A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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HOUSE OF GRANDMONTINE MONKS
6. THE PRIORY OF ALBERBURY
Alberbury Priory was the smallest of the three English dependencies of the abbey of Grandmont and the last to be founded. (fn. 1) Fulk Fitz Warin (III) originally intended to erect a house of Arrouaisian canons; he began to build a priory between 1221 and 1226 and invited Alan, Abbot of Lilleshall, to establish a full convent there but the provision he made was inadequate to support them. The next abbot, William, declared that the charge was too onerous and renounced all claims in the priory. (fn. 2) Fulk, influenced perhaps by the recent Grandmontine foundation at Craswall by Walter de Lacy, then turned to the Order of Grandmont and before 1232 placed the house directly under the authority of the abbey of Grandmont in Limousin. His foundation charter granted the brethren the site of the priory with its appurtenances, land, and common rights in Alberbury and Pecknall, a fishery in the Severn, the right to construct mills, and the manor of Whadborough (Leics.): (fn. 3) it was confirmed by Henry III in 1232. (fn. 4) The dedication was in honour of St. Mary, and the priory was known during the Middle Ages as the 'New Abbey', or the 'Black Abbey' from the habit of the brethren. Only since the time of Leland has it sometimes been called the 'White Abbey', from the colour of the stone. (fn. 5)
St. Stephen of Muret, the founder of the order, had laid down rules of poverty for his brethren and insisted on renunciation of many forms of property, but by the time that Alberbury was founded some of the stricter observances of the rule had been relaxed. In 1223 the pope allowed the brethren to hold land outside the sites of their houses, to breed animals, attend markets and fairs, and receive charters giving them legal security. (fn. 6) Alberbury was a foundation of the new pattern. The distant Leicestershire manor of Whadborough was leased from a very early date. The Shropshire estates were built up piecemeal during the 13th century: as early as 1239 the corrector and brethren were lending money and securing small parcels of land on mortgage. (fn. 7) Mortgages occured most frequently in the Welsh lands of Bausley; other properties in Pecknall and Eyton were purchased outright with cash or cattle. (fn. 8) Many small holdings were given in free alms in return for spiritual benefits, (fn. 9) sometimes explicitly for the upkeep of the buildings or the other needs of the community. (fn. 10) These properties included lands in Loton and a substantial part of one of the manors of Eyton, (fn. 11) as well as land in Eyton newly reclaimed from the waste. (fn. 12) The most substantial part of the priory's endowment, however, consisted of the church of Alberbury, originally a minster church with four portions. The brethren had acquired the advowson and one of the portions by 1259, when they secured the appropriation of the church and the reversion of the remaining three portions, which were all in their hands by 1262. (fn. 13) They did not, however, effectively enjoy the tithes until after the settlement of boundary disputes in 1289. (fn. 14) In 1291 the church was valued at £25, (fn. 15) while the remainder of the prior's taxable property in Shropshire, consisting of two carucates at Pecknall, three nokes at Eyton, small rents at Great Wollaston and Eyton, and a stock of 6 cows and 60 sheep, was assessed at £3 16s. (fn. 16)
Very little property was acquired thereafter. In 1343 Robert Corbet, lord of Wattlesborough, renounced all the rights he had in lands in Bausley and Pecknall granted to the priory by his tenants in return for a perpetual chantry to be served by one of the brethren in the priory of Alberbury. (fn. 17) In 1370, when it was seized by the Crown as an alien priory, Alberbury's estate was said to comprise a carucate in Alberbury, where there was meadow land worth 6s. 8d. and a water mill, a carucate at Pecknall grange, and rents of £1 14s. in Eyton and Great Wollaston. (fn. 18) The small Shropshire demesnes appear to have been kept in hand to that date, but in 1373 the prior leased the demesne at Pecknall to a group of peasants. (fn. 19)
All three English dependencies of Grandmont were administered for the benefit of the mother house. (fn. 20) The correctors or priors in charge of each house were appointed by the Prior of Grandmont and required to attend general chapters every two years, bringing with them the annual pensions owed by their houses. They were not allowed to sell or alienate anything without the permission of the Prior of Grandmont. (fn. 21) The pensions paid by them amounted to much more than the token apport owed by many dependent priories to their mother houses. Alberbury's pension did not in practice amount to all the surplus after the needs of the brethren had been met, since the community had money to buy new land, but the division of revenues from Alberbury rectory indicates the scale of the demand. In 1259 half the profits were reserved for Grandmont; in fact nothing was received at first, because of tithe disputes, and in 1287 the mother house agreed to accept £6 13s. 4d. (fn. 22) Although approximately only a quarter of the assessed value, it was a heavy burden for a small and poor house.
