Over the A377 at Umberleigh Exploring Ancient Abbeys ...

A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places

Over the A377 at Umberleigh

Track near Umberleigh House

'A private track leading away from the A377 across the Taw floodplain, giving access to several fields'.
© Copyright  Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
     What often intrigues me when I'm out and about exploring Devon's lost literary links connected with women of the past are the occasional teasing facts which pop up unexpectedly out of the historical blue, and yet either report conflicting facts or omit tantalising details, leaving you wondering what might have been. Although through the centuries Devon has frequently played a vital role in many major historical happenings, perhaps because of its outlying position toward the western margins of our country, it is more often than not ignored - and especially in my line of research focusing on its women's past literary achievements and networks. Sometimes, like a pop of colour from a bland painting, a tiny snippet of information leaps out of a passage of information and begins to repeat over in my mind, reminding me of those bothersome earworms. I had such a revelation recently when reading about Umberleigh, in the northern part of the county, so decided to select it as the Devon parish for 'U' in this A-Z of Devon Women Writers & Places.

     I've been interested in Umberleigh since finding about its links with the Bassett family and the Lisle Letters, which I wrote about in a post in my other earlier blog - see A Tale of Two Tudor Sisters.

     As I commented in the earlier piece, if you drive along the old Barnstaple main road, the A377 route through Umberleigh now, you just would never know, let alone even imagine, that the place was at one time and for many centuries, a site of great significance and that here there was an ancient chantry chapel; a large manor; perhaps at one time even a palace ‘overshadowed by tall trees’ (see Beatrix Cresswell). A deer park is recorded at Umberleigh during the period of Henry VII and may have been in existence long before that. If you search the site out on Devon Environmental Maps you can see that Umberleigh House is marked as 'on the site of a probable pre C13 mansion.

      (Unfortunately, although I have taken photos of the area some years ago, at present I can only find one of them, so Geograph images will need to suffice - and anyway their quality far surpasses any that I might come up with!).

A377 approaching Umberleigh House
'From Fishleigh Rock Garage looking towards the point '
where SS5924 : A377 near Umberleigh House was taken.
© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

          I'm not exactly a qualified historian; my PhD was in English Literature. I don't often have time to visit archives to search out original data; for the most part my interpretations are taken from a range of online and secondary textual sources. But I did manage to scrape through history A level, so like to think I have sufficient credentials to have a go, especially when literary interests link with historical ones - and in particular, when they both focus on women who were once engaged with literature. Such is the case with Umberleigh. 

       As Beatrice Cesswell noted in her article on Umberleigh Chapel, the place appears to have been an ancient estate, 'which' she added 'in the course of its history has had [so] many feminine possessors'. Then, as is the case with the women of the Lisle family and the letters they exchanged, there are times in the estate's history when an owner was explicitly linked with written literary pursuits of the time. The period which especially intrigues me with regard to Umberleigh House/Chapel, is the C11, especially around the period of the Norman Conquest. In her piece about Umberleigh Chapel Cresswell comments that
Just before the Conquest all this property was held by Brictic Meau, Thane of Gloucester, whose tragic story has to be told so frequently in the history of Devonshire parishes, and need not be repeated here. - The Conqueror. bestowed Umberleigh upon the Abbess of the Holy TrInIty, Caen Mr O. J. Reichel suggests that the Abbess had here a rural oratory with the same dedication as her convent, and includes Umberleigh among the Domesday churches of Devon.
    Two details in this passage especially intrigue me: the reference to the 'Abbess of the Holy Trinity Caen' and the possibility of there once being an 'oratory' at Umberleigh. Other sources confirm that at the time of the Domesday Book in effect Umberleigh was entered as an alien priory, 'in the manor of the Church of the Holy Trinity Caen' (See History of Devonshire).

        The Holy Trinity, or Abbaye aux Dames, of Caen was founded as a Benedictine Monastery of Nuns in the latter years of the C11 - (possibly in 1059, or 1066) - by William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda. Works on the monastery began in 1062; they were completed in 1130. (Matilda, who died in 1083, was buried in the abbey). One source says that the first Abbess of Holy Trinity Caen (See The Early Abbesses Nuns and Female Tenants of the Abbey of the Holy Trinity Caen) was also a Matilda (which is a possible pitfall leading to confusion), who governed the abbey for 54 years (another source says 47 years) and that she must have come from an aristocratic family; she'd previously been abbess of an abbey in Liseux. Following Abbess Matilda's death, in 1113, or 1120, the Conqueror and his consort's probably eldest daughter Cecilia (who'd entered into the Abbey of Caen at a young age, probably at its founding), became second Abbess of Holy Trinity (See Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy). Cecilia died on 30 July 1126 in Caen, France; she was buried within the abbey walls. Her father was also buried in Caen. Eventually Cecilia became a powerful and highly respected figure amongst monastic women.

