Abbeys and Monks and Land Leases

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The following extract from "ENGLISH SOCIAL HISTORY" by G.M. Trevelyan, Penguin 2000 reprint (Chapter on Chaucer's England) helps to paint the scenario about the Abbeys in the 14th and 15th century, and the reason why many Abbey lands were leased around that time. See bold text in 4th paragraph for specific reference to leases:

" …… . The monk had little thought except for the interests of his House. His whole life was passed within its precincts, except when he was sent out to gather in the rents of distant estates, or to accompany the abbot on a hunting expedition or an occasional visit to London. At home he spent his time with brethren whose interests and experience were as limited as his own. It is, then, not wonderful that the monks offered so stubborn a resistance to the claims of the townsfolk and peasantry, to whom the local privileges of the abbey had, under changed conditions, become galling and vexatious. In every way the world was moving on, but the monastic life was standing still. Only in Yorkshire and the north the monasteries were popular, and continued to be so up to the time of the Dissolution.

The monks in Chaucer's England were worldly and well-to-do, living lives of sauntering comfort in the monastery, or roaming the land dressed like laymen, to hunt game or look after their estates. They were not numerous - probably rather more than the 5,000 at which they were estimated at the time of their Dissolution in the reign of Henry V III. But, having themselves abandoned the manual labour practised by their predecessors, they maintained armies of servants to carry on the daily routine of their great establishments, which often covered many acres of ground, as at Bury St Edmunds and Abingdon. The monks performed in person their obligations of prayers and masses for the living and the dead, their patrons and their founders. They gave daily alms in money and broken meats to the poor, and showed a lavish hospitality to travellers, many of whom were wealthy and exacting guests. The rich fed at the table of the abbot or prior, while humbler wayfarers were accommodated in the guest house of the monastery. Founders' kin, influential nobles and gentry, claimed rights as guests, officers, and agents of the monasteries, consuming much of their wealth; and at the same time the monks, especially the abbots, spent plenty upon themselves."

The monasteries had by this time accumulated vast endowments in land, tithes, appropriated churches, treasures, and clerical patronage - enough to cause them to be bitterly envied as idle drones, living at the expense of the impoverished kingdom. The Commons declared that a third of the wealth of England was in the hands of the Church, most of it belonging to the regular clergy. And yet the monks were constantly in financial straits, sometimes through their magnificent architectural zeal for enlarging and beautifying the abbey and its church, sometimes through sheer mismanagement. The abbot who, like Carlyle's Samson, had good business ability among his other qualities seems to 'have been rare in later times, though some of the cathedral priories, like Canterbury, continued to manage their finances and administer their far-scattered manorial estates well. The Black Death hit the monastic landlord as hard as the lay. The Italian and English moneylenders, who had succeeded the Jews, charged just as high interest, and the monks were reckoned an easy prey. The monasteries often speculated in a form of life annuity known as a ` corrody', whereby the abbey borrowed money in return for an undertaking to keep the creditor for the rest of his life - and often he lived disastrously long.

In earlier times the demesne1 lands of monastic manors, administered by the abbey's own officials direct, had often been admirable examples of estate management and agricultural improvement, not only in the sheep-runs of Yorkshire dales but in mixed arable and pasture regions of the south. But in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the demesne lands of the abbeys were increasingly let out on long leases to laymen, who either farmed them or sublet them to others. In this and other ways the lay control and enjoyment of monastic wealth began long before the final Dissolution.

There were occasional scandals in monasteries, and the orthodox Gower was as certain as Wyclif that the monks were unchaste. But if allowance is made for the low standards of all classes in that age and for the peculiar difficulties of the celibate clergy, there is no reason to think that the monasteries were wonderfully bad in that respect. Certainly the ascetic impulse of former ages had died away, and the monks were no longer famous ….

Demense land is manorial land held by the lord i.e. not held by "free" tenants ('free' as in not being "bonded" to the lord as a feudal serf)

Page created 5th Feb 2003

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