whole as well as the sick: this was to be remedied. The common seal was to be kept in the treasury and the statutes and Melton's injunctions were to be read in chapter once a month. (fn. 36)

The dispute between the abbey and citizens was renewed and greatly intensified in 1334. The citizens complained that the abbot usurped their rights and liberties within the city and suburb, refused to allow measures to be tested, abused the power of excommunication for base motives, interfered with the city bailiffs, and assumed the office of a coroner, &c., &c. (fn. 37) The abbot ably defended himself, denying the various charges of illegality. These angry disputes went on until at last Archbishop Thoresby brought them to an agreement in 1343. (fn. 38)

In the year 1344 Archbishop Zouch made a visitation of St. Mary's. He questioned by what right the abbot and convent received the tithes, portions and pensions from a great many places which were specified. They exhibited a number of papal bulls and other 'evidences,' and the archbishop declared their title good and sufficient. (fn. 39)

The public records abound with references to the great Benedictine abbey of St. Mary. The abbot had his seat in Parliament; exercised jurisdiction over many towns, villages, churches and dependent houses (fn. 40); was frequently in a position to furnish loans to the sovereign (fn. 41); supplied necessaries in the time of war (fn. 42); acted as collector at various periods for tenths and fifteenths, (fn. 43) papal and royal; had his London residence and several country houses (fn. 44); and had numerous possessions in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and many other counties. Licences in mortmain granted to the abbey (fn. 45) for the acquisition of various properties were numerous, and also the appropriation of churches, (fn. 46) the royal permission to elect new abbots when vacancies arose, and the seizure and restitution of the temporalities. (fn. 47)

In addition to manors, lands and vills, the advowsons of a great number of churches belonged to the abbey, many of which were appropriated and vicarages ordained in some of them. In the city of York there were seven such churches; in other parts of the county thirty-three; and several in other counties. (fn. 48)

Indults were granted to the abbot, Thomas, in 1415 and 1417, (fn. 49) to hear the confessions of the monks and to grant absolution, imposing penance. This abbot was elected Bishop of Rochester (fn. 50) on 7 April 1421.

Archbishop Lee visited St. Mary's Abbey on 7 September 1534, (fn. 51) and issued his injunctions the following year, 11 September 1535. (fn. 52) He ordered that the Benedictine rule should be strictly kept, and that offending monks should be duly punished. The abbot, whom he addressed as John, (fn. 53) was charged with being, according to report, too familiar with Elizabeth Robinson, a married woman, of Overton. He was ordered to abstain from all intercourse with her or any other suspect woman, and to reside always in the monastery unless hindered by legitimate cause. The monks were ordered not to wear worsted or other costly garments, as some of them had been in the habit of doing, but all were to wear garments of cheap material and of the same colour. Once a year, in the presence of the whole convent or certain members elected ad hoc, the abbot should render an account of the state of the house and his administration of it. Wine was not to be sold in the abbey precincts nor any wine-stand permitted therein, and the abbot was not to use silk in his hood or sleeves, nor gilt spurs, saddles or bridles. These injunctions were issued from Bishopthorpe on 11 September 1535, just a week before the king inhibited the archbishop from making any further visitations. (fn. 54)

In the Valor Ecclesiasticus (fn. 55) a very interesting account is given of the alms and distributions at St. Mary's Abbey. There was a distribution made daily to three poor people at the time of the high mass, for the soul of William Nesfield and of his foundation. Like alms were distributed on the anniversary of Dom. William Wells, formerly Bishop of Rochester. A ' widow-right' was distributed every Sunday to ten widows, each receiving 1d. Similarly, of the foundation of William the Conqueror, a distribution was made to the ten above-named widows and to ten other poor people, called ' Frereright,' and to other poor people in bread and ale, of 105 qrs. of wheat at 5s. per qr. and of 135 qrs. of barley malt among the said poor and others in want coming to the monastery on Wednesdays and Saturdays each week. There was also the interesting educational charity already dealt with. (fn. 56)

With the passage of the years the properties of various kinds belonging to St. Mary's became enormous. In the Taxation of 1291 they are valued at £758 3s. 4d., (fn. 57) and at the Dissolution the abbey was worth no less an annual sum than £2,085 1s. 5¾d. (fn. 58) The dissolution took place in 1539, the house being surrendered by the abbot, William Thornton, alias Dent, (fn. 59) and fifty monks on 26 November, when the abbey and the site fell to the crown. (fn. 60) The abbot received a pension of 400 marks, the prior, Guy Kelsaye, one of 20 marks, and on the pension lists are the names of forty-seven other monks, but the amount of their pension is not specified, the place being left blank. (fn. 61)

Abbots of St. Mary's (fn. 62)

Stephen de Whitby, first abbot, died 1112

Richard (fn. 63)

