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Medieval monks often lacked all trace of holiness….

It is a fact that the medieval Church was ruthless in its acts and ambitions. We all know of particular popes, cardinals and archbishops who would stop at nothing to achieve their own personal and political ends, but it came as a surprise to me to discover just how brutal the Church could be on a purely local level.

Bury St Edmunds Abbey Church

Here are two anecdotes about the ‘holiness’ of medieval monks. Firstly, the Benedictines:-

“….On Sunday, 18th October, 1327, the monks of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds ended their prayers, filed out through the abbey’s crenelated gate and proceeded to the parish church, which was full of men, women and children. The monks then threw off their habits—revealing that some of them wore armour under their robes—and burst into the church. They seized a number of citizens by force and dragged them back to the abbey as prisoners….

“….Sometime later the townsfolk assembled at the abbey to demand the prisoners’ release. The monks replied with a hail of missiles, killing a large number of people. Later in the day the town bells summoned a larger party of armed men including aldermen, burgesses, a parson and 28 chaplains, who all took a solemn oath to live or die together. They then set fire to the gates and stormed the abbey….”

Why the monks wanted prisoners is not explained

Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire

Next, the Cistercians:-

“….Walter [Map] was an itinerant justice, and he always exempted Cistercians from his oath to do justice to all men since, he said, ‘It was absurd to do justice to those who are just to none’. This was not a joke; Map’s reports of Cistercian atrocities are extraordinary. For example, he says that the monks of Byland once wanted land belonging to a knight who would not give it up to them. One night they entered his house, ‘muffled up and armed with swords and spears’, and murdered him and his family. A relative, hearing of the death, arrived three days later to find that all the buildings and enclosures had disappeared and in their place was a well-ploughed field.*”

* From Edward Coleman, ‘Nasty Habits – Satire and the Medieval Monk’, History Today, volume 43, issue 6, June 1993, pp 36-42.

These shocking incidents are hardly compatible with a devout life of worship, contemplation and doing good, and certainly cast the entire Church in a shabby light. If there is a problem at the top, there is usually a problem at the bottom as well.

I think we can largely forget the fat, jovial monk of popular belief!


Excavations at Bath Abbey

In 1485, there were 22 monks residing at Bath Abbey, the place where Edgar was crowned ‘King of the English’ in 973 AD. However, the abbey was in decline and by 1499, when Bishop Oliver King visited it, to his shock the building was ruinous. King began a rebuilding project, making it the last great medieval religious building erected in England.

Unfortunately, from this time forward there were upwards of 4000 burials placed beneath the  floor, which has caused it, in modern times, to sink and become unstable, with large craters and gaps forming underneath through subsidence. Archaeologists have therefore been called in to excavate in anticipation of repairing and consolidating the dangerous floor.


Besides human remains and coffins from the 1500’s to Victorian times, they have also uncovered beautiful and well-preserved floor tiles from the earlier medieval abbey. These date to the 12th or 13th C and the colours  are still remarkably vivid and bright.



An excellent article about Richard, but some weird ideas amid the comments….


Here is another fine article by Matthew Lewis, concerning whether or not Richard III was a villain, or a good king. Matt is, as always, excellent to read, and puts forward the strong case that Richard was good. Well, we all know this to be so, but some of the comments following the article are a little inaccurate, to say the least.

For instance, concerning Elizabeth Woodville: “Elizabeth Woodville may have been sent to a convent some 15 months after she was reinstated as Queen Dowager, but she was granted several grants of land and rights and her titles. She was very wealthy when she died and was not mistreated in any way.”

I think not! She was bundled off to Bermondsey Abbey (a male monastery), and her lands and so on were handed over to her daughter, by then Henry VII’s queen. Henry did not treat Elizabeth Woodville kindly, and she lived on a mere allowance. She was far from wealthy when she died, as she stated in her will. Henry Tudor was not a loving son-in-law, but a spiteful one. Richard had great cause to dislike Elizabeth Woodville, but nevertheless treated her well.


Tales of a Ricardian Traveler – Part Two: Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle


Lady on Horseback Lady on Horseback, mid-15th c., British Museum

My previous Travel Tales blog talked about the Forest of Bowland and Skipton.  Today, we’re going to two places that sometimes get forgotten by the traveler who is interested in visiting places having some Richard III connections:  Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle.

Rievaulx Abbey Rievaulx Abbey – Refectory and undercroft

From our temporary homebase in Ripon-Masham, we drove 30 miles to visit one of the gems of English medieval history.  Like Fountains and Byland Abbeys, Rievaulx was one of the great Cistercian monasteries of medieval Europe, and its ruins are said to be the “most complete” of any of the dissolved religious houses in England. It has one of the most spectacular natural settings within a deep valley in the North York Moors National Park; however, to take a photograph from the best vantage point one has to pay an admission price of…

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Elizabeth Woodville/Wydeville/Widville and her woes.

Elsewhere, Arlene Okerlund had posted a very interesting blog post about Elizabeth Woodville.

The post emphasises the suffering Elizabeth endured and her many losses. It would be inhuman to deny that suffering, although it must be pointed out that such trials were not unique to this particular woman. Almost anyone from an elite family (and many much poorer individuals) suffered as a result of the Wars of the Roses. To give but two examples (both women) Cecily Neville suffered the violent death of her husband and all but one of her sons (Edward IV). Indeed she had to endure the spectacle of one of her sons judicially murdering another. As for Margaret of Anjou – frankly, she would probably have regarded Elizabeth Woodville’s experiences as a comparative rest cure.

The question arises, perhaps, of how much did Elizabeth Woodville bring upon herself. Was she entirely a passive victim of fate? It seems unlikely. Something was going on in 1483. Her brother Anthony was checking his authority to raise forces in the Marches, and inserting a deputy into the Tower without apparently gaining the King’s approval. A large force – 2,000 men no less – was gathered to bring Edward V from Ludlow to London, through a tranquil land where there had been no serious fighting for fourteen years. (The force would have been still bigger had it not been for Hastings’ objections.) Edward Woodville, having apparently ‘borrowed’ a large sum from the Tower, was at sea, among other things looting a treasure ship at Southampton. Put all this together, with Dorset’s reported remark that his family was strong enough in council to do as they wished without the Duke of Gloucester, and it all begins to smell strongly of a coup. Elizabeth’s own actions, in fleeing into Westminster Sanctuary – knocking the odd wall down in the process to accommodate her possessions – also smack of a guilty conscience.

It is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of English history to speculate on what might have happened had Elizabeth kept her nerve. She was the recognised Queen of England, and there was no precedent in English history (with the exception of Maud de Braose several centuries earlier) for anything worse than imprisonment to befall an English noblewoman. (Even that was relatively rare.) In effect, Elizabeth imprisoned herself, and in doing so abandoned all her influence and position. Had she stood her ground, she could have made Richard of Gloucester’s position a lot more awkward. (If she was worried about the fate of her younger son, or her daughters, she could easily have followed good Yorkist precedent and sent them off to Aunt Margaret in Burgundy. It was not as if, during the days when she was waiting for Richard, she had no access to shipping. As mentioned above, her son Edward was acting (albeit under questionable authority) as Vice-Admiral of England.

To have real sympathy for Elizabeth in this situation, you have to believe that Richard was an unmitigated villain who would have behaved as he did no matter how Elizabeth and the other Woodvilles had conducted themselves. This is perhaps a rather extreme version of events, and one that views Elizabeth and her family as rather helpless little creatures in an evil world, rather than a tight-knit group of political men and women who were busy playing their own cards.

Okerlund makes quite a convincing case for a benign explanation of Elizabeth’s retirement from the world in 1487. Many historians agree with this interpretation. However, what it does not explain is the simultanious imprisonment of Elizabeth’s son, Dorset, in the Tower of London. Dorset certainly did not go there to pray, and the most likely explanation is that, however irrationally, Henry VII considered him a potential supporter of ‘Lambert Simnel’. By extension, it is not unreasonable to infer that he held the same suspicions of his mother-in-law. Moreover, Bermondsey, where she was lodged, was a male monastery. Would not a religious woman, seeking spiritual solace, prefer a female house, like the Minories?

This of course begs another huge question. Why should Dorset wish to put Warwick on the throne in order to depose his own half-sister? It beggars belief. It would only begin to make sense if Lambert Simnel was, or was believed to be, the proxy for one of Elizabeth’s sons. The only other explanation that makes sense (in the case of Dorset) was that Henry VII was absurdly paranoid.

One final point. Henry VII’s allowance to his mother-in-law, whom he recognised as Queen Dowager, was rather smaller than that paid by her supposed enemy, Richard III, who regarded her as plain Dame Elizabeth Grey. Very strange, do you not think?

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