The Normans – conflict, building and re-building 1070-1200

It appears that William’s first idea was to work with the Old English past – certainly as far as the Church was concerned. However this did not last long. The Celtic church in the north was a major factor in the resistance that led to his ‘Harrying of the North’, and in the Fens the actions of Abbot Brand & Hereward achieved much the same negative effect. As a result, the period between 1070 and 1200 saw a major change in the face of monasticism in the Fenland area.

Things ‘happened’ to old buildings and new buildings appeared.

As described in the last posting, Hereward raided Peterborough just before Turold – a ferocious man – arrived as the new abbot. In response to the recent trouble Turold promptly built a Motte & Bailey castle to protect the monastery from further attack. That Motte – the earthwork element of the M&B – still exists in the Dean’s garden and can be climbed during the annual summer festival at Peterborough Cathedral. The records also accuse Turold of nepotism, plundering the monastery by ‘taking lands and giving them to his relations and to the knights who had come with him’. William also punished the abbey for colluding with Hereward by imposing a 60 Knights service on them. This involved giving land to individuals in exchange for them fighting for the King whenever he needed them and was the heaviest by far of any monastery in the country. This alone would cost Peterborough nearly half of their annual income. In 1116 the Abbey ‘accidentally’ burnt down resulting in constant, expensive, building work for the next 120 years.

Ely was besieged by the Normans following Hereward’s arrival and, as a result, the abbey was fined in cash and knight service as well as having some of their lands confiscated. Arriving in 1081 Abbot Simeon, a relative of King William and brother of Walkin, Bishop of Winchester, began to repair & enlarge the monastery. He was helped in this project by monks and priests from Winchester. When Simon died in 1093 those monks from Winchester stole valuables and returned home. The story goes, however, that they were robbed en-route and arrived ‘home’ with nothing. The temporalities of the monastery [the secular properties and possessions that were used to support the Abbot] were seized by Ralph Falmbard, one of King William Rufus’ ministers. It was not until Henry I came to the throne in 1100 that Ely got a ‘real’ abbot. That did not last too long though because in 1109, as King Henry took a first step to reduce the power of the Diocese of Lincoln, Ely was created a cathedral. As a result we shall hear no more of the story of Ely in this tale of the ‘Great Fenland Monasteries’.

In 1091 Croyland (Crowland) abbey burnt down. Allegedly this was because a plumber did not bank down his fire properly – but there may have been another reason!

Before the conquest William had made Lanfranc abbot of St. Stephen’s at Caen and after the Conquest nominated him to the see of Canterbury as soon as the incumbent, Stigand, was deposed. That happened in 1070. Lanfranc’s role was to ensure good church–state relations. That he did until his death in 1089. Now he has gone and there is no-one to protect the church from royal and other secular influence. The fire destroyed all the historic charters and manuscripts in the Croyland library.

Rebuilding a new, Norman style, church began promptly but that was not successful and the whole lot collapsed in 1109. At that time there were 62 monks in permanent residence with an equal number, or more, often there from other monasteries. The year 1113 saw 28 foundation stones being laid for the third building while, it is said, over 5000 guests celebrated.

This new building only lasted until 1118 when an ‘earthquake’ was blamed for the collapse. The next one they tried stayed up!

Collapsing buildings were not Croyland’s only problems. The lords and men of neighbouring manors coveted the marshes of the monastery. About 1150 Hugh Candidus described Croyland as a veritable paradise saying that: ‘The marsh is very necessary for men, for there are found wood and twigs for fires, hay for fodder of cattle, thatch for covering houses, and many other useful things. It is, moreover, productive of birds and fishes.’ Some of the marshes had already been drained and converted into fertile arable land and the men of the area wanted rights of common in the marsh so that they could have pasturage for their cattle. They attempted to secure them by violent occupation – and this continued until the end of the fifteenth century!

Early in 1189, following a false report of the death of Henry II, the men and ‘other enemies of Croyland’ united under the leadership of Nicholas, prior of Spalding. According to the usual custom at Rogationtide, a proclamation was made on Spalding Bridge, by the abbot’s command, that the men of Holland and others should keep their cattle off Crowland marsh because the hay was growing. As it was disregarded, the abbot’s servants impounded the cattle and on 12th May 1189 over 3,000 men – with weapons -came on to the marsh. They were met by the abbot who sued for peace, fearing a

n attack on the monastery itself. Here is not the place to tell the whole story but suffice to say that a number of the trespassers were imprisoned, and both parties were instructed to appear at Westminster at Michaelmas. When Henry II died on 3rd September 1189 the knights made their peace with the Abbot of Croyland and peace began to reign.

Thorney Abbey was damaged and, when the troubles were over, what was left of the Saxon building was dismantled. In 1085 Gunther, a monk of Battle Abbey, was made abbot of Thorney and, in 1089, he began a new building, 290 foot long, which was completed in 1108.

The Domesday Survey in 1086 shows that in Cambridgeshire the only estate held by the monks of Thorney was at Whittlesey, a part of an original endowment given by St. Ethelwold, who had bought it, with two thirds of Whittlesey Mere, for 90 pounds of pure silver. Most of the abbey estates in 1086 lay in Huntingdonshire at Yaxley, Water Newton and Woodston – all given by Ethelwold.

On the death of Abbot Walter II late in 1169 King Henry II kept the abbacy vacant for six years. In the first week of July 1175, the prior and monks were summoned to Woodstock to elect an abbot and chose – or was it ‘accepted’ – Salomon, who was then prior of Ely. He held office for sixteen years. On his death in 1193 Robert, a monk of Gloucester succeeded. He received the episcopal benediction from Bishop William Longchamp, Legate and Chancellor at Worms, where the bishop was consulting with the captive King Richard. In 1194 he was suspended from office by Archbishop Hubert Walter who, in 1195 deposed him and had him carried him off to Gloucester to be imprisoned in chains, though he appealed to the Pope and also tendered his ‘spontaneous’ resignation.  His ‘crime’ seems to have been for maladministration and incontinence. This was upheld by Pope Innocent III after further inquiry.  However, it didn’t prevent Robert being selected in 1220 as the Pope’s messenger to Pandulph and Archbishop Stephen for the ceremonial coronation of Henry III!

The abbacy itself remained vacant until 1199, when Ralph ‘the Simple’, prior of Frieston in Lincolnshire, a cell of Crowland, was elected.

Ramsey Abbey had been founded in 969 as part of the mid-10th century monastic revival. For the building work it paid 4000 eels yearly in Lent to Peterborough Abbey for access to its quarries of Barnack limestone. A Prior and twelve monks formed the original foundation for the Abbey which was built on a peninsula of gravel, known as Bodsey Island, with the impassable fen to three sides. The chapel was later replaced by a large, stone-built church and remained until the Norman Abbot created a much grander project in the 12th century. Ralf Guader, Eustace the sheriff and other Norman lords had dispossessed the monks of some of their property at the Conquest, but the abbeys charters were confirmed by King William in 1077.

Ramsey was fortunate enough to keep their English abbots almost without interruption until 1113. It was in the time of Aldwin, the last English abbot, that the ordinary regulations for the household expenses of the abbey were made into definite statutes, which formed a standard of reference in all subsequent reforms. Certain manors were set apart as a revenue for the cellarer, and the amount of food required for the supply of the whole convent fixed in round numbers. The items of daily food named in these statutes show a simple but not unduly austere diet. The staple articles were bread, cheese, bacon, beef and mutton, eggs, beans and honey, with some poultry and butter added at the great feasts; beer was the ordinary drink of the monks here as in most English monasteries.

During the time of the English abbots Ramsey grew in size to 80 monks. They were also granted, by charter of Henry I, the rights of an 8-day annual fair at St Ives beginning from the Tuesday of Easter week. Traders came from across the country and from the continent. The Fair generated considerable wealth for the abbey – often around £100 – in those 8 days.

In the reign of Stephen – c1143/4 – the Abbey was ‘vexed by internal discord’ when two rival abbots, Walter and Daniel argued who should be in charge. One chronicler describes Walter as a man of gentle and pious habits while a second one simply gives a list of Abbot Walter’s alienations of the convent property for the benefit of his own relations. Whatever is the truth Daniel induced Walter to resign so that he ‘had more leisure for his prayers’. Walter then repented his weakness and went off to Rome to get a bull of restoration!

As soon as Walter had gone Geoffrey de Mandeville – a ‘rebel and bandit’ – came with his troops, drove out all the monks, and turned the abbey into a fortress. Daniel was ‘evicted’ and promptly set off to Rome for Papal help and, one assumes, to counteract Walters claims. Earl Geoffrey had maintained himself as a rebel and a bandit in the fen-country, using the Isle of Ely and now Ramsey Abbey as his headquarters.

Walter was the first to return from the Papal visits and found the abbey occupied by Geoffrey who refused to admit him. When Walter told him that he would be excommunicated Geoffrey could not care less. Geoffrey’s son was now in charge of Ramsey while his father campaigned elsewhere. When Geoffrey was killed by an arrow wound in the siege of Burwell Castle in 1144 his son almost immediately withdrew his troops from Ramsey.  As regards Geoffrey’s body – because he had died excommunicate his body was denied a church burial and was taken, wrapped in lead, by the Templars and buried in the Temple Church in London. His son arranged for an effigy to be placed on the floor of that church – an effigy that can still be seen today.

Walter now found himself once more abbot with full possession, but the house was seriously impoverished with the abbey’s lands in a poor state as a result of near two years without cultivation. He had to work for many years to restore the abbey to its former condition; but he is said to have left it in good standing, and perhaps redeemed in later life the faults of his earlier rule.


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