A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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HOUSES OF AUGUSTINIAN CANONS
8. THE PRIORY OF CHIRBURY
Towards the end of the 12th century a small community of Augustinian canons was established at Snead, on the upper reaches of the Camlad, by Robert de Boullers, lord of Montgomery. The earliest surviving charters, in which he granted the canons mills at Churchstoke (fn. 1) and Walcot, (fn. 2) date from about 1190, when they were still at Snead. In a mainly pastoral region they received only small gifts of arable land in Montgomery and Chirbury with the right to assart extensively in the woods and moors round Snead, but the founder's gifts included generous pasture rights for up to 300 mares and 200 cows with their offspring and for the canons' ploughbeasts, sheep, and pigs. (fn. 3) Before 1198 (fn. 4) he had resolved to move the community to Chirbury and provided what was to be their principal source of income: the church of St. Michael of Chirbury. This was the mother-church for a huge parish that probably included the whole of the Domesday hundred of Witentreu, with dependent chapels at Montgomery, Snead, Forden, and Hyssington. (fn. 5) At that time it was a portionary church with four prebends. Consent for the establishment of a priory there was obtained from the Bishop of Hereford, Archbishop Hubert Walter, and, in 1201, the Pope. (fn. 6) The priory site was provided by the founder and the prebends were to be taken over by the canons as they fell vacant. Three were still held by secular clergy when Bishop Hugh Foliot confirmed the gift between 1219 and 1227, only that of the founder's kinsman, Alan de Boullers, being vacant, (fn. 7) but two others had been appropriated by 1227. (fn. 8)
During these years the position of the priory was precarious. Robert de Boullers himself chose to be buried in Lilleshall Abbey, the favoured monastery of his wife, Hilary Trusbut, (fn. 9) and his kinsman Alan de Boullers did likewise. Robert's brother and heir Baldwin died before 1207, leaving no male heirs, and both he and succeeding lords of Montgomery were in conflict with the priory. (fn. 10) In 1224 the lordship of Montgomery was in the king's hands; by 1227 a satisfactory compromise had been reached and two royal charters settled and confirmed the rights of the prior and convent. (fn. 11) The church of Montgomery was severed from its dependence on Chirbury, except for the payment of an annual pension of 30s. and some mortuary dues. The prior and convent surrendered some land near Montgomery castle, receiving in exchange 11 acres in Snead, and they also agreed to a limitation of their pasture rights at Montgomery to 50 mares and 100 cows with their offspring, in addition to the ploughoxen, sheep, and pigs belonging to themselves and their men. All the other gifts of the founder were confirmed.
The priory received no further major endowments. The advowson was annexed to the lordship of Montgomery, which had escheated to the Crown, and shortly after Prince Edward received Montgomery castle in 1254 he gave four messuages near Chirbury to the priory. (fn. 12) Much of its property was acquired by small gifts from local people, sometimes for burial in the priory (fn. 13) or to endow a light in the church, (fn. 14) but a substantial part was bought, acre by acre. Between about 1235 and 1270 the canons laboriously acquired property in the fields of Montgomery and established a grange at Court Calmore. By purchase, gift, and mortgage of properties, ranging in size from a few roods to 6 acres, they acquired an interest in more than 40 acres, of which at least 30 became their property, and they consolidated by exchange what they had acquired. (fn. 15) By 1291 they held two carucates at Calmore, (fn. 16) where they also had a mill. (fn. 17)
