The Abbots of Abingdon – Introduction

The medieval Abbot had a complex role. He was a spiritual father, Baron and politician. As this is such a large subject, a series of six posts will examine his functions in depth. Along the way we’ll meet some of the more interesting Abbots!

  1. Introduction – A General Overview

  2. Elections, Appointments and Interference

  3. Spiritual Role and Responsibilities

  4. Financial Acumen, Securing Lands, Grants and

  5. The Abbot as Lord of the Manor

  6. The Abbot in the Political Sphere

add_ms_49598_f099v BL Benedict with his Rule
Add MS 49598 f 99v Benedict with his Rule


Abingdon Abbey was founded by the Saxon Kings of Wessex in the seventh century. It had a sometimes turbulent history. The Abbot’s role expanded as the function of the monastery changed over the following nine-hundred years. In excess of fifty men held the Abbacy, some more effective than others. Case studies will be used to explore their roles, abilities and failings.

Monasticism was not a static concept. Originally monks lived solitary lives of prayer and contemplation away from society. The Rule of St Benedict, written in the sixth century, is a blueprint for life within a monastic community. A structured life of prayer, silent contemplation and work, the Opus Dei. Although cloistered, these monasteries dispensed charity to the wider world. Parts of their churches were open to the community. Many monks maintained links with their families1. The Rule provided Abbots with the flexibility to tailor it to the needs and purposes of their communities2.

Monks took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and swore allegiance to their Abbot. However St Benedict did not believe that poverty meant deprivation. The monks were well fed, and their duties not excessively onerous. The Abbot, as Spiritual Father and leader of the House was responsible for their physical and spiritual welfare. His role originally encompassed teaching, preaching, role modelling, discipline and spiritual direction. Changes in medieval society soon required him to become so much more.

As theology, religious practices and politics evolved, Abbeys and Abbots gained importance and became less isolated. The doctrine of purgatory, encouraged royalty and magnates to found and patronise Abbeys, Priories and monastic cells. The monks prayed for the souls of their benefactors and their families, living or dead, in return. Abingdon was twice created a Royal foundation34. Its two dependent priories were founded by noble families. The tiny, short lived cell at Edwardstone, Suffolk, essentially a chantry chapel5. Its monks later transferred to the larger Colne Priory, Essex. A dispute occurred in the early fourteenth century with Colne’s founding family, due the Abbot’s mismanagement.Abingdon lost control of the priory but maintained its financial interests.6

Daughter houses were not the only distant communities the Abbot had responsibility for. Some monks attended university, living in a house owned by the Abbey7. Others oversaw the work of lay brothers on the monastic farms. The Abbot needed to know his senior monks (obedientaries), well, so that men of ability and strong faith were appointed to head up these institutions. Within the Abbey he also needed trusted men to manage its various departments and ensure that the practices of the monks below them were appropriate. Should problems arise, the Abbot also had the right to remove these men from their posts. Abbots however were not autocrats. The Rule required that minor decisions were made in Chapter. Major decisions were to be taken by the Abbot and the obedientaries. Should problems arise these could be taken to the Head of the Order.

Additional 20787 f60v Monks keeping vows
Additional 20787 f 60v Monks Keeping Their Vows

Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries the monasteries grew in size and number. Many diversified,taking advantage of the strengths of the community and its environs. Abingdon operated a hospital, a school, a scriptorium and developed links with the university. Many monks studied for ordaination, allowing them to become chantry priests. The tasks of the Opus Dei shifted away manual labour. Yet across Europe communities had more mouths and were struggling to be self supporting. Monasteries began accepting lay brothers to resolve this situation. They took vows but lacked the health or education required of choir monks. The undertook the manual labour of the monastery. Some working remotely on monastic granges, they became experts on agriculture and animal husbandry.8.

Abingdon, was land rich due to the donations of its patrons9. Much was rented out, in return for rents and fines. Its income was enhanced by financial offerings,churches, gifts of jewels, precious metals, ecclesiastical garments and relics10. The relics encouraged pilgrimage, which brought in further income. The land adjacent to the Abbey was occupied by the town, providing an income from rents, mill charges and the markets and fair the Abbey was licensed to hold. Tithes and offerings provided additional food. Abingdon was refounded and rebuilt in the tenth century and building continued from this point. Its altars and shrines were richly decorated and it was well endowed with the trappings of ecclesiastical life.

