White Ladies Priory

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The remains of White Ladies Priory, viewed from the north-east. The north wall is the best-preserved part of the ruins.

White Ladies Priory (often Whiteladies Priory), once the Priory of St Leonard at Brewood,[1] was an English priory of Augustinian canonesses, now in ruins, in Shropshire, in the parish of Boscobel, some eight miles (13 km) northwest of Wolverhampton, near Junction 3 of the M54 motorway. Dissolved in 1536, it became famous for its role in the escape of Charles II of England after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The name 'White Ladies' refers to the canonesses who lived there and who wore white religious habits.


The origins and exact date of foundation of the priory are not known. The surviving ruins show work typical of the late 12th century, and the first documentary evidence dates from 1186 or earlier. In it, Emma, daughter of Reynold of Pulverbatch, in the process of giving land to Haughmond Abbey mentions that she has already granted land in Beobridge to the white nuns of Brewood. In fact, it was not, and never has been, in the parish of Brewood, which is in the neighbouring part of Staffordshire, not Shropshire: Brewood was simply the nearest village of any size. The priory was outside existing parishes and manors, so its location gives no clues to the identity of the founder.

The priory acquired the church and some tithes at Montford very early in its history. So it is possible that the Lacy family or the FitzAlans, who succeeded them as holders of the manor of Montford with Forton, may have been important in its founding.[2]

The dedication was to St. Leonard of Noblac, a saint associated with the liberation of prisoners, who was extremely popular after a number of alleged miracles earlier in the 12th century.

Building and endowments[edit]

The view from the south-east. The large arch marks the entrance to the north transept. To the left of it can be seen the nave north wall and windows; to the right the chancel.

The church building was a simple cruciform, sandstone structure, with a nave of five bays, and a chancel of three bays. The transepts were small and without chapels.[3][4] Today, the lay-out of the building is still easy to discern, although little remains of either transept, and only the north wall of the nave and chancel is fairly intact. There is a fine, round-headed Romanesque arch leading into the north transept, through which the residents would have passed to reach the cloister and the monastery. The windows on the north side are largely intact, making it easy to identify the bays of both nave and chancel. The south wall would have been windowed in the same way. It seems that the stone for the church was obtained locally – perhaps even in a field adjacent to the site, as one of the fish ponds seems to have been created from a quarry scoop.[5]

The priory buildings are long-gone, and may have been timber-framed,[6] but appear to have stood against the north wall of the church. Charles II commissioned a painting of the later house around 1670, and details of the painting suggest that it may have incorporated parts of the prioress' residence, which must have stood west of the main priory buildings and cloister.[7]

The priory held many very small pieces of property, mostly donated by local families – sometimes probably as the dowries of canonesses on their admission to the community. Sometimes the gift would be fishing rights, a watermill or advowson of a parish, rather than land. By the Dissolution, there were lands, property or rights at Beckbury, Berrington, Chatwall (in Cardington), Donington, High Ercall, Humphreston (in Donington), Ingardine (in Stottesdon), Highley, Rudge, Haughton (probably in Shifnal), Sutton Maddock, and Tong, as well as Montford – all fairly local. There were also properties in Calverton, Nottinghamshire and Tibshelf, Derbyshire.

The canonesses[edit]

The priory was occupied by canonesses regular of the Augustinian Order. Strictly, they were not nuns, but the term was used of them in the middle ages and still is. Although named after Saint Augustine of Hippo, the Rule of St. Augustine is actually a brief medieval document setting out guidelines for a religious life. It allowed its followers more access to the outside world than the stricter Benedictine Rule, and was more suited to a community involved with parish life.[8] Many Augustinians were canons regular, who operated mainly outside the walls of a religious house, and are often confused with the Augustinian friars. As opposed to abbeys of "secular canonesses", these lived largely enclosed lives, in a manner similar to that of nuns, and the residents of White Ladies fell into this category. The priory normally supported five canonesses and a prioress, although there would also have been some lay servants.

John Leland was commissioned in 1533 by Henry VIII to investigate the libraries of religious houses in England. As part of his duties, he visited White Ladies shortly after its dissolution in 1536. He originated the false idea that White Ladies was a Cistercian house. Certainly Cistercians wore a white habit, while the color of the Augustinian habit could vary, the primary element being the wearing of a white, linen rochet, similar to that of the canons. However, the 14th century registers of the Bishop of Hereford clearly style the community "the prioress and convent of St Leonard of Brewood, of the Order of St Augustine".[9]

Decay and dissolution[edit]

The priory was supervised by the Bishop of Lichfield, who carried out canonical visitations. Generally the small community was found to be struggling financially, although not in debt, and it was always able to meet its own burial costs. Sometimes the conduct of the prioress was found wanting. In 1338 Bishop Northburgh criticised Prioress Alice of Harley for her financial mismanagement, her extravagant dress, and for hunting and keeping hounds. When Prioress Alice Wood retired in 1498, she was assigned the income from Tibshelf, about a fifth of the total revenues, as a pension, but Bishop Arundel required that she pay for her own food if she stayed at Brewood.

From about that date, decline seems to have set in – probably because most of the income came from leases at fixed rents in a time of inflation. In 1521 it was found that, although the priory was actually not in debt, the prioress, probably Margaret Sandford, did not know how to render account and two canonesses claimed they were still owed their monthly incomes. In 1524 the dormitory was reported to be in bad repair. In 1535, White Ladies Priory was reported to have revenues of only £31 1s. 4d. Expenses came to £13 10s. 8d, including £5 for the chaplain. The next year's figures were almost identical. This brought it well within the threshold of the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act of 1536, which dissolved all houses worth less than £200 per annum, clear of expenses.[10]

Notice of the dissolution arrived in early 1537. Lord Stafford wanted the property, but the asking price was too high, and there were still four canonesses in residence early in 1538. By May, however, the dissolution was complete, and the site went to William Skeffington (also Skevington) of Wolverhampton on a 21-year lease.[11]

After dissolution[edit]

The reversion was sold to William Whorwood, the Attorney General in 1540,[12] which made him the effective owner, but Skeffington retained the lease. It was almost certainly he who built a house on the site, probably incorporating some of the prioress's residence. When he died in 1550, it would have passed to his wife, Joan, who subsequently married Edward Giffard,[13] son of Thomas Giffard (died 1560) of Chillington. It is unclear whether Skeffington or Joan or Giffard paid off the Whorwoods, but the property certainly became part of the Giffard family's estates. After Edward, White Ladies passed to his son, John, who extended the old farm buildings north of the priory site to create Boscobel House about 1630. In 1651, it belonged to John Giffard's daughter, Frances Cotton, at that time a widow. The Giffards were Catholics and the most important Recusants in the area. They were strong supporters of the royalist cause in the English Civil War. Their servants too were all Catholic.

White Ladies was not occupied by Frances Cotton during the escape of Charles II. It was being run by housekeepers and servants. Among the tenants of the estate were five brothers called Penderell. (There had been six but one was killed at the Battle of Edgehill.) The Penderell family were small farmers but the sons seem to have worked part of their time as woodmen, farm servants and retainers of the Giffard family, living at different places in the neighbourhood and caring for some houses such as White Ladies Priory and Boscobel House, which is about a mile away.

Charles Giffard, a cousin of Frances, escorted King Charles to White Ladies Priory early on 4 September 1651, after riding through the night after the previous day's battle. They were admitted by George Penderell, a servant of the house, who sent for Richard Penderell, who lived in a farm house nearby, and for their elder brother William, who was at Boscobel. After failing to cross the River Severn, Charles returned to the estate on 6 September and spent the day in the grounds of Boscobel House hiding in the famous Royal Oak.

Frances Cotton, née Giffard, died shortly after these events, and both White Ladies and Boscobel passed via her daughter, Jane Cotton, who had married Basil Fitzherbert in 1648, to the Fitzherbert family of Norbury Hall, Derbyshire. The house was demolished some time in the 18th century. The estate and Boscobel were sold to Walter Evans, a Derbyshire industrialist, in 1812, but the Fitzherbert family retained the White Ladies site. In 1884, the head of the Fitzherbert family became Lord Stafford, and in 1938 Edward Fitzherbert, 13th Baron Stafford placed White Ladies in the care of the Office of Works, a government department.[14]

Whilst the priory is now gone, the remains of its medieval church and the 19th century boundary wall of the small graveyard still remain and are currently under the care of English Heritage. The graveyard was used by Catholic families until 1844, when St. Mary's church at Brewood was consecrated.


  1. ^ Pastscape (English Heritage record)
  2. ^ Victoria County History – A History of the County of Shropshire, Volume 2, A T Gaydon, R B Pugh (Editors), M J Angold, G C Baugh, Marjorie M Chibnall, D C Cox, Revd D T W Price, Margaret Tomlinson, B S Trinder, 1973, pages 83–84.
  3. ^ VCH Shrophire, volume 2, p. 83.
  4. ^ R. Gilyard-Beer: White Ladies Priory in O.J. Weaver (ed): Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory, English Heritage, 1987, p. 34-35.
  5. ^ Pastscape (English Heritage record)
  6. ^ R. Gilyard-Beer: White Ladies Priory, p. 37.
  7. ^ VCH Shrophire, volume 2, p. 83.
  8. ^ R. Gilyard-Beer: White Ladies Priory, p. 35.
  9. ^ R. Gilyard-Beer: White Ladies Priory, p. 35.
  10. ^ VCH Shropshire, volume 2, p. 83.
  11. ^ R. Gilyard-Beer: White Ladies Priory, p. 35.
  12. ^ VCH Shropshire, volume 2, p. 83.
  13. ^ R. Gilyard-Beer: White Ladies Priory, p. 37.
  14. ^ R. Gilyard-Beer: White Ladies Priory, p. 37.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°39′57″N 2°15′30″W / 52.6657°N 2.2584°W / 52.6657; -2.2584