The Wicked Monks of Combermere

What’s your mental image of a medieval monk? A kind-looking soul wearing a simple, roughly-woven robe and a plain wooden cross, who spends his life in devotion and prayer, and who patiently and skilfully illuminates religious texts when he’s not singing psalms? Well yes, of course; that’s what monks looked like – and that’s what they did with their time. They were pious men who devoted their lives to the saintly service of God and never committed so much as the tiniest of sins.

The monks of Combermere Abbey might have had their moments of pious devotion, but they indulged in violence too

The monks of Combermere Abbey might have had their moments of pious devotion, but they indulged in violence too

In truth, of course, monks sometimes slipped from grace very slightly. Some, like the monks of Combermere however, slipped an awful lot further. Indeed, they were often depicted in contemporary accounts as evil, violent, and corrupt. So much so that there were periods in the life of the Abbey when they were both feared and loathed by their neighbours, with whom they were often virtually at war.

We know that there was nothing much wrong at Combermere Abbey in 1231, a century after the Abbey was founded, because Abbot Stephen of Lexington visited Combermere in that year. Stephen was famously devout, and very well-connected. His father was a royal judge, two of his brothers were royal officials, and a third brother was Bishop of Lincoln. Stephen, who was a devoted and pious disciple of Saint Edmund of Abingdon, was sent to report on the state of all the Cistercian monasteries in England.

He laid down his own rules for tightening up both discipline and monastic administration, and also for eliminating any excess conversation between the monks – and indeed insisting of plain cooking and simple presentation in their dining halls. We know that he was happy with matters at Combermere simply because he didn’t call for any changes (as he did at Buildwas in Shropshire, and at Byland near York – both of which displeased him greatly).

The Abbey had been well provided for. The original endowment was made up of the manors of Wilkesley, the villages of Dodcott and Lodmore, land at Burley Dam, a mill and fishery a couple of miles north at Chorley, woodland at Brentwood, Light Birchwood and Butterley Heyes, and a number of churches in Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire – all of which produced an income. Perhaps most importantly the Abbey had a tithe over a quarter of the town of Nantwich; made especially worthwhile by the fact that the town was a major producer of the luxurious commodity – salt. More land was gifted in the century or so after the Abbey’s establishment; in Derbyshire as well as in the other three adjoining counties.

Surviving monastic leases refer to many lanes and streets in the town which still exist today, and others which got their name because of their ownership by the Abbey, such as Monk’s Lane and “the monkes orchard”. When surnames begin to appear on the deeds (for wealthier folk in the Thirteenth century, and for the working men and women more than a century later), they often described the man or woman’s occupation, or his place of birth and family – as was common all over England. We find Thomas le Plumer (a plumber), Thomas le Baxter (baker), Nicholas Goldsmyth, and David le Glover – or, by way of local place names;  John de Stapeley, Henry de Sutton, Humphrey Attherton, and  John de Smallwood (one Welshman who held a tenancy was David ap Res, whose surname was anglicised over the years to Preece). One name at least relates to the Abbey; Robert le Monkesmon – ‘the monks’ man’; another tenant was Thomas Churchehous, suggesting that he lived in an ecclesiastically-owned property.

A number of men appear several times, suggesting that they had a number of interests in the town. A few are described as esquires, indicating a level of social status above those in trade, and a very small number are knights (Sir John Savage being the most mentioned, in the early Sixteenth century). In 1512 Thomas Poynton (a village in the north east of Cheshire) took a lease on what seems to have been a sizeable portion of land from the Abbey, and he is described as a priest and a clerk.

Men outnumbered women in taking leases, as you would expect, but there are exceptions. In 1519 Margarett Sadeler, noted as being “formerly wife of Robert Sadeler”, and presumably his widow, rook on the tithe to farm land bounded by “Pyllery Streete”, “Hospell Streete”, and “Barkers Strete (the first two now being Pillory Street and Hospital Street).  She was to farm sheep, flax and hemp, and was to pay her rent in cash, according to her production of lambs, wool, and the two other crops. She also had leases on three other pieces of land so it is likely that she was employing others on her land. Her total annual rent paid to the Abbey was 65 shillings. Other women holding leases in their own names include Cecily Plynton, Matilda Parker, and Joan Leche. One Catherine Daa held a piece of land in her own name although she had a surviving husband. In 1465 Ysabell Laycesyter leased a garden, which is a pleasant thought, while another female lease-holder is nameless – which is unique in the surviving documents – only recorded as being “the wife of John Broke”.

One of the earliest known deed dates from 1296 and is between Abbot Adam and Randle de Copynhale (Randle being a Cheshire Christian name, and Coppenhull being a village on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border, south of Nantwich). It is for a place of open (“void”) ground in the town, for a period of only twenty years. The earliest is seven years older and is again between Abbot Adam; this time for William Fil Saimn – ‘Fil’ presumably being ‘brother’. (This deed mentions land owned by Peter de Castro, which seems curious but there is a chapel dedicated to Saint Mary de Castro above the Agricola Tower at Chester Castle, which was built in the previous century). These tenants had to make the six mile journey to the Abbey every quarter day – Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer day (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas Day – to pay their dues, which were collected in the Chapter House of the Abbey.

Combermere Abbey must have been prospering because it was involved in the founding of a number of daughter houses. Towards the end of the 1140s Abbot William of Combermere established a satellite Abbey at Poulton on the Lancashire coast, which was endowed by Robert Pincerna, third Baron of Warrington (this house moved to Leek in Staffordshire in 1215, and became Dieulacres Abbey). Other daughter abbeys were at Stanlow in south Wirral, endowed in 1178 by the Baron of Halton, which moved to Whalley in Lancashire, and at Halton in Staffordshire (endowed by Henry de Audley). All these benefactors were the descendants of Norman invaders, needless to say.

Pious Cistercians monks going about their work in the fields, by Jörg Breu the Elder

Pious Cistercians monks going about their work in the fields, by Jörg Breu the Elder

Combermere Abbey also established granges (a large house, often of manorial size, at the centre of a farm which provided food to an abbey) across quite a wide area; more than half a dozen locally, Wincle in East Cheshire, Cliff and Shifford in Shropshire. Records show that the Abbey was a substantial sheep farmer – an industry it undertook earlier than other abbeys in Cheshire – with the wool being sold at Boston Fair right over in Lincolnshire (for export to the continent). In 1220 there was a minor reprimand issued to Abbot Thomas de Gillyng of Combermere on account of him undertaking new monastic building without the appropriate permission, but that only illustrates how fast the Abbey was expanding its influence in the north west. All this activity seems like ambitious empire-building – especially persuading grandees to provide for outlying abbeys rather than for Combermere, as the senior house – and was hardly the actions of an impoverished abbey.

By 1253 though things were already going wrong so far as the Abbey’s finances were concerned. Debts had built up and the Abbot had to get a ‘restraining order’ to present the Abbey’s sheep being seized by unhappy creditors (which would have lead to the loss of the income from their wool, of course). Worse was to follow though. By 1275 Combermere had seen the civil war between supporters of Stephen and Matilda, had lionised Richard I – and helped pay for his crusades and his ransom, had suffered under King John, would have been delighted to hear of Edward I’s castle-building ambitions in Wales in order to subjugate the Welsh. By then the Abbey was badly in debt.

The first hint of this in official accounts occurred when the Sheriff of Shropshire ordered the Abbey’s creditors to offer respite; demanding a pause in their debt-collecting to allow Combermere Abbey to get its financial affairs in order. No good came of it, it seems, and the newly-enthroned Bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Burnell, was given authority over the Abbey. Burnell’s family were wealthy folk from Acton Burnell in Shropshire (his ancestor Roger had been gifted the manor in 1066, it having been seized from the Saxon lord Godfric), and he knew the area well. He was a man of great power; Lord Chancellor of England and regent to the young King Henry III.

Despite what must have been draconian measures implemented by Bishop Burnell, there can have been little improvement at Combermere. In 1276 the Bishop shifted control of the Abbey to the monarchy; in effect that placed Combermere under royal special measures. There was no higher authority.  Just a few years later there were new reasons for complaint against the Abbot and monks of Combermere at some of the highest levels in the land, and this time it was rather more serious.

A row had erupted between Combermere and the abbey of Saint-Évroul in Normandy (which traced its roots as a place of Christian devotion back to a hermitage established in the year 560) as to which of them owned the advowson of Drayton in north east Shropshire. This was an ecclesiastical right which would have brought in some income from the people of Drayton (Market Drayton as it is now), but, it must be said, not much. Combermere Abbey had an interest in Drayton as it owned the valuable rights to hold a market and a fair in the town. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, tried to visit the church of Saint Mary in Drayton, the Abbot of Combermere, Richard, and six monks, fortified the church and refused him entry. The Archbishop said that they had turned it into a castle in violation of its sanctified status, and he excommunicated them. That was a hugely serious matter as it denied them any path to heaven. The Abbot of Combermere certainly knew how to pick his enemies.

Cmere papal bull closeupContrary to popular belief, a papal bull is not a charter or deed sent from The Pope, but the lead seal which was fixed to the end of the document to authenticate it. This bull was found recently at Combermere Abbey, and is in the name of Pope Innocent IV, who held the papacy from June 1243 to December 1254, so it must have been issued within that eleven-year period. By this time a papal bull was only issued for the most formal instructions, usually doctrinal. This side of the bull shows Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Bulls were first used as early as the Sixth century.  

