A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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12. THE PRIORY OF WOMBRIDGE
The founders of the Augustinian priory of St. Leonard at Wombridge were Shropshire barons of middling rank, and the modest scale of their possessions determined the size and endowment of their family monastery. William of Hadley, who died in 1136 or soon after, was a vassal of William FitzAlan with a small estate; (fn. 1) his wife Seburga was more powerfully connected, since she was a natural daughter of Hamo Peverel, and the lands that she and her sons, Alan of Hadley and William of Ercall, gave to Wombridge lay in places in which she had acquired an interest from her father. The earliest grant to the canons of a small clearing in Hadley Wood and a half virgate in High Hatton, record of which is preserved in a confirmation of William FitzAlan, (fn. 2) was in the names of William and Seburga and their son Alan and dates from before c. 1136. William's foundation was, therefore, a little later than the earliest charters of Haughmond Abbey. The site chosen, a remote clearing in woodland outside the territory of any parish, was strikingly similar. William of Hadley may have imitated his lord: a 13th-century lawsuit in which the canons of Bricett and the canons of Haughmond were at issue over the subjection of Wombridge priory (fn. 3) suggests that there may have been personal connexions of some kind when the first communities of Augustinian canons were settled in Shropshire, though Wombridge successfully established its independence. Another grant of land in Cherrington, north of the Weald Moors, where Seburga had a small feoffment, probably belongs to the foundation period, since a papal bull of 1187 attributes it to William and Alan of Hadley jointly. (fn. 4) Land in High Ercall was given by Seburga's second son, William of Ercall, after 1187: it became the nucleus of the canons' grange of Shirlowe. (fn. 5) The land for their fourth grange was at Wichley in Uppington; to all appearances this was granted c. 1189 by Roger Mussun after the Peverel claim had been completely extinguished and the manor regranted by Henry II on a serjeanty tenure. When Roger Mussun gave the canons all his waste and woodland in Wichley, (fn. 6) as well as the chapel of Uppington, (fn. 7) he assumed responsibility for the alms and obligations of the family whose former lands he had received from the king. His widow gave land in Harrington in Sutton Maddock; (fn. 8) this also was a former Peverel manor, regranted by Henry II, (fn. 9) and here too Wombridge was heir to the goodwill of the new recipients. In 1186-7 Madoc son of Gervase Goch surrendered to the canons any right he might have had in the church, but a charter of Henry II making an independent grant of the church to Wombridge refers to an earlier agreement made with the canons; (fn. 10) the donors may have been honouring a promise made during a time of conflicting legal rights.
Apart from the Hadley family and their heirs and dispossessors the chief benefactors of the priory were the lords of neighbouring manors. Some of these men were benefactors of numerous monasteries, including Wombridge casually as a local house. John and Hamo Lestrange, who gave pasture rights and rights to assart in the wood of Wombridge, and Fulk Lestrange, who exchanged a small-holding in Broctkon, (fn. 11) were of this kind; their interest did not extend beyond the next generation. By contrast the Dunstanville family, lords of Shifnal, became lasting friends of the house. Although the grant by Alan de Dunstanville of a half virgate in Priors Lee (fn. 12) has the air of a merely formal gift, his son Walter (I), in addition to granting the canons woodland and two mills in Shifnal, was closely associated in their prayers and left his body for burial in the priory if he should die in England. (fn. 13) Walter de Dunstanville (II) continued the family tradition and other gifts were made by kinsmen and vassals. Thomas Basset, who gave Wombridge some land and salt-pans in Nantwich (Ches.) between 1194 and 1206, was nephew of Walter de Dunstanville (I) (fn. 14) and Dunstanville influence may have helped to secure stone from the quarries of Grindle in Ryton in the early 13th century. (fn. 15) Other benefactors, lords of small fees, had no obvious connexion with the Dunstanville family. They included Alexander of Loppington, who gave Loppington church c. 1190, (fn. 16) and John of Cambrai, lord of Leegomery, who gave land in Wappenshall between 1187 and 1197. (fn. 17)
Royal charters from c. 1181, papal bulls from 1187, (fn. 18) and numerous small deeds preserved in the priory's 15th-century cartulary (fn. 19) show how the canons tenaciously built up their property from small beginnings, by assarting round their granges, by securing grants of rents and tenures wherever they had a foothold, and by purchasing where necessary to round off their property. Henry II confirmed their rights in assarted land at Wombridge c. 1181, (fn. 20) and assarting also took place at Uppington, where cultivation was slowly breaking into the woods on the lower slopes of the Wrekin. (fn. 21) Here the canons, as well as extending the area of cultivation in their grange of Wichley, acquired other property. More than 200 deeds in the cartulary testify to the determination with which, throughout the 13th century, they gained possession of the rents and lordship of acre after acre from the nine daughters and heirs of Roger Mussun and their husbands, until the lion's share of this large and growing vill was in their hands. (fn. 22) To a lesser extent small properties were collected around their granges of Cherrington and Shirlowe. (fn. 23) They extended their interest in Sutton Maddock and Brockton partly at least by purchase: for instance Griffin of Sutton's grant of land and wood in Sutton, with the right to assart, was secured by the gift of a dappled destrier and a black palfrey. (fn. 24) The minute enumeration of dozens of small grants in the many charters they presented to Edward II for confirmation in 1319 (fn. 25) is typical of the patient stewardship and tenacity of the house.
