Living Letters

Living Letters

This site is designed to bring to life the intriguing story of the Abbot of Norton Abbey who was arrested and almost executed during the reign of King Henry VIII. Follow the characters and explore the story using the timeline below.

We hope that you find this interesting, we've really enjoyed putting it together. Please do get in contact if you have any questions for us.

— Mel, Frank, Adair & Harrison

Today Norton Priory Museum & Gardens is a visitor attraction in Runcorn Cheshire.

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1500

1509: Henry VIII becomes king

Monasteries & Men

In the early sixteenth century, the monastic houses in played a significant role in Tudor society, providing spiritual, financial and educational support for the local community. Approximately one man in fifty was in a religious order.

The close relationship between monasteries and everyday life is believed to have been particularly strong in the North-West, such as Cheshire, where the rural landscape promoted tight local bonds and a resilience to change.

It is unsurprising, then, that the region was unprepared for, and unwilling to accept, the significant changes brought about by Henry VIII, when he announced the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.

The North-West was viewed by those in the south as a conservative and devout county; some 50-years behind the times of the progressive communities in the capital. It is thus unsurprising that the region was unprepared for, and unwilling to accept, the religious and social changes brought about by Henry VIII, when he announced the dissolution of the smaller monasteries in 1536.

1536: North-west unrest

In 1536 the decision was taken to close the small monasteries (those earning less than £200 a year), with the Crown taking their land and expensive possessions. This process was known as the dissolution. Men tasked with the dissolution procedures for the North-West were appointed on 24th April 1536, and they began their travels across the various monastic houses in early May 1536. The purpose of these visits was to assess the finances of the smaller monasteries, reallocating or releasing the religious men, and seizing goods and items of value, such as plate and jewels.

The impending closure of the monasteries caused great anxiety amongst the conservative, devoutly Catholic community; in part, arising from the economic uncertainty of lands moving from monastic to monarchic hands. It seems likely that the close social ties between monks and the common people provoked widespread discontent.

Dutton arrests the Abbot...

From: Dutton Dutton

To: Cromwell Dutton

Date: 3 August 1536

Sir Piers Dutton reports to Cromwell that he has taken into his custody the Abbot of Norton and other men affiliated with the Abbey, although he offers no explanation for his actions in this letter. Having reported this news, he then asks if Cromwell would permit Dom Rondul of Wilmslow, a monk at Vale Royal, to become master of 'that house', with a promise that the monk will fulfil a promise previously discussed.

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© The British Library Board, Harley 604 f60

   Please it your good mastership my duty remember this to advertise you that I have taken the bodies of the abbot of Norton, Robert Jannyns, and the stranger a cunning [Black]smith, [and] two of the said abbott’s servants. Also Randle Brereton, baron of the king’s exchequer of Chester, and John Hale of Chester, merchant, and have them in my custody and keeping / And the rest I intend to have as speedily as I can and to be with you with them (god willing) in all convenient speed as I possibly may. Moreover I have caused dan Rondul [of] Wilmslow , the monk of the Vale Royal to come up to you / for whom I spoke unto your good mastership, which is a good religious man, discrete and well-grounded in learning and hath many good qualities, most apt to be a master of a religious house than any other monk of that house. Wherefore it may please your good mastership to be his good master towards his preferment, [and] that he may be admitted master of the same And that [matter which] I did promise your mastership this said Moncke will accomplish accordingly. Wherefore I beseech your mastership that this bearer and the said monk may report unto you from time to time to know your pleasure therein. Ensuring you what ye do for me or my friend all is your own, as knoweth our lord god who mercifully preserve you. [Written] At Dutton the 3rd day of August
By yours, assured
   Perus.
      Dutton K.


Addressed
To the right honorable
and his especial good
master Cromwell
Secretary unto our sovereign
Lord the King

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October 1536: Uprisings in the North

In October 1536 the common-people of the North-West rebelled against King Henry VIII and the local gentry serving in his interests. They began arming themselves in the first week of the month, which led Thomas, Lord Darcy, a local gentry man and soldier, to write to Henry and ask for a postal organisation to be set-up to allow swift communication between Lancashire and London, to allow the potential rebellion to be dealt with effectively. The rumblings in the North-West paralleled events in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, where rebels rose in protestation against religious and social reform; an event known as 'The Pilgrimage of Grace'.


This uprising is linked to what is known as 'The Pilgrimage of Grace'. To learn more, check out the resources below:
Watch a BBC video clip on The Pilgrimage of Grace
Read a detailed overview of The Pilgrimage of Grace

12 October 1536: The Abbott Attacks

Sir Piers Dutton writes to Sir Thomas Audeley to inform him that the Abbott and Canons of Norton had gathered 200–300 persons and threatened to attack the King's commissioners. He has taken the Abbott and three of his Canons into custody.

King demands Abbot's head...

From: King Henry VIII King Henry VIII

To: Dutton Dutton and Brereton Sir William Brereton

Date: 20 October 1536

Following Dutton's letter to Audeley Henry VIII writes this warrant authorising the execution of the Abbot and his Canons.

Click to view original letter

View the original letter

Held at The National Archives this document contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v2.0

By the king


Trusty and well-beloved we greet you well / And have as well seen the Letters written from you Sir Piers of Dutton / to our right trusty and well-beloved Counsellor Sir Thomas Audley, knight, [and] our Chancellor of England, declaring the traitorous demeanour of the late Abbot and canons of the Monastery of Norton / used at the being there of our Commissioners for the suppression thereof / and your wisdom, policy, and good endeavours used for the apprehension of the same / for the which we give unto you our right hearty thanks, and shall undoubtedly consider your faithful service therein, to your singular rejoice and comfort hereafter / As other Letters written from you Sir William Brereton to our right trusty and well-beloved councillor, the Lord Cromwell, keeper of our Privy Seal , touching the same matter / For your good endeavours also, wherein we give unto you our right hearty thanks / For answer whereunto, you shall understand / that for as much as it appeareth that the said Late Abbot and canons have most traito traitorously used themselves against us / and our realm / and moved insurrection against the common quiet of the same / Our pleasure and commandment is ^ that if this shall appear to ?? you ^ ??????esse? ^ [to be?] true that then ^ you shall immediately upon the sight hereof without any manner of ^ of further circust[ııı??ıs?] of law or^ delay cause them to be ^ ???d indicted and straight thereupon arraigned and so without further traet put all to execution hanged as most arrant traitors / ^ in such sundry places as ye shall think requisite ^ setting up their heads and quarters round abo[ut the] country for the terrible example of all others hereafter / And herein fail you not to travail with such dexterity as this matter may be finished with all possible diligence. ['Given under our signet at our Castle of Windsor the xxth of October the xxviiith year of our reign, anno 1536']
Addressed:
['To our trusty and well-beloved servant Sir Pearse Dutton and Sir William Brearton, Knights, and to every of them]

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1537: The Abbott is released

Although it was popularly held that the abbot of Norton was executed, the historical records suggest that William Brereton cancelled the order, in light of the rebellions being quelled throughout the North, particularly the Pilgrimage of Grace in Yorkshire. Letters between Thomas Audley and Thomas Cromwell, and William Brereton to Cromwell suggest that the abbot was released in 1537.

The End of the Monasteries and the Rise of (States)Men

Towards the end of February 1537, a royal Commission was dispatched to the North-West to investigate those responsible for the rebellion, and to punish them accordingly. The commission collected numerous depositions from gentry and commons alike, as well as putting out an oath, swearing loyalty to the king, which was sworn by over 1000 commons and the majority of local gentry. Executions of the rebellion's ringleaders began in early March, including a number of abbots and monks from various Abbeys and priories across the county. Many monks from the smaller houses were moved to larger monasteries, or entered secular life, receiving a pension, and working a clerics or teachers.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the Crown and the local gentry benefitted from the acquisition of the old monastic lands. Thomas Cromwell gained the lease for the lands of Furness Abbey - although this financial coup ended with his execution in 1540. One local man, Thomas Holcroft, saw substantial benefits; his local and court connections enabled him to acquire Vale Royal Abbey, as well as friaries in Lancashire. Holcroft's deputy John Braddyll also purchased ex-monastic lands, including lands at Norton and Vale Royal. Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby, did not acquire any land; despite his service to the king and his role in quelling the rebellion in southern Lancashire and north Cheshire, he was not part of the inner circle of the Court and received no free grants of lands (as did Cromwell, for example) and he was in too much debt to purchase them outright. (Haigh 1969: 135-6).

2014...

Living Letters provides only one part of the narrative surrounding the history, language and correspondence of the early sixteenth century. To find out more about these topics, please explore some of the options below.

Where to go next

  • Norton Priory »
    The center-point of this whole story.

  • The National Archives »
    The home of manuscripts and records representing 1000 years of English history.

  • Place to visit »
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  • Scriptorium: Early Modern Handwriting »
    Learn more about the handwriting used in Early Modern letters.

  • Map of Early Modern London
    Explore London in the sixteenth century through this interactive map project.

  • Bess of Hardwick's Letters
    Bess of Hardwick, although only a teenager during the 1536 uprisings, would become the second-most powerful woman in Tudor England, after Queen Elizabeth I. Learn more about her life and her letters here.

Dating Historical Letters

Letter writers were not always precise with their dates which makes it difficult to be wholly confident about when exactly they were written, or even in what order.

Learn more from Dr. Mel Evans

Learn more from Dr. Mel Evans
Address forms & salutations

Rules and conventions governed the selection of titles and names used by a letter-writer to address their recipient (as they still do, today). Choice reveals the relationship between the letter writer and the addressee.

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Learn more from Dr. Mel Evans
"Bodies"

Meaning 'person' or 'one's self', rather than 'dead bodies' - which would be the more probable modern interpretation. This sense of bodies survives in legal phrases 'body and goods'. (OED Online)

"Stranger"

This word had a number of senses in EME: a foreigner, a new arrival, a guest or vistor in a household, an unknown person or a person not of one's kin or friendship network (OED Online). It's not clear which meaning is intended here. What is interesting is the use of the definite article 'the stranger', which suggests he is (contradictorily, if going with the PDE sense) known to Dutton and Cromwell. This implies perhaps the sense of a new arrival or a guest or visitor, who has been at Norton for a while, rather than someone completely unknown.

Speech & writing

Parenthetical or 'aside' - evocative of more spoken language. The phrase was a translation of Latin deo volente.

"dan"

dan is a respectful title, equivalent to 'Sir' or 'Master'. It was particularly common to refer to those of religious orders (as here). It was adopted into English from Old French 'dan', and survives in the modern-day form 'dom', used with the same meaning, in Portugese/Brazilian-Portugese. (OED Online)

Dan Rondull Wilmslow

dan Rondull Wilmyslow: Monk appointed to Vale Royal, at Dutton's request, in June 1536 (or 1534) after death of previous abbot. Now Dutton seeks his appointment at Norton too.

'Virgule'

This is an Early Modern punctuation symbol, used to mark the end of a phrase. It was replaced by the comma.

Relative Pronouns

In Modern English, we have different forms depending on whether the thing being referred to is alive (who) or inanimate (which). In the sixteenth century this system was not yet in place with 'which' being used for humans as well as inanimate objects.

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The seid abbott/the seid Monke

'Seid' is used here in the sense 'the aforementioned', 'the one referred to previously/above'. Given the length of the letter, this precision of reference is quite striking, but is a feature typical of administrative and legal language, in which specificity and accuracy was paramount.

Letter delivery

'Bearer' refers to the deliver of the letter. Before the establishment of a formal post system, letter writers had to find their own means of sending letters, commonly via friends or using acquaintances who were travelling to the same destination. Bearers were often entrusted to verbally deliver further information to the recipient.

Pronoun change

In Sixteenth Century English there were two forms of the pronoun you: 'you' and 'ye'. Originally they marked different grammatical cases but by the 1530s 'you' was beginning to dominate in all contexts. This sentence loosely means "I am telling you that what you do is your own choice".

