A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980.
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HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE MONKS
THE PRIORY OF BIRKENHEAD
The priory of St. James the Great at Birkenhead stood on a wooded headland on the north-eastern shore of the Wirral peninsula near a river ferry across the Mersey to Liverpool; the existence of a ferry may have been the reason for the foundation of a monastery on such an isolated site and for its dedication. (fn. 1) According to John Leland the priory was founded for sixteen monks (fn. 2) and was a cell of Chester abbey. (fn. 3) Although it is possible that the original monks were supplied by St. Werburgh's, there is no further evidence of dependency. The date of foundation and the identity of the founder are as obscure as most other aspects of the history of the priory. The traditional date is 1150 (fn. 4) but there is no documentary evidence that the priory existed before the second half of the reign of Henry II. (fn. 5) The nature of the priory's endowment suggests that a member of the Massey family of Dunham founded it, probably the second Hamon de Massey who died in 1185. (fn. 6) A Hamon de Massey granted the monks the right to elect their priors from among their own number; the right is likely to have been the gift of the founder and the Pope Alexander who confirmed the grant was probably Alexander III (1159-81). (fn. 7)
Most of the lands and churches held by the priory at its dissolution had been part of the Massey fee in the 11th century and probably formed the original 12thcentury endowment. Apart from the Birkenhead site the house held lands in the neighbouring manors of Claughton, Moreton, Tranmere, Higher Bebington, and Saughall; the churches of Bidston and Backford were probably also gifts from the founder. (fn. 8) The interest of the prior in the church of Bowdon, the income from which amounted to nearly half of the revenues of the house in 1535, (fn. 9) was more contentious. Half of the manor was probably held by the house from its foundation and in the early 1270s the prior claimed that a predecessor at the beginning of the 13th century had presented to the church. The legal dispute was settled in favour of the Massey family but in 1278 the fifth Hamon de Massey granted the advowson, together with a small holding of land in Dunham, to the priory; in return he and his ancestors and heirs were admitted to all the benefits of the house. (fn. 10) Evidence concerning other benefactors and endowments is extremely scanty. By an unusual arrangement the house shared the tithes of Wallasey church with Chester abbey; that must have been acquired early as St. Werburgh's was granted its share by William de Waley before 1182. The priory also held land in Wallasey and maintained a chapel, 'Lees Kirk', there. (fn. 11) Some of the priory's lands in Lancashire, which were never very considerable, had been acquired before 1200. At the end of the 12th century the prior and convent leased out part of their holding in Burnden in the manor of Great Lever in Middleton and before 1212 Henry de Walton gave the priory 3 a. at Newsham in Walton. The priory also held land in Melling (in Halsall) but the date of the gift and the donor's identity are unknown. (fn. 12) A known benefactor was Hugh Domville of Oxton and Brimstage who granted the priory a house and land in Oxton early in the reign of Henry III; his grant gave rise to litigation between the priory and the Domville family in 1282 and later the prior and Roger Domville settled the bounds between Claughton and Oxton. (fn. 13) By the 1260s the house had acquired a small rent charge on property in Chester, and in 1271 Edmund earl of Lancaster gave it 15 a. more at Newsham. (fn. 14) The earls of Chester apparently showed no interest in the house apart from exempting the priory from the obligation of housing and feeding the serjeants of the peace and any forest officials other than the itinerant serjeants of the master forester of Wirral and freeing the prior from attendance at hundred courts. (fn. 15) Thus, apart from the initial endowment by the Massey family, all the benefactions and privileges for which evidence survives were insubstantial and the house was to remain small and poor throughout its existence.
Writs of protection were obtained from the king in 1201 and 1202, in 1205 the prior acted as papal delegate in arbitration over the church of Childwall in Lancashire, and in 1225 he attended the General Chapter of the Benedictine order in England. (fn. 16) By the early 1280s the house was very distressed financially, probably for four reasons: litigation with the Massey family over the advowson of Bowdon and pasture rights in Bidston and Claughton, (fn. 17) the expense of visits to the priory by Edward I in 1275 and 1277, (fn. 18) the strain produced by the increase of traffic across the Mersey, and possibly the cost of rebuilding the church. (fn. 19) In April 1283 the prior and Geoffrey of Cheadle acknowledged that they owed 17 marks to William Hamilton, canon of Wells and later royal chancellor, but the debt must have been considerably larger than that acknowledged as at the following Michaelmas the prior and convent granted Hamilton an annual pension of 70 marks for life in consideration of his services to them. (fn. 20) This large pension must have placed a considerable strain on the priory's revenues and Hamilton renounced it in 1289 when the prior acknowledged that 62 marks were owing. (fn. 21) The prior was also in debt to Chief Justice Ralph Hengham: in 1287 the prior acknowledged a debt of 34 marks and goods worth 13½ marks were seized by the justice of Chester; part of the debt was still owing in 1309 when it was reported that further goods worth £5 had been seized but there was nothing more to distrain. (fn. 22) The settlement of the dispute over the advowson of Bowdon by the grant of Hamon de Massey in 1278 (fn. 23) may have been intended to alleviate the financial problems of the priory and in 1284 the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield allotted the income and expenses of the parish between the priory and the vicar. (fn. 24) In the same year, however, the prior admitted the right of Ralph Vernon to the advowson of the church of Davenham in return for a payment of 70 marks, doubtless in order to pay an instalment of the pension due to William Hamilton. (fn. 25) There is an indication, also in 1284, of the problems caused by the increased use of the ferry. The prior complained to the king that the public highway ran through the middle of the priory court and was given leave to deal with the nuisance by diverting the road and enclosing the priory with a wall or hedge and ditch. When the prior was accused in 1340 of injuring travellers by the removal of the road he cited the royal licence in his defence. (fn. 26) In 1291 the priory's income from its temporalities in Claughton and Moreton amounted to only £8 13s. (fn. 27) but attempts to increase the revenues from its estates led to frequent accusations of assarting and cutting down timber from the officials of Wirral forest; (fn. 28) in two cases of alleged assarting in Claughton the prior was able to produce licences granted in 1259 and 1305 by the earls of Chester. (fn. 29)
The finances of the priory underwent another crisis in the 1310s, mainly because of expenses arising from the ferry to Liverpool. In 1310 the prior and convent complained to the royal council that there were no inns nearer than Chester for travellers using the ferry and neither the revenues of the house, barely 200 marks a year, nor its buildings sufficed for the burdens of hospitality; they asked permission to build lodgings at the ferry and sell food to the passengers. (fn. 30) In 1317 the Crown licensed them to build lodgings to house travellers delayed by the weather and in the following year those in charge of the lodgings were allowed to buy and sell food. (fn. 31) The fees them charged by the Liverpool ferrymen elicited complaints from the inhabitants of Wirral and in 1330 Edward III, as a mark of favour to the monks and to travellers, granted the priory the right to ferry men, horses, and goods across the Mersey and to charge reasonable tolls. (fn. 32) The grant may simply have licensed charges for a service which the monks had previously operated free as a work of charity, as the prior implied when the Black Prince forced him to defend his right to the ferry in 1353. (fn. 33) In 1357 the prior had once more to uphold the right to the ferry when it was alleged in the forest court that the building of lodgings damaged the game in the forest and that the ferry tolls were excessive. (fn. 34) The income from tolls and the provision of lodgings, which in 1536 was valued at £4 6s. 8d. a year, must have helped to alleviate the financial problems of the priory and it is perhaps significant that it never took up a licence, issued on the day before the grant of ferry rights, enabling it to appropriate Chester abbey's half of Wallasey church. (fn. 35) The priory itself used the ferry to sell produce at Liverpool market; from the early 14th century it held land and a granary in Liverpool and in 1350 the prior and a fellow monk were accused of assault and theft during the market. (fn. 36)
One attempt by the Crown to help the priory after its appeal for help in 1310 turned out to be ill-judged. In 1316 the house was given custody of the hospital of St. John the Baptist in Chester, whose wardens had mismanaged its endowment. (fn. 37) The intention was both to ensure the maintenance of the services of the hospital and to augment the revenues of the priory, but the prior, on taking up his duties, reported that much of the property of the hospital had been alienated. (fn. 38) The brief custody by the priory did little to remedy the mismanagement of the hospital and only increased the financial problems of the priory itself. The hospital was removed from the priory's control in 1341 and in 1345 the prior and convent granted an annual pension of 5 marks to the new warden of the hospital, Richard of Wolveston, for life; at the same time the prior acknowledged a debt of 200 marks to Wolveston, 100 marks of which was still owing in 1353. (fn. 39) In 1361 Roger Lestrange bought the advowson of the priory from the heirs of Hamon de Massey through the good offices of Henry, duke of Lancaster (fn. 40) and in 1397 John Lestrange sold it to John Stanley of Lathom, the ancestor of the earls of Derby. (fn. 41) The changes of patron did not, however, affect the monks' practice of electing their own priors and thereafter obtaining the bishop's confirmation of their choice. Episcopal injunctions for 1348 afford some information on the internal state of the house in the mid 14th century. (fn. 42) As might be expected the visitor was mainly concerned about the community's finances: since suspicion had arisen about the administration of the goods of the house, each obedientiary was to present annual accounts to the whole chapter or to a committee composed of the more prudent monks and, since there were few monks, the visitor advised that only the cellarer or the sacrist be deputed to assist the prior. The prior was enjoined to treat his brethren with charity and seek the advice of the whole house on difficult matters. He was also ordered to repair the priory buildings, particularly the roofs of the church and the cloisters. A lamp was to be kept burning in the church day and night and a secular priest was to be appointed within a month to serve in the church, which suggests that none of the monks was in priestly orders. (fn. 43) No further comments were made on the behaviour of the prior, even though he was claiming the right to keep greyhounds and other dogs in the priory, (fn. 44) and in general discipline in the house appears to have been well-maintained, except that silence was often broken; in the previous year the house had been selected as a suitable refuge for one of the monks of St. Werburgh's who had criticised their own abbot's behaviour. (fn. 45) The smallness of the community, which attracted comment from the visitor in 1348, persisted later in the century; there were only five monks, including the prior, at Birkenhead in 1379 and 1381. (fn. 46)
Little is known of the size or state of the house until the late 15th century. The monks or their tenants were sometimes involved in lawsuits but there is no evidence of serious disorder. (fn. 47) In 1436, however, the priory was the scene of a notorious crime: Isabel, the widow of Sir John Butler of Bewsey (Lancs.), was abducted by William Poole, a member of the Wirral family which supplied stewards for the priory in the 15th and 16th centuries, forcibly married to him in Bidston church, and imprisoned at Birkenhead where she was discovered by Sir Thomas Stanley. (fn. 48) Some fragmentary personal details of the lives of the monks have also survived: two priors were bastards, and one had been a murderer and had undertaken a penitential pilgrimage to Rome before being professed as a monk at Birkenhead. (fn. 49) In 1423 the prior, John Wood, failed to attend the meeting of the General Chapter allegedly because of madness. (fn. 50) Also in 1423 Robert Urmston was acquitted on a charge of taking a worsted cape and silver-gilt brooch from a fellow monk; since the prior was mad and Urmston became prior himself in 1425, that may have been an over-enthusiastic attempt to enforce simplicity of dress. (fn. 51) Urmston was succeeded in 1435 as prior by Hamon Bostock, the prior of St. Werburgh's, perhaps because there was no suitable candidate in the house. (fn. 52) In 1456 the bishop, while approving the monks' choice of the subprior as their next prior, condemned clandestine elections and confirmations and ordered the public confirmation of the election in St. John's church, Chester. (fn. 53) By the end of the 15th century the house was no larger nor more prosperous; in 1496 there were only five monks and it was exempted from clerical taxation on the grounds of poverty. (fn. 54)
The priory was visited three times by Bishop Blythe or his commissioners between 1518 and 1524; on each occasion there were seven members of the house, including two novices in 1518 and one in 1521 and 1524. The offices of precentor or sacrist and kitchener seem to have been rotated among the monks, although in 1518 one monk was both kitchener and cellarer. On each occasion the prior and his brethren reported that discipline was good and nothing needed reformation: services and silence were observed, the rule was read daily, no monk was suspected of incontinence, no suspect women had access to the house and no boys slept in the dormitory; inventories had been prepared and accounts rendered regularly; in 1521 and 1524 it was reported that necessary repairs had been undertaken. The house was not, however, always free from debt. In 1518 the prior reported that there was a debt of £30 but a further £70 had been paid off since the previous visitation; in 1521 the house was said to be free from debt but by 1524 a further debt of 100 marks had been incurred because the lease of Bowdon church, which had been granted before the time of the prior to Sir William Booth, had been redeemed. (fn. 55) There had been several disputes at the end of the 14th century between the priory and the Massey family of Hale which held the other half of the manor. (fn. 56) The rectory was leased in 1487 to Hamon Massey of Rixton for 40 years at a rent of £40 to the priory and after Massey's death the lease was transferred in 1508 to Sir William Booth and his brother; the prior denied the validity of the lease in 1510 but it seems to have been redeemed at considerable expense by Prior Sharpe between 1521 and 1524. (fn. 57) Sharpe was praised as prior by his fellow monks and wills of the period reveal that the local gentry held him in high regard. (fn. 58) The royal visitors in 1536 found that one monk was incontinent and estimated the income of the house at £108 with an outstanding debt of £20. (fn. 59) The valuation of 1535 shows that the gross annual income was £102 16s. 10d. (£90 13s. net.). Spiritual possessions produced £82 17s. 6½d. while temporal property produced only £19 19s. 3½d. Regular payments included pensions to the rector of Trafford and the vicar of Backford and fees to a steward, a receiver, and bailiffs in Bowdon, Claughton and Moreton, Wallasey, and Lancashire. (fn. 60) The priory property as listed in 1536 after it had passed to the Crown (fn. 61) consisted of lands and rents in Birkenhead, Moreton, Claughton (with the 'manor of Woolton'), Kirkby in Waley (in Wallasey), Tranmere, Higher Bebington, Backford, Saughall, Bidston, Heswall, Upton (unidentified), and Chester; in Lancashire, lands and rents in Seacombe, Barnston, Leftwich, Liverpool, Warrington, Newsham, and Melling; the rectories of Backford, Bidston, and Bowdon and half the rectory of Wallasey. The gross annual value of the estates was then £129 18s. 10d.
The priory was included in the list of monasteries worth less than £200 a year and was liable for dissolution under the terms of the Act of 1536. (fn. 62) It was probably dissolved in May or June 1536 as the prior was awarded an annual pension of £12 at the beginning of July; no deed of surrender or inventory has survived. (fn. 63) In the following year the former prior and four monks were dispensed to hold benefices with a complete change of habit. (fn. 64) The site of the priory was leased immediately to Ralph Worsley, a member of the royal household, (fn. 65) and in 1545 Worsley purchased the site and most of the priory's lands in Cheshire for £568 11s. 6d. The site included the buildings within the precincts, a mill, a flax field, fishyards and the ferry, ferryhouse and boat. (fn. 66) The priory buildings were allowed to fall into ruin after the dissolution, apart from the chapter house which was retained in use, first as a domestic chapel and later as a chapel for the extra-parochial district of Birkenhead until the new church of St. Mary was built on the site of the priory graveyard after 1819. (fn. 67) The ruins were purchased by public appeal in 1896 and their care entrusted to the corporation of Birkenhead; in 1913 a faculty was obtained to renovate the chapter house and it was dedicated for use as a chapel in 1919. (fn. 68)
The two-bayed chapter house is the only surviving structure of the 12th century but the cloister preserves the scale of the original layout and that suggests a small and not very pretentious group of buildings. The church lay to the south of the cloister and may or may not have been cruciform before the rebuilding of the nave with arcades in the early 13th century, when the original room or slype against the south side of the chapter house was demolished to make room for the north transept. The conjunction of transept and chapter house is reminiscent of St. Mary's Abbey at Chester, and the dormitory perhaps also followed the Chester plan and ran eastward from the cloister a short distance north of the chapter house.
The west claustral range was rebuilt in the later 13th century and modified, perhaps in two stages, in the 14th century. In its final form it provided a small two-storeyed lodging, comprising on the first floor chamber, parlour, and chapel, at the south end, with a two-bayed hall to the north and a cross passage north of that. The arrangement suggests that it was for the accommodation of the prior whose hall was doubtless used for the entertainment of more important guests.
The north claustral range was rebuilt in the later 14th century, perhaps a little to the north of its predecessor, and contained the refectory above a vaulted undercroft. A northward extension at its east end may have housed the misericord. A first floor was added above the chapter house in the 14th century, perhaps to provide direct access to the transept from the dormitory.
A short distance to the west of the main buildings a house which survived into the 19th century is said to have been the building which was put up to provide accommodation for guests awaiting the ferry.
Robert, occurs about 1190. (fn. 69)
Ralph, occurs about 1200. (fn. 70)
Robert, occurs about 1206. (fn. 71)
Oliver, occurs about 1216. (fn. 72)
William of Walley, occurs from about 1250 to about 1283. (fn. 73)
Robert, occurs 1282, 1283. (fn. 74)
Robert of Bechington, occurs from 1320-2, died 1339. (fn. 75)
James of Neston, elected 1339, resigned immediately. (fn. 76)
Henry of Bechington, appointed 1339, occurs until 1348. (fn. 77)
Thomas of Tyddesbury, occurs from 1350 to 1357. (fn. 78)
Roger of Tyddesbury, occurs from 1361 to 1400. (fn. 79)
Robert of Handbridge, occurs from 1401, died 1408. (fn. 80)
John Wood, elected 1408, occurs until 1425. (fn. 81)
Robert Urmston, occurs from 1425, died 1435. (fn. 82)
Hamon Bostock, elected 1435, occurs until 1439. (fn. 83)
Richard Norman, occurs from 1441, died 1456. (fn. 84)
Hugh Boner, elected 1456, died before 1462. (fn. 85)
Thomas Reynforth, elected 1462, died 1473. (fn. 86)
Hugh Gardener, resigned 1486. (fn. 87)
Thomas Chester, or Tassy, elected 1486, died 1499. (fn. 88)
Nicholas Stace, or Tassy, elected 1499, occurs until 1508. (fn. 89)
Hugh Hyne, occurs from 1509, died 1514. (fn. 90)
John Sharpe, elected 1514, surrendered the priory in 1536. (fn. 91)
A seal in use in 1390-1 (fn. 92) is a pointed oval and depicts St. James on a diapered ground standing under a canopy. He wears a pilgrim's hat and cloak and a wallet on his left side; his right hand holds a staff and his left a book; in the base is a kneeling figure under a canopy. Legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM COMMUNE PRIORATUS SANCTI IACOBI DE BIRKENEVED IN COM. CESTRIE.