Priors appointed centrally were unlikely to have been local men and this is confirmed by the names of two 13th-century priors, (fn. 23) but there was some local recruitment; in 1256 a brother of the house who was accidentally drowned bore the Welsh name Cadugan. (fn. 24) While there are no explicit references to lay brethren, these played a prominent part in the early days of the order, tilling the soil and taking charge of the money and all the business of the priories, while the monks devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation. (fn. 25) It is inconceivable that there were none at Alberbury, but even in the early days of this house some duties that would once have fallen to lay brethren were performed by laymen associated with the monastery in the looser bonds of confraternity.
Richard clericus, son of Matthew of Eyton, who made gifts of land on several occasions to the priory, (fn. 26) bound himself in 1267 to undertake all the business of the house and to travel anywhere except overseas: the brethren were to provide food for him and fodder for his horse when he was in Alberbury, but he paid 20s. to build a chamber for his own use there and was to find his own clothing and shoes. On his death all his movables were to fall to the priory and he was to be buried in its graveyard 'as if he had been a professed brother'. (fn. 27) Llywelyn ap Tuysscan, who gave 8 acres in 1270, possibly became a lay brother: he was received in confratrem et familiarem and was to be provided for life with sufficient food and shoes and clothing of the standard he had worn when he entered the house; on his death he was to be buried 'in his habit and among the brethren'. (fn. 28) Apart, however, from the form of burial, the language suggests an honoured corrodiary rather than a true lay brother. By 1344, when the community consisted only of the brethren and their servants, (fn. 29) the estates were being tilled by paid labour; evidently here as in most Cistercian houses the supply of lay brethren had dried up.
The priory's history was a troubled one. The scattered parish of Alberbury lay on both sides of the Welsh border and in addition the diocesan and parochial boundaries were ill-defined. A boundary dispute between the bishops of Hereford and St. Asaph was not settled until 1289 and before that date a number of Welsh rectors and their parishioners supported tithe claims with violence, carrying off corn and cattle and even snatching bodies from the graveyard. (fn. 30) Moreover there were internal difficulties in the order: Grandmont was too far away for the strict control that the rule required. To meet the difficulty one of the English correctors was empowered to act as delegate of the Prior of Grandmont, with spiritual and temporal authority over all three houses; for over half a century from 1252 this office was held by the Prior of Craswall, but two 14th-century priors of Alberbury were appointed priors of the order in England. (fn. 31) The Prior of Grandmont, however, sometimes exercised his authority directly and rival priors made conflicting appointments in England after a disputed election at Grandmont in 1315. After the order was reconstituted in 1317 the mother house was raised to the status of abbey and the correctors of the dependencies were called priors. This brought no real change in the relations of Grandmont with its English cells and the priors continued to be nominated by the abbot, even when it was impossible to receive pensions or send visitors because of the wars with France. (fn. 32) Grandmont itself was in the county of La Marche, at one time part of the Angevin domains; its priories, not being technically of the power of the king of France, thus escaped seizure during the wars of Edward I and Edward II. In 1337 Edward III ordered the seizure of all alien priories and the three Grandmontine cells were included for a few years. It was reported in 1344 that the Prior of Alberbury was not of the lordship of the king of France, but of the king of England, and was dative at the will of Fulk Fitz Warin, patron of the priory; that the lands and rents in Shropshire were worth £2 1s. 2d. yearly, the church 20 marks, and stock £9 6s., which altogether did not suffice for the maintenance of the prior, 6 brethren, and their servants. (fn. 33) The prior had leased the Leicestershire manor of Whadborough for 3 years in 1341, for cash paid in advance. (fn. 34) As a result the priory's lands and goods were restored, the king retaining only the advowson of that church. (fn. 35) Notwithstanding the inference in 1344 that Fulk Fitz Warin had the right to nominate the prior, Grandmont continued to make appointments directly. When the prior was charged with violence, murder, and dissipation of the priory's goods in 1357, Edward III, acting as guardian of the young Fulk Fitz Warin, ordered an investigation, (fn. 36) but it was the Abbot of Grandmont who removed the prior from office for his misdeeds. (fn. 37) In 1364 the Abbot of Grandmont again intervened in a dispute between two rival priors. Richard of Stretton had been outlawed on a charge of murder and had fled from the priory until he could obtain pardon and absolution: meanwhile the abbot had appointed Richard of Hatton. (fn. 38) Stretton's attempt to recover the priory probably failed, for Richard of Hatton occurs as prior from at least 1365 onwards, (fn. 39) but by this time the abbot's control was ceasing to have any practical effect. When war with France was renewed in 1369 Alberbury was seized again and committed to a succession of farmers, clerical and lay, who supplied the brethren with the bare necessities of life and rendered a yearly farm of 20 marks to the Exchequer. (fn. 40) The farm was assigned from about 1414 to Queen Joan, widow of Henry IV, and after her death to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. (fn. 41) In 1391 the king presented John Colle, monk of Shrewsbury, as prior, claiming that the priory was in his hands by reason both of the war with France and of the minority of the son of Fulk Fitz Warin. (fn. 42) Finally, in 1441, Henry VI granted the priory to All Souls' College, Oxford. (fn. 43)
