A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1970.
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15. THE PRIORY OF RANTON
The priory of Ranton was founded about the mid 12th century by Robert fitz Noel of Ellenhall, (fn. 1) whose father had been granted Ranton in fee by Nicholas de Stafford. (fn. 2) The foundation charter (fn. 3) refers to the house as St. Mary des Essarz, an indication that the house was established on assarted land. Besides the site Robert fitz Noel gave 8 virgates of land in 'Cuccessone' (perhaps Cooksland in Seighford) and the mill of Coton Clanford (in Seighford), both free of secular service, with another virgate in Coton Clanford held by 'castle service'. The foundation charter states that the canons of Ranton were living 'under the rule and obedience' of Haughmond Abbey (Salop.), and this helps to fix the date of foundation. Ranton must have been founded after the establishment of the mother-house at Haughmond (between 1130 and 1138) (fn. 4) and by 1166 when some of the witnesses to the foundation charter were dead. (fn. 5) The founder subsequently increased the endowment of his priory by giving the church of Seighford with its dependent chapels of Ranton, Ellenhall, and Derrington ('Doddington') and the church of Grandborough (Warws.). (fn. 6) For some unknown reason the little Suffolk priory of Bricett sued Haughmond in the later 12th century for its daughter-house of Ranton and was paid 40s. to remit its claim. (fn. 7)
The founder's son, Thomas Noel, added land in Bridgeford (in Seighford), Ranton, and Coton Clanford and arranged to be buried in the priory. (fn. 8) The land in Bridgeford, however, was detained by his daughter and coheir, Alice, and her husband, William de Harcourt. Eventually, in her widowhood, Alice regranted this land to the priory with her own body for burial and added more land from her demesne of Seighford. (fn. 9) Richard de Harcourt of Great Sheepy (Leics.) gave the priory 9 virgates of land in Great Sheepy with fishing rights and 2s. rent from his mill there; this property was the priory's most important temporal estate outside Staffordshire. (fn. 10)
Other benefactions included a virgate of land in Stockton (in Longford, Salop.) given by Richard de Stockton in the later 12th century; (fn. 11) a grant in 1221 by Bishop Cornhill of 120 acres of waste land in his manor of Eccleshall for an annual rent of 6s. 8d.; (fn. 12) and several grants from successive heads of the Knightley family in the late 12th and earlier 13th centuries. The Knightley grants included quarrying rights in Knightley manor (in Gnosall), right of way over the family lands between the priory and its granges, and 'the spring of Witewell'. (fn. 13) Later in the 13th century the priory inscribed in its martyrology the name of Richard of Flashbrook, a benefactor and the son of a benefactor; the canons promised to observe his anniversary like that of one of their own community and contributed 40s. for the redemption of his lands under the terms of the Dictum of Kenilworth of 1266. (fn. 14) By about this time a hospital of St. Anne had been established within the priory precincts, and Richard of Flashbrook was among its benefactors. (fn. 15) Between at least 1255 and 1290 the priory was much involved in protracted disputes with the Doyly family, lords of Ranton, (fn. 16) over 'lands, rights of pasture, and various injuries'. Part of the trouble may have been due to the inevitable obscurities of title following clearance of waste in the area, but other matters in dispute included the private chapel of the Doyly family and the evidently extensive watercourses which connected with the priory's mills and fishponds. (fn. 17) By 1291 the priory had acquired a temporal estate in Grandborough parish which was distinct from the appropriated church. (fn. 18)
The priory may have had fairly widespread commercial interests in the later 13th century. During this period the burgesses of Stafford admitted the canons to all the 'liberties and free customs' of the borough, (fn. 19) while the priory was given a house 'in the new market of Newcastleunder-Lyme'. (fn. 20) A burgage and land in Newport (Salop.) were also acquired, some of the property having formerly belonged to William Randolf, a prominent merchant of the town. (fn. 21) The acquisitions in Newport, which lies on the road from central Staffordshire to Wales, may have been connected with the priory's development of commercial interests in Wales. About this time Griffith ap Gwenwynwyn (d. 1286), lord of Southern Powys, gave the priory quittance of tolls in his markets, a grant which was confirmed by his son Owen (d. 1293). (fn. 22)
