The monastic community
Very little is known about the priors and monks of Birkenhead. They lived quietly. Most of the priors had been monks of the monastery and none appears to have enjoyed great status or influence. The Priory seems to have been an orderly house, with little corruption or scandal.
The most important person in the monastery was the prior, who was in charge of all aspects of daily and spiritual life. Birkenhead was unusual in that the monks were allowed to choose their own prior.
The only surviving memorial is to Prior Thomas Rayneford, who died in 1473. His inscribed stone, discovered in the 19th century, can be seen in the Chapter House.
The limited evidence shows that some of the priors had surprising lives. Two were illegitimate and had to obtain a dispensation before they could be elected to office. Another was a murderer! As a youth in London, Richard Norman had stabbed his master, an Augustinian friar. He made a pilgrimage to Rome to gain absolution from the Pope, before retreating to a life of prayer and penance as a Birkenhead monk. He was elevated to prior in 1440.
In 1348, Prior Henry de Becheton claimed the right to keep greyhounds and other dogs in the Priory. He died soon afterwards, possibly from the Black Death.
In 1423, Prior John Wood failed to attend a meeting of the General Chapter because he was mad! In the same year his successor, Robert de Urmston, was accused of stealing a worsted cape worth 20s and a silver gilt broach worth 3s 4d from a monk called John de Wigan. He was acquitted by justices in Chester and became prior soon afterwards.
Scarcely anything is known about the monks themselves. They were very few in number, never more than sixteen and in some years only five. Each monk would have been given a special responsibility, although when numbers were so small, Birkenhead monks must have undertaken more than one role.
- Almoner: dispensed alms to the poor and sick.
- Cellarer: supervised food and drink.
- Infirmarian: in charge of the infirmary,
- Lector: entrusted with reading lessons in church or refectory.
- Sacrist: responsible for the safekeeping of treasure, robes, books and the maintenance of the priory buildings.
- Precentor: led the singing and music
On rare occasions monks got into trouble. In 1346 a monk called Thomas de Walegh was fined 5s for beating and wounding Richard Jolibird in Moreton.
Generally the monks seem to have been well behaved. However in 1348, the Prior was ordered to re-enforce the rules of silence which were “frequently interrupted” in the church, refectory, dormitory and cloister. Like people from Birkenhead down the centuries, the monks obviously enjoyed a good chat!
Dissolution and change
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Priory was a stable and industrious community. In 1524 there were seven brothers. Novices were still being recruited and repairs continued to be made to the fabric of the buildings. Then in 1536, King Henry VIII dissolved or suppressed the smaller monasteries and the peaceful lives of the Birkenhead monks came to an abrupt end forever.
The Last Monks
Following King Henry’s Act of 1536, all monasteries with an income of less than £200, were closed. Their buildings, lands, manors and income from tolls were granted outright to the king.
Unlike other religious houses, where monks resisted closure or tried to hide their valuable possessions, Birkenhead gave in peacefully. The Prior, John Sharpe, was awarded a pension of £12 per year. In 1537, he and four of his monks were sent to work as priests.
At the time of closure, the Priory had an income of only £91 per annum, making it one of the poorest monastic houses in the country.
Once the monks had gone the priory buildings stood empty. All the property was managed by a royal bailiff. Much of the land was let. The immediate lands, priory buildings and the ferry were leased to Ralph Worsley, a former servant of the king for £14 14s 3d. In 1545, he bought the estate outright, paying the £568 11s 6d to the Crown. His descendants owned the property until 1713.
“This venerable pile…”
For the next 300 years the Priory buildings gradually decayed. The Priory Church fell out of use, but the Chapter House continued to be used as a chapel and some burials took place in the small graveyard. The buildings were further damaged during the English Civil War of the 1660s. By the early 19th century, the Priory was little more than a picturesque ruin.
Priory within the new town
However, while the Priory was little changed over the centuries, the surrounding area was transformed as Birkenhead rapidly expanded to become a major centre of shipbuilding with docks and industries. In 1801, the population was just 110; one hundred years later it was 110,915. The building of St. Mary’s, Birkenhead’s first parish church between 1819 and 1822, marked the beginning of a new era of worship on the Priory site.