Religious Houses & Hospitals


At the time of Domesday Book there were only two monasteries in Devon, Tavistock and Buckfast, both Benedictine houses surviving from Saxon times.

Tavistock had been founded in 974, and Buckfast under Cnut in 1030. Until 1050 there had been two more, but when the cathedral was moved from Crediton to Exeter the Crediton monastery became a collegiate church; and the Exeter monks, who had never recovered from the Danish ravages of 1003, were turned out by the bishop to make way for canons.

The great continental movements of monastic reform reached England in the wake of the Nor­mans, and houses of the Orders of Cluny and Cîteau Were founded in Devon not long afterwards. The Cluniac Order was a reformed version of that of St Benedict, and laid special emphasis on elaborate worship. Its Devon houses were all dependent on outside abbeys, and apart from Kerswell and Pilton were ‘alien priories’ belonging to French monast­eries. Barnstaple was the most important of them, and when most of the others were confiscated during the Hundred Years War, it was allowed to cut its ties with France and survive. The rest were tiny houses, often with only a prior and two monks whose business was to look after an estate and who could not carry out the full monastic life.

A much greater impact was made by the Cis­tercians or White Monks. Their object was to restore the manual labour which others now avoided, and to settle in remote spots where they could support themselves by their own efforts and escape the worldly complications of managing manors. They also gave the unlearned a chance of the religious life as lay brothers. Their first influence was at Buckfast, where they took over the existing monastery and began to develop sheep farming on Dartmoor. Soon afterwards, in 1136,  a new house was founded at Brightley near Okehampton, with an abbot and twelve monks brought from Waverley m Surrey. This proved rather too remote, and after five years they decided to return; but on the way they were offered a much better site at Forde (then in Devon) and there they settled and built what became the most scholarly of the Devon abbeys. It was also the scene of one of the few local monastic scandals when the abbot and the bishop quarreled and excommunicated each other in 1276. The King had to send judges to settle the fracas, and it ended with the abbot doing public penance.

In 1201 monks from Fordê founded Dunkeswell, and in 1246 a fourth house was settled at Newenham near Axminster by monks and lay brothers from Beaulieu. A century later, all but three of the twenty-six inmates perished here of the Black

Death; and We hear that eiRhty.e’aht abbey servants (whom the admission of lay brothers had been meant to avoid) died with them. Buckland was the last Cistercian house, being established by monks from Quarr in 1278, and also the latest monastic foundation in the county.

Difficult to distinguish from monks, except that they were free to leave the monastery on priestly duties, were the regular (as distinct from secular) canons. Except for Torre (1196) which belonged to the comparatively rare Order of Prémontré, they were all Augustinian (as were also the nunneries of Canonsleigh and Cornworthy). Canonsleigh began, as the name implies, as a house of canons, but not long afterwards the bishop expelled them by force for reasons not fully recorded, and made it over to nuns. Plympton (1 121) grew into the richest of Devon monasteries, and had a ‘cell’ at Marsh Barton for the convenience of the brethren visiting Exeter. Like Hartland (1 170) it had previously been a col­legiate church or ‘minster’. Fritheistock was an offshoot of Hartland which was never prosperous: it tried to mend its fortunes with a bogus pilgrim shrine, which the bishop had to suppress in 1351.

Collegiate churches, with a body of priests living in a ‘college’ or community, were founded in several places as enthusiasm for endowing monasteries fell off, and others, like the great foundation at Crediton, survived from earlier times. Ottery St Mary was established on a grand scale by Bishop Grandison in 1338, and included from the first a ‘master of grammar’. Crediton also came to maintain a school, and both survived in the guise of Tudor re-foundations. Slapton and Haccombe were both small, post-Black Death, chantry foundations, with the main duty of singing masses for the souls of founders and their kin.

In Devon as elsewhere, monastic life lost much of its earlier enthusiasm as time wore on; but only at Tavistock do we hear of really unfortunate abbots who created scandal. One was deposed by the bishop after a year’s reign as a ‘manifest and intolerable plunderer’ of abbey property, and another was so addicted to hunting that he ran the place into heavy debt and let discipline take care of itself. An Arch­deacon’s Visitation of the parish church there in 1 342 found that ‘the vicar and clerks cannot say the Canonical Hours in the chancel, the proper place, when it rains, as the chancel has no roof. The Rectors, the Abbot and Convent of Tavistock, are responsible for these defects.’ Lasting damage could be done by such, but they were mercifully rare.

