Monasteries and Monasticism in late Medieval Dorset (1290-1540)

  • David Cousins

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Monasticism and monasteries were important features of medieval religion in every English county. The monasteries of Dorset differ from surrounding counties in that the majority were pre-Conquest houses of the Benedictine order. Little is known about them in the late medieval period. Lacking much of the documentation available in other counties, this thesis, therefore, focuses particularly on the demography of the monks and nuns, ecclesiastical patronage, and the management of the estates.
Ordination records identified Dorset monks and nuns and permitted an estimation of their ages. The names assumed by the monks on profession show that a high proportion of Dorset monks were locally recruited; a similar pattern to that reported for Devon and Somerset. The drop in numbers in the mid fifteenth century is in line with reported studies of other monasteries, but there was a recovery of numbers thereafter. Recruitment rates were consistent with a policy of limitation of numbers in the Dorset houses. Post Dissolution pension records, in giving a date of death, enabled simple studies of death rates, showing that life expectancy of former monks was no worse than experienced in a monastery. A close relationship existed between the heads of houses and landowners who subsequently obtained their lands.
Spreadsheets of details of the clerics instituted into benefices of each of the Dorset monasteries were prepared. These show the monastic church of Shaftesbury Abbey was served by a community of clerics who were either instituted to local livings, or chantry chapels, or were appointed as vicars choral by their prebendaries. Each Benedictine house had a few rich livings which attracted well-qualified clerics, who could act as potential advisors or lawyers for the abbeys. Alternatively they were appropriated to enhance the monastery’s annual income. Most livings were too poor for appropriation; these were filled predominantly by non-graduates; those in Shaftesbury livings, often serving in the abbey church. The proportion of graduate clergy instituted by the Dorset monasteries increased from the fourteenth century.
Direct farming of demesnes generally ceased by the fifteenth century, but not by the Dorset monasteries. They maintained large numbers of sheep and directly cultivated their home farms, at least until the Valor assessments. Most of their estates were on the chalk downlands, which are part of the same chalk downlands of Wiltshire, where a similar tendency has been reported. Most of the estates of Sherborne Abbey lay away from this downland, and their farming pattern differed from that of the other houses.
This study has revealed the state of the Dorset monasteries in the late medieval period, enabling comparisons with monasteries in surrounding counties.
Date of Award29 May 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Winchester
SupervisorMichael Hicks (Supervisor) & John Hare (Supervisor)

Cite this

Monasteries and Monasticism in late Medieval Dorset (1290-1540)
Cousins, D. (Author). 29 May 2013

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis