"THIS IS ASHRIDGE"

by

CAPTAIN HENRY GORDON

Foreword (by Lieut. Col. Alfred Burne); This is Ashridge - Introduction; The Monastery; The Royal Residence; The Manor House and The Mansion; The College; The Hospital; The College after the War

THE MONASTERY

 

 

The monastery of Ashridge was founded in 1285 by Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Cornwall. In considering the ancestry of the Founder, it will be convenient to start with King John, 1199 - 1216. John had two sons, Henry and Richard. The former succeeded his father and was crowned Henry III in 1216 at the age of nine.

In 1227, Henry conferred the Earldom of Cornwall on his younger brother Richard for good service in the French war. Richard also bore the title King of the Romans, and he obtained this in a singular way. As a result of heroic deeds and noble endowments, he was recommended for the honour by a deputation of German nobles who came to England specifically for this purpose. They presented their request to the whole Baronage of England assembled in Parliament. he was finally elected by the unanimous consent of the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire of Germany, and was crowned King and his wife Queen with great splendour, in the presence of the Archbishop of Cologne and other Prelates.

Richard was married three times, and by his second wife, the lovely Senchia of Provence, his ultimate heir was born. This son, Edmund of Plantagenet, was in due course to succeed him and to found the Monastery of Ashridge.

Berkhamsted Castle was one of the family seats, and it was here that the first Earl of Cornwall died in 1271. His body was buried at Hailes in Gloucestershire, and his heart in Oxford.

Berkhamsted was at that time one of the finest castles in England. Before the conquest it was held by Edmer Atule, a Thegn of Edward the Confessor. William I granted it to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain, and it was here the Conqueror received the keys of London on his march to the capital in 1066. Thomas a Becket held the Castle in farm 1155 - 1165, when William of Winsor appears as farmer and in 1216, after the death of John, the garrison held out on behalf of the young King Henry against a French army encamped on White Hill.

The Black Prince resided at the Castle, and when at the age of 41 he laid down his sword, it was to spend the last lingering five years of his life there. He died at Canterbury, but to the monks of Ashridge he left a generous legacy, which included a table of gold and silver, enriched with precious stones, and said to have inset a piece of the true Cross.

We are given an insight into the reasons which prompted Edmund to create the Monastery, in Hollingshead's Chronicles of England:

"Edmund, the son and heir of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was second son to King John, being with his father in Germany, and there beholding the reliques and other precious monuments of the ancient emperors, he espied a box of gold by the inscription whereof he perceived (as the opinion of men then gave) that therein was contained a portion of the blood of our blessed Saviour. He therefore being desirous to have some part thereof, by fair entreaty and money obtained his desire; and brought the box over with him in England; bestowing one third part thereof, after his father's decease, in the Abbey of Hailes, which his father had founded, and wherein his father and mother were both buried; whereby to enrich the said monastery; reserving the other two parts in his own custody; till at length, moved upon such emotion as was then used, he founded an Abbey at Asserugge in Hertfordshire a little from the Manor at Bercamsted, in which he placed the monks of the order of Bonhommes (Good Men), being the first that had ever been of that order in England, and assigned to them and their abbey the other two parts of the sacred blood."

The monastery was commenced in 1283 and completed in 1285. One can picture Edmund selecting the site in the peace and seclusion of the wooded high ground, three and a half miles from Berkhamsted. Here at a safe distance from the main London way his religious treasures would be secure and the fraternity unmolested.

The first Rector was Richard of Watford, who was installed with twenty brethren, of whom thirteen were priests according to Charter, all of the Order of Bonhommes whose rule was founded of that of St. Augustine. This seems to be the first mention of an English branch of the Order, and their existence can be traced to only one other place in England, Edington, Wiltshire. Their influence on this country was not therefore extensive, but they seem to have borne the reputation of great sanctity abroad, and to have retained that character in England.

Some authors speak of the monks of Ashridge wearing a blue habit, and one goes so far as to assert that they were according to the manner of the Eremitans - clad in sky blue garments. There seems no doubt, however, that they wore a grey or ashy coloured dress as was laid down by their Statutes. The remains of a brother and part of his grey habit were discovered in 1810.

Among the aims of the Order was the advancement of learning, and one of the brethren earned repute by writing a work entitled "A Lytell Treatise in English called the Extirpation of Ignorancy" and another called "A Lytell Boke contayning certain gostly medycynes agens the comon plage of pestilence."

Soon after the foundation, Asserugge, as it was then known, was distinguished by Edward I holding a Parliament in its Hall. Apparently the session was short and no Acts were passed, yet several judgments were given and recorded.

