Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Canwell

Pages 213-216

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

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The priory of monks at Canwell, in the parish of Hints, was founded by Geva, illegitimate daughter of Hugh I, Earl of Chester, and widow of Geoffrey Ridel, a justice under Henry I who was drowned in 1120 in the wreck of the White Ship. (fn. 1) The exact date of the foundation is unknown, but it can be assigned to about 1140. The priory was a Benedictine house dedicated to St. Giles. (fn. 2) There was a spring near the site, and this was known in later times at least as St. Modwen's Well. (fn. 3)

There are two early charters relating to the foundation, both issued by Geva. In the first (fn. 4) she announces the foundation as being for the souls of herself, her ancestors, and her kinsmen and as made 'by the authority of Bishop Roger of Chester [1129-48] and by the assent of Ranulf, Earl of Chester [1129-53]' and grants the monks the land of 'Stichesleia', (fn. 5) a meadow called 'Litemersia', (fn. 6) the mill of Fazeley, 5 virgates at Dunton Bassett (Leics.), including a virgate given by Osbert, Geva's chaplain, and a mill in Dunton Bassett called 'le Corre'. The foundation was made with the assent of Geva's grandsons and heirs, Geoffrey Ridel and Ralph Bassett, and this shows that the charter was issued after the death of her son-in-law Richard Bassett who married her daughter Maud in 1123. (fn. 7) Richard was still living in 1131, (fn. 8) and therefore Geva's foundation must be dated between 1131 and 1148.

Geva's second charter (fn. 9) granted part of a grove at Canwell and a house and lands at Drayton Bassett to the monks and the previous grants were restated. Furthermore she gave them the churches of Dunton Bassett and Ragdale (Leics.). The monks were also to hold a court. This second charter cannot have been issued before 1143 as one of the witnesses was Richard, Abbot of Leicester (elected 1143-4).

In 1148 the Pope confirmed the monks in their possession of all that had been granted to them by Geva and also of a meadow in Elford granted by Robert of Weeford and 60 acres in 'Witemore' near 'Sticeleia'. (fn. 10) Other early grants included 3 virgates at Hill in Sutton Coldfield (Warws.) given by Roger, Earl of Warwick (1123-53), and confirmed by his son Earl Waleran (1184-1204); (fn. 11) land at Langley in Sutton Coldfield and the mill at Bitterscote in Tamworth parish given by Ralph Bassett of Drayton, the grandson of Geva who died shortly before 1166; (fn. 12) and a virgate and meadowland adjoining in Curdworth (Warws.) given by Cecily, sister of Hugh of Arden about 1150. (fn. 13)

These slender resources, even with some later additions, could not have supported a very large establishment, and it is doubtful whether there were ever more than a very few monks at Canwell, which remained a poor and insignificant monastery. The patronage was retained by the Drayton branch of the Bassett family down to 1390, and several confirmations were issued by successive members of the family. After the extinction of the line of the Bassetts of Drayton the Beauchamp family, earls of Warwick, inherited the patronage. Finally it passed to the Lisle family who retained it until the dissolution of the priory. (fn. 14)

Canwell evidently remained undisturbed in its possession of the church of Dunton Bassett, which had been appropriated to the priory by 1220. (fn. 15) On the other hand the advowson of Ragdale was lost in 1261 at an assize of darrein presentment where there were three contending parties — the Prior of Canwell, Beatrice de Coleville, and Ralph Bassett of Drayton. After the prior had withdrawn his claim judgment was given by the jury in favour of Ralph Bassett, who thereupon exercised his right of presentation. (fn. 16) The outcome of this case is somewhat surprising in view of Geva's grant, of the patronage exercised by the Bassett family over the priory, and of the statement in the matriculus of Hugh de Welles, Bishop of Lincoln (1209-35), that the Prior of Canwell was the patron of the church of Ragdale and that the parson paid the prior ab antiquo 3 marks and a lump of wax. (fn. 17) Over a century later the rights of Canwell were restored when in 1389 Ralph Bassett, the last of the Bassetts of Drayton, granted the monks in free alms the patronage of the church of Ragdale. (fn. 18) In 1414 the priory recovered the advowson from Sir Ralph Shirley, Ralph Bassett's kinsman and heir. (fn. 19) From this time the monks retained the right of presentation until the dissolution, but they seem to have been remiss in exercising it. In 1538 old men of Ragdale affirmed that 'there hath been neither parson nor vicar by the space of nine score years now last past'. (fn. 20) Ragdale was appropriated to the priory by the 15th century, the monks paying the Bishop of Lincoln 1 mark from the church. (fn. 21) The only other church in which the priory had any interest was that of Ashby Parva (Leics.), from which in the 13th century at least the monks received 4s. annually. (fn. 22)

