Biographical Register of the English Cathedral Priories of the Province of Canterbury, c. 1066-1540

By Joan Greatrex | Go to book overview

ELY CATHEDRAL PRIORY

INTRODUCTION

Like most of the other cathedral priories, that of St Peter and St Etheldreda at Ely had its origin in a pre-conquest abbatial foundation. In 1109 king Henry I removed the county of Cambridge from the vast diocese of Lincoln to form the new see of Ely, with the Norman Hervey, previously bishop of Bangor, as the first bishop and Vincent, q.v., as the first prior. The imposition of a titular abbot qua bishop on the former abbey necessitated a number of important changes for the monks, one of which was a division of the monastic estates between bishop and chapter in order to provide income to support two separate households. This was not accomplished at once or without difficulty, partly on account of the civil war in which bishop Hervey's successor, Nigel, became embroiled, and partly because much of East Anglia including Ely was devastated by king Stephen.1.

Ely was a large establishment in its early days, with a community of seventy-two monks at the time of the transfer to cathedral status; and it probably remained above fifty until the Black Death, when numbers were reduced by half. However, most of the empty places seem to have been filled within a relatively short space of time according to the figures on the account rolls, which record the presence of forty-six or forty-seven monks in the mid-1360s. There followed some fluctuations downward towards the end of the century, but there were about forty-five in 1404/5 and in 1427/8 and forty-two in 1498/9. However, in the year of the passage of the Act of Supremacy numbers were down to thirty-three and by the time of the surrender the total had been reduced to twenty-five.2.

The rudiments of the so-called 'obedientientiary system', or organization of offices within the monastery, probably preceded the change of status, but the earliest known references for the cathedral priory occur in the 1120s and 1130s. Aelfwardus, q.v., who by his name may have been a survivor of pre-conquest days, had been sacrist (secretarius) before his death shortly before 1122/3. Aelfstan and Aluricus (?Aelfricus), q.v., were subsacrist and succentor respectively in 1134 and the latter probably went on to become precentor. In 1177 a subprior, Richard, q.v., is named, in 1201 a chamberlain, Robert, q.v. An almoner, Martin, q.v., appears in 1229, an infirmarer, Walter de Walpole, q.v., possibly the following year, and a pittancer, N., q.v., in 1233. Although we have to wait until 1288/9 for the cellarer to be identified ( Ralph de Waltham, q.v.) and until the end of the century to encounter a treasurer by name ( Hermanus de

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1
Bishop Hervey's charter in which the monks' lands are specified is in Liber Elien., 262-263 and Miller, Abbey and Bishopric, 282-283. A similar charter of bishop Nigel is in Liber Elien., 299-301, and other gifts by him in ib., 336-337, 383, 390-391. See also the interventions of archbishop Theobald in the 1150s in Theobald Charters, nos 101-103.
2
These figures, with the exception of the two latest in date, have been drawn from a variety of manuscript sources, the first in chronological order being recorded in Liber Elien., 261. The account rolls of five of the obedientiaries entered their distributions of clothing, pittances of food, and money (the latter sometimes called gracie) to specified numbers of monks, and these may be compared at intervals and combined with other references to produce the close approximations I have provided. The final two references, for 1534 and 1539, are to be found in Reg. Goodrich, fo 261 and L and P Henry VIII, xiv, pt 2, no 542.

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