Celebrating the Heritage: The Context of the Foundation


Bridlington Priory in its Historical Context, 1113 - 2013

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© The copyright of each paper from the Priory 900 Celebrating the Heritage Conference belongs to its respective author. Published by Bridlington Priory, Bridlington.

Henry Mayr-Harting

The first thing I’d like to say that I’m giving this talk in memory of Bishop Frank Weston whom I knew all the years he was Archdeacon of Oxford and who sadly died just as he was about to take up residence in Bridlington.

The second thing is that much of what I am going to say is derived from my recent book Religion, Politics and Society in Britain 1066–1272, (Longman,2011, now Routledge) . This was with the full knowledge of the organisers of the delightful conference of 2013 and of the editors of this publication . My text here has been realised from a recording of my talk at the conference, although for that talk I did some re-ordering of the material, and it was of course spoken in my own words for the particular occasion . I must apologise to the reader for not having been able to produce footnotes . However, every important reference can be found in my book, text pp 166-79, notes pp 305-061 1.

I’ve been asked to speak about Bridlington Priory and its foundation in its context, and there are three types of context I want to refer to:

  1. The background of Augustine of Hippo and the Augustinian Canons whose ideal is expressed in the writings of Augustine
  2. The pastoral need created by the enormous number of parish churches founded in the late 11th and early 12C in England, a pastoral need that arose from there being no adequate staffing of educated secular priests to fill all these churches
  3. King Henry I (1100-1135) under whom and with whose assent approval Bridlington Priory was founded and a royal policy for Yorkshire and the North involved in this and similar foundations in Yorkshire.

1. Augustine of Hippo and his Rule

There is a debate amongst the experts of whom I am not one about whether the Rule was composed by St Augustine or whether at least it was written under Augustine’s inspiration and influence soon after he had died. The problem for Augustine was that he was a town pastor and then a town bishop (of Hippo) but what he really wanted to be was a monk. He didn’t like dealing with all those unreasonable townspeople and so forth – I’m sure it was very unlike Bridlington . He wanted to be a monk and he felt a duty to be a pastor, and it was that combination that meant he thought that all pastors ought to live in communities of prayer and liturgical worship, as he had effected at Hippo . What you get in the Rule is the monastic side of his ideals, living in community, living under obedience, taking responsibility for each other in the community, wearing similar clothes and not trying to outdo each other and all that, and of course the community of goods that goes back to the early Christians in Acts . So that is what the Rule is about . There is nothing about the pastorate in the Rule . That is understood . It was the community side of things that Augustine thought needed stressing; he took for granted the pastoral side . So you have stability, celibacy, obedience and poverty, all expressed, not as in the rather legalistic rule of St Benedict which comes later, in the form of vows, but as ideals . Augustine thought that the combination of a life of prayer and an active pastorate was an ideal one for everybody . He says in the City of God (in the great 19th book of the City of God which is about the relation of Christians to political life), that nobody ought to be a contemplative without thinking of the needs of his neighbour – ie pastoral – and nobody can lead the active life without needing the contemplation of God . So the two lives were combined in what St Augustine thought of – or at least the Augustinian canons thought of – as a third way .

The Rule of Augustine was neglected for centuries – although it was used by St Benedict – but it came into its own in the Gregorian reform of the late 11th century – the reform of Pope Gregory VII . (Or so-called reform as some would have it – revolution as others would have it, because it revolutionised the Church, centring all on Rome, much more power for the papacy) . But if you stress the jurisdictional power of the papacy, which had to be stressed under Gregory VII, you should also stress his reforming zeal . Nobody can deny that Gregory was motivated by religious zeal as well as a lust for power, and his greatest friend among the bishops was Bishop Altman of Passau in Germany . The bishop had regular canons living under a Rule, which is the first time we know anything about the Rule of St Augustine, and they had their property in common so they wouldn’t be guilty of avarice, as was the case with so many of the town clergy, or as was thought to be the trouble; and these not only served the Gregorian ideal of the celibate clergy, but also served the ideal of giving the townspeople – who were very disillusioned with the town clergy – something they could respect . And therefore it was seen as a kind of antidote to the huge anti-clericalism that existed in the towns in the late 11th century . So that’s the first point, about St Augustine.

2. The Pastoral Need

The foundation of the many parish churches after the Norman Conquest represented a baronial or knightly ambition, the economic gain they hoped to get (from tithes and so forth) and a sense of pastoral responsibility (though the last is difficult to prove) . Certainly it was clear that there was no supply of pastors to match the need . Let me give you the example of Oxford . At this time, well before there was any significant presence of scholars there, already there was a large number of rich churches in Oxford city: St Martin’s at Carfax, St Ebbe’s, St Aldates, St Giles, St Mary Magdalene, St Michael at the North Gate, St Peter in the East, John the Baptist (Merton): a large number of churches – that shows the wealth and importance of Oxford as a place – which is probably why the scholars came there – but we cannot name a single parish priest or vicar of any of those churches in the 12th century . And there was St Frideswide’s, which had been transformed under Henry I into a house of Augustinian canons in 1122 . Even if they were not parish priests, it almost stands to reason that they must have had a great importance in Mass, preaching and perhaps hearing confessions in those churches . The same goes for Nostell Priory, a little closer to home which was a remote house of Augustinian canons – if anything which is now almost part of the city of Wakefield and Pontefract can be conceived of as remote . In fact, Archbishop Thurstan in the 1130s created a prebend in York Minster for the Prior of Nostell consisting of three parish churches in Yorkshire: Bramham, Wharram le Street and Lythe . What it looks like is that (a) the Prior of Nostell was responsible for the provision of those churches, the nearest of which was 15 miles way, and (b) the Prior was made a canon of York in order to draw him into the pastoral responsibilities of the Diocese of York; and Archbishop Thurstan was known to be a very pastorally minded bishop . So you can see, written all over the 12th century, examples of the pastoral drive of the Augustinian canons in particular; the model sermons, for example, such as a Lincolnshire canon created in the Ormulum, consisting of English paraphrases of gospel passages, followed by 20 minute model sermons, in order to Christianise the peasantry more thoroughly . And then there was Guy of Southwick in Hampshire writing on confession; and the Augustinian canons were very important in the growth of private auricular confession during the 12th century and into the 13th century . Guy, writing late in the 12th century, for William de Vere, Bishop of Hereford, was not just writing about the tariffs of penances which should be given to people for different kinds of sins, but was making an attempt to expound moral guidance in the confession and therefore to help people to come to terms with themselves.

3. The Significance of King Henry I and his Royal Policy for Yorkshire

The Augustinian canons spread like wildfire under Henry I (though there’d been a few before this): St . Aldgate in London which Queen Matilda was a patron of, there was Oxford’s St Frideswide, there was Bristol, St Augustine’s Abbey and then Bridlington . For this last, Henry gave quite a large part of the royal demesne in Bridlington, representing an investment – not so much a material investment but representing other purposes . Sir Richard Southern, when he wrote about Henry, referred to the Augustinian canons, and he regarded Henry and everyone who worked for him as rather mean and he pointed out that the Augustinian canons didn’t cost much because they didn’t need large churches so they were ideal for barons who didn’t want to spend too much but did want the kudos of founding a religious house . Well, I think the motives were more mixed than that, and the king certainly contributed his demesne, as did Walter de Gant its founder . Anyhow, I do not think, even for Henry I, one can exclude religious zeal . And also, Bridlington was a port, and when you see how much the citizens of London depended on fish in their diet, fishing ports were important . Evidence from the towns in Flanders, where there was much unrest, shows that Henry had every reason to provide towns with clergy and a pastorate that the people could respect . Now recently, to add to that, there has been an important article only two years ago by Anne Mathers-Lawrence (2011) on Henry I’s political policy for Yorkshire . Henry I and Rufus before him had had a lot of rebellion in the North and Henry I in particular had had the rebellion of a super baron, so to speak, in Robert Count of Mortain in 1106 . According to Mather- Lawrence – which is a brilliant paper – he set about replacing Robert of Mortain and some others with other barons who were not as important or as rich as Robert of Mortain, but were nonetheless loyal followers . Walter de Gant was very much a loyal follower, a baron of the second order one might say; there was Robert de Bruce – forerunner of the great family of Bruces – who founded Guisborough in 1119 – he was close to Henry I – and all this was partly to make a break with the Benedictines and their powerful patrons whom he didn’t trust . And it was partly because – I think there’s no doubt about this – because of the impact the Augustinian order might make on the locality, as it were in favour of the king . Henry I has had a hard time with some historians – Southern saw him as worse than William Rufus, and it is indeed the case that Henry I was a moneygrubber . But to my mind it’s a very protestant view of religion that all that can’t go with genuine religious devotion . I’m afraid I think it can, and I’m speaking as a loyal Roman Catholic in saying that . I think it would be a very dangerous assumption to draw conclusions about Henry I’s lack of interest in the pastoral side . Another point Mather-Lawrence makes is what a good library Bridlington Priory had, particularly in glossed bibles and also patristic works that would be particularly useful in preaching and for educating the clergy to man the parish churches at that time . So according to her it was – you can see it from the nature of the MSS and the layout of the library – a great centre of education.

So now I want to come to the contemplative prayer side of the Augustinian vocation and to the pastoral side . The prayer side is powerfully represented in a commentary on the Rule of Augustine of about 1150, namely the Bridlington Dialogue . Composed probably by a Canon Robert, and certainly by a canon of Bridlington, the Dialogue starts – before it goes on to more mundane matters – with two chapters on prayer . The first is about the Lord’s Prayer, and the other is about prayer in the Office . In these the Master makes as little distinction as you can imagine between exterior prayer, liturgical prayer and private, personal or interior prayer . In the Our Father he encourages the disciple to pass on from thinking of God bodily, or as our Father in Heaven, to seeking God in one’s own soul, and there at once one is confronted with the enormous importance in all St Augustine’s writings of the interior prayer that Augustine lays the stress on. So the conclusion there is that contemplative prayer and communal worship are a way of loving God from which – this is the implication- the love of neighbour and all pastoral activity ought to spring.

And now on the pastoral side, Bridlington Priory from its foundation, although it had a lot of land, was also endowed with many parish churches . So the first question is, did the canons serve these themselves, or put in vicars or chaplains? Even if it was the latter, one has to suppose that the supervision and appointments to those churches were Bridlington’s . Let me take this a stage further . The Priory, from the beginning, doubled up as a parish church . Archbishop Thurstan included Bessingby church, which is within the area of the parish, and then at 2 .5 miles, one mile further from Bessingby, was Carnaby which had been given to the Priory by Robert de Percy . At 2 .5 miles due west, given by Geoffrey de ?Spencer (these are all minor barons really) was the church of Boynton . Then 3 .5 miles to the NE is Flamborough, given them by William FitzNigel . Let’s take only those to start with . If the high-minded John Henry Newman, in the 1830s could be vicar of St Mary’s in Oxford and also vicar of Littlemore, a good 3 miles away, and walk out there and back every Sunday, surely the canons – even if they had to go in twos to preserve each other’s chastity – could go out and serve those churches themselves from Bridlington.

Now then you come to a triangle of chapels which are a bit farther away to the north of Bridlington . There’s Grindale (4 miles away), Buckton (4 miles away), and there is Speeton (6 miles away) . Now you can argue that was a bit far for commuting . But certainly from the third quarter of the 12th century and maybe earlier, the Priory had enough land at Speeton to have a house there, so that could be a residence for canons serving those churches, and the same is true of Buckton where we know of land there between 1170 and 1175, and Buckton is 2 .5 miles from Speeton and 3.5 miles from Grindale . So it’s perfectly possible for those chapels to have been served from Buckton or Speeton, from a canons’ house there.

Then 5 miles north of Speeton was Filey which the canons always seemed to have served themselves. And then there are Willerby and Ganton. Willerby is 12 miles NW of Bridlington, surely too far for commuting . But the canons had a grange there which could easily have had a house . They had been given it in the 12th century . And at the most 2 miles west was the church of Ganton to which I’m coming in a moment.

So here were churches which could be managed – though having visited them yesterday in the rain, I do wonder what the canons wore as they walked – noone ever tells you that kind of thing in the 12th century.

So you may be thinking, that’s all very well, but is there any evidence that they did serve these churches? Well that depends what you mean by evidence . But in my view, it’s not all speculation . First of all the Bridlington Dialogue.

When words are put into the mouth of The Disciple, they are usually words with which the Master – the real author – is going to disagree . So the Disciple says that surely it is a violation of their stability, which they promised, to live outside the monastery; he knew of cases when priests had resided outside the monastery for a full year . So the first thing that suggests is that here are some priests in the position I have been speaking about . But the Master will have none of the Disciple’s argument . ‘For my part I have vowed to serve my God for my whole life in the church at Bridlington’ (the primary evidence that the work was written by a Bridlington canon); but ‘if his superior arranges for him to spend a short or a long time at one of the places united to the church that is part of his profession . If his superior orders him to build up divine worship in another place’ […] ‘whether to rule others or to live under someone else’s rule’ he must go . The second point which is evidence of a kind at least is a document of Archbishop Thurstan of York from the 1130s again about the church of Ganton . The church of Ganton would be ‘subject to the church of Willerby’ – doesn’t look like that today! – and ‘the priest of Willerby would appoint the priest resident in Ganton’ . Now would Bridlington Priory want anyone but a canon of Bridlington Priory to appoint a priest to either of these churches? The document strongly suggests to me that the priest of Willoughby is a canon of Bridlington Priory . Then there is the Bull of Pope Celestine III of 1194 which ties in very well with that . This is for Bridlington and it says the canons might, in the vacancy of a church institute two or more of their number – they never wanted only one to be living outside the Priory, that was primary – and present one to the diocesan (to be in effect the rector/parish priest) . There is an analogy here to the Augustinian abbey of Oseney just outside Oxford in 1280 re the rector of the church of Shenstone in Staffordshire, where Oseney’s canon Master W de Meisam (Walter, William or whatever) was inducted into the corporeal possession of the church in the name of the whole community, so that fits with Celestine III’s idea that two or more should reside and that one should be presented to the bishop as in effect the parish priest . So I think all those pieces of evidence are indicative of the fact that the canons probably served the churches directly or resided at the churches in the cases I’ve mentioned.

