In previous posts I’ve discussed my frustration that the mortuary and commemorative dimensions are often supressed during the conservation, management and interpretation of medieval monastic sites in the UK and Ireland. Examples include Buildwas Abbey here and here, and Haughmond Abbey.
One fascinating further example of this is St Milburge’s priory at Much Wenlock. I’ve been there twice recently, once on a hot day summery day in May 2017, and before that in April 2016 when there was snow on the ground in the priory grounds.
Much Wenlock was a Cluniac priory from the 11th century, dual dedicated to St Milburge and St Michael. Notable features include its fabulous chapter house and lavabo. It was re-established over a far earlier Anglo-Saxon monastic site established in the 7th century AD (c. 680) by the Mercian ruler Merewahl. This in itself may have incorporated Roman buildings, evidence of which were found on site during excavations.
As with many monasteries, the dead were a key part of their functions of commemoration and prayer, and their economy and significance accruing from their roles. The dead also were central to these practices through the foundation legends of the priory. Merewahl’s daughter Milburge was the first abbess and among her miracles were raising a boy from the dead.
Moreover, Milburge’s relics were miraculously rediscovered in the early 12th century when her ‘beautiful and luminous bones’ were found by two boys playing in the church. The remains contributed to the construction of her shrine in the monastic church and became a focus of pilgrimmage and miracle cures.
The English Heritage guidebook sketches the history of the site and focuses on the story of its construction and devleopment down to the Dissolution. Mention of the dead is infrequent, but includes:
- Reference to the use of the South Transept chapels to say masses for the dead, generating substantial amount of income;
- The large crypt in the north transept of no known function, but a funerary association is possible (if not overtly mentioned in the guidebook;
- A ‘monk’s grave’ was found in front of the first side chapel of the north transept holding a chalice – presumably a prior;
- The shrine of St Milburge is supposed to have been situated in the eastern two bays of the large church, behind the high altar where a Lady Chapel was added in the 14th century.
Yet material traces of the dead are few and far between. Indeed, out of context, now situated in the library on the east side of the cloister, are two funerary monuments,. They are only briefly described in the guide book as:
tombs of former priors… moved to their present position from another part of the monastery.
Protected from the weather in this location, they are also behind netting to prevent nesting and perching birds, which restricts the visitor from approaching them and photographing them easily.
Of course there is also a single memorial bench in the priory ruins: modest compared with the widespread presence of memorial benches in non-Cadw and EH sites. Here, present-day commemoration is kept to a bare minimum too.
What is even more striking is how this underplaying of the mortuary and commemorative dimensions of the site contrasts with the strong and diverse heritage interpretations of the sarcophagi, gravestones and human remains found at Norton Priory. Norton is therefore not only exceptional in the region, and perhaps nationally, for the scale of its excavations and museum displays, but for the attention given to its funerary remains. At most sites, like Much Wenlock, attention remains on ruins and the ‘life’ of the priory.