The Diocese of Winchester Before the Reformation

The Diocese of Winchester Before the Reformation

Religious life in medieval Hampshire owed much to the dedicated men and women whose lives were spent within the walls of monasteries and convents: After the Norman Conquest, the number of monastic houses increased and to the older Benedictine communities of nuns at St. Mary’s, Winchester, Wherwell and Romsey, of monks at Newminster and Old Minster in Winchester, were added Cistercian monasteries at Quarr (Isle of Wight) (c. 1132), Beaulieu (1204), and Netley (1239), a small Cistercian nunnery at Wintney (before 1200), as well as other quasi-monastic establishments of canons following the Rule of St. Augustine. The Cistercians, whose order was named from the parent house of Citeaux in Burgundy and whose greatest member in medieval Christendom was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, were funda­mentally not a new order of monks, but a severe and rigidly reformed community following the Benedictine rule with simplicity on secluded sites away from worldly distractions. Manual labour was an important Part of their daily life and each house had its own conversi, lay brethren who were not likely to become monks but were a second order occupied in much hard manual work. There were thus many opportuni­ties within each Cistercian house for men and women who were not of the intellectual standard associated with Benedictine monasteries. Unlike the Benedictines, however, Cistercian foundations were not great feudal landowners, and their income was largely derived from their own physical efforts. Sheep-farming and forestry were the chief occupations of the monks of Netley and Beaulieu. Both Cistercians and Benedictine monks were ‘regulars’, that is real monks following a definite ‘rule’, regula. Another kind of ecclesiastical foundation was that provided by the houses of canons, secular priests following the so-called rule of St. Augustine, who lived a communal life in their houses at Breamore (founded c. 1128-33), Portchester (1133), which later moved to Southwick (1145-53), St. Denys, Southampton (1127), Christchurch (c. 1150), Mottisfont (1201), and Selborne (1233). An additional house of canons of the order of Prémontre was founded at Titchfield in c. 1232, whose inhabitants, ‘white’ canons, to dis­tinguish them from the ‘black’ canons of the order of St. Augustine, did much the same sort of religious work, preaching as missionaries, acting as parish priests, and devoting a large part of their time, at least in the early years of their houses, to manual labour on their estates.

Of other religious houses, only the Benedictines were subject to episcopal control by visitations and subsequent injunctions, and medieval bishops often found it necessary to inquire into, control and reform the houses under their care. Bishops of Winchester have always had a particular relationship with the cathedral Benedictine priory, being elected by the Prior and his monks (later the Dean and Chapter); a tradition which in theory remains unbroken today. Once elected, the relationship between the monks and the bishop was almost that of a monastery with its abbot, and the cathedral fabric is almost entirely the work of a series of changes instituted and paid for by successive diocesan bishops.

The first Norman bishop, a friend of William Rufus, Walkelin (1070-98) rebuilt the cathedral entirely and pulled down the Old Minster. He also seems to have built himself a palace at East Meon. William Giffard (1107-29) was the first of many Winchester bishops to be also Chancellors of England, and was one of the earliest of the English bishops to recognise the Cistercian revival of monasticism, by the foundation just over the Hampshire border (but in the diocese) of Waverley Abbey in 1128. His successor, Henry de Blois, (1128-71), was an outstanding bishop in every way. A Cluniac monk, and brother of that Stephen who was one of the claimants to the English throne after the death of Henry I in 1135, his early career was that of a politician and scholar rather than that of an ecclesiastic. As well as being Bishop of Winchester he was also Abbot of Glastonbury, which he re-adorned and enriched with great generosity from a vast private fortune. This fortune also enabled him to give munificently to Winchester Cathedral and to found the most famous almshouse in the kingdom, the Hospital of the Holy Cross at Sparkford, better known as St. Cross. His ambitions were unbounded; he was actually elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1136 and when his enemies in Rome prevented the Pope from confirming the election, de Blois got himself made Papal Legate in England, with precedence over the Archbishop of Canterbury. Later on, he tried—but in vain—to have Winchester made into an archbishopric and in the south-eastern corner of the city built a great episcopal palace, Wolvesey. He constructed other great fortified castle residences at Merdon, Farnham and Bishop’s Waltham, valuable military strongholds for a bishop actively engaged in civil war. At the accession of Henry II in 1154, de Blois went into exile, back to his old monastery at Cluny, whence he returned about about three years later, a reformed character, a benevolent elder statesman, and the senior English bishop. Though as Chancellor, Thomas Becket had helped to demolish de Blois’s castles, the Bishop supported Thomas as Archbishop in his struggle with Henry II, and he died in 1171, a venerable and beloved statesman. De Blois’s episcopate is contemporary with that great artistic revival known as the Romanesque renaissance of the 12th century, a revival exemplified by a severe and dignified architectural style, by carving in ivory, by sumptuous metal and enamel work, by richly-embossed book­binding, and by a style of manuscript illumination which reached its greatest beauty and power in the Latin Vulgate known as the Win­chester Bible.

