A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

Tewkesbury Abbots and Gloucester Priors

Tewkesbury Abbey 2.jpg

The Abbots of Tewkesbury, the Cathedral Priors of Gloucester and the Westminster Succession

By Richard Barton (1991) (Some revision 2016)

Many of you will have read with interest two brief articles which appeared recently in the Gloucestershire Echo regarding the visit of five members of the Anglican Benedictine community at Burford to the Abbey Church at Tewkesbury. You may recall – ‘Monks and nuns will be seen once again in Tewkesbury Abbey when they hold a special service there for the first time in 450 years…’ Being an avid hoarder of newspaper cuttings I was somewhat amused, when filing these cuttings, to find another article from the same newspaper, dated 12th July 1984, which read,

‘Historical Mass – History was made at Tewkesbury Abbey today when a Benedictine monk took a Mass for the first time since the Reformation… In fact, two Benedictine monks, Father Ambrose Crowley of Kemerton and Father James Donovan of Cheltenham, took oart in the 8.00am concelebrated Mass.’

Recalling Vespers at Gloucester Cathedral, sung by the monks of Prinknash Abbey in 1980 and again in 1989, as well as the blessing of their third Abbot there in 1979, I was not surprised to learn that members of the Prinknash community had also participated in a service at Tewkesbury Abbey some years ago.

Whilst links between modern day Benedictines and former Benedictine Abbeys and Priory Churches have manifested themselves in recent years with such celebrations as these, the interest of post-Reformation Catholic Benedictines in the mediaeval monasteries is not a new phenomenon. During the negotiations paving the way to Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Dom John Augustine Birdsall O.S.B., Missioner at Cheltenham and President-General of the English Benedictine Congregation, wrote the following words to Sir Robert Peel:

‘Most of the monks in England are (now) engaged in ordinary pastoral charge and the care of congregations… be it not forgot that they are descendants of that body of men to whom the inhabitants of this island and all lovers of learning and research are particularly indebted both for valuable records of lore and the magnificent buildings which even in ruins yet ornament the land and astonish the beholder.’

Birdsall had been one of William Cobbett’s most valued correspondents when the latter wrote his, ‘History of the Protestant Reformation.’

From the very beginnings of the English Benedictine Congregation there had been a determination to emphasise their continuity with the mediaeval houses. For instance, in 1621 the four continental communities which made up the revived Congregation were ‘appropriated’ to the extinct ancient abbeys of St. Albans, Westminster, Bury St. Edmunds and Glastonbury. Whilst not attempting to claim actual property the Congregation wished to claim a direct association. This feeling motivated the appointment of titular abbots to these four titles from 1818 (‘Exploratum’) and, more recently, to the titles of Evesham and St. Mary’s in York, as well. Birdsall, himself, became Abbot of Westminster in 1830. Since 1899 (‘Diu Quidem’) any abbot who resigns his office as superior of a monastery of the English Benedictine Congregation can adopt, if he wishes, the title of an ancient abbey.

Interestingly between the years 1643 and 1803 the only English Benedictine abbots with jurisdiction would have been the Abbots of the monastery of St. Adrian and St. Denis at Lambspringe, in the diocese of Hildesheim.

During the year 1976, Dom Basil Whelan, F.R. Hist. S., a monk of Belmont Abbey and author of ‘The Annals of the English Benedictine Congregation 1850-1900’, was appointed by the Congregation as titular Abbot of Tewkesbury. Abbot Basil, who was given this honour largely for his work as annalist, was the first monk to have been appointed to Tewkesbury. He held the title until his death in November 1984.

There is no particular pectoral cross associated with this title but Abbot Basil used the cross of Dom Gregory Gregory, who was Abbot (with jurisdiction) of St. Mary’s Abbey in Sydney until he returned to England in 1861. Abbot Gregory had local connections as he was brought up in Charlton Kings before entering the Benedictine noviciate at Broadway. In 1834 he accompanied Archbishop Polding to Australia.

