A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY - by Noel C. Brindley


A clerk of a Cistercian abbey

The Cistercian Croxden Abbey in Staffordshire may have looked similar to Dieulacres Abbey, 16 miles away (photo N C Brindley)

It is thought that the Gawain poet may have been a clerk with links to the Cistercian abbey of Dieulacres, Leekfrith, north-west Staffordshire.

Gawain's journey would have taken him from Wales across the river Dee into Cheshire, past Dieulacres' Poulton Grange, once the Cistercian Poulton abbey.

The Convent at Poulton was removed to Dieulacres in 1214 but retained its possessions and rights in the Dee valley. Poulton abbey (Cheshire) stood near Eaton, where in Domesday times a thousand Salmon a year were rendered. The Earl of Chester had given the monks a free boat in the Dee with the right to fish, by day or night, above or below the Chester bridge, at Eaton and elsewhere; Richard of Aldford (probably an Audley, see The Audleys) had given them a licence to make a fishery in his land of Aldford. See Mediaeval Cheshire: An Economic and Social History of Cheshire in ..., Volume 88 By Herbert James Hewitt.

Aldford was an important crossing place on the Dee into Wales.

A clerk was not always a cleric or priest in the 14th century, even if connected to a Cistercian abbey. Although, no doubt a religious man, a clerk could be a bookeeper, secretary and administrator of abbey lands, see page: "The life of a Cistercian clerk, forester, soldier and castle constable". Gawain's journey as described in the poem, would have taken him past a number of Cistercian abbeys and granges, from Basingwerk, in North Wales, to Dieulacres and its Swythamley grange in Staffordshire. The abbey at Dieulacres, like all Cistercian monasteries was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, (Bartlett p431) and was established and colonised in the Cistercian manner from a mother house, in this case Combermere in south Cheshire. Every Cistercian house had a motherhouse, whose abbot was responsible for the daughter houses, and conducted visitations of it. The organisational structure of the Cistercians established a uniform integrated chain of command that stretched back to the order’s motherhouse at Citeaux, where an annual Chapter-General was held which all Cistercian abbots were meant to attend.

On Gawain's journey he passes through Holywell in north Wales close to Basingwerk abbey, which incidentally owned land in Glossop, Derbyshire on the edge of the Peak District, land given to the abbey by Henry II. This abbey near Holywell, may have been Gawain's crossing point across the river Dee. In the Wirral the Cistercians also had an abbey at Stanlaw on the banks of the Mersey. By the 14th century the abbey had become a grange, most of the monks had asked to be moved to Whalley, Lancs, because of regular flooding of the Mersey at Stanlaw. The 'Destruction of Troy', an alliterative poem from the 14th century, was writen by John, clerk of Whalley, Lancashire. There was also Cistercian alliterative verse preserved in the margins of a Latin manuscript written at Stanlaw Abbey in the late 13th century:-

LATER THIRTEENTH-CENTURY CHESHIRE, BY O.S. Pickering: a group of eight previously unknown Middle English secular lyrics of the later thirteenth century have been discovered. They are preserved in the margins of a Latin manuscript, now Lambeth Palace Library MS 499, written at Stanlow (or Stanlaw) Abbey, Cheshire, almost certainly in the 1270s. The lyrics are both sophisticated in stanza form and heavily alliterative. Their subjects, in brief, are (A) a knightly assembly, (B) hunting, (C) the natural world in winter, (D) a fugitive in the hills, (E) keeping a lady's love, (F) bad weather, (G) unsuccessful wooing, and (H) characteristics of four named places.The scribe, however, need not have been the author (the several seemingly corrupt readings discussed in the notes to the texts suggest that he was not), and it remains possible that the poems were composed somewhat further south than Stanlow Abbey. Professor Angus Mclntosh kindly informs me that in his opinion the available linguistic evidence points to an origin either in the south of Cheshire, or in north Shropshire or north Staffordshire;
It would appear from McIntosh's comments that the scribe may possibly have been from Combermere, mother-house of Stanlaw and Dieulacres, on the Cheshire/Shropshire border and close to the Staffordshire border.


From Wirral Gawain travelled south, possibly through Dieulacres' Poulton grange at Pulford.

When the monks of Poulton moved to Dieulacres, they retained all their possessions in Cheshire, and several deeds in the Dieulacres Cartulary bear witness to the fact that they continued to acquire land in Cheshire after 1214. The principal estate was centred on the old abbey site at Poulton, where there were 1,900 acres of arable land. Close by were the granges of Dodleston and Churton, while between this group of estates and the Staffordshire border lay the vill of Byley, given to the monks shortly before 1214. The abbey also owned salt-pits at Nantwich and Middlewich.

Pulford was less than 10 miles from Shotwick, on the Wirral side of the Dee, an important crossing place in the 14th century. As Gawain travelled through Cheshire and Delamere forest, he may have passed Vale Royal abbey at Over (originally founded at Darnhall), founded by King Edward I in 1270. Gawain's travels in the poem could have taken him past these abbeys/granges on his way to the green chapel, believed to be Lud's Church near Dieulacres' Swythamley grange, in north Staffordshire. Part of the route taken may have been along the Earl's Way, which came from Cheshire and passed through Rushton James and also Bradnop, Leek, two and a half miles from Dieulacres abbey. There is also the possibility that Gawain travelled along the old salt road from Nantwich and Middlewich. This Rake/track was closer to Swythamley and High Forest and passed through the thorny hillsides of the Boar hunt near Flash, see Turn (thorn) Edge above.

If the poet was a clerk of a Cistercian abbey, it would explain a route well known to him through North Wales, Wirral, Cheshire and north Staffordshire, a route a clerk would use whilst accompanying the abbot on his visitations through Wales, Cheshire and Staffordshire *.

(photo E C Brindley)

The ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Croxden in Staffordshire. Bertram de Verdun, Lord of Alton, founded the Cistercian Abbey in 1176. Verduns were the overlords/antecedants of the Audleys of Heighley castle and Hulton abbey, see 'The Audleys'.

* The abbeys and granges, were all once daughter houses of Combermere abbey in south Cheshire. In 1154 the daughter houses of Combermere allegedly included not only Poulton but also the abbeys of St. Mary's, Dublin, and Basingwerk (Flints.); in 1156, however, St. Mary's was assigned as a daughter house to Buildwas abbey by the General Chapter of the Cistercian order and the filiation of Basingwerk was similarly changed in 1157.

From: 'Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Combermere', A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3 (1980), pp. 150-156. URL: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=39977


Next page: The associations of the forest in the Gawain poem, with the Biblical desert or wilderness

by Noel C Brindley - May 2012

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