Tutbury Priory Church - dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary

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from Tutbury Local History

A History of St Mary's Priory Church

The church as we see it today is of a great age - it is 350 years older than the castle remains and the oldest usable building in Staffordshire.

First let us go back to the 10th century before the Norman Conquest, as the first church on this site was probably an Anglo Saxon one. Some traces of an earlier church have been found but their origins are a bit doubtful.

We do know a lot about the Norman church because much of it is still standing and well documented. The building was started about 1086 by Henry de Ferrers and was consecrated on the 15th August 1089. This date is the church festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to whom the church is dedicated and we have noted before how August 15th became a key date around which the later Medieval fair revolved.

About 60 years after the church was finished, Robert de Ferrers built a Priory and staffed it with a Prior and twelve brothers from Normandy. They were Benedictines, dedicated to St. Peter and that’s why it was a priory rather than a monastery.

At this time the church was larger than it is now - it was about twice as long with two transepts so that it formed a cross-shape with with a tower over the central crossing and two turrets at the west.

This was a common design in those days for abbeys, cathedrals and other big churches.

It is possible though that the existing church and apse mark the church as built in 1080.

The Priory buildings covered about three acres on the north side of the present church. Their position on the north, rather than on the south, was somewhat unusual, but was probably due to the need for easy access to the water of the River Dove.

This was probably because the church was built first, leaving no suitable space where it dips sharply, and also because the north was closer to a water supply from the Dove.

Generally speaking the church had a less turbulent life than the castle during the Middle Ages as churches were held in higher reverence, but it had its own intrigues.

From the start the Priory was quite rich - the successive members of the Ferrers family endowed it with lots of goodies as I’ve listed below: - Robert was particularly generous. A selection of land, mills, rents, tolls, vineyards, pannage, honey, free firewood and timber, tithes (medieval rates and taxes), fishing rites, the feudal services of peasants and the proceeds of court fines from all these places. This list also indicates what extensive property the Ferrers family held. From time to time, the Priory’s rights were confirmed or adjusted.

A lot of the Priory’s income was from tithes though and it was not always easy to collect from the parish priests - there are records of ex-communications by the Archbishop following failure to pay.

It seems that the Prior kept his affairs separate from the monks - we know that in 1230 an agreement was drawn up between them under which he was obliged each year to provide the monks with:

26 marks

29 live pigs

6 sextares of land

20 large cheeses

25 small cheeses

3 pounds of pepper

3 pounds of cumin

1 sextary of salt

40 bushels of white beans

2 quarters of oatmeal

a great fair on 15th August

all kitchen utensils

In return for this the prior was entitled to:

Eat with the monks

Bring 3 or 4 guests to the monk’s refectory

Bring 1 or 2 guests to the monk’s parlour

These arrangements were valid so long as the number of monks did not exceed 15. There are also references to a supply of fish from the Derwent at Derby and from the Dove fishery.

Acknowledgement

The text and pictures on this page have been copied, with permission, from the excellent website on Tutbury local history at www.helenlee.co.uk/tutbury/index.html. The website covers Tutbury’s history from the Doomesday Book to pub names, from the Castle to the Jubilee and even includes suggested walks.

The website was researched, written and created by the late Andy Lee, and is now maintained by his wife Carolyn Lee and daughter Helen Parson.

Medieval Shopping List

During the time 1100 - 1500 the monks were not without problems. The major one concerned who should appoint each new Prior. The Lord of the manor had a claim, as did the Mother House in Normandy. In the later part of the period when the monks were English as opposed to French, they asserted their right to vote. There were many arguments.

The other problem was of divided loyalties, as 1300 was the time of the wars with France - Agincourt, Crecy and Joan of Arc. This was an English Monastery with a French Mother House. There were legal problems as well.

Following the battle of Burton Bridge in 1322, the Prior was accused of stealing large amounts of money, jewellery and other goods from the Castle:-

7 cartloads of gold cloth, silver vessels and other ornaments to the value of £300; £40 worth of goods and a barrel of sturgeon” for which he was fined £70.

He was then ex-communicated for not paying 10 marks to Lichfield Cathedral.

In 1329 the monks were accused of ‘bearing arms, hunting, general disorder and incontinence’ (meaning wanting in self-restraint especially in regards to sexual appetite).

In 1337 the Prior, one Thomas Derby, was accused of having stolen “a trussing coffer containing goods to the value of £4” from Marstons.

The Village Stocks

The Priory survived all this, although by now it was in considerable debt and by 1524 the monks made numerous complaints about the Prior’s extravagance. The number of monks fell to four.

Then Henry Vlll dissolved the monasteries and in September 1538, the Priory surrendered to the King’s representatives. The Prior received a pension and became the Vicar. The Priory buildings and the monastic parts of the church were demolished; the King took the lead and other valuables.

The Priory stone was used to build a house on the site but nothing now remains. The church, much reduced was left standing because it was the Parish Church in which the peasants worshipped.

There is a complete list of Priors from about 1100 to 1538 on display inside.

There have been some alterations to the Norman Church since the dissolution. The eastern end by the altar was immediately walled off to make the church serviceable and the roof was lowered. The present tower was built by Edward l and the North Aisle was built in 1829. The floor was raised to put in hot water pipes and a new roof was put on in 1867.

At the same time the Apse was built on the East End and in 1937 the floor was lowered to its original level to restore the proportions of the Norman pillars.