The City of Chester has a long monastic tradition. There were establishments of the Grey Friars (Franciscans), the Black Friars (Dominicans) and the White Friars (Carmelites). There was a well-established pilgrim route to the shrine of St. Weburgh, whose remains were brought to Chester around 875 to protect them from the invading Danish army. The Saint's remains were originally buried in the (existing) Church of St. Peter and St. Paul; then transferred to the (also existing) St. Peter's Church. They were finally moved to the Benedictine monastery (the Black Monks) founded in 1092 by Earl Hugh Lupus, nephew of William the Conqueror, which was devoted to the memory of the Saint. The monastery was built on the foundations of earlier Saxon constructions.The monastery was granted a charter by St. Anselm of Bec, subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury. The first Abbot of the monastery was Richard of Bec. Succeeding Abbots undertook programmes of building and extending the Abbey. Building of the newer sections of the Abbey entailed the demolition of the earlier Saxon buildings, until this process was completed in around 1211.
The Abbots of St. Werburgh were granted equal rights to the Earl of Chester. They held courts to deal with both secular and religious matteres, with trial by fire, water and combat being employed to resolve such cases. Punishments were carried out by the Abbot's officers, including execution if appropriate. These trials would have taken place in the Consistory Court; it was in use for legal hearings, even up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and into the nineteenth century.
The monks of the Abbey were not considered especially ascetic, and were reputed to feast regularly on the game that had been caught in the forests of Delamere, where they has been granted rights by the Norman Earls of Chester. They were not dressed either in plain, functional material, but oftern attired in the very best apparel, and with all the fashionable accessories of the age. The scraps from their tables did not find their way to the poor, but were generally fed to the hounds and terriers which accompanied them on their regular hunting trips.
The monks who could write produced works of considerable originality, and the monastery was clearly an intellectual centre. In 1184 the monk Lucian wrote De Laude Cestre (In praise of Chester).
Another monk, Ranulph Higden, wrote a universal history, the Polychronicon, in the Abbey in the first half of the fourteenth century; a copy is in the local Records Office. He is also reputed to have written the text for the Chester Mystery Plays. Another monk, Henry Bradshaw, wrote a life of St. Werburgh in English, which is the source of most of what is known about the Saint.
In 1539, the process of Dissolution of the Monasteries began. In 1541, the Abbey was changed to the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the seat of the new bishopric of Chester, created by subdividing the Diocese of Lichfield. The Abbot became Dean, the former Cathedral, St. John's Church, became a Parish Church. The prior of the former Abbey was fortunate enough to survive throughout the turbulent times of King Edward VI and Queen Mary into the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
Considerable harm was done to the fabric of the Cathedral during the Reformation; the Civil War, too, did harm as the Parliamentary troops smashed the medieval glass and damaged the Quire.
Norton Priory was the second religious house to be founded in Earldom of Chester, after the Abbey of St. Werburgh. It was established as an Augustinian foundation in 1115 by William FitzNigel, 2nd baron of Halton and Constable of Chester. It was dedicated to St. Bertelin and St. Mary. Originally it was situated on the south bank of the River Mersey where it narrows to form "Runcorn Gap", the only crossing between Warrington and Birkenhead. Probably the canons both cared for travellers and profited from tolls levied on the river crossing. However, in 1134, William FitzWilliam, 3rd Baron Hulton moved it to the present site, in the village of Norton. It is unclear whether this was because William wanted direct control of the river crossing or the canons wanted a different site. What the canons got, was a site in damp scrubby woodland which they had to clear and drain. However, it did have springs to provide running water and building materials available nearby: sandstone, sand (for mortar) and boulder clay for tiles as well as mature oak from the forests of Delamere and Macclesfield. The Priory was endowed by William FitzNigel with properties in Cheshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, including the churches of St. Mary, Budworth and St. Michael Chester. By 1195 it owned eight churches, five houses, the tithe of at least eight mills, rights of common in four townships and one tenth of the profits from Runcorn ferry. The original community has been estimated at about 12, rising to 26 by the end of the 12th century.
The Barons of Hulton remained the main benefactors of the Priory during the 12th century but after 1200 their interest and their bequests were transferred to the Cictercian Abbey of Stanlow, founded 1178 by John FitzRichard, the 6th Baron. The Dutton family, who had been patrons of the Priory since its foundation, now became its principal patrons: they had their own chapel in the priory and burial there is specified in three of their surviving wills. The Aston family also became important benefactors. During the 13th century, the Priory buildings were extended: the church was lengthened, a large chapel added to the east end, the west front enlarged, a bell tower added, a new and larger chapter house and guest accommodation were built.