Building was in progress during the 13th century: the church was damaged by fire shortly before 1232 and the king granted four oaks for the work of rebuilding. (fn. 26) The grants of stone from quarries at Grindle (fn. 27) about this time and at Ketley c. 1269 (fn. 28) show that building continued for several decades. A new Lady Chapel had recently been completed in 1328, when an indulgence of 40 days was granted to all visiting it. (fn. 29)
The internal organization of the priory has left few traces. Pope Urban III's bull of 1187 granted the privileges usual for Augustinian canons, including the exemption of their novalia from taxation, the right of free burial in their church, and the free election of their prior. (fn. 30) They successfully kept to a minimum the rights of their patrons during vacancies. The advowson of the priory passed to Cecily, daughter and heir of Alan of Hadley, and her husband Roger Corbet and through her to the Corbets of Tasley. (fn. 31) The patron's rights were defined in an agreement of 1248, which allowed him to take possession of the priory during vacancies and to receive the nomination of the prior-elect, but denied him custody of the priory's lands and empowered the canons to proceed to an election without waiting for his licence. (fn. 32) The account of one election in 1373 shows that the canons were capable of acting speedily in a vacancy: on 6 October, the day after the burial of the last prior, they met and appointed a day for election and on 14 October they unanimously elected his successor. (fn. 33)
Numbers were too small for any complicated obedientiary system: from the early 14th century onwards there were rarely more than four canons with the prior. In his injunctions of 1315 or 1316 Bishop Langton ordered the appointment of a chamberlain to provide clothing for the canons from a common fund. (fn. 34) Northburgh's injunctions of 1324 refer to a cellarer, (fn. 35) in 1518 there was a subprior, a sacristan, and a cellarer, (fn. 36) and in 1521 the bishop's commissary complained that the only officer was the sacristan. (fn. 37) Clothing money probably returned later; certainly in the early 16th century the canons were receiving salaries, for one complaint in the visitation of 1524 was that the prior was remiss in paying them. (fn. 38) The cartulary contains no information about the organization of liturgical duties, though there are hints in some charters: when in 1284 the canons undertook to establish regular masses for Hugh of Halston, his family, and his overlords in return for Haughton mill in Shifnal, the prior undertook to receive a canon, presented by the donor, to say masses and take his share in the general duties of the house as one of the ebdomadarii. (fn. 39) All the major estates of the canons were within a dozen miles of Wombridge and they did not need to live on any of the granges, unless appointed to serve one of the appropriated churches. Uppington was a donative chapel, arbitrarily carved out of the territory of Wroxeter, and there is no information about the manner in which it was served. Vicarages ordained at Loppington and Sutton Maddock were occasionally served by canons. Brother Thomas de Eton was Vicar of Sutton Maddock in 1351 and Brother John Dynmowe Vicar of Loppington in 1374. Brother Richard of Madeley was presented to Loppington in 1377 but resigned immediately. (fn. 40) The dates suggest that the canons may have taken over parochial duties for a time because of the mortality of clergy during the period of the most severe outbreaks of pestilence. Wombridge itself acquired parochial rights over the monastic community and settlers round about, but there is no evidence about any aspect of parochial administration here except the collection of tithe. (fn. 41) As for learning, the house was too small to be expected to maintain a student at the university. In a certificate sent to the bishop after the 1373 election two of the canons were said to be unable to write, though whether from ignorance or incapacity is not stated. (fn. 42) Only one volume from the library, a 13th-century commentary on the Psalms, has survived. (fn. 43)
In several visitations bishops complained of a preoccupation with secular business. Brother Thomas of Broughton was forbidden to undertake secular business, c. 1315-16, but he was still holding the courts of Roger Corbet in 1324, (fn. 44) and in the same visitation the cellarer was criticised for eating apart in the cellarium with guests of the house. At least these preoccupations successfully kept the house out of debt. (fn. 45) In 1519 Thomas Forster, one of the ablest of the priors, was even able to lend £40 for four years to the abbot of Lilleshall. (fn. 46) Resources were well and carefully used. In 1535 the total gross revenue was said to be £72 15s. 8d., of which temporalities accounted for £62 9s. The only fees then recorded were £1 to William Charlton, chief steward, and 10s. to Richard Salter, steward of the courts, (fn. 47) but the fees paid were in fact higher. In 1536 William Charlton actually received £2 a year and Salter's successor as auditor and clerk of the courts £1. In addition three local bailiffs were paid 6s. 8d. apiece and £1 6s. 8d. was paid to the bailiff and rent collector in Oakengates. (fn. 48) The first ministers' account, 1535-6, put the gross income of the priory at £89 3s. 8d.; apart from its more accurate statement of fees this account also included receipts of £10 11s. 4d. from the Wombridge demesnes, omitted in the earlier assessment. (fn. 49) By this date all the demesnes were let, except those at Wombridge, where an interesting feature of the economy was the use made of mineral resources. Coal dug in two pits on the Wombridge demesnes brought in £5 a year. There was also a small iron work at Oakengates, described in 1535 as molendinum ferrarium worth 13s. 4d. and in 1536 as a 'smithy', let with a messuage for £1 6s. 8d. The total profits of coal and iron may seem small but they amounted to some 7 per cent. of the income of the house, exactly equalling that from mills. Finance was undoubtedly sound: the house met its obligations, and the series of visitations from 1518 to 1524 revealed reasonably good order and good discipline. (fn. 50)
Wombridge priory was dissolved with the smaller monasteries in 1536, and the prior, William Prowde, received a pension of £11. (fn. 51) Movable goods were sold for £140 9s. 3¾d. and lead and bells for £30 5s. (fn. 52) The demesnes of the priory, with the coal mines and certain tithes, were leased to William Abbot for 20 years (fn. 53) and shortly afterwards the reversion was granted to James Leveson. (fn. 54) In the early 19th century remains of the conventual buildings, consisting of a pointed doorway and fragments of ashlar walls built of stone from a local quarry, were visible in the former manor-house south-east of the parish church. No remains existed above ground in 1969, though there were extensive foundations below the turf in the churchyard. These were uncovered during excavations in the 1930s, when there were also traces of the priory in the outbuildings of Wombridge Farm. (fn. 55) The farm was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for a housing estate.
Priors of Wombridge
Henry, occurs in or before 1225 and in 1236. (fn. 60)
Walter, occurs 1270. (fn. 63)
Philip, occurs from 1284 until 1321. (fn. 64)
John, occurs 1425. (fn. 71)
John Careswall, resigned 1441. (fn. 72)
John Eyton, occurs 1460. (fn. 75)
An impression of the pointed oval conventual seal in use in the early 13th century, (fn. 82) measuring 2½ × 1¾ in., shows the standing figure of St. Leonard, holding a pastoral staff in his right hand and a book in his left. Legend, lombardic:
The impression of a later oval common seal is attached to a lease of 1513. (fn. 83) Measuring 2 × 1¼ in. it shows the Virgin standing, the Child on her left arm, under a canopy; below, the figure of a canon. Legend, black letter:
An impression of an oval priors's seal is attached to a mid-13th-century deed. (fn. 84) It measures 1¼ × 1 in. and shows a fleur de lis. Legend, lombardic: