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

Comparing Monastic and Landed Families as Medieval Wool Producers

I’ve had a bit of a health and family enforced break from blogging but have been reading and writing short posts for Facebook history groups in the interim. I mainly write posts for British Medieval History, The History Geeks Community and The Mysterious and Gory History of the British Isles.  I’ve had the opportunity to think about the focus of this blog and how I can develop it to include the research I’ve been invited to do alongside two historians, David Gladwin and Sara Hanna Black .

David and I are working on the medieval monastic orders, that had houses in Medieval England and Wales, my focus will be to take an in depth look at four monasteries,  Wigmore, Herefordshire; Strata Florida, Wales; Beaulieu, Hampshire and St Radegunds, Kent and explore how they used the wool trade to fund their activities. Wigmore and St Radegunds also tie into the work I’ll be doing with Sara, who is studying the Mortimer Earls of March. Two minor noble families have come to our attention through their marriages, the Poynings, who held lands in Sussex and Kent and the de Port/ St John family of Basing, Hampshire, who married into the Poynings and Mortimer families. Both families held lands that were particularly suited to farming sheep and through their feudal obligations served in many of the conflicts of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

Wigmore Abbey Grange, Louisa Puller, 1884, via the V&A (please click on image to be taken to V&A website for further information)


Study Plan

This is a plan for a prolonged study, and apart from the research deadlines of my partnering historians, I’m not putting a time limit on it as yet as it may expand. The posts will not necessarily follow the order of the study plan, developed to identify the areas needed to expand my knowledge, and skills, it will be revised as my research develops, to include new areas and exclude superfluous study. I’m optimistic that this will be an interesting journey, and provide a valuable resource for future studies I plan to undertake.

Please note: Some blog posts will be shared with the Mortimer History Society Blog, hosted by Sara Hanna Black.

General History

  • The economy of England under Edward I – III, Richard II and Henry IV, with specific focus on their control of the wool trade with Europe.
  • Feudalism, affinities and knight service
  • Land holdings, both secular and ecclesiastic to include demense lands, moieties and advowsons
  • Religion and medieval lives
  • Textiles and rank – using clothing and decorative fabrics to denote status, sumptuary laws
  • Climate change, murrain and plague


  • A brief history of the monastic orders with Houses in Medieval England
  • The risks and benefits of “alien monasteries” on the South Coast
  • An exploration of the effects of the changing fortunes of supporting families on monastic houses.
  • In depth study of each of the named monastic houses, focusing on their income, the use of their demense lands and the role of sheep farming in supporting their economic activities
  • The impact of laws to control the export of wool, introduced by Edward I and III on the financial stability of monastic houses.

Poynings and St John Families

  • A brief history of each family and their land holdings
  • A focused study on the effects of the somewhat turbulent reigns of Edward I – Henry IV on the fortunes the Poyning and St John families
  • The relationship between the nobility and the Church, through the actions and wills of the Poynings and St John Families and their compatriots, with a focus on Church building, chantries and pilgrimage.
  • The feudal roles of the Poynings and St John families, their relationships with their liege Lords and their role in Parliaments. This will include exploring their military roles in the wars of all three Edwards and the rebellions against Edward III and Richard II.
  • The role of marriage in expanding the land holdings and improving the rank of minor nobility.
  • Factors leading to loss of rank and titles in minor noble families
  • The role of the Poynings and St John wives in managing their husband’s estates when they are absent or deceased.


  • Transcribed primary sources, including Domesday book, Monastic Cartularies, Estate Accounts, Wills, Inquisition Post Mortems, and the various Rolls of the Medieval Kings.
  • Secondary sources including Burke’s Peerage, studies of monastic life, studies of minor nobility, texts on diverse topics including: ecclesiastical history, social history, economic history and military history and Victoria County Histories
  • All posts will include references and bibliographies plus footnotes where required.









Comparing Monastic and Landed Families as Medieval Wool Producers

Medieval Church and Life 1– Early Medieval Conversion, Rome

Before moving on to explore the post Reformation celebration of St Blaise’s Day, it is worth exploring the development and role of the Church, its Saints and Pilgrimage, in Medieval life. This will allow a better understanding of the impact of the Reformation on society and provide opportunities to explore how wool workers might have developed new traditions to fill the gaps left by the loss of a structure and traditions over 500 years old at that time, with whole ways of life vanishing overnight.

We start by examining the conversion of the Pagan Anglo-Saxons by the Roman and Celtic Churches, a process that spanned the best part of a century and created a significant amount of religious flux, best demonstrated by the Franks Casket, which shows a mixture of the Norse, Germanic and Christian beliefs of the time.

The Franks Casket – Shows a mixture of Norse, Germanic and Christian images, indicating a world of shifting beliefs

Why Christianity?