      It is interesting to compare these dates with the years during which the abbey of Caen was linked with Umberleigh, which, if Cresswell is correct in her statement that 

'In 1176 Bishop Bartholemew Iscanus confirmed to Tewkesbury Abbey the church of Wimberleigh which Roger de Winkleigh held on behalf of the monks for 20S'. (Umberleigh Chapel

was about one hundred and ten years, a period which takes in the abbesses periods of both Matilda and Cecilia. 

        Cresswell also concludes that it is unlikely there was any direct connection between the Abbey of the Holy Trinity at Caen and its distant sub-oratory in Devon:

'It is improbable any of them [the nuns or the abbess herself) ever saw the place, and they must subsequently have parted with it, perhaps in exchange for property more conveniently situated' (Umberleigh Chapel).
        I can't help wondering whether it may be possible to question this theory that there was no direct link between Umberleigh and its 'mother' institution over in Normandy. I suppose Cresswell came to that conclusion after assuming that the rural situation of the Devon site would have made it too difficult to access and that the women from Caen would not have had any interest in visiting the far off western regions of the Saxons. I feel she was in some ways slotting into the same assessment about the northern part of the county as many earlier researchers - and once voiced in 'The Early History and Aborigines', a C19 paper by J.R. Chanter, in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol 2, 1867), in which he concludes:

The facts which have at various times been brought together concerning North Devon, tend to show that its history deserves more attention than has heretofore been shown to it.

        I'm not sure that Chanter's plea has yet received any response, even now well into the C21. But one fact is sure. At the time of William's invasion in 1066, Devon was not some god-forsaken, inconsequential county - a place which had little impact on the dramas unfolding throughout the whole country. Maybe it's quite valid to challenge Cresswell's conclusion. 

     For a time the county was the centre of the action, especially during the Exeter siege, in 1068, when Exeter was surrounded by William the Conqueror's army, and Gytha, Harold's mother, and wife of Godwin of Essex, was holed up for 18 days with other royal women. Eventually Gytha escaped, was rowed away from Exeter's water-gate, down the river Exe, and away from the town. 

    Then, three years after the initial invasion, north Devon became central to the main historical narrative when another significant battle, that of the Battle of Northam, took place in which Brian of Brittany defeated an army headed by two sons of King Harold. The battle site is thought to be between Northam and Appledore, in the north of the county (and so, not far from Umberleigh).

     There is also is the question of the once-sites of female occupied religious institutions. The focus of historical attention apropos Norman monasteries/convents and abbeys linked with women tends to be directed towards the famous ones such as Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire; but I have sometimes wondered if this is to the detriment of other now lost or forgotten nunneries, which may have existed further west in Devon - and not that much further onwards westward than Wilton. Sometimes when I read about the social, cultural and literary achievements of women during the C11 onwards for several centuries, it is as if they all congregated at Wilton and didn't venture any further westwards. Devon, as we now call it, hardly seems to have existed. It seems generally assumed that Devon religious institutions of the time were of little consequence to our national cultural heritage as it fed into the development of women-centred literature. But to counter that theory, there are several places in the south-west known to have had such female-centred establishments around or during the one hundred years following the time of the Norman invasion. For instance, in Durston, in Somerset, Buckland Priory (also known as Minchin Buckland Preceptory or Buckland Sororum - "Buckland of the Sisters") - was established around 1167 and was the only house for women in England of the Knights Hospitaller. It is known that girls were sent to Buckland to be educated. Then at the end of the C13 there was Canonsleigh Abbey, at Burlescombe, which was important enough to hold at least one copy of The Ancrene Wisse, one of the medieval age’s most significant and famous religious manuscripts (See The Mystery of The Ancrene Wisse).

