Social and Economic

Fountains Abbey: Abbot ‘forcibly ousted by another’

‘the monks are so molested that the divine cult and other works of piety are withdrawn’ 

At one of England’s most celebrated religious institutions there was, in 1414, a remarkable case of an Abbot attempting to murder an Abbot. Fountains Abbey, near Ripon in the North Riding of Yorkshire, was one of the most dominant and influential monastic communities of the late Medieval era. It held lands far and wide, controlling a large proportion of Yorkshire’s valuable woollen trade. Close to the Minster at Ripon and within a days ride of the seat of the Archbishop of York, Fountains was well known, resulting in it having some of the most admired men of the cloth appointed as it’s Abbot. That is, until 1414, when the notion of piety, devotion, and duty to all seemingly went awry. Armed raids, Papal and Parliamentary involvement, and a series of petitions and court cases are not what is expected of places of worship and men of god. Fountains Abbey had it all, and more, for several years as a result of an Abbot being ‘forcibly ousted’ by another Abbot. 

An abbot, having been three years in possession of license from his abbey, was ousted forcibly by another, who had obtained the Pope’s grant of it over his head. The dispossessed abbot, with his brother and forty friends, armed from head to foot, attacked the other: shot at him several barbed arrows to kill him, wounded him and three of his followers, and took away his jewels, plate and property.

Chronicles of the White Rose of York. Cites Rolls, Pari. 4, p. 28. Also cited here in The History of England During the Middle Ages. 2. Ed, Volume 3 by Sharon Turner.

The above passage introduces a case that is quite peculiar. With little detail in respect of the name of the Abbey, or the Abbots involved, it would be easy to assume that this was a minor or isolated monastic community. Upon examination, it becomes clear that such an assumption would be far removed from the actual story. It was not a minor or isolated abbey, nor a poor one. It was Fountains Abbey, one of the largest and richest monastic establishments in Europe.

The Parliamentary Rolls referenced in the Chronicles of the White Rose of York identify the case. It was raised via Petitions in the 1414 Parliament of King Henry V.

Petition from John [Ripon], alleging that he has been duly elected, confirmed and ordained as abbot of Fountains (Yorkshire), but that since then Roger Frank, monk, ‘former intruder’, and a number of other monks supporting him, have entered into obligations on behalf of the abbey amounting to great sums, and removed ornaments, jewels and vessels from the abbey to the value of 2000 marks, as well as livestock and the common seal of the abbey, which they are detaining by force. They have also used force to try to stop Ripon from bringing his complaints to the king. Ripon petitions that the obligations should not be used to demand sums of money from the abbey, and that Frank and his supporters be brought to justice and obliged to return the goods which they have removed.
Endorsed: ‘It seems to the king that the supplicant has a sufficient remedy by the common law’.
Source : SC 8/18/885. Printed in full in RP , IV.28.

‘Henry V: November 1414’, Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, (Woodbridge, 2005), British History Online

Note: the same petition, worded slightly differently, is available for download from The National Archives Website [Free for UK users].

Cloisters at Fountains Abbey, near Ripon. Credit: Phillip Ellis
Cloisters at Fountains Abbey, near Ripon. Credit: Phillip Ellis

Origins of the dispute over the position of Abbot of Fountains Abbey

In 1410 the Abbot of Fountains Abbey, Robert Burley, died. He was quickly replaced, with a monk called Roger Frank being elected as his replacement on 30 July 1410. The election, however, was soon disputed. It had not gone through all of the channels that would usually be followed, and Roger Frank was not supported by all of the monks or, perhaps critically, the local nobility and ecclesiastical office holders. In consequence, Roger Frank was expelled from his role as Abbot and John Ripon elected in his place as Abbot of Fountains Abbey. The appointment of John Ripon took place at some time in 1413, with various sources confirming his appointment.

Appointment of John de Ripon as Abbot in place of Roger Frank

The exact date of John Ripon being appointed in Roger Frank’s place is not entirely clear. However, it is referenced in several official sources.

7 March 1414.

Commission to the king’s brother John and the king’s uncle Ralph, Westminster. earl of Westmoreland, to put John Rypon, abbot of Fountains, in possession of the abbey. He was lately charged with having obtained a grace of provision of the abbey from the pope contrary to the statute of provisors, but it is determined and declared by men learned in either law that no provision was made but the pope confirmed his election. By K.

Calendar of Patent Rolls 1413-1416.

It is clear from the entry in the Patent Rolls that John Ripon had been elected by 7 March 1414. It is also clear that there was a dispute, with the entry noting an earlier charge that John had bought the right to be Abbot in contravention of statutes concerning matters such as elections of the Abbot of Fountains.

That there had been an earlier charge against John Ripon is quite clear. In December 1413 the Patent Rolls noted that Fountains Abbey was disputed and temporarily in the control of Henry, Archbishop of York, whilst the King’s Court determined the right outcome for the case:

14 December 1413

Whereas when the abbey of Fountains, of the Cistercian order, Westminster. in the diocese of York, was lately vacant by the death of Robert, last abbot, certain strifes and dissensions about the right of the dignity of abbot arose between Roger Frank and one John de Rypon, abbot of Meaux, of the said order and diocese, each pretending to be abbot, and the process between the parties at great expense is pending undiscussed in the king’s courts, and the goods and jewels of the abbey have been so much wasted and the said Roger and John and the monks are so molested that the divine cult and other works of piety are withdrawn; the king has taken the abbey into his hand and committed the keeping of it and its manors, lands, rents and other possessions and goods to Henry, archbishop of York, and Thomas, bishop of Durham, so long as the process is pending and until it is settled to which the right of the dignity should pertain, so that all issues beyond the necessary maintenance of the said Roger and John and the monks and servants shall be applied to the relief of the abbey for the payments of its annuities, pensions and corrodies. And grant of protection. By K.

Calendar of Patent Rolls 1413-1416

In simple terms, the crown was aware of the dispute and until it was resolved, measures were in place to cover the maintenance of both claimants. Until resolution the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Durham had oversight of the monastery. This shows the significance of Fountains Abbey, this is two of the most senior clergymen in the country being put in place as adminstrators of the monastic estate.

This is conformed in a seperate entry in the Patent Rolls, which introduced a commission for that very purpose. Dated the same day, it states:

14 December 1413

Commission of the keeping of the manors, lands, rents and other Westminster. possessions and goods belonging to the abbey of Fountains to Henry, archbishop of York, and Thomas, bishop of Durham, until further order.

Calendar of Patent Rolls 1413-16

The dispute at Fountains Abbey

The problem with Patent Roll records is that sometimes they can refer to things that took place some time earlier. This was clearly the case in respect of the disputed position of Abbot of Fountains Abbey. The Calendar of Close Rolls, another record of official activities, shows that the matter had been raised at least as early as June 1413, as a lengthy entry notes that:

Memorandum that 3 June this year an information was laid in chancery by William Luddyngton one of the serjeants at law, that John Rypoun abbot of Meaux, then present in court, is suing in the court of Rome for a provision to the abbey of Fountains, and has caused papal bulls to be made in contempt of the king and breach of the law and the statutes, and caused himself to be called abbot of Fountains, craving that the abbot be examined; whereupon Henry bishop of Winchester the chancellor did examine him upon oath, and to the first question whether he caused any bulls concerning the said abbey to be sued for at the court of Rome, he said none, and the said William averred that Robert Watton, who is of the abbot’s counsel, shewed and published in divers places in the realm a copy of bulls to him made concerning the said abbey, craving that he should be examined, and he being sworn did confess that he had a copy of them, and by order of the chancellor did produce the same, [text follows], namely a bull of the pope, dated St. Peters at Rome ix Kal. Apriles 3 John [XXIII], addressed to John abbot of St. Mary Fountains of the Cistercian order in the diocese of York, reciting that the abbey was vacant by death of abbot Robert without the court of Rome, that the convent proceeded to an election, and the choice of the majority was for the said abbot of St. Mary Meaux of the same order and diocese, and others preferred Roger Frank a monk of Fountains abbey, but that William abbot of Rievaux, and Richard abbot of Jorevaux of the same order and diocese, commissaries as they said of Matthew abbot of Clarevaux in the diocese of Langres of the same order, claiming that the provision of an abbot of Fountains devolved this time upon him according to the institutions of the order approved by the papal see, by such provision set the said Roger over the said abbey, that he contrary to the ordinance of a general council of that order, providing that any monk or lay brother who should approach princes or powerful men for creation, visitation or correction of an abbot or any ordering of a monastery, should obtain of them aid, prayers or letters, or should thereto vouch any persons not of the order, or consent to such voucher, should be excommunicate, if it should appear that this was with his knowledge or consent, and that if elected his election should be void, neither should he be held eligible there or elsewhere without licence of the chapter, and he should be expelled from his own house, with the support of a great host of esquires did intrude himself in the said abbey, and did meddle in the ruling and admin- istration of the goods thereof, and did secure the confirmation of the chapter for his election or provision, that action arising between the parties, the cause was brought before the papal see, and the pope committed the same first to Francis cardinal priest of Sancti Quatuor Coronati deceased, and after to Jordan cardinal bishop of Albano, then cardinal priest of St. Lawrence in Damaso, that the said bishop pronounced sentence, absolving the said Roger from impeachment, that the said John appealed to the papal see, that the pope committed his appeal to Francis cardinal priest of St. Cross in Jerusalem, who confirmed the said sentence, that the said John again appealed, that by consent of the parties the pope committed that appeal to John cardinal priest of St. Peter ad Vincula and Alemaunus cardinal priest of St. Eusebius, but that the cause being yet undecided, and divers other commissions being without effect, lastly the pope by word of mouth gave commission to Francis cardinal deacon of St. Cosmas and St. Damianus to consider the estate of Fountains abbey, notoriously in need of reform, to make inquisition concerning the said elections, the merits of the elect and other the circumstances, and to report what he should find, that he reported in a consistory before the cardinals aforesaid, and the pope’s finding, upon his report, that the election of the said Roger, his provision by the said commis- saries, his confirmation in the general council, and all that followed thereafter were bad and of none effect because the election was by a minority, and because of the ordinance, and of his intrusion by violence, and that the election of the said John was by the majority, and confirming the election of the said John, of whose merits testimony is given him, notwithstanding reservations general or special made by pope Nicholas III concerning provisions of monasteries if peradventure not observed, or other papal constitutions etc., and appointing him abbot: to the chancellor’s question wherefore it named him abbot of Fountains, the said John said that he was informed that the pope did by bulls confirm him as abbot to the further question who sued for and obtained those bulls in the court of Rome, and at whose cost they were obtained, he said that he knows not to the question by whom that copy was brought to England, he said that a chaplain named Roger brought it to the question whether he purposed to hold any benefice by virtue of the bulls therein mentioned, or to put the same in execution, he said that if the bulls made to him were of the form therein contained, he did; whereupon order was given him on behalf of the king at his peril to abandon and renounce all therein mentioned which may tend to prejudice of the king or to impair the law and the statutes of the realm, and so he there did.

Also of a recognisance thereupon made 14 June following by the said John Rypoun, John Nyandser, John Midylton and Robert Watton to the king in 1,000l., payable in case he should go forth of the realm without special licence of the king, or send any other Wt. 23640. C. 8.

Calendar of Close Rolls 1413 – 1419

In short, there was an accusation by Roger Frank that John Ripon had acquired the right to be Abbot through illegitimate means. As a consequence, John Ripon and his associates were held by a bond of £1000 in the event of any of them wishing to leave England for any reason without the express permission of King Henry V.

Reasons why bonds would be asked for

First, it is a serious matter and Fountains Abbey was a hugely valuable Cistercian asset.

Second, King Henry V had only recently succeeded his father and his reign was in its earliest days. Quite simply the King and his advisors had a lot of matters to address and this was one that could be settled, in theory, at a time of the crowns convenience when other matters were less pressing.

Third, had John Ripon been appointed by the Pope this in itself was potentially problematic. At the time of the death of Abbot Robert Burley, through all of this episode, the Catholic Church was in the midst of what is variously called the Western Schism / Papal Schism / Great Occidental Schism. In the years 1410 to the conclusion of this case there was not one Pope. There were three, and the church itself was in the middle of attempting to address this amicably. A dispute based on a Papal Bull from one Pope was not therefore neccessarily valid in the eyes of the other two men who were recognised by some as being Pope. Until that matter was resolved, which it was via the Council of Constance that was in session as these matters arose: and its resolution of 1417 was not universally accepted until 1429.

Fourth, as noted in the memoradum, Fountains Abbey was ‘notoriously in need of reform‘.

Petition, Counter Petition and resorting to violence

The petition at the beginning of this article was not the only petition made in relation to this dispute. Three are recorded in The National Archives.

