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Title: Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535

Author: Eileen Edna Power

Release Date: April 25, 2012 [EBook #39537]

Language: English

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Larger Image


(At the top of the picture a priest with two acolytes prepares the sacrament; behind them stand the abbess, holding her staff, her chaplain and the sacristan, who rings the bell; behind them a group of four nuns, including the cellaress with her keys. At the bottom is a procession of priest, acolytes and nuns in the quire.)




c. 1275 to 1535




(From the Ellesmere MS.)





M. G. J.





[Pg v]


There is only too much truth in the frequent complaint that history, as compared with the physical sciences, is neglected by the modern public. But historians have the remedy in their own hands; choosing problems of equal importance to those of the scientist, and treating them with equal accuracy, they will command equal attention. Those who insist that the proportion of accurately ascertainable facts is smaller in history, and therefore the room for speculation wider, do not thereby establish any essential distinction between truth-seeking in history and truth-seeking in chemistry. The historian, whatever be his subject, is as definitely bound as the chemist “to proclaim certainties as certain, falsehoods as false, and uncertainties as dubious.” Those are the words, not of a modern scientist, but of the seventeenth century monk, Jean Mabillon; they sum up his literary profession of faith. Men will follow us in history as implicitly as they follow the chemist, if only we will form the chemist’s habit of marking clearly where our facts end and our inferences begin. Then the public, so far from discouraging our speculations, will most heartily encourage them; for the most positive man of science is always grateful to anyone who, by putting forward a working theory, stimulates further discussion.

The present series, therefore, appeals directly to that craving for clearer facts which has been bred in these times of storm and stress. No care can save us altogether from error; but, for our own sake and the public’s, we have elected to adopt a safeguard dictated by ordinary business commonsense. Whatever errors of fact are pointed out by reviewers or correspondents shall be publicly corrected with the least possible delay. After a year of publication, all copies shall be provided with such an erratum-slip without waiting for[Pg vi] the chance of a second edition; and each fresh volume in this series shall contain a full list of the errata noted in its immediate predecessor. After the lapse of a year from the first publication of any volume, and at any time during the ensuing twelve months, any possessor of that volume who will send a stamped and addressed envelope to the Cambridge University Press, Fetter Lane, Fleet Street, London, E.C. 4, shall receive, in due course, a free copy of the errata in that volume. Thus, with the help of our critics, we may reasonably hope to put forward these monographs as roughly representing the most accurate information obtainable under present conditions. Our facts being thus secured, the reader will judge our inferences on their own merits; and something will have been done to dissipate that cloud of suspicion which hangs over too many important chapters in the social and religious history of the Middle Ages.

G. G. C.

October, 1922.



[Pg vii]


The monastic ideal and the development of the monastic rule and orders have been studied in many admirable books. The purpose of the present work is not to describe and analyse once again that ideal, but to give a general picture of English nunnery life during a definite period, the three centuries before the Dissolution. It is derived entirely from pre-Reformation sources, and the tainted evidence of Henry VIII’s commissioners has not been used; nor has the story of the suppression of the English nunneries been told. The nunneries dealt with are drawn from all the monastic orders, except the Gilbertine order, which has been omitted, both because it differed from others in containing double houses of men and women and because it has already been the subject of an excellent monograph by Miss Rose Graham.

It remains for me to record my deep gratitude to two scholars, in whose debt students of medieval monastic history must always lie, Mr G. G. Coulton and Mr A. Hamilton Thompson. I owe more than I can say to their unfailing interest and readiness to discuss, to help and to criticise. To Mr Hamilton Thompson I am specially indebted for the loan of his transcripts and translations of Alnwick’s Register, now in course of publication, for reading and criticising my manuscript and finally for undertaking the arduous work of reading my proofs. I gratefully acknowledge suggestions received at different times from Mr Hubert Hall, Miss Rose Graham and Canon Foster, and faithful criticism from my friend Miss M. G. Jones. I have also to thank Mr H. S. Bennett for kindly preparing the index, and Mr Sydney Cockerell, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, for assistance in the choice of illustrations.


Girton College,

September 1922

[Pg viii]



[Pg ix]


Situation, income and size of the English nunneries 1
Nuns drawn from (1) the nobles and gentry 4
(2) the middle class 9
Nunneries in medieval wills 14
The dowry system 16
Motives for taking the veil:
(1)a career and a vocation for girls 25
(2)a ‘dumping ground’ for political prisoners 29
(3)for illegitimate, deformed or half-witted girls 30
(4)nuns forced unwillingly to profess by their relations 33
(5)a refuge for widows and occasionally for wives 38
Superiors usually women of social standing 42
Elections and election disputes 43
Resignations 56
Special temptations of a superior:
(1)excessive independence and comfort 59
(2)autocratic government 64
(3)favouritism 66
The superior a great lady in the country side 68
Journeys 69
Luxurious clothes and entertainments 73
Picture of heads of houses in Bishop Alnwick’s Lincoln visitations (1436-49) 80
Wicked prioresses 82
Good prioresses 89
General conclusion: Chaucer’s picture borne out by the records 94
Evidence as to monastic property in
(1)the Valor Ecclesiasticus 96
(2)monastic account rolls 97
Variation of size and income among houses 98
Methods of administration of estates 99
Sources of income:
(1)rents from land and houses 100
(2)manorial perquisites and grants 103
[Pg x](3)issues of the manor 109
(4)miscellaneous payments 112
(5)spiritualities 113
Expenses 117
(1)internal expenses of the convent 119
(2)divers expenses 123
(3)repairs 123
(4)the home farm 125
(5)the wages sheet 129
The obedientiaries 131
Allocation of income and obedientiaries’ accounts 134
Chambresses’ accounts (clothes) 137
Cellaresses’ accounts (food) 137
Servants 143
(1)chaplain 144
(2)administrative officials 146
(3)household staff 150
(4)farm labourers 150
Nunnery households 151
Relations between nuns and servants 154
Occasional hired labour 157
Villages occasionally dependent upon nunneries for work 158
Poverty of nunneries 161
(1)prevalence of debt 162
(2)insufficient food and clothing 164
(3)ruinous buildings 168
(4)nuns begging alms 172
Reasons for poverty:
(1)natural disasters 176
(2)ecclesiastical exactions and royal taxes 183
(3)feudal and other services 185
(4)right of patrons to take temporalities during voidance 186
(5)right of bishop and king to nominate nuns on certain occasions 188
(6)pensions, corrodies, grants and liveries 194
(7)hospitality 200
(8)litigation 201
(9)bad management 203
(10)extravagance 211
(11)overcrowding with nuns 212
[Pg xi]Methods adopted by bishops to remedy financial distress:
(1)devices to safeguard expenditure by the head of the house 217
(2)episcopal licence required for business transactions 225
(3)appointment of a custos 228
The education of the nuns:
Learning of Anglo-Saxon nuns, and of German nuns at a later date 237
Little learning in English nunneries during the later middle ages 238
Nunnery libraries and nuns’ books 240
Education of nuns 244
Latin in nunneries 246
Translations for the use of nuns 251
Needlework 255
Simple forms of medicine 258
Nunneries as schools for children:
The education of novices 260
The education of secular children 261
Boys 263
(1)not all nunneries took children 264
(2)only gentlefolk taken 265
(3)disapproval and restriction of nunnery schools by the ecclesiastical authorities 270
What did the nuns teach? 274
Life of school children in nunneries 279
‘Piety and breeding’ 281
Division of the day by the Benedictine Rule 285
The Benedictine combination of prayer, study and labour breaks down 288
Dead routine 289
The reaction from routine 290
(1)carelessness in singing the services 291
(2)accidia 293
(3)quarrels 297
(4)gay clothes 303
(5)pet animals 305
(6)dancing, minstrels and merry-making 309
 [Pg xii]
The monastic obligation to (1) communal life, (2) personal poverty 315
The breakdown of communal life: division into familiae with private rooms 316
The breakdown of personal poverty 322
(1)the annual peculium 323
(2)money pittances 323
(3)gifts in money and kind 324
(4)legacies 325
(5)proceeds of a nun’s own labour 330
Private life and private property in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries 331
Attitude of ecclesiastical authorities 336
Enclosure in the Benedictine Rule 341
The movement for the enclosure of nuns 343
The Bull Periculoso 344
Attempts to enforce enclosure in England 346
Attempts to regulate and restrict the emergence of nuns from their houses 353
The usual pretexts for breaking enclosure:
(1)illness 361
(2)to enter a stricter rule 363
(3)convent business 367
(4)ceremonies, processions, funerals 368
(5)pilgrimages 371
(6)visits to friends 376
(7)short walks, field work 381
The nuns wander freely about in the world 385
Conclusion 391
Visitors in the cloister are another side of the enclosure problem 394
The scholars of Oxford and Cambridge and the neighbouring nunneries 395
Regulations to govern the entrance of seculars into nunneries:
(1)certain persons not to be admitted 401
(2)certain parts of the house and certain hours forbidden 402
(3)unsuccessful attempts to regulate the reception of boarders 409
The nuns and political movements 419
[Pg xiii]Robbery and violence 422
Border raids in Durham and Yorkshire 425
The strange tale of Sir John Arundel’s outrage on a nunnery 429
The sack of Origny in Raoul de Cambrai 432
Nuns and the celibate ideal 436
Sources of evidence for the moral state of the English nunneries 439
Apostate nuns 440
Nuns’ lovers 446
Nuns’ children 450
Disorder in two small houses, Cannington (1351) and Easebourne (1478) 452
Disorder in the great abbeys of Amesbury and Godstow 454
Moral state of the nunneries in the diocese of Lincoln at two periods 456
Attempted statistical estimate of cases of immorality in Lincoln (1430-50),
Norwich (1514) and Chichester (1478, 1524) dioceses
Punishment of offenders 462
General conclusions 471
The chapter meeting 475
Reform by external authorities:
(1)a parent house 478
(2)the chapter general of the order 481
(3)the bishop of the diocese 482
The episcopal visitation and injunctions 483
How far was this control adequate?
(1)concealment of faults 488
(2)visitation too infrequent 490
(3)difficulty of enforcing injunctions 492
Value of visitation documents to the historian 493
Value of literary evidence 499
Autobiographies and biographies of nuns 500
Popular poetry (chansons de nonnes) 502
Popular stories (fabliaux, exempla) 515
Didactic works addressed to nuns 523
Satires and moral treatises 533
Secular literature in general 555
 [Pg xiv]
I. Additional Notes to the Text:
A.The daily fare of Barking Abbey 563
B.School children in nunneries 568
C.Nunnery disputes 581
D.Gay clothes 585
E.Convent pets in literature 588
F.The moral state of Littlemore Priory in the sixteenth century 595
G.The moral state of the Yorkshire nunneries in the first half of
the fourteenth century
H.The disappearance or suppression of eight nunneries prior to 1535 602
I.Chansons de Nonnes 604
J.The theme of the nun in love in medieval popular literature 622
K.Nuns in the Dialogus Miraculorum of Caesarius of Heisterbach 627
II. Visitations of Nunneries in the Diocese of Rouen by Archbishop
Eudes Rigaud (1248-1269)
III. Fifteenth Century Saxon Visitations by Johann Busch 670
IV. List of English Nunneries, C. 1275-1535 685



[Pg xv]


IPage from La Sainte Abbaye FRONTISPIECE
 (Brit. Mus. MS. Add. 39843. Folio 6vº.)
IIAbbess receiving the pastoral staff from a bishop 44
 (From The Metz Pontifical, 82(b)vº and 90vº, in the Fitzwilliam
Museum, Cambridge.)
IIIPage from La Sainte Abbaye 144
 (Folio 29.)
IVBrass of Ela Buttry, the stingy Prioress of Campsey († 1546), in
St Stephen’s Church, Norwich
 (From Norfolk Archaeology, Vol. VI; Norf. and Norwich Archaeol.
Soc. 1864.)
VPage from La Sainte Abbaye 260
 (Folio 1vº.)
VIDominican nuns in quire 286
 (From Brit. Mus. Cott. MSS. Dom. A XII f.)
VIIThe nun who loved the world 388
 (From Queen Mary’s Psalter, Brit. Mus. Royal MS. 2 B. VII.)
VIIIPlan of Lacock Abbey 403
 (From Archaeologia, LVII, by permission of the Society of Antiquaries
and Mr Harold Brakspear.)
 Map showing the English Nunneries in the later middle ages AT END



[Pg 1]





Then, fair virgin, hear my spell,
For I must your duty tell.
First a-mornings take your book,
The glass wherein yourself must look;
Your young thoughts so proud and jolly
Must be turn’d to motions holy;
For your busk, attires and toys,
Have your thoughts on heavenly joys:
And for all your follies past,
You must do penance, pray and fast.
You shall ring your sacring bell,
Keep your hours and tell your knell,
Rise at midnight to your matins,
Read your psalter, sing your Latins;
And when your blood shall kindle pleasure,
Scourge yourself in plenteous measure.
You must read the morning mass,
You must creep unto the cross,
Put cold ashes on your head,
Have a hair cloth for your bed,
Bind your beads, and tell your needs,
Your holy Aves and your Creeds;
Holy maid, this must be done,
If you mean to live a nun.
The Merry Devil of Edmonton.


There were in England during the later middle ages (c. 1270-1536) some 138 nunneries, excluding double houses of the Gilbertine order, which contained brothers as well as nuns. Of these over one half belonged to the Benedictine order and about a quarter (localised almost entirely in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire) to the Cistercian order. The rest were distributed as follows: 17 to the order of St Augustine and one (Minchin Buckland), which belonged to the order of St John of Jerusalem and followed the Austin rule, four to the Franciscan order, two to the Cluniac order, two to the Premonstratensian order and one to the Dominican[Pg 2] order. There was also founded in the fifteenth century a very famous double house of the Brigittine order, Syon Abbey. Twenty-one of these houses had the status of abbeys; the rest were priories. They were distributed all over the country, Surrey, Lancashire, Westmorland and Cornwall being the only counties without one, but they were more thickly spread over the eastern than over the western half of the island. They were most numerous in the North, East and East Midlands, to wit, in the dioceses of York, Lincoln (which was then very large and included Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Rutland, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and part of Hertfordshire) and Norwich; there were 27 houses in the diocese of York, 31 in the diocese of Lincoln, ten in the diocese of Norwich and in London and its suburbs there were seven. On the other hand if nunneries were most plentiful in the North and East Midlands it was there that they were smallest and poorest. The wealthiest and most famous nunneries in England were all south of the Thames. Apart from the new foundation at Syon, which very soon became the largest and richest of all, the greatest houses were the old established abbeys of Wessex, Shaftesbury, Wilton, St Mary’s Winchester, Romsey and Wherwell, which, together with Barking in Essex were all of Anglo-Saxon foundation; and Dartford in Kent, founded by Edward III. The only houses north of the Thames which approached these in importance were Godstow and Elstow Abbeys, in Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire respectively; the majority were small priories with small incomes.

An analysis of the incomes and numerical size of English nunneries at the dissolution gives interesting and somewhat startling results. Out of 106 houses for which information is available only seven had in 1535 a gross annual income of over £450 a year. The richest were Syon and Shaftesbury with £1943 and £1324 respectively; then came Barking with £862, Wilton with £674, Amesbury with £595, Romsey with £528 and Dartford with £488. Five others (St Helen’s Bishopsgate, Haliwell and the Minories all in London, Elstow and Godstow) had from £300 to £400; nine others (Nuneaton, Clerkenwell, Malling, St Mary’s Winchester, Tarrant Keynes, Canonsleigh, Campsey, Minchin Buckland and Lacock) had from £200 to £300. Twelve had between[Pg 3] £100 and £200 and no less than 73 houses had under £100, of which 39 actually had under £50; and it must be remembered that the net annual income, after the deduction of certain annual charges, was less still[1]. An analysis of the numerical size of nunneries presents more difficulties, for the number of nuns given sometimes differs in the reports referring to the same house and it is doubtful whether commissioners or receivers always set down the total number of nuns present at the visitation or dissolution of a house; while lists of pensions paid by the crown to ex-inmates after dissolution are still more incomplete as evidence. A rough analysis, however, leaves very much the same impression as an analysis of incomes[2]. Out of 111 houses, for which some sort of numerical estimate is possible, only four have over thirty inmates, viz. Syon (51), Amesbury (33), Wilton (32) and Barking (30). Eight (Elstow, the Minories, Nuneaton, Denny, Romsey, Wherwell, Dartford and St Mary’s Winchester) have from 20 to 30; thirty-six have from 10 to 20 and sixty-three have under 10. These statistics permit of certain large generalisations. First, that the majority of English nunneries were small and poor. Secondly, that, as has already been pointed out, the largest and richest houses were all in London and south of the Thames; only four houses north of that river had gross incomes of over £200 and only three could boast of more than 20 inmates. Thirdly, the nunneries during this period owned land and rents to the annual value of over £15,500 and contained perhaps between 1500 and 2000 nuns.

To understand the history of the English nunneries during the later middle ages it is necessary not only to understand the smallness and poverty of many of the houses and the high repute of others; it is necessary also to understand what manner of women took the veil in them. From what social classes were the nuns drawn, and for what reason did they enter religion? What[Pg 4] function did monasticism, so far as it concerned women, fulfil in the life of medieval society?

It has been shown that the proportion of women who became nuns was very small in comparison with the total female population. It has indeed been insufficiently recognised that the medieval nunneries were recruited almost entirely from among the upper classes. They were essentially aristocratic institutions, the refuge of the gently born. At Romsey Abbey a list of 91 sisters at the election of an abbess in 1333 is full of well-known county names[3]. The names of Bassett, Sackville, Covert, Hussey, Tawke and Farnfold occur at Easebourne[4]; Lewknor, St John, Okehurst, Michelgrove and Sidney at Rusper[5], the two small and poor nunneries in Sussex. The return of the subsidy in 1377 enumerates the sisters of Minchin Barrow and, as their historian points out, “among the family names of these ladies are some of the best that the western counties could produce”[6]. The other Somerset houses were equally aristocratic, and an examination of the roll of prioresses for almost any medieval convent in any part of England will give the same result, even in the smallest and poorest nunneries, the inmates of which were reduced to begging alms[7]. These ladies appear sometimes to have had the spirit of their race, as they often had its manners and its tastes. For 21 years Isabel Stanley, Prioress of King’s Mead, Derby, refused to pay a rent due from her house to the Abbot of Burton; at last the Abbot sent his bailiff to distrain for it and she spoke her mind in good set terms. “Wenes these churles to overlede me,” cried this worthy daughter of a knightly family, “or sue the lawe agayne me? They shall not be so hardy but they shall avye upon their bodies and be nailed with arrows; for I am a gentlewoman, comen of the greatest of Lancashire and Cheshire, and that they shall know right well”[8]. A tacit recognition of the aristocratic[Pg 5] character of the convents is to be found in the fact that bishops were often at pains to mention the good birth of the girls whom, in accordance with a general right, they nominated to certain houses on certain occasions. Thus Wykeham wrote to the Abbess of St Mary’s Winchester, bidding her admit Joan Bleden, “quest de bone et honeste condition, come nous sumes enformes”[9]. More frequently still the candidates were described as “domicella” or “damoysele”[10]. At least one instance is extant of a bishop ordering that all the nuns of a house were to be of noble condition[11].

The fact that the greater portion of the female population was unaffected by the existence of the outlet provided by conventual life for women’s energies is a significant one. The reason for it—paradoxical as this may sound—lies in the very narrowness of the sphere to which women of gentle birth were confined. The disadvantage of rank is that so many honest occupations are not, in its eyes, honourable occupations. In the lowest ranks of society the poor labourer upon the land had no need to get rid of his daughter, if he could not find her a husband, nor would it have been to his interest to do so; for, working in the fields among his sons, or spinning and brewing with his wife at home, she could earn a supplementary if not a living wage. The tradesman or artisan in the town was in a similar position. He recognised that the ideal course was to find a husband for his growing girl, but the alternative was in no sense that she should eat out her heart and his income during long years at home; and if he were too poor to provide her with a sufficient dower, he could and often did apprentice her to a trade. The number of industries which were carried on by women in the middle ages shows that for the burgess and lower classes there were other outlets besides marriage; and then, as now, domestic service provided for many. But the case of the well-born lady was different. The knight or the county gentleman could not apprentice his superfluous[Pg 6] daughters to a pursemaker or a weaver in the town; not from them were drawn the regrateresses in the market place and the harvest gatherers in the field; nor was it theirs to make the parti-coloured bed and shake the coverlet, worked with grapes and unicorns, in some rich vintner’s house. There remained for him, if he did not wish or could not afford to keep them at home and for them, if they desired some scope for their young energies, only marriage or else a convent, where they might go with a smaller dower than a husband of their own rank would demand.

To say that the convents were the refuge of the gently born is not to say that there was no admixture of classes within them. The term gentleman was becoming more comprehensive in the later middle ages. It included the upper class proper, the families of noble birth; and it included also the country gentry. The convents were probably at first recruited almost entirely from these two ranks of society, and a study of any collection of medieval wills shows how large a proportion of such families took advantage of this opening for women. A phrase will sometimes occur which shows that it was regarded as the natural and obvious alternative to marriage. Sir John Daubriggecourt in 1415 left his daughter Margery 40 marks, “if she be wedded to a worldly husband, and if she be caused to receive the sacred veil of the order of holy nuns” ten pounds and twenty shillings rent[12], and Sir John le Blund in 1312 bequeathed an annuity to his daughter Ann, “till she marry or enter a religious house”[13]. The anxiety of the upper classes to secure a place for their children in nunneries sometimes even led to overcrowding. At Carrow the Prioress was forced to complain that “certain lords of England whom she was unable to resist because of their power” forced their daughters upon the priory as nuns, and in 1273 a papal bull forbade the reception of more inmates than the revenues would support[14]. Archbishop William Wickwane addressed a similar mandate to two Yorkshire houses, Wilberfoss and Nunkeeling, which public rumour had informed him to be overburdened with nuns and with secular boarders “at the instance of nobles”[15]; and in 1327 Bishop[Pg 7] Stratford wrote to Romsey Abbey that the house was notoriously burdened with ladies beyond the established number, and that he had heard that the nuns were being forced to receive more “damoyseles” as novices, which he forbade without special licence[16]. A very strong personal connection must in time have been established between a nunnery and certain families from which, in each generation, it received a daughter or a niece and her dower. Such was the connection between Shouldham and the Beauchamps[17] and between Nunmonkton and the Fairfaxes[18]. A close link bound each nunnery to the family of its patron. Thus we find a Clinton at Wroxall and a Darcy at Heynings; nor is it unlikely that these noble ladies sometimes expected privileges and homage more than the strict equality of convent life would allow, if it be permissible to generalise from the behaviour of Isabel Clinton[19] and from the fact that Margaret Darcy received a rather severe penance from Bishop Gynewell in 1351 and a special warning against going beyond the claustral precincts or speaking to strangers[20], while in 1393 there occurs the significant injunction by Bishop Bokyngham that no sister was to have a room to herself except Dame Margaret Darcy (doubtless the same woman now grown elderly and ailing) “on account of the nobility of her race”; an old lady of firm will and (despite his careful mention of extra pittances and of tolerating for a while) a somewhat sycophantic prelate[21].

