The Grade I listed Stoneleigh Abbey is country mansion dating from the 16th century, built in the grounds of a Cistercian Abbey which had been founded in 1154 and destroyed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII. ‘A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 2’ (1908) gives the following historical background of the Abbey.
‘In the reign of Stephen a certain desert piece of land called Radmore, in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, a mile south of Beaudesert, was granted by the king to two devout hermits, Clement and Hervey, and their companions, together with certain land called Mellesho for tillage and pasturing their cattle. Roger de Clinton, bishop of Chester, confirmed these grants and gave them liberty to betake themselves to whatever regular life they preferred. This band of hermits soon found, however, that their devotions were disturbed by the foresters who frequently rode that way, and humbly besought the Empress Matilda to change their site. Matilda, having a great affection for the Cistercian order, told them that if they would adopt that rule their request should be granted.
Accordingly Radmore was changed into an abbey, of which prior William, who ruled over the hermits, was made the first abbot. Henry, duke of Normandy, not only confirmed to them Radmore with Mellesho and Wyrley for tillage and Hednesford for pasture and pannage, with liberty to build a church and a suitable conventual house, but also gave them the town of Cannock with all its appurtenances and the mill at Wyrley. Other benefactors came to their help, such as Osbert de Ardern, who gave them Merston, and William Croc, who bestowed on them all his rights at Wyrley, to the intent he might be received into their fraternity and obtain burial amongst them. Geoffrey de Clinton and Roger de Clinton, the bishop, were also among the donors.
Shortly after this the new abbot and his monks, only as yet imperfectly understanding the Cistercian rule, requested Hamon, the second abbot of the Worcestershire monastery of Bordesley, to send two of his convent as instructors. From this circumstance great friendship grew up between the two houses, the monks of Bordesley always giving entertainment to those of the other house when they had occasion to visit their grange at Radway. They only tarried, however, for twelve years at Radmore; for finding the foresters at Cannock not only troublesome but somewhat burdensome through their frequent visits they petitioned Henry II on 19 December, 1154, the very day of his accession, to be pleased to transfer them to his manor of Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, and to accept of what they had at Radmore in exchange for that place.
Their prayer was at once granted, and after first trying another site, which was too close to a highway, the monks settled at a place near the confluence of the rivers Avon and Sow. The foundation stone of their church was laid and the churchyard consecrated by Walter Durdent, bishop of Coventry, on 13 April, 1155, with the assent of the prior and canons of Kenilworth, to whom the parish church of Stoneleigh belonged. The monks agreed not in any way to diminish the rights of that church and to pay tithes to Kenilworth for all land they should till within the parish. In accordance with the general Cistercian rule the monks of Stoneleigh had also to obtain the sanction of the adjacent monastery of Combe, the nearest one of the same order; and an agreement was made in the presence of the abbots of Waverley, Bordesley, and Merevale, by which it was provided that if the Combe convent desired at any time to erect any granges or to change the site of their abbey, the brethren of Stoneleigh were not to be entitled to raise any objection.
‘At the time’ says Dugdale when this Monastery was so founded, there were in the Mannour of Stoneley 68 villains, 4 Bordarii id est Freeholders (Sic), and two Priests all of which held xxx Carucates of land (as is exprest in Domesday book). As also 4 Bondmen or servants whereof each held 1 mess, and one quartrone of land, by the services of making the Gallows and hanging of Thieves, every one of which Bondmen was to wear a red clout betwixt his shoulders upon his upper garment, to plow twice a year, to reap as oft; that is to say at the two Bederipes; to give aid to the Lord at the feast of St. Michael to make the Lord’s malt and do other servile work.
In 1241 the monastery building suffered severely from fire, and the king ordered the sheriff of Warwickshire to deliver to the monks forty oaks out of his woods at Kenilworth towards the repairs.
In June, 1273, there was a suit in Chancery between the abbot of Stoneleigh and Henry Brome, when it was agreed that it should be left to a jury of twelve men of the manor of Stoneleigh, chosen by the abbot and the defendant, whether or not Henry ought to have the reasonable estover that he claimed to have in the abbot’s woods in Stoneleigh, and whether his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were wont to have such estover. Both parties bound themselves to observe the finding of the inquisition.
