In 1307, Sir Robert de Holland founded a small chapel at Upholland dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury. Three years later, he extended the chapel and had buildings constructed to house a community of canons in a collegiate church. William de Gode was their dean, and was in charge of the twelve canons. Their religious life was not as strict as that of monks, but they would have similar duties of prayer, scholarship and caring for the poor and sick. However, all did not go to plan and by 1318 they had abandoned the site, possibly on charges of inappropriate behaviour.
This led Robert de Holland to take the advice of the Bishop of Lichfield to convert the site to a monastic Benedictine priory. It was the largest and last of four Benedictine monasteries to be founded in Lancashire. Thomas of Doncaster, from the priory of St John, was appointed prior in 1319. He had twelve monks under his charge.
Sir Robert endowed the priory with over two thousand acres of land in Upholland, some of which could be ploughed but much of which was poor rough pasture. He also transferred the original endowments to it that he had made to the earlier collegiate church. This meant that the priory would derive income from the churches of Childwall near Liverpool and Whitwick in Leicestershire.
Robert de Holland and Two Rebellions
Sir Robert was a secretary to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, and was a particular favourite of the earl. Jealous of what they perceived as preferential treatment, other local knights took part in what has become known as the Banastre Rebellion against the earl and Sir Robert. This was led by Sir Adam Banastre of Bank Hall. They attacked houses of those loyal to the earl and Sir Robert. The uprising came to a head at the Battle of Deepdale on Preston Moor when the rebels were soundly beaten.
Sir Robert’s loyalty was to be severely tested when the earl rebelled against King Edward II. This culminated in the Battle of Borough Bridge, when after fighting for the earl, Sir Robert surrendered. He was subsequently imprisoned by the king and lost all of his lands. For the next few years he became further involved in intrigues against the king. He was imprisoned again, escaped and finally was murdered in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, probably by supporters of the Earl of Lancaster for being a traitor (by surrendering at the aforementioned battle).
In 1323, King Edward II visited the north of England, as a way to ensure loyalty after the rebellion against him. He stayed at the priory for two weeks while visiting locations within Lancashire. He sacked the prior of Upholland for his close relationship with the Earl of Lancaster (who had been executed for his part in the rebellion the year before). The king also took the priory’s church of Whitwick in Leicestershire into royal possession. (Interestingly, this had probably been given to Sir Robert originally by the Earl of Lancaster, as he was also the Earl of Leicester). However the king added his confirmation of the rights of Upholland Priory to continue to exist. He also licenced it to acquire mortmain lands, that is lands that could never be taken away from it no matter who was its patron, to the value of £20 a year.
Whitwick Church was subsequently restored to the priory, and Sir Robert’s son also received back patronage of the monastery when Edward III became king.
Over the years there must have been many weeks and months of normal monastic life, but from time to time the monks had their problems. Some kind of misdemeanor led to a prior being banished and to be living alone at the manor of Garston in 1334. Just a few years later the next prior, John of Barnby, was implicated in the plot of Sir John de Dalton to kidnap Margery de la Beche. Fortunately for him he was subsequently cleared in the ensuing enquiry.
In 1391, Prior Robert Fazakerley got into a dispute with Henry Tebbe of Thringstone, who had refused to pay his Whitwick church tithes. On a visit to Leicestershire, Prior Fazakerley confronted Tebbe, showing him the paper with the obligation written on it. Tebbe ripped this up, drove Prior Fazakerley out of the church and threatened his life if he returned. He then stole “oblations worth £5” from the altar. After getting no help from the Sheriff of Leicester, the prior appealed to Parliament who sent their sergeant-at-arms to arrest Tebbe. He confessed his guilt, was imprisoned in Fleet gaol, paid a fine and, after coming to terms with the prior, was pardoned and released.
When the male de Holland line reached an end, patronage passed by marriage, along with the manor of Upholland, to John, Lord Lovel of Titchmarsh, Northamptonshire. It stayed with the Lovel family until the last Lord Lovel, and then passed to the most powerful of Lancashire families, the Stanleys.
Investigations and Dissolution
In 1497, the monks were reported to Bishop Hales of Lichfield for not following the strict Benedictine rule, and for the church and monastic buildings for being in poor repair. The bishop appointed commissioners to make an enquiry.
Presumably the state of affairs improved, but just under forty years later King Henry VIII had drawn up his plans to destroy the monasteries. With an income of just £78 a year, it was one of the smaller religious houses, and these were the ones the king targeted for closure first. In 1536, his royal commissioners Dr Legh and Dr Layton (who also inspected Kersal Cell) found the buildings to be in good order. However, they had an agenda to discredit the priory so that it could be closed down and stripped of its assets. They accused Prior Peter Prescott and two of his monks as having lose morals, citing the fact that they had separate sleeping chambers (rather than a communal room) and feather beds, which were not allowed by the Benedictines. But there were even more serious anomalies than these.
Three key treasures of the priory were not there, but were instead being held by Sir Richard Fitton at Gawsworth Hall. They were the upper arm bones of St Thomas of Canterbury and St Richard of Chichester both housed in silver reliquaries, along with a silver chalice. The reason given for Sir Richard to have them is that they were acting as security against a £10 loan he had given to the priory.
As well as this, “two parcel gilt salts” had disappeared. These were valuable table salt bowls, gilded on the inside. This had occurred during the prior’s absence in London. Elizabeth Bradshaw, brewer and day woman to the monastery, had given them to a servant, William Topping, for safe keeping. He had not been able to return them and he and his wife ended up imprisoned at Lancaster Castle awaiting trial, presumably for theft.
The Royal Commision gives an interesting snapshot of who was at the priory in 1536. There were now only five monks, 26 servants, two old people (presumably in frail health so being taken care of), and two children being educated. It was reported that three monks wanted to continue in their roles, while two wished to retire. We don’t know the fate of any of them, after the priory was closed.
The monastery was valued by local knights. Those carrying out the work were Sir William Leyland, Sir Richard Ashton, Sir Thomas Halsall, Thomas Burgan as auditor and Thomas Armer as receiver.
The bells and lead were valued at £18. The stained glass (twelve windows with “divers and many pictures“) was valued at £13 and most of this was sold locally. The saint’s relics were valued at over £16. Also listed were altar tabernacles either gilded or made of alabaster and 21 “great and small images in wood and stone“.
The Land of Dissolved Religious Houses document from 1536-7 shows that most of the priory income at this stage was only coming from the Childwall church. The document makes interesting reading if only for the amount of tithebarns in the area. Here is the entry (with some modernisation of the spellings by the author at Lancashire Past): Childwall rectory, farm of Garston Hall in Garston and a pasture called Pryors Heys in Hale, parcels of the Glebe lands of Childwall. Farms of the tithebarns of Garston and Aigburgh, Lee Barne, Wotton Barne, Lytlr Barne of the Grene, Hale Barne, Bake Barn alias Hale Bank Barne and Wavertree Barne with the tithes of corn belonging to them and tithes of corn in Speke, corn and hay in Thingwall, hay in Garston Hall and hay in Childwall not before mentioned. Amongst the animals owned on the connected farms were horses, 45 cattle and 43 sheep.
New Owners and the Survival of the Church
The lands were sold in 1545 to John Holcroft, who, together with his brother Thomas, profited greatly from the buying up of many of the monastic properties that were destroyed in Lancashire. These included Preston Friary, Cartmel Priory and Whalley Abbey. At Upholland John purchased the monastic site and its lands for £345 and soon sold it on to his cousin, Sir Robert Worsley.
The priory church survived and became a chapel of ease connected to the parish church of Wigan, meaning that it was used by local people as a more convenient place of worship than the Wigan church.
The Whitwick church in Leicestershire was in the hands of the Duchy of Lancaster soon after the dissolution. The Duke of Lancaster at the time was Henry VIII’s son, the boy king, Edward VI. It has remained in royal hands up to the present day as part of the Duchy of Lancaster.
The Priory and Church today
The priory monastic buildings occupied a block of land to the south of church. The area is now the grounds of Priory House, a private dwelling. The priory site has never been excavated, so we do not have a clear picture of what buildings it had. However, in the valuation of the furniture a list of rooms were given which included the hall, parlour, great chamber with adjoining chapel, kitchen, outhouses, dorter (dormitory) and also, rather unhelpfully, “rooms”.
The largest remaining part of the priory buildings that can be seen by the public is a 21 metre wall that stands in the Conservative Club car park. It was a two storey building, now reaching nine metres tall. It has seven windows and is made of a local sandstone. There is a low arched doorway that is now blocked, and much of the doorway is below the surface of the car park showing how the ground has risen over the years. It is thought to be the dorter, the the monk’s communal bedroom. Another side of the dorter is connected to a building within the private Priory House property, but this can’t easily be seen. It also has an arched doorway.
The dorter was connected by a covered walkway to the church of St Thomas, in the south west bay of the present nave. There is a door surviving in the church that is thought to be the one the monks would have entered through. Above it was another access point to the monastic buildings at a higher level, but this has been converted into a window (see the photograph below).
It’s thought that the stone louvers in the church tower (the openings that allow the sounds of the bells to be heard) could have originally come from elsewhere on the monastic site, and have been reused and installed into the tower.
A visit inside the church of St Thomas the Martyr will show more remains. The nave, where the public seating is now, was the chancel of the priory church. It has a window of reassembled medieval glass that survived from the priory times. Careful inspection of this will reveal intact flowers, faces and heraldic shields. At the rear of the nave is a rare double piscina dating from the 1400s. There are also three priest seats (sedila) that look of a similar time period. For more on the history of the church, including later historical developments, see our page here.
Nearby to the site are Abbey Lakes. Just one large pool remains now, but the name indicates that the site was once a water supply and presumably fish ponds for the priory.
Thanks to the volunteers at both the churches of St Thomas the Martyr, Upholland and St John the Baptist, Whitwick, Leicestershire for making us feel most welcome on our recent visits to research this website page. Both churches are open to visitors in the week. See the access details and links to their websites below.
Sites visited by A. and S. Bowden 2019
For St Thomas the Martyr, Upholland
The church is open to visitors Monday to Friday 10.30-12.30 and 2.00-4.00. See the ‘What’s on’ part of their website here. The volunteers in the church are very friendly and keen to let visitors have a look around to see the church in all its historical glory.
The dorter wall stands in the Conservative Club car park and can be viewed up close at any time.
Park at the church car park at the bottom of the hill. This gives you a view of the back of Priory House.
There is also an annual Medieval Fair at the church in July. Again see the website for details.
For more on the church at this site click the link, St Thomas the Martyr Church
For St John the Baptist, Whitwich, Leicester
The church is open March to October on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings 10.30-12.30. There are volunteers present during those hours, who are very helpful and welcoming and will tell you what they know of this very old church.
The church website is here.
There is free parking at nearby Whitwick Park, just a couple of minutes walk away.
‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Upholland’, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2, ed. William Farrer and J Brownbill (London, 1908), pp. 111-112. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol2/pp111-112 [accessed 14 April 2019].
The Lovell Connection
The Whitwick Connection
On site interpretation inside the church, from a display by Whitwick Local Historical Group. Board showing the list of rectors of the church and their patrons.