Chapter 9: Dissolution and After

Since we cannot study the Dissolution of the Monasteries as it affects Halesowen in isolation, perhaps we should look at this whole operation dispassionately. We know that in the late Middle Ages some aspects of monastic life had provoked a good deal of criticism. The enormous wealth of the religious houses, the increase in them of moral laxity, and the supposed laziness of the inmates, were increasingly frowned upon. Several attempts at reform had been made and failed, and a handful of small suppressions had taken place early in the 16th century. Then in 1536 came the Act for the Dissolution of the Smaller Monasteries (27 Henry VIII, c. 28). These were houses with an income of less than £200, and nearly 300 were involved. Halesowen, of course, was not caught by this legislation since its income was very much larger, amounting, as I have previously recorded, to approximately £337 per annum.

Even with the suppression of these lesser monasteries completed, Cromwell's visitations of the larger houses continued. At these visitations, which continued throughout 1537, 1538 and 1539 (although in 1539 they had no legal validity) many Abbots were persuaded (perhaps 'coerced' would be the better word) voluntarily to surrender their houses to the Crown. The bait which was dangled before them was the promise of a liberal pension, while the overhanging threat was a charge of treason. It may well be, therefore, that when the arrogant Dr. Legh rode up to Halesowen Abbey on 8th June 1538 with his considerable retinue of liveried retainers, William Taylor had already decided to take the course of least resistance. Refreshed by the Abbot's hospitality and a good night's sleep, Legh wasted no time on June 9th in going through the formalities. The Deed of Surrender was drawn up, signed by Abbot Taylor, and sealed with the huge abbey seal, which had a representation of the Virgin Mary seated, with the Christ Child on her left knee and a sceptre in her right hand. Around the edge were the words "SIGILL: CONVENTUS; ECCLIE: SCE: MARIE: DE: HALES", a rough translation of which would be "Seal of the Convent Church of the Holy Mary at Hales". With this document afe in Legh's possession, the practical work of pillage and destruction could proceed. The visitors worked so expeditiously that Legh and his colleague John Freman were able to write to Cromwell on 12th June a letter headed "The late monastery of Hales Owen" which read as follows: "According to the commission and indenture, we have dissolved the monastery of Hales Owen. The surrender, sealed with the convent seal, we send by the bearer to be enrolled. Today we set forth towards Thurgaton". (Thurgaton is three miles south of Southwell and ten miles north-east of Nottingham).

Number seven of the "Instructions to the Commissioners for the Suppression" read, "They shall appoint pensions to the governors and notify them to the Chancellor and Council of the Court of Augmentation', with the total values of the possessions, then despatch the governor and other religious persons with convenient rewards". How did Legh and Freman discharge this obligation? Taking first the 'governor', by which is meant the Abbot, William Taylor was awarded a sum of no less than £66 13s. 4d. which, if my calculations are correct, would provide him with an income which today would render him liable to the highest rate of income tax. A list survives of the inmates of the abbey at the time of the suppression, and I am giving this below with against each name the amount of the pension awarded. What will immediately strike the reader is the enormous discrepancy between the amount awarded to the Abbot and those provided for the lower orders.

Inmates of Halesowen Abbey at the dissolution

Name Pension

Nicholas Grooves £10

Robert Shyngfells 6

Thomas Robinson 6

William Bolton 4

Alexander Whytehead 5

Will Boroden 5

Joseph Rogers 3 6s. 8d.

William Glasgar 4

Richard Gregory 3 6s. 8d.

Thomas Blunt 2 13s. 4d.

Henry Cooke 7 5s. 8d.

- Hawkesworth 2

Albert Stacey 2 13s. 4d.

Thomas Singulton 2 6s. 8d.

Thomas Blount 2 6s. 8d.

In general a large number of the dispossessed obtained benefices as secular clergy, at which time their pensions were discontinued. It would, as I have mentioned previously, be an interesting exercise to find out which of the Halesowen brethren continued with a religious calling. Certainly the Halesowen incumbent at the date of the Dissolution was Roger Walsall whose chequered career at the Abbey we have already noticed.

As Doctor Legh mounted his horse on 12th June 1538 and followed by his retinue, clattered through the abbey gates to take the road northward to Thurgarton, what scene of desolation did he leave behind? I cannot do better than quote from a letter which another of Cromwell's agents, Rev. John Portinari wrote to his master following the sack of Lewes Priory.

"My Lord, I humbly commend myself unto your Lordship, the last I wrote unto your Lordship was the twentieth day of this present the which I advertised your Lordship of the length and greatness of this church, and how we began to pull the whole to the ground ... I told your Lordship of a vault on the right side of the high altar, that was borne up with four great pillars, having about it five chapels which be compassed in with the walls seventy steps of length, that is two hundred feet. All this is down Thursday and Friday last. Now we are plucking down an higher vault, borne up by four thick and gross pillars, thirteen feet from side to side, about in circumference forty-five feet. That your Lordship may know with how many men we have done this, we brought from London seventeen persons, three carpenters, two smiths, two plumbers and one that keepeth the furnace. Ten of them hewed the walls about, the carpenters made props to underset where the others had cut away, and others brake and cut the walls. On Tuesday they began to cast the lead, and it shall be done with such diligence and saving as may be ..."

Much of the Halesowen edifice would be left standing. Why so little remains is due to the use of stones by a later Lord of the Manor for his sham castle at Hagley, by William Shenstone for his 'ruinated priory' and by the townsfolk for domestic buildings.

Some of the Halesowen Abbey's furnishings were bought for use in the parish church. The churchwardens' accounts for 1539 record the following payments:

£. s. d.

Fetching the rood from the abbey and setting it up: 2 10

Paid for the organs: 2 13 4.

For mending and setting them up: 2 0 0

For fetching the table or picture of St. Kenelm from the abbey and setting it up: 6

For carriage of three loads of stuff from the abbey: 6

So we write 'Ichabod' - the glory is departed! It remains now for us to trace the history of the ruined abbey from 1538 down to the present day.

It should not be supposed, in spite of what I have written previously, that the visitor to the site of the former monastery at Halesowen immediately following the departure of the Commissioners for the Suppression would come upon a scene of total destruction and devastation. After all, the intention behind the Commissioners' actions was not wanton spoliation of property, but the commercial exploitation of materials, furnishings and valuables, coupled with the intention that the area should be left in a state which would not allow of its being used for monastic purposes in the foreseeable future. So it was that the purely ecclesiastical buildings had been de-roofed, primarily for the recovery of the lead covering. This valuable metal had been melted down into transportable ingots, as was the bronze from the great bells in the abbey's tower. Jewels and plate had either been sold locally or transferred to the royal coffers, while furnishing and vestments had also been disposed of in the immediate neighbourhood. The serious student who cares to peruse the Augmentation Accounts for 1539 will find under the certificate of John Freman "late Commissioner" very full details of receipts from the sale of "moveables, plate, lead, bells and buildings of the late monastery of Halesowen".

One of the buildings left intact was the abbot's dwelling or (as Bennett's conjectural plan describes it) Mansion House. This occupied the area now covered by the substantial Victorian farmhouse and is, in fact, the only one of the immense range of monastic buildings of which we have an authentic illustration. That famous artist son of Halesowen, Benjamin Green (1739-1798) completed and published in 1781 four engravings of the abbey, as it then appeared, three showing ruined buildings and the fourth the abbot's mansion. Copies of these engravings should still be in the possession of the Earl's High School (late Halesowen Grammar School) and that of the mansion shows a massive gabled building of stone with a tiled roof, obviously connected with the kitchens, cellars and frater of the former monastery. The solid and spacious property overlooked a placid stretch of water which it is now assumed provided the water power for a mill.

To be able to dispose of the remains of the abbey and its lands advantageously it was necessary that within the curtilage there should be a manor house suitable for the residence of a person of quality. This accounts for the preservation of the abbot's lodging, the first occupant of which was one George Tuckey, trusted steward of Sir John Dudley, who had obtained of King Henry VIII the grant of Manor Abbey (as it came to be known) and its lands.

Here it is necessary, briefly, to move from local to national affairs. Henry VIII died in 1547 to be succeeded by the sickly boy King Edward VI, who created Dudley Earl of Warwick. Eventually the new Earl replaced the more moderate Duke of Somerset in the King's Councils. A man of overweening ambition, Dudley now had himself created Duke of Northumberland, but, becoming over-confident, quarrelled with the heir-presumptive, the Princess Mary. When the young king became mortally ill, Dudley, fearing for his future and indeed his life under Mary, plotted to replace her by her cousin. Lady Jane Grey, who was married to one of his sons. The plot failed, he and the hapless Jane were executed, and his estates (including the abbey lands at Halesowen) were confiscated. A merciful monarch restored the Manor to Dudley's widow, Joan. She died in 1554, leaving the manor in trust for her three sons. The eldest son gave up his share in the same year to his youngest brother, Sir Robert Dudley who, in turn, settled it on his wife, the tragic Amy Robsart. She, with him, then sold the manor to the sitting tenant, George Tuckey, and his partner Thomas Blount (could this be the man who featured in the Dissolution pensions list?) who might be described as prototypes for today's property speculators. After stripping the estate of outlying farms and other assets, they sold the manor to Sir John Lyttelton. So began in the 16th century the ownership of Manor Abbey by the Lyttelton family, in whose possession it remained until 1993.

