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The Cluniac Priory in Montacute c.1100-1539

(Image: page from 'Two Cartularies of the Augustinian Abbey of Bruton and the Cluniac Priory of Montacute in the County of Somerset', Somerset Record Society, Vol VIII, 1894)

What's on the ground

Below: screenshot from LiDARFinder of Montacute. Red hexagon marks St Catherine's Church. Features on the map below include the Priory Gatehouse (green square, now Abbey Farmhouse),  Priory fishpond (blue star), Priory dovecote (pink arrow) and exposed remains of walls from a barn demolished in the early 20th century (yellow arrow). The road through Montacute is indicated in dark blue with minor roads indicated in light blue. Images below are enlarged LiDAR, satellite (Google Earth 2014 image) and overlay views of the site of Cluniac Priory.

Somerset Historic Environment Record 54294 records a Cluniac priory in Montacute from 1102 to 1539, with the main buildings south of the current Church. Historic England gives earlier dates, saying the priory was founded c. 1078 with the first charter being granted c. 1090. The priory was denizened (no longer answerable to Cluny) in 1407. The only remains are the priory gate house which was incorporated into Abbey Farm (56191) (indicated green on maps above); the initials T.C. on the gatehouse show it was built just before the Dissolution when Thomas Chard was Prior (1514-32). The fishpond (54829) (blue) was probably also part of the Priory, and at a distance from the Priory site is the 'Monk's House', a private house off Smith Row, which is said to have been the infirmary for the Priory (although this is not mentioned on the Somerset Historic Environment Record site). A 1760 map of Montacute drawn up by Phelips appears to show a church to the west of the fishpond, could this have been the priory Church? The Priory dovecote (54837) (pink) probably dates from after the Dissolution, it was probably built in the 17th century and the current arrangement of the nest boxes dates to after 1760. Priory park (54295) includes the present-day Ladies Walk. The Priory site was surveyed in 1997 (Unpublished: Clark, J. A Study of the Cluniac Priory of Montacute. (1997) MA dissertation. Copy in HER file 12166).  Montacute Borough was probably founded in around 1100 by Robert Mortain or his son and donated to the priory, giving them a rental income from the tradesmen's burgages. In the 13th century the "novo burgo" extended the rental properties NE of the priory site and provided additional funds for the monk's kitchens, see PRN 54308 for more details. See PRN 16252 for the deserted medieval hamlet of Lower Warren which may have been associated with the priory.

Evidence of further undocumented Priory buildings?

Saxon Christanity in Montacute

There is no record to tell us when Christianity arrived in Montacute but Christianity may have come to Somerset in Roman times. There is a strong tradition of Celtic Saints arriving in the 5th and 6th Centuries, and the first indication of a Church at Glastonbury is around 680. Saxon Kings of Wessex consolidated their rule through the church; in approx. 705 King Ine founded the Sherborne Bishopric, which will have overseen the churches in Somerset and further west. 

The earliest record I can find of church ownership of lands in Montacute occurs between 676 and 685 ('The Early Charters of Wessex', Finberg, 1964) (Not in Sawyer): 676 x 685 King Baldred to Glastonbury Abbey. 16 hides at Logworesbeorh. LOST. Dugdale,  p50; Johannis .... Glastoniensis Chronica sive Historia de Rebus Glastoniensibus, ed T. Hearne. Oxford 1726 Vol I p41.

The next reference occurs in 854 with charter S303 from the Glastonbury archive; there are early transcriptions of this lost manuscript in the collection of The Marquess of Bath at Longleat (dates from c.1338-40),  The Bodleian Library at Oxford, (direct copy? c.1340-2), and in the Lost Glastonbury Liber Terrarum, no. 136 (see Abrams 1996, p. 34). 

The MS says: A.D. 854 (Wilton, Wilts., 22 April). Æthelwulf, king of Wessex, to the Church; general grant of lands and privileges with a list of the Glastonbury estates affected, namely 5 hides at Buckland Newton, Dorset; 6 at Pennard, Somerset; 1 at Cetenes felda; 6 at Cerawycombe (? Crowcombe, Somerset); 10 hides at Sowy (cf. Middlezoy, Westonzoyland), 3 at Puriton, 1.5 at Montacute (Lodegaresbergh), Somerset; 1.5 at Culmstock, 0.5 at Monk Okehampton and 0.5 at Braunton, Devon ('Second Decimation'). Latin with English bounds. 

