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Time and tithes: Patricia Wright revisits the career of a 14th-century abbot who ruthlessly protected the interests of his abbey and who built a remarkable celestial clock.

THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY is often regarded as one of the worst endured by Europeans. Crop failures, war and the onset of the Black Death all cut back the population by between a half and a third. In places, whole communities perished. The position of the Church and its doctrines were called into question as people began to wonder if the Devil had actually won his battle with God, or, perhaps more disturbing still for the church hierarchy, if the sins and corruption of the clergy had exposed Christians to divine wrath.

In England, as elsewhere, a series of wet summers between 1314 and 1317 brought a rapid rise in the cost of staple foodstuffs. All official attempts to hold down prices failed. Almost simultaneously, the royal army of Edward II (r.1307-27) was defeated by the Scots at Bannockburn, a national humiliation and financial disaster. Scandal and near anarchy surrounded the King's person, ultimately leading to his demise.

Yet, generally, in the early fourteenth century England had grown more prosperous, and even the peasantry shared in the rise in living standards. Market towns in particular had flourished, while remaining dependent on the surrounding countryside for food and raw materials. Scarcity bit these communities hard and increased the tension between self-confident urban traders and their remaining feudal overlords--which often happened to be the monasteries around which a town had originally grown. In such cases proximity fuelled antagonism when these massive foundations were perceived to be living to a far higher standard than the hard-working townsfolk forced to support them.

Riots had exploded in such places as Bury St Edmunds, Abingdon and Wells even before the downturn associated with the fourteenth century, in which holy treasure was looted and parts of ancient buildings occasionally set alight: in 1272 the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral were destroyed in an urban riot against the monks. On some abbey manors the better-off peasants made common cause with the towns, staging rent-strikes and refusing to perform long-standing labour obligations. A similar situation had developed more widely across Europe, where a desire for the freedom and independence necessary for the successful growth of trade had led to the establishment of communes: that is, sworn confederacies bound by oath to throw off feudal burdens and arbitrarily imposed taxes. In some cases (for example, in Limoges) these communes had been encouraged by an English king, Edward I, as a political weapon in his wars there, which no doubt encouraged English merchants to feel that royal policy could be exploited in their own local interests.

Yet, even among the disasters of the fourteenth century, political and technical evolution continued. Medieval thinkers, though conditioned by religion, still searched for ways to understand their world and to lighten everyday tasks. New sources of energy were exploited, like water-powered bellows; new ways of measuring the world, like a map with gridline projections; in architecture vaults were raised to new heights and walls thinned to accommodate larger windows than ever before. There were efforts, too, to measure time in human rather than heavenly terms with clock mechanisms using weights and geared wheels. The monk Roger Bacon had written in the 1270s that it should be possible to construct a chariot 'which will move with incalculable speed without any draught animal', and also imagined flying machines, ideas that later inspired Leonardo da Vinci. God himself was represented in manuscript art as an architect-engineer, measuring the world with a mason's compass, as if inspiring His people to emulation, and, as we have seen, ideas of freedom and profit were driving many towns into rebellion.

The career of an abbot of St Albans through stone of the most turbulent years of the fourteenth century affords an interesting insight into these contradictions: on the one hand, fear, hatred and political upheaval, on the other stubborn technical advance and an eventually successful struggle for urban liberties, which would lay further foundations for economic advance.

Some time in the winter of 1291-92 a son, Richard, was born to William, an iron-worker of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, and his wife Isabella. A skilled smith like William would have been important in the life of a thirteenth-century town. In Wallingford, dominated by its Norman castle, he might have been called on to make or repair anything from armour to weapons, farm implements to harnesses or carpenter's tools.

Young Richard was orphaned in 1303 in unknown circumstances. By this time, however, he had absorbed elements of his father's trade: as a monk in later life while experimenting in astronomy, clocks and computing machinery, he physically made much of the equipment he needed. But, as an eleven-year-old orphan, his life was precarious until, according to Walsingham's Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani:
   William of Kirkby (the Benedictine
   Prior of Wallingford) took pity and
   adopted him as a son on account of
   his loneliness and aptitude and his
   great promise. Supported by William.
   he studied Grammar and Philosophy
   at Oxford for ten years.

