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Ringmer, Thomas (d. 1311?), prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, no doubt took his name from, and may have been born in, Ringmer, Sussex. Nothing is known of his family or early life. He is first recorded in an undated list of professed Christ Church monks, in a context suggesting that he was admitted in the early 1260s. All that is known of his monastic career before he became prior is that by 1274 he was chaplain to Archbishop Robert Kilwardby, who was probably largely responsible for Ringmer's subsequent promotion. The archbishop of Canterbury was titular abbot of Christ Church, with the right to appoint certain of the monastery's senior office-holders (obedientiaries), and this frequently led to disputes with the monks. Moreover Kilwardby (1273–8) was a Dominican, a member of an order of mendicants founded only about 1220, which must have made it difficult for a Benedictine community to accept him as its superior. Even though Ringmer was selected from among their own ranks, the monks probably resented having the archbishop's choice of prior thrust upon them, the more so because Kilwardby had already made other appointments of which they disapproved.

Ringmer was installed as prior on 19 September 1274, and quickly became unpopular with the monks. Determined to improve the priory's discipline which he found to be lax, he proved to be a strict and litigious prior who involved his community in a succession of tiresome and expensive lawsuits. A dispute with Leeds Priory was resolved in 1278, but when his successor took up office Ringmer was found to have embroiled Christ Church in ‘pleas and disputes’ in various courts with the king, the archbishop, the bishop of Salisbury, the archdeacon of Canterbury, St Augustine's Abbey at Canterbury, Dover Priory, the townsfolk of Sandwich, and at least ten individuals. At a personal level, his relations with the archbishops during his period of office appear to have been good. Kilwardby had left for Italy after becoming a cardinal in 1279, to be succeeded as archbishop by the Franciscan John Pecham (1279–92), who confirmed Ringmer in office. In 1279 Pecham made him his proctor at convocation, and in the same year also granted him absolution from failing to pay the tenth levied on clerical incomes to finance a new crusade. Early in 1281 Ringmer received a letter from Pecham announcing that he hoped to spend Easter with him, and in February 1282 Ringmer was at Lambeth Palace with the archbishop to witness a mandate for an excommunication.

In 1279 and again in 1281 Pecham conducted visitations of the priory. Their findings revealed Ringmer's financial incompetence, and the extent to which this lay at the heart of many of the priory's misfortunes—by 1285 Christ Church's debts amounted to £4924 18s. 4d. But alongside this went a series of disputes between prior and monks which seriously eroded the former's authority. Pecham's letters show that the control of the priory's manors was a recurrent issue, with Ringmer and the senior monks wishing to have them administered by secular bailiffs, and their revenues accounted for to the priory's treasury, while a larger party among the monks allegedly wanted to reserve them for their own exploitation and benefit. In June 1282 the prior excommunicated no fewer than thirteen monks for misconduct and stirring up dissension and by May 1283 the dispute had given rise to litigation at Rome. Pecham wrote to Cardinal Matthew Orsini describing how two of the monks were making trouble for the prior, whom he commended as ‘a good and honest man, a strong disciplinarian, supportive of the community’ (Martin, 2.242), and he sent his proctor Robert of Selsey to act on Ringmer's behalf.

Pecham, who seems to have supported Ringmer throughout, clearly aimed to impose moral regeneration upon his cathedral monks and to demonstrate his spiritual authority. But although his ‘iconoclastic reforming zeal’ (Dobson, 81) led to the introduction of numerous proposals for reform at Christ Church, many of them proved abortive, while his attempts to act as a neutral arbiter and to reconcile the community's feuds and factions enjoyed little success. However, the disputatious conduct of the monks in the face of the over-austere disciplinary activity of their prior did bring about one important change in the priory's administrative organization, when Pecham reasserted the centralization of the monastery's finances by establishing an auditing committee of senior monks, headed by a treasurer, who were to receive and disburse the revenues. This system was elaborated on 9 November 1281, when a council of six senior monks, the scaccarium (exchequer), was set up—significantly, it was to advise the prior and control him in all his actions. These powers were more clearly defined in 1282, and the system was consolidated by Ringmer's successor, Henry Eastry.

Ringmer's problems were not limited to those arising from within the convent. There were disputes with St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, and other religious houses, while throughout his priorate he came under constant financial pressure from both king and pope. The crusading tenths of the 1270s fell heavily upon English monasteries, Christ Church among them, despite their attempts to gain exemption. No less costly was Edward I's preoccupation between 1276 and 1284 with asserting his sovereignty over Wales, which again weighed heavily upon religious houses. In Canterbury a fierce quarrel broke out (c.1278) between the townsfolk and the monks of Christ Church over the assessment of taxation payable to the king for his Welsh campaign. The city strongly resented the priory's expectation that the city would meet this requirement alone and threatened the monks with the direst reprisals if they failed to pay their share. These included threats to withdraw from occupancy of all houses owned by the priory; to refuse supplies of provisions to the monastery; effectively to ‘besiege’ the monastic precincts by preventing ingress or egress, and possibly even to loot the shrine of St Thomas. None of these threats was carried out, however, thanks to the mediation of the archbishop. However, archbishops themselves were not entirely free from blame for the priory's indebtedness. In April 1280, Pecham not only admitted his inability to repay one loan of £200 to the priory but requested the loan of £200 more.

Eventually Ringmer found the burdens of his office intolerable, and on 17 March 1285 he resigned as prior. About the end of 1284 the priory had been taken into the king's hands for an unspecified trespass. It was returned to the monks, following Pecham's intervention, in January 1285, but the remission seems to have been only temporary, and to have been felt as such, for following Ringmer's resignation the royal escheator once more seized the priory for the king, intending to take a whole year's revenue, valued at 3000 marks, as punishment for the still-undefined offence. But the sub-prior and convent protested, and the king eventually withdrew his claim, on 25 July 1285 issuing a pardon to the new prior, Henry Eastry, and the convent.

Meanwhile Ringmer had taken refuge at Beaulieu Abbey, Hampshire, a Cistercian foundation. He had failed to obtain the archbishop's permission for his departure, and Pecham, displeased, in March 1286 asked the abbot of Beaulieu to send Ringmer back. Pecham held a prejudice against the Cistercians and regarded Ringmer's departure as apostasy. Instead the former prior moved on again, having won the powerful protection of two of Edward I's friends, and by July 1289 he was living as a hermit in Brookwood in Windsor Forest. Prior Eastry sent two Christ Church monks to enquire whether he was ‘suitably and honourably’ accommodated (CUL, MS Ee.5.31 fol. 34v). They ate with him and parted with the kiss of peace, but expressed in their report to Eastry their feelings of relief that Ringmer had finally left: ‘that the snare has been broken and we are delivered’ (Psalm 124: 7; Douie, 186). However, it was not until 1294 that a papal dispensation was officially received for Ringmer to live as a hermit. In April 1300 Archbishop Winchelsey asked Eastry about Ringmer, concerning the payment of his pension and the possibility of his reconciliation with the chapter. The committee of seniors at Christ Church decided to readmit Ringmer to the community, but on the advice of other members of the chapter Eastry decided that he should be made a non-resident pensioner of the priory for the rest of his life. Ringmer seems to have returned to the Benedictine order, for he died at Chertsey Abbey on 11 May, probably in 1311, though his obit does not record the year of his death or the place of his burial. His body was possibly returned to Christ Church in accordance with Benedictine custom.

Ringmer was not the only thirteenth-century prior of Christ Church to find himself in difficulties. In 1238 Prior Chetham had been forced out of office by Archbishop Edmund of Abingdon following a scandal over a privilege forged by some of the monks, and even Henry Eastry sometimes found it hard to maintain discipline. But Ringmer's difficulties seem also to have arisen from a severe and inflexible temperament, unmitigated by any worldly wisdom or administrative flair. At one point in the dispute between Christ Church and its prior Pecham managed to devise an ordinance which the monks were willing to accept, only for Ringmer to object to the restrictions it placed upon him. Prior Eastry's catalogue of Christ Church books lists eleven volumes under Ringmer's name, most of multiple contents—nearly all of them works of science, especially medicine. This raises the possibility that he was better suited to a life of study and contemplation than to a position which made him ‘excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or over-suspicious’—all things which St Benedict said that the leader of a monastery ‘must not be’ (Fry, 63).

Meriel Connor

Sources  

R. B. Dobson, ‘The monks of Canterbury in the later middle ages’, A history of Canterbury Cathedral, ed. P. Collinson, N. Ramsay, and M. Sparks (1995), 69–153 · R. A. L. Smith, Canterbury Cathedral priory: a study in monastic administration, 1st edn, 1943 (1969) · D. L. Douie, Archbishop Pecham (1952) · C. Woodruff and W. W. Danks, Memorials of the cathedral and priory of Christ in Canterbury (1912) · The historical works of Gervase of Canterbury, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 73 (1879–80) · I. J. Churchill, Canterbury administration: the administrative machinery of the archbishopric of Canterbury, 2 vols. (1933) · Registrum epistolarum fratris Johannis Peckham, archiepiscopi Cantuariensis, ed. C. T. Martin, 3 vols., Rolls Series, 77 (1882–5) · M. Prestwich, Edward I (1988) · W. E. Lunt, Financial relations of the papacy with England to 1327 (1939) · T. Fry, ed., The rule of St Benedict in England (1981) · M. R. James, The ancient libraries of Canterbury and Dover (1903) · J. Greatrex, Biographical register of the English cathedral priories of the province of Canterbury, c.1066 to 1540 (1997), 269–70

Archives  

BL, Cotton MS Galba E.iv, fols. 108v–109r; Arundel MS 68 fol. 27 · Canterbury Cathedral, archives, DCc Literary MS D12, fol. 2v; DCc-ChAnt/C/1274, memorandum; DCc-ChAnt/C/87, pardon