‘Always look a gift horse in the mouth’: the abbey of Louth Park and the deathbed of Sir Henry Vavasour (d. 1342) of Cockerington, Lincolnshire

On his deathbed, Sir Henry Vavasour reflected on life after death and made some changes in his will to ensure the health of his soul. However, in doing so he compromised his family’s future. Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project explores Sir Henry’s last minute decisions and the fallout they caused…

Death was a crucial moment of transition in the passage of property. At the deathbed of a medieval landowner, particularly a substantial one, there was a pressing question; what lands were to be diverted from the heir? Primogeniture was too harshly restrictive a system to be allowed to operate unmodified. Provision needed to be made for other members of the family and, more contentiously, for the health of the landowner’s soul. The story of the death of Sir Henry Vavasour provides an illustration, albeit an extreme one, of the problems that might ensue when the landowner was inclined to put too great an emphasis in investing in the latter.

The records of medieval government, formal and bureaucratic by their nature, rarely contain vivid stories of the eternal realities of human life. When they do the story is generally worth relating, and such is the case with the moving narrative of Vavasour’s deathbed. The narrative begins with a remarkable act of either generosity or recklessness by Sir Henry in favour of a neighbour, the Cistercian abbey of Louth Park. In late November 1342 he summoned the abbot to meet him at his manor of Cockerington, a few miles from the abbey, and told him that, moved by both his love for the abbey and concern for his soul, he intended to give that manor to the abbey to support as many as ten new monks. Since the manor was one of his principal estates, the proposed alienation promised to compromise the wealth and standing of his family. He was, in short, giving priory to his own concern for his soul over the future interests of his family. If, however, this gave the abbot pause about the wisdom of accepting a gift that contravened social norms, the financial difficulties under which his house was labouring must have stilled them. In any event, the precarious state of Sir Henry’s health meant there was little time for reflection.  If the gift was to be carried through, there was to be no time to lose in drawing up the necessary legal instruments. These were to be made in the abbey itself, and it was there that Sir Henry took up residence for the last days of his life. Annoyed on his arrival to find that the abbot was not there to greet him, he sent his wife to summon him with the admonition that ‘never would he take such a fish in his net’. Duly warned that the ailing Sir Henry might yet change his mind, the abbot came to his bedside to discuss arrangements for the conveyance of the manor to feoffees who were then to settle the manor on the abbey. 

Ruins of Louth Park Abbey shows a few meagre segments of the abbey walls still standing, much overgrown, with the masonry crumbling. These ruins are contrasted with the ‘Populous, & Pleasant’ town of Louth beyond, with the spire of St. James’s Church rising above the neat houses.
Scant remains of Louth Park Abbey as they appeared in 1726. (C) British Library

Sir Henry’s servants were then despatched back to Cockerington to put these arrangements into execution. Soon after midnight on the following day, one of the dying man’s female servants, Alice, who had been left as his sole attendant, came and knocked on the abbot’s window and asked him to come and give her master extreme unction, for he was on the point of death. At this stage Sir Henry was still compos mentis, aware enough to gift the loyal Alice a horse as he received that sacrament from one of the monks. As this moving scene was being enacted, the feoffees were at Cockerington, where, soon after first light, they took the attornment of the manor’s free tenants, a necessary formality to establish their seisin of the manor and thus to give legal validity to their later conveyance to the abbey. When they returned to the abbey a few hours later, they found that Sir Henry had died, leaving open the question of whether he had survived until after the feoffees had established their seisin by receiving the attornments. Indeed, it was later to be alleged, quite falsely, that the abbot had forged the deed of feoffment and set Sir Henry’s seal to it after his death.

Faded writing. Joined up. Not readable.
Sir Henry’s widow, Constance, sued her late husband’s feoffees for her dower in part of the manor of Cockerington: CP40/340, rot. 628.

Given these difficulties, it is not surprising that things did not go smoothly for the abbey and that Sir Henry’s generosity did not bring the much-needed addition to its resources. Instead, it provoked a crisis in the abbey’s affairs. Sir Henry’s widow and his sons sought to overturn his reckless generosity, by both legal and illegal means, and the abbot was obliged to seek royal protection. The matter was discussed in the Parliament of June 1344 and, as a result of these deliberations, the abbey was committed to royal commissioners, ‘in consideration of its impoverished state’. An inquiry was then instigated into the validity of the grant, before which the story of Sir Henry’s deathbed was related. Although, however, the validity of the grant was established, the abbot, perhaps wisely, did not press the matter. In June 1347 he accepted from Sir Henry’s heir a part of the manor in exchange for relinquishing his abbey’s claim to the rest. Two years later the abbot died of the plague, having, in the words of the terse contemporary chronicle of the abbey, suffered ‘a very great persecution’ on account of the grant of the manor. Appropriately, perhaps, he was buried before the great altar close to Sir Henry Vavasour.


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