John of Tintern: A Killer Monk in Malmesbury

John of Tintern

Discovering the Dark Past of a Local Abbey

When embarking on a journey to delve into the history of his town’s abbey, a local historian anticipated uncovering some intriguing facts. However, the sinister actions of one individual would emerge as the most shocking discovery of all.

The Infamous John of Tintern

The story of John of Tintern, a rogue monk, captivated Tony McAleavy to such an extent that he dedicated an entire chapter of his book to this character’s nefarious deeds. John’s life was marked by a series of criminal activities and a vibrantly scandalous lifestyle.

Malmesbury: A Town of Contrasts

Malmesbury, nestled in the picturesque Cotswolds, is celebrated for its Norman abbey, and as the final resting place of the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan. This idyllic market town, however, has not always been a picture of tranquility.

The Abbey’s Complex Legacy

The dissolution of the monastery, as part of the extensive religious reforms initiated by King Henry VIII, marked the end of an era. Before its dissolution, the abbey was a beacon of learning and a powerful institution for centuries, playing a significant role in the town’s history.

Accusation Before King Edward II

In that particular year, a young monk named John found himself facing King Edward II, charged with participating in a riot. This event, described as a “mass brawl,” unfolded in the town of Lechlade, where John, alongside a band of 40 men from Malmesbury, was involved in a heated dispute over land and financial matters.

The Incident in Lechlade

John and his group, resembling a small army, journeyed to Lechlade, where they became embroiled in an altercation. The conflict centered around issues of land ownership and monetary disputes, underscoring the tensions of the time.

Financial Motivations and the Abbey’s Expansion

The necessity for funds was pressing, as Malmesbury Abbey was on the cusp of initiating a significant construction project. This incident highlighted a different side of John; far from being a monk solely devoted to his religious duties, he emerged as a pragmatic man of business, actively seeking resources for the abbey’s ambitions.

Malmesbury Abbey’s Historical Legacy

The present state of Malmesbury Abbey stands as a testament to this pivotal moment in history. The structure that visitors admire today, particularly its upper sections, was reconstructed during this era atop the existing foundations. Although now reduced in scale, the remaining edifice serves as a grand symbol of the abbey’s storied past, especially as it continued to function as a church after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.

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Malmesbury Abbey 670-1539: Patronage, Scholarship and Scandal by Tony McAleavy

The Malmesbury Abbey Feud of the 1320s

A Costly Feud

In the early 14th century, specifically during the 1320s, Malmesbury Abbey found itself at the center of a controversy involving a sum of £10,000. Adjusted for inflation, this amount equates to several millions in today’s currency.

Political Allegiances and the Despensers’ Involvement

During this period, monasteries often aligned themselves with political factions. Malmesbury Abbey was no exception, supporting the influential Despenser family. This family entrusted a significant sum of money to the abbey for safekeeping, a decision that would later entangle the monastery in political strife.

The Turn of Fortune

The Despensers’ fortunes took a drastic turn for the worse when the family patriarch was executed. In the aftermath, the abbey chose to remain silent about the substantial funds in its possession.

A Royal Secret

Remarkably, the abbey managed to conceal the money even during a royal visit. The funds were likely hidden within the living quarters of the monks, a section of the abbey that only persists in the basement of the modern-day Abbey House.

The Burden of a Secret

“The monks must have been terrified that they had this dark secret,” noted historian Mr. McAleavy. Their silence was maintained for a decade until the secret was eventually exposed, presumably betrayed by an insider.

Accountability and Pardon

John, serving as the Abbot’s right-hand man at the time, faced royal scrutiny once more and was taken into custody. Despite the gravity of their actions, the monks of Malmesbury Abbey were ultimately pardoned. In an extraordinary turn of events, the King confiscated the £10,000 but forgave those involved, allowing them to escape any further repercussions.

 

The Notorious John of Tintern

Unexpected Conduct for a Cleric

John of Tintern, elected as the Abbot of the Abbey in 1340, led a life far removed from the monastic ideals he was supposed to embody. Mr. McAleavy shed light on John’s darker undertakings, revealing a side that was starkly at odds with his religious duties. John was described not just as a figure of authority but as one who operated with the ruthlessness of a gangster, ready to resort to violence or even murder against those he considered enemies.

A Scandalous Personal Life

Adding to the scandal surrounding his tenure, John of Tintern openly cohabitated with Margaret of Lea, a woman from a village adjacent to Malmesbury. This relationship was not just controversial because of John’s monastic vows of celibacy; it was also marred by accusations of extreme misconduct. He was implicated in the destruction of the manor house where Margaret and her husband resided, followed by her alleged abduction.

Public Outcry and Judicial Inquiry

The nefarious activities of John of Tintern were not secrets whispered in hushed tones but were well-known facts among the townspeople. His reputation and deeds had become so infamous that when justices arrived in Malmesbury from London to investigate, locals were forthcoming in reporting his crimes. This collective willingness to speak out highlights the extent of John’s transgressions and the impact they had on the community he was supposed to serve.

Introduction to the Scandal

John of Tintern was implicated in more than just arson and kidnapping; he was also charged with orchestrating the murder of four individuals. The victims were members of the local nobility, some of whom leased land from the abbey. It appears that John aimed to eliminate these individuals to redistribute the leases to his associates.

Corruption and Collusion

Adding to the scandal, John’s co-conspirator was none other than Gilbert of Berwick, the Sheriff of Wiltshire. Tasked with upholding law and order in the county, Gilbert instead chose to abuse his power to support John’s nefarious activities.

Execution of the Crimes

Although John of Tintern was not personally present at the scene of the murders, he enlisted a man from the nearby town of Badminton to carry out the violent acts on his behalf.

Fugitives on the Run

Following the issuance of an arrest warrant, John, along with Margaret and possibly others, fled to avoid capture. Their whereabouts remained unknown for a time.

The Trial

Despite the elusive nature of their flight, they were eventually apprehended and brought to trial in London. This moment seemed poised to put an end to John of Tintern’s series of criminal endeavors. 

A Peculiar Verdict

Despite acknowledging his culpability, the court granted him a pardon, requiring a hefty penalty in exchange. Essentially, his punishment for murder was reduced to a substantial fine. This fine amounted to £500, an astronomical sum equivalent to hundreds of thousands in today’s currency.

The Role of Money

Mr. McAleavy thinks that financial considerations played a significant role in this outcome. At the time, the Abbey was engaged in extensive construction projects and had employed one of the premier architects of the era.

Guilt and the Search for Forgiveness

Records from the Vatican archives suggest that John of Tintern was troubled by guilt. He sought absolution through a specific church practice, requesting an indulgence from the Pope. This indulgence was essentially a form of ecclesiastical approval, guaranteeing the forgiveness of all his sins at the moment of death in exchange for a monetary offering. Tony McAleavy, a historian, interprets this action as indicative of John’s remorseful conscience, highlighting the commonality of such transactions in that era as a means to secure spiritual peace.

The Mysterious Demise of John of Tintern

John of Tintern’s life came to an end in 1349, under uncertain circumstances. His death occurred against the backdrop of the Black Death’s devastating spread across the country, leaving open the possibility that he fell victim to the pandemic. The exact cause of his demise remains a subject of speculation.

Reflecting on Historical Revelations

Tony McAleavy’s extensive research into John of Tintern’s life led to moments of astonishment and reflection. Examining ancient documents prompted him to question the moral integrity of a man of faith who seemingly contradicted the very principles he was supposed to embody. McAleavy’s journey through history reveals a complex character whose actions continue to provoke debate and curiosity centuries later.

Sources

  • Malmesbury Abbey and the Story of a Monk Guilty of Multiple Murders. (2024, January 30). Karwansaray Publishers. https://www.karwansaraypublishers.com/blogs/medieval-world-blog/malmesbury-abbey-and-the-story-of-a-monk-guilty-of-multiple-murders

  • Parker, S. (2023, December 27). Discovering Malmesbury’s “gangster” medieval monk. BBC News; BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-67707973

  • Book Details – Boydell and Brewer. (2020, May 14). Boydell and Brewer – Boydell & Brewer Is an Academic Press Based in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England That Specializes in Publishing Historical and Critical Works. https://boydellandbrewer.com/9781783277148/malmesbury-abbey-670-1539/

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