A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1970.
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9. THE ABBEY OF CROXDEN
In 1176 Bertram de Verdun, lord of Alton, a baron of the Exchequer and a royal justice, granted land at 'Chotes', probably Cotton near Alton, to the Cistercians of Aunay-sur-Odon in Normandy as the site for an abbey. (fn. 1) The first abbot, an Englishman, was elected in 1178, but the following year the monks moved to a new site at Croxden a few miles to the south. This was in a remote but fertile valley beside a tributary of the Dove, and the house was styled the abbey of the Vale of St. Mary of Croxden. The site (locus) was not dedicated until 1181.
Bertram founded Croxden Abbey for the souls of his predecessors and successors and in particular of his father and mother, of himself, and his second wife Rose, and of Richard de Humez qui me nutruit. (fn. 2) The endowment consisted of Bertram's lands at Croxden (evidently including a mill), (fn. 3) Alton, Madeley Holme (in Checkley), Crakemarsh (in Uttoxeter), and Musden, and also at Oaken (in Codsall) in the south of the county; a grove at Great Gate near Croxden and half a wood at Crakemarsh; land at Tugby (Leics.) and a carucate called Lees at Hartshorne (Derb.); a salt-pit at Middlewich (Ches.); a mill at Stamford (Lincs.); the service due from Achard of Stamford for land there and at Casterton (Rut.) and the 7s. due from Ralph de Normanvile for land at Burton Overy (Leics.); and the churches of Alton and Tugby. Henry II's confirmation of Bertram's charter included also Tugby's dependent chapels of East Norton and Keythorpe. (fn. 4) The Verduns remained patrons of the abbey, with the Furnivalles succeeding them in the early 14th century; members of both families were buried in the abbey church. (fn. 5)
During the 13th century the abbey's possessions steadily increased. Before he came to the throne in 1199 John gave the monks land in Ireland, and in 1200 he exchanged it for an annuity of £5 from the Exchequer of Ireland; (fn. 6) in 1206 he gave the monks Adeney in the manor of Edgmond (Salop.) in place of this annuity. (fn. 7) The monks themselves exchanged Adeney with Buildwas Abbey (Salop.) in 1287 in return for Caldon Grange a few miles to the north of Croxden. (fn. 8) After the foundation of Dieulacres in 1214 the abbots of Croxden and Dieulacres agreed that Croxden should be allowed to acquire lands and pastures within a mile of Dieulacres and should be exempt from payment of tithes on lands in Leek parish which it cultivated itself; Dieulacres, on the other hand, was not to acquire any lands or pastures within a mile of Croxden, except in the manor of Leek and the demesne of the Earl of Chester. (fn. 9) By 1251 a dispute had arisen because Dieulacres had acquired land at Field. A settlement was then reached by which Croxden agreed that Dieulacres should hold land in Field and promised not to accept land there without the permission of Dieulacres. In return Croxden was freed from tolls and market dues at Leek and was allowed certain inclosures at Onecote and 'Puthullis'; Dieulacres in addition promised not to acquire any land nearer to Croxden or 'the grange of Leyes' without the abbey's consent. (fn. 10) From the late 12th century the abbey was acquiring property in the Dog Cheadle area of Cheadle mainly from Rose de Verdun, the Sacheverell family, and the Bassetts of Sapcote, and a grange had been established there by 1275. (fn. 11) By the 1230s Henry de Audley had given the monks a pasture on Morridge to the east of Leek. (fn. 12) Tugby church was appropriated to the abbey by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1224, (fn. 13) and Alton church had been appropriated probably by 1263 and certainly by 1291. (fn. 14) A dispute with the Rector of Uttoxeter over payment of tithes from abbey property was settled in 1263; the rector renounced all claim and in return the monks agreed to pay him 12s. a year. (fn. 15) By 1291 the abbey had acquired property at Riston (in Bradbourne) and Trusley, both in Derbyshire, and there was a mill at Caldon. Granges had been established at Musden, Oaken, and Riston as well as at Caldon, Cheadle, and Croxden. The total value of the temporalities and spiritualities in 1291 was some £140. (fn. 16) At the beginning of the 14th century a jury stated that all the Staffordshire property was held in free alms. (fn. 17)
