Religious houses: Introduction

A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1970.

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'Religious houses: Introduction', in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, (London, 1970) pp. 135-139. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]


The earliest religious communities in Staffordshire are largely subjects of legend, but it would seem that they dated from the period of the conversion of Mercia in the later 7th century. Bede describes how St. Chad, Bishop of the Mercians (669-72), established his see at Lichfield and built a house near the church, retiring there when his work permitted with a number of companions for prayer and study. (fn. 1) Wulfhere, King of Mercia (657-74), is said to have founded a monastery at Stone; (fn. 2) his daughter St. Werburgh was Abbess of Hanbury and was buried there about 700. (fn. 3) If there is anything in the legend that the Irish abbess St. Modwen founded a community at Burton-uponTrent, the foundation probably dated from this period. (fn. 4) The Danish invasions from the later 9th century must have brought any existing religious houses to an end. The fate of Hanbury is recorded in the story that St. Werburgh's body remained incorrupt until the approach of the Danes in 874 when it crumbled away lest it should fall into their hands; the nuns of Hanbury then fled to Chester with the saint's relics. (fn. 5)

There seems to have been some revival in the 10th century. The later royal free chapels of Staffordshire may have originated in foundations of that time; St. Peter's, Wolverhampton, may indeed have existed as a monastery by 994, and there is mention of a community at Tamworth in Wulfric Spot's will about ten years later. (fn. 6) The county's monastic history, however, may really be said to begin with the foundation of Burton Abbey at the beginning of the 11th century. This house, the last in Staffordshire to be surrendered at the Reformation, was also the wealthiest and largest.

The Norman Conquest produced only one new house in the county, Tutbury Priory, although by that time there may possibly have been a cell of St. Rémy at Lapley. Most of the Staffordshire houses dated from the 12th century; six houses of Augustinian canons, two Benedictine priories for men and three for women, and two Cistercian abbeys were founded at that time. The nobility and gentry and the bishops of Coventry were the main patrons. In the 13th century two more Cistercian houses (fn. 7) and three friaries were founded, and the Templars established a preceptory at Keele. After this there was only one more foundation, the Austin friary at Stafford in 1344.

Few of these monasteries had more than local significance, and some of them lacked even that. Several did not survive until the Reformation. The first Cistercian house, at Radmore in Cannock Forest, lasted only some 10 years and was then transferred to Stoneleigh in Warwickshire by Henry II at the monks' own request. The Benedictine nunnery at Blithbury seems to have been amalgamated with that at Brewood by the 14th century. The first suppression was in 1308 when the preceptory at Keele came to an end. The next was in 1415 when the small alien priory at Lapley was dissolved. There were further suppressions in the 1520s when the tiny communities at Canwell and Sandwell and the nunnery at Farewell were dissolved by Wolsey. The Augustinian priory at Calwich, which had only one canon left in 1530, was suppressed in 1532; unlike the previous dissolutions, this resulted in the secularization of the priory's property. The rest of the monasteries were dissolved in the later 1530s. Burton Abbey was given a new lease of life as a college in 1541, but it survived for only four years. The five remaining colleges were suppressed under the Act of 1547. Wolverhampton was revived by Mary I in 1553 and survived until the 19th century.

None of the medieval hospitals in the county was of particular importance; indeed for several of them the evidence is minimal. (fn. 8) There was at least one monastic hospital, that of St. Anne at Ranton Priory in the later 13th century. There may have been others at Dieulacres and Burton: 'poor bede women' were given alms at the dissolution of Dieulacres in 1538, and four bedesmen received wages of 25s. each when Burton College was suppressed in 1545. (fn. 9) In 1548 the chantry commissioners listed four towns in the county as having most need of hospitals for the relief of the poor: Stafford, Walsall, Tamworth, and Burton. (fn. 10) The hospitals at Stafford and Tamworth had probably ceased to maintain any poor, but they were suppressed and not reformed; the Crown made no provision for eleemosynary foundations in any of these towns. (fn. 11)

A number of hermits and anchorets occur in the county during the Middle Ages. The earliest is the legendary Anglo-Saxon saint, Bertelin, who is said to have had a hermitage on the island of Bethnei, the later Stafford; according to legend he subsequently left Bethnei for a mountainous area, perhaps near Ilam, where he ended his days. (fn. 12) It has been suggested that Holy Austin Rock on Kinver Edge was the cave dwelling of a recluse. (fn. 13) Several hermits seem to have settled in remote places which became the sites of 12th-century religious houses: Calwich in Dovedale, Radmore in Cannock Forest, Blithbury, Farewell, and Sandwell; the early-13th-century abbey at Dieulacres north of Leek may also have been near a former hermitage. (fn. 14) At Sandwell and probably Farewell the hermitages were associated with a spring; similarly the possessions of Trentham Priory in 1162 included 'the hermitage of the well of Dunstall' (probably near the priory itself) and land there cultivated by Walter the hermit. (fn. 15) Also in the later 12th century there was a hermitage at Ranton, a hermit living in the wood of Sutton (in Forton), and two hermits living in the wood of Hamstall Ridware. (fn. 16) A hermitage chapel had probably been established on the site of the present Armitage church by the 12th century; although still known as 'the hermitage of Handsacre' in the mid 13th century, the chapel then seems no longer to have been a hermitage. (fn. 17) A hermitage at Agardsley in Needwood Forest was given to Tutbury Priory by William, Earl of Derby (1190-1247). (fn. 18) The hermitage of 'Gutheresburn' in Kinver Forest was granted by Henry III in 1248 to Brother Walerand of Kidderminster to celebrate divine service there for the souls of the king and queen, the king's ancestors and heirs, and the faithful departed. (fn. 19) The existence of an anchoress in the church of Newcastle-underLyme in 1227 (fn. 20) shows that the solitary religious life was not confined to remote places.

Evidence of recluses in the county becomes scarcer in the later Middle Ages, though it is clear that they continued to exist, notably in the towns. Commissions to suffragans in the later 14th century included the duties of professing hermits and enclosing anchorets. (fn. 21) An anchoret at Stafford occurs among the many anchorets and hermits throughout the country to whom Henry, Lord Scrope, left money in 1415. (fn. 22) In 1424 a hermit called John Grace was preaching in the south of the county. (fn. 23) There was a hermit at Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1465 (fn. 24) and an anchoret named John Mede in 1504 at Stowe near Lichfield, where 'the Ancker's House' in the churchyard occurs in 1571. (fn. 25) At the Reformation there was a 'hermitage chapel' in the collegiate church of Wolverhampton. (fn. 26)

The suppression of the monasteries produced little opposition in Staffordshire; rather there were several local men eager for the spoils and only too ready to press their claims even before the actual suppressions. (fn. 27) There are, however, a few signs of sympathy for the religious. In 1536 Sir Simon Harcourt put in a plea for Ranton, founded by his ancestors to secure prayers for ever, and he offered to pay for its preservation; but he added a further plea that, if his first request were not granted, he should be given the house on its dissolution. (fn. 28) Rowland Lee, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, acted in the same way over St. Thomas's Priory. (fn. 29) In 1537 Lord Stafford, who had been trying to secure a grant of Stone Priory, reported the Prior of Stone's optimism about the survival of his house, 'whereof the country is glad'. (fn. 30) The priory was nevertheless dissolved in the same year; Lord Stafford then removed his family monuments from the priory to the Austin friary in Forebridge, Stafford, evidently supposing that this would survive. (fn. 31) Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover, the special visitor for friars, wrote in 1538 that the friars in North Wales and the West Midlands, including Staffordshire, 'have many favourers, and great labour is made for their continuance. Divers trust to see them set up again, and some here have gone up to sue for them'. (fn. 32) An example of this hope of revival is the bequest made by Margaret Sutton of Stafford in 1556: 'I will that my fyne kercher be made a corporas and geven to the freres if it go up againe.' (fn. 33) Similarly the Cistercian Thomas Whitney, the last Abbot of Dieulacres, who died in 1558, stipulated in his will that his chalice was to be restored to Dieulacres if the monastery 'be hereafter re-edified'. (fn. 34)


