A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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Only one monastic house was founded in Shropshire before the Norman Conquest and this, the double monastery of Wenlock, had abandoned regular observance and become a purely collegiate establishment before the 11th century. By the time of Edward the Confessor the wealth of the Church, which was considerable, went to the support of portionary churches of various kinds. Domesday Book shows that, in addition to Wenlock, there were a number of churches holding property before the Conquest: in Shrewsbury itself St. Chad's, which was an episcopal foundation, and St. Alkmund's, St. Mary's, and the smaller church of St. Julian, which were all royal. Morville and Bromfield were 'minster' churches on royal manors, with a group of clergy serving great parishes roughly coextensive with hundreds. The status of the minster clergy, though they were called canonici, is not certain: the houses of the canons of St. Chad's and St. Alkmund's are mentioned but one at least of the canons of Bromfield was a nonresident pluralist. A reference to a dean at St. Alkmund's is post-Conquest but may imply some form of collegiate organization and there is some evidence at Bromfield and Morville of separate prebends, but the Domesday record is incomplete. There are only passing mentions of churches on the royal hundredal manors of Alberbury, Chirbury, and Maesbury (Oswestry), all of which are known to have been wealthy portionary churches later. The four clerks of Wroxeter provide the only evidence for the rectorial portions there. A number of churches of private foundation occur, such as St. Peter's, Shrewsbury, 'where there was a parish of the city'; many priests and some churches are listed as parts of the manorial adjuncts of an estate. Often only the post-Conquest holder of a church is named, but clearly many of these churches were well endowed with several hides of land or more than one manor, particularly where they stood on the estates of the Crown or the earls of Mercia.
The Norman Conquest produced a rapid redistribution of church lands. The grant of the county to Roger of Montgomery in 1071 placed in his hands all the royal and comital estates and dues, as well as the confiscated estates of many Saxon lords. Only in the south-west, where a number of Norman lords were already established, was his influence excluded. His status was palatine and his influence gives a unity to the first stage of monastic foundation. The grant of some church lands to the clerks of his household was a temporary measure only, limited to their lifetime, and the two churches that he founded to serve his castles of Shrewsbury and Quatford were modestly endowed. He made use of the wealth of the Saxon church to provide for two new monastic foundations. Wenlock, refounded as a Cluniac priory, received all the lands that had still belonged to the Saxon minster in the time of King Edward, or compensation for them. To Shrewsbury went all the earl's great demesne churches and two-thirds of the tithes of his demesne lands elsewhere. His vassals contributed mostly to these two monasteries and only occasionally to family monasteries in other places.
There were no more major foundations until new families had begun to establish themselves in Shropshire after the political ruin of Earl Roger's descendants in 1102. Henry I appointed no new earl in Shropshire: Alan fitz Flaald, one of his oldest adherents, received grants that made his descendants, the FitzAlans, the greatest lay lords in Shropshire, while Richard of Belmeis (I), who acted as viceroy in Shropshire after 1102 and had a life interest in a number of prebendal estates, provided for his kinsmen in the region. Both families founded religious houses. Haughmond, the FitzAlan family monastery, was the first house of Augustinian canons to be established in Shropshire. Richard of Belmeis (II) secured the prebends of St. Alkmund's for the house of Augustinian canons of the order of Arrouaise at Lilleshall, founded by his brother Philip of Belmeis. Both families contributed to the Bishop of Chester's Savigniac (later Cistercian) abbey at Buildwas, and a small Augustinian priory was founded at Wombridge by William of Hadley, vassal of William FitzAlan. The single Shropshire nunnery, in Brewood Forest, may have been an episcopal foundation.
All these houses stood within a few miles of Watling Street, in wooded regions that were just being opened up for cultivation, along the main arteries of communication. They helped to meet some of the needs arising from the transformation of the Saxon church. The old minsters had served scattered chapels in huge parishes; they had also provided hospitality along the main routes and in every centre of government. The first post-Conquest monastic houses did neither in the churches they absorbed; one priest might replace the former community. At this date the grant of a church to a monastery usually meant the advowson and the extensive lands of the church. It did not usually in practice carry the great tithes and, after canon law had become systematized in the second quarter of the 12th century, appropriations had to be sanctioned by the bishop. Some very early appropriations, however, such as that of Morville church by Shrewsbury Abbey, may merely have given formal legality to conditions already existing. Any lord might grant two-thirds of his demesne tithes away from a parish church to a religious house. Possibly the new orders of regular canons were favoured at this time in the hope that the canons would serve some of the churches in person; in practice they very rarely did so. Parochial needs had to be met by the foundation of new chapels, their endowment with a new glebe, and the appointment of local chaplains. The growth of new parishes in Shropshire at this time was thus to some extent a by-product of the monastic movement. The monasteries could, however, provide hospitality more directly. Both the abbey of Buildwas and Shrewsbury's dependent cell at Morville were expressly founded with an obligation to provide hospitality. There was probably a similar obligation at Bromfield, where a dependent cell of Gloucester Abbey replaced the older collegiate establishment in the early years of Henry II.
Two later priories almost on the frontiers of Wales owed their foundation to emergent baronial families in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The fourth Shropshire house of Augustinian canons was founded at Snead by Robert de Boullers, lord of Montgomery, and moved shortly afterwards to Chirbury. The Fitz Warin priory at Alberbury, first offered to Lilleshall, finally became a dependency of the abbey of Grandmont in Limousin. Both Chirbury and Alberbury were old minsters but by the 13th century the grant of a church carried only the advowson and the churches became useful sources of wealth only when the two small priories subsequently secured the appropriation of the tithes.
There were no major foundations in north Shropshire. The great churches there were given to Shrewsbury at an early date, while later the FitzAlans and their greatest vassals, the Lestranges of Knockin, were dominant in north-western Shropshire and their new gifts were directed towards Haughmond. In north-eastern Shropshire, however, some property was acquired by the Cheshire abbey of Combermere. Religious houses in other counties had few dependent cells on their Shropshire estates; Wigmore established one at Ratlinghope but an attempt by Combermere to settle monks at Church Preen was unsuccessful.
None of the Shropshire religious houses was large or of more than local importance, though Haughmond and Lilleshall were among the few houses of Augustinian canons to have an abbot at their head and the abbot of Shrewsbury continued to attend Parliaments until the Dissolution. Their position on the marches of Wales brought them into some political prominence during the Welsh wars of the 13th and early 14th centuries and again during the troubles of Richard II's reign; it also exposed some of them and their lands to intermittent raids and the ravages of war.
Most of the records of internal administration have been scattered and lost. Cartularies survive for Shrewsbury, Haughmond, Lilleshall, Wombridge, and Wenlock and substantial numbers of original charters for Alberbury, Chirbury, and Lilleshall. Two treasurer's rolls from Lilleshall are all that remain from the central financial records of any of the houses. Consequently, the Taxatio of 1291, with all its defects, omissions, and conventional assessments, is the only indication of the income of most of the Shropshire houses before the 16th century. For the decades just before the Dissolution the sources are better; since most of the monastic revenues came by then from rents, the figures given in the Valor Ecclesiasticus are reasonably accurate and the first minsters' accounts are full and detailed. There are also visitation records for houses in Lichfield diocese, 1518-24.
Most of the larger houses showed enough financial resilience for orderly life to be possible. The secularization and whittling down of the older ecclesiastical estates, far advanced at the Norman conquest, had been arrested in the 12th century by the foundation of new monasteries. When gifts of demesne tithes had been converted into fixed pensions which had become insignificant in the 13th century, tithe wealth was tapped once more through the appropriation of churches. Since advancing cultivation in parts of Shropshire, even in the 14th and 15th centuries, continued to bring in fresh tithes, and canon law to some extent checked long-term farming, tithes remained an important and flexible item in the revenue of all the Shropshire houses except the Cistercian abbey of Buildwas. Leases of tithes were rarely for more than a few years and some tithes were collected in kind. In 1291 rents everywhere made up a high proportion of income from temporalities, but demesne farming was on a significant scale. The houses with lay brethren (Buildwas, Haughmond, Lilleshall, Alberbury, and possibly Wombridge) all had at first an expanding grange economy but when the recruitment of lay brethren declined later they faced problems of adaptation. Such expedients as the farming of a distant grange jointly to a canon of Lilleshall and a lay shepherd illustrate the difficulties. Shrewsbury, Wenlock, and Bromfield depended on a combination of customary and paid labour on their demesnes from the time they began to cultivate them directly. All, however, moved away from direct cultivation to rents in the 14th and 15th centuries. Their prosperity depended in part on the system adopted; Haughmond, Shrewsbury, and Wenlock, with their many leases of small properties for short periods and at will, were better placed to meet both the rising prices of the 16th century and the demands of powerful neighbours for farms than was Buildwas, which leased most of its granges for terms of up to 99 years from the late 15th century. The sources of income everywhere continued to be varied; pastoral farming was important, the sheep of Buildwas, Haughmond, Lilleshall, and Shrewsbury and the cattle of Lilleshall remaining valuable after the arable demesnes had declined. Seignorial rights, including heriots and terciars, were a useful element in the economy of Wenlock and Bromfield; everywhere mills made up a small but useful percentage of the rents. Shrewsbury and Wenlock fostered new towns at Baschurch and Madeley. There was also some industrial activity, exemplified by the fulling mills of Haughmond, Shrewsbury, and Lilleshall, the coal mines and iron forges of Wenlock, Wombridge, and Buildwas, and the tanneries of Lilleshall.
In medium-sized monasteries like the Shropshire houses, which were without clear departmentalization and a stable financial system, both discipline and prosperity were liable to fluctuate according to the ability of the monastic superior, but certain general trends are apparent. Haughmond and the small priory of Wombridge had relatively sound finances. Lilleshall, the only house with considerable property outside Shropshire, suffered from the unwieldiness of its estates and was constantly on the verge of debt. Wenlock, an alien house nearly ruined by royal exactions in the 14th century, recovered after its denization. Shrewsbury Abbey increased the value of its estates so successfully that the dilapidated state of some of the buildings in the 16th century must have been due to neglect and mismanagement. Buildwas, moderately prosperous up to the late 14th century, thereafter became less able to meet economic change. Only the small houses of Alberbury and Chirbury, under-endowed from their foundation and on the Welsh border, were so crippled by poverty and disorder that religious life was seriously endangered. Of the small dependent cells, Preen, Morville, and Ratlinghope were never more than centres for estate administration, and Bromfield appears to have declined to a similar position in the later Middle Ages.
There is little indication of intellectual activity by Shropshire monks but this may possibly be due to loss of sources: the remarkable collection of books surviving from the library of Buildwas is a reminder of the intellectual resources that might be available in even a small, moderately endowed house. In the later Middle Ages Shrewsbury regularly sent monks to Oxford and canons of Haughmond were found there more intermittently but, apart from one or two Latin saints' lives and collections of miracles written in the monasteries, surviving literary productions of Shropshire monks are limited to devotional works in the vernacular. This is characteristic of their place in 15th-century society; they served to focus lay piety through fraternities and new chantries and, in one case, by taking over the administration of a hospital. Nevertheless there was no general movement against their suppression. After the Dissolution Shrewsbury corporation petitioned unsuccessfully for the preservation of the abbey buildings in order to entertain important visitors and both Shrewsbury and Wenlock were proposed without effect as bishops' seats. In the end the only monastic buildings that continued to serve a religious purpose were the parish churches at Shrewsbury, Bromfield, Chirbury, Morville, and elsewhere, which had been engulfed in the early medieval movement of monastic endowment.
The military orders were represented in Shropshire by the Hospitallers of Halston and the Templar preceptory of Lydley in Cardington, both of which were founded in the mid 12th century. The Hospitaller preceptory of Dinmore (Herefs.) also owned estates in the south of the county. In the later 13th century Halston became the administrative centre for Hospitaller estates in North Wales. When Lydley was suppressed shortly afterwards, its estates passed, not to the Hospitallers, but to the earls of Arundel.
The four great orders of friars all had houses in the county; the Dominicans in Shrewsbury, the Franciscans in Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth, the Austin Friars in Shrewsbury, Ludlow, and Woodhouse near Cleobury Mortimer, and the Carmelites in Ludlow. They attracted endowments from rising urban families as well as from the country gentry and their popularity continued until the Dissolution, when there was a strong local movement for the continuance of some of them.
Although a handful of 'minster' churches survived the redistribution of church lands after the Conquest there were only three fully collegiate churches in Shropshire by the mid 12th century. St. Chad and St. Mary, Shrewsbury, were pre-Conquest foundations, the first under episcopal and the second under royal patronage, though there are indications that St. Chad may have been refounded in the early 12th century. St. Mary Magdalen, Bridgnorth, was a newcomer, for it was a royal free chapel replacing the college founded in 1086 by Earl Roger to endow his clerks and to grace his new town of Quatford. It was and remained the best endowed of the three churches, for St. Chad and St. Mary had lost much of their original endowments by the time of Domesday. Although their canons were nearly all non-resident, the vicars choral of these three churches and other subordinate clergy helped to satisfy local needs for obits and chantry services.
Three new collegiate churches were founded in the early 15th century. Battlefield was founded explicitly for the souls of those slain in the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) and similar motives may have prompted Isabel Pembridge, founder of Tong College, and Thomas Draper of Newport, once a member of the household of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. All three were administered in accordance with detailed statutes, those of Battlefield being drawn up by its first master nearly forty years after its foundation, and there is no indication that these were seriously contravened.
That remarkable product of medieval urban piety, the Ludlow Palmers' Guild, finds a place below since it maintained a college of chantry priests to intercede for its members. The guild's large local estate, its connexions with town government, and its contribution to the parish church make it an institution of paramount importance in the medieval history of Ludlow borough. It can also claim a wider significance since, from at least the early 15th century, it was drawing its members from all parts of southern England and Wales.
The eight medieval hospitals treated below were all founded in the 12th or early 13th centuries. Their founders are in some cases unknown but that at Oswestry was founded by a Bishop of St. Asaph, while Shrewsbury Abbey and the church of St. Chad respectively may have played a part in the foundation of Shrewsbury St. Giles and Shrewsbury St. John. The founder of Bridgnorth St. John was a local magnate, Ralph Lestrange of Alveley, but Bridgnorth St. James and Ludlow St. John were founded by burgesses of those towns. Four of these hospitals have left no record of their existence, except as chapels, after the 13th century, and none of those remaining continued to fulfil its original purpose in the later Middle Ages. The two most notable hospitals, those of St. John at Bridgnorth and Ludlow, were transformed in the 14th century into small colleges of chantry priests. The leper hospitals of St. Giles at Ludford and Shrewsbury have survived in name until the present day but both were refounded in the 16th century. In addition to these there were a number of other hospitals of which very little is known. A hospital at Meole Brace, near Shrewsbury, was in existence in the 1270s; (fn. 1) at Bridgnorth a lazar house west of the town towards Oldbury, was referred to from the mid 13th century as the 'old spittle' to distinguish it from the later hospitals of St. James and St. John; (fn. 2) the hospital of St. Giles, Newport, recorded in 1337, (fn. 3) stood south of the town on the road to Chetwynd Aston; (fn. 4) St. John's Hospital, Much Wenlock, recorded in 1267 and 1275, (fn. 5) is supposed to have stood on the site of the Corn Exchange in High Street (formerly Spittle Street); (fn. 6) a hospital at Nesscliff presumably ceased to exist after it had been granted to Aconbury Priory in the mid 13th century. (fn. 7)
Included below are accounts of four medieval almshouses. All survived the Reformation and three were still in existence in 1969. Although all of them were founded by individuals the two Shrewsbury almshouses soon afterwards came under the control of local craft guilds and the government of Hosier's Almshouses, Ludlow, was entrusted by its founder to the Palmers' Guild; Newport College was dissolved before it could exercise similar oversight of the Newport Town Almshouses. Hosier's Almshouses apart, there is no indication that inmates lived in accordance with a rule, other than the normal obligation to pray for the benefactors.
There is evidence for the existence of at least four other late medieval almshouses. One was built at Ellesmere by the lady of the manor in 1424 (fn. 8) and contained nine almspeople in 1429. (fn. 9) Each of them received 1d. a day and they were provided with shoes, cloth, and fuel, (fn. 10) but the almshouse was no longer maintained by the lord of the manor in the 1450s. (fn. 11) The Borough Almshouses at Bridgnorth were in existence by 1493 (fn. 12) and four almshouses had been established at Much Wenlock by 1485. (fn. 13) Almshouses of Holy Cross in Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, had been founded before the Dissolution. (fn. 14)
The only Shropshire hermitages known to have achieved some degree of permanence were those of Spellcross in Shrewsbury, Athelardston near Bridgnorth, and the Wrekin. The first, which stood near the road from Shrewsbury to Meole Brace, (fn. 15) apparently existed in the early 13th century. (fn. 16) A chapel of St. Mary Magdalen had been built there by 1356, when land nearby was given to the hermit to endow a daily chantry service. (fn. 17) Reference is made to a hermit of Spellcross between 1381 and 1526. (fn. 18) and the site was granted by the Crown to two traffickers in concealed lands in 1571. (fn. 19) The hermitage of Athelardston, cut in the rock near the road from Bridgnorth to Worfield, still survives (fn. 20) and is thought to take its name from a brother of King Athelstan. (fn. 21) Presumably because it stood in the royal forest of Morfe the Crown exercised patronage over this hermitage during the 14th century (fn. 22) and in the early 15th century it may have been occupied for a time by the former Dominican friar John Grace. (fn. 23) The hermit of the Wrekin also lived within a royal forest. In 1267 he was provided by the Crown with an allowance of six quarters of corn from Pendlestone mills, Bridgnorth, commuted in 1270 to 2 marks a year, (fn. 24) and there are later references to him in 1355 (fn. 25) and 1500. (fn. 26)
In Shrewsbury there were also hermitages at Cadogan's Cross (1355) and St. Catherine's, Coton (1408), (fn. 27) and recluses at the Dominican Friary (1415), (fn. 28) Holy Cross Church (1376), (fn. 29) St. Chad's (1355), (fn. 30) St. George's (1310), (fn. 31) St. Mary's (1272), (fn. 32) and St. Romuald's (1315). (fn. 33) Elsewhere hermits are recorded at Albrighton near Shifnal (1285), (fn. 34) Langley in Ruckley and Langley (1179), (fn. 35) Leebotwood or Betchcott (before 1170), (fn. 36) Ludlow (1406-10), (fn. 37) Newport (1355-71), (fn. 38) and Shrawardine (before 1155) (fn. 39) and anchorites at Astley near Shrewsbury (1265), (fn. 40) the chapel in Ludlow castle (1241), (fn. 41) Prior's Lee (1410), (fn. 42) and either Stapleton or Church Preen (13th century). (fn. 43)