During the first half of the 14th century the Priory suffered from financial mismangement, quarrels with the Duttons and in 1331, flooding affecting their farm land. Financial problems continued into the 1350s. Matters improved after the appointment in 1366 of Richard Wyche as Prior. He was active in the wider Augustinian community and in 1391, obtained for the Priory the status of an Abbey, a rare distinction. By this time the barony of Hulton had passed into the Duchy of Lancaster and perhaps at Wyche's prompting, John of Gaunt agreed to become a patron of the new Abbey. However, after Wyche's death in 1400, the Abbey went into decline. Flooding continued to be probelm and later abbots lacked Richard Wyche's abilities. In 1429 the state of the church and other buildings was described as "ruinous"; by 1496 the 1496 the number of canons had fallen to nine and fell further to seven in 1524. In 1522 there were disputes between the Abbot and the Prior: the Abbot was accused of "wasting the Abbey's resources, nepotism, relations with women" and other matters, while the Prior admitted to "fornication, and lapses in the obsevance of the Rule." The Prior threatened the Abbot with a knife but then left the Abbey.
The Abbey was closed in 1536, at the Dissolution. The surviving structures were sold nine years later to Sir Richard Brook who built a Tudor house incorporating part of the Abbey but this was replaced in the 18th century by a Georgian house, which the Brooke family vacated in 1921 and which was partly demolished seven years later. In 1966 the site was given in trust for the use of the general public.
Combermere Abbey, initially a Benedictine community, was founded by Hugh Malbank. The original foundation charter no longer exists but it was copied elsewhere and a copy remains. The deed was undated but must have been after his father’s death which was probably before 1109 and the date of the foundation is generally accepted as 1133. The Abbey was dedicated to St Mary and
St Michael. Hugh was the son of William, the first Baron of which Wich-Malbank, and his wife Adelia. Little is now known of the first Baron other than his founding of various religious houses. It is highly probable that he founded the Hospital of St Nicholas in Nantwich in 1983/84 and it is also very probable that he built the church or chapel in Nantwich, which was given by his son to Combermere Abbey.
The foundation charter indicates that Hugh Malbank was influenced by considering the part of the Gospels which refers to good action being done to the little ones being regarded by God as if done to him. He goes on to say that he wholly resolves to change all worldly things and the vanities of this age, for the love of God, and to exchange shadows for realities and those who have given themselves wholly to the divine service, to them he has bestowed this donation.
The charter sets out all the lands and rights which he is donating and had many distinguished witnesses including his wife and eldest son William who was his heir. The witnesses included Ranulph, Earl of Chester; Roger, Bishop of Chester; William, Abbot of Chester, his mother and his wife Petronella. The deed recites interestingly that he, his wife and the witnesses and many others state that the boundaries of the land given have been walked around by the witnesses which would minimise the risk of litigation about the exact nature of the lands included.
It is not known whether the main site was inhabited at this time but the name combining Cumbre and the word mere to give the lake the name of the mere of the British, indicates that there was a settlement of the original Britons in this place. There is also smaller mere called Danes mere which may indicate that a group of Danes lived in that area or merely that the Danes who raided in the reign of Edward the Elder had reached as far as this part of the world. The land was probably heavily wooded at the time the Normans took over.
In addition to lands, Hugh granted the Abbey a quarter of Nantwich with a tithe of his salt and salt pans there and the supply of salt for the monks. They were also to have their own court, common pasture in his woods, pastures throughout Cheshire, with the right to take timber for building and firewood except in his forest of Coole, and free passage throughout his lands.
The Abbey was a Savignac house of which there were few, and there is no indication of why this was chosen. The first monks are likely to have come from Savignac Abbey in Normandy.
At the time of foundation, or soon after, the house received further land from friends and contacts of Hugh Malbank. In the years immediately after the foundation more gifts of land were given to the Abbey and at its zenith it had an estate of 22,000 acres. Early in the 13th century Ranulph de Blundeville, Earl of Chester, gave land at Wincle in his forest of Macclesfield to establish a Grange with pasture for a specified number of sheep horses & mares. He, or maybe his grandfather, also gave the monks the right to a fishing boat on the Dee at Chester.
The Abbey also increased its estate by leasing other properties or purchasing them out right.
Sometime between 1140 and 1150 Pope Eugene III ordered a merger of Savignac and Cistercians so thereafter the Abbey was a Cistercian Abbey.