Almost inevitably, Richard became a Benedictine novice and, as such, theology would have been his primary subject, but his mind roamed far beyond the formal curriculum, above all into mathematics, astronomy and astrology. After taking his degree, Richard entered St Albans Abbey, taking his vows there as a Benedictine monk, but within three years he had been given leave to return to Oxford as one of St Albans' students at the Benedictine Order's Gloucester College (now Worcester), although with a regular's obligation to return at intervals to St Albans for spiritual refreshment. At Oxford he wrote Iris first mathematical treatises as well as producing the theological works that were expected of him. Increasingly, his main academic interests became the calculation of time in all its aspects: hours, days, years, tides and the movement of heavenly bodies.

The limitations of water clocks had long been recognised in northern Europe: among other difficulties the water usually froze in winter. A search for mechanisms using weights and gears began as early as the 1270s, although at first aimed at forecasting the movements of the sun, moon and stars. An inventor known only as Robert the Englishman (probably borrowing from Arab treatises) wrote about attempts to devise an astronomical clock in 1271, and a monk called Bartholemew was described as an 'orologist' at St Paul's Cathedral in 1286. Primitive mechanical clocks were installed at Canterbury in 1292 and in Paris in 1300. Dante provided the first literary reference when he wrote in his Paradiso around 1318:
   As clock, that calleth up the spouse of
   To win her Bridegroom's love at
      mattins' hour
   Each part of other fitly drawn and
   Sends out a tinkling sound of note so

The whole concept of forecasting, and therefore better understanding, the motion of God's heavenly creation seems to have fascinated Richard of Wallingford. In 1326 he published descriptions of several astronomical and clock-like instruments in practical terms, as a hands-on workman involved in their manufacture. One of these he called his 'Albionis,' possibly as a tribute to his parent abbey, or perhaps as a play on the old English meaning of 'All in one'. The Albionis could almost be described as a first computer, being designed to translate celestial observation into precise measurement of their relationship to each other by a complex system of gearing, clockwork and chain links. It was one of the most influential astronomical devices of the Middle Ages, as the extant number of copies of Richard's treatise describing it, testify. He also worked on several similar devices, including a 'Rectangulus' which established the difference between the decimal and duodecimal systems.

During this time the Abbey of St Albans was encountering serious difficulties, financial and otherwise. In the words of the chronicler Walsingham, in 1323:
   After the celebration of the
   Mass to the Blessed Virgin
   an accident
   happened of so horrible a kind that
   no earlier misfortunes could be
   compared to it. For when a great
   multitude of men and women were
   gathered together in the church
   praying and listening to the Mass, on
   a sudden two immense columns on
   the south side of the building, as if
   broken off from their foundations,
   tell one after another with a horrible
   crash and ruin to the earth; and while
   the great crowd of brother monks
   and laymen, struck dumb by the
   disaster, were collected to gaze upon
   the ruin, scarcely an hour had passed
   when, behold, the entire wooden roof
   built above the columns and part of
   the southern aisle ... as well as nearly
   the whole of the adjoining cloister,
   fell likewise to the earth.

This was only the culmination of the Abbey's troubles. Earlier the same year another, smaller wall had fallen, and the monks' sanitation system had failed. Add to this the reigning Abbot's construction of an ambitious new Lady Chapel on a bankrupt budget, and escalating quarrels with the townspeople, and Richard's returns for spiritual refreshment must have been far from refreshing. However, it was during one of these visits, on October 27th, 1327, that the Abbot, Hugh of Eversden, died and Richard was elected to take his place. At first sight his appointment seems surprising, since most of his life had been spent away from the Abbey, but given the quarrels and internal factionalism there, this may have been seen as a positive advantage. His force of personality and intellect, too, impressed his brothers, who probably simply craved a charismatic leader to resolve their difficulties.

Richard inherited an unenviable task. Monastic discipline was poor, petty peculation among departments had replaced a proper accounting system, repairs had been bodged rather than completed, and, worst of all, friction between town and monastery had reached crisis point.

