(iv). From the end of the 15th century to the Dissolution in 1538.

The state of the monasteries in the forty years previous to the Dissolution has been the subject of much dispute, but no historian now accepts the wholesale charges of vice and corruption made against the monks by Cromwell’s commissioners. It seems, however, that the monasteries had largely outlived their usefulness, for the ascetic life was no longer admired or practised, the number of monks had decreased considerably, and many of the monasteries were in debt. The life of the monks, on the eve of the Dissolution, has been described as one of “easy sauntering comfort without grave offence but without marked benefit to the world around them.”1 It is interesting to enquire how far the state of the priory of Lenton in the 16th century is in accordance with this general description.

There is no evidence that the monks of Lenton in the years preceding the Dissolution were living in a state of vice and corruption at all comparable with the condition of Welbeck Abbey, reported by Bishop Redman in 1482 and 1488.2 It cannot be said, however, that the prior of Lenton who, in April 1516, was found guilty of breaking the Statute of Livery and Maintenance, and who, in the following July, was “joyfully conversing and drinking wine in an alderman’s house with the abbot of Dale and the Mayor of Nottingham,” when an attempt was made to murder the mayor, was living the life of an ascetic.3 Apparently almsgiving and hospitality were continued to the end. According to the Valor Ecclesiasticus 1534, the monks continued to supply daily meat and drink, lodging and firing, and a penny per week to five needy men to pray for the souls of the founder and his wife—Henry I, his Queen and heirs. Each year, on the anniversary of Peverel and his wife, the sum of £2 13s. 4d was distributed to the poor.4 Anxiety to keep up hospitality was put forward by Nicholas Heath —the last prior of Lenton—as the reason for his failure to pay promptly the £100 he had promised Cromwell.5 In any attempt to estimate the character of the monks of Lenton on the eve of the Dissolution, due consideration must be given to the manner of the Dissolution. Most of the monks of Nottinghamshire surrendered their monasteries. Lenton was not surrendered. The prior and his monks were hanged.

The financial position of the monastery, although not wholly satisfactory, appears to have been better in the 16th century than it had been in the 14th century, when the great burdens of the priory caused the king to appoint custodians to administer the temporalities In 1504 the royal free chapel of Tickhill, which Lenton had received in exchange for the chapel of St. Mary “le Roche” and certain privileges in Sherwood Forest, was transferred to the abbey of St. Peter, Westminster. During the same year the Prior and Convent of Lenton were granted by Henry VII the advowsons of the churches of Middlewich, Cheshire, and Arksey, Yorkshire, on condition that vicarages were established and competent sums distributed yearly among the poor Middlewich was appropriated in 1504, but Arksey not until 1513.6 Arksey yielded £28 yearly in tithes of corn and hay, and Middlewich, in tithes and other profits, £30. Demands upon the monastic revenues were made by Henry VIII. In 1510 a corrody within Lenton Priory was granted by the king to Robert Penne, gentleman of the Chapel Royal.7 Included in the annual grant made in 1522 by the spirituality for the king's expenses in France, was a sum of £133 6s. 8d. from the prior of Lenton.8 The Records of the Borough of Nottingham reveal several actions against the prior for debt. Ex-sheriffs of Nottingham in January 1515-16 claimed 34s. 4d., due to the king in connection with the fair at Lenton and rents of lands in Nottingham. In 1512 the prior was sued for 18s. 4d. owed for boots and shoes. John Ilkeston, prior, in 1530 was called to answer the plea of Robert Taverner, innholder, that he had only partly paid for wines supplied and was still in debt to the extent of 54s. 4d.9 The suggestion contained in these actions that the monastery was experiencing difficulty in paying its way, is supported by the complaint made by the last prior to Cromwell that the monastery was not in so clear a state as he had thought his predecessor had left it.10 The number of monks at Lenton in the 16th century, as in other monasteries, seems to have fallen short of the original number. Twenty-seven monks and four lay brethren were living in the priory in 1276; twenty-five monks in 1279 ; a visitation report of 1405 gives thirty-two as the full complement.11 In records relating to the Dissolution, mention is made of no more than ten monks in addition to the prior and four labourers. Failure to attract sufficient young men into the monastery is also suggested by the last prior's statement that all his brethren except four were “very impotent and of great age.”12

In the 13th century, and again in the 15th, the prior of Lenton had taken an important part in secular affairs both national and local. In the 16th century the prior still performed duties of local if not of national importance. In 1513 the year of Flodden, he was commissioned along with others to seize the property of all born subjects of the king of Scotland in both Notting­ham and Nottinghamshire.13 About the same time, Agnes Mellers, in her Ordinances for the Free School founded by her, placed upon the Prior and Convent of Lenton the responsibility for the rule, guidance and oversight of the lands, tenements and schoolmaster, if the Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council were negligent and forgetful in finding and hiring a schoolmaster.14

Both the king and the gentry gained from the Dissolution of the monasteries, and the subsequent secularisation of monastic property ; but years before the last prior of Lenton was hanged, the king and the local gentry exercised a powerful influence over the affairs of the Lenton Priory. How the right of the abbot of Cluny to nominate the prior of Lenton passed to the king has already been described. How the local gentry concerned themselves with the affairs of the monastery may be seen in many of the contemporary documents which have survived.   In the last phase of the history of Lenton Priory one thing stands out clearly. This is the changed outlook of the monastery.  It began as part of a vast international organisation ruled autocratically by the abbot of Cluny. It ended as a monastery—Cluniac in name  but severed completely  from  Cluny; local in outlook, and open to interference by local gentry and men of the neighbouring town of Nottingham.15 There is evidence that local men were deliberately appointed priors of Lenton. In a letter written to Thomas Cromwell in 1534 on the death of Prior John Annesley, Sir Anthony Babyngton begged Cromwell to choose the next prior from the monks of Lenton, urging that the house would prosper more than under a stranger.  He alleged that the two previous priors had been, chosen from among the Lenton monks for that reason.16 Even the names of three of the last five priors suggest a local extraction. Names like John Ilkeston, Thomas Nottingham, John Annesley, form a contrast to those of earlier priors—Peter de Siriniaco, Astorgius de Gorciis, and Peter de Abbeville. The stewardship of the manor and fairs of Lenton gave the local gentry, who occupied the office, an oppor­tunity to take part in the direction of monastic affairs. It does not follow, however, that the interference was of necessity selfish or detrimental to the priory’s welfare. Sir Henry Willoughby,  Sir Thomas Lovell,  Sir John Babyngton, and Sir John Willoughby, at one time or another held this office. A letter among the Wollaton Hall MSS. reveals the desire of the writer, J. Roos, to become steward after the death of Thomas Lovell. This and other evidence suggests that the position was coveted by the local gentry.17 During the last few years of the priory's existence the prior became the victim of local intrigue. Evidence of this may be found in a complaint by Nicholas Heath, the last prior, to Thomas Cromwell, that Dan Hamlet Pentriche, one of the monks who figured prominently in the events preceding the Dissolution, had a third time fled from his religion at the instigation of men of Nottingham, “who love not this poor house.” When he fled, Pentriche took with him monastic goods, which were received by his abettors in Nottingham. It should be stated that Sir John Willoughby, steward of the priory at the time, wrote to Cromwell supporting the prior. When, however, a letter was sent to Cromwell in April, 1538, announcing the execution of Heath, the names of several of the local gentry appeared on it.18

As there is abundant but inconclusive evidence relating to the dissolution of Lenton Priory, a great deal has already been written about it in local histories. There is no need to repeat all the evidence here, but a survey of the theories put forward may prove useful.

Reference to the works of local historians discloses a lack of agreement upon the date of the dissolution, each of the years 1535, 1536, 1537, 1538, 1539, and 1540 being given by one writer or another. How this disagree­ment arose is difficult to understand, as reliable evidence among the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII definitely establishes 1538 as the year. In February of that year, the prior was seized and thrown into prison. Here he remained until March when, with eight of his monks and four labourers, he was indicted for treason. On the Controlment Roll is recorded the conviction of Nicholas Heath, prior of Lenton, William Gylham, monk of Lenton, four labourers and a priest, for high treason. After their names are entered “T et S”: to be drawn and hanged.19 On 16th April, 1538, a letter written at Lenton was sent by Sir John Markham, John Hercy, John Babyngton, and George Lascelles to Cromwell, announcing that they had proceeded in their commission of oyer determiner and adding, “the late prior of Lenton and Ralph Swenson are executed.”20

To decide exactly why the prior was executed is a difficult task. The other Nottinghamshire monasteries were surrendered to the king by the monks, many of whom were granted pensions after the Dissolution. Before the surrender a number of the houses had been visited by the notorious Legh and Layton, who usually reported discoveries of widespread immorality, but it is now universally recognised that these reports do not give a true picture of the state of the monasteries. There is little doubt that the destruction of the monasteries had been decided upon before the visitors set out. From the evidence of Nottinghamshire monasteries, it would appear that those monks who made dissolution easy by confessing immorality, most probably not committed, were amply rewarded when pension lists were drawn up. The prior of Thurgarton—to quote one example—a man who, according to Legh and Layton, had several times committed adultery, received after the surrender of the monastery, “a house called Fiskerton Hall,” a garden, a stable, tithes of two meadows of hay, and £40 a year.21

The treason for which the prior of Lenton was executed was committed on 29th June, 1536,22 but the nature of the act is not easy to determine. In local histories and journals, the reason for the execution most frequently given is complicity in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Although this has often been repeated, no evidence has yet been offered. In fact, it is difficult to see how an act committed in June, 1536, could be a share in a rising beginning in October, 1536.23

Abbot Gasquet, in Henry VIII and the English Monasteries24, remarked that Heath’s fate had no apparent connection with the northern rising, and suggested that the act of treason committed may have been the sale of part of the monastic plate to a London goldsmith to relieve the finances of the priory. Eventually the goldsmith who bought it had to refund to Cromwell's private purse £18 9s. 4d.25

(1) Trevelyan: History of England, p. 307.
(2) V.C.H., Notts.. Vol. II, p. 145. England under theYorkists, Thornley. p. 180.
(3) Borough  Records of Nottingham,  Vol. III,  pp. 346 and  432.
(4) V.C.H., Notts., Vol. II, p. 94.
(5) Letters and Papers of Henry  VIII, Vol. X, p. 514.
(6) Godfrey: p. 169. Cal. of Patent Rolls, Vol. 1494-1509, p. 367. The grant of Arksey and Middlewich, late in the priory's history, is not so exceptional as the V.C.H., Notts., Vol. II, p. 93, suggests. It was really in the nature of an exchange.
(7) V.C.H.,  Notts., Vol. II, p. 98. (8) Godfrey: p. 175.
(9) Records of the Borough of Nottingham, III, p. 120, 134, 182, (10) Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. X, p. 514.
(11) Duckett: Visitations of Eng. Cluniac Houses.  V.C.H., Notts., Vol. II, pp.  94-98.
(12) Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. X, p. 514.
(13)  Letters and  Papers, Foreign and  Domestic, Henry VIII.
(14)  Bor. Rec. Nottm., Vol. III, p. 453 et seq.
(15) In documents of the time, the use of “abbey” instead of “priory” not infrequently occurs. It may be a recognition of the altered status. Many of the documents relating to the Dissolution mention “Lenton Abbey.” Letters and Papers of Henry VIII. See also Godfrey, pp. 170, 178.
(16) Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Vol. VII, p. 606.
(17) Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. XII, p. 912. Report on MSS. of Lord Middleton preserved at Wollaton Hall, p. 124.
(18) Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. X, p. 655. Vol. XIII-(i), p. 787.
(19) Gasquet: Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, II, 190.
(20) Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. XIII-(i), 787.
(21) Details of the Legh and Layton's reports and the pensions of Notts, monks are given in the V.C.H., Notts., Vol. II.
(22) Gasquet: Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, quoting P.O. Exch. Augt.Off.Misc.Bk.,313b, f. 8.
(23) The origin of the statement that the monks of Lenton were hanged  for taking part in  the  Pilgrimage of Grace is  difficult  to discover.On p.376 of Vol. III Bor. Rec. of Nottm., is the record of a payment made “when the monks of Lenton suffered death.” A footnote adds “These monks were no doubt hanged for participation in the insurrection of 1536, when the monasteries were re-occupied.” No evidence at all is given. In Old Nottinghamshire, ed. J. P. Briscoe, 1881 (p. 23), is a statement that the Rev. M. E. C. Walcott, F.S.A., records in his English Minsters, II, p. 152, that Burnet mentions the execution of the prior for his share in the Pilgrimage of Grace. The authorities of the City Reference Library went to considerable trouble to obtain for me the two volumes English Minsters. On the page given, reference is made to Lenton Priory, but no mention is made either of the Pilgrimage of Grace or the execution of the prior. Nowhere in the two volumes could I find confirmation of the original statement.
(24) Vol. II, p. 190.
(25) Letters   and   Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Vol. XIV, Pt. II, p. 321.