Religious houses


Victoria County History



William Page, J. Horace Round (editors)

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'Religious houses: Introduction', A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2 (1907), pp. 84-92. URL: Date accessed: 16 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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In Essex, one of the larger English counties, the number of religious foundations was naturally above the average. None of them were exceptionally wealthy, the revenues even of Waltham and Barking falling far short of those of Glastonbury or Westminster, and being surpassed by about twenty others; but the total amount of their possessions was considerable.

The early monasteries in England, as elsewhere, were under no real system. Each had its own regulations, and was governed only by its own head. But here it is sufficient to say merely that all founded before the Conquest eventually joined the Benedictine order. The influence of St. Benedict and his famous rule, established in 529, was so great that it practically absorbed or supplanted all other forms of monasticism in Western Europe, and for four or five centuries remained supreme. It appears first to have been introduced into England in the seventh century, but to have gradually become extinct before the reign of Alfred. In the tenth century, when Odo, archbishop of Canterbury, and Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury, made their great reforms, not a single house in England lived under the rule. Dunstan introduced it at Glastonbury about 950, and thenceforward it spread among the remaining monasteries, its adoption being finally ordered by Lanfranc in 1075.

In Essex there were eight houses of the order. The earliest and richest was Barking Abbey, founded in the second half of the seventh century, the period of the great conversion of the English to Christianity. It is notable as being both the earliest monastery in the county, and by far the most famous and important nunnery in England. Wix and Hedingham Priories, the only other nunneries in the county, also belonged to the order, dating from the first and second halves respectively of the twelfth century. The abbey of St. John at Colchester was founded in 1096, and the priory of Hatfield Peverel, a cell or dependency of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, in the same reign. Colne Priory was founded at the beginning of the twelfth century, and (Saffron) Walden Priory, afterwards an abbey, and Hatfield Regis Priory a few years later.

The Cluniacs were the first great offshoot of the Benedictines. By the tenth century the discipline and reputation of the latter had greatly declined, and the foundation of the abbey of Cluni, near Mâcon, in 910, was the beginning of a newly reformed order. The Cluniac rule was much the same as the Benedictine, though stricter in several respects, such as fasting and silence. The essential difference between the orders was in the matter of discipline. The Benedictine monasteries were independent of each other, and to this the decay of discipline and morality was largely due. Each Cluniac house, on the other hand, had an immediate superior to which it was subject; and all were also under the central authority of Cluni itself. In England, where the order was first introduced at Lewes in Sussex about 1077, (fn. 1) it never attained any great importance. Probably this was due to the excessive power of the abbot of Cluni, and to the fact that the monks, and the priors especially, were mostly French. There were three Cluniac priories in Essex, all founded in or before the reign of Henry I—viz., Prittlewell and Stanesgate, cells to Lewes, and Horkesley, a cell to Thetford in Norfolk. On the Continent the Cluniacs became very wealthy, but the movement was comparatively short-lived, and their influence declined before that of the Cistercians.

This order was founded at Cîteaux, near Dijon, by Robert de Molesme in 1098, but its constitution really dates from the publication of the 'Charter of Charity' by the third abbot, an Englishman named Stephen Harding, in 1119. Its central idea was austerity, as opposed to Cluniac magnificence and ceremonial splendour. Asceticism was carried even into divine service, ornaments and vessels of gold and silver being forbidden. The Cistercians (fn. 2) planted their houses in desolate spots, far from towns, and became the chief agriculturists among the monks. Their method of discipline combined the affiliation system of Cluni with the greater degree of independence of the Benedictines. The supreme authority of the order was the general chapter held each year at Citeaux on 14 September, Holy Cross Day; but while the Cluniac chapter was monarchical in principle, the Cistercian was republican. Otherwise each house was independent except for the visitation of its immediate superior, Cîteaux itself being visited by four other abbeys jointly. The order was first introduced into England at Waverley in Surrey in 1128. In Essex there were three Cistercian abbeys. Tilty, founded in 1153, was affiliated to Warden in Bedfordshire; and Stratford Langthorne and Coggeshall, founded in 1135 and 1140 respectively, joined the order in 1147 with their parent house of Savigny in France.

