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STAFFORD PRIORY AND FRIARIES

The nearest abbeys to Stafford were at Little Haywood near Shugboroughhad and Oulton near Stone. The town had a priory and two friaries. The two friaries were at either end of the town. At the northern end was the Franciscan friary, the Grey Friars remembered in the name of the street (now a section of the A34). On the south side, (A449), on the site of what is now the Roman Catholic church of St. Augustine, were the Augustinian canons.

The Priory was dedicated to St. Thomas the Martyr. It was situated just off the (A34) Stafford to Cannock road, south of the town at Baswich on the banks of the River Sow. Some remains can be seen at St. Thomas's Farm. The priory was also an Augustinian (Black Canons) house, founded in 1174 by Gerald Fitz-Brian, a wealthy burgess of Stafford, on land which he leased from Richard Peche, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, who was a friend of Thomas Becket, to whom the Priory was dedicated. Peche himself became a patron of the Priory and was buried before the high altar in 1182. The first canons came from Darnley Abbey in Derbyshire.

Fitz-Brian endowed the Priory with properties in Stafford including 70 acres of land around the River Sow and the use of property in Stafford subject to an anual rent of eight shillings. Bishop Peche added properties in Lichfield, rights of pasture in Eccleshall, Baswich and Orberton, fishing rights on the rivers Sow and Penk and the right to gather wood on Cannock Chase. There were also donations of land in Maer and Whitgreve which allowed the Priory to build up significant estates there. In 1194 the Priory bought the manor of Drayton for 35 marks. In 1245 Henry III gave the house a gift of £10 to buy a chausible of "red samirs with orphreys" and in 1275 they were given a hospital at Ashbourne by Robert de Ferrers.

In 1277-8, John of Pendleford sold his manor of Pendleford, Tettenhall, near Wolverhampton, to the Priory. He was a verderer of the Forest of Cannock, who had committed the offence of taking for himself a buck. He fled for his life and took sanctuary in the Priory.  In 1288 the Priory was recorded as having property worth £29 0s 9d, tithe 40s ½d. The canons also owned salt pans in Cheshire and lands in Tixall, Stone and Donisthorpe, given by the de Muttons of Ingestre Hall. In 1300 Geoffrey de Greeley, a friend of de Ferrers, gave them rent of 19s annually from a mill at Bupton, Derbyshire and Ferrers gave them a grant from the revenues of the rectory at Weston. They also possessed advowsons of the churches of Weston-on-Trent and Bushbury and rights of free warren.

These donations made the Priory wealthier than the average Augustinian house. A condiditon of many of the donations was that the donors heirs should have the right to reside in the Priory, a condition by which it came to be recognised as a home for the landless younger sons of the gentry. In 1518 it was recorded that the Prior ruled the community autocratically and unfairly, though efficiently and that he relied too much on an "inner circle" of one or two canons including one Richard Hervy and certain laymen. The inventory of the Priory's wealth was not read out the whole community as it should have been; some of the canons did not eat in the refectory but privately with the Prior, nor sleep in the dormitory but enjoyed private accommodation. The Prior's servants did not show proper respect and there were too many hunting dogs. The bishop ordered these things to be amended and the number of canons increased but another visitation in 1524 found that nothing had been done.

The Priory's possessions were "Soulde by the Kynges Commissioners to the Reverend father in God Bysshope of Cove[n]t[ry] and Lychefeld the xviijth Day of October in the xxxth yere of our Soveraigne lorde Kyng Henry VIIIth". The  inventory of the goods at the sale give a good indication of the Priory's wealth and the comfort which the canons enjoyed.

 

THE FRANCISCAN FRIARS OF STAFFORD

 

Exactly when the Friars Minor arrived in Stafford is not recorded but they were established by 1274 when 20 days indulgence were granted to any who visited their church on certain days and said there the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Marys for the king, kingdom and all Christian souls. Archbishop Pecham celebrated orders in the friars' church in 1280. They may have been founded by one of the Stafford family of nearby Sandon. Edmund, baron Stafford (d. 1308) chose a Franciscan friar as his confessor and was buried in the Stafford friary rather than the Augustinian friary at Stone, which other members of his family had favoured for their final resting place. In 1331, the General Chapter of the order listed the Stafford friary as being in the custody of the diocese of Worcester. The Friary was lay on the east side of the road leading out of Stafford to Stone which is still called Greyfriars.

It seems that initially there was some local resentment against the friars, for they were hindered in their daily purchases of victuals by regraters who would even "snatch what they have bought out of their hands" and in 1282 they werelicenced by the Crown "to buy without molestation from the King's ministers" for one year. However, they to have been eventually accepted and there is no record of further incidents. In 1306 a Henry Grucok proposed to grant them a piece of land, in Foregate, 200ft. x 100ft and valued at 4s p.a. to make a courtyard.