KEY TO MAP OF RELIGIOUS HOUSES Secular Canons 1. Lichfield Cathedral Benedictine Monks 2. Burton Abbey 3. Canwell Priory 4. Sandwell Priory Benedictine Nuns 5. Blithbury Priory 6. Brewood Priory (Black Ladies) 7. Farewell Priory Cistercian Monks 8. Radmore Abbey 9. Croxden Abbey 10. Dieulacres Abbey 11. Hulton Abbey Augustinian Canons 12. Calwich Priory 13. Stone Priory 14. Rocester Abbey 15. Ranton Priory 16. Trentham Priory 17. St. Thomas's Priory near Stafford Knights Templars 18. Keele Preceptory Friars 19. Lichfield Franciscans 20. Stafford Franciscans 21. Newcastle-under-Lyme Dominicans 22. Stafford Augustinians Hospitals 23. Cannock, St. Mary 24. Freeford, St. Leonard 25. Lichfield, Dr. Milley's 26. Lichfield, St. John the Baptist 27. Newcastle-under-Lyme 28. Radford, St. Lazarus or the Holy Sepulchre 29. Stafford, Forebridge, St. John the Baptist 30. Stafford, Forebridge, St. Leonard 31. Tamworth, St. James 32. Wolverhampton, St. Mary Colleges 33. Burton, Christ and St. Mary 34. Penkridge, St. Michael 35. Stafford, St. Mary 36. Tamworth, St. Edith 37. Tettenhall, St. Michael 38. Wolverhampton, St. Peter Alien Houses 39. Tutbury Priory 40. Lapley Priory Rural Deaneries I. Leek and Alton II. Newcastle and Stone III. Lapley and Trysull IV. Tamworth and Tutbury Note: the boundaries of the rural deaneries are based on the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535. They are to some extent notional since there were also large areas of peculiar jurisdiction, not shown on this map (see above pp. 93-94). The shaded areas represent: A part of the archdeaconry of Chester B part of the archdeaconry of Salop C part of the archdeaconry of Derby D part of the diocese of Worcestery


  • 1. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, bk. iv, chap. iii. And see below p. 140.
  • 2. See below p. 240.
  • 3. F. A. Hibbert, Monasticism in Staffs. 10; Chartulary or Reg. of Abbey of St. Werburgh, Chester, Pt. I (Chetham Soc. N.S. lxxix), pp. viii-xiv. For the mistaken tradition that St. Werburgh founded a monastery at Trentham see below p. 255 and note 2.
  • 4. See below p. 199.
  • 5. Chartulary of Abbey of St. Werburgh, Pt. I, pp. xiii-xiv.
  • 6. See below pp. 310, 321.
  • 7. For the abortive foundation at Wolverhampton see below pp. 322-3.
  • 8. In addition to the hospitals treated separately in this volume there may have been a leper hospital near Gunstone (in Brewood): V.C.H. Staffs. v. 20. A 'house' in Tamworth, dedicated to St. John, was inhabited by 'brethren' in 1227-8 (S.H.C. iv(1), 70), and this too may have been a hospital.
  • 9. See below pp. 233-4, 252, 297, 298. For the 13thcentury 'house of stone next to the church for the reception of the poor' at Burton see below p. 212.
  • 10. A. F. Leach, Eng. Schools at the Reformation, 1546-8, pt. ii, 210.
  • 11. See below pp. 292, 294, 295. At Walsall an almshouse had been founded by William Harpur by the early 16th century: 9th Rep. Com. Char. H.C. 258, p. 579 (1823), ix; Shaw, Staffs. ii. 64. The history of this charity is reserved for a future volume of this History.
  • 12. The Church of St. Bertelin at Stafford, ed. A. Oswald, 6-7, 9. After St. Bertelin perhaps the best known medieval recluse connected with the county was Katherine of Ledbury, sometimes called 'Saint'; she was the daughter of John Giffard of Brimpsfield (Glos.) and the wife of Nicholas de Audley (d. 1299). Katherine, however, established her anchorage at Ledbury (Herefs.) and so falls outside the scope of this survey. See Rotha M. Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of Eng. 74-75, 218-19.
  • 13. Clay, Hermits and Anchorites, 48.
  • 14. See below pp. 216, 220, 222-3, 225, 230, 237, 240.
  • 15. S.H.C. xi. 303; see below p. 256. In 1537 there were lands near the priory called Over, Middle and Nether Tunstall (S.C. 6/Hen. VIII/3352, m. 3); it seems likely that the hermitage was situated here rather than at Holly Wall in Tunstall (in Wolstanton) as suggested in V.C.H. Staffs. viii. 93. For the holy well at Lichfield see below n. 25.
  • 16. F. A. Hibbert, 'Ronton Priory', T.N.S.F.C. l. 95, 97; Dugdale, Mon. vi(1), 257-8; V.C.H. Staffs. iv. 107; Shaw, Staffs. i. 153; S.H.C. xvi. 232-3.
  • 17. Shaw, Staffs. i. 207, *208, *209. Armitage parish church, before its rebuilding in the 1840s, was undoubtedly of Norman origin: S. A. Jeavons, 'The Pattern of Ecclesiastical Building in Staffs. during the Norman Period', Trans. Lichfield & S. Staffs. Arch. & Hist. Soc. iv. 11, 14, 15, 16; W.S.L., Staffs. Views, i, pp. 82, 86, 87, 92, 94. In the mid 13th cent. the church was held by John, the parson of Colton: B.M. Add. Ch. 24239; and see F. P. Parker, Some Account of Colton and of the De Wasteneys Family, 196; S.H.C. iv(1), 211-12.
  • 18. See below p. 332.
  • 19. Cal. Pat. 1247-58, 20. It is not known whether this was in the Staffs. or the Worcs. portion of the forest.
  • 20. Clay, Hermits and Anchorites, 246-7. This also mentions a hermit at Newcastle in 1355, but the source (S.H.C. N.S. viii. 154) gives 'Novus Burgus', perhaps Newport (Salop.).
  • 21. S.H.C. N.S. viii. 131, 200, 356; Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/7, ff. 160, 212.
  • 22. F. D. S. Darwin, The Eng. Mediaeval Recluse, 60-61; T. Rymer, Foedera (1740 edn.), iv. 132. The sum left to the Stafford anchoret was 13s. 4d.
  • 23. See above p. 43. It was rumoured that Grace had been successively monk, friar, and recluse.
  • 24. Clay, Hermits and Anchorites, 246-7.
  • 25. D. & C. Lich., Chapter Act Bk. iii, f. 82v.; Cal. Pat. 1569-72, p. 398. The anchoret's house was built against the north-west corner of the church; nearby is the spring known as St. Chad's Well: P. Laithwaite, Hist. of St. Chad's Church, Lichfield, Staffs. (1938), 15-16, 28 (copy in W.S.L. Pamphs. sub Lichfield); W.S.L., Staffs. Views, v, pp. 194, 200.
  • 26. S.H.C. 1915, 322. For some evidence of a hermitage by the bridge over the Dove at Tutbury see Shaw, Staffs. i. 57.
  • 27. See below pp. 210, 254.
  • 28. See below p. 254.
  • 29. See below pp. 265-6.
  • 30. See below p. 246.
  • 31. See below p. 274.
  • 32. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii(2), p. 67.
  • 33. S.H.C. 1926, p. 12.
  • 34. See below p. 234. The fate of the dispossessed clergy is not easy to trace; some are found as parish clergy, others continued to live locally: see below pp. 222 n.45, 229, 230 n.93, 234, 250 n.57, 251 n.95, 254, 266, 308, 329.