[Pg 8]It is worthy of notice that Chaucer has drawn an unmistakable “lady” in his typical prioress. There is her delicate behaviour at meals:

At mete wel ytaught was she with-alle;
She leet no morsel from her lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.
Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe,
That no drope ne fille upon hir brest.
In curteisye was set ful muche hir lest.
Hir over lippe wyped she so clene,
That in hir coppe was no ferthing sene
Of grece, whan she drunken hadde hir draughte.
Ful semely after hir mete she raughte[22].

This was the ne plus ultra of feudal table manners; Chaucer might have been writing one of those books of deportment for the guidance of aristocratic young women, which were so numerous in France. So the Clef d’Amors counsels ladies who would win them lovers[23], and even so Robert de Blois depicts the perfect diner. Robert de Blois’ ideal, the chivalrous, frivolous, sensuous ideal of “courtesy,” which underlay the whole aristocratic conception of life and the attainment of which was the criterion of polite society, is the ideal of the Prioress also:

“Gardez vous, Dames, bien acertes,”
“Qu’au mengier soiez bien apertes;
C’est une chose c’on moult prise
Que là soit dame bien aprise.
Tel chose torne à vilonie
Que toutes genz ne sevent mie;
Se puet cil tost avoir mespris
Qui n’est cortoisement apris[24].”

Later he warns against the greedy selection of the finest and largest titbit for oneself, on the ground that “n’est pas cortoisie.”[Pg 9] The same consideration preoccupies Madame Eglentyne at her supper: “in curteisye was set ful muche hir lest.” Good manners, elegant deportment, the polish of the court, all that we mean by nurture, these are her aim:

And sikerly she was of greet disport,
And ful plesaunt, and amiable of port,
And peyned her to countrefete chere
Of court, and been estatlich of manere,
And to be holden digne of reverence.

Her pets are the pets of ladies in metrical romances and in illuminated borders; “smale houndes,” delicately fed with “rosted flesh, or milk and wastel-bread.” Her very beauty

(Hir nose tretys; hir eyen greye as glas,
Hir mouth ful smal, and ther-to soft and reed;
But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed;
It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe;
For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe)

conforms to the courtly standard. Only the mention of her chanting of divine service (through the tretys nose) differentiates her from any other well-born lady of the day; and if Chaucer had not told us whom he was describing, we might never have known that she was a nun. It was in these ideals and traditions that most of the inmates of English convents were born and bred.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, another class rose into prominence and, perhaps because it was originally drawn to a great extent from the younger sons of the country gentry, found amalgamation with the gentry easy. The development of trade and the new openings for the employment of capital had brought about the rise of the English merchant class. Hitherto foreigners had financed the English crown, but during the first four years of the Hundred Years’ War it became clear that English merchants were now rich and powerful enough to take their place; and the triumph of the native was complete when, in 1345, Edward III repudiated his debts to the Italian merchants and the Bardi and Peruzzi failed. Henceforth the English merchants were supreme; on the one hand their trading ventures enriched them; on the other they made vast sums out of farming the customs and the war subsidies in return[Pg 10] for loans of ready money, and out of all sorts of government contracts. The successful campaigns of Crécy and Poitiers were entirely financed by these English capitalists. Not only trade but industry swelled the ranks of the nouveaux riches and the clothiers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries grew rich and prospered. Evidences of the wealth and importance of this middle class are to be found on all sides. The taxation of movables, which from 1334 became an important and in time the main source of national revenue, indicates the discovery on the part of the government that the wealth of the nation no longer lay in land, but in trade. The frequent sumptuary acts, the luxury of daily life, bear witness to the wealth of the nouveaux riches; and so also do their philanthropic enterprises, the beautiful churches which they built, the bridges which they repaired, the gifts which they gave to religious and to civic corporations. And it was in the fourteenth century that there began that steady fusion between the country gentry and the rich burgesses, which was accomplished before the end of the middle ages and which resulted in the formation of a solid and powerful middle class. The political amalgamation of the two classes in the lower house of Parliament corresponded to a social amalgamation in the world outside. The country knights and squires saw in business a career for their younger sons; they saw in marriage with the daughters of the mercantile class a way to mend their fortunes; the city merchants, on the other hand, saw in such alliances a road to the attainment of that social prestige which went with land and blood, and were not loath to pay the price. “Merchants or new gentlemen I deem will proffer large,” wrote Edmund Paston, concerning the marriage of one of his family. “Well I wot if ye depart to London ye shall have proffers large”[25].

This social amalgamation between the country gentry and the “new gentlemen,” who had made their money in trade, was naturally reflected in the nunneries. The wills of London burgesses, which were enrolled in the Court of Husting, show that the daughters of these well-to-do citizens were in the habit of taking the veil. There is even more than one trace of the aristocratic view of religion as the sole alternative to marriage. Langland, enumerating the good deeds which will win pardon for[Pg 11] the merchant, bids him “marie maydens or maken hem nonnes”[26]. At Ludlow the gild of Palmers provided that:

If any good girl of the gild of marriageable age, cannot have the means found by her father, either to go into a religious house or to marry, whichever she wishes to do, friendly and right help shall be given her out of our common chest, towards enabling her to do whichever of the two she wishes[27].

Similarly at Berwick-on-Tweed the gild “ordained by the pleasure of the burgesses” had a provision entitled, “Of the bringing up of daughters of the gild,” which ran: “If any brother die leaving a daughter true and worthy and of good repute, but undowered, the gild shall find her a dower, either on marriage or on going into a religious house”[28]. So also John Syward, “stockfisshmongere” of London, whose will was proved at the Court of Husting in 1349, left, “To Dionisia his daughter forty pounds for her advancement, so that she either marry therewith or become a religious at her election, within one year after his decease”[29]; and William Wyght, of the same trade, bequeathed “to each of his daughters Agnes, Margaret, Beatrix and Alice fifty pounds sterling for their marriage or for entering a religious house” (1393)[30]; while William Marowe in 1504 bequeathed to “Elizabeth and Katherine his daughters forty pounds each, to be paid at their marriage or profession”[31]. Sometimes, however, the sound burgess sense prevailed, as when Walter Constantyn endowed his wife with “the residue of his goods, so that she assist Amicia, his niece, ... towards her marriage or to some trade befitting her position”[32].

The mixture of classes must have been more frequent in convents which were situate in or near a large town, while the country gentry had those lying in rural districts more or less[Pg 12] to themselves. The nunnery of Carrow, for instance, was a favourite resort for girls of noble and of gentle birth, but it was also recruited from the daughters of prosperous Norwich citizens; among nuns with well-known county names there were also ladies such as Isabel Barbour, daughter of Thomas Welan, barber, and Joan his wife, Margery Folcard, daughter of John Folcard, alderman of Norwich, and Catherine Segryme, daughter of Ralph Segryme, another alderman; the latter attained the position of prioress at the end of the fifteenth century[33]. These citizens, wealthy and powerful men in days when Norwich was one of the most important towns in England, probably met on equal terms with the country gentlemen of Norfolk, and both sent their daughters with handsome dowries to Carrow. The nunneries of London and of the surrounding district contained a similar mixture of classes, ranging from some of the noblest ladies in the land to the daughters of city magnates, men enriched by honourable trade or by the less honourable capitalistic ventures of the king’s merchants. The famous house of Minoresses without Aldgate illustrates the situation very clearly. It was always a special favourite of royalty; and the storm bird, Isabella, mother of Edward III, is by some supposed to have died in the order. She was certainly its constant benefactress[34] as were Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and his wife, whose daughter Isabel was placed in the nunnery while only a child and eventually became its abbess[35]. Katherine, widow of John de Ingham, and Eleanor Lady Scrope were other aristocratic women who took the veil at the Minories[36]. But this noble connection did not prevent the house from containing Alice, sister of Richard Hale, fishmonger[37], Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Padyngton, fishmonger[38], Marion, daughter of John Charteseye, baker[39], and Frideswida, daughter of John Reynewell, alderman of the City of London[40], girls drawn from the élite of the burgess class. An investigation of the wills enrolled in the Court of Husting shows the relative popularity[Pg 13] of different convents among the citizens of London. Between the years 1258 and the Dissolution, 52 wills contain references to one or more nuns related to the testators[41]. From these it appears that the most popular house was Clerkenwell in Middlesex, which is mentioned in nine wills[42]. Barking in Essex comes next with eight references[43], and St Helen’s Bishopsgate with seven[44]; the house of Minoresses without Aldgate is five times mentioned[45], Haliwell[46] in London and Stratford-atte-Bowe[47] outside, having five and four references respectively, Kilburn in Middlesex three[48], Sopwell in Hertfordshire two[49], Malling[50] and Sheppey[51] in Kent two each. Other convents are mentioned once only and in some cases a testator leaves legacies to nuns by name, without mentioning where they are professed. All these houses were in the diocese of London and either in or near the capital itself; they lay in the counties of Middlesex, Kent, Essex, Hertford and Bedford[52]. It was but rarely that city girls went as far afield as Denny in Cambridgeshire, where the famous fishmonger and mayor of London, John Philpott, had a daughter Thomasina.

Thus the nobles, the gentry and the superior rank of burgess—the upper and the upper-middle classes—sent their daughters to nunneries. But nuns were drawn from no lower class; poor girls of the lowest rank—whether the daughters of artisans or of country labourers—seem never to have taken the veil. A certain degree of education was demanded in a nun before her admission and the poor man’s daughter would have neither the money, the[Pg 14] opportunity, nor the leisure to acquire it. The manorial fine paid by a villein when he wished to put his son to school and make a religious of him, had no counterpart in the case of girls[53]; the taking of the veil by a villein’s daughter was apparently not contemplated. The chief barrier which shut out the poor from the nunneries was doubtless the dower which, in spite of the strict prohibition of the rule, was certainly required from a novice in almost every convent. The lay sisters of those nunneries which had lay sisters attached were probably drawn mainly from the lower class[54], but it must have been in the highest degree exceptional for a poor or low-born girl to become a nun.

Medieval wills (our most trusty source of information for the personnel of the nunneries) make it possible to gauge the extent to which the upper and middle classes used the nunneries as receptacles for superfluous daughters. In these wills, in which the medieval paterfamilias laboriously catalogues his offspring and divides his wealth between them, it is easy to guess at the embarrassments of a father too well-blessed with female progeny. What was poor Simon the Chamberlain of the diocese of Worcester to do, with six strapping girls upon his hands and sons Robert and Henry to provide for too? Fortunately he had a generous patron in Sir Nicholas de Mitton and it was perhaps Sir Nicholas who provided the dowers, when two of them were packed off to Nuneaton; let us hope that Christiana, Cecilia, Matilda and Joan married themselves out of the legacies which he left them in his will, when he died in 1290[55]. William de Percehay, lord of Ryton, who made his will in 1344, had to provide for five sons and one is therefore not surprised to find that two of his three daughters were nuns[56]. It is the same with[Pg 15] the rich citizens of London and elsewhere; Sir Richard de la Pole, of a great Hull merchant house (soon to be ennobled), mentions in his will two sons and two daughters, one of whom was a nun at Barking while the other received a legacy towards her marriage[57]; Hugh de Waltham, town clerk, mentions three daughters, one at St Helen’s[58]; John de Croydon, fishmonger, leaves bequests to one son and four daughters, one at Clerkenwell[59]; William de Chayham kept Lucy, Agnes and Johanna with him, but made Juliana a nun[60]. The will of Joan Lady Clinton illustrates the proportion in which a large family of girls might be divided between the convent and the world; in 1457 she left certain sums of money to Margaret, Isabel and Cecily Francyes, on condition that they should pay four pounds annually to their sisters Joan and Elizabeth, nuns[61]. It was not infrequent for several members of a family to enter the same convent, as the lists of inmates given in visitation records, or in the reports of Henry VIII’s commissioners, as well as the evidence of the wills, bear witness[62]. The case of Shouldham, already quoted, shows that different generations of a family might be represented at the same time in a convent[63], but it was perhaps not usual for so many sisters to become nuns as in the Fairfax family; in 1393 their brother’s will introduces us to Mary and Alice, nuns of Sempringham, and Margaret and Eleanor, respectively prioress and nun of Nunmonkton[64]. Margaret (of whom more anon) took convent life easily; it is to be feared that she had all too little vocation for it. Sometimes these family parties in a nunnery led to quarrels; the sisters foregathered in cliques, or else they continued in the cloister the domestic arguments of the hearth; there was an amusing case of the kind at Swine in 1268[65], and some years later (in 1318) an Archbishop of York had to forbid[Pg 16] the admission of more than two or three nuns of one family to Nunappleton, without special licence, for fear of discord[66].

Probably the real factor in determining the social class from which the convents were recruited, was not one of rank, but one of money. The practice of demanding dowries from those who wished to become nuns was strictly forbidden by the monastic rule and by canon law[67]. To spiritual minds any taint of commerce was repugnant; Christ asked no dowry with his bride. The didactic and mystical writers of the period often draw a contrast between the earthly and the heavenly groom in this matter. The author of Hali Meidenhad in the thirteenth century, urging the convent life upon his spiritual daughter, sets against his picture of Christ’s virgin-brides that of the well-born girl, married with disparagement through lack of dower:

What thinkest thou of the poor, that are indifferently dowered and ill-provided for, as almost all gentlewomen now are in the world, that have not wherewith to buy themselves a bridegroom of their own rank and give themselves into servitude to a man of low esteem, with all that they have? Wellaway! Jesu! what unworthy chaffer[68].

Thomas of Hales’ mystical poem A Luue Ron, in the same century, also lays stress upon this point, half in ecstatic praise of the celibate ideal, half as a material inducement[69], and the same idea is repeated at the end of the next century in Clene Maydenhod:

He asketh with the nouther lond ne leode,
Gold ne selver ne precious stone.
To such thinges hath he no neode,
Al that is good is with hym one,
Gif thou with him thi lyf wolt lede
And graunte to ben his owne lemman[70].

In ecclesiastical language the same sentiment is expressed by the injunction of Archbishop Greenfield of York, who forbade the nuns of Arden to receive any one as a nun by compact, since that involved guilt of simony, but only to receive her “from promptings of love”[71].

[Pg 17]This sentiment was, however, set aside in practice from early times; and a glance at any conventual register, such as the famous Register of Godstow Abbey, shows something like a regular system of dowries, dating certainly from the twelfth century. The Godstow Register contains 19 deeds, ranging between 1139 and 1278, by which grants are made to the nunnery on the entrance of a relative of the grantor, the usual phrase being that such and such a man gave such and such rent-charges, pasture-rights, lands or messuages, “with” his mother or sister or daughter “to be a nun”[72]. One very curious deed dated 1259, shows that the reception of a girl at Godstow was definitely a pecuniary matter. Ralph and Agnes Chondut sold to the nunnery a piece of land called Anfric,

for thys quite claime and reles, the seyd abbas and holy mynchons of Godstowe gafe to the seyde raph and Agnes hys wyfe liiiº marke, and made Katherine the sustur of the seyd Agnes (wyfe of the seyd raph) Mynchon in the monasteri of Godstowe, with the costys of the hows, ... and the seyd holy mynchons of Godstowe shold pay to the seyd raph and Agnes hys wyfe xxv marke of the forseyd liii marke in that day in whyche the foreseyd Katerine should be delyuerd to hem to be norysshed and to be mad mynchon in the same place and in the whyche the seyd penyes shold be payd,

and a second instalment at a place to be agreed upon when confirmation of the grant is obtained[73]. That is to say the price of the land was £35. 6s. 8d. together with the cost of receiving[Pg 18] Katherine, which was equivalent to a further sum of money, unfortunately not specified.

Any collection of wills provides ample evidence of this dowry system. Not only do they frequently contain legacies for the support of some particular nun during the term of her life, but bequests also occur for the specific purpose of paying for the admission of a girl to a nunnery, in exactly the same way as other girls are provided with dowries for their marriage. The Countess of Warwick, in 1439, left a will directing “that Iane Newmarch have cc mark in gold, And I to bere all Costes as for her bryngynge yn-to seynt Katrens, or where-ever she woll be elles”[74]. Even the clergy, who should have been the last to recognise a system so flagrantly contrary to canon law, followed the general custom; William Peke, rector of Scrivelsby, left one Isabella ten marks to make her a nun in the Gilbertine house of Catley[75] and Robert de Playce, rector of the church of Brompton, made the following bequest:

Item I bequeath to the daughter of John de Playce my brother 100s. in silver, for an aid towards making her a nun in one of the houses of Wickham, Yedingham or Muncton, if her friends are willing to give her sufficient aid to accomplish this, but if, through lack of assistance from friends, she be not made a nun,

she was to have none of this bequest (1345)[76]. Sometimes, as has already been noted, the money is left alternatively to marry the girl or to make her a nun, which brings out very clearly the dower-like nature of such bequests[77]. The accounts of great folk[Pg 19] often tell the same tale. When Elizabeth Chaucy—probably a relative of the poet Chaucer—became a nun at Barking Abbey in 1381, John of Gaunt paid £51. 8s. 2d. in expenses and gifts on the occasion of her admission[78], and the privy purse expenses of Elizabeth of York contain the item, “Delivered to thabbesse of Elnestowe by thands of John Duffyn for the costes and charges of litle Anne Loveday at the making of her nonne there £6. 13s. 4d.[79].

It is possible to determine the exact nature of these costs and charges from an account of the expenses of the executors of Elizabeth Sewardby, who died in 1468. This lady, the widow of William Sewardby of Sewardby, had left a legacy of £6. 13s. 4d. to her namesake, little Elizabeth Sewardby, to be given her if she should become a nun. The executors record certain payments made to the Prioress of Nunmonkton during the period when Elizabeth was a boarder there, before taking the vows, and then follows a list of “expenses made for and concerning Elizabeth Sewardby when she was made a nun at Monkton”:

They say that they paid and gave to the Prioress and Convent of Monkton, for a certain fee which the said Prioress and Convent claim by custom to have and are wont to have from each nun at her entrance £3. And in money paid for the habit of the said Elizabeth Sewardby and for other attire of her body and for a fitting bed, £3. 13s.d. And in expenditure made in connection with the aforesaid Prioress and Convent and with the friends of the aforesaid Elizabeth coming together on the Sunday next after the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary A.D. 1460, £3. 11s. 4d. In a gratuity given to brother John Hamilton, preaching a sermon at the aforesaid Monkton on the aforesaid Sunday, 2s. And in a certain remuneration given to Thomas Clerk of York for his wise counsel concerning the recovery of the debts due to the said dame Elizabeth Sewardby, deceased, 12d. Total £10. 7s. 10½d.[80]

[Pg 20]It will be noticed that Elizabeth took with her not only a lump sum of money, but also clothes and a bed, the cost of which more than doubled the dowry. Canon law specifically allowed the provision of a habit by friends, when the poverty of a house rendered this necessary; and it is clear from other sources that it was not unusual for a novice to be provided also with furniture. The inventory of the goods belonging to the priory of Minster in Sheppey, at the Dissolution, contains, under the heading of “the greate Chamber in the Dorter,” a note of

stuff in the same chamber belonging to Dame Agnes Davye, which she browghte with her; a square sparver of payntyd clothe and iiij peces hangyng of the same, iij payre of shets, a cownterpoynt of corse verder and i square cofer of ashe, a cabord of waynscott carved, ij awndyrons, a payre of tonges and a fyer panne.

And under “Dame Agnes Browne’s Chamber” is the entry:

Stuff given her by her frends:—A fetherbed, a bolster, ij pyllowys, a payre of blankatts, ij corse coverleds, iiij pare of shets good and badde, an olde tester and selar of paynted clothes and ij peces of hangyng to the same; a square cofer carvyd, with ij bad clothes upon the cofer, and in the wyndow a lytill cobard of waynscott carvyd and ij lytill chestes; a small goblet with a cover of sylver parcel gylt, a lytill maser with a bryme of sylver and gylt, a lytyll pece of sylver and a spone of sylver, ij lytyll latyn candellstyks, a fire panne and a pare of tonges, ij small aundyrons, iiij pewter dysshes, a porrenger, a pewter bason, ij skyllots, a lytill brasse pot, a cawdyron and a drynkyng pot of pewter.

She had apparently been sent into the house with a complete equipment in furniture and implements[81].

[Pg 21]Throughout the middle ages a struggle went on between the Church, which forbade the exaction of dowries, and the convents which persisted in demanding them, sometimes in so flagrant a manner as to incur the charge of simony. The earliest prohibition of dowries in English canon law occurred at the Council of Westminster in 1175[82] and was repeated at the Council of London in 1200[83] and at the Council of Oxford in 1222[84]; this last had been anticipated by a decree of the fourth Lateran Council. The history of the struggle to apply it is to be gathered from visitational records. Archbishop Walter Giffard, visiting Swine in 1268, finds that Alicia Brun and Alicia de Adeburn were simoniacally veiled[85]; Bishop Norbury has to rebuke the Prioress of Chester for the simoniacal receipt of bribes to admit nuns[86]; Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury has heard that the Prioress of Cannington received four women as sisters of that house for £20 each, falling into the pravity of simony[87]; William of Wykeham writes to the nuns of Romsey in 1387 that

in our said visitations it was discovered and declared that, on account of the reception of certain persons as nuns of your said monastery, several sums of money were received by the Abbess and Convent by way of covenant, reward and compact, not without stain of the pravity of simony and, if it were so, to the peril of your souls,

and he proceeds to forbid the exaction of a dowry “on pretext of any custom (consuetudinis) whatsoever, which is rather to be esteemed a corruption (corruptela),” a significant phrase, which shows that the practice was well established[88]. Bishop Buckingham[Pg 22] of Lincoln warns the nuns of Heynings against “the reception or extortion of money or of anything else by compact for the reception of anyone into religion” (1392)[89]; and Bishop Flemyng enjoins at Elstow in 1422

that hereafter fit persons be received as nuns; for whose reception or entrance let no money or aught else be demanded; but without any simoniacal bargain and covenant of any sum of money or other thing whatsoever, which were accustomed to be made by the crime of simony, let them henceforth be admitted to your religion purely, simply and for nothing[90].

