Roger Norreys: the worst monk in history?

Roger Norreys: the worst monk in history?

Guest post written by James Barnaby, author of Religious Conflict at Canterbury Cathedral in the Late Twelfth Century.

Towards the end of January 1188, a rather dirty monk emerged from the convent of Christ Church Canterbury. After spending five months in captivity, Roger Norreys had escaped by crawling through the monastic sewer. Described as being ‘incorrigible in everything’, Norreys was reviled by the Canterbury monks as being a traitor. The year before Roger had done the unimaginable; he had sided with Archbishop Baldwin against the cathedral monks. 

The dispute between the archbishop and monks concerned building a new church in honour of Thomas Becket. Although the sources (nearly all of which were written by the monks) shows the convent as united in their resistance, there was a small but significant body of monks who were in support of the archbishop. Roger Norreys is the most famous of these, and he appears to have been a thoroughly horrible character.   

The most heinous crimes imaginable 

Norreys is famous for his time as abbot of Evesham. The chronicler of that house, Thomas of Marlborough, recorded the vast array of sins committed by the abbot. This included simony (the selling of religious offices), flogging a servant to the point of death, murdering several of the monks and servants through starvation, and keeping a harem of concubines (including nuns) in the abbot’s house whom he would like to fondle in front of those visiting him. 

Such behaviour led to his expulsion from Evesham. He was made prior of Penwortham in 1213 where he once again displayed very unchristian behaviour and was kicked out. After spending 5 years as a vagrant monk, aimlessly wandering around the kingdom, Roger was allowed to return to Penwortham (though not in a position of authority) where he died in 1223. 

Roger was an horrific monk, detested by those who lived with him. Ejection from a monastery was the most extreme punishment possible and only done in exceptional cases. Clearly Roger had committed grievous crimes. But how bad was he really? 

All the sources which relate the horrors of Roger Norreys come from monks, and monks who lived under his rule. While there is no reason to doubt the overall conclusion that Norreys was a lascivious brute, we need to think more carefully about how much of this was hyperbole. The most heinous crimes all come from his time as abbot of Evesham. Thomas of Marlborough does accuse Roger of having killed monks at Canterbury, however, of the hundreds of letters chronicling the dispute between the archbishop and monks while Norreys was at Canterbury, as well as the incredibly detailed chronicle written by Gervase (himself a Canterbury monk), there is not a single mention of Norreys murdering members of the Canterbury community. So, what was Norreys really like? 

Roger at Canterbury 

Roger appears to have had some administrative skill. He was one of three stewards of the cathedral manors where he would have been responsible for overseeing the resources of the estates. This would have included extensive time outside of the monastery visiting the manors – perhaps the start of his less than monkish lifestyle. 

In August/September 1187 a monk named Roger appears as treasurer and was most probably Norreys. The treasurer was in control of all the monastery’s finances. This was an important position. It is unlikely that Norreys would have been appointed unless he was good at his job. Roger would have spent lots of time away from the monastery in his role of steward, so the monks might not have been as familiar with his character as they would become. Shortly after Roger appears as treasurer, he was sent to negotiate with the archbishop. It was likely at this time that he switched his allegiance. 

Shortly later Roger was made cellarer (in charge of providing all the provisions the monks needed). This time it was against the will of the monks. They objected not because of his evil nature but because it was the will of the archbishop. The brothers clearly knew of Roger’s allegiance now. 

The worst monk in history? 

Roger continued to support the archbishop, and so the monks imprisoned him in the monastic infirmary. The community ridiculed his escape, calling him Roger the ‘drain cleaner’. Yet Roger was to have the last laugh. In 1189, Baldwin sent him back to Canterbury as prior of the community. Whether the accusations about Norreys were true or not, this was a brilliant move by Baldwin. The Canterbury monks, who had strenuously resisted the archbishop for so long now caved. They accepted royal arbitration (which was wholly in favour of Baldwin) so long as Norreys was removed. Everyone got what they wanted, except the poor monks of Evesham who had to suffer Roger’s depredations for over twenty years.  

Roger is almost certainly one of the worst monks of the Middle Ages. He was reviled by three monastic communities (Canterbury, Evesham, and Penwortham) and certainly committed grievous abuses. Yet this only appears to have happened once he had real power at Evesham, where there was no one to control him. Acton’s famous saying ‘power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely’ certainly fits the bill when it comes to Roger Norreys.    

JAMES BARNABY is an independent historian of the Central and Later Middle Ages. He has taught at the University of East Anglia, where he gained his doctorate. His book “Religious Conflict at Canterbury Cathedral in the Late Twelfth Century” documents a long-running dispute between the archbishops and monks throughout the 1180s and 1190s. 

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