A substantial addition to the endowments of the priory was made about the mid 13th century on the death of Philippa Marmion. A hundred marks were assigned to the monks from her estate on condition that Ralph Bassett — who was later killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 — and his heirs should present a secular clerk to the prior and convent to be made a monk and to celebrate divine service for the souls of Philippa and her family. (fn. 23) The only indication of the priory's wealth in the assessment of 1291 is the value of £9 8s. placed on its temporalities in the deanery of Guthlaxton in the archdeaconry of Leicester and the pension of 4s. from Ashby Parva. (fn. 24) In 1292 William de Meynill was given licence to alienate 4 acres of land in Hints to the priory. (fn. 25) By will of 1389 the last Ralph Bassett of Drayton (d. 1390) left £200 and property in Lichfield and Walsall; part of this was to be used for the augmentation of the community by five monks — a provision which was probably never carried out — and 'to make a wall towards the water and a new belfry'. (fn. 26) At an episcopal visitation in 1453 the prior gave the annual yearly value of the lands of the priory, including meadow and pasture, as 100s.; the annual income, including the tithes of the appropriated churches, amounted to £21 4s. 8d. (fn. 27)

Little is known of the internal history of the priory. At least four priors were Cluniacs. (fn. 28) In the mid 1230s, 1313, and 1315 priors of Canwell are found acting as papal judges delegate. (fn. 29) In 1272 a monk of Canwell, William de Sutton, killed a man, fled, and was outlawed; the prior was fined 1 mark for having let him escape, and Ralph Bassett stood surety for the prior. (fn. 30) The community consisted of the prior and three monks in 1377. (fn. 31) In the 15th and early 16th centuries it appears that there were never more than two or three monks in the priory. Often there was only one, and the death of Prior Sadeler in 1456 left the house without any monks at all. (fn. 32) The frequent resignations from the priorate suggest that the resident monks took it in turn to be prior. On resignation the prior received a pension. For instance in 1400, when John Molton resigned for the first time, it was arranged that he was to have lodgings in the part of the priory lately built by Ralph Bassett and to receive good food at the prior's table and an annual allowance of 33s. 4d. in silver pennies for dress and other necessaries. (fn. 33) At the episcopal visitation of 1453 John Bredon, who while he was prior (1443-7) had been imprisoned and then pardoned for murder, was stated by the prior to be the only other member of the community; he was not resident and was in receipt of an annual pension of £4. The vicar general ordered that the pension should cease to be paid and that John should return to the priory; the £4 was to be spent on immediate repairs to the church. (fn. 34)

In the 14th and 15th centuries there were a number of petty disputes between the local inhabitants in Hints and Drayton Bassett and the priory, generally over the cutting down of trees and underwood. The priors were invariably the defendants. (fn. 35) In 1517 the prior brought a case to Star Chamber, complaining bitterly of the violence of the men of Drayton Bassett. (fn. 36)

