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Much Wenlock Priory
Shortly after AD 680, King Merewalh of Mercia, son of the Pagan King Penda acquired land in Shropshire and founded an abbey. The place was know as Wimnicas or Wininicas but later became known as Much Wenlock.
In AD 687 Merewalh’s daughter Milburge became abbess, after receiving an education at Chelles, near Paris. At this time the monastery at Much Wenlock was a double house of monks and nuns, with two church buildings that enabled them to worship separately. It is thought that the monks’ church was at the crossing of the priory church and the nun’s church was on the site where the present parish church now stands.
Milburge was abbess at Much Wenlock for over 30 years and during this time there are many tales of miracles attached to her. She is said to have brought a dead boy back to life, banished geese that were destroying her crops and made her veil float on a sunbeam. Today we would be inclined to give these events rational explanations, but it did the monastery no harm to have such stories connected to them as it encouraged pilgrims to visit, bringing income for the monastery with them.
Before her death in 722-30 Milburge was very successful in acquiring land for the monastery. After her death she was made a saint.
In the 9th century much of the Mercia area was affected by Danish raids and it is thought that Much Wenlock came under attack in AD 874. The monastery appears to have carried on to some extent after this.
In the 10th century double monasteries began to go out of fashion and it would appear that the nunnery at Wenlock was closed. It is likely that at this time the abbey became a college of canons who would have served the local community. Shortly before the Norman Conquest Earl Leofric of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva (the same lady who rode a horse naked through Coventry!) founded a minster at Much Wenlock. This would have housed resident canons and was the first minster church in the area.
After the Norman Conquest Roger de Montgomery (a Norman favourite of William the Conqueror) made a request to the abbot of Cluny in France for monks to be sent to Wenlock. The former abbey at Much Wenlock now became a Cluniac priory dedicated to St. Milburge and St. Michael, which paid an annual rent to the abbey at Cluny. The French monks utilised the recently built church and began to erect new domestic buildings. The chapter house, lavabo (place for washing) and infirmary are all that remain of this early work.
Milburge was said to have been buried by the church altar, but although the monks looked they could not find her remains. One day two boys were playing in the church when a hole in the ground opened up to reveal the bones of St. Milburge. These were placed in a shrine and stories of miraculous cures quickly became associated with them. A woman with a mysterious wasting disease is reported to have drunk some water that had been used to wash the bones of Milburge and she is said to have coughed up a worm and been cured. There are other stories of blind women regaining their sight and a drowned boy coming back to life.
Pilgrims soon flocked to see the bones of St. Milburge in the hope of having a miracle done to them or witnessing one on someone else. These pilgrimages would have brought money to the church and soon a town began to grow up outside the walls.
Wenlock was soon wealthy enough to establish a daughter-house on the Isle of Wight as well as other foundations at Dudley (West Midlands), Paisley (Scotland) and Church Preen (Shropshire).
King Henry III stayed at the priory on a number of occasions and even had some of his wines stored there for royal use when he was visiting.
In 1272 John de Tycford was appointed as prior. He brought Wenlock into debt and before being deposed he sold the wool crop of the monastery for the next seven years and kept the money. Tycford was so unpopular that one of the monks, William Broseley, gathered together a group of armed men that hid in the forest and threatened to kill him.
In 1395 Much Wenlock priory gained a charter, which changed its status from French to English. It was obtained from Richard II at a price of £400.
In 1417, the outlaw Sir John Oldcastle met a criminal called William Careswell who specialised in counterfeiting coins and he brought him to Wenlock to teach the monks the craft. Sir John was later involved in a plot to kill King Henry V by black magic, using a 3ft wax image of the king and roasting it over a fire, In 1417 he was hanged and burnt at the gallows in London.
1521 saw a difference of opinion over the election of the prior and caused a visit from Dr John Allen who spoke to every monk at Wenlock. By this time it would appear that the rules of the order were not being so strictly adhered to and so he published a list of ‘Injunctions and Exhortations’ aimed at putting the monks back on the right track.
These rules included the following:
• The rule of continuous silence must be kept more strictly.
• There must be no dealings with women.
• Gambling on games of cards, marbles and chess is forbidden.
• The prior should not indulge in luxurious and extravagant living with a large household.
• Monks must not indulge in late drinking.
These demonstrate the state of affairs at the priory and the obvious lack of discipline that had so far been employed.
The last prior at Wenlock was John Bayley. His spell in charge was at a time when Henry VIII was breaking away from the church in Rome and naming himself as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This change in religion brought about the Act of Suppression in 1536 where every monastery with an annual income of less than £200 was forcibly closed. There was a rebellion against this by the monks, known as the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ but this resulted in over 30 monks being executed. Much Wenlock managed to stay open and operational until 1540 when the monks and the prior were forced to sign the deed of surrender, allowing the Crown to take their possessions and close them down.
All the valuables of the priory were taken and the silver and jewellery were taken to the Jewel House in the Tower of London. The lands of the priory were given to the King’s physician, Augustin de Augustini who began to split them up and sell them off. The site of the monastery was sold to Thomas and Richard Lawley, who converted the infirmary and prior’s lodging into a dwelling house.
The rest of the monastic buildings were slowly taken apart and the stone reused in buildings in the surrounding area. Wenlock priory later became part of a farmyard and the south transept of the church was even used as a milking parlour.
The ruins of Much Wenlock priory later came into the hands of the Ministry of Works before being passed to English Heritage, who now own, maintain and control visitor access to the site.
‘Wenlock in the Middle Ages’ – W.F. Mumford, 1977
‘Wenlock Priory’ – Julie Pinnell, English Heritage, 1999