Looking Back: How medieval monks supported Peterborough

Peterborough Civic Society has chosen 15 new sites for its popular blue plaques scheme. Each week, we will feature the stories behind the new plaques as told by the civic society.

By Nigel Thornton
Sunday, 6th September 2020, 5:16 am
Blue plaque  at the Almoner's Hall, Cathedral Precints with Henry Duckett from the Civic Society.
Blue plaque at the Almoner's Hall, Cathedral Precints with Henry Duckett from the Civic Society.

This week’s featured plaque is on the wall of Almoner’s Hall which lies along the southernmost edge of the monastic precinct, adjacent to the Gravel Walk entrance to Minster Precincts in the grounds of the cathedral.

Some remains of the medieval Almoner’s Gate (the East Gate to the monastery) lie a few yards further east along Gravel Walk.

The original structure appears to be early 14th century with subsequent interventions.

The Almoner's Hall paque.

The range, from east to west, consists of the Almoner’s two-storey chamber block followed by his hall, then a service area and, finally, beneath a slightly lower roof, a bakehouse. The hall itself has a pair of single-light transomed window openings with minimal tracery at their heads, and an arched doorway

Following dissolution of the monastery in 1539, the chamber block and hall became a dwelling. By the 19th century, hall and service end had become stabling, with a coach house added to the western end. The whole range was very heavily restored in 1992 when it was rescued from dereliction. Peterborough Abbey was a Benedictine house.

The Rule of Benedict provided the foundation for the monastic life in the medieval Latin West, first introduced into England in the early 700s. The Benedictines numbered among their houses some of the oldest and most distinguished foundations in England.

Peterborough was one such.

Invariably large-scale landowners, the Benedictines were instrumental in shaping the economic and social life of medieval England.

The monastic Almoner was an ‘obedientiary’ of the house along with other senior monks such as Sacrist, Infirmarer, Cellarer, Fraterer etc. These officers held departmental responsibilities under the abbot and were responsible for managing their revenues and accounts as well as their principal monastic duties.

The Almoner was responsible for the house’s external works of mercy; an obligation to distribute ‘alms’ usually consisting of food and clothing, sometimes money or medicine or, occasionally, the dispensing of board, lodging or education.

William Morton was Almoner from 1448 to at least 1462. His ‘Book’ of accounts and memoranda, preserved in the British Library, is a precious survival in the history of monastic administration and of national significance. His management of a number of manorial estates in the countryside around Peterborough generated the revenues which supported the ‘external works of mercy’ and two hospitals – St Thomas’s by the Great Gate and St Leonard’s the leper hospital, at Spital Bridge.

Although the Almoner’s Hall remained by the monastery’s East Gate, much of his principal business activity had by the15th century moved to the vicinity of the Great Gate, the abbey’s zone of interaction with the town. Peterborough is one of the best surviving examples of a great abbey locating its charitable and juridical activities – hospitals, chapels, courts and prisons – within and around the Great Gate complex.

The ‘Book of William Morton’ may appear to modern eyes to resemble little more than a scruffy assemblage of rough notes, scribblings and corrections in a rather scratchy Latin.

But its interest lies in its survival as an account book of an almost unique kind, which “throws a light on many dark places in the economic history of the period” in very great detail.

This plaque is one of a series of 15 blue plaques recently installed by Peterborough Civic Society.

Further details about all the plaques can be found in the accompanying 28-page booklet which can be ordered on the society’s website at a price of £2 per copy (to cover postage and packing).

A download of the booklet is available on the society’s website.