The establishment was never large: during the episcopate of Robert Stretton (1360-84) about 14 of the Stafford friars were ordained subdeacon or deacon and 6 proceeded to the priesthood. Their names indicate that there members came not only from the diocese but also from Wales. In 1397 Isabel de Sutton left the Stafford friary, among others, 6s 8d and the same sum weas left to them in 1422 by the justice Roger Horton.  A number of letters of confraternity were issued by Brother John, warden 1479 but little else survives of their activities.

The house was surrendered to Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover, on 9 August 1538. Ingworth removed a chalice and 6 spoons which seem to have been the only items of value. Other items included 2 brass pots. 6 plates, a vestment of blue fustian and another of white diaper, a cope of linen cloth stained and four tables of alabaster, and old pair of portable organs and a statue of St. Catherine. The rents only amounted to £1 6s 8d p.a. and the Friary was £4 in debt. The buildings, which included church, hall, buttery and brewhouse were sold on 27th September to James Leveson of Wolverhampton for £29 1s 8d. Total receipts for the sale, including goods was £34 3s 10d.

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol3/pp.270-1


BURTON ABBEY

 

The Anglo-Saxon theign, Wulfric Spot, founded the Benedictine Abbey of Burton in 1002 and received its charter from King Aethelred two years later. (For more detail about Wulfric, see our report for October 2017.) In his will, Wulfric appointed as guardians of the Abbey, his brother Alfhelm, King Aethelred and  Archbishop Alfric. It was described as the monastery of St. Benedict and All Saints in royal charters of 1008 and 1012 but was entered in the Domesday Book, 1085, as the Abbey of St. Mary. Later, in the 12th C. the dedication was changed to St. Modwen.

The first Abbot and monks came from Winchester, (as did six subsequent abbots).

Wulfric bequeathed much of his extensive property to the Abbey but either they were unable to claim all that Wulfric left them or they lost some of it, perhaps due to the Danish conquests of the early 11th C. However, they retained the bulk of the Staffordshire and some Derbyshire properties. (properties no longer in the Abbey's possession by the early 12th C.)

In Staffordshire: Burton, Winshill, Stretton, Bromley, "Bedintun" in Penkridge, Gailey, Whiston, Darlaston, Eccleshall, Rudyard, Cotwalton, Leigh, Okeover, Ilam, Calton, Castern and a hide at Sheen.

Derbyshire: Sutton-on-the-Hill, Ticknall, Morley, Breadsall, Morton, "Snodeswic" near Morton, Pilsley, Ogston, Wingfield, Newton Solney "Alfredingtune" probably Alfreton.

Leicestershire: Appleby Magna, Shangton, Wigston Parva.

Shropshire: Longford, Stirchley, Romsley, Shipley, Sutton Maddock.

Warwickshire: Weston-in-Arden, Burton Hastings, Harbury, Halesowen.

Other properties which have not been identified. He also left the Abbey 100 wild horses and 16 tame geldings.

 

http://www.burton-on-trent.org.uk/burton-abbey-structual-history

 

SINAI HOUSE

Sinai House was donated to Burton Abbey by the de Shotenhale family in about 1004. The site, elevated above the Derby to Lichfield had been occupied since Roman times. There were two houses of timber which were later joined by a central section to create the present H shape. The moat is 14th C. The  monastery used Sinai House as an infermary. In 1334, Abbot William Bromley granted 5 days indulgence from blood-letting with an increased allowance of ale and bread for convalescence. The name "Sinai", is thought to come from the French "saignée" and to refer to the blood-letting rather being any reference to the Biblical mount. By the later middle ages it seems to have been used not only for blood-letting and convalescence but also for recreation. By the time of the Dissolution, the Abbot had his own parlour and the monks were hunting in the park. After the Dissolution, Sinai House was acquired in 1546, by William Paget and remained in the Paget family until 1905.

The house can be visited and is reputed to be haunted.

 

BURTON ABBEY'S LAND AT APPLEBY MAGNA

The Domesday Book recorded that the Abbot held  5 carucates (1 carucate = approx. 120 acres.) of land at Appleby, though one carucate was leased Countess Godiva, wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia, who also held three carucates of her own, so Burton was diectly held about half of the cultivated land, mostly on the north and west sides of the settlement. However, the Abbot's holding was for "geld", which indicates that the land was probably rented or leased, which would be only practical, given that the distance from Burton precluded direct management.

The monks kept meticulous records of their holdings and a document survives of, "A Survey of the Lands of the Monastery of Burton-upon Trent at the Time of King Henry I and Abbot Nigel", which dates it between 1100-1114. In fact it contains material from two surveys, some at least of which is Burton Abbey's land at Appleby Magna contd.

later than Abbot Nigel's time and which have been an "update " to the original. The document  names the men living in Appleby and the terms and conditions of their villeinage.

"Land in the demesne is 34 virgates where there can be 3 ploughlands. At present there are three ploughlands used for 24 bullocks, a mare and foal and about 300 sheep. The land of the men is assessed for 24 virgates. Those who are simply villeins are these: Alwin, Almar, Lewin, Almar, Raura, Godric, Fladaid, Ordric, Toki, Rau. Each one of these holds one virgate and works 2 days in the week and performs all the customary services which the villeins of Austrey perform except that they fallow set-aside and harrow one acre. These do half an acre. Likewise Aluric and Selwyn hold one virgate and each of them works one day and performs the aforesaid customary service. Leveric has one bovate for service. Blancard similarly." Godwin was named as reeve and Algar may have been his deputy.

(The customary services at Austrey were that each villein, "holds one virgate and performs service two days in the week & he is obliged to go for salt and for fish or give 2 pence for each at seed time & again he owes either a horse or 3 pence for the Abbot's journey to the court & for the fold he fallows one acre in summer (ie. puts sheep in), & at the right time for sowing he withdraws (the sheep)  & harrows & for this (fallow) he ploughs half an acre in Lent & he pays pannage & he gives 2 hens at Christmas & one penny or one wagonload of wood and 20 eggs at Easter")

http://www.applebymagna.org.uk/appleby-history/in-focus8=land-burton-abbey.htm

 

ST. MODWEN

According to a medieval "Life", Modwen / Modwenna was an Irish noblewoman who came to Burton with two companions, Lazar and Althea. She established a church on an island in the Trent, which she dedicated to St. Andrew and the island became known as Andressey. She made a pilgimage to Rome. Later she travelled to Scotland, where she died. Her companions saw her taken up to heaven by silver swans and these became her iconographic sybol, though she is also sometimes depicted with a red cow. Her remains were brought back to her church on Andressey. The church was sacked by the Danes in 874 but later her remains were discovered and transferred to Burton Abbey, some time between its establishment and 1051 when Leofric despoiled her shrine. There was an altar to her during the abbacy of Geoffrey Malaterra,1085-94 and the Abbey promoted her and her miracles. The chapel on Andressey was rebuilt in the early 13th, dedicated to St. Andrew but with an altar to Modwen. When the church was rebuilt again in the 15th C. the dedication was changed St. Modwen.

It is likely that there is some confusion between Burton's St. Modwen; the Scottish St. Modwen and the Irish St. Monenna.

http://www.burton-on-trent.org.uk/category/early-history/1000-modwen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modwenna

 

 

DRAKELOW AND GRESLEY

Two of the followers who came with William the Conqueror were Ralph and Robert de Toeni, brothers who claimed descent not only from the Dukes of Normandy but back to Norse mythology. Robert was given 81 manors in Staffordshire, 26 in Warwickshire, 20 in Lincolnshire and four elsewhere and he adopted the name "de Stafford". The name was also adopted by a Nigel de Toeni who was either a younger brother or son of Robert. He held 13 manors in Staffordshire, 4 in Leicestershire, one in Warwickshire and 11 in Derbyshire, including Drakelow, Heathcote and Swadlincote; Gresley is not mentioned in the Doomsday Book.

Geoffrey, Abbot of Burton (1114-1151) wrote an account of a strange and sinister happening at Drakelow. Two of the Abbey's servants fled from Stapenhill (part of Burton-on-Trent) to Drakelow, part of the earldom of Lancaster, seeking the protection of Earl Robert of Poictou. The Abbot seized the servants' corn, hoping that would induce them to return but instead, retainers from Drakelow came to Stapenhill and stole all the seed corn in the Abbey's barns. The Abbot refused to used armed force because monks were not supposed to bear the sword (not all medieval abbots were so particular!) but instead went on naked feet to the shrine of St. Modwen in the Abbey church to pray for guidance. However, he does not seem to forbidden his retainers to take action: he later recorded in his account that 10 of the Abbeys retainers met and fought with 60 Drakelow retainers at the "black pool" by the Trent. The steward of Drakelow was killed and his servants were stricken with a mortal illness and were buried at Drakelow. They did not however, rest in peace. At night the dead servants rose from their graves and rushed around the feilds carrying their coffins on their backs and banging them on the walls of the houses. All the villagers were stricken with sickness. Earl Robert repented and made act of contricion to the Abbot but the ghosts were not laid until the bodies had been exhumed and burned, "when an evil spirit in the form of a large black crow flew up out of the smoke and disappeared from view. Thereafter the village of Drakelow was forsaken and desolate, the surviving inhabitants fleeing to the nearest village which is called Gresley".

William, elder son of Nigel de Stafford lived at Gresley. His name first appears on a deed of 1129 and on various deeds and charters he describes himself as William son of Nigel of Gresley and Gresley became the family name. He died in 1166. About 1130, William founded a small priory of the Augustinian order, dedicated to St. George. The site was on hill in the same forest as the motte and bailey castle, which was on another hill nearby, so the two settlements became known as Church Gresley and castle Gresley. The present parish church is on the site of the old priory church. The foundation was only small. A grant, confirmed by the Bishop of Lichfield, states "Although the Prior and Cannons of Gresley are bound to perform divine worship by day as well as by night and are compelled to exercise the burden of hospitality; yet, from the fewness of the brethren which consistes of only four in number, together with the Prior and from the main estate of the house and barrenness of its lands and divers oppressions which daily gain strength as the malice of the world increases, they are unable to bear as is fitting the yoke of the Lord. So to augment the number of brethren we bestow upon them the parish church of Lullington, so that the aforesaid monks may increase their numbers by two canons".

According to the Assize Rolls of Edward III: "In the 14th year of the King's father one William de Jorganville was sitting by the fire in the kitchen of the Prior of Gresley when suddenly his clothes caught fireand he was burned so badly that on the third day he died. No-one is suspected of the death . Verdict, Misadventure."

William de Gresley, a descendant of  William son of Nigel de Stafford, returned from Gresley to Drakelow at the beginning of the 13th C. He is mentioned in a deed dated 1201 as holding Drakelow from King John by service of a bow, a quiver of Tutbury make and 12 arrows yearly plus a bozo or broad-headed shaft.

                                                                                                                     

DIEULACRES ABBEY

 

The history of Dieulacres Abbey has its origin in the foundation in 1146, of an abbey at Poulton, on the banks of the River Dee, by Robert Pincerna, a wealthy Cheshire landowner.  Pincerna's overlord, Ranulph II (de Gernon) Earl of Chester had allied himself with Empress Matilda in the civil war and in 1146 had been taken prisoner by Matilda's rival, King Stephen. The monks were to pray for his health and safety. Pincerna's, "most illistrious Master", did return safely. Believing that his imprisonment and terms of release were a violation by King Stephen of a previous oath, he "burst into a blind fury of rebellion, scarcely distinguishing between friend and foe" and led an orgy of killing, destruction and pillage. He then made gifts and endowments to Poulton Abbey. As they did, then. These gifts were confirmed and added to, by his son Hugh Keveliok (Cyffylliog) and also by other local lords.

 

The story of the Abbey of Dieulacres itself, begins with Earl Hugh's son, Ranulph de Blundeville (Oswestry), the most famous, "Ranulf, Earl of Chester", subject of contemporary and later "gestes", (mentioned in Langland's "Piers Plowman"). Earl Ranulf de Blundeville was one of the most powerful men in England. The great Earldom of Chester stretched from, to put it bluntly, as much of North Wales as they could grab and hold, right across Cheshire and North Staffordshire to the Derbyshire border. In addition to this, Ranulf acquired the honours of Leicester and Lancaster and in 1271, the Earldom of Lincoln.

The Dieulacres Chronicle relates how, one night in about 1206, Earl Ranulf had a strange dream, in which the ghost of his grandfather, Ranulf II, appeared to him. The ghost told him to go to "Cholpesdale, in the district of Leek and establish, at a place where there had once been a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, an Abbey of the Order of white monks." The site was to be given to the monks of Poulton, who were to move to Leek under special instructions. The ghost prophesied that the Pope would shortly place England under Interdict. In the seventh year of the Interdict, Earl Ranulf was to instruct the monks to leave Poulton and go to their new home. When Earl Ranulf awoke, he told his wife Clemence de Fougeres of his dream and his determination to carry it out. To which she replied "Dieu encres!" (God prosper it!). The prophesied Interdict was imposed on 23rd March 1208. In one of the years following the imposition,  Earl Ranulf travelled to the new site and laid the the first stone. As he did so, he repeated Clemence's words, "Deuxencres", to which the bystanders replied "Amen". The Chronicle states that the monks moved to the new site on 22nd April 1214.

 There could have been other, more mundane, motives: one possible reason for moving the monks of Poulton was that they were subject to raids by the Welsh; nevertheless, they had been successfully established there for 60 years. They possessed 900 acres at Poulton; granges at Dodleston and Churton, salt pits at Nantwich and Middlewich. During those years they had, however, also been given land at some distance from Poulton and further east, in Cheshire: Alderley, Chelford and Withington were granges where their sheep would be safe from the Welsh raiders. Byley on the Staffordshire - Cheshire border was acquired c.1214.  In 1207, the year following his dream and before the Interdict was imposed, Earl Ranulf had obtained, from King John, a market charter for Leek, indicating that the hitherto neglected area had attracted his attention, though whether as a result of ghostly promptings, is not recorded.

Although it was not uncommon for monasteries to move from their original site to another more suitable one, within a few years of their foundation and before the full complement of buildings had been constructed, it is highly unusual for one to move when it had been successfully established for 60 years and when a full complement of buildings would have been complete. No doubt North Staffordshire was ideal for colonisation by Cistercians, who were supposed to live in remote areas. It was very thinly populated, barren and wild, on the edge of what the Normans called the "Haute Desert" (high deserted place, the Peak District, as we now call it). Doubtless, Ranulf's dream is a tale to be taken with a pinch of salt, yet there may be a grain of truth in it. After all, abbeys are most usually known by their place names or perhaps by their dedication but the Abbey of Our Lady and St. Benedict, at Leek in North Staffordshire, has always been known, not just locally but officially, by the unusual name of, "Dieulacres". A surviving 16thC. seal has ""sig[illum] abbatis et conventus de dieulacresse" engraved around the edge.

With the help of Earl Ranulf and other benefactors, Dieulacres did indeed prosper. In 1288, Pope Nicholas permitted Edward I to levy a tax on ecclesiastical property. The subsequent survey "Taxatio Ecclesiastica" or "Taxatio Nicolai" formed the basis for all future taxation. In terms of real estate, Dieulacres was the wealthiest in Staffordshire, valued at £164 1;8s 8d p.a.

(Profits from the wool industry, were not included in the "Taxatio". These were a major source of revenue for the Cistecians, for example Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire) was valued at £356 6s 8d p.a. but had an annual income profit from wool of £1,000. Big business indeed.)

Earl Ranulf endowed Dieulacres with a large domain. From the site of the Abbey, Dieulacres' lands stretched approximately 2 miles to the south and west, up to 4 miles to the north and east and included all of the manor of Leek. More was to come. In 1281 Earl Ranulph joined the 5th Crusade. On his return journey from the Holy Land the ship was struck by a great storm which terrified the crew but Ranulf remained calm. When he was asked afterwards how he been so confident, he replied that at that hour, his monks would be singing the night office and therefore he would be protected. Perhaps in gratitude for his safe delivery, Earl Ranulph endowed Dieulacres with further lands to the north, which, with additional gifts from other lords, particularly Benedict Coudray, doubled its holdings, extending them to the River Dane, which forms the border with Cheshire. At some time, the Earl had also given Dieulacres the manor and market town of Leek itself.

The Abbey retained its Cheshire lands. It also acquired the Rossall peninsula in Lancashire, which Earl Ranulph persuaded King John to grant from the Duchy of Lancaster. The Abbot of Shrewsbury gave them the vils of Norbreck and Bispham also on the Rossall peninsula. "It is a curious thought that the Abbott of Dieulacres once grazed his flocks where the popular seaside resort of Blackpool now stands."[1] Owning a vil was contrary to the Statutes of the Cistercian order. Sometimes, when they were given property, they would try to comply with their statutes by evicting the inhabitants and pulling down their houses, to make the vil into just a grange. Naturally they were heavily criticised for this and accused of depopulating and destroying villages, turning good arable land over to grazing. By the 13th C. it had become increasingly common for them to leave the place as it was and simply take over as manorial managers.

The Statutes of their order which required Cictercians to live in remote places which were mostly too barren for extensive cultivation, inadvertantly put them in the way of the most lucrative business in the Middle Ages: the wool trade. They arrived in England just as it was beginning to emerge as the most important element in the English economy and by far the country's biggest export. Their extensive granges, cultivated by conversi, were ideal for wool production, making Cistercian wool  of great importance to English trade. A list of Cistercian and other abbeys which supplied wool, was compiled c. 1280, by a Florentine merchant, Francesco Pegolotti. It reveals that, of the Cictercians, the Lancashire and Cheshire abbeys were the largest exporters, providing 447 sacks out of a total for England of 1,117 sacks (a sack = 26 stones). Among Staffordshire abbeys, Croxden sold the most, at the best prices, 30 sacks p.a. the best at £14 per sack. Dieulacres' quality and productivity was not as high: 20 sacks p.a. at £6 13s 4d - £10 13s 4d per sack. It was still a tidy income.

