Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Brewood (Black Ladies)

Pages 220-222

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

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The priory of Benedictine nuns at Brewood, dedicated to St. Mary but often known as Black Ladies, lay some 2½ miles west of the village. (fn. 1) It may have been founded by Roger de Clinton, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield (1129-48), who was founder of the nunnery at Farewell, but there is no positive evidence. The fact that the priory was situated within the episcopal manor of Brewood (fn. 2) suggests that one of the bishops may have been concerned in the foundation. It was, however, in existence by about the mid 12th century when Ralph Bassett of Drayton gave the nuns half a virgate from his demesne at Pattingham and another half virgate at Hardwick nearby, with common of pasture and woods and free of all secular services. (fn. 3)

The next known deed relating to the priory is an agreement made about 1170 by the nuns of Brewood and Blithbury (in Mavesyn Ridware) with William de Ridware concerning land at Ridware which they had through one Godfrey. This land the nuns restored or granted to William for an annual rent of 2s. and he confirmed to them meadowland which they held already. (fn. 4) The chief interest of this deed is its indication of the close relationship between the priories of Brewood and Blithbury which apparently ended in the absorption of Blithbury by Brewood by the 14th century. (fn. 5) Another instance of the relationis the fact that Gailey (in Penkridge) granted to Blithbury between 1158 and 1165 had passed to the nuns of Brewood before 1189. (fn. 6)

Gailey, however, was seized by Henry II, and in 1200 King John granted the nuns the manor of Broom (Worcs., formerly Staffs.) instead. As a result in 1203 the prioress successfully claimed the advowson of Broom against the parson of the mother-church at Clent (Worcs., formerly Staffs.). (fn. 7) In 1204 Brewood and Blithbury were among the nunneries which received a gift of 2 marks each from the king. (fn. 8) About the same time Sir William de Rudge gave lands in Rudge (Salop.), formerly held by Leovenad de Hetha, to the nuns for a palfrey and 3 marks and an annual rent of 12d. He also confirmed their possession of two meadows 'under Whitehul' given by his father and gave them pasture rights in Rudge and Pattingham; for this the nuns had to make a cash payment of 4 marks with an annual rent of 4d. and also surrender a virgate in Rudge 'which we had given them previously'. (fn. 9) At some time between 1211 and 1216 the nuns exchanged the half virgate in Pattingham given by Ralph Bassett for an assart in Chillington owned by Ralph's widow Isabel de Pattingham; the nuns paid Isabel 20s. for the transaction. (fn. 10) About 1225 a mill at Chetton (Salop.) was granted to the nuns by Sybil de Broc, lady of the manor of Chetton. (fn. 11)

In response to a petition from the priory Pope Gregory IX (1227-41) took it under his protection. (fn. 12) He confirmed the community in all property which they already held or might acquire in the future, particularly the site of the house with its appurtenances; the newly tilled lands which they cultivated themselves and the livestock which they reared were to be tithe free. The Pope recognized the sisters' right to elect their prioress, and the bishop was to confer benediction on the nuns and ordination on their chaplain. The bull granted such usual rights as those of receiving outsiders for burial in the priory's graveyard, admitting into the community free women wishing to withdraw from the world (none of whom was to leave after profession without the permission of the prioress except to take stricter vows), and of celebrating the divine offices during time of national interdict.

During the reign of Henry III there were a number of royal grants to the nuns of Brewood but without any indication whether Black Ladies or White Ladies was intended. The grants included three acres of assart in Sherwood Forest in 1241 and of oaks from Kinver Forest in 1256 and 1267. (fn. 13) Black Ladies received a gift of 1 mark from the king in 1241 in order that they might redeem their chalice which was in pledge (fn. 14) — a sign of the poor financial state of the priory. About 1260-70 the nuns exchanged lands in the manor of Brewood with the bishop in return for an inclosed plot of wood and waste near their house, (fn. 15) and in 1267 the king confirmed the charter of 1200. (fn. 16) In 1272 half a virgate of land and 16d. rent in Horsebrook in Brewood were granted to the priory by two of the daughters and heirs of Sir Ralph de Coven and their husbands. (fn. 17) But the nuns were still recognized as poor in 1286 when they were convicted of the theft some 10 years before of a stag. The animal had been drowned in the priory fish-pond after escaping from the royal huntsman in Gailey Hay, and the nuns had then divided it with John Giffard of Chillington. Whereas Giffard was imprisoned and fined, the king pardoned the nuns because they were poor. (fn. 18) By 1291 the priory's mill at Chetton was worth 16s. a year. (fn. 19) In the same year the Pope granted an indulgence of one year and 40 days to all who should visit the priory on each of the four feasts of the Virgin Mary and the anniversary of the dedication of the church there; (fn. 20) the nuns would of course benefit from the offerings made by such visitors. At some time before 1318 the nuns had been involved in a dispute with the Vicar of Brewood over tithes of wool and lambs from flocks belonging to other people and folded and pastured on the priory's lands in Brewood parish. The vicar eventually gave the tithes to the nuns as a favour but in 1318 they decided to pay these tithes to the vicar. (fn. 21) The nuns were assessed at 2s. for the subsidy of 1327, the lowest assessment in Brewood, but for the subsidy of 1333 they were assessed at 3s., one of the higher assessments in the area. (fn. 22) In 1394 the priory received a gift of £100, made to secure prayers for Thomas de Brinton, lord of Church Eaton (d. 1382), and his ancestors. (fn. 23) This was probably the largest gift in the history of the priory but also the last of any great value.

