14th September 1538. No Place for ‘Alien’ Houses.

Hundreds of years before the monastic dissolution of Henry VIII, ‘Alien Priories’, were being closed and their assets dispersed mainly into the pockets of monarchs. 

Those which were mere estates were confiscated and run by royal officers. Most however, were allowed to become ‘naturalised’.

One such in the 14th century was the Cluniac, Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, (responsible to the Abbot of Cluny in France), which on payment of heavy bribes and fines, acquired ‘native’ religious house status.

Ruins of Castle Acre, Priory

Ruins of Castle Acre, Priory.

The priory at Tutbury, Staffordshire, an ‘alien house’, near the Author’s home, managed to hold out until Today in 1538 when Dr Thomas Legh, a renowned monastic suppressor, made a rapid tour of the Midlands, when he accepted the surrender of  Prior Arthur Meverell, along with only eight monks.

medieval priory

Tutbury Priory as it might have looked. Only the restored church remains, though still with its fine Norman west door.


So despite Tutbury Priory once having powerful benefactors in the Levett and de Ferrers families, the Prior a member of a well-known local family went quietly, becoming vicar of the church, with a pension of £50.

The land was leased to Sir William Bassett and in 1552 granted to Sir William Cavendish along with many possessions; he built a house using the stone.

It was back in 1204 that King John lost Normandy, therefore Norman monasteries here and in Ireland were in effect in foreign territory and seen as collecting tithes for France.

These were now classed as ‘Alien Houses’ whose inmates could be removed at pleasure, especially as their rents and tithes were sent out of the country. Some were merely agricultural estates with one resident monk to look after matters, others were rich foundations. King John compelled these Houses to pay into the royal treasury, a tribute or ‘apport’.

In 1295 Edward I followed the custom of confiscating these alien houses, particularly as we were at war with France.

In the war to recover the Province of Guienne, the king seized all the alien priories for revenue, and to prevent foreign monks on the south coast giving help to invaders he forced them back inland 20 miles.

The lands were farmed out to the highest bidder, though provision was made for possession by fine: inevitably they got poorer. Edward II did the same and frequently appointed the priors to ensure compliance.

Edward III restored many to the original owners and waived arrears of payments. Ten years later in the French wars he  again seized the properties, until the peace of 1361, then only to be re-possessed eight years later in a renewal of conflict.

After 1378 French monasteries maintained allegiance to the rival papacy at Avignon, to where subservient ‘alien priories’ here, despatched their exactions. It’s not surprising that the rival popes in Rome supported their closure.

Under Henry V, ninety smaller priories and granges-alien houses-had their fate sealed by an Act of 1414 with properties going to the Crown.


St Neots Benedictine Priory founded c 974 became an alien foundation when it was visited, about 1078/9 by Anselm Abbot of Bec, Normandy (later Archbishop of Canterbury). In 1081 he sent for eighteen monks from Bec to replace the Saxons.

Harmondworth Manor, Middlesex was owned by Earl Harold at the Conquest, when it was seized by the Conqueror. It became an alien house, owned by Rouen Abbey with the priory paying rents and other dues to the Abbey, until Edward I’s confiscation.

Ref: Victoria County Histories: British History Online: Staffordshire.

Ref: Priory at Harmonsworth VCH Vol 1. Ed. Cockburn King and MacDonnell London, 1969.

Ref: helenlees.co.bl0gspot/Image of Priory.

Ref: wikipedia.org/alien_houses.

Ref: googleimages/Castle Acre.



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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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