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Chapter 7: The Abbey in the 14th and 15th Centuries

We left the main stream of our story at the point where the rebellious and recalcitrant Abbot, Walter de Flagge, was laid to rest in the Abbey church in 1314. He was succeeded by Bartholomew, who was elected in that year and continued in a somewhat uneventful period of office until 1322. That year saw the abbacy pass to Thomas of Lech who, we may suppose, was an old man when he reached the Abbot's stall for he resigned the office in 1331. He was the only Abbot in the entire history of Halesowen to resign (if we except the forced resignation of William Taylor at the Dissolution) so that it may be of interest to investigate the occurrence and its consequences.

The Premonstratensians were almost alone among the monastic orders in allowing an Abbot to resign although from the 13th century onwards it was necessary to receive the consent of the Abbot-General. Statutes adopted in 1290 stipulated that a resigning Abbot might for the rest of his life enjoy an annual income of not less than £100 from the possessions which had been acquired during the period of his rule. This benevolent dispensation no doubt accounts for the relatively large number of Premonstratensian Abbots who gave up their stalls and chose to spend the rest of their days in comfortable retirement before being buried with their predecessors in cloister or chapter house. The rule had its benefits for a monastic house, for it allowed the putting aside of an aged and possibly decrepit superior who was no longer able to maintain discipline within the abbey or was vigorous enough to safeguard its outside interests.

Thomas's pension would have been fixed by his successor Thomas de Birmingham, probably in the presence of the prelate who supervised his election. Its terms would be set out in a carefully worded document. This has not survived, so that we can only surmise its provisions in the light of similar occurrences elsewhere. He might, for instance, have received the entire income of one of the abbey's manors, or possibly the rents from one of the estates belonging to it. It would be usual for food, clothing, fuel and a servant to be included in the settlement. Board and lodging could very well be provided for the deposed prelate within the confines of the abbey itself. He would be excused from the performance of the usual offices, and would have complete freedom to come and go as he pleased. He was, however, to be treated by the monastic brethren with all the reverence due to the office he had vacated. Whatever amount Thomas succeeded in obtaining, it would be paid for his lifetime only, so that he was unable to bequeath benefits to a third person.

The rule which related an Abbot's pension to the wealth which the house had acquired during his abbacy was a shrewd one, for it provided an incentive to the efficient running of his house. Another possibility was that Thomas was provided for by his being appointed to a living within the gift of the monastery. As his resignation appears to have been due to age, however, this seems unlikely, and a search through the list of incumbents of churches whose advowsons were under the abbey's control fails to find his name. (The incumbent of Halesowen church at this time, for instance, was Phillip de Bromwich.)

Thomas de Birmingham seems to have added considerably to the Abbey's wealth during his term of office. In 1340, the churches of Clent and Rowley, with chapels attached, were granted to the house by John Botetourt, Lord of Warley Wigorn and three years later these churches were appropriated to Halesowen on the petition of Abbot Thomas. (It may be recalled that the procedure by which appropriation was made and the benefits which thereby accrued to the Abbey were discussed earlier in our story.)

In his petition Thomas pleaded that the position of Halesowen Abbey on the high road (and remember that it straddled the pilgrims way to St. Kenelm's Well) obliged the house to provide much hospitality. He pointed out that the abbey's means were somewhat diminished by reason of a great fire which had recently swept through the town of Halesowen. Apparently too, the people of Hales, once superstitious and over-credulous, were not now so devoted to the head of St. Barbara, which, at that time, was one of the Abbey's most prized possessions. Their offerings to what the Abbot describes as "a schryne of Seynt Barbar's hede" had very much decreased, hence his need for further finance for the house.

