Religious Houses

Religious Houses

It was because religion had such importance in the Middle Ages that great landowners were prepared to devote part of their wealth to the establishment of monastic houses and that men and women of high rank were prepared to forsake the things of the world, to give themselves up to religion, and to pass their lives within the seclusion of a monastery in performing religious services and in contemplation. The inmates of a religious house lived according to a code of rules of which there were several different varieties, the three most famous being the Benedictine, Cluniac and Cistercian. Orders of canons, the most notable being the Augustinian (or Austin) and Premonstratensian, also had their reli­gious houses with rules somewhat less strict than those of the monks.

The earliest religious houses in Kent, as has already been mentioned, were founded at Canterbury about the year 600 and many more had been established in the eastern part of the county by the end of the eighth century. Several had succumbed to the raids of the Danes. Nearly all, except the two great monasteries at Canterbury, Christ Church (also known as Holy Trinity) and St Augustine’s, were at a low ebb when Archbishop Lanfranc began to bring back some organi­sation into the English Church. At Rochester, for example, Bishop Gunduif in 1089 found that the monastery of St Andrew consisted of only four or five priests, and they were not monks. He caused them to resign and brought in fifty or sixty Benedictines. At Christ Church Lanfranc installed no fewer than 100 Benedictines (a number that by 1125 had risen to 150), most of whom came from Normandy or Burgundy. At Mailing Gundulf founded a house for Ben­edictine nuns about 1090, and a few years later the archbishop refounded for nuns of the same Order the nunnery at Minster-in-Sheppey which for much of the previous 400 years of its existence had suffered repeatedly at the hands of the Danes.

The extent to which religion held men’s minds is shown by the number of houses which were founded during the troubled years of Stephen’s reign. The king himself, with his queen, Maud, founded a Benedictine abbey at Faversham in 1147, and there he, his wife and his eldest son were buried. At Higham he established a Benedictine nunnery wherein his daughter Mary took her nun’s vows; afterwards she became abbess of Romsey. William of Ypres, a professional soldier, founded Boxley Abbey in 1143 at the height of the civil war which was devastating the country, bringing over to occupy it Cistercian monks from Burgundy. About the same time or perhaps a little earlier the great Robert Cathedral, Canterbury Crevecoeur, who began the building of Leeds Castle, established there a house of Austin Canons, and Richard de Clare, earl of Hereford, who held the Lowy and castle of Tonbridge, founded a similar house near to his stronghold. Some­what later, in 1178, Richard de Lucy, justiciar of England and the greatest of the king’s officers, built a house for Austin Canons at Lessness (Erith) and himself retired to spend his last years there. The Benedictine nunnery at Davington, the Premonstratensian abbeys at St Radegund’s (near Dover) and West Langdon, and Combwell Priory (Goudhurst; Austin Canons) all date from the second half of the 12th century. The last Austin Canons’ house to be founded in Kent was Bilsington Priory, in 1253.

Besides the great religious houses there were many smaller foundations whose purpose was the charitable one of caring for the sick and the old and providing shelter for pilgrims. Lanfranc founded St John’s Hospital at Canterbury for infirm or aged men and women about the year 1084; it still continues its good work and so, too, does St Bartholomew’s Hospital at Rochester, founded as a hospital for lepers by Bishop Gunduif nearly 900 years ago. Sandwich also has its St Bartholomew’s Hospital, a house for elderly men and women, which was established in 1190.

Hospitals, or hostels as perhaps we should call them, for the reception of pilgrims were instituted at Canterbury (Eastbridge Hospital is a good example) and at other places along the route which the pilgrims followed. This was the purpose of the Maison Dieu which the great Hubert de Burgh set up at Dover about 1220 and the Maison Dieu at Ospringe, which Henry III is believed to have founded about 1240, may well have been built with the same object.

Canterbury became a centre of pilgrimage as the result of the murder of Thomas Becket. His quarrel with his erstwhile friend, Henry II, his murder in his own cathedral and. his subsequent beatification belong to the history of England and of Christendom. Many stories were told of the miraculous cures effected by the saint. His tomb soon became famed, both in England and overseas, as one of the great places of pilgrimage and the large sums that were offered there show how many men and women made the journey to Canter­bury, either following Watling Street like Chaucer’s pilgrims from Southwark through Rochester, Sittingbourne, Boughton and Harbledown, or crossing the Strait to Dover and making their way over Barham Downs to the cathedral where the bones of the martyr lay. The Statute of Money of 1335 ordained that pilgrims should enter the country only at the port of Dover, and that tables for the exchange of foreign money should be set up there. The cult of St Thomas continued into the 15th century and in 1420, 250 years after the martyrdom, it was testified by the bailiffs of the city that 100,000 people assembled at Canterbury. The figure must be merely a guess, but obviously great crowds resorted to the shrine in that year. Thereafter the number of pilgrims fell off sharply, and by the 1470s the annual offerings at the shrine were only a pound or two.

The great religious houses had little contact, except as landlords, with the rest of the community. They became a spiritually, and sometimes also physically, comfortable retreat from the cares of the world for the high-born and the well-to-do. Within them, here and there, learning flourished, but for the community at large they did little or nothing. It was a realisation of this, and a realisation of the dreadful lot of the common people, that caused St Francis of Assisi, in Italy, and St Dominic, in Spain, to seek other, less comfortable and more active ways of living the Christian life. Such was the origin of the friars, men who bound themselves to a life of poverty of good works, and of preaching God’s word. The first small band of Dominicans reached Canterbury in August 1220. They were cordially received by Archbishop Langton and within a year or so the Blackiriars had been built for their accommodation. Four years later a group of Franciscans, even fewer in number than the Dominicans (there were only nine of them), made their way from Fécamp in Normandy to Canterbury, where five remained whilst the other four set out for London. Thus the friars came to England, a score of men who brought with them a movement that was to affect the religious, the economic, and the social life of the whole country. Their influence and their success were immediate. At Canterbury the Franciscans, or Greyfriars, were given a house and in 1270 they moved to the site and buildings which still go by their name. A few years later a third order of friars, the Carmelites, or Whitefriars, crossed to England and Lord Grey founded the first Carmelite house at Aylesford in the year 1240. In the following year a second was established at Lossenham, in Newenden parish, on the Sussex border.

In the course of time the friars forgot their vows of poverty. As the great monastic houses had done they also grew rich and too fond of the pleasures of the world like Chaucer’s friar, ‘a wanton and a merry’ who ‘knew the taverns well in every town’. By the 15th century their best work had been done. Neither friars nor monks were now so essential a part of the religious community; their numbers fell, some of the smaller houses containing only three or five members, and at Davington, in 1535, the priory was entirely deserted. The Black Death of 1349 had struck communal institutions particularly hardly, and after it few religious houses ever again reached their full comple­ment of monks or nuns. That would not have happened if men had still felt monasticism to be a centrally important part of the religious life. When Henry VIII, with Thomas Cromwell as his willing agent, set about dissolving the religious houses in the 1530s he was not therefore attacking an institution still possessed of the vigour of its early years. The king’s motives and those of his henchman may have been of the basest, their methods dishonest and their lack of humane consideration for the inmates of suppressed houses sometimes deplorable, but the very fact that the monasteries could be dissolved was a tacit acknowledgement that times and society had changed, that not only had the power of the Crown increased, but also that the religious house was no longer the vital force in men’s lives that it had been in earlier centuries.

One effect of the Dissolution was to transfer into lay hands the vast estates owned by the monastic houses. In Kent these estates were especial!y extensive, the Domesday Book valuation of the lands of Christ Church and St Augustine’s, Canterbury, being, together, almost half that of the entire county. As might be expected monastic houses were prudent landlords and capable farmers; from the records which they kept we can learn much about agrarian Kent in the Middle Ages. The next chapter deals with the estates owned by the most wealthy of the Kentish monasteries, Christ Church, Canterbury.