Post-classical history


Winter 1489–90: The Conscience of Abbot Sant

‘The Abbot of Abingdon, a most devout monk of the order of St Benedict.’

Polydore Vergil, Anglica Historia1

If Henry VII did not expect any more trouble from pretenders, he made a grave mistake. It was going to seem as though insurrection was a perennial disease for the new Tudor monarchy. In Bacon’s lapidary phrase, the king suffered from ‘moles perpetually working and casting to undermine him’.2

Too weak to punish the Irish lords, in June 1488 Henry sent Sir Richard Edgecombe over St George’s Channel, to make them swear allegiance. But when Edgecombe visited the Lord Deputy, the Earl of Kildare, at Maynooth he was left in no doubt as to who really ruled Ireland: the oath of allegiance taken by Kildare and the other lords had to be modified since, rather than give bonds for their behaviour, they threatened to ‘become Irishmen’ like those in the wild lands outside the Pale. Still inclined to favour Yorkism, the earl bluntly declined a royal command to visit England.

At the end of 1488 the king declared war on France to preserve Breton independence and sent an army to Brittany. To pay for it, he was obliged to levy swingeing new taxes, voted by a very reluctant Parliament. The ensuing unpopularity encouraged the Yorkists and in March 1489 William Paston wrote to his brother Sir William of how Edward Heestowe [Hextall] of Dover had been accused of treason on ‘many strange points’. At first neither the king nor his counsellors were inclined to believe the accusation, but then Hextall himself confessed his guilt ‘and of many other things more’. As a result he was imprisoned in the Tower and facing death. There is no further information about his ‘treason’, which can only have been some sort of plot to release the Earl of Warwick.3

The previous year’s harvest had been unusually poor, while the taxes were particularly resented in the North because the Border Counties were exempted (to pay for defences against the perennial threat from Scotland). In April a mob murdered the Earl of Northumberland at Topcliffe and the men of Yorkshire and Durham rose in rebellion, ‘saying that they would pay no money’.4 Sir John Egremont, a noted troublemaker, then led an attack on York. The rising was put down easily enough, the Earl of Surrey routing the rebels not far from the Northern capital. Mass executions followed, on a spectacular scaffold two storeys high that was erected specially in York, John a Chambre, Egremont’s main accomplice, having the distinction of being hanged from the top tier.

The king linked the rising with the Hextall case, suspecting another Yorkist plot, and one of the motives for Northumberland’s murder had undoubtedly been his betrayal of Richard III at Bosworth.5 ‘Divers affirm that the Northmen bare against the earl continual grudge sith the death of King Richard, whom they entirely loved and highly favoured,’ was what Hall heard fifty years later.6 Nor were the king’s fears soothed when he learned that Egremont had taken refuge with Margaret of York. While Henry’s eyes were fixed on Flanders, Northern England and Ireland, the next conspiracy emerged in the South, from a most unlikely personage.

A mitred abbot who had a seat in the House of Lords, ‘Dan’ John Sant, was as rich and powerful as many temporal peers. Abingdon Abbey was one of the oldest and wealthiest monasteries in England, dominating its beautiful little town amid the lush meadows of northern Berkshire. A fine bridge had recently been built over the Thames here, and during Lent the abbey’s kitchener levied a toll of a hundred fish from every boat passing beneath. The monks’ lands stretched in a block from Eynsham to Dorchester, with outlying properties as far south as Welford in the Lambourn valley.

The thirty or so ‘black monks’ of Abingdon (so called from the colour of their habits) lived a distinctly relaxed interpretation of the Benedictine rule. Instead of sleeping in a dormitory, each monk had his own cubicle, while wine was served at meals on not less than eighty feast days. As in other large monasteries, they employed a staff of at least a hundred servants (who were popularly known as ‘abbey lubbers’) to look after them. Resembling a combination of cathedral and Oxford college, the great abbey must have been an extraordinary sight in such a small town. Stuffed with treasures – jewelled reliquaries, gemencrusted vestments, gold and silver plate – it also had a fine library. Although the imposing church and most of the buildings were torn down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the gatehouse (built during Sant’s abbacy) still stands to give us some idea of the grandeur of the place.

Abbot Sant mixed with Berkshire’s leading gentry and merchants, entertaining them at his palatial lodging, in panelled rooms with stained-glass windows. It is likely that he had also been host to the Earl of Lincoln and Lord Lovell, who belonged to Abingdon’s Fraternity of the Holy Cross. (Minsters Lovell and Ewelme were within a day’s ride.) A member of the House of Lords, he was often in London, on excellent terms with the black monks of Westminster since he owned a large house nearby, The Mote in King Street. William Caxton had recently set up shop in Westminster Hall, not far from the abbey, and in 1476 Sant had commissioned the first English printed document from him – a papal indulgence that encouraged the faithful to go on crusade against the Turk.

The abbot of Abingdon must have been familiar with up-to-date political gossip. He had met Henry VII fairly often as the king had stayed at his monastery (twice in July 1488) on journeys to Kenilworth and back to Windsor,7 and entrusted him with important diplomatic missions: during 1488 Sant was one of the ambassadors sent to France to negotiate with Charles VIII. He had also been the papal nuncio in England, Wales and Ireland. Vergil refers to him approvingly,8 unaware of his later behaviour.

One has the impression, then, of a bland, smooth-talking, worldy cleric whose loyalty to the new regime seemed beyond question. Yet the king may have wondered why the Stafford brothers had taken refuge in a dependency of Abingdon, his suspicions perhaps further aroused by Sant’s fury at the infringement of Culham’s sanctuary rights: on 21 May 1486, eight days after the seizure of the Staffords, Sant was bound over for the huge sum of £800. Since then, however, it looks as if the abbot had completely exonerated himself – no doubt he held lengthy conversations with Henry when the king used Abingdon as a staging post and also when being briefed for his mission to France.

His brethren had elected Sant as abbot in 1468, presumably because he possessed the managerial skills needed to run the abbey’s estates. In consequence, he had spent the best years of his life in a position of authority during Edward IV’s second reign, the golden age of Yorkism: perhaps significantly, he was one of the two abbots who officiated at Edward’s funeral. He remained unconvinced by Henry Tudor’s tenuous claim to be the heir of Lancaster. Privately, he believed that the crown belonged to the Plantagenets and that the Earl of Warwick had been robbed of his inheritance and was ready to help anyone who was prepared to do something about it.

We only know of what is sometimes (wrongly) called ‘Abbot Sant’s conspiracy’ from an indictment for treason dated January 1490. A certain John Mayne of Abingdon had been arrested, presumably after being betrayed by an informer and put to the ‘question’ – stretched on the rack or having his feet roasted. He admitted that three years earlier, he and Christopher Swanne, ‘yeoman’, of the same town, had met, ‘falsely and traitorously [en]compassing, conspiring and imagining the destruction of the King’.

They had been collecting donations from Yorkist supporters to finance the Earl of Lincoln’s expedition. (Interestingly, the indictment states that the abbot ‘gave to the said John Mayne a certain sum of money’, and as the date when Mayne and Swanne met was 1 January 1487, this means the earl had been planning a rebellion well before his flight.) A substantial amount of cash was no doubt collected, since he had so many friends in the area. The only study of Sant’s conspiracy suggests that the Berkshire Yorkists were just a handful of monks in contact with one or two like-minded churchmen at Oxford, but its author does not appreciate that the De La Poles were such big local landowners, or that a large number of Abingdon townsmen may have met the earl.9

Undeterred by Lincoln’s failure, on 1 December 1489 Mayne and a London priest called Thomas Rothwell (otherwise Thomas Even) met in the capital and plotted to release the Earl of Warwick, with the object of starting a ‘war against the King, our said Sovereign Lord, to the intent to have destroyed his most royal person, and utterly to put this whole realm in confusion’. They then went to the house of Henry Davy where they found not only Davy but Edward Franke.

Franke, that veteran Yorkist irreconcilable, had been captured after the battle at Stoke and committed to the Tower, but had managed to escape. His unshakeable attachment to the former regime has already been demonstrated. Henry Davy, like Franke a gentleman, was another diehard Ricardian, faithful to the memory of a king who had made him his sergeant-tailor. With Franke, he had been ruined by Bosworth.

The plotters agreed on a plan, or at any rate on the outline of a plan. They decided to ask the Abbot of Abingdon for his advice. That they did so shows they were convinced he would give them a sympathetic hearing. It is likely that Franke had already met the abbot since he had been ‘pricked’ – chosen – as Sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire in 1484, when he had farmed the manors of Bray and Cookham in the latter county. Clearly, the abbot was someone whom they were all convinced could be relied on not to betray their conspiracy to the authorities, and who might even consider joining them.