The 13th and early 14th centuries were evidently a time of general prosperity for the abbey — the chronicler noted the period of Abbot Billisdon (1284-93) as one of particular prosperity. (fn. 18) The abbey's wealth was drawn partly from sheep-farming. This may have started by the 1230s: in an agreement with the burgesses of Alton in 1239 the monks promised not to erect a sheepfold on the burgesses' land. (fn. 19) It was certainly in progress before the end of the century, and in 1294 the chronicler complained that as a result of the outbreak of war with France that year it was difficult to sell a sack of the abbey's wool even for 7 marks. (fn. 20) Some 20 years later, however, Croxden was supplying more wool for the foreign market than any other Staffordshire house, (fn. 21) and the monks were evidently still engaged in the Florentine trade in the 1420s. (fn. 22) Charcoal burning in the abbey's woodlands is recorded several times between 1291 and 1369; £22 5s. was realized in 1316 from a wood at Cheadle called 'the Neweheye'. Timber was also sold: underwood from the park at Oaken fetched £24 in 1329. (fn. 23) The prosperity is reflected in the constant building operations. The first abbot, Thomas of Woodstock (1178-1229), was noted for his building, while under the energetic (strenuissimus) Walter London (1242-68) the church was completed and very extensive work was carried out on the conventual buildings. William de Houton (1269-74) continued the work, notably by erecting the abbot's house. (fn. 24) William of Over (1297-1308) bought the abbey a house in London for £20, apparently in the parish of St. Peter the Less in the ward of Castle Baynard. (fn. 25)
There is very much less evidence available for the internal history of the abbey. Some idea of the size of the community can be formed from the lists of admissions: 80 in the 26 years of Abbot London (1242-68) and 25 in Abbot Houton's 5 years (126974), and thereafter a decline — 14 in 1274-84, 14 in 1284-93, 2 in 1294-7, 9 in 1297-1308. (fn. 26) Little can be said about observance. Abbot Twyford (1294-7) was noted for his great devotion to the Trinity. (fn. 27) The abbots went occasionally at least to general chapters at Cîteaux. Abbot Ashbourne evidently died on the return journey in 1237, while Abbot Houton died at Dijon, presumably on the way to the chapter, and was buried at Cîteaux in the presence of over 400 abbots. (fn. 28) Abbot Billisdon evidently went in 1284 after his election and also in 1285. In 1298 Edward I forbade all Cistercian abbots, including those of Croxden, Dieulacres, and Hulton, to attend the general chapter and ordered them to pay to the Crown the money which they would otherwise have taken to Cîteaux. A similar ban was imposed in subsequent years. (fn. 29) In 1308, however, when apparently there was no royal ban, Abbot Over was summoned to attend but failed to go, whereupon the chapter deposed him. (fn. 30) A visitation was evidently carried out by the motherhouse in 1313. (fn. 31) Several of these early abbots gave some attention to learning. Thomas of Woodstock wrote two large volumes containing most of the Bible, and William de Houton bought a Bible of nine volumes from Master Solomon, Archdeacon of Leicester, for the sum of 50 marks. William of Over made additions to the abbey's collection of books. (fn. 32) It was probably in the late 13th century too that the compilation of the abbey's chronicle was begun. (fn. 33)
The 14th century was a time of increasing difficulty for the abbey. For the first time a serious dispute arose with the patron. (fn. 34) The last of the Verduns died in 1316 and was buried at Croxden. The patronage passed with Alton to Joan, his eldest daughter, and her husband Thomas de Furnivalle. Thomas insisted on the abbey's stabling his horses and hounds, feeding seven of his bailiffs every Friday in a room specially set apart for them, and distributing alms daily at the gates. He confiscated a cart belonging to the monks and impounded sheep, oxen, and horses. Eventually 'no one dared to ride freely through the gates of the abbey across the fee of Alton', and the monks barricaded themselves in the abbey for 16 weeks from March to July 1319. They erected two thorn fences at the gates to prevent direct access and made a small gate in the south wall so that they could pass through unobserved. At last, with the aid of several magnates, they secured a writ of novel disseisin and vindicated their rights in July. Peace was restored, and in 1321 the abbot baptized the daughter of Thomas and Joan. In 1334 Joan was buried before the high altar of the abbey church by the abbot, assisted by the Abbots of Burton, Dieulacres, Hulton, Combermere, and Beauchief and the Priors of Worksop and Ecclesfield, and in 1340 Thomas was buried at Beauchief Abbey (Derb.) by the Abbot of Croxden.