Bishop Northburgh held a visitation of the priory, probably in 1323. (fn. 24) The injunctions reveal some financial confusion and general laxity. The bishop forbade simoniacal payments by women wishing to join the community, though free-will offerings were allowed; because of the poverty of the house numbers were to be kept at their existing level. He also forbade the granting of corrodies, liveries, and pensions without his licence and ordered the prioress and others holding office to present accounts before the whole house or the senior members. Anabel de Hervill, the cellaress, and Robert de Herst, the keeper of the temporalities, were to be removed from office. A rent received annually by one of the nuns was in future to be used for the whole house. The prioress was ordered to eat in the refectory and sleep in the dormitory, and a damsel of the prioress was to be removed from the house. No secular persons were to be allowed to reside in the priory, and the nuns were forbidden to converse with either secular persons or regulars. Nuns not holding office were not to go outside the cloister without leave — Emma of Bromsgrove was mentioned in particular. A Franciscan was appointed to hear the confessions of the prioress and nuns.

In 1442 and 1452 the bishop appointed a new prioress of Black Ladies, the right having come to him as a result of long vacancies. (fn. 25) At the next vacancy in 1485 the bishop again made the appointment, this time in response to an appeal from the subprioress that he should do so. (fn. 26) A visitation of 1521 shows a community of four. All was found in good order, although one of the nuns commented that small girls slept with the sisters in the dormitory. The prioress stated that the annual income of the house was £20 13s. 4d. and that there were no debts. (fn. 27)

In 1535 the priory had lands and rents in Brewood parish, including Chillington and Horsebrook, and in Bradley; in Broom and Kidderminster (Worcs.); and in Albrighton, Dawley, and Tong (Salop.). (fn. 28) The total value was given as £11 1s. 6d., but the list was certainly incomplete. A rental of 1537 (fn. 29) and the Minister's Account of 1539-40 (fn. 30) mention a number of additional places — Blithbury, Shredicote (in Bradley), Stretton, and Hampton Lovett and Hunnington, in Halesowen (both in Worcs.). Apart from the demesne lands near the priory, the most valuable estate was Blithbury, worth £3 12s. in 1537. The total net income from the estates was then £17 2s. 11d.

Brewood was accordingly dissolved with the lesser monasteries, the prioress surrendering it to Dr. Thomas Legh on 16 October 1538. (fn. 31) She was given a reward of £2 and a pension of £3 6s. 8d. while each of the other three nuns of the priory received half those amounts. The eight servants of the priory, including the chaplain, received rewards amounting to £3 18s. 2d., of which £1 10s. went to the chaplain. (fn. 32) The site and precinct of the priory, with the church, churchyard, a water-mill within the site, and certain pastures in Brewood, valued in all at £7 9s. 1d. a year, were sold in 1539 to Thomas Giffard of Stretton (in Penkridge) for £134 1s. 8d. 'Mr. Littleton', presumably Edward Littleton of Pillaton (in Penkridge), had also been attempting to secure the property. (fn. 33) The goods and chattels of the dissolved priory, valued at £7 6s. 1d., included the somewhat meagre furnishings of church, vestry, chapter-house, hall, parlour, chief chamber, bailiff's chamber, buttery, kitchen, larder, brewhouse, 'yelyng' house, cheese-loft, and 'kylhouse'. There were three bells in the tower of the church, and the plate consisted of a silver chalice and three silver spoons. The inventory also mentions a little grain, one horse, one wain, and one dung cart. (fn. 34) No part of the priory buildings has survived. (fn. 35)


Isabel, occurs at some time during the period 1258-95. (fn. 36)

Mabel, occurs 1272. (fn. 37)

Emma, occurs 1301. (fn. 38)

Alice de Swynnerton, occurs 1324, resigned 1332. (fn. 39)

Helewis of Leicester, elected 1332, occurs 1373. (fn. 40)

Parnel, occurs 1395 and 1412. (fn. 41)

Margaret Chilterne, appointed 1442, resigned by 1452. (fn. 42)

Elizabeth Botery, appointed 1452, died 1485. (fn. 43)

Margaret Cawardyn, appointed 1485. (fn. 44)

Isabel Lawnder, occurs 1521, surrendered the priory 1538. (fn. 45)

