Murder and plague: The haunting of Buildwas Abbey by the ghost of a murdered monk

Buildwas Abbey has stood on the banks of the Severn for almost a thousand years and has seen countless people pass through its hallowed grounds - not all of them with good intentions.

Buildwas Abbey, in a picture brought in to the Shropshire Star offices in 2013
Buildwas Abbey, in a picture brought in to the Shropshire Star offices in 2013

In fact, one murderous monk is even said to have slain a greedy abbot, causing his spirit to haunt the abbey to this day.

Shropshire folklore expert and researcher Amy Boucher is a frequent visitor to the abbey and has been digging into its history - particularly the grim period of the early 1340s when murder and plague fell upon its doors.

Amy, who comes from Madeley and runs a blog detailing spooky goings-on in Shropshire, takes up the story of the violence at the abbey that might explain ghost sightings in the intervening centuries.

"1342 wasn’t a great year for Buildwas Abbey, though the trouble really began around 18 months earlier, when a horrendous cattle disease struck Shropshire. Unknowingly, this disease would start a chain of events that would lead to murder.

"The cattle disease blighted the local area and decimated livestock numbers with one manor not too far from the abbey seeing 62 of the 154 cattle dead, and the rest too sick to give milk. It’s not known how far the disease affected Buildwas Abbey’s lands, however there must have been some impact, as it led to the behaviour of the abbot being called into question.

"The abbot seemed to ignore the problem and grew even more unrelenting in his pursuit of rent. This angered the local farmers; however, the dispute was eventually calmed when church officials were sent to Buildwas. There was peace for a time, until the following year, when the crops failed.

"With no crops and the county still in the grips of a cattle disease, many peasant farmers left their land in search of work further afield, or died, leaving acres of abandoned arable land. This was a real crisis and put immense pressure on the peasants left behind.

From an undated picture brought into the Shropshire Star offices in 2013, captioned 'Chapter House, Buildwas Abbey'

"At the abbey, it seems that the abbot refused to acknowledge these serious economic problems. He had no pity for the peasants and insisted that the abbey should collect the full taxes of abbey land, even if empty. He said he expected full rents and refused to allow any remission of fees or fines.

"The details of what follows are lost to time, however it seems that the local peasants expressed their concern, and found a voice in a junior monk, by the name of Thomas Tong [Thomas of Tonge in some records].

"Tong sympathised with the peasants and certainly wanted the abbot to address the growing issue, but he also disliked the abbot on a personal level - and perhaps saw an opportunity to challenge his leadership by becoming the peasants’ voice.

"Tong raised the concerns, and soon enough, a meeting between the two men was arranged to discuss the growing dissent and the overall economic situation. The meeting was a rather unpleasant affair, with the two men quickly losing their tempers. As the argument raised and insults were thrown, something in Thomas Tong snapped, and he stabbed the abbot to death.

"It is not known whether this was a premeditated act or a moment of madness, but the whole abbey was stunned by the events."

A patent roll (an official order issued by the Crown) from September 16 under the name of King Edward III details the "appointment of William Carles to attach Thomas de Tonge, a monk of Buldewas [sic], who is indicted in the county of Salop of the murder of his abbot as is said, and has spurned his religious habit and is now vagabond in secular habit, and imprison him in Shrewsbury gaol."

The book Medieval Monasteries of Great Britain includes this passage: "In 1342 the abbot was murdered by one of his own brethren, Thomas Tong. Tong managed to evade arrest and later had the audacity to petition for reinstatement to the Cistercian Order."

Whatever happened to Thomas, it appears he wasn't punished too harshly - perhaps because of his status as a man of the cloth - and was even able to rejoin the order after some time.

But what about the abbey, where the remaining monks had to pick up the pieces of what had happened?

Buildwas Abbey in lithograph, by JC Bayliss in 1856

Amy said: "A new abbot was appointed to Buildwas, who was kinder to the plight of the peasantry and so the rent situation was resolved. However, this wasn’t the end of Buildwas Abbey’s strife.

"Five years later the Black Death would strike the country, killing many in Shropshire, and plummeting the value of Buildwas estate. It never really grew in value again.

"To top it all off, Thomas Tong returned to Buildwas Abbey. Having completed his pilgrimage, he was technically forgiven in the eyes of God, and so was free to re-join his order. So, they reluctantly welcomed Tong back to the abbey.

"However, his return seemed to be too much for the spirit of the abbot.

"After resting for five years, his ghost was risen. Soon he was seen again, incessantly wandering the abbey’s grounds, unhappy at his killer’s return.

"Soon enough the ghost was a nightly occurrence and many of the younger monks suggested he was searching for Thomas Tong. Understandably, given this news, Tong fled the monastery, apparently not too keen on the idea of meeting his victim again.

"However, this didn’t give his victim respite. His spirit is still reported to wander the crumbling ruins of Buildwas Abbey.

"He’s reported as being a restless spirit, understandably unhappy at his demise. To some he is an uncomfortable presence, but not for all.

"Some report feeling an overwhelming sense of calm upon seeing his spirit. In the 1980s he was reported a number of times as walking alongside another otherworldly monk, who too gives off a calming presence.

"He is often seen stood among the ruins, as if in contemplation and enjoying the serenity of the abbey ruins."

Although the abbey's fortunes never really improved and it was dissolved in the 1530s, its ruins remains a contemplative, peaceful place today - just look over your shoulder next time you visit.

Read more of Amy's work at nearlyknowledgeablehistory.blogspot.com.

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