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History


DUNSTABLE PRIORY

Author Hugh Garrod


The Priory of St. Peter, Dunstable, was founded by King Henry I to the glory of God. Henry had founded the town by at least 1108, and to safeguard its interests, had built himself a house there called Kingsburie. Dunstable Priory was, initially, a daughter house of Holy Trinity, an Augustinian priory in Aldgate, London. Our priory was founded by 1125. There is evidence of a school in Dunstable as early as 1110 or 1115, which would eventually become part of the priory. The establishment of a priory of Augustinian, black, canons opposite his house completed the king’s plans for the well-being of the town. Around 1131, Henry endowed the priory with the quarry at Totternhoe and the lordship of the town, with all the privileges he had himself enjoyed when he held it in his own right. The prior was thus the lord of the manor and responsible for collecting the taxes. These privileges were to be the cause of much trouble in later years and resulted in bitter quarrels between the townsfolk and the priors, although most of this money went to the Exchequer to pay for the wars in France and Wales. Religious houses also had obligations to make regular and occasional payment to the pope in Rome.

About this time, Alexander Nequam became master of the school. He was a great scholar and eventually became abbot of Cirencester.

The fourth prior, Richard de Morins, elected 1202, was a man of considerable influence and ability. He was head-hunted from Merton Priory by King John. Richard ruled the priory for forty years and under him it entered upon the most prosperous period of its history. If the canons were not "of the world," they were certainly in it, and standing as the Priory did on one of the main roads to the capital, little of importance passed their notice. Although the priory under de Morins gained importance and prosperity, his rule was not without troubles and disturbances. On the whole the canons lived amicably with the townsfolk, but the unusual rights of the priors were resented, from time to time, by the merchants of the town. He had the power to try offenders and to punish them. Assizes were held in the town and when the king's justices came, he sat with them as their equal. It was de Morins who initiated the Dunstable Annals They are not only the history of the priory, but a most absorbing chronicle of the doings of the priors and townsfolk, local gossip and lawsuits, and of events in England and in Europe as seen from the standpoint of the Dunstable cloister. Some events take up many pages; others are dealt with in one tantalising sentence. In 1203 King John restored the lordship of Houghton to the priory, with all its revenues but took it away again in 1206. He also confirmed the gift of a three day market. In the following year he gave to the priory his ‘houses and garden at Dunstable’. The priory attracted many pilgrims as they made their way to the shrine of Alban, to the south. King John gave permission for de Morins to move the bones of  St. Fremund from Cropredy, in Oxfordshire, to Dunstable. This vastly increased the number of pilgrims who came through the town, all of whom needed to be accommodated and fed. Around 1205 the priory was given farms, churches and granges as far away as Bradbourne in the Peak District. The income from the huge flocks of sheep supported the priory in its work with the pilgrims and with the poor. The prior journeyed around, inspecting his lands, several times a year. In good seasons the farms brought the priory much wealth. In times of famine, they were a drain on the priory's resources. Altars were dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, St. Fremund, St. Nicholas and St. James in 1207 and an almonry was built the following year. Prior Richard was commissioned by the Pope to preach the Crusade in 1212 and he attended the Lateran Council in 1215. On St. Luke's day, October 18th, 1213 the completed priory was dedicated to St. Peter by Hugh II, Bishop of Lincoln. He came with a large gathering of abbots, priors, earls barons and the people of the town for the service of consecration.

In May 1216, Prince Louis, the French Dauphine invaded England, landing at Dover, to support of the English barons in their dispute with King John. He captured all the castles of Essex and Suffolk. The French also did much damage to houses in Dunstable as they passed through and demanded 200 marks from the townspeople. The annals describe them as being arrogant  and say that this is why the barons gradually withdrew their support. The second time the French contingent passed through Dunstable they did no damage at all. In 1217 the priory was given half the parish of Pattishall in Northamptonshire. For many years, this village had two vicarages, one belonging to Dunstable Priory. Also in that year, the abbot of Ramsay and four judges came to Dunstable so that the knights and freemen of the town could swear allegiance to the infant Henry III and swear to uphold the law of the land. In 1219, Richard de Morins established his right to hold a court of law at the priory.

The Annals of the priory also inform us that in 1220 the altar of the Holy Cross and All Angels before the Rood Screen and the altar of the parish in honour of St. John Baptist were consecrated. Bishop Hugh II carried out a visitation at the priory. There is no record of his findings on this occasion. In 1221 Prior Richard took an action through the courts to confirm his rights to annual tithes on hay, the use of mills and all trades carried out in the town. It also reaffirmed that the townspeople should pay for the upkeep of the part of the priory which was used as the parish church and that they would provide food for the canons in time of need. In the same year, there was an attempt to defraud the priory of £700. A document was produced to support this claim but was found to be a forgery. It spoke of a loan being accepted by Prior Thomas but the seal attached to it had the name ‘Richard’.

The beautiful Norman church was not to remain complete for long. In June, 1222, the roof of the presbytery fell, and there was a far greater disaster in December of the same year when a violent storm, which swept across the land, brought down the two western towers. The fall of the northern tower ruined the west front; the southern one brought down the prior's house. The front was immediately rebuilt without towers. Its upper portion was designed with beautiful arcading and niches for statuary; the whole conception forming a lovely screen front with heavily buttressed turrets at the corners. By this time Norman arches had gone out of fashion and the pointed, early English, style was used instead. In the same year Simon the anchorite transferred himself from Litchfield to Dunstable Priory. This is the first reference to a hermit in our town. Several others are mentioned between this time and the Reformation. Simon died in 1228. In 1224 Richard Stanford was in charge of the schools in Dunstable. A serious fight broke out between the students and the townspeople. Many were wounded on either side and one resident was stabbed to death. His wife accused one of the students of his murder but the student fled before he could be arrested. Richard later became a canon at Dunstable.

In 1227 we hear of a chapel being founded in the canons' churchyard dedicated to St. Martin. In this year there arose one of the many disputes between the merchants of Dunstable and the prior. They challenged his ability to fine anyone more than four pence in his own court. They also said that he could not summon anyone from outside the town to testify against them, that he was not able to distrain their goods in the town, that he had no right to have them arrested beyond the town’s boundary or summon them to appear before the King’s Bench to settle a case against them. The itinerant judges postponed the hearing and the whole matter was passed on to the king’s court. At the same time, a thief by the name of Henry accused four of the townspeople of being his accomplices in a robbery. The four claimed the right that no outsider could interfere in the affairs of the town. The prior and the accused were summoned to appear before the King’s Bench so that these matters could be examined. Prior Richard appeared on the appointed day and said that no such right existed. The townspeople did not attend, so twenty-four of Dunstable’s chief residents were arrested and put in Bedford prison until those summoned appeared at the court. The defendants could show no document and could only claim it as a long standing custom. The court found against them and they had to pay 20 marks. Prior Richard obtained conformation from the king of the charters given to the priory by Henry I and King Richard. Henry III added that the prior and canons held the town of Dunstable and that the people of the town should serve the priory in the same way that they would if the king still held the town. This included the provision of ‘food, work, service and all customary practices.’ He also said that just because these rights had not been enforced fully in recent years it did not mean that the priory’s rights did not still exist. The priory had to pay the king £100 for the re-issue of the charters but the townspeople contributed two-thirds towards it, a hundred marks. Some of the locals refused to pay their share of this and further violence ensued. The money was eventually paid because they knew that Henry III would affirm the prior’s rights.


In 1228 Prior Richard, at his court, appointed two coroners with jurisdiction in Dunstable. He made them overseers of measures in length and width, liquids and dry measures. A treasure, unspecified but worth about 50 marks, was found in Husborn churchyard and Prior Richard, the Bishop of Lincoln and the king all laid claim to it. The treasure was sent to London, under seal, where the king decided it should be used for the new hospital in Dover. A quarrel arose between the prior and ten of the townspeople about a reduction in offerings to the church at weddings and other occasional services. The ten were excommunicated but still attended mass. As a result, for several months, mass was celebrated in the Infirmary’s chapel, so that no one from the town could attend it. Later, the bishop of Lincoln and many other clergy came to deal with the matter. In his sermon he said the ten would again be excommunicated if they disturbed further services and if the withheld offerings were not paid immediately. Any one else behaving in a similar manner in the future would also be automatically excommunicated. The bishop further said that the ten were required to swear an oath of obedience to the church and pay £20 to the prior. Richard interceded and the sum was reduced to 50 shillings on condition that the money was paid immediately. The bishop pointed out that as they had sworn under oath, any further withholding of offerings or services would be a matter of perjury. In the same year the chapel of Our Lady was built at the extreme eastern end of the church in the cemetery of the canons. Its altar was dedicated in 1231.


In May 1229, while Henry III was staying at Dunstable Priory, Richard de Morins humbly asked him to adjudicate in a further dispute with the local residents. These agreed to abide by the decision of the king, who appointed a panel of bishops and nobles to settle the details. After the king’s departure the townspeople denied having made any agreement. In consequence, the prior issued a writ summoning them to appear before the justices at Westminster. When all were assembled, the agreement was read out and the sheriff of Bedfordshire was instructed to ensure that it was observed in full. The agreement stated that if the king instructed the prior to collect taxes from the people of Dunstable, the latter were to pay them. The prior was also entitled to exact fines from those who would not pay straight away. He was also authorised to fine sellers of poor quality bread and ale. The initial fine was four pence with increasing fines for repeat offenders. The townspeople still refused to acknowledge the ruling unless they had a special order from the king. Henry III wrote to the sheriff of Bedfordshire instructing him to ensure that the people paid to the prior all taxes demanded of them by the king. The local people still refused to pay in full, accusing the prior of imposing heavier taxes on those who caused him trouble and demanding less from others. The priory revenues fell, farmers refused to use the priory’s mill, the prior’s corn was trampled to the ground. The local people stirred up trouble between the priory and neighbouring land owners. They even asked the lord of Eaton Bray, William de Cantelupe, to give them forty acres of his land so that they could move their households out of the prior’s control. Calm was finally restored by John Houghton, archdeacon of Bedford who drew up a deed in the king’s court. All parties agreed that the town should pay the priory £60 to settle past claims, that the prior in future could impose a fine of no more that four pence for each infringement and that any offence requiring a larger fine should be referred to the King’s Bench in Westminster. The people swore loyalty to the priory.

In 1233 two of the Dunstable canons escaped through a broken window, climbed over the wall and joined the Franciscans at Oxford. Richard de Morins declared them excommunicated. As a result, one of them, Walter, came back with three Franciscans and humbly begged the Chapter to forgive him. He swore to obey the prior in all things. After he had received corporal punishment from three canons and a telling off from the whole community, he was absolved, by order of the prior. He was told to return the books and clothes he had taken from the priory but was sent back to the Franciscans for a year to decide which Order he wished to belong to. If he chose to return to Dunstable, he could be sure of being welcomed back. The other absconder, John, was found in London and was given a similar absolution.

In 1240 a dispute was settled between the priory and the church at Leighton. The tunic of St. Hugh of Lincoln had been in the possession of Leighton but was currently at Dunstable. Prior Richard agreed to hand it back, for the sake of peace, and Leighton agreed that Dunstable could keep one sleeve.

Richard de Morins died in 1242. He was succeeded by Geoffrey of Barton, who was immediately caught up in another of the priory’s disputes. The priory was in the habit of putting its draught animals out to graze on the beechmast at Kensworth. The bishop of London claimed this land as his own and moved the priory’s animals from it. The prior obtained a writ from the king against the bishop. The latter then moved the animals to Caddington and another writ was needed to get them back again. The canons of Dunstable were clergy. They ministered in the neighbourhood and at Bradbourne in the Peak District where they owned the living and where three canons served the parish church and its four outlying chapels. Troubles befell in 1243 when large numbers of the prior's sheep died in a severe winter. Then a succession of bad seasons and failure of crops led to great scarcity and the priory began to get into debt. The poor canons tried every known means to solve the problem. They cut down their rations, reduced their staff, priors resigned or were deposed. But do what they would, they could never make ends meet. This was not surprising, for situated as it was on the main road from London to the midlands, the priory was a house of call for all comers, a sort of free hotel where travellers could request hospitality and by the Rule of Augustine could never be refused. When some royal visitor or magnificent noble and his company passed and chanced to stop, it could only add disaster to the priory's finances. To make matters worse, they were continually having trouble with the repair of buildings.

In 1247 Henry III, Queen Eleanor, Prince Edward and Princess Margaret visited the priory.  The king and queen were each given a gilded cup and their children a gold buckle each. These gifts cost twenty two marks. In return, the priory received eight measures of silk and money for altar vessels. At this time, Prior Geoffrey had his first major argument with the local merchants. The issues at stake were: - who was subject to the prior’s court; who was responsible for tracing poor quality bread and ale and who had jurisdiction over the ash trees which were planted in the main thoroughfare. In front of a judge and the king’s steward, it was agreed that the prior’s bailiffs were responsible for monitoring the bread and ale; that only the prior’s direct and long-term tenants should be subject to his court and that no-one should harm the ash trees in the streets. If one of these was damaging a nearby house or injuring people as they crossed the street, the prior could allow it to be lopped. The townspeople could only cut or prune trees which were on their own land where no one else had any rights.

Bishop Robert made a visitation to Dunstable in 1249. Visitations were to examine the good order of the religious house, the worship and probity of the canons and financial regularity. On this occasion Henry Bilenda, the cellarer, could not disprove the accusations made against him and secretly ran away in the early morning because he feared what the bishop might say and do. Henry later joined the Cistercian order. Visitations were paid for by the establishment which was being visited. An archdeacon received seven horses, a bishop thirty horses and an archbishop fifty. The cost could be changed into a similar number of shillings. Later in the year, a general council of the Augustinian Order was held at Dunstable Priory. It was presided over by the abbot of Leicester and Prior Geoffrey.


In 1250 the canons built the inner gate within the court and placed ten tons of lead on the refectory roof. Bishop Robert again visited Dunstable. He was accompanied by the bishops of London, Salisbury and Norwich as well as representatives of other dioceses. They put their seals to a document which resisted the authority, in their own Sees, of Boniface of Savoy, the archbishop of Canterbury. Boniface was unpopular as he was not English, had been imposed on the bishops by Henry III and spent most of his time on the Continent. The bishops were supported by their own clergy. A delegation was also sent to Rome, concerning this matter.

In 1251 the dormitory had to be rebuilt. In 1252 new workshops were built in the court for the carpenter and wheelwright, and in the same year the great stable was built. Within four years it fell and had to he rebuilt in 1258. Robert Grosseteste died in October 1253 and was succeeded by Henry of Lexington. The annals record that in 1254 Edward eldest son of Henry III married Eleanor, daughter of the king of Castile. It is this lady whose coffin would come to Dunstable in December 1290, on its way to Westminster Abbey. In 1258 the priory’s annual bill for bread, food and drink came to £24. They also spent £6 on two casks of wine, probably from Aquitaine, which the canons much appreciated. In the same year Archbishop Boniface held a service in Dunstable to ordain clergy in the diocese of Lincoln. The position of bishop was vacant as Bishop Henry had died that August.

Just when the priory was in direst poverty, in 1259, the Dominican or Black Friars settled in the town. The canons were not happy about this but there was no point in resisting them as the friars came with the permission of the archbishop of Canterbury and Henry III. The priors were forced to see these intruders obtaining the patronage of the influential and the alms of their parishioners, who were attracted by the novelty of the friars' preaching.

Also in 1259 a boy from Dunstable, called Laurence, was said to have stolen more than 60 marks in St Albans and brought it to the house of Philip Illig, in Dunstable. The boy escaped with 24 marks and bought himself in as a novice at Newnham Priory. Philip was arrested until he could be brought to trial before the justices. Philip absconded and could not be found. Hugh Bigod, the Chief Justice came to Bedford and demanded that the prior bring Philip to him. Prior Geoffrey replied that this was beyond his jurisdiction but if the judges came to Dunstable he would do all that was possible. This they refused to do. Hugh put all the lands of the priory into the king’s hands until a fine of ten marks was paid.

Prior Geoffrey resigned in 1262. All the canons petitioned the king that they might elect a new prior. Seven of their number were delegated to carry this out and one of the seven, Simon of Eaton, was elected as the new prior. He was later confirmed in this position by the bishop and then the king. The archdeacon of Bedford, Peter Aldeham, requested a horse for his expenses in attending the installation, but was refused. Upon examining the accounts, Prior Simon found that the priory was in serious debt. When Simon de Montfort came to Dunstable, the following year, Prior Simon made him welcome. Most clergy saw de Montfort as a champion of church liberty. In 1264 some thieves entered fields around Sewell and drove the almoner’s sheep towards Luton, despite the remonstrations of the shepherds. When news reached the priory, some of its servants and other people from Dunstable arrested two men with the sheep. The next day the men were ‘lawfully hanged at Passecumbe’. There was a further royal visit to the priory in 1265. With the king and queen was Roger Mortimer. When the latter learned that Prince Edward wished to capture him and imprison him in the Tower of London, he escaped and fled overseas. In 1271 William Wederow was admitted as a canon at Dunstable; he would later become prior. A dispute arose with the people of Sundon. Their patron was Richard, the younger brother of Henry III. They had, by custom, paid a toll to Dunstable. When Richard died the manor of Sundon passed to Gilbert, earl of Gloucester. The people of Sundon stopped paying the toll. The manor then passed to the Earl Edmund as part of his wife’s dowry, where upon Prior Simon went to see the earl and asked for the toll to be continued. Edmund gave Simon a letter of authority to take to the Sundon bailiffs but the prior did nothing with it. When John Crachale of Dunstable died, the priory undertook to conduct a requiem for him, to say a daily prayer for his soul. Further, three masses a year would be said for him for the next ten years. The priory also took in a blind man as well as a priest who lived in the priory for ten years at the priory’s expense. In return, John’s executors gave the priory his estate of over 120 marks. Henry III died on 16th November 1272 while his son, Edward was away on Crusade.

In 1273 there was a dispute about who had the right to appoint the vicar at Harlington church. Ralph Pyrot issued a writ asking why the prior hindered him from making an appointment. After the two men met it was agreed that the prior had the right and that the bishop should issue a writ confirming this. In this year the parishioners of Dunstable paid for the renovation of the church roof, from the rood screen to the west door. Henry Chadd was the chief donor for these repairs. In 1274 Nicholas Aldbury, who had previously been a Dominican friar but who had been a canon at Dunstable for nine years, went back to the friars. Eudo la Suche and his wife, Millicent, caused Prior Simon great trouble. They imprisoned John Chuke who was collecting tithes for the priory from land which they claimed as theirs. He was initially put in the prior’s prison at Caldecote but was later put in Eudo’s prison. Eudo also smashed the prior’s gallows, impounded cattle, cut down his wood near Shortgrave and enclosed common land where the prior had rights. He also demanded twenty five shillings for rent of land in Houghton which he claimed was his. A writ was issued summoning the two to appear to answer the charges put by the prior. By this time Simon had been dismissed. He was probably ill as he died at the end of the year. William Breton, the sub prior, was elected in his place. He settled with Eudo, who conceded almost everything to the priory, making restitution in most matters. At Pentecost the priory ran out of beer and drank wine instead, much to the canons’ delight. At the same time, all the horses in the stable died. Prior William was beset by many problems, mostly writs brought against him and the priory by local townspeople. He won most of them or came to an amicable settlement but it took up a lot of his time and fills several pages in the annals. On December 16th 1276, some of the king’s falconers, who were staying at the priory, had a set-to with some of the canons inside the priory and with the chaplain outside it. In the evening the falconers and some of their friends went out into the streets and fatally wounded the chaplain. When they wanted to come back into the building the door keeper was reluctant to let them in so they beat him up and stormed through the whole priory, causing further injury. The bells pealed and the people of the town ran to intervene. Prior William could barely stop them from fighting the falconers. In the morning the falconers went to the king at Wallingford and complained about their treatment. The prior went to the king, who had moved on to Abingdon, where serious accusations were levelled against the prior by the falconers. Edward I was not inclined to believe Prior William but referred the matter to Roger Seyton, the local justice, who sat at Dunstable. Twelve local men swore on oath that the prior, the canons and the townspeople were innocent. The king did not accept this and came in person to Dunstable. Thirty-six men from two nearby hundreds, who had no connection with any of the accused, declared before the king that the accused were guiltless and that no one in Dunstable should be fined. They also declared that the chaplain had been killed by some of the king’s men. In 1277 the priory was extended to incorporate rooms for royal visits. Previously, royalty had used the prior’s accommodation when they stayed in Dunstable. Also in this year, the prior went to eat with the Dominicans for the first time. There was currently less friction between the two houses but trouble broke out later on. Master Michael made two large bells for the priory in 1277 and after his death, three more were made by his son. In 1282 the canons built a new body to the bakehouse and rebuilt the brewhouse wall.

During the 13th and 14th centuries Dunstable was the scene of many Tournaments. Edward I attended those of 1279 and 1280 and Edward II in 1308. Edward III was here for the great tournaments of 1329 and 1341 with many of the nobility and as a result the hospitality of the canons was strained to breaking point.

William de Wederow was elected prior in 1280. The following year he was cited by David Flitwick for allowing his people to catch rabbits in the warren at Flitwick. Twelve jurors swore before the sheriff of Bedford that David had no warren at Flitwick and that no offence had been committed. Also in 1281, it was agreed by the townspeople that the prior could enclose a certain piece of land in Dunstable, including a lane. The prior had a wall built but some men from South Street knocked it down as he had blocked an access to their property. They eventually made their peace and the prior built them another road. In 1283 a clock mechanism was placed on the pulpitum in the priory. It had no hands but struck the hours of the Offices. In 1285 Henry Grey claimed the right to appoint the vicar at Newbottle, near Sutton Regis, in Northamptonshire. Prior William said this had always been in the gift of the priory. The case went to court and the jurors swore on oath that Henry Grey had no such historic right. Many of the priory’s rights were established in ancient charters, which were challenged from time to time. In 1286 all these rights were re-examined and, in the main, confirmed. There were one or two customs which were not found in any charter and the prior was ordered to discontinue them. The next year, it came to the attention of the prior that the Dominican friars were intending to extend their building in the high street. To pre-empt this, the Augustinians encouraged their porter, Thomas, to buy the property adjacent to it and so spoil their plans. Also in that year, a general council of the Augustinian Order was held at Dunstable. It was presided over by Henry de Hamptonet, the abbot of Cirencester, and Richard de Tyvelesford, the prior of Kenilworth. The annals go into great detail about a dispute between the prior and Millicent Monalt concerning the prior’s right to put his pigs on land at Totternhoe. The account gives a vivid picture of the workings of the English medieval legal system. In 1289 the parishioners built two pinnacles on the west front of the priory and repaired the stone roof on the south porch. John Durant senior, whose wife died that year, paid half the expenses.

In the failing light of a December afternoon, in 1290, came Edward I following on foot the body of his beloved Queen, Eleanor, to burial at Westminster. The canons came out in procession to meet the cortege at the Market Place and escorted the bier to the church where the body of the queen rested all night before the high altar. Next day after a solemn requiem, the cortege proceeded slowly towards St. Albans. On the spot near the cross roads where Eleanor's body had first rested was erected to her memory one of' those beautiful crosses, of which three still remain. The Dunstable cross, said to have been similar to that at Geddington, was destroyed by the soldiers of Fairfax during the Civil War.

In 1294 Prince Edward, the son of Edward I, was making a long stay at St Albans. So profligate was the prince’s party that St Albans ran out of food and supplies were brought in from as far afield as from Dunstable. The annals say that two hundred platters a day were not enough to satisfy his kitchen and no payment was made in return. His servants took everything, even cheese and eggs, bread and beer. In the following year, the annals tell us that the priory re-built its main prison in stone and cement, from its foundations upward. This implies that the priory had more than one gaol. The last entry in the Dunstable Annals is dated 1297 and records payments made by Prior William de Wederow to Simon Bradenham, the Sheriff of Bedford.

It is certain that very extensive alterations were made to the monastic church. Commencing at the east end with the rebuilding of the Lady Chapel in 1324, they continued for well over a hundred years, during which time it is probable that most of the Norman work of the quire, transepts and central tower was strengthened or replaced by the  Gothic, pointed, style. Of all this, nothing now remains except a pier of the second half of the 14th century attached to the outside of the east wall of the present church. When the rebuilding was completed, the canons' stalls, which formerly stood beneath the central tower, were moved into the eastern arm of the church.

Nigel Loring was born at Chalgrave in about 1320. He was knighted for valour at the beginning of the Hundred Years War, became Lord of the Manor of Chalgrave, fought at Crecy and Poitiers, was Chamberlain to Edward the Black Prince and was one of the original Knights of the Garter. His will stipulates that he is to buried in Dunstable churchyard but is probably buried in Chalgrave church. He was a major benefactor of Dunstable Priory.

During the plague of 1349 the parishioners made an offering of a bell called "Mary" and Prior Roger covered the belfry with lead. The bell is now on the south wall of the church and has been put to many uses over the years. Thomas Marshall was elected prior in 1351. Under him the Priory seems to have undergone much rebuilding, doubtless through the gifts of wealthy traders. Prior Thomas had his troubles however, as part of the great peasants' revolt of 1381, under Wat Tyler and John Ball. News probably arrived of the disturbances in St Albans. As a result, Dunstable merchants, led by innkeeper Thomas Hobbes, became very discontented and took advantage of the insurrection to force a new charter from the prior. Certain of them came to the priory, a little before vespers, and insolently accosted the prior, demanding a charter of liberties in Richard II's name. The prior, threatened by the mob, and fearing for his life, was advised to yield to their demands. When the revolt had been crushed he got the charter annulled as having been obtained by force. Unlike other nobility at these times, the prior refused to revenge himself on them. Prior Thomas was an upright and good man who ruled the house well. Until the close of the 14th century, the parishioners used the north aisle as their parish church, dedicated to St. John Baptist. As the town grew, the aisle was too small, and they began to encroach into the nave. This caused interference with the monastic processions and soon stirred up trouble, for the canons resented the intrusion. In 1392, however, the dispute was amicably settled and the parishioners obtained the whole of the nave, making themselves responsible for its repair. This they did as cheaply as possible. They erected in the central nave an altar dedicated to the Holy Trinity and in addition there was another altar dedicated to St. George. A wooden chancel screen was erected in about 1400 to denote the limit of the parish church. A hundred years later it was ornamented with Tudor roses. It was subsequently moved to different locations within the church but is now back in its original position.

John Dunstable was born around 1390. He is one of the first English composers to be known by name and had a great influence on Renaissance music. His first patron was John, Duke of Bedford, younger brother of Henry V. Besides Music, he established a reputation in Mathematics and Astronomy. He died in December 1453 and was buried in St. Stephens Wallbrook, in London.

Prior Thomas died in 1414 and was succeeded by John Roxton who was a contemporary of John Dunstable. William Gray, bishop of Lincoln, carried out a visitation at Dunstable in the early 1430s. His subsequent report does not mention what he found to be good about the life of the priory, only the faults he found. He instructs the canons not to go out into the town after the service of Compline, nor to invite their parents or other ‘secular strangers’ into the priory for ‘recreation or refreshment’ without the prior’s approval. He then instructs the prior not to approve any such visit, to govern the behaviour of the canons, to submit audited accounts, to sell none of the priory’s assets and to get the roof fixed. In 1442 certain merchants of Dunstable founded a Fraternity dedicated to St. John the Baptist. When the upper storey of the nave became ruinous, they removed it altogether and moved windows down one level to where they are now. They gave the roof a flatter pitch, similar to that now existing. They finally built a tower over the western bay of the north aisle to hold their bells. The fourteen roof figures in the priory church are images of Fraternity members. The Fraternity maintained a Brotherhood House which contained rooms and beds for poor folk travelling through Dunstable. Four other tenements, under the same roof, were maintained for four poor members of the Fraternity, who were to pay no rent. They also paid for a priest to celebrate Mass at the altar of St. John in the Priory Church. One of the main families of the Fraternity, the Fayreys, commissioned the making of a magnificently embroidered funeral Pall. The Fraternity was dissolved in 1547.

In 1444 relations between the prior and the friary broke down. Prior Thomas and several of his canons broke into the friary and dug up the garden, causing much damage. Many of the friars were injured and one, Peter Hobard, was thrown into the pond. Others were put into the priory’s jail. Prior John resigned in 1473, probably because of old age. He was followed by Thomas Gylys who resigned in 1482. Richard Charnock was elected in his place. He was a man of great culture and later became head of St. Mary’s College, Oxford. He was much admired by Erasmus who described him as ‘compounded of humane learning, kindliness and integrity, a non-pareil, the ornament and glory of English religion. Prior Richard resigned his post in 1500 and was replaced by John Wastell. Our knowledge of this prior comes from Bishop William Atwater’s visitation in 1517. There was no criticism of the life of the priory. Bishop William’s main concern was that there were only seven canons in residence. He told Wastell to recruit more.  John Wastell died in 1525.

The last prior of Dunstable was Gervase Markham. He was elected in 1525 and the problems of Henry VIII soon threatened the monastic houses. In 1530 the priory was visited by Bishop John Longland, Atwater’s successor. He examined all the community individually who were united in praising Markham’s role as administrator and spiritual director. Longland found no fault with the running of the priory and noted that there were now sixteen canons. In May 1533, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer came to Dunstable with the bishops of Winchester, London, Bath and Lincoln to judge his royal master's "grete and weightie cause" and annulled his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon. It was the final act in the shameful proceedings. Dunstable being chosen as Catherine was then residing at Ampthill Castle. The court was opened in the Lady Chapel of the Priory Church on the 10th of May, Prior Markham taking part in the proceedings. Catherine was cited but failed to appear. On May 23rd, 1533, Cranmer declared the marriage null and void. It is said that the notice of annulment was pinned to the church door. Anne Boleyn was crowned queen, at Westminster, on May 31st.

In 1535 Henry VIII set up commissions, each chaired by a bishop, in every county to catalogue the income of each religious house. The combined returns are known as Valor Ecclesiasticus. Income was listed as either temporal or spiritual. The former included rents from property while the latter consisted of tithes from churches. The crown then appointed visitors to list the faults of each house. Some had, indeed, strayed a long way from the rules of their Order but there is no evidence of this in Dunstable. Henry VIII, in 1536, closed down the smaller establishments, those worth less than £200 a year. The final grab came in 1539 when Henry took the assets of all the remaining houses to himself. By the spring of 1540, not one of the English monasteries remained. There is no accusation of laxity or stain on its character. Henry VIII would not have chosen it for the court of annulment if there had been the slightest hint of any impropriety. Its income was not great, the revenues being estimated at £334 13s 4d yearly. The deed of surrender was signed on the 31st December, 1539, and the monastery dissolved in January 1540. The prior and the canons were all granted pensions. Dispensations were given to them so that they could serve as parish priests.

The great church and the buildings of the monastery were kept standing intact for some few years, since in the scheme for the creation of new bishoprics it was intended to create a see at Dunstable, consisting of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, with the Priory Church as its cathedral. The impressive list of dignitaries prepared by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, is on record and the bishop-designate was ‘ Dr. Day’. This is most probably George day, later the bishop of Chichester. The scheme fell through in 1545 and the beautiful church, with the exception of the parochial nave, shared the fate of the monastic buildings, being plundered of all that was valuable and left a ruin to become a quarry for the whole neighbourhood. After the scheme for a bishopric had fallen through, a wall was built up from the rood screen and the nave and its aisles sealed off for the use of the parish. The two processional archways were filled in. The people of Dunstable may have hoped to enjoy royal protection again, but the town was annexed to the Honour of Ampthill. John Gostwick, of Willington, was made Commissioner for the dissolution of Dunstable Priory. During Edward VIth's reign the services were conducted in English, but during the reign of Mary Tudor the Latin mass was re-instated. The wooden screen beside the organ dates from 1555 and testifies to Mary’s faith. Everything reverted upon the accession of Elizabeth.

When they left their old home for ever, the canons went to their relatives or friends until they could get appointments. Gervase Markham probably rode off to stay with his brother William at Husborne Crawley for a time, but he returned to Dunstable a few years later, his brother having moved to Hanbury in Staffordshire, The sub-prior lived with Gervase Markham and acted as his chaplain. Several of the canons were instituted to local livings as vacancies occurred, others obtained livings farther afield. Two of them broke their vows and married, and were deprived of their livings when the old order came back under Mary. One however, forsook his wife and promptly got another living.

Prior Gervase lived on through the changes of Edward VIth's reign, and the reversions of that of Mary, until the dawn of the reign of Elizabeth, dying at Dunstable in 1561. He accepted no appointment and lived quietly in the town on his considerable pension. He had a housekeeper, a manservant and a maidservant. At his death he still possessed his chalice, vestments and ornaments and implements for a chapel. In his will he left them to his cousin to keep in case "they may at any time hereafter be occupied in the church again." He was buried in the churchyard on September 23rd, as the entry in the parish register records.


Annals of Dunstable, translated by David Preest with notes by Revd Stephen Williams

Notes on the making of the Dunstable Annals, by CR Chenley

Cartulary of Dunstable Priory, BHRS

Tractus of Dunstable Priory, BHRS

Calendar Patent Rolls

Calendar of papal records

The Accounts of the Receiver for the Court of Augmentations

Valor Ecclesiasticus

Chantry Certificates For Bedfordshire, transcribed by Revd JE Brown, Vicar of Studham.

The British Library

Lincoln Cathedral archive and Lincoln Record Society

Bedfordshire and Luton Archive and Record service. (BLARS)

For further information, please visit the dunstableparish.org website.

NB Names underlined are subjects of other articles.



For further information

http://www.dunstableparish.org.uk/dunstableParish/index.php/history.html