Centred At Wenlock Priory


Of course for centuries Much Wenlock Priory was the centre of things for the ordinary folk who lived along Wenlock Edge and across the River Severn beyond Ironbridge. And I don’t only mean for the saving of their souls or temporal spiritual guidance. Successive priors were effectively CEOs of a large agricultural and industrial business enterprise. They ruled over an extensive landed estate in much the same way as powerful feudal lords of the manor ruled over their serfs and villeins.

The Priors laid down the law. They exacted rents, tithes and substantial death duties from the community, while the peasant smallholders, who were their rent-paying tenants, were obliged to provide a considerable amount of their labour –  ploughing, harvesting, transporting goods. The Priory was also a big wool producer and it was involved in industrial enterprises such as quarrying, milling, extracting coal, operating an iron-making bloomery in Coalbrookdale, and so presumably relying on members of the 18 local serf families to do much of this work.

The Priory also did very nicely when anyone died. One third (a terciar) of the value of the deceased person’s moveable goods would be claimed. In 1377 when John Brice a local lord of the manor died, his executors had to pay out 5 oxen, plus a further third in value of 5 cows, 7 horses, 132 sheep, 90 ewes, 75 lambs, 2 silver spoons, and 3 drinking bowls with silver decoration. Other terciar records indicate that people’s every last possession was weighed up (in all senses). This might include the value of meat in the larder, the iron parts of a plough, corn in the barn, pans and axes, a worn out harrow all converted to monetary worth and paid in coin (Wenlock in the Middle Ages  W F Mumford).

It is thus pleasing to know that there were moments when the Prior’s powers were well and truly challenged. In 1163 the villeins rebelled and ‘threw down their ploughshares’, calling for the repressive Prior to be deposed. The monks’ response was to excommunicate the lot, a truly horrifying penalty at the time. This only led to a riot. The church was besieged and knights called in to save the monks. But in the end the Prior was forced to hold an enquiry before a committee of knights and monks who, it seemed, listened to the villeins’ grievances and effected a compromise. In the following centuries, as the villeins’ own economic power grew, they were more and more able to demand payment for their services (A History of Much Wenlock Vivien Bellamy).

But with all this taxing and tithing, you can well see why in 1540 Thomas Cromwell wanted to get his hands on, as in liberate, the accumulated wealth of nation’s monastic houses. And here in Wenlock we still have the end result, nearly 6 centuries on – the dissolved relics of one of Europe’s most prestigious monasteries.


Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Centred

29 thoughts on “Centred At Wenlock Priory

  1. I knew the monasteries and priories were wealthy, but I hadn’t realized they were quite that involved in trade. I should have known. After all, the money had to come from somewhere and freely given donations probably weren’t sufficient. Actually, I remember from all the Robin Hood tales that one of his primary targets were the “fat abbots.” I guess in addition to trade, they ate well.

    1. Oh yes! Eating and drinking well. Henry III actually kept a wine cellar (5 casks worth) at the Prior’s Lodge for when he visited Shropshire. The monks were also up for a spot of hunting across the Priory parkland, so plenty of roast venison.

  2. Lovely, I’ve stayed at the Priory a few times. Would love to Gabrielle.
    Very sad about Louis. I worry that she’s hurting.

  3. Very much enjoyed staying there with Gabrielle and Louis. Would love go again to see his screen and library that he told me about.

  4. A third puts the IRS and our government to shame…although we may get there someday all to soon. I’m pretty sure I saw a vampire or other unearthly creature lurking in one of your photos but when I looked again, it had disappeared. 🙂

    1. One might well say there’s an unsettling ‘presence’ among those seeming quiet elevations, Janet. And as well as the big taxation scheme, in 1417 the Priory hosted a criminal counterfeiter, William Careswell, who apparently instructed the monks in the arts of making fake coinage.

  5. That’s all really fascinating Tish, especially the information about the terciar custom. I knew the priories were rich but I hadn’t realised to what extent they acquired their wealth from the common people!

  6. An absorbing story for this volunteer at Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian foundation which could tell aspects of the same tale. Though not everything was as it should be, there were no instances of the Peasants Revolting here. Interesting research – thanks!

    1. Thanks, Margaret. A happy congruence of interests then. So many of the monastic houses truly seem to have been corporations, even back in Saxon times. The Abbess of Wirksworth Abbey in Derbyshire was much involved with lead mining until some interloping Norman usurped her position. Later the monasteries of north-east England were very busy with coal mining. I seem to remember the first wooden railways were a monastic invention.

      1. Really? That’s anew bit of information to squirrel away. Hauling goods, I guess. Yes, those monasteries were real industrial powerhouses, quarrying, milling, building etc. . Quiet contemplation need not apply.

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