- Plympton Priory: A House of Augustinian Canons in South-Western England in the Late Middle Ages
There were about a thousand religious houses in medieval England, of which only a couple of dozen are famous today, while the rest are known only to scholars and local historians. The lengthy subtitle of Allison Fizzard's book suggests that the author and publishers place Plympton Priory (Devon) into the latter category, but this lack of profile is not altogether deserved. A northern chronicler of 1370 indeed referred to Plympton only as a nameless 'little priory' near Plymouth, in which the [End Page 467] Black Prince rested sick for three months of that year, yet its income of £912 in 1535 made it one of the two richest monasteries in the southwest of England and the third-richest nationally among the houses of its order, the Augustinian canons. A detailed study of Plympton is long overdue.
There has to be some disappointment that, as the author confesses, she has not produced 'a complete history of all aspects.' She does not deal with its site and buildings. True, the latter have disappeared above ground, but having written histories of similar houses in Cornwall, I know that some details about them can be gathered from documentary sources as well as from maps of the locality. A plan of the area covered by the monastic precinct and its relationship to the surrounding roads and settlements could be produced without much difficulty. The author is aware of the priory's chief known record, a cartulary now lost from which notes were taken in the seventeenth century, and it would have been useful to have at least a list of the cartulary's contents insofar as they are mentioned in the notes. Dr Fizzard includes tables of the priory's religious possessions and their revenues in 1291 and 1535, but not its temporal possessions, thus depriving the reader of essential information. The priory's clergy are analyzed only in the fourteenth century, not (as could have been done) down to 1539, and there is no list of priors with their dates, for which one has to go to David Smith's Heads of Religious Houses. In these respects the book falls short of giving readers what they require, despite a length of nearly 250 pages.
Still, there is much that is useful and new. The author gives a full and careful account of the priory's origins as a pre-Conquest minster and its conversion by Bishop William de Warelwast of Exeter into a priory of Augustinian canons in 1121. She describes the endowments he gave and those of the other benefactors of the priory, with a consideration of their motives as donors. This is followed by accounts of the management of the priory's possessions up to 1400 (again, not pursued beyond that date) and of the challenges faced by the encroachments of the Crown and of local people. The core of the book is thus a constitutional study of endowments and lawsuits. Economic history is not pursued to any great extent, but the author makes useful forays into religious history. She considers the relationships between the priory and its parish churches and chapels, its appointment of clergy to its parish churches, and the prosopography of its canons, including their geographical and social origins (but, as noted, not after 1400). As usual in Augustinian houses, the canons seem to have done little parochial work, although a few of them were granted permission to hold benefices. The final chapter of the book recounts the end of the priory at the Reformation, with an interesting account of the many grants made by the prior shortly before the dissolution of his house in 1539. In what it covers, this is a well-researched [End Page 468] book, clearly told and supported with substantial referencing, two useful maps, and a full index. While regretting its gaps, I welcome it as a valuable addition to the history of the Plymouth area and...