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Chapter 10: Aspice ... Prospice

This history of Halesowen Abbey arose from research conducted during the years 1960-1969 and was written in 1970, primarily for serialisation in the Romsley St. Kenelm's Parish magazine, where it appeared for 31 consecutive months commencing with the December 1971 issue. Much water has flowed down the infant River Stour past the Abbey ruins since that date, so that the relationship of this ancient monument to the community in which it exists has changed considerably.

Halesowen has now been absorbed into the Metropolitan District of Dudley, and as it is the smallest of the constituent former boroughs, it does not tend to receive priority for its needs, particularly where its historic monuments are concerned. When the Abbey site ceased to be a tenanted farm, its future became a subject of controversy between the owners, the Lyttelton family, and the local authority, with the result that an imaginative plan for the stabilising of the ruins in the centre of a cultural and leisure complex was not pursued.

Meanwhile, English Heritage, conscious of its responsibilities, but hampered by continuing agricultural exploitation of the site, did proceed with the rehabilitation of the isolated Abbey Infirmary building. The corrugated iron roof was removed; the magnificent original roof timbers with their carved king posts were repaired and treated with preservative prior to being covered by oak shingles. Years of rubbish accumulation were cleared; the flooring between the building's two levels was reinstated, and stairway access restored. Those two unique relics, the diminutive carving (possibly of a crusader) and the coffin lid (possibly once covering the remains of one of the Abbots) were stabilised in their wall niches. The whole edifice was weather-proofed, and stout doors now protect the interior from unauthorised access.

No longer can Halesonians plead ignorance of the evidence of the Abbey ruins, for, under the auspices of English Heritage the public is allowed access during Summer weekends to the Infirmary and its immediate surroundings. From this vantage point other remains of the Abbey complex can be seen, but alas, not visited. The entire area has ceased to be Lyttelton property, but, unfortunately from the point of view of historian and archaeologist, has passed into private ownership which, while demolition or alteration to existing ruins is prohibited, is not sympathetic to extended access or archaeological research.

So it is that while limited progress has been made, a unique mediaeval memorial to Monasticism remains very much in limbo, and unless very large financial resources become available to cover site purchase, ruin stabilisation and venue development, the outlook is bleak. It is, one supposes, beyond the bounds of possibility that, with the Millenium approaching, an imaginative combination of citizen support and civic commitment could submit an unassailable case for aid from the appropriate arm of the National Lottery Commission.

One hopes one's readership extends beyond the boundaries of the township of which the Abbey site is a part. It is perhaps opportune, therefore, to detail just what exists for preservation and exploration. For, having negotiated the long and rough farm track leading to the ruins, what is there to see? There was once a gatehouse, the foundations of which were preserved and suitably marked when the original Manor Lane was widened to accommodate increasing traffic. It can be seen in a 1933 photograph, with its old sandstone wall showing above the grass top of the retaining wall. The white patch showing behind the foundation wall is the cobbled pavement. The iconoclastic creators of the later duel carriageway now called Manor Way swept these remains aside without regard to their antiquity.

Arrived at the site itself, there are still standing parts of the great abbey church, which measured 189 feet in length, 105 feet across the transepts and 59 feet 6 inches across the nave and aisles. There remain of this a part of the north wall of the Presbytery, parts of the south and west walls of the south transept and (incorporated in a farm building) part of the wall of the south aisle.

The monkish domestic buildings were grouped round the cloister to the south of the church and considerable remains of those to the south-west of the cloister remain. We assume these to have been part of the Prater or dining accommodation and the Kitchens, since the latter are strategically situated between the supposed site of the Guest House, the cellars below the Prater, and the abbot's dwelling. The wall with its two rows of window apertures which was part of the Frater now provides a pictureque screen for the Victorian farmhouse which replaced the abbot's mansion and which, in the words of the author of "The Halesowen Story" has "the dignity and air of a country vicarage in a Trollope novel". That distinguished antiquarian and architect J.R. Holliday, writing in 1871, mentioned that the architect for the farmhouse was a Mr. Yeovile Thomason who had stated that the building it replaced "was formerly part of a mill". This accords with the drawing made by Benjamin Green (1736-1798) which I have noted previously, and with the description given by Nancy Burns in her book about the Green family called "Family Tree".

Some of the encaustic tiles with which the floor of the church was paved survive in exhibition cases in Halesowen Church. Others were at one time serving a diminished but useful purpose in the farmhouse porch. As the house is presently undergoing restoration, their continuing presence there cannot be confirmed.

Can we now dispose of another well-loved old wives tale? Halesowen, like almost every other place with an ancient house or abbey has its stories of a subterranean passage. In the case of Halesowen it was supposed to run from the abbey to the parish church. People who should know better have asked me if such a passage existed. The answer is definitely "No". In the first place, a tunnel of such a length, with the necessity for air circulation and ventilation outlets, was beyond the engineering competence of the times while secondly, with free and quick surface access from abbey to church and vice versa, what necessity was there for so costly an undertaking? Was there not incidentally, that fairly straight and well-worn route between the two ecclesiastical centres of the town which still bears the name "Priest's Innage"? Excavators on abbey sites almost invariably come upon large culverts which could be mistaken for tunnels, but most of these ran from upstream of the abbey, below the monks' domestic quarters, rejoined the watercourse downstream of the Abbey and carryied away the house's sewage.

We approach at last the end of our gentle meander through the history of Halesowen Abbey. The story of this monastic foundation from its beginning in 1218 to its dissolution in 1538 followed by the sorry tale of destruction and pillage (some undertaken by 18th century people of quality who should have known better) which resulted in the complex's downgrading from Manor to farm, has, viewed purely from an historical standpoint, been a fascinating if sad one. It will have achieved its purpose if it promotes a heightened awareness of this jewel of history in our midst, and persuades even more people than are reached by English Heritage publicity, to take advantage of the limited but rewarding access to the site now available. In view of the weatherproof (and hopefully vandal-proof) accommodation now available in the restored Infirmary, it would be good if the model of the Abbey as it would have appeared in its heyday and is, one supposes, still in the possession of a local school, could be renovated and put on show when that building is open.

Before the curtain finally falls, however, there are two considerations arising from our story, one practical and one ethical. The practical one poses the question "What is to happen in the future to the Abbey ruins?". Admittedly they are in the care of English Heritage and theoretically inviolable. Practically, however, in spite of recent partial restoration, the overall alien use of the surrounding land, and the vandalism inevitable on an unguarded site, make their deterioration and eventual downgrading to mounds in the turf unavoidable. Can nothing be done to ensure complete preservation? Only by a combination of personal, municipal and national resources resulting in the removal of the ruins from private ownership, can a complex worthy of the history of the Abbey be created.

If it were possible for the Infirmary to be open and stewarded throughout the year, then there would be the possibility of that building being used as a museum for the many Abbey artefacts, illustrations and publications which are now scattered around the area. That at least would positively link past and present. But when all is said and done there remains the terrible indifference of a prosperous community (that indifference exacerbated by the 1972 loss of identity) to the possibility of the loss of Halesowen's one remaining group of mediaeval buildings.

Given that miracles are rare these days, it is inconceivable that new monastic buildings will ever again border Manor Way. But is there a place for monasticism in modern society? We have seen in the case of Halesowen and other Premonstratensian houses that the original purity of aim was sullied, how the community became complacent, lazy, dissolute and inward looking. For these sins was paid the extreme penalty of dissolution. Yet, in secret and in exile the monastic ideal persisted and there are in this country a considerable number of monasteries (both Catholic and Protestant) which are flourishing centres of the contemplative life and of service to the community. One could perhaps mention Buckfast, Prinknash, Quarr, Nashdom and Iona as shining examples of the ideal combination of work, prayer and contemplation. More and more, amid the complexities of modern living it becomes essential to step aside from the daily round for a period of quiet and rest.

Many of these religious houses provide opportunities for the ordinary layman to spend a few days "the world forgetting, by the world forgot" and those who have gone into retreat in this way speak of coming back to their daily work infinitely better able to tackle it. So it would seem that, purged of its ancient evils, monasticism can serve as an island of sanity in an otherwise crazy world.

Perhaps we should leave the final word with the Pope's decree of 1955 "De Accommodata Vitae Religiosae":

"The monastic way of life must be observed faithfully. It should shine out ever more brightly in all its original purity. Over the centuries it has won for itself high esteem in the Church and among men. A monk's main duty is the service, at once lowly and noble, of the divine Majesty. Within the walls of his monastery, he may live in seclusion and devote himself completely to the worship of God, or he may legitimately have undertaken works of the apostolate or of Christian charity. Therefore, without changing the character of an Order, those ancient traditions must be brought up to date, and brought into line with the needs of souls today. In this way the monasteries will contain the seeds for the building up of the Christian people."

For those readers who have remained with me so far, and as a result of their reading intend to visit the abbey ruins, the plan reproduced from that indispensable book on Halesowen history, P. and K.M. Somers "Halas, Hales, Halesowen" should prove helpful.

A number of people who obviously want to study in a little more depth the subject of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in general and the history of Halesowen Abbey in particular, have asked me what have been my principal sources of information. In spite of certain inaccuracies, those parts of Treadway Russell Nash's "Collections for the History of Worcestershire" and of the Victoria County History of Worcestershire which relate to Halesowen and its abbey, are useful starting points. An essential book for background information on the Premonstratensian Order, its origins and the history of its English houses is H.M. Colvin's "The White Canons in England". Somewhat more esoteric but useful for details of monastic life at Hales is "Collectanea Anglo-Premonstratensia", published by the Camden Society. Unfortunately out of print, but possibly available for study at Birmingham Reference Library, is J. R. Holliday's "Halesowen Abbey" (reprinted from the proceedings of the Birmingham and Midland Institute Archaeological Society for 1871). Since Holliday was an architect, this slim volume is particularly rich in detail of the abbey's buildings.

In the Birmingham Reference Library too may be found a copy of Henry VIII's Valor Ecclesiasticus where, in Volume III, on pages 206-8, will be found some account of the abbey's finances. A chatty, and of necessity, brief history of the abbey is contained in the Somers book from which our abbey plan is taken, while some account of what happened to the house and its lands after the Dissolution is contained in Nancy Burns detective story-like genealogical study of the Green family called "Family Tree". If you are prepared to spend many hours reading through the index of the bound volumes of the British Archaeological Association, there is gold about Halesowen Abbey to be found among the dross of material about more distant historic sites. Professor G.G. Coulton's painstakingly researched, but somewhat anti-monastic work, "The Mediaeval Village" contains, in addition to information about our abbey, curious and fascinating facts about the village of Romsley and goings-on there in the 13th century. For the compulsive visitor to abbey sites wherever they may be, can be recommended F. H. Crossley's "The English Abbey". Cardinal Gasquet's various books on the Dissolution of the Monasteries (attacked so devastatingly by Coulton) nevertheless contain information available otherwise only from original documents. For the less dedicated reader G.W.0. Woodward's somewhat more superficial account of Henry VIII's depredations entitled (appropriately enough) "Dissolution of the Monasteries" and now obtainable in paper-back, can be recommended. Much that has appeared in this history has been gleaned from original documents, a complete list of which would make tedious reading. Most, if not all, however, have been found from references in the books I have mentioned. The Registers of the mediaeval Bishops of Worcester, some published in recent years by the Worcestershire Historical Society, are useful for the light they throw on the relationship between various Diocesans and Abbots of Halesowen.

Though little may have been done by way of preservation, recent years have seen the publication of the results of additional research into the Abbey's history. The Halesowen History Society has published (1984) Kathleen Crew's "Life at Halesowen Abbey", while, via Cambridge University Press, has come from Tel Aviv University, Zvi Razi's "Life, Marriage and Death in a Mediaeval Parish", sub-titled as "Economy, Society, and Demography in Halesowen 1270-1400".

Finally, for any brave soul who contemplates research into a subject on which literally hundreds of books have been written and which it would take more than one lifetime to read, there are two major works, the one of which will act as a corrective to the other. I refer to Dom Bernard Knowles "The Monastic Orders in England" and Professor G.G. Coulton's "Five Centuries of Religion". Good hunting and good reading!

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