A Scandal at St Albans Abbey

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in Ricardian Places

A Scandal at St Albans Abbey

A Scandal at St Albans Abbey

As explained in yesterday’s  post about St Albans, during the Wars of the Roses the abbey showed strong Yorkist sympathies under the leadership of Abbot Wheathampstead with dire consequences after the Second Battle of St Albans.

Wheathampstead’s successor but one, William Wallingford, had a serious disagreement with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton, in 1490.  So according to the motto “My enemy’s enemies are my friends” I started digging and found that many ingredients in this story remind me of Richard III and his reputation under the Tudors.

William Wallingford was abbot from 5 August 1476 until his death in May or June 1492.[1]  He was a man of great administrative talent with a strong financial acumen.  He managed to get the abbey, which was heavily in debt when he took over, debt free and also spend much on improving the abbey.  He built the high altar known as the Wallingford Screen at a cost of £733 (this was destroyed during the dissolution, but replaced with a copy in Victorian times) and lavishly remodelled the chapter house. [2]  According to his successor Ramryge, he also built a library and a stone-bakehouse, repairing those buildings that needed repairs, and gave many rich treasures to the abbey, like a gold chalice and precious gold-embroidered vestments.  In addition he funded at his own expense the training and education of ten young monks.  According to David Ford Nash his “government at the abbey was marked by regard for strict discipline tempered with generosity”.  This generosity is shown in his testimonial for the absolution of a priest who by misadventure committed suicide and by freeing villeins and their children.  He introduced the art of printing to St Albans, just a few years after William Caxton introduced it in England.  Between 1480 and 1486 the St Albans printer issued eight works, the first six in Latin, the other two in English.  The most important and last was the Boke of St Albans.  He resisted attempts by Archbishop Bourchier (Archbishop of Canterbury from April 1454 to his death on 30 March 1486) to exert influence over the abbey by appealing to the pope who decided in the abbey’s favour.  Wallingford seems to have been a friend of William Lord Hastings, whom he gave in 1479 the office of steward of the liberty of St Albans.[3]  However, in the matter of Hastings’ execution on 13 June 1483 he did support Richard Duke of Gloucester saying that Hastings “got what he deserved”[4].


A Scandal at St Albans Abbey

Wallingford Screen, St Albans Cathedral (© D Preis)

In stark contrast to this positive description is the view of Galbraith, who describes him as a bad but vigorous man with evil influence for sinister purposes. Heard these adjectives before? – just wait!  Galbraith was a historian who challenged the overall reliance of historians on the chroniclers whose works were often emotional judgments than constructive criticisms of contemporary figures.  He concluded that William Rufus and King John were misrepresented because of their conflict with the clerical hierarchy.[5]  Maybe he should have turned his mind to Richard III and he might have seen that the same might have happened to Abbot Wallingford.

In line with his mistrust of chronicles he tells us that Wallingford is spoken of in “terms of the most extravagant praise” and that the register of his abbacy shows him in an overwhelmingly positive light.  He then tells us that in March 1490 the then Archbishop of Canterbury received from the Pope a bull with special powers necessary for visitations of religious houses, though Benedictine abbeys were excluded.[6]   Probably anticipating something like this, a month earlier, on 6 February 1490, Wallingford had procured a papal bull which ordered the archbishop to protect the privileges of St. Albans.[7]  St Albans as a Benedictine house enjoyed the privilege of being an exempt monastery, which means that the bishops had no Jurisdiction over it.[8]

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Bourchier, had grudgingly accepted this special status.  However, he conveniently died in 1486 so there was a vacancy which Henry Tudor (by the Henry VII) could give to one of his most influential supporters before and after his usurpation – John Morton, previously Bishop of Ely.  Nobody would classify Morton as a special friend of Yorkists and its sympathisers, so St Albans must have been highly suspect to him.  Add to this Wallingford’s anticipation of trouble and his quick action in getting his abbey’s special status confirmed by the pope.  It seems logical to me that this is at the bottom of the special vindictiveness with which Morton persecuted Wallingford.

So with his papal mandate for visitations of religious houses, not including Benedictine establishments, Morton set to work and “imperatively called upon [the various monasteries] to reform”.  However, on 5 July 1490 he also wrote to the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of St Albans that “many witnesses worthy of credit” had told him that Wallingford had committed “enormous crimes and excesses”.  So what does he accuse him of?[9]

  • Wallingford had “laid aside the pleasant yoke of contemplation”.  The question that springs to mind is, what would Morton know about that?
  • Morton accuses Wallingford of “waste of goods, revenues and possession”.  But Wallingford seems to have been financially prudent enough to pay of his predecessors’ debts.  Indeed there was still enough money left in the treasury in 1521 for Cardinal Wolsey as abbot to help himself to the funds to build Cardinal College Oxford.[10]
  • He had “dilapidated the common property, … made away with the jewels  and the woods to the value of 8,000 marks or more”.   As to “dilapidating the common property”, how does this fit in with the magnificent screen and remodelling the chapter house and other building work?   I’m not sure how many jewels there would have been to make away with, as  Galbraith had informed us previously that Margaret of Anjou had helped herself to the jewels and treasures in 1461.[11]  I wonder how much a completely devastated monastery could accumulate in the intervening years.  I’m not sure what Morton means by “making away with woods”, but it seems that when Wallingford’s successor Ramryge compiled an inventory of the abbey’s properties in 1500/01 the park at Tyttenhanger (established 1427-8) was considerably bigger than in its infancy.[12]
  • The juiciest accusation is that the nunneries of Pré and Sopwell, which were cells of St Albans Abbey, were “little better than brothels”.
  • In addition to that, the monks would “live with harlots and mistresses publicly … within the precincts of the monastery and without.”

