Medieval landholders, both ecclesiastical and lay, managed and manipulated the resources of their estates with great efficiency and this can be seen most clearly in the management of the Priory of Worcester’s fishponds. The Priory maintained fishponds at Battenhall, Grimley, Hallow and Crowle. In total, by the sixteenth century, there were 19 fishponds on their manors and there were also three fish-weirs on the River Severn. Luckily for this blog, these fishponds are among some of the best documented in the country due to a set of accounts kept by Prior William More who was the Prior from 1518 to 1536.
The question asked here is: why did the Priory have so many fishponds and what was their importance not only to the diet but also to the finances of the Priory?
The earliest reference to a fishpond in the Cathedral Library’s records comes from a thirteenth century charter for the demesne farm at Grimley, a parish just to the west of Worcester. In describing the land of the manor and how it was held, there is a reference to a fishpond (vivarium). Most likely it was close to the Prior’s manor house.
Only one fishpond is mentioned in this charter, so one has to assume that there was at this time only this one fishpond in the manor of Grimley. However, by the fifteenth century this had changed and there were by then more than ten ponds, groups of ponds or areas of water used to keep fish in this manor alone. This increase in numbers was echoed on the other demesne manors of the Priory. These fishponds would have required a great deal of skilled construction, being clay or timber lined and fitted with intricate water channels to keep the water moving so it could be kept clean and aerated, and would have entailed a considerable outlay for the Priory. So did this make financial sense?
Fish was a far more important item of food in the middle ages than it is now because the church enforced dietary rules forbidding meat consumption on Fridays, Saturdays, during the six weeks of Lent and on other holy days. Moreover, fish wasn’t only served on these days, but also at grand feasts, where the host would show his wealth with a dish of high status fish such as pike or salmon. Fish was also prized as a gift and the Prior of Worcester is known to have presented a salmon to the Abbot of Winchester when he visited him.
The coquinarius or kitchener was an important official of the Priory and it was down to him to provide all of the meat and fish for the Priory. His accounts for 1340/1, when there were fewer fishponds, give a statement of the cost of each week’s supplies and show that it is not only the fishponds that are supplying fish, as he is buying salt fish and fresh conger eels, cod and ling (though how fresh these actually were is to be wondered at as they most likely had to be brought up from the Severn estuary by boat). In all, his outlay averaged £4.10s a week on fish and at Lent this rose to over £6.
Although no weights are given in these accounts, an estimate can be arrived at as to how much fish was required by the Priory. There were approximately 150 fish days a year, though this could be as high as 215 some years, and fish would be eaten at at least two meals on these days, so by using average figures we can estimate the amount of fish actually consumed at the Priory. There were 120 monks and staff, so if each person might be expected to consume about 200 grams at a meal, then annual consumption would be 30 kilograms per person per meal per year. Assuming two meals per day on 150 days a year, 7200 kilograms of fish, at the very minimum, is needed to feed the Priory.
How much fish was supplied by the fishponds is a little more problematical. Even using Prior More’s accounts it is impossible to know exactly how many fish were in the ponds as terms like ‘certen store breams whiche wer put in……‘ are used. It is the same problem when it comes to how many fish were taken out. For example, one quote is ‘Grete Tenches fissed 275 + 324 stores + many yang‘. What can be ascertained is that Prior More generally stocked the ponds in spring, which is the beginning of the growing season for fish, and most of these fish would be well grown by the following autumn and winter, so it can be assumed he took out nearly as many as he put in, leaving only undersized or slow growing fish. Considering a tench weighs on average 2 kilograms, that is going to be well over 500 kilograms of fish that can be taken out at one time from one pond. That is over 9500 kilograms over the 19 ponds and means the Priory could easily supply its yearly needs, especially if this was being supplemented by salted and sea fish. Therefore from a financial point of view, having all these fishponds would make sense.
Showing that having fishponds made financial sense helps to explain why there were so many. Also, the increased development of fishponds was most likely intensified because the fish weirs, initially the main source of fresh fish for the table, although very productive were also very unpopular. This was because the weirs not only caused a hazard to navigation on the rivers but they were depleting the fish stocks. Laws were passed to restrict their use as early as Magna Carta in 1215. This lack of productivity probably helps to explain why, by the C14th, the Priory was leasing out their fish weirs on the Severn. In addition to the weirs, the proliferation of mills on the smaller side streams, with their dams and leats, was interfering with the spawning grounds of freshwater fish and exacerbating this decline in fish stocks. Hence not only did the increase in fishponds make financial sense, it was also a necessity to maintain supplies of fish for the Priory kitchen.
Many of the fishponds, including the first thirteenth century fishpond at Grimley, still survive today, although the manor house they were attached to is no longer there. The only description of the house at Grimley is from the eighteenth century, when John Noake, a renowned antiquarian author, wrote: “a good manor house was built in the third year of Henry VIII.” Noake goes on to say that this sixteenth century building was pulled down towards the close of the seventeenth century to be replaced by a building called ‘The Palace’, which is disparagingly described as “a cross-timbered building, of poor construction”. Luckily for us, Noake also recorded “the large gardens are enclosed within ancient walls, and there are remains of fish-pools”.
The manor house at Grimley was thought to be Prior More’s favourite retreat and when he retired from office just before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries he petitioned the King for the manor house, lands and ponds as part of his pension. Unfortunately, there is no correspondence to confirm that these were granted to him and he in fact retired to the manor house at Crowle, though not before stocking the moat with fish and renovating the entire house at the Priory’s expense.
WCM/A11 also published as; Fegan, E S (ed.) Journal of ‘Prior William More, Worcestershire Historical Society Publications, London, 1914
WCM/A2 fol. 42B
Aston M (ed.), “Medieval Fish, Fisheries and Fishponds in England”, British Archaeological Reports, 182, Oxford, 1988
Harvey, Barbara “Living and Dying in England 1100-1450: The Monastic Experience” Oxford Press, London & NYC, 1993
Hoffmann R. C., “Economic Development and Aquatic Ecosystems in Medieval Europe” American Historical Review 1996, 101(3) 631-669
Noake, John: The Monastery and Cathedral of Worcester, 1866