The rain lashed our faces as we made our way hastily towards the steps of the house, seeking shelter. Once through the door, we were taken down a flight of steep steps twisting their way below ground, underneath the house.
Hidden away from sight and sound, a large vaulted undercroft lay waiting, its delicate arches having rested in the same position since the early 14th century and, through the passage of history, been incorporated into the fabric of a fine Georgian house.
In the gloom of a few lights, the room began to move. Thin rib vaults sprung lightly from well-preserved stone cushions resting on pillars whilst the ceiling arched and curved above our heads.
Reality vs. Legend
The undercroft is the most substantial remnant of an Augustinian priory founded in Stone (Staffordshire) around 1135. But to understand the origins of this priory, and where Stone itself gains its name, we must travel a little deeper into the past.
According to a legend, derived from a later ‘Foundation History’ of the priory, Wulfhere (the last pagan king of Mercia), founded a priory out of remorse for the death of his two sons, whom he murdered for their conversion to Christianity.
He allowed the priory, more likely to be a college of secular canons, to be built by Queen Ermenilda, his wife, by a pile of stones she had already built as a memorial for her sons. Thus, the village which grew up around the priory became known as Stone.
This legend is clearly the result of the murky waters of myth clouding actual history. King Wulfhere was already a Christian in 670 AD, when legend claims he murdered his sons, and the tale corresponds too neatly with a similar account by Bede set in another part of the country, ten years after Wulfhere’s death.
Evidence of Earlier Monastery
However, there is evidence there was a pre-Norman monastic foundation on the site before the Augustinian priory, in which we were now standing, grew up in the centre of Stone.
Through the study of slight evidence, the devotional chanting of a small community echoes across the centuries towards us. According to the Domesday Book (1086), a gift of land was given by Achil, a freeman, to his sister. Some suggest his sister may have been part of a hermitage of nuns.
The only other evidence to suggest this are some later medieval verses where a man called Enison de Walton, known as ‘Enyson’ in verse, ‘slue the nuns and priest’ at Stone. This Enison held Walton under Robert de Stafford in 1086.
In the Pipe Roll of 1129-30, Enison’s son is charged ten silver marks for ‘the men whom he killed’. Do these two references refer to the same monastic community that may have existed before the later Augustinian foundation?
Whatever the truth behind such evidence, Enison was forced to sell his land in Stone to pay his son’s fine. The buyer was Geoffrey de Clinton who, with permission of Enison’s overlord, Robert de Stafford, founded a priory on the recently purchased land.
The priory, having originally been founded as a daughter house of Kenilworth priory in Warwickshire, soon grew to regional prominence gaining its independence and, in 1251, was granted the right to hold a market in Stone. A monthly farmer’s market is now held in Stone.
Surviving sources indicate the priory was both a place of humble devotion to God and a place of corruption. For example, in 1265, the cellarer of the priory, who may have used the surviving undercroft, was accused of theft from the house of a local resident called Adam de Ardene.
Having left the darkness of the undercroft, we made our way up the nearby church path, slippy from recent rainfall. The 18th century parish church of St Michael and St Wulfad (one of the sons of Wulfhere) loomed up ahead in the grassy churchyard.
This later church, built in 1756, was constructed out of the remains of the ruined priory buildings which once dominated this hillside. Studying the stones, we both wondered what secrets the neat stone walls of this church were hiding.
The collapse of Stone priory is well documented and, like all other medieval monastic houses in England, was brought about by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The last prior was named William Smyth and, notably, remained optimistic about the survival of his priory to the end. In February 1537, he wrote to the Bishop of Lichfield complaining a promised delivery of timber had not arrived;
‘If I have not the said timber, I know not where to be provided for my great work now in hand’
What ‘great work‘ the prior was engaged in, we shall never know. The prior’s contemporaries admired his optimism. Lord Stafford wrote in March 1537, when Cromwell’s commissioners were expected the next Sunday, that ‘the Prior of Stone thinks his house will stand‘.
But the forces of history had turned against the priory and by 1538 the monastic foundation had been suppressed. Even at the moment of inevitability, the prior had mortgaged ‘a shrine of silver gilt‘ to attempt to work against the suppression of the house. Was this for bribery or legal fees?
We began our journey back to our car parked nearby. A community of the laity still inhabit the hillside where centuries of prayer and devotion to God were offered. It seemed strange to us, as we drove away, that an institution that once dominated the region, should have disappeared so completely.
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(My sources include N.Pevsner, Staffordshire: The Buildings of England (London, 1974), A History of the County of Stafford: V3 (London, 1970), pp.240-47, W. Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum…a History of the Abbies and Other Monasteries…and Cathedral and Collegiate Churches…in England and Wales (Bohn, 1846) and thanks to the present owners of the priory undercroft for their generosity with their time and for allowing me access to their private house. Some of the dates used in this text are disputed by a number of sources. I accept there may be disagreement over certain sources but have chosen those most supported by evidence.)