The most important order in Essex, as in the three eastern counties generally, (fn. 3) was that of the Augustinian canons, with twelve houses. Canons regular occupied an intermediate position between monks and secular canons. They differed from the latter in living together under rule, whence their name, and observing statutes; but their rule was less strict than that of the monks. Practically, however, they resembled the monks more closely than the seculars. They are generally considered to have been first constituted in 760 by Chrodegang, bishop of Metz, but it was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the Augustinian rule absorbed other forms, as the Benedictine had done in the case of monks. St. Botolph's Priory at Colchester, founded under William II, claimed to be the first house of the order in England, and the claim was allowed and precedence granted by a bull of Pope Paschal II in 1116. Dunmow Priory dates from 1104 and St. Osyth's Abbey, the third in size in the county, a few years later. Waltham Abbey, the richest foundation in the county, was also the most important house of the order in the whole of England. It was founded originally for secular canons by Harold in 1060, but in 1177 these were expelled by Henry II and replaced by regulars. Thoby Priory was founded under Stephen, and Bicknacre Priory under Henry II. The remaining priories of Berden, Blackmore, Latton, Leighs, Thremhall and Tiptree date mostly from about the end of the twelfth century, but the foundations of some are not certain.

The Premonstratensian canons, (fn. 4) a reformed branch of the Augustinians, and standing much in the same relationship to them as the Cistercians to the Benedictines, had a single house in the county, Beeleigh Abbey. They were founded in 1119 at Prémontré, between Rheims and Laon, and introduced into England about 1140. Parndon was the site of their first settlement in Essex in or before 1172, but in 1180 they migrated to Beeleigh.

The Cluniac, Cistercian and Premonstratensian orders early in their history obtained exemption from episcopal control, and consequently their houses are seldom mentioned in the bishops' registers.

Besides the houses already mentioned, there were three alien priories in Essex. Mersea, a cell of the abbey of St. Ouen at Rouen, was founded by Edward the Confessor; Panfield, a cell of St. Stephen's, Caen, under William I; and Takeley, a cell of St. Valery in Picardy, in the same reign. They were little more than estates yielding profit to their absentee landlords, and except for the fact of a few monks residing at them they do not differ much from manors, such as Felsted, held by alien houses. The two alien hospitals of Hornchurch, belonging to the famous 'hospice' of St. Bernard of Mont Joux in Savoy, and Writtle, belonging to the hospital of the Holy Ghost at Rome, come into the same category.

The friars came into England in the reigns of Henry III and Edward I. They were quite different in theory from the monks and canons, the principle of whose life was seclusion from the world. The friars were to go out into the world and preach, they were to live on alms and have no endowment, and they were not bound in the same manner to their houses. The idea of poverty broke down to a certain extent in practice, and they did acquire property; but, with a few exceptions, their possessions were always comparatively insignificant. Four orders were represented in Essex—the Black Friars at Chelmsford, the Grey Friars at Colchester, the Crossed Friars at Colchester, and the White or Carmelite Friars at Maldon.

The two military orders were founded originally for the protection of pilgrims to Jerusalem. The Hospitallers, instituted about 1092, had a commandery at Little Maplestead dating from the reign of Henry II. The Templars, instituted about 1118, had a preceptory at Cressing, granted to them by Stephen and his queen Maud; and at their suppression in 1309 it was granted to the Hospitallers.

There were nine hospitals in the county, viz., Bocking, Braintree, Colchester, Hedingham, Ilford, Maldon, Newport, East Tilbury, and Brook Street in South Weald. In each was a master, one or more chaplains, and a number of poor, sick, infirm, or leprous persons. Some were independent, while some belonged to other houses.

Lastly, there were colleges of secular canons at Pleshey and Halstead, a few hermitages such as that of Writtle, and a large number of free chapels and chantries.

It will be seen that the majority of the religious houses date from the century and a half following the Conquest. At the time of that event the monastic revivals were in full flood on the Continent, and consequently a great impulse was given to monasticism in England by the invasion of the Normans. In the thirteenth century the movement slackened considerably, and at the time of the taxation of Pope Nicholas in 1291 every house in Essex of monks or regular canons and every hospital except Bocking was already in existence. The end of the thirteenth century marks roughly the zenith of monasticism. The wealth of the church had increased enormously during the last two centuries, and the consequent jealousy of the laity brought about the Statute of Mortmain in 1279, forbidding further grants of real property to religious corporations. This did not stop the monasteries from acquiring lands, for licences were obtained by payment to the crown, but it was a distinct check. A more serious blow was the rise of the friars. The monks and canons were now little more than wealthy landowners, and the contrast in the life of the friars was too great. The latter in their turn afterwards degenerated into vagabonds or beggars, but at first they did much good work, and the enthusiastic reception they met with is almost unparalleled in religious history.

The attitude of the people towards the monasteries in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is clearly shown by the nature of the religious grants. Those to the monasteries become steadily fewer, and they are also less often associated with charges of masses and obits. The inference is obvious that they are now sales rather than gifts. On the other hand, the habit of founding chantries and free chapels increases. A chantry was an endowment of a chaplain to celebrate daily masses in a church for the souls of the founder and his relatives; and the chantry priests appear to have acted to a certain extent as curates to the parish priests. A free chapel was a similar endowment in an independent building; and a college practically a church or chapel with a corporation of a number of priests. Halstead was founded in 14 Edward III and Pleshey in 17 Richard II. Most of the hospitals appear to have eventually degenerated into free chapels, the lepers or other poor inmates being squeezed out by the masters.

During this period the prosperity of the monasteries and the number of their inmates were in general diminishing. This is, no doubt, partly due to mismanagement, but more to the increased standard of luxury. Also the monastic life no longer attracted as much as it had done of old. It should be remembered that poor persons without influence had no chance of admission to the wealthier monasteries. In 1362 £200 yearly were guaranteed to Barking Abbey during the life of a single nun. This amount was probably quite exceptional, but many other smaller grants are known. In the next century the break up of feudalism by the wars of the Roses and the beginning of modern civilization hurried on the decay. The long list of aristocratic abbesses of Barking ends with the death of Katharine de la Pole in 1473. The rich no longer cared to enter monasteries, and the poor were not as acceptable to the existing inmates. The richer houses met their difficulties partly by reducing their numbers, but the poorer ones could not continue this process indefinitely. Three Essex houses thus went under before the dissolution. In 1396 the reversion of the hospital of St. Giles, Maldon, on the death of its warden, was granted to Bicknacre, but the grant never took effect. In 1481, however, the hospital was united to Beeleigh Abbey. In 1507 Bicknacre also succumbed to poverty, and was granted to the priory of St. Mary without Bishopsgate, London; and Latton came to a somewhat similar end in 1534.

But the idea of dissolution was earlier still. The alien priories (including the Cluniac houses) had been a constant source of irritation. They were filled principally with foreigners, and subject almost entirely to their French houses. In some parts of England we meet with priories which paid a fixed tax, and were otherwise practically independent; but in Essex this was not the case. A large income went from them to France, and naturally the sight of this was not regarded with favour. The rolls of Parliament show a constant succession of confiscations and restitutions. In 1295 alien monks dwelling within thirteen miles of the sea or any navigable river were removed to at least twenty miles. In 1306 the Statute of Carlisle forbade the superiors of alien houses to tax them, though they might visit them for purposes of discipline. In 1346 the Commons pray that friars alien be expelled the realm, and in 1347 they complain of the pope collating aliens to religious houses. In 1373 they pray that no French prior alien dwell within twenty miles of the coast. In 1376 they pray that no alien be made head of any house, and that the religious aliens be banished. These are only a few of the petitions and enactments. Finally, in the reign of Henry V, all the alien houses were dissolved. When taken into the king's hands they had usually been let to the priors at farm at amounts varying according to their wealth. Thus in 1338 the rents vary from £126 for Takeley to £4 for Stanesgate. It is needless to trace the seizures and restitutions in detail, but in 1373 Prittlewell and Stanesgate, as cells of Lewes, were made denizen, and in 1377 Horkesley, as a cell of Thetford. In 1391 we have the first dissolutions of houses in Essex, Takeley, Hornchurch and Writtle being purchased with others in other counties by William of Wykeham for the endowment of New College, Oxford. In 1400 Mersea was leased to John Doreward under the condition of maintaining divine service, a provision which does not seem to have been repeated when it was transferred later to the college of Higham Ferrers. Panfield was similarly conveyed to John Wodehous in 1413. Thus all the five alien houses in the county changed hands before the general dissolution, their foreign owners having wisely anticipated this and secured their price in time.

More than a century later the example of Wykeham was followed on a larger scale by Wolsey in the foundation and endowment of his college at Oxford. There were now no more alien priories to be bought up cheap, so Wolsey had recourse to the dissolution of existing denizen priories. In September, 1524, he obtained a bull from the pope authorizing him to suppress monasteries to the total yearly value of 3,000 ducats and apply their revenues to the endowment of his college, and in October the assent of the king was given. In all cases he was to get the sanction of the patrons, and the inmates were to be transferred to other monasteries. Nearly thirty small priories were thus dissolved, including six in Essex. Blackmore, Horkesley, Stanesgate, Thoby and Tiptree came to an end in February, and Wix in March, 1525. After this, with the exception of Latton, no more houses fell in the county until the general dissolution, eleven years later.

In England the Reformation, of which the Dissolution was merely an incident, was precipitated by the dispute about the nullity of the marriage of Henry VIII and Queen Katharine, although in no way caused by it. Hence at first under Henry, aiming at no change of doctrine, its chief feature was not the popular movement but the autocratic legislation directed against the pope. Reformation and Dissolution must inevitably have come about in any case in a short time as in other countries, but in a different manner. As it was, Henry's legislation was largely in advance of the feeling of the people, which varied considerably in different parts of England according to the extent to which the new ideas had spread.

The actual legislation begins in 1529. From thence to 1534 a succession of statutes was passed, the net result of which was the assertion of the national independence of the English Church, the abolition of papal interference, and the declaration that the king was the supreme head of the church in England with power of visitation. In 1534 a stringent oath to this effect was administered to the religious orders. They were to accept and preach the validity of the king's marriage with Anne Boleyn, and to acknowledge that the king was head of the church and that the pope had no more authority than any other bishop. Many of the actual acceptances by the monasteries under their conventual seals are still preserved. Certain Observant Friars and Carthusians refused to take the oath and were dissolved, but with this exception it must have been taken everywhere, for it is quite certain that we should know of any omission. At the end of the year the Verbal Treason Act was passed.

In the same year Parliament took from the pope and granted to the king the first-fruits and tenths of all ecclesiastical property. Hitherto they had been assessed by the valuation known as the 'Taxation of Pope Nicholas,' which had been made in 1291 on account of the temporary grant of the tenths by that pope to Edward I. This was now superseded by the new valuation called the 'Valor Ecclesiasticus,' made in the first half of 1535. It is probably quite fair, though the more careful valuations of the monasteries made a little later are in most cases slightly larger. Unfortunately, for almost the whole of the county only the net totals are known. (fn. 5) It will be convenient to pick out and arrange in order the yearly values of the religious houses. They are as follows:—

£ s. d.
Waltham 900 4 3
Barking 862 12
St. Osyth's 677 1 2
Colchester, St. John's 523 16
Stratford Langthorne 511 16
Walden 372 18 1
Coggeshall 251 2 0
Tilty 167 2 6
Beeleigh 157 16 11¼
Carried forward £4,424 9
£ s. d.
Brought forward £4,424 9
Colne 156 12
Prittlewell 155 11
Dunmow 150 3 4
Pleshey 139 3 10
Hatfield Regis 122 13
Leighs 114 1 4
Colchester, St. Botolph's 113 12 8
Thremhall 60 18
Hatfield Peverel 60 14 11
Hedingham 29 12 10
Berden 29 6
Halstead 23 16
Newport 23 10
Ilford 16 13 4
Colchester, St. Mary Magdalen's 11 0 0
South Weald 10 0 0
Chelmsford 9 6 5
Colchester, Crossed Friars 7 7 8
Maldon, Carmelites 1 6 8
the sum of which amounts to £5,660 1 8

The values of some the houses have been lost. From another source we find that the values of the six priories dissolved by Wolsey were—

£ s. d.
Wix 92 12 3
Blackmore 85 4 7
Thoby 75 6 10½
Stanesgate 43 8 6
Horkesley 27 7 11
Tiptree 22 16 4

The total value of these thirty-four houses is thus £6,006 18s. 1½d. For a proper comparison with the present time these figures should be multiplied by twelve or fifteen on account of the difference of prices and values; and the total value of the Essex houses would not be much less than £100,000 yearly.

In the autumn of 1535 the attack on the monasteries was begun. It is certain that the reason of this was the fact that they were the stronghold of the papal power; but it is not so clear whether dissolution or merely reform was originally contemplated. The power of visitation granted to the king two years before was now used, and commissioners were deputed to make a searching examination into the state of the religious houses. Minute and detailed articles of inquiry and injunctions of reform were laid down for them. These appear for the most part very reasonable, although their exhaustive and inquisitorial nature must have made them highly unpalatable to the monasteries. The due observation of divine service, the number of inmates, the founders, the property and the care taken of it, the state of the evidences, the manner in which the rule was kept, and the morality of the inmates, were the chief subjects about which information was to be obtained. Most notable of all was the power given to the commissioners to release from their vows all 'religious' under the age of twenty-four, and all who had been professed under the age of twenty. A case in point is that of Thomas Solmes, canon of St. Osyth's, who complains to Cromwell that he had been professed at thirteen, and had never willingly borne the yoke of religion. There must have been many who, like him, had joined the orders at an early age against their will or without real knowledge or vocation, and wished to leave them. On the other hand, many had probably by the routine of residence in the monasteries become unfitted for an active life outside.

The commissioner for Essex was Thomas Legh, assisted by John Ap Rice. We have a few references to their visitation, but their 'comperta' or reports have entirely disappeared. They were certainly taken and sent in for some houses at least, for Ap Rice distinctly says so in a letter to Cromwell about the state of Walden. However, out of the whole of England only a few are preserved. Canon Dixon suggests that the remainder were destroyed by order of Cromwell; but there is no evidence for this, and the common theory attributing the destruction to Queen Mary is much more probable. The extant reports, if correct, form a scathing condemnation of the monastic system. But it seems clear that, though based on fact, they were greatly exaggerated and hastily compiled from doubtful evidence, and must be received with caution. On the other hand, the charges made against the commissioners by the clerical apologists are equally to be mistrusted.

Parliament met in February, 1536, and the case of the monasteries was debated at length. They were by no means friendless, for every patron of a house had a direct interest in its preservation, and the bishops and abbots formed a large proportion of the Lords. It was not the first time that dissolution had been proposed, for the Commons had urged it more than a hundred years before. Then, however, the position of Henry IV and Henry V had been so insecure that they could not afford to quarrel with the church. Now the force of the crown was against the monasteries, and the reports of the commissioners settled the matter. Parliament declared that the lesser monasteries were rotten, though in the larger ones religion was well kept, and a bill was passed dissolving all the lesser monasteries and appropriating their revenues to the state. The line was drawn at the yearly value of £200. Richer houses were exempted, and the Act did not apply to colleges, hospitals or chantries, nor (though it is not clear why) to the friars.

