A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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5. THE ABBEY, LATER PRIORY, OF WENLOCK
The only pre-Conquest religious house in Shropshire was St. Milburga's monastery at Wenlock, and this had given way to a minster of secular clerks by the eleventh century. Roger, Earl of Shrewsbury, refounded the house c. 1079–82 as a Cluniac priory dependent on La Charité-sur-Loire but the traditions and some of the charters of the first foundation survived to be recorded by Goscelin of St. Bertin in the Life of St. Milburga, which he wrote at the invitation of the Cluniac monks. In spite of some scribal corruptions and minor errors the Testament of St. Mildburg, incorporated in the Life, has the marks of a largely authentic 8th-century document, citing genuine charters; it is the principal source for the early history of the monastery. (fn. 1)
The monastery was founded before 690 (fn. 2) on land purchased from Merewald, sub-king of the Magonsaete and father of St. Milburga, with the help of Edelheg, Abbot of St. Botolph's monastery of 'Icanho' (probably Iken, Suff.). (fn. 3) It was subject to 'Icanho' and was a double monastery under the rule of an abbess. Milburga's mother was the foundress of Minster in Thanet and Milburga herself may, like her sister Mildred, have been educated at Chelles in Gaul. (fn. 4) Wherever she made her first profession, she was closely in touch with the double monasteries both in the Merovingian kingdom and in England. She became abbess of Wenlock either at the time of its foundation or shortly afterwards. (fn. 5)
Her half-brothers, Merchelm and Mildfrith, and her kinsmen Ethelred and Ceolred, Kings of Mercia, were among the benefactors of the house. Before Milburga's death, if the whole of the Testament is authentic, Wenlock held property in the regions of its later estates: round the Clee Hills at Stoke St. Milborough and Clee Stanton; along the River Corve, probably including Easthope and Patton (and perhaps Bourton, Shipton, and Sutton); near Chelmarsh (perhaps including Eardington and Deuxhill); and at Madeley. (fn. 6) The minster also had properties, which were later lost, in Wales, Worcestershire (Wyre Piddle), and Herefordshire (Lingen or Upper Lye). At a later date the community surrendered some property in Stanton Long to purchase the immunity of the minster from secular dues, but in 901 this was restored by Ethelred and Ethelfleda, who gave at the same time three tenants in Caughley and a golden chalice in honour of the Abbess Milburga. (fn. 7) By this date the community was under a male superior (fn. 8) but its history during the following century and a half is obscure.
There is no doubt that the women's community disappeared and that all record of the place of St. Milburga's burial was lost for a time. The 'discovery' of her relics in a ruined church a stone's throw from the site of the minster church suggests that the two communities in the first foundation were completely separate even to the extent of having two churches. (fn. 9) The men's community may have had a continuous existence, gradually giving way to a group of secular canons serving a minster. In the 11th century, according to Florence of Worcester, Earl Leofric enriched Wenlock with precious ornaments, (fn. 10) and William of Malmesbury, misinterpreting the passage in Florence, included Wenlock amongst Leofric's foundations. (fn. 11) Many later historians followed him in attributing the foundation of a minster to Earl Leofric. In fact, though the nuns' church was certainly derelict by the time of the Norman Conquest, the history of the minster is uncertain. Excavations in 1901 revealed foundations of two earlier churches on the site of the later priory. (fn. 12) The first, in the area of the crossing, possibly dates from the late 7th century and was a roughly rectangular building about 38 feet by 28 feet, with an internal eastern apse: it was probably the church of the first community of men. The second, a little further to the east, had an apsidal east end the same width as the main 13th-century choir, with a smaller apse to the south and probably a similar apse to the north. Whether this church dates from the late Saxon or early Norman period is uncertain but a later excavation (1962) gave some support to the earlier dating. (fn. 13) This suggests that the minster church may have been rebuilt shortly before the Conquest, even if there was no formal refoundation by Earl Leofric. Certainly the church lands were extensive on the eve of the Conquest, when the minster held manors at Much Wenlock, Eaton-under-Heywood, Madeley, Little Wenlock, Bourton, Shipton, Stoke St. Milborough, Deuxhill, Pickthorn, Eardington, and Sutton near Shrewsbury. (fn. 14) It seems at that date to have been a typical Shropshire minster with an extensive parish, held by a group of canons who followed no particular rule. Florence of Worcester's expression, Wenlocense coenobium, (fn. 15) may imply that the canons led some kind of common life and were at least resident. After the coming of the Normans its conversion to a monastic house was almost inevitable.
