Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Whatever Happened to Cockersand Abbey? (Part One)

We’ve posted a number of articles about our local monks and their exciting tonsures and stuff over the last couple of months. And why not? It’s been a long winter and there’s been nothing better to do. But now it’s time to discuss the final days of Cockersand Abbey, it’s ultimate downfall and what became of all those interesting ecclesiastical knickknacks that you’d normally associate with such establishments.
Where to start? Well, as you might expect, Cockersand Abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s monastic reforms, otherwise known as ‘The Dissolution’ – or, to put it another way, the legalised plundering all the land and goods from religious establishments for his own back pocket. It wasn’t the only abbey to succumb to the subjugation, of course, all the other monastic houses of England and Wales ending up much the same way.
Let’s have a drawing of Henry, shall we? This is going to be a long article, I can tell, and we could do with some pictures to break it up a bit.

Cockersand Abbey had started life in the twelfth century as an infirmary, developed over time into a windswept, religious hostel for peasants, and had also dabbled in local cattle farming around the Wyre during the course of its four hundred year history.
Fifteen of its residents, according to Brian Marshall’s excellent book ‘Lancashire’s Mediaeval Monasteries’ were ‘poor men who were given bed and board of the charity of the house.
A further ten lived outside the abbey, but still relied on the charity of the monks, and a final five, known as ‘corrodians’ (for reasons never explained, unfortunately), lived on site ‘by arrangement with the abbot having paid in advance.
In 1529, not long before Henry’s assault, a certain Robert and Marie Lounde of Skerton, apparently, reached an agreement with the abbot so that they could live at Cockersand Abbey, for life, for the sum of five pounds, six shillings and eight pence annually.
In return for this payment they were given their own house, which was nice, as much ‘torf’ as they could eat (torf being blocks of dried peat to put on the fire, as anybody who’s been reading this board for the last few years will no doubt tell you), a ‘milk cow provided by the abbey’ (presumably for milk rather than as a pet), eight white loaves, eight grey loaves (which were similar to brown loaves but, presumably, not as brown, and similar to white loaves, but a bit more grey), six bottles of ale (which doesn’t seem much, I have to be honest), ‘victuals and meat from the kitchen daily,’ and ‘flesh and fish at noon and night as appropriate.’ (For ‘flesh’ read ‘more meat’ and stop being so saucy.)
All in all it seemed like a bargain. Unfortunately their idyllic, if not windswept, lifestyle was cut short abruptly ten years later when the abbey was surrendered to the crown and dismantled piece by piece.
Despite owning land all over the Wyre, Cockersand Abbey, allegedly, wasn’t actually rich. As Brian Marshall informs us: “Under the provisions of the Act of Suppression of 1536, any house with an income below £200 per year was to be closed…Cockersand, with a net income of one hundred and fifty seven pounds fourteen shillings and half a penny fell clearly within the group…
The abbey, however, managed to earn itself a last minute reprieve through what appears to have been some creative accounting. (It’s amazing how account books can seemingly rewrite themselves when the taxmen aren’t looking.) According to an article entitled ‘The Abbey of St. Mary of the Marsh at Cockersand, by John Swarbrick’, published in the 1923 Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Historical Society: “…the canons contended successfully that their income exceeded £200 and that consequently their house could not legally be dissolved as a lesser monastery.
In actual fact, following the initial assessment, the income seems to have leapt to a much more impressive two hundred and eighty two pounds, seven shillings and eight pence annually, making it (perhaps surprisingly all matters considered) the third richest religious establishment in Lancashire, beaten only by Furness and Whalley.
Unfortunately, Henry hadn’t finished yet.
A further act of Parliament in 1539 (which effectively finished off every last monastery in Britain) brought Cockersand to its monastic knees. On January the 29th of that year, Robert Poulton (the abbot), along with twenty-two canons, signed the official document of surrender in return for a pension, and almost four centuries of ecclesiastical history was ended in a single stroke.
Or rather twenty-three strokes.
The place was demolished and the red sandstone blocks carted off…mainly, it ought to be said, by opportunistic landowners who hadn’t held much chuck with the monks in the past. Even today ornate carvings and dressed stone blocks that once constituted the abbey can still be seen incorporated into the outbuildings of local farms.
Little of the original structure now remains, other than the aforementioned infirmary chimney illustrated below…

….and the octagonal chapter house (which, as you can probably see, isn’t particularly octagonal any longer) which is also shown below…as, in fact are all the illustrations in this article.

Some artefacts from Cockersand’s heyday, however, seem to have survived beyond Henry’s suppression. According to Robert Parkinson (or, as we at Wyre Archaeology know him, Bob) writing in the Over Wyre journals, the stone cross in Thurnham churchyard is one such artefact.
In Bob’s own words: “It is said that the cross could have stood in the centre of the cloister at Cockersand but I am of the opinion that it is more likely to have stood in the canons’ cemetery, between the chapter house and the presbytery.
The cross can be found, apparently, (and we can’t confirm this because we’ve never been, but we’ll take Bob’s word for it because he’s a sound sort of bloke): ‘to the left when entering the church grounds from the lych gateway’.
We’ve illustrated it, as you’ve probably gathered by now, below.

It stands approximately eight feet in height, with an additional four feet of octagonal steps at the base.
At which juncture it’s become apparent that this article is going to be considerably longer than we originally anticipated.
With that in mind, it’s time for a short break (seven days should suffice) before we return for part two.


Jayne said...

Why is Henry VIII in stockinged tootsies and didn't that cross feature in DW in the Christmas Special with Kylie?

Brian Hughes said...


'Twas the fashion of the in tights and all that.

As for the cross, unless they uprooted it and carted it down to Cardiff, it seems unlikely.

Jayne said...

Yes, yes, I get the tights but Hal has no shoes upon his wee piggy toesies!
The poor poppet might catch a wee sniffle!
And we wouldn't want a head of state with a stuffy, wuffly head now, would we?
I may have watched too many eps of Blackadder....

Unknown said...

So the original Abbey was a cross between the YMCA and Faulty Towers? Interesting.... doesn't all ring Holy to me, although I guess it is charitable to give a bunch of layabouts a place to lay about.

As for Henry, how could he stand for long with shoulders so broad?

The name Poulton sounds familir, innit? Do you think Robert had a hand in naming places?

Is Cockersand Abbey the place were you found sandstone blocks with all kinds of carvings still upon them? If so, then yes, I remember you talking about it.

You didn't say what happened to the Loundes, by the way. I mean, they had a deal,right? Did they get their deposit back?

As for the creative accounting, that could be a double edged sword, huh? I mean, they could have been hiding some of their income from the taxman, but then suddenly 'found' the lost bits, which must have drawn further attention to them? Of course, they had no choice in the matter, but one wonders if that was what the new laws intended?

I'm not versed enough on the Disolution to even hazard an educated guess.

Interesting, but lets get prehistorical, huh? Except for some "where's earthworks" guessing games with photos, you haven't talked prehistory in a while.

Did you ever get up to that stone circle that sits on the hill across the bay from you? I want to go there!

JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


One can never watch too many episodes of Blackadder.


Robert Poulton was probably descended from somebody who originally lived in Poulton, I suspect.

As for the stone circle, I've no idea. I've been to more stone circles than I care to remember over the years...and I still don't know what today's date is.

Jayne said...

As John mentioned, did the Abbey have its own Manuel?
Was it very common for odd bods to decamp to the local abbey to pass their remaining years? I've read about wives and widows upping sticks to the convent but how frequently did this really happen or is it a lot of poetic licence on the part of penny dreadful romance writers?

Brian Hughes said...


It was part of monastic duties to offer charity to the poor, and food, drink and sleeping quarters to weary travellers, which is why Cockersand Abbey appears on mediaeval trade was, effectively, a sort of mediaeval Bernie Inn. To the best of my knowledge they didn't take in every waif and stray on a permanent basis, though...just a few choice woebegones.

Jayne said...

Ah, ta, Brian.
I'm thinking they didn't leave the little chocolates on the pillows...

Brian Hughes said...

Probably not...just a bit of downy fluff from their tonsures.

Anonymous said...

Visited today (11.05.12). What a pity that a bog of cow muck prevents anyone getting close to the building and reading the well presented Information Board.
Roger from Derby