Both the military Orders which ramified over Europe were represented in Suffolk – the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem at Battisford, and the Templars at Dunwich and Gislingham. The former were Hospitallers. Originating in a hospital at Jerusalem dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and founded for the tending of sick and weary pilgrims in the middle of the eleventh century, they gradually slipped out of ambulance work and became in the main military. Their sole commandry has no date earlier than the reign of Henry II., who gave it his lands in East Bergholt. When the Templars were dissolved, early in the fourteenth century, their revenues at Dunwich and Gislingbam were transferred to the Battisford commandry. At the dissolution, the Gisling ham preceptory was granted to John Grene and William Hall ; the Battisford possessions passed to Richard Gresham and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, but the Dunwich manor remained ungranted till 1561, when Queen Elizabeth gave it to Thomas Andrews.
The dates of the foundation of the Templars’ preceptories are also uncertain. Their dissolution in the time of Edward II., though free from the extreme horrors which accompanied the fate of the Order in France, leaves, nevertheless, ground of grave suspicion of injustice and cruelty behind it. They had existed for about two centuries since King Baldwin II. gave them part of his palace, occupying the site of Solomon’s Temple, whence arose their name.
The convent of Bungay, founded in 1160 by Roger de Glanville and his wife Gundrada, is about the only foundation in the Plantagenet period till the arrival of the Mendicant Orders. The revenues were early drawn from the tithes of parishes which have never recovered their impoverishment. Six Suffolk rectories at once became vicarages – Bungay, St. Mary and St. Thomas ; Mettingham ; and all the Ilketshalls except St. John’s ; besides Roughton in Norfolk. It will be well, perhaps, to break a little into our severe chronological order, and note a few points in the history of this nunnery.
A century elapses, and we find the Lady Sarah, Prioress, a very capable woman, driving a hard bargain with a needy neighbour, Sir James de Ilketshall.
This is just in the thick of the Robin Hood adventures, according to most who have treated of that
Who did pore men mocha gods,’
and some light on the transaction may be thrown by a scene in the ‘Lytyll Geste of Robin Hode,’ where, as Little John was in Barnsdale :
Then came there a knyght redyage
Full sone they gas hym mete,
All dreari then was his semblaunte,
And lytell was his pride,
Hys one fore in the sterope stole,
That other waved besyde.
Hys bode hangynge over his eyes two :
He rode in simple way;
A soryer man than he was one
Rode never in somers, day.
He is bid by Robin Hood to dinner, but has only half a pound to offer his host. Robin asks him the cause of his poverty, and he says that he has lost all by ransoming his son, who had committed murder :
My londes beth set to wedde [mortgage} Robyn,
Untyll a certain days,
To a ryche abbot here besyde,
Of Saynt Mary abbay.’
The North-Country knight found friends in these usually generous, but occasionally iniquitous, outlaws, and all eventually went well with him. Had such excep tional luck befallen the distressed landed proprietor of those days, there would have been rejoicing in the hall of Ulchete or Ulfketyl; but there was no Robin Hood in East Anglia to set the affairs of Sir James de Ilketshall in order, and the advowson of Ilketshall St. John followed the other three.
The Bungay nunnery was shortly afterwards presented with a woman and her little boy by Roger de Huntingfield, who succeeded his father in 1286, and died in 1301- The woman was Alveva, the wife of Roger Brunllan, of Metfield, the boy their eldest son Thomas. By that time the distinction between serfdom and villenage had pretty well faded away, and the words were used as convertible terms for all who were not free. The document conveying Alveva and little Tom, with the whole tenement which they held of Roger de Huntingfield, is in the possession of Mr. Rider Haggard, sealed with a fine impression of Roger’s seal, and witnessed by Adam, William, and Martin, “sanctimoniales”, probably Mendham Cluniacs, and by Godfrey of Linburne, a tenant of the Bungay convent, as well as by others.