Earl Roger's first action was to assign some of its property temporarily for the support of his domestic chaplains: in 1086 Stoke St. Milborough was still in the hands of his chaplains, (fn. 16) though the jurors reported that 'the church ought to have it', (fn. 17) and soon afterwards he used Eardington, which was in his demesne by 1086, to endow his college of Quatford. (fn. 18) Before 1086, however, and probably between 1079 and 1082 he had established a Cluniac priory at Much Wenlock (fn. 19) and had granted most of the lands of the Saxon minster to the monks. Stoke St. Milborough reverted to them after the expiry of his chaplains' rights and he gave Millichope as compensation for Eardington. (fn. 20) He had already been a benefactor of Cluny (fn. 21) but Abbot Hugh was opposed to sending out too many monks from the mother house and, before the end of Earl Roger's life, Wenlock had been subjected to the great Cluniac priory of La Charité-sur-Loire. It was probably from the latter house that the first monks came. (fn. 22) All that is known of the foundation of the first English Cluniac priories, as well as of Earl Roger's Benedictine foundation at Shrewsbury, suggests that the community was probably built up slowly from small beginnings. (fn. 23) By the turn of the century, however, the monks were fully established and actively engaged in restoring the traditions of the earlier house, venerating their saint, and securing property and privileges.
In 1101, when the ruined church of the Holy Trinity was being repaired, probably to serve as a parish church, (fn. 24) some bones which were claimed as those of St. Milburga were discovered near the foundations of an altar. (fn. 25) This church, a stone's throw from the minster, was probably the original nuns' church and St. Milburga's body may well have been buried there. (fn. 26) About this time the monks of Wenlock employed Goscelin of St. Bertin to write the life of their saint, so reviving the local cult which gained steadily in popularity throughout the Middle Ages. (fn. 27) Their next move was to obtain confirmation of their earlier privileges. Following proceedings before the Bishop of Hereford at Wistanstow between 1107 and 1115 Richard of Belmeis, viceroy of Shropshire, issued a charter testifying that 'the land of St. Milburga is all one parish and is all subject to the mother church at Wenlock'. (fn. 28) The authority of St. Milburga was extended from the ecclesiastical to the secular sphere in the reign of Richard I, when the Liberties of Wenlock were created by withdrawing the manors held by the priory from the hundreds of Munslow, Condover, and Brimstree and exempting the prior and his tenants from suit at hundred and county courts. (fn. 29) Wenlock Priory thus came to enjoy the most extensive ecclesiastical immunity in Shropshire. Its rights included infangtheof and outfangtheof (fn. 30) and it also enjoyed exemption from the regard and view in all its woods. (fn. 31) As cultivation advanced the manorial and parochial structure of the great parish of St. Milburga was modified, new settlements were established, and chapels were founded; but these estates formed the core of Wenlock's endowment.
There were a few important later acquisitions. Half of Patton passed to the priory early in the 12th century (fn. 32) and Church Preen, given before 1161, became a dependent cell. (fn. 33) In 1169, when Walter FitzAlan secured a community of monks from Wenlock for the foundation of his monastery at Paisley, he granted property in Scotland, which was exchanged shortly afterwards for property in Birdham (Suss.). (fn. 34) The FitzAlan interest was continued by Isabel de Say's grant, in the time of Richard I, of the church of Clun with all its chapels for the soul of her first husband William FitzAlan. (fn. 35) In 1175 Hugh de Periers granted the reversion of Ditton Priors after his wife's death. (fn. 36) The important manor of Oxenbold was given in or before 1244 by Robert de Girros and was then transferred from Munslow hundred to the liberties of Wenlock. (fn. 37)
From the time of its foundation until the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War Wenlock was in close dependence on La Charité and the mother abbey of Cluny. An apport of 100s. was owed to La Charité, (fn. 38) and priors of Wenlock, nominated by the Prior of La Charité, were usually Frenchmen. (fn. 39) Any rights of patronage enjoyed by Earl Roger reverted to the Crown in 1102 but, because of Cluniac privileges, these amounted at first to no more than the right to hospitality and the prayers of the community. Until the late 13th century at least successive kings seem to have accepted the nominees of La Charité without question. (fn. 40) According to a local jury no royal escheator had ever occupied the lands of the priory until the death of Prior Humbert in 1261; (fn. 41) from that date the Crown seems to have claimed the guardianship of the temporalities during vacancy and the subprior and convent could keep out the royal officials only by offering a substantial fine. (fn. 42) From the early 14th century royal corrodiaries were regularly sent to the priory. (fn. 43) The statutes of the order required that all monks should make their profession to the Abbot of Cluny, but how far this was done after local recruitment became normal is unknown. (fn. 44) Whether the monks came from La Charite or more locally there was certainly no lack of recruits. By the mid 12th century the conventual buildings had been built on an ample scale, as the beautiful chapter-house and infirmary hall show, (fn. 45) and the priory was able to spare a group of monks in 1169 for the foundation of Paisley Priory. (fn. 46) In 1180 Gervase Paganell placed his foundation of Dudley Priory under Wenlock, giving the prior the right to place his monks in Dudley and appoint the priors there. (fn. 47) St. Helen's (I.W.) seems for a time to have been affiliated to Wenlock and may have drawn some monks from the older house, though little is known of the connexion. (fn. 48) Wenlock was also able to maintain a small cell on its Shropshire estates at Church Preen. (fn. 49) By the late 13th century, when the house normally supported up to forty monks, (fn. 50) most if not all the monks other than the prior seem to have been English. (fn. 51) The Prior of Wenlock, the oldest of La Charité's English dependencies, was on several occasions appointed visitor of the English province (fn. 52) and sometimes priors had had previous experience as heads of the other daughter-houses of Bermondsey, Northampton, and Daventry. (fn. 53) Until 1301 the prior was expected to attend the annual general chapters at Cluny every two years and his obligation to attend the chapters of La Charité continued after that date. Royal licences to cross the seas on the business of the house during the 13th and early 14th centuries (fn. 54) suggest that the priors went rather less often than once in two years and on some occasions certainly they asked to be excused on the grounds of urgent business. (fn. 55)
The priory seems to have been at its most prosperous during the 13th century. Extensive rebuilding took place, the appropriation of the valuable Clun churches, c. 1220, helping to provide money for a fabric fund, (fn. 56) and Henry III was generous with gifts of timber from the royal forests. In 1232, when he stayed at Wenlock, he gave timber for thirty tie-beams and their corbels, 15 oaks for building the church, and 4 oaks for the roof of a Lady Chapel; in the following year he gave the sacrist 6 oaks for the clock-tower (horlogium). (fn. 57) The church was entirely rebuilt on a scale that made it the largest monastic church in Shropshire; new claustral buildings too were provided, including a new frater, guest-houses, and an entire west range. (fn. 58) Meanwhile the resources of the monastery were increased. Humbert or Imbert, prior 1221–60, was an able and energetic man, high in the king's favour.
From 1231 he was frequently employed on royal missions overseas and on embassies to treat with the Welsh. (fn. 59) Under his rule the priory enlarged its demesnes both by the acquisition of Oxenbold manor and by extensive assarting in the royal forests of Shirlett and the Wrekin. Urban centres too were developing: Much Wenlock secured a market and fair in 1227, (fn. 60) and at Madeley an order was made in 1250 that houses recently built on forest assarts should be thrown down, the prior being allowed to retain his own houses there. (fn. 61) The development of the 'new town' of Madeley, which appears as a flourishing community with a large number of burgage tenants in 14th-century manorial records, may date from this time; (fn. 62) a Tuesday market and an annual fair there were granted in 1269. (fn. 63) There is as yet no hint that the prior was drawing any revenue from his mineral resources here, which later became important, but he was certainly enlarging and actively exploiting his demesnes.
Humbert's successor, Aymo de Montibus, previously Prior of Bermondsey, was less close to the king; indeed, as Simon de Montfort put him in charge of the priory of Northampton after the battle of Lewes (fn. 64) and Henry III, on regaining power a few months later, restored the former prior, (fn. 65) his sympathies may have been with de Montfort. He was, however, able to purchase privileges for his priory (fn. 66) and to persuade one of his friends or kinsmen, Ebulo de Montibus, to take over the 100s. annual rent which the priory owed for its assarts in the Shropshire forests. (fn. 67) He inherited some debts from his predecessor, perhaps incurred by the extensive rebuilding, though their extent is hard to gauge. Visitors from Cluny in 1262 found a 'debt' of over 1,600 marks at Wenlock, but of this only 92½ marks were owed with interest to various merchants. (fn. 68) Such figures may not be as straightforward as they seem, as the visitations of 1276 and 1279 show. (fn. 69) Prior John de Tycford, who succeeded Aymo in 1272, reported that the debt had been 1,750 marks when he took up office, but had been reduced to 1,500 marks and bore no interest. In 1279, however, the visitors reported that the prior's liabilities in 1272 had in fact amounted only to 500 marks and that he had fraudulently invented the remainder by citing fictitious deficiencies in the stock and buildings he had taken over to conceal the increase in liabilities during his term of office. They estimated the existing liabilities at 1,800 marks, part of which was owed to the notorious money-lender, Adam de Stratton. Cluniac priors were required to hand over their houses in as good a state as they received them and the statements of debt seem to contain two elements: money owed, and depletion of the capital value of the properties. The exact truth about John de Tycford's activities is hard to find; he had previously been Prior of Bermondsey and had certainly brought that house near to ruin by his imprudent dealings with Adam de Stratton. (fn. 70) He was said to alienate property irresponsibly and to be altogether a restless and discontented character, who was intriguing to secure his election as Bishop of Rochester, (fn. 71) and before leaving Wenlock he sold the wool of the priory in advance for seven years, (fn. 72) to the embarassment of his successor. He could certainly make himself hated; one of the monks of Wenlock left the monastery during his rule, gathered a band of armed men, and hid with them in the woods, hoping to ambush and kill the prior. (fn. 73) Yet plainly he was a man of some ability who, if he intrigued, intrigued successfully. The king employed him on an embassy to Llywelyn in 1273 (fn. 74) and the prior of Cluny appointed him visitor to the English province in 1276. When the heavily indebted priory of Bermondsey was taken into the king's hand in 1276 it was committed to Tycford, (fn. 75) who was still in charge in 1284. (fn. 76) When finally he left Wenlock in 1285 it was to become Prior of Lewes. (fn. 77)
There is evidence of some continuing financial trouble at Wenlock until at least 1295 (fn. 78) but the next prior was a man of less dubious ability. Henry de Bonvillars, nominated in 1285, was a fellow-countryman of Edward I's friend and servant, Otto of Grandson, and was frequently employed on public business during the 35 years that he governed the priory of Wenlock. (fn. 79) He acted too as one of the visitors of the English province of Cluny on at least four occasions between 1291 and 1301. (fn. 80) Either he or his friends at court were able to save Wenlock from the disabilities of alien status in 1294, when its lands were restored immediately. (fn. 81) The monks were not moved from their priory, though it was within three miles of the navigable river Severn, and Otto's brother, William of Grandson, testified that the prior was not of the power of the king of France, having been born near Grandson on Lake Neuchatel. (fn. 82) Restrictions were imposed on sending money abroad to the mother-house, but Wenlock enjoyed its last period of relative prosperity under Prior Henry and his successor, Guichard de Charlieu; it was even possible to build a new Lady Chapel at the east end of the church. (fn. 83) The estates were seized in 1324, but restored at once on the intercession of William de Cusance, another kinsman of Otto of Grandson. (fn. 84) Confiscation and the slow attrition of heavy annual farms to the Exchequer began only with the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War in 1337. Custody of the priory was restored to the prior almost at once on condition that he should pay £170 annually, (fn. 85) more than half the assessed annual income of the priory. It proved an impossible burden and in 1341 the prior succeeded in reducing the farm to £133 6s. 8d. (fn. 86) He also obtained licence to appropriate the churches of Stoke St. Milborough and Madeley, valued at £5 a year, (fn. 87) an opportune acquisition, since in 1346 Edward III, at the request of the pope, allowed the English Cluniac houses to contribute to a subsidy of 3 tenths imposed by Cluny. (fn. 88) In 1355 the farm was reduced to £50 (fn. 89) and, apart from the period 1360-9 when England and France were temporarily at peace, this sum continued to be exacted as long as Wenlock remained technically an alien priory.
Constitutional links with Cluny were weakened after 1378 by the Great Schism. From 1301 the English houses not directly dependent on Cluny were exempted from attendance at the general chapter of Cluny, though Wenlock and the other dependencies of La Charité continued to be summoned to the chapters of their mother-house. (fn. 90) In 1378 Cluny adhered to the antipope and Urban VI at once took steps to provide a substitute for her authority. There were difficulties of precedence and jurisdiction but in 1389 the Archbishop of Canterbury (as papal legate) and the priors of Thetford and Bermondsey were granted all rights of jurisdiction and visitation and other powers exercised by the French Cluniac houses and the general chapter of the order. It was through their initiative that an English chapter was held in 1392, priors appointed by them being invariably Englishmen. (fn. 91) One by one the larger English priories sought denization. From 1388 Wenlock had had an English prior, Roger Wyvel, and in 1395 he and his convent petitioned Richard II for denization, alleging that since 1349 their revenues had been less than £200, that former priors had sold life corrodies to raise the farm due to the Exchequer, and that the house was £200 in debt. A charter of denization was granted in that year for £400 and an undertaking to celebrate the obit of Richard's late queen, Anne of Bohemia. (fn. 92) Wenlock remained a Cluniac house nominally subject to La Charite from the end of the Schism until it achieved complete independence in 1494, but it was accounted denizen and ceased to owe an annual farm to the Crown.
The peak of demesne cultivation was probably reached during the late 13th century, when the Taxatio of 1291 estimated the demesne lands of the priory as 43 carucates and it was said to have 976 sheep. (fn. 93) The bulk of this land lay around Wenlock, with its dependencies of Bradley and Benthall: in Barrow, Atterley, Walton, Wigwig, and Callaughton, which formed part of the composite manor of the Marsh; in Shipton and Bourton, where the hundred court of the liberty was then held; and in Oxenbold and Ditton Priors. There were 7 carucates across the Severn in Madeley and Little Wenlock, one at Eaton-under-Heywood, 6 near the Clee Hills at Stoke St. Milborough, and 3 in Sutton by Shrewsbury. The annual value of the temporalities, including stock, was put at £143 19s. 8d. Although demesne farming was important, however, assized rents made up almost a third of the total and another third was derived from tallage, perquisites of courts, and profits from mills. The rents probably included a number of large estates let to substantial tenants, sometimes for a nominal sum, as well as small properties leased at economic rents. The most important of the former at about this time were in, Badger, Beckbury, Benthall, Bradley in Wenlock, Broseley, Middleton Priors in Ditton Priors, Hatton and Wolverton in Eaton-under-Heywood, Norncott in Heath, Hughley, Linley, Millichope in Munslow, Posenhall, Larden and Moor House in Shipton, Patton in Stanton Long, Clee Stanton in Stoke St. Milborough, Pickthorn in Stottesdon, and Willey. (fn. 94) The priory preferred, where possible, to lease land but a few of these tenements were held in fee and there were at least two nominal serjeanties. The Beysin family held a third of Broseley manor by the service of sitting down at the first dish in the prior's guest-house on Christmas Day and staying there for three days at the prior's charge. (fn. 95) A second serjeanty was evidently of relatively late establishment: in 1338 Robert of Harley acknowledged that he held the manor of Willey for suit of court and the duty of carrying the prior's frock in Parliament. (fn. 96) The chief tenants, sometimes referred to as 'the prior's knights' though they owed him no knight service, had provided counsel and support from at least the mid 12th century.
The importance of seignorial dues rose from the prior's very extensive liberties and from the long uninterrupted tenure, extending possibly for six hundred years, of some of the manors. Unusual burdens may have accounted for serious trouble with the villein tenants of Wenlock, which broke out as early as the mid 12th century. (fn. 97) After the villeins had unsuccessfully carried a complaint to the king's court they refused to work; meeting excommunication with violence they appealed over the prior's head to the Prior of La Charité. Whatever the outcome of this particular plea, peasant obligations remained heavy. Among the dues exacted from free and unfree alike on many of the manors was the third part of a tenant's movables (terciaria), exacted after his death and payable by unfree tenants in addition to heriot. Under an agreement made by the prior with 11 tenants in Hatton (Eaton-under-Heywood) in 1245 the latter were granted common rights in return for their terciars, (fn. 98) but even where the terciars replaced herbage dues they were a heavy burden and they continued to be exacted throughout the Middle Ages. A lease of the manor of Badger in 1502 reserved as a terciar 3 quarters of wheat and 3 quarters of oats to the lord on the death of each tenant. (fn. 99) A lease of the chief messuage in Moor House in 1520 referred to the obligation of paying terciars 'according to the custom of Seynt Milburge ground'. (fn. 100)
During the 14th century first the threat and then the reality of seizure by the Crown evidently arrested development on the estates. Most of the plots of land acquired under mortmain licence were purchased during the early decades of the 14th century or between 1360 and 1369. (fn. 101) A royal survey of the temporalities taken in 1370, (fn. 102) provides figures for rough comparison with the 1291 returns. There was a fall in value to some £124, and a little more than 30 carucates, about 25 per cent. less than 1291, was held in demesne. The fact that the decline in direct cultivation was less than on other Shropshire monastic estates may reflect nothing more than stagnation during the considcations. These figures are not easy to compare with the status domus, which was compiled in 1390 for the monks' own use (fn. 103) and is therefore a more complete and reliable record. At this date the priory had 25 carucates in demesne, either in hand or let to farmers who paid corn rents. The corn was entirely consumed by the prior and convent and their household or used as fodder for their oxen. The two parks at Madeley and Oxenbold and meadows in various manors barely sufficed to support the animals there. Six fishponds were assigned to provide fish for the convent and six dovecots were worth 30s. The total revenue from the temporalities was £219 11s. 1d., while spiritualities yielded £108, £50 of which came from Clun. Expenses included £50 for the farm to the king, £133 6s. 8d. for the needs of the prior and convent and household in kitchen supplies, wine, and other things, £35 13s. 3d. for pensions and fees, £20 for robes given at Christmas, £30 for repair of buildings on the manors, £50 for wages of the household and labourers, and £10 for lawsuits to defend the rights of the house. There was no margin even for maintaining the conventual buildings in good repair.
Prosperity returned slowly after denization. In the late 15th century the monks were able to build again: the eastern range of the infirmary cloister and the new sacristy date from this time. (fn. 104) The numbers of monks, which had been maintained at 40 for much of the 14th century, (fn. 105) fell until at the Dissolution there were only 12 monks at the priory; (fn. 106) this may have been the normal complement during the last phase of the priory's history. Even if the monks chose to supply their kitchen with grain from their estates rather than purchasing it in the local markets, they could afford to lease some of their demesne lands as their requirements fell. By the early 16th century, when rents were rising, most of the demesnes were out at farm. (fn. 107) The demesnes of Much Wenlock and Oxenbold were said to be in hand in 1535, (fn. 108) but the latter had in fact been leased since 1522, (fn. 109) and at the Dissolution only the home farm of Wenlock was still cultivated for the support of the convent. The survey of 1535 valued the priory's temporalities at £333 16s. 10¾d. and its spiritualities at £100 4s. 3d.; (fn. 110) its expenses then included £8 5s. for bread and ale distributed in alms to the poor, £10 6s. 8d. for fees, (fn. 111) and £10 for corrodies. The net income of £401 7s. 0¼d. included the assessed value of the demesnes at Wenlock and Oxenbold. It may have been an underassessment, for the first ministers' account indicates receipts about £60 higher, (fn. 112) but Wenlock, once the wealthiest monastery in Shropshire, continued to take second place to Shrewsbury.
All the principal estates, including the Sussex lands and a few houses and gardens in London that may have been acquired in the later Middle Ages, were retained until the Dissolution. Some property was assigned to individual obedientiaries. In 1291 two carucates in Callaughton, allocated by the founder to the pittance of the monks, were held by the pittancer and were exempt from taxation; (fn. 113) later they were added to the kitchen rental. (fn. 114) In the early 16th century, when the kitchener was receiving the substantial annual income of £45 2s. 3d., (fn. 115) a number of small rents amounting only to a few pounds each were being paid to the sacrist, the chamberlain, and the infirmarer. (fn. 116) One of the most interesting features of the later accounts is the development of mineral resources on the priory's estates. The first clear mention of a coal mine at Madeley occurs in the status domus of 1390. In 1397 royal permission was obtained by James 'mynour' of Derbyshire to work in a mine of copper and silver within the lordship of the priory. (fn. 117) This mine cannot have yielded for long but coal and iron increased in importance. Receipts in 1540 included the following: £12 8s. from an iron foundry or 'smith's place' in Shirlett; £11 16s. from a second foundry, an ironstone quarry, and other quarries in the same place; 13s. 4d. from two coal mines in Little Wenlock; and 1s. 4d. from a coal-work in Broseley. (fn. 118)
The last phase of Wenlock's monastic history began with its denization in 1395. It remained a Cluniac house and the priors of La Charité, acting through English representatives, resumed the nomination of priors after the Schism. (fn. 119) The apport of £5, however, was never paid again. (fn. 120) Wenlock, like other Cluniac houses in England, suffered from the friction between Cluny and La Charité and the difficulty of enforcing any authority. (fn. 121) During the Wars of the Roses La Charité attempted to recover direct nomination and there were conflicting appointments by Edward IV and the prior of that house in 1462 and 1468. (fn. 122) The next nominations were made through the latter's English vicarsgeneral, but the struggle for authority within the order continued and Thomas Sudbury, who was nominally prior 1482-5, was in fact also a contestant for the priory of Northampton at the time. (fn. 123) In 1494, however, the priory of Wenlock secured a papal bull releasing it from all dependence on Cluny or La Charité and making it directly dependent on the pope. From that date the convent enjoyed the right to elect its prior without reference to any ecclesiastical superior, referring any disputes to the papal collector in London. (fn. 124)
The first free election was held in 1521, when Rowland Gosnell was elected. (fn. 125) The priors of the associated houses of Dudley, Preen, and Sandwell, (fn. 126) who were excluded from taking part, and a group of Wenlock monks led by the sacrist, William Corfill, opposed the election and appealed to Cardinal Wolsey. (fn. 127) His verdict was in favour of Gosnell but the convent continued to make difficulties. The prior was an able and ambitious man, who secured from the pope the personal right to use the mitre, ring, and pastoral staff and aspired unsuccessfully to become a titular bishop in the diocese. (fn. 128) He did not neglect his house; he repaired a cracked vault over the high altar of the priory church, bought little bells to ring at the hours of service, reglazed most of the nave windows, and carried out improvements in the conventual buildings and in the dependent manorhouses and parish churches. (fn. 129) He was also a learned man, who had written a chronicle of the priors of Wenlock (fn. 130) and commissioned a new collection of the miracles of St. Milburga. (fn. 131) There was, nevertheless, considerable opposition to his rule, due, he claimed, to his attempt to re-establish discipline by forbidding hunting and dicing, casual hospitality to visitors of both sexes, and going in and out at all hours, which had been allowed by his predecessor. At a visitation of the priory in 1523, following an appeal by Gosnell to Wolsey as papal legate, the monks laid counter-charges of apostasy and alienation of the goods of the house against the prior. (fn. 132) The visitor, Dr. John Allen, apparently found much to correct, for he left a long series of injunctions, counsels, and exhortations. The injunctions insisted on the observance of traditional monastic discipline, on the appointment of a novice master to instruct the young monks in grammar and monastic observance, and on the proper care of the convent seal. To ensure that the common seal was not used without the knowledge of the convent, all deeds sealed with it were also to bear the individual signatures of all the monks—a practice that was being widely advocated at the time. Although private property was forbidden and the monks were advised to be content with food and clothes instead of receiving money allowances, the injunctions assumed that they would dispose of some pocket money, since breaches of the rule of silence were to be punished by a fine of 2d. on each occasion. An injunction forbidding the monks to carry arms within the monastery or enter into conspiracies suggests that the prior had not exaggerated when he said that he went in fear of his life. The prior, for his part, was enjoined not to keep up too large a household or entertain too lavishly. One of the 'counsels' advising the monks to practice mechanical arts seems to have been observed by some at least of the community. When William Corfill died many years later an obituary notice described him not only as expert in the seven liberal sciences, especially in practical geometry, but also as having 'very good insight' in a wide variety of crafts 'as the making of organs, of a clock and chimes, as in carving, in masonry, and weaving of silk, and in painting, and no instrument of music being but that he could mend it'. (fn. 133)
Gosnell resigned or was deposed in 1526 or 1527 and was granted a pension of 40 marks. (fn. 134) John Bayley, formerly Prior of Sandwell, was elected to succeed him (fn. 135) but for some years after his enforced retirement Gosnell continued to petition the king to be restored. Writing to Cromwell, the prior and subprior alleged that he had brought the house into debt to the extent of 1,000 marks and more, 'for which, and his execrable living, he was deposed'. (fn. 136) Whatever the truth of the charges and counter-charges, John Bayley remained prior until the dissolution of the priory on 26 Jan. 1540. (fn. 137) The priory of Sandwell had already been dissolved in 1525, when its small community was sent to Wenlock, (fn. 138) and Church Preen had been surrendered to the Crown in 1534, (fn. 139) but Dudley was dissolved with the motherhouse. A pension of £80 was assigned to the prior, who retired to Madeley and died in the manor-house there in 1553, (fn. 140) and 12 monks received pensions ranging from £6 13s. 4d. to £5 6s. 8d. (fn. 141) Some of the monks undertook pastoral duties in the neighbourhood and William Corfill became a chantry priest: Thomas Butler, Vicar of Much Wenlock, kept a record of the obits and later careers of several former monks. (fn. 142)
Following an abortive proposal to join Wenlock with Chester to form a new bishopric (fn. 143) the site of the priory was first leased to John Bradshaw and then granted in 1545 to Thomas Lawley. (fn. 144)
An L-shaped range of buildings, which included the infirmary and what was probably the prior's house, was soon afterwards converted into a private dwelling and has been continuously occupied to the present day.
The remains of the church and parts of the claustral buildings, including the chapter-house and the shell of the frater, are in the care of the Ministry of Public Building and Works. (fn. 145) The 13th-century church was at least 350 feet long with transepts over 70 feet high. Parts of the transepts, west front, and south aisle of the nave are still standing as isolated ruins. Elsewhere the ground-plan of the church and the layout of the principal claustral buildings have been revealed by excavation. The cloister lay south of the nave with the frater in the south range and perhaps the original prior's quarters on the west side. To the east the chapter house adjoined the south transept with part of the dorter above it. The dorter range projected southwards beyond the main cloister, forming the west side of a second court which was bounded on the north by the infirmary and on the east by the 15th-century 'prior's house'. A building standing south-west of the infirmary court, adjoining the rere-dorter, may have been part of a guest-house.
Of the pre-Conquest church nothing is visible above ground. The first Cluniac church was completed in the early 12th century; some traces still remain in the south wall of the south transept. The chapter-house probably dates from the second quarter of the 12th century. It has three fine western arches and the internal walls are decorated with elaborate intersecting arcading; the vault, springing from clustered wall-shafts, has disappeared. The dorter above the same range and the rere-dorter south of it have not survived. Adjoining the chapterhouse to the south-east is the 12th-century infirmary, originally consisting of a lofty open hall; it retains several Norman windows and other original features. Also belonging to the 12th-century phase of building is an octagonal lavatory, with sculptured figures and foliage carving, which stands near the south-west corner of the cloister garth.
The early 13th century was the great age of rebuilding, when the entire church was reconstructed on a noble scale, beginning with the east end and transepts. When completed it was a cruciform building with aisled nave and chancel, transept chapels, and central tower. The great west doorway of five orders and the tracery and stone-work throughout are evidence of skilled craftsmanship. A notable feature is a beautiful upper chamber at the west end of the south aisle, which is thought to have been a chapel of St. Michael. (fn. 146) It was connected by a doorway with the upper story of the west range of the cloister and may therefore have served as the prior's chapel in the 13th century. (fn. 147) Both the west and the south range of the cloister were rebuilt at this period, the frater on the south side being set at an oblique angle.
Also of the 13th century is the building to the southwest of the infirmary court; it is thought to represent the two-storied east end of a structure of the 'endhall house' type, perhaps a guest-house, the hall itself having disappeared. (fn. 148) The infirmary was altered in the late 13th or early 14th century by the insertion of an upper floor within the hall.
Early in the 14th century a Lady Chapel was built at the east end of the church, but the financial troubles of the priory during the French wars put an end to further building. When prosperity was restored in the late 15th century a heptagonal sacristy was completed south of the chancel. Of about the same date is the so-called prior's house, standing at right angles to the infirmary and forming the east side of the infirmary court. This range, although part of a private residence, has suffered little alteration and is probably the best known of the priory buildings. It has been called 'one of the finest examples of domestic architecture in England of about the year 1500'. (fn. 149) Facing the court are two cloister passages, one above the other, connected by a newel stair at the north end. Their eight bays are divided by buttresses and the four-light openings to each bay have continuous vertical mullions joining the two stories. The steeply pitched main roof of the building is carried down to cover the cloisters. On the east side the windows are grouped symmetrically, their design having the same vertical emphasis. Internally there are four rooms to each floor with access from the cloister passages. The function of the different rooms has given rise to much speculation. The range is traditionally known as the prior's house, (fn. 150) but it has been suggested that the rooms at the north end served the adjoining infirmary. (fn. 151) They include a ground-floor chapel with a stone altar in a window embrasure and a fireplace nearby. Next to the chapel are two rooms, one above the other, which may have been the quarters of the infirmarer; they are connected by a newel stair and both have several cupboard recesses in the walls. There is little doubt that the rooms further south, planned for spaciousness and comfort, belonged to the prior's house. The finest is a firstfloor hall with four windows along the east side and an open roof with arch-braced collar-beam trusses and cusped wind-braces. In the thickness of the north wall is a newel stair leading upwards to one of the original attic chambers. It occupies the same circular well as the 'infirmarer's' stair but is unconnected with it. Such double stair-cases are rare, the only other known example in England being in the church at Tamworth (Staffs.).
Few out-buildings remain. There is a square tower, about 80 yards south-west of the church, which formed part of a 13th-century gatehouse. About 60 yards east of the infirmary is a fish-pond with a long raised causeway on the south side.
Abbesses of Wenlock
(?)Liobsynde, before 690 (fn. 152)
St. Milburga, occurs by 690, died after 727. (fn. 153)
Priors of Wenlock
(?)Peter, occurs 1120. (fn. 154)
Peter de Leia, resigned 1176. (fn. 159)
John, occurs 1190. (fn. 160)
Henry, occurs c. 1196. (fn. 163)
Roger Wenlock, nominated 1462. (fn. 190)
John Stratton, nominated by the king 1468. (fn. 191)
An impression of what was probably the priory's first common seal is attached to a deed of between 1221 and 1245. (fn. 202) This was a pointed oval seal, 2½ × 1¾ in., showing the seated figure of St. Milburga her left hand outstretched and her right holding a rod or sceptre. Lombardic legend largely illegible.
The impression of a second pointed oval seal attached to the same deed is probably that of Prior Humbert. Measuring 2½ × 1¼ in. it shows St. Milburga standing, holding a closed book. Lombardic legend largely illegible but on an inner band round the figure are the words
SANCTA MILDBURGA V
Impressions of a later pointed oval common seal and round counter seal are attached to documents of 1538. (fn. 203) The common seal, the matrix of which was probably struck c. 1300, measured 25/8 × 1¾ in. and its complex device is set within a double canopy flanked by side turrets. On the left is St. Michael, with sword and shield, trampling on the dragon and on the right St. Milburga standing on a corbel. Above, under an arch, the seated figures of the Virgin and Child; in the field on either side of her a star. Legend lombardic:
SIGILLUM ECCL[E]SIE CONVE[N]TUALIS MONACHORUM DE WENLOC
The counter seal, 1 in. diameter, shows the halflength figure of St. Milburga, with a crozier in her right hand and a book in her left. Legend:
The priory used a pointed oval seal ad causas measuring 2½ × 1½ in. It shows St. Michael, under a canopy, piercing the dragon under his feet with a spear and holding a small round shield in his left hand. Legend lombardic:
SIGILLUM ECCLESIE CONVENTUALIS DE WENLOK AD CAUSAS TANTUM