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The Story of Coombe Abbey - click for Contents Page

Chapter II - Monks, Murder and Theft

Numerous gifts of land were made to the monks of Combe during the four hundred years of their occupation, and they were soon in control of land not only in Warwickshire but in many other counties too.  One interesting gift was that of lands at Marston, on condition that the monks gave shoes to the poor who came every day to the abbey gate.  Lands near the abbey they farmed themselves, but those further afield were leased for a yearly rent, and tithes were received from those who dwelt on the Monastic Lands.

As seen through the eyes of an unknown 18th century artist.

Besides their obvious religious activities, Cistercians were very well known as sheep farmers, and it is true to say that they introduced into England a new concept in agriculture, whereby sheep were reared on a large scale for the sale and export of wool.  They had the advantage over smaller farmers in that they were free from manorial bonds which held the peasants in serfdom.  As monasteries of their order were scattered throughout the country, it was easy to build up a powerful sales organisation, and they soon monopolised the attention of the English buyers and also attracted buyers from overseas.  As their organisation grew more efficient it was extended to provide marketing facilities for the products of smaller farmers, fleeces being bought and resold at considerable profit.  Such trade was of course against the principles of the Order, but it proved so profitable that nearly all Cistercian houses in Britain were involved in it.

The importance of Coventry as a centre of the wool trade in the early middle ages is due almost entirely to the success of the Cistercian abbeys at Stoneleigh and Combe.  In the fourteenth century, the peasants began to have more power, and the villein class ceased to exist.  This meant rising labour costs and increasing competition for the monastic sheep farmers, and the days of prosperity came to an end.  From this time on, the monasteries had the fear of debt hanging over them and many of them leased their lands to the peasant farmers, thus, in theory, being assured of a regular income.

During his term of office as Archbishop of Canterbury, (1162-1170), Thomas a Becket instructed the monks of Combe to pay tithes to the canons of Kenilworth for all their possessions in the parish of Smite.  They bore this burden for some time, but later complained to Pope Urban III who appointed Baldwin, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, to look into the matter.  This he did, and in 1187 decreed that the monks of Combe should provide Divine Service in the Church of Smite, discharging all the duties to the Bishop and Archdeacon for that church, but that they should still pay tithes amounting to eight marks yearly for their possessions in the parishes of Cherleton (Staffordshire), and Brinklow.  If they tilled any more land in the parish of Brinklow they would have to pay excess tithes for it.  They were, however, allowed a yearly pension of two shillings towards the cost of lights in the abbey, to be paid at the feast of St. Michael.

King Henry II gave the monks free warren and Court Leet, and Richard I (1189-1199) granted them immunity from paying tolls and from repairing highways and bridges.  King Henry III (1216-1272) granted the monks of Combe exemption from the payment of any fine for murder committed within their liberties.

In 1279, Robert, son of Odo de Herberbyry, gave the Abbey a considerable amount of lands and tenements in Harbury and Chesterton, on condition that the monks would pray for the health of his soul, and that of Elizabeth, his wife.

In 1290, Edward I gave the monks the right to take game on his manors of Combe, Binley, Copston, Ernsford, Radbourn, Withybrook and Wolvey.  The estates had by now grown so large that for the taxation of 1291, the income of the Abbey was valued at £139 12s 10d making it by far the wealthiest house in Warwickshire.

In 1283, 1289 and 1292 Abbot William was granted leave to cross the seas to attend the general Cistercian Chapter at Citeaux in Burgundy, attorneys being appointed in his absence.  In 1292 he was away from July until Christmas.  From the 3rd May to the 1st August 1313, Abbot William was once more out of the country, this time on the King's business.  On the 6th August of the same year, he again obtained permission to leave the country, this time to another meeting at Citeaux, and King Edward II gave him twenty marks towards his expenses.  Abbot William must have been in the King's favour, for in 1325 he was granted a Wednesday market at Wolvey and a three day's fair at the Feast of St.  Mark.

In 1328, Abbot William died, and on the 8th August, his successor Abbot Richard made the pilgrimage to Citeaux, sailing from Dover with men, horses and equipment.  Brothers Walter de Wodeeton and Walter de Tresham were nominated his attorneys during his absence.

Abbot Richard seems to have been a poor business man, for during his period of rule the House became burdened with debt.  In January of 1332 Abbot Richard acknowledged his debt of forty pounds to John de Pulteney for rent of various lands in Warwickshire.  Things must have been very bad at this time, for on March the 18th Edward III granted protection for the Abbot and Convent of Combe and appointed William de Clinton and Robert de Stretford to manage the affairs of the estates, running the monastery on a very small budget and using the rest of the income to pay off debts.  Shortly after this, Abbot Richard either died or was deposed, for in the August of this year his successor, Abbot Geoffrey acknowledged a debt of one hundred and forty pounds to John de Merynton.  Geoffrey can not have been successful either, for he was replaced within a year by Abbot John, a very learned man and a Master of Theology.

In the August of 1333, Pope John XIII appointed Abbot John of Combe, who had been previously consecrated by Anibald, Bishop of Tusculum, to the vacant Irish See of Cloyne.  At first Edward III would not agree to this, the Pope having offended him in a letter asking for the transfer.  However, in September 1335, after the Pope's death, the King relented and permitted John to go to Cloyne provided that he first publicly renounced all words in the Pope's letter which were prejudicial to the King.  John was replaced at Combe by Abbot Geoffrey.

In June of 1339 Geoffrey received a letter from Pope Boniface XII commanding him to carry out Papal Ordinances with regard to Bartholomew Ace, a Cistercian monk from Cleeve in Somerset who had left the Order and wished to rejoin it.

Fate, which had never been kind to the Abbey of Combe during the second quarter of the fourteenth Century, struck its hardest blow during the summer of 1345 when Abbot Geoffrey was murdered in the Abbey.  On the 6th of July Edward III ordered six of his justices "de inquirendo de morte abbatis de Combe."  At least two of them were to be drawn from lawful men of Northampton, presumably to ensure impartiality.  All further records of this inquiry have been lost and so we shall never know who killed the Abbot of Combe.

Orders of communal monasticism such as the Cistercian Order had developed originally from solitary hermits, who, in the first few centuries of the Christian era shut themselves away from the world and its temptations and devoted themselves to the service of God.  It is therefore interesting to note that in 1395 William de Seregham was appointed by Giles, the brother of William Lord Astley to a solitary cell on Wolvey Heath, "there to live a hermetical life in the service of God, and to pray for the souls of the said Giles, his ancestors, and all the founders and benefactors of the Monastery of Combe".

At the middle of the Fifteenth Century the monastery seems to have been facing hard times again - in 1449 a monastic chronicler wrote; "this was another dere yere", and it appears that the Abbot had to be strict in the collection of his rents and tithes.  Indeed it seems that perhaps Abbot Dan. Richard Atherstone went further than he was legally entitled and there are on record several complaints about his sharp practice, swindling and even taking by force of arms.  The monastery very quickly became unpopular with its neighbours, and they were not slow in taking revenge.

On Tuesday the 27th of July 1451, swashbuckling Sir Thomas Mallory of nearby Newbold Revel, and author of the Morte d'Arthur, imprisoned at Coleshill awaiting trial for one of his many offences, broke out of gaol during the night and swam across the moat to safety.  The following day he gathered up about a dozen yeomen, husbandmen and grooms and almost an hundred other "malefactors and breakers of the King's peace" and they broke by night into Combe Abbey breaking down eighteen doors with huge baulks of timber and insulting the Abbot and the monks.  They broke open two of the Abbot's chests, stealing £21 from one and £25 in gold and silver marks from the other.  Next they went into the Abbey Church and took jewels and ornaments to the value of £40, and escaped into the night.

The attack seems to have been successful in removing Abbot Richard, for in 1454 Alexander was elected Abbot of Combe. 

In 1470 the monks had a royal guest, for when Edward IV was on his way from Leicester to Coventry, pursuing his enemy the Earl of Warwick in the Wars of the Roses, he rested a while at Combe Abbey.

In his will dated the 20th June 1509, Sir Edward Raleigh of Farnborough bequeathed £30 to build the south side of the cloister, and to glaze the windows.  He also left 20s to the Abbot, 6s 8d to every priest and 3s 4d to every lay brother.  In return for this they were to keep the yearly obit of Sir Edward and of his wife Margaret.

The monastery of Combe was well known for its generosity in distributing gifts to the poor.  As an example of this we can cite the custom whereby, every Maundy Thursday, 4s 8d in money, ten quarters of rye bread at 5s a quarter, three quarters of malt beer at 4s a quarter and 300 herrings at 1s 8d a hundred were distributed to the poor at the abbey gate.

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