Like many early charters, this record may not refer to a genuine original charter, even though it may represent a true transfer of ownership (The Electronic Sawyer online catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Charters lists arguments for and against its authenticity)

Between 871 and 879 there is another reference to church ownership of land in Montacute 'Tunbeorht, bishop (of Winchester), to Glastonbury Abbey; grant of land at Logderesdone (Montacute, Somerset)' (S1703).

 In 877 King Alfred's battles against the Danes saw him retreat to Athelney, where in 888 he founded Athelney Abbey. In 1086 the Domesday book records that Montacute had belonged to Athelney Abbey and it also says Athelney Abbey was a daughter house of Glastonbury Abbey. In 1118 the monk William of Malmesbury (1095-1143) used the Glastonbury Archives to help compile his 'De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie' (On the Antiquity of Glastonbury Church; see John Scott's 1981 'The Early History of Glastonbury; an edition, translation and study William of Malmesbury's De antiquitate Glastonie ecclesie).  Fire destroyed Glastonbury Abbey in 1184, leaving Malmesbury's work as the major source of early Glastonbury Charters. The original manuscript no longer exists and contemporary copies may have been embellished to promote the status of the Abbey.

The Monastic Houses of Somerset (Wikipedia):

The arrival of the Cluniac Priory

'Two Cartularies of the Augustinian Abbey of Bruton and the Cluniac Priory of Montacute in the County of Somerset', published 1894 by The Somerset Record Society, Vol VIII, lists 217 Charters relating to the Montacute Priory taken from a 'MS at Trinity College, Oxford', starting with William of Mortain's grant to the Cluniac monks

"for the good of his soul, and the souls of his father Robert the count, and his mother, Matilda the countess, the church of St. Peter, near his castle of Montacute, also for their support he gives the borough and its market with the toll, the castle and chapel, with his orchards and vineyard ; also his manor of Biscopestun, the hundred and the mill; the fair of Hamedone; the manor, church, hundred, mill, and fair of Tintenelle ; the manor of Criche, with Hamm, Eteneberg and Nigenid and the church and hundred ; the manor and church of Cinnuc; the church and hundred of Hunesberg and Wrthelay; the manor, church and mill of Clouesword, and the lands of Melebire, Widecumbe, Ford and Denewoldesham ; the manor, church, hundred and mill of Modiforde ; the lands of Attebare and Humbre, and the land of 'La Welle' and Thorn; the manor, church and hundred of Legh and Frisejiam in Devenesire; twenty shillings of land in Gersic, Hunecroft and Loverlay ; certain land called Baresfelde, and the church of All Saints, Gersic ; and in Cornwall, the churches of Lerky, Altrenune, Sennet and St. Carentoc, with their lands and tithes, a hamlet called Pennarde; and the churches of Gerlintune, Brimetune and Odecumb; two parts of the tithes of Acforde; the tithes of Cinnuc ; a moiety of the tithes of Ciselberg, Clafforde and Nortun by Tantone; the tithes of Merscetun, Cridelincot, Hececumb, Candel, Trop, the three Cernels, Tolre and Hoc, and two parts of the tithes of Bichehulle, Dirwinestun, Pondintun, Lodre and Ciltern. The said monks to hold all the aforesaid in free possession from the said William and his heirs for ever. Witnesses:—William, count of Mortain ; Alvred the butler (Pincerna); William des biars; Ranulf the chaplain; Stephen the chaplain ; Hervey Avenel; Richard son of Turald ; Reginald de Valletorta; Hamelin de Cornubia; Ansgerius Brito; Britellus de Sancto Claro; William son of Alvred the butler; Jordan de Barnavilla; Payn de Barnavilla ; Rodbert de Bruis ; William Capre ; Hugh de Torta Quercu ; Gosfred Capre."

'The Two Cartularies' says this initial charter is printed in Dugdale's Monasticon vol. v. p. 165 and belongs to the period between 1091 and 1106, when the Count of Mortain was taken prisoner at the battle of Tinchebrai; some of the witnesses were the real donors of the lands specified.

The last document in the Montacute Cartulary dates to the time of Edward III (reigned 1327-1377).

