England, United Kingdom.
Halesowen Abbey was founded in 1215 after King John granted the Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, the manor of Hales; including the villages of Oldbury, Warley, Wigorn, Cakemore, Ridgeacre, Hill, Lapel, Hawne, Hasbury, Illey, Hunnington and Romsley. The site was settled by the Premonstration Order, known as the 'White Canons' on account of their habit, which was a white cassock with a rochett over it, a long white cloak and a white cap.
The Order of Premonstratensian, was a religious order which formerly possesed great political power in France. It was founded in 1120 in the now extinct Diocese of Laon, France, by Saint Norbert of Xanten. In the Forest of Couchey, in a meadow pointed out to him, as he said, by heaven, he collected his first disciples and gave them the rule of Saint Augustine, but with added statutes of greater austerity. In 1126 it received papal approbation by Pope Honorius II. The Order came to England in about 1143, settling first at Newhouse in Lincoln.
The Abbey was ready for habitation in 1218 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist, the first monks coming from the Abbey of Welbeck in Nottinghamshire on the 6th May 1218. The site was selected as it nestled in a hollow and was therefore sheltered. It was surrounded by good farming land through which ran the source of the River Stour. This ensured an adequate water supply and sustained an extensive chain of fish ponds. For three hundred years the Abbey became a self-contained monastic community of considerable wealth and power. The Abbey lands supported a community of around twenty monks who lived by their own internal laws and government. The monastic life was one of self-denial with basic and scanty food, fasting, long hours of silence and prayer. But this idyllic setting and quiet religious life hides a story of tyrannical monks who rule the area with an uncompromising rod of iron. They forced the local people to pay high rents, then a tithe and also to use the mill at the monestary, for which they paid a fee. So wealthy, powerful and unpopular did the monks become that they were officially investigated over their behaviour and a revolt against their rule occured amongst the people of Romsley in 1387.
The court rolls of 1327 describe how offerings to what he describes as "a schryne of seynt Barbara's hede" had very much diminished. In 1343 the church's of Clent and Rowley were appropriated to Halesowen at the petition of the Abbot. He pleaded that the situation of the house on the High Road obliged them to exercise greater hospitality, while they had lately suffered great loss from the fire which had destroyed many of their houses within the borough of Hales and from the coldness of devotion to the head of Saint Barbara, which had formerly been one of the most precious relics belonging to the monestary. An inventory of the Abbey was taken in 1505, on the death of Abbot Buges, of the goods belonging to the monestary of Halesowen, including: "A schryne of St. Barbera's hede of sylver and gylt, with crosses and bedds upon it." Upon the external Infirmary wall is the carved image of a womans head, an image associated with that of Saint Barbara.
Incidently, another item listed within an inventory of Halesowen Abbey is, "a hede of Seynte Kenelme, sylver and gylde".
The Abbots of Halesowen Abbey
Abbot of Hales, translated to Welbeck 1232
Richard elected on this transition 1232
Martin in the reign of Edward I
Nicholas in the reign of Edward I
John elected 1298
Walter de la Flagge elected 1314
Thomas de Lech elected 1322
Thomas de Birmingham elected 1331
William de Bromsgrove elected 1369
Richard de Hampton elected 1391
John Poole elected 1395
Henry de Kidderminster elected 1422
John Derby elected 1446
Thomas Bruges, Sub Prior elected 1485
Edmund Greyne, Prior of Hornby elected 1505
William Taylor (the last Abbot) surrendered 1538
With a yearly income of greater than £200 Halesowen Abbey escaped the dissolution of the lesser monastaries, but fell with the greater establishments in 1538. The surrender was made upon the 9th June, and very afterwards the site of the Abbey, as well as much of its property, was granted to Sir John Dudley by the King. Previous to this however, parts of the church and other buildings were destroyed, and the lead, bell-metal and building materials were sold. It appears from entiries in the churchwardens accounts, that some of the things were bought for use by the parish church - under the date of 1539, amongst others, the following payments are recorded:
For fetching the Rood from the Abbey, and setting it up: 2/10d
Paid for the organs: £2 13/4d
For mending and setting them up: £2
For carriage of three loads of stuff from the Abbey: 6d
For fetching the table or picture of St. knelm, from the Abbey and setting it up: 6d
There is a long held belief that the carved seats now in Walsall parish church are one's removed from the Abbey. Frederic Willmore in his 'History of Walsall' stated that, "the eleven stalls on either side preserved in their original position are carved with grotesque figures, no two of which are alike, they appear to have belonged to some monastic building, and were possibly removed to their present position after the dissolution of old religious houses." The idea that the stalls came from Halesowen Abbey is a plausible though it is not supported by any documentary evidence. Equally plausible and with again no documentary evidence is the belief that the architectural feature erected in Hagley Park known as 'the castle', a sham gothic ruin, was built in part with masonry taken from the remains of Halesowen Abbey.
In more recent times there has grown a more romantic notion that, like seemingly every other place with an monastic house, subterranean passeges exist beneath the ruins. In the case of Halesowen Abbey tunnels are said to run from the Abbey to the Paris church. Mr JR Holliday, writing in 1871 states that, "I failed to discover any traces of it, although several persons assured me that friends of theirs had actually been along the passage for a considerable distance." In reality the 'tunnels' are more likely to be drains, culverts and sluices associated with the extensive fish ponds.
Equally ellusive is the small Abbey buriel grounds, usually these are situated on the north side of the Abbey Church, thought today to lay somewhere between the ruins and the athletics track. Though the Canon's are buried outside the funeral rites associated with the internment of an Abbot were strictly laid down in the Premonstratensian Ordinal. It was usual for Abbots to be buried within the Abbey walls. Either the church, Chapter House or occasionaly the Cloister walks were used, it was customary for an effigy or inscribed stone to be placed over the grave - such an inscribed stone sits high in an alcove in the Infirmary, it depicts a kneeling monk, a book and a crucifix with figures carved either side. Completing the obligation of a certain number of masses, an entry in the matyrology on the anniverary of his death and the preperation of a mortuary bill requesting other religious houses to pray for his soul.
Recovered by Victorian antiquaries and built into the wall of The Infirmary is a carving of a Knight who died whilst crusading in the Holy Lands. His body would have been buried where it fell but his heart would have been cut out a buried when his comrades returned to Halesowen.
The standing remains of the abbey buildings (and others) have been incorporated into the walls of farm buildings belonging to Manor Abbey Farm. The north barn of the farm dates to the 17th century and the rest of the farm is of a 19th century date.
The monastic buildings are situated within a rectangular precinct, which was originally defined by fish-ponds to the north, south and south-west and by a water-filled moat. The precinct measured an area of 170 by 100 metres. The monastic church, built of local sandstone, is sited in the north part of the inner precinct and its standing remains are thought to be of early 13th century date. A range of agricultural buildings overlie the south wall of the church and north part of the cloister. The 17th century north barn follows the same alignment as the church and has been partly built from reused medieval masonry and timbers. Excavations have further shown that the barn incorporates standing remains of the monastic church. Belonging to the south range of the cloister, are the standing remains of the south wall of the frater and its undercroft. To the south east of the church is a two-storeyed building which was constructed in the second half of the 13th century. This may have been the abbot's lodging.
Saint Barbara's Shrine
The people's hearts are waxen cold,
they bring no ofering, jewels or gold.
To the shrine of the head of Saint Barbara
Mitred Abbots and Canons White,
who builded right well for Gods delight.
Lament at the shirne of Saint Barbara.
Monks, white-robed, the aisles that trod,
three ceturies have piece of God.
Be praise to the shirne of Saint Barbara.
Bright-hued walls and tapestry
and storied windows, wondrously.
Tell of the holy Saint Barbara.
Aisles dim lit, and cavern roof,
hold all save lofty thoughts aloof.
By the spell of the shrine of Saint Barbara.
White-robed canons, at dead of night,
and mitred Abbot, the King despite.
Pray at the shrine of Saint Barbara.
God softened the King's hard heart. Assoil,
the prince who thinketh to take for spoil.
The shrine of the head of Saint Barbara.
Holds each candle lit, in hand,
that God may lighten a wicken land.
Lights o'er the shrine of Saint Barbara.
Of a sudden, a wind. The lights out-blown,
leave dark the church. God's will is known.
Monks weep at the shrine of Saint Barbara.
Abbots mitre and staff and ring,
a broken hearted offering.
Are laid at the shrine of Saint Barbara.
At break of dawn driven one by one,
the white-robed monks afar walk on.
Woe! Woe! The shrine of Saint Barbara.
Poems and Ballads of Old Birmingham
E.M. Rudland, 1914.