At St Albans, as elsewhere, there had been trouble between the town and the monastery through much of the thirteenth century. In 1253, the citizens had managed to obtain a somewhat vague charter granted directly to themselves rather than via the monastery. As a consequence they successfully extended their jurisdiction, taking over some of the functions previously exercised by the hundred court of the abbot's liberty, traditionally held under an ash tree in the Abbey courtyard. Disputes, however; rumbled on until, in 1274, the townsmen claimed further rights as free burgesses and organised themselves into a near-commune. The monks were cast into such despair that they held a special service to invoke the aid of St Alban, processing with bare feet before the high altar while chanting the seven penitential psalms, but to little effect. When Queen Eleanor, wife of Edward I, passed through the town some years later she had to be smuggled into the monastery by a private way 'to avoid the importunities of the townspeople', but even so, a deputation of women gained access to her and succeeded in presenting a petition of grievances against the monks.

Unresolved grievances, which festered, and in January 1327, before Richard became Abbot, a large mob besieged the abbey for ten days. With the frightening examples of Norwich and Bury in mind, Abbot Hugh had responded by hiring a gang of mercenaries, possibly including some of the Abbey's feudal knights, to defend it from actual invasion. But armed skirmishes brought further in-feeling and, since Hugh could not afford to maintain the defenders for long, he was soon driven to accept an arbitration staged in St Paul's Cathedral. Here he was forced to surrender several remaining abbatial rights. An exception, which would later prove important, was that he prevaricated long enough to be able to bury the burgesses' demand to be freed from the obligation to use the Abbey Mill--with its extortionate charges--to grind their corn, and instead be given the right to possess their own handmills. This small defeat for the townsfolk probably seemed unimportant to many, since in practice a number of the Abbey's tenants claimed the 1253 charter abolished the duty, while, under the arbitration, the burgesses received their own town seal and now considered St Albans a tree borough.

All this coincided with political turmoil in the country at large, where Edward II's reign had ended with his abdication in January 1327, followed by his imprisonment and probable murder in September. This weakened the Abbey's position still further, since the abbots of St Alban's had traditionally backed a king in power, regardless of his personal qualities, while the town on this occasion and historically on others, supported his opponents.

Abbot Richard's problems worsened when he made the customary pilgrimage to have his election confirmed by the Pope, then in Avignon. Some irregularity in his election was discovered which necessitated further expense in fees and bribes, raising his first parsimonious estimate for his journey from 30 shillings to a staggering 953.10s.11d [pounds sterling].

Over the next three years Richard worked hard to return the Abbey's finances to some kind of order, using the time-honored tactics of exacting accountants in all ages: personal visitation of the abbey's assets, personal checking of its accounts, and total scepticisim towards all explanations of shortfall. Then, from a position of precarious financial strength, in 1330 he turned his attention to the recovery of abbatial rights from the town, which he considered had been extorted under duress, almost immediately precipitating a major new brawl.

Richard opened his campaign by excommunicating four leading citizens, following this up with a summons for adultery against one of them, John Taverner. In the riot that ensued the Abbey's marshal killed Taverner, and was himself lynched by a furious mob. Alter a stormy crisis meeting, the burgesses decided that this catastrophe could be used as an opportunity to settle matters with the Abbey once and for all, audaciously launching an indictment against Richard and his servants for the murder of both men. A competition in packing the necessary jury followed, which Richard won. No townsman was included and the twelve jurors, drawn exclusively from the Abbey's tenants, exonerated the Abbot. It was now Richard's turn to indict his opposition, and on September 14th, 1331, we find this next jury being sumptuously feasted at the Abbey's expense before being despatched the following day to find the burgesses guilty. Richard did not believe in taking chances with the law.

He followed this resounding victory by ruthlessly launching case after case against individuals he considered had usurped the Abbey's rights, as well as a series of attacks on those town privileges, such as electing and sending its own burgesses to parliament, which had been acquired over recent years at the Abbey's expense. If any defied him, thunderbolt threats of unrelenting civil and religious persecution were hurled against them.

All this only served to weaken once again the abbey's finances, and only moderate progress was made on repairing its fabric. Nor was discipline among the brothers satisfactory. Richard's eye for financial fraud that had not overlooked even the most minor of sins had infuriated crucial people such as the cellarer and almoner, who in turn took malicious pleasure in informing him that certain transactions were not 'of right' but 'of grace'. The consequent in-feeling spread within the factions that had plagued the Abbey since Abbot Hugh's day, and was further inflamed in 1333 when Richard sold some treasured books from the library to finance his own experiments.

Because all this while, Richard was spending money and a great deal of his time on what many of his monks regarded as futile, noisy, and possibly heretical calculations. Intellect and experiment was all very well safely away at Oxford; they were a plain nuisance in a cash-strapped and contentious Abbey. Even Edward III when he visited St Albans (a further unwanted and great expense) remonstrated with him, pointing to the unrepaired roof as a priority rather than a pile of assorted metal bits alleged to be a time machine. He, too, received a polite brush off, when Richard merely replied that others could and would repair the roof, while only he could complete his project, the creation of a huge calculating clock.

Then there was the disagreeable matter of the hand mills. Much to their fury and amid the general wreckage of their hopes, the towns-people and a wider circle of Abbey tenants had, through a series of packed hearings during a period of newly-established domestic peace, been forced to acknowledge the historic right of the Abbey to grind their corn. Not satisfied with this, Richard hired bailiffs forcibly to coil fiscate all domestic querns, even though some tenants had gone so far as to purchase forged deeds to 'prove' their right to exemption. All were rejected out of hand. To add insult to injury, as the treasured hand-mills arrived at the Abbey, Richard triumphantly floored his personal parlour with them.

This proved the high point of Richard's career, as his precious clock too began to approach completion. It was in two parts: a weight-driven section to tell and chime the hours, and a computer-like astronomical unit driven by gears and links to display the positions of the sun, stars and moon.

But all these pressures had taken their toll and Richard's health began to fail. Dissident monks reported him as a leper and demanded his replacement, but in 1333 a papal inspection confirmed his authority, finding him fully in command of himself and the Abbey. Whether he was actually a leper or suffered from a debilitating skin disease cannot be known: he himself called his condition 'a find plague'. Certainly his sight began to fail, as did his strength for the blacksmith's work necessary to complete the massive iron parts of his clock. Nevertheless, he continued with his mathematical calculations and also to supervise the clock's construction, blaming the ever-rising cost of his machine on greedy workmen and sabotaging brethren. On May 23rd, 1336, he died, and the monks who administered his estate used such money as he possessed to repurchase the books he had sold.

It is unlikely that his clock was working as Richard wished when he died, but John Leland, the sixteenth-century antiquary, reported it in situ and working during his visit, probably in 1540. Richard must have gathered sufficient enthusiasts around him for completion to take place, in spite of the majority of his monks 'disparaging it ... and calling it the height of folly'. Today the clock has been reconstructed and can be seen displayed in the Abbey's north aisle.

The heavy cost of all the legal battles and accumulated repairs together with the impact of the Black Death, which struck in 1348-49, delayed further contests between the Abbey and town. At St Albans, the Abbot and forty-seven of his monks died of the plague, and although no figures exist for the town, fatalities there for have been fearful, too.

Nevertheless, in 1358 the then Abbot was worried enough to take the precaution of crenellating and fortifying parts of the monastic precinct, forethought which proved futile when the Peasants' Revolt broke out in 1381. Then it was the opponents of Richard, Abbot of St Albans, who had the last word, when their grandchildren invaded the Abbey, ripped up the abbot's parlour floor and triumphantly bore away their family querns again. But it was not until the sixteenth century that the townspeople won back the right to elect their own burgesses to represent them in parliament.


J.D. North, Richard of Wallingford (Oxford UP, 1976); Jean Pimpel, The Medieval Machine (Pimlico 1992); Colin Platt, The Abbeys anbd Priories of Medieval England (Secker and Warburg 1984); R.W. Southern, Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Penguin, 1990); William Page, St Albans (SPCK, 1930)

Patricia Wright is a freelance writer. She is the author of That Near and Distant Place (Bodley Head, 1989).
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Author:Wright, Patricia
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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