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Bardney Abbey


If visiting the home of a Lincolnshire family, someone leaving a door open might be asked the unusual question "Do you come from Bardney?" This is said in a similar tone and meaning to "Were you born in a barn?" elsewhere in the country. The saying has its roots in an old tale about a miraculous occurrence at Bardney Abbey.

Queen Osrthyth of Mercia, in around 679 AD, sought to have the bones of her uncle, St. Oswald, a former king of Northumbria, interred at Bardney Abbey, a place the queen held very dear. The monks of Bardney, however, refused to accept the relics as Oswald had once invaded and conquered the Kingdom of Lindsey, which included Bardney.

The monks left the relics of St. Oswald outside, bolting the heavy wooden doors of the abbey to prevent them being taken indoors. That night, however, they were amazed to see a great shaft of light rising from St. Oswald's bier and stretching up to the heavens. The abbot declared this a miracle and willingly brought St. Oswald's bones into the abbey where they were given pride of place beneath the king's purple and gold standard. The relics were said to have healing properties, including the ability to cure ague.

In 909, as a result of increasing Viking raids in Lincolnshire, the relics of St. Oswald were transferred to a new abbey in Gloucestershire, named St. Oswald's in his honour.

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P A McHugh

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Ian Topham
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Re: Bardney Abbey

'Houses of Benedictine monks: The Abbey of Bardney', A History of the County of Lincoln: Volume 2 (1906)

The abbey of Bardney was the most ancient of those monasteries of Lincolnshire which survived the Danish invasions, being founded in all probability about twenty years before Crowland, and certainly not later than 697. The traditional founders of Bardney were King Ethelred of Mercia and his Northumbrian queen Osthryd; Bede, however, only says that they 'greatly loved, reverenced and adorned ' this house, so it is just possible that it may have been in existence before their time. The great fame of the abbey certainly dates from the day when Osthryd brought to its gate the honoured relics of her uncle, St. Oswald, whose noble example and devoted labours had done so much to secure the establishment of Christianity in the north of England. It is characteristic of the age of the Heptarchy that the Mercian monks of Bardney at first refused to admit the body of an alien prince, even though they knew he was a saint; and the legend says that the car remained outside the gates all night. But a shining column of light which rose above it, and was seen, says Bede, by some who were alive in his own day, made the monks ashamed of their prejudices; and the next morning they gave glad admission to the relics, and laid them in a costly shrine, where many signs and wonders were afterwards wrought.

Queen Osthryd was murdered in 697 by certain Mercian nobles, and a few years later her husband Ethelred, like many other princes of his race, renounced the world and became a monk at Bardney. He was living there as abbot in 704, and was able to show much kindness and hospitality to St. Wilfrid, who came to the monastery in that year as a guest, bearing the papal letters which were meant to reinstate him in his see.

Ethelred died in 716, and was numbered with the saints; and about a hundred and fifty years later the abbey was laid in ruins by the Danes. It was remembered, however, as a great and noble house, where many men of high rank had lived and died in the service of God; and when, soon after the Conquest, Gilbert of Ghent, nephew of the Conqueror, came into possession of the abbey lands, he determined to restore them to the church. In the last year of the Conqueror's reign, and with his leave, a priory was built at Bardney for Benedictine monks, and dedicated as before to St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Oswald; its foundation charter was witnessed by Archbishop Lanfranc, by Remigius bishop of Lincoln, and many barons. In 1115 Walter of Ghent, son and heir of the founder, raised the priory to the rank of a free abbey, confirmed all his father's gifts, and added others of his own. The names of Gilbert earl of Lincoln, Simon de Montfort his son-in-law, Robert Marmion, Geoffrey Brito, Philip de Kyme, Henry Bek, and many others well known in the early history of this county, are found amongst the benefactors of the abbey.

The monks were involved in several lawsuits concerning their churches and other property during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1192 the abbot secured the advowson of the chapel of Newton against William de Rochford; in 1194 the churches of Hale and Heckington were claimed by the brethren of St. Lazarus, but finally secured to Bardney; in 1199 the church of Spridlington, for a short time lost, was restored. A long course of litigation towards the end of the reign of Henry III reduced the monks to great straits, and they were not at this time fortunate enough to secure abbots who were likely to help them out of their difficulties. Peter of Barton was indeed deposed by the bishop in 1275; but he was restored for a while on appeal to the archbishop of Canterbury. In 1278 he and his convent presented a petition to Parliament, stating that their debts had brought them to the verge of ruin and begging permission to forbear for a while their wonted hospitality, and to disperse themselves to other houses, leaving but one brother to manage the estates and pay off the debts. They were referred to Chancery, but it does not seem that the petition was granted; and in 1280 Peter of Barton resigned of his own accord. His successor, Robert of Wainfleet, did not improve the condition of the house. His administration of discipline brought him into collision with Bishop Dalderby, and he was accused also of dilapidation and alienation of monastic property. Sentence of deprivation was passed upon him in 1303, and the house was declared vacant by the bishop; and then began a long series of appeals to Rome and to the king, which lasted till 1318. For fifteen years the monastery was almost continuously in the hands of the king, and its revenues administered by seculars, except for a brief space in 1311, when the temporalities were restored to the abbot. Robert of Wainfieet resigned in 1318; but the house had little chance of recovering its prosperity during the time of the great pestilence and the wars with France. During the fifteenth century its condition was somewhat improved, and the abbots of Bardney were amongst those summoned to Parliament; but there were debts and difficulties again in 1440, and the revenue of the house in 1534—£366—seems very little for a house originally so well endowed.

The last abbot, William Marton, signed the petition to the pope to expedite the king's divorce in 1530; in 1534 he set his name to the acknowledgement of supremacy, with seventeen other monks. Two years later the brethren of this house were conspicuous amongst those implicated in the Lincolnshire rebellion. A clear account of the part they played was given at the subsequent trial by Thomas Maur, the abbot's chaplain, and several others; and there seems no reason to doubt the main facts of the story which they agreed in telling. William Wright and Thomas Harlow, serving men, who were petty captains of the insurgents, came to the abbey on 4 October, and ordered the abbot to send some of his monks to the host. Four went forth in consequence 'by command of William Wright,' and returned again after the collapse of the insurrection, when the abbot received them 'without contradiction.' The account is given in a quite simple and straight-forward manner, without prevarication or excuse; yet there does not seem sufficient evidence to account for the fact that as many as six monks of Bardney were finally condemned to death, while the abbot himself was not brought to trial nor the house attainted. We may indeed guess at the means by which the abbot contrived to make his peace with my Lord Privy Seal; but it is a mere matter of private conjecture. The six offending monks were condemned on 6 March, 1537, to be drawn, hanged, and quartered; the house was not surrendered till 1 November, 1538. At that time an annual pension of £66 13s. 4d. was assigned to the abbot; to ten monks annuities varying from £6 13s. 4d. to £5; to three others smaller amounts.

The honourable reputation of this monastery in the early days before the Danish invasions has already been noticed. After the rebuilding by Gilbert of Ghent it was subject to the jurisdiction of the bishops of Lincoln, like all Benedictine houses which had not obtained special exemptions, and its visitation reports are unusually numerous and well preserved. It is, however, a real misfortune that its interior history has to be reconstructed almost entirely from such materials as these. If any chronicle of the abbey had been preserved, a much truer impression could be given, for the chronicler would help us to balance the criticisms of the bishops by some account of the happier side of the history of the monastery, and the good works of different abbots. It must be remembered, therefore, that the following account is very onesided, being mainly drawn from reports which show only what was amiss in the house from time to time. Nevertheless it must be frankly owned that there was a good deal that was seriously in need of reform early in the fourteenth and again in the middle of the fifteenth century.
It appears that the abbey of Bardney was one of those which suffered from the arrogant behaviour of Nicholas of Tusculum, the papal legate, in 1215: a very good abbot, Ralph de Rand, being deposed or compelled to resign in favour of the prior of Lenton, a man of very different character. The legate's nominee, however, only ruled the house for about a year. In 1243 Abbot Walter of Benningworth was deposed by the bishop (one authority says 'for ignorance'), and an act of interference on the part of the royal patron of the house at this time called forth one of Grosteste's most characteristic letters. The king's escheator had received orders during the vacancy to provide all necessaries for the deposed abbot and those who favoured him, in greater abundance than for those whose cause had been espoused by the bishop, and Walter was to be allowed free egress and ingress to the church. Grosteste wrote to the king in great surprise at hearing of this mandate. He would not have believed the king capable of reconciling such procedure with his conscience. Whether the ecclesiastical sentence was just or unjust, the whole matter was entirely outside the royal jurisdiction, and the king, though patron of the house, had no business to interfere. The answer is not recorded: but Abbot Walter had to accept the position, and William of Halton was elected in his place.

In 1275 Bishop Gravesend deposed another abbot, Peter of Barton, 'for his offences,' as it was stated in a letter to the pope. But Peter appealed to Archbishop Kilwardby, who decided that the sentence against him was unjust, and had him reinstated for a while. The archbishop, however, thought it necessary to visit the house, which was in great debt and distress at this time; and amongst other injunctions ordered the banishment of four of the monks for a time to other monasteries. This injunction was apparently the only one which Abbot Peter was willing to carry out, and that rather from personal feeling than zeal for reform; for two years later the new archbishop, John Peckham, had to write and order him to recall these brethren and treat them with charity. Another letter was written to the penitents urging them to return without delay and to fulfil their obedience, but this letter was not delivered to them. It became evident that the fault lay with the abbot, and the archbishop ordered a fresh visitation, whereupon Peter thought it best to resign. The visitation was made, and injunctions issued under his successor, Robert of Wainfleet. It was enjoined, in the form common on such occasions, that the rule should be better kept, and the accounts rendered regularly: faults involving severe penance were defined. The abbot was to be more faithful than his predecessors in attendance at choir, chapter, and refectory, that he might be an example of regularity to the brethren.

Unfortunately Robert of Wainfleet was not the man to restore the prestige of the abbey or to mend its fallen fortunes in any way. In 1303 he was already in difficulties with his bishop, being, like his predecessor Peter, more ready to enforce discipline upon others than to submit to it himself. The abbot of Ramsey wrote to him at this time that he might still hope for reconciliation with the bishop if he would humble himself to ask for it, but evidently he was unwilling to do so, for he was deposed before the year was out. From this time until 1318 the monks of Bardney knew very little peace. The abbot appealed to the king, the archbishop, and the pope: he made at least four different journeys to Rome in the hope of recovering his abbey, and was once, indeed, for a short time actually reinstated. While he was in possession he was as unsparing as ever to the monks who opposed him, and while the monastery was in the hands of the king's officials he annoyed and impeded their administration of its revenues as far as he possibly could. During the short time when the temporalities were restored to him (probably between 1310 and 1312) his dilapidations and waste of the monastic property were worse than ever; it was alleged in 1315 that the losses of the house due to his maladministration amounted to 10,370 marks; and that if something was not done speedily to prevent his doing any further mischief, the utter ruin of the abbey was inevitable. His last appeal to Rome was made in 1316, but it was evidently a failure, for in 1317 he expressed himself willing to resign on a competent pension. This was granted to him for the sake of peace, and Robert of Gains borough, a monk of Spalding, was elected abbot in his place. But it may be easily imagined that it was some time before the monastery was reduced to order and peace after such a long season of unrest.

Two visitation reports of Bishop Bokyngham are preserved, one dated 1383, the other somewhat earlier. The injunctions are the same as those delivered to many other monasteries, and may be merely a formal reminder of the principal duties of the religious life; at any rate it seems that there was at this time no grave irregularity. The buildings were to be repaired; certain legacies and pensions not properly secured to the house were to be attended to; six boys were to be educated in the monastery; the clothing of the monks was to be free from all superfluous ornament; no hunting dogs were to be kept; better servants were to be engaged for making bread and beer, that the brethren might not be tempted to eat and drink outside the enclosure.

Bishop Gray visited the house before 1435. He ordered the rule and constitution of the order to be read daily in Latin and English; no women were to be admitted within the enclosure except the mothers and sisters of the brethren, and a certain Joan Martyn and her daughter were to be rigorously excluded. He noticed that there had been dissension at the visitation, and ordered its authors to do fitting penance.

