Constitution of the Convent.

The monastery of Blyth was an alien monastery. So it is expressly styled in a writ of 1 Edw. Ill, to the Barons of the Exchequer, authorising them to reinstate the alien houses in the possessions which his father had taken into his own hands on occasion of the war between him and the King of France in the duchy of Aquitaine. In this instrument it is described as "a cell of the Abbey of St. Katharine in Rouen in Normandy;" and in the same manner the foreign ecclesiastic, whom it acknowledged as its superior, is in a charter of William Cressy of Hodsock, as well as in a letter of Archbishop Godfrey de Ludham to Prior Theobald, dated at Scrooby, March 2, 1260, entitled the Abbot of St. Katharine.

If the pension of 40s. reserved by Builli in his foundation charter was designed by him, as is probable, for the abbey at Rouen, there is some confusion in the title of this foreign house, for the charter directs the pension to be paid to the church of Holy Trinity; but perhaps Roger intended the pension for the cathedral there, and not for the monastery, or possibly the latter was known indifferently by the names both of Holy Trinity and St. Katharine.

The alien priories were numerous. They were to be found not only at Blyth, but at Lenton, Pontefract, Monks' Kirkby, Long Bennington, St. Neot's, Thetford, Ware, Newport Pagnell, York, Northampton, Abergavenny, Lancaster, and at other places—the richest of all being at Spalding, and founded by Ivo Talbois. In the age immediately subsequent to the Conquest our great barons were in the habit of giving manors with or without priories upon them to foreign religious houses, which, in the latter case themselves founding cells, in both cases made such cells dependent upon themselves to a greater or less degree. We learn from Tanner that the Abbot of Mountsburgh in Normandy had a stall in Salisbury Cathedral in right of his cell of Lodres in Dorsetshire, the manor of which had been given to his abbey by Richard de Redveriis, temp. Hen. I. In all cases, except in times of war, the foreign houses, to the reign at least of Henry IV., appointed the priors and monks of these dependent cells, received from them rents or pensions, and exercised powers varying with the nature of the foundation.

It would appear that the foreign abbeys carried their claims to extreme and unjustifiable lengths; for Pope Lucius, whether Lucius II. 1144-1145, or Lucius III. 1181-1185, is uncertain, issued a bull to the Prior of Blyth, strictly forbidding any one from removing him from his office, or appropriating the possessions of his church. Again, in 1260 the Archbishop of York tells Prior Theobald that he has heard that he is intending, at the command of the Abbot of St. Katharine, Rouen, to quit his priory and go beyond the sea; and he strictly charges him, inasmuch as he is perpetual, under pain of excommunication, not to desert his priory at the bidding of any abbot whatever without his special licence.

When England was at war with France, or in any way mixed itself up with the military transactions of that country, the priories alien were objects which excited the jealousy and rapacity of the Crown. Edward II. seized their lands, advowsons, and other possessions, for which he compelled them to pay rents. Edward III. in the first year of his reign, 1327, restored their estates, reserving however for his own use all pensions hitherto paid to the foreign houses; but at a more advanced period of his reign he also seized their property; for I find that in 1343 he was holding the priory of Blyth, and in that year, as well as in 1348, and again in 1351, appointed his own vicars. Richard II. adopted the same policy. Prior Nicholas English in 1388 petitioned the king and the parliament against John Middleton, alleging that, whereas he was perpetual, and instituted and inducted by the Archbishop of York, this person had obtained letters patent for the purpose of ejecting him, and selling the property of the convent, and praying that the letters might be revoked, and himself reinstated. In the next reign the House of Commons petitioned Henry IV. in 1402 to resume all alien priories except those which were conventual, with their lands, tenements, rents, and advowsons, into his own hands. In consequence of this the Prior of Blyth, with the Priors of St. Andrew at Northampton, Abergavenny, Holy Trinity at York and Monmouth, were summoned before the Privy Council, January 20th, 1403, and proved that they were conventual.

Henry IV. in 1409, I find appointed the Prior of Blyth, the monastery then being in his hands in consequence of the share he was taking in the public proceedings of France, and the appointment to the priorate continued henceforth in the Crown down to the dissolution of the house.

The priories alien were of two kinds:—1. Dative. 2. Conventual. The prior and monks of the former were removable at the discretion of the foreign houses to which they owed allegiance, and for which they acted merely as stewards of the revenues of their priories. The superior and brethren of the latter acknowledged a species of feudal superiority in the foreign convents, but were perpetual, and enjoyed their own endowments. Blyth Priory came under the second head.

During the wars between England and France the revenues of these houses, as I have stated, were with their preferments seized by the Crown, and restored again when hostilities ceased. Richard II. and Henry IV. are however said not only to have detained the possessions of some of them in time of peace, but even to have bestowed them on their courtiers.

In the fourth year of Henry V. all alien houses not conventual were dissolved, and granted to the Crown; the rest survived till the reign of Henry VIII.

The Establishment of which Blyth Priory consisted, and its Expenditure.

In the last chapter we had occasion to make an extract from the report of the commissioners who sat at Nottingham in 1379 touching the revenues of the convent of Blyth. At that time Kichard II. held possession of it, and appointed the vicar. A minute statement was drawn up both of its revenues and outgoings, with a view doubtless of enabling the Crown to determine at what rent it should permit the convent to hold its estates. From this document or "extent" we are thus furnished with a full and interesting account of the establishment and expenditure of the priory, which I here lay before my readers. The jury say that

There is in the priory a foreign monk, late prior, who from old age and infirmities resigned his office, and is allowed by the ordinary for meat and drink as much as two monks, amounting to 12l. 17s. 9d. annually. The late prior is allowed fire and candle and other necessaries for his chamber, together with meat and drink for a servant, all which come to 2l. 6s. 8d. a year.

There are also two chaplains ministering in the church, who have for yearly stipends, with table and robes, 8l.

Also one clerk ministering in the same church, whose food and clothing come to 20s. yearly.

Also the vicar has from the priory, in money and in one quarter of wheat, valued at 4s., with places for himself and his chaplain at the prior's table at twenty-four festivals in the year, valued at 12s., what altogether amounts to 1l. 16s. yearly.

Also a clerk serving the present prior and his house in all matters which concern it, who receives for his fee 1l. 6s. 8d. His table, with 10s. for his robe, comes to 2l. 10s. yearly.

Also a steward of the court is paid 2l. per annum, and his clerk 20s.; their table on court days amounts to 20s.

Richard Bolevile, serjeant at arms, has 13s. 4d. a year by letter of the prior and convent.

Robert de Morton has a corrody, which he purchased from Henry de Rodes, worth 2l. 13s. 4d.

Matilda, the wife of Robert of Esyngwolde, has for her life 7d. a week, which amounts to 1l. 10s. 4d. a year. She has also daily from the convent an allowance of wheaten bread and s'jantis (?) worth 1d., and a bottle of beer valued at 1d., which amounts to 3l. 0s. 4d. a year, and a house to lodge in worth 6s. 8d. a year.

Robert de Stansale has a corrody worth per annum 2l. 1s. 8d. Alice the widow of Peter Monk has a corrody worth 2l. 13s. 1d. William de Kelum and his wife, Thomas Halyfax, and Thomas de Stanelay have four equal corrodies, to wit, each of them one corrody, valued at 10l. 13s. 4d. per annum.

Thomas Auneray has a corrody worth 2l. 16s. 8d.

There is also a cook, to serve as well for the prior as for hospitality to visitors, whose board and wages amount to 2l. 10s. A servant to the cook, whose board and clothing come to 13s. 4d.

A baker with his servant, whose board and wages come to 5l. 14s. 3d.

A forester, whose board and wages with his robe amount to 2l. 10s.

A servant of the present prior attending him on horseback in his business, who receives for wages and robe 1l. 3s. 4d. yearly.

A butler, whose board, wages, and robe come to 2l. 10s.

The prior moreover pays yearly to the bailiff of the honour of Tickhill, in the wapentake of Bersetlowe, for a common fine due to the said honour, 20s.; to John Burdon, Nicholas Monbocher, and the abbot of Roche, for Boughton, Barnby, and Blyth, in rent, 6s. 8d.; to the Archbishop of York for his procuration 10s.; to the proctor of the lord Pope 7s.; to the Archdeacon of Nottingham for his visitation 7s. 6d.

Expenses of hospitality yearly 10/.

Also there is expended the yearly sum of 27l. 10s. in the sustentation of the present prior, his servants, horses, and other necessaries, together with 16l. for his expenses in travelling to and from London and other places on the business of the priory.

Also 17l. a-year is expended upon the repairs of the chancel of Blyth church, the windows of the chancel, the houses and granges of the priory, and Blyth bridge, with the repair of the books, robes, and other ornaments of the church, wax, oil, and other necessaries.

To the prior's proctor at Bawtry, for taking charge of the mortuaries there, a quarter of wheat, 4s.

Domestic Arrangements and Daily Life of the Convent.

I will endeavour to give my readers as distinct and accurate a conception as my limits will permit of the daily life and occupations of the Benedictines of Blyth. The cemeteries of the parish and convent occupied the entire south and east sides of the church; the monastic buildings principally the north. These were, the cloister adjoining the church, the north wall of which in fact formed one of its sides; the refectory and dormitory, immediately connected with the cloister; the chapter-house, opening out of the north transept; the prior's apartments, camera prioris, the kitchen, cellar, and crypts, and guest-hall for the entertainment of strangers, all standing on the site of the present Blyth Hall, and the granges, granaries, dovecote, stables, and other buildings, at a little distance in the almry croft (the almoner's croft), as it is to this day called.

The establishment was comprised within small bounds. In the time of Richard II. we find but two monks and a clerk officiating in the church. The great monastery of Durham, in the century after this, had thirty-three monks and seven novices, so that Blyth, by comparison, stood no higher than a cell of the splendid priory of St. Cuthbert. The Benedictine Rule was the great parent stock from which all other institutes were offshoots, and in its earlier and better days Blyth, like other houses, presented, I am deeply persuaded, a model of self-denying, charitable, and religious life. The still hour jf midnight, the rising, and midday, and setting sun, all alike bore witness to the devotions of the convent in their house of prayer. The monks of Durham, as we learn from a singularly interesting volume, entitled "The Rites of Durham," published by the Surtees Society in 1842* (and their customs were substantially the customs of the Benedictines elsewhere), dined at eleven in the morning at a common table in the refectory, at which the sub-prior presided; after dinner they retired to the centry garth (the cemetery garth), where they spent some time in prayer for their departed brethren; they then returned to their small wainscoted studies or carrells in the cloister till three o'clock in the afternoon, when they went to even-song; that ended, they assembled for supper in the refectory, which was presided over, like dinner, by the sub-prior; and at five o'clock retired to the chapter-house, where they met the prior, and all remained in prayer till six, at which hour the religious office of Salvi was celebrated in church, and the doors of the cellar, frater-house or refectory, dorter or dormitory, and cloister, were locked and the keys delivered to the sub-prior until six next morning. The monks retired early to rest, and at midnight rose and went to church for the midnight service. After an interval of three or four hours matins, and in due course breakfast, and the morning mass followed, and dinner came again.

To the quiet and even tenour of monastic life at Blyth was almost daily given something of healthy, although not often exciting, novelty, by the arrival of mendicants and poor travellers, for whom a guest-hall would be provided, with an officer or hostillarius, as he was called, whose duty it was to supply them with becoming entertainment, or of travelling merchants with their goods and merchandise, or of tenants from their various estates with rents or produce in kind. Not unfrequently the monks had tidings of distant and splendid convents, such as Durham, Reading, and Glastonbury, when the breviators, as they were termed, came round, bearing briefs or letters from their houses to solicit the prayers of the religious throughout England for a departed bishop, or abbot, or prior. Every house attached its order and dedication to the roll, with the line, sometimes splendidly, sometimes indifferently, written, "Vobis nostra damus, pro nostris vestra rogamus;" and in so doing gave evidence that it felt and acknowledged itself to be the member of a family.

On great days, such as the festivals of the Nativity and Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, their patron saint, and the commemoration of their founder and other benefactors, the convent distributed food and alms to the poor, and entertained at their table their more distinguished neighbours, both ecclesiastical and lay, such as the Abbot of Roche, the Prior of Worksop, Cressy of Hodsock, Moles of Serlby, and especially Builli of Maltby and Vipont of Bawtry, both closely connected with their founder—the vicar of the parish and the rector of the hospital of Blyth not being forgotten. There were even times when they received royalty itself within their walls. In January, a.d. 1300, Edward I. was their guest, when he directed briefs to the sheriffs of counties commanding the merchants to supply provisions for his army at Carlisle.

The tournaments of Blyth,—for near Blyth, as the reader will learn in a subsequent chapter, was a licensed tournament field, which was frequented by the great and noble, not only of this but of other countries, and the transactions in and around the neighbouring castle of Tickhill, especially such as sieges conducted in person by bishops of their church—transactions which made the very heart of England to beat with a quicker pulse,—could not fail to be objects of lively and thrilling interest to the retired ecclesiastics of Blyth Priory, at whose very gates almost the clang of arms rang, and on whose roads the pomp of military array or of courtly chivalry was on these great occasions exhibited.

With these exceptions the fallentis semita vitæ was indeed theirs. No wonder that in ancient times persons of the highest estate sought in the calm and peace of monastic life a refuge from a hard world.

The buildings of the Priory of Blyth, with the exception of the church, itself most shamefully mutilated, and a portion of a crypt, have all been swept away. Everywhere in the village I see stones in the walls of houses and gardens, which by their very shape and mode of dressing tell in no ambiguous terms whence they have come, and to the wise say something more.

What became of the site and demesnes of the priory shall be told in the succeeding pages.

List of the Priors.

1.  R. de Pauliaco, instituted A.D. 1188; patrons, the Abbot and Convent of Rouen, who continued to appoint till the time of Henry IV.

2.   William Wastell, instituted 12 . .

3.   Gilbert, prior in 1224. See the preceding chapter.

4.   Theobald, prior March 2, 1260. See above.

5.   William Burdon, instituted 1273; a member of the old Nottinghamshire family of Burdon of Maplebeck, and Boughton: he was an active and efficient prior. On his cession

6.  Nicholas de Brettevill, a monk of Blyth, was appointed, and instituted 1 November, 1303. He resigned on account of age and infirmities, and was succeeded by

7.   Robert de Clyville, a monk of Blyth, from Rouen. Instituted 28 August, 1310; provision being made for the last prior. On Clyville's death

8.   Ralph de Tete, a monk of Blyth, was instituted September 30, 1330. On his cession

9.  Peter Meslier, a monk from Rouen, was instituted April 5, 1335. He resigned, and was succeeded by

10.  Peter Textor, or de Aneslevilla, another monk of Rouen, who was instituted June 17, 1344.

11.   Thomas de Vymond, who resigned.

12.   Gilbert, prior in 1365.

13.  Nicholas Anglicus, or English, a monk of Rouen, instituted 26 January, 1376, and died prior.

14.    William Ouston, a monk, succeeded English, and was instituted 11 August, 1409, having been presented to the priorate by Henry IV., then holding the convent in his own hands. From this time to the Dissolution the Crown appointed the priors.

