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!”

Why Bradwell Priory was not Wolverton Priory

Although Bradwell Priory quickly acquired that name it was not, strictly speaking, on land that was part of the Bradwell Manor. Instead it was on land which was part of the Wolverton Manor.

Wolverton Manor was defined by two natural boundaries, the River Ouse to the north and Bradwell Brook to the east, by the Watling Street to the west and by an artificial line to the south. This border follows an east-west line that passes through Two Mile Ash to the edge of Bradwell Brook. This line continues westward and divides Calverton from Shenley.

As you can see from this map Bradwell Abbey Parish recognises the ancient manorial divisions between Wolverton and Loughton and Bradwell Brook separates it from the main Wolverton Manor.

The priory was founded in the will of the second Baron of Wolverton, Meinfelin, in 1155. How much land the priory was given at the outset is not known but it seems clear that at least it was bordered by Bradwell Brook on the north side and Loughton Brook on the east side. Whether or not it extended west to the Watling Street encompassing the area later kown as Bradwell Abbey Parish is not known with certainty, but the geography would suggest that the parish area was in fact the original bequest.

It was considered to be worth 1 hide in 1155. A hide was a land value assessment and although modern commentators take that as an average of 120 acres, it was never an exact measurement of area.

Land represented income, which any religious foundation needed. Meinfelin and his son also granted the priory income from churches at Wolverton, Chalfont, Thornborough, Padbury and Wicken – all of which were under the sway of the baron. Over time some of these sources of income were lost.

The priory settled its buildings on the Wolverton side of Loughton Brook, close by the old village of Bradwell; hence it came to be known as Bradwell Priory rather than Wolverton Priory.

Bradwell Priory: further comments

In my post about Bradwell Priory on Monday I gave the impression that it was not very well endowed. That much is true, but it was not neglected, and there is evidence that in the first 100 years of its life people were willing to make bequests.

First up, from around 1230, is a grant from Radulph Barre, then lord of the Manor of Stantonbury.

Know all men that Radulph Barre has granted to the chirch of Marie de Bradewelle 9 shillings in annual rents from the lands in Stany Stratford of William Galun, which land was granted to them by Hugo Barre, uncle of the grantor.

About 20 years later, there is a small grant of land to pay for the shoes and clothing of the monks.

Petronilla Permayn grants to the Church of St Mary of Bradwell, the Prior and the monks serving God and his Mother, three rods of land in the field of Wolverton, viz: 1/2 acre above Thornidole between the land of the Prior and the land which Hugh Pope held, and 1 rod above Middlefurlong between the land of the same Prior and the land of Robert son of Ranulph. These three rods Dominus Nicholas, clerk of Bradwell, granted to the Prior in free alms for their shoes and clothing. She also demises 1/2d rent per annum paid by Nicholas at the Feast of the Nativity

In the same period, circa 1250, another small grant:

William Vis de Lu of Stratford grants and confirms to the Church of St Mary of Bradwell and the monks serving God out there, to God with the sacristy 3 half-pennies rent p.a. in Wluerthon and in Stratford at 2 terms yearly 1/2d from Jueta widow of Thomas Piston at the Feast of the Nativity, 1/2d from the land at Spitelescroft next the land of William, son of Basil and of the heirs of Willim Ferrarius with 1/2d at the feast of St Mary in March from half acre in Fuleweelslade next land of Thomas the clerk and from William Fule. from 1/2 9indecipherable) abutting on the garden of John de Haue.

Free of all service, etc, wardship, escheat etc. 

There is more but I won’t bore you too much. The flavour of all these grants is that they are all tiny piecemeal additions to the Priory’s property. A “rod”, sometimes known as a perch or a pole, is a length of only 5.5 yards or 16.5 feet – little more than a small garden plot. What Bradwell Priory lacked throughout its unspectacular history was a significant bequest that could move it into a bigger league.

 

Bradwell Priory

As a small boy I remember being taken down to Abbey Farm. There were some old stone buildings there but at the age I was then it was meaningless to me. I did notice the pigs, however. When I went back there about twenty to thirty years later, the pigs were gone and there were a number of people beavering away to reveal floor tiles and wall paintings. Bradwell Priory was being reclaimed.
The founndation came from Meinfelin, the second Baron of Wolverton. He seems to have  lived to a good age and he may have consolidated the wealth of the barony. At any rate he had sufficient wealth to endow the Priory of Bradwell in his will of 1155. This, sad to relate, may have been the high point of the history of the Priory. The original endowment gave the new Priory some land in Wolverton and Padbury and the churches of Stantonbury, Wolverton, Padbury, Chalfont St Giles and Stoke Hammond. Before too many years passed the Stantonbury church was lost to the Cathedral of Lincoln and the income from the church at Chalfont St Giles in 1259 and there were also disputes about payment from the church at Padbury. The Black Death of 1349 appears to have decimated the number of monks, although there is no precise figure. The buildings were reported to be dilapidated in 1361 and the office of Prior was not filled for some years after that. Apparently the names of the priors between 1410 and 1492 are unrecorded.
The income for the priory in 1291 amounted to £10 19s 6d and at dissolution in 1524, when you can be sure that Cromwell’s commissioners accounted for every penny, the income was £47 4s 11/4d.
There is some evidence that the priory held properties in Little Billing and Northampton which suggests that the Longuevilles may have come to its aid from time to time, but the overall picture is that of an institution which was never able to attract the endowments it needed to thrive in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The property was surveyed in 1526 and in February 1528 the King formally granted the site and its precincts to Cardinal Wolsey. It must have quickly reverted to the Longueville family of Wolverton who had a long-term interest in Bradwell manor. It appears that they rented it at first and then purchased the property. The date of this transaction is not known.

The Longueville involvement continued until 1666 when it was sold to the Alston family. The change of ownership may have led to enlargement of the 16th century hall.
The name Bradwell Abbey probably came about after the monastic dissolution when the new owners of former religious houses wished to magnify their status.
Very little of the medieval property survives intact. The small chapel, dedicated to St. Mary is about the only part to which one can ascribe a medieval heritage. It continued in use as a chapel until the 18th century but by 1798 it was used as a farm building – which is how I remembered it from my first encounter.
More detail can be found online at http://www.mkcdc.org.uk/bradwell.htm