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The Almonry School of Norwich Cathedral Priory in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Joan Greatrex*
Robinson College, Cambridge


In 1535 the monks of Norwich Cathedral Priory made the following report:

Each year there are thirteen boys dwelling within the monastery and receiving free instruction in the scola grammaticalis or ‘almery scole’. They are also given food and clothing, which costs us 26s. 8d. per head per annum. In addition a master is provided to teach the boys, together with a servant to attend to their other needs; the former is paid an annual stipend of 53s. 4d., and the latter 20s. This school was founded by Herbert, the first bishop of the see of Norwich and the founder of the monastic cathedral community.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1994

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I wish to thank Barbara Dodwell, Barbara Harvey, and Paul Cattermole for their helpful comments and suggestions after reading an earlier draft of this paper.


1 Caley, J. and Hunter, j. eds. Valor Ecclesiasticus, Record Publications, 6 vols (1810-34), 3. P. 287 Google Scholar. This statement, paraphrased here, was made necessary by the Act of Supremacy, which required from every religious house a detailed account of all regular expenditures that could be regarded as charitable. Fifteen years earlier a monk had informed the bishop during a visitation that the number of boys was down to only eight: Jessopp, A. ed., Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich, AD 1492-1532 = Camden Society, ns 13 (1888), p. 192 Google Scholar.

2 For details of the foundation of both cathedral and monastery, see Dodwell, B.The Foundation of Norwich Cathedral’, TRHS, ser. 5, 7 (1957), pp. 118 Google Scholar.

3 st Benedict prescribed the form for the ceremony of child oblation in ch.59 of his Rule, and he also laid down regulations for the care and training of the children in chs 30, 37, 39, 45, 63, 70; Abbot Justin McCann’s edition, The Rule of St Benedict (London, 1952), provides both the Latin and English text.

4 Anstruther, R. ed., Epistolae Heiberti de Losinga, primi episcopi Norwicensis (London and Brussels, 1846; reprinted New York, 1969), p. 33 Google Scholar. In another letter he addressed the adolescentes, ibid., p. 99:‘Adolescentes, non dedignemini vestri pedagogi correctionem, et praeparate absentes quid meae praesenti condignum respondeatis.’ However, these were possibly juvenes or young monks.

5 Knowles, D. ed., The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc (London, 1951), pp. 4, 21, 31, 234 Google Scholar, where the word incipiet when used in the context of the office probably meant ‘intone’.

6 This manuscript, which is mainly concerned with liturgical practice, has been transcribed and edited by Tolhurst, J. B. L. The Customary of the Cathedral Priory of Norwich - Henry Bradshaw Society (London, 1948)Google Scholar [hereafter, Norwich Customary].

7 The introduction to the Norwich Customary discusses these problems in some detail, ibid., pp. xiii—xix.

8 Knowles, D. The Monastic Order in England (Cambridge, 1966), pp. 4212 Google Scholar, where the main reasons for their disappearance are attributed to the improved facilities for education outside the cloister and to changes in ecclesiastical legislation.

9 Tolhurst, Norwich Customary, pp. 76, 135, 187.

10 The Worcester document is Worcester Cathedral Muniment [hereafter WCM] B. 680.

11 This Rochester reference occurs in an injunction issued by the archbishop after a visitation. R. Graham, ed., Registrum Roberti Winchelsey, Cantuariensis archiepiscopi. AD 1204-1313, 2 vols, Canterbury and York Society (1952-6), 2, p. 841.

12 Evans, S. J. A. ed., Ely Chapter Ordinances - Camden Society, 3rd series, 64, Camden Miscellany, 17(1940), pp. 389.Google Scholar

13 It was normal Benedictine practice to collect the ‘broken meats’ from the refectory for distribution among the poor; this included the almonry boys as well as the old and sick who were cared for within the monastery precincts or nearby, and also the poor at the monastery gates.

14 Roger Bowers, ‘Choral institutions within the English Church: their constitution and development, 1340-1500’ (University of East Anglia, Ph.D. thesis, 1975), p. 4086. I am grateful to Dr Bowers for his perceptive comments and suggestions while this paper was in progress.

15 These clerici appear as such on the almoner’s accounts in 1378/81 and 1389/90; Norfolk Record Office [hereafter NRO], DCN 1/6/18-20,23; in 1390/1 they were clerici sanete Marieibid., 1/6/24.

16 NRO, DCN 1/1/13; the master of the cellar was the equivalent of the bursar or treasurer at other Benedictine houses.

17 NRO, DCN 1/1/19, 1/6/9.

18 NRO, DCN 1/6/10 (1328/9), DCN 1/6/12 (1339/40); these items are headed ‘custus puerorum et famille’.

19 NRO, DCN 1/1/16.

20 Fowler, J. T. ed., Extracts from the Account Rolls of the Abbey of Durham, 3 vols, Surtees Society (1898-1901)Google Scholar [hereafter Account Rolls of Durham], l, p. 212, 2, pp. 385, 574 and many other references. The conclusive evidence for their identity at Norwich is found in the early-fifteenth-century sacrist’s accounts: on the feast of the Trinity in 1400/1 it was the clerks of St Nicholas who received gifts of gloves for their participation in the special ceremonies attached to the celebration of the cathedral’s dedication, but in 1405 and 1406 similar entries name the almonry boys as the recipients, NRO, DCN 1/4/44, 47. 48.

21 NRO, DCN 92/1. These injunctions have been transcribed, not always accurately, by Carter, E. H. Studies in Norwich Cathedral History (Norwich, 1935)Google Scholar, where this article is found on pp. 21–2.

22 Pantin, W. A. General and Provincial Chapters of the English Black Monks, 1215-1540, 3 vols = Camden Society, 3rd ser., 45, 47, 54 (1931-7), 3 (54), p. 281 Google Scholar; Fowler, Account Rolls of Durham, 2, p. 406 Knowles states that before c.1150 the older child oblates acted as the servers: The Religious Orders in England, 3 vols (Cambridge, 1948-59), 2, p. 294; lay brethren or conversi, where they existed, would also have performed this duty.

23 There are no surviving almoner’s accounts between c.1355 and 1378/9.

24 Cheney, C. R.Norwich Cathedral Priory in the fourteenth century’, BJRL, 20 (1936), p. 112 Google Scholar; this contains a transcription of the injunctions from the original which is now Manchester, John Rylands Library, Latin MS 226, and from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 370 which is a contemporary copy.

25 Evans, Ely Chapter Ordinances, pp. 38-9, dated 1314; M. R. Foster, ‘Durham Cathedral Priory 1229-1333: Aspects of the Ecclesiastical History and Interests of the Monastic Community’ (Cambridge, Ph.D. thesis, 1979), pp. 181-2. Dr Foster has found evidence to suggest the existence of an almonry school at Durham in the early thirteenth century, ibid., p. 181.

26 Financial stringency, or indeed financial prosperity, is difficult to gauge because of obedientiary accounting methods which were subject to change; moreover, the variable headings, frequent rearrangement of individual entries and only a partial and therefore misleading record of transactions hinder interpretation and warn against hasty judgement. However, a few relevant facts should prove helpful: the almoner’s account of 1378/9 (NRO, DCN 1/6/18) follows a thirty-year gap and records that he was then carrying a deficit of £38 (which had probably been accumulating over a number of years) on an income of only £71; his income was decreasing and his expenses rising during the second half of the fourteenth century; the cost of maintaining his household (custus puerorum etfamilie)was about £6 in 1354/5 (ibid., 1/6/17) and had increased to £15 (custusfamilie) in 1379/80 (ibid., 1/6/19), but these figures must be treated with caution because of the changes and rearrangements referred to above.

27 Paul Cattermole in Richard Harries, Paul Cattermole, and Mackintosh, Peter A History of Norwich School, King Edward VI’s Grammar School at Norwich (Norwich, 1991)Google Scholar, p. 7. The names occur in 1407/8, 1409/10, between 1419 and 1427 and in 1436/7, NRO, DCN 1/6/36, 39, 46-57, 62.

28 NRO, DCN 1/6/18. The obvious conclusion is that the boys were considered as full members of the almoner’s familia and therefore rarely distinguishable from the others in his household.

29 NRO, DCN 1/6/19.

30 NRO, DCN 1/6/20. There are only two known relatives of monks, both of whom were fee-paying boarders rather than poor relations: the nephew of Brother Richard Helyngton between 1420 and 1422 and the nephew of the Prior of the dependent cell of Yarmouth in 1422/3; in the latter case the Prior himself paid the fees, NRO, DCN 1/6/47, 48, 50.

31 NRO, DCN 1/6/30, 31; the two were the sons of Robert Martham and of Wastwyk.

32 The number of boys at Glastonbury abbey in 1377 was reported to have been thirty-nine: Orme, N. English Schools in the Middle Ages (London, 1973), p. 244 Google Scholar. At Westminster Abbey there were twenty-eight boys in 1385/6 and twenty-two in 1389/90: Westminster Abbey Muniments 23712, 23716 (I owe this reference to Miss Harvey).

33 NRO, DCN 1/12/33. In 1436/7 the almoner bought a key for the door of the school ‘iuxta claustrum’, ibid., 1/6/62. We have no assurance that this was the schoolroom used by the boys rather than by the novices; perhaps it was shared, since there is record of the Winchester boys and novices sharing the same master in the sixteenth century: Winchester Cathedral Muniments, Priory Register III, fol. 83V. Writing in the mid-twelfth century, Thomas of Monmouth ascribed to the boy martyr St William of Norwich, after his temporary burial in the chapter house, the desire ‘to rest awhile in the chapter house among the boys’, and James, M. R. concluded that lessons may have been taught there; if so, this was surely a temporary measure: Jessopp, A. and James, eds. The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich (Cambridge, 1896), pp. xx, 187 Google Scholar.

34 NRO,DCN 1/12/51. St Mary in the Marsh presumably served as the parish church for those lay officials and servants of the priory who lived within the precincts.

35 Garcio, another word for boy, was generally used for a young page boy or servant, but the gamones elemosinarife at Winchester in 1316/17 were the almonry boys: Kitchin, G. W. ed., Computus Rolls of the Obedientiaries of St Swithun’s Priory, Winchester, Hampshire Record Society (1892), p. 401 Google Scholar; cf.Evans, S. J. A.Ely almonry boys and choristers in the later Middle Ages’, in Conway Davies, J. ed.,Studies Presented to Sir Hilary fenkinson (London, 1957), p. 159.Google Scholar

36 In 1363/4 and later years the sacrist regularly employed several and these were sometimes referred to as clerici ecclesie, or individually as clericus capelle Marie or clericus beate Marie, clericus crucis and so on according to their various responsibilities, NRO, DCN 1/4/35, 36,42,46.

37 For sweeping in the 1430s and later years, NRO, DCN 1/12/57 (as pueri), 1/12/59 (as clerici). The precentor’s account for 1352/3 contains the following entry: ‘In ostens[atione librorum in quadrages[ima duobus pueris custod[ientibus libros ix d’, ibid., DCN 1/9/6. The rule concerning the monks’ Lenten reading comes from St Benedict himself; see McCann, The Rule of St Benedict, pp. 111-13.

38 See above n. 15.

39 NRO, DCN 4/5, and also Wakering’s will in Jacob, E. F. ed., The Register of Henry Chichele, 4 vols., Canterbury and York Society (1937-47), 2, p. 312.Google Scholar

40 Greatrex, J. ed., The Register of the Common Seal of the Priory of St Swithun, Winchester, 1345–1497, Hampshire Record Series, 2 (1979), p. 22.Google Scholar

41 However, there was a magister altaris Marie under the sacrist’s authority as early as 1293, NRO, DCN 1/4/11.

42 There are several references to the almoner’s payments to the launderer for washing the boys’ surplices, for example, in 1425/6 (NRO, DCN 1/6/55) and in 1436/7 (ibid., 1/6/62). A stimulating article on the medieval music and choir at Winchester, based on extensive research in the Winchester Cathedral archives by Dr Roger Bowers, will appear shortly in JEH.

43 He occurs regularly on obedientiary accounts between 1442/3 and 1455/6, NRO, DCN 1/12/60, 66, and the Lady Mass continues to be recorded as an expense until 1469/70, DCN 1/12/70. In July 1403 M. John Hancok was appointed headmaster of the episcopal school but by 1423 he had moved to the almonry school, while continuing to be in charge of the episcopal school through a deputy, NRO, DN Reg. 3/6, fol. 298V, DN Reg. 4/8 fol. 155 and Cattermole, Norwich School, pp. 16-17.

45 The lack of a grammar master to teach the monks was reported at a visitation in 1514, Jessopp, Visitations, p. 77, and see n. 1 above.

46 Courtenay, W.J. Schools and Scholars in Fourteenth-Century England (Princeton, 1987), pp. 10611 Google Scholar. There is evidence of a cathedral school at Worcester in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which provided public lectures in theology by university trained monks: Greatrex, J.Benedictine monk scholars as teachers and preachers in the Later Middle Ages: evidence from Worcester Cathedral Priory’, Monastic Studies, 2 (1991), p. 217 Google Scholar.

47 For example, Thomas Brinton, later bishop of Rochester, Adam Easton, cardinal priest of St Cecilia, John de Mari and John Stukle; see Greatrex, J.Monk students from Norwich Cathedral Priory at Oxford and Cambridge, c.1300 to 1530’, EHR, 106 (1991), pp. 55583 Google Scholar, especially the appendices, pp. 579-83.

48 Noting the fact that in 1468 four former pupils of the almonry school of Canterbury cathedral were clothed as monks. Prof. Knowles suggested that this was a frequent occurrence but rarely recorded, Religious Orders, 2, p. 296, and quoting Searle, W. G.The chronicle of john Stone, monk of Christ Church, 1415-1471’, Cambridge Antiquarian Society, no. 34 (1902), p. 106 Google Scholar.

49 The volume is now Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 325; I am grateful to the Master and Fellows of the College for permission to consult it.

50 Orme, English Schools, pp. 249-51.

51 Vincent de Beauvais’ treatise was owned by Brother John de Strattone senior in the early fourteenth century and he may have been one of the monk instructors; see n. 49 above.

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