Whenever land changes hands, for whatever reason, legal documents have to be drawn up – even if the land is a gifted. This was as true in the Twelfth century as it is today, so when Hugh de Malbanc (or Malbank) endowed the land at Combermere for the building of an Abbey – and provided for it to have an income in perpetuity – a deed was required. The original Charter establishing an abbey at Combermere does not survive, but fortunately a copy does – written in Latin of course, and mostly composed in the lugubrious and timeless language of the legal profession. It was obviously drawn up with care so as to allow for no ambiguity, and the possessions and rights afforded to the Abbey and its monks are unarguable.
The document does have personality though in its beginning and its ending. It begins in personal terms, with Hugh de Malbank, second Baron of Wich-Malbank, son of a victorious Norman invader, swearing to his religious faith as an unswerving devotee of the church. He includes his two social superiors as supporters and witnesses to the Charter – his lord, Earl Rannulph of Chester and the Bishop of Chester, Roger de Clinton – by way of expressing his loyal fealty. He then brings in the name of his wife, and it is unusual that she is named, let alone three times in total. He mentions his children but they are not named, not even his heir.
The Bishop’s closing statement is fascinating. It is an ‘anathema’, and is almost heathen in its strength – laying the Bishop’s curse for all time upon anyone who fails to respect the terms of the Charter. This is expressed in the very strongest language, and it called down of “the curse of God, and the blessed Virgin, and Saint Michael the archangel” – which Henry VIII and his agents could have been said to eventually done exactly what the Bishop was forbidding. Their argument was that the monasteries were so corrupt and debauched that the only solution lay in their Dissolution, and though they had a level of Papal assistance thanks to Cardinal Wolsey’s efforts, in legal terms they must surely have been in breach of the Charter in seizing the Abbey and its possessions.
Other charters show us that William, first Abbot of Cumbermere (sic) was present at the founding of Pulton Abbey, and the majority of the first monks seem to have come from Combermere (the spelling of the place name varies considerably; sometimes with a ‘u’ and sometimes with an ‘o’, as it is today. It was also spelled as ‘de Cumbermar’ in cod Latin.
The Normans were very adept at taking and documenting legal possession, even if that possession was based on theft. Their lawyers were as ruthless as their military. Hugh Malbank had already stood witness to his over-lord the Earl of Chester’s Charter founding the Abbey of Chester, and to Earl Handle’s Charter of grants to the same Abbey. All these ceremonies would have been very great occasions, bringing together the upper strata of the ruling class and their families, and the greatest men of the church. Everyone would be in their very finest in honour of their stations in life, and the confirmation of the Charters would be accompanied by a splendid banquet and entertainment. Saxons would be present only if they were trusted enough and fortunate enough to have positions in the service of the Norman grandees.
When the deed says “I, Hugh Malbank, with my wife Petronilla, and William my son, and many others, have perambulated and compassed” it does mean that literally. The party had walked the bounds in the presence of witnesses to established exactly where the boundaries were, and what was and was not included in the gift.
“My forest of Couhull” was specifically excluded from the grant of land because of its value as a hunting ground. Coulhill is near Alsager in eastern Cheshire.
The Abbey was also to come under Church Law, so that the Abbot, the monks and even the lay brethren could not be held accountable to the King’s law. Any crimes committed by them would be considered by the Church alone, marking them out from the laity, which, in due course sowed the seeds of considerable resentment right across England.
The emerging town of Nantwich was in the parish of Acton, and the church there was the nearest place of worship. The first religious presence at Nantwich was a small chapel of ease. The magnificent church of Saint Mary’s at Nantwich was built in 1340. Both churches were under the control of Combermere Abbey and they paid tithes to the Abbey.
Combermere, as revealed by the Charter, is different from many other abbeys in England in that a large part of its income was to come from the manufacture of salt. This was a very valuable industry throughout the medieval period, and Cheshire was known for its salt production. The county’s ‘wich’ towns – Northwich, Middlewich, Leftwich and Nantwich were the industry’s long-established centres. One of the few ‘wiches’ outside Cheshire is Droitwich.
Although the remains of a Roman bridge have been found just south of the centrte of the town, historians have suggested that Nantwich only appeared as a settlement in Norman times; not because it was a crossing over the River Weaver, but because of the importance of the salt manufacturing. In Domesday Book it isn’t called Nantwich but Wich Malbedeng or Malbank`s place. The word ‘wich’ derives from the Latin ‘vicus’, meaning place. It was noted that there were eight salt-making houses in 1086, and Natwich was worth almost three times as much as Middlewich and Northwich combined; by the time of Elizabeth I there were more than two hundred salt houses in Nantwich.
Norman knights as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. It seems that Hugh was not of aristocratic blood in Normandy, but performed well enough during the Battle of Hastings to be ennobled as a Baron after the conquest.
THE FOUNDATION CHARTER OF COMBERMERE ABBEY
“In the name of the holy and inseparable Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I, Hugh Malbank, of one part, applauding the promise of the Lord, by which he saith to his elect, “What you have done to these little ones, you have done to me; enter ye into the kingdom of heaven prepared for you from the beginning of the world ; “on the other side fearing the threatening whereby he says to the wicked, “What ye have not done to one of my little ones, ye have not done to me, go ye into everlasting fire”.
