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History Of The Prebendal

This write up was sent to me by PJ - Words Mailing List Resident Archaeologist

The manor  had originally been built as a monastery in 1241.  The name of the mason was Johanne Cementarius (1170-1184).  The 16 acre estate also included a chapel which was begun in 1138, and a refectory constructed during the 14th Century.  The medieval site had since been elaborated into the semblance of a modern mansion, but its history had not been forgotten.  The story began with Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was the brother of Henry III.  Richard directed in his will that a foundation should be endowed for three secular priests to pray for his soul.  Richard attributed his escape from "many perils of land and sea" to the meditation of the Virgin Mary, and as all houses of the Cistercian order were dedicated to the Virgin, it was fitting that an abbey of this order should be founded.

Richard's son, Edmund, thus founded an abbey of Cistercian monks from Thame. Many of the monks were relocated from Oately, Oxfordshire because their original site was "fitter for an ark than a monastery."  Edmund also gave 16 acres to the west of the abbey for private use.  To represent the 21 original monks of the foundation, 21 elm trees were planted within the gates, and at
the upper end, a tree by itself to represent the abbot.  (Some of these trees are still standing today!)

The Cistercians, like many of the original monks, strove to withdraw as completely as possible from the world, hence their abbeys were situated in remote spots, far from any human dwellings.  The Cistercians became one of the most efficient and powerful of the monastic orders and, between the years 1134 and 1342, over 600 houses were founded.  The Cistercian order actually began in France in 1098.  Also known as the white monks because of the color of their habit, they arrived in England in 1128.  The monasteries of the Cistercians were houses of consecrated men vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience.  For example, four hours of sleep per night was all that was allowed.  The Cistercian monks' heads were entirely shaved.  Meat was never eaten, and from Easter until September, there was but one meal per day.  Prayer was the principle duty of the monks, but the monastery also served as an inn and as a center for education.  Valuable historic works were written in monasteries, and the decorative arts, including printing, embroidery, painting and sculpture, were also pursued.  They abbeys were self-supporting; the monks grew their own food and kept large ponds for the supply of fish.

Serving as an inn, or a place of refuge, many people sought sanctuary within the walls of the Prebendal at different times, among them Anne Boleyn, who visited the house with her husband Henry VIII.  Today, her portrait remains on display within the house.  Another visitor to the house was sent by Bishop Longland of Lincoln after his attention had been directed to the affairs of the abbey of Thame; the bishop had been entrusted the task of looking after the discipline of the religious houses.  Early in 1526 the visitor came to examine Abbot John Warren and his monks on the charges of personal immorality and outrageous extravagance which the bishop had brought against them.  Abbot Warren was living magnificently at the expense of the impoverished abbey.  The abbot and his monks denied nearly all of the charges which left the bishop furious.  "I never," wrote the bishop, "heard such ridiculous and
frivolous answers as those of the Abbot of Thame.  He simply tries to evade the issue....  He admits that women get in.  Women!  And in a Cistercian monastery of all places!  He admits that he allows his monks to go to public games and to give feasts.  And how, pray, do they pay for these out of their stipends?   And mind you," he wrote to the abbot, "if you wont do your obvious duty and get in a better lot of monks I shall apply the possessions of the monastery to some use more acceptable to God!" (Taken from the English Historical Review, Vol. III, page 704.)  Three years later, the abbot of Thame, John Warren, died mysteriously and the house was left deeply in debt.

By the year 1536, the Act of Suppression had led to the dissolution of many of the smaller monasteries in England.  The remaining monasteries were later oppressed into extinction by the year 1540.  During this time, every abbot received a pension which varied in amount according to the wealth of the former establishment.  Many former monks held canonries or prebends in the cathedrals, and so the crown was relieved of part of their pensions.  Robert King, who was at this time abbot of both Oseney and Thame, remained at the site of the Prebendal and became bishop of Oxford with his former abbey church as his cathedral  (the abbey church of Oseney was the cathedral church of Oxford from 1541 - 1545).

The abbots of Thame were:

Everard, 1138
Serlo, 1148
William of Ford, 1184
Simon, 1205
Lawrence, 1225
Robert de Tett[esworth], 1232
Hillary, 1243
Roger de Marcham, 1252
Richard Bartone, 1259
Roger Houttone, 1283
William Stratone, 1302
John de Thame, 1316
William Steyning, 1349
John de Esingdon, 1355
Richard de Wath, 1361
Henry Towersey, 1393

Out of 1593 grants of monastic lands during the reign of Henry VIII, one in 40 were gifts or prebends--part of the revenues paid as a clergyman's salary. Today, the majority of England's monastic architecture is in ruins, but some abbey buildings, such as the glorious Prebendal, were turned into private houses. 