      As far as I know, Umberleigh was the only Devon site that Caen was linked with? But I may be wrong in this assumption. What really puzzles me about Umberleigh's connection with the important and shiny new monastery of nuns at Caen is why? Why would a place that in the C11 must have been even more remote than most Devon parishes be selected as fit for purpose to align with one of the then most important new French religious institutions? Was Umberleigh already of special significance before 1066? If we take a step back to look at Umberleigh before the Norman conquest, there are tantalising - though unproven - suggestions that the site had been prestigious long before. According to Wikipedia,
Immediately prior to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 the manor of Umberleigh had been held by Brictric, as recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. He was probably the great Saxon thane Brictric son of Algar.[3] A person named Brictric was also the pre-Conquest holder of the single possession in Dorset of the Church of the Holy Trinity of Caen, the post-Conquest holder of Umberleigh [3]
      Prior to that, one tradition says that during the C10 King Athelstan built a special palace at Umberleigh (see, for example, The North Devon Handbook). Athlestan is said to have 'built at Umberleigh a palace and next to it a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Trinity, which served the royal family and household' (Wikipedia). (Athelstan's court was known to be meeting-point and melting-pot for culture and learning for various parts of the British Isles and the continent). According to this tradition, Umberleigh remained an appendage of the crown for centuries. 

    The legends retreat even further back, for one source says that traditionally, pre-Athelstan, Umberleigh was supposed to have been the special residence of the chief of the Celtic Druids of North Devon. (Godfery Higgins, The Celtic Druids, quoted in the paper by J.R. Chanter in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol2 1867).

       But, as so often happens re supposed facts about this mystery place, there have equally been other historians who are cynical about Athelstan's military accomplishments in Devon and therefore, about his alleged close links with Umberleigh:

Unfortunately, however, the accounts of his reign which have been preserved are all too scanty; and, as is usual with national heroes whose careers have not been adequately recorded, tradition has been busy with his name, and has ascribed to him deeds which he probably never performed and never even attempted to perform ...Various traditions have added other incidents, such as Athelstan’s triumphal entry into Barnstaple, and the erection of a palace for him at Umberleigh, “which he bequeathed to John of Gaunt.” (See The Athelstan Myth).

     As you may imagine, it is unlikely that I can provide any new evidence either way as to the probability or not of Umberleigh having once been a south-west royal palace; but I do tend to think there must be something in these rumours and that it was perhaps because Umberleigh had already become a pre-eminent Saxon estate that at the time of the Norman invasion it was gifted to the monastery of nuns at Caen. 

     Neither can I establish the truth as to whether there was an oratory at Umberleigh at the time of its possession by Caen. Skimming the sources which are easily available via google searches, there are various reactions to this possibility; they're not always in agreement. One source turns oratory to nunnery - referring to a once Norman nunnery sited at Umberleigh. Others are not so sure. Maybe there was not an oratory here.

     Nevertheless, there is no doubting the facts of the association between Umberleigh and Caen. And there are other local examples of such smaller cells established in Devon during the period of William the Conqueror. In St Nicholas Priory Exeter a cell was built at the charges of the parent monastery (See Monasticon Anglicanum).

Track near Umberleigh House

Looking right from where SS5924 : Track near Umberleigh House was taken. SS5924 : A377 near Umberleigh House shows the A377 just over the hedge on the right.
© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

      Why in any case is the possible link between Caen and Umberleigh of interest? You might well ask. My chain of inferred links may well turn out to be a historical-literary red-herring. A far-fetched and obscure theory. Quite likely perhaps, but I hope one day - if there are any useful sources in existence - someone out there might explore the necessary archives and help to confirm, or kybosh, my hunch.

        One researcher in this field who has helped direct my thinking about Umberleigh is the writer/academic Elizabeth M Tyler, whose various writings about royal and aristocratic women of the Saxon to early Medieval period establish again and again how important were the social, family and cultural interconnections of these women in terms of their contribution to the development and spread of literature of the period. In particular, apropos this blog post, Tyler's work in this area explores the impact of the nunneries - where many of the royal women were educated and spent much of their lives - on the proliferation of all kinds of texts into the cultured communities. In her paper 'Crossing Conquests: Polyglot Royal Women and Literary Culture in Eleventh Century England', Tyler notes that during the 'intensely creative period' of the eleventh century, both 'court' and 'cloister' became 'location[s] of innovative literary culture'. Nunneries 'functioned as schools and as places to put royal daughters', whose learning became 'impressive'.  As far as I know, Tyler's work does not focus at all on Royal-women's Devon links, nor does it feature any female religious establishment west of Wilton - the famous convent where so many of these royal women spent much of their lives. However, what she does discuss makes me wonder if there may have been interconnections between places such as Wilton and other convents or priories or nunneries - whose presence and histories are long ago forgotten - which were sited westwards of Wilton. 

      Here is my line of thought. I'll begin by going back full-circle to where I started this piece; it's what is left out of the existing tantalising factual fragments that need to be explored. It seems to me that the linking of Umberleigh with the female community at the Holy Trinity at Caen, - the 'Abbey of Women' - which, in those times, was apparently such a prestigious religious site, ought to be investigated further. For the women associated with Caen were also connected with some of the literary highlights of the early Norman period. Cecilia, the Conqueror and his consort Matilda's abbess daughter, for example, was the recipient of several important literary texts. Some have called her 'patron of poets' and one source notes that she visited London regularly and carried out surveys of her abbey's lands (See Magistra et Mater). It is therefore not inconceivable that Cecilia and other women within the royal network travelled further into the south-west corner of the country to assess and explore sites connected with their family lands. In any case, regarding alien priories held by French religious houses, I understand that frequently the parent church sent a monk or nun over to manage the property. If so, it is surely possible that the abbess travelled down to Devon to keep an eye on proceedings there.

       Certainly, although it wasn't until two years after her husband accomplished the invasion, Cecilia's mother, William's consort Matilda herself visited Devon. It is said that Matilda was keen to see her new kingdom and take possession of her landed wealth, including her rich estates in Devon. Matilda was one of a chain of female consorts who held Devon land during the Anglo-Norman period. Many of them were blood relatives of the west-Saxon royal-line and genealogical study had become one of the special literary trends of the day for women of the aristocracy. It was common for royal women to express curiosity about their family history and to commission genealogical charts; as Tyler explains in Crossing Conquests, they were educated and actively engaged in the 'cultivation of dynastic memory'. 'Who do you think you are' is not a new phenomenon! 

      So, for anyone who's had the patience to follow me this far, if, back in the early days following William the Conqueror's invasion, there was an oratory or small cell-chapel sited at Umberleigh attached to the important mother Caen church over the Channel, in Normandy then, in my re-envisioning imagination, there could have been a footfall of female visitors travelling over from France via other religious establishments (such as the alien priories or nunneries scattered throughout the Wessex region). One or two of them may have been women from the top of the cultural hierarchy who were involved in the pursuit, study and circulation of some of the time's foremost literary achievements. Or perhaps they were actively engaged in the tracking of their own extended family history. Perhaps, for instance the women were out and about in the south-west, re-visiting the haunts of their own predecessors and ancestral kin. William the Conqueror's grandfather Richard II Duke of Normandy, for instance, was sister of Emma of Normandy, (Queen Consort of England, wife of Aetheldred the Unready and Cnut), who'd held extensive lands in Devon and it said he made many visits there. Meanwhile, Matilda of Flanders, William's consort, through Alfred's daughter, Aelfthryth, was a descendant of King Alfred the Great and the old Saxon House of Wessex.

      Yes, I know this is all rather obscure and tentative and that Caen's holding of Umberleigh for the hundred or so years following the conquest could simply be a matter of monetary benefits. As far as literary interests are concerned I could, or should, instead be focusing on the connections between women and literature that are already established and for which there is plenty of evidence. But, when it comes to the centuries before say the C15/16, documentation about female engagement with literary achievement is just not out there. Nowadays, various researchers working in the field of rediscovery apropos the missing contributions of women to our national and local literary heritage, are beginning to reassess and formulate plausible theories about what may have been.They're trying to pinpoint a particular place, a woman (usually royal or aristocrat), or a group of women who, during the time in which they lived, may have played a part in what Elizabeth Tyler, in her book English Royal Women and Literary Patronage c1000 -1150, calls 'the cultivation of literary culture'.

       It is not implausible to suggest that an active network of women from the incoming Norman aristocratic community, who'd been educated at one or other of the various female monastic establishments in Normandy or England had considerable impact upon literary developments of that early Norman period, and given the few facts that are out there indicating a connection between these people and the site at Umberleigh, neither is it completely out of place to suggest that several of these women may have had some direct link with the place.

Fields near Umberleigh House

      In what must then have been an intensely pastoral location, set in the northern region within the ancient land of the Dumnonians, which we now call Devon, perhaps, just for a few years, the quiet site beside the river Taw became a little still-centre - one of the few in the county - where women gathered to commission new texts and to share, exchange views, ideas and responses to a variety of then circulating literary texts.

See also From the Devon Ridge Where a Book Began


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