“Therefore, I, oftentimes revolving in my mind this Godly precept, in which he saith, “Make unto you friends of the Mammon of iniquity that they may inherit the holy tabernacle,” I oftentimes revolving with myself these other precepts of our Saviour and considering the change of all temporal things, the misery, and the shortness of human life, I am wholly resolved to change all worldly things, and the vanities of this age, for the love of God, and to exchange shadows for realities; and to those who have given themselves wholly to the divine service, to them I have bestowed this donation.
“In the beginning, I give and grant to my Maker, with a sincere heart, by the counsel and consent of my lord Rannulf, Earl of Chester, and lord Roger (de Clinton), Bishop of Chester, holiest of men, and William my son and heir, for the health of me and my wife Petronilla and my children and all my friends, for the redemption of our souls, I say I give humbly and devoutly to the Lord God, omnipotent, the place and site which is called Combermere, to the founding and erecting of a certain abbey of the monks of Saint Benedict, in honour of the most blessed and most glorious Virgin Mary, and the mother of God and our Lord Jesus Christ, and St. Michael the Archangel, the wood, the plain, the waters, the water-courses, the fishings, the meadows, the pastures, the feedings, with all other their appurtenances, and with all other their commodities, and all things which are there, or may be made there, as well under the earth as above, for ever; to wit, between these bounds”
“All these metes and bounds, as well on the said place of Combermere, as of the said manor of Wilksley, I, Hugh Malbank, with my wife Petronilla, and William my son, and many others, have perambulated and compassed, and have freely given to the said abbey of Combermere.
“And to the monks there serving God, and to their successors, all things being within the said metes and bounds, with all their appurtenances, without reserving anything temporal to me, my heirs or assigns, for ever; and let them make of the wood and plain whatsoever they please; and enclose and assess whensoever they please. Also I give to the same monks common of pasture for all their cattle in all my woods and pastures of Cheshire, and besides that they may take wood to burn, and timber to build, as well without as within that abbey, at their pleasure, in all my woods as freely as I to my own use, except my forest of Couhull*.
“And I also grant unto the same monks, a fourth part of the town of Wich (Nantwich) and the same of the salt, and of the salt-pits that are mine, also those that belong to others, and of my money, and the salt of the Blessed Virgin, and salt on Friday, and salt for the abbot’s table as freely as I have at my board.
“And let them have their Court distinct from their townsmen, or from their tenants, and assize of bread and ale, and of all kinds of measures, and toll, and all manner of fines of all sorts of trespasses of all their tenants and men, as freely as I have to my own proper use.
“Likewise, I grant unto the same monks, and to all burgesses or tenants of the same town, common of pasture in all woods and pastures, meadows, moors, marshes, heaths and fields belonging to the said town, and through all Ranesmore (Ravensmoor) and the wood of Creche (in Alvaston), without molestation of any. And if it happen that any of their burgesses, tenants or men, be impleaded (prosecuted; from ‘to plead’) in my Court for any trespass, I will and grant for me and my heirs or my assigns that the aforesaid monks have the amerciaments (punishment or penalty applied at the discretion of a court or other authority, as contrasted with a penalty predetermined by statute) and fines without molestation or contradiction of me or of my heirs or assigns whatsoever.
“I give also to the same monks a plough land in the town of Acton, with the church of the same town, and the chapel of Wike Malbanc with all there appurtenances. I grant likewise to the same monks and their successors free passage through all my lands ever, with free ingress and egress, to take whatever they want, as often and whenever they please. And let them have all and singular the premises, in free, pure, and perpetual alms, as freely and absolutely from all secular exaction and worldly service, with as ample freedom and peace as any alms may be enjoyed, and we may never challenge or exact anything but only spiritual benefit and prayer.
“Therefore, of my good will, I grant that my lord Ranulph, Earl of Chester, be principal founder and defender of the said Abbey and of the monks there serving God, and that his heirs after him share in all good things, which may be there, for ever.
“The witnesses of this establishment and grant are these: My lord Ranulph, Earl of Chester, Roga; Bishop of Chester; Aldelia, my mother; Petronilla my wife; William, my son; William, Abbot of Chester; Robert, a chaplain; William, son of Ralph; Archibald, and many others who both saw and heard.
“And I, Roger, Bishop of Chester, at the pious request of Lord Hugh Malbank,.and other nobles, in perpetual memory hereof, and that his present gift and grant may for ever stand in force, in presence of Ranulph, Earl of Chester, and other nobles at Chester, have affixed thereto the seal of my bishopric.
“And therefore, if any shall any ways violate, diminish, or wilfully hinder this alms, gift, and grant, let him have the curse of God, and the blessed Virgin, and Saint Michael the archangel, to whom in special manner all these things are granted, together with my own curse, unless he be repentant of his mis-deed. Be it so! Be it so! Amen.”