Thomas Stevens (monk)

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The abbot's two-storey vaulted house (right) at Netley Abbey was Steven' lodging in 1529-1536. Netleyabbotshouse.jpg
The abbot's two-storey vaulted house (right) at Netley Abbey was Steven' lodging in 1529-1536.

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

Abbot Religious title

Abbot, meaning father, is an ecclesiastical title given to the male head of a monastery in various traditions, including Christianity. The office may also be given as an honorary title to a clergyman who is not the head of a monastery. The female equivalent is abbess.

Netley Abbey abbey

Netley Abbey is a ruined late medieval monastery in the village of Netley near Southampton in Hampshire, England. The abbey was founded in 1239 as a house for monks of the austere Cistercian order. Despite royal patronage, Netley was never rich, produced no influential scholars nor churchmen, and its nearly 300-year history was quiet. The monks were best known to their neighbours for the generous hospitality they offered to travellers on land and sea.

Beaulieu Abbey Medieval Cistercian abbey in England

Beaulieu Abbey, grid reference SU389026, was a Cistercian abbey in Hampshire, England. It was founded in 1203–1204 by King John and populated by 30 monks sent from the abbey of Cîteaux in France, the mother house of the Cistercian order. The Medieval Latin name of the monastery was Bellus Locus Regis or monasterium Belli loci Regis. Other spellings of the English name which occur historically are Bewley and Beaulie.


Little is known of Stevens' 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]

Hampshire County of England

Hampshire is a county on the southern coast of England. The county town, with city status, is Winchester, a frequent seat of the Royal Court before any fixed capital, in late Anglo-Saxon England. After the metropolitan counties and Greater London, Hampshire is the most populous ceremonial county in the United Kingdom. Its two largest settlements, Southampton and Portsmouth, are administered separately as unitary authorities and the rest of the area forms the administrative county, which is governed by Hampshire County Council.

Holy orders sacraments of the Catholic Church

In the Christian churches, holy orders are ordained ministries such as bishop, priest, or deacon, and the sacrament or rite by which candidates are ordained to those orders. Churches recognizing these orders include the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Assyrian, Old Catholic, Independent Catholic and some Lutheran churches. Except for Lutherans and some Anglicans, these churches regard ordination as a sacrament. The Anglo-Catholic tradition within Anglicanism identifies more with the Roman Catholic position about the sacramental nature of ordination.


Stevens was evidently a skilled administrator and agriculturalist. Under his stewardship his often financially troubled abbey of Netley remained solvent (a difficult task given the small endowment and the heavy 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 sum not far off the annual net income of the abbey, and to pay down the debts. [1] The amount of £100 was considerable for this period. [2] He also maintained high standards of religious life at the abbey, and he and his seven monks were the object of good reports to the king from the local gentry and were much respected in the neighbourhood. [1] That the Abbot was also trusted by the government, is shown by his being given custody of two Franciscan friars, who presumably had offended the king by opposing his religious policies. [1]

Friar member of a mendicant religious order in Catholic Christianity

A friar is a brother member of one of the mendicant orders founded since the twelfth or thirteenth century; the term distinguishes the mendicants' itinerant apostolic character, exercised broadly under the jurisdiction of a superior general, from the older monastic orders' allegiance to a single monastery formalized by their vow of stability. The most significant orders of friars are the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites.

Notwithstanding the Abbot's apparent complacency, those policies were soon to have a dramatic effect on his own life. In 1535 Netley's income was assessed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII's general 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 Stevens and his seven monks were forced to surrender their house to the King in 1536. [1]

<i>Valor Ecclesiasticus</i>

The Valor Ecclesiasticus was a survey of the finances of the church in England, Wales and English controlled parts of Ireland made in 1535 on the orders of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII of England 16th-century King of England

Henry VIII was King of England from 1509 until his death. Henry was the second Tudor monarch, succeeding his father, Henry VII. Henry is best known for his six marriages, in particular his efforts to have his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, annulled. His disagreement with the Pope on the question of such an annulment led Henry to initiate the English Reformation, separating the Church of England from papal authority. He appointed himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England and dissolved convents and monasteries, for which he was excommunicated. Henry is also known as "the father of the Royal Navy"; he invested heavily in the Navy, increasing its size greatly from a few to more than 50 ships.

Dissolution of the Monasteries legal event which disbanded religious residences in England, Wales and Ireland

The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided for their former personnel and functions. Although the policy was originally envisaged as increasing the regular income of the Crown, much former monastic property was sold off to fund Henry's military campaigns in the 1540s. He was given the authority to do this in England and Wales by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus separating England from Papal authority, and by the First Suppression Act (1535) and the Second Suppression Act (1539).

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

Yet this was not the end of Thomas' career as an abbot. In fact, shortly before the closure of Netley, Henry appointed him abbot of Netley's mother house, Beaulieu Abbey, [1] a wealthy royal foundation across Southampton Water. This was unusual, and is symptomatic of the general breakdown, since the post was elective. Thomas and six of his monks (the other desired to resign and become a secular priest) [1] crossed Southampton Water to join Beaulieu in 1536. At Beaulieu Stevens continued the policy he had presumably already begun of 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 the fine horses from the abbey stables. Now the currying aimed ostensibly at saving Beaulieu.

Southampton Water English tidal estuary

Southampton Water is a tidal estuary north of the Solent and the Isle of Wight in England. The city of Southampton lies at its most northerly point. Along its salt marsh-fringed western shores lie the New Forest villages of Hythe and "the waterside", Dibden Bay, and the Esso oil refinery at Fawley. On the slightly steeper eastern shore are the Southampton suburb of Weston, the villages of Netley and Hamble-le-Rice, and the Royal Victoria Country Park.

Thomas Cromwell English statesman and chief minister to King Henry VIII of England

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, was an English lawyer and statesman who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England from 1532 to 1540, when he was decapitated on orders of the king.

Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton English earl

Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, KG was an English peer, secretary of state, Lord Chancellor and Lord High Admiral. A naturally skilled but unscrupulous and devious politician who changed with the times and personally tortured Anne Askew, Wriothesley served as a loyal instrument of King Henry VIII in the latter's break with the Catholic church. Richly rewarded with royal gains from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, he nevertheless prosecuted Calvinists and other dissident Protestants when political winds changed.

However, there came a setback. Stevens 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, were this needed, and perhaps to menace a worse fate. 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. [3] Cromwell sent agents to arrest him, but the abbot was absent when they arrived and in the meanwhile the fugitive escaped. The abbot conducted an investigation into the affair and Manzi was soon recaptured, but suspicion remained that he had been somehow involved in the escape in the spirit of the old laws of sanctuary (thus potentially incurring serious criminal charges) and Stevens was obliged to throw himself on the mercy of Cromwell and Wriothesley. [4]

Since by early 1538 it was clear that Beaulieu was doomed, the abbot 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, [5] [6] a conduct not uncommon practice among heads of institutions suppression by Henry's government, as insurance against not getting a decent pension (compare the similar transactions at neighbouring Titchfield Abbey). [5] 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. [5] It is probable that by now Stevens had had a change of mentality, after all his attachment to Beaulieu was not that of a lifetime, and his appointment there, despite the tensions, had been something of a windfall. Now he was destined to receive a handsome pension of 100 marks a year for a largely ceremonial role in an event he could do nothing to prevent. It made him a wealthy man, [5] and made him disinclined to any great fellow-feeling for his fellow monks. In a letter to Thomas Wriothesley written shortly after the abbey was extinguished, he fell to describing his monks at Beaulieu as "lewd monks, which now, I thank God, I am rid of". [5] [7] On the other hand, he displayed more apparent sympathy for the people who had taken sanctuary at the abbey and who lived in the abbey grounds. [5] He pleaded with the government for their lives, with the result that they were given either pardons or protection and the right to remain living in the former abbey precinct. [5]

Later life

Thomas continued his career in the church after the fall of Beaulieu and already in 1539 was made rector of Bentworth in Hampshire. [8] In May 1548 he was also made Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral and given the prebend of Calne while retaining his rectory. [9] Since he could only be in one place at a time, somewhere he was an absentee incumbent. [10] The appointment under the Protestantizing Edward VI suggests that Stevens was now of flexible theological views. At some point he married, too, and had children, who are mentioned in his will. [11]

Stevens' will, which he wrote on 9 August 1550, perhaps already in bad health, and its codicil, written three days later, reveals more details about Thomas' subsequent life. At that date 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. [12] It was a long way from the poor Cistercian monk of Netley.

He must have died shortly after making his will, which was probated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in London on 9 September 1550. [12]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Page & Doubleday 1973 , pp. 146149.
  2. Knowles 1959 , pp. 9195.
  3. Hockey 1976 , pp. 158.
  4. Hockey 1976 , pp. 159161.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Page & Doubleday 1973 , pp. 140146.
  6. Martin Heale, The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 329.
  7. Martin Heale, The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 344.
  8. Martin Heale, The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 357.
  9. Horn 1973 , pp. 1213.
  10. Martin Heale, The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 356-358.
  11. Martin Heale, The Abbots and Priors of Late Medieval and Reformation England, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 367-368.
  12. 1 2 Hockey 1976 , pp. 229230.