Land Owners and the Church

Throughout the Middle Ages, Willenhall, like many of the neighbouring towns, was a small agricultural village. As previously stated it was under the control of two major land-owning manors.

Around two thirds of Willenhall belonged to the King. In the 13th century, this section of the town became part of Stow Heath Manor, which also included half of Wolverhampton and part of Bilston. The first lord of the manor was Robert Burnell, the Chancellor of England, and the bishop of Bath and Wells. Although his family home was at Acton Burnell, he must have also occupied the moated Stow Heath manor house, which stood on the site of the old Chillington Tool Company, now an industrial estate on the southern side of Willenhall Road, Wolverhampton, between the railway line and East Park.

By the 15th century, the manor belonged to the Lovell family, and remained in their possession until 1485, when Francis Lord Lovell lost everything, including the moated manor house. In December 1489 Thomas Taillour, one of the yeomen of the crown, became bailiff of the manor, and was succeeded by Sir John Giffard in June 1512.

The manor was later purchased by the wealthiest local family, the Levesons, and remained in their possession until James Leveson’s daughter Joyce, married into the Giffard family and took half of the manor with her. The remaining half eventually came into the hands of the Duke of Sutherland, descended from James Leveson’s brother, Nicholas.

A map of Chillington Tool Company's site, showing the location of Stow Heath manor house.

The other third of Willenhall belonged to the church, in the form of the Deanery Manor of Wolverhampton, based at St. Mary’s Church, which was rededicated to St. Peter in the 15th century. By the 13th century, St Mary’s had been reorganised into a college consisting of a dean and prebendaries, each prebendary being a canon of Wolverhampton. Prebendaries had an administrative role in the church, and received an income from the church’s estates.

There were prebendaries of Willenhall, Featherstone, Hatherton, Hilton, Kinvaston, Monmore, and Wobaston. Each was supported by the manor from which they drew their title, and had a house and land there, together with a town house in Wolverhampton. The Willenhall prebendary house stood in Tup Street, later North Street, where the Civic Centre stands today. In 1293 the Willenhall prebendary was valued at £6.13s.4d.

In 1526 a valuation was made of the college, which included the following details relating to Willenhall. The details are to be found, along with valuations of the college and the other prebendaries, in the Rev. G. Oliver's "Historical and Descriptive Account of The Collegiate Church of Wolverhampton" published in 1836. Pages 58 and 59:

The Prebend of Wylnall


William Leveson, Clerk, (dwelling in Exeter with the bishop), Prebendary there, and hath in Glebe lands £3.0s.0d.
And in the tithes of corn by the year, one year with another £3.0s.0d.
And in wool and lambs by the year, one year with another £3.6s.8d.
And in the Easter book by the year, one year with another £0.13s.4d.
And in the tithes of herbage, pigs, geese, and other small tithes £0.40s.0d.

Sum total

And thereof he pays allowance for Synodals every third year, paid to the aforesaid Dean £0.6s.8d.
And so there remains clear £11.13s.4d.
The tenth part thereof £0.23s.4d.

It is interesting to note that at this time, the Willenhall prebendary was worth more than any of the others.

Prebendaries and nearly all collegiate churches in England were dissolved by Henry VIII in 1547 as part of the English Reformation, under the Act for the Dissolution of Collegiate Churches and Chantries.

To further confuse the church’s ownership of land in Willenhall, it must be stated that not all of it belonged to the prebendary of Willenhall. A considerable part belonged to the prebendary of Wobaston, and several small areas around the town centre belonged to the prebendary of Hatherton.

Many of the prebendaries, including the prebendary of Willenhall, leased their land to John Leveson, who made many secret conveyances, deeds and settlements of the land for the use of his own family, and even sold parts of it. He leased the prebendary land in Willenhall, and the tithes, for an annual rent of £6.6s.0d. Around the end of the 17th century the church unsuccessfully attempted in law to regain ownership of its land, but the boundaries had become so confused that this was impossible. By this time much of the land in the town belonged to the Leveson family.

The First Church in Willenhall

Willenhall was part of the parish of St Mary, and so did not have a parish church until recent times. Parishioners were expected to attend services at St. Mary’s Church in Wolverhampton, where they also had to go for administration of the sacraments, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

At an early period, Willenhall acquired a chapel of ease where the parishioners could attend services, so avoiding the journey of 3 miles or so to Wolverhampton. They would still however have to go to Wolverhampton for the administration of the sacraments, weddings, and funerals. The chapel was dedicated to St. Giles, and may have been established in the 13th century, because the Calendar of Patent Rolls of 1297 includes a record of Thomas de Trollesbury, parson of the church of Willenhall. The Calendar of Patent Rolls is one of the largest and most important sources for English medieval history, containing letters, writs and mandates issued by the Crown, that were considered to be of a public nature.

    The modern St. Giles' Church. From an old

A chantry chapel also existed in the town, presumably in the chapel of ease. The chantry chapel was for the exclusive benefit of local wealthy land-owning families. Wealthy persons would endow chantries for the purpose of easing their souls into the after life by the process of prayer. Daily services and prayers were carried out by the chantry priest, who was funded by the endowment.  The first record of the Willenhall chantry can be found in the Patent Rolls of Edward III, dated 14th February, 1328. It is as follows:

Licence for the alienation in mortmain by Richard Gerveyse of Wolverhampton, of a messuage, land, and a moiety of a mill in Willenhall, Staffordshire, for the souls of the said Richard and Felicia his wife, the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children and ancestors, and others.

Note: Alienation means to transfer the ownership of property. Mortmain (dead hand) indicates that a person who had died earlier still dictated the use of their land and property. A messuage is a dwelling house, it's outbuildings and grounds. A moiety is a half.

Chantries were abolished by the 1547 Chantries Act. Commissioners were sent out to confiscate their land and to collect any gold and silver plate they had, which were melted down and made into coins.

The Rev. G. Oliver's book also includes details of the 1526 valuation of Willenhall chantry:

Chantry of Wylnall £.s.d.
Hugh Bromehall, Chaplain, hath a house with lands pertaining to the same, value per annum... 8 marks, and preys to be allowed for rents of assize payable to the Dean £0.3s.3d.
And for the capitation rents, rents annually paid to William Leveson, Prebendary of Wylnall £0.0s.10d.
And so there remains due 102s.7d.
The tenth part thereof 10s.3d.

The chapel of ease was funded by rents from property and land belonging to the Chapel of Ease Estate, and donations from supporters. Much of the land and property was probably given to the estate in the form of endowments to the chantry, founded by John and Richard Gervase in February 1328.

A list of property and land belonging to the estate in the middle of the 17th century can be found in Norman Tildesley's history of Willenhall. The list was made as a result of a dispute between trustees of the estate, and the tenants. Richard Bailey was minister at Willenhall during 1651 and 1652. He applied to the Committee for Plundered Ministers for an increase of his stipend, due to the increase in the cost of living as a result of the Civil War. The Committee could do little to help until the trustees had carried out a review of their rents for land and properties.

This they promptly did, and increased the rents, which were often far lower than they should have been. Some of the tenants resisted the increase, and so the matter eventually ended up in the High Court, where the trustees won the day.

The revised rents decided by the trustees, were approved on 13th February, 1655 by the commissioners under the Great Seal, including: Sir John Wirley, Walter Wrottesley, esq., Henry Stone, esq., Richard Flyer, esq., and Walter Fowler, esq.

To support their case in the High Court, the trustees produced a petition. The following details are from their petition.

   The petition of Richard Wilkes, gent, Thomas Brinley, Erasmus Padmore, and Richard Padmore, dated
   18th November, 1656.
Details Now or late in the
occupation of:

Revised Rent

7 days work of arable land in the fields John Tomkys, gent £1.14s.0d.

9 days work of arable land and 1 days math and a half of meadowing in the common fields as also 2 days math of meadowing in New Meadow

George Blakeman?
als. Turner

1 house and backside with the moiety of a barn, 1 close called Round Croft, 3 days work of a.l., 2 days math of meadow in New Meadow.

George Blakeman
als. Turner

1 house and backside, and shop therein, 3½ days work of arable land and half a days m. of m.

Thomas Hanson £1.14s.0d.
5 days work of arable land and half a days m. of m. Francis Careless £1.4s.0d.
3½ days work of arable land

Widow Eaton als. Fletcher

4½ days of work of arable land and 1 days math of Meadow

Richard Smith the elder

1 dwelling house and backside with barn thereupon Richard Smith butcher £0.13s.4d.
1 house and shop    George Perry £0.6s.8d.

6¼ days work of arable land                                                    

Margery Hill, widow £1.5s.0d.
The moiety of the windmill  Edward Hill £0.15s.8d.
1 house, barn, backside, and 5 days work of arable land and field land George Rideo £1.19s.8d.
1 house, garden, croft, cow house, and 2½ days work of arable and field land John Lunn £1.10s.0d.
1 house, barn, backside and shop there upon, a Sheare adjoining to one Reade’s house end, and 2 days work of arable field land Thomas Parkes £1.1s.4d.
1 days work of arable land        William Honeyman
of the Crosse
2 days work of arable land       Widow Moseley £0.12s.0d.

9 days work of arable land and 5 land ends 

Widow Fletcher
als. Pedley
½ days math of meadow in Broad Meadow William Fletcher
als. Pedley

6 days work of arable land in the fields and ½ days math of meadow

(her several lands have been very moderately increased by your orators with the consent of the late Commissioners for Charitable Uses in the County of Stafford)

Widow Bailey £1.4s.0d.
And the lands and tenements following, whereof no rent has hitherto been paid, but now very easy rents reserved, viz:


Now or late in the
occupation of:
1 dwelling house and shop Abraham Brookes £0.6s.8d.
1 house and shop Abraham Averill £0.6s.8d.
1 house and backside William Read the elder £0.10s.0d.
1 house, barn and garden William Booth £0.6s.8d.
1 house and shop Thomas Blakeman
als. Turner the elder
1 house and backside William Reade
the younger
1 house and shop  Richard Blakeman
als. Turner
1 house newly erected  Thomas Turner the younger £0.2s.0d.
1 house by the Welch Gate with some other buildings thereunto belonging William Blakeman
als. Turner
1 Leasow called Marshills or Bessalls in Bentley Aforesaid William Honeyman £3.10s.0d.
Certain other lands and tenements called Marshills or Bessalls George Blakeman
als. Turner and now
Richard Smith

Total income


The total acreage of land owned by the estate was just over 112 acres.

Some tenants handed their tenancies down from generation to generation, which sometimes led to disputes with the trustees about rightful ownership. The land was originally farmed in strips, but as time went by they were amalgamated into larger fields, so that it became impossible to recognise the old boundaries.

On 6th August, 1844 an Act of Parliament was passed to authorise the sale of certain estates and mines belonging to the Chapel of Willenhall, and to provide a residence for the incumbent. From this time the land was gradually sold, some for as much as £300 per acre, a large amount in the 1840s. The Willenhall Chapel of Ease Estate still exists today as a registered charity.

The chapel was demolished in 1748 to make way for St. Giles' Church. The last service was held on 10th April, just before demolition began. Little is known about the chapel building, other than an account in the diary of Dr. Richard Wilkes, who was a trustee of the Chapel of Ease Estate, and played a prominent role in the demolition of the chapel, and the rebuilding of the new church. His entry is as follows:

May 6th, 1748. This day I set out the foundations of a new church in this town; for the old one being half-timber, the sills, pillars, etc. were so decayed that the inhabitants, when they met together, were in great danger of being killed. It appeared to me that the old church must have been rebuilt, at least the middle aisle of it; and that the first fabric was greatly ornamented, and must have been the gift of some rich man, or a number of such, the village then being but thin of inhabitants; and, before the iron manufacture was begun here, they could not have been able to erect such a fabric; but no date or hint relating to it was to be found, nor anything about it come to us by tradition.

The church had a stone tower which was incorporated into the new church, and demolished in 1865. The tower must have been there in 1551 because the Return of Church Ornaments for that year records that there were two bells in the steeple, which must have been substantially constructed in order to support the bells.

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