Our chosen topic for several months in late 2017 and early 2018 was, "A Monastery (priory, friary, convent etc.) Near You". We began with an overview of origins of monasticism and of the different religious orders.


Looking at the early origins of monasticism indicated two strands and types: the eremitical or solitary, contemplative, "hermit-like" way of life and the cenobitical, living as part of a religious community. St. Anthony the Great, who left civilisation to live alone on a mountain in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd century, is regarded as the founding father of the eremitical way. He quickly gathered disciples who lived as hermits but often not far from eachother. The cenobitical way also originated in Egypt with St. Pachomius, who, in the 4th century, established an organised community in which monks lived in individual "cellula" but worked, ate and worshipped together. This enabled pious individuals who did not have the skills and stamina to survive alone in the desert live an ascetic religious life.

Another possible strand in the very early origins of monasticism, took us back to our visit to Chester in July for Professor Brooke's talk on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes who lived at Qumran in the first century, were a Jewish sect whose way of life may have been pre-cursor of monasticism. The contemporary historian Josephus divided the Essenes into those who married and those who did not but states that even those who did marearly ry, did not greatly approve of it and did so only for the propagation of humanity. Both Josephus and "The Damascus Document", describe a lengthly period of probation for anyone wishing to join the community. If they are accepted, they make solomn vows and their property becomes the common property of the community. The Essenes were farmers, kept no slaves and made no animal sacrifices but devoted themselves to the study of their ancestral texts.

Monasticism developed and became important in the Eastern Orthodox church, however, our study concentrated on the Western Church. It was introduced by St. Athanasius, who visited Rome accompanied by two Egyptian monks, Ammon and Isidore who were disciples of St. Anthony. The earliest forms therefore aimed to reproduce the eremitical type of monasicism, a kind of colony of hermits: early examples being those established by Martin of Tours. Other early monasteries inFrance were founded by Honoratus of Marseilles and John Cassian, whose "Institutes" provided an influential guide for monastic life. The first Celtic monastries seem to have been simply communities of Christians, men, women and children living together but later Celtic monasticism was heavily influenced by the Desert Fathers and organised as an enclosure in which monks occupied separate cells.

The most influential individual in the development of monasticism in western Europe was Benedict of Nursia. He was educated in Rome but left to live in cave outside the city, where he soon attracted followers. He founded the monastery of Monte Cassino about 520. Despite having sought the life of a hermit, what he founded was a cenobitic institution, influenced by the those of St. Pachomius. He established for it a Rule, which defined the activities and organisation of the monastery and which became the basis for all subsequent monastic establishments.   


Pope Gregory sent Augustine to convert the English in 597 but Mercia resisted Christianity and conversion did not begin until Chad established his bishopric at Lichfield, 669-72. Evidence of early foundations is sketchy and unreliable. According to one tradition, when the sons of king Wulfhere, Rufinus and Wulfad converted to Christianity their angry father killed them. When, later he too converted, he founded a monastery at Stone. Certainly, when Stone priory was founded in the 12th C. there was already a church dedicated to St. Wulfad. Unfortunately, the same story is told by Bede but set ten years later and in a different part of the country and Wulfhere was already Christian when he became king. Wulfhere's daughter, St. Werburgh did became abbess of a convent at Hanbury and was buried there c. 700. There is also a tradition that an Irish abbess, St. Modwen, founded a monastery at Burton-on-Trent but there is no hard evidence to support this. The only foundation in this period for which there is certain evidence is that at Repton. The story that it was founded by St. David is unlikely but it was Celtic type of foundation containing both men and women and ruled by an abbess. Alfthritha was abbess in 697. Repton became the chosen burial place of the kings of Mercia: their tombs were in the crypt of what is now the parish church.

The repeated invasions of the pagan Vikings seem to have halted the further development of monasteries until the mid 10th century and it is likely that some early foundations were lost during this period. Quite a few monastic foundations have a tradition of an earlier foundation, before the one that is documented.  By the mid 10th century most western monasteries followed the rule of Benedict and so were known as Benedictines, or "Black Monks" after the colour of their habits. The first these in Staffordshire was that of Burton-on-Trent, which was founded in 1004 by Wulfric Spot an Anglo-Saxon theign. The will of Wulfric Spot, detailing the extensive properties with which he endowed the abbey, survives and is probably the greatest treasure of the Staffordshire archives.

Shortly before the Conquest, in 1061, Burchard, son of Algar, a Mercian eolderman, was taken ill while returning from a visit to Rome. Realising he was dying, he asked to be buried in the monastery of St. Rémy promising lands in England in payment. His father duly provided lands at Lapley, Hamstall Ridware, Meaford and Church Eaton in Staffordshire and Silvington in Shropshire. A small foundation or "cell", consisting usually of just a prior and two others, was set up at Lapley. They did not, however, lead a full monastic life: their job was to administer the estates and send the profits back to the mother house of St. Rémy.

