Much Wenlock, the place where I live, is a small town with a big history. You could say it owes its existence to the discovery of some holy bones. And no, this is not the reason for the inspector’s visit. I’ll get to him in a moment. (In fact his arrival in town relates to the making of some new history). But about those bones…
First of all, they are very, very old. In life they belonged to a Saxon princess, whom we know locally as Milburga, though she comes in other spellings. She was daughter of the Mercian King, Merewalh, who held sway over much of the English Midlands during the 7th century. These were turbulent times – the spread of Christianity going hand in hand with securing territory. To this end, Merewalh was a man with a plan. Instead of arranging dynastic marriages for his three daughters, he established them as rulers of new religious houses across his kingdom. Even his own queen, a Kentish princess, in later life returned to faraway Kent to become Abbess of Minster. In this way Merewalh consolidated spiritual and political prestige, commanding both bodies and souls.
In preparation for the religious life, Milburga was sent for her education to the double monastery of Chelles in Paris. According to the historian, and her contemporary Saint Bede, this was common practice for English girls. Sometime towards the end of the 7th century Milburga then took charge of an abbey in Much Wenlock. This was also a dual monastery i.e. for both men and women, and each sex had their own church. It was also the most important religious house in the region. There she presided for the next thirty years, ministering to the people of her extensive domain lands. Many legends grew up: that she had the power of healing the blind and of creating springs of water. After her death in 725 AD there were more and more stories about her miracles, and so in due course she became Saint Milburga.
Fast forward to the Norman Conquest of Britain (1066), and now we have brow-beating Norman earls establishing their power bases across the land. Their plan was to use ‘big architecture’ to dominate the natives: castles, fortified manors, churches and monasteries – the bigger the better. In Much Wenlock, Earl Roger de Montgomery built a Benedictine priory on the site of Milburga’s abbey. It was affiliated to the monastery of Cluny in France, and so French monks came over to live in it. The building was an impressive enterprise too. Today, the picturesque ruins in the heart of the town do little to indicate the vast scale of the original.
Wenlock Priory and the ruins of 12th century Benedictine monastery that was built on the site of Milburga’s Saxon abbey. In its day, this was one of the biggest and most prestigious religious houses in Europe. Photo: Creative Commons, Chris Gunns
But building big is not everything. The Normans faced a problem that every interloper faces: how to give their occupation legitimacy. Milburga was a much-loved saint and a Saxon saint to boot. It was essential to confirm possession, not only of her extensive lands (which was quickly achieved), but also of her remains.
The last proved less easy and, it may well be imagined, then, that when the French monks arrived in Wenlock and found the silver shrine of Milburga empty but for “some rags and ashes”, there was much consternation. Where were the saintly bones?
Bishop Odo unfolds the mystery in an account written after he visited the Priory in 1190. It appears that the nuns’ church of Milburga’s abbey (now our town church, Holy Trinity, above) still survived in Norman times, but lay in ruins. The monks decided on some restoration, and it was during work on the altar that a monastic servant found an ancient Saxon document. The monks, being French, could not read it and so a reliable translator had to be found forthwith. Thus was discovered the testimony of a priest called Alstan who said that Milburga had been buried near the altar in the nuns’church.
Of course by now nearly four centuries had passed since her death, but news of the document reached Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury and he gave the monks permission to excavate. But before this could happen, two boys playing by the dilapidated altar, caused the floor in front to collapse, which in turn led to the more rapid discovery of Milburga’s remains. This was in 1101 AD, and we know they were her bones because they were “beautiful and luminous” and accompanied by the requisite saintly fragrance deemed to be given off by such relics.
The discovery gave Much Wenlock instant pilgrim-appeal, and the monastic publicity machinery rolled. The Prior commissioned the leading writer on saints of the day, Goscelin, to write about the life of Saint Milburga and so firmly establish the cult of miracles that surrounded her. From that time pilgrims flocked to Wenlock, and the town grew to cater for them. Some of the surviving public houses have their beginnings in the Middle Ages. The Priory itself was wealthy in land and employed a large workforce who were engaged in agriculture and early industrial development including coal mining and iron working. Artisans and merchants were attracted to the area. Trades and services developed to cater for the pilgrims and the Priory. And over all this human business presided the Prior, delivering both spiritual and temporal edicts. It was not until 1468 that the town was handed over to a secular authority.
And so here we have the little market town of Much Wenlock, continuously occupied for a thousand years and presently home of 2,700 souls. It sits below the long limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge whose geology is of international renown. After the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540, the town continued to thrive as entrepreneurs moved in to develop the industrial potential of former monastic holdings. The cloth trade and tanning became important. Agriculture and quarrying continued as mainstays since Much Wenlock’s limestone was not only useful for building, but was also burned in kilns to use as fertilizer. Most importantly, as time went on, it became an essential ingredient in the making of cast iron, acting as a flux to remove impurities from the iron.