Geoffrey, occurs 1122, 1128, (fn. 64) died 1132

Severinus (fn. 65) or Savaric, (fn. 66) died 1161

Clement, died 1184

Robert de Harpham, deposed 1195 (fn. 67)

Robert de Longchamp, appointed 1197, (fn. 68) died 1239

William de Roundel, occurs 1241, (fn. 69) died 1244

Thomas de Wardhull, elected 1244, (fn. 70) died 1258

Simon de Warwick, elected 1258, (fn. 71) died 1296 (fn. 72)

Benedict de Malton, succeeded 1296, (fn. 73) occurs 1302, (fn. 74) resigned 1303 (fn. 75)

John de Gilling, 1303, (fn. 76) died 1313 (fn. 77)

Alan de Nesse, 1313, (fn. 78) died 1331 (fn. 79)

Thomas de Multon, 1331, (fn. 80) resigned 1359

William Maneys, occurs 1380, (fn. 81) died 1382 (fn. 82)

William Bridford or Brydford, 1382, (fn. 83) died 1389 (fn. 84)

Thomas Stayngreve, 1389, (fn. 85) died 1398

Thomas Pygdt, 1398, died 1405 (fn. 86)

Thomas de Spofforth, succeeded 1405, resigned 1421, Bishop of Hereford 1422

William Dalton, succeeded 1422, died 1423 (fn. 87)

William Wells, succeeded 1423, (fn. 88) Bishop of Rochester, 1436

Roger Kirkby, elected 1437, (fn. 89) died 1438 (fn. 90)

John Cottingham, elected 1438, (fn. 91) died 1464 (fn. 92)

Thomas Booth, succeeded 1464, (fn. 93) resigned 148.5, (fn. 94) died same year (fn. 95)

William Sevens, elected 1485, (fn. 96) Bishop of Carlisle 1495, Bishop of Durham, 1502, continued abbot till 1502

Robert Worhope, succeeded 1502

Edmund Thornton, elected 1507

Edmund Whalley, elected 1521, occurs 1530 (fn. 97)

William Thornton or Dent, elected 1530, last abbot, surrendered 1539 (fn. 98)

The 11th-century seal (fn. 99) is a vesica, 25/8 in. by 23/8 in., with a design of our Lady crowned and seated, holding the Child and a book. Above the Child is the sun and on the left side is a (?) lily. Only a few words—
remain of the broken legend. The counterseal, a vesica 1¼in. by ¾ in., shows an arm andhand holding a long cross, with the legend—


The seals of two early abbots are in the British Museum. That of Robert de Longchamp, (fn. 100) 1197-1239, is a vesica, 2¾ in. by 15/8 in., with the abbot standing and holding crozier and book. The legend is—


The seal (fn. 101) of Simon of Warwick, 1258-96, is a vesica of similar design with the legend—


The seal for tithes (fn. 102) in use at the beginning of the 14th century is a vesica, 1¼ in. by 1 1/16 in., with our Lady and the Child, and the legend—



  • 1. See account of Whitby Abbey, above.
  • 2. Lawton, Relig. Houses, 36.
  • 3. Drake, Eboracum (small ed.), ii, 221; Harl. MS. 236 (Chartulary of St. Mary's), fol. 1.
  • 4. Fasti Eboracenses, 156.
  • 5. Lawton, Relig. Houses, 37.
  • 6. Ibid.; Drake, Eboracum, 579.
  • 7. Brit. Assoc. Handbk. (1906), 146; Mon. Angl. iii, 544.
  • 8. Lawton, Relig. Houses, 38.
  • 9. Drake, Eboracum (small ed.), ii, 227,
  • 10. Pat. 33 Edw. I, m. 23.
  • 11. Miscalled Godfrey in the Monasticon (iii, 538).
  • 12. Fasti Ebor. 204-7.
  • 13. Alien, Hist. of Yorks. 57.
  • 14. Pat. 33 Edw. I, m. 23.
  • 15. Drake, Eboracum (small ed.), ii, 228.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Pat. 10 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 21 d.
  • 18. Drake op. cit. ii, 230.
  • 19. Fasti Ebor. 266.
  • 20. Drake, Eboracum, 424.
  • 21. Ralph de Diceto, Hist. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 151.
  • 22. Cal. of Papal Letters, i, 108.
  • 23. Cal. of Papal Letters, i, 116.
  • 24. Ibid. 102.
  • 25. Ibid. 109.
  • 26. Ibid. 190.
  • 27. Ibid. 188.
  • 28. Ibid. 191.
  • 29. Ibid. 222.
  • 30. Ibid. vii, 58.
  • 31. Lawton, Relig. Houses, 37.
  • 32. Pat. 4 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 5 d.
  • 33. Ibid. 5 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 20 d., 19 d.
  • 34. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 134.
  • 35. In the York Museum is the mortar of the infirmary, made in the early 14th century. It is a beautiful example, made of bell-metal and weighing 76 lb. and on it is the inscription: ' Mortariu. Sci. Johis. Ewangel. de Ifirmaria. Be. Marie. Ebor. Fr. Wills. de Touthorp. me. fecit. A○D. mcccviii.' (For description and plate see Museum Handbk. 185-6).
  • 36. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 133-4.
  • 37. Pat. 8 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 23.
  • 38. Drake op. cit. (small ed.) ii, 231; Eboracum, 434.
  • 39. Mon. Angl. iii, 566-7, quoting York Archiepis. Reg. Zouch, fol. 9.
  • 40. Brit. Assoc. Handbk. (1906), 146.
  • 41. Pat. 9 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 30.
  • 42. Pat. 7 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 13.
  • 43. Ibid. m. 28.
  • 44. Brit. Assoc. Handbk. (1906), 146.
  • 45. Pat. 8 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 7.
  • 46. Ibid. 32 Edw. I, m. 22.
  • 47. Ibid. 13 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 20.
  • 48. Lawton, Relig. Houses, 38, 39.
  • 49. Cal. of Papal Letters, vii, 59.
  • 50. Before his consecration he was appointed Bishop of Hereford by papal bull, 17 Nov. 1421. (Le Neve, Fasti, i, 465).
  • 51. Yorks. Arch. Journ. (1902), 425.
  • 52. Ibid. 426.
  • 53. The abbot of this date was William Thornton alias Dent (L. and P. Hen. VIII, xv, 552).
  • 54. Yorks. Arch. Journ. (1902), 446-7, 426.
  • 55. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v, 6.
  • 56. V.C.H. Yorks. i, 421.
  • 57. For details see Mon. Angl. iii, 561.
  • 58. Speed. The Monasticon gives the value as £1,550 7s. 0¼d.; The.Valor Eccl. 1535 gives the gross £2,091 4s. 7¼d. the nett £1,650 0s. 7¼d. Mon. Angl. iii, 540.
  • 59. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xv, 552.
  • 60. Lawton, Relig. Houses, 39.
  • 61. L. and P. Hen. VIII, loc. cit.
  • 62. From Mon. Angl. iii, 538, 539, except where otherwise stated.
  • 63. a The date of Richard's death and Geoffrey's election is erroneously given in Mon. Angl. as 1131.
  • 64. b Hist. of Ch. of York (Rolls Ser.), ii, 199; iii, 51-2.
  • 65. Symeon of Durham, Hist. Regum (Rolls Ser), 201.
  • 66. a Hist. of Ch. of York (Rolls Ser.), ii, 222.
  • 67. In Mon. Angl. (iii, 538), he is said to have died and been succeeded by Robert Longchamp in 1189; but an abbot Robert was deposed in 1195 (see above), and Longchamp, who was elected in 1197, was called ' Robertas secundus' in Chron. Mon. de Melsa (Rolls Ser.), i, 354.
  • 68. Ralph de Diceto, Hist. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 151-2.
  • 69. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 231.
  • 70. Cal. Pat. 1232-47, p. 436.
  • 71. Ibid. 1247-55, p. 640.
  • 72. Pat. 24 Edw. I, m. 14.
  • 73. Ibid.
  • 74. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 231.
  • 75. Pat. 31 Edw. I, m. 17.
  • 76. Ibid.
  • 77. Ibid. 6 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 3.
  • 78. Ibid. 7 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 20.
  • 79. Ibid. 5 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 14.
  • 80. Ibid. pt. ii, m. 33; pt. i, m. 3.
  • 81. Ibid. 4 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 42.
  • 82. Ibid. 6 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 33.
  • 83. Ibid. m. 27.
  • 84. Ibid. 13 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 20,
  • 85. Ibid. m. 12.
  • 86. Cal. Pat. 1405-8, p. 15; occurs as John Pygot, 1405; Reg. Corpus Christi Guild (Surt. Soc.).
  • 87. Pat. 1 Hen. VI, pt. i, m. 15.
  • 88. Ibid. pt. ii, m. 12, 13.
  • 89. Cal. Pat. 1436-41, p. 56; he was Prior of St. Bees.
  • 90. Ibid. 203.
  • 91. Ibid. 207.
  • 92. Pat. 4 Edw. IV, pt. i, m. 14.
  • 93. Ibid. m. 11.
  • 94. Pat. 2 Ric. III, pt. iii, m. 17, 2.
  • 95. Reg. Corpus Christi Guild (Surt. Soc.).
  • 96. Ibid. m. 14. Probably this name should be read Senous, as the bishop is usually called Senhouse.
  • 97. Reg. Corpus Christi Guild (Surt. Soc.).
  • 98. Lawton, Relig. Houses, 39.
  • 99. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 4385; Harl. Chart. 44 D. 20.
  • 100. Ibid. 4390, lxxv, 36.
  • 101. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 4391, lxxv, 37.
  • 102. Ibid. 4393, lxxv, 35.