With our nineteenth-century ideas, it seems hard that mother and child should be thus handed over as though they were mere fixtures to the tenement, especially as the father was presumably alive, the woman being called `wife,’ not ‘widow! Still, we must consider our inability to read between the lines of these ancient documents, and if we were in possession of all the circumstances of the case, it might be manifest that what was done was really for the benefit of all concerned.
In spite of foreclosures and presents, the nunnery got into debt, and had to be set straight by further grants. All was not peace within those sacred walls, and on one occasion the authority of the well-known Henry Spencer, the ‘fighting’ Bishop of Norwich, had to be called in. One of the noble house of Salisbury, Katherine de Montacute, was in the Bungay convent. A sister, Joan, was the wife of William de Ufford, Earl of Suffolk. For some reason or other Katherine ran away. The Prioress in formed Bishop Spencer, who by letters patent signified the same to the Crown, and a warrant was issued for her apprehension.
The list of persons to whom the warrant was addressed does not include the Earl, those designated being John Trailly, knight ; Andrew Cavendish, knight ; Walter Amyas, clerk ; Hugh Fastolf, Edmund Gourney, John Caltoft, and Edmund Spicer, all, save the last, local names, and he very likely being a local tradesman, with a good rouncie, or packhorse, useful for business purposes, and now to be utilized in scouring the country in search of the missing nun, who is described as ` fleeing about from parish to parish, in divers parts of our kingdom of England, in secular dress, to the contempt of the dress of her Order, in peril of her soul, and to the manifest scandal of her said Order.’ When caught she was to be delivered to the Prioress of the Bungay convent, or to her attorneys in this matter, ‘to be punished according to the rule of the said Order.’
It has always seemed to me that this was a case of a mountain from a mole-hill. These set terms in warrants, like those in an old-fashioned writ of latitat, were not supposed to be literally true ; and it may be that all the while Katherine de Montacute was with her sister Joan, and that something more than persuasion was wanted to bring her back. This warrant was issued in 1376, and four years afterwards a lady of the same name became Prioress. It is possible that there were two of the same name in the convent ; but the more natural solution is, that the quarrel was made up, and the heroine of the warrant became in the end the successor of the lady whose authority she had resisted.
We have in the pages of Jocelin of Brakelond a con tinuous and charmingly-written account of the affairs of the Bury abbey from 1173 to 1202. This invaluable narrative is contained in a MS. which passed through the Bacons of Redgrave into the hands of Bishop Stillingfleet, and so into the Harleian Collection. The gratitude of all historical students is due, first, to Mr. John Gage Rokewode, who published it for the Camden Society in 1840; then to Mr. John Greene, of Bury St. Edmunds, who translated and popularized it ; and finally to Thomas Carlyle, on whom- its honest vivacity made a deep impression.
“Past and Present” is a book not to be criticised here. Suffice it to say that the narrative of Jocelin served as a text for many a sermon, which, like similar homilies, mainly addressed those who wanted them least. The start is made in 1173, after the battle of Fornham, about which something must be said, battles in Suffolk being about as rare as political peace in a South American republic.