This type of arrangement increased after the Normans had conquered England, as they endowed monasteries in their native Normandy with parcels of their newly acquired English lands. When hostilities broke out between England and France (which they did quite frequently, even before the start of the Hundred Years War), these foundations found themselves vulnerable. The possessions which Lapley administered were seized in 1204, 1288 and 1325, on each occasion only being returned on payment of a hefty fine. During the Hundred Years War itself, institutions which sent a substantial part of their income to mother houses abroad were officially designated "Alien Priories" and taken into the king's hands. He then granted them back as a gift from him, in return for their promise not to act treasonably, leave the country without permission or export precious metals and of course a substantial payment. In 1378, probably in response to the complaints raised in the Good Parliament of 1376, (one of our topics May last year) all foreign monks were ordered to leave the country through Dover, where they were searched. Lapley Priory was exempted but over the next 40 years, it was given by successsive kings into the hands of various individuals, to enjoy the income, whilst the annual payments due to the king increased. In 1414 the whole estate was given to Tong college in Shropshire, by which time there was only one monk remaining there. He probably returned to France.


The second (documented) monastic establishment in Staffordshire, after Repton was that of Burton-on-Trent and it remained the largest in the county. It was established in 1004 by the Mercian theign, generally known as Wulfric Spott, though he only acquired the byname "Spott" in the 12th century and is referred to in contemporary documents as "Wulfric, Wulfrun's son". Since the monks of Burton commemorated his death on 22nd October (the next day after our meeting) we had a look at what is known about him.

Wulfrun was the name of Wulfric's mother. He was one of her three known children but the name of her husband is not known. Wulfrun inherited property in Wolverhampton (which is named after her) and Abbots Bromley, which had previously belonged to Wulfsige "the black" and this, together with the "Wulf" element of their names, indicates that Wulfsige was probably Wulfrun's father. Wulfric's high status is indicated in charters of King Athelstan where he is described as "king' theign" and he and his brother, Aelfhelm are among the first and therefore most prominent, of the witnesses. It is also indicated by the huge amount of land he he held. Places in Staffordshire named in his will have been identified as: Burton, Abbots Bromley, Oakley, Okeover, Balterley, Pillaton, Barlaston, Ilam, Castern (near Ilam), Cauldon, Cotwalton and Darlaston (near Stone), Eccleshall, Elford, Gailley, Harlaston ( in Lichfield), Church Leigh, Longdon, Marchington, Rolleston, Rudyard, Sheen, Stretton, Winshill, Whiston and Tamworth. He bequeathed his property in Tamworth to his "wretched daughter", a description which suggests she may have been disabled. He had no son and bequeathed much of his property to found the abbey of Burton. Some scholars think that Wulfric died soon after making his will in 1004 but Burton Abbey's "History of the Abbots" records that Wulfric died in 1010, fighting the Danes at the battle of  Ringmere, near Ipswich and that he was buried beside his wife Elswitha who had died 6 years earlier (ie. 1004, when the will was made).




The canons of St. Thomas's, Stafford, (see Staffordshire) were certainly not the only ones to enjoy hunting and keep dogs. In 1346 the Chapter of the Augustinian order passed a statute that hunting dogs should not be kept but added that if they were, they should not be given the food meant for the poor. This love of hunting is central to Chaucer's satirical portrait of the Monk, in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Years ago Bressie suggested that Chaucer's monk could be based upon William de Cloune, Abbot of Leicester 1345-78, who was well known to both Edward III and John of Gaunt. Cloune obtained a Papal dispensation for the monks of Leicester to be allowed to wear boots which was otherwise forbidden, they should wear sandals. It was also said that in Cloune's time the monastery was "notoriously Lollard" and practiced a liberal interpretation of Augustinian precepts.

           Chaucer describes the Monk as:

            "A manly man, to been an abbot able,

            "Ful many a dayntee hors hadde he in stable.


            "Grehoundes he hadde as swift as fowel in flight;

            "Of prikyng [riding] and of huntyng for the hare

            "Was all his lust, for no cost wolde he spare."


Like the monks of Leicester, he wears:

            "His bootes souple..."

And like the monks of St. Werburgh, he did not wear the simple monastic gown:

            "I seigh his sleves pufiled at the hand [fur cuffs]

            "With grys, and that the finest of a lond,

            "And for to festne his hood under his chyn

            "He hadde of gold ywrought a ful curious pin;

            A love knot in the gretter end ther was."

The Monk also enjoyes his food:

            "He was a lord ful fat .....


            "He was nat pale as a forpyned goost,

            "A fat swan loved he best of any roost"

From what we have learned so far, it looks as if Chaucer's satire was pretty accurate.`







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