The small town of Much Wenlock has been continuously occupied for at least a millennium. It grew up to serve the demands of Wenlock Priory. In Saxon times there would doubtless have been a smallish population of servants and slaves to do the menial tasks around the monastic domain. There were also local providers of goods and services with weekly fairs pre-dating the Norman Conquest.
St. Milburga was the first prioress whose name we know. Her father, the Mercian king, Merewald, sent her to France to be educated for the role. From around 670 CE she returned to preside over a double house of monks and nuns who lived and worshipped in separate quarters. She also commanded large estates – from the Severn Gorge to the Corve valley. This was very much a pattern for Saxon princesses – ruling over human souls and securing physical territory.
The original monastic house was greatly expanded in the years preceding the Norman invasion of 1066. Saxon Earl Leofric and his consort, Lady Godgifu (Godiva) footed the bill. But their considerable improvements were not good enough for the new Norman earl, Roger de Montgomery. From 1091 the place was taken over by incomer French monks from Cluny and it was they who, over succeeding centuries, undertook the work on the buildings whose ruins survive today. (See last week’s post for a tour of some of the ruins).
The town’s big break came in 1101 with the apparent discovery of St. Milburga’s bones in the ruins of Saxon women’s chapel. This convenient fortunate find put Much Wenlock on the pilgrims’ map, kick-starting a thriving service industry to cater for the many visitors. So were sown the seeds of the busy market and manufacturing town, and though still under monastic authority, the early Middle Ages saw the rise of freemen and burgesses and the growth of an urban elite.
With the Dissolution, the Prior’s dictate and ecclesiastical court rulings were exchanged for secular management by bailiff and burgesses – tanners, weavers, wool merchants, the new owners of monastic lands. In 1540 they built the town’s Guild Hall and later added the debating chamber where the Town Council still holds its meetings. They also set about building grand homes for themselves, enhancing and expanding earlier structures.
The header photo is Ashfield Hall, rebuilt in the 1550s by local worthy, Thomas Lawley, who extended an earlier stone building with the eye-catching timber-framed wing. In 1642 it was better known as the Blue Bridge Inn, and it was here that Charles I apparently spent the night during Civil War manoeuvres.
Here’s another view of Ashfield Hall. It is said to have been built on the site of St. John’s Hospital which was run by monks in the 1280s for the benefit of ‘lost and naked beggars.’ It had gone by the 15th century though evidence of its existence lived on in the street name of Spittle (hospital) Street, later renamed the High Street.
Much Wenlock’s Tudor Guild Hall is still used as a market hall (downstairs) and a museum and council chamber above. Sitting in the heart of the town beside the parish church t is absolutely the town’s ‘signature’ landmark.
The Bastard Hall up the street from the Guild Hall has seen many phases; its stonework certainly suggests some repurposing of priory ruins. It and its attached neighbour were the subject of an early Time Team television programme, the latter found to be housing the remnants of an early medieval hall. See link at the foot of this post for the full programme and insider views.
Reynald’s Mansion is perhaps the most singularly impressive building on the town’s High Street. The striking timber facade was built onto an existing medieval house in 1682. For a time it was the town’s butcher’s. The post with cross-bar by the front door was used to make hefting heavy loads easier.
This small architectural round-up was inspired by Ann-Christine at Lens-Artists. Striped and checked is her challenge this week.
Square Up #26
Lens-Artists: striped and checked
Inside the Guild Hall and more about Bastard Hall: Time Team in Much Wenlock in 1994:
Time Team Season 01 Episode 03 The New Town of a Norman Prince. Much Wenlock, Shropshire UK – YouTube