A.D. 418. This year the Romans collected all the hoards of gold that were in Britain; and some they hid in the earth, so that no man afterwards might find them
- The Exham Chronicle
Among the manuscripts archived in the Bibliothèque nationale de France is a strange survival from Cluny Abbey: fifty-two leaves of vellum, much the worse for wear by the fire, composed in Latin and written in an insular black letter script, rebound in the 18th century. The work was identified as a recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, probably made in the 12th century, and appears primarily to be a copy of a Latin sections of the Canterbury Bilingual Epitome, with the addition of certain (possibly deliberate) copyist errors and a few additional and expanded entries relating to the priory at Exham; it is this latter material which has led bibliographers to refer to it as "The Exham Chronicle," and it is the source (occasionally erroneous) of much of the early history of that site.
The earliest deviation from the Canterbury Bilingual Epitome in the extant text claims that the nearby village of "Anchester" ("Ania Castra") was occupied by the 3rd Augustan Legion in C.E. 73; a distinct archaeological problem, since no village of that name currently exists and the 3rd Augustan Legion was never stationed in Britannia - however, the 2nd Augustan Legion was stationed in Britannia, and had connections with the camp at Alchester ("Ælia Castra") in Oxfordshire, not far from the former site of the priory, and it seems likely that these represent errors on the part of the scribe who was adding these amendments to the chronicle. Regrettably, several sources have perpetuated these errors.
In the Chronicle, the future site of priory itself is first mentioned simply as a "heathen temple" (paganus templum), whence came a Phrygian priest (galli) who raised an altar to the Great Mother there in C.E. 96. The legions left Britain in 383, leaving the Romano-British to fend for themselves. Without Roman troops, they turned to Anglo-Saxon mercenaries (foederati) for aid, ceding them territory in exchange - one such troop settled near Alchester, and was given the territory surrounding the Phyrigian temple, which they fortified into a manor. This temple survived as part of the pagan kingdom of Mercia, but in the 7th century the kingdom was becoming Christianized, and it is recorded in the entry for 685: "This year there was in Britain a bloody rain, and milk and butter were turned to blood. And in this same year, the Phyrgian temple at Exham was broken, and the galli were baptized."
The much the subsequent leaves are missing, but it is evident that in 983 "The lord of the manor at Exham died without issue, and the property was gifted by the to the Abbey of Cluny, who granted a charter to a contingent of monks, ordering them to go forth. Odo of Lyon was named prior there." This was one of the "alien priories" in England, staffed by French Benedictine monks and answerable to the Abbot of Cluny, rather than the local diocese, but was only one of a number of small monastaeries that operated in Mercia, and the text shows a major focus on the adoration of the Virgin Mary (often as "the Blessed Mother" or "Queen of Virgins"). After its founding, the entries for the priory grow more frequent and detailed, noting even the creation of several castrati (whose reason for mention becomes more obvious when the same individuals are named as having acceded to the office of prior), and it is this as much as any reason that historians suspect that this chronicle was copied by a monk of the priory, as a copy to be sent to the mother-house at Cluny.
Details, however, are scant; there is an entry in 996 that "The earth gave up its ancient treasures at Exham, to the glory of the Blessed Mother," which has often been interpreted as the uncovering of a Roman or Anglo-Saxon hoard that had been buried on the property; and in 1005 "This year was the great famine in England so severe that no man ere remembered such. Yet the monks at Exham feasted well." A curious amendation to the entry for 1010 reads:
Thurkytel Myrehead first began the flight; and the Danes remained masters of the field of slaughter. There were they horsed; and afterwards took possession of East-Anglia, where they plundered and burned three months; and then proceeded further into the wild fens, slaying both men and cattle, and burning throughout the fens. Thetford also they burned, and Cambridge; and afterwards went back southward into the Thames; and the horsemen rode towards the ships. Then went they west-ward into Oxfordshire, and thence to Buckinghamshire, and so along the Ouse till they came to Bedford, and so forth to Temsford, always burning as they went. The rich priory at Exham, though it had no walls, they did not approach, but gave it a wide berth, so afraid were they of the Blessed Mother.
The remaining leaves run out, almost poetically although certainly by chance, with the invasion of England by William the Conquerer ("Bishop Odo and Earl William lived here afterwards, and wrought castles widely through this country, and harassed the miserable people; and ever since has evil increased very much. May the end be soon, when the Blessed Mother will!") Whatever wealth and power the priory had in the days before the Norman Conquest, its fortunes appear to have declined in the immediate aftermath. Details are lacking, though likely not from any deliberate erasure, but only the working of time and bookworm on records.
From local folklore we know the priory had an evil reputation, and it was not uncommon during this period for monks to grow worldly and disobey their rule, or to use their wealth as a lever against local worthies. If some scandal did erupt, it would seem likely that the priory was disbanded, its brothers recalled and distributed to new houses - not an unknown phenomena, when the Benedictine rule is broken in some flagrant manner. Whatever the case, the property was vacant except for certain tenant farmers when Henry the Third appointed it to one of his followers, Gilbert de la Poer, who was created the first Baron of Exham in 1261.
The enigma of the Exham Chronicle is, simply, how much of it to believe. Aside from the early confusion in names ("Ania Castra" for "Ælia Castra," and "Legio III Augusta" for "Legio II Augusta") and similar errors, some of the amendations vary from the plausible (the founding of the priory in 983) to the unsupportable ("999. A pilgrim returned with an image of the Blessed Mother that fell from Heaven." - an obvious reference to Acts 19:23-36); what is more, entries for the priory never mention calumnies, only emphasize its great wealth and prosperity, seemingly untouched by war or famine, and with no mention of the body of medieval legends that surrounded the priory and exist now only as oral folklore. The emphasis that several - indeed, all of the named priors - were castrati seems to suggest an effort to disabuse notions of carnal abuse. It seems likely then that the chronicle was in part meant as propaganda, perhaps to dissuade the mother-abbey of any rumors of error or scandal that might reach them.
Lacking any other contemporary source that mentions Exham Priory at all, however, historians are faced with little choice but to sift through the scanty entries here, and weigh each statement against whatever other facts we have, keeping in mind always that we are at the mercy of some medieval monk, or worse, a copyist unable to recognize their own errors.
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