A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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1. THE PRIORY OF BROMFIELD
Before the Norman Conquest Bromfield church was a wealthy minster of royal foundation, (fn. 1) served by twelve canons, who had at one time held all twenty hides of the huge manor of Bromfield. About 1060 King Edward the Confessor issued a writ granting extensive liberties to the canons: sac and soc, infangenetheof, grithbreach, hamsocn, forsteall, toll and team, and certain fines; also some kind of exemption from episcopal interference in the words 'and I will not suffer anyone to take anything therefrom, neither bishop nor any other person, save whomsoever they may themselves desire'. (fn. 2) An unusually full entry in Domesday Book tells a little of the early history of the community. Spirtes the priest, a notorious pluralist, had held ten of the twenty hides of church land and, after his banishment, the king had granted them to Robert Fitz Wimarch as to a canon. Robert alienated the land to his son-in-law and, though King Edward ordered an investigation at Christmas 1065, he died before the property could be restored to the church and it subsequently remained in lay hands. (fn. 3) The other ten hides, which covered a wide area in the valleys of the Teme and its tributaries just north of Ludford with outlying lands in Ashford Bowdler and Halford, continued to support twelve canons. Gradually, however, in the early 12th century the canons were replaced by monks.
This phase of Bromfield's history is almost undocumented. There are references to 'Osbert, Prior of Bromfield' c. 1115 (fn. 4) and in 1132, (fn. 5) and possibly an anomalous mixed type of community existed. (fn. 6) Certainly both monks and canons were at Bromfield in 1155, when Henry II's charter definitely established a Benedictine priory there. As patron of Bromfield church the king gave it to the prior and monks to hold in free alms sicut meam dominicam capellam, (fn. 7) together with all the lands that the canons had held in the time of his grandfather, namely Halford, Dinchope, Ashford Bowdler, Felton, Burway, and Ledwyche. The priory was also granted three prebends in Bromfield and three in Halton but surviving canons were allowed to retain a lifeinterest in their prebends. (fn. 8) The wording of the charter suggests the establishment of an independent Benedictine priory, and indeed all such grants by Henry II were addressed to the prior and monks of Bromfield. (fn. 9) Nevertheless it marked the beginning of the priory's subjection to St. Peter's Abbey, Gloucester. A later entry in the History of Gloucester Abbey states that in 1155 'the canons of Bromfield gave their church and themselves as monks to the church of St. Peter of Gloucester, by the hand of Gilbert, Bishop of Hereford, and with the approval of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury and papal legate'. (fn. 10) In the same year Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of Hereford, instituted the Gloucester monk Robert Haseley as Prior of Bromfield. (fn. 11) Possibly Gloucester Abbey hastened the process by putting pressure on the canons to become monks of Gloucester: certainly in 1166 complaints of certain canons that they were being coerced and imprisoned came to the ears of the archbishop, who ordered the Bishop of Hereford to make inquiry. (fn. 12) The outcome is not known, but in due course all the property of Bromfield church came to Gloucester Abbey and the priory remained a cell of Gloucester until the Dissolution.
