Following on from our exploration at Buildwas Abbey in our previous video we are visiting one of the most historic monastic sites in England at Wenlock Priory, join us today as we explore a wealth of decorated architecture and striking features throughout.
The priory was first established in the late 7th century by the king of Mercia and initially it was built as a double house with quarters for monks and nuns. The priory is the oldest of all the monasteries in Shropshire and was once the wealthiest. In the year 1101 AD several relics were found that had belonged to the Kings daughter Milburge who was hailed as a saint ensuring that pilgrims and prosperity would come to the village of Much Wenlock.
By then Wenlock had been re-founded by the Normans as a priory of Cluniac monks, It is the impressive remains of this medieval priory which still survive today and you’ll see that everywhere reflects the Cluniac love of elaborate decoration. Parts of the great 13th century church still stand high. After monastic life ended at Wenlock in 1540 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the church and other buildings were rapidly reduced to ruins but parts of the monastery was converted into a private residence (and remains inhabited to this day).
Wenlock was a wealthy monastery. It derived an income not only from its large landed estates, many of them held from Anglo-Saxon times, but also from the ‘new town’ it developed at Madeley, 8 miles away. A weekly market and annual fair were held at the town. It was also a base for mining operations, including coal and ironstone. Nevertheless, the monks were living beyond their means. In 1262 the monastery was over £1,000 in debt, probably due to the extensive building works taking place around this time. From the early 14th century it was also burdened with the expense of providing food, lodging and fuel to former royal servants, sent to the monastery to live out their retirement as Corrodians, or pensioners.
The monastery was stripped of its valuables, and the lead was removed from the roofs of most of the buildings, including the magnificent church, which fell into ruins. However, the former prior’s lodging and infirmaries were preserved as a high-status private dwelling for the new owners of the site. Further digs were conducted in the early 1980s, adding to understanding of the development of the site and the lives of the nuns and monks who lived and prayed there between the 7th and 16th centuries.
The finest feature of Wenlock Priory is probably the superb chapter house, which dates to about 1140. The Anglo-Norman decoration is beautiful, with blind arcading and carved columns. Named after the abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, the Cluniac’s lifestyle and pattern of worship stemmed from the Benedictine order. Preferring not to indulge in manual labour, they loved splendour and embellishment in both their religious ceremony and their architecture; examples of intricately-linked ‘blind arcades’ can still be seen in the Chapter House. Dating from about 1140, this is the oldest part of the Priory that is still visible today.
An unusual feature is the ‘lavabo’, or Lavatorium, a sort of communal washing fountain, built in the middle of the 12th century. The lavabo stands in the cloister garth and was originally housed in an octagonal building. The ornately decorated fountain has spaces for up to 16 monks at a time to wash before proceeding to the refectory for meals. Look for the carved panels around the base of the structure and see some of the fine details.
There’s not much left of the priory’s cloister, but here the monks would have read, written, prayed, or just contemplated. It was built between the Great West Door and the South Transept with entrances to the church, chapter house, library, and refectory. In the late eighteenth century, when it became fashionable to visit old ruins, Wenlock Priory became part of the garden connected to the prior’s house.
The church was the centrepiece of Cluniac life, which encouraged communal worship. The priory church was 350 feet long, but not much survives now. From the stonework still in the ground you get a sense of its size, and with what survives from the transepts you get some idea of its height. The south transept is the tallest part that remains and stands at over 70 feet high. Built into one wall of this transept is a rare laver which is where the prior would wash the monks’ feet.
Standing within the site, it’s easy to imagine how impressive the structure once was and it’s a favourite location for locals looking for a little peace and even photographers. Situated in rural Shropshire, Much Wenlock isn’t on the tourist map – at least for most people – and when we visited the Priory it definitely wasn’t teeming with visitors. The place is tucked away on the outskirts of the town, overlooked by tall trees and If you’re lucky, you might even have the place to yourself.
We hope you’ve enjoyed walking with us today at Wenlock priory and have enjoyed exploring another hidden gem, if you like what you’ve seen today why not consider subscribing to the channel.
Till next time.