Present and past conjoined in silence across eight centuries.
P.S. Starting the New Year with my one thousandth blog post or so WP tells me.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
The galleried facade of the more recent fifteenth century lodgings,originally unglazed, was constructed from stone from four different quarries.
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):
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!
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
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.
Saint Milburga’s Well is my choice for Day 3 of Hidden Wenlock. (Again thanks to Pauline at Memories Are Made Of This.) It can be found just off Barrow Street, not far from the back gate to The Abbey which featured yesterday.
There are many strange myths associated with this particular saint, and her affinity with wells and springs: remnant (or not so remnant) pagan beliefs interwoven with notions of Christian miracles. But first some facts.
St. Milburga was a Saxon princess, 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. And Merewalh was a man with a plan. Instead of arranging dynastic marriages for his three daughters, he made them rulers of new religious houses across his kingdom. In this way Merewalh consolidated spiritual and political prestige, commanding both bodies and souls.
According to Milburga’s contemporary, the historian Saint Bede, she was educated for her religious life at the monastery of Chelles in Paris. Then around 690 AD she returned to England and took charge of an abbey in Much Wenlock. It was a community of both monks and nuns, although they worshipped separately. There Milburga presided for the next thirty seven years, ministering to the people of her extensive domain lands.
As I said, there are hosts of legends about her, her healing powers and her ability to strike springs from the ground, and bring winter-sown barley from seed to harvest in the course of one day. There are also tales of her fierce resistance to male suitors, and rivers rising up to thwart her pursuers. After her bones were rediscovered in 1101, the cult of Milburga continued to grow over succeeding centuries. It was said, among much else, that she brought several people back from the dead.
The water from her well was also supposed to have very special powers, curing even blindness. Something of this belief persisted into the last century. Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, chatelaine of The Abbey until 1935, relates a conversation with a Wenlock girl, Fanny Milner. Her granny had sent her to fetch some water from the well so she would be able to read her Sunday scripture, “glasses or no glasses”. This is what Fanny tells Lady Catherine:
“It be blessed water, grandam says, and was washed in by a saint – and when saints meddle with water, they makes, grandam says, a better job of it than any doctor, let him be fit to burst with learning.”
Lady Catherine also relates how the well had once been long associated with rather less sacred pursuits:
It is said that at Much Wenlock on “Holy Thursday”, high revels were held formerly at St. Milburgha’s Well; that the young men after service in church bore green branches round the town, and that they stopped at last before St. Milburgha’s Well. There, it is alleged, the maidens threw in crooked pins and “wished” for sweethearts. Round the well, young men drank toasts in beer brewed from water collected from the church roof, while the women sipped sugar and water, and ate cakes. After many songs and much merriment, the day ended with games such as “Pop the Green Man down”, “Sally Water”, and “The Bull in the Ring”, which games were followed by country dances such as “The Merry Millers of Ludlow”, “John, come and kiss me”, “Tom Tizler”, “Put your smock o’ Monday”…
Catherine Milnes Gaskell Spring in a Shropshire Abbey
These days it is hard to imagine this gloomy and mysterious well being the focus of so much racy celebration. The well’s spring has anyway been capped, so there is no longer any holy water inside. But it might be nice to throw it a good party and wake it up, though I’m not sure about beer brewed from church roof water. Mm. Essence of mossy slates and lead guttering at the very least.
Now here’s a photo of the church in question. It stands on its green in the heart of the town. It was originally part of the Priory, and is said to be on the site of Milburga’s nuns’ church. If you look hard, you will see the plastic owl on the tower parapet. It’s there to discourage the pigeons, although I’m not sure if it works. From what I have seen of them on my allotment, Wenlock’s wily pigeons would know a plastic owl when they saw one.
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 Janet Weight Reed at My Life As An Artist. For one thing she is a magical water colourist. For another, she is so very generous with her artist’s knowledge and techniques. One of her specialities is humming birds. Go and see. Believe me, they will fly out of your screen.
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.
A history of Much Wenlock Vivien Bellamy
Wenlock in the Middle Ages W F Mumford
Pauline at Memories are made of this tagged me for this challenge: a photo and a story for five consecutive days. On her blog she took us to some of the world’s most resonant places, including the Taj Mahal, so please do visit her.
I thought I’d stay at home for five days, and reveal some local secrets. In fact in this first photo I want to show you something you cannot see at all. I’ll call it a ghost -more of which in a moment.
The things you can see are the ruins of Wenlock Priory. Before Henry VIII dissolved it in 1540, it was one of the biggest monastic houses in Europe, and a sister house to the abbey of Cluny in France. The monks in Wenlock would thus have all spoken French as well as Latin. I suppose they must have had some resident interpreter to manage all the Shropshire serfs who would have been needed to tend the Prior’s extensive domain.
The Priory itself was a place of great pilgrimage, which in turn caused the small town of Much Wenlock, with its hostelries and traders, to grow up around it. Two of the towns surviving pubs, The George and Dragon and The Talbot date from these pilgrim days. The big draw was St. Milburga and her healing miracles. She was the Saxon princess who was abbess of the town’s first religious house back in the 7th century. When her four hundred year old bones were conveniently rediscovered in 1101, they were said to glow, and smell sweetly as saints’ bones were wont to do.
Much Wenlock, then, has a long-established pedigree on the odour of sanctity front.
But now for that ghost – more a spirit of place really. And it belongs to writer Henry James. In the days when the Priory comprised the personal ruins of the Milnes Gaskells who lived next door in the Prior’s House, Henry James was one of their many eminent house guests. In fact he came three times. There is more about his visit in an earlier post When Henry James Came To Wenlock, but first a postcard view of how the ruins might have looked back in his day, in the late 1870s:
And now you have the setting, both past and present, you can conjure Mr. Henry James from his own words. As I have said elsewhere, during one of his times here he was apparently working on his own ghost story The Turn of the Screw: Here is his description of the Priory, these days in the care of English Heritage:
Adjoining the house is a beautiful ruin, part of the walls and windows and bases of the piers of the magnificent church administered by the predecessor of your host, the abbot. These relics are very desultory, but they are still abundant and testify to the great scale and the stately beauty of the abbey. You may lie upon the grass at the base of an ivied fragment and measure the great girth of the great stumps of the central columns, half smothered in soft creepers, and think how strange it is in that in this quiet hollow, in the midst of lonely hills, so exquisite and so elaborate a work of art should have arisen.
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From the Existential to the Mundane - From Poetry to Prose
Appreciating Everyday Life
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theatre of stories untold
Travels Around The Land Of My Fathers
My plant obsession
A Little Bit of Texas in Swansea Wales
Childhood stories and wildlife encounters