The Priory of St. Mary of Newstead in Sherwood Forest with some notes on houses of Regular Canons

By A. Hamilton Thompson, M.A., F.S.A.

The west front of Newstead Abbey 9photo: A Nicholson, 2003).
The west front of Newstead Abbey (photo: A Nicholson, 2003).

I.—The Foundation of the Priory.

THE priory of Newstead was founded by King Henry II. about A.D. 1170. This may be fixed as the approximate date by the occurrence of the name of Geoffrey, archdeacon of Canterbury, at the head of the witnesses to the foundation charter granted at Clarendon.1 This was Geoffrey Ridel, archdeacon of Canterbury 1163-74, and baron of the exchequer, who became bishop of Ely in 1174. There are no certain dates within which the names of the other witnesses can be limited; the year 1170 may therefore be taken as a convenient period. If, however, according to the well-known tradition, the foundation of Newstead was undertaken as part of the king's expiation for the murder of Becket, the date must lie between 1171 and 1174; but for this there is no documentary evidence.

The charter, translated, is as follows: "Henry, king of the English and duke of the Normans and of the men of Aquitaine, and count of the Angevins, to the archbishops, bishops, earls, barons, justices, sheriffs and other ministers, and to his faithful folk of the whole of England, greeting. Know ye that I have granted and given to God and St. Mary the place which I have founded in Sherwood; and by the present charter have confirmed the same place to the canons serving God therein. And Papplewick, with the church of the same town, and the mill which the same canons have made, and with all things pertaining to the same town in wood and plain, with the meadow of Bestwood in length as it runs along the water. In Scepewic and Walkeringham a hundred shillings worth of land. In Nottingham, of the gift of Robert Cauz and John Cook, the lands which they gave to my alms aforesaid, as their charters bear witness, with all other things in lands and in other property that have been given or shall be given to them reasonably. Wherefore I will and straitly charge that my canons aforesaid shall hold all their holdings well and in peace, in freedom and quiet, entirely and honourably, in wood and plain, in meadows and grazings, in waters and mills, in ways and paths, and in all places whether within or without the borough, free and quit of geld and Danegeld, and aids and wapentake and shire-courts and fines for murder and scutages, summonses and casual burdens, and from all earthly service and worldly exaction. And I will that the aforesaid canons be free and quit of toll and all custom through my whole land of England; and I forbid anyone to disturb them on this account, or do them any wrong or despite. All these things have I granted and given for the soul of king Henry my grandfather, and for the soul of my father and for myself, and for all my faithful folk, both living and departed. These being witnesses: Geoffrey archdeacon of Canterbury; Henry the chamberlain, son of Gerald, Manasser Biset, Reynold de Curtney, Jocelin de Bailleul, William de Ostill', at Clarendon."

A second charter, dated at Evreux, to which the same archdeacon and John of Oxford, dean of Salisbury 1165-75, were the witnesses, takes the form of letters addressed to the archbishop of York and the archdeacon of Nottingham, and to the justices, sheriffs, foresters, etc., of the counties of Nottingham and Derby.

"Know ye that the canons of the church of St. Mary which I have founded in Sherwood are my demesne canons, and that the same canons and their men and all their holdings and possessions are in my hand and wardship and protection. And therefore I will and straitly charge you to maintain them and all their lands and all things that pertain to my alms which I have given them in wood and plain and heath, in meadows and pastures and in all other things that pertain thereunto, and to protect them, that no one, nor you yourselves, do them any wrong or despite; but if anyone shall presume to make forfeit to them in aught, to do them full justice therefor without delay."2

An interesting memorandum from the chartulary of Newstead, formerly in possession of sir John Byron, K.B., first lord Byron of Rochdale, is printed in Monasticon, and may be translated here for the sake of the topographical information which it affords.

"Be it remembered that king Henry II., son of the empress, founded the monastery of the canons regular of Newstead in Sherwood, and gave them the town of Papplewick and the church thereof, with long and broad wastes round about the said monastery within his forests; the which wastes are called in the old charters Kygell and Ravenshede.3 He granted also to the aforesaid canons full view of frankpledge, with many other privileges, as appears by his charters. He gave them also the meadow even as it lies between Baskwod and Leene,4 in length along the same, to hold it closed with ditches and fences and a hedge, according to the assize of the forest. He gave them also a park of ten acres, according to the measure of the foot of the forest, hard by the site of the monastery aforesaid; to have and to hold closed, even as it shall please them best, without view of verderers, regarders, foresters and all other officers of the said forest, as appears by his charters. The said lord king gave also to the aforesaid canons at their first foundation, the field of arable lands called Abbay felde, which lies between the town of Papilwyke and the monastery aforesaid, to keep it closed with ditches, fences and a hedge, according to the assize of the forest. At the head whereof, hard by the town of Papilwyke, the canons of the said monastery have made a grange, and have ever kept that field to be several for themselves and in the monastery's proper tillage; and they still hold it at will until the present time : the which is of their own demesne lands and without the covert of the forest.

"Also the bounds of the said wastes of Kyghell and Ravenshede are these: to wit, Kyghell begins below Kyrkeby clyffes, on the west side, west of the grange of the monastery, and it mounts northward to Ryggate, which crosses to Uzepyttes of Kyrkeby; and then eastvvood to Chapmancrosse and to the head of le Swyncotedale, leaving Hegh-welles and Wil. Hunthilles (sic); and so it goes down to Newstede-crosse, which is situated between Newsted and Blythworthe, and so goes down by Thefe-styghe to Papiluykegate, which is the high way from Papilwyke to Blythworth. And so ends Kygell. In the which are contained divers places called by these names, to wit, beginning first at Kyrbeclyves, there is a wood called Dappwendales as far as Chapman Crosse. Then another wood called Swincotdale. Also another wood which is called Knightcrosse. Also another wood called Candylstykeoke. Also another wood called Gybpittes. Also another wood called Robynhill. Also another wood called Stonyhill and Brykhill. All these woods with other great wastes are contained in the aforesaid bound called Kygell.

"Ravenshede begins at the aforesaid way which lies from Papilwyke to Blythworthe, along the hollow road eastward which is called Thefestyghe; and this leads to the king's high way which is called Notinghamgate. By this one must travel, leaving Sampsonwode on the left, as far as the brow of the hill of Arnale, so passing through Longedale to the hedge of Beskwode; and so one must go along the said hedge to Waterfall and even to Leene bound across the king's high way which lies between Papilwyke and Notingham; and so from Leene bounde by the ditch to Conyngeshedeforth, and along the water of Leene to the town of Papilwyke.

"In the which are contained these divers places called by these names; to wit, beginning at the way aforesaid which lies from Papilwike to Blythworthe, in the same place there is a waste place which is called Shytermerpole. There is another place great and waste which is called Calveclyffe. Also another place great and waste which is called Papilwyk bromes with Horsmerepole and Bromehagge. Also another place called Lowse grefe with Stankerhill towards Beskwode. Also another place called Wellsprynges hard by the corner of Haydale, which lies with Papilwykemore and a place called Conynggeshede. All these places are contained in the aforesaid bound called Ravenshede, and belong to the monastery of Newstead aforesaid of the gift of the aforesaid king Henry the second and from the original foundation of the monastery aforesaid, as is sufficiently clear to all the neighbours of the said forest and by the charters of the said king."5

King John, in confirming the foundation endowment to the canons at Woodstock, 26th March, 1205, mentions also the church of Hucknall and a gift which he had made while earl of Mortain, i.e. temp. Richard I., of land to the value of £7 0s. 6d. in Walkeringham, Misterton, "Sepewic," and Walkerith, in addition to the land already given to the monastery in those parts.6 With the exception of these outlying properties, on both banks of the Trent near Gainsborough, the original possessions of Newstead priory lay in a compact block round the " New place " which gave it its name.

II.—The Canons Regular of the Order of St. Augustine.

The royal foundation of Newstead, so far as dates can be fixed, was the youngest of the five priories of Austin canons in Nottinghamshire. It may be said briefly that the monasteries of canons regular who followed the rule derived from a letter written by St. Augustine of Hippo for the guidance of a body of religious women under his protection, were establishments of clergy living a common life of prayer and devotion. In this respect they differed from monasteries of monks, which, although in process of time their members generally took holy orders, were originally composed of clerks and laymen indiscriminately. The rule of St. Austin was also briefer and contained much less detail than the rule of St. Benet: its precepts of a common religious life were intended for men whose clerical duties were already well defined and, as we shall see, possibly included a certain amount of activity outside the precincts of their monasteries.

The introduction of the Augustinian rule into England marks the regularisation of a system which had become a failure owing to the lack of discipline. The custom of associating a number of clergymen in a community attached to a particular church was thoroughly recognised before the Norman Conquest. Some of the most famous cathedral and collegiate chapters of the middle ages, notably those of York, Beverley, Ripon and Southwell, had their origin in small bodies of secular canons, originally consisting, as it appears, of seven members each7; and the evidence of Domesday points to the establishment during the Saxon period of small "minsters" of canons in convenient centres, which perhaps could furnish the neighbouring churches with ministrations.8 The want of a rule, however, combined with the insecurity of the age generally, seems in many cases to have led to careless living. If certain secular chapters continued to exist in a re-organised form after the Conquest, others were suppressed, their place in several instances being taken by establishments of canons regular. Thus William Warelwast, bishop of Exeter, 1107-37, placed canons regular in the previously secular churches of Plympton9 and St. Germans,10 while the priory of Launceston was founded by the transference to it of the possessions of the college of St. Stephen-by-Launceston.11 Newnham priory, on the outskirts of Bedford, superseded the secular college of St. Paul in the town12: the abbey of Lilleshall in Shropshire succeeded the college of St. Alkmund in Shrewsbury13; and the secular canons of St. Mary's in Leicester castle, although not suppressed, were subordinated to the abbey of St. Mary of the Meadows, founded in 1143.14 The canons of Waltham Holy Cross took the place of seculars15: the royal free chapel of St. Oswald at Gloucester was turned into an Augustinian priory.16

In one case, a Benedictine monastery succeeded an early college. This was at Dover, where Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, introduced monks in place of the college originally established in Dover castle and afterwards in St. Martin's, the chief parish church of the town.17 The reason for such changes may be exemplified from the foundation charter of Waltham, where the early college survived until 1177. Henry II., wishing to found a monastery of canons regular, settled upon the church of Waltham as a suitable place :

"And especially, inasmuch as secular canons had lived therein a very irreligious and carnal life, so that the ill repute of their conversation, passing measure, had been a stumbling-block to many, it seemed to our archbishops and bishops and other men of religion that it was a work of piety to remove those who were stained by the mark of ill fame, and to put in their place men of holy conversation and of praiseworthy reputation ; so that at one and the same time the purpose of the king's highness might obtain its holy effect, and a shameful example might be removed from a place of high renown."

In consequence the church was given in perpetual alms to canons regular, "observing the glorious rule of life handed down by the holy apostles, and afterwards by divine revelation adorned with many additions by the great and blessed Austin."18

Houses of Austin canons, like those of Benedictine monks were independent communities, whose bond of union was simply the observance of a common rule. In fact, the rule of St. Austin can hardly be said to have been confined to one special order. The congregation of Premontre formed itself into a distinct order modelled upon Cistercian precedent, with a stricter rule of life and a closer and centralised organisation. The congregation of Arrouaise, on the other hand, which, like the Premonstratensian order, contemplated double monasteries containing members of both sexes, and had a few English houses, became merged in the Augustinian order.19 In the double order of Sempringham, the canons were Augustinians; and in other orders, the Knights Templars and Hospitallers, the canons of the Holy Sepulchre, the Trinitarians and Bonhommes, and the canons of the Bridgetine order, the rule of St. Austin was adopted. The main order, however, of Austin canons, of which a very large number of houses was founded in the twelfth century, was united by mutual bonds of a very general kind. In 1116 a bull of Paschal II. confirmed a primacy in England to the priory of St. Julian and St. Botolph at Colchester, which had been founded before 1107:

"We decree that, even as you have been the first to do battle in England in this order, so you shall also for ever be held first in rank of the same; so that, wheresoever throughout the houses of canons in England there is, by the carelessness of the brethren, a hint of weakness, your authority may come to the aid with the power given by us."20

Although the presidency thus granted gave the prior of Colchester exceptional powers, the rapid growth of houses of canons in England was beyond the control of a single general of the order; and it was not until the 13th century that the system of holding general provincial chapters at stated intervals secured some means of union between the many monasteries following the rule.

Such houses seem to have been known at first as canonicae, houses of canons, a term which might be applied to any secular chapter, and grants are made canonicis, to the canons of a house, not to a prior and convent. In examining the object of their foundation, the fact that they were essentially the successors of secular corporations which had failed to do their duty must be kept in mind. The Saxon minsters of secular canons had been, so far as anything definite can be said about them, connected with the parochial organisation of their age. In such towns as Bedford, Leicester and Shrewsbury, the canons of the various churches seem to have been a staff of clergy who served, not only the parish church in which they were settled, but other neighbouring churches.21 The question arises whether canons regular can be said to have succeeded to their duties in this respect. In certain quarters, possibly owing to the tendency to find authority in the past for remedies which may be applied to modern problems, there is a disposition to over-emphasise the parochial activities of Austin canons, and to regard their monasteries as colleges of mission-priests charged with the spiritual oversight of surrounding parishes. It is unquestionable that founders took this side of things into account.22 Certain gifts of churches seem to mean more than gifts of advowsons. For example, the foundation charter of the priory of St. Oswald at Nostell in Yorkshire, after the gift of the site of the priory church, proceeds to the grant of the four parish churches of Warmfield, Huddersfield, Batley and Rothwell, and in an additional clause grants two more, viz. South Kirkby and Featherstone.23 Of these, Huddersfield is at least sixteen miles away, and it is a fair distance to Batley; but the others were within reasonable reach of the monastery. The prominence given to the churches among the endowments certainly suggests that the founder had some idea that his priory might become a centre of parochial ministrations to the churches of his fee.

(1) Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, ed. Caley, Ellis and Bandinel, VI. (i.), 474.
(2) Inspeximus and confirmation 23rd Sept., 1350: see Cal. Pat. Rolls, 1350-4, p. 1.
(3) Kighill and Ravenshead woods lie right and left of the main road from Nottingham to Mansfield just before it is joined by the road from Papplewick.
(4) Bestwood and the river Leen.
(5) Monasticon, VI. (i.), 474-5.
(6) Ibid. VI. (i.), 475.
(7) See Vis. and Mem. Southwell (Camden Soc.) intr. xxv. et seq.; Mem. Ripon (Surtees soc.) II., intr. x. (8) See the valuable article by Mr. W. Page, entitled Some Remarks on Churches of the Domesday Survey, Archaeologia LXVI., 61-102. (9) Monasticon VI. (i.), 51. (10) Ibid. II., 468, 469. (11) Ibid. VI. (i.), 211. (12) Ibid. VI. (i.), 374. (13) Ibid. VI. (i.), 262. (14) Ibid. VI. (i.) 463, sqq. (15) Ibid. VI. (i.), 63. (16) Ibid. VI. (ii.), 83.
(17) Ibid. IV., 533, 534. (18) Ibid. VI. (i.), 63.
(19) See the account 0f Bourne abbey in V.C.H., Lincs., II. (20) Monasticon, VI. (i.), 106.
(21) See Mr. Page's article in Archaeologia LXVI., ut sup. (22) See the monograph on Barnwell Priory by Mr. W. H. Frere, in Fasciculus J. W. Clark dicatus, Cambridge, 1909, 189-216, where this view is clearly put. (23) Monasticon VI. (i.), 92.