Before the Dissolution we find Tavistock sufficiently enterprising to set up the first Devon printing press. The tiny house of Hospitallers at Bodmiscombe, however, lived up to the warlike reputation of its Order by continual and sometimes violent quarrels over property with the Dunkeswell monks.

After the Black Death, some of the endowment which would earlier have gone to monasteries was devoted to hospitals. In the Middle Ages these were not necessarily for medical treatment: most were simply refuges for people who could no longer support themselves or were cut off from their fellows by leprosy. Leper hospitals existed outside Exeter, Tavistock, Pilton, Torrington and other places. But by the late Middle Ages leprosy was dying out, and such hospitals as survived the confiscation of chantry property became in time almshouses. Other founda­tions had been so from the beginning, and Clyst Gabriel near Exeter was founded for twelve aged clergy. Many hospitals had a warden who was also a priest with the duty of singing masses for the soul of the founder, and this allowed them to be sup­pressed as chantries.

When the Dissolution was ordered by Henry VIII, the first monasteries to go (1536) were the poorer ones with annual revenue under £200. Tavi stock, Plympton, Hartland, Torre, and the five Cistercian abbeys came above this limit. Polsloe and Canonsleigh, just under it, paid to be allowed to continue. Heads of the dissolved houses were pen­sioned, and the rest given the option to transfer to surviving houses or (if priests) to become secular clergy. The friaries went next, in 1538, but their possessions were too small to support pensions. Friars were given small gratuities, and the option of becoming parish priests. The final closure of the remaining abbeys in 1 539 passed without open opposition in Devon, and in some cases the last superiors had been deliberately appointed as likely to prove co-operative. Generous pensions were awarded to abbots and priors, and those for monks and nuns were enough to live on at a pinch. Many monks soon found employment in the secular Church: the last Abbot of Forde became a suffragan bishop, the last of Buckfast a Prebendary of St Paul’s, and others became rectors or vicars of Devon parishes. For nuns, however, there were no such openings, and most must have returned to their families.

Much monastic property passed rapidly through the King’s hands into those of reliable gentry, but estates remained burdened with pension charges as long as the former monks or nuns survived. Details of the numbers, wealth, and pensions of the larger houses were:

(A – Abbot or Abbess, P – Prior, M – Monks, N—Nuns)

The Dissolution had double-edged effects. It end­ed the local and sometimes ill-directed charity to the poor, but also put a stop to extortion from a distance. An example of the latter was the complaint of the parishioners of Wembury (in 1 535) that Plympton Priory took £50 a year from the parish but provided a priest only on Sunday mornings, so that many died without the Last Sacraments, while the prior had forbidden them to hire another priest at their own expense – a problem shared with neighbouring pari­shes. The number of secular clergy was considerably increased, and where schools were involved they were mostly soon refounded. A major effect was a massive transfer of landed property, most of it sold or leased in comparatively small amounts, with the result of enlarging or creating many moderate estates – a factor in the ‘rise of the gentry’. In Devon there was also the transfer of the property of Tavi stock and Dunkeswell to the Russell family (shortly Earls and later Dukes of Bedford), in order to establish a reliable successor to the Courtenays in a sometimes troublesome county.

The wisdom of this last move was shown in 1549, when a riot at Sampford Courtenay against the introduction of the new Prayer Book in English, and other Protestant changes, developed into an armed rebellion in Devon and Cornwall. Several leading gentry, and many Catholic-minded priests, of both counties, emerged to lead it, demanding the maintenance of services in Latin, and Catholic ritual. They also, interestingly, called for the restoration of two abbeys in each county, and the return to them of half the confiscated monastic and chantry lands. Attempts by local magistrates to quiet the rebels by persuasion, and by the government by offer of pardon, failed; and the rebels laid siege to Exeter where they hoped for support from Catholic sympathisers in the city. At first Lord Russell, as Lord Lieutenant, had no troops; but hc soon raised some with money provided by rich Exeter merchants and defeated a rebel force at Fenny Bridges. When the government sent him German and Italian mercen­aries he was able to rout the insurgents again at Woodbury and Clyst St Mary, and raise the siege of Exeter. With further reinforcements he dispersed the remaining rebels at Sampford Courtenay and suppressed the revolt. The leaders were executed (including the vicar of St Thomas, who was hanged in full canonical dress from his own church tower). The remaining rebels eventually, after much bar­barity by mercenaries, were granted a pardon.