AND ITS BORDERLANDS IN SHROPSHIRE, CHESHIRE AND DERBYSHIRE
Christianity may have first appeared in this region at an early date, it was
only with the establishment of the Saxon abbey at Repton that monasticism
flourished temporarily. The monastery, although not the pilgrim cult of Saint
Wystan, was snuffed out by the Viking invasions. Monasticism only returned in
the eleventh century when Benedictine monks from southern England came to live
at Burton, and French monks at Lapley. Although William the Conqueror devastated
Staffordshire, these monasteries benefited from the Norman Conquest.
Passageway in the church of the Saxon abbey of Repton leading down into
the crypt, where pilgrims worshipped at the shrine of Saint Wystan.
Initially, following the Norman Conquest, Benedictine monks established
several new houses . But since each house was an independent community, if the
abbot proved untrustworthy, little could be done about it. This explains the
chequered history of Burton Abbey, largest of the Staffordshire Benedictine
monasteries. Additional difficulties were faced, during times of war between the
English and French, by the French monks of Lapley and Tutbury.
Tutbury: Alabaster carvings on the portals of the Priory
Church: the earliest of their type in England.
In an attempt to raise the standards of
the ordinary clergy, by 1150 many had been encouraged to live in small
communities and adopt the rule of Saint Augustine. Communities of "black
canons," known as Augustinians, were founded at Repton, Calwich, Stone, Ranton, Lilleshall and Stafford (Saint Thomas),
while a community of women following the same rule was set up at Breewood.
Ruins of Lilleshall Priory, Shropshire
In France a religious revival at the end of the
eleventh century had led to the foundation of the austere Cistercian order of
"White Monks." This had led to the foundation of Radmore Abbey in the south of
the county in the late 1130s. Intimidated by foresters, the monks soon moved to Stoneleigh, Worcestershire. Another Cistercian house was set up at Croxden in
1176 by French monks.
A further consequence of the French revival had been the foundation of the Savigniac Order of "Grey
Monks." In 1133 a house of the order was set up at Combermere in
Cheshire. The Savigniac monks soon lost their initial enthusiasm, and in 1157,
in an attempt to restore discipline, the order was merged into that of Citeaux.
Thus it was as a Cistercian house, that Combermere Abbey set up daughter houses
in Leek (Dieulacres) in 1214 after a failed attempt to colonize the estuary
of the Dee, and Hulton in 1218. The Cistercian abbeys of Croxden, Dieulacres
and Hulton engaged extensively in agriculture and various business enterprises
over the next centuries, and played a major role in local affairs.
Ruins of Croxden Abbey
The Crusades led to the creation of new military-religious orders of
"warrior monks" including the Knights Templar and the Knights
Hospitaler. At Keele a preceptory of the Knights Templar was founded, which was
handed over to the Hospitalers when the Templars were accused of blasphemy,
witchcraft, heresy and various other abominable crimes, and their organisation
was suppressed. The Hospitalers also established a preceptory of their own at
Yeaveley, near Ashbourne, in Derbyshire.
The walls of the church of Yeaveley Preceptory at Stydd, incorrectly
re-erected in 1915 with the inside of the wall incorrectly facing outwards.
Continued dissatisfaction with the work of the monasteries led leaders in
Italy like Francis and Dominic to establish their own religious movements to
minister more directly to the needs of society. Although initially there was
significant local opposition to them, the Franciscans established themselves at
Lichfield and Stafford, the Dominicans at Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the
lesser-known Austin friars at Stafford. The friars did not become large
landowners, and their houses were never as well-appointed as those of the monks,
canons and nuns. Although they have left fewer traces than the monks and nuns,
it seems that in the end they became more popular - perhaps because they were
Between 1530 and 1540 all the religious houses were dissolved by agents of
the King Henry VIII. Seeing what was about to happen, many of the abbots of the
larger monasteries made arrangements for their own future using means that were
strictly illegal. A few found a living as parish priests, while some took up
residence near the houses from which they had been ejected.
Almost immediately following the dissolution of the communities, royal officials
arrived to sell off good and furniture and in many cases render the church unfit
for use. Only at the Blackladies Priory, near Brewood, is their some evidence
which may point to possible continuation of the religious life in secret for
some time afterwards.
The Tomb of Sir Philip Draycot, last steward of
Hulton Abbey, in Draycot Church.
The history of the medieval religious
houses is chiefly based upon surviving written records kept by the monks
and canons themselves, by the officials of the royal government, the
diocese, the orders and the papacy. In addition, legal documents can be
used to reconstruct an account of their activities. These were usually
in private hands, but now may be found in various archives and
The witness of written documents can also, in some cases, be supplemented by the
findings of archaeologists.
about monasticism in medieval Staffordshire in
and Its Borderlands