Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding.

I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop...
It was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.


Monday, 11 August 2014

English Iconoclasm III - An eyewitness account


This is basically a republication of a post I wrote from a few years ago, but still, I think worth re-posting and re-reading.

It is one of the few eye-witness accounts of the dissolution spoilation of an English abbey - in this case the medium sized Cistercian house of Roche, at the southern tip of Yorkshire.

My other reasons for finding it of particular significance are the facts that it was a visit to Roche when I was no more than four that convinced me that the medieval past was very well worthy of interest and the subsequent discovery that my earliest recorded patrilinear ancestor, Henry Whitehead, was bailiff of the abbey's lands at Saddleworth in the Yorkshire Pennines in the yeas leading up to the dissolution.




Roche Abbey - an aerial view from the west
Image: Copyright Skyscan Balloon Photography/Emglish Heritage


Michael Sherbrook was Rector of Wickersley, near Rotherham, from 1567 to 1610.  In the 1590s he completed an account of the memories of his father and uncle who witnessed the spoliation of Roche Abbey in 1538. His account shows the scale of devastation,and the extent of self-interest shown by monks and locals alike. It is taken from Tudor Treatises  Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series Vol. CXXV (Wakefield , 1959), p. 19:


 " [Roche Abbey] a house of White Monks; a very finely built house of freestone and covered with lead (as the abbeys in England, as well as the churches are). An uncle of mine was present at the breaking up of the abbey, for he was well acquainted with several of the monks there. When the community was evicted from the abbey, one of the monks, his friend, told him that each monk had been given his cell where he slept, wherein there was nothing of value save his bed and apparel, which was simple and of little worth. This monk urged my uncle to buy something from him, but my uncle replied that he could see nothing that would be of any use to him; the monk asked him for two pennies for his cell door, which was worth over five shillings; his uncle refused, as he had no idea what he would do with a door (for he was a young unmarried man, and in need of neither a house nor a door). Others who came along later to buy the monks’ corn or hay found that all the doors were open, and the locks and shackles plucked off, or the door itself removed; they entered and stole what they liked.

Some took the service-books that were in the church and laid them on their Waine Coppes to repair them; some took windows from the hay barn and hid them in the hay, and did the same with other things: some pulled iron hooks out of the walls – but did not buy them – when the yeomen and gentlemen of the country had bought the timber of the church.

For the church was the first thing that was spoiled; then the abbot’s lodging, the dormitory and refectory, with the cloister and all the buildings around, within the abbey walls. For nothing was spared except the ox-houses and swinecoates and other such houses or offices that stood outside the walls – these had greater favour shown to them than the church itself. This was done on the instruction of Cromwell, as Fox reports in his Book of Acts and Monuments. It would have pitied any heart to see the tearing up of the lead, the plucking up of boards and throwing down of the rafters. And when the lead was torn off and cast down into the church and the tombs in the church were all broken (for in most abbeys various noblemen and women were buried, and in some kings, but their tombs were no more regarded than those of lesser persons, for to what end should they stand when the church over them was not spared for their cause) and all things of value were spoiled, plucked away or utterly defaced, those who cast the lead into fodders plucked up all the seats in the choir where the monks sat when they said service. These seats were like the seats in minsters; they were burned and the lead melted, although there was plenty of wood nearby, for the abbey stood among the woods and the rocks of stone. Pewter vessels were stolen away and hidden in the rocks, and it seemed that every person was intent upon filching and spoiling what he could. Even those who had been content to permit the monks’ worship and do great reverence at their matins, masses and services two days previously were no less happy to pilfer, which is strange, that they could one day think it to be the house of God and the next the house of the Devil – or else they would not have been so ready to have spoiled it.

But it is not a thing to be wondered at by such persons that mark the inconstancy of the rude people in whom a man may graft a new religion every day. Did not the same Jews worship Christ on Sunday, who had done so much good to them, yet on the following Friday cried ‘Crucify him’?

For the better proof of this, thirty years after the Suppression I asked my father, who had bought part of the timber of the church and all the timber in the steeple with the bell frame, (in the steeple eight or nine bells hung - the last but one could not be bought today for £20 – and I myself saw these bells hanging there over a year after the Suppression) if he thought well of the religious people and of the religion followed at that time? And he told me yes, for he saw no cause to the contrary: well, I said, then how did it come to pass that you were so ready to destroy and spoil the thing that you thought so well of? What should I have done, he asked, might not I as well as the others have had some profit from the spoils of the abbey? For I saw that everything would disappear and therefore I did as the others did.’

Thus you may see that those who thought well of the religious, and those who thought otherwise, agreed enough to spoil them. Such a devil is covetousness and mammon! And such is the providence of God to punish sinners in making themselves instruments to punish themselves and all their posterity from generation to generation! For no doubt there have been millions of millions that have repented since, but all too late. And this is the extent of my knowledge relating to the fall of Roche Abbey."

Online source: cistercians.shef.ac.uk

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