Crowland Abbey in the 15th century

Between 1378 and 1427 Crowland – then named Croyland – was engaged in a succession of lawsuits about its possessions in the marshes. At Whitsuntide 1394 the ‘Men of Deeping’ had invaded the marshlands and destroyed a cross at Kenulfston. Abbot Thomas went to London to lay his grievance before the King and, mainly due to the support of John of Gaunt, a grand assize was held to investigate the matter. Many of the men of Deeping were seized and taken in chains to Lincoln Castle, where they remained until their friends and neighbours had set up another cross at Kenulfston.
By 1413 Abbot Thomas was blind, and the monks no longer had a powerful protector like John of Gaunt who had died in 1399. The result was further attacks by the men of the surrounding lands. The troubles dragged on for nearly two years until two arbitrators were chosen on behalf of the abbot and convent of Crowland, and two for the ‘opposition’. After an examination of the evidence and muniments at Crowland, they gave their award early in September, 1415 which upheld the rights of the abbot and convent of Crowland.

In 1427 John Litlington was elected Abbot of Crowland – he ruled the monastery for the next forty-three years and much of his time was taken up with the liability to repair the fenland waterways and their embankments. The following tells us a little of the continuing conflicts.
There had already been friction with the people of Moulton when a priest of that community met a monk of Crowland going along an embankment belonging to Moulton. After violently abusing the monk the Moulton priest threw the monk into the marsh – the monk was an old man and, it is recorded, had great difficulty to escape alive. As a result of this, Abbot Litlington appealed to William Gray, the Bishop of Lincoln, who summoned the Moulton priest to appear before him and compelled him to do public penance on a great festival before the high altar at Crowland.
Visitations of the bishops of Lincoln on the whole suggest a high standard of life however, in 1431, Bishop Gray instructed that:-
* the rule of silence should be kept, and those who indulged in taunts and reproaches were to be punished.
* the prior and other officers were instructed to be affable, modest, discreet, and intelligent in administering correction, and officers who made themselves hateful were to be removed.
* the sacrist was ordered to repair the buildings of his office, ‘lately very ruinous,’ especially the house provided as a dwelling for the parish chaplain.
* the kitchener was to supply the monks with healthy and sufficient food in such quantities that there might be plenty for them and for alms afterwards.
* the almoner was to distribute the fragments among the poor, not to his own servants.
* the pittancer was to provide a servant to cater for the monks who were at Dovedale to be bled.
* the master of the works and the sacrist were to provide horses for monks who went to visit their kinsfolk or to receive holy orders from the bishop, and the abbot was to find servants for them.
* the barber was to be provided at the common expense.
* the monks were to get their allowance for clothes and spices at the right time.
their friends and relations were to be lodged, according to their rank, at the common expense.

At this same period the people of Moulton complained to William Bondvill, the lord of Moulton Manor, that there was an overflow of water from the precinct of Crowland because they, the monks of Crowland, were failing to keep the embankments in sound repair. As a result of these failures the men of Moulton’s meadows and pastures were so swamped that they could not pay their rents. Bondvill prosecuted the abbot for the damage to himself and his tenants and Abbot John went to London to defend himself, and ‘after a great outlay of money on both sides’ the matter was referred to Crowland for a final settlement in 1433. The award was that the abbot should rebuild the embankment between two markers and keep it in repair for forty years, but if the rainfall was very excessive he was not to be held responsible for any overflow!  6 years into this responsibility – 1439 – many heavy storms and the water overflowed the embankment on the south side of the precinct, which just happened to be out of repair, and inundated the common lands of Whaplode. Accordingly the abbot was brought before the commissioners of sewers for default and was instructed and required to repair the embankments. Somehow, though, the abbot succeeded in getting the judgement reversed but, at an inquisition held at Bolingbroke before the sheriff of Lincoln, the jurors swore that the abbots of Crowland, their men and tenants, had never repaired the embankments, ‘either for the safety of the lands adjoining, or for the purpose of keeping out the water running between the embankment or for the easement of the people . . . or any one of them, nor ought of right to repair the same . . . but only for their own easement, advantage, and profit, at their own will and pleasure.’

When King Henry VI visited the monastery in Lent 1460 he granted them a charter that confirmed the liberties of the community of Crowland.  It is recorded that, in 1461, the approach of the Lancastrian army that had marched from the north pillaging churches and committing sacrilege as they came, filled the country with terror and many refugees came with their valuables to Crowland. Vestments, jewels, treasures, charters, and muniments of the monastery, were hidden away and there were daily processions and prayers for protection. The approaches were guarded by stakes and palisades. Hearing of Edward’s (soon to be King Edward IV) march the Lancastrian army turned back – they were just six miles from Crowland! In the Parliament of 1461 all charters of privilege granted by the Lancastrian kings were cancelled – those of Crowland being included. In 1466 Abbot John obtained, for 40 marks, confirmation of charters of the monastery.
The prior, writing soon after Abbot John’s death, judged that ‘in his time the observance of the monastic rule flourished to such a degree that it might not unworthily have been called a very castle of the Gospel, and one worthy to be entered by our Lord Jesus, and where mystically the sisters Mary and Martha had together taken up their abode. For while one part of the officers was diligently intent upon the careful performance of their respective duties, the others, bestowing all due attention upon the service of God, were occupying themselves in the quiet pursuits of contemplation amid the mystic embraces of Rachel.’
Somehow the abbacy of John of Wisbech passed without one lawsuit, and one historian commented that ‘he enjoyed the singular and especial privilege and piece of good fortune which never fell to the lot of any of his predecessors.’

Like Litlington, John of Wisbech was a great builder within the abbey and without. At Buckingham College he built chambers for the scholars of Croyland.  He abolished the old custom, or rather ‘corruption,’ of giving away knives on St. Bartholomew’s Day to all who asked for them. As there was a vast concourse of people at the fair, it had become a very expensive matter.
A fire in the village of Crowland diminished the rental of the monastery by twenty marks, but in compassion for the poor tenants the abbot gave various sums of money towards the rebuilding.
With the prospect of three more serious lawsuits the monks, in January 1484, elected Lambert Fossdyke as Abbott following the death of Richard Crowland. He was a bachelor of law, and would have rendered useful service to the monastery, but within two years he died of the sweating sickness. During his rule the turbulent men of Moulton and Weston again claimed rights within the precinct of Crowland, and laid a complaint against the monastery. The judges who were sent to try the case found that the folk of Moulton had never possessed the rights of common to which they laid claim!

However, provision was made against the overflow of water from the precinct into Holland. Abbot Fossdyke was succeeded by the prior, Edmund Thorpe, a bachelor of divinity. He sought to secure and maintain his rights by tact and conciliatory conduct. At Moulton he obtained the support of the family of the Welbys, and their influence over the inhabitants kept the peace. He showed much patience in his dealings with the men of Deeping, who were also restrained by the Lady Margaret Beaufort, to whom that manor belonged. A fresh dispute with the monks of Peterborough about the marsh of Alderland was settled between 1480 and 1484 by the arbitration of archbishop Rotherham of York, much to the detriment of Crowland. It stated that the abbot and convent of Crowland were bound to pay £10 a year to Peterborough until they had purchased lands of that value for the said monastery, or procured the appropriation of the church of Brinkhurst. Accordingly Abbot Edmund exerted all his influence to obtain the appropriation, which was finally concluded to the detriment of Crowland in 1486.

With this settlement the last instalment of the history of Crowland ends abruptly, and there is but little to record until the dissolution.


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