But the most detailed information as to the prevalence of the dowry-system is contained in the records of Bishop Alnwick’s visitations of religious houses in the diocese of Lincoln in 1440[91]. When the Bishop came to Heynings (which had already been in trouble under Bokyngham) one of the nuns, Dame Agnes Sutton, gave evidence to the effect that

her friends came to the Prioress and covenanted that she should be received as a nun for twelve marks and the said money was paid down before she was admitted, and she says that no one is admitted before the sum agreed upon for her reception is paid.

She added that nothing was exacted save what was a free offering, but from her previous words it is obvious that no nuns were received at Heynings without a dowry. Similarly at Langley Dame Cecily Folgeham said that her friends gave ten marks to the house “when she was tonsured, but not by covenant.” The most interesting case of all was that of Nuncoton. The Subprioress, Dame Ellen Frost, said “that it was the custom in time past to take twenty pounds or less for the admission of nuns, otherwise they would not be received.” The Bishop proceeded to examine other members of the house; Dame Maud Saltmershe confirmed what the Subprioress had said about the price for the reception of nuns; two other ladies, who had been in religion for fifteen and eight years respectively, deposed to having paid twenty pounds on their entrance and Dame Alice Skotte said that she did not know how much she had paid, but that she thought it was twenty pounds. Clearly there was a fixed entrance fee to this nunnery and it was impossible to become[Pg 23] a nun without it; all pretence of free-will offerings had been dropped. When it is considered that this entrance fee was twenty pounds (i.e. about £200 of modern money) it is easy to see why poor girls belonging to the lower orders never found their way into convents; such a luxury was far beyond their means.

In each of these cases and at two other houses (St Michael’s Stamford, and Legbourne) Alnwick entered a stern prohibition, on pain of excommunication, against the reception of anything except free gifts from the friends of a novice. His injunction to Heynings may be quoted as typical of those made by medieval bishops on such occasions:

For as mykelle as we founde that many has been receyvede here afore into nunne and sustre in your sayde pryory by covenaunt and paccyons made be fore thair receyvyng of certeyn moneys to be payed to the howse, the whiche is dampnede by alle lawe, we charge yowe under the payn of the sentence of cursyng obove wrytene that fro hense forthe ye receyve none persons in to nunne ne sustre in your sayde pryore by no suche couenant, ne pactes or bargaines made before. Whan thai are receyvede and professede, if thaire frendes of thaire almesse wylle any gyfe to the place, we suffre wele, commende and conferme hit to be receyvede[92].

But the efforts at reform made by Alnwick and other visitors were never very successful; Nuncoton evidently continued to demand its entrance fee, for in 1531 the practice was once more forbidden by Bishop Longland[93]. Moreover it is easy to see that the distinction between the reception of what was willingly offered by friends (which was specifically permitted by the rule of St Benedict and by synods and visitors throughout the middle ages), and what was given by agreement as payment for the entry of a novice (which was always forbidden) might become a distinction without a difference, as it clearly was in the case of Heynings quoted above. The Prioress of Gokewell, who declared to Alnwick that “they take nothing for the admission of nuns, save that which the friends of her who is to be created offer of their free-will and not by agreement”[94], may have acted in reality not very differently from her erring sisters of Heynings, Nuncoton and Langley. The temptation was in fact too great.[Pg 24] The clause of the Oxford decree, which permitted poor houses if necessary to receive a sum sufficient for the vesture of a new member and no more, broadened the way already opened by the permission of free-will offerings. The concluding words of Bishop Flemyng’s prohibition of dowries at Elstow in 1422 show that this permission had been abused; “if they must be clothed at their own or their friends’ expense, let nothing at all be in any sort exacted or required, beyond their garments or the just price of their garments”[95]. Throughout the later middle ages an increase in the cost of living went side by side with a decrease in the monastic ideal of poverty, showing itself on the one hand in the constant breach of the rule against private property, on the other in the exaction of money with novices, until the dowry system (although never during the middle ages recognised by law) became in practice a matter of course.

Lest it should seem that everyone who had enough money could become a nun, it must, however, be added that the bishops took some pains that the persons who were received as novices should be suitable and pleasing to their sisters. They seldom exercised their right of nomination without some assurance that their nominee was of honest life and station, “Mulierem honestam, ut credimus”[96], “bonae indolis, ut credimus, juvenculam”[97], “jeovene damoisele et de bone condicion, come nous sumez enformez”[98], “competeter ad hujusmodi officii debitum litterate”[99]. They were always ready to hear complaints if unsuitable persons had been admitted by the prioress; and they sometimes made special injunctions upon the matter. Bokyngham at Heynings in 1392 ordered “that they receive no one to the habit, nor even to profession, unless she be first found by diligent inquisition and approbation to be useful, teachable, capable, of legitimate age, discreet and honest”[100]. At Elstow Bishop Gray made a very comprehensive injunction:

Furthermore we enjoin and charge you the Abbess ... that henceforward you admit no one to be a nun of the said monastery, unless [Pg 25]with the express consent of the greater and sounder part of the same convent; and no one in that case, unless she be taught in song and reading and the other things requisite herein, or probably may be easily instructed within short time, and be such that she shall be able to bear the burdens of the quire (with) the rest that pertain to religion[101].

Nevertheless, for all their precautions, some strange inmates found their way into the medieval nunneries.

The novice who entered a nunnery, to live there as a nun for the rest of her natural life, might do so for very various reasons. For those who entered young and of their own will, religion was either a profession or a vocation. They might take the veil because it offered an honourable career for superfluous girls, who were unwilling or unable to marry; or they might take it in a real spirit of devotion, with a real call to the religious life. For other girls the nunnery might be a prison, into which they were thrust, unwilling but often afraid to resist, by elders who wished to be rid of them; and many nunneries contained also another class of inmates, older women, often widows, who had retired thither to end their days in peace. A career, a vocation, a prison, a refuge; to its different inmates the medieval nunnery was all these things.

The nunnery as a career and as a vocation does not need separate treatment. It has already been shown that in large families it was a very usual custom to make one or more of the daughters nuns. Indeed the youth of many of the girls who took the veil is in itself proof that anything like a vocation, or even a free choice, was seldom possible and was hardly anticipated, even in theory. The age of profession was sixteen, but much younger children were received as novices and prepared for the veil; they could withdraw if they found the life distasteful, but as a rule, being brought up from early childhood for this career, they entered upon it as a matter of course; moreover the Church was rather apt to regard the withdrawal of novices as apostasy. Sir Guy de Beauchamp in his will (dated 1359) describes his daughter Katherine as a nun of Shouldham and Dugdale notes that Katherine, aged seven years, and Elizabeth, aged about one year, were found to be daughters and heirs of the said Guy, who[Pg 26] died in the following year[102]. It might be supposed that this child of seven was being brought up as a lay boarder in the convent, but legacies left to Katherine “a nun at Shouldham” by her grandfather and by her uncle, in 1369 and in 1400 respectively, show that she had been thus vowed in infancy to a religious life[103]. One of the daughters of Thomas of Woodstock Duke of Gloucester, was “in infancy placed in the monastery (of the Minoresses without Aldgate) and clad in the monastic habit” and in 1401 the Pope gave her permission to leave it if she wished, but she remained and became its abbess[104]. Bishops’ registers constantly give evidence of the presence of mere children in nunneries. When Alnwick visited Ankerwyke in 1441, three of the younger nuns complained that they lacked a teacher (informatrix) to teach them “reading, song, or religious observance”; and at the end of the visitation the Bishop noted that he had examined all the nuns save three, whom he had omitted “on account of the heedlessness of their age and the simplicity of their discretion, since the eldest of them is not older than thirteen years”[105]. At Studley in 1445 he found a girl who had been in religion for two years and was then thirteen; she complained that one of the maid-servants had slapped a fellow nun (doubtless also a child) in church![106] At Littlemore there was a certain Agnes Marcham, who had entered at the age of thirteen, and had remained there unprofessed for thirteen years; she now refused to take the full vows[107]. Some of the nuns at Romsey in 1534 were very young, two being fourteen and one fifteen[108]. Indeed the reception of girls at a tender age was rather encouraged than otherwise by the Church. Archbishop Greenfield gave a licence to the Prioress of Hampole to receive Elena, daughter of the late Reyner Sperri, citizen of York, who was eight years old, and (he added solemnly) “of good conversation and life”[109], and Archbishop John le Romeyn described Margaret de la Batayle, whom he sent to Sinningthwaite, as “juvencula[110]. The great[Pg 27] Peckham went out of his way to make a specific defence of the practice in 1282, when the Prioress and Convent of Stratford sought to excuse themselves from veiling a little girl called Isabel Bret, by reason of her youth, “since on account of this minority she is the more able and capable to learn and receive those things which concern the discipline of your order”[111].

It is impossible to make the generalisation that even children professed at such an early age could have had no consciousness of a vocation for the religious life; the history of some of the women saints of the middle ages would be enough to disprove this[112]. The German monk Caesarius of Heisterbach, who is to be equalled as a gossip only by the less pious Salimbene, has some delightful stories of youthful enthusiasts in the Dialogus Miraculorum, which he wrote between 1220 and 1235 for the instruction of the novices in his own Cistercian house. One child, destined for a worldly match, protests daily that she will wed Christ only; and, when forced to wear rich garments, asserts “even if you turn me to gold you cannot make me change my mind,” until her parents, worn out by her prayers, allow her to enter a nunnery where, although very young, she is soon made governess of the novices. Her sister, given to an earthly husband while yet a child, is widowed and, “ipsa adhuc adolescentula” enters the same house. Another girl, fired by their example, escapes to a nunnery in man’s clothes; her sister, trying to follow, is caught by her parents and married, “but I hope,” says the[Pg 28] appreciative Caesarius, “that God may not leave unrewarded so fervent a desire to enter religion”[113]. But the most charming tale of all is that of the conversion of Helswindis, Abbess of Burtscheid[114].

She, although the daughter of a powerful and wealthy man ... burned so from her earliest childhood with zeal to be converted (i.e. to become a nun), that she used often to say to her mother: “Mother, make me a nun.” Now she was accustomed with her mother to ascend Mount St. Saviour, whereon stood at that time the convent of the sisters of Burtscheid. One day she climbed secretly in through the kitchen window, went up to the dorter and putting on the habit of one of the maidens, entered the choir with the others. When the Abbess told this to her mother, who wanted to go, she, thinking that it was a joke, replied “Call the child; we must go.” Then the child came from within to the window, saying: “I am a nun; I will not go with thee.” But the mother, fearing her husband, replied: “Only come with me now, and I will beg thy father to make thee a nun.” And so she went forth. It happened that the mother (who had held her peace) once more went up the mountain, leaving her daughter asleep. And when the latter rose and sought her mother in vain in the church, she suspected her to be at the convent, followed her alone, and, getting in by the same window, once more put on the habit. When her mother besought her to come away she replied: “Thou shalt not deceive me again,” repeating the promise that had been made to her. Then indeed her mother went home in great fear, and her father came up full of rage, together with her brothers, broke open the doors and carried off his screaming daughter, whom he committed to the care of relatives, that they might dissuade her. But she, being (as I believe) not yet nine years of age, answered them so wisely that they marvelled. What more? The Bishop of Liège having excommunicated her father and those by whom she had been taken away, she was restored to the place and after a few years was elected Abbess there[115].

[Pg 29]After these examples of infant zeal it is impossible to assert that even the extreme youth of many novices made a real vocation for religious life impossible. But there is no doubt that such a vocation was less probable, than in cases when a girl of more mature years entered a convent. And it is also certain that the tendency to regard monasticism as the natural career for superfluous girls and as the natural alternative to marriage, was capable of grave abuse. When medieval convents are compared unfavourably with those of the present day, and when the increasing laxity with which the rule was kept in the later middle ages is condemned, it has always to be remembered that the majority of girls in those days (unlike those of today) entered the nunneries as a career, without any particular spiritual qualification, because there was nothing else for them to do. Even in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries monasticism produced saintly women and great mystics (especially in Germany); but it is remarkable that in England, although there must have been many good abbesses like Euphemia of Wherwell, there are no outstanding names. Monasticism was pre-eminently a respectable career.

It has been said that this tendency to regard monasticism as a career was capable of abuse; and there were not wanting men to abuse it and to use the nunnery as a “dumping ground” for unwanted and often unwilling girls, whom it was desirable to put out of the world, by a means as sure as death itself and without the risk attaching to murder. Kings themselves were wont thus to immure the wives and daughters of defeated rebels.[Pg 30] Wencilian (Gwenllian) daughter of Llewelyn was sent to Sempringham as a child, after her father’s death in 1283, and died a nun there in 1337, and the two daughters of Hugh Despenser the elder were forced to take the veil at the same convent after their father’s fall[116]. The nunnery must often have served the purpose of lesser men, desirous of shaking off an encumbrance. The guilty wife of Sir Thomas Tuddenham, unhappily married for eight years and ruined by an intrigue with her father’s servant, was sent to Crabhouse, where she lived for some forty years; and none thought kindly of her save—strangely enough—her husband’s sister[117]. Sir Peter de Montfort, dying in 1367, left ten shillings to the lady Lora Astley, a nun at Pinley, called by Dugdale “his old concubine”[118]. Illegitimate children too were sometimes sent to convents. One remembers Langland’s nunnery, where

Dame Iohanne was a bastard,
And dame Clarice a kniȝtes douȝter · ac a kokewolde was hire syre.

Nor were the clergy loath to embrace this opportunity of removing the fruit of a lapse from grace. Hugh de Tunstede, rector of Catton, left ten shillings and a bed to his daughter Joan, a nun of Wilberfoss[119], and at the time of the Dissolution there was a child of Wolsey himself at Shaftesbury[120]. It is[Pg 31] significant that it was sometimes necessary to procure the papal dispensation of an abbess- or prioress-elect for illegitimacy, before she could hold office. The dispensation in 1472 of Joan Ward, a nun of Esholt, who afterwards became prioress, is interesting, for the Wards were patrons of the house and her presence illustrates one of the uses to which such patronage could be put[121]. The diocese of York affords other instances (they were common enough in the case of priests) of dispensation “super defectu natalium”; in 1474 one was granted to Cecily Conyers, a nun at Ellerton, “born of a married man and a single woman”[122] and in 1432 Alice Etton received one four days before her confirmation as Prioress of Sinningthwaite[123]. At St Mary’s Neasham in 1437, the Bishop of Durham appointed Agnes Tudowe prioress and issued a mandate for her dispensation for illegitimacy and her installation on the same day[124].

Less defensible from the point of view of the house was the practice, which certainly existed, of placing in nunneries girls in some way deformed, or suffering from an incurable defect.

Now earth to earth in convent walls,
To earth in churchyard sod.
I was not good enough for man,
And so am given to God.

[Pg 32]It will be remembered that the practice roused the disapprobation of Gargantua, whose abbey of Thélème contained only beautiful and amiable persons.

Item, parcequ’en icelluy temps on ne mettoit en religion des femmes, sinon celles qu’estoyent borgnes, boiteuses, bossues, laides, deffaictes, folles, insensees, maleficiees et tarees, ... (“a propos, dist li moyne, une femme qui n’est ny belle, ny bonne, a quoi vault elle?—A mettre en religion, dist Gargantua.—Voyre, dist le moine, et a faire des chemises.”) ... feut ordonne que la (i.e. à Thélème) ne seroyent receues, sinon les belles, bien formees et bien naturees, et les beaux, bien formez et bien naturez[125].

Occasionally the nuns seem to have resented or resisted these attempts to foist the deformed and the half-witted upon them. One of the reasons urged by the obstinate inmates of Stratford against receiving little Isabel Bret was that she was deformed in her person[126]. It was complained against the Prioress of Ankerwyke at Alnwick’s visitation in 1441 that she made ideotas and other unfit persons nuns[127]; and in 1514 the Prioress of Thetford was similarly charged with intending shortly to receive illiterate and deformed persons as nuns and especially one Dorothy Sturges, a deaf and deformed gentlewoman. Her designs were frustrated, but the nuns of Blackborough were less particular and in 1532 Dorothy answered among her sisters that nothing was in need of reform in that little house[128].

At the time of the Dissolution the Commissioners found that one of the nuns of Langley was “in regard a fool”[129]; and a certain Jane Gowring (the name of whose convent has not been preserved) sent a petition to Cromwell, demanding whether two girls of twelve and thirteen, the one deaf and dumb and the other an[Pg 33] idiot, should depart or not[130]. At Nuncoton in 1440 a nun informed Bishop Alnwick that two old nuns lay in the fermery and took their meals in the convent’s cellar “and likewise the infirm, the weak minded (imbecilles) and they that are in their seynies do eat in the same cellar”[131]. Complaints of the presence of idiots were fairly frequent. It is easy to understand the exasperation of Thetford over the case of Dorothy Sturges, when one finds Dame Katherine Mitford complaining at the same visitation that Elizabeth Haukeforth is “aliquando lunatica[132]; but a few years later Agnes Hosey, described as “ideota,” gave testimony with her sisters at Easebourne and excited no adverse comment[133]. In an age when faith and superstition went hand in hand a mad nun might even bring glory to her house; the tale of Catherine, nun of Bungay, illustrates this. In 1319 an inquiry was held into the miracles said to have been performed at the tomb of the saintly Robert of Winchelsea, Archbishop of Canterbury, whose canonisation was ardently desired by the English; among these miracles was the following:

Sir Walter Botere, chaplain, having been sworn, says that the miracle happened thus, to wit that he saw a certain Catherine, who had been (so they say) a nun of Bungay, in the diocese of Norwich, mad (furiosam) and led to the tomb of the said father; and there she was cured of the said madness and so departed sane; and he says that there is public talk and report of this.

Three other witnesses also swore to the tale[134]. Even cases of violent and dangerous madness seem at times to have occurred, judging from a note at Alnwick’s visitation of Stainfield in 1440, in which it is said that all the nuns appeared separately before the Bishop, “with the exception of Alicia Benyntone, who is out of her mind and confined in chains”[135].

Lay and ecclesiastical opinion alike condemned another practice, which seems to have been fairly widespread in medieval England, that of forcing into convents children too young to realise their fate, or even girls old enough to resist, of whom[Pg 34] unscrupulous relatives desired to be rid, generally in order to gain possession of their inheritance; for a nun, dead in the eyes of the law which governed the world, could claim no share in her father’s estate[136]. It is true that influential people, who could succeed in proving that a nun was unwillingly professed, might obtain her release[137]; but many little heiresses and unwanted children must have remained for ever, without hope of escape, in the convents to which they had been hurried, for it is evident that the religious houses themselves did all they could to discourage the presentation of such petitions, or the escape of unwilling members. The chanson de nonne, the song of the nun unwillingly professed, is a favourite theme in medieval popular poetry[138]; and dry documents show that it had its foundation in fact. It is possible to collect from various sources a remarkable series of legal documents which illustrate the practice of putting girls into nunneries, so as to secure their inheritance.

As early as 1197 there is a case at Ankerwyke, where a nun who had been fifteen years professed returned to the world and[Pg 35] claimed a share of her father’s property, on the ground that she had been forced into the monastery by a guardian, who wished to secure the whole inheritance. Her relatives energetically resisted a claim by which they would have been the losers and appealed to the Pope. The runaway nun was excommunicated and her case came into the Curia Regis, but the result has not survived and it is impossible to say whether her story was true[139]. The case of Agnes, nun of Haverholme, illustrates at once the reason for which an unwilling girl might be immured in a nunnery and the obstacles which her order would place in the way of escape. She enters history in a papal mandate of 1304, by which three ecclesiastics are ordered to take proceedings in the case of Agnes, whose father and stepmother (how familiar and like a fairy tale it sounds) in order to deprive her of her heritage, shut her up in the monastery of Haverholme. “The canons and nuns of Sempringham (to which order Haverholme belonged) declare,” continues the mandate, “that she took the habit out of devotion, but refuse to confirm their assertion by oath”[140]. The inference is irresistible. Another case, the memory of which is preserved in a petition to Chancery, concerns Katherine and Joan, the two daughters of Thomas Norfolk, whose widow Agnes married a certain Richard Haldenby. Agnes was seised of certain lands and tenements in Yorkshire to the value of £40 a year, as the nearest friend of the two girls, whose share of their father’s estate the lands were. But her remarriage roused the wrath of the Norfolk family and an uncle, John Norfolk, dispossessed her of the land and took the children out of her guardianship, “with great force of armed men against the peace of our lord the king,” breaking open their doors and carrying away the deeds of their possessions. Then, according to the petition of Agnes and her second husband, “did he make the said Katherine a nun, when she was under the age of nine years, at a place called Wallingwells, against her will, and the other daughter of the aforesaid Thomas Norfolk he hath killed, as it is said.” The mother begs for an inquiry to be held[141].

But the most vivid of all these little tragedies of the cloister are those concerned with Margaret de Prestewych and Clarice[Pg 36] Stil. The case of Margaret de Prestewych has been preserved in the register of Robert de Stretton, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield; and it is satisfactory to know that one energetic girl at least succeeded in making good her protests and in escaping from her prison. In her eighth year or thereabouts, according to her own petition to the Pope, her friends compelled her against her will to enter the priory of the nuns of Seton, of the order of St Augustine, and take on her the habit of a novice. She remained there, as in a prison, for several years, always protesting that she had never made nor ever would willingly make any profession. And then, seeing that she must by profession be excluded from her inheritance, she feigned herself sick and took to her bed. But this did not prevent her being carried to the church at the instance of her rivals and blessed by a monk, in spite of her cries and protests that she would not remain in that priory or in any other order. On the first opportunity she went forth from the priory without leave and returned to the world, which in heart she had never left, and married Robert de Holand, publicly after banns, and had issue. The bishop, to whom the case had been referred by the Pope, found upon inquiry that these things were true, and in 1383 released her from the observance of her order[142].