More serious were the abbey's economic difficulties. Royal exactions became heavier — the loan of supplies for the Scottish expedition in 1310, the imposition of a corrodian in 1318, the distraint of the abbot in 1322 for refusing to pay his share of the expense of a foot-soldier in respect of the property at Dog Cheadle, subsidies, more loans in 1337 and 1347. (fn. 35) Bad harvests, plague, and murrain all had an adverse effect. (fn. 36) Extensive repairs to property, notably the reroofing of the conventual buildings, much of it in lead instead of wood, in 1332, 1333, and 1334, and the rebuilding of the abbot's house in 1335-6 at great expense were a further drain on resources. (fn. 37) So desperate was the abbey's financial state that in 1368 the Abbot of Aunay, the motherhouse, sent the Abbot of Garendon and Brother Henry Foky from Aunay to investigate. The two visitors deposed Abbot Colbeley, and William Gunston was elected in his place. The abbey's debts amounted to £165 2s. 3d. (fn. 38) The new abbot made some attempt to improve matters. He recovered Caldon Grange which had been mortgaged, and within a few years he had raised 119 marks by the sale of charcoal. (fn. 39) New problems soon faced him, however. There was evidently a bad harvest in 1368, and the following year there was another outbreak of plague. (fn. 40) In 1369 also part of the abbey adjoining the church collapsed. Abbot Gunston rebuilt it in 1370 and in 1372 renewed the ditches in the neighbourhood of the abbey. In that year a great flood ruined grass and grain growing by the Churnet, and in 1372 a violent storm damaged the fabric, uprooted trees in the orchard, and damaged barns at Croxden and Musden. Abbot Gunston continued to repair the damage. (fn. 41) It is not surprising to find him in debt: in 1371 he was sued by the executors of Philip de Lutteleye for a debt of 40 marks and in 1376 by the Warden of the Chapel Royal at Windsor for three years' arrears of rent amounting to 36s. (fn. 42) Yet in 1379 the abbey had to lend the Crown 100s. (fn. 43) The great impoverishment of the abbey was stated as the reason for the king's permission, given in 1405, for the appointment of monks of Croxden as vicars of Alton. (fn. 44) The general decline is reflected in the small size of the community — an abbot and six monks in 1377 and 1381. (fn. 45)
The 14th century brought, however, certain additions to the abbey's property. By 1331 90 acres of waste at Bradnop had been acquired from Hulton Abbey. (fn. 46) Royal licence was secured for the acquisition of two small plots of arable and meadow in Combridge (in Rocester) and Sedsall (Derb.) from Robert de Combridge in 1342, (fn. 47) a house and 60 acres of land in Alton from Robert Shaw in 1346, (fn. 48) 'Verdon maner' in Ellastone from John Pyghtesley in 1392, (fn. 49) and a house in Ashbourne from Henry Blore in 1402. (fn. 50) In 1398 the Crown granted a licence, for 25 marks, for the appropriation of the vicarage of Alton, and the bishop gave his approval in 1402. (fn. 51) In 1403, however, the monks endowed the vicarage, undertaking to build a house for the vicar; (fn. 52) this may be connected with the fact that two years later, as seen above, the Crown gave the abbey permission to appoint its own monks as vicars.
Croxden never recovered its former prosperity, but there is some record of achievement in its later days. Abbot Walton, who occurs between at least 1467 and 1507, was engaged in building; the chronicler, indeed, describes him as the good abbot and a peacemaker (concordator) among both the great and the poor, despite the fact that he was involved in lawsuits. Abbot Shipton, who succeeded in 1519, was a divine of some learning and a benefactor of the poor, and his many good works included the rebuilding of the chancel of Alton church. (fn. 53) In addition the number of the community had risen to 13 by 1538. (fn. 54)
In its last years the abbey was still poor. In 1533 the abbot was asked by Thomas Cromwell to lease Musden Grange to Francis Meverell, but he gave the excuse that 'neither God's service nor hospitality' could be maintained without the grange, which had not been leased out for 40 years. (fn. 55) The gross income of the abbey in 1535 was given as £103 6s. 7d. — £8 16s. 4d. from spiritualities, £57 13s. 7d from rents, and £36 16s. 8d. from demesne at Croxden, Musden, Caldon, and Onecote. Expenditure came to £13 0s. 8d. including £7 in fees to 7 lay officials — the steward of Tugby, the bailiff of Tugby who was also collector of rents in Leicestershire, the steward and the collector of Oaken, the steward of Croxden, Ashbourne, and Caldon, the bailiff of Ashbourne and Caldon, and the collector of Croxden and its members. (fn. 56) The income as given was thus lower than in 1291, but there is evidence that the valuation of 1535 was incomplete; a fuller account of the abbey's property in 1538-9 gives the gross value for that year as £163 8s. 10d. (fn. 57) Its estates were then listed as the manor and grange of Oaken, Lee Grange in Crakemarsh, and granges at Musden, Caldon, and Trusley; lands and rents in Croxden, Combridge, Great Gate, Ellastone, Alton, 'Whytley' in Leek, Onecote, Cotton, Dog Cheadle, Uttoxeter, Denstone, Calton, Caldon, Stafford, Orberton (in St. Mary's, Stafford), Walton (Staffs.), Ashbourne, Doveridge, Derby, Hartshorne, Thurvaston (in Longford), Langley (Derb.), Burton Overy, Tugby, Mountsorrel (in Barrow-upon-Soar and Rothley, Leics.), Casterton, Stamford, Misterton (? Leics.), London, and 'Sutton Maney'; the appropriated churches of Croxden, Alton, and Tugby and the tithes of Oaken, Lee, Musden, Caldon, and Trusley Granges; and a 'wichehouse' in Middlewich and Hungarwall smithy in Dog Cheadle.
