Fund-Raising for a Medieval Monastery: Indulgences and Great Bricett Priory
By R.N. Swanson
Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, Vol.40:1 (2001)
Introduction: Although they tend to evoke derision and dismissal because of their association with Chaucer’s Pardoner and Luther’s onslaught on catholicism, indulgences were, arguably, one of the fundamental and most ubiquitous elements of pre-Reformation religion. They were certainly much utilised as a means of fund-raising, and that very exploitation attests their popularity. Yet the mechanisms for such fund-raising are often obscure, dependent on scattered evidence and chance survivals. One cache of material which throws some light on the collecting process now survives among the archives of King’s College, Cambridge, concerning the priory of Great Bricett in Suffolk.
The priory was founded in the second decade of the 12th century by Ralph son of Brien. Its early history is ambiguous: although linked to the French monastery of St Léonard-de- Noblat (now in Haute Vienne), it was only at the end of the 13th century that it was recognised as fully dependent on that house, thereby definitively entering the ranks of that fairly large group of small monasteries which, because of those foreign connections, are collectively known as the alien priories. The eventual fate of most of those houses, during the course of the Anglo-French wars of the 14th and 15th centuries, was to be confiscation by the Crown, with their properties —and their records —in many cases passing to other bodies. Great Bricett, like several other such establishments,was used by Henry VI to provide some of the endowment for his collegiate foundation of St Mary, St Nicholas, and St Bernard at Cambridge —the foundation generally known as King’s College.
Numerous records from Great Bricett priory now repose among the King’s College archives. Among them, all grouped under a single reference number (GBR1278),are 163 separate copies of a single document, a schedule of the spiritual privileges offered to those who gave donations to support the fabric of the house. These represent one stage in a common fund-raising process, detailed surviving evidence of which is by no means frequently encountered. While publicity schedules survive in some numbers across the country,and across the centuries through to the advent of printing, what is significant here is the survival of a single schedule in such quantity, and the evidence which the accumulation provides of the response to the collecting drive.