Chapter 6: Abbey Hospitality

A glance at the ground plan of Halesowen Abbey will show that there was an extensive guest house occupying the whole of the west side of the cloister. There the successive Abbots of Hales carried out the injunction of the founder, Peter de Roches, in dispensing hospitality. This they did in common with other Premonstratensian houses, for one of the Order's rules was that a cella hospitum or guest chamber must be in existence before a new house was colonised.

Here, then, at Halesowen was accommodation for visiting abbots and priors of other houses of the Order, for the Bishop of Worcester claiming hospitality on the occasions of his visitations, for nobles and gentry having business with the convent, for royal messengers carrying letters under privy seal, and even for the monarch himself, should he find himself more than a days journey from the manor he proposed to visit. Halesowen was once thus honoured, for Edward III was entertained there on the occasion of one of his forays into Wales.

Admission of guests to the Abbey was the responsibility of the canon who held the office of porter. On a guest's arrival, his task was to open the great gate, ask the visitor his name, take him into the Abbey church for prayer and then hand him over to the Hospitaller. The latter would show the guest his accommodation, offer him refreshment and make all other necessary provisions for his comfort. This important member of the staff had, of course, such assistants and servants as were necessary for the efficient discharge of his duties. To return for a moment to the porter, another of his responsibilities was to dispense alms to poor and needy persons at the Abbey gates. He also had to collect scraps from the abbey kitchens after meals and distribute them to indigent callers.

While there is no doubt that in a somewhat primitive society, England's abbeys provided the rudiments of a welfare system, it is also abundantly clear that their hospitality was primarily extended to members of the upper classes. The heavy expenditure incurred in this way was frequently cited as evidence of the poverty of a house when exemption was sought from taxation, or when the appropriation of yet another parish church was sought.

Halesowen's records contain examples of somewhat lavish entertainment of the nobility. Early in 1366, the kitchen accounts record the expenditure of 3s. 7d. on luxuries (specialia) for the visit of Sir Richard and Lady Fitton. Later that year my Lord of Dudley and his lady stayed at the abbey. They seem to have been welcome guests, for what was a large sum in those days - twelve pence - was given to the boy who heralded the party's approach. During the week of the stay, the kitchen used the carcase of a cow (6s.), a calf (2s. ld), pork (4s.), a sheep (2s. 2d), three sucking pigs (4s. 6d.), ten geese (1s. l0 ½ d.), herrings (5d.) and the astonishing total of 750 eggs (3s. 4d.). Wine, too, was provided to the tune of 6s. 8d. The staple drink of the canons was, of course, beer, and ten shillings was spent on the provision of this beverage during the period 6th May - 30th September 1366.

It can be imagined that, at a time when 750 eggs could be purchased for 3s. 4d., ten shillings would procure quite a gallonage of ale!

We find that in 1343 the Abbot of Hales was complaining of the heavy expenses the house incurred in providing for the needs of strangers and wayfarers. Some evidence in support of this can be gleaned from the record of a much later visitation in 1489 when the following figures for food consumption are recorded (and it should be borne in mind that the Abbey's regular inmates never numbered more than about 17):

20 bushels of wheat and rye for bread used weekly.
1,110 quarterns of barley used anually
60 oxen used anually
40 sheep used anually
30 swine used anually
24 calves used anually

A bushel was a measure of capacity equalling eight gallons. A quartern equalled four pounds.

There would appear to be no lack of protein in the monastic diet of those times! Much, if not all, of this food would come from the Abbey's farms at Home Grange (now Goodrest Farm), Warley Grange, Hill Grange, Owley Grange, Farley Grange, Witley Grange, Uffmore Grange, Rudhall Grange and Blakeley Grange.

It is clear from monastic records in general that, among the country's nobility, a short stay at a monastery was a recognised form of holiday, and those who were liberal to the house were sometimes given an open invitation to come and stay whenever they chose. From this it was only a small step to the state of affairs where a religious house would grant permanent accommodation to a benefactor (or to a benefactor's nominee) where suitable payment had been made in cash or in land. Such grants of food and lodging for life were known as corrodies and during its history, Halesowen was burdened by a number of such "paying guests".

What is perhaps significant in summing up this aspect of the place of monastic houses in mediaeval society is that when dissolution was imminent, very few protesting voices were raised, and of these the majority did so on grounds of the value of the institutions as places of hospitality.