Thomas Stevens (monk)

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The abbot's house (right) at Netley Abbey was Thomas' home from 1529-1536. It contained two floors of elegant vaulted apartments.

Thomas Stevens (or Stephens), Abbot of Netley Abbey and Beaulieu Abbey; (b. probably. c. 1490) (died 1550) was an English renaissance clergyman and Cistercian monk. As abbot of Netley and Beaulieu he had the right to a seat in the House of Lords.[1]

Little is known of Thomas' early life, but at some time in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century he became a monk at the small and poor Cistercian monastery of Netley Abbey in Hampshire. There he took holy orders and rose through the ranks so that by 1529 he was elected abbot of Netley, succeeding John Corne.[1]

Abbot[edit]

Thomas was evidently a skilled administrator and agriculturalist. Under his stewardship his often financially troubled abbey remained solvent (a difficult task given the small endowment and the vast cost of providing hospitality to travellers by land and sea and the king’s sailors) and he was able to build up a farm surplus worth more than £100, a huge sum for the time and not far off the annual net income of the abbey, and to pay down the debts.[1] [2] He also maintained high standards of religious life at the abbey, and he and his seven monks gained good reports to the king from the local gentry and were much respected in the neighbourhood.[1] Thomas was trusted by the government too, as is shown by his being given custody of two Franciscan friars, who presumably had offended the king by opposing his religious policies.[1]

These policies were soon to have a dramatic effect on Thomas’ own life. In 1535 Netley's income was assessed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII's great survey of church finances, at £160 gross, £100 net,[1] which meant the following year that it came under the terms of the first Suppression Act, Henry's initial move in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which closed all monasteries with incomes of less than £200 per year. Abbot Thomas and his seven monks were forced to surrender their house to the king in 1536.[1]

The seal of the abbots of Netley. Thomas would have used this to authenticate official documents as abbot.

This was not the end of Thomas' career as an abbot: shortly before the closure of his abbey King Henry appointed him abbot of Beaulieu Abbey,[1] a wealthy royal foundation across Southampton Water which was also Netley's mother house. Thomas and six of his monks (the other desired to resign and take a job as a secular priest)[1] crossed Southampton Water to join Beaulieu in 1536. At Beaulieu he made every effort to save his new abbey by currying favour with the government, especially Thomas Cromwell, King Henry's chief minister, who held the fates of the English clergy in his hands, as well as bribing Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, another minister who had his eyes on taking over the abbey for himself, with fine horses from the abbey stables.[3]

Thomas had barely been abbot of Beaulieu for a year when a crisis occurred which enabled to the government to put pressure on him to surrender his monastery. In September 1537 James Manzi (or Mangii), a Florentine on the run from the government for unspecified offences that might be construed as treason, took sanctuary at the abbey.[4] Cromwell sent agents to arrest him, but Thomas was absent when they arrived and in the meanwhile the fugitive escaped. Thomas conducted an investigation into the affair and Manzi was soon recaptured, but suspicion remained that he had been somehow involved in the escape (thus potentially incurring serious criminal charges) and Thomas was obliged to put himself at the mercy of Cromwell and Wriothesley.[4]

By early 1538 it was clear that Beaulieu was doomed so Thomas began to make provision for his future. One of his last acts as abbot before he was finally forced to surrender was to grant the mill and parsonage of Beaulieu to a friend and give his sister a manor house belonging to the abbey, an action that was common practice among monastic superiors facing the extinction of their houses during the Dissolution as insurance against not getting a decent pension (compare the similar transactions at neighbouring Titchfield Abbey).[3] The king’s commissioners arrived at the gates of the abbey in March 1538 and, after negotiations, the great monastery surrendered on 2 April 1538, the deed being signed by Thomas and 20 of the monks.[3] It is likely that Thomas did not feel very sad about having to surrender his abbey a second time; the pension of 100 marks a year he was given made him a very wealthy man,[3] and in a letter to Thomas Wriothesley written shortly after the abbey fell he described his monks at Beaulieu as "lewd monks, which now, I thank God, I am rid of".[3] On the other hand, he had more sympathy for the people who had taken sanctuary at the abbey and who lived in the abbey grounds.[3] He pleaded with the government for their lives, with the result that they were either given protection and the right to remain living in the former abbey precinct or pardons.[3]

Later life[edit]

Thomas continued his career in the church after the fall of Beaulieu and in February 1540 was made rector of Bentworth in Hampshire.[3] In May 1548 he was also made Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral and given the prebend of Calne while retaining his rectory.[5]

Thomas' will, which he wrote on 9 August 1550 and its codicil, written three days later, reveals more details about Thomas' subsequent life. He had a daughter, Mary Stevens, to whom he left all his property, specifically noting his plate and an estate he had recently bought at Alton. Mary was clearly young because he created a trust supervised by a friend, Christofer Wallison, to manage the property and help her make a suitable marriage. Mary was present at the creation of the will and agreed not to marry anyone without the consent of Christofer. At his death Thomas was a rich man, which can be seen from the large sums he was able to leave as gifts to friends and his servants, many of whom are named in the will.[6]

Thomas must have died shortly after making his will, which was probated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in London on 9 September 1550.[6]

Notes[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Page & Doubleday 1973, pp. 146–149.
  2. ^ Knowles 1959, pp. 91–95.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Page & Doubleday 1973, pp. 140–146.
  4. ^ a b Hockey 1976, pp. 158.
  5. ^ Horn 1973, pp. 12–13.
  6. ^ a b Hockey 1976, pp. 229–230.