He then goes on to say that he had warned Wallingford repeatedly and if these problems were not sorted within 30 days he would make a personal visitation.

Wallingford was not prepared to accept any interference from Morton and instead, on 11 July, appealed directly to the pope against the Archbishop’s authority to hold a visitation.  And the Pope agreed.  But then Henry VII got involved and both Archbishop Morton and Henry talked the Pope into changing his mind. It is, however, unclear whether the visitation ever took place.[13]

In spite of these serious accusations, the abbot stayed on and there is no further mention of any immorality until the dissolution and the closure of the abbey.  If things were really as bad as Morton made them out, would you not expect some drastic action?  Instead everyone just carried on as normal.  Henry Tudor even paid the monastery for “prayers for his soul to be rendered ‘for ever and ever’”.[14]   No doubt Henry felt he needed as many prayers as possible, but would the prayers of such a centre of immorality have had the necessary influence?

There are also some interesting irregularities with the paperwork.  The register of Wallingford’s predecessor Wheathampstead, during whose term of office Wallingford was official general, archdeacon and chamberlain, had been tampered with to include grave charges which were explained in great detail.  However, Wheathampstead continued to put his trust in him, indicating that these additions might have been added at a later date.[15]  If Wallingford was such a dishonest man, would he have continued in his position, been promoted, eventually to the top job itself?  Doesn’t really make sense, does it?  This rather reminds me of Rous re-writing history after the ascension of Henry VII.

Then some pages have been torn out of Wallingford’s own register.  According to Galbraith these are the pages covering his election,[16] which would probably mean at the beginning of his register, but according to Ford these are pages from the end.[17]  I think Ford’s statement is more probable, as we don’t have the exact date of Wallingford’s death, which would have been contained on the last pages.  However, maybe these last pages also contained his position in the quarrel with Morton?  Then we have a case similar to the order to destroy all copies of Titulus Regius unread – but unfortunately here no surviving copy has been found.

In this story we have two protagonists in opposition:  on the one side Abbot Wallingford, strict but fair, working in the best interest of his abbey and ridding it of debt and a supporter of Richard III.  On the other side is Archbishop John Morton, whose claim to fame is not for his piety but as the brains behind an ingenious system of taxation, “Morton’s Fork” (the idea was if the subject lived in luxury and had clearly spent a lot of money on himself, he obviously had sufficient income to spare for the king. Alternatively, if the subject lived frugally, and showed no sign of being wealthy, he must have substantial savings and could therefore afford to give it to the king.[18]) Otherwise also known as an expert in spreading rumour and innuendo.  All the negative statements against Wallingford seem to stem from this one letter by Morton, who many seem to believe because as Archbishop of Canterbury he just had to be right.  Wallingford’s contemporaries though seem to have been unperturbed by his “enormous crimes and excesses”.  Could it possibly be that Morton had some other axe to grind in his attack on the abbot?    I am not in a position to state with certainty who of the two is right, but I know, whom I would choose to believe.

As to Galbraith it seems strange that he mistrusts the words of any chronicles, while building his whole case on one letter by someone like John Morton.

Wallingford died in late May or June 1492 (for all his predecessors their exact death dates seem to be known, but not for him – strange?) and got glowing obituaries.  According to FA Gasquest one said: “Nobody showed more care in the worship of God than our reverend father, abbot William Wallingford, or more kindness in works of piety. Nobody showed more devotion to the fervour of faith, hope and charity. None of the ancients before him had shown so much generosity in putting up buildings to the praise and glory of this monastery.”[19]

1.    “William of Wallingford”, Wikipedia (accessed 5 January 2010)

2.    ibid

3.    David Nash Ford, “William of Wallingford (d.1492)”, Royal Berkshire History (accessed 28 May 2010)

4.    BP Wolffe, “When and Why Did Hastings Lose His Head?”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 89, No.353. (Oct 1974), pp 835-844

5.    “Vivian Hunter Galbraith”, Wikipedia (accessed 29 May 2010)

6.    Vivian H Galbraith, The Abbey of St. Albans from 1300 to the Dissolution of the Monasteries: The Stanhope Essay, 1911, p. 58.  You can find the book on the internet here (accessed 5 January 2010)

7.    Victoria County History (VCH), “Houses of Benedictine monks: St Albans Abbey – After the Conquest”, A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4 (1971), pp. 372-416.  On the internet on British History Online.   (accessed 29 January 2010)

8.    Galbraith, The Abbey of St Albans, p. 52

9.    The details of the letter are quoted from Galbraith, The Abbey of St Albans, pp.58-61; dates from VCH

10.    “Reformation and the Parish of St Albans Abbey”, The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (accessed 24 May 2010)

11.    Galbraith, The Abbey of St Albans, p.51

12.    Anne Rowe, “Ridge:  Tyttenhanger Park”, Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire.  University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 2009, p.184

12.    Galbraith, The Abbey of St Albans, p.60

13.    Galbraith, The Abbey of St Albans, p.61

14.    Nash Ford

15.    Galbraith, The Abbey of St Albans, p. 56

16.    Nash Ford

17.    “Morton’s Fork”, Wikipedia (accessed 2 June 2010)

18.    Quoted in “William of Wallingford”, Wikipedia.

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  1. Richard III Society of NSW » Blog Archive » Fighting in the Streets: The Battles of St Albans    Dec 26 2010 / 12am:

    […] Elliott and Watson’s book that appealed to me particularly after my previous research into Abbot William Wallingford’s clash with John Morton, then Archbishop of Canterbury: A special twist, though, was that John Morton, who was Chancellor […]

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