In 1176 the Cistercians arrived in Cotton but three years later relocated to nearby Croxden. The land was given by Bertram de Verdun, the lord of nearby Alton. He was concerned not only for his own soul but also for those of his predecessors and also his descendants. Bits of Alton Castle (not open to the public) date to the twelfth century so are also part of Bertram’s building schemes. Croxden is the oldest of Staffordshire’s Cistercian houses. There were twelve monks and their abbot, an English man known as Thomas of Woodstock. They acquired endowments in Staffordshire, Leicestershire and in Hartshorne in Derbyshire amongst other locations from Bertram. The land at Hartshorne was known as Lees and measured as a carucate. A carucate is of Norse origin and it signifies the amount of land that can be ploughed by one plough team of eight oxen in a season. Carucate is my word of the day! The monks also held Riston and Trusley in Derbyshire.
The choice of Croxden fits with the site selection that is almost uniform to Cistercian monasteries:
- by a river – River Churnet. Usually the monks looked for a bend in the river where they had been granted land. This method of siting the monastery meant that on most occasions the land was level and that there was agricultural land nearby as well as the opportunity for fish and the creation of fish ponds.
- in a valley (aren’t most rivers in a valley or on a plain?)
- remote – Staffordshire moorlands.
The Cistercians arrived in England in 1128 in Waverley. Their foundations demonstrate a simplicity of design in harmony with the idea of obedience to their conformity to the Rule of St Benedict. Most Cistercian churches for example have a “square” end of the kind that most medieval parish churches exemplify. However, Croxden doesn’t. It has an apse- not that much remains aside from the footprint and it has been separated from the main body of the church by the road that was driven through the village after the suppression of the monasteries. I don’t think that any Cistercian Church survives in tact – possibly because of their habit of building in the middle of nowhere, thus there benign population in need of a parish church at the time of the dissolution – but I could be wrong.
The other feature of Croxden’s architecture to often appear in commentaries is the abbot’s lodging. The first lodging appears between 1270 and 1290 but the following century Abbot Richard rebuilt a much more splendid dwelling – demonstrating the inevitable shift from poverty and simplicity.
In 1199 they received lands in Ireland from King John – the following year the abbot persuaded him to swap the lands for an annual annuity of £5. In 1205 this was swapped again for land in Shropshire and in 1287 it was swapped for Caldon Grange near Leek.
The thirteenth century saw Croxden at its most prosperous. There may have been as many as forty monks at one time. Revenues came from sheep and charcoal burning. As a result there was extenisve building work as well as other purchases in William of Over purchased a house in London for £20.00. However, the fourteenth century saw significant changes. As well as the Hundred Years War, Edward II and the Scottish levy there was also the fact that the abbey lost their key patrons. The de Verdun family had supported them from the time of their foundation but in 1316 the last male of the family died so the title and estates were inherited by Joan de Verdun and her husband Thomas de Furnivalle. He didn’t appear to understand the role of a patron and instead insisted on stabling his hoses and hounds at the abbey – not to mention the necessity of the abbey feeding seven of his bailiffs every Friday. He also confiscated livestock and a cart. Alton became a no go area resulting in the monks barricading themselves into Croxden for sixteen weeks beginning in March 1319. Eventually matters settled down – in 1334 Joan was buried at Croxden when she died in childbirth. Stone coffins remain in the apse of the ruins.
In 1349 the plague arrived in Croxden. It is recorded in the abbey’s chronicle but not how many of the monks succumbed. Let us not forget famine and sheep moraine to add to the general joy of the fourteenth century.
Aside from the local bigwigs there was also the issue of dodgy royalty and the Scottish wars of independence. In 1310 the Crown required loans for a Scottish expedition and the abbey also had duties with respect to its landholdings. In 1322 for example the abbot was taken to court for refusing to pay his share for the maintenance of foot soldiers. By 1368 the abbey owed £165. Nor did it help that the church roof had been releaded and the abbot’s house rebuilt (nice to know he got his priorities right.) The following year the section of the abbey adjoining the church collapsed. The list of problems facing the abbey continued to be chronicles. There were also floods and storms. By 1381 the abbot was in charge of six monks.
Somewhere along the line – the abbey was able to acquire more land on the Derbyshire/Staffordshire border. Hulton Abbey sold 90 acres of waste ground at Bradnop in the middle of the fourteenth century. They also managed to acquire Sedsall. In 1402 they gained a house in Ashbourne from Henry Blore. All these transactions are recorded in the form of royal licences. Despite these new land acquisitions Croxden struggled to maintain its former wealth and it probably didn’t help that there were a series of law suits.
The visitation of 1535/36 valued them at less than £200 a year so they should have been suppressed with the smaller monasteries but the abbot paid a fine of £100 for a licence to continue. Their income placed them as 67thout of 75 Cistercian houses according to Knowles and Hadcock cited in Klemperer. None the less in August 1538 Archbishop Cranmer wrote to Cromwell asking for a commission to be sent to Croxden, and on 17 September Dr. Thomas Legh and William Cavendish received the surrender of the abbey from the abbot and twelve other monks. One of the reasons that Cranmer was so interested in the fate of Croxden was because the much of the site of Croxden including the watermill was leased to his servant Francis Bassett (who assisted with the destruction of St Anne’s Well in Buxton.) In 1545 the estate was sold to the Foljambe family.
As for the monks, they all received their pensions. One of them became the vicar of Alton and he was still in receipt of his pension during the reign of Queen Mary.
Cromwell was always on the look out for tales of naughty monks but it seems that for much of Croxden’s history aside from the land deals and court cases that the abbots ran a tight ship. Tompkinson records that when in 1274 a lodger called Thomas Hoby was killed in a fight between grooms the entire household of the abbot’s servants were dismissed.
The Victoria County history details its landholdings: the manor and grange of Oaken, Lee Grange in Crakemarsh, and granges at Musden, Caldon, and Trusley; lands and rents in Croxden, Combridge, Great Gate, Ellastone, Alton, ‘Whytley’ in Leek, Onecote, Cotton, Dog Cheadle, Uttoxeter, Denstone, Calton, Caldon, Stafford, Orberton (in St. Mary’s, Stafford), Walton (Staffs.), Ashbourne, Doveridge, Derby, Hartshorne, Thurvaston (in Longford), Langley (Derb.), Burton Overy, Tugby, Mountsorrel (in Barrow-upon-Soar and Rothley, Leics.), Casterton, Stamford, Misterton (? Leics.), London, and ‘Sutton Maney’; the appropriated churches of Croxden, Alton, and Tugby and the tithes of Oaken, Lee, Musden, Caldon, and Trusley Granges; and a ‘wichehouse’ in Middlewich and Hungarwall smithy in Dog Cheadle. The list doesn’t include the mills and fish ponds nor the saltpan in Cheshire by which method the monks added to their self sufficiency.
G C Baugh, W L Cowie, J C Dickinson, Duggan A P, A K B Evans, R H Evans, Una C Hannam, P Heath, D A Johnston, Hilda Johnstone, Ann J Kettle, J L Kirby, R Mansfield and A Saltman, ‘Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Croxden’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, ed. M W Greenslade and R B Pugh (London, 1970), pp. 226-230. British History Onlinehttp://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol3/pp226-230 [accessed 30 July 2018].
William D. Klemperer Excavations at Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire 1987-1994
Tomlinson, John L. (2000). Monastic Staffordshire. Leek: Churnet Books