Monastic Houses & Hospitals

Monastic Houses & Hospitals

At the Norman Conquest all the Dorset monasteries were Benedictine or Black Monk houses, living by the original Rule of St Benedict, since the great reforms then taking place on the Continent only reached England in the wake of the Normans. They survived the Conquest with their possessions almost intact, though Cranborne and Horton were much poorer than the rest and before long were reduced to priories dependent upon another abbey. The century following the Conquest saw two im- portant developments — the founding of new houses in the reformed Orders of Cluny and Citeau, and the widespread granting of estates to French abbeys which resulted in the setting up of dependent priories or cells.

The Cluniac Order was a reformed version of that of St Benedict, laying great stress on worship and little on manual labour, and its one representative in Dorset was East Holme Priory, a dependency of Montacute Abbey in Somerset. This house was founded about 1160, originally for a prior and twelve monks, and survived till the Dissolution, though in its later days the prior had only two monks under him.

The Cistercians or White Monks were founded early in the twelfth century to bring back the simplicity and hard labour which the Benedictines had abandoned, and their policy at first was to settle in lonely undeveloped spots and support themselves by their own efforts. Their first Dorset foundation was in such a place, on the coast under Bindon Hill by Lulworth Cove, but this seems to have proved too discouraging. In 1172 the community moved to a more promising site near Wool, taking with it the name ‘Bindon’ but keeping up its old buildings as a grange or outlying farm. In its early days it flourished, but by the four- teenth century it was in sad trouble. It was badly in debt, and on such terms with its neighbours that in 1329 the king had to intervene after the place had been pillaged and the monks dispersed. At the root of the business was Abbot John, who had been deposed for misdoings but had refused to take his dismissal. Two years later we find him raiding the abbey by night, with the help of the Prior of East Holme, and carrying off the abbey seal and anything else he could lay hands on. Few abbots were as bad as this, but those who were could go a long way to ruin their abbey. Bindon struggled on till the Dissolution, as much the poorest of the Dorset abbeys.

‘ The other Cistercian house was the nunnery at Tarrant Crawford, which was founded about 1180 and adopted the Rule some forty years later. In its early days it was much favoured: a Queen of Scotland was buried there, and it received many gifts and endowments. Its history contained no scandals like that of Bindon, and there were still twenty inmates at the Dissolution.

The ‘Alien Priories’, as the cells belonging to French abbeys were called, had a chequered history. At most they housed a prior and two monks, whose business was to look after the estate and who could not carry out the full monastic life. Povington may have been a mere grange without a community. All were repeatedly seized by the king in times of war with France, and they were finally suppressed at the outbreak of the Agincourt war in 1414. Most of their property passed to English abbeys or churches.

The Crusading Order of Hospitallers or Knights of St John had one Dorset house, at Friar Mayne, whose original function was to train new members and provide retirement for those whose fighting days were over. Little is known of its history, but it was small and apparently dwindled into a grange before the Dissolution.

The Friars reached Dorset soon after their foundation, and a small house of Carmelites or White Friars was founded at Bridport about 1265. It did not flourish, however, and soon died out. There was a plan to establish Dominicans (Black Friars) at Gillingham about 1267, but it is not certain that it was ever carried out. The Franciscans (Grey Friars) definitely had a friary at Dorchester on the castle site before 1267, which had 32 inmates in 1296 and endured to the Dissolution. Probably the most valuable friar house was that of the Dominicans at Melcombe Regis. It was not founded till 1418, and it was never wealthy, but it did much to restore the fortunes of Melcombe after plague and repeated burnings by the French had brought them to a low ebb. The friars, amongst other useful work, built and fortified a jetty. The founders were much concerned at the ‘rudeness and ignorance’ of the Melcombe people, and the fact that their parish church was away at Radipole, and after a tussle with the bishop they got permission for the inhabitants to use the friars’ church.

Little is known of the small houses of Blackmoor Hermitage and Wilkswood. The former seems to have been a hermit community living by a Rule of Augustinian type, though it was never actually part of that Order: it declined into a grange of Cerne Abbey by 1513. Wilkswood was a fourteenth century chantry house of perhaps three inmates, attached to the manor of Langton Wallis and founded to pray for the souls of its lords.

By far the most important part of Dorset monastic history remained with the old and wealthy foundations which survived from Saxon times, though these too all suffered to some extent from the decline which over- took the monasteries generally in the fourteenth century. The Abbot of Abbotsbury was suspended in 13 53 for extravagance and incompetence — and complained that he was deprived of the services of his squire, chamberlains, and grooms. The abbey lay on the coast, and during the later part of the century it suffered from French raiders and complained of poverty. So did Shaftesbury, but for a very different reason: unlike most houses of the later Middle Ages it was overcrowded. The pope in 1218 had set a limit of 100 nuns, but this was often exceeded; and the money troubles which all landowners suffered after the Black Death affected even this wealthy place. Numbers fell towards the end, but there were still 57 at the Dissolution – far more than in any house of monks.

Cerne had an uneventful history, but Sherborne (which survived the removal of the Bishop’s See to Sarum in 1075) is remarkable for the famous quarrel between monks and townsmen which came to a head in 1436 and resulted in the burning of the abbey church. The townsmen used part of the nave as a parish church, and the monks complained that they had set up a separate font there and rang the bells at annoying hours. The townspeople replied that the monks had moved the original font from the nave and narrowed the dividing wall, to make things awkward for them. The bishop intervened to order everything to be put back as it had been, and the bells to be silent before daybreak, but this did not satisfy the hotheads. A fire-arrow shot into the partition between nave and chancel set the whole church ablaze, and the marks of fire can still be seen in the stone. The townsmen were forced to contribute to the rebuilding, but fortunately at the Dissolution they were able to buy the church for their own use.

Milton had its period of fourteenth century depression, when in 1344 it was taken into the king’s hands because of quarrels between the abbot and his monks, after lightning had fired the church and burnt the title— deeds and records in 1300. But its last years seem to have seen a recovery, and the foundation of a Free Grammar School for the town by Abbot Middleton in 1521 was remarkable at a time when most monasteries were in decay. Sherborne was also maintaining a school at this time.

The College of Wimborne Minster was not a monastery but a house of priests or canons, originally with a dean and four prebendaries. The fourteenth century growth of chantries to sing masses for the dead added four chaplains, and a fifth, who was also to keep a school, was endowed in I 511. The minster priests not only sang their masses and kept up the services in their church but also served another chapel in the town and three in neighbouring villages.

Medieval Hospitals were charitable foundations which in most cases were almshouses or hospices rather than places for medical treatment. Leper hospitals are heard of at Allington, Blandford, Lyme, and Wimborne, and others may also have been originally for lepers: but when leprosy declined they turned into almshouses for the old or sick poor. All had a warden (generally a priest with the duty of singing masses for the soul of the founder) and in some cases he received all the income while the inmates relied on local charity. The famous Sherborne alms- house, which still survives, was chartered in 1437 for the support of twelve poor men and four women, with a chaplain: its trustees were the only ‘corporation’ in the town, and as such took over several important public functions like the management of the Grammar School and the fairs and markets. Very different was the Hospital of St Thomas in the same place, which in Edward VI’s time was found to have a warden who took all the endowment, did nothing for it, and housed no poor. Some hospitals perished with the confiscation of chantry property, but others which were performing a genuine service were allowed to continue as almshouses.