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Priors


PRIORS OF DUNSTABLE

Author Hugh Garrod


 1. 1125 Bernard

 2. 1151 Cuthbert

 3. 1161 Thomas  resigned 1202

 4. 1202 Richard de Morins died 1242

 5. 1242 Geoffrey of Barton resigned 1262

 6. 1262 Simon of Eaton died 1274

 7. 1274 William le Breton deposed 1280

 8. 1280 William de Wederow resigned 1302

 9. 1302 John of Cheddington died 1341

10. 1341 John of London resigned 1348

11. 1348 Roger of Gravenhurst died 1351

12. 1351 Thomas Marshall died 1414

13. 1414 John Roxton  resigned 1473

14. 1473 Thomas Gylys  resigned 1482

15. 1482 Richard Charnock resigned 1500

16. 1500 John Wastell  died 1525

17. 1525 Gervase Markham surrendered the Priory to the king, 1540, died 1561



1. Bernard


Bernard, and his brother Norman, were born in France and learned the Rule of St Augustine as novices at Chatres and Beauvais. They were instrumental in introducing the Rule of St. Augustine into England. Norman was a canon at St Botolph’s at Colchester and became prior of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, on 5th April 1108. Bernard joined him there as a canon. Holy Trinity was founded by Matilda, wife of Henry I. Norman was her confessor. In the 1120s Holy Trinity established daughter houses at Dunstable, Launceston, Plympton, St. Frideswide in Oxford and St. Osyth. Bernard was prior of Dunstable by 1125 and is depicted in the right hand window in the prior’s west wall. It is not certain when he left or when he died. Norman died on 12th January 1147.


4.   Richard de Morins

c1161-1242


Richard was probably born in Lincolnshire and became a lawyer in English church (canon) law and also civil law. It is likely that he graduated from Paris in the late 1180s, where he also lectured. While there, he wrote one book, Summa Questionium, which was a Question and Answer manual, based on his lectures. He then became Archdeacon of Bologna and taught law at the University there until about 1198. He became recognised as the pioneer of scientific judicial procedure and wrote a further seven books including commentaries on papal decrees. His writings contained pithy summaries of laws and decrees, with biblical quotations to support them. He wrote commentaries on 1,912 papal decrees. In them, the pope sometimes addresses the reader directly, at other times in the third person. There is a concluding poem. This was the zenith of his academic career. On his return to England he became a canon at Merton Priory and part of the entourage of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1202 King John visited Merton Priory and head hunted Richard to become Prior of Dunstable. At the time Richard was still a deacon. He was ordained prior on the Ember Saturday and celebrated his first mass on St Michael’s Day, 29th September.


He is also referred to as Richard de Mores. He was a papal judge delegate and was involved in 48 cases during his time at Dunstable. His fellow judges were usually neighbouring clerics, not necessarily Augustinians. Sometimes the papal legate nominated him, on other occasions the plaintiffs asked for him because of his good reputation. He held his own court in Dunstable but also travelled through surrounding counties, going as far as Staffordshire. Eight of his suits concerned St Fridewide’s in Oxford. Many cases were to do with disputed property or tithes. Twenty-two cases ended in composition, a negotiated settlement or agreement by all the parties. Some of these settlements were only valid during the lifetime of one or more of the litigants. In the other cases, a judgement was handed down. Richard appeared on behalf of Dunstable Priory in 1214, 1222 and 1227. He was the most active delegate judge in the Canterbury Province during his time at Dunstable. It was generally the rule that no participant in a case should travel for more than two days to attend.

Soon after 1202, Richard began compiling the Annals of Dunstable. As with most medieval annals, they begin with the birth of Christ and then record the early history of Christianity. From 1202 onwards the annals record events in Dunstable, England and the rest of the known world.

At the beginning of February 1203, prior Richard journeyed to Rome. On his successful return home about the time of the feast of St James, he brought with him one legate, namely the abbot of Casamario, who wanted to make an agreement between the kings of England and France. When French opposition prevented the agreement, the abbot as he left England, placed France under an interdict.

In 1206, Richard, our prior, on the authority of John, cardinal deacon and legate of the Apostolic See, was appointed visitor to all the religious houses in the bishopric of Lincoln, with the exception of the Templars, the Hospitallers, the Cistercians and the Praemonstratensians (white canons).

In 1207 altars were dedicated to St. Mary, St. Fremund, St. Nicholas and St. James. Fremund was a Saxon saint, reputedly a son of King Offa, who fought against the invading Danes. His bones had been buried in several places before they came to the church of Cropredy in Oxfordshire. There are many stories of miraculous healings associated with his remains. In about 1205, King John gave permission for de Morins to translate to bones of St. Fremund to Dunstable Priory. This encouraged pilgrims to come on to Dunstable from St. Albans and was a shot in the arm for the prosperity of the town. It was also at this time that the priory was endowed with many sheep farms, especially in Derbyshire. The income from this industry was for the provision of hospitality to the many pilgrims who came to the shrine of St. Fremund or who passed through on their way to St Alban’s shrine. It also provided money for tending the poor and the sick.

He preached crusade in 1212 against the Cathar community of southern France. They had offended the pope by their heretical views.


Richard attended the Fourth Lateran Council. This was summoned by Pope Innocent III and assembled in Rome in November 1215. It was attended by 71 patriarchs and metropolitans, 412 bishops and 900 abbots and priors. The Council attempted to establish the pope as the head of all Christianity and persuade the Eastern Church to accept Roman dogma. It also laid plans for the recovery of the Holy Lands. On his way back from the Council, Richard spent a whole year in Paris at the theological schools.


In 1213 there was a dispute at Bury St. Edmunds concerning the election of Hugh of Northwold as abbot. Until 1215, his appointment was opposed by the sacristans and King John. Hugh’s appointment was approved of by the cellarers and by the pope, who convened a triumvirate, headed by Richard de Morins, to investigate and quash the rebellion. This was made easier by Master Nicholas, currently a member of the group in favour of the election. Nicholas was a cellarer at Bury St. Edmunds until 1220, but had previously been a canon at Dunstable. He gave Richard useful information concerning the squabble between the two parties. With his help, Richard was more easily able to resolve the situation, to the pope’s satisfaction. Hugh was a witness at Runnymede, as he was there to petition the king for approval of his appointment at Bury St. Edmunds. Nicholas became abbot’s chaplain in 1222 and Hugh became bishop of Ely in 1229. Nicholas wrote a full account of the dispute in the 1220s. Richard de Morins was often appointed by Pope Innocent III as a judge delegate.

In 1217 de Morins was involved in the disputed election to the abbacy of Shaftsbury and the case shows the care taken to get to the truth of any dispute. The sacrist, A, appealed to Rome because one section of the nuns had elected J, not her. The legate, Guala, refused to confirm A and appointed the abbots of Bindon and Cerne to investigate. A was then alleged to have renounced her election and appeal, so de Morins and two other clerics examined A’s case. She said she had been coerced to withdraw. As J shortly afterwards gave up her claim, three other clerics were appointed to investigate J. They were told that if J’s claim to the abbacy was true, A should be told not to contest their verdict; if not, the whole matter was to be referred back to the original two abbots.


In1219 and subsequent years Richard de Morins held his court at Dunstable. He and his fellow judges heard cases for the crown, settled disputes on inheritance, decided cases against alleged escaped prisoners, decided on causes of death and whether widows’ claims on their dowry money were justified. In 1222 he was a judge in the dispute between the bishop of London and the abbot of Westminster. During the next year he was an Augustinian visitor in the Province of York. In 1228 he was made visitor for his Order in Litchfield and Lincoln Dioceses. In 1235 he was a counsellor in the disputed election at St. Albans following the death of the abbot, William of Trumpington. He was involved, in 1239, in the question of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s right to visit religious houses that were under the supervision of bishops in his own Province.

Richard was one of the Commissioners appointed to assess how much money the Crown should repay Lincoln diocese after King John’s actions. Very little of this money was ever repaid.

Richard de Morins died in post on 9th April 1242, aged about 80. He was still working for the prosperity of his priory. His successor, Geoffrey of Barton, was left to complete the deals, which Richard had started. Dunstable Priory was at its most prosperous and famous during the leadership of Richard de Morins.


Annals of Dunstable: with translation by David Preest and commentary by Revd. Stephen Williams

The Priory Church of St. Peter, Dunstable, a brief history by AF Fowler with additional notes by J Lunn and HD Garrod.

Dictionary of the Writers of 13th Century England, Josiah Cox Russell, Institute of Historical Research.

Chronicle of the election of abbot Hugh of Bury St. Edmunds, by Master Nicholas, translated by RM Thomson

Papal Judge Delegates in the Province of Canterbury 1198-1254, Jane E Sayer 1971 OUP

Studies in Ancient and Medieval History, Thought and Religion. Stephen Kuttner, vol VII

Dictionary of National Biography

Ricardus de Mores, RC Figuiera, Proceedings of the 8th International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, vol 9, 1988.


5.   Geoffrey of Barton


Geoffrey was elected in 1242, following the death of Richard de Morins, who must have been a hard act to follow. Geoffrey was confirmed in his post , by the bishop of Lincoln, on the Thursday after Ascension day, was presented to Henry III the next day and was installed the following Thursday, May 29th, by the archdeacon of Bedford.

In the following years, there were several crop failures and hundreds of the priory’s sheep died in the Peak District. The priory got into debt because it was committed to tending the poor, the sick and the pilgrims, even though its main source of income was so badly hit.

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.

In May 1253 Geoffrey was commanded by Henry III prohibit the holding of a tournament, planned to take place in Dunstable. He received similar instructions in June 1257 and November 1255. In November 1258 the tournament was cancelled because the king needed his knights to be ready to counter a rebellion led by Llewellyn, son of Griffin, who proposed to break his truce with the crown.

In April 1259 Henry III confirmed his support for the Dominican friary in Dunstable, ordering that the canons would not impede them. The following year, the king wrote to Geoffrey and thanked him for making the friars welcome and begs the canons to continue their kindness. He wants to know if the friars do anything to jeopardise the peace between the two houses.

Geoffrey, who was probably dispirited by the troubles of his priory, resigned his office into the hands of Richard, bishop of Lincoln, in 1262.



8.   William de Wederow


William de Wederow was admitted as a canon at Dunstable on 6th January 1271 and nominated as prior on 8th November 1280. He is depicted in the kings’ window in the west wall of the priory.


It was during his tenure that Eleanor, Queen of Edward I, died at Harby in Lincolnshire. She was known to be ill and it is probable that she and the king were on their way to Lincoln to pray for a cure at the shrine of St. Hugh. On its way to burial in Westminster Abbey, her body lay in state for one night in Dunstable priory.

William and the king held vigil on the night of 11th December 1290, before the cortege moved off next morning on its way to St. Albans. The two of them are shown in the window, kneeling on either side of the coffin, which bears Eleanor’s coat of arms. The letters E and E are shown tied together by a love-knot, because theirs was a happy and fruitful marriage.


In the following year, William would have witnessed the erection of an Eleanor Cross at the crossroads. Edward gave money for the erection of these crosses in all the locations where his wife’s body had rested on its way to Westminster.


William resigned his post in 1302. We do not know when he was born, or when he died.




12. Thomas Marshall


Thomas Marshal was elected prior in October 1351 and was admitted to the office on the 21st of that month. He had previously been vicar of Flitwick, so may have been a canon at Dunstable before that.


The priory’s finances were none too sound when Marshall took over, and it was due to his astute management that things eventually improved. He was able to bring about some re-building at the priory, which may have been financed by local business people.


His biggest problem came in 1381, at the time of the Peasants Revolt. There was widespread discontent across the southern part of England. Some Dunstable merchants had been at St Albans market and seen the mob rise against the abbot. These merchants returned to Dunstable and, lead by Thomas Hobbes, demanded of Prior Thomas the freedom from paying their dues. Marshall gave way under extreme pressure but remained civil in the face of great provocation. After Richard II had put down the revolt, Thomas Marshall petitioned the king for release from his agreement and this was granted.

Many people in similar circumstances exacted brutal revenge on those who had terrorised them but Marshall did not and saved the townspeople from the penalties of the law. He was a godly and upright man.


Dunstable had grown steadily over the years, so much so that the St John’s aisle was not big enough to hold those who wished to attend divine service. After much discussion and a little argument, Prior Thomas allowed the service to spill over into the nave. The formal agreement was made in 1392 and later on a wooden screen was erected across the building as a demarcation line. This is now the Chancel Screen.

It was under Prior Marshall that the parishioners agreed to be responsible for the repair of the nave.


Thomas Marshall died in post 12th October 1414.



13. John Roxton


Assent was given for his election as prior of Dunstable on the 5th of December 1414. This was confirmed by the bishop of Lincoln, John Dalderby, on the 18th of December. From two reports of bishops’ visitations, we know something of the priory during his time as prior.


After the visitation of William Gray, bishop of Lincoln 1426-31, he wrote to John Roxton about the faults he found at Dunstable and his instructions for effecting remedies. He issued instructions, which give a clear picture of the errors he found during his visitation.


