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Newnham Priory

Newnham Priory seal
Newnham Priory seal

Newnham Priory was founded during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189) by Augustinian Order of canons regular, or monks. The actual date of foundation is unknown but the founder was Simon de Beauchamp, Baron of Bedford. The cartulary, or lists of possessions, of the priory survives in the British Museum. It was transcribed and translated for Bedfordshire Historical Record Society in the 1960s by former county archivist Joyce Godber as the society’s Volume XLIII in two parts.

G. R. C. Davis of the British Museum stated: “A collegiate church of Saint Paul already existed in Bedford at the time of the Domesday survey [1086]. In about 1166 this became an Augustinian priory, which was moved between 1178 and 1181 to Newnham, in Goldington, on the outskirts of the town, where it remained uneventfully and unpretentiously, but not unprosperously, until its dissolution”.

There is a story that the priory was founded following a murder. In her 1978 book The Story of Bedford Joyce Godber wrote: “This foundation came abot because of a murder in Bedford in 1164, in which a canon of Saint Paul’s was involved. At this time there were six canons, Archdeacon Nicholas and five others: William, Gilbert, Philip, Ralf and Richard. Their prebends amounted to 37 tenements and about 130 acres, mainly in Bedford, but some also in Biddenham and Goldington. Canon Philip, who came of the de Broy family of Bletsoe, killed a man. We cannot now know what the circumstances were, if it was in self-defence or inadvertently, but even if the best possible construction is put upon it, it remains an unedifying incident. The case is national history, in that it sparked off a dispute between Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket. It must have caused anxiety to the archdeacon, and also perplexity to the leading local family, the Beauchamps at the castle. Something must be done to maintain the good name of the canons of Saint Paul. The widowed countess Rose de Beauchamp, and her young son Simon, recently some of age, decided to act”.

On its foundation Simon de Beauchamp gifted Saint Paul’s in Bedford to the priory as well as twelve other churches (Aspley Guise, Great Barford, Cardington, Goldington, Cockayne Hatley, Ravensden, Renhold, Southill, Stagsden, Turvey, Willington and Wootton). William, son of Robert gave the church of Lower Gravenhurst and Nigel de Salford that of Salford. Later the church of All Saints, Bedford was added and Elias Taillebois added Wrestlingworth. Later on the priory was able to church of Holcot and that of Eynesbury in Huntingdonshire.

As well as churches the priory was crucially endowed with land, leasing which gave it an income. The priory also held the manors of Goldington, Biddenham, Cardington, Sharnbrook, Ravensden, Renhold, Stotfold and Wootton ad would have collected fines from its tenants for doing such things as selling property, willing property and transgressing by letting their cattle stray or watering the beer. Land was also held in Stagsden, Great Barford Willington, Southill and Edworth.

Henry VIII (1509-1547) closed all the religious houses in England in order to help himself to their wealth once he had made himself Head of the Church of England. The last prior, John Burne, surrendered Newnham in 1541, the site of the priory and a meadow called the Great Garden was granted by the Crown to Urian Brereton.

The position of the priory is stated by Joyce Godber to have been: “just outside Bedford at Newnham (at the south end of what is now Newnham Avenue and by the little bridge still called Newnham bridge)”. It was from this point that the boundary of pre-1934 Goldington ran west along the river in a long, narrow finger.

Volume I of The Victoria County History, published in 1904 says: “Of the internal history of the priory we know very little. It seems to have had a good reputation at all times. Hervey, the prior in 1228 was commissioned in that year, with Richard de Morins of Dunstable, to visit all the houses of their order throughout the dioceses of Lincoln and Coventry; two priors resigned in consequence. In [Bishop of Lincoln] Grossetete’s unsparing visitations of 1235 and 1249 no charge was laid against this house; and no other visitation is recorded until that of Bishop Burghersh some time before 1322. The prior at that time, John of Astwick, was very unpopular, and anxious in consequence to resign; but the bishop thought it sufficient to urge the brethren to be more exact in their obedience. Bishop Buckingham sent an order in 1387 that ‘peace should be established between the priories of Newnham and Caldwell’ … a year later a brother was received back, who had become an apostate through discontent and was now repentant. At the visitation of Bishop Grey (1431-1436) the discipline of the house was still good; all the bishop enjoined was that the sub-prior should do the work of the prior, now grown old and feeble. Later, when Cardinal Wolsey undertook to reform the whole Augustinian order, it seems that Newnham was still amongst the more satisfactory houses”.

“Prior John Ashwell, with fourteen canons and two lay brothers, signed an acknowledgement of the royal supremacy in 1535. It is probable that these seventeen were but a small proportion of the original number. Nothing is known of the circumstances of the surrender of the house, except that it was made by a prior who had not been long in office and took place on 2nd January 1541. A pension of £60 was granted to the prior, John Burne, and pensions of other sums to fifteen canons besides”.

A partial list of the priors can be reconstructed and is as follows:

  • William: mentioned in the year 1164;
  • Radulphus: 1198;
  • Eustace, died 1225: 1223;
  • Harveius, prior of Oseney Abbey [Oxfordshire]: 1225
  • Walter, died 26th May 1247: 1238;
  • Walter de Chalverstone, died 18th Jun 1254: 1247;
  • Stephen: 1254;
  • William le Franceys, elected prior on licence of John, Baron de Beauchamp on the death of Stephen: 24th July 1264;
  • William le Rus*, on death of William le Franceys: 4th November 1271;
  • Michael de Goldington, on death of William le Rus, Michael died 1283;
  • John de Bedeford, on the death of Michael de Goldington: 1st June 1284;
  • Adam de Schireburn, sub-prior, on the resignation of John de Bedeford: 3rd August 1300;
  • William de Bydenham, occurs in 1300;
  • William de Thorp, on the death of William de Bydenham: 11th January 1308;
  • John de Astwyk, on the resignation of William de Thorp: 1315;
  • John de Agmundesham, on the death of John de Estwyk: c. 1346;
  • Henry de Wodeford, on the resignation of John de Agmondesham; "no licence obtained according to their Charter by which they need not seek founder's consent unless he be in the county of Bedford, whereas it is notorious that he resides out of the county": 19th January 1349;
  • William de Wodeford, on the death of Henry de Wodeford; still prior in 1362: 18th September 1349;
  • Nicholas Baldock;
  • John de Byddenham, on the death of Nicholas de Baldock: 14th November 1369;
  • William Woketon, on the death of John de Bydenham who died 13th November 1395; licence to elect from William de Beauchamp, founder: 16th December 1395;
  • Angerius;
  • John Bromham: 1437;
  • John: 1490
  • Henry de Newnham: 1493, mentoned in 1512;
  • John Ashwell, graduate of Cambridge University; author of letters sent of Bishop of Lincoln against George Joye, printed at Strasbourg in 1527: 1527;
  • John Burne.
The de Rus or “Rous” or “the Red” family were prominent locally. Simon the Red was coroner from at least 1265 to at least 1269. Sir Geoffrey the Red was sheriff in 1266 and the 1270s. The family held the manor of Pilling Rowsberry in Wootton.