Free School Meals at Furness Abbey (Background)

Furness Abbey Cloister and Chapter House

Prior to the Dissolution, the sons of the tenants of Furness Abbey not only had free schooling at the abbey, they had free school meals too!

At the Dissolution in 1537, the tenants of Furness Abbey lost many of the rights and privileges they had enjoyed under the monks.  But then in 1582, John Brograve, the Attorney General for the Duchy of Lancaster took out a lease on the Furness Abbey estate, and promptly abolished all their remaining customary rights, claiming they were not rights at all, but had been provided by the abbots ‘merely of benevolence and devotion towards their neighbours, which at their pleasure they lawfully might have withdrawn’.  According to Brograve, neither King Henry, nor his successors, were obliged to make any recompense for the loss of these provisions – which apparently had included  weekly hand-outs of bread and ale, not to mention an annual gift of all the iron they needed for their implements from the abbey’s iron works.

The tenants got together and sued Brograve in the Duchy Court in 1583.  Amazingly, the court found in favour of the tenants against the Attorney General, and required Brograve to deliver up his lease to be cancelled.

During the case, however, one deponent (witness), John Kirson of Rampside, aged 60 (so he would have been 14 when the abbey was dissolved), reported on another privilege the tenants had held, namely not only free education but free school meals too for their sons.

Divers of the children of the sayd Tennantes had lib’tie to come to the scole in the said monasterie Where they were taught without any payment . And that this Deponent with diverse of the sones of the sayd Tenanntes, comynge to the same schole had meat & drinke for one meal a day in the sayd monasterie every day they came to the same Scole. 

Not only that, but if a son proved apt in learning, ‘he was chosen to be mooncke beffore anye other or els to serve some other offyce within the said monasterie.


TNA DL 4/25/13 Tenants of Furness vs Attorney General, 1583: Pleadings and Depositions. See transcription, Thomas West, The Antiquities of Furness (London 1774), Appendix VIII.

William D. Shannon, ‘Custom and competition for woodland resources in early-modern High and Low Furness, Lancashire’, chapter in James P. Bowen and Alex Brown (eds),  Custom and Commercialisation in English Rural Society, c.1350-c.1750: Revisiting Postan and Tawney, Studies in Regional and Local History no 14, University of Hertfordshire Press, (2016), 139-160


Photo: Furness Abbey, Cloister & Chapter House


Text and photo by Bill Shannon