Ownership of the Priory lands

The history of the Cluniac Priory at Montacute is described in the Victoria County History for Somerset (House of Cluniac monks: The priory of Montacute',  Vol II pp111-115) (see also 'The Heads of Religious Houses, England and Wales I: 940 - 1216' by David Knowles et al (2009)). The ownership of the lands at Montacute follows a convoluted path. Before the Conquest, the discovery of the Holy relics on the hill in around 1035 had prompted the Dane Tofig to donate his lands at Lutgaresbury (Montacute) to the Church (see my page 'Montacute's Legend of the Holy Cross'), and at the time of the Conquest (1066) they were owned by the Abbot and Convent of Athelney; the name Bishopston may have come back into use to consolidate that change of ownership (see my page on 'The origins of Montacute and its name').  William the Conqueror (c.1028-1087) gave Bishopston to one of his half brothers, Count Robert of Mortain (c.1031-1095) and Athelney Abbey accepted the Count's estate at Purse Caundle (Dorset) in exchange. When William the Conqueror died in 1087 his eldest son, Robert Curthose, inherited his Dukedom of Normandy, while his next oldest surviving child, William Rufus, was crowned William II of England. In 1088 Count Robert of Mortain participated in a failed attempt to reunite these lands under Robert Curthose by rebelling against William II; the rebellion was led by William the Conqueror's other half brother, Odo of Bayeaux. Although Odo was subsequently exiled, Count Robert of Mortain was pardoned. His lands in Montacute were inherited by his son William Mortain in about 1095. William Mortain gave the church at Montacute and his castle and burgh and market and the manor of 'Biscopestun' with its hundred and mill to the Abbey of Cluny (VCH vol II pp111-115, Two Cartularies, Montacute Charter No. 1).  After the death of William II in 1100 and the coronation of his fourth son, Henry I, William Mortain followed his father's example in fighting with Robert Curthose against Henry I's invasion of Normandy in 1105; he was captured and Henry I claimed his lands, including the Priory in Montacute.

Information from the Somerset Victoria County History and from charters listed in 'The Two Cartularies'

VCH II says the "Cluniac Priory was founded at the bottom of the hill at Montacute with a church dedicated to St Peter built in association with the priory. The stonework for construction of the priory was provided by the short-lived castle which was now dismantled." At the original foundation of Cluny Abbey in the 10th century, William of Aquitaine placed Cluny under the protection of Saints Peter and Paul.

Looking for Montacute holdings in the Charters in the 'The Two Cartularies', William of Mortain's first grant to the Cluniac monks specifically includes the church of St. Peter near the castle of Montacute, the borough and its market with the toll, the castle and chapel, with his orchards and vineyard ; also his manor of Biscopestun, the hundred and the mill and the fair of Hamedone. 

The second charter, by King Henry (son of William conqueror, reigned 1100-1135) confirms the grant to Montacute Priory and the Cluniac monks including the church of St. Peter near the castle of Montacute, with the castle itself and its chapel, orchards and vineyard, and the thirteen days fair of Hamedone: the borough of Montacute, and the market with the toll; the manor, mill and hundred of Biscopestone etc.

The fourth Charter, also from King Henry, re-iterates granting to the priory of Montacute and the Cluniac monks there, the church of St. Peter near the castle of Montacute, with the borough and market ; the toll and fair of Hamedone, with the castle and chapel ; the manor, mill and hundred of Biscopestone etc

The fifth Charter is from King Stephen (reigned 1135-1154) confirming the grants of William, count of Mortain and his men to the Cluniac monks, namely, the church of St. Peter near his castle of Montacute, and the land which the same count gave from his manor of Biscopeston, with the borough and market of the same place. So the chapel is not explicitly mentioned in this one or the next few charters until we get to the eighth Charter.

The eighth Charter is by King Henry II (reigned 1154-1189), and specifically mentions the church of St. Peter and St. Paul of Montacute, the castle and its chapel ; the borough and market with toll ; the manor, mill and hundred of Bissopestone (note alternative spelling, I don't know if this is original or a transcription error). So the Cluniac priory church is now dedicated to St Peter and St Paul and the castle may still be standing, however this is the last mention of it in the Cartulary.

In the twelfth Charter, also of King Henry the second, the priory church is named as the church of St Peter.

On the accession of King Richard I (Lionheart) his brother John is made count of Mortain, and his thirteenth Charter confirms the previous ones, only specifying the manor of Bissopestone with the hamlet of Widecumbe (Witcombe?), the borough of Montacute and its market with toll, the fair of Hamedone, and a park near Montacute "which he gave them himself"

No further information arises until the 22nd Charter, where we learn that one of the churches is dedicated to St Michael. This is unlikely to refer to the priory chapel of St Peter and St Paul but his could be the chapel associated with the castle on the hill, or it could be the chapel which eventually became the parish church of Montacute, now called St Catherine's church. In this Charter King Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) confirms "to Mark, prior of Montacute, that he and his successors shall hold a fair at their chapel of St. Michael of Montacute to last every year for three days, that is on the eve, the day, and the morrow of the Translation of St. Edward, which is fifteen days after St. Michael's day". 

Then in the 23rd Charter, King Henry III confirms to the prior and convent of Montacute that they and their successors shall have free warren in all the demesnes and lands of their manors. So is this evidence for a convent as well as a monastery?

 VCH II  goes on to say "We know little of the Priors of the Cluniac Priory of St. Peter and St. Paul at Montacute yet it is a persistent claim that Henry de Blois, abbot of Glastonbury 1126-71, was associated with the priory, although he is not listed among them. At its height in the 13th century there were 25 monks recorded at the Priory but at the time of the Dissolution in 1539, sixteen monks and the abbot were pensioned off."

Some of the earlier Priors were not quite as we would expect; in 1207 Prior Durand was removed from office for maladministration; he was restored in 1217, but soon after was expelled again. In 1279 Prior Guy de Marcant was accused of clipping coins (trimming silver from the edges of coins for use in making additional coins); he was fined but just 5 years later he repeated the crime; he was fined again but soon after he was removed from office. Next, Stephen Raulun (Prior 1297-1316) and his successor John Cheverer were accused of supporting the Scottish army against King Edward II. 

The present-day St Catherine's Church was added next to the monk's cemetery in about 1170 (although it has been extensively remodelled since then).

The Macbeth Connection!

Edmund of Scotland, grandson of Duncan I of Scotland who was murdered by Macbeth, may have been one of the first monks to reside at the Priory, in which case he is likely to be buried in Montacute; see my page on The Macbeth Connection!

Record of holdings of Montacute Priory in 1301

The Tintinhull Local History Society website had a page with images of a document from the National Archives, written in medieval Latin, describing land held by Montacute Priory in 1301. I have not yet been able to locate this document, however DC has kindly pointed me towards the National Archives document TNA SC 11/798 (dated in the catalogue as 1302-3) "Montacute, Thorne, Tintinhull, Mudford [Somerset], Monkleigh [Devonshire]: Extent or valor of the possessions of Montacute Priory. 2 membranes. [31 Edw I]"; this is likely to be the same document but I have yet to view it.

Leland's history of the Priory written in 1542 

Leland (see my page 'Leland's Montacute') describes how William Mortain  'began a Priory of black (Cluniac) monks and later forfeited the Priory due to his rebellion against Henry I of England. From 'The Itinerary of John Leland the Antiquary, in Nine Volumes, Published by Mr Thomas Hearne MDCCLXX, Part II folios 52/53' we have: “The Toune of Montegue hath a poore Market, and is buildid of Stone as communely al Townes theraboute be. I redde in the Booke of the Antiquites of Glejfenbyri that this Toun was caullid yn the Saxons Tyme Logares'burch. Sum thynk that ther was a great Caftel and Forterefte at this Toune yn the Saxons Tyme. Sum fay that the Counte of Moretone buildid a Caftelle there fone after the Conqueft : but that a Caftelle hath bene there, and that the Counte of Moreton lay yn it, it is without doute. This 1 Count chaungid the olde Name and caullid it Montegue, bycaufe it ftode on a fharpe point of an Hille, and fyns that Name hath prevaylid. This Counte of Moreton began a Priory of Blake Monkes a 3. or 4. in numbre under the Rootes of Montegue Hille, enduing it with 3. fair Lordefhippes, Montegue and Titenhul joyning to it. The 3. was Criche a 10. Miles from Montegue Weft South Weft. The Counte of Moreton toke part with Robert Curthofe agayn King Henry the firft, and after was toke, put in Prifone, and his Landes attaintid : at the which tyme the 3. Lordfhipes gyven to Montegue Priory were taken away, and then were the Monkes compellid to begge for a certein feafon. At the lafte King Henry the firft had pyte of them, and ofFerid them their owne Landes again and more, fo that the wold leave that Place and go to Lamporte, wher at that tyme he entendid to have made a notable Monafterie. But the Monkes entretid hym that they might kepe theyr old Houfe: and apon that he reftorid them their 3. Lordfhipes, translating his mynde of building an Abbay from Lamporte to Readyng, Then cam one Reginaldus Cancellarius, fo namid by lik.el.ihod of his Office, a man of great Fame about King Henry the firft, and he felle to Relligion, and was Prior of Montegue, and enlargid it with Buildinges and Poffeffions. And thus the Priory encreafing, and the hole Lorafhip of Montegue beyng yn the Monkes Pofteffion, the notable Caftelle partely felle to Ruine, and partely was taken doune to make the Priory. So that many Yeres fyns no Building of it remaynid, only a Chapelle was fette apon the very toppe of the Dungeon, and that yet ftondith ther.”

Dugdale's history of the Priory written in 1655 

In 'Monasticon Anglicanum: a history of the abbies and other monasteries, hospitals, frieries, and cathedral and collegiate churches, with their dependencies, in England and Wales; also of all such Scotch, Irish and French monasteries, as were in manner connected with religious houses in England', by Dugdale, William, Sir, 1605-1686 in addition to Latin transcripts of the charters conferring lands to the Cluniac priory, we also have the following record [my notes in square brackets]:

TANNER, from a passage or two in the Histories of Glastonbury, ascribes the foundation of Montacute priory to King William the Conqueror :a but Leland, and the charter of endowment which will be found in the Appendix, b make it more probable that it was really founded by William earl of Moreton, who amply endowed it, and granted it to the monks of Cluny in the beginning of the reign of Henry the First. c It was dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul.

The possessions and privileges of this priory are so fully detailed in the charters of King Henry the First and King Henry the Second, that a recapitulation here is unnecessary,d A grant of land at Cairleon from Winebald de Baeluna is recorded in a separate charter.e

In the 13th of Edward the Third [1340], the advowson or patronage of this priory was granted to William de Montacute, earl of Salisbury, and in the following year was confirmed in a more extended form to him and his heirs.g

The revenues of Montacute in 1291 amounted, in the diocese of Bath and Wells alone, to the sum of 163L. 11s. 1d. and in the dioceses of Exon and Salisbury to 9L. 3s. 6 1/2d. : making a total of 172L. 14s. 7 1|2d.h According to an Extent of the lands belonging to this priory in Somersetshire in the 18th of Edward the Second [1325], the same were found to amount to the annual revenue of 44L. 7s. 10d.

In the 8th of Henry the Fourth [1407] this priory was made denizen [see note below]. In the 26th of Henry the Eighth [1535] its gross revenues were returned at the sum of 524L. 11s. 8 1/4d. The clear income at 456L. 13s. 3 1/4d.

a. Notit. Mon. Somers, xxxiii. Compare Hist. Glaston. per Joan, monachum, p. 155.b. See [Charter] Num. II.c. Tanner himself observes, that not the least notice is taken of William the Conqueror’s donations to this house in the subsequent grants and confirmations.d. [Charter] Num. III. IV.e. [Charter] Num. VI.f. [Charter] Num. VII.g. [Charter] Num. VIII.h. The following are the entries relating to Montaeute priory in the Taxation: they will be found in pp. 152 b, 178 b, 184, 184 b, 185, 196, 197, 197 b, 198, 198 b, 200, 203 b, 204, and 204 b, of the printed edition

'Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum goes on to list Priors of Montacute ("some of whose names are not mentioned elsewhere"), as recorded by "Willis, in his Mitred Abbies", which was in turn derived from "a Cottonian manuscript which has long since been reduced to a state little better than a crust"; Dugdale continues this list to "the time of the Dissolution".

[Note: The Priory was denizened in 1407; it was confiscated because of the continuing 'Hundred Years' war with France.]

Next you might like to learn the connection between Macbeth and the Priory, or read my notes about Leland's Montacute c.1542 AD, or check out Montacute snippets for my notes on a different topic.

If you scroll to the bottom of the homepage you will find the gallery containing some pictures of the village.