The state of the house in the middle of the fifteenth century was distinctly unsatisfactory. Bishop Alnwick visited it three times; the first time in January, 1437, when he was received by the abbot and fifteen monks. On this occasion he dealt mainly with the question of finance, as the house was in debt and difficulty. It appears that at some time previous to this the monks of Bardney had received as a privilege of very doubtful value the right to live independently, each on a fixed income, boarding themselves and keeping private servants. The bishop now proposed to them that they should abandon this privilege of their own accord, and return to the use of a common refectory, letting their servants also eat at one common table, to see if expenses could thus be reduced. After deliberation the brethren agreed to try this plan. Of three brethren who had been suspended from voting in chapter and other common rights at the last visitation, one how made his submission, and was restored; the other two, who were still negligent of their duty, were to have only one kind of flesh or fish daily until they showed true penitence.
The visitation was continued 19 March, when it was acknowledged that the finances of the house were already improved by the new arrangement. There were other points, however, which needed attention. The abbot owned that he, the cellarer, and the sub-cellarer, did not attend the choir regularly—they were too much occupied, and when a few of the monks were ill or being bled, that left a very small number to keep up the divine office. The infirmary was much abused. The brethren went there on slight pretext, and sometimes turned it into a regular guest house, entertaining their friends there till late at night, and drinking great quantities of beer. The church and manor-houses were ruinous. The obedientiaries, especially the sacrist and almoner, were unfaithful to their trust, and made money for themselves and their servants out of the common funds. Women visited the house freely, and ate and drank with the monks, to the great cost and scandal of the monastery. The brethren were dainty over their food, and on days of abstinence would not come to the refectory unless three kinds of fish were provided, disdaining the red herrings and stock fish which were the ordinary fare of mediaeval monks in Lent. There was no scholar at the university, and the house was still seriously in debt, and could not afford a barber or a cobbler. Games of chance were sometimes played at night, which kept some of the brethren from mattins. Only two of them, however, in the midst of this general laxity and neglect of rule, were actually charged with incontinence; though it was suggested by one brother that a woman servant at Southrey, where the monks went to be bled, was a source of danger, and should be dismissed.
There were numerous complaints of brother Thomas Barton, who was sub-cellarer, almoner, and pittancer. He withheld their yearly portions from the brethren, and yet lived at ease in the infirmary, receiving his friends there, and serving them with the best food. Indeed he was said to be the author of all the troubles of the house. He defamed the brethren to strangers, and the late abbot on his death-bed had said to him: 'Thou hast never been faithful in any office. If I had done according to thy mind, I should not this day have left a monk here, young or old.'
The bishop delivered injunctions dealing with all these points, and ordered Thomas Barton to be imprisoned until further notice. There was another visitation in 1440, when it was noticed that there had been discords in the house on other points. There may have been some improvement, as very little was said. Brother Thomas Barton was to be let out of the prison where he had been confined for his misdeeds, but on no pretext whatever was he to leave the house. He seems, however, to have speedily recovered his influence with the abbot, for in 1444 the monks were again loud in their complaints against him. It was also alleged that in spite of the late injunctions the abbot had sold certain manors without consulting the brethren.

It may be that at this final visitation of Bishop Alnwick (of which the injunctions are not preserved) Thomas Barton was more severely dealt with. The general standard of observance throughout the monastery seems to have improved, and one of the monks was even sent by the bishop to visit another monastery in his name.

No other visitations are preserved, except that of Bishop Atwater in 1519. His visitations were carefully made, and it is some satisfaction, therefore, to find that he had not such grave work to do in this abbey as Bishop Alnwick. Hunting dogs were to be removed; the books used in choir were out of repair by the carelessness of the chanter; the 'Lady Mass' was not as regularly attended as it should have been; two monks had been out without leave, and were irregular in coming to mattins. The injunctions ordered reform on all these points: the brethren were to keep themselves from secular conversation, to admit no women, and to grant no more corrodies.

Very little is known of the state of the monastery between this time and the outbreak of the Lincolnshire rebellion, but at any rate nothing evil is recorded. As to their share in the insurrection, it is quite impossible now to discover how far they really approved or sympathized with its aims or its promoters. Like the monks of Kirkstead and Barlings, and some of the Yorkshire monks in the Pilgrimage of Grace, they were compelled 'to go forth to the host,' whether they would or no. It would not be a matter for much wonder if, after their scruples as to the propriety of bearing arms were overruled, they went cheerfully enough to aid what seemed to many at that time the cause of true religion. Most of them were probably of the middle class, and may well have shared the sentiments of their friends and relations in the world. We are here, however, dealing only with facts, and so far as facts go there is no clear evidence at all as to the actual opinions of the monks of Bardney. There is no proof that they were in any way instigators of the rebellion; they went into the field under compulsion; they were conspicuous there only because they wore the habit of religion. Their punishment seems, therefore, to have been a very severe one, and its object was doubtless rather to deter others from following their example than to satisfy any real demands of justice.

Craig-y-Nos Castle


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