The manual labour required to work on the granges was provided by "conversi", who attended some services but did not participate fully in the religious life of the monastery. They were generally illiterate and of a lower social status than the monks, who were required to be literate, an education they would only get if they had been born into a gentry family.  (All too often, far from having a vocation for the ascetic religious life, monks continued to live in the manner to which they had been accustomed.) During the 14th C. there was a gradual change from demesne farming to leasing out of property and the gradual disappearance of the conversi. This does not appear to have been as a result of the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348: the change began earlier in the century. The conversi could be a disruptive element: between 1168 and 1308, there were at least 123 revolts in English and Welsh Cistercian abbeys. Conversi on more remote estates were difficult to manage: in 1257, a number of conversi on Dieulacres' Cheshire estates were involved in the murder of a local inhabitant. However, the Black Death could have a devastating effect on monasteries as the infection would spread particularly fast in a such a community: in 1377 there were only 7 monks at Dieulacres, rising to 10 by 1381. In the late middle ages numbers of monks generally continued to remain low. Leasing granges provided monasteries with income, without the need to manage their widespread properties themselves, however it may have been one of the reasons the numbers of those opting for the monastic life, did not recover: leasing from the monasteries seems often to have been a way for gentry families to provide for "superfluous" younger sons, who might otherwise have been provided for by being placed in the monastery. Names in various types of local records, indicate that cadet branches of Cheshire gentry families became prominent in North Staffordshire in the later Middle Ages.

The 14thC. brought another change, with the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War. In theory, Cistercian abbots were obliged to attend the annual General Chapter at Citeaux, bringing the "apportum" (monetary contribution) from his own abbey. In practice, due no doubt to difficulties of travel, some abbots attended more frequently tha others. Records indicate that by the end of the

13thC. the Abbot of Dieulacres attended once every three years. Anglo-French war seriously hampered relations with the mother house. The Statute of Carlisle, 1307, required Cistercian abbots to seek the king's license to travel and re-affirmed an earlier ban on the export of English money. Only one licence was granted to the abbot of Dieulacres, in 1333. The outbreak of the "official" Hundred Years' War, under Edward III, caused a complete severance of the English Cistercians from Citeaux. It was exacerbated by the Great Schism of 1307, when Citeaux swore allegiance to the Pope at Avignon while the English declared allegiance to the Pope at Rome. Although the Schism ended in 1417, the relations of English Cistercians with Citeaux never recovered. This may have been one factor in the loosening of monastic discipline and the increasing involvement of the abbots in secular affairs and local politics.

Their involvement in trade meant that monks, particularly abbots, far from being "unworldly" spiritual men, had in fact to be astute businessmen, whilest their vast property meant that they became magnates of the realm, regularly summoned to parliament: the abbots of Dieulacres retained a London house in Wood St. near St. Pauls. The Abbot was present at the Parliament of 1399 at which Richard II was deposed and the Dieulacres Chronicle is a particularly important source for the Deposition. Locally, as Lord of the manor of Leek, the abbott presided over the manorial court and the court leet which could be attended by as many as 100, thus providing the local government for the area. In addition, they acquired granges and other properties right across North Staffordshire, making them the most powerful landowner in the area. The County Sheriff could not enter the Abbey's estates without permission from the abbot's bailiff.

The abbots of Dieulacres were jealous of their authority and seem to have been able to command local support. In 1516, a man called Paunsfote was killed in a brawl in Leek by servants of Sir John Savage,[2] the steward of the town. Abbot William Alben (or Albion) and servants of the Abbey including John Savage, were implicated. The County Sheriff sent William Egerton[3] of Wall Grange, to investigate. He was met in Leek by a large mob, led by John Brereton,[4] chased from house to house and cornered in a tavern. Brereton shot an arrow through the window and Abbot Alben was seen to take his bow from his monk, Whitney and take an arrow from under his girdle and nick it to his bow. After a time the mob got bored and dispersed and Egerton tried to slip away but was spotted by Brereton and three of the Abbot's brothers. Egerton took sanctuary in St. Edward's church. Servants of the Abbey barricaded the road and would not allow anyone to take food to him for several days. The episode was brought before Star Chamber and William Alben was sentenced to Fleet prison, where he spent the next 3 years.

Alben was not the first abbot of Dieulacres to spend time in gaol. In the late 1370's some of Abbot William Lichfield's servants were involved in a feud with John Warton of Leek, in the course of which they were attacked and injured by Warton. Abbot William initiated a lawsuit but some of his retainers, led by Henry and Richard Bradshaw led reprisals and captured Warton. According to one account, he was imprisoned in the Abbot's gaol in Leek for several days, then taken out onto Leek Moor and summarily beheaded. A second version stated that he had been killed at the time of capture. Abbot William was accused of having ordered the killing and the evidence was such that he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea, where he spent some time before being released on the very substantial bail of £216. Others including Edmund Draycott, the Cellarer and William del Brugge, Vicar of Leek, were also accused and warrants issued for their arrest but they disappeared, only to re-appear after pardons had been granted.

His successor, Richard Whitmore, was engaged in disputes and sent several petitions to court accusing various individuals of damaging his property and assaulting his servants, as a result of which a commission of oyer and terminer was appointed.  Whatever its findings, it did little to prevent lawlessness for Abbot Whitmore sued again in 1402. In 1413 he was involved in a feud with William Egerton of Cheddleton: the Abbot accused 5 men of taking wood to the value of £5 from his houses in Cheddleton but perhaps this time he took matters into his own hand, for later in the year, a gang numbering, it was said about 80, armed "in manner of war" and led by a monk,  Nicholas Poulton and other Abbey servants, went to Egerton's park and manor and took stone to exactly the same value of £5.

Whitmore's successor, John Goodfellow, involved himself in a feud between the Bassetts of Blore and the Meverils of Throwley.[5] Goodfellow took the Meveril's part and on at least 2 occasions his servants were involved in brawls with Bassett's retainers. In 1447-8 a dispute arose over the tithes of Throwley, which belonged to Ilam Church: the vicar of Ilam, John Southworth granted the tithes to Ralph Bassett; Sampson Meveril claimed they belonged to him and with the "help" of about 40 armed retainers, persuaded Southworth to change his mind. Southworth then instigated a lawsuit and the row escalated. In 1448, Abbot Goodfellow and William Rufford, a priest from Grindon, joined Meveril's  band of about 13 who attacked Bassett's house at Blore, seriously injured 3 of his servants and made off with 2 dozen cattle. A small detail: Ilam did not belong to the Cictercian of abbey of Dieulacres but to the Benedictine abbey of Burton-on-Trent. Thereafter, the abbots of Dieulacres disappear from official records for about 50 years, their next appearance being that of 1516, which, "seems to suggest that at least they managed to keep out of any serious trouble".[6] 

They re-emerged into the light of official record in the in the episode of 1516, above. When William Alben was released from prison in 1519, apparently chastened by the experience, he attempted to reform the Abbey, which in the meantime had fallen into the effective control of Brereton and had got a bad reputation for unruly and lawless behaviour. The unruly monks resisted reform and made serious allegations about him (one version says they alleged he was mad) which resulted in his being deposed by the Abbot of Combermere. His successor, John Woodland drew up blank deeds, affixed with Abbey's seal and gave them to his friends and relatives to write themselves grants out of the Abbey's property.  The last abbot, Thomas Whitney's attempts to recover the Abbeys finances included assaulting tenants, breaking down hedges and taking their livestock. In 1530, a dispute about some land in Cheddleton, resulted in an armed band, including Whitney himself, evicting the tenant, John Massey:[7] according to the report they drove away his livestock and threw his chldren out of the window.

In 1535 Henry VIII gave Thomas Cromwell authority to act as his Vicar General in all ecclesiastical matters.  Abbot Thomas Whitney seems to have seen what was coming for the previous year he had granted a 70 year lease of the Abbey's Swythamley grange to John Whitney. This was followed by a 60 year lease of Rossall to Nicholas Whitney in 1536 and the following year, Humphrey Whitney got the salt pit at Middlewich and Geoffrey Whitney a pension from the manor of Leek.

The smaller monasteries with an annual income of less than £200 were dissolved in 1536, precipitating a scramble for their land among the gentry. The Court of  Augmentations was established to administer their confiscated property. Larger establishments were allowed to continue on payment of a fine, amounting to their annual income. Dieulacres had an income of £227, the second largest in Staffordshire after Burton and so survived the first wave of closures but finding such a large sum left many bankrupt. In April 1538 Abbot Whitney wrote to Cromwell:

"We have no more churches but one adjoining our monastery, to which belongs no (tithes of) corn, but oats; and no granges or demesne lands in our own hands: only a few closes to keep our horses and cattle. We beg that such small things as we have may remain in our possession, for divers gentlemen make great labour to the King to have them from us."[8]

The inventory taken at the Dissolution lists only 60 sheep, 6 oxen and 12 pigs. however the number of agricultural labourers there indicate that there must have been more and that perhaps Whitney himself, had had a hand in selling off the Abbey's possessions and livestock.

Probably the fate of Dieulacres was already sealed. The Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, Dr. Rowland Lee[9], wanted the site and buildings for his friend, Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby and the King granted his request. The Royal Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Leigh and his auditor William Cavendish arrived at Dieulacres on 20th October. The inventories give us a picture of Dieulacres at the Dissolution. There were only 12 monks but the household included layservants: 6 stewards and bailiffs, a forester and 11 other officials plus 30 servants and workmen living on the premises.There were also 8 "lauders and poor bedewomen", indicating the the Abbey provided help for some needy folk.[10]

The first task of the Commissioners was to take charge of the Abbey's seal, so that lands could not legally be alienated. This Whitney had anticipated:

"In the flamboyant style we should expect of the abbots of Dieulacres Thomas Whitney had previously taken the precaution of making out a number of blank charters and affixing the Abbey seal to them. these he used to write back-dated leases to various associates, such as John Brereton."[11]

Perhaps surprisingly, the charges of immoral and dissolute behaviour, which were often laid against monasteries at the Dissolution, were not laid against Dieulacres. This is not to suggest that Dieulacres was a haven of sanctity: it clearly wasn't. By the late Middle Ages monastic life had become increasingly secularised. Monks did not confine themselves to the cloister, neither were they abstemious in their diet. Some did not even wear their habit. Hunting seems to have been a favorite pastime, a reflection no doubt, of their gentry background and Dieulacres was no exception: abbots had been criticised in the past for their packs of hunting dogs. Their conduct of local politics seems outrageous to us today and had certainly landed in them in trouble on occasions but it was not much different from that of lay landowners of the period. Monastic life seems to have become much more like life in a lay household but the lack of charges against them indicates that Dieulacres was a reasonably well conducted household.

The Commissioners quickly stripped the Abbey of any valuables, including valuable building materials. Some items were auctioned on the spot; the most valuable, including lead from the roof worth £720, were carted away. Only the bare stones remained but in time they too disappeared. Dieulacres was unusual in being so close to a town, making the remains a convenient source of ready cut building stone. Practically nothing remains on site. Ask after the monastery of Dieulacres and locals will tell you that it is probably all over Leek.

Yet traces of Earl Ranulph's dream remain. No doubt, in time, others might have noticed the potential of the Staffordshire Moorlands for the production of wool but the establishment of Dieulacres provided what we would now call the major investment, the development project. The manorial court and court leet were held at Leek and the town is still the seat of local government. The Wednesday market granted by King John still flourishes, now augmented by markets on Fridays and Saturdays, the monthly Farmers' Market and livestock auctions six days a week The importance of Ranulph de Blundeville's foundation is acknowledged in Leek town's coat of arms which bears the "garb" (wheatsheaf) of his coat of arms and sheep still graze the granges that once belonged to Dieulacres.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Michael Fisher, Dieulacres Abbey, 2015 Churnet Valley Books

John L. Tomkinson, Monastic Staffordshire, 2000 Churnet Valley Books

Victoria County History Staffordshire, Volume 3, Religious Houses.

Victoria County History, Staffordshire, Volume 7, Leek and the Moorlands

John Sleigh, The History of the Ancient Parish of Leek, 2nd edition, printed 1883, London and Derby, re-printed 2005, The Cromwell Press

[1]    Michael Fisher, Dieulacres Abbey. 2015, Churnet Valley Books. pp. 50

[2]    Sir John Savage of Rock Savage near Runcorn, Cheshire. A powerful family in their own right and clients of the Stanleys. Sir John leased the manor of Rushton Spencer from Dieulacres.

[3]    Son of Sir Hugh Egerton of Wrinehill (Staffs/Cheshire border), a cadet branch of the Egertons of Tatton, Cheshire. Sir Hugh leased Wall Grange, on the SW side of Leek from Trentham Abbey.

[4]    Brereton, approx. 2-3 miles W of Congleton, Cheshire, gave its name to a local gentry family. Sir Humphrey Brereton wrote "The Pleasaunt Song of the Lady Bessy", a valuable source for events leading to Bosworth Field.

[5]    Ilam, approx. 3m NW of Ashbourne, Derbs. close to the Staffodshire-Derbyshire border. Blore, approx. 1m. S of Ilam. Throwley, approx. 1½m. NW of Ilam.

[6]    Michael Fisher, Dieulacres Abbey  2015, Churnet Valley Books. pp. 65.

[7]    Another Cheshire name: probably a cadet of the Masseys of Dunham Massey, near Altrincham.

[8]    Michael Fisher, Dieulacres Abbey  2015, Churnet Valley Books. pp. 76

[9]    Also spelled "Leigh". The spellings "Lee" & "Leigh" were interchangeable at this time.

[10]  Michael Fisher, Dieulacres Abbey 2015 Churnet Valley Books pp. 77

[11]  John L. Tomkinson, Monastic Staffordshire, 2000,Churnet Valley Books. pp. 139

 

 

 

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