Jesus promised that “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,” (Matt 18:20), but the accepted wisdom when it comes to dependent priories is that this wasn’t always true. Beginning with Ramsey Abbey’s establishment of the St Ives priory in Cambridgeshire (pictured) in 1017, it became quite fashionable for large monasteries or lay patrons to set up small monasteries that depended on their “mother” abbeys for everything from food to monks and reading material. Martin Heale has identified 124 such dependent priories that were established between 1017 and 1250, and adds another 19 that were set up over the next 300 years. Many of these dependent priories only ever had a handful of monks living in them, and before Heale’s book we knew very little about them. What we did know was that they weren’t very impressive places, and that life there was “characterised by poverty, indiscipline, and boredom.” Dom David Knowles’ three volume history of The Religious Orders in England (1948), which remains the authoritative text on English monasticism, called these priories “the most considerable of all the elements of spiritual decay in the monastic life of the country.” Heale challenges this interpretation, and although he cannot prove that these were exciting centres of intense spiritual devotion, he does successfully force us to move beyond the stereotypes and to think about them as complex, multifaceted communities with their own unique advantages and disadvantages.
Big monasteries were busy, bustling enterprises, with regular corporate prayer, important visitors, business and farming responsibilities, and an established intellectual life. Dependent priories were supposed to do all of those things, but only had a handful of monks and scant financial resources to do it with. Dependent priories relied heavily on tithes and income from private masses to cover their expenses, and often had to use local parish churches because they didn’t have their own. This had its advantages because they developed closer ties to parish priests and local parishioners, but it also meant that they had fewer visitors and little excitement in their day to day lives. Sometimes the visitors they did have were insufferable, such as Margery Kempe, a mystic who was sent to the Lynn Priory because her incessant crying upset her neighbours and apparently bothered the monks as well. Some cells were established to encourage the worship of specific saints, such as St Amphibalus at Redbourn or St Godric at Finchale, and occasionally this made them popular pilgrimage sites with people from the lower classes. St Ivo’s cult was centered on Ramsey Abbey, where his body lay, but a spring miraculously burst forth at St Ives, where he had originally been buried and people seemed to prefer going to the priory at the spring than to the main Abbey. In the case of St Cuthbert’s cult on Farne Island, pilgrimages became so popular that the mother house shifted the focus of the saint’s devotion to its own monastery at Durham lest the dependent priory think too highly of itself.
By and large, however, it turned out to be frustratingly difficult to carry out all monastic duties with only a handful of monks. In theory, every cell was supposed to say the night hours and the seven daily hours, but in practice it seems that with no-one looking it was easy to give in to “the excuses to which the sleepy are addicted.” The quality of the singing also probably wasn’t that great, and the priory at Wallingford had to pay some local boys to sing the mass each day because the monks weren’t up to it. As for reading, small cells apparently did have access to books, but mostly books that they borrowed from the mother house. Sometimes the monks complained that they didn’t like living in small cells because they were uncomfortable places. One monk at Tynemouth (pictured) wrote that he had been “pining for a long time with a sickness which I have caught from the intolerable smell of the fish, and the thick, loathsome mists, and the terrible storms which beat fiercely upon the surrounding country.” Another monk from Tynemouth said that the place was “deprived of all amenity, lacking in comfort and delight.” Heale thinks that these monks were just whinging , and points out that because they were small places, monks in small cells probably spent a lot of time in the prior’s quarters. They bought spices and wine, he notes, started eating meat once it became acceptable after 1336, carried out regular renovations, and built decent latrines, cisterns, aqueducts, drains, and gutters when necessary.
The biggest problem with dependent priories lay in what sorts of people were sent there. Sometimes old abbots might retire to a cell where they could live out their days quietly, but there are a number of instances where abbots sent monks away to small cells because they couldn’t control them at home. An inspection in 1492 found one monk at St Nicholas’ Exeter who was “causing considerable disruption by breaking down doors, threatening his co-brethren and growing his hair long.” Sending monks to dependent priories as punishment seems to have become standard practice in the late-thirteenth/early-fourteenth century, but was frowned upon by the fifteenth century. It should come as little surprise that mother houses sometimes had trouble controlling small cells, even though they insisted that the priors they sent there “should be of good conversation and honest fame … and repair and sustain the aforesaid priory well and sufficiently, and keep it from indebtedness.” Prior Stephen of Ketton was thrown out of the Church together with two other monks from Brooke Priory because he had appealed to the Pope and the Archbishop of Cantebury to go over the head of the abbot at the mother house. Also in the fourteenth century, Prior William of Somerton found “a band of noblemen of the area whom he had gathered together” to forcibly prevent the abbot of St Albans from visiting his cell. He travelled to Rome to protest against how much money the abbot was asking from the cell, but was eventually arrested when he returned to England and only the queen’s support let him keep his job. In the end he renounced his faith and left the church, but that might be quite another story.
Above all else, what Heale’s book reminds us is that monks and monasteries weren’t the same wherever one went. Just because you have read the Rule of St Benedict doesn’t mean that you know what actually went on in monasteries, and life in a large abbey was probably quite different to ministry in a small dependent priory. There are lots of different ways to serve God and the most glamorous isn’t necessarily the best, but at the same time going it alone without integration into a larger community can be a perilous task full of all sorts of unexpected trials and temptations.