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THE existence of the COUCHER BOOK,* or Chartulary, of Whalley Abbey, has long been known to antiquaries. Extracts were taken from it, "ex majori libro de Whalleye et Stanlawe," in 1649, by Sir Ralph Asheton, its then possessor, and were inserted in Sir Peter Leycester's History of Cheshire. Dr. Whitaker had the book before him when he composed his history of Whalley; and the merits of that admirable work would certainly not have been diminished by a more liberal use of its contents. By the kindness and liberality of EARL HOWE, the possessor of the volume by descent from Sir Ralph Asheton, the whole work is now offered to the members of the CHETHAM SOCIETY: and unless the Editor has fallen into a great mistake, but one common, perhaps, to editors, the contents will be found to add much to the early history of Lancashire and Cheshire.
The word "Coucher" is of uncertain derivation. It is commonly used for the general book in which any religious house or corporation register their particular acts. In the statute 3 and 4 Edward VI. c. 10, it is classed with antiphonars, missals, manuals, legends, primers, journals, and ordinals; and from the penal consequences attached to its possession, it would appear to have been looked upon as a religious book, and therefore condemned. Probably the derivation may be found in the term coucher par ecrit.
The subject itself will not be inaptly introduced by a slight sketch of the history of the Abbey, and its parent house, Stanlawe.
The monastery of Stanlawe was most probably an affiliation from its neighbour, Combermere. It was founded by John, constable of Chester, on the eve of his departure for the Holy Land, in the year 1178, at that period when the vibrations of the movement in favour of holy poverty, originated by our countryman, St. Stephen, at Citeaux, were the strongest. The abbey was of the Cistercian order; it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patron saint of the Cistercians; the founder directed that it should be called Locus Benedictus; and he endowed it with the townships of Staneye and Aston.
Its site was well calculated to carry out the views of the founder of that ascetic order. Placed on a low rock at the confluence of the Gowy and the Mersey, in one of the most barren spots in Cheshire, it was a fitting place for the followers of those devoted men who looked on the loneliness and sterility of Citeaux as its chief recommendation. And if it be true, as alleged, that Citeaux derived its name from the flags and bulrushes which were found there in abundance, the site may have been endeared to the monks by a similarity in its natural productions.
Nothing is recorded of the monastery for nearly half a century after its foundation. The fruits of their patient poverty then began to appear; and it was discovered that the place was not without its peculiar advantages. Robert
de Lascy, the last of the original De Lascys, had died; the descent of his immense possessions had enriched Roger, constable of Chester; and a monastery, founded by his father, and situated close to his paternal castle of Halton, became the fitting recipient of his bounty. Towards the close of a turbulent life, he endowed Stanlawe with the advowson of the church of Rochdale, four bovates of land in Castleton, the lordship of Merland, the waste of Brendewood, and the township of Little Woolton; and, from motives of gratitude towards the enricher of his family, the successive grants were made, not merely for the souls of himself, his father, and mother, but also for the soul of Robert de Lascy.
His example was followed by his descendants; and the grants of the advowsons of the churches of Blackburn and Eccles, and of the township of Steyninges, by John de Lascy; and of the township of Cronton by Edmund de Lascy, showed the steady attachment of the house to the family monastery of Stanlawe. But it was reserved for "the great and good" Henry de Lascy, earl of Lincoln, to confer the brightest gem on the fortunate abbey, in the advowson of the church of Whalley.
Nor were the inferior proprietors of land in Lancashire and Cheshire slow to pour their riches into the lap of Stanlawe. In the south west of Lancashire, the monastery received large grants in Ince, Garston, Childewall, Aykebergh, Little Woolton, and Warrington. In the south, the Grellys, Bartons, Hultons, Worsleys, and other local families, endowed them with tracts of land in Eccles, Barton,
Maunton, Swynton, Pendleton, Worsley, Hulton, Westhalghton, Rumworth, Pendlebury, Cadishead, and Denton. In the east they had gifts of property in Spotland, Chadwick, Castleton, Marland, Todmorden, Rochdale, Whitworth, Heley, ffalenge, Chaderton, Wardle, Howarth, and Saddleworth. Indeed so rapidly were the grants multiplied in the latter districts, that a suspicion arises that some other impulse than mere piety was not wanting to direct the alms of the faithful into the coffers of a monastery, which was ruled over by a Haword, and had a Bucklegh and a Worsley within its walls.*
In Blackburn hundred, the monastery had possessions in Wytton, Derwent, Plesyngton, Balderston, Salebury, Read, Downham, Clithero, Ribchester, Withnall, Wheelton, and Stanworth; and in Amounderness hundred, they received grants of land in Warton, Carleton, Steyninges, Elswick, and Preston.
In Cheshire, besides the grants at its foundation, the abbey was enriched by further gifts of houses and lands in Chester, Nantwich, and Northwich, and of lands in Aston, Backford, Walton, and Wynlaton.
This increase of wealth led to its natural consequences;
* The probability of this conjecture is certainly not diminished by an examination of the titles of the property of the abbey in Whitworth and Spotland. Out of forty-one grants to the abbey in the former township, twenty-six are witnessed by Geoffrey de Buckley, and twenty-three either by William or Henry de Haword. And in the latter, out of fifty-six grants thirty-two are witnessed by Geoffrey de Bucklegh, and twenty-eight by a Haword.