In 1284 Edward I granted the monks of Stoneleigh a Thursday market and an annual fair of eight days, extending through the octave of the nativity of St. John Baptist. At the same time they were granted free warren in their manors of Echeles, Homegrange, Staverton, Weethley, Stoneleigh, Melburn, Cralefeld, Bedindene, Horewell, Holinhill, Bericote, Cubbington, Radway, Hege Grange, Hurst, Finham, and Covele. They had also the fullest privileges on their manors, such as goods of felons, tumbrel and pillory, assize of bread and beer, &c.
Two years later Thomas de Ardern granted them the church of Ratley, and John de Mercote lands in Ratley and Radway.
On 16 April, 1286, licence was granted for the alienation in mortmain to the abbot and convent of divers small parcels of land in Stoneleigh and Cubbington, the gifts of no fewer than twenty-nine donors.
The temporal revenues of the abbey were estimated in 1291 at the annual value of £83 12s. 3d. and the appropriated church of Radway at £1 6s. 8d.
The bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, in 1378, gave his sanction to the appropriation to this abbey of the rectory of Radway, Warwickshire, together with the advowson of the vicarage, adding the unusual sanction of the vicarage being held by one of the brethren of the house.
In 1288 the abbey was subject to an outrage by a number of persons unknown. They came armed to the lands and tenements of the abbot at Stoneleigh, set fire to his houses, burnt the gatehouse, consumed goods, and hunted and took away deer.
In the Despenser disturbances of 1321, the earl of Hereford, Sir Roger de Mortimer and others entered the abbey of Stoneleigh, and there broke open the coffers of Sir Hugh le Despenser, which had been placed there for security. According to Sir Hugh’s statement they carried away from these coffers £1,000 in money, his charters, muniments and bonds, together with gold and silver cups, and other vessels of silver and jewels to the value of another £1,000.
In October, 1332, the abbot and convent petitioned the crown to the effect that whereas their house was founded by the king’s progenitors for the support of certain chantries for the souls of them and their heirs, and held all its land in free alms, it had nevertheless been charged with the sustenance of Richard de Morton and William de Foston by Edward II, by the procurement of Hugh le Despenser the younger, whom the petitioners dared not gainsay, and that as these now received daily from the house the sustenance of two monks, the chantry could not be duly supported so long as this charge remained. In reply, letters patent were issued under the privy seal to the effect that they should not be held to find the like for any other after the deaths of Richard and William, but should be quit of such burden for ever. In December of the same year, the abbey, by an elaborate judgement of the deputy treasurer and barons, was held quit of tallage. Notwithstanding this definite assurance, on the death of Richard de Morton, the abbey was directed to receive Thomas Bulfote, ‘messager,’ and to give him such maintenance as had been afforded to Morton. The application was refused. On 20 August the king issued a writ to the abbot and convent to appear before him at the ensuing Michaelmas to show cause for their disobedience. The abbot attended in person at Auckland. Adam de Fyncham on the part of the king stated that he conveyed letters patent to the abbot on Sunday after the nativity of St. John Baptist, but the abbot paid no heed, whereupon fresh letters patent were sent on the morrow of St. Peter ad Vincula renewing the demand. The abbot still remained in contempt, and Adam claimed 100 marks for the king, and 40 marks for the damage to Thomas Bulfote. On producing the patent of October, 1332, in court, judgement was at once given in the abbot’s favour.
Little is known of the inner life of this monastery, but the register, from which Dugdale cited, relates that William de Gyldeford, the ninth abbot, a man of singular wisdom, was made penitentiary to Pandulf, the papal legate, and was afterwards sent with legatine authority into Wales. This promotion caused many superior abbots to malign him. Having countenanced the fighting of a duel by a shepherd belonging to the monastery and the hanging of a cattle stealer, such advantage was taken against him that he was prosecuted for these offences and deprived in the year 1235.
Under Prior Gyldeford’s successor, Osbert de Westwelle, there was much laxness of rule; in 1258 several of the monks wandered abroad and the secular arm was invoked to apprehend and deliver the offenders to their abbot for chastisement. In that year, probably on account of this breach of discipline, Abbot Osbert resigned.
The abbot received a mandate from Benedict XII in 1342 to execute the papal ordinances touching apostates in the case of Thomas Berchevile, monk of Merevale, who, having left the Cistercian order, desired to be reconciled thereto.
Robert de Hockele, the sixteenth abbot, ruled from 1310 to 1349. He died in the latter year, in all probability of the plague. The old register described him as sage and prudent; he freed the house from many debts and was a great builder. He caused the quire stalls to be renewed and the carved work under the steeple (? the rood screen). He also rebuilt the east end of the church and covered it with lead; this alteration and the consequent moving of the high altar necessitated a re-dedication. ‘The gatehouse,’ says Dugdale, in 1656, ‘a fair and strong building, and also one of his works, still standeth.’
