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Abingdon Museum Blog

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There are many ways to explore the museum collection and the history and heritage of Abingdon. This page is a space decicated to museum stories and its collection as well as the town's history, past events and everything related to Abingdon.

New Blog Post - 28th July 2020
 

Thomas Cromwell and Abingdon

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Thomas Cromwell, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

The 28th of July 2020 is the 480th anniversary of Thomas Cromwell’s death. On this day in 1540 he was taken from the Tower, where he had been incarcerated since the 10th of June, to the scaffold on Tower Hill and executed.

Since this is the blog of Abingdon Museum, I will take this anniversary as a prompt to look at the various points of contact between Cromwell’s life and the history of Abingdon.

Thomas Cromwell actually visited Abingdon probably only once: in July 1535, when he was part of the king’s entourage on his summer progress. The king’s party arrived on 14th July, stayed at the Abbey for a couple of nights, and departed again on 16th July.

Apart from this brief personal visit, Cromwell influenced Abingdon affairs more remotely in one way or another, most obviously as the administrative engine behind the dissolution of the monasteries, but also through his dealings with individual Abingdon people.

But what I want to mention first is the assumption that for some years Cromwell was High Steward of Abingdon Abbey. The post of High Steward was more or less a sinecure, a job which brought the holder an income without having to do any actual work or needing to be present in Abingdon. It was bestowed by the crown on deserving courtiers. The post could also be sold by one holder to another. Other interesting people had been High Steward before Cromwell, among them Henry Norris – but that is another story. I have taken this information from a list of Abbey High Stewards drawn up by Manfred Brod for the AAAHS. No mention of Abingdon is made in any of the biographies of Cromwell I have consulted (seven in total). Neither is the office mentioned in Cromwell’s entry in the History of Parliament, although, after listing around forty of his offices, it adds in exasperation “numerous minor offices” without enumerating them, so the office of High Steward might be comprised in there. According the Manfred Brod’s list, Edward Seymour, Viscount Beauchamp (later Duke of Somerset), gained (presumably purchased) the office from the Duke of Norfolk in 1537 and is supposed to have held it until shortly before his execution in 1552. However, according to the same list, the office was also held by Thomas Cromwell from 1538. He “seems to have eclipsed Beauchamp”, but I am not sure what that means. Did the two men hold the office concurrently? Did they share it (and the income in brought)? Or did Cromwell take over in 1538, only for the office to revert to Viscount Beauchamp in 1540? It is worth noting that even after the dissolution of the Abbey, the office of High Steward remained for a while. The last High Steward was John Mason, who followed on from the Duke of Somerset.
 

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Edward Seymour, Viscount Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Somerset, and High Steward of Abingdon Abbey, by an unknown artist

The post of High Steward of the Abbey is not to be confused with that of Steward of the Abbey lands, also described as the Abbey’s Bailiff. The Steward was actually in Abingdon and actively involved in the administration of the land and the finances connected with it. In 1535, Cromwell became involved in a dispute between the Steward of the Abbey lands, John Audelett, and the abbot, Thomas Rowland (alias Pentecost). The dispute centred on the Abbey accounts for the year ending 1534. Audelett claimed that the Abbot owed him money, and the Abbot claimed the reverse. Cromwell sent a commission to Abingdon to try and sort things out. The dispute dragged on for a long time, however. The Victoria County History of Berkshire lays the blame at the feet of Audelett, who, it says, put “every impediment in the way of a settlement”. This was certainly the view taken by the Abbot. In a letter to Cromwell he complains of Audelett’s reluctance to co-operate with the commission. He wrote that he had hoped to “make a ende before the feaste of the natyvyte of our Lord” but that Audelett “makyth delay and so entendith that noe ende shalbe made by the same day”.

Eventually Audelett agreed to pay the money he owed. The leases of Abbey land, of which he was stripped at the start of the dispute, were returned to him. However, Audelett had already been ill for some time, and in November 1536 he died. His widow Katherine remained in possession of the leases and took over her husband’s wool trade and money lending business, assisted by her nephews.
 

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Letter from the Abbot Thomas Rowland to Cromwell, concerning the dispute with Audelett.
Photocopy in the Museum’s archive.

