Bradwell Abbey is located in the north west of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, surrounded by the housing and industry that has developed since the creation of Milton Keynes in 1973.
The site of Bradwell Abbey is of national and local importance for different reasons.
Nationally it is significant because it contains the greater part of the medieval precinct of a priory, a relatively unusual survival, with a rare standing building – a dedicated pilgrimage chapel with a scheme of contemporary wall paintings.
Locally it is important because it is one of a number of historic sites in and around Milton Keynes that provide major insights into the medieval history of the area and it is an important local wildlife site. The site has a strong self-contained historic identity, providing a potential focus in the development of a sense of place for the community of Milton Keynes.
181 hectares of land was granted circa 1154 to Meinfelin (Lord of Wolverton) for the establishment of a Benedictine priory to the west of Bradwell. The western boundary was marked by Watling Street. It was built on cleared ground and situated south of Stacey Brook and to the west of Loughton Brook, which would have been adapted as it flowed through the site to provide drinking water, a source of water for the fishponds and a source of running water for flushing out the monks’ Reredorter. The priory was a cell of Luffield Priory, which is near Silverstone in Northants, until its achieved independence in 1189. The earliest recorded monastic finds from Bradwell Priory are pottery fragments of the 12th century and 13th century (Shelly and Brickhill ware).
Bradwell Priory had a chequered history and seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis throughout its 372-year life. The number of monks, in common with many small priories, seems to have always been small. The famine of 1316 struck the Buckingham area hard. There are contemporary accounts of people being found dead from starvation at the side of the road. This was followed by the Black Death (1348-1350), which caused heavy mortality in the Buckingham area, particularly amongst monastic orders. Almost the entire community of monks at Luffield Priory perished. The prior at Bradwell, William de Loughton, died of the plague in 1349 and so few were the potential replacements that a special Papal dispensation was given to enable a monk of illegitimate birth to be elected prior. Thereafter, the community seems to have struggled to maintain adequate numbers. Although no figures are given in the records, the shortage of monks was evident in 1376 and 1381 when special commissions were set up to take charge of the priory’s affairs as there was no elected prior (D. O’Sullivan). The visitations of the Bishop of Lincoln in 1431 and 1436 indicate that there were not enough monks to fulfil the canonical requirements of regular worship, and the community was exhorted to gain new recruits . At the dissolution of the priory, the dormitory had accommodation for only five monks.
Circa 1330, after the famine and before the Black Death, the chapel of St. Mary dedicated to “Our Ladie of Bradwell” was built against the west front of the church. This was, it is thought, in response to the discovery of healing properties of a statue of the Virgin Mary displayed in a niche on the west front of the church and would have been seized upon as an opportunity for much needed revenue. Monks would probably have sold pilgrims’ badges as souvenirs and holy charms.
A small priory, Bradwell managed to survive until the 16th century, but by then it was in a shocking state, with many semi-derelict buildings on the site. It was an easy target under the Act for the Suppression of Minor Houses in 1524, because of its condition, small income and the ongoing liability for the Lord of the Manor (as principal patron).
Under the Act for the Suppression of Minor Houses, Bradwell Priory was given to Cardinal Wolsey, by papal consent in July 1524. Under the agreement for the suppression of the Priory, Wolsey promised to find a chaplain to sing mass for the Souls of the Lord of the Manor, Sir John Longville, and his ancestors in the priory church, or else to have them prayed for in the College he intended to found at Oxford. The site is described in detail by Brabazon, Wolsey’s surveyor. Small areas of rubble stone from several medieval outbuildings survive. These fragments are now incorporated into the Manor House, the attached Medieval Interpretation Centre and the Stone Barn. In addition there are three more positively identified medieval buildings; the chapel of “Our Ladie”, the building known as the Bakehouse and the Cruck Barn.
In 1526 Wolsey sent his surveyor, William Brabazon, to record the assets of the Priory. Brabazon recorded the site as “The Manor of Bradwell” and it is referred to as the Manor in all subsequent literature. In February 1528 the King formally granted the site and its precincts to Cardinal Wolsey.
The name Bradwell Abbey is probably a mid 16th century convention, although the date of the change in name is not documented. Many priories were given a heightened status by re-naming them as abbeys when they changed to secular use at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Many monastic sites were adapted into houses and it was quite usual to incorporate the more secular types of structures, such as the prior’s lodgings, into the new house, although the extent to which this is the case at Bradwell is unknown.
The chapel of St. Mary remained in use as a domestic, private chapel until at least the early 18th century. By 1798 it had become a farm building.
The site is slightly unusual in that as a country seat it did not have the status that many other monastic sites acquired as residences. It changed hands many times from the mid 16th century up to the early 20th century and had a large number of tenants with absentee landlords. The lack of involved ownership is reflected in the mediocre quality of the buildings.
Although it was at first tenanted, its first and principal phase as a residence was in the ownership of the Longville family, where it remained for approximately 100 years. There is substantial evidence of alterations and reconstruction carried out on the site in the early 17th century, during their period of residence. During the late 16th century and early 17th century, there is archaeological evidence that the superfluous buildings were demolished and the ashlar sold or re-used on the site.
The Manor House was extensively remodelled in the late 17th century but the north wing dates from ca. 1600 and was a high quality building of two storeys plus an attic, with a moulded stone plinth. It was built onto a pre-existing service wing. This incorporated a single-storey range to the south, completely remodelled except for the rear elevation, which retains some fragments of a medieval building, and for the southern stack, which survives in-situ, although extended. The stone service buildings - the structures to the south of the Manor House - were probably re-modelled at this time (incorporating medieval fragments). The Bakehouse was also created at this time (ca. 1600) probably from an earlier medieval building.
It changed hands and was owned by the Alston family for 50 years from 1666, during which period most of the next phase of major alterations were carried out. These included alterations to re-plaster the ceiling of the Chapel, the creation of a formal symmetrical two-storey wing facing west and a re-landscaped garden with an avenue of elms running to the north-west. The two-storey wing incorporated a moulded plinth and a stone cornice band, with four tall windows symmetrically placed to each storey. These were probably originally designed to contain cruciform timber mullioned and transomed windows.
The Stone Barn appears to have been built at this time, incorporating earlier medieval end walls; the wall to the north still supporting a first floor roofed structure between the Stone Barn and the range to the north, which survived until the early 20th century.
After 1700 there are few evident works on the site until the early 19th century. The earliest surviving map of the site is an estate map of 1797 , itself based on an earlier mid 18th century map, which identifies the full extent of the parish (then the Manor) of Bradwell Abbey . It remained at this size until the development of Milton Keynes and the industrial estate in 1973, when the site became confined to the boundary of the Priory Precinct, the same extent that is visible today.
Bradwell Abbey was also described in 1806 in "Magna Britannia" in the section on Wolverton as follows:The priory of Bradwell adjoining to this parish, the site of which is now deemed extraparochial, was founded in the reign of King Stephen, for black monks, by Manfelin, Baron of Wolverton: it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and was originally a cell to Luffield. In 1526 it was given with other small monasteries to Cardinal Wolsey; after his attainder, the king granted it with the manor, in the year 1531, to the prior and convent of Sheen: the site was granted after the reformation, to Arthur Longueville esq. From the Longuevilles it passed by purchase to the Lawrences, in 1647; and from them, in 1664, to Sir Joseph Alston bart. then of Chelsea, who made Bradwell Abbey his residence: after his death it was successively in the families of Fuller and Owen. About the year 1730 the Bradwell Abbey estate was purchased by Sir Charles Gunter Nicholl, K.B. whose only daughter and heir married the late Earl of Dartmouth: it is now vested in their son, the present earl. The site of the abbey, of which there are no remains, is occupied as a farm-house.
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