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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

Stay Silent or be Damned! Modern Portrayals of the Medieval Cleric

The late medieval English cleric gets a pretty raw deal in film, TV and in popular histories. Where they appear at all, they are often ciphers, materialising merely to fulfil some dramatic function such as crowning a usurping monarch, or conducting the marriage of a pair of love-struck aristos.

Des 1
Friar Tuck experiences existential crisis

Those priests, bishops, nuns or friars who do get a speaking role, almost always appear as sinister and pretty unpleasant pieces of work. They are certainly not people you would have wanted to meet in the ale house! One notable exception of course is that deeply anachronistic character, Friar Tuck. He appears in all of those Robin Hood adaptations as a robust and comic foil to the noble Robin, and wanders around late twelfth-century England unaware that he cannot yet exist. The Franciscan friars made their arrival in England in the 1220s, decades after the demise of good King Richard.

One character who struggles greatly to make it on to celluloid at all, let alone into the era of the talkies, is John Morton, chancellor to Henry VII and cardinal archbishop of Canterbury. Morton was present at the notorious meeting of the royal council in June 1483 when Richard duke of Gloucester, soon to be the scoliotic king Richard III, had William Lord Hastings taken out for summary execution. However in a recent TV adaptation of this celebrated moment, a pair of unidentified clerics were portrayed as sitting in the room, saying nothing (as usual), and then being ignored while the action moved on. In real life, both Morton (then bishop of Ely), and his episcopal colleague, Thomas Rotherham, archbishop of York, were arrested and imprisoned, and it seems likely that only their clerical status saved them from an early visit to eternal life. But why would we want to hear from them? Morton subsequently went on to become archbishop of Canterbury after the death of the previous incumbent, Thomas Bourchier. There can be few more overlooked clerics than Bourchier.

Des 2
Elizabeth Woodville, the ‘White Queen’

In another great TV moment, Elizabeth Woodville, that famous White Queen, who was by now the sorrowing widow of the defunct Edward IV, was shown in Westminster Abbey where she had sought sanctuary with her younger son, Richard duke of York. The man who arrives to persuade her to give over young Richard into the tender care of his usurping uncle is, according to the TV script writer, Henry duke of Buckingham. The fact that it was actually archbishop Bourchier is clearly an inconvenient fact that cannot be allowed to get in the way of a good piece of ‘historical’ dramatisation. Bourchier gets it in the neck from academic historians: he has been described as the teflon archbishop for managing to survive at Canterbury despite being the man to crown Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. Little wonder then the poor public get no sight of him.

Des 3
Thomas Wolsey, Tudor villain

John Morton’s time at Canterbury takes us into the Tudor era, and by the reign of Henry VIII, the only cleric in existence seems to be Thomas Wolsey. Now there for once is a man who gets to say plenty in any film or TV adaptation, especially when his words condemn him as some self-serving, bloated windbag, ripe for a well-deserved downfall (hurrah for the Reformation!). As for all those sinister, foreign and clearly murderous Jesuitical characters who pad around movies of Elizabeth I, no more need be said.

Des 4
Janina Ramirez presents a popular past

But returning to the medieval period, there are times when even those who should (and may) know better succumb to the temptation to sex-up our silent clerics for the purposes of entertainment. In her TV series on the medieval monasteries, the frequently seen Janina Ramirez presented a very tired old narrative of those long-vanished religious houses. From their distant golden age when heroic monks tamed, or at least endured, wildernesses, she drew a contrast with the later centuries when the fat monks of Westminster chomped their way to a decadent and sclerotic monastic twilight. The feuding monks of twelfth-century Bury as recounted by Jocelyn of Brakelond must have been an aberration in Janina’s eyes. Also overlooked by her were the nuns of many Yorkshire religious houses who struggled on through the centuries, despite their grinding poverty.

Des 5
The mysterious ‘Bishop of the Black Canons’

To finish, we must look again to Robin Hood and to that mysterious churchman, the Bishop of the Black Canons. His appearance alongside the wicked prince John (played with glorious style by Claude Rains in the 1938 movie), shows us another clerical villain (none more devious and scheming!). The Augustinian canons of the time would have been surprised to learn that they had a bishop, never mind that he was so in cahoots with the princely John Lackland. The wicked ‘bishop’ confirms the rule that if a cleric speaks, he must be a very bad person indeed.

Des Atkinson, PhD student in History

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