During the same period they began work on permanent conventual buildings at Chirbury. Henry III, who had shown his benevolence by the gift of a silk cloth in 1242 (fn. 18) and 10 marks to buy wheat in 1248, (fn. 19) provided 50 oaks from the woods of Montgomery for their building work in 1253. (fn. 20) By 1277 the dormitory and refectory were complete, but further work was needed on the church and precinct wall and the priory was heavily in debt. (fn. 21) Disputes with Welsh rectors over parochial rights sometimes led to bloodshed in this disorderly region (fn. 22) and the renewed Welsh wars meant a constant danger of violence and loss of property. The bishop's injunctions, following his visitation of 1277, imposed rigorous economies: in order to complete their buildings and enclose their precinct properly the canons were, if necessary, to stint their food and clothing, and because of their debts they were to receive no novices before his next visitation. (fn. 23) Discipline was poor and it deteriorated. In 1285 Bishop Swinfield complained to the prior of reliable reports about discord among his brethren, especially those who held office, and whom he described as frivolous, quarrelsome, garrulous, and given to wandering at large over the country. (fn. 24) This poverty and disorder is the background to a request from the canons in 1281 for permission to return to Snead because of their difficulties at Chirbury. Edward I consented to the move, provided that they continued to pray for all those buried at Chirbury no less than at Snead, (fn. 25) but in the event they chose to remain at Chirbury. Bishop Swinfield stayed at the priory while settling the boundaries of his diocese in 1288 and, unless his letter is merely common form, he found conditions much improved. (fn. 26) A year later the bishop granted the appropriation of Chirbury church. (fn. 27)
The priory remained poor; in 1291 the temporalities amounted only to 3½ carucates of land and a few rents worth altogether £5 4s. 10d. (fn. 28) but Chirbury rectory was assessed at £30. (fn. 29) The stock enumerated (9 mares with their foals) (fn. 30) suggests that the canons were neglecting to take advantage even of the reduced pasture rights allowed by Henry III in 1227. When building was renewed it was carried out with the aid of gifts of materials and was supervised by the canons themselves. In 1295 the king gave 12 oaks for work at Chirbury church (fn. 31) and about four years later Philip of Middleton granted buildingstone from his quarries. (fn. 32) The work, which appears to have been supervised by Richard the mason, one of the canons, had been completed by 1315, when the prior and canons came to an agreement with their parishioners about the route to be taken by parochial religious processions, which were impeded by the new precinct wall, and responsibility for different parts of the fabric. (fn. 33) The conventual buildings adjoined the nave of the parish church; the canons agreed to repair the walls of the church where they had been damaged by the building of the cloister, and to keep in repair the church wall adjoining the cloister as well as the conventual chancel. The services of brother Richard the mason for the rest of his active life were given to supervise the construction of the parish church's new bell tower; the prior undertook if necessary to find another canon, preferably one with some knowledge of masonry, to replace him afterwards.
Apart from the appropriation of Hyssington chapel in 1316 (fn. 34) and the purchase of some 30 acres of land in Chirbury and Whittery in 1354 (fn. 35) little fresh property was acquired. Income from tithes fell for a time as a result of declining cultivation at Chirbury in the early 14th century (fn. 36) and such estates as the priory had were habitually mismanaged. The prior, who was acting entirely on the advice of laymen out for their own profit, was found guilty of mismanage ment in 1322 by the bishop, who secured his resignation. (fn. 37) His immediate successors were less incompetent; one was appointed as a visitor of the dioceses of Worcester, Hereford, and St. David's by the Augustinian general chapter in 1335. (fn. 38) The bishop, however, again had much to criticize in 1394. (fn. 39) He insisted that a common chest with three locks be provided for keeping the conventual seal and stressed the need to make the collector of obventions and the cellarer answerable for their charges. He also ordered that, for the sake of peace and to avoid unneccessary expense, individual canons were to have 23s. 4d. annually for clothing: an indication that, in this house at least, individual clothes-money was to be preferred to collective incompetence.
Occasionally a lay patron intervened to help in imposing order. The Mortimer family had shown an interest in the priory since 1281, when Roger de Mortimer of Wigmore gave land by the mill of Calmore so that the canons might celebrate his obit, (fn. 40) and in 1354 patronage of the priory passed, with the castle of Montgomery, from the Crown to the Mortimer earls of March. Priors were presented to them for approval (fn. 41) and they made the state of the house their business. Following a complaint by the earl in 1423, the bishop appointed commissioners to investigate conditions in the priory, who found it 'in a state of spiritual and material collapse'. (fn. 42) The prior, whose incompetence was held to be chiefly to blame, was suspended in the following year (fn. 43) and his successor, previously a canon of Llanthony, (fn. 44) succeeded in bringing some order into the affairs of the small community. Certainly he claimed at the next visitation in 1427 that the brethren were wellgoverned. There were in fact only four canons with the prior, two of whom were then pensioned off; one was so old and sick that he was provided with an annuity of 26s. 8d. for his maintenance and the recently deposed prior was given charge of the rectory of Hyssington. (fn. 45) The will of William Bowdler of Marton in Chirbury, proved in 1428, in which he left the reversion of his property in Shrewsbury to the priory, (fn. 46) may indicate that, in spite of disorders, the house still commanded some local respect.
There was a disturbed election in 1441, when warlike Welshmen from the mountains were alleged to have intruded one of their kinsmen, John Dwy, as prior, and the bishop intervened. It was found, however, that Dwy, who had been a canon of Holy Trinity, London, was a suitable candidate and he was duly installed. (fn. 47) John Dwy, like other priors brought from elsewhere, seems to have been a capable man, but in 1482 the bishop investigated the misrule of one of his successors, John Blewet, who was dismissed for having wasted the goods of the house and allowing the priory to fall into ruin. (fn. 48) Throughout the 15th century the priory suffered too from incursions of marauders; it was regularly among the houses exempted on grounds of poverty from the payment of tenths and other taxes. (fn. 49)
The gross income of the priory was put at £87 7s. 4d. in 1535. (fn. 50) Of this sum temporalities accounted for only £16 14s. 10d., over a quarter of which was paid out in quit-rents to the Crown. Spiritualities totalling £70 12s. 6d. were derived in the main from the tithes of Chirbury and its five chapelries. Fees of £1 a year were paid to the steward of the hundred of Chirbury and of £2 6s. 8d. to the priory's bailiff and receiver. A slightly higher valuation of the priory estate was given in 1536. (fn. 51) Except at Chirbury itself the small demesnes were leased; corn tithes were sold and most of the lesser tithes and oblations were kept in hand for the support of the community. The priory itself naturally fell with the smaller houses and was suppressed in 1536. (fn. 52) Oliver Middleton, the last prior, received a pension of £8 and the site of the priory with the demesne lands was granted in 1537 to Edward Hopton of Chirbury. (fn. 53)
Chirbury was a double church, with a parochial nave and a conventual chancel. (fn. 54) The nave, aisles, and western tower, which formed the parish church, still survive: the chancel appears to have been rebuilt in the early 14th century to serve the needs of the canons (fn. 55) and, since they had six bells at the Dissolution, (fn. 56) there was presumably a second tower. The east wall of the nave, which dates from the mid 16th century, was presumably built when the canons' chancel at the east end fell out of use. The latter, like the conventual buildings, which stood on the north side of the church, has disappeared. The base of a 13th-century column, possibly from a pier in the chapter-house or sacristy, stands in the present churchyard and traces of a large drain exist some thirty yards north of the column. Some fine carved stalls now in the choir of Montgomery church are reputed to have been brought from the priory. (fn. 57)
PRIORS OF CHIRBURY
Richard, resigned 1217. (fn. 58)
Geoffrey, occurs in a 14th-century deed. (fn. 73)
Richard Brewster, occurs 1423, resigned 1424. (fn. 78)
John Dwy, appointed 1441. (fn. 82)
John, appointed 1490. (fn. 85)
John, occurs 1511 and 1517. (fn. 86)
There is a 19th-century drawing of impressions of two seals, both oval and both showing the Virgin and Child, seated. (fn. 89) Legend on the larger seal: