Monday, June 8, 2009

GOLDCLIFF.1 The Benedictine Priory of St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdalene

Here you can see the entrance to the original seaside priory.You can see part of the sea wall they built (now reinforced with concrete!) Also the outline of Hill farm a later development of where Goldcliffe was.More pictures in the next post.


This information has come largely from the excellent account given by the eminent scholar, David Williams in the Monmouthshire Antiquary.

The Name-Gold Cliff-Allteurin

The name ‘Goldcliff ‘(Allteurin) is said to have originated from the silicious limestone cliff, about 60 feet high, at the Priory , rising over a great bed of yellow mica which breaks the level at the shore and has a glittering appearance in sunshine, especially to ships passing in the Bristol Channel.The survey of alien priors drawn up in 1324 explained that the reason for the low value of £66 13s 4d which was te amount paid to the king was ‘because its possessions in Wales are in large measure submerged by the water of the sea’.

Alien priories

Alien priories were cells of religious houses in England which belonged to French monasteries; when manors or tithes were given to foreign monasteries or convents, the monks built small priories and established priories. Within the ;cell’ there was the same distinction within those priories which were cells subordinate to some great abbey. Some of them could choose their own priors, some had priors appointed. Some kept all the tithes and revenues and monies to maintain their buildings and carry on their work in the community, and others depended entirely on their ‘French ‘mother’ houses who removed and appointed Priors as they saw fit and removed all the revenues to France, leaving just enough for he priory to survive. Most of these priories were founded by Norman families who had already founded the mother houses or contributed to hem. According to Dugdale, there were more than one hundred and twenty in England and Wales. The cells which were independent had been made denizen or English.

Alien Priories and the French Wars in Mediaeval times

These alien priories of which Goldcliff is one were first seized by Edward I in 1285 on the breaking out of the war between France and England , and it appears from a roll that Edward II seized them as well and this is referred to in an Act of Restitution under Edward III In 1337 he seized all their lands again and rented their lands out himself for 23 years and then restored them in 1361. Sometimes he granted their lands out to noblemen . During Richard II’s reign they were grabbed again and the ‘Mother Houses’ in Normandy were allowed to sell their priories to English noblemen who wanted to endow priories. They were restored and then seized again under Henry IV. They were all, of course taken by Henry VIII later on.

Abbey of Bec-the Mother House and trained Archbishop Lanfranc and St Anselm of Canterbury

Giants of the Mediaeval Church from Bec- Lanfranc and St Anselm of Canterbury.
The Benedictine Abbey of Bec, or Le Bec, in Normandy, was founded in the earlier part of the eleventh century by Herluin, a Norman knight who about 1031 left the court of Count Gilbert of Brionne to devote himself to a life of religion. The modern name of the place, Bec-Helloin, preserves the memory of its founder.. Herluin's first foundation was at Bonneville, or Burneville, where a monastery was built in 1034, and here in 1037, Herluin was consecrated abbot. But in a few years it was decided to move to a more suitable site, two miles away, by the banks of the Bec (Danish, Bæk, a brook) which gave its name to the abbey. This removal took place about 1040. About two years after this,the great teacher Lanfranc, who had already become famous for his lectures at Avranches, left the scene of his triumphs and came to bury himself at the monastery of Bec. At first his retreat was unknown to the outside world, while his fellow monks seem to have been unaware of his worth. But within a few years of his arrival at Bec, he had opened a new school, St Anselm and scholars were flocking from all parts to listen to his lectures. The abbey grew and prospered and the good work begun by the simple piety of Herluin was crowned by the learning of Lanfranc.

Bec Expands

Before long it was necessary to build a larger and more lasting monastery. As the site first chosen had proved to be unsatisfactory, the new foundations were laid in another spot, higher up the valley of the Bec and further away from the water. This important change was really the work of Lanfranc, who was now the prior and the right hand of the aged abbot. As the first change of site was closely followed by the arrival of one great teacher, this second foundation was almost coincident, with the coming of a yet greater glory of the abbey, St. Anselm of Canterbury. Two giants of learning then came out of the abbey of Bec, which sent monks to our priory at Goldcliff, Newport.

Robert de Chandos

Robert De Chandos, whose lands lay very near the monastery at Bec founded the Church of St Mary Magdalene at Goldcliff in 1113 endowed it with several possessions and lands, and by the persuasion of Henry I gave it to the Abbey of Bec. It was the third cell of Bec to be established in Britain. Goldcliff was given an annual allowance of £1 and originally supported by Bec. The Church of St Mary Magdalene of Goldcliff with its lands and tithes and the Chapel at Nash were all given to Bec….
This dedication is revealed in the seals of the priory,the best preserved being the scene on that first Easter Day , with our Lord appearing to Mary Magdalene who is kneeling and holding a box of precious ointment.

He was to send a prior and twelve Benedictines to Goldcliff.

David Williams writes 'The monks of Bec and consequently their dependent priories had the especial privilege of wearing the white habit , a feature exactly paralleled today by the modern Benedictine foundation of Prinknash and its dependent priory of Farnborough whose monks wear white habits , unlike the black ones worn at Belmont, Downside, Ramsgate and elsewhere….

So the monks of Goldcliff would have worn white habits unlike those at the Benedictine Priories of Monmouth, Chepstow and Abergavenny. There is added proof that this was the case, for in the troubled, declining years, an ousted prior . Laurence de Bonneville, petitioning Pope Eugenius IV for re-instatement specifically drew that Pontiff’s attention to the fact that monks of a dependent house of Bec where ‘ a white habit is worn’ had been replaced with monks from Tewkesbury ‘wearing the black habit of that said monastery’

The site of the Tudor farmhouse adjoining the churchyard at Christchurch was a grange of Goldcliff Priory, the later house may have been an extension of the former. The tiny window in the south wall at the far end of the house looks directly on to the Priory and as Hando says that he found it pleasant to think that a light in the window may have signalled ‘All’s Well’ to the bretheren below.

Iowerth ab Owen and Robert de Chandos buried at St Mary Magdalene Goldcliff

Robert de Chandos died in 1120-23 and was buried on the south side of the choir of the church at Goldcliff (the only other recorded burial was that of Iowerth ab Owain in 1174.)William le Marshall got the priory then and then it passed to the De Clares The Prior was still appointed by Bec and after he was nominated the new prior would present himself to the patron and then the diocesan Bishop . David Williams writes again that ‘One Prior at least claimed to have exercised his rights asserting that the then prior of Goldcliff had been removed once by the abbot, but sent back at his request’.

Oath of Fealty during the French Wars

Shortly afterwards the wars with the French began and there is plenty of evidence of the procedure. Ralphe de Runceville becoming Prior of Goldcliffe in 1313 was presented to the king by the abbot of Bec as by the letters patent of the abbot to the king appears , from whom the king, admitting that presentation has accepted fealty and to whom he has restored the temporalities , the monarch holding the latter, while the priory was vacant.

The king then sent the letters of the abbot of Bec to the Bishop of Worcester , as keeper of the great seal, commanding him ‘ to proceed in the business according to the law and custom of the realm’. David Williams writes ‘The next stage was as the Prior of 1290 put it to be ‘presented to the Bishop of Llandaff and admitted as a prior and then have the spiritualities of the Priory entrusted to him.’ Another account of 1491 is recorded. In the mid fifteenth century , the Register of Tewkesbury claimed that for 318 years no prior was admitted to the Priory of Goldcliff , except previously he had presented him to the king and had been licensed by the king and admitted, inducted and instituted by the Bishop of Llandaff or his archdeacon!!!. In 1328 the crown had charged Prior Peter Gopylers 40marks for restoration of the lands, after another seizure!

Conventual Priory

Goldcliff, says David Williams was a conventual priory as distinct from a monastic cell. They trained to keep enough monks to faithfully perform the daily Litugy of the Hours which was the essence of a Benedictine Community.Praying the psalms in the rhythm of the day, the pattern of psalms-which they learnt in Latin by heart, canticles which are extracts from the Bible like Mary’s Song of Praise (known by its Latin name ‘Magnificat’)at the service called ‘Vespers’ the ‘Nunc Dimittis’(Now Lord lettest thou thy servant depart in Peace) at a service called ‘Compline’ Featuring strongly was the ‘Benedicite’ (Blessed be the Lord) at Mattins or lauds. Most of the psalms were sung. Every day there would be Mass, where the monks would personally meet Jesus Christ. Prayer was one of their fundamental activities as Benedictines and so was study. David Williams said ‘We get a glimpse of this prayer life when Prior Laurence de Bonavilla (ca 1441) told how one attack took place, when the monks were in their church at divine worship at Midnight’. (Williams)

Chedworth Church in Gloucestershire-an Ordination

All the priors were Frenchmen, as their names would imply, and it was said of William de Vedast long after his death that he had been a Frenchman. Many of the monks too were from Normandy-some are described as monks of Bec and if there was a death in the community, the Prior sent to Bec for a fresh monk. We can’t really tell how many English and Welsh monks were there because of lack of records at Llandaff. There is only one detail of an ordination of a priest of a Goldcliff monk at Chedworth Church in Gloucestershire-Richard Frageron in 1301.The community was at times a sizeable one with 25 monks in 1295 and eight towards its close. It also supported lay chaplains with the priestly work in the chapel of Nash, and the local churches.

Travels of the Prior

The Prior was the most travelled member of the community.Every summer he had to go to Bec to attend the annual chapter, and often had to present himself at the King’s council during the wars with the French. In May 1292 the Prior went to Cottisford (Oxon) and two bushels of oats were provided for his horse. In the spring of 1294 he was going abroad . In early summer 1303, the Prior was travelling to Bec, not to return. In 1347, the Prior was visiting his lands in Membury, and on legal business in Chepstow assizes in 1415. In 1190-1119, there was a real prior of note, Prior William who served archbishop Hubert Walter as judge delegate in an appeal in Canterbury and was also a commissary in a Llandaff ecclesiastical case. He was the only Prior who achieved high office and was described as a provident and honest men. He was consecrated bishop of Llandaff in 1219 . He died ten years later.

Corrodians (Terminally ill or old crown employees, larger abbies took others)

There were a number of Corrodians at Goldcliff. These were sick people and invalids in the service of the King who were cared for by a monastery when in lingering ill health or old and retired with no home. Or they could donate property to the monastery in return for regular nursing and care. The wholesome air at the sea must have been wonderful. Two of the Goldcliff corrodians seem to have been local. In 1305 Geoffrey de Llantrissent ‘who was maintained in the king’s service’ was sent to the priory. He had been detailed for Tintern the previous year. David Williams goes on ‘In 1316 Thomas de Marteleye ‘who long served the king was to ‘receive the necessaries of life’ at Goldcliff.’ When he died Thomas le Foyar appeared in 1343 from the Forest of Dean. Others were Geoffrey Hurst John Seys (1345) 1375 Richard de Careswell had taken his place.(1386)John de Banhan replaced him 1403 Agnes Henyver replaced Bahan.She was replaced by Thomas Reingwood (Yeoman of the King’s robes) and his wife.’during their lives and the life of the longest liver’As far as royal corrodians were concerned there were only two at most, so the nursing burden was not heavy.

Goldcliff, the Hill Farm

There is a picture showing the location of the Priory today. The Abbey Church is ruined, but there are some remains in the farm building , now built on the site, which must have been idyllic. In the foreground is a modern fishery, which would have undoubtedly also been a focus for the monks. Ironic that the sea wall they reinforced is still working today.

The Monks worked on the Sea Defences

The construction of the abbey was uneventful. The church would have been in the normal cruciform shape plus tower, since at times the Priory would have to defend itself. There would also have been a wall. Lay brothers were recruited and also other workers. They shored up the sea wall ,improving on Roman sea defences. They farmed .We know the local people used the church for their services. At Midday and at 6 the Angelus Bell would be rung and during the Mass the bell would be tolled at the moment of consecration. All the people working would stop and then turn towards the Priory Church , kneel and join in the prayer. The monks fulfilled their duties as Priests, scriptors and administrators, cooks, cellerers, infirmarians and apothecaries, Throughout it all they would pray the Liturgy of the Hours and pray mass, feeling the rhythm of the days, seasons and years in the service of God. Now and again there were problems. In 1265 Prior Jean du Plessis was recalled to Bec .
Court Case against the Earl of Warwick

Goldcliff in Poverty-Had to pay Taxes to Bec, THe King and Rome


In 1291 the Taxatia Ecclesiastica hit the Catholic world, and made it clear how much the fortunes of Goldcliff had decreased.The King had made a mention of the poverty of the Priory the previous year. Gilbert de Clare, Lord of Caerleon, Earl of Gloucester and was also Patron of the Priory had a number of issues with the Priory , and tis was also troubling Llantarnam Abbey (Cistercian) In 1289 he withheld money from the Priory ‘asserting that the prior and monks had abused these liberties to his detriment’. The Prior brought the case in front of the King’s bench 1291, pleading that he held his possessions in chief by gift of Hywel of Caerleon and should not be destrained to appear at the Earl’s court at Caerleon concerning the avowson of Undy church. De Claire claimed that he should not have to answer the Prior as the latter was a ‘bailiff of his abbot and not a legal person’. However he was overruled , since it was felt that he had already recognised the Prior legally . The Prior claimed he had ‘ given lands, gifts, annual pensions, freed villains and no acre of theirs had been even disputed by any abbot and Bec. He had a Convent in his Priory and a seal and presented clerks to the churches in the Patronage of the Priory. While the case was pending before the king, the bailiffs of the earl in Newport and Caerleon told the Community they would still be forced to appear at Caerleon, despite an order from the king telling them not to do so until the case before the king was settled. ‘The four offending bailiffs were ordered 1291 to appear before the king for contempt The case, suspended for a time was cut short by de Clare’s death 1295 The following year, however, the prior found it necessary to proceed against a clerk Alexander of London for trespassing on his land.

Years of War with France

In 1295 war with France began and lasted for the rest of the Priory’s life.’All foreign monks dwelling thirteen miles or less from the sea , or by waters bearing ships to the sea were to be removed and sent to their manors twenty miles at least away or to other orders of the same order and language.’A guardian was to have charge of the priory , the monks confined within it. They were to send to messages or letters with allowance of 1/6d per week for food and drink and 10/-a year for clothes and shoes. As soon as the number of monks to be removed was known, they were sent at the cost of their houses with their beds and books to the places ordained for them and if they were found to be going around the country they should be arrested.’ In 1295 Goldcliff had 25 monks at this time. Five were removed ‘ for lack of sustenance ‘in 1296.In the following year a further five were removed leaving them fifteen in the Community. It is possibly because these were the actual French content and the fifteen more local monks. There is no record of the appointment of a guardian, but it seems ,according to David Williams , that ‘its Prior was allowed , as many alien priories were to keep the priory, holding the land and goods not in his own right but of the king and rendering him there from a very heavy annual payment to the Exchequer. This varied, in Goldcliff’s case with the prosperity of the house-£100 in 1295,£71 in 1298,£79 in base coinage in 1300, £66.13 in 1324,£10(!) In 1337 to pay the annual tribute to the mother house. The position may have eased a little with Prior Germain (1406)who was allowed to old the King’s manor of Membury without rendering anything to the king, but he had to maintain the houses and buildings and support all charges. Being seized again 1324-7, 1337-60,1369-1400, and from 1403 on. On the outbreak of war again, the ‘sureties which were called in by the priors gave pledges that the prior would stay continually in his house , maintain the ancient number of monks and servants , find chaplains for chantries and repair the buildings ; and also that neither the prior nor the monks or servants would pass out of the realm , reveal state affairs or secrets to foreigners by letter or word of mouth , or send away money or jewels ‘

There were other problems. Because of these restrictions, Goldcliff could not easily collect the money from its churches and there is a great deal of evidence to support the fact that the king did this . At least four times the Prior of Goldcliff had to present himself at Westminster (January 1342) with the priors of other alien priories to discuss the custody of the priory and the financial arrangements.’ on pain of deprivation’ on Hune 25 1347.

Thank you to Professor David Williams for his considerable Research, which I referred to here.

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