Today, the Prebendal is located between the church and the river, near Lord
Williams'  Tudor almshouses and the old grammar school.  On the outskirts of
town, in the hamlets, it is the chief ancient building of Thame park.  Except
for the abbots lodgings, which were built early in the 16th Century, and the
13th Century  buildings to the north, nothing remains of the monastic
cloisters or original church which was consecrated in 1145, although a stone
lavatory with carvings of birds and flowers was discovered in 1841.  

When the Wenman family obtained the site of Thame monastery after the Dissolution, they preserved the abbots lodgings and part of the monastic buildings.  The lodgings, which form the south front of the present house, were built at three separate dates and are excellent specimens of the late phases of domestic gothic.  The earliest part of the abbots lodging dates from about 1500 and comprises a small upper and lower hall with bay windows at the east end.  An extension was added later, embodying a larger hall on the ground floor of five bays with an upper hall and a second room beyond.  Lastly, a low tower of three stories in height  covering the original external south door was built after 1530 when Robert King became abbot.  The second building has a large south oriel and a projecting stair.  The stone entrance door has a four centered arch within a square frame.  The upper apartment has a late 16th Century stone fireplace, but the molded beams are early 16th Century and may have been put there in Abbot Warren's time.  The parlour on the first floor of the tower retains its magnificent original linen-fold panelling.  On the ceiling of the ground floor room are the arms of numerous benefactors of the abbey.  The kitchen wing to the north is older than the Tudor wing.  The sixth Lord Wenman pulled down part of it in 1745 and added a Palladian west front.  The architecture is simple and restrained.  The reception rooms were probably altered by the last Lady Wenman who entertained William IV here.  After the Baroness Wenman's death, an entirely new system of heating and hot water supply was installed, including electric lights and drainage, luggage and service lifts, and redecoration of the whole house with the exception of the Tudor wing which to this day remains unnocupied.

The Wenman's also preserved as a private chapel a medieval building lying to the northwest of the house.  It was presumably a chapel built just outside the gates of the abbey for travelers.  It is parallelogram in shape with a high pitched roof, a western bellcote and a west doorway.  The building was restored  by Sophia Baroness Wenman.  Many of the ancient characteristics of the chapel were destroyed, and high pews, a cumbersome pulpit and reading pew, and an organ were installed.

Sophia Wenman was an intriguing character.  Like many of her generation, she had never conquered her fears of being buried alive.  In fact, she was so afraid of being buried alive that when she died, her body, as stipulated, was put in a special glass-enclosed coffin visible to visitors to the family crypt at Thame Park.  The Baroness had reckoned 50 years long enough to wait interment.  But the estate passed out of the family, her wishes went unfulfilled, and her body remained there for all to see.  During her lifetime, and especially in her later years, she was  known as the "lady of the bountiful" in the area, championing good causes and being particularly benevolent to those we would describe today as socially disadvantaged. At Christmastime, her kindness to the poor amounted to  18 tons of coal, 1200 pounds of prime beef, 880 yards of flannel and 36 woolen jerseys.  She also showed her appreciation during the festive seasons to the members of the Thame Chapel Choir.  Each year, the choir man and his wife and two of their children were invited to supper at her home.  Before leaving, each one was given a joint of beef weighing up to ten pounds in weight.  The wives were presented with Christmas pudding, and the children had bags of sweets and fruit. It is odd that no portrait of her seems to exist.

But there are plenty more unusual facts left.  There were always rumors of buried treasure in Thame.  In 1940 rumor became fact.  Willocks Mackenzie and his wife were walking with their dog along the riverbanks towards Lemmett's hole. The banks were piled high with debris caused by the dredging of the river bed.  Something shiny caught  Mackenzie's eye as he bent to pick up a
stone to throw for his dog.  But what Mackenzie found among the gravel on that historic day were five gold rings and some silver coins which turned out to be grouts.  The items were thought to have come from the Prebendal, and some linked them with the legend of the theft of treasure from the monastery.

They say the thief was being chased by a horseman who caught up with him at the river.  The thief dropped his booty and drowned in the struggle with his would-be captor.  The coroner declared that the treasure trove had come from Thame abbey and was hidden in the river by an over zealous monk to stop it from falling into the hands of the king's officers upon the dissolution.  The treasure is on display now at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Two of the rings from the treasure were said to be magical, and one ring was designed to act as a reliquary of some kind, possibly to hold a fragment of the true cross.   They were quite commonplace in the 14th Century.  One of the magical rings had a toadstone in it--so called because it was supposed to have come from the mouth of a toad!  It was, in fact, a fossilized tooth!  The toadstone was supposed to make men more worthy.  The other magic ring was
supposed to change colour if it ever came near poison.