Thomas de Pipe, the compiler of the register, became abbot as a young man in 1352. In 1364 he was summoned before the king’s court on a charge of alienating the property of his abbey. An inquiry was made by twelve men of the neighbourhood, who reported that the abbot had granted land and rents in Finham to Isabel de Beneshale, his concubine, and their eldest son John to hold for their lives quit of rent. Moreover, fearing to be deposed by the visitors of his order, he had given the grange of Melbourn, worth £20 yearly, to Adam de Stokke, cook, and Roger de Cotes, to hold freely for the support of himself and especially for the support and maintenance of Isabel and the abbot’s children by her, who were more in number than his monks. He was also said to have recovered lands from a tenant by means of a deed forged at direction by one of his monks; when the fraud was discovered he had regranted the lands to the tenant at a much lower rate to avoid an action, to the injury of his house. The abbot, while not denying the relationship between himself and Isabel, said that all the grants were made subject to the payment of a reasonable rent, and that there had been no waste or fraudulent alienation, but the eventual decision of the court is not known.
The abbey was in great trouble in the spring of 1380. A commission was issued in April to Roger de Kirketon and three others to inquire touching the names of certain malefactors who had seized the seal of the abbey of Stoneleigh, which had been taken into the late king’s hands and committed to the custody of John, duke of Lancaster, on account of suits and controversies between the abbot and his adversaries touching his rights. These malefactors had used the seal to demise certain manors and granges, and to grant divers pensions. They had also seized cattle, carried away books, chalices, vestments, jewels, and other goods and committed divers wastes.
The Valor of 1535 returned the clear annual value of this house at £151 3s. 1¼d. The ryebread, beer, and herrings distributed as a dole to the poor on Maundy Thursday, by order of the general chapter of Citeaux, cost £4 5s. 4d. a year. The weekly distribution of bread and beer at the gates also cost the abbey a further annual sum of £5 7s. 8d.
The commissioners of 1536 returned the annual value of the abbey as £208 3s. 1½d. They found eleven religious ‘with the abbott now and the abbott quondam’; nine were priests, and two professed novices. They were ‘all of good conversation and lyvyng and desyre to contynew Religion in that house so ytt myght stand with the Kynge his pleasure or else to be sent to some other house of yt Religion.’ There were forty-six dependants, namely 15 yeoman servants, 21 hinds, 2 dairy-women, 5 corrodians, 2 found of alms, and one having an annuity by convent seal. The house was ruinous, but was worth with bells and lead £214 19s. 4¾d. The stocks, stores, and goods, were valued at £173 15s. 3d. There were 548 scores of wood. The debts of the house amounted to £212 19s. 10½d.
Thomas Tutbury, the abbot, obtained a pension of £23, which he was still enjoying in the year 1553.
Immediately on its dissolution, the site and demesnes were granted to Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk.
In 1561 the Abbey estate was purchased by Sir Roland Hill (a city merchant) and Sir Thomas Leigh (Born in Stoneleigh 1509 – Died 17 November 1571) who had been Lord Mayor of London 1558. Leigh built the manor house and it remained in his family until 1996 when ownership was transferred by Lord John Piers Leigh, 5th Baron Leigh (Born 1935 – Died 2003) to a charitable trust. Lord Leigh had lived at Stoneleigh Abbey up until 1990.
The following description of a strange experience was recounted by Zara Griffin in the comments fields of an article entitled ‘Ghostbusting at a haunted hotel’ that appeared on the BBC website. The incident is also referred to in the Paranormal Database which dates the experience as 9 March 2008. ‘I was at the edge of the river Avon, in a field at Stoneleigh Abbey- enjoying the view when I became aware of a lady watching me from the other side of the river. I got the feeling she wasn`t pleased with me being there as she had quite a cross expression on her face. I noticed she was dressed in a tweed outfit (similar to those worn by people hunting) I felt un-easy as I wasn`t sure if I was on private land and that this lady may well be the land owner. I decided as she was still watching me to cross over the bridge just ten feet away and apologise to her – to my great surprise as I got to the end of the bridge and looked left to where the lady had been stood moments before there was nobody there. I was absolutely terrified and I ran away as fast as I could. I have no idea who the lady was but she certainly gave me the impression I wasn`t meant to be where I was!’