Now with all these churches in a sort of swathe across the East Riding it’s impossible not to recognise that Bridlington Priory must have had a considerable influence on the locality altogether . And this question of influence is tied up with the society from which the canons themselves were recruited . I know only two examples of where they were recruited from in the twelfth century . Those from later centuries must be thinking what tenuous evidence the poor man has to go on, but that is the difference I fear between the 16th century and the 12th century, so forgive me if I have to go through what must look like these tergiversations! One of those names is a man called Baldwin de Gant who was the nephew of the grandson of the founder, Walter de Gant . But I think it must be most unusual that barons were canons of Bridlington, Equally it must have been very unusual for peasants – villeins – to be canons of Bridlington or anywhere, because what landowner would have wanted his labour force to be depleted by allowing men who were any way dependent on him to become canons of Bridlington . So I think it almost stands to reason that the great majority must have been recruited from the knightly classes and the upper peasantry . And the second example is more like the thing one would expect . It’s very interesting – it’s a person called James de Watsand who made a grant in the 1170s to Bridlington Priory of 3 bovates of land in Burton Fleming and other places; and Peter de Fribois had given James de Watsand that land for fighting a duel for him which probably suggests that James was a knightly man . We know who Peter de Fribois, his patron, was, because the Fribois were some of the most important knightly tenants on the baronial fee of the de Gants; and of course when a baron founded a monastery or an abbey or a priory like Bridlington, they carried a large number of their most important and wealthy tenants with them . And the canons, in exchange for the land that James had given them, which he had got from Peter de Fribois, agreed to make James’s elder son a canon when he reached the age of 20 and in the meantime provide for him . And Peter is the first witness, in the charter that we have, to James de Watsand’s grant of the land in exchange for the promise that his elder son would become a canon . I think that’s very interesting, and the question in my mind is why was it the elder son? Was it because the elder son was not thought as competent an heir for secular administration as the younger son was? Or that he was thought likely to be a better canon?

Now the Bridlington Cartulary which was published by A G Lancaster in the early 20th century is a very interesting cartulary, organised in areas in which Bridlington Priory had its lands; and it had a lot of land – at the Dissolution it was 12th in wealth of 176 Augustinian houses, worth £547 a year; and this Cartulary is absolutely stuffed full of grants made by people from the knightly classes and the upper peasantry to Bridlington Priory . We can’t tell, at least for the 12th century at present, what they had to do with the recruitment of the canons, but every monastic study in the early Middle Ages that has made a study of recruitment shows that the recruitment came from the areas where the donors were or if you like the donors came from where the recruits were . Unfortunately A G Lancaster didn’t try at all to date any of these documents, which is the greatest drawback; and he could have dated them – even then the material was there for the research to date them, and that research remains to be done . And if it were done, if you could show which were 12th century charters, and early 13th century charters, which I think in principle would be possible, what would you see? You would see a large number of knightly and upper peasants – by which I mean peasants with a certain amount of wealth and independence – whose status and interests (not just material) were focused on Bridlington Priory, and who had all helped with those donations in the course of time . Or to put it another way, you would find the ‘James de Watsands’ were thick upon the ground . And who can imagine that James de Watsand as father wasn’t interested in his son once he had become a canon of Bridlington Priory – it would have been a feather in his cap.

4. Conclusions

I think I’ll stop there and briefly draw my conclusions which include Bridlington Priory, and they are:

  1. That the pastorate of Augustinian canons operated from one centre over a wide area but within a political structure – in this case relating to Henry I
  2. That their pastoral drive was fuelled by their own high liturgy, their learning and particularly their humane spirituality, all of which owed something to the inspiration of Augustine of Hippo
  3. That if you made similar studies to my sketchy one for Bridlington Priory – let’s say of Guisborough, or of Dorchester on Thames in Oxfordshire, – you would come up with similar situations and similar conclusions, in the case of other Augustinian houses.


1   There is one exception to this. A very important article to which I refer had not yet been published when I wrote the book, i.e. Anne Mathers-Lawrence, ‘The Augustinians in Northumbria: Region, Tradition and Textuality in a Colonizing Order’, in The Regular Canons in the Medieval British Isles, ed. Janet Burton and Karen Stober (Brepols, Turnhout, 2011) pp57-76.

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