Lilleshall Abbey was an Augustinian abbey in Shropshire, England, today located 6 miles north of Telford. It was founded between 1145 and 1148 and followed the austere customs and observance of the Abbey of Arrouaise in northern France.
The Arrouaisian branch of the Augustinian originated in the early 12th century, as a loose group around the hermit Ruggerius of Arrouais, a settlement in Artois, between Peronne and Arras. It began the transition to being a distinct branch of the Augustinians around 1121, when the community elected Gervaise as abbot. Although regarded still as Augustinian Canons Regular, they followed a much stricter code of conduct than other Augustinians, modelled on that of the Cistercians. The first Arrouaisian house in England was Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, founded around 1140 by Alexander of Lincoln, the local bishop, who suppressed a college of Secular clergy to make way for the Arrouaisians.
A colony of canons from Dorchester was settled, initially at Lizard, Staffordshire, on the initiative of the Belmeis or Beaumais brothers: Philip, lord of Tong, Shropshire, and Richard, at that time Archdeacon of Middlesex and also dean of the college of St Alkmund in Shrewsbury. Both were nephews of Richard de Beaumis, a Bishop of London who had died in 1127, and the younger Richard was later also to become Bishop of London. Philip granted lands and churches in Leicestershire to the new monastery and Richard also made grants that involved suppressing St Alkmund's college.
The country was in the grip of the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign, so great care was taken to ensure agreement among a range of powerful interested parties, including Bishop Alexander and Roger de Clinton, the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. The changes at St Alkmund's, a chapel royal, necessitated a charter from Stephen in 1145, and the approval of Empress Matilda was gained in 1148, while her son gave his consent as Duke of Normandy and again when he became King Henry II. Finally, approval was sought and obtained from Pope Eugnius III and Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Meanwhile, the small colony of canons had been struggling to establish themselves. Lizard proved unsuitable, so they moved first into Donnington Wood, near Wrockwardine, and then to their final home at Lilleshall, a move that was complete by 1148.
The abbey was seen as a royal foundation, notwithstanding the role of the Belmeis brothers, because it replaced St Alkmund's, a chapel royal. This gave it both advantages and responsibilities. Philip of Belmeis' property passed via his daughter to the la Zouche family, who occasionally pretended to have advowson. In practice, however, all abbots elect were presented for approval to the king.
The dedication of the abbey was to Mary, as the seal used in the 13th century shows by its inscription: SIGILLUM E[CCL]ESIE BEATE MARIE DE LILLESHULL - The Seal of the Church of St Mary of Lilleshall.
The monastic life
The abbey's community were Augustinian Canons Regular or conventual canons, not technically monks. Although the Arrouaisians were at first noted for their austerity of life, they were less enclosed than Benedictine or Cistercian monks. Arrouaisian houses were noted for the high quality of their liturgical observance. A prayer roll of about 1375 confirms that this was so at Lilleshall more than two centuries after the foundation.
There was a large number of benefactions from lay landowners and these often came with requests to be buried or prayed for at Lilleshall or for membership of the fraternity of the abbey. This suggests that its monastic life quickly built up a good reputation in the wider society. This clearly persisted. John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, spent two days at the abbey, together with his wife Katherine Swynford and a large retinue. He had fallen ill after the 24th parliament of Richard II's reign was held at Shrewsbury, dissolving on 31 January 1398. Gaunt himself, his wife, and his squire, William Chetwynd, were received into the fraternity, and Gaunt made a gift of twenty pounds of gold.
Although the fraternity was important in diffusing the influence of the abbey, there is no evidence of lay brothers and sisters being admitted to the abbey community itself. There were many employees, however. In the mid-15th century, there were over twenty household servants, including two porters, a butler, a chamberlain, two cooks, a baker, a bell-ringer, a cobbler, and washerwoman, as well as a carpenter and a group of apprentices to carry out repairs. There was a tannery on the premises, as well as a brewery. Self-sufficiency was an important feature of Arrouaisian houses.
The canons were much employed in managing the abbey's substantial estates, which seem to have been worked mainly by indentured servants and later by wage labour. A high proportion of the abbey's land was kept in demesne, cultivated from granges. The Lilleshall estate alone had four of these and there was a ring of further granges in Shropshire and Staffordshire, with two outlying at Blackfordby and Grindlow. The grange at Blackfordby seems to have absorbed a good deal of time and labour, with canons often staying there. There was even a chapel on site, with mass said three times a week. This was strictly irregular, as it was considered perilous to the soul for a canon to reside anywhere alone, and there were complaints about it from the Bishop of Lichfield. However, the nature of the abbey's estates meant that canons would often require leave to travel.
The abbey was not noted for its intellectual life. However, there was some kind of library and a copy of a chronicle ascribed to Peter of Ickham has survived from it, with additions made locally. There is also evidence of a canon being licensed to study at university for 10 years from 1400.
Wealth and endowments
The monastic life at Lilleshall Abbey was funded by a portfolio of lands and other properties built up mainly over the first century of its existence. Initially very concentrated in the area around the abbey, it grew to include much more widely scattered estates.
|Location||Donor or original owner||Nature of property||Approximate coordinates|
|Lilleshall manor||Originally a prebend of St Alkmund's held by Richard de Beaumis, transferred to the abbey on his instigation by the Crown||Landed estate, held in demesne by the abbey throughout its history. It contained four granges: Cheswell, Watling Street, Wealdmoor, and the home grange|
|Atcham||Prebend of St Alkmund's, held by Richard de Beaumis from the outset.||Landed estate and site of a grange. It had a ferry across the River Severn, replaced by toll bridge from the early 13th century, and later a fulling mill.|
|Albrightlee||Prebend of St Alkmund's, recovered after great difficulty from the Burnell family, who occupied the abbey itself in revenge at one point. A grange was built here.||Landed estate|
|Charlton, near Shawbury||Prebend of St Alkmund's||Landed estate, where Lilleshall Abbey built a grange.|||
|Dinthill, near Ford, Shropshire||Prebend of St Alkmund's||Landed estate|
|Hencott||Prebend of St Alkmund's||Landed estate|
|Longdon-on-Tern||Prebend of St Alkmund's, recovered only in 1282 on payment of 400 marks to Thomas Withington, husband of Isabel Burnell.||Landed estate. A grange was sited here.|
|Preston Gubbals||Prebend of St Alkmund's||Landed estate and site of a grange.|
|Preston Montford||Prebend of St Alkmund's, recovered from Robert de Boulers, lord of Montgomery.||Landed estate|
|Uckington, Shropshire||Prebend of St Alkmund's.||Landed estate and site of grange.|
|Wistanstow||Prebend of St Alkmund's||Overlordship, although the estate remained under control of its terre tenants, the Stapletons, who ensured the abbey received 40 shillings a year from the church|
|Lizard Grange||Granted by Philip de Belmeis, and originally intended for the abbey itself, it became an agricultural holding with a grange.||Landed estate|
|Ashby-de-la-Zouch||Philip de Belmeis||Advowson of the St Helen's Church, land and tithes.|
|Blackfordby||Philip de Belmeis||Advowson of the Church of St Margaret of Antioch, land and tithes. A grange was established here.|
|Poulton, Wiltshire||Robert de Boulers||Advowson of the Church of St Mary|
|Arkendale in Yorkshire||Hilary Trusbut, widow of Robert de Boulers, to establish a chantry for herself and her husband.||Land|
|Braunston in Northamptonshire||Part of Hilary Trusbut's grant to establish a chantry.||Land|
|Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk||John Lestrange so that his wife could be buried at Lilleshall.||Advowson and tithes of the church.|
|Shangton in Leicestershire||Part of John Lestrange's grant on behalf of his wife.||Advowson and tithes of the Church of St Nicholas.|
|Freasley, Warwickshire||Robert de Kayley||Land|
|Grindlow in Derbyshire||Matthew of Stoke||Land estate which became site of a grange.|
|Moreton Say||Nicholas of Bletchley||Mill|
|Bridgnorth||Sybil of Linley||Property|
|Shackerley in Donington, Shropshire||Robert de Wodecote||Land|
|Orslow, Staffordshire||Millicent, widow of Robert de Wodecote||Land|
|Berwick Juxta Attingham||Hugh Malvoisin||Tithes|
|Nantwich||Robert Bardolf||Salt pans|
|Crabwall, near Chester||Roger de Meingaryn (also Mesnilwarin or Mainwaring)||Land|
|Burlington in Sheriffhales||Helewise, daughter of Reyner of Burlington||Land, a short distance from Lilleshall, but a grange was built here.|
|Cold Hatton||William Wishart||Landed estate|
|Boningale||Hugh of Boningale, who wanted sanctuary at Lilleshall for his family in time of war||Land|
|Tern in Atcham||Small property|
|Eaton Constantine||Small property|
|Tong, Shropshire||Small property|
|Shrewsbury||Houses and burgages|
|Newport, Shropshire||Houses and burgages|
|Welshpool||Houses and burgages|
|Stafford||Houses and burgages|
|London||Geoffrey of Shangton, rector of Badminton, Gloucestershire||House near the Tower of London|
In addition to the properties, the abbey had many important rights and concessions. Pope Alexander III exempted the abbey's demesne lands from payment of tithes. In 1269 the abbot was given the right to hold an annual fair at Atcham: lasting three days, it took place at the feast of St Giles, which is 1 September. Seven years later came the right to hold another fair at Atcham on the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, 26 May.
The original core of St Alkmund's prebends and Belmeis family donations formed a concentration within Shropshire and Staffordshire. This was only slightly expanded by later grants. Significant parts of the abbey's holdings lay in Leicestershire and Derbyshire, where it was forced to maintain granges and to send canons. The major territorial magnates in the area, like the Fitzalans and Lestranges, made grants but these were quite small. They made much larger benefactions to Haughmond Abbey, which was only a short distance from Lilleshall, had a similar regime, and, not being a royal foundation, was much more responsive to their needs. A comparison with the distribution map of Haughmond's estates reveals that Lilleshall's was a more widely distributed estate, resulting in higher running costs and less local support.
Difficulties and decline
Although it was well-endowed, the abbey had fallen into serious financial difficulties by the early 14th century. This coincided with the episcopate of Roger Northburgh, a very effective administrator and a zealous reformer, who sought out abuses all over the Diocese of Lichfield. Unlike the nearby White Ladies Priory, a community of Augustinian canonesses, where Northburgh made a litany of complaints about conduct and discipline, Lilleshall was criticised almost entirely for financial ineptitude and administrative weakness. He found the abbey heavily in debt and criticised the abbot for failing to consult widely enough about expenditure. He highlighted the large number of corrodies, waste of timber on abbey lands, the inefficiency of the brewer, negligence in distributing alms at the gate and the age and infirmity of the abbot.
The abbey's estates were large but very widely distributed. This made them expensive to work and manage, with stewards to pay at each grange. There were also underlying problems implicit in the abbey's status as a royal foundation. The problem of corrodies was intractable. These gifts of food and clothing were not alms but essentially pensions that could be purchased and they were regarded as perquisites for royal employees. Any servant of the king who asked would be given or sold a corrody, entitling them to basic maintenance for life, and many abbey servants were also given corrodies, which continued even after they finished working for the abbey. Abbots gave too many away and sold others too cheaply as favours. There was also a king's clerk to maintain unless a benefice could be found. Retired abbots expected an income and good quality accommodation. Abbot John of Chetwynd was arrested in 1316 for his leading role in raising an armed force to prevent the arrest of Vivian de Staundon, who had taken a large sum of the king's money in a highway robbery. Nevertheless, when he retired in 1330, he was allowed the revenues of two manors, Blackfordby and Freasley, and of two churches, as well as his food, fuel, candles, two horses, a capacious lodging at the abbey and hospitality for his guests. Even this was not enough for him: the disgruntled ex-abbot seized the abbey by force and pillaged it. The matter was only resolved when the king sent in keepers to restore order. This marked a low point in the reputation of the abbey.
John's successor, whom he apparently despised, was Henry of Stoke. He took steps to improve the abbey's finances. In particular, he retained the services of William of Shareshill, a talented lawyer, to maximise the abbey's income from its endowments. Shareshill was very successful and received the lease of Boningale as a reward. However, cattle disease in the 1330s and the first outbreak of the Black Death in 1348 struck hard. The labour shortage brought the community to its knees. Abbot Henry resigned in 1350 and in 1351 Edward III appointed Shareshill and William Banaster as custodians to restore solvency.
