There is nothing for the general public to see now of Dieulacres Abbey near Leek. The book by Michael Fisher includes illustrations showing some stonework still on the site but the location is now private property. Below I show a distant view of the site which is close to the half-timbered building near the centre of the picture. Half a mile to the north lies the Abbey Inn built in 1702.
|The site of Dieulacres Abbey today||The Abbey Inn, built in 1702|
Dieulacres Abbey, like Whalley Abbey in Lancashire, was the second site for an abbey originally founded in Cheshire. Whalley was the second home for the monks from Stanlow, whereas the monks of Dieulacres came from Poulton, which is on the River Dee about 5 miles from Chester. In 1146, Robert Pincerna, the hereditary butler in the household of Ranulph II, Earl of Chester founded a group of monks to pray for his master. Ranulph was Earl during the Anarchy when the Empress Matilda and Stephen of Blois, her cousin, were claimants for the English throne. Earl Ranulph was a supporter of the Empress and captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. However, in the fluctuations of the conflict, Ranulph himself was captured in 1146.
The abbey at Poulton was planned as a daughter house to Combermere Abbey on the borders of Cheshire and Shropshire. This was founded as a Savignac order. The Savignacs combined with the Cistercians in 1147. The Cistercian's first abbey was founded at Citeaux in 1089 and the order expanded rapidly in England so that by 1152 there were 37 monasteries. Robert Pincerna granted to the abbey half of the land that he held from Ranulph at Poulton and subsequently his son, Robert Pincerna of Engleby, granted the other half. Earl Ranulph's son, Hugh Cyveliok, the fifth Earl of Chester, also made grants of land to the Abbey and when he died in 1181, he was succeeded by his son, Ranulph III, known as Ranulph de Blundeville. The monastery acquired other property including some at Aldford, Byley, Chelford, Withington and Alderley. The last four are in East Cheshire. The Chronicles of Dieulacres state that it was decided to relocate the abbey to the Leek area to be remote from the attacks of the Welsh along the Dee and closer to their lands in East Cheshire.
Richard of Poulton took his monks to Leek in 1214 and on 22 April they took possession of the new land granted to them by Earl Ranulph de Blundeville.. The site was on the banks of the Churnet. It is related that the Earl laid the foundation stone and said "Dieu l'encres", meaning "May God prosper it". As a result the abbey became known as Dieulacres. The monastic buildings at Poulton continued to be used as a grange.
By the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Dieulacres had the second highest income in Staffordshire after Burton on Trent at £227 per annum. The minor monasteries were suppressed in 1536 but Dieulacres and its Cistercian neighbours, Croxden and Hulton, escaped until 1538 when the greater houses were dissolved. The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr. Rowland Lee, wanted to obtain Dieulacres for his friend Edward Earl of Derby. Lee put the case to Henry VIII and received assent. The physical destruction of the abbey began on 20 October when Dr. Thomas Legh and William Cavendish arrived to make an inventory of the abbey and its property. They proceeded to arrange a sale of building materials that could be stripped from the site including the lead from the roof of the church, which was valued at £720. The bells were valued at £37 10s., there were 87 ounces of gold and silver-gilt plate and 30 ounces of silver. The livestock in the inventory - only 60 lambs and ewes - is too small to account for the income of the abbey and it is thought that Abbot Whitney, foreseeing the attack on the greater monasteries, had already sold some of the stock.
The inventory shows that at the Dissolution the abbey had twelve monks, six stewards, a forester, eleven others who received fees and annuities, and 30 servants and workmen. Thomas Whitney, the last Abbot, made financial provision for himself, his family and his friends before the abbey was signed over to Henry VIII's commissioners. Thomas had a brother John and a nephew Nicholas and there were two other Whitneys - Geoffrey an attorney and Humphrey who was bailiff of the abbey estates in Cheshire. Well in advance of the Dissolution, the abbot allowed these to have leases on abbey lands and property or annuities based on income from parts of the estate. In 1537 he prepared blank charters bearing the official seal. This seal was confiscated by the commissioners but the abbot then used the blank charters to give leases of abbey land to friends by entering false dates upon them. Among the beneficiaries were John Brereton. This fraud was discovered by the Earl of Derby when he took over the abbey and he tried to recover the land by legal action.
Few of the Whitney family retained their ill-gotten gains. John Whitney's land at Swythamley was given to William Trafford of Wilmslow in 1540. In 1553, Edward VI gave the lands occupied by Nicholas Whitney and John Allen at Rossall to Thomas Fleetwood. Humphrey Whitney lost his Middlewich salt pit to Thomas Venables. Even the Earl of Derby did not benefit for long for in 1552 the King gave the land to Sir Ralph Bagnall together with 12,000 acres of land in North Staffordshire. Bagnall remained staunchly Protestant in the reign of Queen Mary (1553-8) and had to flee to France. Sir Ralph passed the estate to his brother Sir Nicholas Bagnall who sold it to Valentine Brown. When Elizabeth came to the throne, Sir Ralph Bagnall returned to England and bought back the estate for £2,111. However, Sir Ralph had constant financial problems leading him to sell parcels of his land and eventually the abbey site came into the possession of the Rudyard family.
On the site of the abbey there is now a farm dating from 1612 and a barn from 1818. These two buildings contain recycled stone from the abbey.
With most of the good building material removed for sale, little remained of the abbey and by the early 19th century there was only a mound of debris. This was moved in 1818 revealing some carved stonework. Some of the stone was used at the abbey farm for outbuildings.
Dieulacres Abbey, by Michael J. C. Fisher, MA, of King Edward VI Grammar
School, Stafford, published in 1969. Leek Public Library.
The Buildings of England, Staffordshire, by Nikolaus Pevsner, Penguin, 1974, ISBN 0 14 071046 9
The Cistercian Abbeys of Britain, edited by David Robinson, English Heritage, 1998, paperback 2002, ISBN 0 71348727 5