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The monastic overlords: cruel or kind?

Updated: May 10, 2023

The only surviving depiction of a Canterbury monk known as Eadwine from its source, The Eadwine Psalter (Trinity College, Cambridge).

The painting of Eadwine dates from c1160 and so he may have written down some of Doccombe's early manorial records?

Founded in 597, Canterbury Cathedral was home to a Benedictine monastic community known as Christ Church Priory as well as being the seat of the archbishop who was nominally their Abbot.

With about 80 monks at any one time, the priory was among the largest in the country and took the income from 64 manors, 19 rectories, 6 chantry chapel estates in the south-east of England and Canterbury (now Christ Church) College, Oxford. Doccombe was one of its poorest and remotest possessions – referred to as ‘our poor little far flung manor in Devon’. As an estate given in honour of the most very revered English medieval saint, however, it was carefully protected by Canterbury from attempts by the Courtenays, lords of neighbouring Moreton manor, to control or tax it.

The Prior wrote to 'the noble & his well-beloved in God, Sir Hugh de Courtenay':

Sire, William de Traci, gave us a little estate at Dockumbe, in pure & perpetual alms, on account of the death of Saint Thomas. We pray you, that for the love & devotion which you bear to the glorious Saint Thomas, that you will command your officers in those parts not to inflict hardship, nor trouble, nor injury, upon our poor tenants, contrary to the will of God and of the said holy body of saint Thomas. Adieu, etc. Given at Canterbury, the 3rd day of July, in the year of grace 1322.'

Another benefit from the Becket/Canterbury connection was the grant of Free Warren in 1264: King Henry III by a charter out of devotion to the blessed martyr Thomas has granted to the prior of Christ Church Canterbury free warren in all its demesne lands in ...[list of manors follows finishing with] ... and Dockoumbe in the county of Devon’.

By ‘warren’ was meant royal warranty of exemption from the law under which all game in the realm belonged to the sovereign; Canterbury recognised its value for their estates by petitioning for its renewal by successive monarchs.

Tenants also had to meet their obligations. A steward or bailiff was appointed to run the distant estate and administer the manorial court. He had to take the rent and other payments, such as a saddle for a palfrey horse for a new prior, in person to Canterbury – probably a two week round trip in medieval times! Yet it was once made in anger by a Doccombe tenant as this letter reveals: The prior wrote to Henry de Lappeflode, our bailiff of Doccombe: ... John de Stakombe came to us at Canterbury on Christmas Eve, & brought us a letter sent by all our tenants at Doccombe, claiming that you, since Michaelmas, have taxed them afresh for 50 shillings, by causing them to enter into a recognizance with us relating to the palfrey saddle furnished to us on our entering upon our office. He has also informed us that you taxed them before Michaelmas 100 shillings, of which 100 shillings, as he says, 50 shillings have to be paid to the King, & the other 50 to us, from the taxation of their movable chattels; out of which 50 shillings (if you remember) we remitted 10 shillings, provided that they paid the remainder at next Easter ....

It seems to us that the tenants desire craftily to deceive us by these secret petitions (for he was aware that you know nothing of their letter), so we seek to be farther informed if he were telling the truth concerning the 50 shillings, which, as he says, the King is to have.

Nevertheless if they give you sufficient security for the payment of all the amount aforesaid before next Easter, charged upon them by you, then leave them in peace, & remit the 10 shillings; but if not, cause all the money to be gathered without showing farther favour; for they are asking for a respite for the whole sum until Michaelmas next.

Let us know what is done about this business by the first person who comes this way. Adieu etc, Christmas Day 1331.'

Professor James Clark commented in a talk to MHS that this sort of protest was highly unusual among the tenants of the many Benedictine monasteries that he has researched. The letter shows the problems for Canterbury of knowing what was going on in their ‘far flung manor’ and whom to trust – the tenants or the bailiff. In their correspondence with the bailiffs or stewards they seem to vary in their sympathies. For example John Gatepath of Chudleigh is told in 1356 that ‘the tenants are to be obedient’; in 1357 he is rebuked for ‘harsh treatment of the tenants’; and in 1358 is taken to task because ‘the rents & profits are 3 years in arrears’!

A plan of Christ Church made in c1160 to show its waterworks {sic} (Trinity College, Cambridge)

This plan is very helpful as it was drawn just before the Priory acquired Doccombe and shows it before significant eastward extensions to accommodate the lucrative flow of pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Thomas Becket.

Many secular manors began to make their serfs or bondsmen personally free but the monastic estates resisted the change.

In November 1332 the Prior wrote to the Doccombe bailiff: 'We have heard that a bondswoman called Agnes de Smalregg [today Smallridge Farm], our villein, wishes to contract marriage, if it is agreeable to us, with a free man called Richard the son of Roger the sheep-shearer of Moreton. But it does not seem to us or our counsel that a contract of this kind could be done without prejudice to our Church.'

The Prior’s point being that the children of such a marriage would be ‘free’ and so not bondsmen under the control of Canterbury.

Perhaps the monastic overlords for all their care for their tenants were, as the largest economic enterprises of their time, ultimately concerned about the bottom line of their accounts.

The Court of Common Pleas at Exeter Michaelmas Term 1439: 'Joan Corset [Cossick ancestry?] of Exeter, spinster, John Benet of Exeter, skinner, William Aysshe of Cowick, husbandman, William Danby of Exeter, butcher, William Corset of Wray, husbandman, & John Potyng formerly of Doccombe, husbandman, were summoned that: They broke the close of the Prior at Doccombe by force & armed with swords & staves & made threats to the lives of John Tapper & John Groce his tenants. Then they exacted mutilation of their limbs & brought to the same such injuries & grievances that the same tenants withdrew totally from the tenure of the Prior’.

This picture from a medieval manuscript found on an internet search depicts uncannily well the events described above. Unfortunately, its provenance is unkown to the author.

The Prior sued the defendants not for the assault on his tenants but for their lost rents and services, claiming losses & damages of £100. The jury found 5 of the accused guilty of trespass on the prior’s lands & they had to pay him ‘for his outlays and costs charged’. But John Benet was found not guilty [perhaps because he had hired his own attorney] & the Prior was ‘in misericordia’ [i.e. punishable] for his false claim against him. We do not know the Prior’s punishment.


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