Within a few years of this high spirited lady’s escape the case of little Clarice Stil engaged the attention of the King’s court. The dry-as-dust pages of the medieval law-books hide many jewels for whoever has patience to seek them, but none brighter than this story. It all arose out of a writ of wardship sued by one David Carmayngton or Servyngton against Walter Reynold, whom he declared to have unjustly deforced him of the wardship of the land and heir of Robert Stil, the heir being[Pg 37] Clarice. Walter, however, said that no action lay against him, because Clarice had entered into the order of St John of Jerusalem, of which the Prioress of Buckland was prioress, and had been professed in that order on the very day of the purchase of the writ. In answer David unfolded a strange story. He alleged that William Stil, the father of Robert, had married twice; by his first wife Constance he had one daughter Margaret, who was now the wife of Walter Reynold; by his second wife Joan he had two children, Robert and Clarice. William died seised of certain tenements which were inherited by Robert, who died without an heir of his body; whereupon (David alleged) Walter, by connivance with the Prioress of Buckland and in order to disinherit Clarice (in which case his own wife Margaret would be the next of kin), took Clarice after her brother’s death and conveyed her to Buckland Priory, she being then eight years of age, and kept her there under guard. David’s counsel gave a dramatic account of the proceeding:

Sir, we say that the same Walter by covinage to compel the said Clarice to be professed, took the said Clarice when she was between the ages of seven and eight years, to the house of nuns at Buckland, and in that place were two ladies, nuns, who were of his assent to cause the infant to be professed, and they told the child that if she passed the door the devil would carry her away.

It was furthermore pleaded that on the day of purchase of the writ, Clarice was within the age of twelve years and that she was still within that age, and that therefore she could not be considered professed by the law of the land. By this time one’s sympathies are all on the side of David, and of terrified little Clarice, with whom the devil was to run away. Unfortunately the judges referred the matter to an ecclesiastical court and ordered a writ to be sent to the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The Bishop made his return

that the said Clarice on August 1st, 1383, of her own free will, was taken to the said Prioress of Buckland by Stephen Joseph, rector of the church of Northeleye, without any connivance on the part of the said Walter and the said Prioress, and she remained at the said priory for two years to see if the life would please her. Afterwards, on October 18th, 1385, she assumed the religious habit and made profession according to the manners and customs of the said house. And on the day when Clarice entered the house she was more than eight years old and on the day of purchase of the writ [Pg 38]more than twelve years old, and at the present time is more than fourteen years old, and is well contented with the religious life.

The Bishop also found that no guards had been placed over Clarice by Walter, or by the Prioress. So David lost his suit and was in mercy for a false claim; and he also lost, upon a technical point, another suit which he had brought against the Prioress of Buckland. Nevertheless one’s sympathies remain obstinately on his side. That touch about the devil assuredly never sprang even from the fertile brain of a lawyer[143].

The illegitimate, the deformed, the feeble-minded and the unwilling represent a not very pleasant side of the conventual system. The nunneries contained other and less tragic inmates, who may be distinguished from the majority; for to them went in voluntary retirement a large number of widows[144]. If the nun unwillingly professed has always been a favourite theme in popular literature, so also has the broken-hearted wife or lover, Guinevere hiding her sorrows in the silent cloister.

Many of the widows who took the veil were, however, less romantic figures. Although their presence as secular boarders was discouraged, because it brought too much of the world[Pg 39] within cloister walls, those who desired to make regular profession were willingly received, the more so as they often brought a substantial dower with them. Thus when Margaret, Countess of Ulster, assumed the habit at Campsey in 1347, she took with her, by licence of the Crown, the issues of all her lands and rents in England for a year after her admission, and after that date 200 marks yearly were to be paid for her sustenance[145]. Such widows often enjoyed a respect consonant with their former position in society and not infrequently became heads of their houses. Katherine de Ingham and Eleanor Lady Scrope both entered the Minories in their widowhood and eventually became abbesses[146]. But it does not need much imagination, nor an unduly cynical temperament, to guess that this element of convent life must occasionally have been a disturbing one. The conventual atmosphere did not always succeed in killing the profaner passions of the soul; and the advent of an opinionated widow, ripe in the experience of all those things which her sisters had never known, with the aplomb of one who had long enjoyed an honoured position as wife and mother and lady of the manor, must at times have caused a flutter among the doves; such a situation, for instance, as Bishop Cobham found at Wroxall when he visited it in 1323[147]. Isabel Lady Clinton of Maxstoke, widow of the patron of the house, had retired thither and had evidently taken with her a not too modest opinion of her own importance. She found it impossible to forget that she was a Clinton and to realise that she, who had in time gone by given her easy patronage to the nuns and lodged with them when she would, was now a simple sister among them. Was she to submit to the rule of Prioress Agnes of Alesbury, she without whose goodwill Prioress Agnes had never been appointed? Was she to listen meekly to chiding in the dorter, and in the frater to bear with sulks? Impossible. How she comported herself we know not, but the bishop “found grave discord existing between the Prioress and dame Isabel Clinton, some of the sisters adhering to one and some to the other.” Evidently a battle royal. The[Pg 40] bishop, poor man, did his best. He enjoined peace and concord among the inmates; the sisters were to treat the prioress with reverence and obedience; those who had rebelled against her were to desist and the prioress was to behave amicably to all in frater, dorter, and elsewhere. And so my lord went his way. He may have known the pertinacity of the late patroness; and it was perhaps with resignation and without surprise that he confirmed her election as prioress on the death of the harassed Agnes.

The occasional cases in which wives left their husbands to enter a convent were less likely to provoke discord. Such women as left husband and children to take the veil must have been moved by a very strong vocation for religion, or else by excessive weariness. Some may perhaps have found married life even such an odious tale, “a licking of honey off thorns,” as the misguided realist who wrote Hali Meidenhad sought to depict it. In any case, whether the mystical faith of a St Bridget drew her thither, or whether matrimony had not seemed easy to her that had tried it, the presence of a wedded wife was unlikely to provoke discord in the convent; the devout and the depressed are quiet bedeswomen. It was necessary for a wife to obtain her husband’s permission before she could take the veil, since her action entailed celibacy on his part also, during her lifetime. Sometimes a husband would endow his wife liberally on her entry into the house which she had selected. There are two such dowers in the Register of Godstow Nunnery. About 1165 William de Seckworth gave the tithes of two mills and a grant of five acres of meadow to the convent, “for the helth of hys sowle and of hys chyldryn and of hys aunceters, with hys wyfe also, the whyche he toke to kepe to the forseyd holy mynchons to serve god”[148]; and a quarter of a century later Geoffrey Durant and Molde his wife, “whan þe same Moole yelded herself to be a mynchon to the same chirch,” granted one mark of rent to be paid annually by their son Peter, out of certain lands held by him, “which were of the mariage of the said Moolde”[149]. Nor did Walter Hauteyn, citizen of London, in his solicitude for his[Pg 41] son and three daughters, forget the mother who had left her husband and children for the service of God; to Alice his wife, a nun of St Sepulchre’s Canterbury, he bequeathed in 1292 his dwelling place and rents upon Cornhill for life, with remainder to his heirs[150].



[Pg 42]



“My lady Prioresse, by your leve
So that I wiste I sholde you not greve,
I wolde demen that ye tellen sholde
A tale next, if so were that ye wolde.
Now wol ye vouche-sauf, my lady dere?”
“Gladly” quod she, and seyde as ye shal here.


It usually happened that the head of a nunnery was a woman of some social standing in her own right. All nuns were Christ’s brides, but an earthly father in the neighbourhood, with broad acres and loose purse strings, was not to be despised. If a great lady retired to a nunnery she was very like to end as its head; Barking Abbey in Essex had a long line of well-born abbesses, including three queens and two princesses; and when Katherine de la Pole (the youngest daughter of that earl of Suffolk who was slain at Agincourt) is found holding the position of abbess at the tender age of twenty-two, it is an irresistible inference that her birth was a factor in the choice[151]. The advantage in having a woman of local influence and rich connections as prioress is illustrated in the history of Crabhouse nunnery under Joan Wiggenhall[152]; how she worked and built “be the grace of[Pg 43] oure Lord God an be the helpe of Edmund Perys, Person of Watlington,” her cousin; and how

whanne this good man beforeseyde was passid to God, oure Lord that is ful graciouse to alle his servauntis that have nede and that troste on hym, sente hem anothir goode frende hem to helpe and comforte in her nede, clepid Mayster Jon Wygenale, Doctoure of Canon and person of Oxborow, and Cosyn to the same Prioresse;

and how

in the xix yere of the same Prioresse, ffel a grete derth of corne, wherefore sche muste nedis have lefte werke with oute relevynge and helpe of sum goode creature, so, be the steringe of oure Lord, Mayster Jon Wygenale befor sayde sente us of his charite an 100 cowmbe malte and an 100 coumbe Barly and besyde this procurid us xx mark. And for the soule of my lord of Exetyr, of whos soule God of hys pyte he wil have mercy, we had of him xl pounte and v mark to the same werke, whiche drewe ccc mark, without mete and drinke. And within these vij yere that the dortoure was in makynge the place at Lynne clepped Corner Bothe was at the gate downe and no profite came to the place many yeris beforne. So that maystir Jon before seyde of hys gret charite lente the same prioresse good to make it up ageyne and procured hir xx mark of the sekatouris of Roger Chapeleyn[153].

The election of a superior was a complicated business, as may be gathered from the list of seventeen documents relating to the election of Alice de la Flagge as Prioress of Whiston in 1308, and enrolled in the Sede Vacante Register of Worcester diocese[154]. Indeed there were so many formalities to be fulfilled[Pg 44] that the nuns seem often to have found great difficulty in making a canonical election, and there are frequent notices in the episcopal registers that their election has been quashed by the Bishop on account of some technical fault; in such cases, however, the Bishop’s action was merely formal and he almost always reappointed the candidate of their choice[155]. An election was, moreover, not only complicated but expensive; it began with a journey to the patron to ask for his congé d’élire and it ended with more journeys, to the patron and to the Bishop, to ask for confirmation, so that the cost of travel and the cost of paying a clerk to draw up the necessary documents were sometimes considerable; moreover a fee was payable to the Bishop’s official for the installation of the new head. The account of Margaret Ratclyff, Prioress of Swaffham Bulbeck in 1482, contains notice of payments “to the official of the lord bishop, at the installation of the said prioress for his fee i. li.” and to one Bridone “for the transcript of the decree of election of the prioress v. s.”[156]. An account roll of St Michael’s Stamford for the year 1375-6 illustrates the process in greater detail; under the heading of “expenses de nostre Elit” are the following items:

Paid for the hire of horses with expenses going to the abbot of Peterborough [the patron] to get licence to elect our choice 9½d. Paid for the hire of horses going to the bishop of Lincoln and to the abbot of Peterborough and for their expenses at our election 4s.d. Paid for bread, ale and meat for our election on the election day 2s. 11½d.[Pg 45] Paid for a letter to the abbot of Peterborough for a licence to elect 3d. Paid for the installation of our elect, 10s.[157] Total 18s.d.[158]

The only necessary qualifications for the head of a house were that she should be above the age of twenty-one[159], born in wedlock and of good reputation; a special dispensation had to be obtained for the election of a woman who was under age or illegitimate.







As a rule the nuns possessed the right of free election, subject to the congé d’élire of their patron and to the confirmation of the bishop, and they secured without very much difficulty the leader of their choice. Often enough it must have been clear, especially in small communities, that one of the nuns was better fitted to rule than her sisters, and, as at Whiston, they

unanimously, as if inspired by the Holy Spirit[160], chose dame Alice de la Flagge, a woman of discreet life and morals, of lawful age, professed in the nunnery, born in lawful matrimony, prudent in spiritual and temporal matters, of whose election all approved, and afterwards, solemnly singing Te Deum Laudamus, carried the said elect, weeping, resisting as much as she could, and expostulating in a high voice, to the church as is the custom, and immediately afterwards, brother William de Grimeley, monk of Worcester, proclaimed the election. The said elect, after being very often asked, at length, after due deliberation, being unwilling to resist the divine will, consented[161].

But Jocelin of Brakelond has taught us that a monastic election was not always a foregone conclusion, that discussion waxed hot and barbed words flew in the season of blood-letting “when the cloistered monks were wont to reveal the secrets of their hearts in turn and to discuss matters one with another,” and that “many men said many things and every man was fully persuaded in his own mind.” Nuns were not very different from monks when it came to an election, and the chance survival of a bishop’s register and of another formal document among the[Pg 46] muniments of Lincoln, has preserved the record of an election comedy at Elstow Abbey, almost worthy to rank with Jocelin’s inimitable account of the choice of Samson the subsacrist.

After the death of Abbess Agnes Gascoigne in July 1529, the nineteen nuns of Elstow, having received Henry VIII’s congé d’élire, assembled in their chapter house on August 9th, to elect her successor. They chose Master John Rayn “utriusque juris doctorem,” as director, Edward Watson, notary public as clerk, and the Prior of Caldwell and the rectors of Great Billing and Turvey as witnesses. Three novices and other lay persons having departed, the director and the other men explained the forms of election to the nuns in the vulgar tongue and they agreed to proceed by way of scrutiny. Matilda Sheldon, subprioress, Alice Boifeld, precentrix, and Anne Preston, ostiaria (doorkeeper) were chosen as scrutineers and withdrew into a corner of the chapter house, with the notary and witnesses. There Matilda Sheldon and Anne Preston nominated Cecilia Starkey, refectoraria, while Alice Boifeld nominated Elizabeth Boifeld, sacrist, evidently a relative. The three scrutineers then called upon the other nuns to give their votes; Anne Wake, the prioress, named Cecilia Starkey; Elizabeth Boifeld and Cecilia Starkey (each unable to vote for herself, but determined not to assist the other) voted for a third person, the subsacrist Helen Snawe; and Helen Snawe and all the other nuns, except two, gave their votes in favour of Elizabeth Boifeld. Consternation reigned among the older nuns, prioress, subprioress, refectoraria and doorkeeper, when this result was announced. “Well,” said the Prioress, “some of thies yong Nunnes be to blame,” and on the director asking why, she replied: “For they wolde not shewe me so muche; for I asked diverse of them before this day to whome they wolde gyve their voices, but they wolde not shewe me.” “What said they to you?” asked the director. “They said to me,” replied the flustered and indignant prioress, “they wolde not tell to whome they wolde gyve their voices tyll the tyme of thellection, and then they wolde gyve their voices as God shulde put into their mynds, but this is by counsaill. And yet yt wolde have beseemed them to have shewn as much to me as to the others.” And then she and Dame Cecilia said, “What, shulde the yong nunnes gyve voices? Tushe, they shulde not gyve voices!”[Pg 47] Clearly the situation was the same which Jocelin of Brakelond had described over three centuries before: “The novices said of their elders that they were invalid old men and little capable of ruling an abbey.” However the Prioress was obliged to admit that the younger nuns had voted in the last election and the subprioress thereupon, in the name of the scrutineers, announced the election of Dame Elizabeth Boifeld by the “more and sounder part of the convent” (poor Anne Wake!). But the Prioress and disappointed Dame Cecilia still showed fight; the votes must be referred to the Bishop of Lincoln. Further discussion; then Dame Cecilia gracefully gave way; she consented to the election of Dame Elizabeth Boifeld and would not proceed further in the matter. Master John Rayn published the election at the steps of the altar. Helen Snawe (whom after events showed to be a leading spirit in the affair) and Katherine Wingate were chosen as proctors, to seek confirmation from the Bishop, and Dame Elizabeth was taken to the altar (amid loud chanting of Te Deum Laudamus by the triumphant younger nuns) and her election announced. She, however, preserved that decorous semblance of unwillingness, or at least of indifference, which custom demanded from a successful candidate, even when she had been pulling strings for days, for when the proctors came to her at two o’clock “in a certain upper chamber called Marteyns, in our monastery” and asked her consent to her election, “she neither gave it nor refused.” Away went the proctors, without so much as a wink to each other; let us leave our elect to meditate upon the will of God. At four p.m. they came to her “in a certain large garden, called the Pond Yard, within our monastery”; and at their repeated instances she gave her consent. “Wherefore we, the above-named nuns, pray the Lord Bishop to ratify and confirm our election of the said Elizabeth Boyfeld as our Abbess.” Which the Lord Bishop did[162].

But this was by no means the end of the matter. A year later the whole nunnery was in an uproar[163]. The bishop, for reasons best known to himself, had removed the prioress Dame Anne Wake and had appointed Dame Helen Snawe in her place;[Pg 48] perhaps Dame Anne had said “Tush” once too often under the new régime; perhaps she was getting too old for her work; or perhaps Abbess Elizabeth Boifeld had only commanded Dame Snawe’s intrigues at a price; evidently the subsacrist was no less adroit than that other subsacrist of Bury St Edmund’s. At any rate Dame Anne Wake was put out of her office and Dame Helen Snawe ruled in her stead. It might have been expected that this change would be welcomed by the nuns, considering how strong the Boifeld faction had been at the election of the Abbess. But no; during the year of triumph Helen Snawe had aroused the hearty dislike of her sisters; led by Dames Barbara Gray (who had voted against the Abbess at the last election) and Alice Bowlis they had strenuously opposed her substitution for the old Prioress; they had been impertinent to the Abbess of their own choice (indeed she was only a figure-head); they had written letters to their friends and refused to show them to her; and finally when the election of Dame Snawe was announced, they had risen in a body and left the chapter-house as a protest. This was intolerable, and the Bishop’s vicar-general came down to examine the delinquents. Matilda Sheldon, the subprioress, admitted to having left the chapter, but denied that she had done so for the reason attributed and said that she did not know of the departure of the other nuns, until she saw them in the dorter. Margaret Nicolson showed more spirit; she said that she went out “because she wold not consent that my lady Snawe shulde be priores,” and that “ther was none that ded councell hir to goo” and that “my lady abbes did commaunde them to tary, that not withestandyng they went forthe”; and she gave the names of eight nuns who had followed the subprioress out. Dame Barbara Gray was next asked “yf she ded aske licence of my Lady Abbas to wryte letters to hir frends,” and replied “that she ded aske licens to wryte to hir frends and my Lady Abbas sade, ‘Yf ye showe me what ye wryte I am content,’ and she saide agene, ‘I have done my devoir to aske licence, and yf ye wyll nede see it I will wryte noo letters.’” Asked whether she had left the chapter house, this defiant young woman declared that “yf it were to do agene she wolde soo doo,” and moreover “that she cannot fynde in hir hert to obbey my lady Snawe as priores, and that she wyll rather goo out of the house by[Pg 49] my lord’s licence, or she wyll obbey hir ... and that she wyll never obbey hir as priores, for hir hert cannot serve hir.” Asked for her objection to Dame Snawe, she said that “she wyll shewe noo cause at thys tyme wherfor she cannot love hir”; but after a little pressure she declared with heat that “the priores maks every faute a dedly syne”[164], treats all of them ill except her own self and if she “doo take an oppynyon she wyll kepe itt,” whether it be right or wrong. Dame Margery Preston was next examined and was evidently rather frightened at the result of her actions; she said that she had left the chapter-house as a protest against the deposition of the old prioress and not for any ill will that she bore Dame Snawe, “and she sais,” the record continues, “that she ys well content to obbey my lady Snawe as priores. And she desiers my lord to be a good lord to the olde priores, because of her age.” Ill-used Dame Cecilia Starkey, so unkindly circumvented by Dame Snawe a year ago, next appeared before the vicar-general and said “that she went forthe of the chapter howse, but she sais she gave noo occasion to eny of hir susters to goo forthe. And says she knewe not howe many of hir susters went forthe whyle she come intoo the dorter; saynge that she cannot fynde in hir hert nor wyll not accepte and take my lady Snawe as priores” (an amusing comment on her vote in 1529). Next came Dame Alice Foster, who admitted to having left the chapter-house

and sais that they war commanded by the Abbes to tare styll. But she and other went forth because the olde priores was put done [i.e. down] wrongfully and my lady Snawe put in agenst ther wylle, saynge that she wyll never agre to hir as long as she lyvys; she says the sub-prioress went forthe of the chapiter howse fyrst and then she and other folowyde;

and evidence in almost the same words was given by Dame Anne Preston and by Dame Elizabeth Sinclere, the latter adding that “she wyll take tholde priores as priores as longe as she levys and no other, and she says yf my lord commaunde vs to take my lady Snawe to be priores, she had lever goo forthe of the howse to sum other place and wyll not tare ther.” Dame Alice Bowlis, another young rebel, asked

[Pg 50]yf she ded aske lycence of the Abbes to wryte, she sais she ded aske licens to wryte and my lady Abbes seyde “My lord hathe gevyn vs soo strate commaundement that none shuld wryte no (letter) but ye shewe it to me, what ye doo wryte”; and she sais she mayde aunswer agene to thabbes, “It hathe not bene soo in tymis paste and I have done my dewty. I wyll not wryte nowe at this tyme”; she admitted that she left the chapter house, “but she says that nobody ded move hyr to goo forthe; she says that she must neds nowe obbey the priores at my lords commaundement, saynge that my lady Snawe ys not mete for that offes, butt she wolde shewe noo cause wherfor.”

Two other nuns declared with great boldness “That my lord ded not commaunde vs to tak my lady Snawe as priores, but he saide, ‘Yf ye wyll not take hir as priores I wyll make hir priores’” and that “they was wont to have the priores chosyn by the Abbes and the convent, and not by my lord, after seynte Bennet’s rule,” one of them remarking cryptically “that she wyll take my lady Snawe as priores as other wyll doo” and not otherwise. Meek little Dame Katherine Cornwallis was then interrogated and said,

“that she was going forthe of the chapiter house wt. other of hir susters and then when she herde my lady abbes commaund them to tary, she ded tary behynde, but she sais that she thynks that none of the oder susters that went forthe ded here hyr, but only she” (kind little Dame Katherine), “and she is sory that tholde priores ys put out of hir offes. She says that my lady abbes ded tare styll and domina Alicia Boyfelde, domina Snawe, domina Katherina Wyngate, domina Dorothia Commaforthe, domina Elizabethe Repton, and domina Elizabeth Stanysmore.”

Finally the ill-used abbess made her complaint; she had bidden saucy Dame Alice Bowlis and others to stand up at matins, according to the custom of the house, “and went out of hir stall to byde them soo doo, and lady Bowlis ded make hir awnswer agene that, ‘ye have mayde hir priores that mayde ye abbes!’, brekyng her silence ther.” Evidently poor Elizabeth Boifeld had not succeeded in living down the intrigues which had preceded her election, and the convent suspected her of rewarding a supporter at the expense of an old opponent.

Here was a pretty state of affairs in the home of buxomness and peace. But the vicar-general acted firmly. Barbara Gray and Alice Bowlis were given a penance for their disobedience; they were to keep silence; neither of them was to come within “the howse calde the misericorde” (where meat was[Pg 51] allowed to be eaten), but they were always to have their meals in the frater; neither of them was to write any letters; and they were to take the lowest places of all among the sisters in “processions and in other placys.” Finally all the nuns were enjoined to be obedient to the abbess and to the hated prioress. Their protests that they would never obey Dame Alice Snawe, while the old prioress lived, were all in vain; and when some ten years later the Reformation put an end to their dissensions by casting them all upon the world, Dame Elizabeth Boyvill (sic), “abbesse,” received an annual pension of £50, Dame Helen Snawe, “prioresse,” one of £4 and Dame Anne Wake, “prioresse quondam,” one of 66s. 8d.[165]

The turbulent diocese of York provides us with an even more striking picture of an election-quarrel. In 1308, after a vacancy, the election of the Prioress of Keldholme lapsed to the Archbishop, who appointed Emma of York. But the nuns would have none of Emma. Six of them refused obedience to the new prioress and, six being probably at least half of the whole convent, Emma of York resigned. Not to be daunted the Archbishop returned to the charge; on August 5th he wrote to the Archdeacon of Cleveland stating that as he found no one in the house capable of ruling it he had appointed Joan de Pykering, a nun of Rosedale, to be Prioress.

As a number of persons (named) had openly and publicly obstructed the appointment of the new prioress the Archdeacon was to proceed immediately to Keldholme and give her corporal possession and at the same time he was to admonish other dissentient nuns (named)[Pg 52] that they and all others must accept Joan de Pykering as prioress and reverently obey her.

It is clear in this case that the feuds of the convent had spread beyond its walls, for the Archbishop at the same time warned all lay folk to cease their opposition on pain of excommunication and shortly afterwards imposed a penance upon one of those who had interfered. But pandemonium still reigned at Keldholme and he went down in person to interview the refractory nuns; the result of his visitation appears in a mandate issued to the official of Cleveland on September 3rd, stating that he had found four nuns, Isabella de Langetoft, Mary de Holm, Joan de Roseles and Anabilla de Lokton (all had been among the original objectors to Emma of York) incorrigible rebels. They were therefore to be packed off one after another, Isabella to Handale, Mary to Swine, Joan to Nunappleton and Anabilla to Wallingwells, there to perform their penances. In spite of this ruthless elimination of the discordant elements, the convent of Keldholme refused to submit. On February 1st following the Archbishop wrote severely to the subprioress and convent bidding them at once to direct a letter under their common seal to their patroness, declaring that they had unanimously elected Joan de Pykering as prioress; on February 5th he issued a commission to correct the crimes and excesses revealed at his visitation; and on February 17th he directed the commissioners “to enquire whether Joan de Pickering” (luckless exile in the tents of Kedar) “desired for a good reason, of her own free will, to resign and if they found that she did to enjoin the subprioress and convent to proceed to the canonical election of a new prioress”; and on March 7th the triumphant convent elected Emma of Stapelton. At the same time the Archbishop ordered the transference of two other nuns to do penance at Esholt and at Nunkeeling, perhaps for their share in these disorders but more probably for immorality.

But this was not the end. Emma of York could not forget that she had once been prioress; Mary de Holm (who had either returned from or never gone to Swine) was a thoroughly bad character; and in 1315 the Archbishop

directed Richard del Clay, custos of the monastery, to proceed at once to Keldholme and to summon before him in the chapter Emma of[Pg 53] York and Mary de Holm, who like daughters of perdition were disobedient and rebels against the Prioress. Having read the Archbishop’s letter in the mother tongue in the chapter, he was to admonish the two nuns for the first, second and third times that they must humbly obey the Prioress in all lawful and canonical injunctions. They were not to meddle with any internal or external business of the house in any way, or to go outside of the enclosure of the monastery, or to say anything against the Prioress, on pain of expulsion and of the greater excommunication.

At the end of the year, however, harassed Archbishop Greenfield went where the wicked cease from troubling; and the two malcontents at Keldholme seized the opportunity to triumph. Scarcely a couple of months after his death Emma of Stapelton resigned; she said she was “oppressed by age,” but since Emma of York was at once elected and confirmed in her place, it is probable that the rage, like Joan de Pickering’s free will, was something of a euphemism; her reason doubtless took a concrete and menacing shape and wore a veil upon its undiminished head. The last we hear of these very unsaintly ladies is in 1318, when the new Archbishop enjoined a penance on Mary de Holm for incontinence with a chaplain[166]. It is noticeable that this was the second case of the kind which had occurred in the diocese of York within fifteen years. At Swine in 1290 the appointment by Archbishop Romeyn of Josiana de Anlaby as Prioress had been followed by similar disorders and he ordered an inquiry to be held and the rebellious nuns to be sent to Rosedale[167].

Much trouble might arise within a convent over the election of its head, as these stories show. But sometimes external persons interfered; great ladies used their influence and their wealth to[Pg 54] secure the coveted post for a protégée of their own; and the protégée herself was not averse to oiling the palms of those in authority with good marks of silver; “blood-abbesses,” Ensfrid of Cologne would have called them (“that is, foisted in by their kinsfolk”) or “jester-abbesses” (“that is, such as had been thrust in by the power of great folks”) or “simoniacs, who had crept in through money or through worldly services”[168]. In these cases there was likely to be more trouble still, for great ladies were not always careful of the character of a friend or relative whom they wished to settle comfortably as head of a convent. In 1528 the Abbess of Wilton died and Mr John Carey thought he would like the appointment for his sister Eleanor, one of the nuns. He was brother-in-law to lovely Anne Boleyn, and a word in her ear secured her warm support; the infatuated King wished to please Anne; and Wolsey, steering his bark in troubled waters, wished to please the King; so he promised that the lady should have the post, the election to which had been placed in his hands by the nuns. It seemed that all would go well with Dame Eleanor Carey, when Anne Boleyn pulled the strings; but trouble arose, and the action taken by the Cardinal and by the future oppressor of the monasteries is greatly to the credit of them both, for both had much to lose from Anne. “As touching the matter of Wilton” Henry wrote to her

My lord cardinal hath had the Nuns before him, and examined them, Mr. Bell being present; which hath certified me, that for a truth that she hath confessed herself, (which we would have had abbesse) to have had two children by two sundry priests; and furder, since, hath been kept by a servant of the Lord Broke, that was, and that not long ago; wherefore I would not for all the gold in the world clog your conscience nor mine to make her a ruler of a house, which is of so ungudly demeanor, nor I trust you would not that neither for brother nor sister I should so destain mine honor or conscience. And as touching the prioress [Isabel Jordan] or Dame Eleanor’s eldest sister, though there is not any evident case proved against them, and that the prioress is so old that of many years she could not be as she was named [ill-famed]: yet notwithstanding to do you pleasure I have done that neither of them shall have it, but that some other good and well disposed woman shall have it, whereby the house shall be the better reformed (whereof I ensure you it had much need) and God much the better served[169].

[Pg 55]Wolsey, however, gave the appointment to Isabel Jordan, who in spite of her having been the subject of some scandal in her youth, was favoured by the greater part of the convent as being “ancient, wise and discreet”; whereupon he brought down upon himself a severe rebuke from Henry, who had “both reported and promised to divers friends of Dame Elinor Carey that the Prioress should not have it”[170]. Without doubt pretty Mistress Anne was sulking down at Hever.

Not only did outside persons thus concern themselves in a conventual election; the nuns themselves were not always unwilling to bribe, where they desired advancement. A series of letters written by Margaret Vernon to Cromwell, concerning the office of Prioress of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, throws a lurid light upon the methods which were sometimes employed:

“Sir,” she wrote to her powerful friend in 1529, “Pleaseth it you to understand that there is a goldsmith in this town, named Lewys, and he sheweth me that Mr. More hath made sure promise to parson Larke that the subprioress of St. Helen’s shall be prioress there afore Christmas-day. Sir, I most humbly beseech you to be so good master unto me, as to know my lord’s grace’s [the king’s] pleasure in this case and that I may have a determined answer whereto I shall trust, that I may settle myself in quietness; the which I am far from at this hour. And farthermore if it might like you to make the offer to my said lord’s grace of such a sum of money as we were at a point for, my friends thinketh that I should surely be at an end.”

Soon afterwards she wrote again:

Sir, it is so that there is divers and many of my friends that hath written to me that I should make labour for the said house unto your mastership, showing you that the King’s grace hath given it to master Harper, who saith that he is proffered for his favour two hundred marks of the King’s saddler, for his sister; which proffer I will never make unto him, nor no friend for me shall, for the coming in after that fashion is neither godly nor worshipful. And beside all this must come by my lady Orell’s favour, which is a woman I would least meddle with. And thus I shall not only be burdened in conscience for payment of this great sum, but also entangled and in great cumbrance to satisfy the avidity of this gentlewoman. And though I did, in my lord cardinal’s days, proffer a hundred pounds for the said house, I beseech you consider for what purpose it was made. Your mastership knoweth right well that there was by my enemies so many high and slanderous words, and your mastership had made so great instant labour for me, that I shamed so much the fall thereof that[Pg 56] I foresaw little what proffer was made; but now, I thank our Lord, that blast is ceased, and I have no such singular love unto it; for now I have two eyes to see in this matter clearly, the one is the eye of my soul, that I may come without burthen of conscience and by the right door, and, laying away all pomp and vanity of the world, looking warily upon the maintenance and supportation of the house, which I should take in charge, and cannot be performed, master Harper’s pleasure and my lady Orell’s accomplished. In consideration whereof I intend not willingly, nor no friend of mine shall not, trouble your mastership in this case.

In another letter she mentions a saying of Master Harper, that from the good report he has heard of her, he would rather admit her without a groat than others who offer money; but her conscientious scruples were not rewarded with St Helen’s, though she almost immediately obtained an appointment as prioress at Little Marlow, and on the dissolution of that house among the lesser monasteries, received and held for a brief space the great Abbey of Malling[171]. It is true that these instances of simony and of the use of influence belong to the last degenerate years of the monasteries in England. But cases hardly less serious undoubtedly occurred at an early date. The gross venality of the papal curia[172], even in the early thirteenth century, is not a very happy omen for the behaviour of private patrons; smaller folk than the Pope could summon a wretched abbot “Amice, ut offeras”; nor was it only abbots who thus bought themselves into favour. The thirteenth century jurist Pierre Du Bois, whose enlightened plans for the better education of women included the suppression of the nunneries and the utilisation of their wealth to form schools or colleges for girls, mentioned the reception of nuns for money and rents, by means of compacts (i.e. the dowry system) and the election of abbesses and prioresses by the same illicit bargains, as among the abuses practised in nunneries[173].

[Pg 57]Once having been installed, the head of a house held office until she died, resigned or was deprived for incompetence or for ill behaviour. Sometimes prioresses continued to hold office until a very great age, as did Matilda de Flamstead, Prioress of Sopwell, who died in 1430 aged eighty-one, having lived in the rules of religion for over sixty years[174]. But the cases (quoted below) of the prioresses of St Michael’s Stamford and of Gracedieu prove that an aged and impotent head was bad for the discipline of the house, and it appears that a prioress who was too old or in too weak health to fulfil her arduous duties, was often allowed to resign or was relieved of her office[175]. Sometimes an ex-superior continued to live a communal life as an ordinary nun, under her successor, but sometimes she was granted a special room and a special allowance of food and attendance. In some houses certain apartments were reserved for the occupation of a retired superior. Sir Thomas Willoughby, writing to Cromwell on behalf of his sister-in-law, who had resigned her office as Abbess of Malling, begs that she may

have your letter to my lady abbess of Malling (her successor), that she at your contemplation will be so good to her as to appoint her that room and lodging within the said monastery that she and other of her predecessors that hath likewise resigned hath used to have, and as she had herself a little space, or else some other meet and convenient lodging in the same house[176].

When Katherine Pilly, Prioress of Flixton, “who had laudably ruled the house for eighteen years,” resigned in 1432 because of old age and blindness, the Bishop of Norwich made special arrangements for her sustenance:

she was to have suitable rooms for herself and her maid; each week she and the maid were to be provided with two white loaves, eight loaves of “hool” bread and eight gallons of convent beer, with a daily dish for both from the kitchen, the same as for two nuns in the refectory, and with two hundred faggots and a hundred logs and eight pounds of candles a year. Cecilia Crayke, one of the nuns, was to[Pg 58] read divine service to her daily and to sit with her at meals, having her portion from the refectory[177].

These aged ladies probably ended their days peacefully, withdrawn from the common life of the house. But sometimes a prioress resigned while still young enough to miss her erstwhile autocracy and to torment her unlucky successor. Then indeed the new head could do nothing right and feuds and factions tore the sisterhood. Such a case occurred at Nunkeeling early in the fourteenth century. Avice de la More resigned in 1316, and the Archbishop wrote to the nuns making the usual provision for her; she had “for a long period laudably and usefully superintended the house”; she was to have a chamber to herself and one of the nuns assigned to her by the Prioress as a companion; and daily she was to receive the portion of two nuns in bread, ale and victuals and her associate that of one nun; an end, one might suppose, of Avice de la More. But the Yorkshire nuns were quarrelsome ladies; and two years later the Archbishop addressed a severe letter to Avice, threatening to remove the provision made for her if she persisted in her “conspiracies, rebellions and disobedience to the prioress” and imposing a severe penance upon her. But seven penitential psalms with the litany upon Fridays, a discipline in chapter and fasting diet could not calm the temper of Avice de la More; she stirred up the nuns to rebellion and spread the tale of her grievances “to seculars and adversaries outside.” There was some family feud perhaps between her relatives and the St Quintins to whose house the unhappy Prioress belonged; at any rate “clamorous[Pg 59] information” reached the Archbishop concerning the intrigues of certain of the nuns. Once more he wrote to Avice “with a bitter heart.” She had broken her vow of obedience in arrogancy and elation of heart towards her prioress, “who was placed in charge of her soul and body and without whom she had no free will”; let her desist at once and study to live according to the rule; and a commission was sent to inquire into the misdeeds of the rebellious nuns of Keeling. But alas, the finding of that commission has long since powdered into dust and we hear no further news of Avice de la More[178].

The head of a house was an important person and enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom, in relation both to her convent and to the outside world. In relation to her convent her position laid her open to various temptations: she was, for instance, beset by three which must be faced by all who rule over communities. The first was the temptation to live with too great luxury and independence, escaping from the daily routine of communal life, to which her vows bound her. The second was the temptation to rule like an autocrat, instead of consulting her sisters. The third was the temptation to let human predilections have their way and to show favouritism. To begin with the first of these temptations, it is obvious that the fact that the superior nearly always had a separate room, or suite of rooms[179], and servants, and had the duty of entertaining important[Pg 60] guests, gave her much freedom within her house, especially if she were the head of one of the great abbeys. The Abbess of St Mary’s Winchester, at the Dissolution, had her own house and a staff consisting of a cook, an undercook, a woman servant and a laundress, and she had also a gentlewoman to wait upon her, like any great lady in the world[180]. The Abbess of Barking had her gentlewoman, too, and her private kitchen; she dined in state with her nuns five times a year, and “the under celeresse must remember,” says the Charthe longynge to the Office of Celeresse,

at eche principall fest, that my lady sytteth in the fraytour; that is to wyt five times in the yere, at eche tyme schall aske the clerke of the kychyn soper eggs for the covent, and that is Estir, Wytsontyd, the Assumption of our Lady, seynt Alburgh and Cristynmasse, at eche tyme to every lady two eggs, and eche double two egges, that is the priorisse, the celeresse and the kychener[181].

The stern reformer Peckham was forced to take in hand the conduct of the Abbesses of Barking, Wherwell and Romsey, who were abusing their independence of ordinary routine. The Abbess of Barking was forbidden to remain in her private room after sunset, at which hour all doors were to be locked and all strangers excluded; she might do so only very rarely, in order to entertain distinguished guests or to transact important business; and he ordered her to eat with the convent as often as possible, “especially on solemn days” (i.e. great feasts)[182]. The Abbess of Wherwell had apparently stinted her nuns in food and drink, but caused magnificent feasts to be prepared for her in her own room, and Peckham ordered that whenever there was a shortage of food in the convent, she was to dine with the nuns, and no meal was to be laid in her chamber for servants or strangers, but all visitors were to be entertained in the exterior guest-hall; if at such times she were in ill health, and unable to use the common diet, she might remain in her room, in the company of one or two of the nuns. At times when there was no lack of food in[Pg 61] the convent and when she was entertaining guests in her own room, all potations were to cease and all servants and visitors to depart at the hour of compline[183]. About the same time (1284) Peckham wrote two letters to the Abbess of Romsey, who had evidently been guilty of the same behaviour. She was not to keep “a number of” dogs or monkeys, or more than two maid servants, and she was not to fare splendidly in her own rooms while the nuns went short; his injunctions to her are couched in almost precisely the same language as those which he addressed to the Abbess of Wherwell[184].

According to the Benedictine rule the superior, when not entertaining guests, was permitted to invite the nuns in turn to dine with her in her own room, for their recreation, and notices of this custom sometimes occur in visitation reports; at Thicket (1309) the Prioress was enjoined to have them one by one when she dined in her room[185]; at Elstow (1421-2) the Abbess was to invite those nuns whom she knew to be specially in need of refreshment[186]; at Gracedieu (1440-1) the Prioress was ordered

that ye do the fraytour be keppede daylye ... item that no mo of your susters entende up on yowe, save onely your chapeleyn, and otherwhile, as your rule wylle, ye calle to your refeccyone oon or two of your susters to thair recreacyone[187];

at Greenfield (1519) there was a complaint that the Prioress did not invite the nuns to her table in due order, and at Stainfield it was said that she frequently invited three young nuns to her table and showed partiality to them and she was ordered to invite all the senior sisters in order[188]. In Cistercian and Cluniac houses the superior was supposed to dine in the frater and to sleep in the dorter with the other nuns, and even in Benedictine houses it was considered desirable that she should do so. But the temptation to live a more private life was irresistible, and visitation records contain many complaints that the head of the house is lax in her attendance at dorter and frater and even in[Pg 62] following the divine services in the choir[189]. Bishops frequently made injunctions like that given by Alnwick to the Prioress of Ankerwyke in 1441:

that nyghtly ye lygge in the dormytorye to ouersee your susters how thai are there gouernede after your rewle, and that often tyme ye come to matynes, messe and other houres ... also that oftentymes ye come to the chapitere for to correcte the defautes of your susters ... also that aftere your rewle ye kepe the fraytour but if resonable cause excuse yowe there fro[190].

Sometimes a minimum number of attendances was demanded. At St Michael’s Stamford Alnwick ordered the old Prioress

that nyghtly ye lyg in the dormytorye emong your susters and that euery principale double fest and festes of xij or ix lessouns ye be at matynes, but if grete sekenes lette yowe; and that often tymes ye be at other howres and messes in the qwere, and also that ye be present in chapitres helpyng the supprioresse in correctyng and punisshyng of defautes[191].

It was further attempted to restrict the dangerous freedom of a superior’s life, by ordering her always to have with her one of the nuns as a companion and as witness to her behaviour. So Peckham ordered the Abbess of Romsey to “elect a suitable companion for herself and to change her companions yearly, to the end that her honesty should be attested by many witnesses”[192]. Usually the nun whose duty it was to accompany the superior acted as her chaplain. It will be remembered that Chaucer says of his Prioress “another Nonne with hir hadde she, That was[Pg 63] hir chapeleyne”[193], and episcopal registers contain frequent allusions to the office. William of Wykeham gave a comprehensive account of its purpose when he wrote to the Abbess of Romsey in 1387,

since, according to the constitutions of the holy fathers, younger members must take a pattern from their rulers (prelati) and those prelates ought to have a number of witnesses to their own behaviour, we strictly order you (lady abbess) in virtue of obedience, that you annually commit the office of chaplain to one of your nuns ... and thus the nuns themselves, who shall have been with you in the aforesaid office, shall (by means of laudable instruction) be the better enabled to excel in religion, while you will be able immediately to invoke their testimony to your innocence, if (which God forbid) any crime or scandal should be imputed to you by the malice of any person[194].

So at Easebourne in 1478 the Prioress was ordered

that every week, beginning with the eldest ... she should select for herself in due course and in turns, one of her nuns as chaplain for divine services and to wait upon herself[195].

The Norwich visitations of Bishop Nykke afford further information; at Flixton discontented Dame Margaret Punder complained that the Prioress had no sister as chaplain, but slept alone as she pleased, in a chamber (cubiculo) outside the dorter, “without the continual testimony of her sisters,” and the visitors enjoined[Pg 64] that henceforth she should have with her one sister in the office of chaplain for a witness, and especially when she slept outside the dorter[196]. At Blackborough one of the nuns complained that the Prioress had kept the same chaplain for three years[197] and at Redlingfield it was said that she never changed her chaplain[198]; the Abbess of Elstow in 1421-2[199] and the Prioress of Markyate in 1442[200] were ordered to change their chaplains every year, and this seems to have been the customary arrangement. The title of “chaplain” is sometimes found after the name of a nun in lists of the inmates of nunneries[201].

Besides the temptation to live too independent an existence the head of a house had also the temptation to abuse the considerable power given to her by the monastic rule. She was apt to govern autocratically, keeping the business of the house entirely in her own hands, instead of consulting her sisters (assembled in chapter) before making any important decision. There were constant complaints by the nuns that the Prioress kept the common seal in her own custody and performed all business without consulting them. Peckham’s letter to the Abbess of Romsey illustrates the variety of matters which might thus be settled without any reference to the nuns; she had evidently been misusing her power, for he wrote sternly:

Know that thou art not mistress of the common goods, but rather the dispenser and mother of thy community, according to the meaning of the word abbess.... We strictly command thee that thou study to transact all the more important business of the house with the convent. And by the more important business we intend those things which may entail notable expenditure in temporalities or in spiritualities, with which we wish to be included the provision of a steward; we order for the peace of the community, that H. de Chalfhunte, whom thou hast for long kept in the office of steward contrary to the will[Pg 65] of the convent, no longer intermeddle in any way with this or with any other bailiff’s office (bajulatu) of the monastery. Moreover we make the same order concerning John le Frikiere. Let each of them, having accounted for his office before Master Philip our official ... look out for an abode elsewhere. Besides this thou shalt transact all minor business of the church according to the rule with at least twelve of the senior ladies. And because thou hast been wont to do much according to the prompting of thine own will, we adjoin to thee three coadjutresses of laudable testimony, to wit dames Margery de Verdun, Philippa de Stokes and Johanna de Revedoune, without whose counsel and attempt thou shalt not dare attempt anything pertaining to the rule of the convent in temporalities or in spiritualities. And whensoever thou shalt wittingly do the contrary in any important matter, thou shalt know thyself to be on that account suspended from the office of administration. And we mean by an important matter the provision of bailiffs of the manors and internal obedientiaries, the punishment of delinquents, all alienation of goods in gifts or presents, or in any other ways, the sending forth of nuns and the assignment of companions to those going forth, the beginning of lawsuits and all manner of church business. And if it befall that any of the aforesaid three be ill or absent, do thou receive in her stead Dame Leticia de Montegomery or Dame Agnes de Lidyerd, having called into consultation the others according to the number fixed above. And whenever thou shalt happen to fare forth upon the business of the church, thou shalt always take with thee the aforesaid three ladies, whom we have joined with thee as coadjutresses in the rule of the monastery both within and without; and if ever thou goest forth for recreation thou shalt always have with thee two; in such wise that thou shalt in no manner concern thyself to pursue any business without the three[202].

The danger of autocratic government to the convent is obvious; and it is significant that a really bad prioress is nearly always charged with having failed to communicate with her sisters in matters of business, turning all the revenues to any use that she pleased. Moreover the head of a house not only sometimes failed to consult her convent; she constantly also omitted to render an annual account of her expenditure, and by far the most common complaint at visitations was the complaint that the Prioress non reddidit compotum. At Bishop Nykke’s Norwich visitations the charge was made against the heads of Flixton, Crabhouse, Blackborough and Redlingfield[203]. At Bishop[Pg 66] Alnwick’s Lincoln visitations it was made against the heads of Ankerwyke, Catesby, Gracedieu, Harrold, Heynings, St Michael’s Stamford, Stixwould, Studley; at Ankerwyke Dame Clemence Medforde had not accounted since her arrival at the house; at St Michael’s Stamford the Prioress had held office for twelve years and had never done so; at Studley it was said that the last Prioress who ruled for 58 years never once rendered an account during the whole of that period, nor had the present Prioress yet done so, though she had been in office for a year[204]. Sometimes the delinquent gave some excuse to the Bishop; the Prioress of Catesby said she had no clerk to write the account[205]; at Blackborough one of the nuns said that her object had been to avoid the expense of an auditor and another that she gave the convent a verbal report of the state of the house[206]. Sometimes she flatly refused, and the bishop’s repeated injunctions on the subject seem to have been of little avail; the Prioress of Flixton had not rendered account since her installation et dicit quod non vult reddere; she was superseded, but six years later the same complaint was made against her successor and the visitors ordered the latter to amend her ways, sub poena privationis, quia dixit se nolle talem reddere compotum[207]. The bishops always inquired very carefully into the administration of the conventual income and possessions by the head of each house, and invented a variety of devices for controlling her actions[208].

There remains to be considered the third pitfall into which the head of a house was liable to fall. The wise Benedictine rule contained a special warning against favouritism, for indeed human nature cannot avoid preferences and it is the hardest task of a ruler to subdue personal predilections to perfect fairness. The charge of favouritism is a fairly common one in medieval visitations. Alnwick met with an amusing case when he visited Gracedieu in 1440-1. The elder nuns complained that the old prioress did not treat all equally; some of them she favoured and others she treated very rigorously; Dame Philippa Jecke even said that corrections were made so harshly and so fussily[Pg 67] that all charity and all happiness had gone from the house. Moreover there were two young nuns whom she called her disciples and who were always with her; these nuns had many unsuitable conversations, so their sisters thought, with the Prioress’ secular visitors; worse than this, they acted as spies upon the other nuns and told the Prioress about everything that was said and done in the convent, and then the Prioress scolded more severely than ever[209]; but her disciples could do no wrong. These nuns, indeed, were among the most voluble that Alnwick visited, and he must have remarked with a smile that the two disciples were the only ones who answered “Omnia bene”; but he did not intend to let them off without a rebuke.

“Agnes Poutrelle and Isabel Jurdane” runs the note in his Register, “who style themselves the Prioress’s disciples, are thereby the cause of quarrel between her and her sisters, forasmuch as what they hear and see among the nuns they straightway retail to the prioress. They both appeared, and, the article having been laid to their charge, expressly deny it and all things that are contained therein; wherefore they cleared themselves without compurgators; howbeit, that they may not be held suspect hereafter touching these matters or offend herein, they both sware upon the holy gospels of God that henceforth they will discover to the prioress concerning their sisters nothing whereby cause of quarrel or incentive to hatred may be furnished among them, unless they be such matters as may tend to the damage of the prioress’ body or honour”[210].

At two other houses there were complaints against the head; at Legbourne Dame Sibil Papelwyk said that the Prioress was not indifferent in making corrections, but treated some too hardly and others too favourably; and at Heynings Dame Alice Porter said that the Prioress was an accepter of persons in making corrections,

for those whom she loves she passes over lightly, and those whom she holds not in favour she harshly punishes ... and she encourages her secular serving-women, whom she believes more than her sisters,[Pg 68] in their words, to scold the same her sisters, and for this cause quarrels do spring up between her and her sisters[211].

In neither of these cases, however, was the charge corroborated by the evidence of the other nuns. Probably the two malcontents considered themselves to have a grievance against their ruler; at Legbourne Dame Sibil’s complaint that the Prioress would not let her visit a dying parent gives a clue to her annoyance. Another charge sometimes made was that the Prioress gave more credence to the young nuns than to those who were older and wiser[212]. Injunctions that the head of a house was to show no favouritism were often made by visitors. One of Alnwick’s injunctions may stand as representative:

Also we charge yow, prioress, vnder payn of contempte and vndere the peynes writen here benethe, that in your correccions ye be sad, sowbre and indifferent, not cruelle to some and to some fauoryng agayn your rule, but that ye procede and treet your susters moderly, the qualytee and the quantitee of the persons and defautes wythe owten accepcyone of any persone euenly considerede and weyed (Legbourne)[213].

So far the position of a superior has been considered solely from the point of view of internal government, of her power over the convent and of the peculiar temptations by which she was assailed. But the head of a house was an important person, not only in her own community, but also in the circumscribed little world without her gates; though here the degree of importance which she enjoyed naturally varied with the size and wealth of her house. In the middle ages fame and power were largely local matters; roads were bad and news moved slowly and a man might live no further away than the neighbouring town and be a foreigner. The country gentry were not great travellers; occasionally they jaunted up to London, to court, or to parliament or to the law-courts; sometimes they followed the King and his lords to battles over sea or on the Scottish border; but for the most part they stayed at home and died in the bed wherein their mother bore them. The comfortable burgesses of the town travelled[Pg 69] still less; perhaps they betook themselves upon a pilgrimage, “clothed in a liveree of a solempne and greet fraternitee,” and bearing a cook with them, lest they should lack the “chiknes with the marybones,” the “poudre-marchant tart,” the “galingale,” the “mortreux,” the “blankmanger” of their luxurious daily life; but they seldom had the Wife of Bath’s acquaintance with strange streams. And the lesser folk—peasants and artisans—looked across the chequered expanse of the common fields at a horizon, which was in truth a barrier, an impassable line drawn round the edge of the world. The fact that life was lived by the majority of men within such narrow limits gave a preeminent importance to the local magnate; and among the most local of local magnates (since a corporation never moved and never expired and never relaxed the grip of its dead fingers) must be reckoned the heads of the monastic houses. Socially in all cases, and politically when their houses were large and rich, abbots and abbesses, priors and prioresses, ranked among the great folk of the country side. They enjoyed the same prestige as the lords of the neighbouring manors and some extra deference on account of their religion. It was natural that the Prioress of a nunnery should be “holden digne of reverence.” The gentlemen whose estates adjoined her own sent their daughters to her as novices, or (if her house were poor and the Bishop not too strict) as school girls to receive their “nortelrye”; and they did not themselves scorn the discreet entertainment of her guest-chamber and a dinner of capons and wine and gossip at her hospitable board. The artisans and labourers on her land lived by her patronage. All along the muddy highroads the beggars coming to town passed word to each other that there stood a nunnery in the meadows, where they might have scraps left over from the convent meals and perhaps beer and a pair of shoes. The head of a house, indeed, was an important person from many points of view, as a neighbour, as a landlord and as a philanthropist.

The journeys which a prioress was sometimes obliged to take upon the business of the convent offered many occasions of social intercourse with her neighbours. It is, indeed, striking how great a freedom of movement was enjoyed by these cloistered women. There are constant references to journeys in account rolls. When Dame Christian Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de Pré, rode to[Pg 70] London for the suit against her predecessor in the Common Pleas, she was accompanied on one occasion by her priest, a woman and two men; on two other occasions she took four men; and during the whole time that the suit dragged on, she was continually riding about to take counsel with great men or with lawyers and journeying to and fro between St Albans and London. On another occasion the account notes a payment

in expenses for the prioresse and the steward with their servants and for hors hyre and for the wages of them that wente to kepe the courte wyth the prioresse atte Wynge atte two tymes xvjs vd, whereof the stewards fee was that of vjs viijd; item paid to the fermour of Wynge for his expenss ixd[214].

The accounts of St Michael’s Stamford are full of items such as “in the expenses of the Prioress on divers occasions going to the Bishop, with hire of horses 3s.” “in the expenses of the Prioress going to Rockingham about our woods 1s.d.,” “paid for the hire of two horses for the prioress and her expenses going to Liddington to the Bishop for a certificate 2s. 8d.,” “paid for the expenses of the Prioress at Burgh (i.e. Peterborough) for two days 5s. 8d.”; twice the Prioress went very far afield, as usual (it would appear) on legal business, for in 1377-8 there is an entry, “Item for the expenses of the Prioress and her companions at London for a month and more, in all expenses £5. 13s. 4d.” (a large sum, a long distance and a lengthy stay), and in 1409-10 there is another payment “to the Prioress for expenses in London 15s.[215]

In spite of repeated efforts to enforce stricter enclosure upon nuns, it is evident that the head of the house rode about on the business of the convent and overlooked its husbandry in person, even where (as at St Michael’s Stamford) there was a male prior or custos charged with the ordering of its temporal affairs. The general injunction that an abbess was never to leave her house save “for the obvious utility of the monastery or for urgent[Pg 71] necessity”[216] was capable of a very wide interpretation, and it is clear from the evidence of visitations and accounts that it was interpreted to include a great deal of temporal business outside the walls. If a house possessed a male custos the Prioress would have less occasion and less excuse for journeys, though for important affairs her presence was probably always necessary; Bishop Drokensford, appointing a custos to Minchin Barrow, warns the Prioress no longer “to intermeddle with rural business (negociis campestribus) and other secular affairs” but to leave these to the custos and to devote herself to the service of God and to the stricter enforcement of the rule[217]. But in houses where no such official existed the prioress doubtless undertook a certain amount of general estate management. One of Alnwick’s orders to the Prioress of Legbourne in 1440 was “that ye bysylly ouersee your baylly, that your husbandry be sufficyently gouernede to the avayle of your house”[218]; and in the intervals of their long struggle to keep nuns within their cloisters, the Bishops seem to have recognised the necessity for some travel on the part of the heads of houses, and to have facilitated such travel by granting them dispensations to have divine service celebrated wherever they might be. Thus in 1400 the Prioress of Haliwell obtained a licence to hear divine service in her oratory within her mansion of Camberwell, or elsewhere in the diocese, during the next two years[219], and in 1406 the Abbess of Tarrant Keynes was similarly allowed to have the service celebrated for herself and her household anywhere within the city and diocese of Salisbury[220].

It is significant that among the arguments used to oppose Henry VIII’s injunction that monks and nuns should be strictly enclosed (which was, for the nuns, only a repetition of Pope Boniface’s decree of three centuries earlier) was that of the[Pg 72] difficulty of supervising the husbandry of a house, if its head were confined to cloistral precincts.

“Please it you to be advertised,” wrote Cecily Bodenham, the last Abbess of Wilton, to Cromwell in 1535, “that master doctor Leigh, the King’s grace’s special visitor and your deputy in this behalf, visiting of late my house, hath given injunction that not only all my sisters, but I also, should continually keep and abide within the precincts of my house: which commandment I am right well content with in regard of my own person, if your mastership shall think it so expedient; but in consideration of the administration of mine office and specially of this poor house which is in great debt and requireth much reparation and also which without good husbandry is not like, in long season, to come forward, and in consideration that the said husbandry cannot be, by my poor judgment, so well by an other overseen as by mine own person, it may please your mastership of your goodness to license me, being associate with one or two of the sad and discreet sisters of my house, to supervise abroad such things as shall be for the profit and commodity of my house. Which thing though, peradventure, might be done by other, yet I ensure you that none will do it so faithfully for my house’s profit as mine own self. Assuring your mastership that it is not, nor shall be at any time hereafter, my mind to lie forth of my monastery any night, except by inevitable necessity I cannot then return home”[221].

It is, however, very plain that the journeys taken by abbesses and prioresses were not always strictly concerned with the business of their convents, or at least they combined business most adroitly with pleasure. These ladies were of good kin and they took their place naturally in local society, when they left their houses to oversee their husbandry, to interview a bishop or a lawyer about their tithes, or quite openly to visit friends and relatives. They emerged to attend the funerals of great folk; the Prioress of Carrow attended the funeral of John Paston in 1466[222], and Sir Thomas Cumberworth in his will (1451) left the injunction:

I will that Ilke prior and priores that comes to my beryall at yt day hafe iiis iiijd and ilke chanon and Nune xijd ... and Ilke prior and priores that comes to the xxx day (the month’s-mind) hafe vjs viijd and Ilke chanon or none that comes to the said xxx day haf xxd[223].

[Pg 73]Sometimes they attended the deathbeds of relatives; among witnesses to the codicil to the will of Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham, in 1404 was “religiosa femina Domina Johanna Priorissa de Swyna, soror dicti domini episcopi”[224]; and it was not unusual for an abbess or prioress to be made supervisor or executrix of a will[225]. Nor was the sad business of deathbeds the only share taken by these prioresses in public life. Clemence Medforde, Prioress of Ankerwyke, went to a wedding at Bromhale; and unfortunately a sheepfold, a dairy and a good timber granary chose that moment to catch fire and burn down, setting fire also to the smouldering indignation of her nuns; whence many recriminations when the Bishop came on his rounds[226]. Stranger still at times were the matters for which their friends sought their good offices. The aristocratic Isabel de Montfort, Prioress of Easebourne, was one of the ladies by whose oath Margaret de Camoys purged herself on a charge of adultery in 1295[227].

The fact that these ladies were drawn from the wealthy classes and constantly associated on terms of equality with their friends and relatives, sometimes led them to impart a most unmonastic luxury into their own lives. They came from the homes of lords like Sir John Arundel, who lost not only his life but “two and fiftie new sutes of apparell of cloth of gold or tissue,”[Pg 74] when he was drowned off the Irish coast; or Lord Berkeley who travelled with a retinue of twelve knights, twenty-four esquires “of noble family and descent” and a hundred and fifty men-at-arms, in coats of white frieze lined with crimson and embroidered with his badge; or else of country squires and franklins, like the white-bearded gentleman of whom Chaucer says that

To liven in delyt was ever his wone,
For he was Epicurus owne sone,
Withoute bake mete was never his hous,
Of fish and flesh, and that so plentevous
It snewed in his hous of mete and drinke,
Of alle deyntees that men coude thinke;

or else their fathers were wealthy merchants, living in great mansions hung with arras and lighted with glass windows, rich enough to provoke sumptuary laws and to entertain kings. It is perhaps not surprising that abbesses and prioresses should have found it hard to change the way of life, which they had led before they took the veil and which they saw all around them, when they rode about in the world. Carousings, gay garments, pet animals, frivolous amusements, many guests, superfluous servants and frequent escapes to the freedom of the road, are found not only at the greater houses but even at those which were small and poor. The diverting history of the flea and the gout shows that the luxurious abbess was already a byword early in the thirteenth century.

The tale runs as follows:

The lopp (flea) and the gout on a time spake together, and among other talking either of them asked [the] other of their lodging and how they were harboured and where, the night next before. And the flea made a great plaint and said, “I was harboured in the bed of an abbess, betwixt the white sheets upon a soft mattress and there I trowed to have had good harbourage, for her flesh was fat and tender, and thereof I trowed to have had my fill. And first, when I began for to bite her, she began to cry and call on her maidens and when they came, anon they lighted candles and sought me, but I hid me till they were gone. And then I bit her again and she came again and sought me with a light, so that I was fain to leap out of the bed; and all this night I had no rest, but was chased and chevied [‘charrid’] and scarce gat away with my life.” Then answered the gout and said, “I was harboured in a poor woman’s house and anon as I pricked her in her great toe she rose and wetted a great bowl full of clothes and[Pg 75] went with them unto the water and stood therein with me up to her knees; so that, what for cold and for holding in the water, I was nearhand slain.” And then the flea said, “This night will we change our harbourage”; and so they did. And on the morn they met again and then the flea said unto the gout, “This night have I had good harbourage, for the woman that was thine host yesternight was so weary and so irked, that I was sickerly harboured with her and ate of her blood as mickle as I would.” And then answered the gout and said unto the flea: “Thou gavest me good counsel yestereven, for the abbess underneath a gay coverlet, and a soft sheet and a delicate, covered me and nourished me all night. And as soon as I pricked her in her great toe, she wrapped me in furs, and if I hurt her never so ill she let me alone and laid me in the softest part of the bed and troubled me nothing. And therefore as long as she lives I will be harboured with her, for she makes mickle of me.” And then said the flea, “I will be harboured with poor folk as long as I live, for there may I be in good rest and eat my full and nobody let [hinder] me”[228].

The Durham man, William of Stanton, who went down St Patrick’s hole on September 20th, 1409, and was shown the souls in torment there, has much the same tale to tell. He witnessed the trial of a prioress, whose soul had come there for judgment, and

the fendis accusid hir and said that she come to religion for pompe and pride and for to have habundaunce of the worldes riches, and for ese of hir bodi and not for deuocion, mekenesse and lowenesse, as religious men and women owte to do; and the fendes said, “It is wel knowen to god and to al his angels of heven and to men dwellyng in that contree where she dwellid ynne, and all the fendes of hell, that she was more cosluer (sic) in puler [fur] weryng, as of girdelles of siluer and overgilt and ringes on hir fingers, and siluer bokeles and ouergilt on hir shone, esy lieng in nyghtes as it were [a quene] or an emprise in the world, not daynyng hir for to arise to goddis servis[229]; and with all delicate metes and drinkes she was fedde ... and then the bisshop [her judge] enioyned hir to payne enduryng evermore til the day of dome”[230].

Our visitation documents show us many abbesses and prioresses like the gout’s hostess or the tormented lady in St Patrick’s[Pg 76] Purgatory. In the matter of dress the accusations brought against Clemence Medforde, Prioress of Ankerwyke, in 1441, will suffice for an example:

The Prioress wears golden rings exceeding costly with divers precious stones and also girdles silvered and gilded over and silken veils, and she carries her veil too high above her forehead, so that her forehead, being entirely uncovered, can be seen of all, and she wears furs of vair.... Also she wears shifts of cloth of Reynes which costs sixteen pence the ell.... Also she wears kirtles laced with silk and tiring pins of silver and silver gilt and has made all the nuns wear the like.... Also she wears above her veil a cap of estate furred with budge. Item she has round her neck a long cord of silk, hanging below her breast and on it a gold ring with one diamond.

She confessed all except the cloth of Rennes, which she totally denied, but pleaded that she wore fur caps “because of divers infirmities in the head.” Alnwick made an injunction carefully particularising all these sins:

And also that none of yow, the prioresse ne none of the couente, were no vayles of sylke ne no syluere pynnes ne no gyrdles herneysed with syluere or golde, ne no mo rynges on your fyngres then oon, ye that be professed by a bysshope, ne that none of yow vse no lased kyrtels, but butoned or hole be fore, ne that ye vse no lases a bowte your nekkes wythe crucyfixes or rynges hangyng by thame, ne cappes of astate abowe your vayles ... and that ye so atyre your hedes that your vayles come down nyghe to your yene[231].

If anyone doubts the truth of Chaucer’s portrait of a prioress, or its satirical intent, he has only to read that incomparable observer’s words side by side with this injunction of Alnwick:

But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed;
It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe;
For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.
Ful fetis was her cloke, as I was war.
Of smale coral aboute hir arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene;
And ther-on heng a broche of gold ful shene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A
And after, Amor vincit omnia.

Margaret Fairfax of Nunmonkton (1397) and the lady (her name is unknown) who ruled Easebourne in 1441 are other[Pg 77] examples of worldly prioresses; they clearly regarded themselves as the great ladies they were by birth, and behaved like all the other great ladies of the neighbourhood. Margaret Fairfax used divers furs, including even the costly grey fur (gris)—the same with which the sleeves of Chaucer’s monk were “purfiled at the hond”; she wore silken veils and “she frequently kept company with John Munkton and invited him to feasts in her room ... and John Munkton (by whom the convent had for long been scandalised) frequently played at tables” (the fashionable game for ladies, a kind of backgammon) “with the Prioress in her room and served her with drink.” No wonder she had to sell timber in order to procure money[232]. The Prioress of Easebourne was even more frivolous; the nuns complained that the house was in debt to the amount of £40 and this principally owing to her costly expenses:

because she frequently rides abroad and pretends that she does so on the common business of the house, although it is not so, with a train of attendants much too large, and tarries long abroad, and she feasts sumptuously both when abroad and at home, and she is very choice in her dress, so that the fur trimmings of her mantle are worth a hundred shillings,

as great a scandal as Clemence Medforde’s cloth of Rennes at sixteen pence the ell. The Bishop took strong measures to deal with this worldly lady; she was deposed from all administration of the temporal goods of the priory, which administration was committed to “Master Thomas Boleyn and John Lylis, Esquire, until and so long as when the aforesaid house or priory shall be freed from debt.” It was also ordered

that the Prioress with all possible speed shall diminish her excessive household and shall only retain, by the advice and with the assent of the said John and Thomas, a household such as is merely necessary and not more. Also that the Prioress shall convert the fur trimmings, superfluous to her condition and very costly, to the discharge of the debts of the house. Also that if eventually it shall seem expedient to the said Masters Thomas and John at any time, that the Prioress should ride in person for the common business of the house, on such occasions she shall not make a lengthened stay abroad, nor shall she in the interval incur expenses in any way costly beyond what is needful, and thus when despatched to go abroad she must and ought rightly to content herself with four horses only;

[Pg 78]and those perhaps “bothe foul and lene,” like the jade ridden by the Nonnes Preeste when Chaucer met him on the Canterbury road[233].

The charge of gadding about the country side, sometimes (as in the Prioress of Easebourne’s case) with a retinue which better beseemed the worldly rank they had abjured, was one not infrequently made against the heads of nunneries[234]. The Prioress of Stixwould was accused, in 1519, of spending the night too often outside the cloister with her secular friends and the Bishop ordered that in future she should sleep within the monastery, but might keep a private house in the precincts, for her greater refreshment and for receiving visitors[235]. The Prioress of Wroxall was ordered to stay more at home in 1323[236], and in 1303 Bishop Dalderby even found that the Prioress of Greenfield had been absent from her house for two years[237]. Even more frequent was the charge that abbesses and prioresses repaid too lavishly the hospitality which they doubtless received at neighbouring manors. Many abbesses gave that “dyscrete enterteynement,” which Henry VIII’s commissioners so much admired at Catesby[238]; but others entertained too often and too well, in the opinion of their nuns; moreover family affection sometimes led them to make provision for their kinsfolk at the cost of the house. In 1441 one of the nuns of Legbourne deposed that many kinsmen of[Pg 79] the prioress had frequent access to the house, though she did not know whether it was financially burdened by their visits; Alnwick ordered

that ye susteyn none of your kynne or allyaunce wythe the commune godes of the house, wythe owten the hole assent of the more hole parte of the couent, ne that ye suffre your saide kynne or allyaunce hafe suche accesse to your place, where thurghe the howse shall be chargeede[239].

A similar injunction had been made at Chatteris in 1345, where the abbess was warned not to bestow the convent rents and goods unlawfully upon any of her relatives[240]. The charge was, however, most common in later times, when discipline was in all ways relaxed. At Easebourne in 1478 one of the nuns complained “that kinsmen of the prioress very often and for weeks at a time frequent the priory and have many banquets of the best food, while the sisters have them of the worst”[241]. The neighbouring nunnery of Rusper was said in 1521 to be ruinous and “greatly burdened by reason of friends and kinsmen of the lady prioress who continually received hospitality there”[242]; at Studley in 1520 there were complaints that the brother of the prioress and his wife stayed within the monastery, and ten years later it was ordered that no corrody should be given to the prioress’ mother, until more was known of her way of life[243]. At Flixton in the same year one of the nuns asserted that the mother of the prioress had her food at the expense of the house, but whether she paid anything or not was unknown; it appears, however, that she was in charge of the dairy, so that she may have been boarded in return for her services. A characteristic instance is preserved in Bishop Longland’s letter to the Prioress of Nuncoton in 1531, charging her

that frome hensforth ye do nomore burden ne chardge your house with suche a nombre of your kinnesfolks as ye haue in tymes past used. Your good mother it is meate ye haue aboute yow for your comforte and hirs bothe. And oon or ij moo of suche your saddest kynnes folke, whome ye shall thynk mooste conuenyent but passe not.... And that ye give nomore soo lyberally the goods of your monastery as ye haue doon to your brother george thomson and your brodres children, with grasing of catell, occupying your lands,[Pg 80] making of Irneworke to pleugh, and carte, and other like of your stuff and in your forge[244].

Much information about the conduct of abbesses and prioresses may be obtained from a study of episcopal registers, and in particular of visitation documents. An analysis of Bishop Alnwick’s visitations of the diocese of Lincoln (1436-49) gives interesting results. In all but four houses there were few or no complaints against the head. Sometimes it was said that she failed to dine in the frater or to sleep in the dorter, sometimes that she was a poor financier, and in two cases the charge of favouritism was made; but the complaints at these sixteen houses were, on the whole, insignificant. The four remaining heads were unsatisfactory. The Prioress of St Michael’s Stamford was so incompetent (owing to bodily weakness) that she took little part in the common life of the house and regularly stayed away from the choir, dined and slept by herself, though the Bishop refused to give her a dispensation to do so. The administration of the temporalities of the house was committed by Alnwick to two of the nuns, but when he came back two years later one of these had had a child and the other was unpopular on account of her autocratic behaviour. The moral condition of the house (one nun was in apostasy with a man in 1440, and in 1442 and 1445 two nuns were found to have borne children) must in part be set down to the lack of a competent head[245]. The Prioress of Gracedieu was also old and incompetent; her subprioress deposed that

by reason of old age and incapacity the prioress has renounced for herself all governance of matters temporal, nor does she take part in divine service, so that she is of no use; but if she makes any corrections, she makes them with words of chiding and abuse.... She makes the secrets of their religious life common among the secular folk that sit at table with her ... and under her religious discipline almost altogether is at an end.

Other nuns gave similar evidence and all complained of her favouritism for two young nuns, whom she called her disciples. Here, as at St Michael’s Stamford, the autocratic behaviour of the nun who was in charge of the temporalities had aroused the resentment of her sisters and the whole convent was evidently seething with quarrels[246]. The Prioress of Ankerwyke, Clemence[Pg 81] Medforde, was equally unpopular with her nuns. The ringleader against her was a certain Dame Margery Kirkby, who poured out a flood of complaints when Alnwick came to the house. The chief charge against her was that of financial mismanagement. She was obliged to admit that she received, paid and administered everything without consulting the convent, keeping the common seal in her own custody all the year round and never rendering account. She was also said to have allowed the sheepfold, dairy and granary to be burned down owing to her carelessness, one result of which was that all the grain had to stand in the church. She had alienated the plate and psalters of the house, having lent three of the latter and pawned a chalice; another chalice and a thurible had been broken up to make a drinking cup, but, as she had been unable to pay the sum demanded, the pieces remained in the hands of a monk, who had undertaken to get the work done. She was charged with having alienated timber in large quantities and with having cut down trees at the wrong time of year, so that no new wood grew again; but she denied this accusation. Another charge made against her by Margery Kirkby, that of wearing jewels and rich clothes, has already been described; she admitted it and the fault was the more grave in that she omitted to provide suitable clothes for the nuns, who went about in rags. It was also complained that she behaved with undue severity to her sisters; she made difficulties about giving them licence to see their friends; and she had a most trying habit of coming late to the services, and then making the nuns begin all over again. It is obvious that she was greatly disliked by the convent, perhaps because she was a stranger in their midst, having been imported from Bromhale to be Prioress; she evidently sought relief from the black looks of her sisters by visiting her old home, for she was away at a wedding in Bromhale when the farm buildings caught fire, and one of the missing psalters had been lent to the prioress of that place. Her régime at Ankerwyke had been fraught with ill results to the convent, for no less than six nuns had (without her knowledge, so she said) gone into apostasy; perhaps to escape from her too rigorous sway. Nevertheless one cannot help feeling that Margery Kirkby may have been a difficult person to live with; the Prioress complained[Pg 82] that the nuns were often very easily moved against her and that Dame Margery had called her a thief to her face; and though it may have been conducive to economy that the triumphant accuser (elected by the convent) should share with the Prioress the custody of the common seal, it can hardly have been conducive to harmony[247]. At any rate poor luxury-loving Clemence died in the following year and Margery Kirkby ruled in her stead[248].

But the most serious misdemeanours of all were brought to light when Alnwick visited Catesby in 1442[249]. Here the bad example of the Prioress, Margaret Wavere, seems to have contaminated the nuns, for all of them were in constant communication with seculars and one of them had given birth to a child. The Prioress’ complaint that she dared not punish this offender is easily intelligible in the light of her own evil life. The most serious charge against her was that she was unduly intimate with a priest named William Taylour, who constantly visited the nunnery and with whom she had been accustomed to go into the gardens in the village of Catesby; and one of the younger nuns had surprised the two in flagrante delicto. She was a woman of violent temper; two nuns deposed that when she was moved to anger against any of them she would tear off their veils and drag them about by the hair, calling them beggars and harlots[250], and this in the very choir of the church; if they committed any fault she scolded and upbraided them and would not cease before seculars or during divine service; “she is very cruel and severe to the nuns and loves them not,” said one; “she is so harsh and impetuous that there is no pleasing her,” sighed another; “she sows discord among the sisters,” complained a third, “saying so-and-so said such-and-such a thing about thee, if the one to whom she speaks has transgressed.” More serious still, from the visitor’s point of view, were the threats by which she sought to prevent the nuns from revealing [Pg 83]anything at the visitation; two of them declared that she had beaten and imprisoned those who gave evidence when Bishop Gray came to the house, and sister Isabel Benet whispered that the Prioress had boasted of having bribed the bishop’s clerk with a purse of money, to reveal everything that the nuns had said on that occasion. Her practice of compelling the nuns to perform manual labour was greatly resented—why should they

Swinken with hir handes and laboure
As Austin bit? How shal the world be served?
Lat Austin have his swink to him reserved.

It appeared, however, that they were anxious to

studie and make hemselven wood
Upon a book in cloistre alwey to poure,

or so they informed Alnwick. One Agnes Halewey complained that, though she was young and wished to be instructed in her religion and such matters, the Prioress set her to make beds and to sew and spin; another sister declared that when guests came the Prioress sent the young nuns to make up their beds, which was “full of danger and a scandal to the house”[251]; another deposed that the choir was not properly observed, because the Prioress was wont to employ the younger nuns upon her own business. There were also the usual charges of financial mismanagement and of wasting the goods of the convent; she had let buildings fall to ruin for want of repair and two sheepfolds had stood roofless for two whole years, so that the wood rotted and the lambs died of the damp. Whereas thirteen years ago, when she became prioress, the house was worth £60 a year, now it was worth a bare £50 and was in debt, owing to the bad rule[Pg 84] of the Prioress and of William Taylour, and this in spite of the fact that she had on her entry received from Joan Catesby a sack and a half of wool and twelve marks, with which to pay debts and make repairs. She had cut down woods. She had pawned a sacramental cup and other silver pieces; the tablecloths “fit for a king” (mappalia conueniencia pro seruiendo regi), and the set of a dozen silver spoons which she had found at the priory, all had vanished away. She had not provided the nuns with clothes and money for their food for three quarters of the year, and she never rendered an account to them. Moreover all things in the house were ordered by her mother and by a certain Joan Coleworthe, who kept the keys of all the offices; and both the Prioress and her mother revealed the secrets of the chapter to people in the village. Examined upon these separate counts, the Prioress denied the majority of them; she said that she had not been cruel to the nuns or laid violent hands upon them, or called them liars and harlots or sowed discord among them; that she had not set them to make beds or to do other work; that she had never punished the nuns for giving evidence at the last visitation or bribed the Bishop’s clerk; that she had never allowed her mother and Joan to rule everything; and that she had never revealed the secrets of the chapter; on the contrary those secrets were spread abroad by the secular visitors of the nuns. She admitted her failure to render account, and gave as a reason that she had no clerk to write it for her; she said that she had pawned the cup with the consent of the convent, in order to pay tithes, and that she had cut down trees for the use of the house, partly with and partly without the consent of the house; as to the ruinous buildings, she said that some had been repaired and some not, and as to the outside debts she professed herself ready to render an account. The most serious charge of all, concerning William Taylour, she entirely denied. The Bishop thereupon gave her the next day to purge herself with four of her sisters for the things which she denied; but she was unable to produce any compurgatresses[252] and Alnwick accordingly found her guilty and obliged her to abjure all intercourse with Taylour in the future.

It might be imagined that such a case as that of Margaret[Pg 85] Wavere was in the highest degree exceptional, likely to occur but once in a century. Unfortunately it appears to have occurred far more often. In the fifty years, between 1395 and 1445, Margaret Wavere can be matched, in different parts of the country, by no less than six other prioresses guilty of immorality and bad government; and it must be realised that this is probably an understatement, because so much evidence has been destroyed, or is as yet unexplored in episcopal registries. Of these cases two belong to the diocese of York, one (besides the case of Margaret Wavere) to the diocese of Lincoln, one to the diocese of Salisbury, one to the diocese of Winchester and one to the diocese of Norwich. Fully as bad a woman as Margaret Wavere was Eleanor, prioress of Arden, a little Yorkshire house which contained seven nuns, when it was visited by Master John de Suthwell in 1396 (during the vacancy of the see of York)[253]. The nuns were unanimous and bitter in their complaints. The Prioress kept the convent seal in her possession, sometimes for a year at a time, and did everything according to her own will without consulting her sisters. She sold woods and trees and disposed of the money as she would, and all rents were similarly received and expended by her. When she assumed office the house was in good condition, owing some five marks only, but now it owed great sums to divers people, amounting to over £16 in the detailed list given by the nuns[254], and this in spite of the fact that she had received many alms and gifts during her year of office—£18. 13s. 4d. in all; indeed the two marks which had been given her by Henry Arden’s executors that the convent might pray for his soul, had been concealed by her from the nuns, “to the deception of the said Henry’s soul, as it appeared to them.” She had pawned the goods of the house, at one time a piece of silver with a cover and a maser worth 40s., at another time a second maser and the Prioress’ seal of office itself, for which she got 5s.; even the sacred vestments were not safe in her rapacious hands and a new suit was pawned, with the result[Pg 86] that it was soiled and worn and not yet consecrated. The walls and roof of the church and dorter and the rest of the house were in ruins; there were no waxen candles round the altar, no lights for matins or for the other canonical hours, no Paschal candles; when she first took office she found ten pairs of sheets of good linen cloth (cloth of “lake” and “inglyschclath,” to wit) and now they were worn out and in all her time not one new pair had been made; the nuns had only two sacred albs and one of them had been turned to secular uses, viz. to “bultyng mele,” and on several occasions had been found on the beds of laymen in the stable. The allowances of bread and beer due to the nuns were inadequately and unpunctually paid; sometimes she would withdraw them altogether and the sisters would be reduced to drinking water[255]. She was not even a good bargainer, for by her negligence a bushel of corn was bought by an agreement for 11d., when it could have been had in the public market for 9d., 8d. or 7d. Domineering she was, too, and sent three young nuns out haymaking, so that they did not get back before nightfall and divine service could not be said until then; and she provoked secular boys and laymen to chatter in the cloister and church in contempt of the nuns. There were graver charges against her in connection with a certain married man, John Bever, with whom she was wont to go abroad, resting in the same house by night; and once they lay alone within the priory, in the Prioress’ chamber by night; and during the whole summer she slept alone in her principal room outside the dorter and was much suspected on account of John Bever. It will be noticed that this case presents many points of similarity with that of Margaret Wavere, the chief difference being that at Arden the Prioress alone seems to have been in grave fault; she made no accusation against her nuns, save that they talked in the choir and in the offices and that the sacrist was negligent about ringing the bell for divine service. Nor had they anything to say against each other. The other Yorkshire case came to light in 1444, when Archbishop Kemp stated that at his visitation of the Priory of Wykeham very grave defaults and crimes had been detected against the[Pg 87] Prioress, Isabella Westirdale, “who after she had been raised to that office had been guilty of incontinence with many men, both within and outside the monastery”; she was deprived and sent to do penance at Nunappleton.

After the case of Eleanor of Arden the next scandal concerning a prioress was discovered in 1404 at Bromhale in Berkshire. The nuns complained in that year to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Prioress Juliana had for twenty years led an exceedingly dissolute life and of her own temerity and without their consent had usurped the rule of Prioress, in which position she had wasted, alienated, consumed and turned to her own nefarious uses the chalices, books, jewels, rents and other property of the house[256]. The next year an even more serious case occurred at Wintney in Hampshire, if the charges contained in a papal commission of 1405 were true[257]. The Archdeacon of Taunton and a canon of Wells were empowered to visit the house:

the Pope having heard that Alice, who has been Prioress for about twenty years, has so dilapidated its goods, from which the Prioress for the time being is wont to administer to the nuns their food and clothing, that it is 200 marks in debt; that she specially cherishes two immodest nuns one of whom, her own (suam) sister, had apostatized and left the monastery and, remaining in the world, had had children, the other like the first in evil life and lewdness but not an apostate, and feeds and clothes them splendidly, whilst she feeds the other honest nuns meanly and for several years past has not provided them with clothing; that she has long kept and keeps Thomas Ferring, a secular priest, as companion at board and in bed (in commensalem et sibi contubernalem), who has long slept and still sleeps, contrary to the institutes of the order, within the monastery, beneath the dorter, in a certain chamber (domo), in which formerly no secular had ever been wont to sleep and in which the said priest and Alice meet together at will by day and night, to satisfy their lust (pro explenda libidine), on account of which and other enormous and scandalous crimes, which Alice has committed and still commits, there is grave and public scandal against her in those parts, to the great detriment of the monastery.

If these things were found to be true the commissioners were ordered to deprive the Prioress. In 1427 there occurred another very serious case of misconduct in a Prioress, which (as at Catesby) seems to have tainted the whole flock and is a still further illustration of the fact that a bad prioress often meant[Pg 88] an ill-conducted house. By her own admission Isabel Hermyte, Prioress of Redlingfield in Suffolk, had never been to confession nor observed Sundays and principal double feasts since the last visitation, two years before. She and Joan Tates, a novice, had not slept in the dorter with the other nuns, but in a private chamber. She had laid violent hands on Agnes Brakle on St Luke’s day; and she had been alone with Thomas Langeland, bailiff, in private and suspicious places, to wit in a small hall with closed windows “and sub heggerowes.” Nor was the material condition of the house safer in her hands. There were only nine nuns instead of the statutory number of thirteen and only one chaplain instead of three; no annual account had been rendered, obits had been neglected, goods alienated and trees cut down without the knowledge and consent of the convent. Altogether she confessed that she was neither religious nor honest in conversation and the effect of her conduct upon her charges was only too apparent, for the novice Joan Tates confessed to incontinence and asserted that it had been provoked by the bad example of the Prioress. The result of this exposure was the voluntary resignation of the guilty woman, in order to save a scandal, and her banishment to the priory of Wix; the whole convent was ordered to fast on bread and beer on Fridays, and Joan Tates was to go in front of the solemn procession of the convent on the following Sunday, wearing no veil and clad in white flannel[258].

[Pg 89]It is the darker side of convent life that these ancient scandals call up before our eyes. The system produced its saints as well as its sinners; we have only to remember the German nunnery of Helfta to be sure of that. The English nunneries of the later middle ages produced no great mystics, but there have come down to us word-pictures of at least two heads of houses worthy to rank with the best abbesses of any age; not women of genius, but good, competent housewives, careful in all things of the welfare of their nuns, practical as well as pious. The famous description of the Abbess Euphemia of Wherwell (1226-57) is too well-known to be quoted here in full[259]:

“It is most fitting,” says her convent chartulary, “that we should always perpetuate the memory, in our special prayers and suffrages, of one who ever worked for the glory of God, and for the weal of both our souls and bodies. For she increased the number of the Lord’s handmaids in this monastery from forty to eighty, to the exaltation of the worship of God. To her sisters, both in health and sickness, she administered the necessaries of life with piety, prudence, care and honesty. She also increased the sum allowed for garments by 12d. each. The example of her holy conversation and charity, in conjunction with her pious exhortations and regular discipline, caused each one to know how, in the words of the Apostle, to possess her vessel in sanctification and honour. She also, with maternal piety and careful forethought, built, for the use of both sick and sound, a new and large farmery away from the main buildings and in conjunction with it a dorter and other necessary offices. Beneath the farmery she constructed a watercourse, through which a stream flowed with sufficient force to carry off all refuse that might corrupt the air. Moreover she built there a place set apart for the refreshment of the soul, namely a chapel of the Blessed Virgin, which was erected outside the cloister behind the farmery. With the chapel she enclosed a large place, which was adorned on the north side with pleasant vines and trees. On the other side, by the river bank, she built offices for various uses, a space being left in the centre, where the nuns are able from time to time to enjoy the pure air. In these and in other numberless ways, the blessed mother Euphemia provided for the worship of God and the welfare of her sisters.”

Nor was she less prudent in ruling secular business: “she also so conducted herself with regard to exterior affairs,” says the admiring chronicler, “that she seemed to have the spirit of a[Pg 90] man rather than of a woman.” She levelled the court of the abbey manor and built a new hall, and round the walled court “she made gardens and vineyards and shrubberies in places that were formerly useless and barren and which now became both serviceable and pleasant”; she repaired the manor-houses at Tufton and at Middleton; when the bell tower of the dorter fell down, she built a new one “of commanding height and of exquisite workmanship”; and one of the last acts of her life was to take down the unsteady old presbytery and to lay with her own hands, “having invoked the grace of the Holy Spirit, with prayers and tears,” the foundation stone of a new building, which she lived to see completed:

These and other innumerable works our good superior Euphemia performed for the advantage of the house, but she was none the less zealous in works of charity, gladly and freely exercising hospitality, so that she and her daughters might find favour with One Whom Lot and Abraham and others have pleased by the grace of hospitality. Moreover, because she greatly loved to honour duly the House of God and the place where His glory dwells, she adorned the church with crosses, reliquaries, precious stones, vestments and books.

Finally, she “who had devoted herself when amongst us to the service of His house and the habitation of His glory, found the due reward for her merits with our Lord Jesus Christ,” and died amid the blessings of her sisters.

Less famous is the name of another mighty builder, who ruled, some two centuries later, the little Augustinian nunnery of Crabhouse in Norfolk[260]. Joan Wiggenhall was (as has already been pointed out) a lady of good family and had influential friends; she was installed as Prioress in 1420, and began to build at once. In her first year she demolished a tumble-down old barn and caused it to be remade; this cost £45. 9s. 6d., irrespective of the timber cut upon the estate and of the tiles from the old barn, but the friends of the house helped and Sir John Ingoldesthorpe gave £20 “to his dyinge,” and the Archdeacon of Lincoln 10 marks. Cheered by this, the Prioress continued her operations; in her second year she persuaded the[Pg 91] Prior of Shouldham to co-operate with her in roofing the chancel of Wiggenhall St Peter’s, towards which she paid 20 marks, and she also made the north end of her own chamber for 10 marks, and in her third year she walled the chancel of St Peter’s and completed the south end of her chamber. Then she began the great work of her life, the church of the nunnery itself, and for three years this was the chief topic of conversation in all the villages round, and the favourite charity of all her neighbours:

“Also in the iiij yere of the same Jone Prioresse,” runs the account in Crabhouse Register, “Ffor myschefe that was on the chyrche whiche myght not be reparid but if it were newe maid, with the counseyle of here frendys dide it take downe, trostynge to the helpe of oure Lorde and to the grete charite of goode cristen men and so with helpe of the persone before seyde (her cousin, Edmund Perys, the parson of Watlington) and other goode frendes as schal be shewyd aftyrward, be the steringe of oure Lorde and procuringe of the person forseyde sche wrowght there upon iij yere and more contynuali and made it, blessyd be God, whiche chirche cost cccc mark, whereof William Harald that lithe in the chapel of Our Lady payde for the ledynge of the chirch vij skore mark. And xl li. payede we for the roofe, the whiche xl li. we hadde of Richard Steynour, Cytesen of Norwiche, and more hadde we nought of the good whiche he bequeathe us on his ded-bedde in the same Cyte, a worthly place clepyd Tomlonde whiche was with holde fro us be untrewe man his seketoures. God for his mekyl mercy of the wronge make the ryghte.”