The most important development in the early history of the house was its emancipation from Haughmond. The priory's observance of 'the rule of Haughmond' is mentioned in a charter of Archbishop Baldwin (1184-90). (fn. 23) A charter of Archbishop Hubert (1193-1205) notes that Ranton was subject to Haughmond. (fn. 24) This latter charter may have been occasioned by some friction between Ranton and the mother-house, and an undated agreement between the houses (fn. 25) perhaps belongs to the following years. The canons of Ranton were evidently held to be canons of the mother-house, for they were to participate in the election of abbots of Haughmond. The abbot was to visit Ranton at least once a year. The canons of Ranton, however, were empowered to admit new members to their community, though all were to profess obedience to the Abbot of Haughmond. When the priorate of Ranton fell vacant, the canons were to present one of their brethren and another from Haughmond to the abbot, who was to make the final choice. This settlement was clearly a compromise. It suggests that Ranton was larger than most cells of the order in this country but that it was by no means independent. A further dispute between Ranton and Haughmond occurred, and the matter was referred to papal delegates who in turn referred it to the bishop and his advisers. A final settlement was reached in 1247. Ranton was to have complete independence from Haughmond in all matters spiritual and temporal, but a 'customary payment' of 100s. was to be made to Haughmond each year. (fn. 26) It is not clear how these events affected the rights of the Harcourt family who in 1209 possessed what was described as the advowson of Ranton. (fn. 27) The family, however, evidently exercised the right of confirming elections throughout the rest of the priory's history. (fn. 28)
The Taxation of 1291 gives Ranton's total income as £59 14s. The temporal income was £26 7s. 4d.; all the property from which this was derived lay within the county except for estates at Great Sheepy and Grandborough. (fn. 29) Spiritual property was worth £33 6s. 8d. which derived from the appropriated churches of Grandborough (£20) and Seighford (£13 6s. 8d.). (fn. 30)
By the early 14th century the priory had acquired lands at Knighton, Flashbrook, and Batchacre (all in Adbaston), and at Milwich. Granges at some distance from the priory had also been established by the same date: Hewall Grange (in Dilhorne) and Oldhall Grange (in Caverswall). In 1313 the king granted the priory free warren in its demesne lands in these places and at Ranton, Seighford, and Ellenhall. (fn. 31) In 1320 the bishop ordained a vicarage for the priory's church of Seighford (fn. 32) and in the following year reconstituted the vicarage of the appropriated church of Grandborough. (fn. 33) In the 1330s the priory was granted licences to acquire property in Dilhorne, Stafford, Apeton (now in Church Eaton), and Hadnall (Salop.). (fn. 34)
The internal life of the priory in the 14th century was somewhat turbulent. In 1325 the bishop wrote to the prior that a brother of the house, John de Dumpelton, when absent in charge of its goods, had put off clerical garb and resumed that of a layman. The prior was to admonish him to seek a papal dispensation from the major excommunication which he had incurred. (fn. 35) A little later the bishop ordered that John should be transferred to Burscough Priory (Lancs.) where he was to be maintained on a diet of bread, ale, and vegetables. (fn. 36)
About 1357 there was violent opposition to the bishop when he tried to carry out a visitation of the priory. In that year he secured the issue of a commission of oyer and terminer to hear his complaint that during his attempted visitation he had been attacked by John, son of Robert de Knightley, and others. The bishop's attackers had planned to prevent him from exercising his jurisdiction, besieging him and his men in the priory so that none of them dared to come out of it to buy food or other necessities. Afterwards the malefactors had withdrawn into a wood and ambushed the bishop as he was going to his manor of Haywood. It was claimed that without the aid of the men of the neighbourhood the bishop would have been killed. As it was he had been robbed and one of his servants had been assaulted. (fn. 37)
