The Foundation of Thurgarton Priory

This article explores the origins of the Augustinian Priory of St.Peter at Thurgarton.

Figure 1 Reconstruction of the Priory Church, Thurgarton

There are two foundation charters for Thurgarton Priory but neither contains an exact date for the birth of the priory – sometime in the 1130s seems to be a reasonably safe estimate (1).  The first charter was issued in the presence of the Chapter of Southwell Minster by Thurstan, Archbishop of York and states that :-‘Ralph Dayncourt, on our advice and counsel, grants to God and the church of St Peter at Thurgarton and the regular canons who serve God there, all the churches of his lands’

The second charter was issued by Ralph Dayncourt, again before the Chapter of Southwell Minster, but after the death of Archbishop Thurstan and reads :-  ‘I, Ralph de Ayncurt, for the good of my soul, and the souls of my sons and daughters, my parents, my wife Basilia and all our ancestors, have founded a house of religion at Thurgarton, and grant to the regular canons who there serve God and St. Peter, on the counsel and entreaty of Thurstan, Archbishop of York, of blessed memory, all my land at Thurgarton and Fiskerton, the park next to Thurgarton and all the churches of my lands’.

Central to the founding of Thurgarton Priory therefore were both baron and  bishop – Ralph Dayncourt and Thurstan, Archbishop of York, but before examining those two key figures we need to briefly look at the Augustinians and at the church in early Norman England.

The church in early Norman England

Within a few years of 1066, Norman clerics filled all the senior ecclesiastical offices of England (2).The Norman hierarchy of baron and bishop controlled Englishmen both in body and soul; they built new churches alongside their castles, highly visible statements of Norman lordship replacing the old order. The rapid rise of  new monastic houses in 11-12th century England can be viewed as part of the Norman ‘programme of conquest’ (3).

The church in England in 1066 was, according to the Pope, in a sorry state and in urgent need of reform (4). The vast majority of clergy in England were married parish priests, mostly uneducated, who had inherited their church living from their fathers; they were the target of 11th century church reformers led by Pope Gregory VII who aimed to replace them with a well educated and celibate priesthood to be ‘holy and separated for the work’ of celebrating the mass (5). The Norman invasion brought into the English church an army of Norman clerics in whose ranks were both ardent monkish reformers and conservative dynastic churchmen who resisted reform and defended the long tradition of a married hereditary clergy (6).

The Augustinian order of regular canons – the black canons.

Figure 2  Detail from miserichord St Peter’s , Thurgarton

The Augustinian order was named after St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo c. 396-430. Augustine had advocated basic rules for communal religious living but it was St. Benedict c. 480-543 who drew up the detailed set of rules which were to dominate Western monasticism for several centuries (7). These traditional monastic orders were of limited use to the Pope’s reform plan; their strictly enclosed life was a barrier to their effectiveness as agents of change in the wider world; and so was born the Augustinian order – the black canons, an 11th century papal innovation formed as a vanguard of church reform (8).   They observed the same offices and basic routines of Benedictine monasteries; they lived communally, shared property and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In contrast however to the enclosed cloistered life of the monks, Augustinian canons were allowed out of their houses to work as parish priests

Most importantly Augustinians were very flexible and cheap to establish and maintain. They occupied a wide variety of sites from larger urban and baronial centres to small rural hermitages (9, 10).  This flexibility attracted many founding patrons from the Norman nobility, for the Augustinians could accommodate their varying aspirations and purses.

Ralph Dayncourt’s foundation endowment of Thurgarton Priory was typical of Augustinian houses consisting mainly of parish churches with their livings and only a modest grant of land, in contrast to the land hungry Cistercians. This acquisition of churches relieved the patron of the onerous duty of appointing and supporting a parish priest and achieved yet another aim of the reformers – that of returning parish livings to direct church control (11).

Given all these advantages the rapid spread of the black canons in the 12th century is not surprising but it was royal support which ensured their rise to become the most numerous religious order in England (over 260 houses)(12). The Augustinians first appeared in England about 1095 and by c1135 (Thurgarton Priory’s birth) over 45 new houses had been founded the majority of which owed their establishment to the patronage of Henry I and Queen Maude and a court entourage of barons and ecclesiastics (13).

Thurstan , Archbishop of York

Amongst the new wave of churchmen crossing the channel from Normandy were a married priest named Auger, who had been appointed as a prebend to St.Paul’s in London and his two sons, Audouen and Thurstan, who were both destined to follow as prebendaries of the same church. Audouen eventually became Bishop of Evreux and Thurstan gained advancement as a chaplain in the royal court and was eventually appointed Archbishop of York in 1114 (14).  Despite being the product of the old unreformed tradition of hereditary clergy Thurstan developed a ‘youthful admiration for the monastic life’ and took a vow to become a Cluniac monk – which he fulfilled a few weeks before his death in 1140 when he entered the Cluniac monastry at Pontefract (15).

When Thurstan first entered York in the winter of 1114 he encountered an impoverished province struggling to recover from decades of instability culminating in King William’s final suppression of the embers of northern resistance in 1070 (16) . Almost immediately Thurstan faced a challenge from Ralph, Archbishop of Canterbury, who, with the king’s support, pressed for a final settlement of Canterbury’s claim to primacy over the Archdiocese of York (17). One can imagine Henry’s surprise and anger when the man he had personally advanced to the See of York stubbornly resisted and upheld York’s ancient position as Canterbury’s equal. In March 1116 Thurstan offered his resignation and spent most of the next five years in France and estranged from Henry’s court (18). During these years in exile Thurstan developed a considerable network of allies amongst the nobility and the papal court and gained wide respect for his wise counsel and diplomacy (19). In 1120 he engineered a  reconciliation between Henry and the French King Louis and with the Pope. In 1121 he was reinstated by Henry and returned to York in Lent to be greeted by a great crowd and much rejoicing (20).

Thurstan – supporter of religious houses

Thurstan could now concentrate on the restoration of his impoverished archdiocese (21). In rebuilding the See of York Thurstan appears to have been successful in securing the support and patronage of Henry I and his northern barons; Thurstan was evidently an energetic and formidable persuader of men.

In 1066 the north of England was a monastic desert and by 1100 only five religious houses (Benedictine and Cluniac) had been established in the Archdiocese (22).   Thurstan built up the old secular minster colleges at York, Beverley, Ripon and Southwell and assisted the Benedictine houses at Selby, Whitby and York (23).  In 1114 when Thurstan first arrived at York three Augustinian houses had just been founded at Nostell, Bridlington and Hexham (Map1). Nostell attracted considerable royal and baronial support and with the appointment of Athelwold, the king’s chaplain, as Prior in 1120 it became the powerhouse of the Augustinian order in the north.

Map 1 Religious houses in Archdiocese of York and Lincolnshire c 1114 when Thurstan was appointed to York

In 1131 the routine of religious life in York was disrupted by the arrival of the Cistercians. Thurstan’s role in the establishment of the first Cistercian communities in Yorkshire has dominated historical accounts and eclipsed his involvement with the other religious orders especially the Augustinians (24). During Thurstan’s time as prelate only two Cistercian houses (Fountains and Reivaulx) were established compared with eleven Augustinian houses (25).

Map2 Religious houses in Archdiocese of York and Lincolnshire  c 1135 when Thurgarton Priory was founded 
Securing his territory- the archdiocese of York

Thurstan was a politically astute churchman whose territory was far flung and lacked cohesion(26). The Archdiocese of York in the 12th century had very fluid borders in the north where the emerging new kingdom of Scotland under the House of Canmore had ambitions over much of Northumbria and Cumbria (27,28).

The newly arrived Augustinian order, besides being an agent of church reform, provided one of a number of tools whereby Thurstan could secure his influence especially in the more distant or disputed parts of his diocese. A pattern of increasingly close links were forged firstly with the central Augustinian house at Nostell and with the remote and vulnerable house at Hexham in the far north –east of his territory. The greatest achievement of this policy came in Cumbria with the establishment of the only Augustinian cathedral community in England at Carlisle and the choice of Athelwold, Prior of Nostell, as its first bishop.

