Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Selby

Pages 95-100

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


The abbey of St. Mary and St. German of Selby claimed the Conqueror for its founder, but its origin was due to Benedict, a monk at Auxerre. The legend (fn. 1) is that Benedict, when a monk at Auxerre, was warned in a dream by St. German to go to England, whither he came, bringing with him as a relic a finger of the saint. Somehow he got to Salisbury, where a person named Edward gave him a beautiful wrought golden shrine to hold the relic, which was afterwards exhibited at Selby. He left for the place in Yorkshire indicated to him in the vision, and established himself as a hermit about the year 1068, at the place which afterwards became known as Selby. Here he was found by Hugh, the Sheriff of Yorkshire, by whom he was brought into contact with William the Conqueror, then possibly at York. The Conqueror granted a small piece of land on which to build the monastery, and this grant he largely increased by a subsequent charter a year or two afterwards.

Why William the Conqueror should have chosen Selby for founding the monastery has always been unexplained. Probably Canon Fowler's suggestion is the true explanation of the matter, viz., ' that Hugh the sheriff was so impressed by the holiness and reputation of Benedict and his wonder-working relic that he induced the king to provide that in place of an anchor-hold, there should spring up an abbey, of which the anchorite should be the first abbot.' (fn. 2)

The date of the foundation charter seems to be fixed at about 1070. Symeon of Durham says that Selby Abbey sumpsit exordium in 1069, and as Bishop Remigius, one of the witnesses, was consecrated in 1070, the latter seems to be the probable date of the charter. (fn. 3) In the foundation charter (fn. 4) the king granted to Abbot Benedict leave to found an abbey in ' Salebya,' in honour of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His blessed Mother the Virgin Mary, and St. German, Bishop of Auxerre, and gave the abbey its own court, with sac and soc, and tol and theam, and infangenthef, and all the better customs as the church of St. Peter of York.

More than eighty charters, confirmations, and other royal deeds in favour of Selby Abbey are recorded in the Coucher Book, (fn. 5) and the grants of land and other property from different donors were enormous. They are epitomized by Burton alphabetically according to the places themselves, on sixteen folio pages of his work. (fn. 6)

A dispute as to the extent of the province of Canterbury arose in 1067, when Remigius moved his see from Dorchester in Oxfordshire to Lincoln. The Archbishops of York had always claimed that Lindsey belonged to their diocese and province, and eventually William Rufus settled the matter by giving Lindsey to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Selby Abbey and the priory of St. Oswald at Gloucester to the Archbishop of York. His charter states (fn. 7) that he had given to Archbishop Thomas and his successors the abbey of St. German 'sicut archiepiscopus Cantuariensis habet episcopatum Rofensem.' It seems that Gundulf recognized the archbishop as patron of the see of Rochester, so that what the king gave was probably the patronage of Selby. The archbishop apparently regranted their privileges to the monks not long after, and they afterwards elected their abbots by licence from the crown. (fn. 8)

On 1 April 1233 Archbishop Gray held a visitation of the abbey of Selby, (fn. 9) and the injunctions he gave on that occasion are among the earliest examples extant of anything of the kind. First, he enjoined the abbot to apply the highest care as to the observance of the discipline of the order and rule. He was to arrange the business of the house, according to the rule of the blessed Benedict, with the advice of four of the more skilful of the house, chosen by himself and the convent. With their advice he was to appoint two cellarers, one within the house, and the other for external affairs. The abbot, by the advice of his four associate monks, was to appoint two bursars who were to receive all the money coming to the monastery, which was to be expended for the common utility of the house, according to the decision of the abbot and other officers.

The refectory, kitchen, infirmary, and camera were to be competently provided for, lest by defect of necessaries the servants of God should murmur, or should procure things less honest outside. Diligent and fit officials were to be appointed to every office. The proper number of monks was to be made up. (fn. 10) The archbishop ordered that his scriptum was to be recited three times in the current year by the abbot in the presence of the convent, at appropriate terms, lest aught be neglected through forgetfulness. He reserved, however, to himself power to interpret, relax, or correct, or do anything else, which might seem to him to be good for the utility of the monastery.

