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.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Our Lady in the Wood in Axholme

Today’s virtual Marian pilgrimage destination is quite close to both my native area and to others areas my ancestors were associated with, so I feel I am in home territory. I sense that all the more so because the history of the shrine of Our Lady in the Wood in Axholme is bound up with the world of the political and spiritual elites of the 1390s and beyond, which is very much in my historical sphere of interest.

Before 1389 Thomas Mowbray (1366-99) Earl Marshal and Earl of Nottingham, and later first Duke of Norfolk, of whom there is a biography at Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk conceived a plan to convert the alien priory at Monks Kirby in Leicestershire into a Carthusian house for a Prior and twelve monks. At this time Carthusian houses were perceived as being the ideal foundation by monarchs and nobles across much of Western Europe. Elite piety was supported by the political elite. Although the Earl initiated the process with a petition to Pope Urban VI nothing further seems to have been done.

King Richard II creating Thomas Mowbray Earl Marshal in 1385-6. The King is handing the letters patent to the Earl
who holds in his right hand the gold, black tipped, baton of the Earl Marshal.
Image: Luminarium

However the Earl Marshal had not abandoned the idea. In 1396, possibly after consulting the Carthusian priors in England, he started anew, and had chosen the isle of Axholme, where he had family estates and where he had been born, as a suitable site for a Charterhouse, and he then petitioned Pope Boniface IX for leave to appropriate the priory of Monks Kirby as part of its endowment. Archbishop Robert Waldby of York was commissioned to investigate the matter, and comply with the Earl’s request.

On the proposed site of the monastery at Low Melwood, in Epworth, stood a chapel dedicated to the Virgin which had long been called the Priory in the Wood. It had apparently been established by the Premonstratensians ( Norbertines ). There the Earl has an ambitious plan to erect a new church in honour of the Visitation of the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Edward king and confessor - a saint to whom devotion was very popular at the court of King Richard II - together with cloisters, monastic buildings and cells for a prior and thirty monks. With the King’s licence he endowed the house in frankalmoigne with 100 acres in the manor of Epworth, a rent of 20 marks, and such rights of common of pasture, of turbary, and of fishery as other free tenants held within the Isle of Axholme, the advowsons of Epworth and Belton, and the priory of Monks Kirby. John Moreby was chosen as Prior of the new foundation.

In June 1398, by which time the founder had been created Duke of Norfolk, to aid of the building of the church and charterhouse, Pope Boniface IX granted the very liberal indulgence known as that of St. Mary of the Angels at Assisi. This today is better known as that of the Porziuncula (or Portiuncula) and which over later centuries was to be much more widely available, indeed now universally, on the day of August 1 to 2. The history of this famous indulgence can be read at Portiuncula. Penitents who visited the house at Axholme on the feast of the Visitation of the Virgin, and gave alms towards the fabric, received remission for all sins committed from their baptism to that day. 

Only three months later, as the result of his quarrel with Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, the Duke of Norfolk was banished for life by King Richard II - see the beginning of Shakespeare’s play about the King and his downfall for that - and Norfolk died and was buried at Venice in September 1399, at the very time that in England Hereford took the throne as King Henry IV. Just before the end of the year the government removed Monks Kirby from the new monastery, and it was not restored to it until King Henry V granted it to the monks of Axholme following the final confiscation and reassignment of the alien priories in 1415. The Portiuncula indulgence may therefore have been all more more valuable in these years as a source of donations.

In 1449 the Axholme charterhouse was very flourishing, the numbers had increased, but there were not enough cells for the monks, and buildings begun 'with wondrous skill and great cost' were still unfinished. The Prior and convent desired to add to their endowment, and this they managed to do in future years.

The full history of the house, including that of the penultimate Prior, Augustine Webster, one of the martyred Carthusians of 1535, can be read from the Victoria County History of Lincolnshire ii at The priory of Axholme.

Our Lady of the Wood at Axholme, pray for us

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