15.  John Halum, a monk, on whose death followed

16.  Robert Clyfforth, a monk of Blyth. He was presented by Henry V. and instituted October 31, 1420.

17. John Gaynesburgh, a monk of Selby on same presentation ; instituted 5 May, 1421. On his death succeeded—

18.   Robert Toppeclyff, a monk of Saint Mary's Abbey, York; presented by Henry VI. and admitted 12 January, 1429.

19.  John Cotynham, another monk of St. Mary's, on same presentation; admitted 23 November, 1431.

20.   Nicholas Hall, a monk; same patron. He resigned.

21.   Thomas Bolton, a monk of Pontefract; patron, Henry VI.: admitted October 5, 1422. On his cession followed—

22.   William West, a monk of Lenton; admitted August 3, 1451, on same presentation, and resigned.

23.   Robert Bubwith, a monk of Blyth, admitted December 14, 1458. Same patron. Bubwith appears to have held the vicarage also from August 1462 to nearly the end of 1466. Edward IV. was then in possession of the priory, and I suppose Bubwith was glad to eke out the small pension which the king allowed him by taking the vicarage. He must have continued vicar after he had resigned the priorate.

24.   Robert Scotes, a monk of St. Mary's, York; presented by Edward IV., and admitted October 9, 1465.

25.    William Massam, a monk of Durham, was admitted August 7, 1472, being presented by the same king. How came the monks of Blyth to go so far for a prior? Probably some brief-bearer from Durham had visited Blyth Priory, and on inquiry being made if he could recommend them a successor to Scotes in the event of a vacancy, had named Massam; or Massam himself had been at Blyth in that capacity and the monks had not forgotten him, or he had not forgotten the Priory of Blyth, when the vacancy actually occurred. By one party or other application was probably made to the Crown, and granted.

The Convent of Durham were greatly attached to him, and the feeling was doubtless reciprocal. At the request of the convent the prior granted Massam leave to wear his monk's frock whenever he revisited the great Northern house, which was endeared to him by so many cherished recollections. Here is the licence at full length:—

"On the 30th day of the month of May, A.D. 1473, sixth indiction, second year of the pontificate of the most holy father in Christ and our Lord Sixtus IVth, by Divine Providence Pope, the venerable father in Christ, Richard, by Divine permission Prior of the cathedral church of Durham, having called before him certain of his brethren of the chapter in the chapel of St. Nicholas, situate near his apartments, declared publicly to the venerable and religious man William Massam, late monk and brother of the same church, professing the order of St. Benedict, and then and there present and standing by, that, although he, by accepting the priorate of Blyth, in the diocese of York, where, as is asserted, he is, with the consent of those who are concerned in the matter, lawfully invested with and put in possession of the office of prior, has lost all and singular the rights of a brother in the aforesaid church with his own free consent, nevertheless the same venerable father, at the request of his brethren, and for the singular affection which he feels and ever hath felt for him, hath of his abundant kindness granted leave to the said William, that as often as he comes to the monastery of Durham as a stranger and visitor he may wear a frock like any other brother of the house, as long as he stays, without any molestation, provided that by so doing he make no claim to any other right, but conduct himself creditably among all the inmates. If he acts differently (quod absit) he shall be deprived of the privilege."

He died at Blyth, having been prior nearly twenty-four years.

If it were possible William Massam would form one more link in that chain which binds the writer of these pages to Durham by the most affecting recollections and associations.

26.   Robert Guillam, a monk of Blyth, succeeded Massam, and was admitted March 3, 1496, being presented by Henry VII. in right of the duchy of Lancaster. He died in the office, and was followed by

27.   Thomas Gardener, a monk of Westminster, on the same presentation. He was admitted May 20, 1507. On a leaf in the beginning of the Blyth register, in the Harleian library, written in an indifferent hand, are these lines—

  ( Pray for me now I am natt here,  
Emmanuel. ( Of Blyeth sometyme prior, T. Gardener;  
  ( In London borne, and no farther,  
  ( And sumtyme moncke in Westmynster.  

28.   On Gardener's resignation, John Baynebrig, a monk of Horsley, was presented to the priorate by Henry VIII. as duke of Lancaster, and instituted July 16, 1511.

29.   On his death, George Dalton, a monk of Blyth, was instituted, on the same presentation, Nov. 26, 1534, and was in office when the fiat was issued for the surrender of his house.

The religious houses have been at all times and in all countries fruitful in men of profound learning and erudition. In our own country Beda, Matthew Paris, William of Malmesbury, Reginald, Symeon, Roger Bacon, Thomas Docking, William of Ware, John of London, Richard of Hampole; and abroad, Menard, Mabillon, Montfaucon, Massuet, Gerberon, Garnier, and Ruinart; have left a name and reputation behind them which the world will not suffer to perish. And doubtless our humble convent of Blyth, according to its means and opportunities, cultivated letters; but no member of the house achieved any public fame in the walks of literature, or attained any eminence in Church or State. They were probably content with the quiet and uniform discharge of unpretending duties, and found therein a happiness which is denied to the giddy and perilous heights of worldly distinction.

The Conventual Church; The Parish Church.

Blyth church.
Blyth church.

The church of Blyth, uniting formerly, like so many other churches, both a monastic and a parochial church under one roof, is but a remnant. It is what the hand of man, far more destructive than the action of time, has left us of an edifice once fair and goodly to contemplate within and without. In its original form it consisted of a nave, side aisles, transept, central tower, and choir terminating in an apse. Although much of this venerable church remains, yet much has been wantonly destroyed. The conventual choir, where for four centuries and a half prayer was daily wont to be said—that portion at least which passed through the transept and extended 60 feet beyond the present termination of the church into the present pleasure grounds of Blyth Hall, the central low Norman tower, the transept, have all been swept away, whilst one bay of the nave and one of the north aisle nave been in an evil hour and by ill-advised hands severed from the church and applied to all save religious uses.

I have not been able to discover in the pages of the Blyth register or elsewhere any fabric accounts of our church. Knowing however, as we do, the precise date of the foundation of the convent, having the church, so far as it goes, before our eyes, and possessing one or two independent and corroborative documents, we are enabled to fix the dates of the several portions of it with tolerable accuracy and precision.

Blyth church. Interior view of nave looking west.
Blyth church. Interior view of nave looking west.

I believe, then, that the religious, immediately after their original foundation, A.D. 1088, commenced with a Norman apse, and proceeded consecutively with the choir, transept, central tower, nave, and aisles. The existing portions of the north aisle with its rude vault of rubble; of the nave with its round arches, massive piers, cushion capitals, triforium, clerestory, and corbel table; and of the south wall of the transept; all harmonise with this date. The first change which the church, thus constituted, underwent was the substitution of an excellent early-English groined vault, with moulded ribs and elaborate bosses over the nave, for the original roof of wood. This took place about the year 1250. In the centre of the roof of each bay two ribs intersect each other at a boss, and the vault of the bay is completed by two transverse ribs. The work is light and elegant, and bears a strong resemblance to the vaulting of the nave of Durham Cathedral, and south choir aisle of that of Lincoln.

The next change was the expansion of the south narrow Norman aisle for the purpose of forming a parish church. The earliest vicar of Blyth, the date of whose institution is on record, was, as we shall shortly see, William de Flecham, A.D. 1256. He was vicar for nearly forty years, and appears to have had a long dispute with the convent respecting the vicarial tithes, which was settled by a deed of endowment, bearing date 1287. Not long after this the alteration in the south aisle was made. It was widened to the extent of the termination of the south wing of the transept; the old round-headed opening between the transept and aisle was replaced by two more open and pointed arches, now blocked up; and the windows inserted in the south wall, which exist at this day, and which, with the two arches just named and other features, harmonise with the date above assigned. The internal apertures of these windows are splayed from the sill to the springing of the arches; the upper portions are arched over the lights of the window with arches dying into the splayed jamb, with label mouldings and carved terminations.

* A considerable portion of this volume was published in a curtailed and modernised shape by John Davies, of Kidwelly, in 1672, under the following title, "The Antient Rites and Monuments of the Monastical and Cathedral Church of Durham, collected out of Antient Manuscripts about the time of the Suppression."