The Middle Ages:. Church and People

VI The Middle Ages: Church and People

Christianity came early to the area and Lincoln was its natural focus. There are a few signs of Christian adherence during the Roman period. Early in the seventh century, as Bede records, Paulinus bishop of York led a mission to

the province of Lindsey, which is the first on the south side of the river Humber, stretching out as far as the sea; and he first converted the governor of the city of Lincoln, whose name was Blecca, with his whole family. He likewise built in that city a stone church of beautiful workmanship.

Converts were baptised in the presence of King Edwin of York in the Trent near Littleborough.

Although Lindsey was conquered by pagan Mercia a few years later, the work of conversion continued. The names of some early missionaries are known, like Chad who founded Barrow, Oswald of Bardney and Higbald abbot of a Lindsey monastery commemorated in the dedication of churches around Hibaldstow (Higbald’s shrine). Minster churches – mission stations staffed by a number of clergy who preached in the area around – characterised this early church. A few are known like Threekingham, and vestiges of others can be seen at Grantham, Caistor, Horncastle and at Louth and Stow by Lincoln; St Paulinus’ church at Lincoln may also have been one. A few private churches may have been founded as well.

The first diocese

By about 680 the kingdom of Lindsey had its own bishop owing allegiance to York or Lichfield depending on whether Northumbria or Mercia wielded authority over the area. His seat was at ‘Sidnacester’, the site of which is unknown. South Lincolnshire lay in the diocese or sub-diocese of Leicester with general allegiance to Lichfield.

This structure was destroyed when the Danes came. There ceased to be a bishop in Lindsey; the bishop of Leicester had responsibility for the whole area. As pressure from the Danes increased he gradually withdrew to Dorchester on Thames. But Christianity survived the new pagan settlement, and when the Danelaw was conquered by Wessex, the conversion of its inhabitants was rapid. The region produced a number of bishops, and the relative absence of pagan burials and the presence of Christian symbols on coins suggest a swift and deep response. When the area was once again rescued from York rule in the mid- lOth century, it was regarded as the rescue of a Christian population from a pagan overlord.

Map of the medieval diocese
14. The medieval diocese

The medieval diocese

The whole area from the Thames to the Humber thus came under the bishop of Dorchester with perhaps suffragan bishops; in 991 there is mention of ‘the men of Kesteven and their bishop Aeswige’. Soon after the Conquest/Crusade, along with other bishops, Remigius the new French-Norman bishop at Dorchester moved his see; he chose Lincoln, perhaps in response to claims by the archbishop of York to jurisdiction over Lindsey and ownership of estates at Louth, Stow, Newark and elsewhere. Although the Council of Winchester in 1072 had ruled in favour of Remigius, York objected to his move to Lincoln, claiming that the bishop was now resident in the northern province. The dispute was a long one with the king and pope supporting Remigius, but the cathedral was dedicated in 1095 despite protests from the archbishop and the diocese of Lincoln remained in this form until the Reformation.

The religious life of the diocese and especially of the county focussed on Lincoln. Remigius started the cathedral and his work can still be seen in the west front. But this work was destroyed by fire in 1141 and its successor by earthquake in 1185. The present church and chapter house are largely the result of work started in 1192 by Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, and lasting until 1232. The cathedral was extended across the Roman city wall to the east and the central tower was capped by a spire (removed in the 16th century). The Angel Choir was built 1260-80. The result is probably the finest early Gothic building in Europe, a symbol of religious domination and achievement. Round it lies the Close with its houses for canons, Vicars Court and the bishop’s palace.

Apart from Lincoln, the bishop had a palace at Stow, a house at Nettleham and a castle at Sleaford in Lincolnshire; but his main residences lay outside of the region at Newark castle, Buckden palace and elsewhere. Many bishops of Lincoln, like Richard Gravesend (1258-­79), served the king in various capacities throughout the Middle Ages. But despite his absences, the bishop directed the religious life of the diocese, often at the instance of the king or pope. He supervised the clergy and sought to control the lay patrons who appointed them; he regulated the monasteries and issued orders concerning church buildings and lay morals; he set up councils and synods and visited the diocese area by area; he built up a body of officials and an administrative system. The huge diocese was divided into seven archdeaconries roughly coinciding with the nine counties covered. Lincolnshire was sub-divided, the archdeaconry of Stow covering the area of Lindsey and based on Remigius’ new monastery at Stow, and the archdeaconry of Lincoln covering the rest of the county. Courts were held and officials such as sequestrators for the probate of wills appointed. By about 1100, Lincolnshire was further divided into 25 deaneries, approximating to the wapentakes, each with its dean and chapter of clergy.


Few if any pre-Danish churches survived the invasions, and our present parish churches were founded after the conversion of the Danelaw. By 1086 a third of all the parish churches in the county had been established and the number may have been higher, for pre-Conquest work survives in some churches not mentioned in Domesday Book. Some places like Binbrook and Threekingham had two churches, perhaps representing twin settlements (North and South Elkington, East and West Allington). The number recorded for Lincolnshire, 255 in 248 places, is higher than for any other county save Suffolk; Norfolk with 243 churches comes next.

Since parish churches were built and endowed by owners of private estates, there was over-provision in some areas, especially in the towns. Medieval Lincoln had 48 churches, Stamford fourteen. But Boston, Louth, Grantham and Grimsby had only one or two medieval churches, reflecting the pattern of ownership in these places. In the countryside, churches continued to be established until about 1150, some remaining as private chapels or chapels of ease, others becoming parish churches.

Parishes were created by attaching to a church an area, usually based on an estate or township, which paid its tithes to that church and enjoyed its spiritual services. They varied in size, some covering more than one village, others only part of a village territory. New parishes were formed by sub-dividing earlier parishes. In the southern Wolds and central Kesteven where villages were close together and landlordship strong, parishes were small and irregular in shape; along the edges of the limestone belt, the parishes included different types of land, high heath-land, low clay pastures and meadows. In the Fens and Marsh,the undrained land was divided, sometimes at a late date by drawing straight lines across empty areas where inhabitants of neighbouring settlements grazed their cattle in common.

There are few second-rate medieval churches in Lincolnshire; even the smallest village lavished care on its religious centre. With good building materials, long architectural traditions and skilled craftsmen to hand, Lincolnshire produced the richest architectural harvest in the country. Local schools of building styles can be seen, as in the Sleaford area, while the Lincolnshire broach spire is rivalled only by that of the Nene valley.

The surviving buildings reflect the wealth and devotion of those who gave to the fabric, furniture and ritual of the churches which dominated the landscape. During the 14th and 15th centuries, guilds and private chantries were founded in town and village churches alike; altars were set up and priests endowed to pray for the soul of members of the guild or the donor’s family. Churches were enlarged, often to house several such chantries, and sometimes as at Sedgebrook regulations were drawn up for the chantry priests. Grantham had at least six such altars and more than ten clergy, while Boston, Sleaford, Louth and Gainsborough were served by several priests; even smaller rural churches had more than the statutory priest and deacon. At Spilsby and Tattershall, ‘col­leges’ were founded with clergy living under common rules.

Chapels and hospitals were founded, mostly in the towns. Lincoln had five hospitals, Stamford three, and there were a further 14 in the county, small houses run by monks, canons or nuns to help: the poor, the sick, the aged and/or travellers. A few were in villages or like Spittal le Street in the countryside on the main roads.


Map of Monastic Houses
15. Monastic Houses

There were more monasteries in Lincolnshire for its size than in any other county save Yorkshire. They lay scattered over the county, large ones like Crowland and small ones like Newbo in Sedgebrook. Most have vanished, their stones used for building and for burning for lime to sweeten the soil, especially in the Fens; a number of villages are built from the carved and dressed stone taken from monastic sites (in 18th-century Crowland, ‘you see pieces of it in every house’, as Stukeley noted). Few sites have been excavated, and thus the remains are not as striking as those of Yorkshire and elsewhere.

One reason for the number of monasteries was the wealth of Lincoln­shire. Further, it abounded in freemen who could give land for religious purposes, and there was wasteland for monks seeking solitude. Most of them were founded after the Conquest/Crusade. All the pre-Danish monasteries, whether refuges or spearheads of evangelisation, were destroyed, and only Crowland was re-occupied when monasteries came to be refounded in the 10th and early 11th centuries. Later legends claim for Spalding and St. Leonard’s Stamford very early foundations, and the pre-Danish site of Bardney was re-settled in 1087.

From 1066 to 1135, eight monasteries were established in the county, but during Stephen’s troubled 19 years no less than 23 houses were set up. Thereafter the rate fell again; 12 were built in 35 years under Henry II and six more from 1180 to 1396. All the orders save the Cluniacs were represented in the area, but the most popular was the Gilbertines. The only English medieval monastic order, it began in Lincolnshire; Gilbert the rector of Sempringham was encouraged by his patron (Gil­bert de Ghent of Folkingham) to establish a house for nuns with canons attached. The movement became the most popular order for women in the 12th century; while St. Gilbert lived (he died in 1189, aged 105), most houses were double houses but after his death the new foundations tended to be for men only. Most of the 11 Gilbertine monasteries in Lincolnshire were built before 1189, and all but two housed both nuns and canons. A Carthusian house was founded late in the 14th century by the Mowbrays in Axholme. There were five houses of the Knights Templar, joined after their suppression in 1311 to the two smaller Hospitallers centres; Eagle, Aslackby and Witham were important houses, Temple Bruer on the Heath a later foundation.

Most of the monasteries were built by the lesser nobility; five were royal foundations, 13 were established by great magnates and four by bishops, one by ‘the men of Torksey’. Some, especially the Cistercians, were no doubt founded on the initiative of groups of monks seeking isolation; Kirkstead was located in a place of ‘horror like a vast solitude’. At Revesby and elsewhere whole villages were cleared away, and the monks of Castle Bytham moved to a more private site at Vaudey.

Others were founded by lay lords improving the status of a church or estate. At Bourne, Baldwin fitz Gilbert asked Arrouaise in France to supply canons to man the church he was rebuilding, and elsewhere lords built monasteries close to their main residence – Tailbois at Spalding, Alan de Creoun at Frieston, the count of Aumale at Castle : Bytham. Kirkstead looked to the lord of Tattershall nearby for patronage and protection, Revesby to the earl of Lincoln at Bolingbroke. The bishop of Lincoln gave Haverholme close to his castle and new town of Sleaford to the Cistercians, and when they moved to Louth Park in search of better lands he gave it to the Gilbertines, who complained of the isolation and uselessness of the site.

The lesser gentry had similar motives – to improve their lands, establish a memorial for themselves and save their souls by the prayers of a religious community. This accounts for the smaller houses with only three or four monks, daughter houses of larger monasteries. Baldwin fitz Gilbert established Deeping St. James and gave it to Thorney abbey. Perpetual intercession could also be secured by granting land to a monastery elsewhere; the 13 or so ‘alien priories’ in Lincolnshire, cells of continental (mostly French) houses, were founded in this way. Hugh Wake gave land at Wilsford to Bec abbey in Normandy, Ralph of Fougeres granted Long Bennington church to Savigny: in both cases, a small priory was established with a monk-warden and perhaps one other brother but no full monastic residence. Lincolnshire lands were valuable and many monasteries were keen to own such estates; perhaps this accounts for the presence of the early houses on wastelands, the later ones on richer soils.

Lincolnshire had a number of friaries, those shock-troops of the 13th-century church, travelling out from their town head-quarters to preach, beg, resist heresy and serve the disadvantaged. Boston, Lincoln and Stamford had houses of all four main orders, Franciscans (Grey), Domi­nicans (Black), Carmelites (White) and Austin friars; Grimsby had two, Grantham one, and there was a short-lived house at Whaplode in the Fens.

Popular religion

Behind the parish church with its rites of baptism, marriage, burial, mass and occasional sermon (most preaching was left to the friars) was a deeply rooted set of religious practices based on local shrines, crosses and holy sites, trees and wells. Sometimes non-parochial chapels came to mark these sites as the frontiers of settlement in the Fens and the forests of Kesteven were pushed back.

Lincoln was at the heart of the religious life of the area. The cult of St. Hugh made it for a time as important a devotional centre as Walsingham Norfolk. No other place in the county rivalled this: Boston with its Holy Rood and monasteries like Crowland and Sempringham set out to attract devotees and their offerings to the building funds. Only Stamford became a major religious centre with its churches, monasteries, hospitals and schools. For a short time in the 1330s there was an attempt to establish a university at Stamford. Students and teachers from Oxford settled there until the king and the bishop of Lincoln at the request of the university at Oxford suppressed this academy, and from this time the schools at Stamford declined.

As the Middle Ages passed, efforts were made to channel popular religion into specifically Christian forms. The bishop of Lincoln paid particular attention to the monasteries where lay patronage and a decline in fervour had led to corruption in some places; at Bardney for instance, the visitors found hounds in the cloisters and mews for hawks. These reforms seem to have had some success, and many Lincolnshire monas­teries, especially the smaller ones, were better places in 1530 than they had been a hundred years before.