Torre Abbey: locality, community, and society in medieval Devon
By John Christopher Jenkins
DPhil Thesis, University of Oxford, 2010
Abstract: Torre Abbey was a rural Premonstratensian monastery in south-east Devon. Although in many ways atypical of its order, not least in the quality and quantity of its surviving source material, Torre provides an excellent case study of how a medium-sized medieval monastery interacted with the world around it, and how the abbey itself was affected by that interaction. Divided into three broad sections, this thesis first examines the role of local landowners and others as patrons of the house in the most obvious sense, that of the bestowal of lands or other assets upon the house. Torre was relatively successful in this regard, and an examination of the architectural and archaeological record indicates a continuation of that relationship after the thirteenth century. The second section notes areas of conflict with the laity. Disputes could and did arise over both temporal and spiritual affairs, as well as through the involvement of a number of lay figures in the administration and patronage of the house. In both respects, notable incidents in the mid-fourteenth century highlight the complexities of the canons’ relationships with the secular world. These are further explored in an analysis of the abbey’s role during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, two conflicts which greatly affected the locality, but required vastly differing approaches by the canons. Finally, the effect of society on the canons themselves is considered. It is possible to recover some picture of their origins, both social and geographic, as well as some idea of the size of the community in the fifteenth century, and discuss the repercussions for an understanding of monastic recruitment. Finally, the dynamic of the community over the entire history of the abbey is considered in terms of the scattered source material, utilising both architectural and documentary evidence.
The subject of this thesis is the Premonstratensian abbey of Torre between 1196 and the early-sixteenth century, and its relationship with the secular world. The abbey was sited on the south-east coast of Devon, close to the sea shore, in a region both fertile and populous, and within a well-established tenurial situation. Unlike the reclaimed wasteland and fen common to the settings and lands of the other houses of its order, Torre held urban properties and tenants as well as large and lucrative manors and parishes in its vicinity and beyond. In obtaining, holding, and profiting from these estates, the canons of Torre found themselves drawn into constant contact with the laity of its locality. No one abbey, and, indeed, no one thesis, could reveal all the multifarious points of contact between the monastic and the secular worlds and their repercussions, but there is enough evidence from Torre to highlight a number of such interactions which have not previously been studied in any great detail.