Project Canterbury

S. Augustine's, Canterbury: Its Rise, Ruin, and Restoration.

By G. F. Maclear.

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1888.



A. D. 1066-A. D. 1538.

'Hora pereunt et imputantur.'

DURING the rule of the next Abbot, Egelsin, William the Norman landed at Pevensey, and ravaged the coast to bring his rival to an engagement. When he threatened 'the men of Kent,' they declared they preferred death to servitude, and after meeting at Canterbury, entrusted the conduct of their cause to Stigand the Archbishop, and the Abbot of S. Augustine's. The two appointed to meet William at Swanscombe, [(1) In Domesday written Swinescamp, and said to derive its name from a winter camp of the Danes fixed here under their King Sweyn.] near Greenhithe. Here the forces who joined them, like the host of Malcolm at Dunsinane, are said to have moved forward under a cloud of green boughs, which they flung down when within reach of the Norman, who, alarmed at their number and firmness, confirmed [14/15] their ancient laws and privileges. [(1) In Domesday its rent-roll fills nearly four columns of the contracted pages.] However much or little ground there may be for this tradition, which first appears in the Chronicle of Thorn, certain it is that Egelsin found himself in bad odour with William, and suddenly left England, carrying off with him some of the most valuable treasures of the Abbey.[(2) Chron., Thorn, x. Script., cap. ix.]

This paved the way for the election of the first Norman Abbot in the person of Scotland or Scoland. He soon proved himself the best friend the monks could have had under the existing circumstances, and used the influence of the King and the new Archbishop Lanfranc to the great benefit of the monastery. Following the general example of the Norman prelates, he took down the whole of the ancient church, and began to rebuild it in a more magnificent manner. He did not, however, live to complete it, and it was finished by Wido, his successor. He also recovered a considerable portion of the former possessions of the Abbey, which William had seized. But he was somewhat in disfavour through not making quite so bold a stand against the Archbishop in defence of the privileges and immunities of his monastic brethren.

Scoland was in 1087 succeeded by Wido, who [15/16] not only completed the great church, but translated thither the bodies of Augustine and others. On his death, in 1099, the monks begged permission of the Red King to elect their own Abbot. This request the King sternly denied, declaring that his purpose was 'to hold all the pastoral staves in his own hands, and to dispose of them according to his own will and pleasure.' Sorely perplexed, the monks hit upon the following expedient. Among the inmates of the Abbey was one Hugh de Floriaco, connected with William by ties of blood, a novice indeed, but of ripe age and character. In the hope of softening the rigour of his decision, the monks sent him to the King in company with two others of their brethren. The sight of his kinsman appears to have suggested to the King the happy thought of appointing him Abbot. 'This kinsman of mine,' said he, 'do I grant unto you as your Abbot. Him do I, in answer to your prayers, set over the Abbey of S. Augustine; and no other person do I permit you to elect, and unless you receive him as Abbot, I will speedily burn your Abbey to the ground.' The new Abbot soon after received benediction in Westminster Abbey from the Bishop of London, Anselm, the Archbishop, being at the time in banishment. In his time the Chapter-house and dormitory were erected, and he presented to the church a large [16/17] brass candlestick, called Jesse, as well as many rich vestments and other ornaments.

With the next Abbot, Hugh de Trottesclyffe, Chaplain to Henry I., commenced the disputes with the Archbishop concerning the benediction of the newly appointed Abbots. Abbot Hugh demanded that it should be given in the church of his own monastery; for reception of the benediction in the Cathedral was considered tantamount to the formal recognition by the Abbot of the Archbishop's jurisdiction. The Pope's legate, Cardinal Cremona, decided in favour of the Abbot. But the Archbishop would not yield, and commanded the Bishop of Chichester to perform the ceremony. The next Abbot, Sylvester, was objected to on the score of want of character. But after a hearing at Rome, he was recommended by the Pope to the Archbishop, and received benediction on S. Augustine's day, 1152. The next Archbishop, Theobald, carried his opposition to the Abbey so far, as to pass sentence of excommunication upon its members, which was continued for several months. In 1163, Clarembald was obtruded on the brethren by Henry II, just as Becket had been on the ecclesiastics of the Cathedral, but 'with the ultimate difference,' as Dean Stanley remarks,' [(1) Memorials of Canterbury, p. 72.) that [17/18] while Becket had become the champion of the clergy, Clarembald stood fast by the King, his patron.' The new Abbot had his own dispute with Becket about the right of benedictions, and during the morning of Tuesday, the 29th of December, 1170, received the four knights who had ridden over from Saltwood Castle along the old Roman road from Lympne to Canterbury, bent on avenging the insult they deemed that Becket had offered to the King. With him they concerted measures for their future movements, and what occurred before the evening of that fatal Tuesday is known to all the world. The murder of the Archbishop sent a thrill of horror throughout Christendom. Becket was canonised, and became the most popular of English saints, and the effect on the Monastery of S. Augustine was very great. Hitherto the stream of pilgrims had flowed towards the tomb of the first Archbishop of Canterbury and his successors. Now it was clean diverted, and set in full force towards the rival foundation of Christ Church and the Cathedral. Grievous misfortunes at the same time befell the Abbey of S. Augustine. A large part of it was consumed by fire, together with a portion of the great church, many ancient documents were destroyed, and the shrines of the founder and others were much defaced. Towards the reparation of their losses, the Pope conferred upon [18/19] the monks the churches of Faversham, Minster in Thanet, and Middleton next to Sittingbourne.

Roger, the next Abbot, had been keeper of the altar of the martyrdom in Christ Church, and was elected by the monks in the confident hope that he would bring to their Abbey a rich dowry of precious relics of S. Thomas. This, however, was not the only service which he rendered the brethren; for they found in the new Abbot a vigorous upholder of their liberties. Roger absolutely refused to make profession of obedience to the Archbishop, and was consequently refused all benediction. Upon this he repaired to Rome, and received benediction from the Pope's own hands, as well as the gift of the mitre and episcopal ring. Shortly afterwards the Pope sent letters to the Archbishop, requiring that in future he should give to the Abbot-elect benediction in his own Monastery of S. Augustine within forty days, without exacting any profession, [(1) Thomas of Elmham. Ed. Hardwick.] and declared the monastery to be exempt from legatine authority, unless the legate was specially appointed thereto. This sentence, however, failed to produce the desired effect, for the Archbishops were by no means willing to concede to the Papal mandate any of the rights which were properly theirs. Roger died in 1212, and was succeeded by [19/20] Alexander, a man of considerable learning and eloquence. He firmly supported King John against the Barons, and when Lewis, the Dauphin of France, landed in the Isle of Thanet, he boldly excommunicated that Prince and all his adherents. To judge by the documents preserved by Thorn, these must have been prosperous days for the Abbey. Pages upon pages are filled with compositions with the Archbishop, donations of manors and of advowsons. Important privileges and indulgences were also granted by Pope Innocent III, who appears to have specially favoured the Abbey.

Hugh, his successor, the third Abbot of that name, was chosen in 1220, and soon afterwards departed to Rome to receive his benediction from the Pope, as had then become customary. During his absence, John de Marisco, the Prior, being desirous of ascertaining where the remains of S. Augustine had been deposited, caused his tomb and altar, which stood under the middle window at the east end of the church, to be broken open, and within these, in three distinct enclosures, he found the relics of the saint, the abbots of Battle and Langdon, and the priors of S. Edmund's Bury, Faversham, and S. Radigund's, with many other persons of religious distinction, being then present. In one of the enclosures, called a [20/21] 'small stone vessel,' were his bones and a plate of lead, inscribed to this effect: 'In the year from the incarnation of our Lord 1091, William, king of the English, reigning, the son of King William who acquired England, Abbot Guido translated the body of S. Augustine from the place where it had lain for 500 years, and placed all the bones of that saint in the present casket; the other parts of the sacred body he deposited in a silver shrine, to the praise of Him who reigns for ever.' All the remains were afterwards re-interred, with the exception of the head, which, at the instance of the great men present, and to excite the devotion of the people, was retained without the shrine, and was wonderfully decorated, at the Abbot's expense, with gold, silver, and precious stones.

