New: Article on the Medieval minsters of Beverley, Rippon and York, submitted by Stuart Sharp.
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© Stuart Sharp, 2007
While medieval monastic orders have received much attention from historians, monasteries were not the only ecclesiastical institutions in Britain in the period by any means. As a number of historians from K. Edwards onwards have reminded us,(1) many cathedrals and churches were staffed by bodies of secular canons. These canons were priests supported by incomes (usually from lands or churches) called prebends. The majority of research on such canons has been in the context of cathedrals, but secular canons were also present at minster churches such as those of Beverley, Ripon and Southwell.
There is a tendency with these churches to view them in isolation, or at best as the centre of an isolated local network of influence. This is understandable, both because the imposing nature of the buildings concerned can give an impression of isolation and importance, and because historians have tended to treat them separately in the past. McDermid has gone so far as to stress that, just because Beverley, Ripon and Southwell shared a status as minster churches in the diocese of York, it doesn’t follow that they were linked.(2)
I would like to argue, however, that links between these three institutions can be found, particularly in the centuries immediately after the Norman Conquest, and that it is legitimate to treat them as a unit in many respects. This is important, both because it overcomes any tendency towards parochialism, and because it is important to recognise that many of Britain’s medieval churches can only be properly understood within the context of a broad range of connections, influences and links to other institutions.
That the three are comparable is not difficult to establish. All three were minster churches housing secular canons at the time of the Norman Conquest. All three fell within the diocese of York. All three became mother churches for their immediate areas, churches to which people could travel for obligatory yearly masses instead of York. This does not, however, establish any particular link between them.
But such links did exist. One such lay in the area of personnel. In theory, no canon or other clergyman was supposed to hold more than one prebend or other benefice with what was termed ‘cure of souls’. In practice, a number of canons within each institution held more than one ecclesiastical living, and in several cases this meant holding prebends at more than one of the three Minsters. The famous pluralist William de Wykeham, for example, held prebends at York, Beverley and Southwell among a number of others.
Even canons who were not pluralists, in that they did not hold more than one living simultaneously, demonstrate these links. Thomas de Disce was a canon at Southwell until 1210 when he resigned the prebend of Southmuskham. At some point between 1212 and 1216, he was the subject of a papal letter, which mentioned his position as a canon of Ripon. He had clearly resigned one prebend in favour of another, probably because Ripon’s prebends were somewhat more lucrative for their holders.
Moreover, even if there had been no such links between the personnel of Beverley, Ripon and Southwell, they would still have met. Canons from all three were used regularly by Archbishops of York as clerks and secretaries, as can be seen both in the witness lists for Archiepiscopal writings and in occasional letters from the Arichbishop to the chapters of the minsters. These letters asked for canons to be let off fines for non-residence because the non-residence was a consequence of working of the Archbishop.
There was also some tendency for the Archbishop, and others, to treat the three institutions as a unit. At some point between 1136 and 1140, for example, King Stephen issued a charter freeing all three minsters, along with York and Hexham, from obligations of castle building. Arcbishop Walter Gray’s policy of improvements in the 13th century, moreover, involved offering indulgences to those who contributed to building work at any of the minsters. While each of the minsters certainly received its fair share of charters directed solely to it, these instances where they were directed to more than one show that it was at least possible for patrons to think of them as linked.
Probably the most compelling evidence of links between the minsters of Beverley, Ripon and Southwell though, is evidence of instances of joint action by the minsters. Probably the most colourful example of this involved Ripon and Beverley.
In 1228, the King held an inquest into the rights of Ripon’s canons, after the Archbishop’s bailiff entered their lands and seized goods to pay fees the Archbishop believed he was owed for his previous visitations of the minster. As part of its evidence for those rights, Galfrid de Lardare, canon of Ripon and it’s representative at the inquest, placed a charter supposedly given to the minster by King Aethalstan before the inquest. The evidence of this charter, along with several others and verbal testimony, was enough to confirm Ripon’s rights in the matter.
This charter, presented in rhyming form, is almost identical to one held by Beverley, which is fine, except for one problem; both charters are forgeries. (3) If the charters were genuine, their similarities would simply be another instance of a king electing to treat the minsters as a unit. It may even be the case that Aethalstan did confer some rights on the minsters. But, even if that is the case, the fact remains that the charters are almost identical, and definitely not Aethalstan’s. The only explanation that makes sense is that the canons of Beverley and Ripon cooperated in making the forgeries, and this shows that, at least briefly, strong links existed between the two.
This is, of course, just a short exploration of the links between three specific institutions. I will not attempt to deny that there are also some very clear differences between them. They have different numbers of canons, different hierarchies, and different structures for their prebends. However, it seems reasonable to suggest that these differences have little bearing on the links between the three. This is not, after all, an attempt to suggest that they were three identical institutions. Instead, the minster churches of Beverley, Ripon and Southwell were three institutions that had distinctive individual characters, but were nevertheless linked; by personnel, by their shared status… and by a spot of thirteenth century forgery.
This article was created by Stuart Sharp and, as such, is not released under the normal Etrusia licence terms. Currently this article is governed by the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.
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