Sunday, March 5, 2017

Bradwell Abbey

Despite its name the abbey, or more properly, the priory, was founded as part of the Wolverton estate, but because of its closeness to the village of Bradwell, became associated with that name.

The Wolverton Manor by the end of the 12th century. The land the south of Bradwell Brook has been granted to the Priory and the Stony Stratford settlement is just beginning.

It was founded as a bequest of the baron of Wolverton, Meinfelin, at or soon after his death circa 1154. He gave the southern section of the manor, beyond the brook to support the priory. Building probably began soon after this date. As was customary, the new priory came under the jurisdiction of an established house, in this case Luffield, on the border of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. The monks followed the Benedictine order and as well as their expected duties to pray at regular hours, were also responsible for working the land, just as their peasant neighbours did. Most of the land came under the plough.

This drawing, taken from recent work by archaeologists, shows  that most of the land was under the plough.
The priory was never very prosperous. After the original endowment of land, little else was forthcoming, It was granted the right to appoint the vicar of Holy Trinity church, which meant that some of the revenue from tithes would find its way into priory coffers. The priory also held some land in Padbury and the churches of Padbury, Stantonbury, Stoke Hammond and Chalfont St Giles. Stantonbury was ceded to the bishop of Lincoln at an early but unknown date and Chalfont St Giles wen the same way in 1259. Other than the prospect of future endowments there was not much scope for the priory. Many priories and abbeys functioned as hostelries for travellers, but the foundation of Stony Stratford around 1200 closed off that option. The route followed by Queen Eleanor's cortege in 1290, for example, went from Delapre Abbey in Northampton to Stony Stratford and then to Woburn Abbey. Had there been no inns at Stony Stratford it would have been possible for Bradwell Abbey to develop a hostelry a mere two mile further on the Watling Street.

The records of the priory are extremely sketchy. The Priors that we know of were Nigel (mentioned in 1189), Richard (mentioned in 1201), John (mentioned in 1219); another Richard resigned in 1237 and was replaced by Simon de Kantia. Prior John was mentioned in 1253 and Bartholemew in 1272. Robert of Ramsey was elected in 1280 and 40 years later, in 1320, we know that Prior John died and Robert of Rowsham was elected to replace him. He may not have been there very long because in 1231 Prior Robert Foliot died and was succeeded by Simon of Elstow. He resigned five years later and William of Loughton was elected in his stead.

This brings us to the Black Death, which reached the Wolverton area in 1349. There were probably as many casualties as there were elsewhere, but two that we know about are the last of the Wolverton barons, John de Wolverton, who died in that year, and William de Loughton, the Prior of Bradwell. We must assume that the plague also killed off many of the monks because there were simply not enough men to manage the estate in the following years. Browne Willis reports that the buildings were in a state of disrepair by 1361.

John of Billing was elected Prior in 1349 and it is unclear how many years he served, but his successor, John of Willen, was deprived of the post for incompetence in 1361. Who succeeded him is not known but John Horwood was the prior in 1388. In 1380 the income of the priory was £32 6s. 2d. - not very much for an institution of this size.

John Harwood died in 1410 and was replaced by William Horwood, who may have been a relative. After that the rest of the 15th century does not record the names of the priors.

The priory was undoubtedly poor but for some this was an attraction. One monk from St Albans petitioned his abbot to be allowed to spend his retirement years at Bradwell where he could get closer to God by living a life of real poverty. There are also no bad reports of Bradwell, no evidence of backsliding or corruption. The bishop of Lincoln, who visited at sometime between the years of 1431 and 1436, gave the priory a good report and was only concerned about the small numbers of monks.

This drawing, taken from a Bradwell Abbey brochure, illustrates how the  priory may have looked in 1524.

By the turn of  the 16th century the monastic movement was in decline. Contrary to popular belief, which associates the monastic dissolution with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in the late 1530s, many were closed down in the 15th century to fund other projects. In many cases the income was used to support the new colleges which were growing up at places like Oxford and Cambridge, and such was the fate of Bradwell Abbey. In 1524 the lands and the revenues of the priory were acquired by Cardinal Wolsey to help towards funding his great project of Christ Church College at Oxford. The income amounted to £47 4s. 1 1/4d. Not a great deal of money, but as the cardinal no doubt noted to himself, "Every little helps!"

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