Mayne then travelled up to Abingdon and gave Sant an outline of what they had in mind, adding that Rothwell would come soon in order to explain the plan to him in more detail. The ‘said Abbot was joyous and bade the said John Mayne choose what he would drink’ (one has the impression of Sant gesturing towards a fifteenth-century drinks cupboard). At the same time, the abbot warned Mayne that the attempt was going to need extremely careful planning. He suggested that while Warwick was being rescued, a letter addressed to him should be dropped as if by accident so that it might be picked up by ‘some good fellow’: the letter would tell the earl to join the plotters at Colchester, presumably to put his pursuers off the scent after he had been released from the Tower.

But when Rothwell arrived Sant grew less enthusiastic, realizing that the man was half-crazy – ‘light-witted’. Even so, he wanted the scheme to go ahead, promising he would talk about it with Edward Franke when he next visited London. Mayne, Rothwell and Christopher Swanne met in Abingdon on 20 December, for further discussions. (Swayne was more than a mere yeomen, being the town’s bailiff – which was tantamount to mayor – and a person of some substance.) Franke remained in London, however. A monk of the abbey, Dan Myles Salley, brought the three a sum of money from Sant that would enable them to finance the conspiracy.10 However, the plot never got off the ground. Within the next few days all the conspirators were arrested, together with the abbot, and charged with treason.

Little is known about Henry VII’s ‘secret service’, but it had its successes and stamping out the Abingdon plot was one of them. Many of the agents seem to have been clerics. Understandably, no identifiable records were kept – although one or two reports have survived – but it is clear that informers were paid bounty money, sometimes on a regular basis: the regime had so many hidden enemies that it could not have survived without them. A number of otherwise inexplicable arrests can only be attributed to their activities. It was undercover spies of this sort who brought Mayne to the authorities’ attention.11

He was swiftly tried and convicted. There was no need for a trial in the case of Edward Franke, who was soon hunted down: having been attainted after Stoke he was already a proscribed traitor whose life was forfeit. According to a contemporary herald’s account, within a matter of days four men suffered on Tower Hill because of their involvement – Mayne, Franke, Davy and another, unnamed man.12 The monk Myles Salley, who had brought the abbot’s money to the conspirators, was also found guilty but eventually pardoned, as was Christopher Swanne, the Bailiff of Abingdon.

John Sant was found guilty, too, but being a cleric he escaped the death penalty. He appears to have been kept in prison until September 1490 when he was bound over and ordered to pay the enormous fine of £1,000 in instalments, besides forfeiting all his lands and goods, although these were restored to him in 1493. In any case, as they consisted of manors in Berkshire and Oxfordshire, they belonged to the abbey. In the same year he bequeathed all his movable goods – personal possessions – to King Henry, ‘in token of all the grace shown to him … praying God for a good continuation of the king’s royal estate’.13 He remained Abbot of Abingdon until his death in 1496.

Yet it is plain that Abbot Sant was no fool. What is so interesting is that he and his friends among the Abingdon townsmen believed that a plot to release Warwick and make him king in Henry Tudor’s place stood a fair chance of winning widespread support. They had been confident enough to risk their lives.

There is some evidence that Henry was seriously alarmed by the conspiracy. When riots broke out among the traders of Abingdon in spring 1492 and a large number were arrested, he stopped the proceedings and ordered their release – it seems that he was keeping an eye on the area, anxious to win support among the locals. It may not be a coincidence that in January 1494, when there was a distinct possibility of a rising in favour of Perkin Warbeck, the king went on progress through Berkshire.

5. Winter 1489–90: The Conscience of Abbot Sant

1. Vergil, op. cit., p. 32.

2. Bacon, op. cit., p. 201.

3. Paston Letters, op. cit., p. 1032.

4. Paston Letters, op. cit., p. 1037.

5. M.A. Hicks, ‘Dynastic Change and Northern Society: The Career of the Fourth Earl of Northumberland’, Northern Society 14 (1978), pp. 78–107.

6. Hall, op. cit., p. 443.

7. Materials, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 337 and 339.

8. Vergil, op. cit., p. 32.

9. D. Luckett, ‘The Thames Valley Conspiracies against Henry VII’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 68 (1995), pp. 164–72.

10. Rot. Parl., op. cit., vol. VI, p. 436.

11. I. Arthurson, ‘Espionage and Intelligence from the Wars of the Roses to the Reformation’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 35 (1991), pp. 145–6.

12. Plumpton Corr, op. cit., letter lxxi; Leland, Collectanea, vol. IV, p. 257.

13. Calendar of the Close Rolls, Henry VII (1485–1500), 2 vols, London, H.M.S.O., 1955–63, vol. 1, 672, pp. 196–7.

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