Grovebury Priory also known as La Grave Priory or Grove Priory (The Priory of St John) Male

I started to pull together the information below from public, non-copyright sources with a view to undertaking further researches. Unfortunately, time and other commitments have prevented this to date but I nevertheless set out here the information I have been able to glean so far. If you have further details which you think should be included here (or, indeed, any corrections or observations), do please make contact with me. I will endeavour to add further photographs at some point.  

The first time I recall seeing the Bedfordshire town of Leighton Buzzard was from a car descending Wing Hill. It was a sunny morning and the town lay spread out below me, dominated by the 190ft spire of All Saints church. That was more years ago than I care to remember! These days, much of the traffic does not travel down the hill to weave its way through the town; instead it peels off along what is still known as the Leighton Buzzard by-pass or, correctly yet somewhat more prosaically, the A505.  

All Saints, Leighton Buzzard

Skirting the southern edge of Leighton Buzzard, which like everywhere has expanded substantially from its origins, it passes close to the Grovebury Road industrial estate and the modern housing off the Billington Road. Yet at this point it also passes very near to the site of the former Benedictine Priory of Grovebury (or just Grove).  

In fact, hidden away in this triangle formed by the by-pass and the Grovebury and Billington Roads is Grovebury Farm and it is to the south of this farm and the A505 itself that this “Alien Priory” once stood.

Alien Priories were monasteries and convents in England which were under the control of a Religious house outside the country, often in France. They were essentially settlements of foreign Religious, the rents and tithes gathered by them being sent to the Mother house abroad. In the case of Grovebury Priory, the Mother house was Fontevraud (or Fontevrault), situated in the Loire Valley in central France.  

Fontevraud was founded in 1099 by an itinerant preacher, Robert of Arbrassil, although the first permanent structures of the Abbey were not built until 1110. Its links to England go all the way to the top for King Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) were all originally buried there, as were other members of the Royal Family (although there are no remains at that site now). The order survived until late in the eighteenth century, when it was dissolved during the French Revolution. Unlike its daughter house at Grovebury, the impressive Abbey buildings still exist in France, since 1975 housing a cultural centre, the Centre Culturel de l'Ouest.  

Around 1128, Henry I’s Daughter-in-Law, Matilda d’Anjou, entered Fontevraud Abbey, Henry at that time granting the Abbey a £56 annuity arising out of the Royal Manor of Leighton. Matilda had turned to the Religious life following the death of her husband Henry, the King’s only surviving legitimate son and heir. Matilda’s husband and all but two on board had drowned in 1120 when the vessel the “White Ship” sunk in the English Channel just outside Barfleur Harbour off the coast of Normandy. By 1150, Matilda had risen to become Abbess of Fontevraud.  

It was Henry II who, in 1164, extended the grant to Fontevraud to the whole of the Royal Manor of Leighton and the Abbey later established a cell there, one of six it held in England. It would seem this cell was actually founded sometime between 1189 - when the Manor was held directly by Fontevraud - and 1195/6, the first recorded date of a Prior at Grovebury. The Manor appears to have been endowed with gifts of land in Edlesborough and Studham in Bedfordshire, plus - later - land in Stewkley, Buckinghamshire. 

In 1177, Amesbury Abbey in Wiltshire was dissolved by order of Henry II (it being replaced by a double priory of the Fontevraud becoming, after 1275, the main Religious house in England owned by the French Abbey) and the nuns were dispersed. It is reputed that some of them found their way to Grovebury but against this it would appear fairly certain that although the Mother House in France was unquestionably a double site (i.e. consisting of both Monks and Nuns), Grovebury Priory only ever consisted of Monks, so this story seems unlikely, unless a Religious settlement existed on the site before the records of the Priory began.  

The Priory’s church at Grovebury, like the men’s chapel at Fontrevaud, was dedicated to St John. It appears originally to have been built of timber - subsequently replaced by stone - but the dates of its construction and reconstruction appear uncertain, although it does seem to have been extended to the north west. Around 1220 the Bishop of Lincoln granted a licence to Grovebury for a cemetery and an oratory.

The Priory is mentioned in the records of the Justices in Eyre (a form of roving Magistrates’ Court) when, in 1227, a groom fell from a cart and died. The price of the horse which caused the accident was given to the "Chapel of Saint John at Grove".  

The Prior is usually simply called the Prior of Leighton from 1194 to 1240 or the Prior of Grove from 1242 to 1297. However, five Priors are known by name: Vitalis, William, Nicholas (mentioned 1258 and 1263), William de Verney and, mentioned in 1283, 1287 and 1297, William de Lyencurt.  

Grovebury’s Prior refused to pay taxes due to the Sherrif of Bedford in 1194 and 1247 and the Community had a good deal of trouble with its tenants from time to time. A windmill was built at Grove Priory and in 1212 a dispute arose concerning this between the Prior and his tenants, who alleged "that he has set it up and takes more toll there than he ought to take". The Prior was also in dispute about labour services from tenants in 1212, specifically about how much work they had to do on those manor lands the Priory farmed itself rather than leasing to tenants. This contentious issue had arisen before (in 1194) and arose again at times until 1290, involving the Prior in various suits before the King’s Court (Curia Regis) between 1213 and 1290.

In 1259, it seems that a lay brother of Dunstable Priory was “killed by 'the men of the Prior of Grava” in defence of the rights of the church, although the records from the time clear the Prior from blame for this incident.

The last Prior to be known by name, William de Lyencourt, was a person of some importance; he was Proctor General in England for the Abbess of Fontevraud and, undertaking a good degree of travel in this capacity, it was sometimes necessary for him to seek safe passage from the King.

In 1291, Grovebury was forcibly seized by the Crown and remained its property during the 100 Years War with France , although there is mention of the Manor being handed back to Fontevraud in the fleeting times of peace which occasionally broke out during this period. The Pope wrote a letter to Edward III in 1349, asking him to allow Fontevraud to regain possession of Grovebury but this appears to have been unsuccessful as the Abbey attempted to recover this, again in 1349, for the price of £200.

What all this adds up to is that Grovebury Priory functioned as such primarily only throughout the thirteenth century and just a few years either side of this (there is an isolated mention of one Richard de Greneburgh, Prior in 1333). Thereafter, it appears to have reverted to a Manor, although the chapel continued to be maintained into the fourteenth century. A Chaplain is mentioned in the Bailiff's Accounts for the Manor of 1341-1342 and there is a record of a grant of the Manor to John Bele provided he engaged two chaplains to celebrate daily Mass at the Manor for King Edward III and Queen Philippa. This stipulation was again made in 1373. The Clerical Subsidies Roll of 1390-1392 recorded two chaplains, John and Nicholas, at Grovebury.  

It is certain that the area was visited by various royal personages over the years although it is not possible, at this distance in time, to determine whether the Kings Henry III and Edward I, II and III stayed at the Manorial complex or at the Prior or perhaps, instead, in the town of Leighton Buzzard itself. What is known is that King Edward I’s daughter, Mary of Woodstock, made her profession at Amesbury Abbey as did King Edward's Mother, Eleanor of Provence, so both were within the Fontrevauld community (incidentally, the precise location of Eleanor’s grave remains unknown, making her the only Queen of England without a known grave). Perhaps a clue comes from the fact that it is known that Edward I was in Leighton Buzzard on the 1st and 2nd of August 1290 and that his Chancellor, Robert Burnell, Bishop of Bath and Wells was at Grovebury on the 31st of July. Similarly in 1309 Edward II was definitely at Grovebury in the presence of his Chancellor, John Langton, Bishop of Chichester. Thus the ecclesiastical connections are strong.

After 1414, when Henry V dissolved all Alien Priories, the buildings fell into disuse although the associated Manor was granted to Eton College in 1438 and, in 1481, to the Dean and Canons of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

The site of the Priory around 1812

Eventually, the grounds were used for sheep farming. The original Grovebury Farm building was constructed around the sixteenth century from stone and other materials used in the, by then, dilapidated medieval buildings of the Priory but this farmhouse was demolished in the twentieth century.

The Priory and its associated manorial buildings were excavated between 1973 and 1985 by Bedfordshire County Council, in advance of their destruction by a 60 feet deep sand quarry. These archeological excavations revealed much rebuilding at the site in the fourteenth century and discovered tile ovens, timber buildings, drains and a rectangular well relating to a cobbled courtyard subdivided into terraced yards. Old bailiff's accounts record a pigeoncote, which was also identified by the excavations, two new farm buildings, a cow house and "hakhous", built of wattle, daub and thatch. A stable, dairy and grain barn are also mentioned.  

One thing, however, which the twentieth century excavations evidence is that Grovebury never became fully conventual, i.e. a fully blown Priory with a monastic plan. It essentially remained a farm with a chapel attached for worship plus living quarters for the monks, in time becoming a chapel with resident chaplains in a manorial complex rented to tenants.  

Any remaining traces of the Priory disappeared in 1980 when the quarry was dug on the site but the vague outlines of fish ponds, which were once part of the Priory curtilage, can still be discerned just south of Grovebury Farm. Grove, as a name, still lives on, it being the little hamlet not far away from the Priory site on the other side of the River Ouzel, just south of Grove Lock on the Grand Union Canal where the original lock keepers cottage has been converted and expanded into a popular public house. 

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire July 2016