The revenues of the medieval bishopric were in fact so large that it was difficult for medieval bishops of Winchester not to be generous. A large proportion of the bishop’s income came from his many and scattered Hampshire estates; some of this income was in money, a proportion was in goods in kind, either used directly by the bishop and his household when he stayed in the district, or sent by local officials whenever required. All the many local officials kept detailed accounts compiled eventually into a great series of records known as the Bishop of Winchester’s Pipe Rolls, a wonderful series, beginning in 1208, which provide a detailed and complete account of the manorial estates of the Bishops of Winchester. The records were kept as rolls till 1454; after that date they continue as folios and though not every manor is mentioned individually every time, the general picture is complete and provides a fascinating story of a great feudal itinerant household with a central treasury under a steward or seneschal at Wolvesey, Winchester. Some bishops had the help of a suffragan or of an assistant bishop and indeed this was apparently quite usual in the 14th century. Suffragans were usually bishops ‘in partibus’, that is to say bishops with foreign titles, for example Peter Corbaviensis (1322-31), William Salubiensis (1407-1417), or they were Irish diocesan bishops acting in England; one suffragan, Caesarius de Rosis (1349-55) is said to have been a Franciscan. Much of the routine work of the diocese was carried out by the Archdeacons of Surrey and of Winchester. The usual form of address for an archdeacon was simply Dominus, and the use of ‘Venerable’ did not apparently appear persistently in the Winchester diocese until after 1802. It was the archdeacon’s duty, on receipt of a mandate from the bishop, to induct the clerics appointed to vacate livings, and sometimes he carried out the induction in person and sometimes by deputy. Another essential part of diocesan organisation was the procedure for proving wills, which had to be proved before officials of the bishop or of the arch­deacons, unless they were made by people living in a limited number of districts called ‘Peculiars’, having their own procedure. Disputes about legacies or wills were dealt with by the Bishop’s Consistory Court which was held in any suitable church in the early medieval period, but from about 1404 was housed in a special gallery built at the west end of the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral. The Consistory Court also dealt with matrimonial disputes, and cases which concerned the discipline of the clergy. All the various official acts of each bishop, important documents of his episcopate, visitations, notes of ordinations and inductions, were kept, and still are kept by each bishop’s Registrar in a volume therefore called the Register.

The medieval diocese of Winchester was very large, and the bishops moved round it slowly in comfort and dignity when they were not engaged elsewhere as royal civil servants or politicians. It included the counties of Hampshire and of Surrey, and also the present dioceses of Portsmouth and Guildford, but not the Channel Islands, which only came into the care of the Bishop of Winchester in the 16th century. In London, the bishop had a large palatial home, Winchester House at Southwark, as well as a prison known as the Clink, and within the diocese he had many residences.

In 1208 Bishop Peter de Roches, like all his medieval successors, II had three chief seats, at Farnham, Winchester, and Taunton, Somerset, and secondary residences at Waltham, Clere, Downton and Merdon, Marwell, and Bishop’s Waltham. His manors at Fareham and at Bitterne (on the site of the Roman port of Clausentum) were centres for the essential redistribution of wine and salt. Though the accounts give much information about the economic aspects of the Bishop’s political activities, they also show de Roches as the purchaser of hawks and hunting dogs, for like his king, John, the bishop was a keen bunts-man. Every bishop had a large personal retinue of clerics and of laymen, many of whom attended on him because of the work he did in his other capacities.