In spite of the grant monks from Grandmont attempted to regain possession of the priory in 1473 and had some local support. (fn. 44) After the failure of this attempt the vicar and parishioners complained that no proper service was provided in the church for the souls of founders and benefactors, and the bishop required All Souls' to maintain a chantry in the priory chapel of St. Stephen and the choir of the church. (fn. 45) The ecclesiastical use of both buildings necessarily ended with the suppression of these chantries in 1547 and in 1578 they were converted into a house. When the square east end of the former church was pulled down in 1857-8 five bodies which had been buried before the presbytery steps were discovered. (fn. 46)
The site, which occupied about four acres, lay within a bend of the River Severn about 1¼ miles north-east of Alberbury village. An Elizabethan plan (fn. 47) shows the precincts entirely surrounded by a moat and a partly moated inner enclosure, each enclosure having a gatehouse; to the south-east was a mill supplied by a small tributary of the Severn. Parts of the moats and the site of the mill pool are still visible. (fn. 48) The only surviving buildings are incorporated in the farm-house at White Abbey Farm. They consist of part of the church with St. Stephen's chapel adjoining it, both dating from the early 13th century. Excavations in 1925 established further details of the layout. The church, unlike the normal Grandmontine churches, was squareended and was never vaulted in stone, an indication that it may have been built at the time of the foundation for the canons of Lilleshall and that the parish church of Alberbury was never used by the brethren. (fn. 49) The church was a simple rectangle about 109 feet by 22 feet, with the cloister to the south of it. The southern half of White Abbey Farm consists of the central portion of the church which originally projected further east and west. In the south wall a doorway to the cloister, with a pointed arch and foliated capitals to the former jamb-shafts, survives. Further east is the rear arch of the doorway to the sacristy in the east range of the cloister and traces of the springing of the sacristy vault.
St. Stephen's chapel was evidently built for the monks of Grandmont soon after the church was completed. It is 38 feet long by 15 feet wide and stands against the north wall of the former choir; the doorway leading to it has moulded jambs and a pointed arch. The whole chapel is incorporated in the northern half of the farm-house although an inserted floor divides the structure horizontally. The roof is vaulted in three bays with ribbed quadripartite vaults springing from grouped shafts between the bays and single shafts in the angles; carved bosses at the intersection of the ribs depict an Agnus Dei, a man's head, and a winged monster. Other features of the original chapel include a double piscina on the south side, parts of the east window, and a doorway in the north wall. In the early 19th century traces of a rood-loft stair were recorded. (fn. 50) In the north-west corner there are remains of a staircase which may have given access to the space between the vault and the roof, apparently converted into a room in the late 15th century by the insertion of doors and windows. (fn. 51)
The cloister, of which nothing survives, measured 47½ feet by 45 feet. The normal plan of a Grandmontine priory suggests that the east range contained the sacristy next to the church with the chapter-house beyond it, and that the frater was in the south range. One characteristic of the order was that the clerics and the lay brethren shared the same quarters. The Elizabethan plan shows a block which may have been the infirmary to the east of the claustral buildings and various barns and out-buildings elsewhere on the site.
Correctors or Priors of Alberbury
Lambert, occurs before 1245. (fn. 52)
Geoffrey, occurs 1245. (fn. 53)
Peter of London, occurs 1247 and 1248. (fn. 54)
John, occurs 1255. (fn. 55)
Ranulf, occurs 1259 and 1267. (fn. 56)
Peter de Corcellis, occurs 1286 and 1289. (fn. 57)
Gerard, occurs 1298. (fn. 58)
Roger, occurs 1299. (fn. 59)
Stephen, occurs 1346. (fn. 62)
Robert Newton, appointed 1359. (fn. 65)
Richard of Stretton, occurs before 1363. (fn. 66)
Richard of Hatton, occurs between 1365 and 1388. (fn. 67)
John Colle, appointed 1391. (fn. 68)
Robert, occurs 1421. (fn. 69)
No impression of a conventual seal is known but one of the oval seal of prior Arnold Rissa is attached to a lease of 1317. (fn. 70) It measures 1¼ × ¾ in. and shows a Grandmontine brother in prayer to the right, below the canopied figures of the Virgin and Child. Legend, lombardic: