Sunday, 7 April 2013

White Ladies Priory in Shropshire

Last weekend I took a trip across the Midlands to hunt down a ruined priory. Nestling next to some woods amongst the rolling hills of Shropshire is White Ladies Priory - so called because its denizens of old wore white habits.

The building is a good example of late 12th century architecture in the Romanesque style. Though we are unclear when it was founded, the first written evidence of the priory dates from 1186. The surviving structure is quite simple - a basic cruciform with small transepts which lacked any chapels. Surrounding the stone church would have been other buildings which supported the life of the priory. Little remains of these satellite structures suggesting that they were timber-framed and so would have decayed completely. Nearby is the 17th century Boscobel House, famous as the hiding place of Charles II after his escape from the Battle of Worcester.

An interesting aspect of the priory is the exact status of the women who lived there. They were classed as 'canonesses regular' of the Augustinian Order. Such women formed religious communities but were distinct from nuns because they had more contact with the outside world. Clearly this outward-looking philosophy went a bit too far on one occasion, for in 1338 Bishop Northburgh accused Prioress Alice of Harley of financial mismanagement. He also criticised her extravagant dress and her passion for hunting with hounds.

Today the ruins of the priory are sheltered away from any main roads and stand in quiet contemplation. Their South-East aspect is hemmed in by a small wood while one can look out across the Shropshire hills in the other directions. One can imagine Alice setting out on a cold morning, wrapped in her too-fine furs with her dogs in tow, much to her Bishop's chagrin.

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