The Medieval Review 10.11.08

Smith, David M. The Heads of Religious Houses: England and Wales, III. 1377-1540. The Heads of Religious Houses: England and Wales. New York: Cambrisge University Press, 2008. Pp. xciv, 817. $240 hb ISBN 978-0-521-86508-1. .

Reviewed by:

Martin Heale
University of Liverpool

The endeavour to catalogue the heads of medieval English and Welsh monasteries began inauspiciously when, in 1942, a schoolboy Christopher Brooke left David Knowles' lists of superiors on a bus. Happily the notebooks were retrieved and the fruit of the combined labours of Knowles, Brooke and Vera London was eventually published as Heads of Religious Houses: England & Wales, I. 940-1216 in 1972. In 1985, Professor David Smith was enlisted to take the series up to the dissolution of English and Welsh monasteries in 1540. On the completion of this monumental undertaking, nearly twenty-five years on, all scholars working on late medieval England and Wales are in Professor Smith's debt.

The scale of Smith's achievement is difficult to grasp. His two volumes (covering the years 1216-1377 and 1377-1540) comprise nearly 1,350 pages of catalogued material, reflecting the richness of the surviving evidence relating to late medieval English and Welsh monasticism. Working to the highest standards of scholarship, Smith has mined every conceivably relevant archive. This has entailed surveying scores of unprinted registers (both episcopal and monastic), cartularies, financial accounts, court rolls and wills, as well as the sampling of the dauntingly voluminous records of the royal law courts. A comprehensive search of the secondary literature has also been conducted, and indeed the bibliography of this volume--some 78 pages long--is itself a highly valuable scholarly resource.

The primary aim of the Heads of Religious Houses series has been to provide dates of office for all known superiors of English and Welsh houses of monks, canons and nuns--replacing the extremely uneven and often erroneous lists published in the Victoria County History volumes for England. This chronological information is, of course, invaluable not only for historians of the religious orders but also for the reliable dating of many other documents. For the period covered by this volume, precise dates of office can be provided for many heads of Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries, whose elections were confirmed by their Ordinaries and often needed the assent of the king as patron (recorded in the patent rolls). For those religious orders exempt from episcopal authority--the Cluniacs, Grandmontines, Cistercians, Carthusians, Premonastratensians, Gilbertines and Trinitarians-- biographical information is harder to locate. Nevertheless, Smith's wide-ranging researches have highlighted numerous references to heads of exempt houses, including in such unlikely places as the King's Remembrancer's wine accounts.

As this volume makes clear, there remain many gaps in our knowledge, particularly with regard to the smaller monasteries of late medieval England and Wales. The entries for the Gilbertine priors are relatively stark, while even less can be recovered about the prioresses of the double houses of that order. Indeed, the identity of the heads of many lesser nunneries remains obscure, and at each of Handale, Lambley, Pinley and Usk only one fifteenth- century prioress can be named. Nevertheless, the ninety-two pages of this volume devoted to English and Welsh nunneries provide a valuable foundation for prosopographical work on late medieval female monasticism.

What is so remarkable about Smith's cataloguing, however, is that it goes considerably beyond the provision of mere dates of office. Packed into the entries for each religious house is a wealth of biographical and bibliographical material that will greatly assist any researchers working on the history of that monastery. Information is provided here about the previous office of superiors; university degrees; grants of pontificalia; guild membership; surviving personal seals; individual heads' reasons for leaving office, and the pensions provided for those who resigned; and the inscriptions on tombs which are either extant or have been recorded by antiquarians. Understandably, the references to these phenomena are not exhaustive, but they provide an invaluable foundation for further research into each of these topics.

The variety of additional material also ensures that this is an enjoyable and rewarding volume to browse. In a number of cases, entries are considerably expanded to provide an account (with supporting references) of contests over the headship of houses, including turbulent and protracted disputes at fifteenth-century Fountains, Launceston and St Andrew's Northampton. There are also a number of vignettes revealing scandal, misfortune and disorder, as at Folkestone Priory (Kent), whose late medieval heads included one prior who resigned "so holden with sickness of leprosy that he cannot uphold governance and rule of priory"; another who narrowly avoided being hurled off the cliffs into the English channel during a dispute with the townsmen; and a third who was deposed after absconding to Westminster, having been accused of various crimes and excesses. A number of superiors are cited who met violent deaths, either at the hands of their neighbours or members of their own communities (including instances from late medieval Monmouth, Sheen, Spinney, Stavordale and Vale Royal). Yet it would be misleading to dwell only on such examples of the breakdown of monastic life. One also notes the stability of monasteries like the Benedictine Faversham, which was ruled by only five abbots between 1370 and its dissolution in 1538. The increasing number of superiors who attained university degrees or who were appointed to suffragan bishoprics over the period covered by this volume, moreover, is indicative of the growing public engagement and profile of late medieval superiors and the religious houses they represented.

Smith's researches provide a valuable insight into other facets of late medieval monastic history. This volume includes a wide range of references relating to the dissolution of each house in the later 1530s and to the subsequent fate of the last generation of monastic superiors. The final years of the alien priories, several of which lingered on for many years after the statute for their suppression in 1414, are also considerably illuminated here. Indeed, on every page enquirers are directed to a range of printed and (often obscure) archival sources providing fruitful leads for further research. This is particularly true for the many references to materials in the National Archives, a resource still largely untapped by ecclesiastical historians. [1]

The main body of entries are supplemented by two indices: an alphabetical listing of heads and a second index of the religious houses covered--which do not include friaries, hospitals or colleges, as in the previous volumes of the series. There is no thematic index and so searches on such topics as surviving abbatial seals or abbots holding degrees are harder to carry out. This difficulty, however, will be readily overcome for those with access to the electronic version of the book published by Cambridge University Press.

Students of English and Welsh monasticism have traditionally been very well served by high quality tools of reference, such as Knowles and Hadcock's Medieval Religious Houses, Joan Greatrex's Biographical Register of the English Cathedral Priories and most recently the English Monastic Archives and Monastic Wales websites. The indefatigable researches of David Smith have now proved another indispensable resource, which will be much envied by scholars working on the medieval church in other parts of Europe.



1. Cf. M. Jurkowski, "Monastic Archives in the National Archives," Archives 32 (2007), pp. 1-18.