Canwell was one of the 21 monasteries scheduled for dissolution in 1524 in pursuance of Cardinal Wolsey's project for founding Cardinal College, Oxford. (fn. 37) Only one other of these houses was poorer than Canwell; its spiritualities were valued in 1526 at £10 and its temporalities at £15 10s. 3d. The possessions of the priory consisted of the manor and demesne at Canwell and, elsewhere in Staffordshire, lands in Drayton Bassett, Fazeley, Hints, Weeford, Packington (in Weeford), Bitterscote, Whittington, and Elford; in Warwickshire lands in Little Sutton, Hill, Tamworth, and Nether Whitacre; and in Leicestershire the rectory of Dunton and lands there and the rectory of Ragdale. At an inquest held at Walsall in 1525 it was stated that the prior and the only other monk at Canwell had freely resigned the priory into the hands of Wolsey and had gone to other monasteries. One of them was evidently the old priest who was farming the church at Ragdale in 1538. The property was conveyed by the king to Wolsey in January 1526 and by Wolsey to the Dean of Cardinal College in February. In 1530 the college drew £14 6s. from the Canwell property. After the fall of Wolsey Canwell's possessions reverted to the king. The process of dissolution was completed in 1530 when Thomas Cromwell and William Burbank spent three days at Canwell and sold goods to the value of £8. The bells were valued at £13 6s. 8d. The former prior was paid £1 and the other monk 6s. 8d., while the prior's father and the servants received £2 between them and the valuers ('praysors') 3s. 4d. In 1532 much of Canwell's property passed to St. George's Chapel, Windsor. (fn. 38) The rectories of Dunton and Ragdale were granted to the Oxford college in that year but were in the king's hands in 1538. (fn. 39) The manor of Canwell was held by John Veysey, Bishop of Exeter, at his death in 1554. (fn. 40)

A survey of Canwell manor made in 1526 (fn. 41) described the priory church as 84 feet long and 23 feet wide, the nave and chancel being under a single roof covered with tile. The Lady Chapel on the north side of the chancel, 42 × 14 feet, was ruinous, and all but one side of the cloister had fallen down. There was a house on the west side of the manor partly tiled and shingled and partly thatched. It was 69 × 15 feet and contained three parlours and three upper chambers; 'an entry like a gallery' adjoined the house, and the timber throughout was in a bad state. A hall recently repaired and a ruinous kitchen were also mentioned. At the south end of the entry was a stable, 36 × 12 feet, with three chambers. At the east end of the hall was a ruinous building, 41 × 24 feet, with a kiln, a bolting-house and an upper room for corn. There was also mention of a decayed dovecote and a ruinous barn 112 × 28 feet. In the later 18th century the new stables of Canwell Hall were erected on what was said to be the site of the priory, using the remaining ruins. (fn. 42)


William, occurs 1148. (fn. 43)

Denis, occurs about 1150. (fn. 44)

Hugh, occurs about 1184. (fn. 45)

H., occurs 1209 and at some date between 1200 and 1216. (fn. 46)

Hugh, occurs 1247-8. (fn. 47)

Thomas, occurs about 1289 and in 1295. (fn. 48)

Walter, occurs 1315. (fn. 49)

Henry de Roulegh, died by April 1355. (fn. 50)

John de Kyngeston, elected 1355, occurs to 1369. (fn. 51)

John Molton, occurs 1386, resigned 1400. (fn. 52)

Robert de Atterton, appointed by the bishop with the consent of the monks 1400. (fn. 53)

John Molton, resigned 1407. (fn. 54)

Robert de Atterton, elected and presented to the patron 1407, occurs to 1423. (fn. 55)

Thomas, occurs 1425. (fn. 56)

Robert de Atterton, occurs 1426, resigned 1433. (fn. 57)

Henry Sadeler alias Assheburn, (fn. 58) elected 1433, resigned 1443. (fn. 59)

John Bredon, elected 1443, resigned 1447. (fn. 60)

Henry Sadeler alias Assheburn, appointed 1447, died 1456. (fn. 61)

John Rakkis, appointed 1456, died 1468. (fn. 62)

John Tyttewell, appointed 1468, resigned 1469 or January 1470. (fn. 63)

Hugh Lempster, appointed 1470, resigned 1503. (fn. 64)

Robert Bentley, appointed 1503, died 1511. (fn. 65)

John Muchelney, appointed 1511, resigned by February 1516. (fn. 66)

John Alston, appointed 1516. (fn. 67)

William Becham, occurs 1517, surrendered the priory in 1524 or 1525. (fn. 68)

The priory seal in use in the early 15th century depicts the Annunciation with the head and shoulders of a praying figure below. (fn. 69) Legend, lombardic:



  • 1. D.N.B. sub Ridel; W. Farrer, Honors and Knights' Fees, ii. 269-70.
  • 2. Sir Christopher Hatton's Bk. of Seals, ed. L. C. Loyd and Doris M. Stenton, pp. 35-36; Dugdale, Mon. iv. 106-7; Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/2, f. 197; ibid./11, f. 61; C 142/76/36. Geva founded the priory in honour of St. Mary, St. Giles, and All Saints: Dugdale, Mon. iv. 105.
  • 3. Shaw, Staffs. ii. 22*.
  • 4. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 105.
  • 5. A survey temp. Hen. VIII mentions a piece of ground near Canwell called 'Olde Stycheleys': ibid. 109.
  • 6. The copy of the charter in B.M., Harl. MS. 2060, f. 21, gives 'Littlemersia'. In Geva's second charter (see below) as given by Dugdale the meadow is called 'Litlemers'.
  • 7. F. M. Stenton, First Century of Eng. Feudalism (2nd edn.), 33 sqq.
  • 8. J. H. Round, Geoffrey de Mandeville, 265.
  • 9. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 106; Cal. Pat. 1408-13, 269-70.
  • 10. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 106.
  • 11. Ibid. In 1220 Alan de Morcote tried to dispossess the monks at Hill but the attempt failed: Curia Regis R. ix. 367.
  • 12. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 106-7.
  • 13. Sir Christopher Hatton's Bk. of Seals, pp. 35-36.
  • 14. T. Madox, Formulare Anglicanum (1702), 16; Cal. Inq. p.m. Hen. VII, i. p. 339; Shaw, Staffs. ii. 3-5, 12-13; Hibbert, Dissolution, 24–25; Dugdale, Mon. iv. 106–7; E 327/30.
  • 15. Rot. Hugonis de Welles (Cant. & York Soc.), i. 241, 274; Rot. Roberti Grosseteste (Cant. & York Soc.), 415; Rot. Ricardi Gravesend (Cant. & York Soc.), 152.
  • 16. S.H.C. iv(1), 147; Rot. Ric. Gravesend, 142. His son presented in 1275: ibid. 158. Beatrice was claiming dower in the manor of Ragdale.
  • 17. Rot. H. de Welles, i. 260.
  • 18. Cal. Pat. 1408-13, 270.
  • 19. Bodl. MS. Staffs. Charters 20; Shaw, Staffs. ii. 5 and n.
  • 20. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii(1), p. 72.
  • 21. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/11, f. 10; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii(1), pp. 16, 412; ibid. xix(1), p. 632.
  • 22. Rot. H. de Welles, i. 243; Tax Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 63. The church was appropriated to the Knights Hospitallers.
  • 23. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 107. The priest was to provide his own vestments.
  • 24. Tax. Eccl. 63, 67, 74.
  • 25. Cal. Pat. 1281-92, 484.
  • 26. Dugdale, Baronage of Eng. i (1675), 381. See below for a ref. in 1400 to the part of the priory lately built by Ralph Bassett. The bequest was also intended to endow a chantry priest in Lichfield Cathedral and an obit. In a will of 1383-4 he left Canwell 200 marks to secure certain lands and a mill in Warws.: ibid. 380.
  • 27. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/11, f. 10.
  • 28. See below nn. 51, 59, 62, 65. It was perhaps this that gave rise to the erroneous statement sometimes found in medieval documents that Canwell was a Cluniac priory; see e.g. the documents relating to its suppression (E 21/3).
  • 29. S.H.C. 1924, pp. 42, 236, 248-9.
  • 30. Ibid. iv(1), 214.
  • 31. E 179/20/595.
  • 32. See below nn. 62, 63, 65, 66, 67.
  • 33. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/7, f. 164v.
  • 34. Ibid./11, f. 10; Cal. Pat. 1446-52, 107.
  • 35. S.H.C. xiii. 40; xvii. 71, 103, 110; N.S. iii. 151.
  • 36. Ibid. 1910, 8.