In 1372 the king revoked orders committing the priory and its possessions to the sheriff and William de Halughton. (fn. 38) It is not clear what lay behind this, but it may have been financial mismanagement. The priory then seems to have tried to augment its resources by farming the property of alien priories which were in the king's hands as a result of the war with France. In 1386 Geoffrey Stafford, canon of Ranton, was granted the custody of Alberbury Priory (Salop.). (fn. 39) Soon afterwards Geoffrey was removed from the custody — fraudulently, as it was said. In 1388, however, his restitution to the custody was ordered for the duration of the war; the yearly rent was 20 marks. (fn. 40) In 1390 Geoffrey was accused of dilapidations and waste, (fn. 41) and by 1392 Alberbury had passed to other hands. (fn. 42) Geoffrey, however, became joint keeper of the priories of Lapley and of Modbury (Devon) and was also a collector of a clerical tenth. (fn. 43)
It may also have been financial considerations which led the priory to serve the church of Seighford by one of its own brethren: John Cheswardine, a canon, was vicar there from 1369 to 1375 and was succeeded by a fellow canon, John of Woollaston. (fn. 44) To what extent this practice was recent is uncertain, but it evidently continued: in 1414 John Wilde, a canon of Ranton, resigned the vicarage and was succeeded by his fellow canon, Thomas Halfhide. (fn. 45) A visitation of 1518 shows one of the canons as serving the church of Seighford, (fn. 46) and in 1530 Bishop Blythe refused to institute a canon of Ranton to Seighford because he was 'unlearned and unworthy'. (fn. 47) In 1401, again perhaps for financial reasons, the priory appropriated the endowed vicarage of its church of Grandborough. (fn. 48)
The community (including the prior) numbered six in 1377 and seven in 1381. (fn. 49) Visitations of 1518, 1521, and 1524 show a community of six, said by one of the brethren to be the full complement. (fn. 50) The income of the house was not given, but the priory was free from debt; the prior stated in 1518 that 20 marks received from Edward Davenport pro liberatura sua had been spent on lead for the house. The prior also complained in 1518 of the low standard of observance on the part of three of the canons; two of these, Robert Parker and Humphrey Huett, had each fathered a child. The brethren were in the habit of leaving the priory without permission, particularly in order to hunt. The visitor ordered the prior on pain of deprivation to report the incorrigible brethren to the bishop or chancellor so that they could be transferred. The prior had also complained that one of the canons went to confession only once a year, (fn. 51) and the visitor ordered the brethren to confess at least twice a week. The 1521 visitation shows that no transfers had taken place although Huett was still leading an irregular life. The subprior complained that silence was not properly observed. By 1524 Huett had left for Rome, and the only complaint was from the subprior who alleged the continued breaking of silence.
The valuation of 1535 gives the priory's gross annual income as £102 11s. 1d. The gross temporal income was £56 9s. 7d. a year, almost all the property being in Staffordshire. Deductions, including a fee of £2 to the chief steward, Sir John Harcourt, amounted to £5 15s. 4d. The spiritualities produced a gross income of £46 1s. 6d. a year. Deductions, including the annual pension of 100s. to Haughmond Abbey, amounted to £6 12s. 102/3d. (fn. 52) The gross annual value of the priory property as listed in 1537 after it had passed to the Crown (fn. 53) was £117 3s. 9d. About half of this income was derived from the spiritual endowments, which consisted of the appropriated churches of Ellenhall, Seighford, Ranton, and Grandborough and tithes at 'Bircheford' (in Church Eaton). The temporal property consisted of the manor of Great Sheepy; Hethcote (fn. 54) and Clanford Granges (both in Seighford), Knighton, Ellerton, and Batchacre Granges (all in Adbaston), Hewall Grange, and Oldhall Grange; lands and rents in Ranton, Seighford, Bridgeford, Ellenhall, Dilhorne, Grandborough, and Woolscot and Walcote (both in Grandborough); and many small properties and rents (whose combined annual value did not reach £10) in Apeton, Aston (in Seighford), Cowley (in Gnosall), Gnosall, Billington (in Bradley), Orslow (in Church Eaton), Adbaston, (fn. 55) Stafford, Knightley, Haughton, Eccleshall, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Whitgreave (in St. Mary's, Stafford), 'Launde' (fn. 56) Offley, (fn. 57) Stockton, Walford (in Standon), Milwich, Wood Eaton (in Church Eaton), Newport, and Nantwich (Ches.).
