Craswall was founded c1220 by Walter II de Lacy who had visited Grandmont with King John on 1-2 April 1214. Although his tomb is to be found at Fontevrault, John’s father, Henry II, had wished to be buried amongst the monks of Grandmont.
Standing at over 2,000 ft, Grandmont was described c1184 by Prior Gérard Ithier as ‘stern and very cold, infertile and rocky, misty and exposed to the winds. The water is colder and worse than in other places, for it produces sickness instead of health. The mountain abounds in great stones for building, in streams and sand, but there is scarcely any timber for building. The land around the monastery scarcely ever suffices to provide necessaries, for the soil is so infertile, sterile and barren … The place which was chosen by God is a solitude for penitence and religion, and those who dwell there lead a hard life.’
His 1214 visit inspired Walter de Lacy to found a Grandmontine priory in the not dissimilar environment at Craswall beneath the 2,200-ft ridge of Hay Bluff. (see Home Page photo)
With the dissolution of the alien priories in 1441, Craswall priory and its lands were granted to ‘God’s House’, later Christ’s College, Cambridge, where three foundation charters relating to the priory are to be found. The first, MS Godshouse C, of c1220 commences ‘I Walter de Lacy, with the assent of my son Gilbert, have given granted …’; the second, Charter D, records a change of patronage, from father to son. Neither is dated, but the latter will have been issued when Gilbert assumed responsibility for the Lacy family’s English estates c1225-6. The final charter, Godshouse B, issued by Walter de Lacy in 1231, follows Gilbert’s death on active service in southern France late the previous year, for it re-asserts Walter as patron of Craswall, as Gilbert’s heir. In the same year Henry III issued a royal charter confirming the monks in possession of all their lands.
Although Walter II de Lacy’s language was somewhat imprecise in his foundation charter, it does make it clear that Craswall was to have the standard Grandmontine establishment of 13 monks, 3 choir monks and 10 convers who, unlike their Cistercian counterparts, were to be regarded as equal members of the community. Ultimate authority, however, lay with one of the 3 choir monks as Corrector.
In early September 1233, on his journey from Hay castle to that at Abergavenny during his campaign against Richard earl of Pembroke, Henry III rested for two nights at Walter de Lacy’s castle at Longtown. On the highest part of his journey he will have passed within sight of Craswall Priory. As The Kings’ Works points out, ‘in the 1230s, he first began to gratify his architectural tastes’. Almost certainly Henry will have visited the priory.
Later in 1233, hard pressed by de Lacy’s Jewish creditors, the Craswall brethren had to resort to Henry for relief. He granted that ‘they shall not be distrained for their lands at Holme Lacy which they have of the gift of Walter de Lacy on account of the debts the said Walter owed to the Jewry’. In 1242 the Craswall brethren were under further pressure, and the king had to intervene yet again. He repeated his earlier prohibition, commanding that it be formally enrolled by the Justices of the Jews. Three years later he went so far as to order that ‘the brothers of Grandmont and their men shall be quit of tallage, pontage, toll, passage, vinage, fossage, army amercement, and all custom, and of all things and occasions pertaining to the king, with prohibition of any vexation of the brothers or their men’.
From early days, the Grandmontine monks were called Bonshommes by the ordinary folk. As Carole Hutchison notes, ‘their kindly welcome and exceptional generosity towards the poor is praised in several contemporary accounts’. References in an inspeximus and confirmation by Edward III, dated 25 December 1327, to small gifts made to the Craswall monks are further evidence of the deep respect in which they were held for the simplicity and austerity of their way of life. A number of the grants were made by men of humble status, including four gifts of one seam (packhorse load) of wheat annually, another of half a seam, others of 2s (10p) annual rent, 1lb and 1½lb of wax annually, and ‘free passage’ across the Wye at Bredwardine.
The archaeological evidence, however, is our principal confirmation of the austerity of the order.