The Final Years of Ramsey Abbey

John Lawrence

The election of John Lawrence as the 35th Abbot of Ramsey was approved on 14 July 1507. He was the last Abbot.

Between 1509 and 1515 Wolsey became increasingly influential, becoming successfully Archbishop of York, Chief Minister, and Cardinal.

In contrast it would seem that John Lawrence was experiencing some decline in his authority as evidenced by disputes concerning the River Great Ouse. Abbots John Stowe in 1467, William Whittlesey in 1470 and John Huntingdon in 1500 had all maintained the right to control the flow of the river to power the monastic mills. However, in 1515 judgement was given in favour of the townsfolk of Huntingdon and Godmanchester to ensuring that priority be given to the uninterrupted passage of water downstream in times of flood.

Three years later in 1518 the Bishop of Lincoln made one of his visitations to the Abbey. There were the usual run of complaints, Bishop John Atwater criticised the monks for irregularities in their religious duties, and he was especially critical of the monks of the cell at St Ives.

There had once been 50 monks at Ramsey but now there were only 30, with another 10 in St Ives. John Lawrence was told to rectify these matters of discipline and finance and to increase the number of brethren. On reviewing the fabric of the Abbey the Bishop found that the monastic walls were in disrepair, the gate was not closed at night, and someone had stolen a golden chalice from the church. The church roof was defective, allowing rain to fall onto the organ and the high altar. The roof of the dormitory was also defective with rain falling onto the heads of the monks, preventing sleep.

John Atwater also found that scaffolding had been erected around the building in St Ives but there had been no progress because the workmen had not been paid. John Lawrence was instructed to attend to these matters. However, he was known to have been engaged in academic studies, and it appears that the daily management of the Abbey had been delegated to his deputy, the prior.

In seven sessions through to 1536 the Reformation Parliament passed various Acts which established the supremacy of the King over the church in England. John Lawrence as a mitred Abbot, together with 25 other Benedictine Abbots, was summoned to the House of Lords as a part of this process. John Lawrence’s participation in national affairs did not excuse him from his responsibilities Ramsey, and he was still answerable to the Bishop for the proper conduct of the Abbey.

Bishop Longland’s inspection 1530 revealed the presence of dilapidated buildings and specifically that the buttresses and columns of the refectory were in need of attention as were the foundations of the dormitory and on the chapter house. The drain from the kitchen was noted to be in poor repair and noxious. Bishop Longland also noted that the choir books were in need of repair and the was also critical of the drunkenness of the sub prior!

A year later, in 1531, John Lawrence added his signature to a letter to the Pope from the House of Lords supporting the King’s desire to be released from his marriage to Katherine. Matters came to a head in 1533 with the secret marriage between Henry and the now pregnant Anne Boleyn.

Thomas Cromwell, having survived the downfall of Wolsey, was made vice-regent of spiritual affairs, vicar-general and visitor general of the monasteries. It was estimated that the church owned approximately one third of the land in England mainly obtained through bequests to the monasteries. He promptly set about determining the wealth of the ecclesiastical establishments whose revenues were to be taxed at 10%. The Valour Ecclesiasticus 1535 records the annual revenue of Ramsey Abbey as £1715.12 s 3d.

In 1536 Thomas Cromwell’s commissioner Thomas Bedyll, Archdeacon of London, wrote to Thomas Cromwell from Ramsey stating that he had seen a charter of the Abbey subscribed in Latin with the ‘seal of King Edgar most serene emperor of the angles’.

July 1536 Katherine of Aragon died at Kimbolton Castle and under the direction of Sir John Russell, the controller of the King’s household, her body was taken to Peterborough. Here on January 28th it was received by dignitaries of the church, the bishops of Ely, Lincoln, and Rochester and Abbots Peterborough, Crowland, Thorney, Walden and Thane, with Abbot John Lawrence from Ramsey. Monasteries with an annual taxable income of less than £200 were dissolved in March and the ejected monks were incouraged to join the larger houses or to serve as parish priests. These events were supervised by a newly instituted Court of Augmentation the King’s revenue.

Richard Cromwell had clearly developed an interest in Ramsey Abbey. In 1535 he had acquired from John Lawrence and 80 year lease of the Manor of Berysted in Abbots Ripton. Three years later Richard obtained from the Crown properties and Estates of the Manor of Brampton, of Hinchingbrooke nunnery in Huntingdon and of Sawtry Abbey.

John Lawrence had been required to participate in another Royal funeral, this time that Jane, Henry’s third wife. She had died on 24th October 1537, after giving birth to Edward, the long awaited son and heir. There had been rumours that year that Ramsey Abbey was to be closed but these rumours prove to be premature. It was not until May 1539 that John Lawrence took his seat in the parliament which enacted the bill to suppress the remaining monasteries.

Formal Surrender

The formal surrender of Ramsey Abbey took place on 22nd November 1539 overseen by five commissioners. John Tregonwell and John Hughes, to canon lawyers, ‘very honest men, conformable and diligent’; William Legh and Robert Burgoyne, two officials from the Court of Augmentation were led by Philip Parys, the Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. The Abbot and his 29 monks were released from their vows by the faculty office on 29th January 1540 and were given notices of their annual pensions entitlements on 10th February. The pensions had been negotiated the previous November and submitted by Parys and the two officials to Sir Richard Rich, one of the two chancellors of the Court Augmentation. The annual cost to the Crown of these pensions was £486 from an estate producing £1715. John Lawrence was given £266.13s.4d, the prior £20, the prior of St Ives £12, the cellarer and a graduate monk £10 each. Another graduate monk who was secretary to the Abbot was awarded £9. The remaining monks received between £5 pounds and £9 pounds per annum. These nominal amounts were reduced by 11.5% as a consequence of fees and taxes.

John Pawner, once the sub-prior, joined John Lawrence at Burwell together with John Faunte, the graduate monk who had been given the £10 pension. Faunte subsequently became the rector of Pickwell in Leicestershire. The third companion was George Marshall, a novice in 1539 and in 1556 a monk in a re-established Westminster Abbey. Records in the Court of Augmentation from 1551 and 1552 show an annual outlay of £132 to meet the Ramsey pensions and a small number of annuities. The latter included one in the name of honourable John, Earl of Bedford, presumably instituted by the Abbey to secure his support in events leading up to the dissolution.

Logan identified eight monks holding Pastoral office 1554 and at least 16 still in receipt of pensions in 1556. He also gave biographical details of Richard Hawley, a scholar at Oxford in 1540 who became a royal chaplain in 1546 and two years later I can and Prebendary of Gloucester Cathedral. Hawley was deprived of his Gloucester appointment in 1559. Logan also recorded that Hugh Phillipe, the one-time sacristan of St Ives, became the sexton and then the Treasurer of Westminster Abbey. Hugh was involved in the funerals of Anne, Henry’s fourth wife and of Mary, Henry and Katherine’s daughter.

The resettlement of the monks needed the immediate attention of the augmentation office but its main function was to manage the estates that had been acquired from the monasteries. Some of the acquisitions were sold to individual purchasers, usually at some 20 times the anticipated annual revenue . Sir Richard Cromwell was one such individual. on 4 March 1540, having survived his uncle’s disgrace and already possessing estates in Huntingdonshire, he acquired on favourable terms: in consideration of his good services and payment of £4663 4s.2d by the tenure, and rent in capite by the tenth part of a knights fee paying £29. 16s the site of the monastery of Ramsey, the church, steeple and churchyard, the lordships and manors of Ramsey, Heyghmongrove, and Bury, together with other manors, and the Granges or farms called Bigging, Higney and Bodsey, a windmill in Ramsey, the park called Ramsey Park and divers lands, Woods, the Fens and marshes and the impropriate rectory of Ramsey. (Ref 36)

There were others that benefited and acquired Ramsey Estates, above and beyond Richard Cromwell, these can be found by following this link.