Ranton came within the terms of the Act of 1536 for dissolving the lesser monasteries, and a scramble for its possessions ensued. (fn. 58) On 2 April 1536 Sir Simon Harcourt wrote to Cromwell: (fn. 59) 'I beg you will be a mediator to the king for me, that the house may continue, and he shall have £100 and you £100 if you can accomplish it, and £20 fee out of the said house. If the king is determined to dissolve it I desire to have it as it adjoins such small lands as I have in that country, and I and my heirs will pay so much as the rent of assize cometh to and give you 100 marks.' On the 27th of the same month Henry, Lord Stafford, wrote to Cromwell begging 'the farm of the abbey of Ranton if it be dissolved; it is within four miles of my house and reaches my park pale, and I will give as much for it as any man . . . I heard that George Blount endeavours to obstruct my suit'. The next day Lord Stafford wrote to the Earl of Westmorland urging his claim against Blount's but intimating his willingness to take White Ladies (in Boscobel, Salop.) instead. (fn. 60) In May Richard Cromwell wrote to him: 'As to the abbey you wrote about my uncle says that he will not fail to obtain it for you when the surveying of the abbeys is at an end.' (fn. 61) A further begging letter from Lord Stafford followed on 12 March 1537, stating that the commissioners were due in Stafford the next Sunday and urging his claims against those of Harcourt: 'I have 12 children and my living £40 a year less than it has been.' (fn. 62) But his importunity was in vain. The house was dissolved, and in November the site was leased to Harcourt for 21 years. In 1538 the Crown sold it to John Wiseman and his wife, who soon afterwards exchanged it with Harcourt for the manor of St. Mary Hoo (Kent). (fn. 63) The prior was receiving a pension of 20 marks at his death in 1555 at Seighford. (fn. 64)
The chief remains of the monastic buildings are a fine western tower of the 14th century, which is intact, and a portion of the adjoining south wall of the church. References in 1663 to 'the cloister at Ranton Abbey', 'the great chamber window', and 'another chamber window' (fn. 65) indicate that other parts of the priory were then still standing.
Ralph. (fn. 66)
O., occurs at some time probably between 1198 and 1203. (fn. 67)
Alfred, occurs 1221 and 1247. (fn. 68)
Gilbert, occurs 1253 and 1267. (fn. 69)
Thomas, occurs 1272 and 1279. (fn. 70)
Peter. (fn. 71)
Thomas of Evesham, occurs 1293 and 1298. (fn. 72)
Henry de Tywe, occurs 1301 and 1313. (fn. 73)
Robert de Bradele, appointed 1326, probably died 1349. (fn. 74)
Richard of Milwich, elected 1349, died 1359. (fn. 75)
John Harcourt, elected 1359, resigned by 1372. (fn. 76)
John of Eccleshall, occurs 1372, died 1380. (fn. 77)
Thomas de Went, elected 1380, died by March 1413. (fn. 78)
John Bukenale, elected 1413, resigned 1433. (fn. 79)
John Bromley, elected 1433, appointed Prior of Arbury 1456. (fn. 80)
Roger Beche, elected 1456. (fn. 81)
Thomas Sutton, probably occurs 1480. (fn. 82)
John Welynton, occurs 1488, resigned 1490. (fn. 83)
Roger Smyth, appointed 1490, elected Abbot of Dorchester about 1510. (fn. 84)
Thomas Alton, elected 1511, prior at the dissolution in 1537. (fn. 85)
Three seals of the house are known. The first, (fn. 86) a common seal in use in the 13th century, is a pointed oval about 2½ by 15/8 in. It depicts the Virgin seated with the Child in her lap; the Child's hand is raised in blessing. Legend, lombardic:
... IE [DE] RAN ...
The second, (fn. 87) also a common seal, is a pointed oval about 23/8 by 1¾ in. It depicts the Virgin crowned and seated on a panelled and canopied throne, with the Child on her left knee; in the base is a trefoil. Legend, lombardic:
... CAP ... [M]ARIE DE RON ...
The third, (fn. 88) in use in the 16th century, is a seal ad causas. It is a pointed oval 2½ by 1½ in. and depicts the Virgin crowned and seated on a panelled and canopied throne with the Child on her left knee; in the base is a cinquefoil. Legend, lombardic:
SIGILLUM SANCTE MARIE DE [R]ANTONE AD CAUSAS