A word here about this St. Barbara's head relic. There is no evidence in Abbey records as to the origin of this, but presumably it would have come from Rome at the time the Abbey was founded. Whether or not it was true, the ignorant laity would be told that the shrine contained the actual saint's head. Students of hagiology will know that St. Barbara was said to have been beheaded by her own father, a heathen, because she confessed to him that she had become a Christian. She is supposed to have died at Heliopolis in the year 235. There is, I believe, still within the Vatican, a huge repository of saints' relics, and it was (and probably still is) a custom of the Roman Church for a saint's relic to be presented to a newly built and consecrated church. Thus it was that this rather gruesome relic was among the Abbey's possessions. Probably the shrine would be of wood and precious metal, but whether or not it did actually contain a shrunken human head is open to doubt. A later inventory of the abbey's possessions included, incidentally, "a hede of Seynte Kenelme, sylver and gylde". Here, at least, there was no pretence of having the actual head of St. Kenelm! (Also beheaded, according to legend.)

One early morning of superlative June weather, I had occasion to call at a factory in Manor Way, Halesowen. Because of the warmth and sunshine, the doors of its loading deck were open wide, and the aperture provided a perfect frame for the mellow stonework of the Abbey ruins, two fields away beyond the expressway. The trees surrounding the soaring arches were vivid green, and the animals of the adjoining farm were grazing peacefully in the home meadow. It was not difficult, under such circumstances, to envisage the Abbey as it would have been in its heyday, and to imagine that one could hear faintly, over the roar of traffic, the plainsong of the monks and the booming of the great bell. Inevitably one wondered just where, along the way, man had taken the wrong turning, and found himself in the midst of squalor, pollution, ugliness and frenzied activity, when he might still have been on an uncrowded island, living in communities of manageable size, under the benevolent shadow of ancient fanes, such as Halesowen's Abbey of St. Mary.

But we must ration our escapism, merely reminding ourselves that our 14th century forebears tried to ensure by enactment and benefaction that posterity enjoyed what to them was a comparatively modern creation. So, in 1331, we find John of Hampton arranging for the presentation of a Canon at the Abbey to celebrate divine services for the benefit of himself, his wife, Eleanor, and his heirs. Similarily, in 1337 Joan Botetourt, Lady of Warley, granted the Manor or Warley Wigorn to the Abbey, provided its Abbot found three Canons "of sufficient knowledge of reading and chanting, of the age of twenty and upwards" to burn six wax candles in the church on her anniversary; to give one mark to every member of the convent attending this yearly obit for their pittance, and to distribute twenty shillings yearly to the poor coming to the Abbey on that day.

Thomas of Birmingham, who had become Abbot in 1331, appears to have remained in office until 1366 when he was succeeded by William of Bromsgrove. William's election was supervised by the Abbots of Welbeck, Dale, and Croxton and we learn from a compotus roll of the abbey (now in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries) that their expenses cost the house the considerable sum of £20 4s. 4d. Abbot William's tenure of office was short. He died in 1369, and was succeeded by Richard of Hampton. This time only their Eminences of Welbeck and Croxton came to oversee the election and their expenses were somewhat more modest at £6 13s. This figure included the purchase of an ox, a pig, several sheep, four sucking pigs, herrings, eels, small fry for their dinner and twenty pence spent on having their horses shod. (Remember these clerics had to ride considerable distances to reach Halesowen. Welbeck was in Nottinghamshire and Croxton in Leicestershire.) Additionally, each Abbot received a gift of forty shillings and their attendants were given smaller sums according to their standing. The Abbot of Welbeck's chaplain received 6s. 8d., his chamberlain the same, his penitentiary (priest dealing with penitents) 2s., his palfreyman (groom) 12d. and his boy 8d. This information is contained in two account rolls of the cellarer of Halesowen Abbey which are in the Lyttelton muniments, now in the possession of the Birmingham Reference Library. Also indicative of the scale of purchasing practised by the Abbey is an entry in the 1366 compotus roll, recording the expenditure of 33s. 4d. on 60 ells (a measure of cloth about 45 inches) of cloth "for the office of hospitaller".

I have mentioned previously that when the Abbey appropriated the living of a church within one of its manors, it was the practice to appoint one of the Canons of the house as Vicar of the church. Under whatever circumstances a serving brother became a parish priest, he was expected to maintain a regular connection with the Abbey. He still had a voice in the Chapter and was obliged to attend visitations and participate in elections. His obligations were two-fold, first to the Abbot and second to his Diocesan, for by the latter he had to be ordained, and was presented to him for institution to the living. The Bishop was not, however, able to prevent an erring Canon being recalled to the cloister for the administration of discipline. Thus, in 1371, Abbot Richard recalled Richard de Bruge (a brother of the house who had been instituted to the vicarage of Walsall) to the Abbey on account of a misdemeanour, and presented William of Stoke in his place. He used as his authority the papal licence of 1220, a copy of which was entered in the Bishop's Register and William of Stoke was duly appointed.

There appears to be some doubt as to the year of the death of one of the Abbey's benefactors, John Botetourt, Lord of Warley, but in his will, dated 1383, he appointed Abbot Richard Hampton as his executor. He elected to be buried before the high altar in the abbey church, bequeathed £20 and his "green bed" to the abbey, £4 and his shield called "Welcome" to the Abbot; 13s. 4d. to each canon, and 10s. to each novice.

A recurrence of trouble between the Abbot and his Romsley tenants occurred in 1387 resulting in the issue of a Commission of Oyer and Terminer (literally to hear and decide) "on information that divers bondsmen and bond tenants of the Abbot at Romsley had refused their customs and services for their holdings and confederated by oath to resist the Abbot and his ministers". Thus did an echo of the unquiet years of the Peasants' Revolt disturb the peace of that village as the 14th century came to its close.

Richard of Hampton died in 1391 and was succeeded as Abbot by John of Hampton. Readers who have followed my story carefully so far will recall that it was a John of Hampton who arranged for the presentation of a Canon to the Abbey to celebrate divine service for the benefit of himself and his family. Obviously the new Abbot was not the person who had to make this bequest and one can only surmise that (John being a much-used name) he came from the same village as the Abbey's benefactor. Like his predecessor, Richard, he appears to have hailed from the small village of Hampton near Evesham. It is natural that the John of 1331 who was Lord of the Manor of Hampton would arrange for promising lads from his domain to enter the religious house he had endowed. (The village of Hampton provided Halesowen with yet another serving brother much later, for we find the name of Richard of Hampton appearing in the records of the Visitations of 1497 and 1500.)

John of Hampton was Abbot for only four years and was succeeded in 1395 by John Poole or Powle. Poole remained in office for the relatively long term of 27 years, being followed in 1433 by Henry of Kidderminster. At this point the records become obscure. According to the "Monasticon", William Hemele was Abbot in 1443 but Colvin's authorative "White Canons in England" does not mention him. However long Hemele occupied the Abbot's stall, it is certain that by 1446, John Derby was installed.

The Premonstratensian Order was not rich in men of learning. Its traditions were ascetic rather than intellectual, but Darby was certainly the most learned Abbot ever to be head of the Halesowen house. Although his name does not appear in the Oxford Register, it is clear from the records that he had attended one of the major universities. During his abbacy, increasing emphasis was placed on higher education for his canons, and in 1458 we find John Comber, one of the monks of Halesowen, at Oxford, supplicating for the degree of Bachelor of Common Law. Comber eventually became Vicar of Walsall (a living within the Abbey's gift) and he held this cure from 1462 until 1480. Bishop Redman, too, Premonstre's representative in England, was anxious that members of the Order who showed mental ability above average should profit by university education, and so we find him in 1482, during a Visitation of Halesowen (and with Abbot Derby's enthusiastic consent) decreeing that a Canon of Hales should be sent to Oxford for a year or more of higher education.

