Brother Benedict and Rufford Abbey

Thank you for following the story of Brother Benedict on Twitter.

Brother Benedict is a fictitious character, as are all the monks featuring in his story apart from the abbot, Thomas Doncaster.  Whilst the actual events are also fictitious, they are based on the real lives of monks, with many incidents drawn from the archives of Rufford Abbey, which are held at Nottinghamshire Archives.

Rufford Abbey was founded in about 1146 by Gilbert de Gaunt, the Earl of Lincoln, and was given to the Cistercian order.  The Cistercians are a contemplative order which was founded in order the follow the Rule of St Benedict to a more austere degree than the Benedictines.  Monks of the order led a very simple life based on prayer and manual work.  The austere nature of the order was reflected in the design of the churches, with low towers, plain glass in the windows, iron candlesticks and no decoration.  The monks’ day was punctuated by the seven canonical hours, when the divine office would be celebrated.  These hours were Matins (with Lauds), Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, and feature prominently in Brother Benedict’s account of life at the abbey.

Brother Benedict makes references to the land the abbey held, and its granges or farms.  Many grants of land were made to Rufford during the Middle Ages, as well as privileges and rights such as the felling of timber (referred to when two of the lay brothers take timber to market).  Rufford was also given a royal licence for a weekly Friday market and an annual eight day Midsummer fair at Rotherham in 1316.  The surviving charters are now held at Nottinghamshire Archives.

The corrodian, Margaret Rierley, did exist; however, she actually lived at Rufford with a relative, Edward, in the thirteenth century, and is referred to in a charter which says they ‘are given cloth and ale to be collected by themselves from the bakehouse and also a house that lay within the gates of the monastery and a garden’.

Brother Benedict talks about the perambulation of the Forest Bounds, which were copied into the Forest Book.  These perambulations took place frequently during the Middle Ages, with the objective of establishing the extent and bounds of the forest and determining which areas of land were subject to forest law.  There is mention of them in the Rufford Abbey Forest Book in the fifteenth century.  This book is now held at Nottinghamshire Archives.

A number of the incidents which several monks, especially Brothers Gregory and Joseph, were involved in, were drawn from a list of rules compiled by two Cistercian abbots who inspected the abbey in 1481 and found it was not following the order’s rules as strictly as it should.  It makes reference to singing in time within the choir and not lingering after Compline has finished, and punishments imposed on those who broke these rules included flogging.  Other elements of these monks’ stories come from incidents recorded in the Visitation records of the Southwell Chapter, where the Vicars Choral at Southwell Minster were regularly reported as having acted inappropriately.

Rufford Abbey did hold a relic of the Virgin Mary.  It claimed to hold some of the Virgin’s milk.  This was recorded by the Royal Commissioners at the dissolution as a superstition.

Rufford Abbey was one of the earliest monasteries to have been dissolved during the Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century.  The two Royal Commissioners whom Brother Benedict mentions, Legh and Layton, did visit Rufford Abbey in 1536, although the accusations they made against the monks are generally agreed by historians to have been slanderous fabrications in order to justify the closure of the abbey.  The claims included the accusation that six monks had disgraceful characters and six desired release from their vows; and that the abbot, Thomas Doncaster, had been incontinent with six women, four or whom were married.  This is likely to have been a false accusation since on 2 July 1536 the abbot was given a pension of £25, an unlikely move if he had disgraced himself in such a way; this pension was withdrawn after his appointment to the rectory at Rotherham.  The lands at Rufford were valued by Henry VIII’s chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, to be worth £100 with debts of £20.  Some of the abbey land and buildings were leased to a local knight from nearby Ollerton called Sir John Markham.  In October 1537 the abbey and all its farms and lands were valued at £246 15s 5d and were granted to George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury.

Find out more…




    Medieval tweets and blogs « wild rock honey January 30th, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    [...] I have enjoyed following @BrotherBenedict on twitter as he charted the progress of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 from the point of view of a young Cistercian monk. He was based in Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire. The story of Brother Benedict uses archives and records held at Nottinghamshire Archives, drawing from the history of mediaeval Rufford and other places including Southwell Minster. It is designed to give an insight into what life would have been like in a monastery on the eve of the Reformation. Here is some more information about his fictitious story and about Rufford Abbey itself: [...]


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Nottinghamshire Archives holds records relating to the history of Nottinghamshire and Nottingham from the 12th to the 21st century.