Friday, July 25, 2014

Barlings Abbey by Elizabeth Ashworth


The remains of Barlings Abbey lie in remote countryside seven miles from Lincoln. Above ground there is little left to see, except a small part of the nave of the abbey church. The site is mostly grassed over, although the mounds from which some remaining stones peep out hint at the magnificent buildings that once stood here.

The abbey was founded in 1154 by 13 canons from the first English Premonstratensian order at Newsham Abbey near Grimsby. The land was given to the order by Ralf de Haya, son of the constable of Lincoln Castle, and the abbey was built on an island, Oxeney, the island of the ox, which was raised above the low lying fens. The canons also built a causeway to connect the abbey to higher ground, and that causeway still forms the course of the twisting lanes that lead through the fields to the site.

Agriculture, and particularly wool production, made Barlings Abbey one of the richest and most influential of the Premonstratensian houses in England. It became even more influential than its mother house. The canons wore a white habit and cap and were known as the white canons. Unlike ordinary monks, they did not always stay within the cloisters of the abbey, but served as village priests and missionaries in the local community.  

I visited Barlings Abbey whilst researching for my latest novel, Favoured Beyond Fortune. The book tells the story of Alicia de Lacy, who is buried here alongside her second husband Eble le Strange. Alice’s links with the abbey go back to its foundation. She is a descendant of Ralph de Haya through her mother Margaret.  Both Alicia and her mother are also descended from Nicola de la Haye, famously known for defending  Lincoln Castle against a siege in the reign of King John.  Nicola is buried at the church of St Michael at Swaton, and when Alicia’s lands were forcibly taken from her after the execution of her first husband Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, she pleaded to be allowed to endow the manor and church of Swaton to Barlings Abbey for prayers for her soul and the souls of her parents, brother and ancestors. When her second husband, Eble le Strange, died in Scotland in 1335, his body was brought home and buried at Barlings Abbey. On her death in 1348, Alice asked to be buried beside him.

Barlings was the location of a meeting on 7th September 1328 between Henry of Lancaster and Roger Mortimer with the young Edward III. Lancaster came with an armed entourage, challenged Mortimer’s power over the king and told him that he had an army and was not afraid to use it. Mortimer eventually overcame Henry of Lancaster, but was in his turn overthrown by the king. You can read more about the story in my new novel The Circle of Fortune.

From 1334 to 1360, the abbey church was rebuilt through the generosity of Edward III who lodged at Barlings on at least three occasions. Two of the abbots, Thomas and Alexander, were granted special protection and exempted from payments of tithes, and according to Heritage Lincolnshire one of Edward's chaplains was a canon of Barlings. 

When Bishop Redman visited Barlings Abbey in 1488, there were twenty canons besides the abbot. In 1491, another visitation warned the canons against the adoption of new fashions and the unnecessary ornamentation of their habits. In 1494, the visitor had nothing to censure except the disregard of these admonitions as to the habit of the brethren, and especially the wearing of slippers. 

A large number of bequests to the poor were paid from Barlings Abbey until its dissolution: £18 to thirteen poor persons every year in memory of Alice de Lacy, Countess of Lincoln; 6s. 8d. in memory of John of Gaunt and his wives; on Maundy Thursday and the feasts of St. Nicholas and St. Thomas of Canterbury, to every poor person who came to the gate, a loaf of bread and a herring.

The last abbot was Michael Mackarel. At Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries he was charged with treason after being accused of involvement with the Lincolnshire Rising.  He was imprisoned in Lincoln Castle and later taken to the Tower of London where he admitted taking money, plate and vestments from the abbey so that the monks would not be left destitute. He was hanged in March 1537 and later beatified by Pope Leo XIII. The abbey church was defaced. The lead was stripped from the roofs and melted down. The abbey land and abbey possessions were given to Charles, Duke of Suffolk.

Some parts of the cloister range survived until the 18th century. The central tower of the church finally collapsed in 1757, but not before its appearance was recorded in an engraving by Samuel Buck in 1726.


The site of the abbey is now private land, but access is available via a footpath.

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