The Abbey must have been prospering at first because it was involved in the foundation of a number of daughter houses, at Poulton (Lancashire) which subsequently moved to Leek (Dieulacres) and Stanlow (Wirral) which subsequently moved to Whalley and Hulton (Staffordshire). An attempt at the same period to settle monks in Church Preen in Shropshire was less successful, Wenlock Priory was accused of expelling the monks and carrying off their livestock and all their goods. Combermere failed to maintain its claim despite intervention by Theobald the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1220 the Abbot of Combermere was denounced at the general chapter for building against orders,
(this is the only surviving reference to building work in that period), and a mild reprimand was issued to the Abbot because he had been undertaking new monastic buildings without permission.
The Abbey also derived income from the work of its members. Robert, a lay brother of Combermere, was keeper of the works for Henry III and about 1300 and another monk, Thomas the plumber was paid for work on Chester and Beeston Castles.
The Abbey also provided a number of granges, large houses on farms which provided food, both locally and as far away as Wincle and Shifnal in Shropshire.
It also moved into sheep farming before any other Cheshire abbey and its wools were sold at Boston fair for export to the continent. In the mid-13th century the Abbey was leasing pasture for 300 sheep at Hartington in Derbyshire.
In 1231 Abbot Stephen of Lexington, who had been charged with the task of reporting on all Cistercian Abbeys in England visited the Abbey. He was satisfied with the situation there and did not require any changes to be made.
However the happy times came to an end. By 1235 debts had mounted and the Abbey had to apply for a court order preventing its sheep being seized by creditors.
In 1245 they were granted a market and fair on their manor of Drayton after a royal visit, which would have increased their income.
The ecclesiastical taxation of Pope Nicholas the fourth in 1291 shows that the value of the Abbey’s rents from Nantwich (still known as Wych Malbank) was £5 pounds a year. Land was bought and sold and wool traded but the financial crisis continued.
In 1275 the sheriff of Shropshire ordered the creditors to “give respite” to the Abbey on its considerable debts which were eventually settled. The same year the Abbey was placed into the custody of the Bishop of Bath and Wells “during pleasure”. It was given Royal protection in 1276 for a year extended to in 1277.
Financial problems were only part of the Abbey’s troubles. The Abbey had been involved in a dispute with the Abbey of St. Evroul in Normandy (which traced its roots back to Hermitage of 560) over the ownership of an advowson in Drayton. In 1281 sinister reports reached the general chapterf the Cistercian order about the Abbot’s behaviour and he was ordered to submit to the authority of the Chapter.
When the Abbot of Canterbury, probably on a fact-finding mission, tried to visit the church in Drayton, Abbot Richard, with six monks, fortified the church and denied him entry. The Archbishop held that they had turned the church into a castle in violation of its sanctified status and excommunicated them. This does not seem to have greatly troubled the community of Combermere.
In 1282 a tax was to be levied by Edward II to fund a new attack on the Welsh. The Abbey, despite the precarious nature of its situation, being quite close to Wales, petitioned the king saying they had only enough food to feed themselves. Investigation by the Kings auditors proved this to be true and they were therefore exempted. The Abbey was again taken into custody and its custodians were ordered to apply the revenues to payment of debts, after allowing the Abbot incumbent reasonable maintenance. Bishop Burnell of Bath and Wells paid the then huge sum of £213.06 shillings and eight pence to discharge the debts. He then seized Monks Coppenhall by way of compensation.
Combermere also argued with Whalley Abbey over money all through the 14th century. In 1318 the Abbot of Whalley complained that he had been ordered to pay too much towards a partitioning contribution by the Abbot of Combermere. The ensuing investigation showed that the total income of Combermere Abbey was £130 14 s and 11d. The Abbey was placed under the royal protection of King Edward II. A keeper was put in place to administer the Abbey and to give the Abbot and monks allowances but all other income was to pay debts. The Royal protection was renewed in 1321 but the problems were not resolved.
It also recorded that the Abbot of Combermere had, in 1314, leased a Grange to the Abbot of Burton for 28 years, so as to be discharged of a debt for the large sum of £800. This is a time when the annual income of a member of the gentry might be £20 per annum and a baron would be very comfortable on £200 year.
In the following year 1319, the Abbey was again taken into the Royal protection on account of its poverty. Keepers were put in charge of the Abbey’s finances and they had complete control of the finances and running of the estates. The members of the community were given an allowance but all other income was used to discharge debts. In 1321 the custody was renewed.
Seven years later the Abbot petitioned the king saying that he had no money to provide hospitality to travellers which was a traditional role of abbeys throughout Christendom. The Abbot complained that the debts had been accrued as a result of bad leases. Combermere was taken into royal custody yet again and custodians were appointed.
In 1354 the Black Prince took over the lease of Wincle Grange, which had been farmed by William Praers and restored the Grange to the Abbot and Convent on condition that they worked it themselves and did not employ servants to do so on their behalf.
Relations between the people of Nantwich and the Abbey had become embittered, perhaps because of debts but may be for other reasons.
Many violent incidents occurred between them. In March 1309, a group of Nantwich residents, Robert of Fullshurst and other assaulted the Abbot and his monks who were in town and destroyed Abbey property to the value of £200. The Abbot demanded an assize to enquire but before this could happen, Fullshurst and his gang launched an invasion of the Abbey. They broke into the Abbot’s house, wounded the Abbot and some of his servants, stole £60 and killed three horses. There seems to have been no particular reason why they should kill horses but this might represented an attack on the Abbot’s status.
Fullshurst then pursued his case to the Abbot of Savigny who appointed visitors to visit Combermere and take evidence. He found in favour of Fullshurst and his verdict was that the Abbot of Combermere was to be removed but Edward II, who had recently visited the Abbey, became involved and asked them to let the Abbot remain and annul Fullshurst’s complaint.
The battle between Nantwich and the Abbey continued. In 1344 evidence was given that ambushes had been set for the Abbot as he travelled through the south of the county. The Abbot was travelling with the Abbot of Whalley and both were physically attacked when they visited Hulton in Staffordshire. It is thought that the attackers wanted to kill or remove the Abbot.
In 1360 the Abbot retaliated and led a violent attack on Fullshurst’s property. On the 13th of June that year, while the Black Prince and King were war,( the enemy being at Winchelsea), the Black
Prince received reports that the Abbot had assembled a great number of persons to the terror of the people and caused great damage to the Shropshire property of Sir Robert Fullshurst, who was at that time in the King's service. The Black Prince ordered that the sheriff find out the names of the people with the Abbot and punish them accordingly.
In 1365 the Abbot and his monks attacked Whalley Abbey and expelled the Abbot of Whalley and his monks. The Abbot of Whalley approached the civil authorities, namely the Sheriff of Lancashire, and he and his posse commitatus evicted the Combermere group and restored the Whalley group.
In 1385 one of the then nine monks was accused of stealing from the Abbot.
Financial problems continued into the next century and in 1410 the monks were said to be facing starvation and were exempted from taxes.
In 1412 Prince Henry (future Henry V), as Earl of Chester, took personal charge over the finances of Combermere and delegated the task to the Chamberlain and Escheator of Chester who appointed three more palatine officials to assist. They found this a lot to cope with and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester also became part of the web of people sharing the wardship of Combermere.
In 1414 the Abbot was accused of counterfeiting gold coins and vanished.
In 1415 two men led an armed attack on the Abbey during which they stole books and other goods. One of the men and a monk were later outlawed by the King and the Abbot was removed.
In 1435 one John Kingsley, a Nantwich tenant, was accused of extorting money from the Abbot over many years. Then in 1446 Abbot Richard Alder was murdered by John Pugh in Dodcott near Audlem.
The financial problems continued unabated. The Abbey was again exempted from clerical taxation 1496.
In 1520 the Abbey’s tanner, one John Jenkins, murdered David Atwell at the Abbey. The Abbot hushed the matter up – hiding the murderer and swearing the monks to silence
Thomas Cromwell visited the Abbey in 1528 and warned of the Abbot’s lack of abilities and poor behaviour.
Cromwell’s auditors arrived in 1535 and their report showed an income of £256 6s 6d, from an estate of 22,000 acres. There were debts of £160.
The Abbey was dissolved in 1539. Abbot John Massey surrendered the Abbey and took a pension of £50 a year. The existing monks also were given a pension. Subsequently the Abbey was conveyed to Sir George Cotton courtier and Comptroller of the household of Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII's illegitimate son. He demolished most of the buildings but left the Abbot’s Lodge and some part of the cloisters.
Thereafter the property remained in the Cotton family until its sale in 1919 when it was purchased by Sir Kenneth Crossley. (His daughter Fidelia, who gained her flying licence at the age of 25 was a pioneering competition aviatrix.) However, the family was exceptionally unlucky in the matter of heirs. Sir Kenneth’s son and heir, Anthony Crossley MP died in a flying accident off Denmark just before the start of the war. His son Francis Crossley of the Grenadier Guards died of polio in 1953. Sir Kenneth died in 1957 aged 80 and the Abbey was inherited by his granddaughter Penelope. On her death the estate passed to her daughter Sarah Beckett who today lives at the Abbey and is restoring it.
It had been thought that only the Abbot’s lodgings survived but recent restoration, following the penetration of much damp, to repair falling plaster, shows that some at least of the cloister arches remain although they are blocked. Interestingly, to me at least, the lake is used as the heating source for the Abbey thus rendering it very “green”.