The following is taken from Revd. Alfred Suckling’s book, ‘Memorials of the antiquities and architecture, family history and heraldry of the County of Essex’ (John Weale, London, 1845).
Mountnessing acquired its name from the Norman family of Mounteney, who obtained possession of this lordship in the time of King Stephen, and retained it till the reign of Henry the Eighth. It is now held by Lord Petre.
The church was early appropriated to the priory of Thoby, a religious establishment in this village, which enjoyed the patronage till its suppression, when the great tithes were conveyed into lay hands, and are the property of the family of Petre. It is a very small though a regular edifice, and may be referred to the age of Edward the First: its chancel is a barbarous modern erection of red brick, but its nave, lofty and of good proportions, is divided from its aisles by cylindrical columns supporting pointed arches. It is much to be regretted, however, that one arcade of this portion of the edifice has been cut off from the western end to form a tower, which, inclosing a framework of timber, bears aloft an ugly spire of shingles. The most remarkable features in this church are the capitals on the pillars which divide the nave from the north aisle. One in particular deserves notice, not only on account of the spirited execution of the foliage, but for the very singular device of a human face carved in deep relief, having the mouth fettered by an iron bridle. Whether this conceit originated in any local occurrence, or whether it alludes to the words of the Psalmist, (Ps. xxxix.,) “I will keep my mouth as it were with a bridle, while the ungodly is in my sight,” the fancy of the reader must determine; probably the latter.
The columns on the south side are finished with plain moulded capitals. Immediately fronting the south door, which is now the usual entrance, stands a low and a plain octangular font, against which reclines a singular curiosity, namely, a fossil rib-bone of enormous proportions, measuring four feet and three quarters of an inch in a straight line from tip to tip. Village credulity ascribes this to some giant, a former habitant of Mountnessing, though the anatomist, with more discrimination, would refer it to the elephant, or perhaps the stupendous mammoth. It has occupied its present situation for a long series of years, though but little value seems attached to this relic of an antediluvian world.
The north aisle appears to have been the family vault of the late possessors of Thoby Priory, and against its walls are the following memorials on marble slabs:-
1. In the vault beneath are deposited the remains of Mary, relict of Henry Blencowe, Esqr., and sole heiress of Alexander Prescott, Esq of Thoby Priory, who died October the 20th, 1770, aged 54. Also, the remains of Mary, only daughter of the above Henry and Mary Blencowe, who died March the 14th, 1822, aged 72.
2. Near this place lieth the body of Henry Blencowe, Esqr., Councellor at Law. He was descended from Sir Henry Blencowe, of Blencowe, in the county of Cumberland, Knt., and married Mary, the only surviving daughter and heiress of Alexander Prescott, of Thoby Priory, Esq., bv whom he left two children, viz., Henry and Mary. His afflicted widdow, in memory of his many excellent virtues as a husband, and a parent, and a friend, caus’d this monument to be erected. He died the 29 of April, 1765, in the 54th year of his age.
3. Near this place are deposited the remains of John Prescott, of Thoby, Esqr., who departed this life 19th of May, 1750, aged 39 years.
Faith, Hope, and Charity, his constant friends,
Did all his actions guide to noble ends;
These virtues he from heaven drew down here,
And they well pleased at length have rais’d him there
4. Near this place are deposited the remains of Henrv Prescott Blencowe, Esqr., late of Thoby Priory in this parish, who died the 9th day of February, 1787, in the 35th year of his age, leaving hiss widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Blencowe, and four children, viz., Henry Prescott, Elizabeth, John Prescott, and Margarett.
On a floor-stone in the chancel is also an inscription to a member of the Prescott family.
5. Alexander Prescott, Esqr., eldest son and heir of Alexander Prescott, of Thoby, Esqre., died the 18th of October, 1731, aged 22. He was of Emanuel College, Cambridge, and of the Temple, student; a person of an accomplished and sweet temper, and whose virtues and innocent life is an example to posterity.
On a monument consigned to neglect, and thrown into a corner of’ the belfry, is this inscription:-
6. Reader, this table represents ye pious state
Of one whose soul to heaven was truly consecrate.
Who from the turmoiles of this world confined
By a distemper too severely kind;
Just to all men, to God devout,
Patient beyond or wrongs or gout:
After a life in contemplation pass’d
Was brought to that celestiall blisse at last,
Which he by faith so firmly did possesse before,
Vision alone could make him to enjoy it more.
