‘Sawtry-by the way-that poor Abbey’- The White Monks of Sawtry Monastery

The shortest lived monastery in medieval Huntingdonshire is also one of the most unique. The small order of Cistercians at Sawtry Judith were in place for a mere 400 years but the hard-working, manual labouring monks and their lay-brethren had a long lasting effect on both the landscape and farming methods of Huntingdonshire, and the growth of Sawtry as a town.

Who were the Cistercians?
The Cistercian Order were a splinter of the more widespread Benedictine order which was well established across Europe. The Cistercians desired a more strict lifestyle, electing to build monastic houses in rural, solitary locations and enshrining the need for brothers to conduct hard manual labour on a daily basis. This manual labour often saw large scale land improvement works around Cisterican houses including waterways being dug, swamps being drained, woodland felled and fields enclosed to keep sheep.

Image of Cistercian Monks at work and prayer from a 12th century manuscript

The ascetic lifestyle of the monks meant that their monasteries tended to be smaller, less ornate and less financially endowed than other monasteries. The monks eschewed feudal income and financial donations, supporting themselves with the fruits of their own labour by farming, rearing sheep, and maintaining vegetable gardens, fish ponds and cattle herds. They span their sheeps’ wool for their undyed habits which gave them their colloquial name of “white monks”.

These “white monks” tended to have large communities of brethren (monks who had joined as novices and known no life outside the church) and lay-brethren (who had retired from secular life to join a monastery as an adult). Due to the independent and self-sufficient nature of their lifestyle, the monks would have had lay-brethren who acted as shepherds, ploughmen, dairymen, carpenters and masons.

Why Sawtry?
The monastery was officially founded in 1147 by Simon de Senliz, Earl of Northampton and a grandson of William the Conqueror’s niece – Judith, Countess of Huntingdon. The initial founders came from Wardon Abbey in Bedfordshire to establish an independent monastery on the border between the marshy fens and the thickly wooded land of North-Western Huntingdonshire. A solitary location on the edge of Sawtry Parish and far from other population centres, there was just one slight problem…

Location Sawtry Monastery, a public footpath runs across the monastic site

The site on which these ascetic monks wished to found their new monastery was in fact the home of an existing village. This small settlement of Sawtry St. Judith was emptied out, its inhabitants sent to join the villagers of Sawtry. The population must have swelled Sawtry’s size to some extent as the value of the village’s tithes and rectory land to support their church had amounted to a respectable £8 a year. The village was demolished in its entirety and only the church was left standing – it would become part of the monasteries gatehouse, where it would stand until the mid sixteenth century.

Monastic Rivalries and Royal Guests
The monastery seems to have had a troubled beginning; with shared borders with the Benedictine houses of Ramsey and Thorney there was immediate disputes over land and fishery rights. This worsened in 1179 when the monks finished digging a waterway from the monastery to Whittlesea Mere, giving them riverine access to that great body of water and onwards to the sea.

The waterway dug to provide river access for the monastery is still in place, view across to the site of what was the monastic gardens.

These disputes escalated to the point where the rights of the monks had to be confirmed repeatedly by David, Earl of Huntingdon, King David I of Scotland, King Malcolm IV of Scotland, King William I of Scotland and several papal bulls!

The monastery, despite these troubled beginnings and only a modest income, grew significantly. In 1278, the site stretched over 15 acres of land and included farm buildings, stables, two granges (outlying farms), six acres of garden and four fishponds. At the heart of this was the 60m monastic church forming part of an enclosed cloistered courtyard, the other sides made up by a chapter house, dormitory, kitchen and refectory. Separate from the courtyard would have been the Abbot’s house, infirmary, Abbot’s kitchen, stables, barns and a lavish guesthouse.

Plan of the monastery complex the “ancient road” is still present as a footpath across the site.

The substantial guesthouse would have been comfortable and ornate – the archaeological record shows a building 50m long and 16m wide. The key location of the monastery, just off the Great North Road, meant that travellers of all stripes, from pilgrims and peddlers to the nobility and even monarchs, would have taken the monastery’s hospitality. Several royal documents were dated from the monastery between 1235 and 1334. Edward II is recorded as having stayed in 1315, and Catherine of Aragon’s body stayed the night at the abbey as her funeral cortege travelled from Kimbolton castle to Peterborough Cathedral, where she was interred.

Cistercian monk in his undyed
woolen robes

That poor Abbey
The monastery was well regarded in the locality. As well as offering plentiful employment to the people of Sawtry, who worked on the monastery’s granges, the monastery would have offered medical care to the sick and alms to the poor. These alms would have been in the form of bread, fish, money and other produce from the monastery’s holdings. The Cistercians did not have an Almoner like Benedictine houses and instead the Porter would have been responsible for organising the dispensation of alms, as well as greeting visitors and acting as a gate-keeper. The monastery at Sawtry was known as a generous alms-giver, a local rhyme highlights their generosity;

Ramsey the Rich of Gold and Fee;  
Thorney, the Grower of many a fair tree;
Croyland the Courteous of their meat and drink; 
Spalding, the Gluttons, as men do think; 
Peterborough, the Proud;  as all men do say
Sawtry-by the way-that poor Abbey,
Gave more alms in one day than all they

Like many smaller religious houses, the monastery struggled to keep their finances in order. By the 13th century the land holdings which had been bequeathed to the monastery were barely profitable due to lawsuits and taxation. In the late 13th century the Abbot of Sawtry monastery had been made Proctor (responsible for) Bon Repos Abbey in France, however the ongoing wars with France saw the abbey at Bon Repos seized by the crown. In 1345, the monastery had to pay £40 (over £50,000 in modern money) to the crown and 33 years later, the abbey at Bon Repos was taken from them. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, the monastery was indebted, but beyond this very little is known of the inner history of the house. It is likely that the numbers of brethren and lay-brothers decreased slowly and land holdings were slowly eaten up by burgeoning debt.

Artists impression of Sawtry Monastery in its heyday

Despite the ascetic and isolationist stance of the Cistercian order it seems that the Abbot was increasingly involved in secular affairs to try and maintain the monastery. Many Cistercian houses became significant wool dealers during the period to make ends meet and it is plausible that the monastery at Sawtry was no exception. Certainly other fenland monasteries at this time were following the example of the Sawtry monks, draining areas of fen as summer grazing for sheep. Similarly, in the clay uplands of north-western Huntingdonshire, enclosure was increasingly becoming the norm, with Coppingford and Little Gidding almost entirely depopulated as landowners began to enclose their land to keep sheep.

A letter in 1534 from the final Abbot William Angell to Thomas Cromwell (with a small gift begging to know the reason for his displeasure) shows an awareness of how the politico-religious tides were running. As a small and terminally declining house there was no chance of a continued existence for the monastery. The first commissioner’s visit to investigate the house saw half of the brethren given permission to leave the monastery, and by the dissolution of the monastery 1536, only 12 brothers and 22 lay-brothers remained within the monastery. The survey of possessions at the dissolution included feather beds, tapestries and “nets for knats” in the guest chambers and Abbot’s house.

The site after a hot dry summer! The earthworks are clearly visible as are the stews or fishponds

The site was almost immediately levelled, and the land was brought up by Sir Richard Williams (alias Cromwell), nephew of Thomas Cromwell and great-grandfather of Oliver Cromwell. The site itself was turned into farmland but the stones were being robbed for other building works as late as the 19th century, when the first archaeological excavations were conducted.

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, 2004, 1st Edition

Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “Cistercian Religious Order”, 2020, Accessed: 28th June, Via: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cistercians

Historic England, “Sawtry Abbey: A Cistercian abbey on the southern edge of Sawtry Fen”, 2020, Accessed: 28th June, Via: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1013280

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “Religious Houses: House of Cistercian Monks – The Abbey of Sawtry” in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 1, Victoria County History, London, 1926

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “History of Sawtry” in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 3, Victoria County History, London, 1936

Rushton, N. “Monastic charitable provision in Tudor England: quantifying and qualifying poor relief in the early Sixteenth century”, Continuity and Change 16 (1), 2001,9-44. Printed in the United Kingdom, 2001, Cambridge University Press

Steve B., “Old Sawtry”, 2020, Accessed: 28th June, Via:https://www.travelaboutbritain.com/cambridgeshire/sawtry2.php

Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1985, 1st Edition

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