Wednesday, March 16, 2011

TROOBLE AT MONASTERY! DURHAM IN 1433

Mighty Durham Cathedral and its Monastic Cloister stolen during the Deformation.
In 1083, on the site of an informal Celtic "monastery",  Bishop William of Durham founded a formal Monastery, gathering into it the "23 monks from the small Celtic "monasteries"at relatively new communities at Jarrow and Wearmouth. These had been re-founded on the sites of ancient Monasteries - at Jarrow the Venerable Bede had lived three hundred years earlier. Bede had written the life of St. Cuthbert who was buried here at Durham and, as late as 1050 Aelfred, a Priest of Durham, had removed st. Bede's remains to Durham also.

Bishop William determined that he would himself be Abbott of the new Monastery . He delegated the day to day running of the Monastery to the Prior.The first Prior's name was Aldwin. The Monastery was to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.But because of the Bishop/Abbot's necessary preoccupation with Diocesan affairs and the governance by the Prior, instead of being known as Durham Abbey it became known as Durham Priory.

The second Prior, Turgot by name, under the Bishop/Abbot's direction commenced construction of the great Priory church , now Durham Cathedral in 1093.In 1104 the remains of Saint Cuthbert were able to be transferred to their Shrine in the apse, at the rear of the High Altar. Devotion to Saint Cuthbert had always been strong, and very soon the Shrine was said to rival many of the greater shrines in England and even in Europe some said.King Henry VI visited the Shrine in 1448 and Richard III in 1483.The monks of the Priory and the Shrine were widely held in high regard. The result was that the Priory grew to become the richest Religious institute North of York.

There were up to 40 monks in the 1400's and the Priory operated two infirmaries for the poor, the ill, and the elderly including married couples.There were no "social services" provided by the Crown or anyone else but the monasteries in pre Deformation England.Every day , the Priory provide meals for 300 people including the 40 monks. The financial affairs of the Priory were therefore big business. The Priory was the largest factor in the whole regional economy both buying and selling and acting as landlord of the very many properties bequeathed to it.


Durham Cathedral and Priory Church
So much was this so, that very great problems arose in trying to find a monk capable and willing to act as Bursar. Between 1419 and 1432 the Prior tried three different monks in the role without success. It is hardly surprising, especially in those times, that someone who had entered the Monastery to devote his life to the things of God, should not be an ideal or even willing Business Manager as we would term him to-day.

And so it happened, that in the Autumn of 1432 the desperate Prior appointed Thomas Lawson who had been the Cellarer for the last four years , as Bursar. The measured, steady life of the Cellarer was one thing, the hectic, varied demands of the office of Bursar was something else again.

Poor Brother Thomas, at Whitsuntide each year , the Bursar was bound to produce the Accounts of the Monastery for the last year.Written on several pieces of parchment, they were finally stitched together to be made into one long roll.They were made in triplicate and showed receipts and disbursements. They were inspected by senior monks and presented to a General Chapter in June each year.In 1433 Brother Thomas pleaded insufficient time to complete the task. The Prior was firm in demanding that the rule be observed. Brother Thomas became overwrought and desperate, and some of the monks feared that he might harm himself, such was his state of mind. Finally he did produce some accounts, which everyone believed were "cooked"to balance. His accounts for the next 5 years are preserved at Durham.

But ," the truth will out "as the saying goes. Brother Thomas had been failing to record debts in order to balance the books. The Terrar of the Priory was responsible for the properties of the Monastery, and he was receiving complaints from tradesmen and others who had not been paid. He was Brother Henry Helay and he drew up an accurate report of the state of affairs which showed that Brother Thomas had concealed debts of 1,210 Pounds. Poor wretched Brother Thomas was away from the Monastery inspecting land holdings when he received the news. Panic-stricken he disappeared into the night and tried to avoid confronting his shocked brethren. The Prior struggled to get control of the situation. None of the monks would agree to takeover the role. Finally the Prior had to divide up the work among several monks.

Economic times were tough. A war with Scotland, plague, cattle disease - all had served to diminish income which fell from 2,200 Pounds in 1330-31 to only 1,470 Pounds in 1347-48.Despite all this the monks, through their frugality and responsible use of their resources, managed to maintain their massive services to the Durham community.

On 31st December , 1539 the then Prior succumbed to the demands of the King's Commissioners and the great Cathedral Church and Monastery was stolen by Henry VIII, they did not even try to trump up any charges of scandal against the monks as they often did in other places.

Earlier, the Commissioners had sent their agents up ladders to break into the Shrine of Saint Cuthbert on its high pedestal. They opened the Coffin and found "the body lying whole, uncorrupt, with his face bare, and his beard as it had been a fortnight's growth and all his vestments upon him, as he was accustomed to say Mass withal."

Their Superior Dr. Henley ordered that the bones be thrown down. He was told that it was impossible due to the sinews and skin forming the body. Dr. Henley and his henchman Dr. Leigh had to climb up to see. The body was taken down and re-buried under a simple slab and the great Shrine was destroyed after removal of gold, silver and jewels for the King's benefit.

The Anglican Dean in the 1570's had all the carvings and brasses in the Cathedral destroyed in the 1570's and his wife burned the famous banner of St. Cuthbert and used the stone Holy Water font as a sink in her kitchen and used headstones from the monks' cemetery to pave her kitchen- Anglicanism in full "flower ".

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