When possession of the manor was granted to Sir John Dudley, an annual rent of £28 1s.3d. was reserved to the Crown, but this was reduced to £20 in 1611 on the petition of the Lytteltons because of decline in the area of the property consequent on Blount and Tuckey's disposals. The Lytteltons continued to pay this rent to the Crown until 1650 when it was sold by order of Parliament. At the Restoration this rent was again settled on the King who passed it on to his Queen, Katherine, in 1663. By an Act of Parliament passed some years later the King was allowed to alienate fee-farm rents and the purchaser of the Halesowen impost was a forbear of Sir Matthew Decker (1679-1749) to whose widow the rent was still being paid in the time of Bishop Lyttelton (1714-1768). It was finally extinguished by a later Lord Lyttelton in the 19th century.

But there is more to the cessation of monastic life at Halesowen than the mere sale of lands and buildings. What was the impact of the departure of the monks (with their reputed widespread charities and hospitality) on the life of the common people of the neighbourhood? Who were the yeomen farmers who followed George Tuckey as tenants of these fertile lands? What happened over the years to these substantial monastic remains so that only pitiful fragments remain today? Where would you look now (other than among the barns and byres of Manor Farm) for fragments of that once proud and massive Premonstratensian foundation? All these are questions we must try to answer before we finally bring down the curtain on a mode of life which, but for the frailty of man and the greed of kings, might still be pointing the way heavenwards to a nation badly in need of the monastic ideals of abstinence, charity and frugality.

Although hundreds of books have been written about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it is still difficult to obtain an accurate assessment of the effect of this drastic curtailment of religious and social activity on the lives of the ordinary people in the second half of the 16th century. Writers of the various histories of Halesowen (including Somers) have tended to shy away from the problems posed for the historian by this cataclysm in the life of the town. Yet its effects were significant and widespread, and must be noticed here if our story is to be in any way complete.

It must be admitted that, in the 14th and 15th centuries, there had been a progressive decline in monastic ideals. Alms and hospitality were still being dispensed at Halesowen Abbey, but not on the scale which had operated in the house's heyday. So when, at the Dissolution, the daily doles of bread and meat, hitherto passed to the poor and needy at the abbey gatehouse, temporarily ceased, there were some who had to seek sustenance elsewhere, but only a comparative few of Halesowen's citizens would be actually affected. There is some evidence of a growth of lawlessness (particularly of petty thieving) at this time and (partly because of the large numbers of abbey servants and retainers who were thrown out of work) an increase in vagrancy.

Eventually this was recognised as a national problem and enactments of 1572, 1576 and 1598 represented attempts by the central government to grapple with it. These were followed by the Poor Law Act of 1601, but the continued increase in vagrancy led to the Act of Settlement of 1662. In 1723 came legislation empowering Town Overseers to establish workhouses. Halesowen's workhouse was built in 1730. Adjoining it was the town's lock-up which, demolished some years ago, had its stones numbered and transported to the abbey site, in the vain hope it could be re-erected there as an historic building. Alas, these stones, which may well have been taken from the abbey ruins in the first place, are now scattered, their identifying marks long obliterated and never likely now to be used as intended. This is no place to discuss in detail the many acts passed over the next 200 years aimed at ameliorating the lot of the poor, but it may perhaps be noted that the Act of 1948 which established our present social security system and removed (we hope for ever) the remaining stigma of pauperism, stemmed directly from the Dissolution of the Monasteries which forced the state to assume responsibility for what had previously been a function of the religious houses.

Henry VIII's ministers had, of course, foreseen that the end of the somewhat haphazard dispensing of aid by the monasteries would cause widespread hardship, and the Act of Dissolution required, under penalty, that the new owners of the ex-monastic properties should maintain previous traditions of hospitality. Not unnaturally, this was honoured more in the breach than in the observance, and contemporary writers have remarked on "the decay of hospitality" as frequently as they noticed the decay of tillage. Certainly, one cannot imagine those hard-headed property speculators, Blount and Tuckey, being particularly anxious that victuals from the old abbey kitchens should find their way into the bellies of Halesowen's paupers.

It has been said that the Dissolution of the monasteries deprived the youth of the times of its only chance of free education, but this does not stand up to the historian's scrutiny. In the case of our own abbey in particular, it is extremely doubtful whether there was any attempt on the part of the religious to act as schoolmasters for the neighbourhood. The only young men taken into the community of monks would be those intended for the religious life and, in view of the small size of the fraternity (never more than about 20 religious) the numbers involved would be pitifully small. Possibly one of the enduring effects of the Dissolution was that rich men could no longer leave money for the saying of masses for the salvation of their souls and so they left money to help the poor or to provide education of the needy. In the case of Halesowen an Inquest held in 1652 consolidated sundry such charities and ordained that the resulting funds should be used for the erection and maintenance of a Free School. This eventually became Halesowen Grammar School which, after 300 years of useful life (approximately the same life span as that of the abbey, the demise of which led, indirectly, to its founding) lost its identity.

Once Henry VIII's commissioners had secured the lead from the roof of the abbey church, the metal from its bells, the silver and gold plate from its altars, and had sold locally its furnishings, fabrics and other moveables, they could depart feeling reasonably certain that there was no fear of the building again being put to conventual use. They had left the abbot's mansion for the use of the new owner of the manor, and were not particularly concerned what happened to the church's pillared and roofless aisles.

Thus, the ruins of the great church became a quarry and, over the next two centuries, countless tons of stone were carted away to become part of all sorts of secular buildings in the neighbourhood. (So long is folk memory that I can remember my own grandmother telling me how, as a child, she heard her grandfather describe the then Lord Lyttelton having stones from the abbey carted to Hagley for the erection there of one or other of the 'Follies' which now grace Hagley Park.) That mock 'Ruin' in the park, known as Hagley Castle, was built almost entirely of stone from the abbey, as was the "ruinated priory" erected by his contemporary, William Shenstone, in the grounds of the Leasowes. The 'priory', alas, has disappeared, but the 'castle' stands, a monument to man's vanity. Visitors to Walsall's interesting parish church can see there choir stalls with fine misericordes which once graced the chancel of our abbey church. We have previously noticed that several 'lodys of stuffe', including the Rood, the organs, 'St Kenelmys tabull' and various images were carted from the abbey to Halesowen church. Some articles were set up in the church, but others, including the Rood, were resold. The unique encaustic tiles with which the abbey church was floored were widely disseminated. Some may be seen in a show case in Halesowen church, others fulfilled their original function as part of the floor of the Victorian farmhouse adjacent to the abbey ruins, while not a few are in private hands. Virtually all Halesowen's old houses have now been demolished and with them have gone the abbey stones which formed the foundations of many of them. Only in the farmyard at Manor Abbey Farm may be seen lying in profusion, curiously and lovingly carved stones which were once part of the monastic buildings. In the days when hay and corn were stored in ricks, even the humble staddle stones would once have been part of those soaring arches, which for centuries echoed to the plainsong of the monks.

Several hundred years of change and decay have flowed over the abbey buildings, but all that time the fertile abbey lands have seen seed-time and harvest. First the monks themselves cultivated these well-watered acres. Later they left the work to the lay brothers and, later still, hired labour was used on the Home Farm and on the distant granges. After the Dissolution and the sale of the manor to Blount and Tuckey, it passed eventually to the Lytteltons who let it to tenant farmers. The first tenants seem to have been the Mucklow family whose name is perpetuated in Halesowen's once hazardous Mucklow Hill. The Mucklows lived at and worked Manor Abbey Farm for well over a hundred years, the last tenant of that name leaving around 1708.

Then began the long association of the Green family with the abbey farm. It was singularly appropriate that the Greens should be farming this land for they had long been connected with the manor. We learn from the Lyttelton archives in the Birmingham Reference Library that as long ago as 1274, lands in 'Rugeaker' (Ridgeacre) were granted to 'John de la Grene' and Alice, his wife, while in 1522 is recorded a 'Lease of 60 years from the Abbot and Convent of Our Lady of Hales Owen to William Grene and his wife ... of Radwalle Grange ... and other lands with a pasture in Horborne (Harborne)'. And you, dear reader, will not have forgotten that Edmond Greene occupied the Abbot's stall at Halesowen from 1505 to 1529....

George Green (1679-1716) followed the Mucklows. He was succeeded by his son, John (1708-1790) who passed on the tenancy to his son James (1746-1792). On James' death, his brother, Richard (1749-1836), took over. His demise brought a nephew, Thomas Green (1780-1862) to Manor Abbey and later Greens brought this long family saga well into the present century. Next came the Shalers who were tenants until 1957 when Mr. H.A. Hodgetts, who was to be the last of the tenant farmers, took over in 1957.

Manor Abbey Farm was virtually the last of the Lyttelton outlying properties, and for a few years it was farmed from Hagley before being sold to Mr. Chris Tudor in 1993.

If I were given to envy, I could envy Mr. Tudor his ownership of this historic site, but it would never do for an historian to be a farmer in such circumstances. The archaeologists would be searching for the Abbots' graves to the exclusion of agricultural pursuits.