Huzzah – I have Internet connectivity after more than a week holding my laptop sky-high in an offering to the gods of wifi and grotty weather and I’m back to priories. Wenlock Priory was the only one in Shropshire before 1066 and it started off as a nunnery before becoming a monastery. Then somewhen in the late eleventh century Roger, Earl of Shrewsbury, re-founded the house as a Cluniac priory – very definitely for monks.
The Cluniacs like all monks followed the rule of St Benedict but their twist on the rule was that their work was related to books – writing them, binding them etc and to living a life of poverty in the midst of huge religious ornament and ceremony.
From small beginnings the monks built up land and rights. They also ensured that St Milburga, who’s bones were conveniently found as the monks started to build their own church became an important regional cult figure. During the reign of Kimg Richard the Lionheart the monks of Much Wenlock acquired the rights to administer justice within their Liberties – ie their manors.
Henry III stayed at Wenlock and gifted timber from the royal forests for the re-building of a church and lady chapel. The prior of the period Prior Humbert seems to have been popular with the king and energetic in his efforts on behalf of the priory. He was also often sent abroad on ambassadorial missions – he didn’t have far to go, just into Wales.
Unfortunately politics rapidly got in the way of religious life. Humbert’s successor Aymo was promoted from the priory at Bermondsey and he also did a stint as Prior of Lewes. Problematically for Aymo it wasn’t the king who made the Lewes appointment but Simon de Montfort.
Of course, during all this time the monks of Much Wenlock looked to their mother house for guidance and sent funds home to the mother abbey – which was Cluny. Indeed most of the priors of Wenlock were French. It was an alien priory. This was all fine and well while England and much of modern France were part of the same empire but it wasn’t such a good policy once the Hundred Years War kicked off and Cluny became ‘the enemy.’ Interestingly although Much Wenlock was well within the circumscribed distance of the navigable River Severn it wasn’t forced to relocate or close its gates when other sea-board alien priories were penalised for their loyalties.
Matters hadn’t been helped when the monks managed to end up in debt to a notorious money lender on account of one prior who was angling to become the Bishop of Rochester. He fiddled the books in ways that were legal but left the monks in dire straits. He sold the wool of the priory for seven years in advance – making life very difficult for his successor – but which no doubt helped to fund his bid to become a bishop. It was during this time as well that one of the monks took to the hills with a band of armed men as an outlaw.
Of course, the issue of being an alien priory became thornier and thornier – a local lord had to testify that the prior wasn’t in the power of the King of France and the monks were forbidden from sending money back to Cluny. Ultimately though the crown started to confiscate land from the priory and the monks found themselves torn between their loyalty to the English crown and the mother house at Cluny which still demanded their presence at chapter meetings – which they couldn’t attend. This problem eased slightly in 1378 when the Great Schism (more than one pope) occurred. The monks of Cluny supported the unofficial pope meaning that the Archbishop of Canterbury who happened to be a papal legate (the official pope) could legally take charge of the monasteries which had once looked to Cluny. After that Englishmen were appointed as priors. Roger Wyvel became prior of Much Wenlock in 1388.
The great days of Much Wenlock were over though. There may have been as many as forty monks for much of the fourteenth century but the numbers dwindled steadily thereafter and the prior had to contend with lawsuits from tenants who didn’t want to work for the monks and landowners looking to increase their own landholdings at the expense of the monks. By 1536 there were only twelve monks – even so they had a net income in excess of £400.
Today very little remains of the church but the cloisters and the chapter house yield some interesting remains. There is a rare washing fountain in the middle of the cloister and the remnant of the library. Inside the cloister interlaced tracery patterns give some indication of the splendid ornament that Much Wenlock must have once exhibited. Looking up it is possible to see the doorway that led from the dorter into the church. At Much Wenlock the monks continued to sleep in a long dormitory until virtually the end of monasticism in England and Wales – wooden paneling was a later concession to privacy.
B Pugh (London, 1973), pp. 38-47 https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/salop/vol2/pp38-47 [accessed 5 September 2015].