Reference to the 'Valor' above will show that seven monasteries in Essex were above the limit of wealth, and so survived. The remainder were dissolved and soon afterwards leased, sold or granted away. Liberal pensions were paid to the heads of these, ranging generally from a sixth to an eighth of the income of the house. Thus, for example, the prior of Prittlewell had £20 a year, the prior of Leighs £16, the prior of Thremhall £10, and the prioress of Hedingham £5. The rest of the monks, however, were not so fortunate. A few received pensions and some were given gratuities, while several were afterwards presented to benefices. But many appear to have been turned out into the world to shift for themselves. Meanwhile, the entire lack of sympathy of the laity in Essex with the monasteries is most remarkable. In some parts of the north there were serious risings in the autumn of 1536. But this was not the case in England generally, and in Essex especially not a finger was lifted and hardly a voice raised on behalf of the monks, although in no other county do they appear in a more favourable light. The reason is no doubt to be found in the proximity of the county to London and to the Continent, and the consequently greater influence of the humanists and reformers.

The seven greater abbeys had only a short respite. They were untouched in 1536 and 1537, but though direct action was not taken against them, pressure was put upon them individually. The abbots of Coggeshall and Walden were deposed, the ostensible reasons probably being that charges of sedition had been brought against the former, while the latter was known to have been secretly married. Their successors had, no doubt, been carefully chosen by Cromwell to suit his purposes. In 1538 three abbeys were surrendered to the king, Coggeshall in February, and Stratford and Walden in March. The desperate position of the others is shown by a letter in September of Sir Thomas Audeley, who offers large bribes to the king and Cromwell for the continuance of Colchester and St. Osyth's, not as monasteries —this was evidently past hope—but as secular colleges. Audeley must have been merely the agent (no doubt paid) of the two abbeys, for he was one of the chief spoilers of the monasteries, and it is incredible that he should have been willing to pay the money himself. The attempt was of no avail, for two months later an order was issued for their dissolution, though it did not take effect at once. St. Osyth's was surrendered in July, 1539, but the abbot of Colchester stood firm. He was a strong supporter of Rome and the northern rising, and this cost him his life, for evidence of treasonable utterances was produced against him and he was executed in December. Barking was surrendered in November, and in the same year another Act of Parliament was passed confirming all surrenders past and future, and granting all monasteries, colleges, and hospitals to the king. Finally Waltham, the last abbey to fall in England, was surrendered in March, 1540. As in the case of the smaller monasteries, pensions were granted. The abbot of Waltham was allowed the large yearly sum of £200, the abbess of Barking £133 6s. 8d., and the abbot of Coggeshall £66 13s. 4d. Even the Colchester monks were pensioned, in spite of the treason of their abbot. The friaries had meanwhile fallen in 1538. The colleges and hospitals, as mentioned above, came under the Act of 1539, but most of them remained until a more comprehensive Act was passed in 1545, granting colleges, chapels, chantries, fraternities, and all other similar institutions, to the king. Under this and another Act to much the same effect, passed on the accession of Edward VI in 1547, the remaining colleges and chantries came to an end.

The numbers of the monks, canons or nuns in the various houses are of some interest. At Barking there were thirty-one at the dissolution, at Waltham eighteen. At St. Osyth's there were twenty-one at the time of the oath of supremacy, but only sixteen at the dissolution. Other numbers are: nineteen at Walden, seventeen at St. John's, Colchester, fifteen at Stratford, eleven each at Colne, Dunmow and Leighs, ten at Hatfield Regis and six at Tilty, and eighteen in the six houses dissolved by Wolsey. It will be noticed that the numbers are only very roughly in proportion to the wealth of the houses. Probably in the whole twenty-seven monasteries in the sixteenth century there were something less than 250, while in the four friaries there may have been perhaps twenty-five more. In earlier times the numbers would have been considerably greater than this.


1 Barnstaple is believed by some to have been founded rather earlier.
2 Also called white monks, from the colour of their dress.
3 The distribution of the order in England is remarkable; Norfolk, Yorkshire and Suffolk are the only counties with more Augustinian houses than Essex, and Lincolnshire comes fifth with eleven. About a third of the whole total were in these five counties.
4 Also called white canons, from their dress
5 The gross values are given by Speed in many cases, but his authority does not appear.