IN about 1100, Bishop Herbert de Losinga completed the domestic quarters of his cathedral priory at Norwich, and summoned the monks of the new community down from the chapel of St Leonard in nearby Thorpe wood where they had stayed during the construction of their new home. Not all the monks made the journey, however; a remnant stayed behind to maintain divine service at St Leonard's, which remained a cell of the cathedral priory until the Dissolution. (1) This decision at first sight seems puzzling. There was no ancient association of the site which might encourage permanent settlement, and the chapel had been built only a few years earlier at Losinga's behest. It would appear that the only reason for the continued presence of Norwich monks at St Leonard's Priory was a reluctance to abandon a location at which monastic services had been performed for a time, however short. Other contemporary parallels can be cited. When Robert Fitz Hamo moved the monks of Cranborne to a new site at Tewkesbury in 1102, a prior and two monks remained in Cranborne to keep up monastic worship there. A similar presence was maintained at Calke and Hood when their Augustinian communities moved on to Repton and Newburgh respectively in the mid-twelfth century, and other examples of this concern for the preservation of a previous home can be seen at Jarrow, Wearmouth and Horton, which survived as cells of Durham and Sherborne after monastic re-locations. (2) There appears, therefore, to have been a concern in some circles for the preservation of a monastic presence at what might be considered traditionally cenobitic sites. This attitude was not shared by the Cistercians, who changed location without a backward glance and whose radicalism precluded such a traditionalist approach; and not every Benedictine and Augustinian re-location in the twelfth century resulted in a permanent offshoot. (3) Yet this feeling that traditionally monastic locations should not be abandoned wherever possible was substantiated by canon law, which stated that 'when once monasteries have been dedicated with the consent of bishops, they must always remain monasteries ...; they can never again become secular habitations'. (4)
Another manifestation of this principle can be seen in the decision to replace a number of failed male religious houses with nunneries between 1150 and 1250, rather than allowing them to lapse altogether. (5) How far such conservative ideas survived into the later middle ages might be doubted. The fifteenth century saw the wholesale suppression of the alien priories, and their replacement by more up-to-date institutions, like academic and other secular colleges. As has often been noted, a number of decayed denizen monasteries were also suppressed over the later middle ages and their property given to non-monastic foundations, a process which ended in Wolsey's closure of twenty-nine houses for his educational foundations in Oxford and Ipswich. Nevertheless, if we leave aside the alien priories, which were dissolved only because of their anomalous position as dependencies of abbeys in enemy territory, the most striking feature of the monastic order in late medieval England is its stability. Of approximately 700 abbeys and priories (excluding foreign daughter houses) in England and Wales in 1300, something like 675 remained in 1524 when Wolsey's plans were in preparation, despite the slender resources of many small houses.
The reasons for this reluctance to rationalize monastic property have seldom been examined closely, and have often been attributed to unthinking conservatism. (6) Conservative attitudes can be most clearly discerned when put under pressure, and therefore the relatively few cases where monasteries were terminated in the later middle ages deserve our attention. Most of these incidences involved the largest and poorest religious order in medieval England, the Austin canons, and the premature closure of Augustinian houses was made the subject of an article by J. C. Dickinson more than half a century ago. (7) But there was also a handful of Benedictine monasteries (male and female) which were shut down in this period, and another small group of houses whose survival was secured only by their conversion into cells. The study of these cases provides an opportunity to re-examine attitudes towards the closure of monasteries in late medieval England, away from the exceptional and politicized scramble for alien priory property. It will be argued that there remained in several quarters a strong resistance to the withdrawal of monastic service from traditionally cenobitic sites, which only began to be eroded significantly in the late fifteenth century, and which was still in evidence in the 1530s. This belief that it mattered not only that suffrages for the dead were performed in perpetuity, but where they were performed and by whom, was not held universally. But it is of real interest as one important, and little-appreciated, element in late medieval thinking about the reallocation of ecclesiastical property, which cannot be dismissed as mere 'inertia'.
Included among Dickinson's 'early suppressions of English houses of Austin canons' are several priories that were not actually dissolved but were instead re-organized as small cells of larger monasteries. This change marked the end of the priory's independence but prevented the turning of the traditionally monastic site to 'profane uses' and, even more importantly, permitted the continuation of monastic observance at that location. To talk of the 'dissolution' of priories reduced to the status of cells, as Dickinson did, is therefore to miss the point of the conversion; this was a measure designed to keep the monastery functioning in any format possible. The remodelling of financially embarrassed monasteries as dependencies was almost exclusively a mid-fifteenth-century phenomenon, presumably conceived to counteract the harsh economic conditions of the day. (8) It does not seem to have been a policy strongly encouraged within the monastic order itself. Pope Benedict XII's remedy for Benedictine houses 'collapsis infacultatibus' in his statutes of 1336 was to compel neighbouring monasteries to accommodate their excess population, whereas the Benedictine provincial chapter's only suggestion amounted to little more than a 'whip round': 'All the prelates of our order should try to restore it [the fallen house] to a proper state by advice and subsidy. (9) In his 1339 ordinances for the Augustinian canons, however, Benedict XII did acknowledge the possibility that a collapsed priory might be united to another house, but only it would seem as a last resort, and he strictly forbade that this be done 'without the special licence of the apostolic see'. (10) Nevertheless, during the middle years of the fifteenth century, the subjection of a struggling priory to another monastery was a relatively popular response to monastic penury, indicating a reluctance to permit the termination of even the poorest of monasteries.
In all, eleven previously independent monasteries were annexed to other religious houses in the fifteenth century, and there is evidence that some monastic presence was maintained in at least eight of them as dependencies of the appropriating monasteries. In addition, the Premonstratensian nunnery of Guyzance, which seems to have been extinguished by the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, was being served in the late fifteenth century (and probably before) by canons from Alnwick Abbey as a cell of that house. (11) Otherwise, the first of these houses to be converted into dependencies were Molycourt and Spinney, both made satellites of Ely Cathedral Priory in December 1449. Four more struggling monasteries were appropriated to larger houses as cells in the 1460s: Chetwode was annexed to Notley Abbey in July 1460; four years later, the Augustinian priory of Dodford was made a dependency of the Premonstratensians at Halesowen; Alcester Abbey became a satellite of Evesham in April 1466; and in August 1468, Wormegay Priory was reduced to a cell of Pentney. The priory of Great Massingham was united to Westacre as a daughter house in January 1476 and finally in 1481, Llanthony Prima was relegated to the status of a cell of its offshoot, Llanthony Secunda, outside Gloucester. (12) There is no evidence that monastic observance was maintained at three other Augustinian priories appropriated by houses of their order in the fifteenth century, Alnesbourn (Woodbridge), Charley (Ulverscroft) and Peterstone (Walsingham); but the possibility that these houses were also maintained as cells cannot be entirely discounted. (13)
The union of two houses required the agreement of several parties. The consent of the patron was first needed to surrender his advowson to the appropriating monastery; a mortmain licence then had to be obtained from the king to allow the impoverished house to grant over its property to its impropriator and also to allow the latter house to receive that property; and finally, the support of the diocesan bishop was needed to carry out the appropriation itself. Despite Benedict XII's ordinances for the Augustinians, it would appear that papal consent was not considered necessary for a union of this kind. Ely, Evesham and Llanthony by Gloucester took the precaution of petitioning Rome for the ratification of their annexations, but only months--or in the case of Ely, four years--after the event, and none of the other appropriating monasteries apparently sought papal approval. (14) The willingness of the patron to surrender his advowson depended in no small part on the closeness of his ties with the house. Dr Benjamin Thompson has demonstrated the 'upward mobility' of advowsons in the later middle ages, with the patronage of many religious houses passing into the hands of great magnates or the crown. (15) As a result, many lesser religious houses in late medieval England had little contact with their patrons. The king was patron to Chetwode, Dodford and Llanthony Prima and was said also to hold the advowson of Alcester Abbey (although the Nevilles of Oversley seem to have been the rightful patrons), while the patron of Wormegay was the distant earl of Northumberland. Similarly, the new patrons of Spinney, the Tiptofts, maintained closer links with Ely Cathedral Priory than their own house, which no doubt explains Spinney's annexation to Ely rather than to a neighbouring Augustinian house. (16) However, Dr Thompson is wrong to cite Molycourt Priory as an example of a collapsed house with no known patron: Thomas de Beaupre of Outwell, several members of whose family were apparently buried in the priory, surrendered the patronage of the house shortly before 1449. (17) Royal consent was apparently not difficult to secure and the appropriation of the eight houses proceeded after an episcopal inquisition had taken place.
There is considerable evidence that the downgrading to dependencies of these eight small monasteries was the product of severe and often prolonged financial distress. It was said at its appropriation that Dodford 'has come so nearly to dissolution that for a long time only one canon has remained there', and Molycourt seems to have experienced similar problems, holding only one monk in 1427 at the death of its prior. (18) The downfall of both Wormegay and Great Massingham was blamed on their great poverty, and at the latter priory financial hardship had even forced the community to take the extreme measure of leasing out all its property for eighty years in March 1461, at a rent of twenty marks per year. At Chetwode it was apparently the prior's mismanagement of the house's very slender revenues that brought about its collapse, while the decline of Llanthony Prima was attributed largely to the dilapidations of Prior John Adams. (19) The problems of the wealthier Alcester Abbey also seem to have been the fault of its superiors, and in particular Abbot William de la Pole. The administration of the abbey was twice taken out of his unsafe hands in the 1430s, and such was the extent of the abbot's mismanagement that in July 1453 it was claimed that the abbey's annual revenue had fallen from one thousand to one hundred marks per annum. Alcester's plight continued to worsen and by March 1465 'the neglect of divers abbots' had apparently resulted, ironically enough, in revenues capable of maintaining an abbot only. (20)
Dr David Robinson, however, has argued that annexations of this kind were prompted not by the imminent collapse of poor priories but by predatory abbeys looking for temporarily weakened houses to devour for their own benefit. (21) If this interpretation is correct, the conversion of these houses into cells does not indicate a concern to prevent the closure of small priories, but rather the greed of the wealthier monasteries of …