Bourne Abbey

The abbey of SS Peter and Paul, Bourne, was founded by Baldwin fitz Gilbert of Clare in or before 1138 for a community of Austin Canons of the Arrouaisian reform. The mother house of the order was founded by Hildemar and Cono at Arrouaise, Departement Amiens, France, in c.1090. As hermits, who, according to Arrouaisian tradition, had embraced the regular life in England, they took their inspiration from the overwhelming desire of many in the late eleventh century to realise Christian ideals in their daily lives, and from the start the brethren exhibited strong tendancies to contemplation. Although adherents of an Augustinian rule, they were thus less concerned with pastoral matters, and, in the early twelfth century under Abbot Gervaise (1121-56), Arrouaise received lay brethren of both sexes and became the head of a mixed order with leanings towards Citeaux. After Carlisle (1123), Warter (1132), and Great Missenden (1133), Bourne was probably the fourth house of the order to be founded in the country. The Arrouaisian reform, however, was never very popular in England. Some foundations, like Carlisle before its elevation to cathedral status in c.1133, briefly flirted with the order, but only a dozen or so survived beyond the heyday of secular foundations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Bourne's link with the mother house was itself equivocal, for, as was common in the order, the house was of abbatial status from its inception. It was therefore not subject to the discipline of the abbot of Arrouaise and was never considered an alien house in the later Middle Ages. Nevertheless, it apparently maintained some links with the English houses of the order, for in 1359 the abbot of Missenden was imprisoned in Bourne Abbey for uttering false coin.

The contemplative ethos of the order disposed it to the choice of remote sites. Like Cistercian monasteries, most of its continental houses were well removed from the distractions of the world. Bourne, however, was founded in the parish church of a busy and prosperous community. Throughout the Middle Ages a parochial altar was maintained in the nave of the conventual church, and the abbot was responsible for the pastoral care of the inhabitants of the town through the appointment of a vicar who had a corrody at the canons' table. In this respect, it approximated more closely to ordinary communities of canons. Embodying the aspirations of the Hildebrandine reform movernment, the Augustinian rule was initially developed to reform existing communities of secular priests attached to minster churches, and indeed the earliest English foundations, like St Mary, Huntingdon, and Holy Trinity, Aldgate, were almost all institutions of some antiquity. Despite the peculiarities of its origins and practice, it is clear that the Arrouaisian rule in England often performed the same function. Both Dorchester and Missenden directly succeeded Anglo-Saxon communities, and Lilleshall was institutionally the heir to an earlier foundation, although it was refounded on a new site.

The abbey of Bourne may have had similar antecedents. In a will of 971Þ983 Ealdorman Æthelmær of Hampshire bequeathed one pound to a minster church at a place called Burnan which has been tentatively identified with Bourne. No evidence has come to light to corroborate this identification, but the early history of the church of Bourne is not inconsistent with a collegiate foundation. In 1066 half of the church in which the abbey was founded had been held by a certain Lewin, but his holding was evidently a dependent of Earl Morcar's manor of Bourne to which the other half of the church belonged. It is not clear whether the whole estate was part of the earl's fisc, a comital escheat, or a family possession, but it was of considerable size. Extending into Cawthorpe, Dyke, Laughton, and Spanby, with dependent manors in Morton and Laughton, it was the largest in the vicinity. The church, then, may have been of some local importance. In the documented period, its parish encompassed the territories of Bourne, Austerby, Cawthorpe and Dyke, and it may have been larger at an earlier period since the management of ecclesiastical dues was an integral element in the tribute of an estate before the Conquest, and the parish of the lord's church was therefore often coterminous with his estate. By Lincolnshire standards, the parish of Bourne was large, and it is not impossible that a community of secular priest ministered to it.

Whether the reformation of a moribund institution or a new departure, the foundation of the abbey belonged to a broader context than the purely ecclesiastical. The castle is first noticed in the sources in 1180, but its form suggests that it was built in the early twelfth century, and the topography of the settlement suggests that its construction saw a remodelling of Bourne (figure 000). The primary focus of the present town is the market place on which the four principal roads of Bourne converge. This, however, is clearly a secondary feature in the development of the settlement, for South Street and Abbey Road tortuously skirt the church site to communicate with it. Now partially infilled, the market appears to have been intimately related to the castle, and it is likely that it was laid out to service its garrison. It would seem that the early twelfth century saw the construction of what was effectively a new town to the north of the eleventh-century nucleus of Bourne.