The first of the petitions is the one quoted above [TNA link]. Whilst John Ripon was on his way to deliver the petition, he was allegedly set upon by Roger Frank and a group of his supporters. This resulted in the petition that was delivered being one of complaint about Roger Frank’s behaviours:

Robert his kinsman, at the command of Roger and his brother Ralph, laid in wait for him at Welbeck Park, with more than forty armed men, in order to kill him, and wounded him and his servants with arrows.

This petition was met with a response from the Crown that the issue of violence could be resolved through standard judicial processes:

It seems to the king that the supplicant has sufficient remedy through the common law.

This was not the end of the matter. John Ripon returned a second petition to the Commons of Parliament. This petition stated the issue of violce once again. It also noted that remedy through common law was implausible as some of the assailants had fled the country. Ripon also noted that Frank and his kin had stolen goods from Fountains Abbey. An extract from this petition illustrates the issue that John Ripon felt he now faced:

[Frank was] stealing various chalices and precious objects, and also the common seal of the abbey, which they still withhold. He accuses Henry Hertlyngton and others of driving off various animals belonging to the abbey. He also says that to prevent him suing for a remedy Robert Frank, Oliver Frank, Roger’s brother, with forty others, lay in wait for him at Welbeck to murder him, assaulting him and wounding several of his servants; and that through conspiracy, and because some of the malefactors have fled from one country to another, he cannot have remedy at common law.

Petition SC 8/18/885. The National Archives

Whilst it may appear from the two petitions of John Ripon that it was he who was wronged, he was not alone in petitioning the Commons. Roger Frank also submitted a petition. It stated his position as Abbot and John Ripon’s false means of obtaining the Abbot’s role from the Pope. It requested restoration to the abbacy, with a plea to the Commons that the means of Ripon’s taking the role was not in the best interests of the crown:

Roger Frank states that he was lately abbot of Fountains for three years and more, but that he has been expelled by one John Rypon, abbot of Meaux, who has a bull from the pope, acquired on false allegations. Roger claims that this bull is prejudicial to the king, his crown, and the statutes and ordinances made on this matter, and asks the commons to ask the king that if he, and the lords spiritual and temporal, find that the bull is prejudicial in this way, they might have Roger restored to the abbacy, by authority of parliament.

Petition SC 8/23/1124. The National Archives.

Outcome of the Petitions of two Abbots of Fountains Abbey

The Crown had in the first instance referred John Ripon to the route of common justice processes. With a further petition from Ripon and a counter petition from Roger Frank, along with suggestions that men involved in the case had left the country, this was not feasible. The Crown had little appetite for a long, drawn out, potentially embarrassing process being dragged through parliamentary process. King Henry V had other matters to concern himself with: he was at the same time asserting his right to France. The King was planning his invasion [the Agincourt Campaign] whilst the two clerics complained to parliament. Henry V’s solution was relatively simple. He referred the matter to the Council of Constance. It was an ecclesiastical matter, and in the contet of the day the Crown was quite happy to let a church council many miles away deal with the matter. As a result, there were no legal repercussions for Roger Frank for the alleged assault and possible attempted murder of John Ripon. Another consequence was that nothing changed at Fountains Abbey. The Council of Constance made no judgement to oust John Ripon, and made no offering to Roger Frank. So, John Ripon remained Abbot of Fountains, and Roger Frank and his supporters were left to rue the lack of judgements.

The Papal Bull acquired by John Ripon for Fountains Abbey

…during the great papal schism the anti-pope John XXIII granted an indult to the Abbot John and his successors at Fountains to use the mitre and ring and pastoral staff and all other episcopal insignia, and to give in the monastery and in the churches of its daughter monasteries, &c., solemn benediction after mass, vespers, and matins, provided that no bishop or papal legate were then present; to consecrate altars, vessels, chalices, corporals, &c.; to promote monks of the order to all minor orders, &c., to rehabilitate the monks,

‘Houses of Cistercian monks: Fountains’, A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974), pp. 134-138. British History Online

This illustrates that John Ripon’s Papal Bull was issued by John XXIII. Pope John XXIII was one of three Pope’s at the time he issued it. In March 1415 he firstly offered to abdicate, then fled to the safety of protection from his supporter Frederick, Duke of Austria-Tyrol. Furthermore, the Council of Constance determined in July 1415 that each of the three Pope’s must abdicate their positions. There was then a two year wait after the Council had assumed control of the church before a new Pope, Martin V, was elected. Martin V subsequently annulled the Papal Bull granted to John Ripon and his successors as Abbots of Fountains Abbey on 5 May 1428. The annullment, however, appears to have had little impact on the Abbey as inventories made prior to Dissolution included a series of items that would only be used to fulfil the roles that the Papal Bull granted to John Ripon permitted [Source].

An unsatisfactory end to the Fountains Abbey Dispute?

Fountains Abbey continued to present a problem for the authorities in relation to this and other matters. So much so that in 1443 Sir John Neville was charged by King Henry VI‘s Council to bring to trial those responsible for crimes at Fountains Abbey. He was bound for £1000 to do so. Sir John claimed, rather implausibly given the proximity of Fountains Abbey to Neville held lands, to be wholly unfamiliar with those accused. The Council instead charged him with ensuring the safety of the Abbey and it’s goods:

so that by him, nother by his, nother by their abettement, nother procuring, any harme in body, nother in goods, be done to the saide Abbot, convent, nother to their servantz, nother welwillers.’

A commission was then called the following year by Archbshop Kemp into ‘sons of iniquity‘ at Fountains Abbey.

The Disputes of 1410-1415 may have fizzled out in terms of legal processes but the problems had not gone away.

How and why did the dispute at Fountains Abbey take so long to resolve?

The death of Abbot Burley in 1410 occured at a time when the country, region, and Catholic Church were all under strain.

The North

The North of England had seen years of disputes. The Percy Earls of Northumberland and their kin had rebelled several times, most recently in 1408 which saw the death of the 2nd Earl of Northumberland at Bramham Moor. This had left a political (and military) void that was still in the process of being filled: which in the short term was done by Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland from his Raby Castle base. As King Henry V established himself and set about the invasion of France his rule was again challenged by men who supported the Mortimer line (see below). This included Northern lords, making security his priority which meant an ecclesiastical dispute was, to him, relatively insignificant.


Nationally politics was strained not only by the revolts in favour of the Mortimer line but, in 1413, by the death of King Henry IV and the accession of King Henry V. The accession of Henry V resulted, as it usually did, in the structures of government undergoing a process of checks and reaffirming of rights and roles. In the case of Fountains Abbey, there was no clear right as the dispute was being presented via petition as this process took place: if you look at the Close Rolls and Patent Rolls you will see other Abbeys being reaffirmed of their rights in the same weeks as the Fountains dispute was being dealt with. Furthermore, as the dispute dragged on, the King had other things on his mind. He was planning to invade France, culminating in the Agincourt Campaign and his position as King was challenged, once more in favour of the Mortimer Line, through what is commonly called the Southampton Plot.

The Church

The Church was in crisis. Three Popes had been anointed. A Council had been called which met at Constance. Its task was to resolve the Papacy dispute. If the Church is taking years – and it did, the resolutions at Constance weren’t fully accepted for years – then it was in no fit state to deal with a dispute at an abbey, even one as large and prestigious as Fountains. In terms of ecclesiastical input, all that realistically could be done regarding Fountains Abbey whilst there was a dispute over the Papacy was to place the abbey under the watch of the regional clerical authorities: as happened when the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Durham were told to oversee it. This could be backed with protection from nobles, as was ordered of the Earl of Westmorland and then Sir John Neville. However, this means that men from families on either side of regional and national disputes and those implicated in plots would need to work together.

Abbots of Fountains Abbey in the 15th Century

Robert Burley, succeeded 1383, died 1410

Roger Frank, succeeded 1410, expelled

John Ripon, occurs 1413, died 1434

Thomas Paslew, succeeded 1435, resigned 1442

John Martin, succeeded 1442, died 1442

John Greenwell, occurs 1444, 1471 (5 February)

Thomas Swynton, occurs 1471, resigned 1478

John Darneton, succeeded 1478

Marmaduke Huby, occurs 1494, 1516

Further References and Links

‘Houses of Cistercian monks: Fountains’, A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974), pp. 134-138. British History Online

The National Archives. Petitioners: John Rypon (Ripon), Abbot of Fountains.

The National Archives. Related – but different – Petition by John Rypon (Ripon)

Breopolis. The Disputed Election at Fountains Abbey Revisited

Related Materials

Digital Humanities Institute – Fountains Abbey: The Cistercians in Yorkshire

The Guardian  – Archaeologists find ‘missing link’ in history of Fountains Abbey

National Trust – Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

UNESCO – Studley Royal and the ruins of Fountains Abbey. World Heritage Site.


Featured image

Fountains Abbey. Photograph taken by Phillip Ellis.




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