Hugh died in 1224, and was succeeded by Robert of Battle, followed by Roger de Chichester in 1253, and by Nicholas Thorn (in Latin de Spina), in 1273. He restored many of the domestic buildings of the Abbey, and during his time King Edward I. was entertained there after his return from his Welsh campaign. Thorn was followed, in 1294, by Thomas de Fyndon, who owed his appointment to the Pope. Consequently the King seized the Abbey and its possessions, and. refused to restore them till a fine of 400 marcs had been paid. The quarrel, however, seems to have been made up, [21/22] for shortly afterwards we find the King again entertained in the Abbey. On this occasion he commanded that the Archbishop should be included amongst the guests at the feast. To this the brethren objected, on the ground that the Archbishop would be sure to bring with him his 'great crozier,' which they declared they would never allow to enter the Abbey. The Primate and the King alike assured them that it should certainly not be considered a precedent, and they agreed to show their deeds of privilege to the Bishop of Ely 'as a friend' and as a mark of respect to the King, but not under compulsion. Eventually they deemed it more prudent and more gracious to yield the point, and the declarations of privileges and concessions obtained by the Monastery during the later years of Thomas de Fyndon occupy more than fifty columns. During 1309; the last year of his abbacy, he obtained leave from King Edward II. to embattle the gate of his Abbey, and the Great Gateway remains a permanent monument of his rule down to the present day. He made a great feast for all the leading ecclesiastics of the country and sixty-six knights, and in all 4500 guests. But while thus munificent in his hospitality, he did not forget the poor, and was conspicuous for his charity towards all in distress.

[23] His successor, Ralph de Bourne, 1309, received his benediction at Avignon, and on his return to England gave a magnificent installation banquet. The bill of fare on this occasion has been preserved, with the cost of each item. A few may serve as examples, and are given in the note below. [(1) Eleven tuns of wine, 24l.; 30 oxen, 27l.; 34 swans, 7l.; 500 capons, 6l.; 1000 geese, 16l.; 200 sucking pigs, 100s.; 9600 eggs, 4l. 10s.; 17 rolls of brawn, 65s.; the cost of the coals for dressing, 48s.; the pay of the cooks and their servants, 6l. The total expense was 287l. 5s. For this sum 3000 dishes were set before 6000 guests.] The Abbot carried on the works begun by his predecessor, and planted a fine vineyard near the North Holmes, which had been for some time a resort of thieves, 'much to his honour,' says the chronicler, 'and the advantage of the monastery.' He died in 1334, and his successors could but have shared the excitement of the times when news arrived of the battle of Crecy in 1346, and Neville Cross and of Poictiers in 1356. Michael Peckham, Chamberlain of the Monastery, who was elected Abbot in 1375, must have beheld in the following year a sight which moved all Canterbury, and, indeed, all England. On Trinity Sunday, 1376, at three o'clock in the afternoon, the Black Prince passed away. On the feast of Michaelmas the body was brought to Canterbury by the Pilgrim's Road, and doubtless the Abbot gazed with deep emotion on the stately hearse, [23/24] drawn by twelve black horses, preceded by two riders in complete armour mounted on chargers fully caparisoned, 'one bearing the Prince's arms of England and France, the other the ostrich-feathers--one to represent the Prince in his splendid suit as he rode in war, the other to represent him in black as he rode to tournaments.' [(1) Stanley's Memorials of Canterbury, p. 151.] We may believe that he would be present in the Cathedral with the rest of the august assemblage, which probably included John of Gaunt, William of Wykeham, Courtenay Bishop of London, Simon of Sudbury, and many others, while the funeral service proceeded with all stately pomp, and the body . was borne to the bier between the high altar and the choir, and then laid on the south side of the shrine of S. Thomas in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, on the festival of which the Prince had expired. [(2) On the canopy over the tomb, there is now the faded representation--painted after the strange fashion of those times--of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, according to the peculiar devotion he had entertained.'-- STANLEY'S Memorials, p. 154.] Of this memorable scene the Abbot, we may well believe, was an attentive spectator, and being an Englishman, he could not but be deeply moved.

But we must pass on. Michael Peckham died in 1386, and in 1389, after an interregnum, William Welde succeeded him, and three years afterwards [24/25] entertained King Richard II. with his queen. They made their abode in the monastery from the octave of the Ascension to the morrow of the Holy Trinity, accompanied by the prelates and nobility of the realm, and a multitude of people. On Whit-Sunday, and the day following, the King took the lead as well in the processions as at the table, and, being crowned, sat in his royal splendour, and commanded that the feast of S. Æthelbert should constantly be held in due veneration. The cost of these visits was excessive, and such occasions of splendid hospitality, taken along with the royal and papal exactions, show what too often became of the vast revenues of religious houses, and explain why they were so often deeply in debt. We could not have a better illustration of this than in the case of William Welde. On his election he was forced to go long and tedious journeys after the King, who was beyond Lincoln, to get his assent to his appointment, while his proctor followed the Pope from city to city, supplicating him with the offer of large gifts for a quick despatch of his business. But it was all in vain. The Abbot was cited to appear personally in the Pope's court, and after a delay of two years, two months, and four days, received benediction. To the King he had to pay for temporalities 1418l. 18s., to the Pope's chamber 600 florins, to the chamber of [25/26] the Cardinals 600, to the Pope's attendants 405, to the servants of every one of the Cardinals 46, besides the expense of the proctor's journey, and his own personal attendance on the court of Rome. [(1) Thorn, col. 2194.]

The feast given to Richard II. is the last circumstance of any importance mentioned by Thorn, whose chronicle closes in 1397. After this time very little is known respecting the affairs of the Abbey beyond the names of the Abbots. They lived, ruled, and passed away, while the Peasants' War, the rise of the Lollards, the battle of Agincourt, the burning of Joan of Arc, the Wars of the Roses, the introduction of printing by Caxton, told of the change that was coming on. With the battle of Bosworth Field the period of the Middle Ages comes to its close. The invention of gunpowder has doomed the old nobility. The rise of the middle class marks the beginning of the modern era. With Henry VII. we enter on the strong government of the Tudors, and it is plain to all men that the old order is changing and giving place to the new. Ten Abbots are mentioned between Welde, who died in 1405, and Essex, who was Abbot in 1523. In 1536 Henry VIII. passed through the Great Gateway with his queen Jane Seymour, and his coming must have been watched with wondering eyes by the brethren. [26/27] Already the Bill had passed the Commons, which ordered the suppression of the monasteries possessing less than 200l. a-year, and it was plain that the blow was about to fall. At length, on the last day but one of July, 1538, the fate of the Abbey was sealed. The King's commissioners arrived to take its surrender. There is a tradition [(1) See Hasted's Kent, Folio Edn., iv. 657, n.] that the monks shut their gates against them, till, terrified by two pieces of ordnance placed on a neighbouring hill, they hastened to deliver up the keys. John Essex and his brethren met in their chapter-house and signed the deed of surrender; and the Abbey, with its site and precincts, its debts, chattels, and goods, manors, houses, lands, advowsons, and churches, and all other possessions whatsoever and wheresoever situated, passed into the hands of the King 'to the use of him and his heirs for ever.'

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