Monastic Wales.

The Cluniacs in Wales: Malpas and St Clears

Christopher Pearce

Two Cluniac priories were established in Wales, Malpas Priory in Gwent about one and a half miles north of Newport, and St Clears Priory in Camarthenshire, about seven miles south-west of Carmarthen. Unusually both foundations survive as parish churches. That at Malpas is a nineteenth-century enlargement of the original, which incorporates the chancel arch, as well as reproductions in its fabric of other architectural features of the earlier church. At St Clears the monastic oratory survives as the chancel of the parish church and is the earliest extant Cluniac oratory in England and Wales.

Malpas Priory was founded by Robert de la Haye.[1] He was a minor Norman nobleman who arrived in Wales c. 1093 and was granted the cantref of Gwynllwg, which included Malpas, by Robert fitz Hamon. Robert de la Haye had succeeded his father as steward to the lands of William de Mortain who had founded the Cluniac priory of Montacute in Normandy and subsequently become a monk of the Cluniac foundation at Bermondsey. Haye also succeeded his father as sheriff in his rape of Pevensey in Sussex. This region bordered the landholdings of William de Warenne, who had founded Lewes, the first Cluniac priory in England, and been received into confraternity at Cluny. These relationships are likely to have influenced Robert de la Haye’s choice of Cluniacs for Malpas, whether he was seeking to emulate the two Williams or shared their interest in the intercessory prayers the Cluniacs accorded their founders. Malpas was made dependent on Montacute Priory and populated with monks from there at some date between 1102, the year of Montacute’s foundation, and before c.1120, when Robert de la Haye surrendered his lordship of Gwynllwg to his overlord, Robert fitz Roy.[2]

The earliest reference to St Clears occurs in a papal bull of 1184 which enumerates the holdings of the Cluniac Priory of St Martin des Champs in Paris.[3] The fact that St Clears is not mentioned in an earlier papal bull of 1147[4] listing St Martin’s holdings suggests that the Welsh house must have been founded between 1147 and 1184 and made dependent on the Parisian priory. The identity of the founder of St Clears is unknown. However, the lordship of St Clears belonged to one William fitz Hay for a period between these dates and it seems possible that some relationship between him and Robert de la Haye may have led to the establishment of the Cluniac priory at St Clears.

There is no record of the traditional apport[5] or census being paid by either Welsh priory to the house on which it was made dependent. Although this was usually a nominal sum, the limited income of both Malpas and St Clears may have led to this payment being waived. There is in fact no evidence that any money or goods were ever transferred from the Welsh houses to their ‘mother’ houses, and it seems that all income they generated went to support the monastic communities of each house.

The sites of the Welsh priories
At the time of their respective foundations both Malpas and St Clears occupied strategic locations at the frontier of Norman expansion into Wales. Both patron and monastery benefited from this relationship. While the establishment of Cluniac priories allowed secular patrons to consolidate their hold over their newly acquired lands, the proximity of Newport Castle, near Malpas, and a motte and bailey castle in St Clears, provided security to the monastic foundations. There is evidence that both Cluniac churches were established on sites of earlier churches. Robert de la Haye’s grant of a church to Malpas indicates the pre-existence of a church on the site which is likely to have become the monastic church. At least two charters detailing grants to Malpas refer to St Triac[6] suggesting a possible earlier dedication of this church which was later referred to as St Mary. The curvilinear form of the precinct boundary of the church on the 1847 tithe map together with its containment within a double concentric enclosure is a further indication of pre-Cluniac occupation of the site.[7] In Cluniac records the dual dedication of the priory at St Clears to St Mary Magdalene and St Clari[8] (St Clorus[9]) hints at an early date for the monastic church here, which was dedicated to an early saint. The inclusion of two other churches with the monastic church in the priory’s holdings suggests that it may have been a clas church, that is a mother church of a Welsh district, responsible for the administration of a number of other churches. It also has a partly curvilinear precinct boundary.

Management and administration
Both foundations were small. The maximum recorded monastic population at Malpas was two[10] and we know that there was a prior and two monks at St Clears.[11] References to a list of priors appointed to Malpas by Montacute in its Augmentation records and to priors of St Clears being favoured by the prior of St Martin des Champs suggest that the priors of both Welsh houses were appointed by the prior of Montacute and St Martin des Champs respectively. Evidence from St Clears indicates that priors were occasionally transferred from one to another of St Martin des Champs’s dependencies. For example Prior William de Arraines of St Clears was moved to St James, Exeter, in 1288, and Richard Soyer to Barnstaple in 1333. Documentary references suggest that priors were not always good administrators. St Clears was sequestrated by the bishop of St David’s in 1288 because it was claimed that the prior had absconded with a debt owing to the bishop when he was transferred to St James, Exeter. The sub-prior of Montacute gave evidence to the General Chapter at Cluny in 1314 that the prior of Malpas was a poor administrator.[12] It could be argued, however, that the rarity of such reports suggests that administration was generally effective. In support of this, a letter from the prior of Lewes to the prior of St Martin des Champs in 1412 stated that St Clear’s ‘is not in the hands of seculars as you think, but well administered by a monk of the Order, at least as far as the malice of the time permits’.[13]