Richard II and Queen Isabella visited the abbey from 24 to 26 January 1398, on his way to the parliament at Shrewsbury. They were accompanied by five dukes, four earls, three bishops, and a French chamberlain. The cost to the abbey would have been huge, as these potentates would have been followed by an enormous retinue. John of Gaunt's indisposition a few days later brought unexpected relief, as he made a large monetary gift during his stay, as well as putting his influence at the abbey's disposal.
Finances probably recovered in the later 14th century and in the following century the abbey was fairly solvent. Revenues from particular estates were earmarked for specific purposes, generating a straightforward budget. The treasurer then had only limited discretion in spending the remainder. This system kept the abbey out of serious trouble for some decades. However, problems had set in again by 1518, when a canonical visitation by Bishop Geoffrey Blythe found debts of 1000 marks, with only 600 marks expected revenue. Blythe also criticised the attitude of the prior, the abbot's deputy, found that some canons were consorting with women of ill-repute and that there was no schoolmaster. He advised Abbot Robert Watson to weed out unnecessary staff. This he did and the abbey began to recover financially in its final years.
Dissolution and after
Lilleshall was audited under the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, preparatory to the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act of the following year. The gross income was found to be £324 0s. 10d., but the high running costs brought this down to a net income of only £232 16s. 6d. - just above the £200 threshold set by the act. The abbey was not immediately dissolved but, like most of the marginal houses, surrendered itself to the king, before being compulsorily suppressed, in October 1538. Henry VIII's agent, William Cavendish arrived on the 16th of the month to take the demesne lands and the abbey buildings into possession.
The abbey community was down to Abbot Watson and ten canons. The gross revenue was found to be about £340 - a little more than in 1538, when the Lilleshall estate itself had been omitted. The London house and a pension of £50 were given to Watson. The canons were granted pensions of £5 to £6 and a small lump sum on leaving.
A year later, the site was sold to James Leveson (// loosen), a rich Merchant of the Staple from Wolverhampton. The Levesons were closely associated with St Peter's Collegiate Church, and James Leveson had made some of his fortune by leasing the church's deanery and many of its prebendal lands. He sent choir stalls from the abbey to the church, where they can still be seen, now used as seating in the lady chapel. In 1543 Leveson bought the manor of Lilleshall from the Crown, creating a country estate for his family. He probably built or started the building of a lodge close to the abbey site as a family home. Leveson died in 1547, leaving the manor and the abbey to his son, Richard.
In the time of Richard's son, Walter Leveson (1551-1602) the family and its estates got into serious difficulties. Walter became involved in piracy against allied shipping in the North Sea. He suffered a series of huge fines and several spells in the Fleet Prison, as well as developing a persecutory delusion. By the time of his death, he was massively in debt, a situation his son Richard, a noted admiral had no time to rectify, as he died without issue less than two years later. It was left to a distant relative, John Leveson of Halling, Kent, to resolve the issue as trustee of the estate. He died in 1610, but his wife Christian took up the struggle. She improved the lodge, and when the Crown seized Lilleshall in 1616, Christian raised the money to lease it back. In 1623 she finally paid off all the debts. The abbey and manor passed later that year to another Sir Richard Leveson, John and Christian's son. A notable Cavalier in the English Civil War, in 1643 he fortified the site and installed a garrison of 160 men. Parliamentary forces besieged and bombarded the abbey. Before the garrison surrendered, the towers, lady chapel, and north transept were destroyed. After Sir Richard's death in 1661, the manor passed to his widow, Katherine, for life and then to his great nephew, William Leveson-Gower. Thereafter it became a seat of the Leveson-Gower family.
The Leveson's had never lived full-time at Lilleshall, as they had numerous properties elsewhere. It was considered a hunting lodge or country retreat. Sir Richard was the only family head to be buried in Lilleshall village. In the 1750s a new Hall was built elsewhere on the estate. In 1820 this was replaced with a much more impressive Hall at the extreme east of the estate, near Sheriffhales, moving the centre of attention well away from the abbey site. Subsidence caused by large-scale mining damaged the walls of the building and much of the domestic ranges disappeared during the 19th century, although there were attempts to record the site early in the century and some archeology in 1891.
The abbey site is know in the hands of English Heritage. It is open all days, except some major public holidays, although the times of opening vary and should be checked on the English Heritage website. There is no admission charge.
The abbey remains
The church was built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its size and magnificence indicates it had wealthy benefactors; Henry III visited twice circa 1240. The surviving abbey buildings almost all date from the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Other buildings have been lost, but their foundations were partially recovered by excavations in the late 19th century. The central buildings stood in a much larger monastic precinct, enclosed by a stone wall and gates. Ancient yew trees are now an important feature of the site, particularly on the cloister side to the south. Care of the abbey remains was taken over by the Ministry of Public Building and Works in 1950. It is now in the guardianship of English Heritage.
The remains of the abbey church are still imposing, as the main walls still stand. Today they benefit from earlier maintenance and retoration: during the 1960s they had to be held up with timber because of mining subsidence. The church was cruciform and over 60 metres in length, with a stone vaulted roof. The north transept has almost disappeared.
Visitors are confronted by the still-impressive west front, with a wide central doorway, surmounted by a round arch. This western end was finished comparatively late, in the 13th century, and the round arch of the doorway is meant to complement the earlier work visible through the portal. The massive stonework on either side originally carried the weight of a great western tower, probably destroyed in the siege, along with the west window. The northern base has suffered least and still has arcading at the level of the vanished window sill, decorated in a trefoil pattern. The pointed gothic arches of its windows contrast sharply with the late romanesque gateway. Moving through the gateway, it is possible to climb a narrow staircase on the north wall of the nave to the level of the arcade, thus obtaining a good view of the remains of the church and of the landscape beyond. There is a small, well-preserved lavabo on the southern wall of the nave.
Two screens divided the length of the church: a rood screen and a pulpitum. Only the footings of both survive, although they are very clear. There are also foundations of two nave altars against the pulpitum. Beyond the screens, the chancel and presbytery are the oldest parts of the building, begun in the later 12th century. The only major subsequent alteration was the insertion of a large and impressive east window in the 14th century. This still dominates the church, as it was intended to do.
On the south wall, next to the transept, is a still-impressive processional entrance. The door pillars are surmounted by a segmental arch, and above that a round arch of three orders, the area between forming a tympanum. The entire exterior of the doorway is carved in a detailed zig-zag pattern, which was probably used widely aound the building. Beyond this lay the cloister, from which the canons would enter the church in procession.
The cloister was a garden courtyard, surrounded by the domestic buildings of the abbey, mostly constructed in the late 12th century. The eastern buildings, adjoining the transept, are well-preserved, and it is possible to walk through the slype that gave access to the parlour, chapter house and possibly the infirmary. The south range is ruinous but the walls mainly survive. It contained the refectory, which was divided in the 14th century to provided a warming room. The range was much more complete in the early 19th century, when it still had most of its upper floor. This probably contained the abbot's lodging. There were many buildings further west and south, and the abbey's guest facilities must have been very large to accommodate visitors of very high status, with their enormous retinues.
- Victoria County History, Shropshire, Vol. 2, 1973, Houses of Augustinian canons: Abbey of Lilleshall, pp. 70-80
- Victoria County History: Oxfordshire, Volume 2, Chapter 13: the Abbey of Dorchester.
- Victoria County History: Shropshire, Volume 2, Chapter 10: the Abbey of Lilleshall
- Victoria County History: Shropshire, Volume 11, Chapter 55: Lilleshall - Manor and other estates.
- Field name map at secret Shropshire
- Victoria County History: Shropshire, Volume 2, Chapter 13: the Priory of St Leonard, Brewood.
- Major-General Hon. G. Wrottesley (editor) (1889). "Plea Rolls for Staffordshire: 9 Edward II". Staffordshire Historical Collections, vol. 10, part 1. Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 16 January 2014.
- Victoria County History: Staffordshire, Vol.3, Chapter 44: The College of St. Peter, Wolverhampton.
- English Heritage
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