If you want a bit of peace an tranquillity amongst the bustle of Torquay, Torre Abbey is that place. A House of God, a Georgian house, a Victorian estate and now a museum, art gallery and gardens.
It wasn’t always like that.
The medieval Abbey was a very rich and powerful place and so it attracted the attention of those with less spiritual motives. Here was an institution with extensive resources and potential patronage opportunities. It could dispense benefices, employ people and grant leases on lands and tithes.
Torre Abbey was big business, so who was in charge mattered. And disputes over control could lead to kidnap and murder.
In 1345 Abbot Simon de Plympton died and the canons had to appoint a new head. Richard de Cotelford was elected but the father-abbot refused to confirm the election. Instead he appointed John Gras. Although Richard’s family were landholders in South Brent, John Gras was better connected. This was a common reason for the overturning of elections by outside interests.
John Gras ruled for three and a half years, dying in early 1349, possibly a victim of the Black Death that ravaged the South West. His successor, John de Berkadone, was confirmed in May 1349.
However, Richard de Cotelford had always complained that he had been cheated out of his rightful position. He continued to press his claim and in November 1349 won his case, receiving confirmation from the exiled bishop of Porto.
Two years later in August 1351, Richard returned to England from Avignon, going first to Westminster to receive royal support. He then journeyed to Torre, expecting when he arrived to be welcomed by the appreciative abbots and local landowners. To support his legitimate claim, he was accompanied by Roger de Queryngdon, the bearer of the King’s protection. That was the idea, anyway.
However, the return of Richard hadn’t gone down well with those who had installed John de Berkadone a couple of years earlier and who had presumably done quite well out of the appointment.
On 6 November 1351 it was recorded that “a large confederacy of disturbers of the peace, men at arms, and others purpose to come to the abbey and the granges, manors, and other places annexed to the abbey and consume and waste the goods and things therein.‟
Two weeks later, on 20 November, a commission was appointed to investigate this group of men who “broke by night his close, church and treasury at Torre Moun, co. Devon, carried away his goods and assaulted his men and servants, whereby he lost their service for a great time.”
It named a number of those involved in this attack who, it was disclosed, came from Totnes, West Devon, Dartington, Ashburton, and Dartmouth, alongside “many others‟.
Around this time Richard and Roger de Queryngdon were kidnapped and murdered.
It looks like the objective was to remove Richard from his leadership of the Abbey.
The attackers came from the lower gentry and townsmen of South Devon and it seems most likely that the assassins were sent on their violent mission by Geoffrey Gras. Geoffrey was the kinsman of the deceased abbot John Gras whose election Richard had overturned. John de Berkadone was then reinstated as abbot.
Effectively, Geoffrey Gras had kidnapped and killed Richard de Cotelford, along with the King’s messenger, to ensure his continued influence at Torre Abbey.
An attack on any Christian abbey was, of course, a serious breach of the peace. The assassination of a senior member of the clergy, disrespect to the King’s protection, and the kidnapping and murder of his messenger were also great offences.
However, even though the gang were named in the commission, they appear not to have suffered any punishment and Geoffrey Gras was pardoned.
Gras and his family remained closely connected to the Abbey even after he had kidnapped and slain their elected leader. The white-cassocked canons seem to be willing to let the attack be forgotten. Or perhaps they just didn’t have any choice in the matter.
‘Torquay: A Social History’ by local author Kevin Dixon is available for £10 from Artizan Gallery, Lucius Street, Torquay, or: