By Luke Daly
As much as cathedrals were hubs of faith, they were equally businesses. The enterprise behind Canterbury developed under the new pastoral and administrative structure of Archbishop Lanfranc and was instrumental in building a community with intellectual power, leadership, and economic precision. The system of the obedientiaries (church officials) which arose from this reorganisation is the focus of this article as they provide a particular insight into the topography of Christ Church and its great officers whom monastic activity revolved around. In understanding the external affairs of Canterbury, we can gain an insight into the investments and estates controlled by Canterbury.
The third, and final article on the obedientiaries of Canterbury examines those who dealt with the external affairs of the priory. The majority of these obedientiaries were the custodes maneriorum and the almoner, or elemosinarius. Although not necessarily as prominent as the sacrist, chamberlain, or cellarer, the almoner appears within the financial records as frequently. The almonry was a self-contained department with separate revenues and its own set of buildings just outside of the curia gatehouse. Such buildings consisted of a school, dining hall, and office during our period in question. Although the almoner may appear as frequent as the other prominent obedientiaries, the expenditure of alms was very little. The treasurer accounts demonstrate a standard expense fee of 100s. each year to the almoner. Whilst a proportion of this would be used to aid the poor who had gathered at the gates, most of the revenues were spent on maintaining upkeep on the almoner’s household.
More important than the almoner, however, were the custodes maneriorum, also known as Wardens, who managed the vast number of estates that had been granted to, or purchased by, the monastic community. The estates of Canterbury were divided into four primary groups, known as custodiae, each under the charge of an assigned warden called custos maneriorum, but also known by gardianus or supervisor maneriorum. Whilst the east Kent custody encompassed manors near the coast, on the Isle of Thanet, and in Canterbury itself, the custody of the weald and marshes comprised of manors along the west of Kent. The manors of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex formed a third custody, and estates in Surrey, Oxford, and Buckinghamshire comprised of the fourth. There was, however, also several estates overseas. The treasurer accounts of 1213, for example, reference £27 received from ‘Hibernia pro dominum Herlewinum Lichilin’ episcopam.’ Whether this was its own custody, however, is unlikely.
Gervase of Canterbury, in the Imaginatio quasi contra monachos, recalls an incident between Baldwin and the wardens when he confiscated the manors in 1186. As such, this administrative division of the estates most probably emerged at an early date long before our principal manuscript. Whilst, Gervase does not provide information on whether the wardens were monks or laymen, the Assisa Scaccarii of 1225 mentions that the four warden obedientiaries were monks. Their names were Roger de Wrinedale, Thomas de Sancto Wallerico, Richard de Berkesore, and William de Lega. Both Roger of Wrinedale and Richard of Berkesore feature by name in the treasury accounts of Canterbury.
In the case of Richard of Berksore, he is mentioned from as early as 1213 till as late as 1230 within the obedientiaries section of the financial records. If we consider the notion that the monastic lifespan of a monk was around 20-years, then this would suggest that the position of warden, unlike the other obedientiaries, was a far more permanent position.
Nevertheless, the role of the warden was predominantly supervisory and administrative. They oversaw the manors as well as instructed serjeants (servientes) and reeves about the nature of the agrarian policy to be undertaken. Very rarely did they intervene on specific agricultural practices, management, or property repairs. In 1225, for example, the warden of the east Kent custody was assigned £22 9s. 8d. for ‘melicoracio maneriorum per consilium prioris et fratrum’.
The most common receipt within the accounts, however, was merely the payment of the serjeants and servants. In 1220, the treasurer’s received a sum of £1 12s. ‘de custodibus maneriorum de pesepaneges’, and in the following year they received £9 3s. 10½ d. ‘de custodibus maneriorum et de Welles ad pesepaneges et ad solidatas serviencium de bracino’ which is a receipt that reoccurs each year after with only slight variations. The predominant reason for the warden’s lack of representation is that the primary part of the revenues were taken to and from the treasury by the serjeants, thus bypassing the warden.
The serjeant, or servientes, was a lay official in charge of individual manors. The primary role of the serjeant was to ensure that the land was ‘to be ploughed, sown, and reaped, manured and cultivated, and all the waggons and plough cattle, together with sheep, lambs, hogs, and all other kinds of stock there to be managed and tended’ for the profit of the estate. The serjeant was typically from the peasant class and, like the warden, held office for an extended period only being removed for reasons of misconduct, incompetence, or old age. Alongside the serjeant was the reeve, known as prepositus. Whilst this position was reserved for the lower peasant class, the reeve did have the opportunity to rise in status and become assimilated with the bailiff or serjeant.
Prior to around 1157, whole manors were leased out to firmarii in return for a lump sum of money or food-rents. A great number of extant Canterbury leases from 1157-1225, apart from those in Essex and East Anglia, show that the monks changed this system and instead let out parts, or whole demesne (dominium) of a manor to the dependent tenantry. This was seemingly at a standard rate of 1s. per acre and to be held in jure hereditario or in perpetuum. This phenomenon would lay the foundations of the later period of ‘high farming’ and manorial disintegration. Both Pope Alexander in 1179 and Urban III in 1187 condemned the practice but were unable to stop the rise of fee-farms, known as feodifirmae. And both the Assisa Scaccarii of 1225 and the exchequer survey of 1211 make it clear that this rental income dominated the total income of the priory.
Nevertheless, this was not the only rental income received at Canterbury from the wardens. When the estates and investments were returned, the annual receipts show that the income from housing fell within three main groups: Gabulum (or Gablum), Gauelikende, and de domibus et scoppis. The former, Gabulum, represents income from retained rents where property is sold in return for a substantial gersuma, together with annual rent. Domibus et Scoppis, on the other hand, represents another class of property (houses and shops) let to tenants.