The next year, 1282, a new campaign against the marauding Welsh was planned by King Edward I, and a tax was levied on the great and the good of The Marches to pay for it. The Welsh prince Dafydd, son of Llewellyn, had embarked on open revolt against the English over-lords, which would have been a frightening threat to Combermere and the surrounding countryside, just a few miles from the border. Faced with a bill – albeit one for a campaign which would save their skins – the Abbey petitioned the King, saying that they had only enough food to feed themselves, and asking to be excused from the levy. Upon investigation by the King’s auditors this was deemed to be true, and the Abbey was exempted. Having perhaps rather unwisely brought attention to their situation, the Abbey was once again taken under royal control.

Bishop Burnell, doubtless now rather short of patience for Combermere Abbey’s plight, paid the massive sum of £213 6 shillings and 8 pence into the Abbey coffers to solve their debts once and for all. The Bishop seized the manor of Monks Coppenhall, west of Stafford, by way of compensation, so it wasn’t out-and-out charity on his part. Dafydd, by the by, was caught by the King’s men in June 1283, and executed in Shrewsbury, bringing peace to the border country.

Relations between the Abbey and the citizens of Nantwich had become very sour, possibly as a result of the debts owed by the Abbey, but perhaps for other reasons too; we cannot know for sure. There were numerous reports of violence between the two sides, and in particular, in March 1309, a group of Nantwich residents assaulted the Abbot of Combermere and a number of his monks while they were in the town. A man called Richard of Fullshurst (or perhaps Fullhurst; Fullhurst being a village in Leicestershire) is said to have personally attacked the Abbot and his Prior; the latter man died of his wounds. There then ensued a rampage against the Abbey’s possessions in the town; houses owned by the Abbey were set on fire, and property worth the very considerable total of £200 was looted. Given that twenty sheep could be bought for £1 in that year, that was a lot of money. It sounds like an all-out riot against the Abbey, and it can only have made its financial position worse.

We cannot be sure if the Abbot at this point was Robert, or Richard of Rudyard, who we know died in 1316, as the records are a little fuzzy (Rudyard was, and is, a village just into Staffordshire, between Congleton and Leek).

A commission of ‘oyer and terminer’ was the use of an assize “commanded to make diligent inquiry into all treasons, felons and misdemeanours” – in short, a serious judicial review – and that was what the Abbot demanded after the attacks in Nantwich. And that was what he was going to get, but before it could be held, Richard of Fullshurst and his gang intensified the feud by venturing south and launching an armed invasion on the Abbey. They broke into what is described as ‘the Abbot’s house’ in the Abbey and went on the rampage. The Abbot himself was wounded, along with a number of his servants. The sum of £60 was stolen, and – most interestingly – three horses were killed. The value of a good horse had doubled over the previous century, and they were only owned and ridden by the wealthy. Perhaps Richard and his men, rather than stealing the horses, killed them as a symbolic attack on the Abbot’s perceived wealth and his actual status.

Fullshurst must have had a very serious complaint against the Abbey because he then took his case directly to the Abbey’s overseer, the Abbot of Savigny. We can surmise that to do that he was far from being an illiterate peasant. He was possibly a man of standing and substance. For some reason the King – Edward II, who had been crowned two years earlier – became involved. It seems that the Abbot of Savigny visited Combermere “with others”, took evidence and heard witnesses, and found for Fullshurst. His verdict was that the Abbot of Combermere was to be removed from his position, but King Edward asked the clerics from Savigny to leave him be, for whatever reason, and have Fullshurt’s complaint annulled.

Something akin to chaos seems to have reigned for decades, with a state of war existing been the Abbey and the town. In 1344 evidence to the General Chapter – the monastic assembly – stated that ambushes were still being set for the Abbot of Combermere as he travelled throughout the southern part of the county. One such ambush certainly found him: The Abbot of Combermere, together with the Abbot of Combermere’s sister abbey, Whalley in central Lancashire, was physically attacked once more when they went together to visit Hulton in Staffordshire. The intent, it was said, was to remove the Abbot of Combermere from his office, or kill him, as need be. In 1360 the Abbot seems to have retaliated (the Abbot was probably a man called John), and he lead a violent reprisal attack on the property of Fullshurst – who is now described as Sir Richard Fullshurst – so he had probably inherited a baronetcy or a knighthood in the meantime (if he had been made a knight at this point he would be easier for contemporary researchers to find), and must have been a man of some substance Sadly we have no details of the attack, but there was a most unchristian vendetta under way between the Abbey and the local people. This had become serious.

Unfortunately, we currently know nothing more of Sir Richard, though another Fullhurst does appear in ‘The Administration of the County Palatine of Chester, 1442-1485’; one Robert Fullhurst, who inherited his father’s lands in Crewe in Nantwich Hundred, around 1440. He also owned the manor of Edleston in what is now Crewe town centre, and one thirty-sixth part of the barony of Nantwich (which may well have come to him by marriage at some point). This Robert ‘Fulleshurst’, as it was written in deeds, was noted as an esquire, and was working for the Abbey as its bailiff, enforcing the collection of rents, which is a pleasing reversal.  He died in 1498. It is very likely that he was a descendant of Richard Fullhurst, and the war with the Abbey related to these holdings or others close by.

Combermere Abbey wasn’t shy of making enemies: Documents show that a lot of correspondence passed between the monastic houses of Combermere and Whalley (which was founded in 1296 when the Abbot and monks of Stanlow Abbey deserted the River Mersey and moved into the Lancashire hills), and on several occasions monks from Combermere were promoted to become abbots of Whalley. There had been an increasingly angry argument over money between them all through the Fourteenth century. In one piece of correspondence the Abbot of Whalley complained that the Abbot of Combermere was “most ungracious” because he was “begging” Whalley to give him a horse (which he could not afford himself “because of unjust taxation’). So the Abbot of Combermere wasn’t too proud to beg, but it would be unsurprising if “most ungracious” threats hadn’t been part of the begging letter.

In 1318 the Abbot of Whalley had more reason to complain. His Abbey, he said, had been ordered to pay too much towards a partitioning contribution by the Abbot of Combermere. It’s helpful that he had a moan because the ensuing investigation shows that Combermere Abbey’s total income at that point – assuming the truth was told, and there was every reason to under-state the total – was £130 14 shillings 11 pence. It also tells us that in 1314 the Abbot had leased out Cotes Grange for twenty eight years to the Abbot of Burton so as to be discharged of a debt for the very considerable sum of £800. To put that in context, the annual income of a member of the gentry might be £20 per annum, and a Baron would think himself very comfortable on £200 a year. Running up a debt of £800 would have taken some doing.

The following year, 1319, Combermere Abbey was again taken into the royal protection of King Edward II “on account of its poverty and miserable state”. ‘Keepers’ or administrators were put in charge of the Abbey’s finances, and they had complete power over the finances and the running of the estates. The Abbot, monks and lay men were given an allowance, but all the Abbey’s other income was used to pay off debts, so far as that went. In 1321 the custody was renewed, so there wasn’t to be a quick solution to the Abbey’s long-standing financial problems.

This was still the state of affairs seven years later when the Abbot petitioned the King, saying that he had no funds to provide hospitality to travellers – a traditional role of abbeys through Christendom. The Abbot complained that the debts had been accrued as a result of bad leases; it seems that all Abbots blamed their predecessors for poor management of the Abbey’s endowments.

There was some to-ing and fro-ing over the Abbey’s estates in the Fourteenth century, with lands being seized in lieu of monies owed, and land and manorial rights being loaned to the Abbey against securities. Edward III’s son, The Black Prince, gave the Abbey a wealthy grange to ease their poverty, but on condition that they farmed it themselves – to get maximum return – and didn’t spend money on wages for labourers. Royal protection again gave the Abbott respite from his creditors, and it was doubtless to maintain good relations with the monarch that the cash-starved Abbey managed to contribute to the cost of the King’s sister’s wedding in 1333, to loan money to the Crown for an expedition against the French in 1347, and to pay the wages of a porter (doubtless on the minimum wage) for one of The Black Prince’s servants.

In 1359 the Abbots of Combermere, Vale Royal, and Dieulacres all put their seal on a letter to The Black Prince. They were feeling the pinch so far as giving bed and board to travellers was concerned, and what’s more, they were unhappy with their manners. They protested about, “The excessive burden of providing for guests, and their gross discourtesy”. They said that not only were they obliged to accommodate and feed these travellers, but also their horses, mules, and even greyhounds. It was an  argument which Combermere at least would come back to.

Despite their parlous financial situation, relations with its daughter houses obviously didn’t improve. In 1365 the Abbot of Combermere, Richard of Chester, astonishingly attempted to depose the Abbot of Whalley in a sort of ecclesiastical coup d’etat. It seems that he actually invaded Whalley Abbey and fortified it against its rightful occupants. The Abbot of Whalley went hot-foot to the civil authorities in the county, and the Abbey was counter-attacked by the Sheriff of Lancashire, who raised a posse comitatus (like in a Western film) of local citizens, who then laid siege to the Abbey. The Combermere clerics held out for some time before being forcefully ejected and sent home to Cheshire.

In 1385 there was new trouble – internal this time, as opposed to Combermere taking on all comers. One of the nine monks was accused of stealing unspecified items from his own Abbot (Abbot John). We don’t know what the outcome of that accusation was, but the following year the same monk was the subject of an appeal from Abbot John to the General Chapter, asking for his arrest; he was described as being a “vagabond, apostate and obdurate”. The monks were as bad as their Abbots.

In 1388 however, Robert, Abbot of Combermere, must have been well regarded because he was appointed Justice of Eyre for the towns of Middlewich and Nantwich. In Norman times the Abbot of Combermere had held this post jointly with Baron Wich-Malbeck, but the position seems to have lapsed.

It made the Abbot a roving Justice of the King’s Peace, with the authority to hold courts as he saw fit, and to try criminals. It is noted that the Abbot had power “in capital felony”, so he had the power of life and death over convicted felons. This was a fearsome power, and a slightly surprising one for a man of the cloth. We can only guess at what the local people thought of the head of an unpopular Abbey being able to put their fellow citizens to death.

The Fifteenth century was no kinder to Combermere Abbey than the Fourteenth had been. In 1410 the financial situation was such that, it was said, the Abbey was facing starvation; if the monks made their due payments to their creditors there would be nothing left over for them to live on. At least, that was what they argued. These debts were again laid at the doors of former abbots; it was said that they had sold too much timber from the Abbey’s lands, and they had allowed all the buildings to become very dilapidated. The estimation for the total bill to undertake repairs urgently needed on the Abbey buildings was a very considerable £1,000. Equating ancient financial values with modern ones is inexact at best, but that was at least £500,000.

By 1414 matters were desperate, and it seems that the Abbot engaged himself in desperate measures. He was accused of counterfeiting cold coins. The noble was the first English coin made of gold; it was introduced between 1344 and 1346, so not long previously. It was worth one third of a pound; six shillings and eight pence, and the name alludes to the high level of gold in the coin (and because of that it was a popular denomination). The King’s image was on all coins and the coinage was an arm of the Crown, so any attack on the coinage was deemed to be treason. At the least a counterfeiter would have his (or her?) right hand chopped off. It was a very serious charge indeed. The Abbot at the time was one William of Plymouth, and he is documented as having gone away soon after –and we will learn more of him later.

Two years earlier The Prince of Wales (who came to the throne as Henry V the following year) took personal charge over the finances of Combermere Abbey once more, and delegated the task to the Chamberlain and Escheator of Chester. He in turn appointed three more Palatine officials to assist in the administration. Combermere Abbey was obviously a burden, but the Chamberlain and Escheator needed yet more assistance, and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester and a nephew of the Prince of Wales, became part of the web, sharing the wardship with the rather put-upon Chamberlain and Escheator of Chester.

In the following year Roger Hoggeson of Holyhurst (just over a mile to the west of Combermere Abbey) and Richard Tenche of Lodmore (there’s a Lodmore Lane to the south east of Combermere in Burley Dam) come into the story. There is a slight confusion over this part of the tale as some sources suggest that they were monks at the Abbey, but it is perhaps more likely that they were local people.

We know nothing of what grievances they might have had against the Abbey, but they obviously decided to take very direct action in pursuance – we can imagine – of recovering debts. It’s not hard to imagine that they were local suppliers to the Abbey – farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters, millers – who were not only driven to desperate measures by the circumstances, but whose patience was so completely exhausted that they were prepared to launch an assault on a house of God and its clerics.

Hoggeson and Lomore did just that; they appear to have launched an all-out armed attack on Combermere Abbey, and “held the Abbey by force against the orders of the King and the will of the Abbot, attacking royal officials”. As the Abbey was under royal protection to shield the Abbot and the monks from its debtors, this was an assault on the King’s authority.

The local men were obviously successful in their violent attack because they then undertook what was doubtless the real reason for the incursion; they plundered various valuable goods, including four Bibles, three large volumes of the Psalters of St. Augustine and “books of Saint Gregory and Saint Bernard”. All were stolen from the library, and in total they were valued at £100. These would not have been easily portable items – they were heavy and bulky. Hoggeson and Lomore may well have been at the head of a larger mob, and they would have needed transport of some kind to move the loot across the county line into Shropshire, as they did, so a degree of premeditation seems more than likely.

The two men, and possibly others, were caught and brought to trial. It seems from the records like an open and shut case, but a jury of their fellows may have had different ideas. Certainly if the men were tried in Nantwich, the townspeople would have had a lot of sympathy for them, and no love at all for the Abbot of Combermere. They were acquitted.

There were two fascinating codas to the story. The matter came before the courts for a second time some while later, at the “suit of the King”, who was probably very peeved to have his protection of the Abbey violated. Hoggeson was declared an outlaw, which was a fate like civic damnation; an outlaw had no position or protection under the law, and his life was forfeit to anyone who chose to take it. Outlaws often resorted to living in hiding in the forests – just like Robin Hood – and with other outlaws if they could find them, and had no option but to live by criminal acts until their inevitable unheroic deaths.

What is fascinating is that Hoggeson had a co-defended, who suffered the same fate. It wasn’t Lomore (who seems to have got away with it; perhaps he fled), but one of the monks. This raises the question of whether the two local men had had an accomplice inside the Abbey. The books would have been some of the most valuable of the portable goods in the Abbey, and perhaps it was the monk who steered the invaders towards them, and even unlocked them, as they would have been kept under lock and key in the Abbey’s library.

The second ramification was that the Abbot – William of Plymouth, who we met before – was dismissed from the Abbey and made to leave the estates. In records these two pieces of dramatic news were noted together, as if they were connected. Had the King’s judges decided that there was guilt on both sides? One historian thinks that there had been feuding within the Abbey, and that this Abbot was particularly divisive.

As the century went on, so did the Abbey’s troubles. In 1435 John Kingesley, who was one of the Abbey’s tenants in Nantwich, was accused of extorting money from the Abbot. It was alleged that this extortion had been going on for many years. If so, why did the Abbot suffer it? Was it actually extortion, or was Kingesley claiming payment for debts honestly outstanding, and the Abbot was trying to duck them by claiming that it was illegal extortion?

There was more bloodshed in 1446 – this time even more outrageous – when Abbot Richard Alderwas was murdered by John Bagh of Dodcott. John shot the Abbot dead with a bow and arrow; a very powerful and accurate weapon in the hands of a trained archer. His murderer was described as a labourer, but what motivation would he have had to kill a man who was very much his social superior, as well as being a man of the cloth? It is of course possible that he had been employed by the Abbey, had not been paid, and was desperate to the point where he would commit such a crime. No Abbot would have travelled alone, both for fear of robbery and because attendants advertised his position to all and emphasised his dignity, and anyway, any Abbot of Combermere would doubtless have wanted armed bodyguards at his side.

The hamlet of Dodcott lies to the east of Combermere, between the Abbey and the village of Audlem. The Abbey lies within the parish of Dodcott cum Wilkesley today. It’s not hard to imagine John Bagh lying in wait, hearing horses’ hooves, seeing the Abbot approaching, probably with a small entourage, and then rising from his place in a ditch or by a hedge and taking aim. He need not have been particularly close if he was a good archer, as even a light ‘flight’ arrow was accurate to about two hundred yards. Of course, skill at archery wasn’t a rare talent; eighty years earlier Edward III had banned all sport on Sundays so that men should concentrate on their archery practise, and in the early Sixteenth century Henry VIII decreed that all English males between seven and sixty should practise regularly with bow and arrow. Whatever the details, an Abbot – a man of great importance, and of God – lay dead in a lonely spot on the Cheshire/Shropshire border.

About seventy years later there was yet another murder, this time actually inside the Abbey itself. One of the Abbot’s servants killed one of the monks after a disagreement of some kind. The year was 1520, and the Abbot was Christopher Walley (or Whalley; possibly a man named Christopher from Whalley).  Abbot Christopher, despite being a Bachelor of Divinity, decided to ignore the crime, bury the corpse of the monk without any fuss, and protect his servant at all costs. The murderer was the Abbey’s tanner, John Jenyns, and the victim was one Daniel Ottewell.

The poor monk’s brother went public with the accusation, demanding justice, and stating that “this Abbey is already in an evil name for using of misrule” – which certainly had something of a ring of truth about it. It was probably typical of how local people regarded this particular house of God. The Abbot decided that he could tough it out. He demanded that everyone within the Abbey swear a sacred oath to keep silent about the matter, and the Jenyns spent six months in hiding deep inside the Abbey. When the Abbot deemed the fuss had died down he let the tanner go about his duties again as if nothing had happened. It’s hard to imagine that the Abbot had any great affection of Jenyns; a tanner’s trade generated a terrific stench, which he then carried with him everywhere he went. It’s more likely that Abbot Christopher was keen to avoid any fuss; and any chance of the outside world looking in on the Abbey’s affairs.

Murders aside, it seemed as if Combermere Abbey was doomed to a life of poverty and indebtedness. In 1496 it had been exempted from clerical taxation on the grounds of poverty, and in the late 1520s, when Thomas Cromwell turned his attention to the Abbey, nothing had improved – despite the fact that the Tudor years of peace and stability had greatly enriched the country.

Not long before the Dissolution the monks of Combermere tried their hands at salt extraction close to the Abbey. A section of a small, wooded hillock fell away as a result of heavy rain, and a brine pool was found beneath it.  A salt pit was naturally created and te monks undertook some limited salt production. This was met with protests from the salt-makers of Nantwich, and the Abbot ordered that the work should stop. It seems that the salt-producers of Nantwich, with no love for the Abbey, put an end to the enterprise. The antiquary John Leland visited Nantwich some time before the Dissolution, and related what he had been told: “A mile from Cumbremere Abbay, in time of mind, sank a Pease of a Hille having trees on it; and after that Pitte sprang salte water; and the Abbate ther began to make salt; but the Menne of the Wichis componid with the Abbay that ther shoulod be no salt made”. “Componid”? Complianed? The Abbot’s attempt at salt manufacture came to an abrupt halt.

So, how had Combermere Abbey managed to fall into such debt and not climb out of it? It has been suggested that Combermere was impoverished by the cost of providing board and lodgings for travellers along the road which ran – and still runs – to the west of it. This seems unlikely; this road – built by the Romans well over a millennium earlier – runs from Whitchurch (and, originally, from the important Roman town of Wroxeter) in a north easterly direction to Middlewich (like Nantwich, another important salt-mining town). It wasn’t a truly major road, and the number of travellers would not have been unmanageable. Plus, the Abbey was some way from it. Other monasteries the size of Combermere prospered despite a proximity to major routes.

Combermere Abbey had been reasonably well-endowed by benefactors, but it is possible that very long leases were entered into and low rents agreed, and their values declined with time and inflation. Records show that leases were agreed for one hundred and one years until the middle of the Fifteenth century, with no provision for rents to rise. From 1464 Abbot John reduced the standard length to ninety nine years (when English towns were richer than they had ever been before); not much of a change. In the run-up to the Dissolution the periods were considerably shorter.  The leases range in value from a cottage, presumably a hovel, which cost its tenant just one penny a year (possibly a subsidised rent for a widow), to one lot for ‘a parlour and four houses’, worth sixteen shillings and four pence a year.

Thus the answer might simply have been poor management. There was no reason to believe that Abbots and their employees were financially astute. The complement of monks at Combermere rarely went above fifteen, and was usually around ten, so it may have been that Combermere wasn’t large or prestigious enough to attract the most gifted monastic administrators, and it was cursed by generation after generation of incompetence. On the other hand, there was much less in the way of out-goings with so modest a complement. Maybe a degree of maladministration early on was enough to tilt the finances for centuries, and once the Abbey was heavily in debt there was not enough excess for the Abbey to extricate itself from its fiscal mire.

Thomas Cromwell’s well-kept records are a great help in considering the question. Combermere became a problem for Cromwell in 1528, when he was warned of the Abbot’s “lack of abilities and his poor behaviour”. A note stated that “a discreet head” was urgently needed instead of Abbot Christopher Whalley – though in fact he died the following year.

Cromwell sent in his auditors in 1535. They doubtless inspired terror wherever they went. Cromwell believed in the iron fist in the iron glove for occasions such as these, and his men followed his lead. They would have alighted upon Combermere like an army of occupation, and brooked no argument. It was a foolish Abbot who tried to under-play his house’s wealth and income; his men were too sharp to be deceived (many abbeys, unbelieving of the rumours of complete Dissolution following Thomas Wolsey’s Dissolution of thirty great houses between 1524 and 1528, thought that Cromwell’s assayers wanted to gain a picture of their value for taxation);.

The famous portrait of Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The iron fist in the iron glove.

Thomas Cromwell, who put into action Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries

In 1535 Combermere Abbey had a gross income of £258 6 shillings and 6 pence from a massive estate of 22,000 acres. That broke down to show income from temporal possessions amounted to £181 2 shillings and 10 pence, and from spiritualities £77 3 shillings and 8 pence. Debts were noted as being £160. The valuation was probably reasonably accurate since after the Dissolution the total revenues taken on by the Cotton family were estimated at £275 17 shillings and 11 pence ha’penny. This made it the third wealthiest abbey in Cheshire, in terms of income (Saint Werburgh’s in Chester easily topped the list with an income of more than a thousand pounds a year).

Detailed accounts for Combermere in the 1530s are interesting. One of the biggest slices of income came from the tithes of “Acton, Cholmeston, Wich-Malbank, Badyngton and Leghton, which totalled £22 6 shillings and 8 pence. Ten salt houses in Nantwich paid rent of £15 3 shillings and 4 pence in a year in total, while “rents and profits” from Wich-Malbank came to £14 14 shillings and 5 pence.

By way of comparison, at the time of the Dissolution, Vale Royal Abbey in central Cheshire had a net annual income of £518 and a community of fifteen monks. So it was a little larger but far wealthier. The Abbey at Rievaulx in Yorkshire was noted by Cromwell’s assessors as comprising seventy two buildings, occupied by an abbot and twenty one monks, who were attended by all of one hundred and two servants. Interestingly, this was sustained by an income of only £351 a year – not that much more than Combermere, but less than the smaller Vale Royal. On the other hand, when Abbot Marmaduke Bradley surrendered Fountains Abbey, also in Yorkshire, its estate was worth £1,115 a year, which made it the richest Cistercian monastery in England.

Whalley was worth £551 4 shillings and 6 pence a year according the Cromwell’s examiners, but the figure is skewed by income from four churches which had been “appropriated” almost a century and a half previously. (Whalley had other problems: In 1536 Abbot Paslew was implicated in the rebellion known as The Pilgrimage of Grace. A local rebel, Nicholas Tempest came to Whalley Abbey with four hundred men, and Paslew loaned them a horse and some plate. There seems to have been other evidence, and he was tried for his life at Lancaster Castle, found guilty, and executed there on March 10 1537, having been Abbot a few months shy of thirty years. A monk by the name of William Haydock was also found guilty of high treason, and was taken to the Abbey for execution. The state then seized all the Abbey’s possessions as forfeit, which meant Cromwell didn’t have to dissolve it.)

Cromwell’s men also descended on Buildwas Abbey in 1535. They reported that the buildings were “in convenient repair“, and although four of the monks were accused of “grave moral faults”, all the priests [monks] were “of good conversation and living by report and God well and devoutly served by the prior and his brethren“. All that is except the Abbot, who is specifically excluded from praise. The Abbey’s income totalled £133 6 shillings 10 pence. Interestingly a separate chapel (dating from 1400) on the south wall of the Abbey church nave was noted, used exclusively by the laymen of the Abbey.

So Combermere’s income wasn’t inconsiderable. The debts noted at the time of the Dissolution were not enormous, relative to the annual income. How they had managed to run up far larger debts years earlier, no one knows.

In May 1538 Abbot John Massey, who had been in his post for just three years, was ordered to present himself in front of Thomas Cromwell in London. It would not have been a happy meeting for him; in fact it was probably quite terrifying, and it is highly likely that he was spoken to in a manner wholly alien to him – and all the more unnerving for that. He took with him a letter from Bishop Rowland Lee, President of the Council of the Welsh Marches, commending him “for his gentle entertainment of me and others of the council”, and the pathetic hope that Combermere might be excluded from the Dissolution. Not a hope of a chance.

Cromwell, like his master Henry VIII, and – it should be said – a large number of English men and women were convinced of corruption and debauchery with the monasteries, and were of the opinion that the extreme measure of Dissolution was the only answer. The Cheshire historian James Hall wrote, “The injunctions relating to Ecclesiastical affairs are particularly interesting. Allusion is here made both to habitual neglect of religious observances and want of decorum in the priests who officiated at Nantwich Church, proving that corrupt practices prevailed at Combermere, as in Abbey Churches and Monasteries generally throughout the Kingdom. In 1524 the Pope had issued a bull empowering Cardinal Wolsey to visit religious houses and punish all violations of discipline; and ultimately these disorders were made the pretext for the suppression of the Monasteries.”

The last year’s accounts for the Abbey as a monastic house have been preserved, and they show the extent and diversity of the house’s income. There is money coming in from “the rood box, oblations and obventions” – donations and legacies from the parish church (which went into the Abbey’s coffers), together with tithes from farms and mills,  and – most numerous of all – leases on salt works (“salt-houses”). Many citizens of Nantwich – Gilbert Walthall, Roger Harwar, Laurence Rope, George Maisterson, Isabella Walker, Oliver Mainwaring – are named as holding tenacies and paying rent to the Abbey. One Thomas Wring was probably not a popular man in the town; he was the Abbey’s bailiff; the Abbot’s tax-collector.

The abbey was surrendered on 27 July of that year, when soon-to-be-ex-Abbot John Massey signed the deed of surrender, and left the Abbey for ever, together with twelve monks. All were awarded pensions. We do not know how much the monks were allowed, but some Abbots who had gone quietly (unlike Abbot Richard Whiting of Glastonbury Abbey, who was rewarded for his resistance by being hung, drawn and quartered – and having his head nailed to the west door of the Abbey, by way of a warning to others) received around £100 a year. Ex-Abbot John Massey received the very reasonable sum of £50 per annum for life. He died in either 1564 or 1565, so had drawn his pension for at least a quarter of a century. He is buried in the north aisle at Chester Cathedral.

Although at one point an unspecific charge of “pillage, rape and murder” was laid against the monks of Combermere, the one sin they seem to have been innocent of was the temptations of the flesh. At least, there is no evidence of it. Murder, other forms of violence, fraud – yes, all those, but there are no hints of carnality. Sins of the flesh committed by the monastic orders were far from rare; One of Cromwell’s men, one, John Bartelot, told his boss that he had “found the prior of the Crossed Friars in London at that time being in bed with his whore, both naked.”

Another, Richard Layton, reported to Cromwell that the Abbot of Syon Abbey “persuaded one of his lay brethren, a smith, to have made a key for the door, to have in the night-time received in wenches for him and his fellow and especially a wife of Uxbridge. The said Bishop also persuaded a nun, to whom he was confessor, to submit her body to his pleasure, and thus he persuaded her in confession, making her believe that whensoever and as oft as they should meddle together, if she were immediately after confessed by him.” And the Abbot of the great abbey of Fountains was particularly busy on this score. He “hath so greatly dilapidated his house, wasted their woods, notoriously keeping six whores, defamed here by all people. Six days before our access to his monastery he committed theft and sacrilege, confessing the same”.

The Abbots and monks of Combermere were not without their faults, to say the least, but no one seems to have ever accused them of meddling with wenches, let alone having half a dozen on the go at the same time.