Roman Britannia became, like the rest of the Empire, Christian, when Constantine converted in 4th Century. However after the withdrawal of Roman rule in the late 4th / early 5th centuries and the incursions of the Anglo-Saxons, the fledgling church was pushed to the fringes of society, both physically and spiritually (BBC 2011). Christian enclaves did remain in Wales, Cornwall and St Albans ands through the migration of Christian leaders like St Patrick, Ireland becomes Christian; yet no attempt was made to Christianise the Pagan invaders. Hence new territories formed under these new overlords, reverted to Paganism, reviving and adding to the pantheon of the old Gods. By the 6th Century however, Christian missionaries, both from the native “Celtic” church and Rome started to be welcomed by Kings.

Benefits of Adopting Christianity to the Anglo-Saxon Elite

A Saxon Ship – Used for Trading with the Franks

Trade: During the period when the Anglo-Saxons colonised England, Roman Christianity was flourishing in mainland Europe, yet dwindling to almost nothing in the majority of the English Kingdoms. The Christian Kings of the Franks, were suspicious of their compatriots across the English Channel, having little respect for heathens who clung to outmoded beliefs. The conversion of Aethelberht of Kent, who was also head of the 7 Saxon Kingdoms, opened up trade routes, which the other major coastal kingdoms of Sussex and Wessex also wanted to exploit. However the lack of a shared belief system to made it difficult to build trust and relationships, especially as deals were often confirmed by the swearing of oaths. The Anglo-Saxon merchants throughout England were shrewd and hence appreciated that worshipping the same Gods, brought them respect and enhanced opportunities for trade, thus Christianity helped the economy to prosper (Martz 2011).

War: When Christian Kings won battles over Pagan rivals, they were able to claim their victory was God given. For example King Oswald set up a cross and encouraged his greatly outnumbered men to pray and be baptised, before a crucial battle with the Pagan King Cadwallan; Oswald won and became in effect the High King of the seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. He followed this great victory by requesting that the monks of Iona, sent a priest to help consolidate the conversion of his people, who had seen that “The God” was more powerful than “The Gods” and would show them more favour in battle (Keifer 1999). During this time, Priests became part of the Royal entourage, their role to fight spiritually, through prayer and worship, whilst their King and his men fought their physical battles.

ull-page miniature of St Dunstan at work, from Smaragdus of St Mihiel’s Expositio in Reglam S Benedicti, England (Canterbury), c. 1170 – c. 1180, Royal MS 10 A XIII, f. 2v – See more at:

Law: As the church and state became increasingly allied, Kings were able to exploit the ability of clerics to read and write, the burghal hideages, are an early example of law making and set out the size and number of inhabitants of towns, within the Seven Kingdoms (Bibbs 1999). Writing also allowed Kings to communicate more easily and forge alliances. As a result of these many benefits learning was encouraged amongst their subjects. Alfred the Great, in writing the preface to the Doom Book – book of judgement, set out the links between the Laws of God, and the laws of man. His intention was to create a uniform law code across his dominions comprised of a blend of Mosaic law, The Sermon on the Mount, The Ten Commandments and other biblical principles with the best of the laws of his ancestors, that ensured safety and justice for all (The Reformation Society 2015). This law code was only made possible by the partnership of Church and State, as without monks to copy his laws and distribute them and run schools, they would have proved inaccessible to the majority of his subjects. Written laws could also be maintained after the death of their originators and offer stability during the transfer of power.



 As trading links developed with both mainland Europe and other Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Kings started to take wives from outside of their territories and those of their immediate neighbours. Some of these Queens, such as Bertha of Kent or Athelberht of Northumbria, brought their own priests with them and their Kings swore to allow them to practice their religion, as part of marriage contracts (. In both cases their husbands later converted to Christianity, with Ethelbert of Kent, welcoming Augustine’s original mission in 596. The forty men originally lived apart on an Island but overtime and with discussion won Athelberht’s trust and he granted Augustine permission to dwell in Canterbury and preach to the towns people. Impressed with the piety of these monks and one hopes, his Queen, Athelberht later converted and gave Augustine permission to spread his mission throughout the Kingdom of Kent (Gascoine from 2001).

The Miraculous 

Many of England’s early Saints are reported to have worked miracles or used positive outcomes of potentially disastrous situations to demonstrate that the power of their God exceeded that of the Anglo-Saxon pantheon. Athelberht was said to have been impressed by the miracles of Augustine and his mission. But Edwin, King of Northumbria, had a personal experience of the miraculous, escaping death at the hand of an assassin, very soon after becoming a father. Paulinus, his wife’s Christian bishop, advantageously used the episode to demonstrate the power of prayer:

“The king returned thanks to his gods for his preservation; but Paulinus told the king it was the effect of the prayers of his queen, and exhorted him to thank the true God for His merciful protection of his person, and for her safe delivery. The king seemed pleased with his discourse, and was prevailed upon to consent that his daughter that was just born should be consecrated to God.” (Butler, 1711-13).

Apostolic Way of Life

Bede claims in his History that the Pagans were drawn to the simple, faithful way of life of the Augustinian Missionaries. He describes this thus:

“As soon as they entered the dwelling place assigned them, they began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church : applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching, and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living in all respects conformably to what -they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, several believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.” (Robinson 1905)

The Promise of An Afterlife

Anglo Saxon Rood, Romsey Abbey, Hants

The Anglo-Saxon polytheist culture, did not provide its followers with the hope of an afterlife. Bede relates the following story, of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria, who had a Christian Queen, and his followers. Edwin held a conference that included both Christian and Pagan priests and believers, in order to obtain counsel from his nobles, prior to agreeing to be baptisted by Paulinus, his wife’s Bishop. Bede possibly uses this account to stress the value of being Christian – that this earthly life is not the end and that death is a new beginning. The debate was opened by Coifi, the Pagan High Priest who stated that the religion he promoted seemed to show little return for virtue and constancy, he was followed by one of Edwin’s nobles who is reported to have said:


“The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed”(Robinson 1905).

After requesting more information from Paulinus, Coifi himself destroyed the Pagan temple. Edwin gave Paulinus permission to preach the gospel, convert and baptise his subjects. According to Butler’s Life of The Saints (1711 -13), Edwin’s baptism in 627 in a newly founded Church, lead to Paulinus creating York as his episcopal See, which still forms one of the 2 Archbishoprics of England, with Canterbury, the home of Augustine’s original Church (Robinson)

A Flexible Approach

The process of conversion was also aided by Pope Gregory’s flexible approach to developing a Church that met its potential congregation in the middle. He encouraged his early missionaries, Augustine and Mellitus, to adapt Pagan practices as opposed to the destruction of shrines and Temples and banning of festivals seen in mainland Europe. Gregory’s policy was based on the premise that “all roads leading to Rome” (Chaney 1960). Therefore the early Saxon churches were built on existing sacred sites and festivals were adapted to the closest Christian alternatives, Yule became Christmas and Oestra, Easter. Magical rituals were adapted to become rituals of the Church, and animal sacrifice was discontinued; possibly replaced by Holy Communion, the memorial of the ultimate sacrifice, that did not require physical repetition.

References and Bibliography

BBC (2011) Christianity in Britain [online] Accessed 1/12/2015

Bibbs H (1999) The Faith of the English Kings [online] Accessed 2/12/2015

Bradley I (1999) Celtic Christianity, Making Myths and Chasing Dreams Edinburgh University Press, (Edinburgh)

Butler A Rev. (1711 -13) The Lives of the Saints, Vol X: October 1886 [online] Accessed 2/12/2015

Chaney, WA (1960) Paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England The Harvard Theological Review Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul., 1960), pp. 197-217 [online] Accessed 2/12/2015

Gascoigne, B. “History of The Papacy” HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing. [Online]

Accessed 1/12/2015

Kiefer JE (1999) Oswald, King of Northumbria, Martyr, August 5 642 [online] Accessed 1/12/2015

Martz T (2011) The Adoption of Christianity by the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons: The Creation of Two Different Christian Societies. Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Journal Vol 2 (11-11-2001) [online] Accessed: 2/12/2015

Robinson,JH (1905) Readings in European History. Ginn, Boston IN Halsall P (1996) Medieval Source Book: Bede: Conversion of England [online] Accessed 2/12/2015

The Reformation Society (2015) King Alfred the Great, The Reformer King [online] Accessed 2/12/15

Medieval Church and Life 1– Early Medieval Conversion, Rome

Woolly Saints – The Festival of St Blaise 1 – Medieval

Holy Days 

Holy Days (latin feria, later corrupted to fair) dedicated to named Saints have been a common event since the inception of the Christian Church. Originally their function was the veneration of the named Saint, perhaps with a special mass or blessing, feast or pageant or pilgrimage to the site of the Saint’s relics, with communities making a special effort, to gather and worship. It is worth noting that there was literally at least one Saint’s Day every day of the year,  during this period, Blaise sharing his day with with St Margaret of England, Patron Saint of the Dying; an early Cistercian Nun, related to St Thomas Beckett (Farmer 1978), and St Werburga of Mercia, Patron Saint of Chester; daughter of a Mercian King, who became a Benedictine Abbess, (Bridgett 1985) (Chester tourist); according to the calendar at The Medieval Combat Society.

The holy days were a celebration of:

  1. Specific events in  Christ’s life – Christmas and Easter,
  2. The change of seasons, gratitude for a good harvest, blessing of the land pre planting crops
  3. Patron saints linked to their occupation, community or Kingdom.

Fasts, Feasts and Festivals

Major Christian holy days were preceded by fasts where no meat could be eaten – Lent and Advent. – and ended with celebratory feasts for all. Peasants would dine at their Lord’s table, and have time off from all but essential work. The various merchant, trade and religious guilds would hold special religious services, sponsor feasts for their members and the local poor, and entertain the community with pageants and mystery or morality plays. Depending on the Feast, Priests might bless animals, land, tools of the trade or buildings to enhance productivity and profitability.

A Medieval Market

The content of the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs to 1516 (Letters 2013), shows that the majority of fairs were held on or over the festival of a saint, the majority being founded in the reigns of Kings John and Henry III. Fairs were taxable and hence in the Kings gift, so needed to be granted, with fines being payable for “unlicensed” events. The Church, being financially shrewd, seems to have exploited the opportunity for income presented by these gatherings. by seeking Royal franchises to establish markets in church grounds.  (Medieval Life and Times). The secular community also saw the business opportunities presented by such gathering and local lords or guilds would also apply for Royal franchises for fairs or by claiming they had been held in perpetuity (Letters 2013). A future post, examining the foundation of fairs and markets in more depth, will explore the local and political tensions this could create. The majority of fairs seem to have been held between April and early December and could last from 1 to 15 days. (Letters 2013) They also provided opportunities to purchase goods, not commonly availalbe locally. Some fairs became specialised, such as the fleece or animal fairs, which will be explored in more depth at a later date.

The Feast of St Blaise

Holidays, Church and Feasts

The Feast of St Blaise, was a public holiday (Koenig 2012) and provided wool workers with a break from their daily lives, spent washing, combing, carding, spinning, weaving or knitting, fulling, tenting, buying and selling wool. They could reflect on and give thanks for the good fortune their Saint granted them in Church and enjoy leisure time with friends or fellow guild members. A feature of the High Mass on St Blaise’s day was the offering of a special taper (Williams 1998), which is likely to be the precursor to the blessing of the throat with two crossed candles (Matz 2000).

A modern depiction of a procession of St Blaise

There could have been a pageant, play or feast. Guild members might parade an effigy of St Blaise or a Ram, through the streets, (although the only evidence for this is the modern day parade in St Blazey, Cornwall), to and / or from the parish or guild church, where the priest might also bless the tools of the trade. He might also travel to farms or wool warehouses blessing the sheep or fleeces. Priestly blessings of agricultural land and craftsmen’s tools were an important ritual in medieval life (BBC TV, Tudor Monastery Farm). Once the religious part of the event was over, a feast might be held and whilst there are no specific references to its content, lamb or mutton would celebrate the connection to sheep. Feasts were provided by the local Lord in the country and the woolworkers guild(s), in the towns. Guilds were organisations of master craftsmen, serving a wide range of purposes including quality control, social support and preservation of the mysteries of the craft. Guild members were expected to contribute financially throughout the year, with a portion of these funds allocated to feasting (Wikipedia).

St Blaise Fairs

1222 – Synod of Osney, convened by Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Langton, the son of a Lincolnshire Farmer, stated that all woolcombers should not work on St Blaise’s Day – with wool being such a big industry, this implied that most rural people and many townspeople had a holiday. According to Koenig (2012), women caught spinning on this day would have their distaff confiscated and burned. This laid the way open for the development of fairs.

1235 – Fair of Blaise the martyr (3 Feb); granted by King Henry III to the Priory of Boxgrove (CChR, 1226–57, p. 211). Included a mandate to the  Sheriff of Sussex to proclaim the fair and cause it to be held. Letters (2013). According to the Calendar of the Charter Rolls of Henry III, this fair ran over three days:

The prior of Boxgrove has a charter for a fair at Boxgrove, on the vigil, the feast and the morrow of St Blaise the Martyr” (Deputy Keeper of the Records, 1908).

1447 – John Lowe, Bishop of Rochester held a fair on St Blaise’s Day (3 Feb); recorded 20 Jul , held by John Lowe, bp of Rochester (CChR, 1427–1516, p. 87).(Letters 2013). Lysons (1796) notes that this fair was held within the manor (p307 fn1). There is also a holy well, with healing waters from a chalybeate spring,  dedicated to St Blaise in Bromley, which Lysons suggests had an oratory attached pre reformation. Pixyledpublications (2013) states that local lore suggests that the parish church was once dedicated to St Blaise, but the earliest documentation suggesting a link between Bromley and St Blaise is that of the grant of the fair by Henry VI in 1447.

Clothing of Bocksten Man

What Was Sold At A St Blaise Fair?

Whilst its not possible to establish exactly what was sold at these fairs, it is possible to made an educated guess, based on what is known of farming practices and day to day life. Firstly, the season suggests that sheep or fleece were unlikely to be sold, unless the fair specialised in selling castrated male yearling lambs that were good for producing wool and meat. Ewes would be waiting to lamb in late February and shearing was in June (Staples 1999). Secondly we must assume the roads were well maintained to facilitate travel, so perhaps there was a pilgrim trail, to bring the customers along? Canterbury held relics of St Blaise, but the distance between it and both Bromley (56 miles) and Boxgrove (98 miles) would suggest that neither of these fairs would cash in on this domestic pilgrimage, as there was no way they could reach  Canterbury for the Feast. However Morrison (2002) notes that Easter pilgrimages to Rome often started in January or February, so could these people, perhaps walking to Dover for passage to France be the prospective customers?  If so, perhaps these St Blaise Fairs, specialised in selling woollen clothing for pilgrims? A full outfit was discovered in Sweden, worn by the “Bocksten Man”, a 14th C murder victim, discovered in a peat bog (The Local SE 2006). During winter, agricultural work was limited (Staples) and so more time was available for indoor work, possibly spinning, weaving, and tailoring previously fulled cloth.


Bonfires seem to be a feature of St Blaise’s Day events, Williams (1998) states that they were lit on the hills at night. When first considered, it could be thought that the pronounciation of Blaise sounds like the English word Blaze, meaning fire. However it appears these bonfires took place across Europe, possibly because this was the time of year that stubble was burned. This custom might have originated in Pagan times and is still celebrated in the town of Fuiggi, Italy; the practice having saved the town from being sacked by a Papal army, who assumed that the flames meant the town had already been attacked by their allies (Fiuggi Turismo Convention and Visitors Bureau 2014)


References and Bibliography

Anon (no date) Medieval Life and Times – Medieval Fairs [online] Available Accessed 13/11/15

Bridgett, Ronald W (1985) The Life of St Werburgh: Princess of Mercia, The Parish and Church Wardens of the Parish of St Werburgh, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent [online] Available: accessed 4.11.2015

Burns P (1998) revision Butler’s Live of the Saints, Full Edition, February. Burns and Oats (Tunbridge Wells) pp33-4

Chester Tourist dot com (no date) The Shrine of St Werburgh [online] Available: Accessed 4.11.2015

Farmer, David Hugh. (1978). The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press. In St Margaret of England [online] available: accessed 4.11.2015

Fiuggi Turismo Convention and Visitors Bureau (2014) Popular Festivals -St Blaise/ Stuzza [online] Available: Accessed 13.11.15

Koenig, C (2012) Recalling the Cult of Bishop Blaze, Oxford Times [online] available: accessed 11/11/2015

Letters, S. (2013) Online Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516 <;:

Lysons Rev D (1796) The Environs of London, Counties of Herts, Essex and Kent Cadle & Davies (London) [online] Available Accessed 13.11.15

Matz T (2000) Catholic Online – St Blaise [online] Available: Accessed 6.11.15

Morrison SS (2002) Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England Routledge (London) [online] Available Accessed 13.11.15

Pixyledpublications (2013) Holy and Healing Wells – A Well for February, St Blaise’s Well, Bromley, Kent [online] Available Accessed 13.11.15

Staples A (1999) The Medieval Farming Year v1.0 [online] Available: Accessed 13.11.15

The Local SE (2006) Swedish Bog Man, Murdered 700 years ago [online] Available Accessed 13.11.15

The Medieval Combat Society (undated) Historical Information, Medieval Calendar [online] available accessed 4.11.2015

Wikipedia (2015) Guild [online] Available: accessed 6/11/15

Williams B (1998) St Blaise’s Well, Bromley, Kent [online] Available: Accessed 11.11.15

Woolly Saints – The Festival of St Blaise 1 – Medieval

Woolly Saints – The Cult of St Blaise 1 – Wool Churches of St Blaise

Role of Saints in Society

Medieval Saints primarily had the role of intercessors, however their veneration was also a major part of religious life. Patron Saints both provided an intercessor for an identified group and generated income for the Church; the group who venerated the Saint would give money in his or her name, to improve their chances of salvation, and as doctrine developed, reduce their time in purgatory. For the wealthy founding a monastic house, church or chantry chapel was therefore common, with the nobility also having private chapels built within their homes. Once built, the founder or his heirs usually chose the Saint the building was designed to venerated, perhaps of links with their birthdate, family, profession or major income source or to favour a monastic order, in return for prayers for the souls of themselves, their family, overlords etc. We can use the cult of St Blaise to explore how this worked in practice, starting with the dedication of churches and private chapels.

Importing St Blaise

From the evidence discovered Blaise’s arrival in England was linked to the Crusades. He was the Patron Saint of the city state of Ragusa, now Dubrovnik and it is thought that the unknown knight who founded St Blasius, Shanklin IOW and a little later, Sir Stephen de Haccombe, founder of St Blaise’s, Haccombe, Devon,  visited his shrine on their return from duties in the Holy Land.

His Cult was  established in Northern England, by Bernard, the deposed Archbishop of Rasuga, who met Richard I, during his return from the 3rd Crusade. Richard  survived a shipwreck and was washed ashore at Lokrum, near Ragusa, in 1192. To give thanks to God for his survival, Richard funded the construction of the great Cathedral of St Mary 7 St Blaise, Ragusa and repairs to the Benedictine Monastery Church in Lokrum (Penman 2011). Bernard later fled to England to seek Richard’s protection, when he fell foul of his flock, eventually becoming part of King John’s court. After the Pope appointed his replacement in Ragusa in 1203, John appointed Bernard as Bishop of Carlisle, a poor and difficult See, previously vacant for sometime (Crosby 1994). It is thought that Bernard talked much of St Blaise, to his flock and members of the Royal Court, encouraging his cult to grow in wool rich England.


The Churches of St Blaise

Three of the four English churches of St Blaise, could be considered “wool churches” , as their construction was partially or wholly founded on fortunes built from wool. The churches were founded between the 12th & 14th Centuries, and surprisingly are all outside the traditionally recognised “Wool Church” areas of East Anglia and the Cotswolds. They are all listed buildings at Grade 2 or above. Unlike the traditional wool churches, founded by merchants or guilds, 3 of the St Blaise churches were all founded by individuals: returning Crusaders, thankful for their survival and  a Bishop, descended from farming stock. The final church, founded by a long forgotten individual, was remodeled by the local Abbey, when it became a Parish church. This last example is similar to the foundation of the great wool churches, by wool merchants or wool related guilds. Building of these ceasing between the Reformation and the English Civil war, due to the decline of the wool trade. The 3 churches founded by local families / Bishop, also provided an opportunity to demonstrate their wealth and status within their community and beyond.

St Blaise, Milton, Berkshire

“St Blaise church, Milton – – 64067” by Dennis Jackson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

The Manor of Milton was held by Abingdon Abbey from 956, when the local Thane, gifted lands given to him by King Edwy. Abingdon was a Benedictine monastery and the 6th richest in England at the dissolution. Prior to  The earliest ecclesiastical building was a 10th Century chapel. The community at this time was a chapelry of the parish of Sutton Courtenay (Page & Ditchfield 1924) . A chapelry is a community within the bounds of a larger parish, with a chapel, subsidiary to the Parish Church. This allowed parishoners to worship locally, where the journey, to the Parish Church was long. The Abbey demolished the Saxon church and built the current St Blaise in the 14th Century, some parts have survived the later Victorian improvements.

Abbeys were granted manors by Kings or nobles, to provide an income, they were expected to farm the land themselves, or use lay brothers, bailiffs or tenants-in-chief (lesses) to manage smaller parcels of land, known as Granges. The majority of the work would be undertaken by the local peasantry, who would sublet small parcels of land for crops (heriots) and graze animals on common land; the unfree villein being expected to also work a set number of days on the Lord’s lands. They would then derive income from the land through rents and produce. In return they were  expected to pray for the Royal or Noble family in perpetuity and provide a certain number of knights or their financial equivalent to the King (knight’s fees) as required. So the Manor of Milton would have been managed by lesses on behalf of the monks. Additional income would be obtained from the lesse by charging for the use of the fulling mill to finish cloth woven in the village and to trade at the various markets and fairs (Manco 2013) (Ponstan 1972).

As the area has been noted since Domesday as a rich agricultural area, producing a wide range of crops and having extensive meadowlands, the Abbey was fortunate in its gift.  By the C14th, the meadowlands were used to farm sheep. The main industry of the village became wool, with fleeces washed in the local Ginge Brook (Oxford Diocesian Guild of Bellringers 2009). Abingdon, with its Abbey run markets, fairs and fulling mill, dominated the industry and gave local wool merchants the opportunity to become prosperous. The area was a reasonable distance from Southampton too, which facilitated the export of  finished cloth. Today, the Parish Church is perhaps the only testament to this rich history:

The former woollen industry is commemorated by the dedication of the church to St. Blaise, the patron saint of wool-combers, and also by the Tadpole revel at Milton Hill on the day following the village feast on the third Sunday after Trinity, ‘Tadpole’ being probably a corruption of tod, or cleaned, wool. (A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 4

Photos of the church are few and far between, but for a look inside please visit “My Grave Places”, the blog owner, Bill Nichols has taken some beautiful images

St Blaise Church, St Blazey, Cornwall

St Blaise, St Blazey Source:

Although the site of a pre-existing  settlement, the town adopted the name of its then new church, founded by the Bishop of Exeter, Walter De Stapledon, in 1309. There is disagreement about the prosperity of the wool industry in medieval Cornwall, with the parish history claiming that “by the 15th  Century, when the existing parish church was built, (improving on De Stapledon’s building), the area was the centre of the local woollen industry”. However both Ryder (1964) & the Cornwall County Council historian disagree, claiming that prior to 1600, Cornish Wool was of poor quality, until selective breeding promoted a healthy wool industry.

An investigation of  de Stapledon’s past and the main income source of his diocese indicates a possible reason for dedicating his newly founded church to St Blaise. De Stapledon’s parents were Devon farming stock, from the wool rich lands of East Devon, which supported the greatest number of  sheep  of all the divisions of Devon and Cornwall (Gladwin 2015). His family, were not wealthy but were ambitious and  found a way to send Walter to Oxford. He then became Vicar of Aveton Gifford, Devon, before becoming a Professor of Canon Law at Oxford and Chaplain to Pope Gregory. He entered Royal service as Edward II’s Lord High Treasurer and was also appointed Bishop of Exeter (Britannica Biography). He was one of the wealthiest Bishops in the country, in part due to the income from the production of wool and wool cloth on his many manors. The income from one Manor  – Chudleigh – in 1308, illustrates this:

“Rental of Manor £17, Income from fulling mill 20s to See of Exeter”. (Register of the Bishop of Exeter)

If we assume he could earn this from all his manors in Devon, Cornwall and other counties, then add the percentage owed from the sale of finished cloth and the income of any directly managed granges, we then begin to understand why he was so wealthy

St Blaise, Medieval Stained Glass C1309, East Window Source:

This income was on the whole well spent, greatly improving Exeter Cathedral and founding Exeter College, Oxford, where he endowed a series of places for poor boys of potential, from his manors of Devon and Cornwall (Chudleigh History Society). However he was not sufficiently politically astute to avoid being caught up in the invasion of Queen Isabella and the deposition of Edward II. A London mob took exception to him spying on Isabella during her time in France. He tried to reach the Sanctuary of St Paul’s Cathedral, London and was beheaded with a bread knife on the its steps.

The people of St Blazey still celebrate St Blaise’s day by parading a wicker effigy of the Bishop and a ram through the streets, something to be explored in more depth in a future post about festivals. (Cornish Guardian). Blaise’s stained glass image was saved from the destruction of the Reformation and  is thought to date from de Stapledon’s original church (Mattingly & Swift 2009). Other roundels in the window depict the lamb and woolcomb.


St Blaise, Haccombe, Devon

Haccombe Church St Blaise Church building

This small, 13th century church, in the Exeter Diocese, approximately 15 miles from the Bishop’s Palace in Chudleigh, was remodelled as an Archpresbytery, in the early 14th century.

The original church was built in the C1230, by Sir Stephen De Haccombe, a crusader knight, who died C1243  and his heir Sir John Lercedekne (husband to Sir Stephen’s daughter). The  de Haccombes were Norman French and were granted the manor by William I.  Sir Stephen, who spent 5 years in the Holy Land in the army of the Bishop of Exeter, Walter de Branscombe, swore to build a parish church, should he return safely home (Oliver 1846). His homeward journey, took him to Rugasa where he visited the Cathedral of  Mary & St Blaise and it is thought that he named the church in its honour (Jones 2014). With his manors located in a wool rich area, dedicating a church to the Patron Saint of Wool combers, would have seemed sensible.  The church, is small but has a wealth of tombs and brasses of the de Haccombe family, to view them please visit the ipernity website

The improvement work, to create an Archpresbytery – a chantry of priests overseen by an Archpriest,  was approved and  started before de Stapledon’s death and is modeled on the Archpresbytery at Whitchurch (Stapledon reg folio 165).

Tomb of Sir Stephen de Haccombe, founder

A living was provided for 6, salaried chantry priests plus the archpriest, also the parish priest and 2 lay clerks appointed as assistants and general servants (Stabb 1908 -16). The Archpresbytery  was endowed with the tithes of Haccombe and a couple of Cornish manors, belonging to Sir Stephen (Oliver 1846). The priests were requested to pray for the souls of the late Sir Stephen, John Grandisson – Bishop of Exeter, Sir John and his family and the Earls of Devon. They also assisted the Archpriest in his parish duties.

Today the church is part of the benefice of Shaldon, a parish encompassing 4 villages and hamlets, of which. Haccombe is the smallest, the village having been cleared by a later manorial occupant as it spoiled his view.

St Blasius and St John the Baptist, Shanklin, Isle of Wight

St Blasius Church, Old Shanklin, Isle of Wight Attribution: John Salmon St_Blasius, ‎

This church was founded during the reign of King Stephen (1135 – 54) as the private manorial chapel of Shanklin and dedicated to St John the Baptist. At over 850 years old it is the oldest of the 4 churches dedicated to St Blaise. However, the reason and exact dates for its later dedication to St Blasius (latin form of Blaise) are reported by the church historian as being something of a mystery. It remained in  family ownership until 1835, when it was donated to the community, as the new Parish Church and modernised, stripping away much of the antiquity (Page 1912). It is currently part of the Diocese of Portsmouth. Whilst there is a crypt, the church website reports that access is blocked by the renovations.

It is thought that The Chapel was originally founded by a probable descendent of  a man named Gozelin, who held the manor at Domesday. This later family were possibly known as D’Insula or D’Lisle – both meaning “Of the Island”. The manor, along with others in the vicinity of Southampton, on the mainland, was held in the Honour of Carisbrook (Woodward et al 1861). St Blasius first  enters the records in 1170, when a chapel was endowed that owed fealty to the Mother Church in Brading .This suggests that the theory mooted by the Church History (website), linking St Blasius to Richard I’s shipwreck,  some 22 years later, is unfortunately unlikely to be right. (St Blasius Old Parish Church, Timeline). This mysterious knight, reputed to have carved a Crusaders Cross into the stone doorpost of the church, either joined King Louis VII’s army for the 2nd Crusade of 1144 or served in or supported one of the military orders stationed in the Holy Land e.g, The Knights Hospitaller or the Knights Templar (Wikipedia, Military Orders). There were a variety of land and sea routes to the Holy Land, so its quite possible that he stopped in Rasuga and gave thanks to St Blaise’s but the truth is sadly lost in the mists of time.

St Blasius Church, Shanklin IOW, North Window

We do know that by the early 14th Century, his descendants  the D’Lisle’s of Wootton, who also held the manor of Shanklin, were established as one of the Islands leading families, holding the constableship of Carisbrooke Castle, under Edward II (Davenport Adams 1864).  St Blaise remained in favour, according to the historical timeline of the Church, as by 1367,  he was the  Patron Saint of the Lisle family sanctuary within the church:

1367 was the date of the presentation of the “Chapel of St. Blays of Shanklyng Capella Sancti Johannes Baptisti de Shynling.”

This would confirm a theory in the  Church history suggesting that either an altar in a side chapel or chantry chapel could have been dedicated to St Blaise, his name somehow surviving down the centuries. He is commemorated today in the North Window, a modern depiction, designed by Martin Evans of Glory Art Glass Sandown.


References and Bibliography

Chudleigh History Group (2012) Timeline of the Bishop’s Palace [online] Available Accessed 29.10.15

Cornish Guardian (2015) Celebrating St Blaise in St Blazey [online] Available accessed 30.10.15

Crosby EU (1994) Bishop and Chapter in 12th Century England – A Study of the Mensa Episcopalis, Cambridge University Press 1994 [Online] Available: accessed 2.11.2015

Davenport-Adams WH (1864) Nelson’s Handbook to the Isle of Wight T Nelson and Sons, London [online] Available  Accessed 2.11.2015

English Heritage (1966),  Listing of the Church of St  Blaise, Milton, [online] Available: Accessed 29.10.15

Friends of Abingdon (no date) Abbey Buildings Overview [Online] Available Accessed 29.10.15

Gladwin DD (2015) Average numbers of demesne livestock.  c.1300   (figures all +  or – 5 years.) (collated from Pipe rolls and Manorial Returns) Unpublished.

Jones, N (2014) Haccombe St Blaise Devonshire Magazine (Oct 2014) [Online] Available, accessed 30.10.2015

King, RJ (1903) Handbook to the Cathedral’s of England, Southern Division IN Britannia Biographies [online], accessed 30.10.15

Manco (2013) Medieval Manors and Their Records [Online] Available accessed 3.11.15

Mattingley J & Swift MJ (2009) Pre-Dissolution Stained Glass in Cornwall, Vidimus (vol 31), July / Aug 2009 [online] Available: Accessed 30.10.15

Oxford Diocesian Guild of Bellringers (2009) St Blaise Milton [Online] Available, Accessed 3.11.15

Penmann SK (2011) Richard and Ragusa [online blog] Accessed 2.11.2015

Ponstan MM (1972) The Medieval Economy and Society Pelican (Middlesex)

Oliver G (1846) Monasticon Diocesis Eroneinsis, Being a Collection of Records and Instruments Illustrating Ancient Conventional, Collegiate and Eleemosinary Foundations in the Counties of Cornwall & Devon, pp286 – 289,  Longmans (London) [Online] Available Accessed 2.11.2015

Page WM (ed) (1912) The Victoria History of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight (Vol 5) (pp 195 -7), Constable &Co (London) [online] Available ( accessed 1.11.2015)

William Page and P H Ditchfield (eds) (1924) ‘Parishes: Milton’, in A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 4, ed. (London), pp. 361-365 [accessed 27 October 2015].

Ryder M. L (1964) The history of sheep breeds in Britain. Ag Hist Reviews 12: 65–82. [online] Available Accessed 29.10.15

de Stapledon W (1308) Register of Bishop de Stapledon in Chudleigh History Group (2012) Timeline of the Bishop’s Palace [online] Accessed 29.10.15

Stabb J (author), Peters, Dr R (ed) (1908 -1916) Some Old Devon Churches – A Richly Illustrated Trilogy. Simpkin et Al, London [online] Available Accessed 1.11.2015

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Wikipedia (2015) Milton, Vale of White Horse. [Online],_Vale_of_White_Horse Accessed 27.10.15

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Woodward BB, Wilkes TC & Lockhart C A (1861) General History of Hampshire (pp123), Virtue & Co, London. [online] Available: Accessed 1.10.15

Yates M (2007) Town and Countryside in Western Berkshire, Social and Economic Change C1327 -C1600, Boydell Press, Woodbridge

Woolly Saints – The Cult of St Blaise 1 – Wool Churches of St Blaise