The exact nature of its exemption 'as a royal demesne chapel' was sometimes uncertain and may have changed with the passage of time. Gilbert Foliot accepted the king's demand that the priory should enjoy the same liberties as his demesne chapels elsewhere, adding 'the king does not allow me to have any jurisdiction over the prior or his successors, neither may I take any procuration save by grace if I happen to pass through'. (fn. 13) Later bishops often passed a night at Bromfield and dated their letters from there, but on one occasion at least the bishop and his household paid for their food, the priory merely providing fodder for their horses. (fn. 14) Possibly an informal agreement was reached, whereby the priory fell in with the bishop's requests provided that he did not demand provisions as of right; (fn. 15) in time, however, the bishop came to take procurations regularly from both priory and parish church. (fn. 16) As for visitation, the priory resisted the bishop and produced its charters in vain. From at least 1275 regular visitations were carried out in the priory and, when the bishop's right was challenged in 1350-3, he was able to produce from earlier registers ample evidence that such visitations had been carried out. (fn. 17)
On the temporal side the exemption was clearer. In additon to the privileges granted by Edward the Confessor the priory had secured from Henry II exemption from toll and other dues and from suit of shire and hundred. (fn. 18) Henry III, when confirming Bromfield's status as a royal demesne chapel in 1258, provided that pleas of land involving the priory should be heard nowhere but in the king's courts and that the prior might do as he chose with his lands and woods. (fn. 19)
The priory was occupied by Gloucester monks, and priors were appointed and dismissed by the Abbot of Gloucester. Legally they were the abbot's proctors, with no right to a seal of their own, and the abbots did not regard themselves as bound by any agreement made by the prior without consent of the Gloucester chapter. (fn. 20) An agreement between Alexander, Prior of Bromfield, and Simon son of Robert of Bromfield, sealed by Henry, Abbot of Gloucester, represents normal practice; (fn. 21) so do 14th-century leases granted by the abbots of Gloucester for rents payable to the abbot and his successors and the Prior of Bromfield, (fn. 22) or to the Abbot of Gloucester by the hand of the Prior of Bromfield. (fn. 23) A court roll shows tenements held per scriptum abbatis. (fn. 24) It was alleged after the Dissolution that the priors had no common seal and therefore leases granted by them were of no effect, (fn. 25) but the judgement on this point is not recorded. There are, however, some indications that priors of Bromfield had a seal of limited validity. Entries in the court rolls show the prior granting a lease of tithe and warranting it, (fn. 26) and making grants (fn. 27) and leases (fn. 28) by means of sealed deeds. Either there was such a seal valid in manorial but not in royal courts, or the abbot's seal was loosely described as the prior's. There is no doubt that normally the prior was simply the abbot's proctor, though practice may have been a little less consistent and clear than principle.
The small community took over the existing parish church, which was apparently rebuilt in the earlier 12th century as a cruciform building, perhaps with a central tower. At some period the north transept and the 12th-century chancel disappeared. It has been suggested that they were destroyed by a fall of the tower and were not afterwards replaced. If such a fall occurred it is likely to have been before the existing north-west tower of the church was built early in the 13th century. (fn. 29) The priory appears to have appropriated the crossing (the later chancel) and the south transept for its offices, leaving the western part of the church for the lay congregation. Conventual buildings adjoined the south wall of the nave. (fn. 30) At first the community was large enough to include a precentor and a sacrist. (fn. 31) In the early 13th century some of the priors were able men and one at least, Henry Foliot, subsequently became Abbot of Gloucester. (fn. 32) Later, discipline declined and numbers were not always kept up. On one occasion the bishop complained that there were three or four too few and that two monks had been sent from Gloucester for the visitation in order to deceive him. He found much to criticize: two of the monks were entirely given over to hunting and archery, and the others were so often out of their priory that they were almost beyond hope. (fn. 33) Conditions did not improve, for in 1325 the Abbot of Gloucester petitioned the king to be allowed to withdraw the Bromfield monks to Gloucester in the interests of monastic discipline and orderly worship. (fn. 34) The outcome of the inquiry that followed is not known, but there is some evidence of decline in numbers and a change in status by the time of the Dissolution.
The endowment of the priory consisted of the appropriated church of Bromfield, with its dependent chapels of Ludford, Ashford Bowdler, Halford, and Dinchope, and the lands that had made up the prebends of the twelve canons. There were minor acquisitions (fn. 35) and adjustments of common rights, (fn. 36) but the property remained substantially unchanged until the Dissolution. (fn. 37) Some part of the priory's demesne remained in hand until the 16th century: in 1291 this included 8 carucates of arable land, worth £4, with hay valued at 15s., (fn. 38) and demesne in hand was valued at £3 13s. 4d. in 1535. (fn. 39) Profits of its manor courts were a more important source of income than is suggested by the assessments of 1291 and 1535, when they were said to yield £3 and 16s. 8d. respectively. In the 14th and early 15th centuries pleas, perquisites, and fines commonly produced between £8 and £9 a year and sometimes as much as £22. (fn. 40) The priory's tithes were being sold in the later 13th century to Ludlow merchants, to the scandal of the bishop, (fn. 41) and the great tithes continued to be farmed in the later Middle Ages.
