Day 2 of the 5 Photos 5 Stories challenge (thank you Pauline at Memories Are Made Of This), finds me scrambling around at the back of the town graveyard, trying to sneak this photo of Prior’s House. It adjoins the Priory ruins (see 5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1) and peeking over the parish church wall is the only place you can get a good view without being an invited guest. Most of the town’s visitors never see this particular vista. The house, long known as The Abbey, is privately owned, and has been since 1540, and Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Below is the view of the house that visitors to the Priory see. It originally included an infirmary, and so wasn’t solely the Prior’s domain. However, the place would have seen many high times with minstrels, feasting and much medieval jollification. The monks also liked a spot of hunting, and a few other unseemly pursuits, which I’ll get to shortly.
In its time the Prior’s Lodging hosted some extremely august guests – none higher temporally speaking, than the King of England. From 1231-45 Henry III made several visits, doubtless accompanied by his entire court, from guards to grooms, cooks, courtiers and blacksmiths. He also kept his wine store there, and with a royal keeper specially appointed to take care of it. For one particular visit the Sheriff of Shropshire was instructed to order four barrels up from Bristol.
Today the grandeur of the Prior’s lodgings merely hints at the former wealth and prestige of Wenlock Priory. From Norman times on it was in fact an income generating corporation, from which the King, the Sheriff of Shropshire, and the Pope also took their share. The Priors dished out justice to the town, and imposed extortionate taxes on widows, heirs and beer. The religious house also controlled the extensive lands once owned by the Saxon princess Milburga, later Saint Milburga who was abbess of the first convent on the site in the late 600s AD.
During the monastic period the monks’ possessions included farms, mills, quarries, iron foundries and coal mines. There were manorial rents to rake in, fines to impose, markets to run and a major pilgrim attraction to publicise. The monks even dabbled in some deliberately criminal money making. In 14 17, the outlaw Sir John Oldcastle brought a master forger to Wenlock to teach the monks how to make counterfeit coinage. Worse still, back in 1272, some of the monks had also attempted to murder their Prior. It seems they were angry when his slippery financial deals threatened their good life. He had not only put the Priory in debt, but then sold the future wool crop (seven years’ worth), keeping the money for himself.
Ornately carved lavebo where the monks washed before going to eat in the refectory, circa 1180
By 1521 things were in such a bad way that Cardinal Wolsey sent in his man, Dr. John Allen, to interview, in confidence, each and every monk. This resulted in a long list of Injunctions (orders) and Exhortations (recommendations) for more godly behaviour. These included strictures that monks should not take boys to the dormitory, carry arms or form cliques and conspiracies, gamble, have dealings with women, have private possessions or hunt. Women were expelled from the cloister and hunting dogs from the hall. The Prior was especially instructed not to ‘indulge in luxurious and extravagant living with a large household.’
Less than 20 years later, the Priory was stripped of its lead roofs and left to decay. Henry VIII’s act of dissolution in fact had interesting outcomes quite apart from the religious revolution that hit the nation. It not only released monastic wealth in terms of jewels and silver, but freed up many capital assets that would then be seized on by merchants with an eye to industrial development.
In the first instance, Henry gave Wenlock Priory and its lands to his physician, but he in turn quickly set about selling it off, parcel by parcel. So we see the arrival in Shropshire of men like John Weld, a canny London wheeler-dealer, who began to develop the monastic coal pits, and experiment in soap making. Others like him took over the ironworks, and began experimenting in iron and steel production.
It was an unintended consequence perhaps, but courtesy of the monastic enterprises, there was a skilled local workforce to hand, and in all manner of trades. Not only that, the nearby River Severn (also utilised for centuries by the monks) presented an established transport route to Bristol and beyond. There was no having to lug commodities over treacherous roads either: a system of wooden railways linking mines and foundries to the river was soon in place, and all before the 17th century was done. Industrial Revolution here we come.
And so if anyone wonders why, in the early 18th century, the likes of the great ironmasters, John Wilkinson and Abraham Darby, came to this seeming Shropshire backwater to develop their technologies – this is why. Resources, long established industries, labour know-how, and a navigable river. They were men with plans, and a vision of an industrialised nation. It’s an interesting thought, as one wanders around the ruined Wenlock Priory, a monument to picturesque decay, how one thing leads to another.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
5 Photos 5 Stories Challenge
The idea of this challenge is to “post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger for the challenge”.
So today I would like to nominate Robin at Northumbrian : Light. Robin takes stunning photos and tells a good yarn. If you haven’t seen this blog, go there at once.
Past and Present in the Ironbridge Gorge
5 Photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1
A history of Much Wenlock Vivien Bellamy
Wenlock in the Middle Ages W F Mumford