I recently visited the ruins of the Augustinian nunnery of White Ladies Priory, Shropshire (PRN01077), a Grade 1 listed building set in an isolated rural location accessible down a beautiful wooded path from limited parking for c. 4 cars available as a lay-by. This small and relatively impoverished nunnery is of interest because the ruins reveal its original early 12th-century construction of sandstone ashlar and course rubble, with a later south chapel.
I am fascinated by the ‘afterlives’ of monastic institutions. The house was dissolved in 1536-38. The property was owned by a series of Roman Catholic (recusant) families to 1844; their 16th-century house was built near the priory but no longer stands. The standing ruins are modest but have striking details, including the windows, doorways and surviving decorated stonework associated with them.
I am used to ruins that have had various kinds of restoration and restitution, but I confess, dear reader, whilst on the site, I didn’t realise precisely what I was looking at and its mortuary dimensions. I recognised various fragments of post-medieval mortuary monument within the ruins, but I didn’t realise the full extent of the mortuary reuse/continued use of the open-air ruinous church as a site of burial and commemoration. After visiting, I read that walls of the east, south and west of the ruined church are 19th-century and built from the rubble to provide the enclosure of a graveyard following the footprint of the ruinous church.
Today, within and against the internal walls are a few whole gravestones, set against the walls, presumably for their own protection and not necessarily their original positions. Likewise, there are base-fragments of broken and lost memorials in similar locations. Finally, there is a kerb demarcating a 19th-century tomb.
It appears that, relating to the religious affinities of the families who owned White Ladies Priory and their refusal to receive Anglican communion and therefore denied access to burial in an Anglican parish churchyard, the ruins were used for burial. On the information I have at the time of writing, it is unclear to me whether this is a persistent tradition from the 16th to the 19th century, or a phenomenon limited to the late 18th/early 19th centuries.
White Ladies Priory is therefore a striking instance of the continued funerary associations of monastic ruins in the post-medieval maintenance of family identity in death. While I have encountered many monastic ruins that persist as parish churches and thus retain a burial function, both within the area retained as a building and in surrounding ruins, as at Talley Abbey, Carmarthenshire, this particular use as a private burial ground is new to me. It certainly goes to illustrate the rich tapestry of ideology and mortuary materiality woven around monastic ruins.