Chapter 3: The Founder of the House

Ask the average Halesonian who founded the town's abbey and the odds are that he will not know. Of the few who do know that Peter, Bishop of Winchester was the founder, having read his name in the only complete, but not always accurate, history of the town, Somers' 'Halas, Hales, Hales Owen', hardly anybody will know Peter's background or just why he should have made himself responsible for the building of this religious house. Let us, therefore, take a look at the prelate and find out just how it came about that he was associated with our locality.

Peter de Rupibus or Peter des Roches ('Peter of the Rocks') was not by any means a holy man in the real sense of the word. Rather could he be described as an opportunist career-priest, soldier, politician and diplomat, whose bishopric was given to him (to use the words of our modern Honours List) "for political and military service to the Sovereign". His family originated in the old French province of Poitou. By the close of the reign of Richard I, he had become Court Chamberlain and then, having thrown in his lot with King John, became the king's influential councillor who was rewarded in 1205 by being elevated to the See of Winchester.

Later, in 1213, he also became John's Justicar, in succession to Geoffrey Fitz Peter. In other words, he was now the king's chief political and judicial officer, who could even be called upon to act as regent were the king absent from England. We find him leading with very great valour a division of the royal army at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. After some vicissitudes in his fortunes, he left England in 1227 to join the Crusade of Emperor Frederick II. Absent from this country until 1231, he had, during the interval, greatly enhanced his reputation as a soldier and a diplomat. But by 1235, he was out of favour and left England again. His services to Pope Gregory IX in the same year paved the way for a return, and coming back to his Winchester See in 1236, he ministered there until his death in 1238, when his remains were interred in the cathedral.

The Manor of Halesowen had reverted to the Crown in 1204, from Emma, wife of Prince David ap Owen on the Prince's death. (Note that the town owes its suffix 'Owen' to this Welsh prince and that therefore the town name should correctly be written 'Hales Owen' - two separate words! The earliest existent written authority for this usage was in a court roll dated 1270). The manor was, therefore, within the king's gift and what was more natural than that he should give it to de Rupibus who, although a Poitevin and a cleric with no roots in Midland England, has a tenuous connection with Halesowen? It was one of the benefices he had held in absentia and had perforce resigned on his elevation to the bishopric in 1205. There is doubt whether he had visited or indeed ever did visit the town, but it will be gathered that he had enjoyed some income from it as its absentee priest.

King John's gift of the Manor of Hales to Bishop Peter is dated 27 October 1214 and it instructs him "to build there a house of religion of whatever Order he chooses". To patronise the religious was the prerogative of the great and by founding his Premonstratensian Abbey (incidentally, one of three monasteries and a friary for the founding of which he was responsible) he was at once advertising his own importance and providing (or so he hoped) for the welfare of his soul in the hereafter.

The Halesowen Abbey Cartulary (book of records) has been lost, but Royal Charters outline the story of the founding of the house. Peter's Deed of Foundation (a wordy and sanctimonious document) is contained in an inspeximus of Bishop Adam Orleton, Bishop of Worcester, and may be seen in Birmingham Reference Library. It can be dated 1215. On 8 August of the same year, John confirmed the Manor to the Canons of the Premonstratensian Order who were "to serve God in Hales and consider the Bishop as their founder."

It is a moot point whether the Abbey was built on previously virgin land or whether it superseded a small manor house already in existence on the site. At any rate the position was a fertile and sheltered one on the infant Stour, along which the monks eventually constructed a three quarter mile stretch of fishponds and a mill. It is perhaps not coincidental that the main pilgrim route to the shrine of St. Kenelm at the foot of the Clents passed through the Abbot's domain, for from the pilgrims was to come much of the Abbey's revenue, while the monkish community provided ospitality for travellers eager to drink at St. Kenelm's holy well.

Skilled masons would arrive at the abbey site soon after King John's confirmatory grant of 1215. They would be occupied for several years, assisted by locally recruited unskilled labour, building first of all the abbey's presbytery (that part of the church reserved for the clergy and containing the altar). Not until this was ready for use and, indeed, it was not until 26 April 1218 (not 6 May as stated in the Victoria County History of Worcestershire) that the White Canons came from Welbeck, led by their first Abbot, Roger de Joblinton. The canons would make do with their ' temporary and very austere lodgings until their permanent quarters, frater, dorter, infirmary, etc. were ready, but this must have meant some years of waiting. In fact, main building works (as distinct from repairs) were still going on as late as 1231/2, for then there is a record of 10 ½ d. being paid towards the expenses of the Abbot of Hales and Brother Richard, Master of the Works at Hales. At this point should be recorded an apocryphal story of King John and the abbey which was printed in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, vol. 34, page 346:

"Dr. Thomas informed Dr. Prattington that there is a tradition that King John ordered the Bishop of Winchester to found the abbey here in so retired a place that it might neither see nor be seen two miles away from it; and that the King, intending to visit it, spied it out from the top of Romsley Hill, near St. Kenelm's, near three miles distant from it, upon which he turned back, and so deprived the house of his company, and probably of many privileges."