The Warrior Abbot
William Thorne’s Chronicle of St. Augustine’s monastery in Canterbury offers an interesting story in the year 1377. The chronicler explains with the recent death of Edward III, the French and Scottish were beginning to attack England.
Here is what William Thorne writes:
And in the following year the crafty French, scouring the seas like pirates, with ships and galleys to the number of 60, joining the perfidious Scots to them as allies, tried to overrun England, thinking, now the famous King Edward was dead, they could lay waste with a small army in a short time: wherefore the Western Gaelic Scots began to break out in a hostile fashion on the regions nearer to them, and after laying waste the Isle of Wight with great slaughter, on the day of the Apostles Peter and Paul (June 29), had burnt la Reye, and thus having destroyed nearly all the places on the sea, they reached as far as Folkestone, which on St Eanswythe’s Day (August 31) they partially destroyed with fire, when Abbot Michael, who, although a religious, was laudably active in the defence of the country, with a strong body of his own men and older valiant men whom he had specially kept with him, hastened to meet the invasion in battle and compelled them to take refuge in their ships
Then the pirates, making sail for Dover, and anchoring there, stayed three days and put forth all their efforts day and night to destroy all the could on land. When the aforesaid abbot was the first again to come to the assistance of the above named people with no small army of warlike men, and the enemy thereupon began to retreat, he, having restored safety to the land, retired honourably, with his men, the last of all.
Many would find this story quite surprising - the Abbot of St. Augustine’s, whose full name was Michael Pecham, is shown to be leading an army against the invaders. One would expect that knights and the royal government to be playing this role. However, an article by John Jenkins reveals that during the Hundred Years’ War there were many cases of monastic communities getting actively involved in the defence of England.
Once the war between England and France broke out in 1337, the southern coast of England would face the danger of being raided by French forces attacking via ships. The 1377 attack described in the chronicle was one of the largest raids organized by the French, assisted by Castilian forces, and in response several abbots in southeastern England were raising local armies to defend the land.
While monasteries are supposed to be places of peace, Jenkins explains that abbots like Michael Pecham were also major landowners in this area, and had they understood that the destruction being inflicted by the French would have severe consequences for them. So they would organize and even lead ragtag armies.
Jenkins concludes, “We should not, therefore, see the monasteries as passive victims of the war, nor as collateral damage, but as mostly full and active participants in the defence of themselves, their localities, and the south coast.”
John Jenkins’ article “Monasteries and the Defence of the South Coast in the Hundred Years War” was published in Southern History 34 (2012) - you can read it online through Academia.edu.
William Thorne’s Chronicle of St. Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury, was translated by A.H. Davis in 1934.