A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1971.

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'RELIGIOUS HOUSES: Introduction', in A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 2, (London, 1971) pp. 93-94. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]

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Benedictinism both at its best and worst was the dominant feature of the monastic life of Worcestershire. In Worcester itself the Benedictine rule was possibly introduced by the time of the Council of Clovesho, 747, while St. Egwin, who founded the monastery of Evesham in 703, was himself a Benedictine. The house of Pershore was also in existence by the beginning of the eighth century, and came under the injunctions to follow the Benedictine rule imposed in the Council of Clovesho. But the beginning of strict monastic life and the ousting of secular canons from the monasteries did not come until the tenth century when St. Oswald came to Worcester imbued with the true Benedictine ideal, which he felt to be irreconcilable with communities of secular canons. With such an early footing in the county the Benedictines could not but prosper. Early endowments were showered upon them by devout kings and princes until prosperity brought rivalry and jealousy and a constant and irritating struggle over their possessions. An impetus to the rivalry was given by the foundation in 1085 of the Benedictine priory of Great Malvern which was subject to Westminster Abbey, and of Little Malvern in 1171, especially as the latter, though locally connected with Great Malvern, was really dependent on the Worcester house. Finally, in the twelfth century, the strength of Benedictinism was completed in the county by an appeal to women as well as men in the foundation of the nunnery of Westwood.

With the Benedictine power so well developed it might well be almost impossible for any other order to become of importance in the county. Yet by the middle of the twelfth century the Cistercians, themselves part of a revival within the Benedictine order, gained a footing in the county, and a Cistercian house was founded at Bordesley. Following this in the thirteenth century came the establishment of the two Cistercian nunneries of Whistones and Cookhill in 1255 and 1260. In the meantime Gervase Paynel, in the middle of the twelfth century, had founded and endowed the Cluniac house of St. James of Dudley, and Peter des Roches in 1218 the Premonstratensian house of Halesowen on the borders of Shropshire.

By this time also a new influence had come into the county with the settlement of the Franciscans at Worcester between 1225 and 1230. The monastic orders had been drawn into difficulties produced by worldliness and had deserted their former ideals in their thirst for temporal power. The Friars Minor came with the gospel of simplicity and poverty to meet the needs, hitherto unheeded, of the poor and suffering. In their fight to gain a firm foothold they too departed from their ideal perhaps because it drew too much on the heroism of mankind. Besides the Franciscans the Friars of the Sack were settled in Worcester by 1271, and there was a small body of Penitent Sisters mentioned in 1240. In the fourteenth century William de Beauchamp founded the house of the Black Friars or Dominicans in Worcester, but they, unlike the Franciscans, seem to have had little practical effect on the county. The Austin Friars settled at Droitwich in 1331.

Of the three hospitals of the county, that of St. Mary, Droitwich, was founded in 1285, that of St. Wulstan, Worcester, better known as the Commandery, in about 1085, and that of St. Oswald, Worcester, before 1268, probably much earlier. The last alone has survived as a charitable organization.

The one alien house of the county was that of Astley, founded somewhere in the twelfth century.

Rich in religious houses, the county of Worcester is also rich in materials for their history, especially for that of the greater Benedictine houses. For Worcester itself it is natural there should be much in ordinary sources as well as in the Priory register and the chartulary compiled by Heming. There is much also for the other Benedictine houses of Pershore and Great Malvern, while for the Premonstratensian house of Halesowen the visitations of the conservator-general of the order are most valuable. But the most interesting and by far the most valuable of all the sources is the chronicle of the abbey of Evesham, being as it is for the greater part a rare picture of the internal life of a monastery, and a contemporary history of the house written by one who had no mean share in making that history.

It would be interesting, but almost impossible, to estimate the effects of monasticism in any one county, but especially so in Worcestershire, where monasticism was the pivot round which all else seemed to turn. Episcopal power, great though it might be, had to eventually give way before the claims put forward by Evesham. The religious houses were the greatest landowners, and what was more, since the patronage of the county was almost exclusively in their hands, the influence they possessed was incalculable. They were, too, the centres of learning in the county and of all organized almsgiving; and although they so often neglected what Wiclif would call the 'universal' for the personal, and forgot the good they might do in struggling for more power and more possessions, it is not well to underestimate, in spite of all their failures, their effect on the county as a refining and educating force.