The disconsolate widdow of Edmond Pert, Gent., has erected this monument, sacred to the her deceased husband, buried near this place.
7. 17 Decembris, 1583.
Layde heere aloone all dedde in tooeme John Peers of Arnollde Hall,
Awaiteth the daye of dooeme till Christe hym up shall call,
Whose tyme nowe paste on earth well spente hath gotten him good name
His honest lyfh and govermente deserved well the same
God grawnte that his good dealyne may to us example be
Of Mowntneysinge that rightelie saye an honest man was he.
The above in old English characters, is on a plain floor-stone in the chancel.
Against the south wall of the aisle is the following:-
8. Sacred to the memory of Mrs. Sarah Bowskill, wife of the Revd W. W. Bowskill, vicar of this parish, who died May 7th, 1810, aged 64. Also, of William Westfield Bowskil, son of the above died April 27th, 1808, aged 28; and also of Miss Mary Whitewood, only laughter of Captain Saml Whitewood, and Sarah his wife, (late Mrs. Bowskil,) who died December 28th, 1828, aged 52.
The following are benefactions to this parish:-
“1. Endimion Canning, Esqr., late of’ this parish, by will, May 24, 1681, bequeathed to the churchwardens and overseers and principal inhabitants of this parish and his successors, in trust, a field for the use of the poor of this parish forever, by the name of Ryer’s Field, now let for £23 per annum, Sept. 4, 1807.
2. A donation of Mrs. Amy English, the only daughter and heiress of Richard Bayley, Esqre., deceased, bearing date the 5th day of October, 1787, in pursuance of his charitable intentions of the said Richard Bayley, expressed and declared in his lifetime to the said Amy English, his daughter, upon trust, of a farm and lands in Mountnessing, called Pinchions, containing 13 ac.: 0 : 39; and a messuage and lands also in Mountnessing, parcel of a farm called Sawbriglets and Shimmius, containing 4 ac. : 2 : 17, at the yearly rent of £30, to apply the yearly rents and profits thereof for the teaching and instructing as many poor children belonging to or residing said parish of Mountnessing, in reading and in the principles of the Christian religion, and such of them as should be girls in sewing and knitting; and for providing such children with other necessaries.”
Founded in the reign of King Stephen, and so called from the name of its first Prior, Tobias or Toby, owes its origin to the piety or perhaps to the superstitious terrors of the family of De Capra; Michael de Capra, Roesia his wife, and William, their son, uniting their joint influence and wealth to further its establishment. The precise era of this event is not satisfactorily ascertained, though there is evidence to prove that it must have taken place between the years 1141 and 1151. Being dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Leonard, it was filled with monks of the Order of Saint Augustine. Though considerable portions of this monastery are incorporated into the present residence, still called Thoby Priory, and though some fragments of the conventual church yet remain, no vestige of the original structure, as finished by De Capra, can at the present era be detected. And when we consider how greatly the first foundation of this building preceded the introduction of the more elegant architecture of a subsequent period, no surprise can exist on this score. The passion for re-edifying all churches in the new style, which prevailed so undisguisedly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, could scarcely be excluded the walls of Thoby; accordingly, we find the circular shaft and pointed arch of our first Edward’s reign, prevailing in the remains of the conventual church; the arch being marked by a deep indenture, received at its union with that of the next by a projecting escocheon. The entire plan of this monastery is very easily traced, as the area appears to have been undisturbed since the first destruction took place, at the dissolution of religious houses. On the south side of the square stood the church, comprising a nave with a south aisle at least, and probably a north aisle also on the opposite wing, and a chancel of lofty proportions without those additions. Of this structure the only portion standing is represented in the annexed sketch, which shows the south window of chancel, and the first arch and its columns of the southern arcade of the nave. North of this structure was the cloister, and on the west were the prior’s lodge, and monks’ refectory - of which latter apartment the greater part remains - still a lofty and noble room, though much disfigured by the introduction of sash windows a modern ceiling of plaster, through which the principals of the ancient roof are seen, as if endeavouring to peep from out their unworthy concealment. Careful digging about the church and cloisters would, without doubt, amply repay the trouble and expense attending it, by the discovery of many specimens of ancient curiosity and art; and indeed chance has already developed several fragments of high antiquary and interest. Among these may be reckoned the lower portion of a Knight Templar, found beneath the garden mould which now covers the south aisle of the coventual church, and preserved with laudable care by Mr. Grant, the present occupier of Thoby. This relic was much fractured by the spades of the workmen who dug it from its place of concealment, and it is irremediably injured. I entertain but little doubt that the upper part of this figure might be recovered by further search. It would be idle to urge any thing beyond conjecture as to the personage intended to be commemorated by this expensive tomb.
The family of Mounteney, we know, possessed the manor of this village during crusading times, and that of De Capra or Capel were patrons of Thoby. To a knight of one or other of these houses, and most probably of the latter, it was in all likelihood consecrated. There is nothing remarkable in any portion of this fragment. The style of the armour, the recumbent lion, and the folds of the drapery exhibit the patterns usually seen on similar monuments; but the material employed is somewhat singular, being a composition of plaster moulded on an iron frame.
At the north-west angle of the cloisters have likewise recently been disinterred six coffins lying in line, and close by each other, of very unusual construction. A drawing of one, which is still kept above ground for its curiosity, is here given, and will materially assist the description. A portion of an oak tree, it would appear, was first sawn off from the bole, of the requisite length, when a coffin of this description was wanted; a slab was then separated lengthwise of about the thickness of one third of the diameter of the tree, which served afterwards as a lid; the thicker portion was then scooped out in the form usually seen in sarcophagi, and then charred; when, the corpse being placed within, the severed plank or lid was reunited and fastened to the coffin by four pegs of wood, the holes for which may be observed at the corners. So little finish was bestowed on these receptacles of mortality that the bark may in places be still discerned; and however rude they may appear, we must yet regard them as constructed for persons of some degree of consequence, as the bodies of those of inferior condition were committed to the earth in a simple covering of waxed cloth, a practice which continued to be observed as late as the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Two coffins only, out of the six discovered, were disturbed; these, on being opened, contained perfect skeletons of females, which were reinterred within the area of the burial ground. So sound was the timber, notwithstanding the length of time it had remained beneath the soil, that Mr. Grant has had several boxes and ornaments formed out of one of them, which admit of an exceedingly high degree of polish, and retain the distinctive marks of the grain.
A few very small knives with bone or ivory handles, and some coins of a late era, may likewise be mentioned as having also been discovered within the precincts of Thoby Priory; nor should I omit noticing some specimens of ornamental floor tiles which were found in the chancel: they are baked with earth of two colours, of which the ground was a dull red, and the figures a light brown. Those in Mr. Grant’s possession bear the forms of rabbits, stags, and other animals and I feel convinced, so little has curiosity been gratified here, that the principal antiquarian treasures of this “fallen pile” remain to be developed at a future day.
The seal of this abbey is attached to a deed dated the 11th of Edward II., now in the Augmentation Office, and the legend may be read thus: SIGILLVM : SANCTI : LEONARDI : DE : TOBI.
As Thoby was valued at only £75 6s. 10½d. per annum, it became one of those establishments “devoured (as Fuller quaintly observes) without producing a sacrilegious surfeit” by Cardinal Wolsey, to whose use it was surrendered in 1525. That ecclesiastic’s disgrace, however, brought it, with the rest of his prodigious wealth, into his master’s hands, who, on the general dissolution of religious houses, which soon after followed, granted it in 1530 to Sir Richard Page, Knt., and the reversion in 1539 to William Berners, Esq., and Dorothy his wife. It has lately been possessed by the family of Prescott, and passed, a few years since, by a female heir in marriage to that of Blencowe, who are its present possessors.
From an examination of the subjoined documents, it will appear that the Priory Thoby held, in addition to the advowson and great tithes of the entire parish of Mountnessing, about four hundred and ninety-seven acres of land, and rather more than thirty-seven acres of copyhold held of the manor of Thoby, and as it seems under arbitrary fines.
It is perhaps impossible to ascertain, at the precise moment, the value of the tithes and copyholds; but as the whole property was only fixed at £75 6s. 10½d. per annum, we may, I think, infer that the land was let or valued at not more than two shillings per acre, taking wood-land, meadow and arable, all round, which would have produced about £50 per annum of rent. The copyholds and the great tithes of the entire parish must surely have amounted to the remaining £25 6s. 10½d. – a very striking but correct proof of the difference in the value of landed property between he early parts of the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. This difference will appear yet more surprising when I observe, that the lands of Thoby, like those of all monastic houses, were the richest in the neighbourhood; and that the monks were the best farmers of their day, I have demonstrated in a preceding volume.
The full text appears on the main website: http://www.blackmorehistory.co.uk/