Abbot Whelan was succeeded by Dom Alan Rees who had served for seven years as Abbot of Belmont before taking the Tewkesbury title. He died in 2005 and, three years later, was succeeded as titular Abbot of Tewkesbury by Dom Aidan Shea. The Worcester News, August 4th 2008, gave the following report of his ‘installation’:

A new Abbot was installed in Tewksbury Abbey last week, for the first time for hundreds of years.

Abbot Aidan Shea was installed as titular Abbot of Tewkesbury by the vicar Canon Paul Williams.

Canon Williams explained that the Benedictine community at the Abbey was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1540. Abbot Wakeman, the last actual abbot of Tewkesbury, then became the first Bishop of Gloucester.  then the Benedictine Community has always maintained its connection with Tewkesbury by appointing a titular abbot. “It is a way of honouring someone for their work for the Benedictine community,” Canon Paul explained. Abbot Alan Rees of Belmont Abbey was the last person to hold the title, and when he died recently Abbot Aidan Shea was appointed in his place. He was, for the 16 years before his retirement, Abbot of St Anslem’s in Washington USA. On hearing of his appointment Canon Paul made contact with him and invited him to Tewkesbury to preach at the Abbey, which he did this week. During the service he installed him in a special seat in the choir. “He will be the first titular Abbot of Tewkesbury to have a special seat in Tewkesbury Abbey. Abbot Aiden said that he was delighted with the honour and will be keeping in close contact the Canon Paul. He added, “Tewkesbury Abbey is stunning, it is one of the few place that inspires one to be absolutely still.” “It is completely unselfconscious, it is just here It is extraordinary.”

Another link between the mediaeval monasteries and the English Benedictine Congregation is through the appointment of Cathedral Priors. Dom Daniel Rees was Cathedral Prior from 1997 to 2007 and his obituary in the Independent states:

‘His service to the English Benedictine Congregation was recognised by his appointment in 1997 as Cathedral Prior of Gloucester – an honorary title recalling a time when Benedictine monks formed the chapters of nine English cathedrals. The invitation he received from the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester to preach there gave him much pleasure.’

 Nine of the mediaeval cathedral chapters of England were served by Benedictine monks. These included Canterbury, Winchester, Durham, Coventry, Rochester, Bath, Norwich, Ely and our own cathedral church at Worcester. The superior of the monastic chapter was the Cathedral Prior, not an abbot, whilst the superior of a secular chapter, such as Hereford, was the Dean. The Dissolution of the Monasteries naturally effected this system of cathedral government, however, in some cases the transition was significantly smooth. At Worcester, for instance, Henry Holbech, who had been appointed Cathedral Prior in 1536, became the first Dean of that cathedral in 1541.

In more recent times it is is interesting to note that the present Abbey Church of St. Michael at Belmont was once the pro-Cathedral of the Diocese of Newport and Menevia from 1859 until 1920. Its superior was a Cathedral Prior and the Chapter was made up of Benedictine monks.

St. Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester was also a Benedictine community. Its last abbot, William Parker (alias Malvern) died in 1539, some six months before his prior, Gabriel Morton, surrendered the monastery to the King. On 2nd January 1540. On 3rd September 1541 the See of Gloucester was created by Parliament and the former Abbey Church became the Cathedral with its own secular Dean and Chapter. The first Bishop of Gloucester was the last Abbot of Tewkesbury with jurisdiction and the first Dean, William Jennings, had been the last Prior of St. Oswald’s in Gloucester.

In time the new diocese of Gloucester, together with Peterborough and Chester, was confirmed by Pope Paul IV in 1555, along with its secular Dean and Chapter. After the succession of Queen Elizabeth, three years later, its Bishops and cathedral clergy ceased to be in communion with the Holy See but Rome still considered it, in some respects, a ‘sede vacante,’ at least until the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850. Therefore, unlike at Worcester, Gloucester never had a resident cathedral prior and monastic cathedral chapter.

Whilst the papal bull of 1555 (‘Praeclara Carissimi’) acknowledged that holders of land formerly belonging to suppressed abbeys could hold them in perpetuity this was somewhat different in the case of former monastic cathedrals as their properties had not fallen into the hands of private persons. When the English Benedictine Congregation was formally revived in 1619 it soon claimed all the ‘rights (jura), privileges, ranks, honours, liberties, goods (bona), graces, indults, faculties and other prerogatives which formerly belonged to our Order or Congregation in England’ (Mandatum 1628). As an expression of this claim the new congregation revived the nine mediaeval monastic chapters in readiness for such time that the Catholic Church be restored in England, a view held, by some, to be a real possibility as the reign of King Charles I unfolded.

In 1629 the General Chapter formally elected nine cathedral priors and, in July 1633, a papal bull, ‘Plantata’, of Urban VIII, confirmed these appointments, forbidding these titles to be ever given up. The bull also provided for like appointments to Peterborough, Chester and Gloucester, which, although they had been former Benedictine monasteries, had never had monastic cathedral chapters. On August 23rd, 1633, Dom Thomas Hill D.D. was appointed as the first Cathedral Prior of Gloucester and, in due course, four monks were assigned by name as the Gloucester Chapter.

Hill had been ordained in 1591 as a secular priest at the age of thirty-one years. He actually received his Benedictine habit whilst serving a prison sentence and he was not professed until he was released in 1613. He eventually retired from his work on the English Mission and settled at Douai, in France, where he died in 1644. Hill was succeeded as Cathedral Prior of Gloucester during the following year by Dom Francis Tresham. In 1650 Tresham left the Benedictines and took the habit of St. Francis, Thaddeus, the Franciscan biographer, described him as,

‘a man of irreproachable life (who) spent… the ten remaining years of his life… zealously labour (ing) for the good of souls.’

Returning to ‘Plantata’, David Lunn has described it as ‘an irrelevance’ which ‘bore no relation to reality’. Certainly, it is inconceivable that the Holy See would seriously have considered, in the event of a full Catholic restoration, handing over twelve of the country’s cathedral chapters to the infant English Benedictine Congregation. The consecration of further vicars-apostolic with missionary districts, during the reign of King James II and the later establishment of the new hierarchy in 1850, rendered the Benedictine cathedral priors increasingly irrelevant to the conversion of England.

However, unlike the later titular abbots, cathedral priors were not initially appointed as titular or honorary dignitaries. They were intended as being true officials exercising real jurisdiction in the event of a full Catholic restoration and, until 1883, they had seats in General Chapter.

Modern Benedictine Year Books describe the office of cathedral prior as ‘conferring no jurisdiction, it gives only honour and precedence whilst the others rank according to the prior’s seniority in the habit.’ Since 1890 the title of Gloucester has been attached to the Abbey of St. Edmund, Douai, the community which serves St. Benet’s Kemerton and, previously, Chipping Sodbury and Cheltenham.

The long list of Cathedral Priors of Gloucester include some interesting personalities. Two of their number became bishops – Dom Lawrence York was consecrated Bishop of Niba in 1741 and, later, succeeded as Vicar-Apostolic of the Western District, whilst Dom Adrian Hankinson became Bishop of Port Louis, Mauritius, in 1863. Thomas Hill, Henry Parker and Jerome Sharrock all spent time in prison and Dom Norbert Sweeney had, earlier, been the first Cathedral Prior of Belmont.

Two Rectors of St Gregory’s in Cheltenham were also appointed Cathedral Priors of Gloucester, namely, Dom Robert Aloysius Wilkinson O.S.B. and Dom Bede Ryan O.S.B. The appointment of Wilkinson as Cathedral Prior was featured in the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic for 23rd February, 1901, with no less than four illustrations. He had, by then, served the Cheltenham Mission for thirty-five years and his congregation presented him with a sum of money as well as an illuminated address and a pectoral cross, both the work of Messrs, Furber and Son, of Queen’s Circus, Cheltenham.

Both cross and illuminated address were reproduced as illustrations in the magazine and the latter was described as,

the finished work of a clever artist. (It) includes in its border water colour pictures of Gloucester Cathedral, St. Gregory’s Church and its shrine while the various arms and emblems are emblazoned in heraldic colours.’

 The text of the address included the following tribute:

 ‘With feelings of warmest affections we the members of the Congregation of St. Gregory’s Church, Cheltenham, and other friends… rejoice that the retention of a dignity which with others had its origin in pre-Reformation times was insisted upon by Pope Urban VIII in 1633 and we feel that the honour thus bestowed upon you is a fitting recognition of the valuable services you have so long and so generously given to the Church of God in this town…’

 Wilkinson also has another significance when considering links between the English Benedictine Congregation and the pre-Reformation Benedictine houses as he was within the ‘Westminster Succession.’ This succession is the unbroken chain of monks who have been clothed by other monks in a direct line back to the young Cassinese monks who were ‘aggregated’ by Dom Sigebert Buckley, the ‘venerable piece of antiquity’, who was the last living link with the mediaeval Benedictine life in this country. Buckley had been clothed at Westminster in about 1556 by the Abbot of the, briefly restored, community there, Dom John Feckenham, who had, earlier in his life, been a monk of Evesham Abbey before that community’s dissolution.

Wilkinson was clothed at Douai, in France, in 1855 by his prior, Dom Adrian Hankinson, later Cathedral Prior of Gloucester, who had in turn been clothed at Broadway by Birdsall. Birdsall had been clothed at Lambspringe Abbey by a monk who traced back his place within the succession to Abbot Placid Gascoigne, of Lambspringe, who had been clothed by Edward Maihew, one of the monks aggregated by Buckley in 1607.

By December 1905, Wilkinson was one of only two monks who could claim to be part of the succession so it was decided that he should clothe Ralph Trafford, a novice at Downside. He took the religious name of Sigebert and, in time, became an Abbot of Downside.

Whilst the Westminster Succession is considered by many, today, to be a rather romantic notion, if not even a dubious link with the Congregation’s mediaeval forebears, nineteenth century Benedictine writers, such as Snow, considered it the basis for asserting real continuity.

After the death of Wilkinson his body was interred in Cheltenham Public Cemetery and a fine brass memorial plaque was erected in St. Gregory’s Church which proudly records that he was Cathedral Prior of Gloucester. Within the church, too, is a large stained glass window in the ‘north’ transept, the St. Benedict’s window, which was ordered by Wilkinson in 1884 as a memorial to Francis and Alice Gonez. Each of the four main lights shows a scene from the life of St. Benedict and around them are eight monastic coats of arms. This is a visual statement emphasising continuity with early monasticism and the mediaeval abbeys and priories of England.

Since the death of Wilkinson a number of his successors have been appointed as cathedral priors. Dom Bede Ryan, a former Prior of the Benedictine community at Great Malvern and Parish Priest of Alcester, was appointed to Gloucester in 1928. Two other Missionary Rectors of Cheltenham have been appointed Priors of Winchester and one of Ely.

In 1915 Dom Boniface MacKinlay, one of the former assistant curates at St. Gregory’s, was appointed as the Cathedral Prior of Peterborough. Shortly after his election he decided to pay a visit to his ‘titular church.’ He arrived during the verger’s dinner hour and so proceeded to inspect the cathedral alone. He was later discovered sitting in one of the stalls and was informed by the indignant verger that he had no right to be there. To the verger’s amazement, MacKinlay retorted that he had every right to be there as the Cathedral belonged to him as he was the Prior. Arguments followed and, on the Prior’s departure, the verger hastened to inform the Dean of what had happened. This soon led to a media sensation, best illustrated by the headline in the Northampton Independent, ‘A Bombshell for Peterborough – Monk installed as Prior – Secret Ceremony in the Cathedral.’ Other newspapers took up the story and one included both a photograph and a visiting card of the new Prior.

Certainly, Abbot Basil Whelan managed to visit Tewkesbury Abbey during his life time but, by all accounts, it was done very quietly so that the present incumbents were unlikely to have been disturbed by his visit!

Cathedral Priors are entitled to wear a pectoral cross and ring but they do not wear their pontificalia within their own monasteries.

