Croxden is one of my favourite local places to visit and has held a deep fascination since childhood. I have fond memories of warm summer afternoons spent enjoying picnics and playing around the ruins with my family until dusk.
My love of history probably comes, in part, from many visits to Croxden.
It is without doubt a special place and its tranquillity and peacefulness never fail to bring a sense of intrigue but also calm and refresh whenever I visit, combined with the deep sense of history I get walking around the spectacular and serene monastic remains.
Nestled away in a perfect, rural setting, it is possible to spend hours or who afternoons here and be the only visitor. There are more remains here than at any other site in Staffordshire.
In 1176 Bertram de Verdun, Lord of Alveton (now Alton) granted land at Cotton (formerly spelt ‘Chotene’ or ‘Chotes’) to the Cistercians of Aunay-sur-Odon in Normandy as the site for an abbey. Bertram also built the stone enclosure fortress of Alton Castle in 1175, parts of which still remain visible today.
The Cistercians were known as the “white monks” because of the colour of the habit (hooded robe or tunic) that they wore. These were Catholic monks that closely followed a strict, literal observance of the rule of Saint Benedict which was an indepth guide to life involving utter obedience to an Abbot as well as sexual abstinence and giving up all forms of ownership of property.
Bertram was raised by King Henry II’s constable, Richard de Humez. Bertram’s increasingly prominent place in the court and household of Henry II was also a result of his friendship with de Humez. He became sheriff of Warwick and Leicester, acted as a royal justice and remained loyal to the king throughout the rebellions.
Having seen the Cistercian abbey at Alnet (Aunay) in Normandy, Bertram was so impressed that he asked the monks there to establish an abbey on his land in Staffordshire. The Abbot accordingly sent 12 monks, under an Englishman, Thomas of Mioodstock, but who was elected first abbot of Cotton on the feast of Pentecost, 1178.
The only other mention of the abbey at Cotton is that of the departure of the community. ‘A.D. 1179 the abbey came from Cotton to Croxden.’ The ruins of Croxden are still there for all to see, but the site of the original abbey at Cotton is not definitely known.
The ‘Abbey of the Vale of St. Mary at Croxden’ (to give her full title) was established 3 years later at Croxden which is a remote, peaceful spot by the river Churnet in the Staffordshire moorlands.
Initially the abbey prospered and by the mid-14th Century it was supplying more wool to Europe than any other religious house. At one point in time there were over 70 monks living and working at this site.
A Chronicle was kept recording events and activities from 1066 until 1374. The chronicler was William de Schepisheved, a monk of the Abbey who recorded information retrospectively from 1288 back to 1066 and then contemporaneously until 1320. After his death the Annals were continued until 1374. It is known that King Edward II visited the Abbey in 1323 not through the Chronicle but through two letters written from Croxden.
From the Calendar of Inquisitions in 1274, King Edward I writes to enquire into the death of Thomas Hody who was wounded in an affray between stable grooms at Croxden. In consequence of this, the abbot `dismissed his whole household’. It is not clear, however, whether the abbot dismissed his own household or that of Thomas Hody (possible if Hody was a corrodian, in essence a pensioner who lived in a monastery, with servants supplied by the abbey).
A solar eclipse is recorded in the Chronicle July 1330 and connects it to the floods and unseasonable weather which occurred two months before and for three months after, resulting in a late harvest, “…they had scarcely reaped the last of their corn with the greatest toil on the feast of All Saints and they had at last collected their peas into barns and outhouses on the feast of the blessed apostle Andrew. And what is so remarkable to see and hear, on the feast of All Saints and of St Martin fresh peas in their shells were given to the convent in the refectory instead of pears and apples”.
Another notable event in July 1301 appears in the Abbey’s annals describing how, “on the day of the Blessed Mary Magdalene, about the sixth hour, a great earthquake took place, to such an extent that all the persons in the convent, being at their first refection, were dismayed with a sudden and unlooked-for trembling”.
In 1349 the plague arrived in Croxden. It is recorded in the abbey’s chronicle but not how many of the monks succumbed (the entry simply says, “there was a great pestilence throughout the whole world”). Further plagues, bad weather and poor harvests befell the abbey in its later years which took their toll and by the end of the fourteenth century the Abbey was in decline. One year, 2 days before Christmas a storm blew, and the abbey lost the roofs to all its buildings. By 1381 the abbot was in charge of only six monks.
Many of the remains survive very well and almost complete above the ground. Some remain as footprints so you can easily feel like you in are that particular room or building and it is mostly left to the imagination as to how the rooms would have looked.
The Chapter house is where the first Abbots were buried and would’ve been a place of great sanctity and importance. This would have been the place where daily meetings of Abbey business took place and chapters from the Rule of Saint Benedict read each day. Punishments would also have been administered in here. There were clearly some pillars up to the ceiling within the room which was the nerve centre of the abbey with some of the Abbey’s more fascinating scenes must have played out.
On a fairly recent visit in September 2019 I noticed that there were still original parts of the floor tiles in situ towards the Eastern end of the Church and also within the Chapter house. I noticed that by December 2019 these had been boarded over by English Heritage to preserve them. It was mesmeric to think of all of the people who had walked over these very stones – literally tens of thousands of feet have walked over them with people going out their daily lives attending to their business, singing choir, preaching or praying or simply doing what I was, thinking, reminiscing, imagining, pondering and wondering.
A road now splits the abbey church in two (and has done since the 18th century) with the East section containing the remains of five semicircular chapels surrounding the altar which would have been used to celebrate private masses.
This plan was most unusual in English Cistercian churches, which usually had plain, rectangular east ends. It was probably inspired by French designs familiar to the patrons of the abbey, the Verduns.
There are also the remains of several stone coffins of members of the Verdun family and abbey benefactors (the first known burial dates from 1231). Some of these are remarkably small and feel quite surreal to look at. These are the final resting places of people who knew this place well and lived so long ago it is hard to even imagine.
The church was, and still is, the most impressive aspect of the site and took nearly 30 years to complete. The church was the centre of monastic life, where the monks celebrated daily Divine Office, a series of eight services held throughout the day and night.
The monks’ stalls occupied the choir, the area under the central tower, which was closed off from the rest of the church by a stone screen. The nave was occupied by the lay brothers, servants who performed most of the manual work of the abbey while living under a monastic rule. They attended fewer services than the choir monks.
The magnificence of the west end stands proudly some 60ft tall and would have been a mightily impressive sight in early medieval times.
I love to think of the monks soberly entering the church from the dormitory for the midnight prayers and what this would have sounded like (the doorway of the night-stair, which provided access directly from the dormitory into the church, survives in the south transept wall).
It must have been hard leaving a relatively warm bed for the bitter 3am winter darkness with only candlelight and procession torches for vision.
One of my favourite parts can be found in the Abbot’s lodging at the corner of the site. The Abbot was the lead of the monks and lord of the manor. All the monks had to swear total obedience to the Abbot as part of the Rule of St. Benedict.
This part simply consists of the bottom of a spiral staircase which now lead to nowhere. I love to sit on these worn steps and imagine the footsteps of people who lived here centuries gone by hurriedly winding their way up to the first floor and imagining what they were doing, where they were going or what they were thinking.
The latrines (aptly named the necessariorum) are also fascinating and the stone drains remain completely intact with the tunnels which ran underneath the complex still clearly visible. This brings back a stark human element to everything.
The smell of these without any modern-day plumbing could not have been pleasant, especially with 70+ monks living here during a warm summer.
The South range survives well which consists of the Warming House which did exactly what is said on the tin – Monks came here to get warm after hours of study in the cloister where a communal fire was kept. This is typically right next to the refectory where they could keep warm from here while they ate.
Another part I love is the completely intact passage or ‘Slype’ through to the cloister. This gives a complete sense of what the monks would have seen exactly as they would have seen it with the original roof and walls all completely in-tact.
The long corridor echoes with centuries of footsteps almost a millennia ago, a place of passing through, viewed through the lens of the past. The worn cobbles on the floor and the dark, cold ceiling, this would have been a busy thoroughfare throughout the day as monks went to and from the cloister for the daily studies and readings.
Within the infirmary area there are the actual stone table legs, rooted to the exact spot they stood 850 years ago.
Sitting next to one imagining the souls who had just been bled with leeches (this was a common and popular activity) enjoying some soup or bread as they recovered at this very spot as I now sit and gaze over the site. I often wonder what they would have made of our world now and if they could come back to this place just for one day would they still recognise it? Apart from the very occasional car or cyclist who passes through the centre of their church nave you might imagine that they wouldn’t particularly be able to tell of any technological or societal changes whatsoever over the past 8 centuries.
A full plan of the abbey, including all visible remains can be found here – https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/siteassets/home/visit/places-to-visit/croxden-abbey/croxden-abbey-phased-plan.pdf
King John’s heart
There is a legend that King John’s heart is buried within the grounds of Croxden Abbey.
Despite many Victorian references – The Antiquarian and Architectural Year Book for Staffordshire explains that John’s physician was also the abbot of Croxden – which would account for the grisly souvenir, I think a misinterpretation gets in the way of a good story here and his actual heart was buried at Croxton in Leicestershire.
The Uttoxeter Casket or Dr Nelson’s Casket is a carved Anglo-Saxon masterpiece which likely came from the Abbey and possibly dates to around 1050. It probably held a religious relic and was displayed on an altar within the church. The casket currently resides in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio. It is House-shaped and carved from a single piece of boxwood, it remains the only known surviving wood carving with such an elaborate iconographic programme from this period of British history. The box might have been pillaged or hidden at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries when Croxden Abbey surrendered to the Crown.
The abbey did not survive King Henry VIII’s dissolution but did manage to hang on for a further couple of years. By rights Croxden should have been suppressed in 1536 along with the rest of the smaller monasteries but the abbot paid a £100 and received a licence to continue. Two years later In August 1538 Archbishop Cranmer wrote to Cromwell asking for a commission to be sent to Croxden, and on 17 September Dr. Thomas Legh and William Cavendish received the surrender of the abbey from the abbot and twelve other monks – it started with twelve and ended with twelve, 362 years later.
King Henry VIII’s dissolution and the afterlife
The final 12 were Thomas Chalner Abbot of Croxden, William Beche, Thomas Rolleston, Henry Rothwell, Robert Clarke, Robert Keydr, Thomas Kelynge, John Standlow, John Thornton, Richard Meyre, John Orpe, Thomas Hendon, John Almon)
In 1539 the site, with a water-mill, lands, and the rectory of Croxden, was leased for 21 years to Francis Bassett, servant to Cranmer, on whose behalf the archbishop had put in a plea when asking for the commission to be sent to Croxden. This estate and other property were sold by the Crown to Godfrey Foljambe in 1545.
I adore the ethereal atmosphere whilst walking around the remains, imagining what went on in each of these ancient rooms and what stories they could tell of the days of the men who lived and worked here over 8 centuries ago.
The remains cast the most striking and otherworldly shadows over the beautiful green grass, particularly that of the large west window of the old abbey church. As you wander through the cloister across the hallowed ground you can almost hear the Gregorian chants echoing around the walls as dusk settles and the warm glow of the sunset begins to fade over the horizon.
Despite all its past trials and tribulations, the ruins of the abbey sit in tranquillity defying the decades and centuries. If I could choose to live anywhere it would be the old farmhouse which adjoins the cloister. There is not a more peaceful and pleasant spot to be found in England on a summers evening. It is truly wonderous.
For further, much more detailed readings there are excellent PhD thesis documents by Jackie Hall which can be found here
I would also recommend this great interactive tour