Religious houses: Introduction

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980.

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'Religious houses: Introduction', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3, (London, 1980) pp. 124-127. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]


Medieval Cheshire was not well endowed with religious houses and four of its foundations proved short-lived or were moved out of the county. The small number of permanent foundations can probably be explained by the feudal and physical geography of the county and by the lack of monastic life before the Norman Conquest. Although William of Malmesbury believed that St. Werburgh was professed in a nunnery at Chester, (fn. 1) the monastic history of Cheshire began in 1092 when Hugh I, earl of Chester, transformed a church of secular canons in Chester into a Benedictine abbey. Earl Hugh and his men amply endowed the abbey, and the earl's successors founded no other monastery within Cheshire, although Ranulph II provided a site in Chester for the Benedictine priory of St. Mary's, the only nunnery in the county. Most of the remaining Cheshire houses date from the 12th century and were founded by the barons and officials of the earls of Chester and usually put under the protection of the earl. The third and final Benedictine house, the small and remote priory at Birkenhead, was founded and endowed by the Massey family in the later 12th century but, in general, the lesser nobility of Cheshire preferred the newer orders whose houses could be founded more cheaply; even so the sites provided often proved unsuitable for permanent occupation and the initial endowments inadequate. William FitzNeal, the constable of Chester, who was significantly not among the first benefactors of Chester abbey, founded and liberally endowed the first house of Augustinian canons in 1115. Originally at Runcorn, it was soon removed to Norton. The only other Augustinian foundation and the only foundation in the east of the county came nearly a century later and had a very brief existence: at the beginning of the 13th century Patrick of Mobberley established a priory at Mobberley which was soon annexed to Rocester abbey in Staffordshire but afterwards given up because of irregularities in its endowment. (fn. 2) The only Premonstratensian house, founded by Adam de Dutton at Warburton in the extreme north of the county at the end of the 12th century, also failed. The county had four houses of the order of Cîteaux or its allied order of Savigny, more than in the neighbouring counties, but those foundations also had a chequered history. Combermere, founded in 1133, was the first. Its first daughter house, founded by Robert the Butler in the mid 12th century on his small estate at Poulton on the western edge of Cheshire, was transferred by Ranulph III, earl of Chester, to Dieulacres in Staffordshire in 1214 because Poulton was too exposed to Welsh attacks. (fn. 3) Another daughter house, established at Stanlow in the 1170s by John the Constable, remained on its desolate and unsuitable site on the Mersey, for over a century until a particularly destructive flood in 1279 prompted the monks to demand a more secure home; in 1296 most of the convent moved to Whalley in Lancashire, but retained Stanlow as a cell until the dissolution. (fn. 4) The last religious house to be founded in Cheshire was also Cistercian and was intended to be the largest and most splendid house of the order in England; it failed, however, first at Darnhall and then at Vale Royal, to live up to the grandiose dream of its founder, the Lord Edward.

None of the houses which survived in Cheshire until the dissolution was large or more than locally important. Many of the charters of foundation and endowment exist only in the form of copies and some are suspect; the only surviving cartulary, that of St. Werburgh's, is strictly a register rather than a true cartulary. (fn. 5) Few records of the internal administration of the houses have survived but, apart from St. Werburgh's, none was large enough to develop an elaborate organization. With the notable exception of Ranulph Higden, no intellectual distinction can be claimed for Cheshire monks although chronicles of a sort were produced in Chester and Vale Royal abbeys. Only Chester and Combermere had substantial estates outside the county and the monastic economies were apparently concerned mainly with forest clearing and pastoral farming before the universal movement away from direct cultivation to rents in the 14th and 15th centuries. Apart from the small and poor houses of Birkenhead and St. Mary's, Chester, which both acquired new endowments and sources of income in the 14th century, the Cheshire houses were no poorer than houses in the neighbouring counties but often complained of poverty, especially when the Crown sought assistance in the Welsh and other military campaigns. (fn. 6) Another common grievance was the burden of almsgiving and hospitality; in 1351 the Black Prince ordered the justice of Chester to protect the houses of St. Werburgh's, Vale Royal, and Combermere, which were so burdened by the frequent visits of local people that their possessions hardly sufficed to maintain their few monks. (fn. 7) The three houses thus protected undoubtedly experienced considerable difficulties in the later Middle Ages and were frequently in royal custody during the 14th and early 15th centuries but the difficulties appear to have been caused less by poverty than by incompetent superiors, internal dissension, and involvement in local disorder. In the early 16th century the monasteries apparently became more prosperous again but also more involved in the gentry feuds of the county. They found little local support, however, when threatened with dissolution, and suppression was actively resisted only at Norton where the abbot and some of the canons owed their escape from execution to the struggle between gentry factions to control the county rather than to sympathy for their plight. There was more popular support for the friars. Four of the mendicant orders had been established in Chester during the 13th century and, although none of their convents was large and that of the Friars of the Sack short-lived, the friars remained popular in Chester and its neighbourhood until their suppression in 1538. Richard Ingworth, bishop of Dover, who was responsible for suppressing friaries in North Wales and the West Midlands reported that the friars 'have many favourers, and great labour is made for their continuance'. (fn. 8)