The prior is instructed to ensure that all the canons retire to bed immediately after Compline. The feasting, drinking and gambling is to stop, upon ‘pain of imprisonment for one year’ if they continue.


The canons are not to entertain family members or friends on the premises. The resources of the priory are for the canons only. No lay person is to be admitted to the cloisters under any circumstances, as they are places of peace and contemplation.


All the canons must be present in the priory, unless they have permission and licence from the prior or sub-prior. Meditation must be observed in the cloisters after breakfast and after Vespers. The canons are not allowed to indulge in hunting and hawking.


Someone must be found to instruct the novices and canons in ‘the elementary sciences’ so that the standard of their education can be improved. Alms given to the priory must be used for charitable purposes and not for the upkeep of vestments and furniture.


The prior is instructed, upon pain of dismissal, to hold an annual Chapter meeting at which he gives a full account of the priory’s administration throughout the year and that a record of this is kept in the ‘common chest’. He is further instructed not to sell any of the priory’s copses, nor to cut down trees unless it is for the repair of the building or for fuel. He is not to take in novices for money or raise funds in any way which is not approved of by the Augustinian Order.


Within three years he must repair and maintain the priory and all its manors, granges, rectories, vicarages and associated buildings and ensure that they are all well stocked now and into the future.


He is also to seek out John Beverley, an erstwhile canon of Dunstable and ‘bring him back to the fold of the Lord, and that you correct him according to the statutes of your Order, but in brotherly wise and with fatherly pity.’


William of Alnwick, bishop of Lincoln, 1436-1449, wrote a report of his visitation to Dunstable Priory on 24th January 1442. His comments show the shortcomings he found.


John Beverley seems to have mended his ways as he delivered the opening address and is described as the ‘professor of holy writ.’

The young canons do not study, read or meditate but hang around the kitchen and the common hall without permission. One novice brought a boy into the priory, feeding him from the kitchen, and was told to desist. Several canons had beehives, selling the honey and keeping the money for themselves. The sick canons were not properly cared for. The canons received the insufficient sum of two marks yearly for their clothing. They were accustomed to drink after Compline. Some of the canons continued to absent themselves from services or arrive late, despite continual censure.


Silence was not always kept when it should be. The prior is criticised for not maintaining the building properly; for selling the priory’s goods without permission; for forgiving people without recourse to justice; for not keeping proper accounts for the priory and its possessions; for favouring the laity over the canons; for not fulfilling his teaching role; for not supplying staff to teach the canons and for allowing canons to eat outside the priory. The cook was recorded as being proud and rude and the refectory was too small.

The school was reported to be doing well. The bishop set down various punishments and the prior was commissioned to maintain discipline, to issue fines and to order ‘bread and water’ for any third offence.


The Victorian County History for Bedfordshire, recounts an incident from 1444. Prior John Roxston and some of his canons broke into the ‘close and house’ of Thomas, of the Friary. They wounded some of the friars, throwing one, Peter Hobard, into a pool of water and despoiling the gardens.


John Roxton resigned in 1473 having been prior for nearly 60 years.



15.  Richard Charnock


Richard Charnock was elected as prior of Dunstable on 31st October 1482 and resigned his post in 1500. He was a man of considerable intellect and culture, becoming prior of St. Mary’s College, Oxford, and tutor to the Augustinian novices there. Erasmus visited England for the first time in the summer of 1499 and spent two weeks at St. Mary’s. Charnock advanced him money and encouraged Erasmus to work and study – especially collecting proverbs. Erasmus described Richard Charnock as being ‘compounded of humane learning, kindliness and integrity, a non-pareil, the ornament and glory of English religion.’ This is high praise from someone who was not noted for his friendliness towards the religious orders. Charnock was also a friend of John Colet.





17.   Gervase Markham


Gervase Markham, the seventeenth and last prior of Dunstable, was elected in 1525. In 1530 John Longland, bishop of Lincoln, made a visitation to Dunstable Priory. He interviewed each canon individually and all of them extolled Prior Gervase’s merits as a spiritual director and as an administrator. The bishop’s report lists no faults, spiritual or temporal. Henry VIII had, for some time, been trying to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in the hope that Anne Boleyn would provide him with a much needed male heir.


On 10th May 1533, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, came to Dunstable. He was accompanied by John Longland, who besides being the Bishop of Lincoln was also the king’s Confessor. With him were Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester; John Stokesley, Bishop of London and John Clerk, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, as well as six lawyers and Thomas Bedyll who acted as clerk. Prior Gervase Markham also attended the Court of Annulment, which Cranmer set up in the Lady Chapel of Dunstable Priory. Dunstable was chosen for two main reasons. Catherine was confined nearby in Ampthill Castle and there was no stain on the priory’s reputation, as witness Longland’s previous visitation. King Henry was at Greenwich, all this time, pretending not to know what was going on. On the next day, Catherine was summoned to appear but she refused as she did not recognise the court and agreed with the ruling of Pope Clement VII that the marriage was legal. The queen was summoned each day but refused to come. Several witnesses were questioned in an attempt to prove the case. At 10am on Friday 23rd May, Archbishop Cranmer declared the marriage annulled. What Gervase Markham, or the people of Dunstable made of it, we do not know.


This was the beginning of the break with Rome as the pope’s authority had been so publicly flouted.

In the following year almost every religious house, including Dunstable, recognised Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Henry was very short of money so he sent his commissioners to every English county to record the total net income of each establishment. The priory was assessed at £334. 13s. 4d., about a quarter of the way down the list. In 1536 all houses worth less than £200 were closed down, their assets being taken by the Crown and their properties sold off for the Exchequer. Gervase Markham no doubt wondered how long it would be before the larger houses went the same way. In 1539 all the remaining monastic possessions were vested in the Crown and on 31st December of that year Prior Gervase, with his twelve canons, surrendered their priory to the king’s commissioners. Gervase and his canons were granted pensions. He himself received £60 and twenty loads of wood per year.


Henry VIII drew up a list of new dioceses and cathedrals he wished to establish. Dunstable was the last named and the only one not to come to fruition. After the scheme fell through, the parish church was maintained but the roof was taken off all the rest of the priory, which then became a free quarry for the people of the town.

Gervase Markham may have gone, initially, to stay with his brother, William, who owned property in Husborne Crawley. When William moved to Hanbury in Staffordshire, Gervase returned to Dunstable and lived there for the rest of his life, being cared for by ‘Mother Finch’, his housekeeper and Elizabeth Bray, his maidservant. He lived through the protestant reign of Edward VI, the catholic reign of Mary I and into the time of Elizabeth I. He died in 1561 and was buried in the churchyard on 23rd September. His will is dated 28th August of that year. He left money for the repair of the church fabric and for Mother Finch and Elizabeth Bray. He also left money for the poor of Dunstable at Easter and Christmas and for the poor of Hockliffe at Christmas. He shared most of his possessions between his brother, his cousin Anthony Stubbings and their families. In particular he left his ‘chalice, vestments, ornaments and implements for a chapel and divine service’ to his cousin on condition that he kept them in case they were ever needed at the priory in future, if not, they were to be sold.


Alexander Nequam (School Master)

1157 – 1217


Nequam is a Latin nickname, meaning ‘worthless’. When or how he acquired this sobriquet is not clear. Alexander was born at St Albans in early September 1157, around the same time that the infant Richard the Lionheart was born at Oxford. Alexander’s mother fostered both children, being nurse and probably wet nurse to the prince. The name of the prince’s nurse was Hodierna, the same as Alexander’s mother’s name.


Richard gave his nurse £7 in pension per year from the start of his reign. This sum was also paid to her into the beginning of King John’s reign. Her family apparently lived near Chippenham.


Alexander went to school in St. Albans. This was the town school and not  the one in the abbey. He studied canon and civil law, theology and medicine in Paris, c1175-82. In 1178 he spent some time in Holborn, which was full of gardens and trees.


Alexander wrote copiously on many subjects during his adult life, in both prose and poetry. His earliest writings date from about 1177.


After this, he became master of the school at Dunstable. In the late 1180s, Alexander requested abbot Garinus of St Albans for the mastership of the school there but was wittily rebuffed with a joke about his nickname along the lines of, ‘If you are worth it, come; if you are worthless, don’t.’


Garinus became abbot of St Albans in 1183. Alexander was still at the St Albans school in 1185 but was teaching at Oxford by 1190. He was the university’s first known scholastic theologian. He recounts that he regularly gave a lecture on the ‘Feast of the Conception of the Virgin’ but for several years was afflicted with illness on that day. When he ceased to give the lecture on that day, his illness stopped.


Later, he turned his back on teaching and money and entered the Augustinian abbey at Cirencester in 1197. He thought the University teachers were too concerned with status and money. Friends told him that monastic life was also corrupt. He may have been attracted by the abbey’s school and library. His monastic rule was ‘moderation in all things’. He was not in holy orders before he arrived at Cirencester but was a canon by 1198.


