As the Annual Bishop’s Service at St Benet’s Abbey takes place on 1st August, we reflect on its unique status. Remarkably, St Benet’s was the only monastery in the land not to be ‘dissolved’ in the Reformation, though its days as a monastic community were numbered.
Two Abbots play an important part in the initial survival of St Benet’s Abbey. John Capon, Abbot of St Benet’s from 1517 to 1530 was a leading supporter of Henry VIII’s desire for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon, as was his successor, William Rugg.
Capon, a Cambridge University graduate, progressed from Benedictine monk at St John’s Abbey in Colchester to the Prior. He was able to obtain favours from Henry’s key advisor, Thomas Wolsey through his brother William, who was Wolsey’s Chaplain. It was through this connection that he also established a relationship with Thomas Cromwell, who was to oversee the closing of the monasteries until his demise. It is believed that Capon was elected as Abbot of St Benet’s under the influence of Wolsey; he was then chosen to sit as one of the 29 delegates who pronounced on the validity of Henry and Catherine’s marriage. Receiving a promotion to Hyde Abbey, and then onto Bishop of Bangor, it appears he was rewarded for his loyalty to Henry.
Local man William Rugg, who upon entering Norwich Cathedral Priory adopted the name of William Repps from his birthplace, was appointed the Abbot in 1530. As Sub Prior at Norwich, his influence in Cambridge University’s support (from where he graduated) of the King’s divorce was known, and the Abbotcy was his reward.
By 1534, the year of the split with Rome, the Bishop of Norwich had fallen out of favour with the Crown. He was prosecuted, fined and imprisoned, and died soon after. Henry took control of the Bishop’s manors and looked for a successor. By 1536 the suppression and closure of the monasteries was gathering pace, and Rugg defiantly refused to renounce the Pope and found himself in prison. Yet, oddly, he was chosen to become the next Bishop of Norwich. As part of a deal with the Crown, he handed over all the ancient and lucrative properties which belonged to the Norwich Diocese, in exchange for St Benet’s Abbey and the role of Abbot.
What may have seemed on the surface a dramatic return to favour for Rugg was, in reality, a very mixed blessing. The Abbey was heavily in debt and the deal was weighted in favour of the King.
Nevertheless, in the 1530s the position of St Benet’s Abbey was truly exceptional. There was even an Act of Parliament which required Abbot Rugg to keep at least twelve monks on the site and to maintain the divine service.
Today, the Annual Service held at St Benet’s Abbey every August by the Bishop of Norwich is the legacy of these two Abbots and their closeness to the Crown.
Nicholas Groves, MA, PhD, FRHistS (2015) The Bishopric of Norwich and the Abbacy of St Benet-at-Holme.1
Norfolk Archaeological Trust/St Benet’s Abbey archive materials