None of these radical changes is documented, but it likely that they can be associated with the creation of Baldwin fitz Gilbert's honour of Bourne by the amalgamation of the three Domesday fees of Oger the Breton, Godfrey of Cambrai, and Baldwin the Fleming. The foundation of the abbey was nearly contemporary with the process and was almost certainly seen as an integral part of it, for prestige and status dictated the need for a family monastery as much as a castle. It is not clear why Baldwin chose the Arrouasians reform, but a house of canons must have been perfectly suited to his requirements and means. Benedictine foundations were extremely expensive to establish for the rule required a large number of monks, with an ancillary body of lay brothers, to perform the prescribed liturgy. There were no such restrictions in the Augustinian orders, and they therefore enabled the lesser nobility, like Baldwin, to imitate their wealthier peers and satisfy their religious, social, and political aspirations. Bourne Abbey can have cost him very little in manorial income: he granted it a site, which was probably substantially the nucleus of the old settlement of Bourne, and two carucates of land - whether fiscal or field carucates is not clear - in Bourne itself, but the bulk of the endowment was made up of the churches and tithes of his honour, - Bourne, Helpringham, Morton by Bourne, East and West Deeping, Barholme, Stow next to Barholme, Hykeham and Skellingthorpe in Lincolnshire, Thrapston in Northamptonshire, and Eastwick in Hertfordshire - which were probably already held by the church of Bourne and individual parsons.

Such humble beginnings presaged the subsequent history of the house. The abbey was never large: the number of canons rarely attained double figures, and the value of the house was always modest. Its resources, of course, were not confined to its initial endowment, but, as is typical of Augustinian foundations, all of its later acquisitions were small. In the two hundred years after its foundation Baldwin's successors augmented the abbey's income with minor grants of land and commodities in Bourne and beyond, and it profitted from a large number of other tiny benefactions. No charters or cartularies have survived to document the growth of its interests, but a fourteenth-century inspeximus of its deeds reveals that the knights and tenants of the barony granted land to the abbey generation after generation. Support of the lord's monastery was an important duty in the feudal community of the honour. Patronage, however, was not confined to men of the barony. In the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the abbey became a focus of local piety and attracted endowments from a wide range of knights and freemen. In 1291 it was taxed at 42 11s 9d. In 1401 an attempt was made to augment the income of the house by the purchase of the lands of the alien priory of Wilsford, but this brought in very little more, and in 1536 its annual receipts were only valued at 187 1s 7®d.

Little is known about how the abbey managed its disparate interests. Much of its land consisted of odd selions of land scattered throughout the fields of a number of settlements and was probably farmed out at an early period. In Bourne alone is there evidence that attempts were made to rationalise holdings by exchange to form an economically efficient unit. By the fifteenth century all of the abbey's lands had been organised into a manor, known as Bourne Abbots, which was centred on the hamlet of Austerby on the fen-edge to the east of Bourne. The canons' preference for this site is probably indicative of profound changes in the economy of the town, but the role of the abbey in the development of the settlement, as with much else, is obscure. Bourne evidently shared in the general prosperity of the fen and fen-edge since it appropriated to itself a large area of fen in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The process of reclamation is nowhere recorded, and therefore its progress is only hinted at by chance references to parks and newlands at various times. But it is clear that the abbot profited from it and may have been instrumental in the process. He was probably not the principal entrepreneur, however, for in 1333 he seemingly condoned popular meetings in the marsh against Thomas Wake's appropriation of common rights in the fen.

From what can be perceived of it, the religious life of the abbey was unexceptional. There is no evidence to ascertain the size of the community at its foundation, but after the Black Death there were only seven canons; the numbers climbed to eleven in the fifteenth century, and there were ten at the Dissolution. The Arrouaisian order was not noted for its intellectual pursuits, and Bourne, like its sister houses, may therefore have developed liturgical worship at the expense of more cerebral activities, although it is not impossible that the scholar Robert Manning of Bourne was associated with the abbey in the fourteenth century. The middle years of the that century were probably fraught with problems of discipline, for the abbot was excommunicated in 1349, and at least two canons transferred to other religious houses in the following decade. In the next century its religious life seems to have been more serene. Several episcopal visitations reveal that the house was well-run and generally obedient, apart from some brothers resorting to the town for bleedings without supervision. By this time regular observance may have differed little from that in other Augustinian houses. In 1422/3 silence was enjoined in the church, cloister, dorter, and frater, but was apparently not universal as in the early years of the Arrouaisian order, and vegetarianism was only enforced beyond the appropriate seasons as a penance.

Surviving mediaeval records cast little light on the interpretation of the present structure and the data from the excavation (below). There is evidence for a toft within the gate in c.1220, new work, a fishpond adjoining the church, and an infirmary in 1327, the cloister precinct and the outer precinct, the frater and the dorter in 1422, and repairs after a fire and floods in 1424, but no coherent picture of the monastery emerges. The abbey was dissolved in 1536, and the redundant conventual buildings, valued at some 121 10s, were dismantled. The nave of the church itself, however, escaped destruction since it housed the parish altar. The site and the manor of Bourne Abbots, alone with the East and West Mills in Bourne itself, were first let and then granted to Richard Cotton and a consortium of speculators. They were conveyed back to the crown in 1553 and were variously leased until they were acquired by the Trollope family in the early seventeenth century. The manor survived into the nineteenth century, but became less and less important to the society and economy of Bourne. The site of the abbey seems to have remained relatively undeveloped in the post-mediaeval period, apart from the construction of a vicarage in 1764 to the north of the church. The building was taken down in 1879 and it was its foundations that were discovered above the mediaeval layers in the excavation.

ã David Roffe, 2000.