05 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)

Praying at the Stations of the Cross in
Lent 2022: 5 April 2022 (Station 3)

Jesus falls for the first time … Station 3 in the Stations of the Cross in the Church of the Annunciation, Clonard, Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Since Sunday, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (3 April 2022), we have been in what is often known as Passion Week.

Before today day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (5 April 2022) for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I have been reflecting on the Psalms each morning. But during these two weeks of Passiontide, Passion Week and Holy Week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on the Stations of the Cross, illustrated by images in the Church of the Annunciation, Clonard, Wexford, and the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the lectionary adapted in the Church of Ireland;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Station 3, Jesus falls for the first time:

In an unusual arrangement, the Stations of the Cross in the church in Clonard are set in the curved outer wall of the church in 14 windows designed by Gillian Deeny of Wicklow. In her windows, she emphasises the role of women in the Passion story.

Her windows were made in association with Abbey Glass, where she worked with the cut-out shapes of coloured glass, the pigment being a mixture of lead oxide, ground glass and colour. Each window is signed by the artist.

The Stations of the Cross on the north and south walls of the nave in Stoney Stratford were donated in memory of John Dunstan (1924-1988).

The Third Station in the Stations of the Cross has a traditional description such as ‘Jesus falls for the first time.’ Having received the Cross, Christ has turned around is on his journey to Calvary. Christ’s three falls depicted traditionally in the Stations of the Cross (Stations III, VII and IX) are not recorded in any of the Four Gospel accounts of the Passion.

As the piety around this traditional station developed, perhaps people recalled Christ’s words: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11: 28-30).

Now his yoke is not easy and his burden is heavy. In the window in Clonard, he remains gentle and humble in heart as he falls beneath the weight of his Cross, two Roman soldiers watching beside him, two women shocked in the background. In Station 3 in Stony Stratford, he seems almost to have knelt in prayer, while a Roman soldier takes on the weight of the Cross.

Christ is going to fall twice again.

Jesus falls for the first time … Station 3 in the Stations of the Cross in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

John 8: 21-30 (NRSVA):

21 Again he said to them, ‘I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 22 Then the Jews said, ‘Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, “Where I am going, you cannot come”?’ 23 He said to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.’ 25 They said to him, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all? 26 I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’ 27 They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. 28 So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. 29 And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’ 30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Meeting the Invisible.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana Do Brasil. The prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (Tuesday 5 April 2022), invites us to pray:

We pray for the ministry of the Rev’d Elineide Ferreira Oliveira in the Missionary District of Rondônia.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org