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Relative Pronouns (contd.)

'Who' was a new relative pronoun, which contributed to the development of animacy marking in the English relative system (i.e. showing what's alive and what isn't). The example here reflects the origins of the 'who' form which was first used to refer to God in correspondence.

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Closing Salutation Address

The closing address 'by yours assured', is quite brief. Normally we would expect the relationship between writer and addressee to be specified. This could indicate confidence on Dutton's part, both in his relationship with Cromwell, and in the persuasiveness of his letter.

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Sir Piers Dutton

Sir Piers Dutton was a landowner and Justice of the Peace in Cheshire. He wrote many letters to Thomas Cromwell, suggesting that he was motivated by the power & money that could arise through connections with the King.

Royal letters

The structure of the letter is typical of scribal correspondence attributed to the monarch. To reflect Henry VIII's superior status, and also that the letter is drafted by a secretary, this is stated at the top of the sheet 'By the king'. This prefaces any opening address forms to the intended readers.

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Learn more from Dr. Mel Evans

The Royal 'we'

This letter use the royal 'we', which was the use of the first-person plural to represent the (singular) monarch e.g. 'our', 'we'. This was a common feature in scribal monarchic letters which helped to give the letter authority and authenticity. The Royal We is still used today, although it tends to be more of a 'Presidential we' used by figures such as Margaret Thatcher.

Learn more from Dr. Mel Evans

Spelling inconsistencies

Spelling in the Sixteenth Century was highly variable, even for peoples' names. Despite Piers Dutton signing his name 'Perus' in the letter to Cromwell, the scribe uses both 'Piers' and 'Pearse'.

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The Abbots of Norton

Like many monastic houses in this period, the Abbots of Norton were reportedly guilty of some inappropriate activities. A 1522 inquiry found that various illegal practices had taken place, including the Abbot fathering a child with a club-foot.

Sir William Brereton

Sir William was another local nobleman and landowner. He seems to have had a tempestuous relationship with Sir Piers Dutton.

Royal Seal

Thomas Cromwell was appointed 'Keeper of the Privy Seal' in July 1536, a highly prestigious position. The 'Privy Seal' was the king's personal seal, which was applied to documents to authenticate their contents, and was thus a position of considerable trust.

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'-eth' and '-s'

The king's scribe uses the suffix '-eth', a form that was replaced over the course of the sixteenth century with the suffix '-s'. If written today, the expression would be: "it appears that".

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What the King says vs. what the King really means

The second-half of the letter outlines the king's commands. These are explicitly linked to the king's personal will: 'our pleasure and commandment is that', using a semi-formulaic expression found elsewhere in Henry's scribal letters. Orders given to Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby, also linked to Northern uprisings, use a comparable phrase: 'Our pleasure and commandment is, that upon the receipt hereof ye shall so prepare yourself '.

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Bad handwriting!

This manuscript is not the letter that was sent to Cheshire. It's actually a draft of the text, and the number of corrections, crossings-out and insertions in the second-half of the letter are typical of this stage in the letter-writing process. The question marks shown here are illegible additions. Once the letter was approved it would be re-written to be sent.

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Image © The British Library Board, Harley 604 f60

Changing his mind

Draft letters provide a valuable insight into the letter-writing process. The modifications to the draft generally tone down and generalise the instructions. King Henry VIII could have dictated the letter in one of his infamous rages before he, or his secretaries, made the revisions to achieve a calmer, more controlled tone.

Execution

The punishments of the abbots and monks involved in the uprising were often severe. Although the King's commission acquitted some North-West canons, others were imprisoned and many were put to death by hanging and hanging in chains. The execution of the Abbot of Whalley was described as "a spectacle and terror to all others".

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Dictation

The sheer volume of royal correspondence required to maintain contact and convey information across the realm meant it had long been impractical for the monarch to personally write all his letters. Instead, secretaries were appointed to draft and write the bulk of official correspondence, which was later authenticated by the king's signature and seal

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