The priors of St Clears would have attended an annual chapter meeting at St Martin des Champs on 4 July, while the prior of Malpas likely attended a similar yearly assembly at Montacute. There is only one reference to either priory being the subject of a visitation report by the abbot of Cluny’s delegates. This was in 1279, when the prior of St Clears was summoned to Barnstaple Priory (Devon) because the visitors understood that the ‘prior and his colleague were leading an immoral and incontinent life’ and did not ‘agree with one another’.[14] The report concluded that ‘for all the state of things the prior and monseigneur, the abbot of St Martin, must provide whatever remedy they think fit’.[15] Priors at both foundations appear to have been French well into the fourteenth century. One Robert de Beck was prior of Malpas in 1303[16] while the first prior with a noticeably English identity at St Clears was Thomas Thetford who became prior in 1372.[17]

Monastic observance
The founding monks who transferred from St Martin des Champs and Montacute would have been familiar with Cluniac customs and been able to transmit this to any new recruits. The priors of both houses would have learned of any changes the abbot of Cluny had made to monastic practice at their respective chapter meetings held annually at Montacute and St Martin des Champs. There are almost no references to the nature of monastic observance at either Malpas or St Clears and only one instance of criticism, which suggests that both communities generally adhered to monastic practice. According to the visitation report of 1279 the prior of St Clears and his companion were leading an immoral and incontinent life. The Divine Offices were totally neglected, and the prior had taken on all sorts of manual labour and acted more like a subordinate than a superior. The goods of the church were for the most part dissipated and alienated and the prior was forced to work as a chaplain to maintain himself. This report makes it clear that the prior was not expected to partake in manual labour or act as a chaplain[18] which indicates that both activities were proscribed by the Cluniac order. Censure of Prior John Soyer by the bishop of Exeter on the occasion of his transfer from St Clears to the headship of Barnstaple in 1333 did not appear to affect his promotion. The bishop was reluctant to admit him to Barnstaple on the grounds that he had been publicly defamed for his dissolute behaviour, for having children and being guilty of dilapidation and simony while in Wales.[19]

Secular ties
At both Malpas and St Clears the chancel of the church served as the oratory for the monks while the nave provided a setting for parochial worship. The architectural quality of the chancel arch at both priories indicates its importance as the point of separation of monastic and secular worship in the shared church. Nothing survives of the monks’ accommodation at either site but it is likely that this was south of the church.

The proximity of a secular settlement adjacent to each priory is likely to have been of great importance to the monks and provided them with a work force, for as previously noted manual labour was effectively redundant in the Cluniacs’s schedule. Although there is no obvious evidence of an early settlement adjacent to Malpas church, the charter granting Malpas to the monks of Montacute included the grant of a town (Novo Burgo) from which the priory received £1 16s, which was to be paid in person; its site may have been that of the relict settlement lying to the south-west of the church on the first edition Ordnance Survey map. In both cases it would seem that the priory site was peripheral to the secular settlement, which would have minimised interference to monastic observance. There is no documentary reference of friction between the secular and monastic communities and it is likely that the locals valued the priories as employers.

Financial matters
The principal source of income for each priory seems to have been provided by its foundation endowment, and in the case of Malpas this was supplemented by a significant bequest of 230 acres of land from Ranulf the physician soon after the foundation of the priory.[20] At St Clears the main source of income was the greater tithes from the parish church and two other churches which were probably included in its foundation grant.[21] There is no documentary evidence of subsequent grants to either foundation. Income is likely to have been derived from the leasing of land as well as rents from the secular settlements associated with each priory. Malpas received £1 16s from (Novo Burgo) ‘by hand’ and 18s from its tenants.[22] In 1305 the prior of St Clears received 32s annually from thirty-two burgages in the adjoining borough. This amount had doubled by 1373, possibly the result of the priory increasing its rents to generate income.[23]

There are several indications that St Clears faced financial hardship. In 1279 the prior of the house was criticised for indulging in manual labour, acting as a chaplain to generate income and for alienating the goods of the priory. In 1388 Prior William de Arraines was transferred to St James, Exeter, when a debt was owed to the bishop of St David’s.[24] This situation is also likely to have been affected by a worsening security situation during which the castle at St Clears changed hands four times between 1154 and 1159 and was destroyed in 1215. In 1288 the master of the nearby hospital of the Order of St John at Slebech stated in a letter to the prior of Barnstaple: ‘you are aware that there has been war in Wales for a year and the whole countryside of St Clears has been destroyed’. There is no evidence that either foundation received any financial support from the priory on which it was dependent[25] and it seems that both houses were effectively considered financially independent.

The situation was exacerbated during the wars with France when both priories, seen as alien priories, were confiscated and could only be retained by payment of an annual rent or ferm. St Clears was seized in 1294 and thereafter the annual ferm ranged from £2 to £7 when the total value of the priory in 1378 was only £19 6s and 8d. There is no evidence that Montacute, St Martin des Champs or Cluny ever challenged this process or appealed to the papacy which had patronage over the abbey of Cluny. Malpas was able to benefit from a charter of denization or naturalisation purchased by Montacute Priory in 1407, by which it was absolved from any financial payment to the abbey of Cluny; as a result it was freed from the payment of the annual ferm that had been due to the Crown. Following this Malpas's financial situation recovered significantly. Its value had increased to £15 6s and 8d by 1535. As St Clears was dependent on a French priory it had to continue to pay the annual ferm to the Crown. Because its monastic population had never numbered more than a total of three monks, it was unable to claim that it had ever been conventual in the generally understood meaning of the term, that is, having a sufficient number of monks to make it viable, that number being the apostolic twelve; this seems to have been the only other way the priory could have obtained a charter of denization. Accordingly St Clears could not qualify for its own charter of denization. An attempt by St Martin des Champs to exchange the dependent priories of St Clears and St James, Exeter, with Lewes for its dependent priories in France came to nothing because the prior of Lewes wanted the prior of St Martin des Champs to include Barnstaple Priory in the exchange. St Clears was eventually confiscated and granted to All Souls College, Oxford, in 1444. The abbot of Cluny was promised compensation but when his representatives came to England to obtain this they were unsuccessful.

Secular and ecclesiastical influence
There is no evidence for interference with the administration of either priory by the secular patron or royal authority before 1294. This likely reflects an acknowledgment of the Cluniacs’s immunity from secular interference. The role of the secular patron at Malpas was limited to issuing charters confirming the community’s possessions. This provided the priory with public verification of rights over its bequests and was necessary because the foundation charter, according to custom, would have been sent to the abbot of Cluny. This would explain why it was not included in the documents presented to the Augmentation Court. Priors appointed to the Welsh Cluniac houses were notified to the king. Given that this was not a prerequisite of Cluniac immunity it might have been seen by Cluniac administration as politically expedient. The confiscations of property of the Welsh priories, beginning in 1294 during the war with France, represent the first infringement of traditional Cluniac immunity from secular interference. There is no record of an appeal against this measure by either house or indeed by the priories on which they had been made dependent - not even by Montacute which was a priory in England. Nor is there evidence that the abbot of Cluny objected, either to the Crown or the papacy.

All Cluniac priories, regardless of whether they were made dependent on another priory in England, were considered alien and subject to the authority of the abbot of Cluny. Under the conditions of Cluniac privilege, both Welsh priories were also immune from ecclesiastical interference. The diocesan bishop had no right of visitation to either priory. Appointed priors were supposed to be presented to the local diocesan for admission, although this again seems to be an example of Cluniac administrative expediency since it was not strictly necessary under the conditions of Cluniac immunity from ecclesiastical interference. When in 1333 the bishop of Exeter complained to the prior of St Martin des Champs about the appointment of John de Soyer, prior of St Clears, to Barnstaple, his protest went unheard and the appointment proceeded.

Although the two houses were under papal patronage and protection, the only papal involvement in relation to either priory was to confirm St Clears amongst the holdings of St Martin des Champs in 1184. The pope took no action when the priories were confiscated by the Crown during the wars with France, even though this contravened the papal grant of Cluniac immunity from secular interference; and no appeal was made to the pope by the abbot of Cluny in relation to this matter. This likely reflects the deterioration in relations between the papacy and the abbot of Cluny following the latter’s support for the pope in Avignon. Furthermore it probably explains the absence of an appeal to the pope or indeed papal objection to the confiscation of St Clears and its grant to All Souls College, Oxford in 1444. 1444 marked the end of St Clears as a Cluniac foundation but Malpas continued until the dissolution of Montacute in 1539.

The survival of these two small Cluniac priories for so long, often against substantial odds, indicates that they were valued. There is evidence of an effective system of administration which provided appropriate conditions for a distinctive monastic observance, as well as playing a part in the selection of an appropriate site for each priory. This also provided the conditions whereby an effective co-existence with an adjacent secular settlement was possible and also a generally successful system of administration for although this was delegated to the priors of the Cluniac foundations on which the two priories were made dependent, it was overseen by the abbot of Cluny. Maplas's and St Clear's identity within a common extended Cluniac community is reflected in the immunities that they enjoyed from secular and ecclesiastical interference as well as their subsequent treatment by the Crown during the wars with France. The weakening of their ties with this community can be attributed to their vulnerable economies which were largely dependent on bequests with proscriptions on activities that could generate additional income. The inability of Cluniac administration to resist secular interference in the form of royal confiscations of the priories' properties as well as the fines imposed to re-purchase them, resulted in the eventual permanent confiscation of St Clears and the naturalisation of Malpas before its eventual dissolution.

[1] No. 165 in the cartulary of Montacute Priory in Somerset [Two Cartularies of the Augustine Priory of Bruton and the Cluniac Priory of Montacute in the County of Somerset, Somerset Record Society 8 (1894)] consists of a charter of Robert, earl of Gloucester, confirming to the monks of Montacute serving God at Malpas all the gifts which Robert de Haia gave to them, namely the town of Malpas, with the church and lands. It seems likely that the original foundation charter was sent to the abbot of Cluny, as was common practice for all Cluniac priories. It was not among the documents presented to the court of augmentations at the time of the dissolution of Montacute and Malpas priories. No foundation charter for St Clears is incorporated in the cartulary of St Martin des Champs. Again it seems most likely that this was sent to Cluny.
[2] Robert fitz Roy was the bastard son of Henry I and was made earl of Gloucester in 1121 or 1122.
[3] Recueil de Chartes et Documents de St Martin-des-Champs, ed. J. Depon, Archives de la France Monastique 13, 16, 18, 20, 21 (Paris, 1912-21), 3, p. 55.
[4] Ibid. no 95.
[5] This was usually a token sum paid annually by a Cluniac priory to the priory on which it was made dependent.
[6] Montacute Cartulary, nos. 164, 165. The former is a charter of Ranulf, the physician, made jointly to the monks of Montacute at Malpas and St Triac.
[7] C. Thomas, ‘The Early Christians of North Britain’ O.U.P.
[8] The priory is referred to as ‘Prioratus St Maria Magdalenes aut S Clari, Sti Clari' (Recueil des Chartes de St Martin des Champs, 3, p. 55.)
[9] ‘S. Clorus and prioratus beate Maria Magdalene alias Sancti Clari in (de) Vallis' (see G. F. Duckett, Charters and Records of Cluny, 2, p. 211).
[10] Academie France de Monastique.
[11] Medieval Religious Houses in England and Wales, ed. D. Knowles and N. Hadcock (London, 1996), p. 102, citing Dugdale’s Monasticon, 6, p. 1056.
[12] Visitations and Chapters-General of the Order of Cluni … from 1269-1529, ed. G. F. Duckett (London, 1863), p. 303.
[13] Monasticon Cluniacense Anglicanum or Charters and Records of the Ancient Abbey of Cluni 1077-1534, ed. G. F. Duckett, 2 vols (London, 1888), 1, p. 237.
[14] Duckett, Charters and Records of Cluni, 2, p. 136.
[15] Duckett, Visitations and Chapters-General of the Order of Cluni, p. 26.
[16] Walker, Eccles. Misc. p. 33, no. 82 = Hereford Cath. Mun. 2222.
[17] Thomas occurs until 1393, see CPR 1391-6, p. 243.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Register of Grandisson, ii. 672. (Heads of religious houses; Reg. Grandisson, i, 263, 265-6, 289).
[20] As it was made with the permission of Robert de la Haye it must have occurred before 1113/14 when overlordship of the cantref of Gwynllwg passed to Robert, earl of Gloucester.
[21] In the Taxatio of 1291, the priory had an assessed income of £15 19s and 2d of which £13 19s and 2d was derived from spiritualities.
[22] Dugdale, Monasticon.
[23] PRO. E. /106/4/19, ibid. 106/11/1 and British Museum, Add. MS. 6164, pp. 352-3.
[24] Bibliotheque Nationale MS. L. 875.
[25] The one exception is the payment of the annual ferm due from Malpas during the wars with France which enabled Montacute to retain possession of its temporalities. This was paid by Montacute and therefore protected Malpas from the additional financial hardship to which St Clears was subject.

Monastic sites related to this article

Malpas, Newport(Priory)
St Clears, Carmarthenshire(Priory)