This month we’re in the beautiful border county of Shropshire. Here’s one of my favourite non-Yorkshire monastic buildings, Wenlock Priory, which belonged to the Cluniac order.
Before the priory was established, the Saxon king of Mercia, Merewalh, built a church in Wenlock in 680. His daughter Milburge became abbess (hooray for nepotism!) and was later canonised. Her shrine became famous for its miracles, and provided the impetus for rival Shrewsbury Abbey to fetch the bones of St Winifride as a counter-attraction. The early monastery was replaced in 1040 by a college of priests, founded by Leofric, earl of Mercia, and his wife Godgifu, who’s also known as Lady Godiva. After the Norman Conquest, Roger de Montgomery turned the college over to monks from the French abbey of Cluny, making the house a priory subject to French ecclesiastical rule. This became a problem during the Hundred Years’ War, as French-ruled monasteries were declared ‘alien’ and became liable for huge taxes. Wenlock eventually applied to become English-ruled in 1395 to avoid bankruptcy!
The remains of the cloister have some wacky topiary animals.
Off-centre in the cloister is the lavabo, or wash-basin, used by the monks to wash their hands before eating. The top part was a fountain, which fed into a circular channel beneath. Built in 1220, it reused elements of an earlier lavabo, including this panel (a replica; the original is in a museum) from 1160 of Jesus calling the Apostles Peter and Andrew on the Sea of Galilee, with James and John in another boat. Free-standing lavabos are very rare in the UK but quite common on mainland Europe – the Wenlock lavabo is particularly fine, due to the Cluniacs’ love of decoration and design.
Here’s the chapter house from the cloister. Built in 1140, it’s a fabulous example of Romanesque architecture. As this is probably my favourite architectural style ever, I had to drool over the sheer gorgeousness of the decoration. Just look at the interior walls:
These would have been painted in reds and yellows, and there are some coloured stones inserted in the wall that would have matched the paintwork.
Just outside the chapter house I spotted this angel or saint nestled in the arches.
Most striking of all the interior decoration in the chapter house was this door lintel (originally the door led to the treasury). The devil-like head flanked by two monstrous beasts is actually Anglo-Scandinavian and must be a survivor of the original church established by Merewalh.
To the north of the cloister are the remains of St Michael’s chapel (upstairs), the private chapel of the Prior. Beneath it is an undercroft or cellarium, now inhabited by bees…
The undercroft has a selection of rather nice tiles.
This is the south transept (behind) and the library (the three arches in front). Unusually, there’s a laver inside the south transept in addition to the lavabo outside in the cloisters.
A shot looking due west down the nave of the church: the south transept middle left, with St Michael’s chapel far left. I was standing in the ruins of the Lady Chapel; the shrine of St Milburge was located in the centre foreground, along with the high altar. Neither shrine or altar remains today.
To the south of the priory ruins is this rather fine house, which incorporates much of the infirmary, dormitory range and prior’s house. It seems (to my not-very-expert eye) to have been remodelled as an Elizabethan residence post-Dissolution, with some later twiddling that looks a bit Georgian.
Wenlock Priory survived Henry VIII’s reforms by virtue of its wealth until January 1540, when it was surrendered by the prior. It is now in the care of English Heritage.
Location: Off the A458 between Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth. On Streetmap here
Entrance: £3.80 (adult price) as from April 1
Opening hours: Refer to English Heritage website for opening hours
Parking: Car park plus plenty of parking in the town.