By the 15th century the monastic houses of the Fenlands had been in existence for over 400 years and a great deal of the original zeal had dissipated. It is significant that visitations by Bishops or their representatives increased during this time – and what they found was often far removed from what the Benedictine order expected. Let’s look at them Abbey by Abbey.
PETERBOROUGH: William Genge, the fortieth abbot of Peterborough, succeeded in 1396 and became the first mitred abbot. In November, 1402, he obtained licence from Pope Boniface IX for himself and his successors to wear the mitre, ring, pastoral staff, and other pontifical insignia wherever they may go. Boniface also gave the monastery and their subject priories, and in their parish and other churches the right to solemn benediction after mass, vespers, and matins, and at their table, provided that no bishop nor legate were present. Add to this the right to consecrate churches, oratories and chapels of their monasteries and priories, together with the altars, vestments, and chalices therein plus the ‘control’ of the cemeteries of the churches. Various injunctions during this century highlight the changing discipline in the monastery. In the early 1430s, for instance, injunctions included the reminding of the enforcement of silence and the prohibiting of the entrance of women. It also ordered that the monks should not cut down the wood nor pawn the jewels.
Richard Ashton, the third of the mitred abbots, ruled from 1438 to 1471. A rough memoranda and account book of William Morton, the almoner of the abbey, records in that 1459 3s 9d was spent for 3½ gallons of wine given to the convent at Pentecost, and 3s 6½d for 4¼ gallons of wine for the convent at the feast of the Assumption. In 1462 Edward IV granted him and the convent, ‘goods of felons, fugitives, and outlaws within their hundreds of Nassaburg, Polebrook, Huxloe, and Navisford, and all other their hundreds, manors, and possessions in Northampton, Huntingdon, Lincoln, Leicester, Nottingham, and Rutland, deodands, wreck of sea, treasure trove, evasions and escapes, fines, forfeitures, and amercements, and all other liberties granted by former kings.’
William Ramsey – the abbot from 1471 to 1496 – obtained licence for the appropriation of the church of Oundle to the monastery, provided a vicarage was sufficiently endowed and that a competent sum of money be distributed yearly among the poor. However – that was not quite what it seems. The royal assent was given in consideration of the abbey having granted to the king 84 acres of land and wood in Cottingham parish!
THORNEY: Information about Thorney in this century appears to be thin on the ground. At the death of Abbot John Ramsey in 1457 there were 25 monks in the monastery. William Ryall was elected as his successor. He was one of 24 present when he resigned in 1464. Of those 24 fourteen, including the prior of Deeping, were obedientiaries [holders of a monastic office under the superior] and one was ‘a scholar’.
ELY: As we’ve seen earlier, Ely was not a monastic Abbey but a Priory attached to Ely Cathedral. This ‘duel’ status was probably the reason why King Richard II visited Ely in September/October 1388. His presence is recorded in a note of the time telling us that a dung-heap was removed from the door of the hostelry ‘because of the coming of the king’.
In 1401, William Powcher who had been sacrist at Ely before taking the post of abbot at Walden, accepted the post of Prior at Ely. He soon set about raising the status of the Priory and, in 1413, he petitioned for, and obtained, the papal recognition of his position when Pope John 23rd granted to him and his successors the mitre and pastoral staff. This appears to have provoked an ongoing controversy between him and the Bishop about who was authorised to do what. In December 1417 – the year before Powcher’s death – an agreement was reached. It was a piece of litigation which is said to have cost the bishop 3,000 marks and the priory 2,000!
RAMSEY: When Bishop Buckingham visited Ramsey at the end of the 14th century he had ordered that unnecessary servants be dismissed and that buildings be repaired. However – nothing seems to have happened until the time of Abbot Tichmersh sometime after 1419. Certainly Bishop Grey’s visitation reports between 1431-1435 make no complaints of ruin or neglect. He did, however, stipulate that ‘no women were to be admitted to the cloister; the monks were not to eat outside the limits of the monastery without special leave; the divine office was to be sung without discord, and that the obedientiaries were to see that the monks occupied themselves with contemplation at the times appointed!’
Even in 1439 when a significant proportion of religious houses were in need of reform, Bishop Alnwick had no serious complaint to be made of Ramsey. He did say that: ‘the almoner was extravagant and wasted the goods of the house, and that the monks in general were allowed too much liberty in visiting their friends at Bury. He also records that the great silence after Compline was not well kept and that the rule in general should be more strictly observed!’ Overall, though, it seems that the standard of life was fairly high for the 15th century and the title of ‘Ramsey the rich’ was well earned.
CROWLAND: This monastry had a very different life through the 15th century and deserves a post of its own. It will get one next week!