Last Photographed: Wednesday 12th July 2006
The Arrouasians were an order of Augustinian monks that preferred to follow a stricter rule, more akin to that of the Cistercians. In 1140, an existing church at Dorchester was re-founded by Bishop Alexandar as an Arrouasian community. Shortly afterwards, in around 1140, Richard de Belmeis granted land in Shropshire allowing the Canons to found a second colony at Lilleshall. However, royal approval was required, and the monks found themselves living in Donnington Wood until such approval was finally granted in 1145. By 1148, all arrangements were complete, and Lilleshall Abbey was finally established.
Building work soon commenced, and by the end of the 12th Century, the church was mostly complete. The eastern half of the present-day ruins date from that period (although the huge window in the east face was added in the 14th Century). The nave and the striking western front of the church were completed in the 13th Century.
Lilleshall appears to have prospered for at least a hundred years, expanding its property and wealth. But like many other religious houses, the troubles of the 14th Century placed a heavy financial burden upon it.
Lilleshall provided for its retired abbots with corrodies - allowances taking the form of food, clothing, upkeep of estates, material goods, servants... or whatever else might seem appropriate. These corrodies were an on-going commitment, and one that put an additional strain upon Lilleshall's coffers during the 14th Century. The retired Abbott John of Chetwynd clearly felt he wasn't being paid his due when he attacked the abbey with armed men and carried off goods as recompense. Subsequently, royal custodians were placed in the abbey to administer its affairs.
The abbey appears to have recovered by the 15th Century, and its finances were once again in order. Lilleshall continued to prosper until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in October of 1538. At that time, ten canons were in residence at the abbey. All were generously pensioned off and the site endowed to the Leveson family.
During the English civil war, the remains of the church were fortified by the Levesons and defended against an assault by parliamentary forces. Much damage was done to the fabric of the building, including the destruction of the towers. From then onwards, the abbey was left to decay, until eventually passing into the hands of English Heritage in the modern era.
Lilleshall sits unattended at the end of a farm track, tucked away in an unexpected, sleepy corner of Shropshire countryside. It's hidden from the nearby minor road by a wall of trees and feels distinctly isolated and sheltered from the outside world. This lends a sense of seclusion and secrecy that enhances any visit.
Despite the ravages that it suffered, the abbey has still faired better than many of its contemporaries. The walls of the church are largely intact, and the west front is still striking and elegant - despite the poor condition of its towers. The sandstone construction lends a distinctive character to the building that contrasts sharply with the deep greens of the surrounding yew trees. This is an unusual abbey that will reward any visitor who makes the effort to seek it out.