A bit of background to Blythburgh and some social history
So much for the bricks and mortar, what do we know about the real people or the priory itself or the village?
Alan Mackley, local Blythburgh historian, who has thankfully shared the duties of a number of ruins tours with me and eloquently paints an easy picture of Blythburgh and the Priory from the time of the Norman Conquest:
“Blythburgh was a flourishing town. It was part of the royal estate, at the centre of a hundred, and had been granted the right to hold a market. Domesday Book (1086) records that Blythburgh church was one of the richest in Suffolk. It had two daughter churches, one likely to have been the predecessor of the present parish church and the other at Walberswick.
“The Augustinians took over a going concern in the form of Blythburgh’s rich church. Adding to their income was difficult with many competing houses in the area, including Cistercians at Sibton, Cluniacs at Wangford, and other religious institutions at Dunwich and Leiston. Eventually Blythburgh acquired the churches of Blyford, Bramfield, and Thorington, several churches in Norfolk, and a share of the revenues of Wenhaston. The priory held properties, mostly small, scattered over fifty or more parishes.
“The priory’s income in 1291 was £86 which could have supported as many as 15 canons. The Black Death from 1349 onwards had a very damaging and continuing impact. In the early fifteenth century there were seven resident brethren but the number declined from mid century and at the dissolution there were just four. Income in 1536 was assessed at £48, a considerable drop in real terms.
“The surviving fabric of the nave of the church is typical of the eleventh or twelfth century. In a new phase of building in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries the Augustinians added a crossing tower and chancel. The church at its greatest extent was perhaps 140 feet long, larger than the present parish church. The rest of the priory complex is difficult to interpret. There are few upstanding remains and even the foundations have been robbed. However, it is thought that a cloister lay to the north and around it would have ranged buildings such as a dormitory, refectory, kitchen, brew-house and bakery. There was an infirmary, as well as an orchard, stables and livestock sheds.
“The brethren followed a regime based upon the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo (354-430). They had a mixed religious life of contemplation and ministry, being a less enclosed order than some, providing service to local communities. They were never completely independent of their St Osyth mother house. There is even evidence that the prior of St Osyth might have been tempted to use Blythburgh as a penal institution to which brethren deserving of punishment could be despatched. While not necessarily linked with this, it is known that Blythburgh canons were caught poaching the lord of the manor’s rabbits in the 1420s and 1440s. One canon was alleged to have leased his well-trained dogs to other poachers. All with the express knowledge of the prior himself! Rabbit was therefore a feature of the priory’s diet. So too was veal, pork and chicken.
“There is evidence of decline in the Priory’s later years. The chapter house was not used and it is possible that the canons used the parish church, newly rebuilt by the 1470s (the prior was rector), as their conventual church. The priory inventory at dissolution makes for melancholy reading. Many items are described as old, or even very old; there were five horses and one old cart. The total value was 8 pounds, two shillings and eight pence. The prior was granted an annual pension of £6, the canons nothing.
“At dissolution the possessions of the house were granted to Walter Wadelond of Needham Market. The lead from the roof was removed and sold*. In 1548 the reversion was granted to Sir Arthur Hopton, Blythburgh’s lord of the manor, adding to the Blythburgh-Walberswick manor he already owned.
“In an area short of building stone, the priory buildings were obviously attractive as a quarry for material. No doubt it was used for bridge repairs, and as a base for the turnpike, now the A12 trunk road, that was thrust through the centre of the village in 1785**. But there does not seem to have been much loss of fabric since about 1870.
*I latterly found a document, which claims the lead off the entire Priory roofs amounted to 56,814lbs. in weight –“ removed by Richard Ffrestone of Mendham and conveyed to Westhorpe to repair the King’s manor house, once the home of Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and third wife of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk”.
**From the same document: “…the ruins were a convenient source of supply for rubble and stone. Beneath the debris were discovered coins, keys, encaustic tiles – the landlord of The White Hart Inn who occupied the site disposed of them to the highest bidder”.
A last word on what may have been on the site, from an indenture made around 1549 and amongst the Blois papers, which has been simplified/interpreted:
“the site of the late Priory of Blyborow with all houses, curtilages, yards, orchards, houses barns and gardens with the site, circuit or precinct of the said late Priory, together with three ffens [Great Ffen, Swanes Neste [20 acres] and Broomeclose [33 acres], the great hall, the high parlour at the end of the great hall and the two vaults under the said Hall and the parlour with the late cloisters and the goose garden – the great court.”
The Blythburgh Cartularies
The Blythburgh Cartularies give us the snippet of an insight into who were the Priors, at least we have some names and a tiny glimpse into their internal lives, albeit fleeting:
“It is impossible to be certain of the number of canons before the fifteenth century. At a visitation of the commissaries of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1407 seven brethren, including the prior, were resident. By 1473 the number had decline to four. In 1526 there were five canons, and in 1532, four. Before the Black Death numbers may have been higher.
“Chapter meetings were held, on occasions attended by the abbot of St. Osyth, in a chapel within the conventual church and the canons also had an infirmary. The charters mention various officials – the sacrist, cellarer, and, most prominent, the almoner, to whom in the thirteenth century grants were specifically made by laymen and to whom the prior formally leased lands for the increase in the covenants alms.
“It was, naturally, rare for any member of such a small community to achieve any prominence in the wider world. One exception was Gilbert, the precentor, who was summoned to become the first prior of Butley. In the thirteenth century the prior of Blythburgh was on at least two occasions required to act as papal judge delegate. At a much later date John Valence, a canon of the house was in 1459 elevated at the request of King Henry VI to the bishopric of Tenos in partibusinfidelium [land of the unbelievers], and since he held a Somerset church in commendam, [temporary post pending appointment of others, acting] he probably acted as a suffragan [subordinate] for the bishop of Bath and Wells.
The Priors [listing from Blythburgh Cartularies]:
The early records of the 12th.& 13th. centuries are rarely precise:
Thereafter, the listing gets more accurate and is mainly derived from the Norwich episcopal registers: