A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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HOUSE OF AUGUSTINIAN CANONESSES
13. THE PRIORY OF ST. LEONARD, BREWOOD
Nothing is known of the foundation of St. Leonard's priory, Brewood, commonly called 'White Ladies', but a community of Augustinian canonesses was certainly fully established there before the end of Henry II's reign. Surviving ruins of the church are characteristic of the late 12th century; (fn. 1) and a charter granted to Haughmond Abbey by Emma, daughter of Reynold of Pulverbatch, not later than 1186, mentions a previous grant of a virgate in Beobridge to the white nuns of Brewood. (fn. 2) The site of the priory in the forest of Brewood was extra-parochial and extra-manorial and gives no clue to the identity of the founder. It was not in the royal patronage, (fn. 3) though King John showed some interest in the priory: he granted the nuns a weir in the River Severn near Bridgnorth (fn. 4) and in 1212 he exempted six bovates of land which they already held in Calverton (Notts.) from all secular obligations. (fn. 5) Some local property may have come from the family of la Zouche; certainly Elizabeth la Zouche became a nun there a little before 1314. (fn. 6) Either the Lacy family, who held the manor of Montford with Forton, or the FitzAlans, who later acquired it by marriage, (fn. 7) may have taken a share in the establishment of the priory, for the nuns received the church of Montford and some demesne tithes there before 1216. (fn. 8) No lay lord, however, ever claimed a patron's rights during the vacancies: only the bishop's licence to elect was sought and he may have had the patronage. (fn. 9) Most of the nuns' property came to them as small gifts from local families of modest wealth: half a virgate, a mill or a fishery, pasture rights, or scattered rents. (fn. 10) Some of the properties were the dowries of nuns; thus Bartholomew Terret gave a virgate in Lawley with his sister Gundred, (fn. 11) while Sir Richard of Harley and Burga his wife, who gave half a virgate and the advowson of the church of Bold in 1309, (fn. 12) were probably the parents of Alice of Harley, who became prioress in 1332. (fn. 13) Apart from the demesne of Calverton and the church of Tibshelf (Derb.) (fn. 14) most of the properties lay scattered to the south and west of Brewood, extending as far as High Ercall and the lower slopes of Brown Clee Hill. By 1535-6 revenue was derived from small properties in Beckbury, Berrington, Chatwall (in Cardington), Donington, High Ercall, Humphreston (in Donington), Ingardine (in Stottesdon), Highley, Rudge, Haughton (probably in Shifnal), Sutton Maddock, and Tong (fn. 15) and from the appropriated rectories of Montford (fn. 16) and Tibshelf. (fn. 17) The church of Bold, which had been appropriated in 1310, (fn. 18) was united with Aston Botterell in 1481 and the nuns thereafter received only a small pension from it. (fn. 19) The demesnes at Brewood and Calverton were enlarged by assarting and grant or purchase in the 13th and early 14th centuries. (fn. 20)
The house normally supported about five nuns with the prioress. Here, as in a small number of other Augustinian communities, a white habit was worn, which led Leland and many subsequent writers to describe it as Cistercian. (fn. 21) It was under the routine supervision of the bishops of Lichfield, who confirmed elections, licensed nuns of proved devotion to transfer to a stricter order, (fn. 22) arranged for the return of apostate nuns, (fn. 23) and regularly visited the priory. Records of visitations in the episcopal registers illustrate the normal problems of a small, poor house, but there were no grave charges. In 1338 Bishop Northburgh reprimanded the prioress for financial mismanagement and forbade her to admit more nuns than the revenues could support, requiring her to be less extravagant in dress and to give up hunting and keeping hounds. (fn. 24) In 1498 Bishop Arundel assigned a pension to a prioress on her retirement. She was to receive the profits of Tibshelf rectory but if she remained at Brewood she was to pay for her food, (fn. 25) a reasonable stipulation since her pension represented over 20 per cent. of the income of the house. In 1521 (fn. 26) the convent was free of debt but the prioress did not know how to render account and two nuns complained that their salaries were in arrears. (fn. 27) Three years later the dormitory was in bad repair. (fn. 28) Possibly the property continued to run down for at the Dissolution it was reported to be 'in great decay'. (fn. 29) In 1535 revenues amounted to only £31 1s. 4d. and expenses, including £5 for the nuns' chaplain, totalled £13 10s. 8d. (fn. 30) The accounts of 1536 agree almost exactly with the 1535 figures; (fn. 31) there can have been little margin for repairs in a time of rising prices, when most of the property was let out on long leases at fixed rents. (fn. 32)
The priory was suppressed with the smaller houses in 1536 and the prioress received a pension of £5. (fn. 33) After an unsuccessful attempt by Lord Stafford to purchase the property, (fn. 34) it was leased to William Skeffington of Wolverhampton in 1538. (fn. 35) In 1540 the reversion was sold to William Whorwood (fn. 36) and the estate later passed to the Giffard family. (fn. 37)
The greater part of the stone of the church was on the site in 1587 and substantial ruins still remain. (fn. 38) The late-12th-century building, which appears to have had few subsequent alterations, was a simple cruciform church with a nave of five bays, a chancel of three bays, and north and south transepts without chapels. Most of the north wall is standing, rising to eaves level in the chancel. A fine round-headed arch with scalloped and foliage-carved capitals, leading to the north transept, is still intact. There is a plain round-headed window to each bay of nave and chancel. Parts of the west wall, the south wall of the nave, and the south wall of the south transept also survive. At the west end of the nave are doorways with attached shafts in both north and south walls; the former has an unusual lobed roll-moulding applied to the arch. In the later Middle Ages a sacristy was added north of the chancel: a corresponding building on the south, probably a chapel, was built about the same time. The church continued until 1844 to be used as a Roman Catholic burial ground and a 19th-century graveyard wall stands on the foundations of the east wall of chapel and chancel.
Nothing remains of the conventual buildings, which stood to the north of the church, though there is evidence that the lean-to roof of the cloister ran alongside the north wall of the nave. A large timber-framed house which was built at White Ladies in the later 16th century and has since disappeared was said to contain 18 bays in 1587. (fn. 39) Charles II, who had spent a day in hiding at White Ladies immediately after his defeat at the battle of Worcester, commissioned a painting c. 1670 showing the house in some detail. (fn. 40) It may have incorporated part of the prioress's lodging if, as has been suggested, it stood west of the former cloister, a favoured position for such a lodging. (fn. 41) The conventual buildings themselves, like the later house, were probably timber-framed, for excavation has failed to reveal any foundations.
Prioresses of St. Leonard's, Brewood
Aldith, occurs c. 1225. (fn. 42)
Cecily, occurs 1225 × 33. (fn. 43)
Sarah, occurs 1292. (fn. 46)
Joan, occurs, 1315. (fn. 47)
Alice of Harley, elected 1332, died 1349. (fn. 50)
Beatrice de Dene, elected 1349. (fn. 51)
Margaret Corbet, occurs 1377 and 1381. (fn. 52)
Joan Fillilode, occurs 1409. (fn. 53)
Isabel Creghton, died 1463. (fn. 54)
Margaret Cowper, elected 1498. (fn. 61)
No seal known.