In 1203 Alexander received a mandate from the legate to act as a judge. The abbey was in a parlous state financially by 1205. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Worcester appointed a triumvirate headed by Alexander to supervise the abbey’s finances.


Alexander was sent on royal and papal business and elected abbot of Cirencester in 1213. The royal licence to elect was dated 24.7.1213 on 30th August, Alexander and two other abbots were sent to enquire into royal rights at Kenilworth. He may have sided with King John during the Interdict, March 1208-July 1214, and even during the ex-communication, November 1209-July 1213. He was undoubtedly the best man for the job. The abbey was spared the worst effects of King John’s confiscations, as he had a great respect for Alexander.


It was Alexander who negotiated the return of the Cirencester property and revenues. Cirencester was granted an annual Autumn Fair during his time as abbot and he oversaw the completion of the last range of cloisters. Alexander attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. King John ordered a ship to take him and Walter Grey, bishop of Worcester across the Channel so that he could attend. Most of his surviving works date from his time at Cirencester. They were commentaries on books of the bible, including the Psalms and the Creeds.


He was a grammarian and wrote descriptions of items of everyday use. He also wrote poetry, favouring the elegiac couplet and rhetorical questions. Alexander was one of the first in Europe to study Aristotle in both Greek and Arabic. He was interested in astronomy, but was cautious on the subject of astrology. He and his contemporaries reasoned that the planets were given their influence by God. They did not drive the free will, because if they did, sin would not be imputed to humans but to the planets.


He subscribed to the thesis that planet earth was made up of three parts – Europe, Libya and Asia. He comments on the habits of birds, trees, herbs and mammals. In his treatise, ‘De Utensibilis’, he listed the equipment that a peasant aught to have. These included long bladed knives, a spade, and shovel, a seed box, a billhook for brambles, two baskets, a mouse trap and a snare for wolves. It includes one of the first references to a wheelbarrow in England.


His prose book ‘De Naturis Rerum’, chapter 166, lists plants, which should be found in ‘noble’ gardens. He included exotics such as hyssop, mandrake, pomegranates and dates besides traditional flowers and herbs. In his encyclopedia in verse, ‘De Laudibus Divinae Sapientine’, the 3rd chapter features his knowledge of Geography. His list of English and Irish rivers was used by Spencer in his ‘Faerie Queene’. The 7th chapter is devoted to plants and the 8th to trees and crops. Altogether, 140 specimens are mentioned.


These were the most used encyclopaedia on plants and gardening for the rest of the Middle Ages. Alexander believed that gardens should be adorned with plants that were not grown purely for commercial purposes. He encouraged gardeners to ‘see if you can get them to grow.’


He also dabbled in philosophy. He did not write for the laity but as a canon for his fellow religious. The surviving sermons are mostly from his Oxford period, for clergy and the laity. They start with a bible text, followed by a simple meditation. He wrote a poem, of 26 ‘leonine hexameters’ praising wine.


His writings contain the first English reference to ‘The Man In The Moon’. As an abbot, he led his brothers by setting them a good example in his own life. He wrote mostly in Latin, but did use some French or English for the laity. In school he taught both Lectio and Disputatio. In Lectio he used passages from the bible and other learned books. He would read it to his pupils and interject his own thoughts on the text. Disputatio is similar to Lectio but with questions inserted for responses, either from himself or his pupils.


Alexander could also read Hebrew. He wrote in great detail about the nature of free will and on ‘synderesis’ an assumption that people have a natural inclination towards doing good. He was one of the first to write on psychology and was aware that it was a new area of study. Camden in his ‘Britannica’ refers to him as ‘noster Nechamus.’


Alexander may have been in bad health towards the end of his life, as he died on the 13th of March 1217, at Kempsey, a manor of the bishop of Worcester. He is buried in Worcester cathedral. His tomb, or what is left of it, is in the north aisle and was described as a cumbent statue of a priest with large tonsure, vested for the altar, his beard was bushy, a thing not universal in these latter days. In his right hand was a staff of authority and in his left a book. There were also 4 lines of Latin inscription. The effigy is much mutilated but the epitaph remains. It translates as: - Wisdom suffers an eclipse. A sun is buried, which, while it lived, every branch of learning flourished. Nequam is dissolved into ashes. Had he one heir on this earth, his death would be less course for tears.’


The School and The Cloister X.950 38397 Alexander Nequam 1157-1217, by RW Hunt, Clarendon Press. Oxford 1984.