The possession of land, whether it belonged to the monastery or The Abbot’s office, required him to function as a secular Baron. The Abbot’s Treasurer deputised. He employed stewards and bailiffs to manage the lands, collect rents, tolls and taxes, and maintain order. He presided over the manorial court, resolving disputes between tenants, dealing with minor crime and committing those charged with serious matters to trial by the King’s justices11. The Abbot was also required to know the law, in order to protect the Abbey’s rights to these lands and prosecute infringements. The Abbey’s relationship with the local community and its neighbouring towns often proved challenging. Especially as it jealously guarded the income from the markets and fairs12.

Another important relationship was between Crown and Abbey. As Royal Foundation, Abingdon held certain privileges. However the complex balance of personalities, benefits and inherent risks could be problematic. The Abbot was required to host the King and Court, which proved costly.13. This provided opportunities for the Abbot to influence the King, and nominate men of ability from the House for Royal service. The King also relied on high ranking church men for advice and guidance, to ensure State and Church worked in harmony.

The relationship between King and Church could be difficult. An avaricious King with little respect for the church could strip its assets. A King in dispute with Pope or either of England’s Archbishop might impose sanctions. Abingdon’s charter gave the King the right to remove the Abbot. Another clause prohibited him from interfering in elections but there are instances where Kings imposed candidates14. Regalian Rights, allowed the Crown to seize a monastery when the Abbacy fell vacant. By refusing permission for election of a new Abbot15, the monastery’s income was diverted to the Royal Treasury. The Abbey also became responsible for knight’s fees or scutage16. In times of civil unrest or dispute, the Abbot did have the option of asking for the King \to take the Abbey under his special protection. This was exercised in the early reign of Edward III17.

add_ms_49598_f118v Aetheldwold Blessing
Add MS49598 f118v.  St Aethelewold Blessing the Congregation

The Abbot also required a good relationship with his diocesan Bishop, in this case Salisbury. Bishops could refuse to consecrate newly elected Abbots. They could also order Visitations to ensure the Abbey was well run18. Abingdon held the rights to several parish churches. The Abbot was responsible for the appointment of priests and their conduct. He also needed to cultivate links with the Pope. Should problems arise with his position or his relationship with fellow senior church men, he had the right to appeal to Rome. Depending on the nature of the case, the Pope could settle matters by letters, or investigation. The Pope could also grant dispensations, these could range from reducing the rights of the Bishop to making life more comfortable for the monks. A working knowledge of canon law was also useful, although there would be specialist knowledge within the community.

In summary a medieval Abbot needed to have a range of skills. He needed to be a spiritual leader, manage the monastery and the lives of the monks within and beyond its walls. A politician with skills in negotiation, pleading cases and managing sometimes fraught relationships. Able to assess the abilities of his subordinate and delegate effectively. Good at building relationships both within and without the cloister. Careful that his personal conduct and relationships did not bring the Abbey into disrepute. He also needed to be a scholar, with an excellent knowledge of scripture. An inspirational teacher and preacher. Confident in dealing with legal matters. A mammoth task in many ways, and as the coming case studies show, difficult to wholly fulfill.

1Kerr J (2009) Life in the Medieval Cloister. Bloomsbury London pp67

2Theisin J (2015) The Rule of St Benedict, Introduction. [online] Accessed 22/08/2017

3Stevenson J (1858) Chronicon Monasterii de Abingdon vol I p 1–14

4Stevenson J (1858) Op cit p255-261

5Heale M (2004) The Dependent Priories of Medieval English Monasteries. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge p46

6Heale M (2004) op cit pp101-2

7Patent Rolls Richard II vol I, membrane 17 p487

8Lay brother (2017) History [online] Accessed 23/8/2017

9Hinde T (ed) (1985) The Domesday Book, England’s Heritage Then and Now. Guild Publishing London p32-3

10Stevenson J (1858) Op cit pp255-261, 344-7

11Straughton E & Winchester A (2017) Cumberland Manorial Records, Manor Courts. [online] Accessed 23/8/2017

12Ditchfield PH & Page W (eds) (1907) Houses of Benedictine Monks, Abingdon Abbey IN A History of the County of Berkshire vol II. Victoria County History, London p51-62

13Patent Rolls 40 Henry III , membrane 12d, in Vol iv, p159

14Stevenson J (1858) Chronicon Monasterii de Abingdon vol I p 463-4

15 Smith DM and London V.C.M. (2001) (Eds) The Heads of Religious Houses of England and Wales II 1216-1377

16 Roberts CJD (2014) The Constitutions of Clarendon – Clause Twelve and the Regalian Rights of the Kings of England. [online] Accessed 22/08/2017

17Calendar of the Close Rolls of Edward III, Vol I p203

18Kerr J (2009) op cit p 127

The Abbots of Abingdon – Introduction

Benedictine Monasticism and Abingdon Abbey

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the relationship between major monastic houses and their communities. The posts will explore monastic life, the impact of the Abbey as manorial Lord on trade and daily life, the riots of 1327 and the accounts of the obedientaries.

I would like to thank David Gladwin for his assistance in researching and developing these posts, which form part of a larger project looking at the various monastic orders in England.

VCH Abingdon Abbey remains VCH
Plan of the Remains of Abingdon Abbey from British History Online

Monastic communities originated in the Christian Church in response to the need for some men and women to seek God through a life of self-discipline and prayer. The earliest monks were solitary, desert-dwelling hermits, in fourth century Egypt. Their followers became numerous and formed communities around them for worship, protection, and mutual support. St Benedict (c.480-c.550) drew on his experience of leadership of these communities to develop his Rule. This became and remains the most influential guide to the religious life in Western Christianity.

Benedict giving his rule

Benedict understood the monastery to be ‘a school of the Lord’s service’. His Rule was written for ordinary people of varied abilities, who wished to serve God in a monastic community. He counselled moderation, aiming to build up the weak and spur on the strong. Allowing all to climb the ladder of perfection, according to their abilities. The purpose was to create a community with the following objectives:



  • Stability – all members were committed to the community.
  • Conversion of manners  – spiritual transformation according to the pattern of Jesus Christ.
  • Obedient – freedom from self-will being a pathway to God.
  • Free from worldy goods  – no personal possessions; all property is given to the community.

The Rule also provides a structure for the practical life of the community. It provides a framework for the management of the community, how to elect the abbot, appoint the obedientaries (1) and manage conflict. It also proscribes the order of daily living, the times of prayer, work and rest. The houses were expected to be hospitable, welcoming all guests as they would Christ. Benedict describes the chief task of the community as the “opus Dei,”  or Work of God. Seven ‘hours’ of communal prayer at set times through the day and night. Benedict envisaged an average  of four hours liturgical prayer, four hours of private prayer and spiritual reading, and six hours manual labour per day. Originally the communities were self sufficient, the monks working to provide for the material needs of the community. However as time passed they began to utilise lay brothers (2) and paid servants to do manual work. 

In the medieval period, monasteries had crucial social functions, spiritually and charitably. Monks were “spiritual soldiers”,  of greater importance than lay armies. Their battles were spiritual, fighting supernatural enemies, such as demons. The monastery symbolised a spiritual castle, with gatehouses and walls to keep people out. And the community in. It was expected that the nobility would found or support monastic houses. Their gifts of land and money given in return for prayer for their temporal and eternal welfare. And the souls of their dead, reducing the time spent in Purgatory. The vocation was as honourable as any secular calling, younger sons and daughters of major families were often encouraged to take holy orders. Many Abbesses were highborn women, who had been trained in estate management from childhood. For the men, their monastic education opened up opportunities to exercise the highest offices in church and state.

Charity was of great importance. Abbeys were provided a range of social services – distributing alms, food and clothing to the poor, providing medical care(3), and education (4). Monastic schools were one of the few means of social mobility.  Poor boys of ability had a conduit to the highest offices in the land. Monastic libraries preserved the knowledge of classical antiquity and the Islamic world, for succeeding generations. Corrodories allowed people to either buy themselves, or their servants a place in a monastery for their old age. This would provide them with a small room to live in, basic furnishing and access to food. This accommodation could either be within or without the monastery wall. It was a system that at times was open to abuse, with the pensioner bringing a large family along, or allowing “questionable women” to stay.

Monks writingMonasteries were hubs of daily life, their spiritual and charitable aims drawing people in. Pilgrims sought out their miracle-working relics, a mainstay of popular religion. Abingdon had a large collection of relics, including those of St Vincent of Saragossa (5). The ‘Black Cross’ of Abingdon, was believed to have been fashioned from a nail of the True Cross. Their lands and property, gave them power over the wider community. This, along with tithes and offerings gave the monastery a healthy “spiritual income”.  Its “lay income” came from its function as the manorial lord for much of the town and its environs. The Abbey controlled the trade that took place, running the market and holding it at its gates. It also ensured it was the only church in the town permitted to bury the dead. Local resentment was often aroused by the high handed actions of some of the Abbots. 

Farming was an important aspect of monastic life. Granges, or monastic farms were run largely by lay brothers who tilled the land and tended the crops. They also raised their own sheep and participated actively in the wool trade. Abingdon was no exception and as the chief landowner and controller of the market, would buy up wool from smaller landowners and tenants. This wool would then be graded and stored, ready for the fleece fair, where it would be sold at a profit. Food was also obtained from the tenants as tithes. All major monasteries had a tithe barn, where a tenth or fifteenth of all crops were collected and stored, for the use of the monastery.

Abingdon, like other monasteries employed lay workers. Through its multiple functions it inspired craftsmanship, artistic, musical and technical innovation and excellence. This was most notable during the abbacy of St Æthelwold (953-963). Joining with St Dunstan of Canterbury and St Oswald of Worcester, he led the revival and reform of English Benedictine monasticism. A great innovator, the chroniclers credit him for introducing the exemplary chant technique from the Abbey of Fleury in France. He installed an organ and founded the bells. He built a monastic church furnished with stone sculpture and gold and silver metalwork, which reflected dignity and splendour. He was responsible for civil engineering, digging a leat from the Thames to power the monastic watermill. He was also a leading statesman, scholar, and teacher.

tonsureRevival and reform were important as monastic communities sometimes lost sight of their founding principles. New stricter orders such as the Cluniacs and Cistercians developed as a result, later experiencing similar problems.  Despite the accusations of endemic corruption, at the Reformation, there is little historical evidence to support this claim. There were scandals, but they were very rare. A few religious houses could live in opulent idleness, but most were workaday communities. Period visitations from the Bishop or Archdeacon rooted out financial irregularities and inappropriate behaviour, and in extreme cases the Pope could remove an incompetent Abbot or Prior. 

The monasteries were also a source of revenue for the Crown, contributing significant sums via taxes. A “Taxiato” was also levied, when the King and / or Pope needed additional monies to fight wars or fund crusades. The monasteries also paid taxes to Rome, with significant sums leaving the country. The appointment of non-resident Abbots, often family members, by the Papacy was problematic by the early 16th century. These men had no interest in running the monastery, instead remaining in Europe and creaming off the profits. Monasteries were land rich, and litigious, often fighting law suits to keep control of properties. Not all their charters were legal, and some fell foul of the law, when this was exposed, paying heavy fines. Ecclesiastical laws gave them protection from the Common Law,  but they were subject to Forest Law. There are many record of monastic officials being imprisoned or fined in the Forest Eyre.

Henry VIII’s decision to suppress the monasteries, was in part financial. It allowed him to sell off their lands to raise revenue. The Abbot of Abingdon surrendered to the Crown without protest in 1538, when there were 25 monks left in the community. Little of the Abbey remains today, the gate house, a few walls in the Abbey Park and the market house are the final traces of a medieval powerhouse.


  1.  Obedientaries are senior monks given important roles such as sacrist, cellarer, kitchener.
  2. Lay brothers were members of the monastic community whose principle function was to work. Often low born, they were excluded from becoming full brothers.
  3. In Abingdon Abbey ran St John’s Hospital
  4. The abbey’s school later developed into today’s Abingdon School
  5. The first Spanish martyr


References and Bibliography

The Benedictines in Britain. (London: The British Library) 1980

Cox, Mieneke. The Story of Abingdon, Part I. (Abingdon, 1986)

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1992.

Haigh, Christopher, ed. The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1987

Hudson, John, ed. Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis. The History of the Church of Abingdon vol. I. (Oxford: Clarendon Press) 2007

Knowles, David. The Monastic Order in England (Cambridge: University Press) 1950

Southern, R. W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Penguin, 1970)

Yorke, Barbara, ed. Bishop Æthelwold: His Career and Influence (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) 1988.

Benedictine Monasticism and Abingdon Abbey