Thurstan and Athelowld were both present  in the Chapter House at Southwell to witness the foundation charter of Thurgarton Priory; the archbishop and the senior Augustinian must have discussed in detail the arrangements for the new Priory and how it should relate to the Minster only 3 miles away.  Unique in England was the arrangement whereby the Prior of Thurgarton was granted a permenant seat in the  Minster Chapter (31). The exact date and reason for this arrangement is not known but I suggest that may well have its origin with Thurstan and Athelowld’s policy of a close cooperation between the northern Augustinians and the archdiocese. (The Southwell chapter was unusual in not having a senior canon or dean at its head and appears to have functioned as a remarkably autonomous body –  maybe  the Prior of Thurgarton was there as both observer and adviser. )

Nottinghamshire and Southwell Minster were at the southern limit of Thurstan’s territory;. Bishops like barons vied for worldly power and for most of  Thurstan’s time at York the Bishopric of Lincoln was in the ambitious hands of the appropriately named Alexander the Magnificent (29).  Alexander held considerable land in the east of Nottinghamshire concentrated around Newark where he rebuilt a palatial new castle and developed the town as a thriving market – a direct threat to the wealth and influence of Southwell only six miles to the west (30). Did Thurstan deliberately set out to redress this balance and bolster his position in southern Nottinghamshire by the foundation of a new Augustinian house close to his Minster at Southwell ?

The  form of words used in Thurgarton’s second foundation charter  – consilio et prece Thurstini – on the counsel and request of  Thurstan ( prece can also be translated as prayer, pleading or entreaty) suggests that Thurstan had indeed taken the initiative and  persuaded Ralph Dayncourt to found his priory. If Thurstan was actively seeking a patron in the south of the county then there was a limited choice of suitable candidates and the Dayncourt barony was an obvious target. Aside from any religious motive in founding Thurgarton Priory he would have anticipated tha the new Priory would attract resources and support in endowments  from local wealthy patrons  (and away from Newark).

Furthermore  if we look at the details of the foundation of Thurgarton we find that Ralph granted 11 churches (see map 3) to the priory; what is striking is the block of  all of the Dayncourt churches in Lincolnshire  ( seven churches) right under the nose of Bishop Alexander in Lincoln; was Thurstan making a statement to the ambitious Alexander of Lincoln?

Map 3 Churches granted to Thurgarton Priory by Ralph Dayncourt, Thurgarton (purple triangle) and eleven churches ( red triangles)

Ralph Dayncourt and the Honour of Blankney

The Dayncourt family originated from Aincourt in Normandy close to the River Seine north of Paris. Walter Dayncourt , a kinsman of Remigius the first Norman Bishop of Lincoln,  was granted lands by King William in Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire with outlying manors in South Yorkshire (Rawmarsh and Wombwell) and Northamptonshire (32). Walter was married to Matilda whose ancestry is uncertain but she may have been one of King William’s many illegitimate children. Their first son, William, was raised at the royal court of William Rufus but died young and was buried in Lincoln cathedral. The barony passed to Ralph, the second son, who founded Thurgarton Priory (33).

Map 4 Dayncourt estate in East Midlands -land in green and houses in red

The total value of the 1086 Domesday assessments of Dayncourt lands in the East Midlands amounts to well over £100 which whilst not qualifying for the super elite still places them firmly in the top 100  richest  families in Norman England (34).

The most valuable Dayncourt lands lay in Lincolnshire, concentrated in Kesteven around their caput (headquarters) of Blankney within a few miles of Lincoln; next in value were the  fertile grain lands in the Vale of Belvoir around Granby. North of the Trent were several scattered landholdings on the southern edge of Sherwood Forest with Thurgarton, Hoveringham and Fiskerton lying close together in the rich valley of the Trent. Several holdings in north-east Derbyshire were based around a manor house at Elmton ; half of these Derbyshire lands were given by Ralph to his middle son Roger who fathered the cadet branch of the family (35).

Why found a house of religion?

An overriding concern in the 12 th century mind was the fate of one’s eternal soul. No greater comfort could be gained than to be perpetually remembered in the intercessions of priests such as those at Thurgarton Priory who would have remembered their founder, Ralph, and his family in their prayers. Ralph Dayncourt’s decision to found a priory would have not only found favour with God but would have impressed his peers, pleased his bishop and increased his kudos at the court of Henry I and Queen Maude.

The founding patron of a religious house would expect a number of advantages:- accommodation and hospitality at the Priory, a secretariat  providing clerical assistance with charters and other family records , entry to the community for any male relation of a religious or fragile nature, care in infirmity or old age and finally preparation for death with  burial in a sacred and prominent location – a family mausoleum (36).

