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Bordesley Abbey tile
Bordesley Abbey Introduction > Discussion
 

In order to get to a stage where such economic questions can be posed it has been necessary to carry out archaeological fieldwork on a number of different levels, and link it with architectural and documentary research. While the project continues to expand its horizons, at the same time it is necessary to re-evaluate and consolidate research that has already been done - both are aspects of a long-term research programme. As an example of a piece of consolidation, what follows is a crude attempt to chart and compare major changes in the archaeological and architectural record from the main excavations, and set them in the context of the major events in the monastery’s existence as recorded in documents, and consider the implications.

At first sight one of the most obvious conclusions must be that the monastery experienced times of intense activity which were interspersed with periods of unchanging stability. The first generation of Bordesley monks must have witnessed a period of massive and intense growth from the eve of the abbey’s foundation into the third quarter of the twelfth century. Much of the basis of this growth must have been its initial endowments. But Bordesley has always been regarded as having had an unpreposessing start, occasioned by its founder, Waleran de Beaumont, choosing to change sides in the civil war. But the nature of the early grants is rather unusual: all the donated lands had a secure title and, whatismore, were exceptionally compact geographically. In comparison with other Cistercian houses the initial endowment has been called ‘lavish’ (Crouch 1986, 201). The assumption of the title of founder by Queen Matilda gave Bordesley royal status, and by the time of Richard I’s confirmation charter of 1189, some of the most powerful men in the midlands had made extensive grants to the house: the earls of Chester and Warwick, and the bishops of Worcester and Coventry, for example. The donations consolidated Bordesley’s estates in northern Worcestershire and Warwickshire. A combination of royal patronage and extensive support by the midland aristocracy enabled the abbey to shrug off its faltering start and become established very quickly, to judge from activities within and without the precinct (Astill and Wright 1993a, 128—9).

After analysing the architectural evidence David Walsh concluded that the church was largely built in the 1150s in a ‘probably fairly rapid campaign’ (Walsh 1983, 246—7). The timber night stair and eastern claustral range were evidently secondary, but it would appear that the Romanesque cloister arcade was completed in the 1160s (Hirst and Wright forthcoming). It is hard to escape the conclusion that most of the claustral buildings would have been complete in that decade too. The speed of this building campaign is noteworthy compared to other Cistercian monasteries. The proposed 19 years (a European average) to complete a Cistercian church is sometimes regarded as optimistic, while 40 years has been suggested for the completion of a claustral complex (Stalley 1987, 44, 264 note 55). Houses with a rate of building comparable to Bordesley have an unusual history and an unusually high level of support, such as Kirkstall which, on its move from Barnoldswick, was able to complete its claustral complex in 30 years thanks to the massive support of Henry de Lacy (Astill and Wright 1993a, 128).

However, in order to appreciate the true scale of the achievement of the young community, it is important to take into account what was done to the immediate surroundings. The transformation of a wooded, poorly drained valley into a place for permanent occupation was assumed to be only possible when the monastery had become firmly established, but the recent excavations show that this enterprise had brought the valley into use by the 1170s. It seems that for a period of 35 to 40 years there was an immense injection of capital and labour which was directed to the construction of the claustral complex, and the drainage and setting out of the 35ha precinct. Within 40 years of its foundation, Bordesley had stabilised its environment, and had put in place an infrastructure to support the community which was already living and worshipping in stone buildings.

The size of the early Bordesley community is unknown, but it must have employed a large number of labourers and skilled workers in order to do such a lot in such a short time. Theoretically a community had to have 60 monks before it could found a daughter house, and the minimum initial size of the daughter community had to be one abbot, 12 monks and c.ten lay brothers (Fergusson 1984, 7—8). The fact that it was possible to found daughter houses at Merevale (1148) and Flaxley (1151) within a decade of Bordesley’s own foundation suggests that there was no difficulty in the recruitment of monks, lay brothers or hired labour.

A change in the priorities of the community can be seen after the establishment of the monastery. In the late twelfth century there is a remarkable change in the material culture used within the precinct, evidenced in the second watermill, built in the 1180s. Some of these changes are clearly technological. The second mill was built on padstones and sleeper walls and heralded a change from earth-fast constructions. This coincided with the introduction of full timber-framing techniques in the form of pegged mortices - this innovation appears to be slightly in advance of when the technique was first used in London (Brigham 1992, 93). An equally dramatic change in the pottery assemblage is also to be seen at the same time. The range of pottery forms increased, and the introduction of glazed jugs is particularly striking.

Ceramic roof tile and kiln furniture are first used in the second watermill, from the late twelfth century. This differs from the situation in neighbouring towns such as Droitwich, Worcester and Coventry where ceramic tiles were gradually adopted as roofing, at first as ridge crests in combination with more traditional materials, and this occurred some fifty years later than their use at Bordesley. The range of the tiles, the presence of the kiln furniture, and the neutron activation results all point to the community manufacturing its own tiles for its own use in advance of elsewhere in the west midlands.

The range of the innovations that took place at Bordesley from the end of the twelfth century, and which are not found elsewhere in the west midlands, needs to be explained very carefully. At present it appears that after the initial building phase of the monastery had been completed, labour became available to exploit the local clays and to develop building technologies. These changes may well have been related to the internal dynamics of the monastic community rather than to the economic developments in the west midlands. It is as if the the monastery was in a position in c.1200 to exploit new expertise and to buy in items, such as pottery, that were appearing on the market for the first time - an additional reflection of the changing behavioural patterns at Bordesley after the completion of the claustral complex (Astill 1993, 296—7).

Another equally dramatic period of change occurred in the early fifteenth century when the nave was reconstructed in a coherent scheme. The cloister arcade was also replaced and this new arcade was comparable, in terms of its design and the high standard of execution, to the cloisters of Worcester and Gloucester cathedrals (Walsh 1979). The decision to rebuild that part of the church for which the monastery had least use after the decline of the lay brotherhood is puzzling, but may reflect the hand of a patron who was keen to make a display.

As happened in the twelfth century, the changes in the fifteenth century were extensive: the watermill and industrial workshops were closed and at least half of the precinct was abandoned because it was impossible to maintain the necessary water management. While the cloister arcade was being rebuilt, the buildings around the cloister were possibly changed. The trend is familiar, for many monasteries had some of the communal buildings converted and refitted as more private accommodation, and Bordesley was no exception (Wright 1976a, 21). But the recent excavations in the south cloister range suggest a more drastic decision to relocate the industrial workshops to the west of the refectory, and indicate that the resources of the precinct were being regrouped around and in the claustral complex. Retrenchment was the order of the day, but this was occasioned not only by the deteriorating conditions in the precinct but also by the economic situation in the west midlands. Most of Bordesley’s granges had been leased and rents were declining; at best stability of income in the early fifteenth century could only be achieved by a better use of funds and reduction in expenditure. The thoroughgoing building campaign and reorganization, therefore, seems difficult to explain. The scale of the changes may have been sufficient to insulate the monastery from the adverse economic trends, but it is perhaps significant that so far no evidence has been found for further building operations between the early fifteenth century and the Dissolution.

Despite its partiality and impressionistic nature, this review demonstrates the achievements and the potential of the Bordesley Abbey Project to contribute to monastic studies. It has produced a vast amount of high-quality data and it is also important in helping to expand the research agenda for monasticism. But the project’s impact should be felt more widely, throughout medieval archaeology, for two main reasons. Firstly, the development of methodologies for excavation and fieldwork, with its emphasis on solving problems, has a wider applicability, as does the integration of archaeological, architectural and documentary evidence. Secondly, the well-preserved character of the archaeological record means that Bordesley has provided the most detailed information about certain types of site which only exist in a more fragmentary form in other rural settlements or in towns. Bordesley’s evidence, for example, for changing liturgical practice, for the population, and for industrial workshops and watermills, therefore, has a relevance for the whole of medieval society and not just monastic communities. And, lastly, it is important to reiterate, especially in these days of evaluations and the three-year research project, the importance of continuing to support long-term archaeological research programmes because the cumulative results have a much deeper significance than the individual data sets.

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