On 31 May 1256 (fn. 11) Pope Alexander IV granted a faculty to the Abbot of Selby to use the ring, mitre, pastoral staff, tunic, dalmatic, gloves and sandals, and to bless altar-cloths and other church ornaments, and to give the first tonsure. This faculty appears to have fallen into disuse not long after it was granted, for on 11 April 1308 Archbishop Greenfield sent a formal letter to the abbot and convent, saying that he had inspected the Apostolic Letters, and, with consent of the dean and chapter, he granted that the abbot might use the foresaid insignia, (fn. 12) which per aliqua tempora the abbot of the monastery had omitted to use.

When Archbishop Giffard visited the monastery and its dependent cell of Snaith, by commission, in 1275 (fn. 13) several of the monks were charged with loose living, including the abbot, and many of the complaints referred to misconduct with married women. The abbot at that time was Thomas de Whalley, who had previously held the abbacy and been deprived. (fn. 14) Things did not mend, and on 8 January 1279-80 (fn. 15) Archbishop Wickwane made a visitation of the abbey in person, when it was found that the abbot did not observe the rule, did not sing mass (missam non cantat), did not preach or teach, and seldom attended chapter, he did not correct as he was bound to do, rarely took his meals in the refectory, never slept in the dormitory, rarely entered the quire, rarely heard matins out of bed, did not visit the sick, publicly ate flesh meat before laymen in his manors and elsewhere outside the precincts of his monastery, and even in the monastery on Wednesdays indiscriminately, was haughty and malicious (injuriosus) towards his brethren, quarrelsome, and a disturber in the convent, despised and neglected altogether the statutes of the archbishops, and, in short, was negligent and ill-disposed in all that pertained to divine affairs and regular discipline, and was altogether incorrigible. More than this, he had alienated, without consent of his convent, lands, manors, tithes, corrodies, &c. The lands were specified, including the manor of Chellow near Bradford, and that of Stainton in Craven.

He had given three estates, which are specified, to his brother John, who in 1275 had been charged with immorality. He had given a pension of 4 marks to his nephew Thomas. The tithes of Driffield, and the money he had received from alienations he had made, he had spent as he liked. Owing to his neglect he had lost the rent and tithe of various places, which are named. In the liberty of Snaith he had handed over the manors to be kept by his relatives, garcionibus et rybaldis, and when he received anything from them for corn and other things sold, he spent it as he liked, without rendering an account. He appointed obedientiaries according to his will, who were favourable to him, and from whom he got money and other goods of the house. He cut down and sold groves, and spent the money as he liked. Worse still was proved against him. He was found guilty of incontinence with the lady of Whenby (domina de Queneby) and with a girl, Bodeman, living at the monastery gate, who, as reported, had borne him offspring. He was perjured, too, for he swore before his last installation that he would restore the charters of Stallingborough as soon as he was installed, and hitherto had not done so. He was excommunicate, both because he had not paid the pope's tithe and had turned to other uses the tithes of the chapel of Wheatley assigned for alms, as also for despising the statutes of Archbishop Gray, and because he had laid violent hands on Brother Robert de Eboraco to the effusion of blood, and also on William de Stormeworthe, dragging him from the quire. He had also laid hands on Thomas de Snayth, clerk, drawing blood from him, whom he had appointed to recover certain tithes at Snaith. He was further charged with incantation and sorcery, in procuring Elyas Fauvelle to seek for the body of his brother, who had been drowned in the River Ouse, and on this he spent a large sum of money. Thus for these reasons he was excommunicate, but had taken part in divine affairs in spite of it. This string of misdeeds of all sorts having been proved against the unworthy abbot, the archbishop pronounced formal sentence of deposition, and transferred the deposed abbot to the monastery of Durham, there to undergo a penance appointed for the good of his soul. On Tuesday before the feast of the Epiphany Thomas de Whalley formally confessed himself to have been duly amoved by the archbishop, and submitted himself to the sentence passed upon him.

