Episode 8 – Abbey Green, Staffordshire

The foundation of the abbey

This week, we start our adventures in Poulton, Cheshire.

“But Isla,” I hear you exclaim, “Poulton begins with a P! You’re still on A!”

And you’d be right. We are on A. But the story of Abbey Green, Staffordshire begins in Poulton.

Ranulph II de Gernon, the fourth Earl of Chester, was – like many Norman lords – deeply concerned for his own soul. As such, lords often made sure to set up monasteries and allocate their land to the monks who lived there, in the hopes God would be pleased with them and give them a better lot in the afterlife.

Ranulph had got himself tied up in civil war. After King Henry I – the son of William the Conqueror – died in 1135, he wanted his only surviving child, the Empress Matilda, to become Queen. She had the title ‘Empress’ due to her marriage with The Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, rather than through any power of her own. Women were not considered equal to men, and certainly not fit to rule in any way! So as you might imagine, her potentially being Queen of England did not go down well with a lot of people.

Instead, many of the nobles put their weight behind Stephen of Blois, another of William the Conqueror’s grandchildren. Stephen was well-liked, and unlike the other potential candidates, he found himself in a good location to be able to get to England quickly and be crowned at Winchester Cathedral.

Ranulph, on the other hand, was married to one of Empress Matilda’s nieces, Maud, so he aligned himself with her. In 1141, he captured Stephen and later released him. By 1146, he had realised Matilda would not win, so he switched sides to Stephen. But Stephen’s other noble allies were unsure about Ranulph, and persuaded the king that Ranulph could not be trusted, so he was arrested.

Earl Ranulph’s hereditary butler, Robert Pincerna, owned estates at Poulton, and was moved by the events of his master’s life to donate some of these estates to establish the Cistercian abbey there that same year. It would be a daughter-house to Combermere abbey, whose founding had been witnessed by Ranulph. Later, Pincerna’s son would donate the remainder of the Poulton estates to the monks. This would lead to the Earls of Chester becoming the patrons of the new Abbey.

The Poulton Abbey lands grew, with donations from various benefactors. These lands were often situated many miles away from the abbey itself, and there is good reason for this inconvenience – the Welsh. Welsh raiders liked to cross the border into Cheshire, and the further away the livestock were from the border, the better.

Thus in 1214, Ranulph III de Blundeville, Earl of Chester, and descendant of Ranulph II, took action to move the monks to a new home in Staffordshire. But the Welsh raiders might not have been his only motivation.

Ranulph III had become the sixth Earl of Chester in 1181. It is said that one night he had a dream, and saw a vision of his grandfather. Ranulph II directed his grandson to establish a Cistercian community at a certain location close to Leek, where there had once been a chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He gave him a prophecy about future actions of the Pope against England, which would show him when the time had come to act.

When Ranulph woke, he told his wife Clemence what had happened. Her immediate response was “Deux encres!” which means “May God grant it increase.” Ranulph decided to name the new abbey after her words: “Deulencres”, which soon became “Dieulacres” (pronounced ‘d’you la cress’).

In the year 1208, the prophecy in Ranulph’s dream came true. Pope Innocent placed England under Interdict because King John refused the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. Basically, this meant all the churches were closed and everyone in England would be deprived of the sacraments. This was a severe punishment, because everyone believed that without taking the sacraments (such as baptism, holy mass and the last rites) they would end up going to hell.

However, the Cistercians found a loophole in the Interdict. Being considered separate from English law, they continued to keep the abbeys open and administer the sacraments. The Pope was angry, but there was nothing he could do. After the interdict had been going for seven years Ranulph showed up at Poulton Abbey, just as his grandfather had requested in the dream.

The monks packed up their things and headed to the new site at Dieulacres, leaving Poulton as a grange or farm estate. Of course they still kept the land as a source of revenue.

