By Haydn Brown.
Robert Catton [otherwise known as Bronde], was Prior of Norwich before becoming Abbot of St Albans. His exact date of birth is not known, although it has been said that he was probably born sometime in the 1470’s and died between 25 April 1552 and 7 July 1552.
According to Francis Blomefield, he was the son of John and Agnes Bronde of Catton, a manor some 3 miles north-east of Norwich which John held and which his son retained during his prelacy. The Brondes were also prominent in Norwich, where the Cathedral’s Trinity altar was popularly named for them. Robert Bronde, whose name in religion links him with his likely parish of origin, entered the Cathedral Priory as a novice at the beginning of the 1490s. He is first identified in its records in October 1492 during an episcopal visitation; positioned forty-fourth in seniority in a convent of forty-six.
He was sent to study at Cambridge University in 1494–5, and was supported there for the next seven academic years, from around 1495 to 1502. Such an unbroken period at university was unusual for a monk and may reflect a particular aptitude for advanced study, although there is scant evidence of a commitment to learning in Catton’s later career. His Will refers to only a single book—a copy of an unspecified work of Archbishop Antonius of Florence. Other surviving manuscripts inscribed with the name Robert Catton have been connected with another Norwich monk of the same era.
In March 1499, Robert Catton returned to the Priory in Norwich to be presented for ordination and remained there to participate in an ‘episcopal visitation’; this is the Bishop’s official pastoral visit to the congregation of the diocese. Canon law requires every diocesan bishop to visit every congregation in his or her diocese at least once every three years. The canonical purposes of a visitation is for the bishop to examine the condition of the congregation, oversee the clergy, preach, confirm, preside at the eucharist, and examine parochial records. This also assumes that the bishop’s visitation will be an occasion for baptism, and that the bishop will preside.
By now Catton was thirty-sixth in seniority. He was elected Prior at an unrecorded date after 29 September 1504, without having held any other office. But like many superiors of this period, during his administration he arrogated to himself the rights, and presumably also the responsibilities, of a number of conventual offices. He took the office of sacrist on no fewer than five occasions around 1504, 1511, 1517, 1522 and 1525. He also held the ‘Mastership of the Cellar’ four times, retaining it for six months after he had vacated the priorate in 1530, presumably as a means of support during his hiatus in office! For a decade from 1512 he was also Prior of the dependent cell of St Leonard’s Priory, on the northern edge of the city.
A candid portrait of Catton’s rule is evident in the ‘episcopal visitation’ of 1514 which reported abuses in governance, such as the misuse of the conventual seal, and the neglect of the annual audit of the accounts of the obedientiary officers. Their accounts of conventual life complain of numerous infringements of regular discipline, including the inappropriate dress of the brethren, incompetence in the performance of the offices, and incontinence. At the visitation of 1526, in Catton’s third decade as Prior, there were further reports of indiscipline: some brethren were allegedly living independently in the precincts and enjoying complete freedom of movement in Norwich, others were said to cultivate luxurious lay habits of dress, while Prior Catton himself was condemned for his grandeur, requiring to be addressed as ‘my lord’ rather than ‘father Prior’. None the less, one monk told the Bishop that all was now well in matters of religion because of a reformation effected by the Prior!
Notwithstanding his mixed record, Catton’s status as the scion of an old Norwich family ensured a close affinity with the city of Norwich. A significant settlement over mutual rights was achieved in 1524–5, and he was one of only two Priors to be welcomed into the prestigious Guild of St George.
Prior Catton was also remembered for his investment in Norwich Cathedral and conventual buildings. During his term the Prior’s Hall was extended; an elaborate wrought iron lock on the door of the south transept bears panels embossed with the letters (R C P N (‘Robert Catton, Prior of Norwich’). Catton is thought to have provided four panels of stained glass for the east window of the parish church of St Margaret at his family manor of Catton.
The glass panels depict St John and St Agnes in commemoration of his parents, and two figures of Benedictine monks, one depicting St Cuthbert, the other apparently intended as a self-portrait; the glass was later removed to St Michael’s, Plumstead, about 20 miles north of Norwich, where it is preserved.
In spite of the internal state of the convent, during his priorate Prior Catton won significant favours from the governors of the church, not least from a royal administration that was increasingly involved in the affairs of major foundations. He secured dispensations to hold a number of benefices; from 1526 to 1528 he held the vicarage of St Mary in the Marsh, in Norwich Cathedral Close, where a now lost effigy dated 1528 was said to have stood before the east window. The church itself no longer exists but the walls of its Chancel still survive in the cellars of No 12 Lower Close. In 1519 Prior Catton received the privilege of the mitre.
This decade-long pattern of patronage and preferment culminated in 1531 in the Crown’s recommendation that Prior Catton should succeed Cardinal Wolsey as Abbot of the prestigious royal foundation of St Albans. It appears there was a delay between the promise of the appointment and its fulfilment, since Catton resigned the priorate of Norwich in November 1529 but was not confirmed as Abbot of St Albans until 16 March 1530. He was represented as having been freely elected by the Prior and convent, but in reality, the nomination was forced upon the monks.
During the vacancy that followed Wolsey’s fall, Henry VIII had sought to secure the abbey’s manor at More as accommodation for his estranged queen, Katherine of Aragon, during their divorce proceedings. The leaderless monks resisted, and at the same time expressed their own preference for their Prior, Andrew Ramridge, as Abbot. The King rejected their choice, and in a letter of January 1530 threatened unspecified penalties should they persist in their refusal to surrender More. Catton’s election was affected less than two months later, and on 5 September he conveyed More and other properties to the Crown. Three months later he received bowls, cups, goblets, and other plate as new year’s gifts from the king.
In the years that followed, Prior Catton cultivated his royal connections. In September 1533 he was among the clergy invited to officiate at the baptism of the Lady Elizabeth. In 1534 he presented a fulsome dedicatory prayer to Queen Anne:
‘lovynge lady dere … indowed with grace and vertu without pere’ in the abbey’s imprint of John Lydgate’s life of St Alban: Here begynnethe the glorious lyfe and passion of seint Albon prothomartyr of Englande, and also the lyfe and passion of saint Amphabel whiche converted saint Albon to the fayth of Christe (St Albans, 1534, STC 2nd edn, 256).
In October 1537 he was present at the ‘obsequies’ for Queen Jane. He was also welcome at Thomas Cromwell’s table, dining with him on one occasion at Norwich:
As the crown’s interventions in monastic affairs gathered pace in 1535, with first the Valor Survey and then the nationwide visitation organised by Cromwell, Catton’s personal ties to the court and to the vicegerent exacerbated tensions between himself and his brethren. Eighteen St Albans monks, led by Prior Ramridge, petitioned Sir Francis Bryan in November 1535, complaining of Catton’s maladministration. Bryan’s response is not recorded, and probably no action followed, since the monks made a further petition in April 1536, maintaining that ‘the monasterye is sorely damaged above 800 marks’ and requesting the appointment of an:
‘assistaunte and coadjutore without whome [Catton] might do notynge, neither destroy, nor waste nor brynge oure monasterye in dett nore doo any other unlawghfull act’.
Catton’s response was to seek the support of his patrons. He complained of his ‘uncourteous’ brethren in January 1536, while in the following October he appears to have sought release from his office and the support of a benefice. On 14 December 1537 John Husee reported St Albans as one of the monasteries that would ‘go down’, with the consent of its Abbot. But Catton’s persistent hope of consolatory preferment appears to have weakened his position, and by the turn of the year it was reported that the King wished to remove him. On 15 January 1538 the convent received confirmation of its right to elect a successor to Catton, ‘lately deprived’.
At this point Catton’s former convent of Norwich appears to have come to his aid, for although there is no record of his being granted a faculty to take the habit of a secular, by 20 April 1538 he had been presented to the vicarage of Bawburgh, Norfolk, a living in the gift of Norwich Priory; he was also granted a dispensation to absent himself for two years. Later, presumably at the dissolution of St Albans, Catton acquired the abbey living of All Saints, Campton, Bedfordshire. Despite his deprivation, moreover, he was named among the St Albans pensioners, receiving the substantial portion of £80 per annum.
The terms of his final bequests suggest that Catton passed his remaining years variously at Campton, Norwich, and St Albans. He died between 25 April 1552, when he added a codicil to the Will he had drafted on 26 October of the previous year, and 7 July 1552, when probate was granted. He had requested burial either at his church at Campton, or at St Albans, ‘where I was sometimes abbote’, but no location is recorded.
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