In 1306 (fn. 16) Archbishop Greenfield held a visitation of Selby, when it was again apparent that matters were seriously amiss. One of the monks, Henry de Belton, for his enormities was handed over to the Abbot of St. Mary's, York, to be sent to their far-off cell of Rumburgh, in Suffolk, at an annual charge of 4 marks, to be paid by Selby; but from a subsequent letter of the archbishop it would seem that he was being detained at St. Mary's, and the archbishop then directed the abbot to dispatch him, with a safe convoy, to St. Bees. Another monk, Thomas de Wilmerley, was sent at the same time and at the same costs to Whitby; both had prescribed penances appointed them, and the archbishop further commissioned his official to inquire into the miserable condition of another monk, Thomas de Eyton. (fn. 17)

On 20 March 1315 (fn. 18) the dean and chapter,sede vacante, wrote to the Abbot and convent of Whitby in regard to Robert de Brune, a monk of Selby, whom the archbishop had transferred there to undergo a penance. The Abbot and convent of Whitby had reported well concerning him, and for the future he was to hold among them locum suo statu competentem, and on Wednesday to have the same food as the rest, but on Fridays he was to have only bread, ale, vegetables and one kind of fish, until his case should merit further favourable consideration.

On 9 April 1322 (fn. 19) Abbot John de Wystow II sent to Archbishop Melton a full account of the status of the monastery on the feast of St. Stephen, 1320, when his predecessor Simon de Scarborough died. The monastery was still in debt to the amount of £551 8s., and was then burdened by pensions and fees amounting to £44 16s. 8d. yearly, also fifteen corrodies of food and drink to fifteen persons daily during their lives, of whom eight were receiving daily food for themselves and their servants (garcionibus) and seven food for themselves only, eleven of them also receiving clothes (robas) yearly. Besides this, the grain of the monastery was deficient. The revenues and rents, which the abbot's predecessor and the cellarer of the house were accustomed to receive in different places, had, at the time of his decease, depreciated by more than 100 marks a year.

Archbishop Melton held a visitation of Selby on 10 July 1324, (fn. 20) when he found the house heavily in debt and burdened by pensions.

The abbot and all the officials were exhorted to use moderation. The infirmary, it was stated, was built in an improper and base position, so that the sick brethren were in danger from the stench and infected atmosphere; if that was so, then, as soon as the means of the house permitted, another infirmary was to be built.

Markets and sales in the cemetery of the church were inhibited, and linen cloths were not to be bleached there by women.

All the monks were to be uniform as to habit according to the old fashion, and neither to introduce any novelties, nor to sell their habits, but they were to receive necessary habits from one of the vestiarii, and the old ones were to be given to poor persons asking for them.

On 27 December 1335 (fn. 21) Archbishop Melton reported to the abbot and convent, that at his recent visitation of their monastery he had found six of their number gravely defamed of crimes and excesses mentioned in the articles he sent to them.

Adam de la Breuer was defamed super lapsu carnis with Alice, daughter of Roger the Smith of Selby, and of incontinence with her sister also. He was commonly drunk, riotous and a sower of discord among the brethren. He gossiped carelessly and improperly with women in the cloister, church, and elsewhere, and particularly with the before-mentioned Alice and her sister, to the scandal of the order. Moreover he abstracted different things belonging to the monastery, having secret little places in his clothes adapted for his thefts. He had abused every one of the monks who had told the truth at the visitation. He was wont to leave the quire before the conclusion of divine service, not having sought, or obtained, leave to do so. He sent alms and other goods of the house to the women with whom he had been often convicted.

Thomas de Hirst sent alms and gave other aliments of goods of the house to Margaret the maidservant of Felicia, and six other women dwelling in the town of Selby. He behaved lasciviously and dissolutely both in public and occulte with women, by which means evil suspicion had arisen within and without the monastery. He also frequently furtively abstracted different things belonging to the monastery.

John de Whitgift frequently gossiped with Margaret Mortimer and other women in the church and elsewhere, contrary to his profession and the honesty of religion. In addition, he sent alms and other goods of the house to a certain suspected woman.

Robert de Flexburgh was very spiteful and malicious to his companions, calling them eavesdroppers and liars. He had often been convicted of incontinence with certain women of the town, and he sent them alms and other goods of the house. In spite of the inhibition of the subprior and other members of the convent he had not desisted from gossiping with suspected women, publicly and occulte.

Robert de Pontefracto sent presents and many other goods belonging to the house to a certain Maye de Pontefracto, owing to which the suspicion of a carnal connexion between them had arisen. Nicholas de Houghton was a sower of discord among the brethren. He adhered too much to, and gossiped with, a certain woman, with whom he had been convicted and corrected super lapsu carnis. The following penances were to be imposed on these monks.

Adam de la Breuer for a whole year was to bewail his sins imprisoned in a building safe and remote from the concourse of men, and especially from the access of women to him. Each Wednesday and Friday he was to be taken to the chapter, and from every one present he was, in a humble manner, to receive a discipline, which done, he was to return to his penance, and on those days was to have bread, soup, and light ale, and on other days the ordinary food as served to other monks, delicacies being, however, excepted.

Brothers Thomas de Hirst, John de Whitgift, Robert de Flexburgh, for the same period, were not to go outside the cloister, or in any way to talk with women, without the special licence of the abbot or his vicegerent, and then openly in the presence of two monks. On Wednesdays and Fridays they were to have only bread, soup and light ale, and in chapter to receive the blows of discipline from all the convent.

Among general defects the archbishop found that the roofs of the conventual church were very defective and that the latrina of the infirmary was so foul that the evil odour from it was highly offensive to persons sitting in the cloister.

The year following (fn. 22) the archbishop issued another set of injunctions, many of them being the common form of decreta following a visitation. He found the monastery heavily in debt, and pensions, &c. were not to be granted, except with consent of the convent, and special licence of the archbishop. The bursars, cooks, and other officers were to render yearly accounts to the abbot or his deputy, and certain of the more discreet members of the convent. Women were not to bleach clothes in the churchyard. No monk was to accept money for his garments, and the sick were to be properly attended to.

This appears to be the last recorded visitation of Selby in the Registers, but in a volume in the Record Office entitled ' Registrum de Tempore Galfridi de Gaddesby, (fn. 23) Abbatis de Seleby,' there is a list of questions to be put at a visitation of Selby in 1343. (fn. 24) These questions are too long to be quoted in full, but they are very important in showing that besides the personal inquiries into matters which might come under the visitor's notice on these occasions, a series of questions had to be formally replied to, very probably in writing. The questions proposed to the abbey of Selby on this occasion included inquiries such as whether the abbot or prior was circumspect in all matters, whether after the notice of the visitation or the rumour that it would be held became known the president had in any way imposed silence as to any matters, and whether the conversi as well as the brethren had been summoned. Then come questions as to silence, correction of abuses, immorality, &c. Two questions at the end are of interest: one is whether all go to confession at least once a month, and the other whether all receive the Sacrament on the first Sunday in the month.

In 1380-1 (fn. 25) the abbot was taxed at £9 12s. 1¾d. and there were twenty-five monks, each taxed at 3s. 4d. (fn. 26)

In 1393 (fn. 27) Pope Boniface IX granted a relaxation of enjoined penance to penitents who visited and gave alms for the conservation of the chapel of the Holy Cross in the Benedictine monastery of Selby.

The Abbots of Selby were from early times summoned to Parliament. The privilege was not always appreciated, and when Abbot Geoffrey de Gaddesby was summoned to the Parliament of 18 Edward I, he excused himself personal attendance owing to his feebleness of body and sent one of his monks, Walter de Haldenby, with Thomas de Brayton, clerk, to represent him. (fn. 28)

In the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 (fn. 29) the total value is set down at £719 2s. 6¼d. Among the reprises the following alms are mentioned:— 6 quarters of fine grain at 5s. the quarter, and 3 oxen distributed in pieces to the poor, of the foundation of William the Conqueror, 70s. in all; money given to poor and indigent strangers yearly 40s.; money annually given to poor persons coming within the cloister of the monastery on Maundy Thursday, of the foundation of William the Conqueror, 40s.; also 50s. similarly given yearly on the anniversary of Walter ' Skirley,' Bishop of Durham.

In the kitchener's office an heifer or two swine were given to the poor on the Monday before Lent and on Maunday Thursday a 'mase ' (fn. 30) of herrings worth 6s.

The abbey was surrendered on 6 December 1539, and the surrender enrolled on 6 February following. There were twenty-three monks besides the abbot, Robert Selby alias Roger (not Rogers), including Robert Mydley the prior, and James Laye, Prior of Snaith. Twenty-two were priests and two were acolytes only. The abbot received a pension of £100 a year, the prior £8, the others £6 6s. 8d., £6, or £5 each, the two acolytes receiving only 53s. 4d. a year.

Abbots of Selby (fn. 31)

Benedict, 1069-97

Hugh de Lacy, 1097-1123

Herbert, 1123-7

Durand, 1127-37 (fn. 32)

(A vacancy of two years)

Walter, 1139-43 (fn. 33)

Helias Paynel, 1143-53

German, 1153-60

Gilbert de Vere, 1160-84

(A vacancy 1184-9)

Roger de London, 1189-95

Richard I (fn. 34) (prior), 1195-1214

Alexander, 1214 (fn. 35) -21 (fn. 36)

Richard, 1221, (fn. 37) resigned 1223 (fn. 38)

Richard (sub-prior of Selby), 1223 (fn. 39)

Hugh de Drayton, 1245, died 1254

Thomas de Whalley, 1254, deprived 1263

David de Cawod, 1263-9

Thomas de Whalley, (fn. 40) restored 1270, deprived again 1280

William de Aslakeby (prior), 1280, died 1293

John de Wystow I (sub-prior), 1294, resigned 1300

William de Aslaghby (sacrist), 1300, died 1313

Simon de Scardeburg (prior), 1313, died 1321

John de Wystow II, (fn. 41) 1322, died 1335

John de Heslyngton (a monk), 1335, died 1342

Geoffrey de Gaddesby, 1342, died 1368 (fn. 42)

John de Shirburn, 1369, died 1408

William Pigot, 1408, died 1429 (fn. 43)

John Cave, 1429, died 1436

John Ousthorp, 1436, died 1466 (fn. 44)

John Sharrow, 1406, (fn. 45) died 1486

Lawrence Selby, 1487-1504

Robert Depyng (monk of Crowland), (fn. 46) 1504-18

Thomas Rawlinson, 1518-22

John Barwic, 1522-6

Robert Selby, 1526-40

The nth-century seal (fn. 47) is a vesica, 2¾ in. by 2 in., with a figure of St. German seated and blessing and holding his crozier. The legend is:—


The counterseal is a Roman gem carved with the head of the Emperor Honorius and the inscription DN HONORIVS AVG set in a vesica, 1½ in. by 1 in. having the legend:—


Abbot Richard sealed, c. 1224, with a vesica, (fn. 48) 2¾ in. by 15/8 in., showing St. German seated and holding his crozier and delivering another crozier to the abbot who kneels before him. The legend is:—



  • 1. The ' Historia Selebiensis Monasterii,' written in 1184, which contains the legend as to Benedict, is printed in the Coucher Bk. of Selby, i, p. [1]-p. [54].
  • 2. Coucher Bk. of Selby (ed. J. T. Fowler), i, p. vii.
  • 3. Ibid. 12 n.
  • 4. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iii, 499, no. i; Coucher Bk. of Selby, i, 11.
  • 5. Fowler, Coucher Bk. of Selby, i, 11-102, where they are printed in extenso.
  • 6. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 388-404.
  • 7. Coucher Bk. of Selby, i, p. ix, n., where it is reprinted in full from Fasti Ebor. i, 151 n.
  • 8. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iii, 485. Numerous records of the issue of a congé d'élire are extant on the Patent Rolls.
  • 9. Archbp. Gray's Reg. (Surt. Soc.), Add, 327.
  • 10. What that number was does not appear.
  • 11. Cal. of Papal Letters, i, 331.
  • 12. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, fol. 70b. In the Monasticon (iii, 485) and elsewhere this grant is wrongly ascribed to Pope Alexander II in 1076. Pope Alexander II died 21 April 1073, three years before the supposed grant, which was really made by Alexander IV, nearly 200 years later.
  • 13. Archbp. Giffard's Reg. (Surt. Soc.), 325.
  • 14. He had been abbot 1254-66, when he was deprived. In 1270, on the death of Abbot David, he was again elected, but the archbishop quashed the election on account of defects of procedure; he however appointed Thomas de Whalley to the abbacy, and notified the king of the appointment on 4 July 1270 (Giffard's Reg. 217-20).
  • 15. York Archiepis. Reg. Wickwane, fol. 105.
  • 16. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, fol. 59.
  • 17. On 26 Nov. Archbishop Greenfield addressed a letter to the presidents of the Benedictine chapters to recall Thomas de Shyrburn, monk of Selby, who two years previously had left his monastery without leave and was wandering about the country; York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, ii, fol. 59.
  • 18. York Archiepis. Reg. sed. vac. fol. 91b.
  • 19. Ibid. Melton, fol. 153.
  • 20. Ibid. fol. 164.
  • 21. York Archiepis. Reg. sed. vac. fol. 206b.
  • 22. Ibid. Melton, fol. 209b.
  • 23. Geoffrey de Gaddesby was abbot 1342-64. The volume is sometimes wrongly alluded to as a ' Selby Chartulary.'
  • 24. 'Selby Chartul.' (P.R.O.), fol. 4.
  • 25. In 14 Hen. VIII the clear annual value of Selby was reckoned at £606 12s, 6d. (Subs. R. 64, no. 300).
  • 26. Subs. R. 63, no. 12.
  • 27. Cal. of Papal Letters, iv, 455.
  • 28. 'Selby Chartul.' fol. 6.
  • 29. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v, 12-14.
  • 30. According to Whitaker's Almanack (1908), 452, herrings are still sold on the west coast of Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland by the ' Maze,' which consists of five long hundreds of 123 each. Of course, the older measure in Yorkshire may possibly have been different in quantity.
  • 31. This list is practically that in the Coucher Bk. of Selby, i, index, 402, checked by the Calendars of Patent Rolls. A few additional particulars are given as to some of the abbots.
  • 32. Resigned under compulsion and became a Cluniac; Coucher Bk. of Selby, i [29].
  • 33. Formerly Prior of Pontefract (a Cluniac house); ibid. [21].
  • 34. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iii, 495.
  • 35. a Rot. Lit. Pat. (Rec. Com.), i, 125.
  • 36. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iii, 496. In 1221 the abbot resigned on account of old age, and was succeeded by Richard, Prior of St. Ives, a cell of Ramsey.
  • 37. a Ibid.
  • 38. b He entered a stricter order in 1223; Cal. Pat. 1216-25, p. 363.
  • 39. Ibid. 364. After him, and before Hugh, Burton and others insert Alexander, but from Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iii, 496, it appears he was prior, not abbot.
  • 40. In 1270 not 1269; Archbishop Giffard's Reg: (Surt. Soc.), 217.
  • 41. That he was different from the other abbot of the same name is clear from allusions to him in the Register of Geoffrey Gaddesby, e.g. Coucher Bk. ii, 372 &c.
  • 42. Cal. Close, 1364-8, p. 449.
  • 43. Cal. Pat. 1422-9, p. 541.
  • 44. Ibid. 1461-7, p. 550; York Archiepis. Reg. G. Nevill, fol. 13. He is also called 'Westhorpe'; Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 196.
  • 45. a Cal. Pat. 1461-7, p. 534.
  • 46. York Archiepis. Reg. Savage, fol. 43b.
  • 47. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 3981; Harl. Chart. 44 fol. 16.
  • 48. Ibid. 3984, lxxv, 10.