Home | Main Menu | Castle Index | Historical Essays | Related Essays | What's New | Links
Text and priory photographs copyright © 2003 by David Antony Timmins
Castle photographs copyright © 2003 by Laurie Oliver
David Antony Timmins
If you want to see a classic example of border fortification in the Welsh Marches then you should pay a visit to the slumberous village of Alberbury. Situated approximately nine miles west north west of Shrewsbury, the castle literally separates both the English and Welsh border being just a few hundred from either. At its height it clearly played a strategically important role. Besides a castle the village also boasts an unusually large church, which although heavily redesigned in the eighteenth century does have Saxon origins, furthermore about one mile north of the village you can find the remains of a Grandmontine Priory. Central to the establishment of all these buildings were one of the most charismatic families in the Marches from the middle ages, the Fitz Warine’s who during their period of domination, participated in some of the big events that shaped the thirteenth century.
Tracing the early origins of the castle however, is no easy task. Given that there is no mention of a fortification in Domesday one has to assume that unlike other major border settlements such as Oswestry, immediate fortification was not necessary. Indeed the early holders of the lands were not even the Fitz Warine’s. Naturally Domesday attributes the land to Roger of Montgomery but then names Roger Fitz Corbett as his vassal. Corbett himself had established a motte and bailey at Caus in the late eleventh century. Corbett’s feoffe at Alberbury was one Ralph the fat who during the reign of Stephen handed the patronage of the church to the recently founded Shrewsbury Abbey. The church, which was once a Saxon collegiate, is distinct within the village due to its fortress like tower. It was during the reign of Henry II that the Fitz Warine’s come to prominence within the area, initially as Fitz Corbett’s vassal. It remains unknown however whether this Fitz Warine I was an heir to Ralph the Fat or not, moreover I have been unable to discern whether any fortification was established at Alberbury during this period since there seems to be no record remaining of when the licence to crenellate was granted. The castle’s construction is commonly attributed to Fulk Fitz Warine III in 1220 during the reign of Henry III and probably in response to the rebellion of Llewelyn the Great, however that is not to say that there was not an earlier structure of timber and earth on the site. In 1148 Fulk Fitz Warine I destroyed the castle at Ruyton XI Towns for reasons unknown thus presumably he had some base from which to launch such an attack. Moreover the Chronicles of Fitz Warine III locate his mother Dame Hawyse in 1200 as occupying Alberbury thus surely pointing to some earlier kind of structure on the site.
During the thirteenth century the Fitz Warine’s continued to pay homage to the Fitz Corbett’s of Caus as documents of 1240 and 1248 name Fulk Fitz Warine III as holding a knights fee and being required to do suit every three weeks at the court of Caus. He was also permitted (at his own expense) to supply for forty days at least one knight and two servants for the ward of Caus castle whenever there was hostility between the English and Welsh. In 1223 Alberbury castle itself was taken and destroyed by Llewelyn, the fact that it was re-fortified immediately after it was recaptured three years later clearly underlines the castle’s strategic outpost location, and the continuing hostility between the English and the Welsh, Shrewsbury itself was taken by Llewelyn in 1232. Furthermore the documentation regarding Fitz Warine’s homage to Fitz Corbett adds further strength to this since after Llewelyn’s death the war with the English was continued under David ap Gruffyd. Under his leadership the Welsh had destroyed nearby Rowton Castle in 1282.
Alberbury was not the only fortification of Fitz Warine III, he is perhaps more commonly associated with Whittington Castle, where in 1221 he was granted a licence to crenellate. It is Whittington that first gives us one of the legends associated with Fitz Warine. In 1190 he took the cross with Richard I and after returning from the crusades was made Lord Marcher of Wales by the king. It looked like the family was destined for greatness until on the death of Richard in 1199 events soured. It was during the reign of John that a dispute over ownership of the lands of Whittington broke out which saw Fitz Warine relinquish his homage to the king in 1200, making himself a virtual outlaw in the county. During this rebellion he fled the country but later returned to lay siege to Whittington, having made an alliance with the Welsh. Warine was eventually pardoned at Westminster and later married Maude of Caus. Local historians have often pointed to this story as being a foundation of the myth of Robin Hood, although perhaps this is more romanticism than historical fact. What is certain is that Fitz Warine was one of the instrumental figures in the baronial revolt of 1215, which eventually saw John sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede. For his part Warine was no doubt seeking some kind of retribution against the king for his enforced rebellion of 1200. Warine’s son was also involved in the equally pivotal baronial revolt led by Simon de Montford in 1264, however on this occasion he broke with family tradition by siding with the monarch Henry III, and was killed at the battle of Lewes apparently by drowning in a stream. His body like that of his predecessors was buried in the Church of St. Stephen at Alberbury Priory.
