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Patron Saints of Great Malvern Priory: St Mary and St Michael

St Mary and St Michael from the Kempe window in St Anne's chapel, Malvern Priory.


A Charter from Henry 1st in 1128 AD refers to Great Malvern Priory as 'the Priory of St Mary'. In 1154/6 Westminster Abbey obtained a 'bull' from Pope Adrian IV which confirms a strong relationship or dependency of the priory of St Mary, Malvern, on the Abbey of Westminster.

The Worcester Monastic Annals and the 'Vita Wulfstani', a biography of the life of St Wulfstan by his chaplain in 1110 (translated from the Anglo Saxon by William of Malmesbury, 1125) tell how St Wulstan Bishop of Worcester encouraged a hermit named Aldwin to found a Monastery in the wilderness of Malvern! It is a remarkable fact that St Wulfstan kept his bishopric despite King William (the conqueror) replacing almost every English bishop with a Norman.

We have to remember that Western Christendom was Roman Catholic until the 16th century and that the Virgin Mary has always been held in highest esteem in Roman thinking, theology, and devotion. Therefore, many monasteries/churches were very likely to take the Virgin as their patron saint. Malvern Priory was directly spawned on the initiative of Bishop Wulstan of the Abbey of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Worcester.

An 18th century document in the Worcester County Record Office (ref.899.601 BA 9155) states that in the 18th year of William's kingship (1083?), the priory was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. There is no mention in this of the archangel Michael.

However, within the 'Victorian History of the Counties of England: A History of Worcester'; edited by W Page; there is an account of the foundation of the monastery in Bishop Guilford's Register of 1283, (ref.X713.093 BA 2648). It describes how hermit Aldwyn, who lived in the reign of Edward the Confessor, had petitioned the Earl of Gloucester for the original site (of the Priory) in the wood, and land "as far as Baldeyate"; that he collected monks, and adopted the Rule of St Benedict; dedicating the monastery to the Virgin Mary - but occasionally under patronage of both St Mary & St Michael. This information, it states, is taken from the 'Gervase of Canterbury, Mappa Mundi(Rolls ser.)'

In his book, "The Priory of Gt. Malvern", early 19th century Priory vicar, The Revd. H. Card, writes that the monastery "was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and also to St. Michael - as we learn from an original charter in the British Museum".

It is very difficult, in the early mediaeval world of mists and of myths, to distinguish historical facts from fables. The 15th century monks' tale of a St Werstan fathering the priory (rather than Wulfstan and Aldwyn), is depicted in the north choir clerestorey windows in the Priory. Nevertheless we can proceed from that tale's description of the site of Werstan's supposed martyrdom 'at the chapel of St John', above the priory.

It seems clear that this hillside chapel was in fact dedicated to St. Michael not St. John. It was fairly common practice for hillside churches to designate the Archangel Michael as their patron saint. Michael means 'Who is like God ?' Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, it is Michael who may be sent.

After the dissolution and destruction of the Priory buildings, from 1539, we read of Richard, Robert and Roger Taverner, in 1544, buying "Saint Myghelles chapel, with its garden, beneath le Malvern Hyll".

Although soon destroyed, this chapel was still remembered in the 18th century, when it was pictured in the west window of the surviving priory transept, as well as in the background of early prints of the 'Abbey' Gateway.

In 1725 it is marked on a drawing by Worcester mapmaker Joseph Dougharty. In 1744 it is marked on a map as 'St Michael's Hermitage', and from remains found in a cottage named "The Hermitage", it came to be identified with the site of well known Bello Squardo, at the top of the "99" steps to St Anne`s Well above present day Malvern.

The Malvern village's Parish church, dedicated to St Thomas, was a tumble-down wooden building (on the site of the present Post Office) before local folk raised £20 to buy the monks' church. Perhaps the early destruction of the chapel of St Michael on the Bello Squardo site, led to the linking of St Michael to St Mary, if that linkage was not already there.

In any case, when Bishop John Carpenter, Bishop of Worcester, came on July 30th 1460 to dedicate the rebuilt priory church and some 12 altars, he referred, at the High Altar, to the patrons as "the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Michael the Archangel", together with St John the Evangelist, St Peter, St Paul, & also St Benedict, founder of the Order.

Today the priory is known as the Parish Church of St Mary and St Michael.

Brian Stowe

 Printable Version
Sermon: Revd. Ian Spencer
Patronal Sermon - Mary in the Priory

Sermon: Revd. John Barr
Patronal Festival - A song and a struggle