24 August 2022
Saint Bartholomew’s Church,
Farewell: site of mediaeval
Benedictine priory near Lichfield
Today is Saint Bartholomew’s Day (24 August 2022), and earlier this week, as part of Lichfield Peace Walk, I visited Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Farewell, about three miles outside Lichfield.
The walk along Cross in Hand Lane, from the Hedgehog Vintage Inn to Farewell, is one of my favourite walks in the area around Lichfield. This walk marks the beginning – or the end – of the pilgrim route between the shrine of Saint Chad in Lichfield Cathedral and the shrine of Saint Werburgh in Chester Cathedral.
Today, this pilgrim route is marked out as the ‘Two Saints’ Way.’ And little has changed has taken place in the landscape along this route since mediaeval times. The road twists and turns, rises and falls, with countryside that has changed little over the centuries.
At this time of the year, the fields are green and golden under the clear blue skies of summer. Although farming patterns have changed in the last 30 or 40 years, these fields may not have changed in shape or altered in their use for centuries, and even the names on new-built houses can reflect names that date back to a period in the 12th to 14th century.
Apart from the occasional passing car or van, one other walker and two cyclists, the only hints of modernity are the overhead pylons, and – until their demolition last year – the smoking towers of the power station in Rugeley could be glimpsed in the distance.
The local historian Kate Gomez suggests the name of Farewell has nothing to do with saying goodbye and points out that the alternative spelling of ‘Fairwell’ refers to a nearby ‘fair or clear spring.’ Apart from Farewell and Fairwell, other forms of the name in the past have included Fayrwell and Fagereswell.
At the top of Cross in Hand Lane, Farewell is about 2½ or three miles north-west of Lichfield. The main buildings of interest here are Farewell Manor, Farewell Mill, Farewell Hall, and Saint Bartholomew’s Church.
There may have been a Saxon church on this site, and the story of this country parish church predates a small Benedictine house founded there ca 1140 by Roger de Clinton (1129-1148), Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry (1129-1148).
The Benedictine Priory was a stopping point on the pilgrim route between Lichfield Cathedral and Chester Cathedral that gives its name to Cross in Hand Lane.
Bishop Roger de Clinton endowed the place with several episcopal estates. His original grant included the church of Saint Mary at Farewell and important tracts of neighbouring land.
The first recorded inhabitants were three brothers who were Augustinian canons regular or hermits: Roger, Geoffrey and Robert.
Farewell began as a foundation for, but it soon became a Benedictine nunnery. At the request of the three friars, Farewell, and with the consent of the chapter of Lichfield Cathedral, the bishop made a new grant to the nuns of Farewell ca 1140.
The bishop gave the nuns the church of Saint Mary at Farewell, as well as a mill, a wood, pannage, the land between the stream of ‘Chistalea’ and ‘Blachesiche,’ and six serfs (coloni), formerly his tenants, with their lands and services. In addition, at the request of Hugh, his chaplain, and the canons of Lichfield, he granted the nuns large swathes of lands and woods in the area.
Bishop Roger’s charter was confirmed by his successor, Bishop Walter Durdent (1149-1159). Later, the nuns received a charter from Henry II, probably in 1155, along with lands in the forest at Lindhurst within the royal manor of Alrewas. The nuns were to hold their lands free of all secular service, and the charter was confirmed by King John in 1200.
The priory also founded a ‘daughter house’ at Langley in Leicestershire, but following a dispute that went as far as appeals to the Pope on at least two occasions, all claims by Farewell to Langley were abandoned in 1246.
By 1283, Farewell Priory had acquired a house in Lichfield but assigned the rent to the fabric fund of Lichfield Cathedral. Other priory lands were in Curborough, Chorley, Hammerwich, Abnalls, Ashmore Brook, Elmhurst, Longdon, and ‘Bourne,’ with farms at Farewell, Curborough, and Hammerwich.
But, as the nunnery prospered, all was not well in Farewell. Reports from 14th-century episcopal visitations found incidents of nuns who left the nunnery and put aside their habit, and nuns who were sleeping two in a bed and with young girls in their beds.
The main information we have about conditions in the priory come from official inspections records. After his inspections, Bishop Norbury (Northburgh) made a number of orders in 1331:
• The nuns were not to use girdles and ‘burses’ of silk but were to wear their habit; they were to elect a nun of experience to be in charge of provision of items of dress.
• No secular women over 12 years of age were to live in the house unless they were going to become nuns.
• No secular persons were to be received by the nuns in their rooms.
• Only women of good fame and honest conversation were to be employed.
• The door at the back of the garden leading to the fields was to be kept locked in response to several scandals.
Perhaps the bishop’s strictures were not effective or enforced. Bishop Roger Stretton issued a new decree in 1367 in which the nuns were forbidden to keep more than one child each for education in the priory, and no boy over seven years of age was allowed. The nuns were not to go into Lichfield without leave of the prioress, each nun had to be accompanied by two other nuns, and there was to be no ‘vain or wanton’ delay.
The nuns were engaged in sheep-farming and arable farming in the 1370s. By 1400, they also had a warren which provided pheasants and partridges as well as rabbits. This attracted poachers using nets, ferrets and whippets to catch the rabbits.
By the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509), the Prioress of Farewell also held lands in King’s Bromley.
The priory did not survive the general dissolution of the monastic houses. When Cardinal Wolsey carried out a visitation of Lichfield Cathedral in 1526, he discussed the suppression of the priory with Bishop Blythe. In 1527, Richard Strete, Archdeacon of Salop, and Dr William Clayborough, a canon of York, were given a commission to dissolve the priory and to disperse the nuns.
The last Prioress of Farewell was Elizabeth Helshawe. The Benedictine priory was dissolved, the prioress and the other four nuns at Farewell were moved to Nuneaton and other Benedictine nunneries, and their property was to go to the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral for the support of the cathedral choristers.
In August 1527, the Chapter of Lichfield was granted all the possessions of Farewell Priory, including the house and church, which were assigned to the 12 choristers of Lichfield Cathedral. The priory and its possessions were then valued at £33 6s 8d.
The vast priory estates at the time included the Manor of Farewell and property in Chorley, Curborough Somerville, Elmhurst, Lindhurst, Alrewas, Hammerwich, Ashmore Brook, Lichfield, King’s Bromley, Water Eaton (in Penkridge), Pipe, Abnalls, Cannock, Burntwood, Rugeley, Brereton, Handsacre, Oakley (in Croxall), Tipton and Longdon.
The church was reopened in 1689, and by the early 18th century, the Parish Church of Saint Bartholomew seems to have been the only surviving part of the priory buildings.
The nave was demolished in the 1740s. During demolition, curious earthenware vessels in varying sizes were found in the south wall, some feet apart and 6 ft from the ground. The vessels were laid on their sides, the mouths towards the inside of the church and sealed with a thin coat of plaster.
The church was rebuilt in 1745. The nave was rebuilt in the 1740s using red brick, and the tower was added. The new church was rededicated to Saint Bartholomew. There was further restoration in 1848 when the church was re-roofed, and four pinnacles were added to the tower.
Further repairs and restorations were carried out in 1871, 1936 and 1950, and the church was reopened and rededicated by Bishop Edward Woods of Lichfield on 27 May 1950.
The only mediaeval portion of the church now surviving is the stone chancel at the east end, the altar rails, the east window and the miserere stalls. The Baptismal font dates from 1703, and the carved octagonal oak pulpit from 1887.
The three bells are not in use today. According to a directory of 1892 the smallest bell, inscribed Sancte Leonarde, is considered to be as old as any bell in England and was probably from the priory. The other bells date from 1602 and are inscribed ‘God save our Church’ and ‘God save our Queene’.
Saint Bartholomew’s Church is now a mixture of two different building styles and materials. The church is a Grade II* listed building for its surviving mediaeval fabric and fittings.
The square, plain topped west tower now serves as a vestry, with kitchen and storage space, but the bells are no longer used. The churchyard is well maintained and is bordered by brick walls and some hedging.
Farwell is referred to in Arthur Mee’s book Staffordshire (1937): ‘We greet it with delight and bid it farewell with a sigh. Its people walk in beauty, an enchanting scene it is.’
The priory is also referred to in the fifteenth Brother Cadfael book by Ellis Peters, The Confession of Brother Haluin (1989).
Farewell itself is small, and covers only 1,049 acres. A mile further on is the small village of Chorley, so the church in Farewell is not the focal point of village life. Today, Farewell and Chorley form a civil parish, but the parish council is a joint one with Curborough and Elmhurst, all within Lichfield District.
In the Diocese of Lichfield, Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Farewell, and Christ Church, Gentleshaw, are a joint benefice. The Revd Lynn McKeon has been the Priest-in-Charge since 1 December 2015, assisted by the Revd Bill Hassall, retired priest. Sunday services are 11:30 am each Sunday.
Roy Lewis, The History of Bradwell Church (3rd edition, 2000), available in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, £2.