This was not the end of Cromwell’s involvement with the Audeletts. Even though the dispute had ended with Audelett having to pay a large sum of money, they can’t have been dissatisfied with the outcome, or at least not with Cromwell’s role in bringing it about. In subsequent years, Katherine Audelett appealed to him for help in several matters. She had good reason to do so, and she was not the only one, for, as historian John Schofield put it, “Tudor women were not slow to turn directly to Cromwell for help in time of need”. One issue Katherine Audelett complained about was that she had not received a settlement which was due to her from a Harry Huttoft. It appears that Cromwell wrote Huttoft a stern letter, and Huttoft paid up. Katherine Audelett also wrote to Cromwell when one of her nephew’s servants was attacked by another man’s servant. “Perhaps”, writes John Schofield, “she received no satisfaction from the local justice – she does not give a reason – but obviously she knew where to go in time of need.”
 

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Henry VIII: Thomas Cromwell came to Abingdon with his travelling court in July 1535.
Painted by Hans Holbein the Younger.

This brings me, finally, to the dissolution of the Abbey. Abingdon Abbey is often described as one of the largest and wealthiest monasteries in the country. From 1535, commissions had visited all religious institutions to assess their financial worth in order to correctly set the new taxes for them. This survey resulted in a massive work, the Valor Ecclesiasticus, drawn up county by county. However, the Valor for Berkshire is lost, so we don’t know exactly how much Abingdon Abbey might have been worth at the point of dissolution. There are also conflicting reports of the state of the Abbey in 1538. The Abbey church itself might still have been quite splendid, but when Richard Rich, the Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, surveyed the site, he reported to Cromwell that most of the buildings were in a sad state of disrepair and reckoned that the best thing to do would be to pull them down. As it happens, some of them still survive today.

There is no scope in this blogpost to discuss the motivation for and evolution of the dissolution of the monasteries. The complexity of the issue is indicated by Diarmuid MacCulloch when he writes: “Suspicion of clergy, greed for monastic wealth and genuine desire for a satisfactory measure of reformation contended untidily in this debate.” The suspicion of clergy was fuelled by another work which was the result of a series of visitations, the “comperta”, summaries of findings of monastic vice. The visits had been organised by Cromwell, and his associate Dr Leighton was the one compiling the report of Abingdon. The Abbot Thomas Rowland came in for quite a bit of criticism, although whether the accusations levelled at him were entirely true is doubtful, since a good bit of gossip was contained in the reports as well. It was enough, though, for Cromwell to issue an injunction which confined the monks to their premises.

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Richard Rich, who surveyed the Abbey when it was dissolved and reported his findings to Cromwell.
Sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger.

The dissolution began in 1536 with the smaller houses, but was gradually widened to apply to larger institutions as well. The last monasteries in England were closed in 1540. Abingdon Abbey surrendered in February 1538. This very likely did not come as a surprise, and the monks would have been able to prepare for the event for months. The Abbot, the Prior and the 24 monks received pensions, and the Abbot moved to his house at Cumnor Place. John Wellesbourne, who was Cromwell’s man in Abingdon at the time, reported to his master: “The abbot that was, his monks and servants are so contented that there is no grudge in word and deed in town or country.” Clearly the dissolution of Abingdon Abbey had gone as smoothly as possible. Wellesbourne was followed by Richard Riche, who arrived later in February to survey the Abbey buildings and decide what was to be done with them. Thomas Cromwell did not visit Abingdon again, but both Wellesbourne and Rich reported to him, and others also kept him informed about the situation in the town. Their reports taken together with communications from people such as Katherine Audelett  show that although Cromwell’s connection with Abingdon was a more remote one, the name of the town would not infrequently cropped up in his correspondence. It also shows that all the changes in government and religion which happened during Thomas Cromwell’s lifetime – and indeed were often initiated by him – made themselves felt in Abingdon and had an impact on the lives of the people there.

By Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer.
Abingdon County Hall Museum

 

Sources:

Mieneke Cox, The Story of Abingdon Part Two: Medieval Abingdon

Diarmuid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell. A Life (Allen Lane 2018)

John Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant (The History Press 2011)

Online Resources:

Victoria County History of Berkshire: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/berks/vol2

History of Parliament online, entry for Thomas Cromwell: https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1509-1558/member/cromwell-thomas-1485-1540

List of Abbey Stewards: https://www.aaahs.org.uk/files/Abbey%20Stewards.pdf

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