In matters temporal, probably the most important event of Derby's tenure of office was the grant to the Abbey in 1464 of the land, buildings and possessions of the small Augustinian Priory of Dodford, near to Bromsgrove.
Those of my readers who may have read the "Victorian County History of Worcestershire" on this subject may recall that it gives the date of this acquisition as 1332. This is totally incorrect, as Winifred Bond has underlined in her book on the history of Dodford. Dodford Priory was an older house than Halesowen, having been founded in 1186 by Henry II. In 1291, its lands and rents at Dodford were assessed for taxation at only £4 17s. and it never seems to have attained prosperity under Augustinian rule. Indeed by 1464, the negligence of its priors and other misfortunes had brought it so near to dissolution that only a single Canon, one Thomas Typeton (or Tipton) remained in residence. He had been made prior in 1435. According to Bishop Carpenter's register the priory had suffered from "rebellions, wars and pestilences" (an echo this, perhaps, of the long drawn-out Wars of the Roses?) It had endured "carelessness, remissness and negligence of certain Priors" and was handicapped by the barrenness of its lands (is not Dodford clay still notorious?); a paucity of inhabitants and workers and "the immodest and excess stipends of the latter" (a reflection, here, of the high wages commanded by a working population decimated by the Black Death).

The Bishop of Worcester, who brought about the annexation of Dodford to Halesowen, stipulated that henceforth a Canon from the latter house should be Prior of Dodford. (At Bishop Redman's visitations of Halesowen in 1497 and 1500, his register shows Thomas Koksey (or Cooksey) as "custos de Dodforde). The Abbot of Halesowen is enjoined to keep in good repair the church, refectory and other buildings of the priory. He had also to pay the Bishop and his successors an annual pension of 6s. 8d.; 3s. 4d. to the prior and convent of Worcester and, 2s. to the Archdeacon by way of compensation for their loss of jurisdiction over what henceforth was to be merely a cell of an exempt house. Nash has it that Derby paid for the annexation out of the surplus money which had been granted to him by Dean Haywood of Lichfield to buy lands for the maintenance of a chantry in Lichfield Cathedral. Be that as it may, Halesowen brought its undoubted expertise in agriculture and estate management to bear on Dodford's seemingly intractable problems with good purpose for, what in 1464 had seemed a semi-derelict property assessed at only £4 17s. had, by 1535, become worth £24 13s.

It was during John Derby's abbacy that something of great importance to Romsley took place. In 1473 licence was given to the Abbey to acquire "lands and rents not held in chief to the value of £10 for the sustenance of a chaplain celebrating divine service in the chapel of St. Kenelm appertaining to the Church of Clent and for the repair of the same chapel". For the first time definite and separate provision was made for a resident priest at Kenelmstowe, and the 500th anniversary of that event was one facet of the village's festival celebrations of 1973.
Halesowen throughout its existence was under the supervision of its "Father Abbot" of Welbeck, and there seems to have been little or no friction arising from this arrangement. Thus, circa 1468, we find Abbot John of Welbeck writing to Abbot John Derby begging him to receive back into the abbey a certain brother named Thomas Bromsgrove who had left the house without permission, but now wished to return. Derby replied that he would obey the wise counsel of his brother of Welbeck and allow the penitent monk once more into the cloisters. It would appear that Abbot Derby was assiduous in bringing to the notice of Bishop Redman, the Conservator-General of the Order, on the occasions of his visitations, any wrongdoings of the monks under his jurisdiction. So it was that in 1478, Brother John Saunders was found guilty of immorality and banished from Halesowen to the remote monastery at Dale (Derbyshire) for eighty days. On the same occasion, Thomas Cokesey was accused of the same crime, but he vehemently denied the offence and was allowed to purge himself. He apparently achieved respectability later for, as previously mentioned, he was some years afterwards put in charge of the daughter house at Dodford. Visiting Halesowen again later in 1478, Bishop Redman seems to have been satisfied with the state of the abbey, except it was reported that one brother had broken the rule of silence and he was sentenced to one day on bread and water.

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