The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England
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FEW of us can name any abbot or prior of medieval England. Yet in their day they were important men. They ruled often wealthy communities of monks and servants, with lands and churches paying rents and tithes. Some became bishops, and two (Simon Langham and Henry Deane) Archbishops of Canterbury. Twenty-seven sat in Parliament though, like some modern peers, they saw this as a mark of status rather than a duty to engage in politics.
From early times, the Rule of St Benedict set the abbot apart from his monks, with his own kitchen, so that he could entertain guests. This separation grew during the later Middle Ages as monastic wealth increased and abbots became important public figures. They acquired splendid premises, like the ones still extant at Forde Abbey, in Dorset.
Here they had grand chambers for themselves and a hall in which to feed servants and visitors. In 1505-06, the Abbot of Peterborough employed 116 men, including 16 gentry. These were needed not just to maintain the Abbot’s status, but to cope with important arrivals, which might include the King or the nobility.
Hounds and hawks were kept to amuse such guests; exotic dishes were served. The Abbot of Tavistock had puffins and seals sent to his table from the Isles of Scilly. Some of his colleagues had their own fools; all patronised minstrels and visiting actors. Many stamped their names on their building projects in the form of a rebus or pun, like the eye and slip of plant for Islip of Westminster. The most ambitious got themselves coats of arms and rights to wear a mitre and carry a staff, as if they were bishops.
Such opulence attracted criticism. John Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, attacked monastic heads for their “gluttony and pomp and pride”, and their pitilessness to the poor. Ballads told gleefully how the covetous Abbot of St Mary’s was discomfited at the hands of Robin Hood. Reformation leaders used this heritage of satire to justify the dissolution of the monasteries. Yet abbatial wealth was not merely due to personal materialism, like modern tycoons with their yachts. It reflected the norms of the day that holders of large lands needed to live like lords to discharge their duties and protect the people who depended on them.
Dr Martin Heale has produced an admirably comprehensive and sensitive account of these matters from about 1300 onwards. He traces the social origins of abbots, their paths to office, the part that they played in running their houses and estates, with their public functions in the Church and in secular life.
Three further chapters take us through the 16th century. We learn of the abbots’ importance under Henry VII and the young Henry VIII; the latter added three more to the House of Lords. Then we follow their interaction with the Reformation and how, although all lost their posts, many were re-employed as bishops and other clergy until the very last of them died in 1589.
This is a distinguished and substantial contribution not only to monastic and religious history, but to the social history of England, in an age when the clergy were as important a part of society as the laity.
Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.