  • 37. For this para, unless otherwise stated, see Hibbert, Dissolution, 22-26; L. & P. Hen. VIII, iv, pp. 848, 888, 2792; v, p. 86; xiii(1), pp. 16, 72; C 142/76/36; E 36/164, pp. 95, 96 (summarized in Dugdale, Mon. iv. 108); E 36/165, ff. 1-17v. (part of which is given in Dugdale, Mon. iv. 108-9).
  • 38. L. & P. Hen. VIII, v, p. 579.
  • 39. Ibid. p. 411; xiii(1), p. 412.
  • 40. Shaw, Staffs. ii. 22.
  • 41. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 108-9 (transcript of E 36/165, ff. 1-3v.); L. & P. Hen. VIII, iv, p. 985.
  • 42. Shaw, Staffs. ii. 22 *.
  • 43. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 106.
  • 44. S.H.C. 1939, pp. 182-3.
  • 45. Ibid. xvii. 242, 251.
  • 46. Ibid. 250; Cartulary of Oseney Abbey, vol. v (Oxford Hist. Soc. xcviii), 96; Dugdale, Mon. iv. 112.
  • 47. S.H.C. xv. 37, 38.
  • 48. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 104; Bodl. MS. Staffs. Charters 17.
  • 49. S.H.C. 1924, p. 42.
  • 50. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/2, f. 197.
  • 51. Ibid.; S.H.C. xiii. 40; Bodl. MS. Staffs. Charters 18. He was a Cluniac of Bermondsey (Surr.). He occurs as Prior of Sandwell from 1370 to 1379: see below p. 219.
  • 52. Bodl. MS. Staffs. Charters 19; see above p. 215.
  • 53. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/7, f. 51v. He was a monk of Canwell.
  • 54. Ibid. f. 64v.
  • 55. Ibid.; Madox, Formulare Anglicanum, 16; Cal. Pat. 1408-13, 269; Cat. Anct. D. i, B. 1349. The community in 1407 numbered 3, including Molton and Atterton: E 327/30.
  • 56. S.H.C. N.S. iii. 157.
  • 57. S.H.C. xvii. 110; Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/9, f. 63.
  • 58. For this alias see B/A/1/11, f. 61.
  • 59. Ibid./9, ff. 63, 70v. He was a Cluniac of Bermondsey.
  • 60. Ibid. f. 70v.; Lambeth Palace Libr., Reg. Stafford, f. 93. He was a monk of Canwell.
  • 61. Reg. Stafford, f. 93; Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/11, f. 61. He was a monk of Canwell, appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury during a vacancy at Lichfield. He was described as a monk of Burton in 1453: ibid. f. 10.
  • 62. B/A/1/11, f. 61; ibid./12, f. 45v. He was a Cluniac of Lenton (Notts.). The bishop appointed as there were no monks left at Canwell. A document of 1461 (Bodl. MS. Staffs. Charters 21) gives the prior as John Chetforde.
  • 63. B/A/1/12, f. 45v. The bishop appointed as there were no other monks at Canwell.
  • 64. Ibid.; ibid./14, f. 21v. He was admitted to the guild of Lichfield in 1474: Harwood, Lichfield, 406. He was said to be aged 60 in 1516: S.H.C. N.S. x(1), 99, 101.
  • 65. B/A/1/14, ff. 21v., 22. He was a Cluniac of Lenton. The bishop appointed him as there were no other monks at Canwell apart, presumably, from the ex-prior. He was admitted to the guild of Lichfield in 1503: Harwood, Lichfield, 411.
  • 66. B/A/1/14, f. 22, 22v. The bishop again appointed as there were no other monks.
  • 67. Ibid. f. 22v. He was a monk of Worcester brought in by the bishop as Canwell was 'destitute of monks'. He had been a scholar of Gloucester College, Oxford, and in 1507 had been admitted to oppose for B.Th.: A. B. Emden, Biog. Reg. of Univ. of Oxford to A.D. 1500, i. 28.
  • 68. S.H.C. 1910, 8; C 142/76/36.
  • 69. J. Nichols, Hist. and Antiquities of the County of Leics. iii(1), 386 and plate facing p. 383. The specimen there illustrated does not seem to have survived, but a fragment possibly of the same seal is attached to a document of 1407: E 327/30.