Monks and Mystery – The Founding of Yenston Priory
Travelling through the fields of our parish, a person of high status lost a cherished item. It was to stay in the ground undiscovered for over 900 years. We cannot be sure it belonged to Hugh de Albrincis, Viscount d’Avranches, relation of William the Conqueror, on his way to visit the priory he had founded in 1085 at Yenston.
Just 16 years later he was dead. Commemorated in Chester where he held the Earldom, said to be one of the most powerful in medieval England, posing with his sword and carrying a shield. Earl Hugh came from a French region known to send knights on Crusades to the Holy Lands, even the Bishop of Avranches made a trip. These were fighting knights possessing a potent mix of individual philosophy and religious quest wrapped up in a military order. The honorary title of ‘knight’, originating from France, was given by the Monarch, especially in a military capacity. French knights and nobles became prominent figures in England following the Norman invasion of 1066, when William the Conqueror granted them portions of his newly acquired lands. Maybe Earl Hugh was a knight and arrived in England to fight the decisive battle of Senlac Hill. Certainly the nickname of Hugh Lupus (Hugh the Wolf) suggests a fierce fighter. His other ‘Hugh le Gros,’ celebrating his love of woman and good food. Not sure he’d find either at Yenston Priory!
Before arriving in England, Earl Hugh is said to have founded the Benedictine Abbey of St Sever in Normandy. The founding of Yenston Priory, cited in Domesday, establishes a satellite priory of the same ‘Mother’ Abbey. Existence of a religious type priory in Yenston pre 1085 is unclear, even though in Saxon times the rule of St Benedictine was typical for monasteries in this area. [Dunning] In 956AD the five hides of land making up Yenston were held by Shaftesbury Abbey; gifted by King Eadred. [SNHAS] Over one hundred year later in 1066 Anglo-Saxon Ednoth (Ednod) holds the same land but dies in 1068 at Bleadon near Weston Super Mare. His son Robert did not inherit his extensive lands holdings in Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire and Berkshire. [Swarzt]
Yenston Priory, even with patronage of Earl Hugh, as a smaller traditional religious establishment was dependent upon the Abbey of St Sever in France. The French abbots owned the satellite priories often with English Bishops exercising jurisdiction. By 1086 there were over 300 satellite priories swelling the Norman coffers by an estimated £5,000 in annual revenue. If Yenston Priory was a smaller traditional religious establishment, it could only be classified as such by having at least 12 monks to qualify for an Abbott known as the Prior. Originally populated with the worldly order of black-habited Benedictine monks who took vows of obedience, celibacy and disowned any property, served the needs of the priory and offered hospitality to wayfarers. Observing traditional functions of prayers, hospitality and alms to the poor. A simple retreat for brethren and pilgrims.
The second type of medieval ‘priory’ is different from an ordinary monastery and classified as a grange; typically a working farm or agricultural estate of economic function serving a larger community. Usually situated on the peripheral of the ‘administration and social life of a district’ and characterised as an ‘isolated and consolidated demesne farm.’ [Courtney] A grange style priory in Yenston is certainly feasible. The usual structure consisting of farm buildings, a chamber, a hall and a kitchen, ‘often without a separate chapel’ but enough for the needs of people working on a demesne farm.
[Platt] This fits well with the Domesday description in 1086 confirming a land-based community without a manor house, mills, fisheries or vineyards. Equally significant no horses are counted, perhaps the roving harem of wild horses frequenting Toomer ridge successfully evaded the surveyor! Unlike other places, no small holders are listed, only four serfs, enslaved to William the Conquerors’ feudal system, where the privilege of occupying his land (being in demesne) requires a payment in crops or services including fighting for the King. The geld or land tax of four hides (estimated 480 acres) worth just under five pounds. Domesday verifies the relationship between Yenston, Earl Hugh and the Abbot or Abbey of St Sever as Lord of the Manor who tenanted it to Earl Hugh with a geld or land tax of 4 hides, 1 less than 956AD. Much debate about the numerical value of a hide –here taken roughly as 120 acres – a substantial part of the acreage of modern-day Yenston.
The church (read Abbott) of St. Sever holds of the earl Hengestrich [Henstridge]. Ednod held (it) T.R.E. and paid geld for 4 hides. There is land for 3 ploughs.
Of this (land) 3½ hides are in demesne where are 2 ploughs and 4 serfs and (there are) 6 bordars with 1 plough ‘and half a hide.’
‘There are 8 beasts and 5 swine.’ There (are) 30 acres of meadow and 30 acres of pasture and wood (land) 4 (read 3) furlongs long and 1 furlong broad.
It is worth 4 pounds and 10 shillings. ‘When the count received it, 5 pounds.’
Interestingly, apart from an overseeing Abbey, no specific reference to church, priory, chapel or monks, although the term ‘boarders’ can suggest monks. Certainly Yenston Priory is wonderfully positioned by surrounding woods, streams and fields with sunny meadows for making hay and grazing. Pastures for pigs, oxen, sheep and cattle. Arable land, not mentioned, but would be the perfect place to grow wheat, barley oats and beans. Bee-keeping very important for honey, beeswax and mead, maybe fish or even eels in the fishpond/stream. Big woods full of deer, wild boar, partridge and pheasants. Big Lord of the Manor absence most of the time!
Yenston Priory appears to have been functioning for more than 300 years; from 1085 – 1440s. Originally as part of the French Norman Royal Estate, the Priory and lands changed hands numerous times after this. Alien priories, like Yenston, did not become known as such until the reign of King John 1st when England became embroiled in fighting Phillip 2nd of France for domination. The Anglo-French war spanning 8 years ended in defeat for England in 1214 when Norman possessions in France were lost. King John 1st retaliated by seizing land and properties belonging to French Lordships in England.
French owned priories in England became outlawed and classified as ‘alien.’ Some larger priories with French Lordships found lands confiscated and rents, previously filling French Norman war coffers, diverted to the English Crown. Some priories applied for ‘English’ status, granted on condition they break away from the French mother abbey and all French monks were replaced with English, this included Montacute Priory in Somerset. Heightened awareness of treachery against the crown gave rise to much ado about traitors, spies and ‘wandering monks’ usually ending with those deemed as such being imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The Earldom of Chester created for Earl Hugh d’Avranches in 1066 and passed down the family line, eventually dies out and reverts back to the Crown c1232. The turning point for ‘alien’ priories is 1295 where, under the reign of Edward 1st (Longshanks, think ‘Braveheart’) begins ‘a long and bitter experience lasting more than 100 years … of oppression, impoverishment and temporal and spiritual decline…ending for most in complete confiscation.’ [Williams] By 1390–93 with many titles to ‘alien’ priories belonging to the Crown, any establishment escaping previous royal decrees, was finally caught and dissolved under Henry V’s uncompromising 1414 Act of Parliament. During this time English Bishops and lay clergy, were working hard to secure title for institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Eton. Some priories limped on until the last prior died. Certainly by 1440s land in Yenston is being referred to a ‘formerly of the alien priory of St Sever.’ [Land grants, Eton College.]
Establishing the links between Normandy, Yenston Priory, Earl Hugh and the Benedictine monks is one thing. Discussing what type of priory might exist is another. Let’s fling the stable door wide open for further postulating! So far examined are two types of priories; a traditional religious establishment and a grange or working farmstead.
What if there is a third type of priory serving as a geographical headquarters for a commandery of knights. No ordinary knights but Knights Templar. The emergence of an Order which starts c1070s, exists for over 250 years until 1320s, and then disappears; years aligning roughly with the Crusades; years coinciding within the existence of Yenston Priory.
Saddle up for a journey into the world of Knights Templar, an elite force of worldly Christian men, set up to defend the rights of pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. An order with warrior knights who fought in the crusades, a series of Christian and religious campaigns during the 10th and 11th centuries, to secure the Holy Lands. The key to which was the Byzantium Empire for here was Jerusalem, the Holy City, and ‘the centre of the world.’ [Sebag Montefiore]. Important to Christians for being the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, commemorating Calvary Hill where Jesus was crucified and the tomb of resurrection. The ‘essential place on earth for communication between God and man’ and woman. Equally important to Saracens/Muslims, as the site of The Dome of The Rock, believed to be where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven during his night journey.’ [Wilmot-Buxton] Jerusalem was the place to visit. Hospitality became big business as the pilgrimage trail, cemented in the footsteps of Christ, attracted worldwide followers. The Turcoman (Turks) invasion of c1065 changes everything. Jerusalem is off limits. Safe passage can no longer be guaranteed.
Nine noble knights form a holy brotherhood in arms to watch over the pilgrimage trail and protect wayfarers. This evolves into the Order of Knights Templar characterised as: Gentleman ‘destined to defend the faith and protect the pilgrims’; (Knights Templar – White Knights) Chaplains and Priests for the Church; and Serving Brothers (Knights Hospitaller – Black Knights) ‘who are not gentleman, but who in times of war, must serve as the militia of the Order.’ [Addison 1842]
The idea of a Templars’ Priory throws up some real possibilities to consider: Knights Templar were prolific in France. William the Conqueror’s secretary was in Jerusalem in 1064 the year before the Turcoman invasion. Earl Hugh was a relative of William, some accounts say his nephew. In 1128 the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Hugh de Payens left Jerusalem to meet the King in Normandy, then crossed the sea to select a Head Templar for England. The Crusades created many Crusader states throughout the globe. From the Templars Inquest in 1185 it is known they held many lands spreading throughout Europe, Cyprus being headquarters after the retreat from Jerusalem. Suppression of the Knights Templar meant 1312 was a decisive year; the Priory of the Order of Knights Templar was dissolved and taken over by Knights Hospitallers – The Order of St John of Jerusalem.
Here in the south west Templecombe Preceptory and Commandery was the centre for Knights Templar. [Faith] What has been written about Templecombe has been done so, solely on the premise it all stopped at the parish boundary. Until now, it has been concluded, without investigating if knowledge exists linking the Templars with Henstridge and other surrounding parishes. Such a command centre, requiring a substantial estate, could easily encompass Yenston even Henstridge and Stowell and further afield. Pallister et al inadvertently lend strength to idea of Yenston Priory being part of the Templars complex. The crux of their argument concerns land, originally part of Henstridge laid out in a charter of 956AD, which should belong to Templecombe as later shown in field names corresponding with tithe awards. Underlying the claim is the lack of evidence proving the existence of an Abbey in Henstridge. Claims made without apparently consulting a very important source- Domesday survey – for here is the entry proclaiming the Abbey of St Sever as landlord of Yenston. Sure the mapping of the lands post 1066 and prior to 1086 Domesday could easily have overlooked or moved boundaries, but this is on the premise King Eadred (who granted the charter) was actually referring to Templecombe rather than Henstridge and clearly this is not the case. The land in question adjoins and forms part of Yenston. Now we’re in business!
It makes sense to have, tucked away, a grange style priory serving a dual function of a farmstead and Commandery – district administration unit of the Templar estate. This arrangement could work well with a labour force of a Knights Templar, serving brothers of the Order and maybe a Priest who served as an almoner. The land, under Royal ownership from 1066 until at least the late 12th century, excluded it from land inquisitions, implying local existence, with or without the reigning monarch’s knowledge, especially if local nobles were also Knights Templar. Land inquisitions were the right of the reigning Monarch who regularly summoned landowners to London to record all their lands. Some of whom went missing on their way home resulting in their land-holding being swallowed up into the royal coffers.
Yenston Priory, located away from the main Templecombe preceptory may have been an inspired choice of location. Hidden away, it could gain precious time to warn any important people of impending danger, especially during the early 14th century when the Order was increasingly vulnerable and under threat. Indeed a raid on the Templecombe Commandery in 1308, dragging prisoners away to Sherborne Castle and then off to the Tower of London.
Even with these considerations, no mention is made of equestrian facilities such as stabling, smithies, workshops, armoury, or training grounds for knights to practice swordsmanship and horsemanship. Knights need horses, at least three each and Sergeants have one. [Faith] Horses feature prominently. Stables would have pride of place. Where are they located? Potentially our best evidence to date; our learned metal-detectorists, having found a substantial pile of old horseshoes, took it upon themselves to discard the lot into some of the thickest, prickliest bushes ever grown! Take note O’ Wise Ones – do not throw anything over the hedge!
Joking aside! Could the missing stables of Templecombe form part of the Yenston Priory estate? Originally, stables were thought to be in the grounds of the Preceptory in Templecombe, however none listed or found there despite best efforts. Though a court is recorded with 24 acres of arable, 9 acres of meadow and ½ knights fee for a pair of gilt spurs and he held nothing of the king in the country. [Land inquisition 1275] Important to remember the vows of the Knights Templar – chastity, obedience and poverty – all worldly wealth to be given over to the Order. During this time and up to 13th century the status of ‘knight’ equalled a class lower than nobility, representing a free man who paid no money to the King but owed him a service – Knights Fee. He was expected to fight and even raise soldiers for the King; this was inclusive of Knights Templar.
Before we go galloping away from the idea of a Templars’ Priory in Yenston, consider the significance of Richard de Camville, first recorded Patron of St Nicholas Church in 1175. [Wakeford] From a family of Royal Knights arriving in England with William the Conqueror and granted lordship of the manor of Charlton Camville. (‘Camville’-an old name for Horethorne.) Said to have originated from Canville-les-Deux-Eglises, Normandy. Richard de Camville was Commander of the Fleet, accompanying Richard 1st (Couer de Lion) on his third Crusade to the Holy Lands in 1189-92. Also governor of Cyprus and dies in Siege of Acre in 1191. Family shield bears the Templars Cross.
Also on the third Crusade – if it is the same person – was the first recorded Vicar in 1175, John son of Luke, ‘probably related to the Rouen family of John Luke and possibly to John, Son of Luke, the chevalier de Richard.’ Also said to have risen to become the Bishop of Evreux (1192-95) who crowned Berengaria of Navarre, Richard 1st wife at Limassol, Cyprus and rebuilt a chapel at Acre. [Hurlock & Oldfield]
Consider also the iconography of a stain glass window in St Nicholas Church – open to interpretation and very intriguing. Three panels depicting knights with Latin inscriptions reading:
6: ‘Labour and Honour’ 7: ‘So While Also Living’ 8: ‘By Violence and Force’
Labore et honore – Labour and honour
Dum viv pus abo – while also living
Viper Vis Que – by violence and force
Christian Knights – Warrior Pilgrims – Knights Templar – take up your sword and defend your cause!
In presenting this new research to you, it is amazing to think the traditional theory of Templars existing only in Templecombe has potentially obscured the bigger picture; one interconnected with Yenston and Henstridge. The potential of Templar lands encompassing Yenston provides an exciting dynamic to previous archaeological digs on the Templecombe site. No conclusive evidence has been found for the southern boundary edge – Yenston side – combine this with the hunt for Yenston Priory and it provides a significant opportunity for new archaeological investigation [SANHS & SANH 1995]
What do you think?
Was Yenston Priory
a traditional religious establishment
a grange style farmstead
and/or a Templars’ Commandery?
Maybe you have your own theories?
Copyright Caroline Rowland October 2015