Meaux – The Origins of Hull
The story of how Hull came to be is intrinsically linked with the Abbey of Meaux, as they owned the land beneath Hull’s feet: a boggy wasteland in the hamlet of Myton. Often overlooked or reduced to a few lines in the history of Hull; this is their story…
Founded in 1150, Meaux Abbey began as a basic mud hut with a chapel and 12 monks. With a distinct lack of food and even clothing, the early years were no doubt a test of their faith. Many men from the local villages of Holderness were drawn to religious life and they joined them, enduring arduous years of hard work and dedication.
A large part of Myton was owned by the Camin family. When it was passed down to Maud Camin and her husband, John of Meaux in 1160, they donated over half of their land to the Abbey together with other possessions including:
“pasture for 800 sheep, a fishery in the Humber, two-thirds of their salterns, the toft where the hall (aula) was situated, and two-thirds of their fee of the Wyke of Myton (del Wyc de Mitone).”
british-history.ac.uk – Origins of Hull
Through Maud’s son, the Abbey eventually acquired all of the Camins’ land; 10 bovates in Holderness – Wyk del Huldernesse.
By the late 1200’s Meaux had transformed into a majestic white stone Abbey that could be seen across the flats for miles around.
Their numbers fluctuated greatly, from 12 monks in 1150 to near abandonment in 1191 to 60 in 1249. Lay brothers were men who were not yet ordained or bound by the Order but still chose to live and work there. In 1249 there were 90 lay brothers. There were also up to 50 servants. Most were local men.
The many hands were put to work. They began building the dykes and ditches needed to drain the flooded planes of Holderness and Cottingham, which they eventually used for grazing sheep. The monks were well read and knew how to irrigate and work the land to their best advantage and they were savvy about commerce and trade deals, although this did not stop them from being in debt for their entire duration; the only difference being the amount of debt versus the amount of land and stock held.
In 1280 the Abbey owned 11,000 sheep and 1,000 cows and bulls. They had a lot of stock, but their debt was £3,678, £2,500 to foreign merchants and money-lenders. A lot of the stock was sold off to try to reduce the debt, which they did over the following years. By 1310 they had 5406 sheep, 606 cows and 120 horses. At this point their debt was £1,169. The sale of the stock was dependent upon keeping the debt down.
As the Abbey owned large amounts of land, they also collected rents from their tenants and made use of their facilities. They utilised the corn mills, and the cloth weavers at Wawne produced the robes worn by the monks, lay-brethren and servants.
They owned hospitals that rich people would donate to, hoping to buy a space in the Holy cemetery after their passing. They had an orphanage in which they took in children and gave them a start in life and they offered relief for the poor, giving food at the gates to wandering souls, hospitality to the traveller and gave permanent positions to those who wished to be useful.
Having so many people pass through, Meaux was an epicentre of news and regularly received up-to-date information about the affairs of the world.
“The foreign wars, the riots within the Kingdom, the welfare of the lord and squires, free and bond men of the district who were fighting in the wars. The murders and robberies that had been done, the epidemics that broke out at times. Whatever news there was came with the travellers along the roads, and whatever travellers stopped at the Abbey gates there they left their news. The Abbey became, if not the newspaper, the receptacle for and dispenser of news for the country around.”
* Rev. AE Earle, Essays Upon Meaux Abbey, p42
Of course, bribery and corruption existed then as it does now. It was the wealthy who were expected to grease the palms of those they wished to bargain with and this included the church. Sometimes a grievance would be settled by a Judicial Duel, which meant the aggrieved would literally fight it out (or appoint someone else to fight for them) in front of a panel of judges.
Fighting was the spirit of the age; knights and gentlemen engaged in sword fights for the entertainment of others and these chivalrous men climbed the social ladder for their courage and daring, if they didn’t loose a limb first.
Poor people also fought for what was theirs but they didn’t have much choice as they were outside of the law; i.e. they were not important enough to have personal justice laws.
These simple folk worked the fields, paid tithes to the church and taxes to the land lord and they often paid with an animal or grain rather than money. They also had to work the lord’s land for so many hours a week (for free) and pay him for the use of his mills to grind their wheat. They owned very little.
They went to church when they could and heard the stories of hellfire and damnation if they turned against the Church and they lived in fear of Almighty God, who was ever present in the howling winds and cracking lightening. When the sun shined, though, God’s love was shining down on them and all was well with the world.
Being a wealthy establishment, Meaux (as well as every other religious house in England) was called upon to help bail out King Richard I in around 1191.
Richard the Lion Heart
King Richard joined the Third Crusade and travelled to the Holy Lands to free Jerusalem from Muslim rule and bring Her under the Roman Catholic Church. His army had minor success in the capture of neighbouring towns but Jerusalem eluded him and remained under the control of Saladin, the powerful military and political Sultan. After a year or so, Richard boarded his boat and set off for home.
Stormy seas drove him ashore at Venice and he was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria who imprisoned him, then handed him over to Henry VI, the German Emperor who in turn ransomed King Richard for 150,000 marks. Three years later he was released after the huge sum was made by the collective ‘donations’ of institutions back home.
Meaux was called upon to pay 300 marks of the ransom.
“…the convent, worn down by law-suits, and the failure of crops, found themselves called upon to raise 300 marks…; to do this they sold their wool, church plate and other of their treasures. The effort meant their ruin. For 15 months they lived as beggars among the various monasteries of their order, and as if to fill their cup of misfortune to the brim, the convent mill took fire and was entirely burnt with the 100 and more sectaries of corn that it contained.”
* Rev. AE Earle, Essays Upon Meaux Abbey, p24
There was a port in Hull at this point (1193) as it was noted that the wool collected from various monasteries to pay the ransom of King Richard was exported at the port of Hull. In around 1198 the monks sold 45 sacks of wool at Hull.
Shortly after that, a rich parson of Cottingham and Rule (Rowley) called William de Rule sought to join the Monastery and brought with him £200 of silver. The people of Meaux Abbey returned once more and began again.
1197 – 1210
That wasn’t end of Royal interference. King John decided to fine all Church institutions of their possessions. All the religious houses of the area paid their fines, except for Alexander, the present Abbot of Meaux. He refused to pay, believing it to be outrageous and subsequently the King came down on Meaux like a ton of bricks.
King John demanded they pay 1000 silver marks for their impudence, and although Alexander stood firm in his belief, he stood alone. The monastery was seized by the King’s men and the inhabitants of the Abbey were forced to buy their food off them. Guards blocked the gates and allowed no one in or out without permission, and they confiscated everything of value. Once again the monks abandoned Meaux. With help from the Earl of Albemarle, the next Abbot, Hugo sold off houses in York and land throughout Holderness to help pay off the debt incurred by the whim of King John.
The Port of Wyke-upon-Hull
Meanwhile, Wyke-upon-Hull was growing and thriving as a port. In 1203 King John taxed all ports and Hull paid £345, which was the sixth largest contribution after London, Boston, Southampton, Lincoln and King’s Lynn. In 1204 Hull was exporting Royal wine to York. It’s likely that the port of Hull was under the jurisdiction of a Royal bailiff at this point. By 1220 this was Saer de Sutton.
Saer de Sutton was the Lord of the Manor in Sutton and he allegedly was responsible for changing the course of the old Hull (which ran a longer meandering course from the west) to the present Hull by draining the marshes and cutting a straighter path. Sayer Creek, as it was then known, gradually became known as the River Hull and the old Hull silted up and eventually became impassable.
Incidentally, the word ‘Hull’ is thought to be from the Scandinavian ‘Hule’ or ‘deep’ meaning a ‘deep depression cutting in the earth’. So the meaning of the River Hull would be ‘river that flows through a cut channel’.
The archbishops of Beverley had long claimed right of passage through the river and in 1213 their men commandeered the import tax on goods coming into the port. It is said that they usurped Sear de Sutton. Next thing, Sear’s men were on a ship tasting the imported wine when they discovered treasure on board. On Sear’s instructions they stole all the wine and killed the crew. Sear was found guilty of charges made against him later that century, but after the incident he gave up his rights to the river to Archbishop Gray, probably as an appeasement.
By 1290, the Port of Hull was thriving and King Edward needed a northern base to supply his invasion of Scotland. In 1293 he took possession of both Wyke and Myton, and he renamed it Kingston-Upon-Hull.
The monks of Meaux continued to trade and farm, building the Abbey up over the years and installing a majestic great altar, adding to the wealth and serenity of the place. Such wealth could not, however, protect them from the pestilence that followed.
“The plague increased to such an extent that deaths took place in the streets, men and women suddenly falling sick and dying where they fell. In innumerable dwellings, and in many towns, not a single survivor was left.
In Meaux Abbey, at the beginning of August, 1349, there were 42 monks and 7 lay brethren… when the plague had ceased 32 monks and all the lay brethren had perished, only 10 monks remained alive… The survivors were faced with losses on every side. The greater part of the tenants were dead, rents were not paid, crops lay rotted on the ground and stock had perished, for there had been no one to gather in the harvest, no one to water or feed the animals. Tenants who were not dead, were ruined.
Church bells ceased during the plague… for there were none to ring, and none to take the services, and the few remaining were too fearful to gather together. Men shunned men and the silence of death brooded over all. It was as though the end of the world were come.”
* Rev. AE Earle, Essays Upon Meaux Abbey, p109
*This page is dedicated to the Reverend A Earle, MA, who wrote a wonderful book from which the story of Meaux will be forever told. Based upon The Latin Chronicles of Meaux (1150 – 1400), the reverend’s book, ‘Essays Upon Meaux Abbey’, written in 1906 is now available at The Hull History Centre. See Further Reading.