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Monastic Appropriation

The following text was supplied by Dr. Beryl Taylor, who has written: “the whole subject of appropriation is one which [Professor Denton] selected for attention because very little has been written about it. His aim was to find out how much monastic appropriation had affected church values. [The] work in entering the details on the database was to help him, so that when this had been done, he would be able to do some calculations and find some answers” [BTaylor, 08.12.2020].

Details of appropriation have been added to the database for each parish church listed in the taxatio assessment. If it is shown that a monastery has appropriated a church then this act is likely to have affected its value. For this reason it is important that the practice is understood.

Monastic appropriation of parish churches can be traced from the first half of the 12th century and onwards. These actions began slowly, but increased in frequency throughout the medieval period, until their dissolution at the end of the 15th century.

In the beginning a monastery would make a formal application to the bishop for the right to appropriate a selected parish church. If consent was granted, then the monastery became the Rector, receiving the authority to annexe to its own use whatever tithes and other endowments were held by that parish church, also the right to appoint the priest and administer the church’s income. The bishop’s consent was often only given on condition that the monastery would provide the vicar’s living. If consent was granted in this way, then the previous secular owner lost most of his rights in both the church, the vicarage, and its income.

Because at that time it was considered to be against ecclesiastical law for a layman to hold Spiritualities (i.e. the offerings to the altar of a parish church) it is likely that, in the first years, the bishops were inclined to favour the appropriation of churches by monks, since spiritualities, including tithes, were being transferred away from the lay owner to a monastic house. Although, as Rector, the monastery now had to pay the tax dues for the church, the driving force was probably the need for extra income, perhaps because of increasing pressure from the community on their charitable services. As well as alms for the poor and hospital care for the sick, at that time the monks were also expected to help passing travellers, not only with food but often with board and lodging as well. It has to be noted that, by these acts of appropriation, it is possible that the parish churches, in losing their tithes, lost a good deal of their income.

By the time of the taxatio the more active bishops were already speaking out against the steadily increasing monastic appropriations, or making it a condition that the monks provided a good living for the vicar.

It was also the case that, once the richer churches had been taken over, the appropriating monks were finding the poorer churches less profitable, once they had paid the tax for the benefice and provided the vicar with a stipend, large enough to cover the cost of maintaining the other church servants as well as the fabric of the chancel. It is not surprising to find that the bishops at this time complained that monks often neglected their parish obligations.

Whether appropriation was of benefit to a parish or not is a moot point. These facts should be held in mind when viewing the taxatio valuation of a parish church as the outcome may have varied quite widely. Very little research has, as yet, been done on this subject and much more is needed.

Further reading may be helpful: Colin Platt, The Parish Churches of Medieval England, London, 1981, discusses appropriation and cites individual cases.

© Dr. Beryl Taylor 2020

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