Tuesday, 5 April 2022

Bradwell Abbey: from
mediaeval priory to
urban studies centre

Bradwell Abbey or Bradwell was founded as a Benedictine priory in 1154 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I have been at church on two Sundays in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford, and I have visited the Greek Orthodox parish church here too. But around Milton Keynes there are many churches to explore and to get to know.

Bradwell Abbey is a large commercial and industrial estate in Milton Keynes. But Bradwell Abbey or Bradwell Priory is also an urban studies centre and an historical monument with the remains of a mediaeval Benedictine priory, founded ca 1154.

All that remains of the abbey today is a small chapel and a farmhouse that is an urban studies centre and a centre for cultural activities. Many of the mediaeval trackways converging on the abbey have become rights of way and bridleways and are part of the Milton Keynes redway system.

Bradwell Abbey is significant nationally because it contains the greater part of the mediaeval precinct of a priory, and the small 14th century chapel of Saint Mary – a dedicated pilgrimage chapel – is the only complete building of the original priory still standing and it contains unique mediaeval wall paintings.

Stacey Brook and Loughton Brook provided the priory with a source of fresh water (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The site is one of a number of historic sites that provide major insights into the mediaeval history in the Milton Keynes area. The whole site is a scheduled monument that includes the chapel, a Grade I listed building, and five further Grade II listed buildings or structures in the abbey grounds.

Several priory buildings survive, including a magnificent cruck barn, and these have been incorporated into later farm buildings. Around the chapel, some walls of the former church have been laid out in gravel. The grounds contain a herb garden, mediaeval fish pond, marsh, copse and several lawns.

The priory dates back to ca 1154, when 181 hectares of land were granted to Meinfelin, Lord of Wolverton, to establish a Benedictine priory to the west of Bradwell. The western boundary was marked by Watling Street.

The priory was a cell of Luffield Priory, near Silverstone in Northamptonshire, until it became independent in 1189. The earliest recorded monastic finds from Bradwell are pottery fragments from the 1th and 13th centuries.

The priory was built on cleared ground south of Stacey Brook and west of Loughton Brook, adapted as it flowed through the site to provide drinking water, a source of water for the fishponds and a source of running water for flushing out the monks’ reredorter.

The chapel of Saint Mary dedicated to ‘Our Ladie of Bradwell’ was built around 1330 against the west front of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Bradwell Priory had a chequered history, lurching from crisis to crisis throughout its 372-year life. The number of monks was always small, like many small priories, and famine in 1316 brought widespread deaths in Buckinghamshire.

The chapel of Saint Mary, dedicated to ‘Our Ladie of Bradwell,’ was built ca 1330 against the west front of the church. A statue of the Virgin Mary in a niche on the west front was said to have miraculous, healing properties.

The statue may have provided much needed revenue, reflected in the chapel’s wall paintings. These are unique in portraying a group of contemporary men and women kneeling at the end of their pilgrimage to offer gifts at the shrine. The monks probably sold pilgrim badges as souvenirs and holy charms.

Although the priory became an important local centre, it declined during the Black Death (1348-1350), and the Prior of Bradwell, William of Loughton, died of plague in 1349. The Black Death caused a high death rate among the monastic orders. When the Prior of Bradwell died leaving few potential successors, a special Papal dispensation was needed to allow a monk of illegitimate birth to be elected prior.

However, the community continued to struggle to maintain numbers. Because there was no elected prior, special commissions were set up in 1376 and 1381 to take charge of the priory’s affairs. In 1431, and again in 1436. There were not enough monks for to maintain regular worship, and a century later, at the dissolution of the priory, the dormitory could accommodate only five monks.

The name Bradwell Abbey is probably a 16th century convention, replacing Bradwell Priory, although the date of the change in name is not documented. By the 16th century, however, Bradwell was in a shocking state, with many semi-derelict buildings. The Priory was closed in 1524, 12 years before the dissolution of the monasterie, and the site and its scanty revenues were granted to Cardinal Wolsey to endow his new college in Oxford. Wolsey promised to find a chaplain to sing mass for the souls of the Lord of the Manor, Sir John Longville, and his ancestors in the priory church, or to have them prayed for in his new college, now Christ Church College in Oxford.

Wolsey sent his surveyor, William Brabazon, to record the assets of the Priory in 1526. Brabazon recorded the site as ‘The Manor of Bradwell’ and it is referred to as the Manor in all subsequent papers. King Henry VIII formally granted the site and its precincts to Cardinal Wolsey in 1528.

The Chapel of Saint Mary remained in use as a domestic, private chapel until at least the early 18th century. By 1798, it had become a farm building.

The Manor House was extensively remodelled in the late 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The site changed hands many times from the mid-16th century to the early 20th century, with a large number of tenants and absentee landlords.

Bradwell was the residence of the Longville family for about 100 years. Many buildings on the site were demolished in the late 16th and early 17th century, and the ashlar sold or re-used on the site. The Manor House was extensively remodelled in the late 17th century but the north wing dates from ca 1600. It was owned by the Lawrence family in 1647, and was acquired by Sir Joseph Alston in 1666. Later, it was held by the Fuller and Owen. The Bradwell Abbey estate was bought ca 1730 by Sir Charles Gunter Nicholl, whose only daughter and heir married the Earl of Dartmouth.

The manor remained largely unchanged after 1700 until the development of Milton Keynes and the industrial estate in 1973, when the site became confined to the boundary of the Priory Precinct.

Today, Bradwell Abbey is an Urban Studies Centre, providing a workspace, library and guidance for visiting international town planners and students studying Milton Keynes. It also hosts school visits to see its mediaeval buildings, the chapel, its fish ponds and its physic garden, and how they have changed over time.

Bradwell Abbey is an Urban Studies Centre with its mediaeval buildings, chapel, fish ponds and physic garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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