by John Glanfield and Colin Sully
By the 12th century, the Cistercian Monks, with the support of the Norman Kings, had laid eight abbey foundations in England and Wales. One of these foundations (in 1133) was at Great Missenden. It was to shape life in The Lee for over four hundred years.
Missenden was never among the greater abbeys of England, but it was, from the beginning, fairly well endowed and became one of the most important monasteries in the county.
In 1133 the Abbey owned much of the land thereabouts, stretching up the hill as far as what is now Potter Row. However, the land beyond that, including the wooden chapel at The Lee, still belonged to the de Turville family of Weston Manor (Wendover).
There were many long-standing disputes over this land and, in 1146, in settlement of one of these disputes Geoffrey de Turville confirmed the land at The Lee in favour of the “Canons of St Mary of Missenden”.
Within 40 years, following further disputes, the land was conceded back again to Ingram de la leia (of The Lee). He on his part undertook to feed and clothe the two Canons living at that time at the chapel.
It was also agreed that “on the death of Ingram the land is to revert to the Abbey, and his wife shall have no residence there or access thereto except to the Chapel like other honest women”.
Life with the monks
The Cistercian Monks ran a largely self supporting community based around Missenden Abbey, with a great deal of lay labour. The chapel and residences at Lee (as it became known) would have been integrated into that monastic life.
Services in Lee chapel would have been said or sung in Latin many times each day. It was a disciplined life of prayer and work for the monks at the Abbey and at Lee chapel.
As for ordinary folk, the struggle to grow enough to eat and keep out of trouble was paramount. It was a time of struggles, against the domination of the Papal authority and against crushing taxation to provide money for the King and his crusades.
The Lee Old Church
Against this background, in around 1220 AD what we now call The Lee Old Church was built – the oldest standing building in the former Chiltern District.
Secker speculates that Ralph de Bray (a minor lord, descended from the Norman invaders) may have been living in a house at what is now Bray’s Wood and may have supervised the building of the Old Church.
This would certainly account for the fact that some of the relics found at Bray’s Wood closely match those used in the oldest parts of the Old Church and perhaps explain the remains of a forge and a kiln on the site.
The Old Church is of early English Gothic design as indicated by the ‘lancet’ windows (a sharp, knife shape) which first appeared in the 12th century. Also of architectural historic importance from this early period are:
- 13th Century Glass in the upper part of the east window.
- Ironwork. Ancient window ironwork in hinge bases beside windows in the north and south walls.
- The Font basin, which is mediaeval with original staple holes securing the lid (a later 17th century addition).
- On the outside of the south wall, Mass clocks (sundials for telling the time for Mass).
- Wall Paintings. The earliest work uncovered is 14th century.
- Originally there were three Bells made by Michael de Wymbis in about 1290. The remaining bell now hangs at the top of the ‘new’ Parish Church.
The rise and fall
During the 14th and 15th centuries, the community around Lee chapel grew slowly; more woodland was cleared, more pasture land created and crops cultivated. Missenden itself became a major thorough-fare and the Abbey prospered, even if the lives of those that served it remained hard.
Records show that by the beginning of the sixteenth century the lives of many monks at Missenden were becoming less and less in the service of God and more and more in the service of ‘self’. In 1530 it was complained that the abbot, John Fox, was “wholly under secular influences”. One canon, John Slythurst, was also accused “of the crime condemned beyond all others in Holy Scripture”.
John Slythurst was initially imprisoned at the Abbey for his sins, but later, under the generosity of the king and his agents, he was set free and appointed as ‘priest’ at the Lee chapel. For this he was paid eight pounds per annum.
His appointment as the first recorded priest at Lee Chapel must also have been the last, as he died in the 1550s, shortly after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
Following the dissolution of Missenden Abbey, the lands at Lee were given to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford a loyal servant to the King.
In the next instalment, we learn how the Bedfords (and the Hawthorns and the Plaistowes) shaped the next 300 years of the history of The Lee. We also learn of a shake-up in parish boundaries with the arrival of Arthur Lasenby Liberty.
- The Lee Old Church Trust, a talk given by John Glanfield, President of the Trust (1996)
- The Lee Old Church, leaflet produced by the Trust
- Records of Buckinghamshire, Daniel Secker (2005)
- A history of the County of Buckinghamshire Vol. 1, William Page (1905)