A visit to the castle today however is sadly not as inspiring as the legends surrounding their once mighty occupiers. In 1899 local artist and travel writer H.T. Timmins bluntly commented that the remains of the castle (are) ‘devoid of any detail as to having little attraction for the antiquary’ (pp232). And it is the dilapidated state of the castle that largely explains why it has easily drifted out of local consciousness. It remained in occupation under the descendants of the Fitz Warine’s until the 1340’s when it was finally abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Indeed by the 16th century Henry VIII's antiquary John Leyland referred to the castle in his survey as ‘the ruins.' Looking at these ruins today it is fair to comment that there is little to get worked up about. The rectangular keep, which is still the dominating feature, measures over twelve metres high and originally contained a first floor hall. It is enclosed in a polygonal wall that is roughly three metres high and 3 feet thick, which occupies an area totalling approximately a quarter of an acre. None of the three entrances date from the refortifications of 1226 and are clearly later additions, any dressed stone dating from this period has also been removed. On a closer inspection of the keep one can see it is partly supported by a wooden barn and is in fact a very unsafe structure. Currently I am unaware of any attempts by the local community to raise awareness of their heritage. However if passing through the village one cannot help but notice its Keep poking through the trees, such that you just have to pull over and take a closer look.
Like the castle any evidence in terms of a foundation charter, which point to the exact date of the establishment of the Priory has now been lost. Nineteenth century accounts of the area by Anderson and Page however, do attribute its founder as being Fulk Fitz Warine III sometime between 1221 and 1226. This does logically fit within the timescale of the refortification of the castle and the established practice during this period of castles and priories being within close proximity of one another.
The Fitz Warine chronicles tell us that his reasons for founding the priory were to seek ‘remission for his sins.’ What these were one can only speculate from numerous colourful events such as his involvement in the Crusades, the rebellion of 1200 or the part he played in the baronial revolt of 1216 and the subsequent signing of the Magna Carta by John.
Initially the priory was attached to the Augustinian order and sustained by Lilleshall Abbey however by 1230 it had been given over to the honour of Lady St. Mary as part of the Grandmontine order, which had been founded by St. Stephen of Muret (1046-1124). A chapel within the priory was dedicated to him. As far as monastic orders go the Grandmontines’ were certainly one of the more ascetic living as a community of hermits in stark poverty. Within the chapel of St. Stephen many of the priories benefactors including Warine III were buried. One can get a good understanding of the layout of the priory from a plan dated to 1579. It clearly shows a precinct surround by a bank and moat, which was fed by numerous watercourses, and a large pond. A gatehouse at the southwest corner was the point of entry. Inside the church (known as the black abbey after the monks habits) a cloister was positioned to the south, St. Stephen’s Chapel to the North and a nave with a square ended choir in the centre. The plan also shows other buildings dotted around such as a barn and a mill. Of equal importance the plan further tells us that the majority of these buildings had been reduced to mere foundations, like so many other monastic establishments at this time it had been unable to escape the climate of change. The decline of the priory however can partially be traced back to 1414 when Henry V had all alien priories expelled and their properties taken to boost his coffers in order to finance his impending French campaign. In 1441 Henry VI, at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury Henry Chichele (?1362-1443), granted the priory to All Souls College Oxford, which he had recently founded in 1438. It seems however that in 1474 the order of Grandmont regained possession of the site when a Prior and brethren are documented as to having assumed residence there and begun repairs to the buildings, ditch and moat. This revival seems to have continued until 1547 when the Suppression of Chantries saw some of the buildings finally pulled down while in the late sixteenth century the Black Abbey was converted into a farmhouse which then became known as White Abbey Farmhouse from the colour of its stone.
In the late 1850’s renovations at the farmhouse led to the discovery of a number of skeletons situated underneath the location of the high alter. Although their identification remains a mystery one has to wonder that given their location, whether one of these had been Fulk Fitz Warine III. In 1925 excavations at the priory site uncovered the nave of the church with a straightened chancel and doorway that led to the south cloister. Today the north half of the house contains another original doorway which was once the west end of the chapel of St. Stephen. Anderson and Page in their report of 1864 mentioned remains of numerous carvings within the farmhouse such as a monk’s head, the Angus Dei and an angel wrestling with Satan. However it is unknown whether these still exist since they were not mentioned in the study of 1925.
Anderson, John Corbett: Shropshire its Early History and Antiquities, London, 1864.
Aston, Mick: Monasteries in the Landscape, Tempus, Gloucestershire, 2000.
Davies, John: A History of Wales, Penguin Books, London, 1994.
Gardiner, Juliet and Wenborn, Neil (Eds.): The Companion to British History, Collins and Brown, London, 1995.
Garner, Lawrence: Shropshire: A Shire County Guide, Shire Publications Ltd, 1985.
Guest, K and D: British Battles, English Heritage (London), 1997.
Jackson, Michael: Castles of Shropshire, Shropshire Libraries (Shrewsbury), 1988.
Page, William (Ed): A History of Shropshire Volume 1, (Victoria History of the Counties of England), University of London, 1908.
Timmins, H.T. Nooks and Corners of Shropshire, (London) 1899.
English Heritage National Monuments Record: Archaeological References for Alberbury Castle and Priory (NMR No. SJ 31 SE 1).
Wright, T: A History of Fulk Fitz Warine (date of publication unknown), pp 176.
Home | Main Menu | Castle Index | Historical Essays | Related Essays | What's New | Links
Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas