Worcester Priory’s Pre-Reformation Visitations

There are some primary sources available that shed light on the state of English monasteries in the years immediately preceding the Reformation. Few are more colourful than the official records of the Worcester Visitations of Cardinal Wolsey and Archbishop Cranmer in 1526 and 1534 respectively, and of Bishop Latimer in 1537. The records of their visitations remain preserved in Worcester Cathedral’s muniments.

Cardinal Wolsey’s Visitation

Cardinal Wolsey

Engraving of Cardinal Wolsey in Burnet’s History of the Reformation (1681). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

William More was Prior of Worcester from 1518 to 1536, and his tenure marked a notable low point in the priory’s history.  By 1524 he was under scrutiny, and on 4th March that year Cardinal Wolsey wrote to him announcing his intended visitation. Wolsey made no attempt to hide his anger, and after referring to the former illustrious history of the monastery and some monks, concluded with a damning account of the monastery’s, and its clergy’s, present state. Specifically they:

…laid aside the fear of God, and, it is with sorrow we say it, lead a life less honest than becomes them, to the ruin of their own souls, an offence to the majesty of God, the shame of religion, a disgrace and bad example to clergy, and a scandal to the people.

The initial outcome was a visitation on 8th April 1525 by Dr. John Alen, as the commissary of Cardinal Wolsey. His injunctions were issued on 17th April, with a revised and corrected set being issued on 12th November 1525. The only allusion to Dr. Alen’s visit is in Prior More’s journal for Easter week 1525, where he lists “Rewards (i.e. gifts) to the visiturs. Item to Mr. Alen £5…”.

Wolsey list

Wolsey’s Injunctions. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

A year later, on 3rd November 1526, Cardinal Wolsey, seemingly on receipt of further information, issued a new set of injunctions, confirming and extending those of Alen, whilst modifying and withdrawing some others. These included, amongst others, instructions on:

  • Appointments and dismissals of officials
  • Disposal of fragments of food left in the refectory and misericordia
  • Exclusion of boys from dormitories, chambers and other places
  • Monks to be more diligent and devout in services and singing of Psalms, and abstain from detraction of their superiors and inferiors
  • Door of the cloister, and another adjacent, be kept closed and sealed lest “some sinister suspicion might arise”

Problems persisted however, and in 1531 Prior More was given notice of a visitation by a Proctor of the Bishop of Worcester (22nd May 1531).

Archbishop Cranmer’s Visitation

Archbishop Cranmer

Engraving of Archbishop Cranmer in Burnet’s History of the Reformation (1681). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Soon after, in a letter from Archbishop Cranmer dated 1st June 1534 to Jerome de Ghinucciis, Bishop of Worcester, Cranmer gives notice that as metropolitan he intends to visit his whole province, and the priory of Worcester in particular on Monday August 17. Orders are given to the Prior to prepare for their visitation. Archbishop Cranmer subsequently visited the monastery in person on 14th August. There is an entry in Prior More’s Journal recording that “My Lord of Caunterbury … came to Worcester Fryday nyght … and visited in his own person on Monday, the 17th August, teusday, wennesday and thursday.” The Prior notes that he spent in “rewards to my lord of Canterbury howsold divided to divers uses £5 7s. 0d.”

Archbishop Cranmer’s injunctions comprised a set of 43 instructions to named officials of the Priory, and a further set of 27 general instructions. These included:

  • Due to a lack of scripture reading, every day for one hour before noon there should be a reading of the Bible in English
  • A complete inventory should be made and kept by the Prior, to prevent exposure of articles for sale
  • A resident should be employed within the monastery, a man of good character and sufficiently learned in the knowledge of grammar to instruct the younger monks
  • Prior and Kitchener of the monastery should provide bread and drink and food, wholesome and well cooked for every monk in the monastery
  • The Prior should not be cruel or austere towards his fellow brethren, but should treat them with kindness and gentleness without respect of persons
  • The Prior was not to alienate the property of the monastery without the consent of the majority, nor spend money on certain lawsuits, and must keep his lay servants in order, and not suffer them to ill-treat their religious brethren
  • Two men should be appointed to look after the sick in the infirmary
  • The Sacrist should render full accounts of all money passing through his hands
  • Those who held office in the convent should be impartial and considerate towards their juniors
  • Prior was to make the necessary repairs in rooms and the dormitory, and no-one was to interfere with Thomas Sudbury, the Cellerar, in his claim to his new stall in the choir
Cranmer list

Points 1-3 of 13 in Cranmer’s injunctions. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

There is another fascinating document of pre-Reformation date, which throws further light on the condition of the monastery at that period. It concerns complaints made by John Musard, one of the monks, as to the state of the monastery and the conduct of the prior. Probably dating from 1535, it also belongs to More’s priorate. From this material we can witness the gradual decline in discipline and tone of the monastery, whilst under the leadership of Prior More and some of his predecessors. It becomes clear that, despite the authority invested in him by Wolsey and Cranmer to reform the numerous disorders, all was in vain. Prior More shirked his ordinary duties, and lived at ease in his several manors, only resigning at the critical moment, retaining his full pension and benefits.

Bishop Latimer’s Visitation

Cranmer’s visitation was to be the last of its kind under Papal authority, for in the following year, 1535, such visitations and jurisdiction were abolished by Henry VIII’s “Inhibition”. All that followed were royal visitations, or those conducted under royal authority.

The next visitation was soon in coming. In 1537 Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, issued his set of injunctions to “The Prior and Convent of St. Mary House in Worcester”. Latimer was far more outspoken and indignant in his verdict than either Wolsey or Cranmer. He writes of his visitation:

I did evidentlie perceive the Ignorance and Negligence of dyvers Religious Persons in this Monasterie to be intollerable, and not to be suffred; for that thereby doth reign Idollatrie, and manie kinds of Susperstitions, and other Enormities

And instructs:

that you observe and keep inviolably, all these Injunctions following, under pain of the Law.

Amongst the injunctions are twelve particular ones that all clergy and members of the monastery shall follow. What are compelling are the instructions to make available suitable religious texts in English, which seems particularly ironic given William Tyndale’s persecution and death in 1536 for his translation of the Bible into English. Specifically:

  • That the Prior shall provide, of the Monasteries charge, a whole Bible in English, to be laid fast chained in some open place, either in the Church or Cloister.
  • That every Religious Person have, at the least, a New Testament in English
  • That ye have a Lecture of Scripture read every day in English amongst you, save Holy-days.
  • That no Religious Person discourage any manner of Lay-man or Woman, or any other from the reading of any Good Book, either in Latin or English.
  • That the Prior have at his Dinner or Supper, every day a Chapter read, from the beginning of the Scripture to the end, and that in English

And he underlines the necessity of reminding all the brethren of the Monastery of their obligations:

  • That all these Injunctions be read every month, once in the Chapter House, before all the Brethren.

Summary of the Worcester Injunctions

From these Worcester pre-Reformation Injunctions we can paint a picture of a monastic priory in administrative decline. The study of scripture and the pursuit of learning had all but disappeared. Little care was given to business or the safekeeping of property, and there was a sore lack of care for the sick, aged, young and infirm. Prior More, who had absolute power, was mostly absent most of the year, at his manors of Crowle, Grimley, Battenhall, or in London, as can be witnessed in his cashbook, and as a consequence discipline was lax.

Many monks dined in their own chambers. What had begun as an exceptional privilege to the weak in health had become common even in 13th century, and in the early 14th century Archbishop Winchelsey found it necessary to order that at least two thirds of the monks must dine each day in the Refectory, on plainer fare. These Pre-Reformation Injunctions indicate that this abuse continued, and had probably grown greater during Prior More’s tenure.

Wolsey’s, Cranmer’s and Latimer’s injunctions were designed to put an end to such indiscipline and disorder. However it does not seem that the first four Deans of Worcester, Henry Holbeche, John Barlow, Philip Haford, and Seth Holland, down to 1559 were much better than the priors who preceded them, if we can trust the contemporary note in the Cathedra archives, which tells a somewhat sorry tale:

… they took pains to leave nothing to their successors except their bare stipends … If any one doubts this let him inspect the indentures, which, while they held office, they granted to their relations. They did not leave a patch of land sufficient to graze a horse upon.

In his study of the Worcester visitations, which he made during the early 1920s, Canon J. M. Wilson summarised Prior More thus, “He must be regarded as an incorrigible worldling.” From the contemporary evidence available we can do little but agree, and yet remain grateful that over time sufficient efforts were made to re-introduce order, discipline and respect.


Steve Hobbs


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