Chapter 4: Beginnings

We have investigated the various monastic orders which proliferated in England in the 12th and 13th centuries, have looked at one of them, the Premonstratensian Order, because it was chosen by Peter de Rupibus to colonise the abbey he founded at Halesowen. Our band of White Canons had arrived at Lapal (or Lappole as it was called in those days, the French 'la' being added to the Anglo-Saxon 'pol' or 'middle english' 'pole' meaning 'pool'. There were existing large pools hereabouts adjacent to the Stour). What do they find there?

The monks must first of all have admired the choice of site, for the masons had built facing south-west towards the distant hills of Clent; the ground rising behind the monastic buildings to reach its peak at Ridgeacre ('the field on the ridge') thus providing shelter from the biting north-east winds. The building complex comprised, first, the church constructed in the form of a cross, to the south of which lay the domestic buildings of the canons. These were grouped round a square courtyard called the Cloister Garth, of which the Nave of the church formed the North side. The church's South Transept began the East side of the cloister. From the Transept there was access to the Sacristy, the room in which were kept vestments, sacred vessels and the valuable church plate. Next came the Chapter House, where the monks met for discussion of official business. Adjacent to the Chapter House was a range of two-storey domestic buildings, the upper storey of which was the Dorter or monks' dormitory.

Coming now to the South side of the Cloisters Garth, we find another two-storey range, the ground floor being devoted to storage space for food and drink. Above was the monks' eating room or refectory called in monastic parlance the Frater. Completing the square was the Western range of buildings. First was the strategically placed kitchen leading to the extensive Guest House, the North end of which abutted on to the East end of the church. To the South of the Frater and connected to it by a covered way, was the Abbot's Mansion, while the Infirmary, a completely detached building, lay about 200 feet to the East. Around the whole site lay a moat filled by diverting water from the nearby Stour. Much later in our story we shall be looking in detail at such fragments of these buildings as have survived 400 years of vandalism, weathering and neglect. For those who are interested in seeing just how this majestic group of buildings must have looked, there is a detailed plan in F.K.M. Somers' book 'Halas, Hales, Hales Owen' (available at the local library) while there are existent photographs of a model made by the boys of Hales Owen Technical School under the guidance of the then Principal, Dr. Johnson Ball.

Here, then, was the home of Abbot Roger and his small band (never more than about seventeen) of Canons. It was, in effect, a little self-contained kingdom, its laws the strict edicts of the Premonstratensian Order.

There was external authority in the person of Pater Abbas who, in the case of Halesowen, was the Abbot of the mother house of Welbeck. He it was who had to confirm the election of the house's Abbot and who exercised what were in many respects the functions of a visiting magistrate. The Abbey hierarchy consisted (in descending order of importance) of the Abbot, the Prior, the Sub-Prior, Sacrist, Cantor, Sub-Cantor, Cellarer and Custos-Infirmorum. The Cellarer was, of course, in charge of the Monastery's food supplies, and it is from some of his records that we shall be able later to see how the community fed and just how much provision had to be made for hospitality for travellers.

Having been unable to find anywhere a complete list of the Abbots of Hales Owen, I have had to compile my own (see Appendix), but records for the early years are so scanty that dates must be regarded with some reserve. We do not know how long Abbot Roger remained in office, but he is mentioned in the Obituary of Beauchief Abbey, which suggests that he was translated from Halesowen to that Derbyshire House. He was succeeded by Abbot William, who, according to Worcester Annals, was translated to Welbeck in 1232. Unfortunately the Welbeck records (themselves scanty) do not corroborate this. By the time of the election of Abbot Richard in 1232, we can be fairly certain that the Abbey buildings were approaching completion. It remains for us therefore to examine in some detail the 300 years of monastic life at Halesowen which unrolled before the Abbey's dissolution in 1538.