Land, money and disputes

Dieulacres is just a short way north of the town of Leek, which is north-east of Stoke-on-Trent. When the monks moved, they were granted a large swathe of lands in the area, including all around Leek. The manor of Leek ended up losing much of its land to the monks, and in 1219 this situation resulted in the abbot getting the position of lord of the manor.

In 1224, after petitions from Earl Ranulph to the Bishops of Coventry and Lichfield, the monks were also granted patronage of St Edward’s Church, Leek. Now, this was not a good gift for Cistercian monks to be accepting, since there was a specific Cistercian injunction against possessing these parish churches. But from what I can tell, no action was ever taken.

This was not a good start for Dieulacres Abbey, and it would only get worse.

The abbey owned a lot of land, which was operated by a mixture of lay-monks (‘Conversi’) and ordinary tenants. The Conversi were not literate, like full monks, and didn’t attend as many services. They would live on the granges and farm crops and livestock, which the monasteries would then sell. Because of the distances Conversi often ended up being from their home abbeys, there were a lot of issues with discipline such as drunkenness. The ordinary tenants farmed the land which was too far away for the monks to watch over regularly.

One particular location which the abbey owned was called Rossall, in Lancashire. This had been granted to them by King John in 1216, who died that same year. Even though the abbey was in the north of Staffordshire, it was still a long way south from Lancashire, so not the most practical location for abbey land it might seem. Dieulacres retained the land, but after ten years John’s successor Henry III demanded it back. For a short while, anyway. By 1228, Henry III had set out a charter giving Dieulacres the land in perpetuity. Rossall was one of those lands where ordinary people were working.

1232 saw the death of Ranulph III, Earl of Chester. The Earl’s body was buried in Chester, but his heart was buried at Dieulacres. In mediaeval times, as it still is today, the heart was associated with the soul, affection and courage. By having his heart buried at Dieulacres, it showed where he truly desired to be. Clemence would also be buried there when she died in 1253.

Ranulph didn’t have any heirs, and the Earldom passed through his sister Matilda to his nephew John of Scotland. John of Scotland was also Earl of Huntingdon, which you won’t be surprised to learn is in Scotland. When John died in 1237, he also left no male heirs and only sisters to inherit. The sisters decided to split the lands between them, but Henry III took the earldoms back to the crown “lest so fair a dominion should be divided among women”. Not much had improved for women since 1135, it seems.

This didn’t impact the monastery too much. They were entrenched in disputes over land with the other monasteries around them. These were for various reasons, but mainly land and money. Sometimes, the issue was instigated by Dieulacres, and sometimes it was from the other party. During this time, Dieulacres really began to throw their weight around.

Croxden Abbey is a great example of this. Dieulacres claimed some land which Croxden asserted was against an agreement wherein Dieulacres could claim any land a mile around their abbey, but beyond that not in the direction of Croxden. The land Dieulacres claimed blatantly disregarded this agreement. In 1248 the dispute came before the Cistercian general chapter at Citeaux, but it was not resolved until 1251. The resolution was that Dieulacres could keep the land they had claimed, but to not do it again, please.

This no doubt was entirely unsatisfactory to Croxden, but the explosive growth and popularity of the Cistercian order meant they were struggling to maintain discipline over their abbeys. Dieulacres exploited this to great success.

In the year 1254, Henry III’s son Edward was made Lord of Chester, and became the abbey’s patron. He seems to have had a good relationship with the abbey during this time, and issued a charter in 1270 confirming their lands.

But in 1272, things changed. Henry III died, and Edward became king. His priorities changed, and in 1279 he issued the Statute of Mortmain. For hundreds of years lords had been handing over land to abbeys across England, hoping for reward in heaven, but that reward came at the cost of earthly gain. They could no longer work the land for themselves to gain income from it, and it was costing dearly for Edward’s tax revenues. The new Statute forbade land from being granted to churches without a license from the King.