For Ralph Dayncourt the ceremony before the chapter of Southwell, surrounded by his peers and senior churchmen, would have been of immense importance; he must have thought of Thurgarton Priory as his lasting legacy and a focus for future generations of Dayncourts.

Which religious order?

Baronial families in the early decades of the 12th century were faced with an increasing variety of religious orders which they could choose to support. The first generation of Norman lords in England were limited to Benedictine and Cluniac foundations; the Augustinians arrived in England about 1100 followed by the Cistercian order in the 1130-40s, and by 1150 numerous  monastic and military orders vied for patronage (37). The early generations of Norman barons still held lands and loyalties in Normandy and many of the monasteries which they founded were offshoots of mother houses in France. From c. 1100 increasing numbers of nobles held land wholly or mainly in England and the pattern of monastic foundations changed to a preference for English based houses, especially independent communities such as the Augustinians whose loyalty would be towards their bishop, their founder and his family and his tenants (38).

Ralph Dayncourt’s choice of an Augustinian house may reflect his personal religious preference; many Norman lords admired the order’s combination of monastic ideals with a pastoral duty of service to the populace (39). The relative ease and cheapness of founding communities of regular canons would have been an obvious attraction especially for those patrons on the ‘B’ list of the Norman aristocracy. From 1110 to the 1130s the black canons were the new and popular order favoured by the king and his court and Ralph may have simply followed fashion.

Why Nottinghamshire and not Lincolnshire?

The Dayncourt’s richest lands and headquarters (caput) lay just south of Lincoln; why therefore did they not found a house of religion inside the Lincoln Diocese?   Ralph may  have taken a hard headed decision to preserve his most valuable lands for the family and  looked for a site outside his prime lands in Lincolnshire or the Vale of Belvoir.

If Thurstan’s role was critical then only Nottinghamshire lay within his diocese;  his enthusiasm for establishing religious houses was however not shared by all bishops especially those in Lincoln –Roger Bloet (Bishop from 1092 to 1123) and Alexander ( Bishop from 1123 to 1148 ). Roger Bloet was Chancellor to King William 11 and was the archetypal Norman courtier and unreformed secular churchman; he disliked monks and on his appointment banished the monks established at Stow by his predecessor back to their mother house at Eynsham and used the Stow lands for the bishopric. He concentrated on rebuilding the Bishopric of Lincoln diverting all donations and wealth to the building of the cathedral and the necessary officers and clerics. During his time as prelate from 1092 to 1123 no new monastic houses appeared in central Lincolshire despite it being one of the most densely populated and productive counties in England (40).

In 1123 Alexander the Magnificent became Bishop of Lincoln. He was part of a powerful dynasty of secular churchmen which numbered in its ranks the powerful Roger of Salisbury.  The ‘Gesta Stephani’ a contemporary account described Alexander as – ‘Neglecting the pure and simple way of life belonging to the Christian religion, he gave himself up to military affairs and secular pomp, taking, whenever he appeared at Court, so vast a band of followers that all men marvelled’  (41).  It was only in his later years that Alexander became a keen proponent of monastic houses but was very selective and favoured the Cistercian and Gilbertine orders; the 1140s saw a flourish of seven Gilbertine and five Cistercian foundations scattered throughout Lincolnshire (map 5 ) (42).

Map 5 Religious houses in Archdiocese of York and Lincolshire c 1148 at end of Bishop Alexander’s life

Evidently the Augustinians were not popular in Lincolnshire at this period and it seems that even if Ralph Dayncourt had wished to found an Augustinian house on his Lincolnshire estates, Bishops Roger and Alexander would not have been well disposed to such a plan.

 Ralph’s choice of Thurgarton

Once the decision had been made to found a priory there were several very practical considerations in choosing the exact site for such a community. The ideal location included a sheltered valley with a stream and natural springs, a mixture of woodland, arable and pasture for food production and finally a ready supply of timber and stone for building.

Amongst the Dayncourt lands in Nottinghamshire only Thurgarton possessed this combination and the addition of  Fiskerton with its river crossing, fishery and water mill provided an ideal balance of resources for supporting the new community. Thurgarton and Fiskerton however accounted for less than 5% of the total value of the barony and the potential value of these two parishes was limited by their location north of the Trent inside an area of royal forest making them subject to a plethora of forest laws, fines and restrictions on development. An inspection of the scattered Dayncourt estates on map 4 shows clearly that Thurgarton occupied a central position in relation to the major Dayncourt manors all of which lay within 22 miles of Thurgarton, a day’s journey for a mounted traveller.

Ralph’s choice of Thurgarton therefore had many advantages to him: its loss would not significantly affect the finances of the barony, it lay at the geographical centre of his dispersed estate with good transport links and it provided all the necessary practical resources for a successful house. Although Thurgarton’s  monetary value was eclipsed by other Dayncourt manors it was no back water having been a significant site of power in the district in the previous centuries(43). The establishment of the Augustinian Priory restored Thurgarton’s position of influence in the region.

Figure 3 Augustinian canon

As for the villagers of Thurgarton the Augustinian Prior was in one sense just another Lord of the Manor who wielded the identical power over their lives as any other feudal lord; contrary to what one might expect there is no evidence that the Augustinians were in any way less demanding or more enlightened as landlords. The fact that monks were meticulous record keepers provided fewer opportunities for villagers to dodge their manorial duties and rentals; bad news for the villagers but good news for historians for such detailed records are a valuable source of information


(1) T. Foulds, The Thurgarton Cartulary (Stamford, 1994),, p.567 and pp.3-4.

(2) D.Knowles, R.N.Hadcock, Mediaeval Religious Houses England and Wales  (Longman, 1971), p.14.

(3) P.Dalton, Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship: Yorkshire 1066-1154 (Cambridge, 1994), p.2.

(4) J.Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain1000-1300 (Cambridge, 1994),  p. 21.

(5) C.N.L.Brooke, Mediaeval Church and Society (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971), pp.72-3.

(6) Ibid pp88-99.

(7)  J.C.Dickinson, The Origins of the Austin Canons and their introduction into England   (SPCK Church Historical Society, 1950), pp. 26-58.

(8)  Brooke, Mediaeval Church, pp.69-99.

(9) Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders, pp.43-54.

(10) Brooke, Mediaeval Church, pp.143-50.

(11)  Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders, pp. 43-50.

(12)Dickinson, Origins of the Austin Canons, pp.125-31. 

(13) Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders, p.51.

(14) D.Nicholl, Thurstan Archbishop of York (1114-1140), The Stonegate Press, York (1964) pp.1-14.

(15) Ibid p.9.

(16) S.Speight, ‘Family, Faith and Fortification: Yorkshire 1066-1250’, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Nottingham (1993), pp.319-38.

(17) Nicholl, Thurstan, p.52.

(18)  Ibid pp.60-74.

(19) Ibid pp.72-3.

(20) Ibid p.74.


(22) Ibid pp.130-36.

(23) Nicholl, Thurstan, pp.192-212.

(24) Ibid p.193.

(25)  J. Burton, The Monastic Orders in Yorkshire, 1069-1215 (Cambridge, 1999),  pp. xviii- xix.

(26)  Dalton, Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship, p.142. 

(27) Nicholl, Thurstan, pp. 16-21.

(28) P. Dalton, Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship Yorkshire 1066-1154 (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 196-230.


(30) J R Samuels and P Marshall, Guardian of the Trent. The story of Newark Castle, (Newark, 1997), pp.1- 46.

(31) Foulds, Thurgarton Cartulary, pp..xvii-xviii.

(32) Data from Knowles and Hadcock.

(33) T. Foulds, ‘The History of Thurgarton Priory before 1316’, Transactions of the  Thoroton Society (1980), p.21.

(34)  Foulds, Thurgarton Cartulary, –lvii.

(35)  Ibid p. xcvi.

(36) E. Cownie, Religious Patronage in Anglo-Norman England 1066-1135, The Royal Historical Society, Boydell Press (1998),  pp.151-71.

(37) Knowles and Hadcock, Mediaeval Religious Houses, pp.45-7.

(38) Cownie, Religious Patronage, p.192.

(39) Dickinson, Origins of the Austin Canons,  p.138.


(41)   Gesta Stephani,  A. Du Chesne, R.C. Sewell (eds.) (1846), pp. 46-7.



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