An Abbey in the city

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Lunchtime today and I am in my car. tootling back from a work meeting. I have 20 minutes to have a breath of fresh air and a little walk as part of my ‘I will be healthy this year, starting now’ plan.

Following on from yesterdays theme I decided to follow-up on the road sign clues that are in the part of the city I was in.  I love the way that names give clues to origins we might not suspect from face to face encounters with people or places. I’ve worked in this area for a number of years and know it well. I know that just up the road is the remains of a Cistercian Abbey from the 12th century. So today I went on a little exploration.

In the midst of a council estate of 1930s houses, some tidy, some run down, sits an area of green. The railings round give little clue from a distance until you come up close and see the picture of an Abbey fixed into each panel. And there, alongside a busy road, is a car park with ugly yellow barriers. Inside is one car a taxi on his break something an illegal cigarette before his next pick up.

No-one is here. The sandy path through scrubby grass leads to a rather smart new stone bench. And there in front of me is the excavated remains of this Abbey which housed monks from the 12th to 16th centuries and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

In the quiet it is just possible to imagine the monks tending their sheep and ministering to the poor.

The abbey, dedicated to St Mary, belonged to the Cistercian order, the White Monks. It was founded in 1223 by Henry de Audley in what was then a remote part of the county, in keeping with the traditional kind of site which the Cistercians chose for their religious houses. The Audleys continued to be benefactors of the abbey during the Middle Ages, although it was always poor with only ever a small number of monks. Following the economic pattern of the Cistercians, the monks of Hulton Abbey were engaged in sheep farming and they had sheepfolds at Normacot and at Mixon in the middle of the 13th century, as well as granges at Hulton and Rushton in Burslem. They were also producing tiles at Hulton in the 14th century.

Sir James de Audley, who was notable for how courageously he fought under the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, was buried in the choir of the abbey church in front of the high altar with his wife. There is a tradition that, when the abbey church was demolished and the tombs opened, the lady’s hair had continued to grow luxuriantly. Hulton Abbey was surrendered to the Crown on 18th September 1538 by which time it was worth only £200 per year and had only nine monks including the abbot. It was always one of the poorest of Staffordshire’s monasteries.

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