Still this was not enough to turn Edward’s fortunes around. Edward was the conquering kind of king, and throughout his life he ran campaigns into Wales and Scotland. Wales was much more successful than Scotland, with the land eventually coming under English rule, but the Scots managed to hold Edward back.

For these wars Edward needed money. He appealed to the pope, who permitted a tax of a tenth to be taken from the church based on valuations of their spiritual and temporal holdings. In 1291 Dieulacres was valued at £165 (or £175,000 today), which made it the wealthiest monastery in Staffordshire.

The following year, Edward raised a lawsuit against the abbey to try and get the lands at Rossall back. It was eventually decided that the abbey was right to keep the land, but only from when Henry III had issued a particular charter in 1247. Everything before then, from 1216, was considered illegally held, so they would have to pay a huge fine. Records suggest that this was never actually paid.

Further taxes were taken from the church in 1306 and 1310, which included livestock and cereals for the campaigns in Scotland.

Trouble in Paradise

In the year 1378, the Catholic church split in two. Pope Gregory XI, who had moved the church’s base from Avignon to Rome the previous year, died. The residents of Rome wanted the next pope to be Roman as well, but there wasn’t a suitable candidate. Instead, the cardinals elected Urban VI from among their number.

Urban turned out to be a rather tempestuous Pope, and the cardinals regretted their decision. They got out of Rome fast, and held another election. This time they picked Clement VII, and he set up his court back in Avignon.

Because of how intertwined politics and religion were back then, the Christian countries of Western Europe had to pick sides whom they would support. England and Wales chose Rome, though Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion would side with Avignon. France, the heartland of the Cistercian order, also chose Avignon.

This drove a split between the Cistercians of England and their continental brethren. The English monks were no longer welcome at Citeaux, and the English and Welsh abbeys never really recovered from this even after the split ended in 1417. Without the oversight of the general chapter, there was nobody to make sure the abbeys behaved themselves.

At Dieulacres, discipline was already crumbling, and now they seem to have completely fallen to pieces. Their actions over the next few decades are certainly not what you would expect from a religious house.

In the year 1379, the Earl of Stafford was granted a Royal Commission to start an investigation into Dieulacres. Information had been received that Abbot William Lichfield was keeping armed men at the abbey. Yes, you read that right. These men were said to be assaulting and murdering across the countryside on regular occasions, and also got themselves into a feud with John Warton of Leek.

John Warton’s servants had assaulted some of Abbot William’s servants so viciously they couldn’t work for some time. Abbot William started a lawsuit against the man, but in the meantime his men took matters into their own hands, plotting an ambush against Warton.

They lay in wait, and shot an arrow at him as he passed by their hiding point. One of the men called on Warton to surrender. Realising he didn’t have a chance, he gave himself up and was held in the abbot’s gaol for four days. After that time, he was taken a little distance away and beheaded.

In the ensuing investigation, allegations were thrown around that Abbot William had been involved and even given the order to kill Warton. The Sheriff of Stafford was sent out to arrest the men, including the abbot, but only the abbot could be found. The others had gone into hiding. In the end, he was released on bail, which cost him £216 (probably about £250,000 today).

The next year, one of the gangmembers handed himself in. He pleaded not guilty, and it was decided that a jury would meet to decide the truth. In the meantime, some more of the gang came out into the open. When they were brought to trial they revealed that they were in possession of Royal Pardons that declared them not guilty of any crime committed before December 31 1381. How incredibly handy. Shortly after, the first arrested gangmember also got himself a Royal Pardon.

At this point, Royal Pardons seemed to be in plentiful supply for the whole gang, and Abbot William also managed to get out of any trial as long as he promised to be good.

The only man in the gang to get a full trial was one Richard Bradshaw. He came before a jury in October 1382, and they declared him not guilty. In the end, nobody was convicted for the crime of murdering John Warton.

Dieulacres continued to have issues with Leek locals. In 1413, as revenge for trees being cut down on the abbot’s land, monk Nicholas Poulton with a number of abbey servants and eighty other men organised a raid on the offending party’s land and stole stone from it to the value of the timber that had been taken. It was Old Testament “An eye for an eye” rather than New Testament “Turn the other cheek”.