The spelling varies and was formerly written as Esserugge, Aescrugge, Asserugge and Asherugge. Norden in his "Description of Hertfordshire", 1596, gives the spelling as Aescrugge and states that the name is derived from "a hill set with ash trees". Aesc, as the ashen tree was first called, afterwards asche, and from rugge, signifying a hill or steep place, afterwards written ridge.

Away to the east of the present boundary fence, between the Lime Walk Annexe and the Golden Valley, the remains of a very old ash can still be seen. Shorn of most of its big branches, its majestic height reduced to about twenty feet by collapse and the disappearance of its top, completely hollow inside and resembling a great tube, this old warrior stood battered and scarred at the end of the second world war. It had lived through the days of the Armada, the Napoleonic wars and the 1914/1918 struggle, but it bore the scars inflicted on it by careless visitors who, seeking a spot to boil their picnic kettles, had lighted fires inside the trunk. I hoped it had survived its ordeals by fire as it had other calamities, but its wounds had been severe and in 1953 the main trunk fell. I feared this was the end but, undefeated, it has now thrown up new branches from its fallen trunk and still lives.

I visit this lonely old figure of the past periodically to let it know someone still cares, because it is the only survivor of the original ashes of Asserugge.

The building was erectedin a clearing on ground 620 feet above sea level. Protected by massive trees of beach, oak and ash, it was a quiet retreat in forest solitudes with only the wild deer as neighbours; a house of patient effort, of hard work, of high endeavour and deep devotion.

Edmund the Founder died at Ashridge on October 1st, 1300, and his bones were subsequently carried to the Abbey of Hailes, to be interred by the side of his father and mother. The king honoured a magnificent funeral with his presence, and many High Church dignitaries attended the obsequies.

If his bones rested at Hailes, Edmund's heart remained at Ashridge. He had prepared during his lifetime a magnificently decorated room, and it was in this room adjoining the Chapel that his heart was placed, together with the heart of Thomas de Cantelupe, the portion of Christ's Blood, and other precious relics.

Edmund was immensely wealthy; but his generosity was proverbial and his benefactions were many. He was a man of extreme piety and at the same time a distinguished soldier. He died without issue, and his honours and lands fell to the King, whom he had declared his heir.

In 1535 the King's Commissioners visited Ashridge, the rector and Brethren made their recognition of Royal Supremacy, and surrendered the house to the Crown.

Several valuations of the property at this time have been given, but it seems probable that Dugdale is correct when he states it to have been £416 16s. 4d. We find a record of this sum apportioned to the Rector, Brethren and other outgoings.

To Thos. Waterhouse, the Rector, per ann. .. .. .. .. 110 - 6 - 8

To 17 Brethren at £8 per ann. each .. .. .. .. 136 - 0 - 0

To the clear Outgoings of the Temporal and Spiritual

Possessions of the College .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 170 - 9 - 8

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416 - 16 - 4

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The last Rector was Thomas Waterhouse. He was a man of ancient lineage, who held in addition the Rectorship of Quainton in Buckinghamshire, and was called by Henry VIII his "gentleman priest". After the dissolution he lived in Hemel Hempstead for many years. He died towards the end of the reign of Queen Mary and was buried in the chancel of the Parish Church.

No definite information exists as to the fate of the relics reverenced at Ashridge. One writer suggests that the blood of Christ was publicly exhibited at Paul's Cross by the Bishop of Rochester on February 24th, 1538, but this lacks confirmation. They probably suffered the same fate as many others in a ruthless campaign against "relic and image worship", which swept the country.

There is a tendency today to unearth information about obscure individuals, who by reason of minor human failings have had their existence recorded, whereas their neighbours and colleagues who pursued their daily duties, remained unnoticed. This distorts history, emphasising trivial things and putting them out of proportion. The Ashridge monks have not escaped this. In fact, no particular criticism or approbation of the Ashridge Fraternity is recorded. They were merely one of the bricks in the monastic structure, and when this disintegrated, all the components, large and small, good and bad, went with it.

The quarrel with the Crown was only the final manifestation of the crumbling of the monastic system. Formerly the religious houses had carried out indispensable functions, but they had outlived their time, and ceased to exert any religious or intellectual force. They were held under suspicion, if not actually disliked by the secular clergy, and ill supported by the bishops - the majority of whom found no difficulty in taking the King as master instead of the Pope.

We can picture the last community, 17 brethren, all Englishmen, passing through the porter's lodge and entering into a new world with heavy hearts. As they walked slowly through the woods, perhaps they looked back along one of the rides to whisper farewell to the Conventual Church, to the Great Hall with its seven high Gothic windows, and to the clustering barns, little realising that this was not the end but merely the closing of the first chapter in the story of their House.

 

 

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