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‘All the timber and wood is wasted’: Devon’s Monastic Woods Before and After the Reformation

Dunkeswell Abbey Gatehouse

Writing in 1879, the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins bemoaned the recent felling of the poplars at Binsey near Oxford: ‘All felled, felled, are all felled’. To him, those trees represented something precious, a ‘sweet especial rural scene’. Had he been alive in 1615, he might have felt similarly outraged about what had taken place in the manor of Dunkeswell since the suppression of its Cistercian Abbey in 1539. The fate of the woodland once managed by the abbey is described in the Norden Survey, a fascinating document put together in the years 1615 and 1616. The surveyor does not mince his words, but launches a broadside at those whom he described as ‘intollerable spoylers’ and bemoans the fact ‘that there is no punishment of offenders’. He is almost poetic in his description of the woodland of the manor, stating how ‘This Mannor within theis fewe yeares was the best timbered Manno’ in the west partes.’ However, much of that woodland had now been devastated. The survey had been carried out with the involvement of eight local jurors and they had been obliged on their oaths to give the names of these ‘offenders’. The surveyor is unstinting in his criticism of the greedy tenants. He describes how ‘All the timber and wood is wasted, beinge of late the beste manor of wood and timber trees in Devon’.

Cistercian monks at work (© Cambridge University Library: CUL, MS Mm.5.31, fol. 113r)

Thanks to the generosity of a local private benefactor, the whole of the Norden Survey is freely viewable online via London Metropolitan Archives. The entry for the manor of Dunkeswell can be found in document CLA/044/05/041 (images 245 to 262 inclusive). What this survey reveals is how actively and effectively the local woodland resources had been managed during the late medieval period by its monastic lord. Timber had been used for many purposes by the convent, and its effective management was essential to the economy of the abbey. The grandest of the trees would have been used for the monastic buildings, especially for roofing timbers. Much wood was required for domestic items such as doors, flooring and shutters, and for the agrarian economy. The nearby Augustinian nunnery of Canonsleigh Abbey had an annual fair where cart wheels were sold – we know this from the building accounts of Exeter Cathedral. The woodland at Dunkeswell would have been used for similar purposes, as well as for fencing, ploughs etc. A constant supply of firewood was required for heating and cooking. To satisfy all those varying requirements, the abbey had to manage its woodland carefully and sustainably. Different areas of woodland were earmarked for different purposes, with some left to grow into the largest trees for roofing timbers etc. Harvesting of the woodland would have been carefully controlled to ensure that sufficient supplies of each kind of timber were always available. Dunkeswell Abbey was fortunate that the Devon landscape and climate were so amenable to the growth of woodland. Other religious houses had to call on benefactors such as the king or other nobles to provide the largest timbers from their forest resources.

At Canonsleigh Abbey the richness of their woodland resources are described in the records of the Court of Augmentations. This was the organisation established by Henry VIII’s government to oversee the disposal of monastic property for the king’s profit after the suppression at the end of the 1530s. The records itemise the woodland plots at Canonsleigh showing how they contained trees at varying stages of growth. Just as at Dunkeswell, the abbey would have had their own foresters who provided for the careful management of the woodland.

Over sixty years after the dissolution of the monasteries, there was clearly still a strong local memory concerning the rich woodland resources that the monastic houses had once maintained. The level of control over those resources had clearly declined drastically since the manor of Dunkeswell passed into lay hands, firstly those of John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. When the Norden surveyor arrived in 1615, he was forthright in his condemnation of the free-for-all that had taken place across the woodlands of the manor.

What the Norden Survey helps to show is just how useful those records produced after the dissolution can be for the study of religious houses in the later medieval period. For example it also describes a set of long leases made by the abbey, some for the term of 100 years, that were still running in 1615. The last abbot, John Ley, could probably see that he was living in very uncertain times, and wanted to bind his temporal resources into local society to provide some stability. What he could not have anticipated was that his abbey, together with all the other religious houses of Devon and Somerset, would be swept aside in the whirlwind of suppression that took place in early 1539.

Des Atkinson, PhD Student

An Afternoon Talking about Medieval and Reformation Parishes

Recently, on 24 June, I went to the annual mini-conference of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society, held at the Guildhall in Exeter.  This year’s theme was Late Medieval and Reformation Parishes, to reflect the theme of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s next forthcoming volume, Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, edited by Dr Joanna Mattingly.

North-side-of-Stratton-church-with-19th-century-vestry.-Photograph-by-Alexis-Jordan.
North side of Stratton church with 19th-century vestry. Photograph by Alexis Jordan.

There were two papers, by Joanna Mattingly and Clive Burgess, a historian of medieval parishes based at Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr Mattingly talked about the churchwardens’ accounts from Stratton, in north Cornwall, and gave a taster of what will be in the book. The Stratton accounts are comparatively unusual in that they span the Reformation without a break.  Stratton is also unusual because several different types of documentation survive from the parish. There are two different sets of accounts relating to different parts of the parish’s activity – the High Cross, or churchwardens’ accounts, and the General Receivers’ accounts which give an overview of the parish finances as a whole. There are also documents and maps relating to a court case in 1583.  This allows us to see information which is normally missing from conventional churchwardens’ accounts.  Talking about this rich material, Dr Mattingly described the progress of the Reformation in Stratton, as the parishioners bought new Protestant service books and resisted having their carved wooden rood loft demolished (ultimately unsuccessfully). Alongside this activity, the everyday maintenance of the parish church continued, as churchwardens collected rents and paid for equipment, repairs and cleaning.

In his paper, Clive Burgess also highlighted the importance of the Stratton accounts. He emphasized that most work on medieval and Reformation parish records so far has examined either large urban areas such as Bristol and London (the focus of his own research), or small rural villages, such as Morebath in north Devon, which is the focus of Eamon Duffy’s 2001 book, The Voices of Morebath. Small towns, such as Stratton, are comparatively under-studied. Dr Burgess also gave an overview of the late medieval church to set the Stratton accounts in a larger context.  Here he stressed in particular the amount of money which medieval laypeople spent on their parish churches.  They paid for building works, altars, chantries and equipment, in exchange for being commemorated and prayed for.  There were many reasons for this, including the doctrine of Purgatory (which held that prayers could help the souls of the dead), and the fact that after the Black Death a combination of circumstances meant that many parishioners had some disposable income to spend.  He argued that medieval religion was essentially communal, and that late medieval parishes were one expression of this. Wealthy parishioners gave generously and in exchange, the less wealthy were expected to pray for them.  One of the changes which took place in the Reformation, according to this view, was a shift to a more individualistic view of religion.

Overall, these two fascinating talks helped to bring the complex religious changes in this period to life, as well as highlighting the amount of unpublished source material waiting for studies and critical editions.

The Devon and Cornwall Record Society was founded in 1904 to transcribe and publish local records, and to promote local historical studies and genealogical research. Its publications cover many aspects of the West Country’s political, social, religious, economic and maritime history. For more information and details of how to join, please see their website.

Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, by Joanna Mattingly (Devon and Cornwall Record Society new series vol. 60) will be published by Boydell and Brewer in spring 2018.

Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History

 

2017: A Year of Reformation

As any veteran of the funding process knows, the next best thing to the elusive gold dust of ‘reveIance’ is the calendar-bound quality of ‘timeliness’. And nothing demonstrates timeliness or engages the public more effectively than a significant anniversary. Anniversaries are potent application fodder for a variety of topics, but have been particularly important for those wishing to raise the profile of the Middle Ages in recent years. So if 2015 was the year of Magna Carta and 2016 can be remembered for the great re-enactment of Hastings, what medieval commemorative delights can we look forward to in 2017? Well, this year’s historical headlines look set to be dominated by one man and the movement in which he was prominent: Martin Luther and the Reformation.

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Martin Luther: Face of 2017

2017 marks 500 years since Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberger church in an act widely recognised as the start of the Protestant Reformation. This heralded decades of religious conflict, violence and destruction, and reconfigured the cultural and political face of Europe. Whatever your feelings about the Reformation, it must be recognised as a major milestone in European history and the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses an event worthy of commemoration. Unsurprisingly, Germany is the focus of this year’s celebrations. The Luther 2017 project has been gearing up for the anniversary for several years and a full list of commemorative, largely non-academic, events can be found on its website. For those with a more scholarly interest in the topic, a list of the various Luther- and Reformation-themed conferences taking place across Europe and the US this year is provided by the Reformation Research Consortium. Many of the events listed concentrate on the significance of the Reformation for the early modern and modern world and look forward rather than back. However, there is also much to engage those interested in later medieval religion – and several such conferences are occurring within the UK.

The University of Huddersfield and Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, both use the anniversary as a prompt to bring medievalists and early modernists into further dialogue. In Huddersfield in April, scholars will investigate the impact of the Reformation on material and visual culture between 1400 and 1600, while September’s conference in Cambridge will explore how people chose both to remember and to forget aspects of the Reformation. In contrast, in June, scholars in Oxford will use the anniversary as the end-date for the ‘After Chichele’ conference, which focuses on the intellectual and religious character of the later medieval English Church.

Characterising 2017 as a year of Reformation also offers food for thought in terms of contemporary politics. It is undeniable that 2016 saw seismic political shifts in Europe and the US, the effects of which have yet to make themselves fully known. Although there are relatively few truly useful parallels to be drawn between now and the early sixteenth century, those relating to new media and social division carry at least some resonance. As in 1517, new communications technologies have already had a major impact on events and look set to influence things yet further – be that through attempts to regulate the fake news circulating on Facebook or the inauguration of a president who threatens to govern via Tweet. Likewise, we must feel a similar sense of unease to our sixteenth-century counterparts as we witness the unexpected overturning of a status quo and see our communities fractured by fear and mutual misunderstanding. We live in uncertain times – and, if 1517 is anything to go by, then this will only set the pattern for many years to come.

Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History

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