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Shirburn, John (1335/6–1408), abbot of Selby, was probably born in Selby, Yorkshire, most likely of relatively humble origins. At the Scrope and Grosvenor hearings in 1386 he testified that he was then fifty years old. Evidence for his parentage and education is lacking, but it may be significant that the abbey had implemented the 1336 educational reforms of Benedict XII, and that Shirburn's successor as abbot, William Pygot, is recorded in the bursar's roll of 1398–9 as being maintained at Oxford and as graduating as a bachelor of canon law in the same year.

Shirburn was elected abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Selby early in 1369. Allegations of electoral irregularities were dismissed by the archbishop of York, and thereafter Shirburn's long abbacy was notably free from scandal, though this may be because the kind of evidence for it—which archiepiscopal visitations had uncovered in earlier abbacies—is wanting from the late fourteenth century. More certainly, stability was a prominent feature of the community under Shirburn's rule. In 1362 there were twenty-seven monks and novices; in 1403–4, it consisted of twenty-seven monks and five novices, and five of the monks as well as their abbot had already had monastic careers lasting forty years, five more between twenty and thirty years. At a time when the general population was sharply declining, the Selby community remained numerically steady.

The successful medieval abbot required a range of diverse skills, blending spiritual guidance with administrative talent and tenacity in defending the abbey's possessions. Despite declining income, Shirburn embarked on a programme of modernizing the monastic buildings. The 1398–9 bursars' roll records the complete rebuilding of the cloister under the supervision of the master mason, William Suthwell. In total more than £68 was spent on these works in this year, and essential maintenance elsewhere in the abbey buildings took a further £14 15s. 9d. The bursars were able to support their expenditures only by raising loans and selling corrodies and pensions. In this it was like many contemporary houses, whose attempts to hold creditors at bay by obtaining royal protections prompted protests in the parliaments of 1401, 1402, and 1416. By 1410 the abbey claimed to have debts of £1040 and to be burdened with annuities, corrodies, fees and other such payments totalling £200 per annum. Since the abbey's yearly income for all purposes was about £800, Shirburn bequeathed his successor a difficult financial situation, which took decades to turn around. Debts doubled during his reign, and the money needing to be set aside for fees and pensions similarly rose very sharply from the £52 10s. recorded in 1372.

There is evidence that relations between the abbey and its creditors remained good, however. In 1406 Alan Hamerton, mercer of York, left Brother Peter Rouclif 100s. in his will, and in 1432 Alan's wife Isabella bequeathed the same monk her best gold ring and a ‘Veronica’ of Rome (an image of Christ), together with 100s. which were to be divided among the abbot and convent in return for prayers for her soul. The Hamertons had purchased a corrody and pension from Selby in 1399 while Brother Peter was bursar, and it is recorded that the yearly pension of £6 was paid in the year of Isabella's death. Seemingly they had found at Selby an opportunity to combine care for their souls with a sound financial investment.

John Shirburn's rule at Selby was set in a context of turbulence and dramatic change in society and politics. Surviving evidence allows little opportunity to see him interacting with other members of the contemporary ruling classes, and provides only occasional glimpses into the political crises that were a feature of Richard II's reign. If he had wanted to involve himself in the brutal politics of the reign, Shirburn had the opportunity: Selby was not a particularly wealthy or powerful lord, but its abbot was one of the twenty-six heads of monastic houses to be regularly summoned to the English parliament. In practice Shirburn avoided attending parliament: he is known to have attended only two, in 1382 and 1383, acting as a trier of petitions at both.

Thereafter Shirburn was represented in parliament by proctors, one of whom was frequently Thomas Haxey, an important—and in 1397 controversial—royal clerk with widespread connections in the king's administration and the county networks of Yorkshire and the north midlands. During the political crisis of 1399 Shirburn remained in regular contact with Haxey by letter and personal emissary, but his direct involvement in the events leading up to Richard II's deposition was limited to receiving a letter in July from the recently landed Henry Bolingbroke requesting a loan. The messenger received a handsome gift for his trouble, but whether Abbot John chose to give financial support to the campaign that ended in usurpation is not revealed by the abbey records. Discretion may have dictated that evidence of giving aid to rebellion should not appear there.

In the bursars' accounts Shirburn's lifestyle is reminiscent of that of the unascetic monk described by Geoffrey Chaucer: he
leet olde thynges pace,
And heeld after the newe world the space.
(Chaucer, 19)
Like the fictional monk he maintained hunting dogs, and his table included the luxury food of upper-class feasts like swan, herons, and deer, often the gifts of local landholders; he purchased pipes of wine at Hull and York; his clothing was lined with fur, and he maintained a manor house at Rawcliffe, near York, for recreation. Gifts to visiting minstrels and other entertainers indicate that the abbey was on the touring schedules of the entertainers who served the local nobles and gentry. Nonetheless, Selby was still also able to attract the patronage needed to fund fashionable religious services. In 1398 Walter Skirlawe, bishop of Durham, granted property to establish a chantry for a priest–monk to celebrate a daily mass and a yearly obit in the abbey church, while Henry Snaith, a royal clerk, established a chantry at Selby's cell of Snaith during Shirburn's abbacy.

Shirburn appears to have cultivated close relations with local families who could be of assistance in legal pleas and in the protection of his abbey's property. Moreover, as the Scrope and Grosvenor case showed, when disputes arose houses like Selby were repositories of evidence of families' history and coats of arms. They remained deeply integrated into their local society, despite occasional disturbing agitations in parliament for their dispossession. Against this background, Abbot John Shirburn remained active as a leading ecclesiastic in the northern province into old age. He attended the convocation of the clergy at York in 1397–8, and as late as 1404 he was appointed a clerical tax collector in the north. He died on 3 February 1408 and was buried in the abbey church. Although he left a burden of debt, he had steered the community and its possessions safely through difficult times for nearly forty years.

John H. Tillotson

Sources  

J. D. Hass, Medieval Selby: a new study of the abbey and town, 1069–1408, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper, 4 (2006) · J. H. Tillotson, ed., Monastery and society in the late middle ages: selected account rolls from Selby Abbey (1988) · G. S. Haslop, ‘The creation of Brother John Sherburn as Abbot of Selby’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 42 (1967), 25–30 · G. S. Haslop, ‘The abbot of Selby's financial statement for the year ending Michaelmas 1338’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 44 (1972), 159–69 · A. K. McHardy, ‘Haxey's case, 1397: the petition and its presenter reconsidered’, The age of Richard II, ed. J. L. Gillespie (1997), 93–114 · R. B. Dobson, Selby Abbey and town (1969) · R. B. Dobson, Durham Priory, 1400–1450, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 3rd ser., 6 (1973) · N. H. Nicolas, ed., The Scrope and Grosvenor controversy, 2 vols. (privately printed, London, 1832) · D. Knowles [M. C. Knowles], The religious orders in England, 2 (1955) · RotP · [J. Raine and J. Raine], eds., Testamenta Eboracensia, 1–4, SurtS, 4, 30, 45, 53 (1836–69), vols. 1–2 · The complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd edn (1957)

Archives  

BL, parts of registers of the time of John Shirburn, Cotton MS Vitellius E.xvi, fols. 97–162; Cotton MS Cleopatra D.iii, fols. 184–202 · Borth. Inst., archiepiscopal registers · U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., Selby Abbey account rolls in Londesborough estate papers, DDLO/20 [and on permanent loan from Westminster Diocesan Archives at DWE]