The ringleaders, including the monk Nicholas Poulton, were arrested and put into Marshalsea prison. But when it came to their trial, they were all acquitted. This included the abbot, who had been considered an accessory to the crime.

One can only wonder what the Cistercian founders would have thought of all this.

But in the mid-1400s things settled down again. The monastery was quiet for the next fifty or sixty years, and we hear little about the goings-on there until 1516.

The road to the end

We already know from previous episodes that the dissolution of the monasteries is now on the near horizon. With the growth of Protestantism in mainland Europe and Britain, they knew the end was coming. The pattern had been repeated all over the place.

For Dieulacres, this end would be messy, and see a return to the bad behaviour from a century before.

In 1516 there was a riot in Leek, and a man was killed by the servants of the town steward. Abbot William Alben and several of his servants were indicted as accessories to the murder.

A local man William Egerton was appointed to investigate and arrest, but John Brereton – one of those indicted – was not going to go without a fight. He roused 200 of the abbey’s servants and tenants into a riot to try and block Egerton from going about his work.

As Egerton went from house to house, the rioters followed him around and eventually cornered him in a tavern. They kept him surrounded until Abbot William arrived. Here they stayed for over an hour and even shot an arrow into the tavern (one report claims it was the Abbot himself who did the shooting). Eventually they got bored of waiting and dispersed, knowing they could catch Egerton easily enough once he moved on.

And Egerton did move on, whereupon the riot restarted and he was blocked in St Edward’s church. A church was considered a sanctuary, so nobody would move against them there, although they would make no effort to help him either. Meanwhile, the crowd of abbey servants blocked up the main road with trees and other such items to keep people out of Leek. Anyone who tried to sneak food to Egerton in the church was quickly caught by Brereton’s men.

Eventually, the affair was ended. Abbot William clearly had quite a grip on Leek, and it must have been a shock when he was arrested and held in prison for three years.

When he returned from jail, he was a changed man. He saw how John Brereton had been taking control of the monastery for his own ends, and how badly the monks had been behaving – behaviour he would once have encouraged. He decided to put his house in order, but Brereton and his followers wouldn’t have it. They got the abbot deposed, having made allegations of bad conduct against him to the abbot of their parent house Combermere.

His successor was another rotten egg, which is no surprise considering what the character of the abbey was like by this point. He issued blank deeds stamped with the abbey seal – basically a blank cheque – to his friends. These actions did little good to Dieulacres’ finances. Eventually he was replaced by Abbot Thomas Whitney, the last abbot.

In the 1530s, the writing was on the wall. The population everywhere were converting to various shades of Protestantism, and Henry VIII had done his part by moving himself to head of the church. Whitney dished out Abbey land to his family, and although he claimed to be more responsible than the previous abbot he also gave out the same blank cheques.

The first wave of dissolution was 1536, which Dieulacres escaped by dint of having an income more than £200 per year (£150,000 today). But it did not escape in 1538.

For many of the monasteries whose time was cut short by Henry VIII’s church reforms, the dissolution was a tragedy. But the history of Dieulacres shows its time was more than up. This is one place the people will have been glad to see the back of.

The future history of Abbey Green is hard to determine. The abbey buildings were taken apart, and the stone used to construct buildings for Abbey Farm. This is private land, and it’s not possible today to go and see what once was a burial site for an Earl and his wife. Abbey Green has become a small, quiet village with a seventeenth century inn, integrated into the town of Leek.

Next week, we visit Abbeyleix – one of the first planned towns in Ireland


References

Abbey Green

  • Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Dieulacres, 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 Dieulacres’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, ed. M W Greenslade and R B Pugh (London, 1970), pp. 230-235. British History Online

  • Dieulacres Abbey, Leek, Staffordshire, Michael J Fisher

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