Croxden came within the terms of the Act of 1536 for the suppression of religious houses worth less than £200 a year, but in 1537 the abbey received a licence to continue for a fine of £100. (fn. 58) In August 1538 Archbishop Cranmer wrote to Cromwell asking for a commission to be sent to Croxden, and on 17 September Dr. Thomas Legh and William Cavendish received the surrender of the abbey from the abbot and twelve other monks. (fn. 59) A month later parts of the fabric were sold for £9 9s. 8d.; the largest items were the roofs of the church and dorter, which realized £6 and £1 13s. 4d. respectively, and 'a little gatehouse on the north side of the common way' which went for 13s. 4d. (fn. 60) In 1539 the site, with a water-mill, lands, and the rectory of Croxden, was leased for 21 years to Francis Bassett, servant to Cranmer, on whose behalf the archbishop had put in a plea when asking for the commission to be sent to Croxden. This estate and other property were sold by the Crown to Godfrey Foljambe in 1545. (fn. 61) The abbot was granted a pension of £26 13s. 4d. a year. Pensions were assigned to all the monks, (fn. 62) and four still occur as pensioners in 1557-8. (fn. 63) One of these, John Stanley, was Vicar of Alton from 1546 until his death in 1569 when he was drawing a pension of £5 13s. 4d. (fn. 64)
The site lay on the north side of the valley with the stream providing a water supply, a means of drainage, and power for the mill. (fn. 65) Although the area is now crossed by a road and part of it is occupied by a farmhouse and farmyard buildings, there are more remains at Croxden than at any other monastic site in the county. In 1936 the site passed into the care of what is now the Ministry of Public Building and Works. In some places the walls of the church and of the conventual buildings are still standing; in others their foundations have been exposed, making it possible to reconstruct much of the original lay-out of the abbey.
The site was dedicated in 1181, two years after the move from Cotton. Building occupied much of the attention of the first abbot (1178-1229), but the church was not dedicated until 1253, in the time of the fifth abbot, Walter London (1242-68). (fn. 66) Copied from the church at Aunay, the mother-house, it was more elaborate in plan than most Cistercian churches in England. It was 240 feet long and consisted of an aisled nave of eight bays, transepts, a tower over the crossing, and an apsidal presbytery with a chevet of five radiating chapels. The altar of the Holy Trinity, probably in the north transept, is mentioned in the later 13th century, that of St. Benedict in 1312, and that of St. Lawrence in 1326; two altars, evidently in the south transept, were mentioned in 1334. (fn. 67) A bell was hung in the tower in 1302; broken on Holy Saturday 1313, it was recast later the same year.
The modern road runs diagonally across the nave and south transept of the abbey church. To the north of the road only part of one of the five radiating chapels is left above ground; nearby are the remains of four stone coffins. To the south of the road much of the south wall of the church has survived, incorporating evidence that the south aisle was originally vaulted. The west wall, with two west doorways and three tall lancet windows above them, is almost complete. Also standing to their full height are the west and south walls of the south transept. All this work is of the 13th century with no sign of later alterations.
The conventual buildings lay on the south side of the church, the cloister being entered through a door at the east end of the south aisle. Most of the buildings were erected or completed by Abbot London, though the cloister and parlour were rebuilt by Abbot Walton about the end of the 15th century. No remains of the cloister arcade are left standing. The ground floor of the east range, much of which survives, consisted of the sacristy and bookroom, the chapter-house (partly built by 1229 when Abbot Woodstock was buried there), the parlour, and a slype or passage. The chapter-house was a vaulted rectangular building, occupying the centre of the range and projecting eastwards beyond it. To the south of the slype was the vaulted undercroft of part of the dorter; this was probably the noviciate (probatorium) built by Abbot London. The southward extension may have contained the abbot's 'lower chamber' with his dormitory above it, both built by Abbot Houton (1269-74). (fn. 68) Projecting eastwards from the south end of this building was the rere dorter. The upper floor of the east range, now destroyed, contained the treasury and the monks' dormitory; the doorway of the night stair from the latter is still visible at a high level in the south wall of the south transept.
The southern range is thought to have consisted of the day-stairs up to the dorter, the warminghouse, the frater (which originally projected southwards but was reduced in size to the line of the rest of the range, evidently in the late 15th century), and the kitchen. There was a bell-tower over the frater. Part of the south wall of this range, which is all that remains, shows signs of the 15th-century alterations and also of conversion to a dwelling-house after the dissolution. The modern farmhouse and its outbuildings cover the site of the kitchen and the south end of the west range. The latter was presumably devoted to the lay brothers; at the northern end part of a vaulted undercraft survives with a door leading straight into the church. A building called 'Botleston' — possibly a corruption of Billisdon, which would suggest a building of Abbot Billisdon's time (1284-93) — evidently adjoined the church; in 1369 it collapsed 'from the church as far as the door of the hall' and was rebuilt in timber in 1370. (fn. 69)
The abbot's lodging built by Abbot Shepshed in 1335-6 replaced the accommodation built by Abbot Houton probably at the southern end of the east range. The new lodging was a detached building standing south-east of the rere-dorter; two of its walls and part of a third survive. To the north of this was the infirmary, built by Abbot London. The site, partly covered by the modern road, was determined by excavations in the 19th century; further work to expose the foundations was in progress in 1968.
The abbey gatehouse, also built by Abbot London, lay to the north-west of the church, and there was a chapel to the east of the gatehouse. (fn. 70) The chapel, a mid-13th-century building about 50 ft. long, survived as Croxden parish church until 1886, when it was replaced by the present church on a site a little further north. (fn. 71) The stone wall round the 70-acre precinct was begun by Abbot London and finished by Abbot Measham (1274-84); some of it can still be seen.
Abbots (fn. 72)
Thomas of Woodstock, elected 1178 while still a deacon, died 1229. (fn. 73)
Walter de Chacumbe, elected 1230. (fn. 74)
William of Ashbourne, elected 1234, died 1237. (fn. 75)
John de Tilton, elected probably in 1237, resigned 1242.
Walter London, elected 1242, died 1268. (fn. 76)
William de Houton, elected 1269, died 1274. (fn. 77)
Henry of Measham, elected 1274, resigned 1284. (fn. 78)
John de Billisdon, elected 1284, died 1293. (fn. 79)
Richard of Twyford, elected 1294, died 1297. (fn. 80)
William of Over, elected 1297, deposed by the general chapter in 1308 for failing to obey the summons to its meeting. (fn. 81)
Richard of Ashby, elected 1309, resigned 1313. (fn. 82)
Thomas of Casterton, elected 1313. (fn. 83)
Richard of Ashby, re-elected 1320, resigned 1329. (fn. 84)
Richard of Shepshed, elected 1329, occurs 1336. (fn. 85)
Alexander de Colbeley, deposed by the visitors in 1368.
William Gunston, elected 1368, occurs 1398. (fn. 86)
Roger Prestone, occurs 1433. (fn. 87)
Ralph Leylonde, occurs 1439 and 1450. (fn. 88)
John Walton, or Checkley, occurs 1467 and 1507. (fn. 89)
Stephen Cadde, occurs 1509 and 1514. (fn. 90)
John Shipton, succeeded 1519, occurs 1521. (fn. 91)
Richard Snape, occurs 1529, died 1531. (fn. 92)
Thomas Chalner, or Chawner, elected 1531, surrendered the abbey 1538. (fn. 93)
A common seal was brought into use in 1313. (fn. 94) On the election of Thomas of Casterton in May the abbot's counterseal was broken in the presence of the visitors and community and it was decided that a common seal should be made and placed in the custody of four monks. This was duly done in November. It was evidently the seal in use in 1538. This is a pointed oval, 1¾ by 11/8 in., depicting the Virgin seated beneath a pinnacled ogee arch with the Child on her left knee; to the left is a shield bearing the Verdun arms and in the base under an ogee arch an abbot, three-quarters length, with a pastoral staff in his right hand and a book in his left. Legend, lombardic:
SIGILLUM ABBATIS ET CONVENTUS VALLIS SANCTE MARIE DE CROKESDEN