The Medieval Review 17.11.15

Heale, Martin. The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. 452.

Reviewed by:

Rosemary C E Hayes
University of York

For several decades after the publication of David Knowles' magisterial three-volume work on the religious orders in England, [1] there was a dearth of publications on the general history of English monasticism, almost as if Knowles had said the last (and, in the case of the late medieval monks, rather damning) word. Studies on individual houses and events continued to appear but it was not until relatively recently that the dam seems to have burst. A new generation of scholars has dared to tackle the religious orders en masse and we have seen publications examining the history of the orders and their heads by James Clark, Joan Greatrex, and David Smith, to mention only a few. [2] This work by individual scholars has been supplemented by the determination of the editors of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to increase its number of religious biographies. [3] Martin Heale of has been an ODNB contributor, and has published monographs, and edited conference proceedings, on the history of the religious. [4] He now presents us with what he tells us is the result of some fifteen years' work considering the lives of over 10,000 men who headed several hundred abbeys and priories c.1300-1540. His 35-page "select" bibliography (381-416) is witness to the enormous amount of research that has gone into this project.

To start with some definitions: Dr Heale's "England" also encompasses Wales and he "only" considers the abbots and priors of stand-alone houses and not the priors of dependent cells. The scale of this task also forced him to omit the mendicants, the military orders and all female orders (although, from time to time, he does use his knowledge of all three for comparative purposes). The book examines the superiors of Benedictine, Cluniac, Cistercian and Carthusian monks and of Augustinian, Premonstratensian and Gilbertine canons. These men ruled thousands of monks and canons in institutions ranging from small country houses such as Blanchland to major wealthy abbeys like Westminster and the ten cathedral priories. Abbots, who were, in theory at least, elected for life, combined complete authority over their communities' spiritual and administrative wellbeing with an important role in their localities as landlords, and givers and receivers of patronage. A select few had a national importance beyond their neighbourhoods, acting as occasional royal commissaries, with some 30 attending the House of Lords by 1500, while others served the provincial and general chapters of their orders and the wider church in Convocation and beyond.

Although his brief covers the, already wide, period of 1300-1540, he actually considers quite carefully the influence of the sixth-century Rule of St Benedict--noting that the importance of the superior to the well-being of the monastery was "axiomatic" (1) in the Rule--and (in less detail) the fourth-century Rule of Augustine and developments in canon law, more particularly, in England and Wales from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. All this implies the organisation of a huge amount of information. It is a great achievement to put together a coherent arrangement of this material. His narrative and analysis emerge with a clarity which makes one think that those he teaches at Liverpool University are very fortunate to have him.

The first six chapters explore the role of the late medieval abbot or prior. Chapter 1 analyses the process of election. Until the early sixteenth century, English and Welsh religious institutions were relatively fortunate in being able to elect their superior free from royal, papal or patronal interference (in marked contrast to contemporary cathedral chapters electing bishops, and other European religious houses). Serious disputes were not common. Communities seem to have valued administrative experience and ability over high levels of education or social status, although graduates were becoming more prominent towards the end of the period, and were likely to be favoured by bishops called to appoint abbots in the event of problems. The early Tudor period saw an inexorable rise in interference from the Crown.

Chapter 2 examines the abbot in his community. It is clear that the character and abilities of the superior was vital to the morale and spiritual health of the house, for good or ill. The Rule emphasised his role as a spiritual father and there is evidence both of oversight of the intellectual activities and progress through religious life of his spiritual sons and of involvement in major ceremonies and feasts, together with a willingness to contribute items necessary for the liturgy. Nevertheless, by the later Middle Ages, he was becoming more distant and formal, taken up by the abbey's business outside the precinct and living apart from his brethren, either in his own apartments within the precinct or on one of his manors; or even further away from home, representing the house on business, attending provincial or general chapters, Convocation, Parliament or even the papal curia or ecumenical councils of the age. Dr. Heale considers that this perceived separation from the community may have been enhanced by the growing practice of granting pensions and separate accommodation to "quondams"--retired superiors--thus confirming that, unless he was a Carthusian, once elected, an abbot was forever separated from his brethren.

This separation is confirmed by the evidence examined in chapter 3, which considers the role of the superior at the head of his house's administration. During the high Middle Ages administrative responsibilities were shared among senior monks as obedientiaries, but Dr. Heale sees a tendency in the later centuries for abbots to take control of several obediences and thus concentrate financial and administrative power in their hands. This seems to have coincided with the dying away of earlier "democratic movements." Further separation seems to have been engendered by those superiors who sought new external and independent sources of revenue such as parochial benefices (a pluralism needing papal dispensation).

This additional, and abbot-controlled, finance enabled the spending to enhance the abbatial office that is explored in chapter 4. Here, Dr. Heale considers the increasing sums spent on buildings and personal display. He sees the superiors as becoming more and more "prelatical" and considers that they were adopting the episcopate as their models. More and more displayed coats of arms and pontificalia and, like the bishops, gave educational patronage and more public service. Unlike Knowles, he thinks this grandeur should not be equated with "worldliness" but "rather the expression of an ecclesiastical magnificence thought appropriate for princes of the church--even if this pursuit did not always sit comfortably with traditional monastic ideals" (11).

Chapter 5 considers the abbots' public role. Some of this was seen in serving the Church, which might be within their own orders, or in diocesan administration, or as judges delegate on behalf of the papacy and in what Dr. Heale calls "high ecclesiastical office." He sees a significant growth in the numbers serving as suffragan bishops, although I would query whether this should really be seen as "high office" as many of those so serving in the early fifteenth century (the period I know best) were from rather lowly origins and firmly under the command of episcopal administrators. It is thus significant that the suffragans he notes were from the more minor houses. The one error I have spotted is Dr. Heale's identification (198) of John Wygenhale, abbot of West Dereham, with the secular priest of the same name who was vicar general to Bishops Alnwick and Brouns of Norwich, dean of St Mary in the Fields and archdeacon of Sudbury. [5] Undoubtedly, however, those who served as diocesan bishops achieved "high office."

Royal service was exercised in diplomacy, service as royal chaplains, on local commissions and, after the middle of the fifteenth century, as Justices of the Peace. It had been an innovation of Henry VI's minority council to appoint bishops to the commissions and Henry VI and his successors widened this to the religious. Unfortunately, records are not sufficient to indicate whether they ever dealt with the felonies that their ecclesiastical state should have barred them from (because felonies carried the death penalty). I was disappointed that Dr. Heale's consideration of the abbots' contributions as collectors of clerical taxation, does not mention the work encompassed by the Records of Central Government in England and Wales: Clerical Taxes 1173-1664 (E 179) Project and the publications arising from it, which discuss the granting of taxes in Convocation and disputes arising from the appointment of abbots as collectors, [6] but this probably reflects the enormous range of sources that Dr. Heale had to consult. The breadth of his task is perhaps again reflected in the relative lack of any discussion of superiors in Convocation, beyond the granting of taxes. He detects an improved record in attending Council and Parliament although the records cited in the classic text on this [7] certainly under-report earlier attendance by other lords, such as bishops whose itineraries suggest attendance when no extant parliamentary records indicate their presence. He also notes an increased role for the superiors in royal ceremonial, both enhancing and reflecting the emphasis on abbatial dignity.

Chapter 6 concentrates on the superiors' less formal external relations and reputation. As the public face of their houses they were expected to champion their interests. They also sought to cultivate close relationships with their neighbours by offering hospitality, acting as godparents and joining guilds. These activities, essential from their brethren's point of view, might lead to criticism of their litigiousness, their dedication to the powerful, as opposed to the poor, and of their luxurious living. The balance between maintaining proper abbatial dignity and appearing too dedicated to the things of this world was not an easy one to maintain and contemporary literature contained more proud, litigious and uncaring abbots than holy ones.

Dr Heale's last three chapters discuss the abbots' and priors' final half-century of existence. Chapter 7 describes how, despite the grander style adopted by the superiors, their independence of action, and that of their houses, was compromised by the Tudor regime. Under Cardinal Wolsey and then Thomas Cromwell, the Crown interfered more and more in abbatial elections, securing heads, often from outside their communities, who owed their position to the Crown and its officials and thus had to repay them with favourable grants of lands and offices. This damaged the houses' financial solvency while, at the same time, the regime was dividing the head from its members, by encouraging the abbots' subjects to inform against them, thus undermining their primary task of maintaining discipline in their houses. Almost at a stroke, this chapter dispels (in this reader, at least) any favourable sentiments that the works of Hilary Mantel might have engendered towards Thomas Cromwell.

Chapter 8 relates the sad tale of the Dissolution. Dr. Heale sees it as no coincidence that those heads who resisted most strongly were the Carthusians, the one order to maintain close relationships between head and community and to eschew, in the main, the temptations for celebrating abbatial dignity which, while in agreement with the Aristotelian notions of the day, ultimately made the abbots more vulnerable to outside influence and control. Although some opposed the closure of their houses, opposition was "fitful, atomized, hesitant and ultimately ineffective" (351). There were a number of contributory factors: intimidation by the regime--such executions as there were seem to have been timed pour encourager les autres; the heads' loyalty to the regime that many of them served and owed their positions to; the fact that Cromwell's policy of getting the religious to inform on their superiors had undermined the internal coherence of the monasteries; the reward to the compliant of generous pensions; and the eagerness of their erstwhile lay patrons to grasp the possessions with which they had once endowed the monasteries for the sake of their souls.

The final chapter considers the "afterlives" of the abbots and priors: some of them simply retired on their pensions, some became parish priests--a few rose higher. Surviving wills indicate that, although some showed evangelical tendencies, they were in the minority. Most were conservative, many were still proud that they had once been abbots and seem to have welcomed the short renewal period under Mary Tudor; a few dreamed that their houses might one day be reconstituted.

As one might expect from OUP, the book, which contains a number of useful tables, is handsomely produced, although I might have preferred slightly larger print, particularly in the (very welcome) footnotes. I did not notice any obvious typographical mistakes. Each chapter is headed with an apposite quote from a contemporary source, and is divided into easily comprehended sections. There are sixteen well-chosen illustrations. It is a little disappointing that the reproduction of these illustrations is not sufficiently sharp for one to be able to see some of the detail that Dr. Heale describes so well. Perhaps better-quality plates would have made an already-expensive book unaffordable?

"It is a central contention of this study that a detailed appreciation of the (evolving) role, activities and reputation of the monastic superior is essential to our understanding of the religious orders of late medieval and Reformation England" (13). In producing, from an enormous number of sources revealing the actions of thousands of men, a work of such clarity, Dr. Heale has done two things: he has contributed an eloquent description of, and explanation for, the last years of English and Welsh medieval religious life; and he has provided both sources and inspiration for further research by others.

-------------- Notes:

1. D. Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, 3 vols (Cambridge, 1948-1959).

2. James G. Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, UK, 2011); idem, The Dissolution of the Monasteries (New Haven, 2016); Joan Greatrex, The English Benedictine Cathedral Priories. Rule and Practice, c.1270-c.1420 (Oxford, UK, 2011); D. Knowles, C. Brooke, V. London, and D. Smith (eds.), Heads of Religious Houses, 940-1540, 3 vols (Cambridge, UK, 2001-2008).

3. Claire Cross, "Lives of the medieval religious," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., ed. by David Cannadine (Oxford, October 2016) (accessed August 15, 2017).

4. M. Heale, The Dependent Priories of Medieval English Monasteries (Woodbridge, UK, 2004); idem, Monasticism in Late Medieval England, c.1300-1535 (Manchester, UK, 2009); idem (ed.), The Prelate in England and Europe, c.1300-c.1560 (York, UK, 2014).

5. A.B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Cambridge to 1500 (Cambridge, UK, 1963), 655.

6.; R.C.E. Hayes and W.J. Sheils (eds.), Clergy, Church and Society in England and Wales c.1200-1800 (York, UK, 2013).

7. J. Roskell, "The Problem of the Attendance of Lords in Medieval Parliaments," in Parliament and Politics in Late Medieval England , 2 vols, ed. Roskell (London, UK, 1981), 1:153-204.

Copyright (c) 2017 Rosemary C. E. Hayes

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