An upright and religious Monk
Richard Whiting was the sixtieth and last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey during the years 1525 to 1539. The most likely date for his birth has been suggested as 1459; he was probably in his mid-sixties when he commenced his tenure as Abbot. Unfortunately for Whiting he had been elected to preside over a community of Benedictine monks at the most turbulent time in English ecclesiastical history; the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII. He was executed for unclear reasons on Glastonbury Tor on 15 November 1539.
Whiting's family was of a west-country origin and distantly connected with that of Bishop Stapeldon of Exeter, the generous founder of Exeter College, Oxford, who possessed considerable estates in Devon and Somerset. Whiting came of a junior branch of the family from the valley of Wrington. Members of this family were destined to work in the church; another Richard, probably an uncle, was chamberlain at the monastery of Bath, and a Jane Whiting had taken the habit as a nun in the convent of Wilton. Later, two of Abbot Whiting's nieces were admitted into religious orders at the English Franciscan house at Bruges.
Whiting went on to Cambridge to complete his education, taking his MA in 1483. After completing his degree the young Benedictine monk returned to his monastery at Glastonbury and was probably occupied here in teaching. Whiting received the minor order of acolyte in the month of September, 1498. In the two succeeding years he was made sub-deacon and then deacon. On the 6th March, 1501, he was ordained into the priesthood at Wells by Bishop Cornish in the now destroyed chapel of the Blessed Virgin.
For the next 25 years, we know very little of Whiting's activities; it is likely he worked in seclusion carrying out his duties at the Abbey. In 1505, he returned to Cambridge and took his final degree as Doctor in Theology. At the monastery he held the office of Chamberlain, which would give him the care of the dormitory, lavatory, and wardrobe of the community, and placed him over the numerous officials and servants necessary to this office in so important and vast an establishment as Glastonbury then was.
In February 1525 Abbot Bere died after worthily presiding over the Abbey for more than thirty years. After failing to agree on a successor the Glastonbury monks charged Cardinal Wolsey to make the choice of their abbot. After obtaining permission form the King, Wolsey declared that Whiting was his choice as Abbot, stating that he was "an upright and religious monk, a provident and discreet man, and a priest commendable for his life, virtues and learning." Whiting had shown himself to be, "watchful and circumspect" in both spirituals and temporals, and had proved that he possessed "ability and determination to uphold the rights of his monastery.” As a result of his election as head of the Abbey he obtained a distinguished seat in the House of Lords. John Leland, antiquary to Henry VIII, referred to Whiting as "a man truly upright and of spotless life and my sincere friend."
Five years after Abbot Whiting's election, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey opened the way for the advancement of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, and one of the strongest advocates of the English Reformation, the English church's break with the papacy in Rome. On the fall of the old order he built up his own fortune. “For ten years England groaned beneath his rule - in truth it was a reign of terror unparalleled in the history of the country.” As chief minister to King Henry from 1532 to 1540, remorseless and tenacious in pursuing his aims, Cromwell 's power grew as he became the chief political contriver of religious change in England.
The King's Divorce and the Suppression of the Religious Houses
In 1530 a curious document was presented to Abbot Whiting which turned out to be the beginning of the end for him and his monastery. The letter addressed to Pope Clement VII called for the papacy to dissolve King Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The letter had been drawn up at the King's court and was now being passed around the Spiritual Peers and the Lords Temporal for endorsement. Whiting, like most of his fellow subjects, did not approve. Henry had grown frustrated by his lack of a male heir and since 1526 had begun to separate from Catherine because he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, one of the Queen's ladies, and sister to one of the King's mistresses.
The Abbot of Glastonbury did eventually sign the letter along with twenty one other Abbots but Rome still refused to grant the King a divorce. By December 1532 Anne was pregnant and insisted on the status of Queen. Now relying on the devious counsel of Thomas Cromwell, Henry was forced to act to avoid any issues to the legitimacy of the child. In January 1533 Anne and Henry were secretly married. Although the King's marriage to Catherine was not dissolved, yet in the King's eyes it had never existed in the first place, so he was free to marry whoever he wanted. On May 23 the marriage of Henry and Catherine was officially proclaimed invalid by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the English Reformation.
With the conclusion of Henry's divorce case came the end of the peaceful years of Abbot Whiting's rule. Now began the anxious days which were to end for him in execution on Glastonbury Tor as a traitor.
As part of the King's scheme for a National Church, enforcing a break with Rome, Cromwell inaugurated a policy of dissolving the religious houses and confiscating their wealth. Dissolution of abbeys and convents was nothing new. The British monarchy had sold French monastic possessions in England seized during the Hundred Years War. Even Thomas Wolsey had closed a number of small priories. However, on these occasions the proceeds had been used for charitable courses. But in 1532 with Cromwell's rise to power a new precedent was set with the Augustinian house at Aldgate being required to sign a deed of gift to the monarch. Cromwell saw this as a legitimate means to solving the King's financial problems.
On 3rd November, 1534, the "Act of Supremacy" was hurried through Parliament, and a second statute made it treason to deny this new royal prerogative. Resistance was futile with the oath of royal supremacy taken wherever it was tendered, and Glastonbury was no exception. Abbot Whiting and fifty-one of the Glastonbury community attached their names to the required declaration, renouncing obedience to the Pope. However, this should not be misconstrued as an act of betrayal to their faith by the Benedictine community. Indeed, many did not see the oath of royal supremacy over the Church of England as being derogatory to Rome. Whereas King Henry was seen as the head of the Temporal church he was never seen as the head of the Spiritual church by many religious houses.
Within a year of general oath taking the whole approach to religious houses changed in 1535. Cromwell, now Henry’s vicegerent, was responsible for the day-to-day running of the Church and ordered that all religious houses should be visited by one of his representatives. He constructed a program of inspection, known as the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ to determine how much property was owned by the Church in England and Wales. Royal commissioners toured the religious houses, the methods they employed, leave no doubt that the real object was the destruction of the monasteries under the cloak of reformation, then submitted a report, of questionable accuracy, back to Cromwell.
The ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ combined with the inspections proved to be a difficult problem for the religious houses. Cromwell claimed the intention was not to abolish monasticism but to purify it. Many of the visits were carried out by 'royal commissioners' Thomas Legh and Richard Layton, perhaps the most trusted of Cromwell's employees. These two ambitious men were aware of the result required by Cromwell, their reports appropriately tailored accordingly to provide the information he desired.
Following the 'inspections', Cromwell set out injunctions that were so exacting in detail that essentially they were meant to be unworkable. In the hands of Cromwell's agents they were, as they were designed to be, intolerable. And at Glastonbury, as elsewhere, the injunctions were more than simply impracticable, but restrictive in the principles of religious discipline. Abbot Whiting, like so many religious superiors at this time, petitioned for some mitigation. Nicholas Fitzjames, a neighbour, dispatched an earnest letter to Cromwell in support of the abbot's petition.
Duly, the royal commissioner Richard Layton arrived at Glastonbury on Saturday, 21st August 1535. After his inspection of the Abbey he wrote to Cromwell stating he could find nothing untoward under Abbot Whiting's rule; “At Bruton and Glastonbury there is nothing notable; the brethren be so straight kept that they cannot offend : but fain they would if they might, as they confess, and so the fault is not with them."
The act of suppression of 1536 had condemned houses with an annual income of less than £200, suggesting they might wish to voluntarily surrender. However, by 1538 rumour was rife of the forthcoming dissolution of even the greatest religious houses, with one after another falling into the King's hands all across the country. However, Cromwell issued a letter denying the intention of general suppression of all the monasteries. This letter could scarcely have done much to reassure Abbot Whiting as to Cromwell's real intentions, in view of the obvious facts which each day made them ever more clear. Bath and Keynsham, had fallen shortly after the Christmas that year with Benedictine Athelney and Hinton Charterhouse following, where upon rigid questioning on the matter of royal-supremacy one of the Hinton community had been imprisoned for "affirming the Bishop of Rome to be Vicar of Christ.” For weeks the royal wreckers swarmed over Somerset, like a biblical plague, "defacing, destroying, and prostrating the churches, cloisters, belfreys, and other buildings of the late monasteries; and the roads were worn with carts carrying away the lead melted from the roofs, barrels of broken bell-metal, and other plunder."
By the beginning of 1539, Glastonbury was the only religious house left standing in the whole county of Somerset; Abbot Whiting must have been aware of the fate that awaited him.
The Final Days of Glastonbury Abbey
In April 1539 The Second Act of Suppression came in to force that included a retrospective clause covering the illegal suppression of the greater monasteries which had already passed into the king's hands, which granted to Henry all monasteries which shall hereafter happen to be dissolved, suppressed, renounced, relinquished, forfeited, given up or come unto the king's highness. The Act included a clause referring to such other religious houses as "shall happen to come to the king's highness by attainder or attainders of treason.” By the summer of 1539 few of the great houses remained undissolved and it is surprising that such an attractive house as Glastonbury had survived this long. But after several reassurances to the Abbot there seemed to be a change of plan and the Vicar General revealed his end game.
The sequence of events from September through November are not all together clear and a full account of the beginning of the end of Glastonbury Abbey and Abbot Whiting's final days is not available due to the absence of key documents amongst the records relating to the closing years of Cromwell's administration. Yet, among Cromwell's memorandum, still extant in his own handwriting, dated from the beginning of September, 1539, the Vicar General's intention are quite unambiguous; "Item, for proceeding against the abbots of Reading, Glaston and the other, in their own countries."
On 16th September in a letter to Cromwell, indicating future intent, Richard Layton requests his pardon for praising Abbot Whiting at his previous visit in 1535; "The Abbot of Glastonbury, appeareth neither then nor now to have known God, nor his prince, nor any part of a good Christian man's religion."
Three days later, on Friday, September 19th, the royal commissioners, Layton, Pollard and Moyle, arrived at Glastonbury at about ten o'clock in the morning without warning. The Abbot was at his grange at Sharpham, about a mile from the monastery. Whiting was questioned there then taken to the Abbey. In his study they found a book of arguments against the King's divorce and a copy of the life of Thomas Becket. They sent him, a weak and sickly man, to the Tower of London so that Cromwell might interrogate him further.
A week later, on 28th September, the royal commissioners write to Cromwell saying that they have found treasures and monies hidden in secret places in the Abbey, sufficient to have "begun a new abbey.” They concluded by asking what the King wished to have done in respect of the two monks who were the treasurers of the church, John (Arthur) Thorne and Roger James (Wilfrid).
The commissioners gathered, or constructed, statements from local informers about the Abbot's treasonable opinions. On the 2nd October the inquisitors write again to say that they have discovered evidence of "divers and sundry treasons" committed by Abbot Whiting, "the certainty whereof shall appear unto your lordship in a book herein enclosed, with the accusers' names put to the same, which we think to be very high and rank treasons." The book has long since disappeared but creases in the original letter seem to indicate it was enclosed therein.
By now, with Whiting in the Tower, the monks were quickly dispatched and Glastonbury Abbey already considered a royal possession. But from the very beginning of the suppression Whiting had co-operated with the king and his agents. He had signed the petition to the Pope concerning the royal divorce and subscribed to the oath accepting royal supremacy. Yet Cromwell's notes reveal the Vicar General had already decided the Abbot's fate; in a memorandum dated before the end of October, he wrote: 'Item, the Abbot of Glaston, to be tried at Glaston and also executed there with his complices'
Whiting should have been tried by parliament by act of attainder but this was totally ignored in his case; evidently his sentence had been decided before Parliament came together. The House was due to have sat on 1st November and would have considered the charges against Whiting at that time but assembly was delayed till the arrival of the King's fourth wife, Ann of Cleeves. Whiting would remain in the Tower till then.
Pollard took the frail old Abbot, who must have been nearing eighty years of age by now, back to Somerset on 14th November where he was taken immediately into the Bishop's Palace at Wells, without giving the condemned man even time to recover from his journey. Lord Russell had assembled a jury, which included John Sydenham, Thomas Horner, and Nicholas Fitzjames, the same who, but a year or two before, had written to Cromwell on Abbot Whiting's behalf. Friends and allies turned against the Abbot for a share in the rich booty to be had at the Abbey. Pollard directed the indictment, which Cromwell had drafted based on evidence revealed during the secret interrogations conducted during Whiting's two months' imprisonment in the Tower. From the crowd gathered at Wells tenants, and others, came forward to testify against him with new accusations of wrongs and injuries committed against them by the Abbot. No doubt they had been paid their piece of silver by Cromwell's agents. At the last minute the charge seemed to have been changed from treason to one of robbery. Whiting, absurdly accused of robbing his own abbey, was tried amongst common felons, four accused of rape and burglary who were condemned to hang the next day. The records of the trial fail to make clear the charges, or indeed the verdict. No defence or cross examination was allowed; it appears to proceed immediately to the execution.
This was clearly no more than a mock trial; as we have seen above, Abbot Whiting's fate was already settled, at Cromwell's own hand, before he left the Tower, the Vicar General, acting alone as prosecuting counsel, jury and judge, had already reached his decision. Cromwell ruled Whiting guilty and determined that he should suffer before all the world the ultimate indignity and destined for him the gruesome death of a traitor in the sight of his own subjects who had known and loved him for many years on the scene of his own former glory. Cromwell decreed the Abbot was to be hung, drawn and quartered at Glastonbury.
The following morning, 15th November, Whiting and the Abbey treasurers John Thorne and Roger James, were taken to Glastonbury. On the outskirts of the town he was spread-eagled across a hurdle which was tethered to a horse, and then dragged through the streets of Glastonbury, past his beloved Abbey and up the Tor where the gallows had been erected by the side of St Michael's tower. Pollard writes that the Glastonbury three "took their deaths very patiently” and added "whose souls God pardon."
Whiting's lifeless body was cut down, the head hacked off and his corpse divided into four parts. One part despatched to Wells, Bath, Ilchester, and the fourth to Bridgewater, whilst the head was fixed over the Abbey gates.
Following the fate of Glastonbury, only one more monastery was to be dissolved, that of Waltham Abbey. At the start of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, there were over 800 religious houses in Britain. By 1540 there were none with more than 15,000 monks and nuns dispersed and the buildings taken into ownership by the Crown to be sold off or leased out. The process had taken just four short years. Many of these religious communities owed their very existence to the wave of monastic enthusiasm that had swept across England and Wales in the 11th and 12th centuries, many as with Glastonbury, claiming to built upon early Celtic or Anglo-Saxon foundations. Glastonbury appeared early in that wave with tradition claiming it to be the site of the first Christian church in England, established by Joseph of Arimathea in the first century AD. It is difficult to disagree with the description of the suppression of the monasteries as simply "an enormous scheme for filling the royal purse."
Less than a year after Whiting's execution, justice, perhaps in part at least, was had when Cromwell fell from favour after arranging the King's disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleeves. He was charged with treason and heresy and executed on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540. With Cromwell's death the Dissolution of the Monasteries quickly ran out of steam.
True to his faith to the end, Richard Whiting is considered a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church, which beatified him on 13 May 1896. Beatification provides the title of "Blessed," a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a dead person's entrance into Heaven and the third of the four steps in the canonization process, the act by which the Christian church declares a deceased person to be a saint.
Copyright © 2011 Edward Watson
Continued in: Part II - The Execution of Richard Whiting
Part III - The Bones of Richard Whiting
According to a traditional account Thomas Horner, one of the jurors at Whiting's mock trial at Wells, which sent the old Abbot to be hung, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor, is said to be the Abbot's steward, famed in the “Little Jack Horner” nursery rhyme, first published in1725, but no doubt in circulation like all the common English nursery rhymes long before they appeared in print.
It is rumoured that the Abbot tried to bribe the King by sending his steward, Jack Horner, with a gift of twelve title deeds to various west country manorial estates. The deeds were said to have been secreted in a pie to thwart thieves. The story of valuable documents being hidden under a pie crust is not so far fetched as it may at first appear. Highwaymen were common in these times and travellers often hid their valuables by sewing them into garment hems and concealing them in cakes and the like. Horner is said to have opened the pie during the journey and extracted the deeds of the Manor of Mells, 15 miles north east of Glastonbury, the 'plum' of the twelve manors which included lead mines in the Mendip Hills, which may be an allusion to the Latin for lead, 'plumbum' (Pb). The remaining eleven manors were handed over to the crown but to no avail.
Following the destruction of the Abbey, Horner moved into the Manor of Mells. If there is any truth in the tradition at all Horner was probably rewarded with Mells for aiding the conviction of the Abbot of Glastonbury. The Manor of Mells became the property of the Horner family who lived there until the 20th century. While records do indicate that Thomas Horner became the owner of the manor, both his descendants and subsequent owners of Mells Manor have claimed that the legend is untrue.
Francis Aidan Gasquet, D.D. Abbot President Of The English Benedictines - The Last Abbot of Glastonbury, George Bell & Sons, 1908.
Richard Watson Dixon, History of the Church of England Volume II, Clarendon Press, 1902.
Geoffrey Ashe - King Arthur’s Avalon, 1957, fiftieth anniversary edition Sutton, 2007.
James Carley, Glastonbury Abbey, The Holy House at the head of the Moors Adventurous, 1988, revised edition Gothic Image, 1996.
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