Apart from the Chester hospitals of St. John the Baptist and St. Giles, Boughton, which benefited from the patronage of the earls of Chester, the medieval hospitals of Cheshire were small and insignificant. In addition to those treated below there survive isolated references to some other hospitals, usually communities of lepers, which were probably ephemeral. The lepers of Frodsham were given land in alms by John the Scot, earl of Chester, and in 1259 the warden of the leper hospital of Macclesfield was given a royal protection for five years. (fn. 9) In 1283 the brethren of the house of lepers of Bebington were licensed to inclose and cultivate part of the forest of Wirral; that hospital, which gave its name to the hamlet of Spital Old Hall in Poulton Lancelyn, was probably attached to the chapel of St. Thomas the Martyr which had been founded before 1183. (fn. 10) At the beginning of the 14th century it was said that a leper house formerly stood on the boundary between the Wirral manors of Irby and Thurstaston and fifty years later there is an incidental reference to the Wilderspool 'spital'. (fn. 11) A hospital at Wybunbury dedicated to St. George and the Holy Cross, which occurs in 1464 may be identical with a fraternity of the Holy Cross in neighbouring Nantwich. (fn. 12) Place-names suggest hospitals in Stanthorne, Mottram St. Andrew, and Knutsford Booths. (fn. 13)


The earliest references to hermits and anchorites in the county are legendary rather than factual. Plegmund, archbishop of Canterbury (890-914), is said by Gervase of Canterbury to have lived for years as a hermit in the Isle of Chester and given his name to Plemstall, (fn. 14) and, according to Gerald of Wales, King Harold II fled wounded from Hastings to Chester where he survived as an anchorite in the chapel of St. James, close to St. John's church. Ranulph Higden treats the latter story with some scepticism but adopts from Gerald of Wales another story that the Emperor Henry V died as a hermit near Chester and adds that Henry lived ten years at Chester under the name of Godescall. (fn. 15) According to Henry Bradshaw, William FitzNeal, constable of Chester, encountered a monk 'dwelling contemplative' on Hilbre Island in the early 12th century and there is an indication in the early 14th century that the cell which was established on Hilbre by St. Werburgh's abbey sometimes held monks who had vowed to live in solitude. (fn. 16) There are references to anchorites attached to three of the churches of Chester. In 1284 Queen Eleanor gave alms of £6 3s. 0½d. to build a chapel and cell for the recluse of St. Martin's church and in 1300 the maidservant of the anchoress of St. Chad's church occurs in a lawsuit. (fn. 17) It was only, however, the anchorite's chapel and cell of St. James in the graveyard of St. John's, opposite the south entrance to the church, which seems to have achieved any permanence. In the mid 14th century it held monks of Vale Royal (1342) and Norton (1356) and a Dominican friar (1363), and in 1565 a lease of property formerly belonging to St. John's College included the 'anker's chapel'. (fn. 18) Outside Chester an anchorite at Frodsham was paid royal alms of 1d. a day between 1274 and 1278 and a recluse at Christleton was given a gift of 2 marks by Edward I in 1279-80. (fn. 19) There were also recluses at Middlewich (1283), (fn. 20) Stockport (1361) (fn. 21) and Macclesfield (1301 and 1509). (fn. 22) References to hermits and hermitages are more geographically and chronologically diverse. A local family took its name from a hermitage at Cranage in the 13th century and at Tarporley the chantry chapel dedicated to the Virgin and St. Leonard was also known as the hermitage of the Rood. (fn. 23) In 1367 Simon de Goddesmere, hermit, was licensed to have an oratory in his hermitage at Wilderspool and in 1396 the hermit of St. Agatha the Virgin at Tarvin was granted an oak to repair Holme Street and Stamford Bridge. (fn. 24) In 1424 William Heyworth, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, leased two gardens to Nicholas Baker, the hermit of Wybunbury, for 99 years on condition that they should be held by fit priests or honest hermits. (fn. 25) There was at least one hermitage in Chester in the later Middle Ages. In 1358 John Spicer, hermit, was pardoned for acquiring a piece of land between the Dee and the quarry of Chester and building on it a hermitage enclosed within a wall; in 1363 Spicer was described as the hermit by the bridge of Chester when he was commissioned to collect a grant of pavage. (fn. 26) His hermitage was probably that of St. James beyond the bridge of Chester in Handbridge in which John Benet, hermit of St. James, Chester, was accused of receiving robbers, sheltering common malefactors, and keeping a brothel; in 1456 the mayor and sheriffs of Chester were ordered to investigate the conduct of his successor, Jeven ap Bleth' ap Carwet, recently appointed to the hermitage by the king. (fn. 27)


  • 1. Chartulary of Chester Abbey, i (Chetham Soc. N.S. lxxix), p. xv. The monasteries of Bromborough (T. Tanner, Notitia Monastica, ed. J. Nasmith, Cheshire V) and St. Michael's, Chester (Cal. Chart. R. 1327–41, 124; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 354) are equally fictitious.
  • 2. V.C.H. Staffs. iii. 248.
  • 3. Ibid. 230–1; G. Barraclough, Early Ches. Charts. 1–5.
  • 4. V.C.H. Lancs. ii. 131–3.
  • 5. Cart. Chester Abbey, i, p. xxxiv.
  • 6. Cal. Chanc. R. Var. 264–5, 277; Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 30.
  • 7. Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 18.
  • 8. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii(2), p. 67.
  • 9. Ches. in Pipe R. (R.S.L.C. xcii), 42, 47; Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 20.
  • 10. Cal. Pat. 1281–92, 74; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. ii. 443; Cart. Chester Abbey, i, p. 126; ii (Chetham Soc. N.S. lxxxii), pp. xxxv, 381; 3 Sheaf, xxxii, p. 63.
  • 11. Cart. Chester Abbey, ii, p. 387; 28 D.K.R. 55.
  • 12. T. Tanner, Notitia Monastica, ed. J. Nasmith, Cheshire XXI; J. Hall, Hist. of Town and Par. of Nantwich, 281, 285.
  • 13. Ormerod, Hist. Ches. iii. 262–3; P.N. Ches. (E.P.N.S.), i. 205; ii. 79.
  • 14. Gervasii Cantuariensis Opera (Rolls Ser.), 350; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. ii, p. 808 n.; P.N. Ches. iv. 135–6.
  • 15. Giraldi Cambrensis Opera (Rolls Ser.), i. 186; vi. 139 and n., 140 and n.; Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden (Rolls Ser.), vii. 245; viii, 35.
  • 16. Below, Chester Abbey.
  • 17. Tribute to an Antiquary, ed. F. Emmison & R. Stephens, 117; B.L. Harl. MS. 2162, f. 61v.
  • 18. Lich. Jt. R. O., B/A/1/2, f. 115v.; B/A/1/3, f. 138v.; 1st Reg. Stretton (Collns. Hist. Staffs. N.S. x(2)), 162; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. i. 353–4; Cal. Pat. 1563–6, p. 349. There was also an 'anchorite's cell' overhanging the cliff on the south wall of the churchyard in which two skeletons were found c. 1770: Lysons, Mag. Brit. ii(2), 624.
  • 19. Ches. in Pipe R. 113, 118, 121, 135.
  • 20. Cal. Pat. 1281–92, 74.
  • 21. Lancs. and Ches. Wills, 1301–1752 (R.S.L.C. xxx), 7. Between 1361 and 1374 John Boner is called recluse, anchorite, or hermit of Stockport: 2nd Reg. Stretton (Collns. Hist. Staffs. N.S. viii), 57, 68, 96. There was a chantry chapel or hermitage on Stockport bridge: Earwaker, E. Ches. i. 420.
  • 22. 3 Sheaf, xliii, p. 12.
  • 23. J. P. Earwaker, Hist. of Ancient Par. of Sandbach, 203; Ormerod, Hist. Ches. ii. 236–7; iii. 129; Hist. MSS. Com. 22, 11th Rep. VII, Ellesmere, p. 138.
  • 24. 2nd Reg. Stretton, 37, 116; 3 Sheaf, xxviii, p. 79. For other refs. to hermits in mid 14th cent. see Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 310; W. F. Irvine, 'Trespasses in Forest of Wirral in 1351', T.H.S.L.C. ci. 43.
  • 25. Lysons, Mag. Brit. ii(2), 826.
  • 26. 36 D.K.R. 436; Blk. Prince's Reg. iii. 457. In 1367 he was licensed to have an oratory in his hermitage: 2nd Reg. Stretton, 38.
  • 27. R. H. Morris, Chester in Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns, 169; 37 D.K.R. 124.