Centred At Wenlock Priory

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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.

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Centred

A Saint On His Cell Phone?

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Once seen it’s hard to unsee (also pardon the pun).

This carved stone panel comes from the 1220s Lavabo – the erstwhile monks’ washing place among our local ruins at Wenlock Priory. The panel is one of two survivors, which date from the 1160s but were then reused in the later building of the Lavabo. They tell of the lives of the apostles. The chap on the phone is apparently John.

Here’s a general view of the lavabo remains, sitting in what was the priory cloister. The three-arched building behind was the library, and the round carved archway (far right) is the chapter house where daily business was conducted, including the issuing of punishments for disobedience. The once massive nave of the church ran at right angles to the library, between the trees and the topiary hedges.

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There’s another oddity inside the chapter house, carved on the wall. Again it seems to have been reused from a much earlier phase of the priory. This Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian style depiction of evil entities was doubtless meant to keep the monks’ minds focused on holy matters.

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I’m seeing a theme developing here for Becky’s February ‘square odds’ challenge. Expect more Shropshire curiosities in coming days.

The Square Odds #5

Wenlock Priory On An Autumn Afternoon

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Autumn somehow seems a fitting season for visiting thousand-year old ruins. These particular ones are practically on my doorstep, but I usually only glimpse them over the perimeter wall. They have anyway been out-of-bounds this last year. As a non-believer, I am never quite sure what to make of such places, though it is a wonderfully tranquil spot and I do like the play of light on the stonework and through the archways. I also like the ruinous shapes, and the sense of antiquity, and the glimpses of the priory parkland. And I especially love the Corsican pines that must have been planted by the Milnes-Gaskells who once lived in the Prior’s House (also known as The Abbey) and had these ruins as their personal garden features. (You can see the gable end of the house just right of centre in the first photo.) And finally there is some personal history, for I have been coming here, on and off, for well over half a century. Gracious, how time flies.

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Life in Colour This month Jude at Travel Words is asking us to consider shades of brown in our photos. This set is from a couple of years ago, but I came across them again recently and thought they fitted the bill.

My World In Sepia

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I seem to be having a ‘sepia season’ just now. It’s suiting my mood. And I anyway like the ‘antique’, slightly mysterious cast it gives some of the shots. I took them earlier in the week – along the lane from the Wenlock Priory ruins. The magnificent Corsican pines tower over the Priory visitor entrance, the place shut up for months now. I’ve no idea how these trees came to Shropshire, but I’m guessing that the Milnes Gaskells who once lived in the Prior’s House, or The Abbey, as they called it, may have planted them. This would be back in the days when Henry James was a repeat visitor and the priory ruins were something of an extended garden feature for his genteel English hosts.

The next two photos provide views of what was once the Priory ‘parkland’, now mostly owned by Wenlock Estates, a family trust, and grazed by sheep. In the Priory’s heyday the monks apparently had a high old time, hunting on horseback across their extensive domain. And not only that. One wild young monk, William Broseley, headed a gang of bandits, Wild West style, and Prior Henry de Bonvillars in 1302 was charged with raiding and horse stealing over on the Welsh borders.

Sheep were also an important monastic commodity, the wool a source of great wealth in the early Middle Ages. In 1284 another slippery Prior, John de Tycford, caused consternation and monkish fury within the sacred confines when it was found he had robbed the house of its wealth through a spot of canny futures dealing. He managed to sell seven prospective years of wool and then make off with the loot. Things are much more peaceful here these days.

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Lens-Artists: You Pick It This week our excellent hosts, the Lens-Artists, invite us to choose our own topic.

Wenlock Priory ~ Ruined Lines

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It’s almost always the case with things on your doorstep: you forget to visit them, or even to appreciate their handy existence. I’ve known Wenlock Priory for over half a century which possibly adds its own miniscule historical dimension to this most ancient Shropshire site. Anyway, a few weeks ago I took myself off there for a long-postponed visit. It’s only a short walk down the Cutlins path past the MacMoo clan. I quite enjoyed playing tourist in my own town.

The photo shows the remnant south aisle of the once vastly prestigious monastic edifice built in the 12th century CE to house monks from their mother foundation in Cluny, France. But then that’s only half the story.

We need to wind the time-machine clock back another thousand years. The Romans were here too, though what they left behind has been hard to interpret: villa, bathhouse, shrine – all, or only one of these. The remains anyway survived into Saxon times and were apparently repurposed in the building of a double convent i.e. for both monks and nuns (in separate quarters). This work was commissioned by King Merewald of Mercia (basically the English Midlands) in the 600s CE.