The priory seal in use in the 14th century was a pointed oval, and showed the Virgin seated with the Child and holding a branch of palm in her left hand. (fn. 46) Only the fragment of an impression is now known to survive. Legend:


A seal in use in 1538 is a pointed oval, 2¼ by 1¼ in., and shows the Virgin seated under a canopy with the Child on her left arm and holding a fleur-de-lys sceptre in her right hand. (fn. 47) Legend, black letter:



  • 1. A house of Augustinian canonesses dedicated to St. Leonard and often known as White Ladies lay further west just over the Shropshire border. These nuns too were frequently mentioned as the nuns of Brewood, and it is not always clear which house is meant.
  • 2. See V.C.H. Staffs. v. 25, 36.
  • 3. S.H.C. 1939, 182–3.
  • 4. Ibid. 202–3.
  • 5. See above.
  • 6. V.C.H. Staffs. v. 114.
  • 7. V.C.H. Worcs. iii. 33, 34; S.H.C. 1939, 194 sqq.
  • 8. S.H.C. ii(1), 119, 123.
  • 9. S.H.C. 1939, 183–5.
  • 10. Ibid. 183, 194.
  • 11. Ibid. 203.
  • 12. S.H.C. 1924, pp. 336–7.
  • 13. Close R. 1237–42, 273; 1254–6, 344; 1264–8, 331.
  • 14. Cal. Lib. 1240–5, 71.
  • 15. S.H.C. 1939, 205–6.
  • 16. Cal. Chart. R. 1257–1300, 79.
  • 17. S.H.C. 1939, 204–5, 206–7. For the family see V.C.H. Staffs. v. 30.
  • 18. S.H.C. v(1), 163.
  • 19. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 162. This is the only mention of the priory in the 1291 assessment.
  • 20. Cal. Papal Regs. i. 536.
  • 21. S.H.C. 1939, 210.
  • 22. Ibid. vii(1), 236; x(1), 121.
  • 23. Ibid. iv(2), 15n.; ibid. N.S. ii. 153; V.C.H. Staffs. iv. 93. In 1346 the prioress and nuns of Brewood — whether Black Ladies or White Ladies is not stated — received licence to appropriate the church of Rode (Som.) at the request of Thos. de Swynnerton (Cal. Pat. 1345–8, 475), but it seems that nothing was done. Alice de Swynnerton was prioress until her resignation in 1332.
  • 24. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/3, ff. 96–97.
  • 25. Ibid. /9, f. 69v.; /10, f. 20.
  • 26. Ibid. /12, f. 57.
  • 27. Ibid. B/V/1/1, p. 83.
  • 28. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii. 103.
  • 29. L.R. 2/183, ff. 177–9.
  • 30. S.C.6/Hen. VIII/3354, m. 42.
  • 31. L. & P. Hen. VIII, x, p. 515; xiii(2), pp. 243, 244; Hibbert, Dissolution, 171–2.
  • 32. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii(2), pp. 243, 348; xiv(1), p. 600; Hibbert, Dissolution, 227, 228. The four nuns were still receiving their pensions in 1540: L. & P. Hen. VIII, xvi, p. 731.
  • 33. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii(2), pp. 228, 244; xiv(1), p. 159. Thos. had been granted a lease of the priory in 1538: ibid. p. 609. He succ. his father John at Chillington in 1556: V.C.H. Staffs. v. 36.
  • 34. S.H.C. 1939, 216–18.
  • 35. V.C.H. Staffs. v. 37.
  • 36. S.H.C. 1924, p. 292.
  • 37. Ibid. 1939, 204.
  • 38. Ibid. 186.
  • 39. Ibid. ix(1), 101, 104; Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/2, f. 151.
  • 40. B/A/1/2, f. 151; S.H.C. 1939, 187, 197. She was a nun of Brewood.
  • 41. S.H.C. iv(2), 15n.; ibid. N.S. ii. 153; ibid. 1939, 189–91.
  • 42. Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/1/9, f. 69v.; /10, f. 20. She was a nun of Chester.
  • 43. B/A/1/10, f. 20; /12, f. 57. She was a nun of Brewood, appointed by the bishop after a long vacancy. She stood as godmother to Ric. son of Ralph Lane at his baptism in Brewood church in 1474: Cal. Inq. p.m. Hen. VII, i, p. 550; V.C.H. Staffs. v. 34.
  • 44. B/A/1/12, f. 57. She was subprioress.
  • 45. B/V/1/1, p. 83; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii(2), p. 243. She was probably Isabel dau. of Ralph Launder of Beech (in Stone) who at the time of her death in 1551 was living as a paying guest with her sister Agnes Beech and nephew John Beech: S.H.C. 1939, 212–13.
  • 46. S.H.C. 1939, 202, 213–14.
  • 47. W. de G. Birch, Cat. of Seals in B.M. i, p. 457; S.H.C. 1939, 213–14; E 322/29.