The Priory of St James
St James Priory in Dudley began life in the 12th century as a monastic establishment for Cluniac monks. It was built by Gervase Paganell, 5th Baron of Dudley, in response to a deathbed wish of his father, Ralph. For several centuries the barons of Dudley took a close interest in the Priory, funding many of the extensions to the building, and a number of them were buried at the Priory.
The Priory is located at the foot of north-west side of Castle Hill, in the grounds of what is now Priory Park.
John Hemingway has written a companion volume to “An Illustrated Chronicle of the Castle and Barony of Dudley 1070 – 1757” covering the history of the Priory – “An Illustrated Chronicle of the Cluniac Priory of St James, Dudley”. This was published in 2006 by The Friends of Priory Park.
The Priory that ran a Town
By John Hemingway, DMBC Archaeological Officer
On 29th December 1170 King Henry II had Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered. This event sent Europe into an uproar. The Pope canonised Saint Thomas and he very quickly became the people’s saint. Gervase Paganel, Lord of Dudley, who had been a friend of the king quickly changed his allegiance and supported his son Prince Henry in a revolt against his father. Henry II suppressed this revolt and had the castles of the perpetrators slighted (made undefendable). Gervase, not wishing to live in a ruined castle left for his home county estates and never returned to Dudley.
For 50 years the barons stayed away from Dudley and the Prior of St James took on the responsibility of running the town’s civil and religious life. Gervase had just founded the Borough (town) and being new it was a little unsteady in its development. The Prior being a scholarly man helped it to get through these early problems. As every market town had at least one annual fair he got permission to hold one in Dudley on July 15th. This was St James Day, the Apostle that the Priory was dedicated to. Close to where the fountain stands today, stocks were built. These were a wooden contraption in which to lock up people who were not law-abiding. Just to remind the market people God was always watching them a stone cross stood next to the stocks.
Thanks to this help the town began to grow and prosper but it was in other ways that the Priory helped with the town’s growth. Medieval society was not one in which much thought was given to protecting peoples welfare. The church began to take on this role. The monks built a hospital (on the west range of the cloister, next to the great west door). In those days hospitals were not only for the sick. One role it took was a place where travellers could have a bed for the night and a meal, (normally free of charge). Another was a place where old people could retire, (they would help pay for this by handing over their property to the monks). But of course there was a place for the sick and a monk (like Brother Cadmon in the fictional stories) was a herbalist who made medicines. Given the knowledge at the time many of these people were terminal cases and a small part of the building was reserved for the dying. It was a small, quiet room with paintings on the walls of the various saints who would protect the person on his/her entering the next world.
It was also in the role of education that the Priory had its place. It took only boys (sorry girls!) and taught them to read and write. As the Priory had a library as well, once they had gained the reading skill they could delve into the knowledge of the world; mathematics, history, geography and of course Christianity. As education in that age was intended only for men who would join a religious order, his teachers would be highly delighted if a young man took the vows of a monk. Many men educated at Dudley Priory went on to greater fame; Stephen de Swetemon, became a lawyer and eventually a clerk in the royal court. Robert de Dudley became Prior of Buildwas Abbey and John de Dudley, who took his Masters Degree at Oxford became Sub-prior at the Monastery at Worcester. Most pupils, however, when they finished their schooling, went back to work as their fathers had, as traders in the Market at Dudley.
For a while the Prior was the most important leader of the communities that grew around the castle. He took on the responsibility for many aspects of the peoples’ lives. When in the 1230’s Roger de Somery returned to Dudley as Baron, he found a prosperous place thanks to the Prior and Monks. Today we think of the ruins as a quiet or solitary place, but what stories could the stones tell about the past if only they could speak!