His daughter Milburga (later to be sanctified and made pilgrimage-worthy) served as abbess once she had been sufficiently well educated over in France. Her two sisters were also similarly educated to be abbesses of other religious houses. Their mother too, left Mercia and her marriage, to become abbess down in Kent. Such positions entrusted to royal woman allowed them to control extensive landed estates along with their agricultural and mineral assets, as well as to look to the spiritual welfare of the land’s lowly inhabitants.

Over succeeding centuries, Milburga’s convent underwent various phases of redevelopment. When the Normans arrived in the 11th century the site was re-dedicated to the Cluniac (monks only) monastic order. But after the finding of what were believed to be Milburga’s bones in 1101, the priory received a very big upgrade, along with a saintly shrine and the patronage of the King of England. So began the era of pilgrim-tourism and the up-sprouting of Wenlock town to cater for the influx. In fact two of our well-loved public houses – the George and Dragon and the Talbot  have their origins in these times. So much history then in one small place. So many long-established ties with Europe. Makes you wonder what our forebears would have thought of Brexit.

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Doorway from the south aisle to the now roofless cloister.

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For Historic England’s schedule summary of the Priory’s history please go HERE.

 

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Indoor walkways, hallways, elevators

Line Squares #19

Wednesday Walk Into Wenlock ~ Ancient Remains And Some Animals

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I’m standing on the path we call the ‘long way’ into town, otherwise locally known as the Cutlins. It cuts across the meadow between what was once the railway station (shades of decimating Beeching man again) and the Wenlock Priory ruins. The cottages you can see in the middle ground front onto Sheinton Street. Many date from medieval times, and originally they would have been shops with heavy wooden shutters. When the shop was open for business the shutters came down to make trestle counter tops. Behind each of the commercial frontages were workshops and living quarters, and then a long strip of land for cultivation or the keeping of livestock, still surviving today as domestic back gardens.

These gardens backing onto the field, then, are the town’s last surviving evidence of medieval burgage plots. Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, the town that grew up around Wenlock Priory was ruled by the Prior. The Pilgrim Trade (to visit the relics of St Milburga, the Saxon princess whose family founded the 7th century religious house over whose remains the later, grander Cluniac Priory was built) made Wenlock a prosperous place. By 1247 there was a merchant elite known as burgesses. They paid the Priory one shilling a year to rent the burgage plots.

The trades they operated there included carpentry, shoe making, tool making, tailoring, the provision of legal and secretarial services. Other trades that grew up in and around the town included breweries, tanneries, lime burning, quarrying and the making of paper, nails, and clay pipes. All in all, it would have been a pretty foul-smelling place. Not the bucolic scene we enjoy today.

The Priory is hidden behind the trees at the foot of the path, the burgage plots to the right out of shot:

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And after stopping to look at the new Highland calf, at the foot of the path near the Priory I met a lamb. It felt like a meeting of minds – a slightly odd Little Bo Peep moment:

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And finally a glimpse of the Priory ruins: surviving remains of a dissolved roof – which, incidentally, is exactly what happened once Henry VIII’s monastic re-purposers had stripped off the protective and very valuable lead from such premises:

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Roof Squares 15

Window On The Past ~ Looking In, Looking Out At Much Wenlock Priory

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Our small town of Much Wenlock has been continuously inhabited for a thousand years. It grew up around the Priory and, until the Dissolution in 1540,  its citizens’ lives were ruled by the Prior who held his own  court. Of course many worked for the Priory directly, while others were farm tenants, the Prior being the preeminent landowner in the area, so fulfilling the role of Lord of the Manor.

In exchange for their tenancies of up to 20 acres, the farmers were expected to do work for the Prior. Sometimes his demands were greatly resented. So much so that in 1163 Wenlock’s peasant farmers rose up, making suit to the King to remove the overbearing prelate. It is recorded that they ‘threw down their ploughshares.’ In return, the Prior excommunicated them, the worst punishment imaginable short of execution. But still the farmers did not back down. They besieged the church and fought off the knights who had been despatched to restore order. The Prior was forced to hold an enquiry, and abide by the decision of a committee whose members were chosen by the farmers themselves – four knights and six monks whose judgement they must have trusted. And so justice was done – people power medieval style.

 

For more about Wenlock Priory see an earlier post HERE

And at Thursday’s Special the theme this week is WINDOWS.

Going Behind The Scenes In Wenlock Abbey

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We followed in the footsteps of long-gone celebrities on our recent, and I have to say, nigglingly exclusive visit to Wenlock Abbey. It was the first chance we have had to visit there, and it was done under the auspices of our Civic Society.

