known as La Grave Priory or Grove Priory
(The Priory of St John) Male
(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.
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
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,
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
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.
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".
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".
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.
last Prior to be
known by name,
William de Lyencourt, was a person of some importance; he was Proctor General in
In 1291, Grovebury was
forcibly seized by the Crown and remained its property during the 100 Years War
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.
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,
The site of the Priory around 1812
Eventually, the grounds were used for sheep
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.
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