Indeed, it was at furnaces on Milburga’s former domains at Coalbrookdale, Madeley, and in Broseley that many breakthroughs in the iron industry were made, thus setting off the World’s Industrial Revolution. And the reason these technological innovations took place here was because the locality had all the vital ingredients: limestone, ironstone, fireclay and coal. The tributaries of the Severn could be harnessed for water power, and the river itself provided a trading route down to Bristol. Not only that, generations of monastic workers meant there was a skilled workforce to be utilised when post-Dissolution entrepreneurs moved in to take over monastic mines, iron works and water mills.
We have other claims to fame too. The reason why one of the Olympic mascots was called Wenlock was because it was here in 1850 the town’s physician, Dr William Penny Brookes began the first modern Olympian games. For the next few decades people flocked to Wenlock in thousands to see them. Brookes passed his ideas on to Baron de Coubertin who often visited the town, and so began the International Olympic Committee. The Wenlock Olympian Games are still held every year and provide a popular competition venue for sportsmen and women from all over the country.
But back to the inspector who was left stranded at the top the page. Two years ago Much Wenlock was one of the seventeen front-runner communities in the country chosen by Government to create a Neighbourhood Plan. Since then, cohorts of Wenlock and other volunteers have worked with the community to produce a plan that sets out the kind of development we want in the parish over the next thirteen years. Last week the inspector, the man assessing the plan, came to the Priory Hall, the town’s community centre, to conduct a public hearing.
For reasons that may become apparent by looking at the next photos, large scale development is not a popular proposition in the community. Most of us feel that we have had more than enough. The town sits in a basin. Wenlock Edge and surrounding hills drain through it down a culverted medieval watercourse once known as the Schittebrok. The Victorians did the culverting and there have been so-called remedial schemes since. Some argue these ‘improvements’ have made the problem worse. The town’s footprint has increased some 300% in the last decades with much unsympathetic development that has covered agricultural land with hard surfaces that speed up flooding. Our narrow medieval street system turns roads into rivers during heavy rain. The other serious problem then (apart from traffic congestion) is drains.
In 2007, after 91 homes were flooded due to a combination of flash flooding and poor drainage, the town held a referendum. The vote was 471 to 13 to have no more development until the town’s traffic and drainage problems were resolved. Nothing has been done to improve these matters, our sewage farm is under capacity. The bill for new drainage will cost millions and our private water company is unlikely to fork out. In the meantime the developers and major landowner informed the inspector that they are itching to build 85 houses in the near future, with a suggested total of 250 over all.
At the hearing the inspector gave them ample chance to make their case, and he himself gave no clue as to which side’s view would hold sway. The Neighbourhood Plan wants only small numbers of affordable homes for locals to rent, and a maximum of 25 market homes on a single low density development. But this is not how housing developers work. Much Wenlock’s property prices are high; it is a desirable place to live. They thus want to build up-scale houses with multiple bathrooms. Meanwhile our ageing community would like comfortable smaller places so they can downsize and release their homes to people with families. It is a divergence of objectives that appears to have no sensible resolution.
The British Government’s stance is that building houses is the only way to create ‘sustainable’ communities. So even if the Neighbourhood Plan is passed by the inspector, there is no knowing how far it will protect the town from inappropriate development.
As I said at the start, Much Wenlock is a small town with a big history. But perhaps our story has not yet been well enough told. Perhaps we are not shouting it loud enough. Events that occurred in and around Milburga’s former domain have helped change the world we all live in. A few miles away is the World Heritage Site of the Ironbridge Gorge (site of the world’s first cast iron bridge built in 1779). The iron, porcelain and decorative tile industries that grew up in this area traded their goods across the world. Monastic enterprise underpinned the development of British industry.
Today if you visit Much Wenlock it may strike you as a Rip Van Winkle sort of place. It has a slumbering air, as if dozing under the weight of ancient timbers and stonework. But it can be lively too.There are some excellent shops including two excellent book shops and a gallery. There are small markets during the week, a museum, the church, the Priory, the Olympian trail, good pubs and hotels, many societies to join, a fully equipped leisure and arts centre.
Above: glimpse of the Prior’s house, now a private home. Below: cottages on the Bull Ring
We have much to protect and preserve here, and much to share with those who visit us. And we do want the town to grow and thrive, but on the community’s terms and according to their expressed needs. But looking over the last thousand years, this story does have a common theme. Whether we’re talking of Saxon kings, Norman earls or housing developers, those who have power and land do all the ruling, too frequently asserting their will over the wishes of the general populace. It remains to be seen whether the inspector will pass our plan. He said he would let us know in November. In the meantime, I, like others in the town, watch rainy skies with anxious eyes, if not for ourselves, then for vulnerable neighbours. Fingers crossed for Neighbourhood Planning and that it actually will serve our purpose.
© 2013 Tish Farrell
W F Mumford Wenlock in the Middle Ages 1977 re-published under ISBN 0950561606
Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock 2001 Shropshire Books ISBN 9780903802796