Money-rents (Gabulum) and rents from shops and houses within the treasury accounts amount to reasonably similar figures. In 1215, for example, shops and houses yielded an income of £45 19s. 1d., whilst money-rents generated £49 8s. 11d. What is particularly notable is that the money generated from money-rents remains fairly consistent from 1217 with rents ranging between £79-£84. The revenues from shops and houses, however, were far more temperamental. Although there is a trend which would indicate a steady increase, the figures themselves show that the rental income fluctuated from as low as £40 to as high as £60, which is a much larger range than the rental income from money-rents.
There is, however, a third rental income from the wardens within the accounts known as Gavelkind which illustrates the connection between Canterbury and the ancient customary laws within Kent. This form of free socage tenure and inheritance is said to have been a Saxon custom prior to 1066 before the introduction of primogeniture. Nevertheless, although the majority of England converted to the new system of inheritance, Kent was allowed to continue its use of Gavelkind in return for their submission to William the Conqueror.
The holder of a gavelkind tenure could freely give, sell, or let his land to whomever within his lifetime so long as the rents and services were properly secured. Equally, he could render payments to the lord in defined monetary rent; payment of livestock, agricultural produce, or goods; or specific services, but this did not include military service. Gavelkind, however, quickly became associated with partible inheritance whereby the tenant’s lands were divided equally amongst his sons. Unlike the aforementioned housing incomes, the treasury accounts demonstrate that revenues from gavelkind were consistently between £28-£31 each year.
They are seemingly the only revenue to not be affected by external events or internal circumstances. That being said, it can be strongly argued that the custody of Kent was characterised by a reliance on such rental incomes and was a ‘foreign makeshift’ and ‘manorial superstructure thrown up hastily and setting clumsily to naïve foundations.’ The result of this was a large amount of personal freedom enjoyed by the peasants of the monastic estate.
The danger, however, of a financial and administrative system of this scale within a monastic community which often saw its obedientiaries withdrawn from the priory was that it had the potential to detract the monks from the true essence of monastic life. As early as 1215-1216 in the treasurer accounts, a sum of £12. 2s. was found in the possession of a monk called Luke who had been tempted by proprietas and distracted from the Rule. As such, the two treasurers at Christ Church implemented a system of financial centralisation to control the flow of income and expenses, safeguard against autonomy, and inhibit possible greed. This was conducted in three ways.
Firstly, the treasurers assigned revenues to obedientiaries with a specific attached clause that stated the nature of the expenses that the aforementioned revenue was earmarked for. The accounts of 1221 illustrate, for example, the assignment of £74 16s. to the precentor for ‘ad opus refectorii’. Likewise in 1224, an expense of £168 10s. 5d. was assigned to John the Cellarer specifically for wood.
As stated previously, the cellarer oversaw a vast amount of wealth which was why the treasurers implemented a second restriction whereby the tenure of an obedientiary was controlled on a rotation basis to safeguard the acquisition of wealth and influence. As aforementioned in the analysis of the cellarer, in 1221-1222 no less than three people occupied the office on a rotation cycle.
To fully control the cellarer, however, a third restriction was implemented into the financial system whereby the creation of new officials limited the influence and financial responsibilities of any central obedientiaries. Within the expenses of 1216, £159 13s. 3d. was allocated to John the Kitchener (coquinarius). This role was briefly created in an attempt to deprive the cellarer of his most integral role – feeding the household. Nevertheless, by 1217 this was reabsorbed into the cellarer’s responsibility.
The culmination of these three limitations resulted in a productive and centralised administration with a degree of financial unity. The era of the 1220s was thus the beginning of an age marked by maximum financial control on behalf of the treasurers. Nevertheless, the expenses examined within this chapter shows that the monks lived comfortably and somewhat luxuriously with vast and costly expenses of food, wine, and wood, among other items, clearly demonstrating that the household was endlessly in debt. From various streams of revenues and continuous borrowing, the gap between income and expenditure was exceptionally slim. Equally, the peaks and troughs of the accounts altogether show that the priory had an unstable financial career which was heavily influenced by external factors.
By withdrawing from the individual obedientiaries, we can begin to better understand the topography of this elaborate web of offices under the supervision of the prior. Equally, we can see its growth. In the year 1213, reference was made in the financial accounts to two cellarers, two chamberlains, two sacrists, one almoner, and one garnerer. This, combined with an estimate of one precentor, succentor, infirmarian, refectorarian, five shrine-keepers, four estate wardens, a master of novices, two treasurers, and the prior would result in a complex hierarchy of at least 14 different offices with a minimum of 26 officials.
This, however, does not include a later increase in the number of cellarers, nor does it include the lengthy list of sub-cellarers, sub-sacrists, and sub-chamberlains. This, in conjunction with David Knowles’ argument that by 1207 there were 77 monks at Christ Church, as well as J.B Sheppard’s analysis that “there were usually from 70 to 80 brethren on the books at one time”, it can be estimated these 26 obedientiaries oversaw around 50-60 monks. Be as that may, it also demonstrates that the administrative system of the priory was incredibly detailed, organised, and efficient.
Luke Daly is a Medieval Historian and Author who specialises in monasticism and religion of the Middle Ages. He has published books such as Medieval Latin: A Beginner’s Self-Taught Guide and is soon to publish Saints and Sinners: A History of the Middle Ages through Saints and their Stories with Pen & Sword Books which will be released in June 2024. He is also host of The Daly Medieval Podcast which interviews a wide range of professionals from the academic community.
Top Image: Canterbury Cathedral depicted in the 1882 book The Earth and its Inhabitants – Wikimedia Commons