The family relations of Henry II. were notoriously unhappy, and his weakness in allowing his eldest son, Henry, to be crowned during his own life-time only had the effect of precipitating that ambitious young man into a whirlpool of plots, which plots in the end broke forth into a general attack upon the old King. Among the English conspirators were Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, and Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. Leicester landed on the Suffolk coast with a large force of Fleming mercenaries, marched to Framlingham, to effect a junction with Bigod, and thence to Haughley Castle, where Randal de Broc offered only a slight resistance. Their intention was to proceed westward to the relief of Leicester ; but in the meanwhile Humphrey Bohun, the King’s Constable, one of the few who had remained faithful to his master, not accepting the “large promises of the Lion’s Skin before he was dead,” 61 made a truce with William the Lion, King of Scotland, against whom he had been sent, and marched to Bury St. Edmunds, where he was joined by other adherents of the King. This movement turned the course of Beaumont and Bigod, who attempted to cross the Lark lower down. There must have been large numbers of Brabant mercenaries on both sides, when the armies met at Fornham St. Genevieve, a little north of the town. The King’s victory was, however, regarded as a Flemish defeat. Ten thousand of the rebel army, supposed to be Flemings, are said to have fallen. Carlyle apparently considered the detail of so distant an event hardly worth notice, and has related the cause of the rebellion in a very queer and hazy manner. 62 An account of the traces of the battle is given by Mr. Gage Rokewode: 63
‘ Human bones, fragments of weapons, and other relics of war, beside pennies of King Henry II., have been occa sionally found upon the spot. In particular, in felling, in 1826, an ancient pollard ash that stood upon a low mound of earth, about fifteen feet in diameter, near the church of Fornham St Genevieve (the ground being within the Duke of Norfolk’s park, but apparently part of the church yard at some former time), a heap of skeletons, not less than forty, was discovered, in good preservation, piled in order, tier above tier, with their faces upward and their feet pointing to the centre. Several of the skulls exhibited evident marks of violence, as if they had been pierced with arrows, or cleft with the sword. In the bed of the river, in the adjoining parish of Fornham St. Martin, was also found some years since a gold ring with a ruby, late in the possession of Charles Blomfield, Esq., which is con jectured by some to be the ring that the Countess of Leicester is related (Matthew Paris, 128) to have thrown away in her flight.’
It is a pity that Jocelin’s chronicle does not begin eight years earlier, for then we might have heard some particulars of the great earthquake on January 26, 1165, in ‘Ely, Northfoc and Sufoc,’ which threw men to the ground and rang the bells.’ The narrative would have been beyond all price, told in the clear, unaffected simplicity of the good old Suffolk Benedictine. In all thankfulness for what we have, let us peep into monastic life as disclosed by him. Zealots of each extreme will care little for it. ‘ Many have told of the Monks of Old64, as one of the songs of the last generation used to run, but they made the story too much out of their own brains. There was too much Ego in their Kosmos. The Englishman, or grown-up English baby, whose highest ideal is tobacco and brandy and water, still hears with pleased surprise how the monks `laughed, ha-ha ! and they quaffed, ha-ha!’ The red-hot Protestant, who regards the Tudor period as the be-all and end-all of history, wants as much crime as a reader of a ‘ penny dreadful,’ to furnish an enormous indictment to be launched at the memory of the shaveling wretches. The ‘Catholic,’ as the Roman calls himself, rose-tints every feature in the picture, and presents you with a miserable daub of undiluted piety, of about the same value as those portraits of saints with mechanical smile and outspread palms which sprawl on a gilt-gingerbread background. Whereas, if the story tells itself, it is neither the one thing nor the other. Human infirmity and human perversity are recorded for our warning, with much more of divinely-sent rectitude, perseverance and humble trust, for our encouragement. Early in the pages of our chronicler comes before us poor old Abbot Hugo, broken in health, and even at his best estate unfixed and irresolute, a kind of Benedictine Ethel¬red the Unready, never doing to-day what could be put off to to-morrow, raising money from hand to mouth, like a Turkish official before dividend day. Qualls rex, tabs grex. The Benedictines of Bury, bound to poverty, somehow could not get on without money, and each for himself pawned vessels of gold and vestments of silk indiscriminately to Jew and Christian. The unhappy Jocelin specifies, too, sundry notes of hand, frequently in the hands of gentlemen of the ‘ Hebrew persuasion,’ one for £1,040 to William, the son of Isabel, one for £400 to Isaac, son of Rabbi Joce, and a third to Benedict, the Jew of Norwich, for £880. These would be serious sums now, and were stupendous sums then ; and after the manner of such liabilities they got heavier and heavier. Jocelin only knew the history of the third of these notes of hand. The `chamber’ was out of repair, and William the Sacristan, charged with the business but not with the means, borrowed 27 marks of Benedict, sealing his ‘carta’ with a certain seal, not then broken up as it ought to have been, hanging at the tomb of King Edmund, with which gilds and fraternities used to be sealed. With constantly accruing compound interest, at a liberal rate, this became £100, and further cozenage and production of old debts ran the amount up to £1200, besides interest. The Jew, Shylock-like, carries the matter before the King’s Court, and the King’s Almoner comes to inquire into the matter. The Chapter is assembled, but none dare make complaint. Jocelin himself, a sharp novice, wonders at this, and asks Master Sampson, Teacher of the Novices, why he does not speak up. Sampson replies that ‘ a burnt child dreads the fire,’ that he has been already incarcerated at Acre65 for saying what he thought, and that the two Hinghams, Hugh and Robert, are only just back again from a similar exile. “This is the hour of darkness . . . God see and judge!”
Deliverance came suddenly and unexpectedly. Old Abbot Hugh bethought him of a Canterbury pilgrimage, the shrine of St. Thomas being just established. On the journey he fell from his mule and dislocated his knee-pan. Physicians attended him, tortured him in many ways, but healed him not. He returned to Bury, his leg mortified, he died, and his death was announced to Ralph Glanville, Justiciary of England ; but some time elapsed before the King granted a free choice of a successor to the convent. Then the election came off, into the detail of which we must not enter ; and Sampson of Tottington, the despised Norfolk paltener and barator, or wrangler, the late Teacher of the Novices and Sub-sacrist, rules in the place of helpless old Hugh. How he ruled his devoted Jocelin tells us, and Carlyle, ever the panegyrist of the strong, echoes his praises. Order arose out of chaos. Finance got right-sided, but not without many an effort. When the money-bonds were examined it was found that there were as many as three-and-thirty convent seals in existence, all of which he broke up, and guarded carefully the new seal, which stands engraved at the beginning of Gage Rokewode’s book. A man he was of middle stature, nearly bald, with face neither round nor long, a high nose, thick lips, eyes clear (‘cristalline’) and piercing, eyebrows lofty and often shaven, of keen hearing, apt to become hoarse with a slight cold, with a streak of white in hissed beard and dark hair at the time of his election, but white as snow fourteen years afterwards. Skilled was he in Latin and French, yet he knew and loved the Scriptures in English, and preached to the people in his mother-dialect of Norfolk, for his native Tottington lies a few miles north of Thetford. Oh that his lips had language! What treasures, social, religious, philological, would come to us from ten minutes’ oral instruction! Read the incidents as they follow in the chronicle : how he baffled Bishop Geoffrey Ridell of Ely about the Elmsett timber ; how he compelled the Rural Dean to pull down his illegal mill at `Haberdon;’ how he withstood the haughty Coeur-de-Lion about the wardship of the baby orphan girl of Adam de Cokefeld ; and the, rest of his acts, for are they not written in that book of Jashar, or the upright, whereof we speak? We cannot delay over dear Jocelin, and can only hope that some kindly soul will re-edit John Greene’s translation.
Of the various fraternities, some thirty in number, living according to rule deduced from the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, we had four in Suffolk : Austin or Black Canons, Premonstratensian or White Canons, nuns of the Order of Fontevrault, and Austin Friars or Friars Eremite. The last we will leave till we come to the mendicant friars generally.
It is impossible to find the origin of the first, of whom there seems to have been a remodelling about the later days of Edward the Confessor. Their discipline was less severe than that of the Benedictines. A house according to the new model is found at Avignon circa xo6i, whence, in less than half a century, sprung the Colchester Black Canons. Ixworth, built by Gilbert le Blount, nearly at the time of the accession of Henry I., soon destroyed, but immediately rebuilt by William, son of Gilbert, is their earliest Suffolk house, the picturesque ruins of which remain in Captain Norton Cartwright’s grounds. Very soon after Ixworth appeared Bricett, circa 1110, founded by Ralph Fitz-Brian and Emma his wife, under the pro tection of Bishop Herbert de Losinga. It became a cell to Nobiliac in the diocese of Limoges, after having existed independently for about a century and a half, and went the way of other alien cells under the Statute of Leicester.
Next comes Blythburgh, near the scene of Anna’s defeat at Bulcamp. The grounds appear to have been larger than the number of inmates, there being only three canons in 1473, whereas the buildings extended, probably with interruptions, to some distance from the church. According to Leland, Smodemus, Abbot of St. Osyth, whose successors nominated to this priory, was the first founder. Something will be said about it in connection with Cardinal Wolsey.
Butley dates from 1171, by the munificence of the Chief Justiciary, Ralph de Glanville. It was specially favoured by episcopal benefactions, Archbishop Richard the Monk, Hubert Walter, and Peckham, three Bishops of Norwich, and two of London, being contributors to its possessions. The gate-house exists comparatively uninjured, and there are other remains.
Kersey, as far as evidence goes, was a hospital or free chapel of St. Mary and St. Antony, converted into a priory of Austin Canons by Nesta de Cokefield, widow of Thomas de Burgos, in 1219. Her retention of her maiden name after her marriage is suggestive of her being an heiress, and possibly she is identical with the babe of three months old, the orphan of Adam de Cokefield, about whose wardship we saw Abbot Sampson withstanding Richard Coeur-de-Lion.
Two houses in Ipswich have had different destinies : that called by the name of the Holy Trinity, or Christ Church, after various changes, just lately purchased by the municipality for a public park ; the other, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, passing into Wolsey’s great projected college in that town. It had a cell at Letheringham. Woodbridge belongs to the latter part of the twelfth century. Three generations of Ernaldus Rufus or Rous joined in the foundation, the patronage of which soon passed from their family to the convent. The priors were often natives of the county : Joh. de Athelington, Joh. Brandish, Tho. de Troston, etc.
Little enough can be seen of or recorded about Alborne, in the ancient parish of Hallowtree, between Ipswich St. Clement and Nacton, Chipley in Poslingford, or Dodnash in Bentley ; but the traveller to Yarmouth may catch a sight of the remains of St. Olave’s Priory in Herringfleet, on the left hand, just after passing St. Olave’s Station. Here is still commemorated the name of that fierce old Christian King whose endeavour to propagate the Gospel of peace by sword and flames ended in his defeat and death at Sticklestad, in A.D. 1030. The miracles wrought by his body, at the cathedral at Trondhjem, were known far beyond Norwegian limits. From the connection of this priory with the ferry across the Waveney, hard by, it is easy to see what works of hospitality were done here in days when roads were foul, water rough, and weather relentless. When St. Norbert of Cleves, A.D. 1119, was seeking a place where he might establish a house of Austin Canons on a more rigorous rule, which was to include a vegetable diet, a meadow in the Forest of Coucy was pointed out to him in a dream (pratum monstratum), from which arose the White Canons’ name Premonstratensian.
Their solitary Suffolk house, founded near the sea in 1182, was afterwards moved inwards to Leiston, though the old site was never deserted. In 1531, John Grene, a canon of Butley, gave up his position there, choosing to be a hermit in the original Premonstratensian building. The remains of Leiston, interesting in themselves, are rendered more beautiful by the wall-flowers which luxuriate on those gray walls.
Whatever may have been the intentions of Robert d’Arbrissel, founder of the house of Fontevrault, with regard to a mixed society, they did not take effect in Suffolk. The two houses, Campsey and Flixton, of that Order, are for nuns only. The former was founded by Theobald de Valoines for his two sisters, of whom one was the first Prioress, and others who might join them. The date is within the reign of Richard I. Important as it was, hardly anything of it remains, and nothing can be shown at Flixton, founded about sixty years after Campsey, but the site. The inventory of Elizabeth Wright, the last Prioress, in the Record Office, contains the usual domestic articles, and probably not more than seven nuns were living there at the Dissolution. This completes the Augustinian foundations, with the exception of the friars.
- Daniel, ‘Life and Reign of Henry the Second.’
- `Past and Present,’ chap, iii.
- Notes to Jocelin of Brakelond, p. 106.
- Matthew Paris, Chronica Majors, A.D. 1165.
- Probably Castle Acre.