How important was the rise in Monastic Power in the Kingdom of the Isles from 1134 – 1405 in the Isle of Man

During the twelfth century, there was a decline, if not the total end, of the church’s links with Ireland and the rise of new orders, which placed the whole of the western seaboard under the control of Western Christendom.  It became clear that the West Coast conformed more and more with Rome as there was a growth of the reformed religious orders and this resulted in the establishment of territorial dioceses and parishes.  The diocese of Sodor first appears in historical record in around 1109, where together with the Bishops of Skye, Man, the Isles, and Sudrey they were under the auspices of York. In 1153 they were placed under the authority of Nidaras, now Trondheim in Norway.

Around 1100 the Manx people, finding themselves without a strong leader and king and open to threat from foreign enemies, sent for Olaf Kleining, the third and youngest son of Godred Croven who ruled in the period 1079 – 1095. Olaf had been educated at the English court of Henry I, and there seems little doubt that he’d been influenced and had acquired knowledge of the English form of government. In this style of government there was a feudal system in operation as well as the separation of the civil and ecclesiastical courts, which resulted in an increasing power in England of the monastic orders.  This appeared a more stable condition of affairs than was currently in Mann and was more than likely the reason it was introduced.

When Olaf I became King of Mann, the influence of the Norman court had caused him to favour the Norman monastic orders, since he had already held some contempt for Celtic Christianity. This was still strong on the island and had until then survived the rule of the Viking Kings. This seems to be the reason behind his generous gifts of lands for the establishment of a monastery around Ballasalla, together with gifts of lands in Lezayre and the North.

In 1134 Olaf sent an invitation to the Abbot of Furness to visit the Isle of Man. The visit resulted in a charter being issued giving the Abbots of Furness the right to nominate Bishops of the Diocese of Sodor. It also led to the granting of land in the southern part of the island for the establishment of a monastery. This, together with King Olaf’s grant of lands, formed the site for a monastery, now known as Rushen Abbey. Rushen Abbey was finally decreed between 1152 -1153 by Pope Eugene III and the Abbey was built under the supervision of the Abbot of Furness.  The close links that existed between Furness and Rushen Abbey inevitably led to a continuing influence in the history of the diocese of Sodor.

The Abbey of St Mary of Furness was itself a daughter abbey of St Mary of Savigny in Normandy which was established in 1112 and had been founded as a Benedictine Abbey.  By the time of the rule of the fifth abbot, the changes to the mother house of Savigny to the Cistercian rule forced Furness and its daughter houses to follow suit in 1148..

As labour was central to the Cistercian monk’s life, they used their skills to drain the areas around the abbey lands.  The marshlands around Ballasalla presented a significant challenge for these hard working and enthusiastic men, as they had to labour under difficult conditions to move the foundation stones upon which the abbey was to be erected. The layout and design of the abbey was very simple in strict keeping with the already established Order of the Cistercians.

Through hard labour and frugal living they soon created lands on which they were able to rear animals and grow crops. The monks exploited the outlying areas and established large farms or granges which were often run by lay brothers or hired labour.  They set in place facilities for the support of the community on the abbey lands, which would have included stores, barns, mills, granaries, stables and perhaps industrial buildings such as forges and wool sheds.

Over time the Monks became well known as sheep, horse and cattle breeders which had resulted in a great deal of income for the abbey.  The abbey grew in power and by the middle of the 13

Century their wool trade developed along with agriculture and had become so successful that it became their largest source of income. By the 14

Century, most of the farms that had been worked by the monk’s and lay brothers had been leased out and were now being worked by the local tenants and this provided the abbey with a steady flow of income.

Most of the wool produced was sold, and only a small quantity was kept which was required for the monk’s personal needs.  Wool was sold sometimes well in advance of production, which would in term provide money for the building and development of the abbey and its lands  (this is possibly one of the earliest examples of trading in futures and perhaps shows great religious prescience). We can see this by the historic evidence showing quite clearly, when eventually in 1192, the monastery was moved to Douglas for a period of four years in order to enlarge the Abbey buildings.

The monastery also contributed to the care and good health of the people.  There was an ‘infirmarer’ who was highly skilled in herbal remedies, medicines and was able to perform small operations.  The well stocked infirmary garden would supply herbs and plants that were necessary for these purposes.  The monks were not only responsible for ensuring that the they provided a more nourishing diet to the sick than their own frugal one, but also the task of providing clean accommodation and meals for a number of dignitaries, merchants and visitors to the Abbey.

Apart from manual labour, the running of the farms, and the duties in the Abbey, there would be scribes whose job was to copy manuscripts as part of their duties and this was to have a great effect on the documentation of the history of Mann during medieval times. It should be noted that the only group of people who had any literacy skills were the monks at this time.

From the Abbey’s establishment the abbot grew ever more powerful. Over time he gained the title of deputy governor of the island and wielded a great deal of political and economic authority. He had become all-powerful and held his own court of ‘leet’ and baron’. This gave him the autonomy to decide between life and death within his court.

The steadily increasing economic wealth was matched with a growth in power and influence. The importance of religion in everyday life (and death), led to even more donations of land and the Abbey now controlled a vast estate which included some of the best farmlands. In addition to these new grants, came the rights to all the mining as well as controlled fishing rights, and with fish being an extremely important part of the Cistercian diet, they learnt to exploit the rivers and coasts. The monastery had now developed an effective monopoly on the life of the Island. This is supported by Reverend JG Cummings who states that ‘

Furthermore during this period the influence and supremacy of the monasteries was increasingly championed by English monarchs much to the chagrin of the Norse kings.They found their wealth and power being eroded by constant grants to the monasteries at their expense. The difference between the Viking way and that of the Christian was stark. The Christian ethos preached the way to the afterlife was through salvation and good works.  The Vikings by contrast had a different set of beliefs and values and strived to reach Valhalla by dying bravely and gloriously in battle. These gifts were given by the wealthy and powerful as a relatively blatant and ‘certain’ route into the afterlife. Gifts of lands owned by someone else are perhaps the easiest gifts to give. Monastic wealth grew from without as well as from within.

There is little doubt the first few centuries of the second millennium saw a rapid rise in monastic power and this exerted a significant influence in all aspects of the economic, political and social life on the Isles. The religious mores of the monasteries drove significant changes in the way people lived and worked. The lead provided by the monastic system helped to shift the Isle of Man from being a base for a warring and fractious society to one where religion provided a focus which was more on work and exploitation of land. The monasteries were pivotal in the development of farming methods and the creation of facilities on the farms to make farming more commercial. They introduced lay people to these methods. They extended the use of land with the development of the fisheries and mines. This set the pattern for a commercial culture which led to the development of industries which were an integral part of the island economy for many centuries.

WC Cubbon puts it succinctly with his belief  that ‘ the Cistercian Order left its permanent mark upon the character and every-day life of the true Manxman who is to this day an essentially frugal, hard living and cautions man of the farmer type