On 13th May 1981 Cardinal Basil Hume attended a memorable service in Gloucester Cathedral when he preached and unveiled a new role of the Abbots of Gloucester, in the presence of the Bishops of Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Clifton, as well as members of the community at Prinknash. Perhaps, in the future, we may witness the unveiling of a list of lesser-known Benedictines – the Cathedral Priors of Gloucester. Similarly, a list of titular Abbots of Tewkesbury may find a place within the ancient Abbey Church. One never knows!

The Cathedral Priors of Gloucester with their Communities 

1633 Dom Thomas Hill (St, Gregory)

1645 Dom Francis Tresham (St. Lawrence)

1649 Dom Augustine Hungate (Montserrat)

1653 Dom Leander Pritchard (St. Gregory)

1689 Dom Bernard Gregson (St. Lawrence)

1697 Dom Ildephonsus Aprice (St. Lawrence)

1713 Dom Lawrence Casse (St. Edmund)

1725 Dom Henry Wyburne (St. Edmund)

1737 Dom Lawrence York (St. Gregory)

1741 Dom Bernard Wythie (St. Gregory)

1745 Dom Bernard Catteral (St. Lawrence)

1785 Dom Benedict Pembridge (St. Gregory)

1794 Dom Jerome Sharrock (St. Gregory)

1806 Dom Ralph Ainsworth (St. Lawrence)

1810 Dom Henry Parker (St. Edmund)

1818 Dom Augustine Lawson (St. Gregory)

1830 Dom Benedict Glover (St. Lawrence)

1834 Dom George Turner (St. Gregory)

1846 Dom Alban Molyneux (St. Lawrence)

1850 Dom Ambrose Prest (St. Lawrence)

1862 Dom Adrian Hankinson (Broadway and St. Edmund)

1866 Dom Norbert Sweeney (St. Gregory)

1883 Dom Bernard Murphy (St. Gregory)

1901 Dom Aloysius Wilkinson (St. Edmund)

1909 Dom Romuald Riley (St. Edmund)

1928 Dom Bede Ryan (St. Edmund)

1945 Dom Raymund Aspinwall (St. Edmund)

1951 Dom Leonard Wynne (St. Edmund)

1954 Dom Patrick Mullarkey (St. Edmund)

1958 Dom Aloysius Bloor (St. Edmund)

1972 Dom Ambrose Agius (St. Gregory and Ealing)

1980 Dom Andrew Gibbons (St. Edmund)

1997 Dom Daniel Rees (St. Gregory)

N.B. St. Edmund is now at Douai, St. Lawrence is at Ampleforth and St. Gregory is now at Downside.



The Abbots of the Ancient Monasteries and the Cathedral Priors by D.D. Hugh Connolly and Justin McCann (1942)

A series of Lists relating to the E.B.C. by Dom Basil Whelan (1933)

The English Benedictines 1540-1688 by David Lunn (1980)

Necrology of the English Benedictines by T.B. Snow (1883)

Obit Book of the English Benedictines by H.N. Birt (1970)

Various Benedictine Yearbooks

Gloucestershire Echo 12/7/1984, 2/7/1991 and 10/7/1991

Gloucester Cathedral Service Sheets 13/5/1981 and 11/7/1989

Victoria County History Volume II (1907)

Original history of the City of Gloucester by T.D. Fosebrooke (1819)

The Dispossessed Religious of Gloucestershire by G. Baskerville (1927, T.B.G.A.S.. Vol XLIX)

Douai Magazines for the Obituaries of Ryan, MacKinlay etc.

Downside Review 1905: The Westminster Succession

The Franciscans in England 1600-1850 by Fr. Thaddeus (1898)

Missioners-Apostolic and Rectors of Cheltenham by this author (1990, G.N.A.C.H.S., Vol XIV)

Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic, 23/2/1901

Telegraph, Obituary of Dom Daniel Rees, O.S.B., 18/1/2007

Worcester News, 4/8/2008

The author of the above article would like to thank Dom Geoffrey Scott O.S.B., of Douai Abbey and Dom Brendan Thomas O.S.B., of Belmont Abbey, for their help and advice.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: