9th February 1538. Town and Cowl.

Today in 1538 the last abbot of St. Mary’s Abbey, Abingdon, Berkshire, Thomas Pentecost alias Rowland, signed the Deed of Surrender and then departed with his 34 monks.(1)

Long gallery at Abingdon. Pic Ref. below

Long gallery at Abingdon. Pic Ref. below

He was among the first to acknowledge the royal supremacy of Henry VIII. In retiring without trouble, he was granted the Manor of Cumnor for life. One not so lucky was the Abbot of Reading in the same county who was Hanged Drawn and Quartered on a a vague charge of high treason

Abingdon waterway. Pic ref. below.

View from Abingdon Lock of  waterway to Abingdon cut by monks between 955-963.
Pic ref. below.

Founded in 7th century the Benedictine Abbey at Abingdon received from Oxford 100 eels per year in exchange for permission to build a navigation channel on church land.(2)

Between the 1066 Norman Conquest and the 16th century Monastic Dissolution, Abingdon prospered in parallel with the rise of nearby academic Oxford. In the time of Henry I (died 1135) the number of monks rose from 28 to 80. and patrons gave the monastery many lands, including the Manor and Church of S. Mary Abbots, Kensington. London.

The common  notion of monastic life as one removed from the hustle and bustle of life, spent in prayer, solitude and contemplation is undermined when one examines the many conflicts between town and  monastery; town and cowl (head covering of a monk.

Early trouble came in the reign of Henry II resulting from market privileges, previously granted to Abingdon by Edward the Confessor and Henry I, when there was an attack disputing the Royal Charters, by the inhabitants of Wallingford and Oxford.

They managed to get from Henry II, before he went abroad, ‘ad interim’ prohibition of Abingdon’s market. So now confident of backing, the men of Wallingford, under the Constable of the royal castle descended on Abingdon and cleared the market.

Further trouble ensued in the 14th century, presaging the Oxford ‘Town and Gown’ riots, Abingdon had the the ‘Town and Cowl’ riots in 1327, a rebellion against the bureaucratic control of the town by the monks.

The Abbey was invaded with burning and looting, led by the Vicar of St. Helen’s in a rebellion over burials which were required to take place in the monastic cemetery, for a fee, rather than at the church.

Retribution resulted in excommunication of those holding fairs outside the jurisdiction of the Abbot and those who had robbed the Abbey or committed sacrilege. It also included those who had attempted to secure control of the Abbot’s Monday markets at the Hundreds of Sutton and Ock, and elect the Provost and Bailiffs. What the later writer Leland called ‘ple for fraunchese’.(3)

The early 14th century was an uncertain time with anti-clericalism and opportunistic violence directed to national political ends. It was accompanied by rioting in St. Albans, Bury St. Edmunds, Abingdon and Oxford.

Political troubles 1326-27 culminated in the departure  and murder of Edward II, and the establishment of a new government under a young Edward III.

Nowadays there are few monastic remains at Abingdon which is now in Oxfordshire, and even fewer eels in the Thames.

(1) The revenues at the dissolution (26 Henry VIII) were £1876-10-9d.

(2) Chronicles of Abingdon Abbey. Mid 11c.

(3) Information from Brian Twyne an Oxford antiquary who had access to documents and state papers of Edward III and Calendar of Papal Letters and Provincial Council at S.Paul’s.

Ref: berkshirehistory.com/articles/abbey_riots.

Ref: oxfordmail.co.uk/news.

Ref: The Chronicles of Abingdon Abbey for late Saxon and early Norman history.

Ref: wikipedia.org.abingdon_abbey. Also Pic Refs. geograph.Claire Ward.

Ref: british-history.ac.uk/berks/Vol 2/pp 51-62.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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