The priory, representing Gloucester Abbey, (fn. 42) appointed a vicar to serve the parish church. Although the obligation of the vicar to provide a resident chaplain in Ludford and adequate service at the chapels of Ashford, Dinchope, and Halford was established in 1424, (fn. 43) the stipends of chaplains at Ludford, Halford, and Dinchope were included among the obligations of the priory in 1535. (fn. 44) At this time the vicar of Bromfield was receiving, in addition to his share of tithes and oblations, a pension of £2 13s. 4d. from the priory 'for his table', (fn. 45) an indication that, in the early days of the priory, the vicar had probably lived with the monks.
During the 15th century the priory was frequently exempted from contributing to subsidies on the grounds of poverty and disaster, (fn. 46) and its gross income was put at nearly £79 in 1535. (fn. 47) There appears to have been a change in its financial relations with Gloucester Abbey after the late 13th century; the prior had then owed a token sum of 40s. (fn. 48) and £6 8s. 8d. for tithe, (fn. 49) but in 1535 all the revenues of Bromfield were included in the assessment of Gloucester Abbey. This may indicate a change in the status of the priory; up to 1325 at least it was fully conventual but by 1535 it may have become a small cell of two or three monks chiefly concerned with running the estates. (fn. 50)
As a dependency of a wealthy abbey, Bromfield survived until the surrender of St. Peter's, Gloucester, in 1538. It was leased, together with the rectory and all its lands, in 1541 to Charles Foxe, (fn. 51) who purchased the property in 1558. (fn. 52) Foxe set about converting the conventual part of the priory into a private house: the chancel, formerly the crossing of the early-12th-century church, was divided into two stories, (fn. 53) but the nave, north aisle, and north-west porch remained as the parish church. The house was burnt down in the 17th century, when Foxe's descendants moved elsewhere and the chancel was restored to use as part of the church. (fn. 54)
The south transept and the conventual buildings adjoining it have disappeared, but some ruined walls of Foxe's Tudor house are still attached to the south side of the church. At the western boundary of the churchyard the priory gatehouse has survived. The lower part is a buttressed stone structure, probably dating from the 14th century: it has a pointed archway and, in the passage, two small single-light openings with cusped ogee heads. The timber-framed upper story is likely to have been added after the Dissolution. (fn. 55)
Robert of Haseley, appointed 1155. (fn. 60)
Robert, occurs 1193-4. (fn. 61)
Elias, occurs 1203, 1208. (fn. 62)
Henry Foliot, resigned 1228. (fn. 63)
Alexander, occurs 1228 × 43. (fn. 64)
Sampson (?), occurs 1243. (fn. 65)
John de Worme, occurs 1284. (fn. 66)
Thomas, occurs 1312-13. (fn. 67)
John Toky, occurs 1346. (fn. 68)
John de Eldesfelde (or Ellesforde), occurs 1355. (fn. 69)
Thomas Penyord, occurs 1385, 1389. (fn. 70)
Edmund Dursley, occurs 1401. (fn. 71)
Richard Horton, occurs 1424. (fn. 72)
Thomas Bromfield, occurs 1432-3. (fn. 73)
Thomas Wolriche, died or resigned by 1516. (fn. 74)
Thomas Stanton, occurs 1516. (fn. 75)
John Stamford, occurs 1526. (fn. 76)
Thomas Sebroke, occurs 1537. (fn. 77)
No common seal. (fn. 78)