Without doubt this building is the architectural jewel of Much Wenlock. It lies at the heart of the town, but is usually only visible if you scramble around at the back of the church yard, and peek over the wall. It housed the erstwhile domestic quarters of the priors of Wenlock Priory and, since the Dissolution in 1540, has remained in private ownership. The adjoining priory ruins, however, belong to English Heritage, and are the town’s main tourist attraction. Somewhat confusingly the house has long been called The Abbey, although the priory from Norman times was always a priory, not an abbey. The Saxon religious house that preceded it, however, was an abbey of both monks and nuns and ruled over by an abbess.

The range seen in the first photos is the most recent part of the house, built in the early 1400s. The limestone wing, just visible on the left, comprised both the monks’ infirmary and the original prior’s chambers, and are considerably older.

The present owners have spent the last three decades restoring the house, and creating interior settings that to many might seem outlandish and controversial. There will be more about this in a moment.

But first those celebrities of times past. I’ve written about his visits before, but one of the returning house guests in the days of the Milnes Gaskells’ ownership was Henry James. He came in 1877, 1878 and 1883 – and apparently drew much inspiration from the house and grounds when he was writing The Turn Of The Screw.  The little roof-top tower certainly puts in an appearance in the text.

At the time of James’ first visit, his hosts, Charles and the young Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, had not long been married and were expecting their first child.  The invitation had been secured through ‘lobbying’ by a mutual friend, Henry Adams, the American historian. He and Charles Gaskell had met as undergraduates at Cambridge, and before Charles’ marriage he had also been a frequent guest at The Abbey. Adams thought Charles, by then a prominent barrister, and Henry James had many interests in common and would get on well; and so it proved.

Charles’ father, James Milnes Gaskell, had been the Conservative MP for the Borough of Wenlock and had bought The Abbey (priory ruins included) in a derelict state from his wife’s cousin. The Gaskells senior appear to have held rather rustic and unconventional house parties there. (They naturally had other smarter homes elsewhere). Adams describes a visit in the autumn of 1864:

God only knows how old the Abbot’s House is, in which they (the Gaskells) are as it were picnic-ing before going to their Yorkshire place for the winter. Such a curious edifice I never saw, and the winds of Heaven permeated freely the roof, not to speak of the leaden windows. We three, Mrs. Gaskell, Gask (Charles) and I, dined in a room where the Abbot or Prior used to feast his guests; a hall on whose timber roof, and great oak rafters, the wood fire threw a red shadow forty feet above our heads. (1.)

One of the more unusual pursuits on such visits included the archaeological excavation of the Priory ruins.

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Adams describes his own contributions to the general exploration:

Whenever we stepped out of the house, we were at once among the ruins of the Abbey. We dug in the cloister and we hammered in the cellars. We excavated tiles bearing coats of arms five hundred years old, and we laid bare the passages and floors that had been three centuries under ground. (1.)

When Charles Gaskell took over The Abbey from his father, he and Lady Catherine set about restoring the property and making it a family home where they might energetically entertain notables from the world of arts and literature. Emphasis was on mind-improving activity, and an appreciation of the aesthetic in all its forms.  Visitors would be treated to extensive walks, drives and railway journeys to view all the surrounding great houses, and visit Shropshire’s many ancient churches and castles.  A trip to Wenlock Edge to take in the vistas was also obligatory.

Henry James documents his own many outings with Charles Gaskell in Portraits of Places.

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The Prior’s Chapel during the time of Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell from her book Spring in a Shropshire Abbey  1904 (available to download on Gutenberg Press).

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The Gaskells’ other guests included In Darkest Africa explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, architect, Philip Webb, Architect and Pioneer of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and Thomas Hardy and his wife. Hardy was apparently surprised to find himself lodged in the oldest part of the house, and declared that “he felt quite mouldy at sleeping within walls of such high antiquity” (2.)

The Hardys were also taken around the county, visiting Stokesay Castle and Shrewsbury. Florence Emily Hardy recounts how one Sunday Hardy and Lady C walked until they were tired, when

“they sat down on the edge of a lonely sandpit and talked of suicide, pessimism, whether life was worth living, and kindred dismal subjects, till we were quite miserable.”(2.)

The room wherein Hardy felt so mouldy was in the infirmary wing and is indeed very old, dating from the 1100s CE.  The original prior’s chambers were built adjoining the infirmary around a hundred years later, the scale of them doubtless dictated by the need to accommodate a series of royal visits. The deeply devout King Henry III, along with his own prestigious guests, was a frequent guest between 1231 and 1241.

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This photo shows the rear view of the infirmary and original prior’s lodgings, (the limestone range on the right) together with the side elevation of the upscaled prior’s lodgings that were added in the early 1400s (multi-coloured stonework to the left).

The king, as monarchs did, would arrive with a large retinue of servants, clerks, cooks, musicians and blacksmiths, all of whom had to be housed. There must have been some pretty good parties too, since a permanently appointed keeper of the king’s wine was required to manage the contents of the priory wine cellar in readiness for any royal visit. Supplies were  brought in from Bristol ( a hundred miles away) by the Sherriff of Shropshire and a record relating to the delivery of four barrels in 1245 states that the wine was to be placed ‘safely in the cellars there against the king’s arrival as he proposes shortly to come to those parts, God willing.’ (4.)

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The galleried facade of the more recent fifteenth century lodgings,originally unglazed, was constructed from stone from four different quarries.

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The catslide roof is tiled with stone flags.

Inside, on the ground floor, is the prior’s private chapel, while upstairs is the Great Hall with its great stone fireplace and high beamed ceiling mentioned by Adams, and next to it, though scarcely less grand, the Lesser Hall. Timbers in the Great Hall roof have been dendro-dated to 1425.

The front door to the left of this range, though, is considerably older, with its characteristic Norman arch. James describes it in his travelogue Portraits of Places (3):

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I returned to the habitation of my companion (Charles Milnes Gaskell)…through an old Norman portal, massively arched and quaintly sculptured, across whose hollowed threshold the eye of fancy might see the ghosts of monks and the shadows of abbots pass noiselessly to and fro…for every step you take in such a house confronts you in one way or another with the remote past. You feast upon the pictorial, you inhale the historic.

It was through this doorway we also went a few  Saturdays ago. As I said, this was a private tour, and our first such visit. Since 1983 the house has been the home of Gabriella and Louis de Wet. De Wet is an artist of some renown and Gabriella is better known to the wider world as theatre and television actor Gabrielle Drake. For the last 33 years, driven by Louis de Wet’s extraordinary artistic vision,  they have been restoring the house – carrying the building’s story on into the 21st century while revealing its ancient monastic roots in strikingly original ways. The project has been an epic labour of love, and involved the dedication of consummate craftsmen, working very much in the mediaeval guildsmen tradition.

I did not take photos. So if you want to see what lies behind this door, please follow this next link. It will take you to a 2 minute trailer of a very excellent film made by Gavin Bush in 2011: In The Gaze Of Medusa . I leave you to make up your own minds about the merit of the De Wets’ prodigious and unique enterprise. It is not straight forward by any means.

For now, here’s the one photo I did take – of the library, and still a work in progress. It gives a taste of the quality of the craftsmanship involved in the restoration-creation work, the newly made shelves that will house a life-time’s collection of books on art, philosophy and history. Also niggles apart, we did appreciate the gracious hospitality of Mrs. de Wet who showed us around with such enthusiasm, and then treated our party to tea and some very delicious cakes in the Venetian Room. So very English!

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copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

1. Ernest Samuels Henry Adams: Selected Letters  1992 p 69

2. Florence Emily Hardy The Later Years of  Thomas Hardy  1930

3. Henry James Portrait of Places

4. Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock  2001

Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell Spring In A Shropshire Abbey  1904

Wenlock Priory through the pines ~ an enduring landmark

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How impressive then must the beautiful church have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside and its bells made the stillness sensible.

Henry James on Wenlock Priory Portraits of Places

Much Wenlock has many historic landmarks, but its Priory is the one with the oldest roots, dating back to the seventh century when  the Saxon princess, Abbess Milburga, presided over a dual house of monks and nuns.  In medieval times, under Norman rule, it was expanded to become one of the most imposing (male only) religious houses in Europe.

Then along came Henry VIII with his marriage problems, and in 1540, as part of his Dissolution of the Monasteries campaign, (i.e.the  liberation of monastic wealth), the lead was stripped off the roofs. The Priory has been ruinous ever since. Meanwhile the Corsican pines have grown up along the boundary wall.  I don’t know when they were planted, or by whom, but spiring above the ruins, they somehow give a sense of lost architectural glory.

There is of course much romance in dilapidation as Henry James’ description in the quote above betrays. He was certainly taken with the place, and came here two or three times as guest of the Milnes Gaskells  who lived in the Prior’s House abutting the ruins. The Priory was at that time the Milnes Gaskells’ own private garden feature, and part of the tour for all their many house guests.  I particularly like this next, perhaps unlikely image of a recumbent Henry James gazing up at the remains:

You may lie upon the grass at the base of an ivied fragment, measure the girth of the great stumps of the central columns, half smothered in soft creepers, and think how strange it is that in this quiet hollow, in the midst of lonely hills, so exquisite and so elaborate a work of art  should have arisen.

You can read more about Henry James in Wenlock HERE.

Now please visit Paula at Lost In Translation for more Black & White Sunday  landmarks.