by Peter Badham

When thinking about the Society’s research strategy and the need to make use of DNA techniques, it seems sensible to have a rethink about any other kinds of evidence we should be aware of before we start negotiating over the planned research project. Resources from the mid-16th century onwards are more accessible and more well known but for earlier purposes we will need specialist help both to identify sources and to access their contents. Nevertheless, it makes sense to be as aware as possible of places to look, if only to be awake to the value for money on the research project.

There is an increasing awareness of the need to take what is called a “prosopographical” approach and this is particularly evident in the ethos of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy. In essence this means that historical description should not be divorced from the family and genealogical background of the actors on the historical stage. For these kinds of purposes particular documentary forms are useful and especially those linking people to land, for example, manorial rent rolls. Articles and data already written or preserved in the Society databases have already used a range of sources including material in The National Archives, local archives and particular family archives. The latter, so far, have focused especially on material in the Berkeley archive and archives deposited by the Beaufort family in the National Library of Wales. So far, we have made little use of the archive in the duchy of Lancaster, which is to be found in The National Archives, but there are possible sources, as yet untapped, in the form of records produced by the various monastic houses. The purpose of this discussion is to briefly highlight the possible uses of this kind of resource.

The Normans had a great influence on the founding of these establishments because for the top ranks of society, founding a priory or something similar was a conventional act of piety. Some of William the Conqueror's companions had already set up foundations in France, an example from the Marches being Fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford, who had founded Lire Abbey. Although these establishments were centres of worship and learning, their importance to us lies in the way in which they were supported. Without exception they would be given land and often these were in the form of granges which were worked by laymen, for example, the grange at Trelleck in the hills above Tintern Abbey. Frequently, with the exception of the Cistercians, they were given income which arose from the churches. An example in Gwent is that of Monmouth Priory which owned the rectories of Monmouth, Dixton, Goodrich Castle, Llanrothal, Rockfield, Wonastow and Llangatwg Feibion Afel, as well as three others in the diocese of Worcester. Frequently they would hold the rights to tolls from markets and the like and would be the owners of mills and forges, often pioneering new techniques as in the wireworks at Tintern.

After the Norman Conquest there were eventually 16 Benedictine priories in South Wales. All of these were dependencies of French abbeys, although eight of them eventually became conventual priories, that is they had a degree of independence, although abiding by the monastic rule of the founding house. The distribution of these shows an interesting overlap with Badham territory. They were the priories of Chepstow, Monmouth, Abergavenny, Pembroke, Brecon, Goldcliff, Ewenny and Usk nunnery. They were large enterprises and, for example, Goldcliff had 1,221 acres of arable land and 125 acres of meadow in Gwent as well as lands in Somerset. The small priory of Grace Dieu, which sold Western under Penyard to Joan de Knoville, the mother of Baron John ap Adam, was involved in the iron industry of the Forest of Dean (see Map below). By the end of the 13th century, monastic lands in South Wales included over 40,000 acres under the plough. The labour involved in the absence of tractors was obviously very considerable and very often undertaken by tenants. The Benedictine estates were known to have had both bound and free tenants.

Needless to say, all this activity can generate records of interest to us. In knowing where to look we need to be aware of the history of the foundation of these establishments. The abbey of Caerleon or Llantarnam, as it became known, is slightly unusual in that it was founded in 1179 by the Welsh lords of Gwent rather than by a Norman-derived family. It was founded as a branch from Strata Florida, which itself was one of four daughter houses of the abbey of Whitland, just on the western border of Carmarthenshire and three miles from Llanboidy where there was an 18th-century Badham presence. Whitland itself was the daughter house of Clairvaux and, therefore, Cistercian with the rather more aesthetic attitude to worldly possessions. I suppose for the founder this might be a more economic choice of order to patronise! There were various ways in which the daughter houses were subject to “inspection” or reporting processes and these could result in records being sent to the founding house in France.

Where are the surviving records?

The National Archives is the first place to look and, particularly where monastic properties came to the Crown and stayed in Crown hands, the administrative documentation which has survived will be found at Kew. The Dissolution also meant that some families became owners by grant or purchase of former monastic manors or estates and the archives that belonged to them. Local record offices may, therefore, hold some material where family archives have been deposited. If the seat of a diocese was originally a monastic settlement, then diocesan archives are another place to look. University College London has instituted a monastic archives database in an attempt to gather in one database the places where records relating to the English monastic houses may be found.1 The holdings of some houses spread over wide areas and, for example, the Cluniac Abbey of Reading had interests in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Part of the cartularies have been printed by the Royal Historical Society in 1986–7 and other records are to be found elsewhere including the British Library.

Many of these records are for a very early period and, by way of example, for the Benedictine house of Saint Peter, Gloucester at least 227 charters of different kinds, such as roots of title, leases, memoranda and so forth have survived. These relate to estates belonging to the abbey in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire including records relating to its cells of Bromfield (SAL), Kilpeck (HEF), Ewyas Harold (HEF), St Guthlac's (HFD), Stanley Saint Leonard (GLO) and Ewenny (GLAM). They cover the period from 1122 to 1537 and, just to confuse the issue, are to be found in the Hereford Cathedral Library and not at Gloucester. Records relating to Abbey Dore in Herefordshire appear in different places in The National Archives and cover the period from the 13th to the 16th century. They relate, in part, to the abbey's estates in Shropshire and the counties of Hereford, Brecon and Monmouth.

These examples give some idea of the way in which the records are scattered and an indication of the spread of the estates that single houses may have owned. The development of the English database is a very positive move and it is to be hoped that something similar for Wales will be set up, although work done by the National Library of Wales to identify manorial documents for Wales to some extent serves the same purpose. The Welsh counties are available, online, through The National Archives’ website. The examples also show how important these record sources can be especially for early material which cannot otherwise be found. As a final comment, we should remind ourselves that records relating to English and Welsh houses may also be found in France in the records of the parent houses, as, for example, is the case for some records relating to Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire.

  1. (accessed August 2014)