It is almost surprising, in fact, to find that most medieval bishops did devote so much time to the ecclesiastical duties of their diocese. Bishop John de Pontoise (or Pontissara, 1282-1304), founded a great chapel at Winchester, served by a College of secular priests, and dedicated to St. Elizabeth of Hungary, where masses were to be said daily for the souls of the Bishops of Winchester and of all the faithful. Though there were many parish churches, he seems to have begun the licensing of private chapels in manor houses, amongst them one at Tichborne for the family who were famous as the distributors of a ‘dole’ of flour given annually to all their village tenants, a custom which still continues. It was during Pontissara’s episcopate that a great finan­cial survey was made of the diocese by order of Pope Nicholas IV in order to provide money for the Church. This Taxatlo shows that most parishes in Hampshire were served by priests who were rectors, though they might not be resident: there were comparatively few vicarages, and these only in benefices with large financial endowments. Yet many of the rectories were small and ill-endowed, and the life of the average parish priest was far removed from the wealth and luxury of the diocesan bishop. Even Bishop John de Pontissara, however, had to borrow money to meet his expenditure when on royal business at Rome. It would be pleasant to think that when he did visit his diocese he rode on the very expensive black palfrey given him by Edward I, just as Henry Woodlock, his successor (1305-1316) rode through the diocese on his palfreys, Braybrook and Bereford. Woodlock loved his work, and unlike most of the Bishops of Winchester, was a Hampshire man and the only Prior of St. Swithun’s to become bishop. He was not a politician, and a glance at his itinerary for only one year, 1308, will show how he spent his time in the service of his diocese. Early in 1308 he helped to crown Edward II at Westminster, and then held an ordination at St. Mary Overy, now Southwark Cathedral. In June and July he was at Marwell, Bitteme and East Meon, and on Trinity Sunday ordained 120 candidates at Southampton. By September he was at Highclere and then at Farnham for another big ordination service. In the winter he was again in the Surrey half of the diocese, at Farnham, Esher and Southwark, but spent Christmas at Highclere. A charming letter of invitation to the Prior of St. Swithun’s to keep the Christmas of 1310 with him at Wolvesey records Woodlock as friendly and firm; the Prior was definitely to come to Wolvesey, no plea of other engagement to stand in the way.

His successor, John Sandale (1316-1319) took some action against pluralists, incumbents who held more than one living, and also against clergy who were non-resident. By visitations and injunctions he rebuked monks and nuns for breaking their rules. A young chaplain, from St. Mary’s nunnery, Winchester, strutting round Winchester in a gay parti-coloured habit, had the misfortune to meet the bishop in person. He was severely rebuked, as was the abbess for allowing such a scandal.

The episcopate of William of Edington (1346-1366) was marred by the Black Death, yet Edington’s most remembered achievement is that he began the rebuilding of Winchester Cathedral, a task which he did not live to complete. The relations between the diocesan bishops and the Priory Church of St. Swithun in Winchester, their cathedral, has always been of great importance and the cathedral fabric, as it stands today, is almost entirely the work of the bishops of the diocese. The last of the great builders, before the Reformation, were William of Wykeham (1367-1404) and Richard Fox (1501-1528).

Both Wykeham and Fox were remarkable for the energy and time they devoted to the pressing problems of diocesan reform. Wykeham’s famous foundation, St. Mary College of Winchester, was founded in 1382 and was designed for 70 poor scholars, its object being to provide a sound education for men who were likely to go into the church. Repeated injunctions in his register reflect the low standard of clerical learning; thus, in 1385, he ordered the rector of St. Michael’s in Jewry Street, Winchester, to learn by heart the Creed, the Ten Command­ments, and ‘other things which a Minister ought to know’: an injunction which indicates a lack of elementary standards for a cleric in a cathedral city. There were, however, far too many churches in medieval Winchester for their respective parishes to survive the depletion of the city at the time of the Black Death. Bishop Fox greatly reduced the number by uniting certain livings, and long before his time the problem of church work in the poorer districts and outskirts of Winchester was partly solved by the coming of the Friars, and the erection of four great friary churches. Until the Black Death there was probably never less than 60 active parish churches in Win­chester, a great contrast with Portsmouth and Southampton.