Chapter 8: The End in Sight

Much of our knowledge of the last half century of Halesowen Abbey's existence comes from the Register of Bishop Redman, who was Conservator-General of the Premonstratensian Order from 1466 to 1505. His visitations of the English Premonstratensian houses seem to have taken place at about four-yearly intervals, and his account of those relating to Halesowen threw a great deal of light on the internal conditions of the monastery.

The Bishop was at Halesowen in 1481 when he commented on many irregularities in the performance of divine ceremonies and services, and on poor observance of the rules of the Order. The Canons were told that they must not eat or drink in any layman's house which was within three miles radius of the abbey. Furthermore, in the abbey itself, they must confine their eating to the place specifically provided for that purpose. The Abbot (presumably John Derby) was ordered to remove from the abbey precincts "certain evil women" and to forbid them entry henceforward. The temporal affairs of the house came under review too, and the Abbot was told to preserve his woodland and groves so far as possible, and not to sell or waste them. After approximately 40 years as Abbot, John Derby died in 1486. He held the office longer than anyone else in the 300 years of the Abbey's existence. Thomas Bruges, the sub-prior, succeeded him, and appears to have succeeded in re-establishing discipline for, in 1488, Bishop Redman found nothing needing correction. He commented that the state of the monastery, both temporal and spiritual, bore witness to Thomas's firm rule. True, there was one black sheep. Brother Roger Walsall who, as we shall see, had a very chequered monastic career, but the Bishop absolved him from his fault, and restored him to his former rank. Redman's 1488 visitation is particularly interesting for its glimpses of the Abbey's domestic affairs. There were, in that year, only 17 canons on the rolls, of which number four were residing in vicarages belonging to the Abbey (presumably those of Halesowen, Walsall, Wednesbury and Clent). 20 bushels of wheat and rye were used weekly for the baking of bread, and over the year 1,110 quarterns of barley, 60 oxen, 40 sheep, 30 swine and 14 calves were consumed. By 1494 discipline had deteriorated again. Redman noted that the tonsures of the monks were not in accordance with the rules of the Order, and that the Abbot had allowed the felling of too much timber. Worse was to follow. In 1497 five of the younger brethren, led by the same Roger Walsall who had been in trouble in 1488, conspired against the Abbot. Besides Walsall, the conspirators were Richard Hampton, Roger Wednesbury, Thomas Dudley and Richard Bakyne, the last-named being also accused of immorality. August brought Bishop Redman, who pronounced sentence on the wrong-doers. Walsall was to be banished to the monastery at Croxton in Leicestershire, where he was to undergo ten years imprisonment. Bakyne was to suffer 60 days severe punishment, and be despatched for a term to St. Agatha's Abbey at Easby in Yorkshire. The other three conspirators were sentenced to prison for 40 days, followed by banishment for a term, Hampton to Barlings (Lincolnshire), Wednesbury to Newhouse (Lincolnshire) and Dudley to West Dereham in Norfolk. Touched, however, by the tearful entreaties of the culprits; to which were added pleas for mercy from Abbot Bruges himself; from the Abbot of Tally who was helping in the visitation, and from the rest of the canons of the house, the Bishop agreed to suspend the sentences and refer "both the crime and the penalties" to the next Chapter-General of the Order. We have no record as to what action the Chapter-General took, but subsequent events prove that if the sentences were not quashed entirely they must have been considerably modified.

When Redman made his next visitation in 1500, Richard Bakyne had become the Abbey's Sub-Prior, while his companions in crime were described as "worthy canons". Certainly a case of the stones rejected by the builder becoming the cornerstones of the temple! As a footnote to these happenings the records show that Roger Walsall (presumably by now a totally reformed character) became in 1501 Vicar of Halesowen, a post he held until succeeded by John Legh in 1542. There is a reference to him (as Sir Roger Walsall) in the Halesowen Church Wardens accounts for 1502.

An intriguing little mystery is thrown up by Redman's record of his 1500 visitation. His list of the Abbey's inmates includes "John Hay - Former Abbot". There is, however, no record whatsoever of Hay having occupied the Abbot's stall at Halesowen. Indeed, when Redman was at the Abbey in 1497, Hay was recorded as being Vicar of Clent at that date, and Amphlett shows him as occupying that post from 1468 to 1485 and then, after a four year interval from 1489 to 1502. Could he, one wonders, have been Abbot of some other Premonstratensian house during his four years absence from the Clent vicarage? Be that as it may, he had evidently come back to Halesowen to spend his declining years. A word of warning here against using printed history sources at their face value. A. A. Lock, the writer of the article on Halesowen Abbey in the Victoria County History of Worcestershire, gives the date of this visitation as 1517. Unpardonable, when he could easily have found out that Bishop Redman died in 1506. He had taken his information without questioning it from Nash, who in turn had relied upon the researches of Bishop Lyttelton. Thus has an error of 17 years been compounded and given wide acceptance.

Another instance of an erring Halesowen Canon repenting and eventually achieving a position of authority and respect in the church is that of John Sanders. At the Visitation of 1478 he was convicted of incontinence and apostasy, and sentenced to a term of three years imprisonment at the Premonstratensian Abbey of Cockersand in Lancashire. The usual intercession followed with the result that Saunders' sentence was reduced to 80 days at the Derbyshire monastery of Dale. He went there immediately in the entourage of Bishop Redman, the Visitor, or Circator, as he was known in Premonstratensian parlance. In 1482, his name appears in the Halesowen records, and six years later he was' promoted to the office of Sub-Prior. From 1491 to 1494 he was Prior, and in 1497 he became Vicar of Halesowen, a position he held until 1501 when he was succeeded by Roger Walsall, whose career we have previously noticed.

Books were scarce and precious in mediaeval times. This fact is brought home to us by a benefaction made to the Abbey by Sir Thomas Lyttelton. In his will, dated 22nd August 1481, he bequeathes "to the Abbot and Convent of Hales my book called 'Catholicon' to their use for ever, and another book wherein is contained the Constitution Provincial and 'De Gestis Romanorum' and other treatises". He made the condition that the books "be laid and bounded with an iron chain in some convenient part of the said church, so that all priests and others may see and read them when it pleaseth them". How sad that in little more than 50 years after his gift, the Abbey was dissolved, its church desecrated and robbed, and these precious volumes either destroyed or spirited away into somebody's private collection.

While books were not universally available in the 15th century, it must not be supposed that the Premonstratensian Abbeys were devoid of learned tomes. Indeed some of the houses of the Order had considerable libraries. At Titchfield, in Hampshire, for instance, the Abbey's library contained 224 volumes, and the library catalogue for this house as well as for St. Ranegunds and Welbeck survives. Halesowen's book list, alas, has disappeared, but on the basis of the records of sister houses, it is fair to assume that its library would have consisted of at least 100 volumes, all hand-written and many beautifully illuminated. None of these books survive. Indeed, from the libraries of the 30-odd English Premonstratensian Abbeys no more than 30 volumes are still in existence, so that the extent of the pillage and destruction which attended the Dissolution can to some extent be assessed.

One thing which has remained to us of Halesowen's records is a Rent Roll dated 1500. It provides some interesting facts about the Abbey's possessions in Romsley and district. Hugh Westwood was paying a rent of £5 per annum for the Red Cow Inn at Kenelmstowe and for certain fields around it. John Underhill was charged 16s. 8d. a year for the tenement near Shutt Mill, while William Hill paid 20s. yearly for the mill itself. Underhill also rented "The Banyards" which were roughly where Holt Farm now stands. George Addenbrooke was at the Westley's, Roger Brettell was living at "The Orchard and the Hall" (Pen Orchard?). Other names appearing on the Romsley rent roll were Humphrey Lyndon, William Westwood, Thomas Penn, William Smart, William Hall, Thomas Locock, and Richard Stampys. At Hunnington Robert Offley, John Harris and Roger Wilks were named as the Abbot's tenants, while at Illey the names of William Bristow, John Stampys, Elizabeth Knight, William Coley and John Stampys are recorded. Some families bearing these names are still to be found in this area and since Parish Registers came into being not very long afterwards, it should not be beyond the bounds of possibility for the keen researcher to trace his ancestry back to these manorial tenants.
Abbot Bruges died in 1505 after 19 years in office. As was usual when a new Abbot was elected, an inventory of his predecessor's possessions was prepared. Edmund Green, Prior of Hornby in Lancashire, succeeded Bruges, and he found himself possessed of large numbers of cattle. The inventory states that eight oxen from "Hasmore" were allocated to the cellarer, and "four fat beeves" from the same place to the kitchen. The abbot's chamber had two feather beds and a "quylte of white wroght with nedyll worke". In what was described as the "new chamber" was a feather bed, "a quylte covered with red sylke", and "a red coverlit with dolphins". The furniture in other principal rooms is listed, as is the plate in the Abbot's chamber. Included in the list and probably the house's most precious possessions are "the shrine of St. Kenelm bearing the head of the saint and a crown in silver and gilt, and the shrine of St. Barbara's head also of silver and gilt".

In 1507 Sir William Lyttelton was buried in the Abbey. By his will, dated November of that year, he directed that his body be interred within the monastery before the image of the Virgin Mary "near the place and grave where my first wife lies buried, Moreover, I direct my executors to procure a marble stone with two images and sculptures according, to be laid over me and Ellyn my first wife, when God shall do his mind with them". (I found, accidentally, in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1808 a note by the Halesowen born antiquary and artist, David Parkes, stating that the effigy of Ellyn [or Eleanora] "in a cumbent position" was removed from the abbey ruins in 1753 and placed in the churchyard at Hagley on the orders of George, Lord Lyttelton. A recent search has failed to find it there.)

I have mentioned previously that Bishop Redman, the Procurator of the Premonstratensian Order, died in 1505 and it was at about the same time that the Abbot of Premontre made another attempt to secure contributions from his English houses. The English abbots, not unexpectedly, fell back on the royal prohibition against payments to foreign superiors. Much legal activity followed at Rome, the details of which would be tedious to the non-specialist reader, the upshot of which was that in 1512 the representative of the English Premonstratensian Abbots returned home with a Papal Bull granting complete exemption from the exactions of Premontre.

Coming from the general to the particular, there exists comparatively little documentary evidence about activities at Halesowen in the years immediately prior to the Dissolution. There is, however, in the journals of Prior More, who was Prior of Worcester from 1518 to 1536, an enigmatic entry early in 1522 which reads "In rewards 2d. for expenses to St. Kenelm's and Hales Owen". Presumably the Prior would be exercising some diocesan function, but this is the only reference I have found in the whole of records of Halesowen Abbey of a Visitation of St. Kenelm's, Romsley.

It is not known for certain how long the abbacy of Edmund Green lasted, but it seems to have been a lengthy one, for not until 1529 does the name of his successor, William Taylor, Halesowen's last abbot, occur. It is likely that Taylor was promoted from within the Abbey itself, since his name does not figure elsewhere in Premonstratensian records.
Many and varied are the sources of information about our Abbey, but I hardly expected to find fresh facts in Lawley's "History of Bilston", which was published in 1893. Yet, surprisingly, I learned from it that in 1531, there was an acolyte at Halesowen named Clement Perry, who was the son of William Perry, a man of some substance in Bilston. Perry eventually became priest-in-charge there, an office which he held until his death in 1559. The Perry family, however, has another claim on Romsley's attention. Clement's brother, Edward, married in 1535 Elizabeth Kempson, a member of another well-known Bilston family. It was a descendant of this same Kempson family, Edmund Kempson, who became Romsley's first rector in 1866.

We have seen already how Canons of Halesowen were appointed vicars of churches whose advowsons had been acquired by the Abbey. Perry's is an instance of an appointment to a cure outside the Abbot's jurisdiction, which shows what a useful research exercise it would be, given time and patience, to examine the incumbents lists of Midland churches and compare them with the Abbey records so as to establish to what benefices the monks of Halesowen were instituted.

To return to William Taylor. His term of office was to be a troubled one. 1535 saw the appointment of Thomas Cromwell (or Crumwell) as Henry VIII's Vicar-General. It was his boast that he would make his master "more wealthy than all the princes of Christendom". The obvious source of this wealth were the English monasteries, the internal conditions of which he, as former agent of Cardinal Wolsey, had intimate knowledge. His first task, therefore, was to prove to his sovereign something which he himself already knew - just how rich in land, money, furnishings and valuables the religious houses were. So was undertaken and brought to a successful conclusion in an astonishingly short time, that latter-day ecclesiastical Domesday survey, the Valor Ecclesiasticus, the details of which, fortunately, are still available for our study.
The Valor was compiled from facts gleaned by Cromwell's agents who visited all the religious houses. In the case of Halesowen, the visitor was a certain Dr. Legh (sometimes called Leigh or Lee - the scribes of the time were not sticklers for accuracy) a conceited, opinionated, ill-mannered young university don. He, like other of Cromwell's agents, was not averse to taking bribes, given by the heads of houses in the mistaken belief that further punitive action could be prevented or at least postponed. It is no surprise, therefore, to find hidden away in Cromwell's private account books, a note of payment of £4 by the Abbot of Halesowen to Dr. Legh on 31st December 1536, and a similar sum in the following year. And before you, dear reader, dismiss these amounts as trivial, please bear in mind that at today's values they would each represent several thousand pounds.

Let us now take a look at the Valor Ecclesiasticus insofar as it relates to the possessions of Halesowen Abbey. There are three very detailed pages of the annual value of the abbey's lands which included Romsley, Halesburg, Horbune, Smethwyke, Wombourne, Rowley, Weddesbury, Westbromwyche, Lychefeld, Walsall, Pessall, Warley, Churchlenche, Cradley, Dodforde, Frankley, Northfeld, Pyrcote Graunge, Dudley and Clent. (I have kept to the original spelling of the Valor.) Income from benefactions to St. Kenelm's Chapel is recorded as £10 per annum while the stipend of its capellanus or priest-in-charge is shown as £5 per annum. The total annual income of the abbey worked out at £337 15s. 6d. which in terms of today's values would be of the order of £100,000. Outgoings were calculated at £57 2s. 4d (£17,000 in 1973) so that a taxable sum of £83,000 remained which, on the basis of Henry VIII's "First Fruits" legislation, would produce for the Exchequer the tidy sum of £8,300 annually. History has shown, of course, that the Visitations of Cromwell's henchmen and the compiling of the Valor merely provided the impetus and the excuse for the impending Dissolution.