The monastery at Penwortham was founded in the 1140s by Warin Bussel, who held the barony of Penwortham. He approached the Benedictine Abbey of Evesham to be its mother house. His proposal was that he would provide the money for the cost of construction and donate land, and the abbey would provide the monks and be in charge of the day-to-day running of the establishment. Evesham is in Worcestershire, a good way from Lancashire. The connection was through his wife Matilda who was brought up there and whose family already were benefactors of the abbey.
To ensure Penwortham Priory had a regular income, Bussel donated the pre-existing church of Penwortham, along with its income. He also gave land at nearby Farington and a quarter of the manor of Great Marton. Part of the agreement was that one of his sons could become a monk at the monastery, if he wished to in the future.
Initially, Evesham sent three monks to the priory and a chaplain to Penwortham church. Normally the monk in charge of a priory would hold the title of prior. However, this was initially not the case at Penwortham. The head monk was referred to as the ‘custos’ meaning keeper or warden. This emphasised that the monastery was subservient to the great abbey at Evesham, and in the 400 years of its existence, it never broke away to become independent. More than half of its yearly income was sent to the abbey, and it could not hold any land in its own name.
Later Warin’s eldest son Richard gave a quarter of the Ribble fisheries to the monastery. Despite Richard and other members of the Bussel family giving land in subsequent years, Penwortham Priory never became rich, and always stayed a small concern.
A Difficult Prior
Small monasteries in remote parts of the country could be used as a place to send wayward monks. This certainly seems to be the case with one Roger Norris. Norris was originally a monk at Christ Church Priory in Canterbury. There the monks were in dispute with the Archbishop, and sent Norris to negotiate with King Henry II on their behalf. Instead he took the Archbishop’s side and in retribution was locked up by the monks on his return. He managed to escape his captivity through the sewers.
When Henry’s son King Richard I came to the throne, he appointed Norris as Prior at Canterbury. The monks resisted his appointment, and so instead the king gave him the job of abbot at Evesham. Here he was accused of all manner of crimes and misdemeanours: drunkenness, misuse of funds, appropriating property for his own use and starving the monks. An investigator sent by the Pope was horrified by what he saw on his visit to the abbey and Norris was deposed.
However, he was then sent to Penwortham to become the prior, being appointed in November 1213. Just five months later he was sacked from this appointment, due to his poor behaviour and questionable morals. Norris went to Rome, to appeal his case. He was unsuccessful on this occasion, but astonishingly he was reappointed prior at Penwortham again in 1218. He managed to remain there until his death in 1223, but almost bankrupted the monastery.
Unusually, Norris was not the only prior to be appointed twice to run the establishment. Normally, an abbot or prior of a monastery would serve a single term, often finishing only when they died or retired. Records for Penwortham show that John of Gloucester, Robert Yatton and Ralph Wilcote all served two terms. The latter left money in his will to pay for extra food for the monks after they had been bled. The bleeding of monks was done routinely throughout the year as it was believed to be a way to maintain their health.
Monasteries were places where travellers could find accommodation and food. However, small institutions like Penwortham could struggle to fulfil their hospitality duties, especially for larger parties. In 1330, the steward of Queen Isabella (mother of King Edward III) demanded the right to be housed and fed for himself and his attendants during the three weeks of court at Penwortham. This right was known as ‘puture,’ and the dispute went on for 13 years. The sheriff of Lancashire also demanded similar treatment. It must have been more than the monks could bear. They appealed, and a jury found in favour of the Penwortham monks and against Queen Isabella’s steward. Damages were awarded to the abbot of Evesham. The sheriff abandoned his claim seven years later.
Storm Clouds Gather
The last prior at Penwortham was Richard Hawkesbury, who was in post for 24 years. In 1535, towards the end of his time, the priory held 2,500 acres of land and generated an income of £29, which would not be a large amount compared to other monasteries. Hawkesbury had been close to Cardinal Wolsey, but when Wolsey fell from favour Hawkesbury lost an important ally and more damningly, could be seen as guilty by association.
John Fleetwood had been lobbying the abbot of Evesham to give him the lease to the priory and its lands. He had powerful connections, which he enlisted for help in matter, in the persons of Lord Rich and Lord Audley. Fleetwood also worked as a lawyer for Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s right hand man.
In 1537, the King’s visitors found that only two monks remained. Prior Richard Hawkesbury was accused of having relationships with women, but these could have been trumped-up charges to discredit him. Such smearing was commonplace when the king’s men were looking for reasons to close monasteries.
The next year, Fleetwood got Evesham to voluntarily close Penwortham Priory and give him the lease. He gained not only the priory land and buildings but also Penwortham church and tithes, all for annual rent of £99 5s 3d. It’s likely that the abbot of Evesham hoped that if he sold off a lesser monastery like Penwortham, he would be able to protect his own abbey from being shut down. However, full closure of all monasteries had always been part of King Henry VIII’s plan, and Evesham was dissolved in 1540.
With Evesham closed and now in the hands of the king, Fleetwood continued to pay his lease, but now the money went to the crown. He had the chancel of Penwortham church repaired, and paid for a priest to be installed. By 1543, he was able to buy the whole of the Penwortham estate for £893 18s 8d. The property would remain in his family’s hands for the next two hundred years.
At the time of his death, a 1591 inventory showed he was carrying out substantial farming as lord of the manor. He was growing beans, peas, wheat and oats. Livestock included cattle, pigs, sheep and geese. The Fleetwoods had a house built on the property, probably incorporating the buildings from the monastery. Over the years, the house itself became known as Penwortham Priory.
Location and Appearance of the Monastery
Nothing now remains of the original priory, or of the subsequent houses that bore its name. A housing estate was built over the site in the early parts of the twentieth century. However, the priory cross base which was located close by can still be seen. The general area in which the monastery was located is also known. It was south of what is now Priory Crescent and west of Hollinhurst Avenue, as shown in the aerial photograph below.
Descriptions of the priory are sparse. Small monasteries were often built around a quadrangle, forming a cloister. It would have had a chapel, space for day-to-day administrative work, a refectory where the monks would take their meals, bedchambers for up to four monks, and guest accommodation. The Georgian antiquarian author, T.D.Whitaker, described it as “a humble edifice, three sides of which are still entire, enclosed by a moat”, but the accuracy of his description has been questioned.
There is some evidence of landscaping or formal grounds around the monastery. In John Fleetwood’s 1543 grant there is a footnote that states “There is adjoining the house of Penwortham a little grove of wood of oak and ash containing by estimations three rodde (?) and more, which is compasted (?) with alleys, and likewise with cross alleys in the middle, which wood is a great pleasure and commodity to the said house”. (Author’s note – I have updated the language here from the original. The words denoted by (?) are because I am unsure of their meanings). This area is now known as Crow Wood, which still exists to the north of the priory site (see aerial photograph above). In the 1800s, the same space was still part of the ornamental grounds of the house that bore the name ‘Penwortham Priory’.
For details of visiting the site of the monastery today, see the access section below.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
The Priory Cross base stands on Church Lane. The streets of Priory Crescent and Hollinhurst Avenue are lined with 20th century housing, but you can get a sense of where the priory stood. The surrounding area of Penwortham church and Norman castle standing on an escarpment is still a dramatic one, and worth walking around. See our post on the castle below. It is also worth taking the time to walk down through the woodland to the river, and look back at this Medieval part of Penwortham.
West Lancashire Railway Bridge
Lancashire’s Medieval Monasteries, Brian Marshall (2006) Landy Publishing. This excellent book is available from Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford. See their website here
Penwortham in the Past, Alan Crosby (1988) Carnegie Press. Copies are available second hand online.
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