Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mediaeval Monastic Misdemeanours

It must have been a difficult, austere life as a Fylde and Wyre monk in mediaeval times: vows of silence, coarse undergarments designed for discomfort (not something to tickle one’s fancy), sexual abstinence, a complete devotion to God, prayer, religious servitude, etc.
Not every local monk saw it that way, of course. Take the cases of William Bentham and James Skipton, two canons at Cockersand Abbey who, in 1488, were called before the bishop to answer charges of ‘gross incontinence’.
Before you get hold of the wrong end of the stick, we’re not talking about an inability to control their bladders here, although self-control was part of their problem. No, we’re talking about two scullery wenches from the abbey kitchens, one being Merioryth Gardner and the other Elena Wilson.
Picture the scene – a duet of busty serving girls, sleeves rolled up, forearms sprinkled with dough; two lusty monks, their vows of celibacy taking the strain – cue ‘Benny Hill’ music.
It puts a whole new spin on the phrase ‘getting a monk on’.

For the record, William Bentham, after openly admitting his guilt, was exiled to Croxton Abbey in Leicestershire following forty days of penance. (We can only assume that Croxton was a total dump if it served as a punishment to be removed there from the barren wastelands of Cockerham.)
James Skipton, on the other hand, pleaded not guilty and asked his ‘fellow brethren’ to back up his plea.
Obviously he wasn’t as popular amongst the other monks as he thought he was, his brothers remaining unconvinced about his innocence. As well as the expected forty days penance, Skipton was duly exiled for seven years to Sulby Abbey in Northumberland.
Again, Sulby Abbey must have been an absolute dive, because, regardless of their sentences, both canons were apparently forgiven and back on the windswept cliffs of Cockersand’s within three years.

If lewd behaviour amongst the cooking utensils wasn’t blasphemous enough, the occasional act of homicide was on the cards.
In 1337, another Cockersand canon, this time a certain Robert Hilton, was put on trial for killing his fellow canon, Robert Preston. The records, unfortunately, don’t tell us exactly how, what, where or when his companion’s unholy end was met. The incident, however, appears to have been a one off, as Canon Hilton was pardoned for his crime and never cropped up in the records again. We can only assume that he managed to kick the habit. (Mediaeval Ecclesiastic Jokes Ltd. Copyright 1122.)
Aggressive behaviour seems to have been the norm amongst the monks of Cockersand. When Bishop Redman (the chief inspector for the white monks of the Premonstratensian order, of which, Cockersand was, of course, a part) visited the abbey towards the end of its life, he told the residents that they ought to stop complaining about the food, speaking ill of each other and, perhaps most importantly, drawing knives on their fellow monks.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Fylde (Lytham Priory to be exact) in 1355, the prior Robert Kelloe was accused of stealing goods from Coldingham Priory in Berwickshire to the value of £27 (and, no, we’re not making all this up).
Apparently he’d lived there before moving to Lytham. I’ll let you make up your own minds as to how big a doss-hole Coldingham must have been.
As if that wasn’t enough, he was also accused of adultery. Exactly what became of him the records don’t inform us, but there seems to have been quite a bit of ‘goods removal’ going on at the priory in general. The Butler family, along with the Beethams and the Cliftons, all owned lands around the establishment, which led to numerous disputes over grazing rights.

In 1320 William Clifton, outraged by the priory’s behaviour, lost his temper completely and stormed the priory with two hundred men. In the process he caused £100 worth of damage (quite a lot of money back in those days) and ‘rescued’ a herd of cows that he claimed were his.
The prior at the time, Roger Tynemouth (surprisingly not a Robert) was apparently much, “ fear of his life so that he dare not stir abroad’.
The disputes continued for several more centuries, resulting in the Butlers in 1530 smashing down the boundary cross, uprooting another, toppling a statue of Saint Cuthbert and threatening the priory itself.
We could go on, but that’s probably enough for now.


John said...

Excellent post!
Funny how people in certain positions get pardoned... politicians, corporate management, Lawyers, and religiousos of all sorts... I guess they have good contracts.

By the way, third image is not showing for some reason, unless you meant to show us a red x in a white box, but that one's over my head if so.

In the 4th image, is that supposed to be some sort of dental procedure? Sure looks like teeth being removed!

As for the monkis themselves, I'm saying it now, and will say it again... you just have to give people a break sometime! Too much of the tough stuff, and they're gonna crack eventually!

Today's Monasteries have wii bowling tournaments, I'm sure, to relieve stress and entertain those of the itchy pants...

Good one. More entertaining education like this please!

Brian Hughes said...


"By the way, third image is not showing for some reason..."

Not sure why not. It's showing on my computer. Might just have been Blogger buggering about. Let me know if it continues to stay hidden.

"In the 4th image, is that supposed to be some sort of dental procedure?"

Presumably. Whatever it is, it looks gruesome. Extreme Flossing for Masochists, perhaps?

Jayne said...

Canon Hilton was pardoned for his crime...
I'm guessing the dead may have been ill spoken of, hence the pardon.
Or Robert Hilton had a bit of dosh to flash.
Those monks really had issues, didn't they? A good massage, some counselling and a chamomile tea before bed....

Brian Hughes said...


Or, alternatively, a good slap on the tonsure should sort 'em out.

Hels said...

Some of the mediaeval monasteries were mixed gender. The buildings were quite separate but the possibily for monastic naughtiness was slightly increased. Where there was a will, there must have been a way.

Brian Hughes said...


You're absolutely right. Cockersand Abbey itself had nuns living there...which conveniently allows me to crack the old joke: "What fun does a monk have? Answer: Nun..." (Nun -- none...see? It's a play on words. Not a very good one, I admit, but I didn't come up with it so I refuse to take any blame.)