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Chapter 1. Background

One of the great attractions of the English countryside is that plentifully scattered over it are the remains of venerable buildings of other days. There are, of course, the ruins of castles to remind us of the troubled days of our island story when warfare was as much a part of life as football is today. But there are also ruins with a peaceful background and message -those of the abbeys. Perhaps it is easier for the visitor to a castle to understand its purpose than it is for a visitor to an abbey for, unfortunately, strife and battles are still with us, while monasticism as a concept has all but vanished from our midst.

In the 14th century, there were more than 2,000 abbeys and similar religious houses flourishing in this country and, while there had been some decline by the 16th century, it was Henry VIII's suppressions of 1535-1540 which brought monastic life in England virtually to an end. The sites of most of the 2,000 religious houses are known and charted and of some, notably Fountains, Rievaulx and Tintern, majestic shells remain. In other cases, such as that of Bordesley Abbey, near Redditch, virtually no stonework remains above ground. In the majority of cases, however, monastic sites have come under the care of English Heritage, stonework has been repointed, debris removed and returfing and paving has made these hallowed acres accessible to the modern pilgrim.

Most towns and villages possessing abbey sites take great pride in them and even exploit then commercially as tourist attractions but, for some unapparent reason, we in this area have almost totally neglected our abbey ruins at Halesowen. True, the site is under the protection of English Heritage, but the average resident in the town (particularly the newcomer) neither knows nor cares that within easy walking distance of the town centre are the remains of one of the country's greatest Premonstratensian abbeys.

It lies to the south-east of the town and is reached by walking in the Quinton direction along Manor Way until one reaches the farm drive on the right, just past the bridge over the infant Stour. At the end of the farm drive will be found a considerable range of farm buildings, overlooked by a substantial Victorian farm house, and incorporated in these barns and byres will be found the remains of the Abbey Church's Nave, Transept, Presbytery and Sacristy. Other farm buildings incorporate parts of the abbey's guest house, kitchen, frater (eating room) and dorter (dormitory). Separated from the main conventual buildings, the Infirmary building, formerly functioning as a barn, has survived. It has some unique features which will be dealt with later in our story.

Information about one aspect or another of Halesowen Abbey can be found in a variety of books. In one can be found details of its architecture, in another the bare facts of its history, but nowhere, so far as I know, has an attempt been made to gather the full story of the abbey into one cohesive story. That will be the aim of this work.

A great variety of religious orders made up England's monastic complement. Roughly in order of arrival in this country were the Benedictines or Black Monks, the Cluniac Monks - a reformed order of Benedictines, the Cistercians or White Monks, and the Carthusians. There followed the Augustinians or Black Canons, the Premonstratensian or White Canons and the Gilbertines, the last named being mixed communities of monks and nuns. It will be understood that the terms 'black' and 'white' refer to the colour of the habits worn by a particular order, and that only the larger religious orders have been mentioned.

The monks of Halesowen belonged to the Premonstratensian order and we shall be looking at the founding of the order, its rapid growth on the continent, its coming to England and its eventual appearance at Halesowen beside the old pilgrim route to the shrine of St. Kenelm at the foot of the Clents.

 

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