Saturday, 11 April 2015

Robert de Ormesby, sub-prior of Norwich?

The Bishop of Norwich and Robert de Ormesby (?)
(Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 366, fol.9v (Beatus page, detail).
The Ormesby Psalter, one of the greatest treasures of English manuscript illumination, is so-called because of its flyleaf inscription stating that it was the Psalter of brother Robert de Ormesby, monk of Norwich, assigned by him to the choir of the church of the Holy Trinity, Norwich [i.e. the cathedral] to lie before the sub-prior in perpetuity:
"[P]salterium fratris Roberti de Or-
mesby monachi Norwyc[ensis] per eunde[m]
assignatu[m] choro eccl[es]ie s[an]c[t]e Trinitatis
Norwici ad iacendu[m] coram Supp[ri]ore
qui pro tempore fuerit in p[er]petuum"
It has always been a puzzle why Robert gave the manuscript to the sub-prior: if he gave the magnificent manuscript to the cathedral in order to gain favour and recognition, why not give it instead to the bishop or prior?

Joan Greatrex[1] proposed an ingenious solution: Robert may have himself been the sub-prior, and thus he was making the gift to the cathedral for his own use (and in due course for that of his successors). She based this idea on two related facts.

First, a document[2], which probably dates to 1336/7, states that Robert had been for at least two years Prior (also called Warden, or "custos") of Hoxne, one of the cathedral's cells[3]. Second, monks were apparently sent from Norwich Cathedral to gain administrative experience as Priors of Hoxne, as they were often promoted on their return[4].

I recently thought that I had found an overlooked, but compelling, piece of evidence in favour of Greatrex's hypothesis. Among the archives at King's College, Cambridge, is a document dated 6 August, 1340, described online as:
"Copy of a public instrument by a notary concerning the lease of Ringshall chapel and tithes by Robert de Ormesby, prior of Norwich Cathedral to William, rector of Ringshall." [my emphasis]
Robert de Ormesby was never prior of Norwich Cathedral, let alone in August 1340: William de Claxton was prior from 1326 to 1344. The most likely explanation, I thought, was that the original scribe, or perhaps the scribe of the copy, mistakenly described Robert as prior, when he should instead have been called sub-prior.

Patricia McGuire, Archivist of King's College, Cambridge, very kindly sent me an image of the upper part of the relevant Ringshall Chapel document (which she had not catalogued), and this revealed the source of confusion.

The relevant passage is in lines 7–8:
"... Frater Robertus de Ormesby Prior sive custos Capelle sancti Edmundi de Hoxne / monachus ecclesie cathedralis Sancte Trinitiatis Norwyc. ..."
In other words, Robert is correctly described as Prior of Hoxne, not of Norwich.

An appealing piece of evidence, therefore, unfortunately turns out not to be directly relevant to the hypothesis. But it does provide some interesting indirect evidence of a different sort.

The stages in the making of the Ormesby Psalter are extremely complex and have never been fully worked-out, spanning as they do at least a few decades and probably at least three patrons. Lucy Sandler suggests that "it was probably in the mid 1320s that the book was given to Norwich by Robert of Ormesby after it had been completed and adapted for his purposes".[5]

If Robert was ever sub-prior of Norwich, this is most likely to have been after he was Prior of Hoxne (which, as we have seen, was from about 1335 until at least August 1340). If Greatrex is right that he gave the Psalter to the Cathedral when he was sub-prior, this moves the date of the gift back by a significant period, perhaps two decades later than Sander's "mid 1320s".

[1] Biographical Register of the English Cathedral Priories of the Province of Canterbury c.1066-1540 (Oxford, 1997), pp.546–7.
[2] Windsor, Dean and Chapter of St George's Chapel, I.C.1.
[3] Joan Greatrex, The English Benedictine Cathedral Priories: Rule and Practice, c.1270-1420 (2011), p.231.
[4] H.W. Saunders, Introduction to the Obedientiary and Manor Rolls of Norwich Cathedral Priory (Norwich, 1930), p.75.
[5] Lucy Freeman Sandler, Later Gothic Manuscripts: 1285–1385 (2 vols, London, 1986), II, p.50.

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