Dictionary of the Writers of 13th Century England, Josiah Cox Russell, Institute of Historical Research

David Preest, for help with the Latin texts

Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society Transactions, vols 109 & 111.

A Little History of British Gardening, Jenny Uglow, pp 29, 31-2, 36

Medieval Gardens, John Harvey,

Medieval gardens, Sir Frank Crisp

Studies In Philology, vol 22 1925

English Historical Review vol 30, 1915

Alexander Neckam, DE Naturis Rerum, ed T Wright, Rolls Series 1863.


Hugh of Wells

8th Bishop of Lincoln


c1165 – 1235


Hugh was born in Wells, Somerset, about 1165 and his younger brother, Jocelin, a few years later. Both boys received their early education in their home town, moved away to complete it, and then returned to be canons at Wells cathedral. Both had contacts with the royal court, Hugh witnessing royal charters at York as early as 1199. Hugh became archdeacon of Wells shortly after this time and Jocelin was consecrated bishop of Wells in 1206. Hugh was keeper of the Great Seal from 1204 to 1209.

During his reign King John, who showed every sign of being an atheist, was determined to gain control of the church, to appoint its officers and have full authority over its parochial revenues and lands. The clergy wished to keep the Church independent and for the revenues to be used locally. John, however, refused to have Stephen Langton (favoured by the Pope and bishops) as Archbishop of Canterbury and promoted the claims of his own candidate, John de Grey, bishop of Norwich. John continued to appropriate the Church’s income. This has echoes of the reign of Henry VIII. John also annulled his first marriage.

In order to curb this behaviour Pope Innocent III issued an edict on 23rd March 1208 excommunicating England and banning the celebration of mass throughout the country. The dead were buried outside the churchyard, with no priest present. Marriages were conducted at the West door with no subsequent wedding mass. The only sacrament to take place inside the building was that of baptism.  All the English bishops, except those of Bath, Winchester and Norwich sided with the Pope.  The remainder went into exile or retired to monastic life.

The Crown now took over all church lands and revenues in revenge.  During these troubled times in 1209 the King appointed Hugh of Wells as Bishop of Lincoln.  However no one in England could consecrate him and the King therefore arranged for him to be consecrated by the Archbishop of Milan.

On the way to his consecration Hugh came into contact with the exiled Bishops who wished to keep the Church free from the domination of the Crown.  He converted to their thinking, made canonical obedience to Stephen Langton and was consecrated by him as Bishop of Lincoln on 12th December 1209.

France threatened war against England in support of the exiled priests.  In 1212 John gave in and abased himself to the Pope. He said that he and his heirs would hold England and Ireland as the fiefdom of the Roman church and that he would pay the pope 1,000 marks a year. This deterred the French king from invading. The exiles returned to their sees in 1213 and Bishop Hugh II dedicated Dunstable Priory on St Luke’s Day, 18th October. He did so in the presence of earls, barons, abbots, priors, nobles and the people of Dunstable. In July 1214, the pope finally lifted the interdict from the whole of England.

John then attempted to split the barons and the Church but they remained loyal to each other, culminating in the drawing up of Magna Carta in 1215. Hugh was a witness at Runnymede and was given one of the seven original copies, which has been held at Lincoln since that date.

After their return from exile the clergy were promised restitution and compensation by the Crown but this was never paid in full.

In his fury over the enforcing of Magna Carta, John sacked the whole country, civil war was ensured and Lincoln Cathedral was looted, losing its treasure and income.

In the middle of these troubles Hugh of Wells returned to Lincoln from a visit to the Lateran Council at Rome in November 1215.  He found his diocese in a parlous state and set to work to put matters right.  He enforced the rule of the Council of Westminster 1179.   This stated that all religious houses, such as Dunstable Priory, which held rights of encumbrance must use parochial revenues for the upkeep of the parish and provide it with a vicar.  He thus ensured that the revenues were used for the benefit of local people. This work was carried out in 1220. He carried through the orders of the council of 1223 on the standards and organisation of churches throughout the diocese. The Dunstable annals enable us to follow Bishop Hugh in his work of setting up vicarages. His Vicarage Book shows him to have established 369 vicarages throughout his diocese.

Hugh was a Judge in the Secular Court and a Clerk in Chancery.  His knowledge in this field would have helped in his discussions on the rights of parishes. His experience in law qualified him as an itinerant Judge and in 1219 he is recorded carrying out this office.

He was a strict and severe administrator and is recorded as excommunicating the Burgesses of Dunstable for not paying their dues to the Priory. He laid down rules for the conduct of his churches and monasteries and checked that these were followed. King John died on 19th October 1216. Hugh was a witness of the coronation of John’s 9 year old son, Henry III. He was also a member of the King’s Council, till the young king came of age.

During the whole of Hugh of Well’s episcopate, building proceeded at Lincoln Cathedral.  The cost was met by St Mary’s Guild and by the Bishop himself.  Designs approved by St. Hugh of Avalon were mostly carried out by Hugh of Wells.  These included the northern rose window (Dean’s Eye) and the first southern rose window (Bishop’s Eye) in the transepts, and parts of the chapter house.  He ensured the supply of building materials. The Ringers Chapel in the Cathedral was build by him and bears his name. He actually built as much of Lincoln cathedral as St. Hugh. Hugh II founded a hospital at Wells. Sadly his anti Jewish laws condemned them to virtual starvation and the king, Henry III, intervened to save them.

Hugh of Wells died on February 7th 1235, aged about 70, and is buried in the Retro Choir of Lincoln Cathedral. His will is preserved. Hugh was succeeded by Robert Grosseteste.


In 1963, part of the Dunstable Pageant was a re-enactment of the original Dedication, 750 years previously. By the North Door of the church hangs a painting, which celebrates both events. The Churchwarden at the time, Stan Knowles, played the part of the bishop.


St. Fremund and Shrine


Fremund, reputedly the son of King Offa, renounced position and money to follow Jesus, becoming a hermit on the island of Lundy. While there his cousin, King Edmund, was killed by the Danes when they invaded West Mercia in 870. As Offa was now dead, the people asked Fremund to come to their aid. Fremund agreed and won a great victory at Radford Semele, near present day Leamington Spa. His friend, Duke Oswi, angered when Fremund decided to return to Lundy instead of becoming king drew his sword and decapitated Fremund. Oswi instantly repented. Fremund’s corpse picked up the head and walked some distance. When it struck the ground with its sword a spring arose and Fremund washed his head and wounds before finally expiring. Oswi buried Fremund’s body at nearby Offchurch.

Sixty-three years after this burial three virgins, one deaf, one dumb and one crippled, walked through Offchurch when they were struck by lightning. They saw an angel who told them to dig up the body and move it to a spot three miles from Banbury, the present site of Prescote manor. When they have done this, they are all healed. Years later, Edelbert, a pilgrim in Jerusalem, had a vision of an angel telling him to go to a chapel near Prescote, which had five priests, where he will find the body of Fremund. He was not willing to do this and wrestled with the angel in his dream. On waking he discovered that his shoulder has been dislocated. This persuaded him to carry out the mission. After much travelling he found the grave, moved the remains a short distance and built a shrine. Local people found that their sick animals could be cured by eating the nearby grass. Many pilgrims came for a cure and it was decided to move Fremund to the nearest monastery, at Dorchester on the Thames. Bishop Birinus came to Prescote and loaded the remains onto an ox cart. The cortege did not go far. When it got to Cropredy, the ox refused to move any further, so the local people built a chapel in the village, on that spot. In 1050 the first church was built to house the bones and many miracles are recorded. About 150 years later, Cropredy church was in need of repair and the villagers could not afford it. Richard de Morins, Prior of Dunstable arrived and made them an ‘Offa’ they cannot refuse. He promised all the money they needed in exchange for the bones, which King John had said could be transferred to Dunstable. The villagers accepted reluctantly, but they managed to retain a few bones and miracles continued to happen in Cropredy. The bones of St. Fremund, or at least most of them, were translated to Dunstable in 1205, where an altar was dedicated to him in 1207. This did wonders for the commercial life of Dunstable. In 1213 his bones were moved to the high altar and re-dedicated by Bishop Hugh II. The pilgrims, who previously passed through on their way to or from the shrine of St Alban, stopped in Dunstable for a while and prayed for a miracle there as well. The bones of St Fremund remained in Dunstable until the Reformation and miracles were reported throughout this time. At that point, the altar and the bones it contained was destroyed.

In 1962 the east wall of the Priory church was re-ordered and two windows were installed to celebrate the saints to whom altars were dedicated in the pre-Reformation priory. St Fremund is one of these – along with St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, St Martin, St James and St. Nicholas. In the mid 1960s a new church was built on Dunstable’s Beecroft estate. It was dedicated to St. Fremund the Martyr in May 1968 by the Bishop of St Albans.


(died 866) The Book of Saints.