Karen Stöber, Late Medieval Monasteries and their Patrons: England and Wales, c. 1300-1540, Boydell Press, Woodbridge and New York, 2007.

Karen Stöber, Late Medieval Monasteries and their Patrons: England and Wales, c. 1300-1540, Boydell Press, Woodbridge and New York, 2007. £50.00, ISBN 1 84383 284 4 (hardback), pp. v-285.


Reviewed by: Kimm A. Curran, University of Glasgow, August 2008

To date, there has not been a detailed study of the relationship and connections between patrons and monasteries in the later Middle Ages which illustrates how monastic patrons responded to the various rights and duties that went with their positions, and how their attitudes and behaviour changed over time. What Stöber provides in this study is a re-evaluation of the role of the laity and concentrates on a patron’s active involvement with monastic houses, both male and female; themes addressed more specifically are bequests, benefaction, involvement in house affairs by patrons, burials and family dynastic traditions. This study intends to be comprehensive by providing examples from monasteries and nunneries of all orders (with the exception of the houses of friars, the military orders of the Templars and the Hospitallers, hospitals, colleges and chantry chapels) of varying degree of wealth, status and location.

The work is introduced by an overview of the study of lay patronage of religious houses and states that revisionist approaches to the study of late medieval religion shows the vitality of pre-Reformation monasticism but issues of lay patronage has still gone unaddressed. (8) Chapter 1 provides us with a look at patronage, its change over time and how to identify lay patrons more generally. Stöber provides a brief introduction to the development of religious orders in England and Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the establishment of the varied orders of houses; this is followed by a discussion of lay patronage and the rights and duties of patrons in the later medieval period with an outline of varied monastic orders and changes in patronage of these monasteries.

Chapter 2 highlights the ‘Manifestations of monastic patronage in the later Middle Ages’ with a more detailed look at reciprocal relationship between monasteries and patrons mentioned previously. It examines the involvement of patrons in elections and nominations to head of house, conflicts between houses and patrons and how a more powerful patron, while a source of security, could also prove difficult when balancing the needs of their family and the needs of a monastery.  A section on ‘gendering’ patronage provides some insight into the patronage of nunneries in this period. Stöber is careful to reiterate that male houses have more surviving evidence that identify the activity of patrons whilst nunneries, more often than not, have left little of their recorded history. It is noted that in light of this, biased attitudes towards nunneries must be met with some degree of caution. (110)

In the later Middle Ages there was change in where families chose to be buried with many deciding to buried in more ‘fashionable’ establishments, like chantry chapels, rather than monasteries. Stöber emphasises in Chapter 3 that the laity thought very carefully about their choice of burial sites and burial at a monastery was greatly sought after and valued. Patrons who had more than one religious house to choose from made decisions based on the status and wealth of community, family burial traditions and proximity to their home. Stöber remarks: ‘The aspect of dynastic tradition, and the presence of the tombs of those dear to them, clearly remained issue to be considered in their choice of burial place.’(132)

A more detailed discussion of monastic patronage is set out in Chapter 4. Case studies of five noble families from varying regions and status are chosen to provide examples of the activities of lay patrons in this period: the Montagues (earls of Salisbury), Berkeleys, de Clares, Howards (dukes of Norfolk), and the Scropes of Bolton. These families left a considerable amount of evidence regarding their role as patrons of monasteries and nunneries which reveal their activity as patrons and their devotion to one or more religious house. There are tables listing the houses under the patronage of each family and what is striking is that not one family favoured one particular order in means of patronage but rather chose a particular house for burial.  Stöber indicates that this particular collection of evidence, while unique, tells us what monastic patronage could mean to layman in this period and the personal nature of patronage. (189)

The final chapter gives us a picture of the how patrons behaved towards their religious houses on the eve of the Dissolution and thereafter. The impact of the suppression of a monastery on lay patrons and how patrons may have tried to delay suppression in order to protect either the family mausolea or the property and lands for their own gain is discussed more specifically. A very short concluding chapter draws all the themes of the work together which is followed by a lengthy and weighty appendix—noteworthy in and of itself— identifying over 700 religious houses and their patrons, where known.

Stöber’s range of source material, coverage of the varied religious orders and location of houses in England and Wales must be commended. This piece is weighty in providing examples from as many monasteries and nunneries, where possible, and endeavors to give the reader a broader understanding of lay patronage in this period.  While the book is divided into five chapters, it could have been divided in two parts. ‘Part 1’ providing the necessary background material, a challenge to historiography and overall general discussion of patronage (Chapters 1 & 2) while ‘Part 2’ providing the meat and thrust of the main argument with varied examples given to support the evidence (Chapters 3-4). What was missing from this study was a discussion of the more personal, familial and local link that monasteries and patrons had with one another: the monks and nuns themselves. There is no mention of members of family and kin as members of religious houses or as heads of religious houses, which may have provided a stronger link between a patron and its monastery in the later medieval period. These two points, however, are very minor. This study is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and re-enforces the need for further study in the area of monastic patronage in the later Middle Ages.