The indignant complaint of the nuns, balked of their “worthly place clepyd Tomlonde,” is very typical; there was always an executor in hell as the middle ages pictured it, and a popular proverb affirmed that “too secuturs and an overseere make thre theves”[261]. In this case, however, other friends were ready to make up for the deficiencies of those untrue men:

And the stallis with the reredose, the person beforeseyde payde fore xx pounde of his owne goode. And xxvi mark for ij antiphoneres whiche liggen in the queer. And xx li. Jon Lawson gaf to the chirche. And xx mark we hadde for the soule of Jon Watson. And xx mark for the soule of Stevyn York to the werkys of the chirche and to other[Pg 92] werkys doon before. And xxi mark of the gylde of the Trinite which Neybores helde in this same chirche. The glasynge of the chirche, the scripture maketh mencyon; onli God be worshipped and rewarde to all cristen soules.

After the death of the good parson of Watlington, another cousin of the Prioress, Dr John Wiggenhall, came to her aid, and in her ninth year, she set to work once more upon the church, and she

arayed up the chirche and the quere, that is for to seye, set up the ymagis and pathed the chirche and the quere, and stolid it and made doris, which cost x pownde, the veyl of the chirche with the auterclothis in sute cost xls.[262]

During the building of the church the Prioress had not neglected other smaller works and a long chamber on the east side of the hall was built; but it was not until her tenth year, when the building and “arraying” of the church was finished, that she had time and money to do much; then she made some necessary repairs to the barn at St Peter’s and built a new malt-house, which cost ten marks. In her twelfth year “for mischeef that was on the halle she toke it downe and made it agen”; but alas, on the Tuesday next after Hallowmas 1432, a fire broke[Pg 93] out and burned down the new malt-house, and another malt-house with a solar above, full of malt. This misfortune (so common in the middle ages) only put new heart into Joan Wiggenhall:

thanne the same prioresse in here xiij yere with the grace of owre Lord God and with the helpe of mayster Johnne Wygenale beforseyd, and with helpe of good cristen men which us relevid made a malthouse with a Doffcote, that now ovyr the Kylne, whiche house is more than eyther of thoo that brent. And was in the werkynge fulli ij yere tyl her xiiij yere were passyd out, which cost l pounde. Also the same prioresse in her xv yere, sche repared the bakhous an inheyned [heightened] it and new lyngthde it, which cost x marc. And in the same yere she heyned the stepul and new rofyd it and leyde therupon a fodyr of led whiche led, freston, tymbur and werkmanshipe cost x pounde. Also in the same yere sche made the cloystir on the Northe syde and slattyd it, and the wal be the stepul, which cost viij li.

Then she began her greatest work, after the building of the church:

Also in the xvj yere of the occupacion of the same prioresse (1435) the dortoure that than was, as fer forthe as we knowe, the furste that was set up on the place, was at so grete mischeef and at the gate-downe [falling down], the Prioresse dredyinge perisschyng of her sistres whiche lay thereinne took it downe for drede of more harmys and no more was doon thereto that yere, but a mason he wande[263] with hise prentise, and in that same yere the same prioresse made the litil soler on the sowthe ende of here chaumber stondyng in to the paradise, and the wal stondinge on the weste syde of the halle, with the lityl chaumber stondynge on the southe syde, and the Myllehouse with alle the small houses dependynge there upon, the Carthouse, and the Torfehouse, and ij of stabulys and a Beerne stondynge at a tenauntry of oure on the Southe syde of Nycolas Martyn. Alle these werkys of this yere with the repare drewe iiij skore mark. In the xvij yere of the same Prioresse, be the help of God and of goode cristen men sche began the grounde of the same dortoure that now stondith, and wrought thereupon fulli vij yere betymes as God wolde sende hir good.

In the twenty-fourth year of her reign Joan Wiggenhall saw the last stone laid in its place and the last plank nailed. The future was hid from her happy eyes; she could not foresee the day, scarcely a century later, when the walls she had reared so carefully should stand empty and forlorn, and the molten lead of the roof should be sold by impious men. She must have said[Pg 94] with Solomon, as she looked upon her great church, “I have surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in for ever”; and no flash of tragic prescience showed her the sheep feeding peacefully over the spot where its “heyned stepul” pointed to the sky. In 1451 she departed to the heaven she knew best, a house of many mansions; and her nuns, who for four and twenty years had lived a proud but uncomfortable life in clouds of sawdust and unending noise, buried her (one hopes) under a seemly brass in her church.

The mind preserves a pleasant picture of Euphemia of Wherwell and of Joan Wiggenhall, when Margaret Wavere, Eleanor of Arden, Isabel Hermyte and the rest are only dark memories, not willingly recalled. Which is as it should be. The typical prioress of the middle ages, however, was neither Euphemia nor Margaret. As one sees her, after wading through some hundred and fifty visitation reports or injunctions, she was a well-meaning lady, doing her best to make two ends of an inadequate income meet, but not always provident; ready for a round sum in hand to make leases, sell corrodies, cut down woods and to burden her successor as her predecessor had burdened her. She found it difficult to carry out the democratic ideal of convent life in consulting her sisters upon matters of business; she knew, like all rulers, the temptation to be an autocrat; it was so much quicker and easier to do things herself: “What, shulde the yong nunnes gyfe voices? Tushe, they shulde not gyfe voices!” So she kept the common seal and hardly ever rendered an account. She found that her position gave her the opportunity to escape sometimes from that common life, which is so trying to the temper; and she did not always keep the dorter and the frater as she should. She was rarely vicious, but nearly always worldly; she could not resist silks and furs, little dogs such as the ladies who came to stay in her guest-room cherished, and frequent visits to her friends. When she was a strong character the condition of her house bore witness, for good or evil, to her strength; when she was weak disorder was sure to follow. Very often she won a contented “omnia bene” from her nuns, when the Bishop came; at other times, she said that they were disobedient and they said that she was harsh, or impotent, or addicted to favourites. In the end it is to Chaucer[Pg 95] that we turn for her picture; as the Bishops found her, so he saw her, aristocratic, tender-hearted, worldly, taking pains to “countrefete chere of court,” smiling “ful simple and coy” above her well-pinched wimple; a lady of importance, attended by a nun and three priests, spoken to with respect and reverence by the not too mealy-mouthed host (no “by Corpus Dominus,” or “cokkes bones,” or “tel on a devel wey!” for her, but “cometh neer my lady prioresse,” and “my lady prioresse, by your leve”); clearly enjoying a night at the Tabard and some unseemly stories on the road (though her own tale was exquisite and fitting to her state). Religious? perhaps; but save for her singing the divine service “entuned in her nose ful semely” and for her lovely address to the Virgin, Chaucer can find but little to say on the point:

But for to speken of hir conscience
She was so charitable and so pitous—

that she would weep over a mouse in a trap or a beaten puppy! For charity and pity we must go to the poor Parson, not to friar or monk or nun. A good ruler of her house? doubtless; but when Chaucer met her the house was ruling itself somewhere at the “shires ende.” The world was full of fish out of water in the fourteenth century, and, by sëynt Loy, Madame Eglentyne (like Dan Piers) held a certain famous text “nat worth an oistre.” So we take our leave of her—characteristically, on the road to Canterbury.



[Pg 96]



Tomorrows shall be as yesterdays;
And so for ever! saints enough
Has Holy Church for priests to praise;
But the chief of saints for workday stuff
Afield or at board is good Saint Use,
Withal his service is rank and rough;
Nor hath he altar nor altar-dues,
Nor boy with bell, nor psalmodies,
Nor folk on benches, nor family pews.
Maurice Hewlett, The Song of the Plow.


In many ways the most valuable general account of monastic property at the close of the middle ages is to be found in the great Valor Ecclesiasticus, a survey of all the property of the church, compiled in 1535 for the assessment of the tenth lately appropriated by the King[264]. It is true that only 100 out of the 126 nunneries then in existence are described with any detail and that the amount of detail given varies very much for different localities. Nevertheless the record is of the highest importance, for in order to assess the tax the gross income of each house is given (often with the sources from which it is drawn,[Pg 97] classified as temporalities and spiritualities) and the net income, on which the tenth was assessed, is obtained by subtracting from the gross income all the necessary charges upon the house, payments of synodals and procurations, rents due to superior lords, alms and obits which had to be maintained under the will of benefactors, and the fees of the regular receivers, bailiffs, auditors and stewards.

Such a survey as the Valor Ecclesiasticus, though valuable, could not by its nature give more than the most general indication of the main classes of receipts and expenditure of the nunneries. The accounts kept by the nuns themselves, on the other hand, are a mine of detailed information on these subjects. Every convent was supposed to draw up an annual balance sheet, to be read before the nuns assembled in chapter, and though it was a constant source of complaint against the head of a house that she failed to do so, nevertheless enough rolls have survived to make it clear that the practice was common. Indeed it would have been impossible to run a community for long without keeping accounts. The finest set of these rolls which has survived from a medieval nunnery is that of St Michael’s Stamford, in Northamptonshire[265]. There are twenty-four rolls, beginning with one for the year 32-3 Edward I, and ranging over the greater part of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A study of them enables the material life of the convent for two centuries to be reconstructed and gives a vivid picture of its difficulties, for though the nuns only once ended the year without a deficit and a list of debts, yet the debts owed by various creditors to them were often larger than those which they owed.

A very good series also exists for St Mary de Pré, near St Albans, kept by the wardens 1341-57 and by the Prioress 1461-93[266]; and there is in the Record Office a valuable little book of accounts kept by the treasuresses of Gracedieu (Belton) during the years 1414-18, which has been made familiar to many readers by the use made of it by Cardinal Gasquet in English Monastic[Pg 98] Life[267]. Very full and interesting accounts have also survived from St Radegund’s Cambridge (1449-51, 1481-2)[268], Catesby (1414-45)[269] and Swaffham Bulbeck (1483-4)[270]. These are all prioresses’ or treasuresses’ accounts of the total expenditure of the different houses; but there are in existence also a few obedientiaries’ accounts, chambresses’ accounts from St Michael’s Stamford and Syon and cellaresses’ accounts from Syon[271]. An analysis of these accounts shows, better than any other means of information, the various sources from which a medieval nunnery drew its income, and the chief classes of expenditure which it had to meet. It will therefore be illuminating to consider in turn the credit and debit side of a monastic balance sheet.

It is perhaps unnecessary to postulate that since monastic houses differed greatly in size and wealth, the sources of their income would differ accordingly. A very poor house might be dependent upon the rents and produce of one small manor; a large house sometimes had estates all over England. The entire income of Rothwell in Northamptonshire was derived from one appropriated rectory, valued in the Valor at £10. 10s. 4d. gross and at £5. 19s. 8d. net per annum[272]. The Black Ladies of Brewood (Staffs.) had an income of £11. 1s. 6d. derived from demesne in hand, rents and alms[273]. On the other hand Dartford in Kent held lands in Kent, Surrey, Norfolk, Suffolk, Wiltshire, Wales and London[274], the Minoresses without Aldgate held property in London, Hertfordshire, Kent, Berkshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Norfolk and the Isle of Wight[275]. The splendid Abbey of Syon held land as far afield as Lancashire and Cornwall, scattered over twelve counties[276]. Similarly the proportionate income derived from house-rents and land-rents would differ with the geographical situation of the nunnery. London convents, for instance, would draw a large[Pg 99] income from streets of houses, whereas a house in the distant dales of Yorkshire would be dependent upon agriculture. At the time of the Valor twenty-two nunneries were holding urban tenements in fifteen towns, amounting in total value to £1076. 0s. 7d., but of this sum £969. 11s. 10d. was held by the seven houses in London[277]. With this proviso the conclusion may be laid down that the money derived from the possession of agricultural land, and in particular the rents paid by tenants in freehold, copyhold, customary and leasehold land, was the mainstay of the income paid into the hands of the treasuress.

A word may perhaps be said as to the method by which the nuns administered their estates. Miss Jacka distinguishes two main types of administration, discernible in the Valor:

The London houses, except Syon and a number, chiefly, of the smaller nunneries scattered throughout the country, had a single staff of officials, steward, bailiff, auditor, receiver; their revenues were drawn from scattered rents and other profits rather than from entire manors. There seem to have been about forty houses of this type in addition to the London houses. The second group comprises the great country nunneries in the south of England, including Syon and a number of smaller houses whose revenues were reckoned under the headings of various manors each managed by its own bailiff.... The staff of Syon may be taken as an unusually complete and elaborate example of the usual system, whose principle appears worked out on a smaller scale, in the case of smaller nunneries. The nuns had in the first place what may be called a central staff, a steward at £3. 6s. 8d., a steward of the hospice at £23. 15s. 4d., a general receiver at £19. 13s. 4d. and an auditor at £8. 3s. 4d. Their lands in Middlesex were managed by their steward of Isleworth, Lord Wyndesore, whose fee was £3, a steward of courts at £1 and a bailiff at £2. 13s. 4d., who had a separate fee of 13s. 4d. as bailiff of the chapel of the Angels at Brentford. Their extensive possessions in Sussex were managed by a receiver and a steward of courts for the whole county, whose fees were £3 and £2 respectively, by four stewards for various districts with fees from £1. 6s. 8d. down to 13s. 4d. and by 13 bailiffs arranged under the stewards, of whom one received £2. 3s. 4d. and the rest from £1 to 6s. 8d. Their one manor in Cambridgeshire was managed by a steward at 13s. 4d. and a bailiff at £1. With the central staff was reckoned a receiver for Somerset, Dorset and Devon, whose fee was £6. 13s. 4d.; the ladies held no temporalities in Somerset; in Dorset they had a chief steward, £1. 6s. 8d., a steward of courts, 6s. 8d., and a bailiff, 11s., and their large possessions in Devon were managed by two stewards (£2. 13s. 4d.), two stewards of courts (13s. 4d., 6s. 8d.), six[Pg 100] bailiffs, with fees ranging from 4s. to £2 and an auditor, 3s. 4d. They received £100 a year from unspecified holdings in Lancashire and had there a steward of courts at £1. Their possessions in Lincolnshire were mainly spiritual, but they employed a receiver, whose fee was 13s. 4d. In Gloucestershire they had large possessions. The two chief stewards of Cheltenham received each £3. 6s. 8d. and the chief steward of Minchinhampton £2. Two stewards of courts each received £1. 6s. 8d. and the two stewards at Slaughter £1. Three bailiffs received £2. 13s. 4d., £2 and 13s. 4d., with livery. A bailiff and receiver of profits arising from the sale of woods was paid £4 and the steward of the abbot of Cirencester was paid 6s. 8d. for holding the abbess’ view of frankpledge. In Wiltshire the nuns held a manor and a rectory and paid £1 to a steward for both: they seem to have been leased. In counties where all their possessions were spiritual they had no local officials; in Somerset both the rectories they held were leased and in Kent, although that is not stated, it is suggested by the round sums which were received (£26. 13s. 4d., £10, £20). The leasing of property for a fixed sum of course made the administration of it very much simpler. All the temporalities of the Minoresses without Aldgate were leased and their staff consisted of a chief steward, Lord Wyndesore, whose fee was £2. 13s. 4d., a receiver at £4. 5s. 10d. and an auditor at 13s. 4d.[278]

A closer analysis of the chief sources of income of a medieval nunnery, as they may be distinguished in the Valor and in various account rolls, is now possible. They may be classified as follows: Temporalities, comprising: (1) rents from lands and houses, (2) perquisites of courts, fairs, mills, woods and other manorial perquisites, (3) issues of the manor, i.e. sale of farm produce, (4) miscellaneous payments from boarders, gifts, etc.; and Spiritualities, comprising (5) tithes from appropriated benefices, alms, mortuaries, etc. The distinction between temporalities and spiritualities is a technical one and there was sometimes little difference between the sources of the two kinds of income, but the temporal revenues were usually larger[279].

(1) Rents from lands and houses. A house which possessed several manors besides its home farm would either lease them to tenants (“farm out the manor” as it was called), or put in bailiffs, who were responsible for working the estates and handing over to the convent the profits of their agriculture, and who may also have collected rents where no separate rent collector was[Pg 101] employed. For besides the profits arising from the demesne land (of which some account will be given below), the convent derived a much more considerable income from the rents of all tenants (whatever the legal tenure by which they held) who held their land at a money rent. The number of such tenants was likely to increase by the commutation of customary services for money payments; since, except in the particular manor or manors wherein the produce of the demesne was reserved for the actual consumption of the community, it was to the interest of a convent to lease a great part of the demesne land to tenants at a money rent and so save itself the trouble of farming the land under a bailiff[280]. In addition to these rents from agricultural land an income was sometimes derived, as has already been pointed out, from the rent of tenements in towns.

In most account rolls a careful distinction was drawn between “rents of assize” and “farms.” The former were the payments due from the tenants (whether freehold or customary) who held their holdings at a money rent; these rents were collected by[Pg 102] the different collectors of the nunnery or brought to the treasurers by the tenants themselves. “Farms” were leases, i.e. payments for land or houses which were held directly in demesne by the nunnery, but instead of being worked by a bailiff, or occupied by the household, were “farmed out” at an annual rent. A “farmer” might thus hold in farm an entire manor, and, for the payment of an annual sum to the nuns, he would have the right to the produce of the demesne and to the rents of rent-paying tenants. He might be quite a small person and hold in farm only a few acres of the demesne (in addition perhaps to an ordinary tenant’s holding on the manor). He might hold the farm of a mill, or a stable, or a single house[281]. In any case he paid a rent to the nuns and made what he could out of his “farm”; while they much preferred these regular payments to the trouble of superintending the cultivation of distant lands, in an age when communication was difficult and slow.

Nevertheless the rents were not always easy to collect, for all the diligence of the bailiff and of the various rent-collectors[282].[Pg 103] There are some illuminating entries in the accounts of St Radegund’s Cambridge. In 1449-50 the indignant treasuress debits herself with “one tenement in Walleslane lately held by John Walsheman for 6s. 8d. a year, the which John fled out of this town within the first half of this year, leaving nought behind him whereby he could be distrained save 7d., collected therefrom”; and in the following year she again debits herself “for part of a tenement lately held by John Webster for 12s. a year, whence was collected only 7s. for that the aforesaid John Webster did flit [literally, devolavit] by night, leaving naught behind him whereby he could be distrained.” Yet these nuns seem to have been indulgent landlords; in this year the treasuress debits herself “for a tenement lately held by Richard Pyghtesley, because it was too heavily charged before, 2s. 3d., ... and for a portion of the rent owed by Stephen Brasyer on account of the poverty and need of the said Stephen, by grace of the lady Prioress this time only, 15d.” and there are other instances of lowered rents in these accounts[283]. Other account rolls sometimes make mention of meals and small presents of money given to tenants bringing in their rents.

(2) Various manorial perquisites and grants. Besides the rents from land and houses the position of a religious community as lord of a manor gave it the right to various other financial payments. Of these the most important were the perquisites of the manorial courts. These varied very much according to the extent and number of the liberties which had been granted to any particular house. To Syon, beloved of kings, vast liberties had been granted (notably in 1447), so that the tenants upon its estates were almost entirely exempt from royal justice. The abbess and convent had

view of frankpledge, leets, lawe-days and wapentakes for all people, tenants resiant and other resiants aforesaid, in whatsoever places, by the same abbess or her successors to be limited, where to them it shall seem most expedient within the lordships, lands, rents, fees and possessions aforesaid, to be holden by the steward or other officers.

[Pg 104]They had the assizes of bread and ale and wine and victuals and weights and measures. They had all the old traditional emoluments of justice, which lords had striven to obtain since the days before the conquest,

soc, sac, infangentheof, outfangentheof, waif, estray, treasure-trove, wreck of the sea, deodands, chattels of felons and fugitives, of outlaws, of waive, of persons condemned, of felons of themselves [suicides], escapes of felons, year day waste and estrepement and all other commodities, forfeitures and profits whatsoever.

They had the right to erect gallows, pillory and tumbrel for the punishment of malefactors. They even had

all issues and amercements, redemptions and forfeitures as well before our [the king’s] heirs and successors, as before the chancellor, treasurer and barons of our exchequer, the justices and commissioners of us, our heirs or successors whomsoever, made, forfeited or adjudged ... of all the people ... in the lordships, lands, tenements, fees and possessions aforesaid[284].

In the eyes of the middle ages justice had one outstanding characteristic: it filled the pocket of whoever administered it. “Justitia magnum emolumentum est,” as the phrase went. All the manifold perquisites of justice, whether administered in her own or in the royal courts, went to the abbess of Syon if any of her own tenants were concerned. It is no wonder that out of a total income of £1944. 11s.d. the substantial sum of £133. 0s. 6d. was derived from perquisites of courts[285].

Few houses possessed such wholesale exemption from royal justice, but all possessed their manorial courts, at which tenants paid their heriots in money or in kind as a death-duty to the lord, or their fines on entering upon land, and at which justice was done and offenders amerced (or fined as we should now call it). Most houses possessed the right to hold the assize of bread and ale and to fine alewives who overcharged or gave short measure. Some possessed the right to seize the chattels of fugitives, and the abbess of Wherwell was once involved in a law suit over[Pg 105] this liberty, which she held in the hundred of Mestowe and which was disputed by the crown officials. One Henry Harold of Wherwell had killed his wife Isabel and fled to the church of Wherwell and the Abbess had seized his chattels to the value of £35. 4s. 8d. by the hands of her reeve[286]. A less usual privilege was that of the Abbess of Marham, who possessed the right of proving the wills of those who died within the precincts or jurisdiction of the house[287]. The courts at which these liberties were exercised were held by the steward of the nunnery, who went from manor to manor to preside at their sittings; but sometimes the head of the house herself would accompany him. Christian Bassett, the energetic Prioress of Delapré (St Albans), not content with journeying up to London for a lawsuit, went twice to preside at her court at Wing[288].

In rather a different class from grants of jurisdictional liberties were special grants of free warren, felling of wood and fairs. Monasteries which possessed lands within the bounds of a royal forest were not allowed to take game or to cut down wood there without a special licence from the crown; but such grants to exercise “free warren” (i.e. take game) and to fell wood were often granted in perpetuity, as an act of piety by the king, or for special purposes. The Abbess of Syon had free warren in all her possessions, and in 1489 it was recorded that the Abbess of Barking had free chase within the bailiwick of Hainault to hunt all beasts of the forest in season, except deer, and free chase within the forest and without to hunt hares and rabbits and fox, badger, cat and other vermin[289]. Grants of wood were more often made on special occasions; thus in 1277 the keeper of the forest of Essex was ordered to permit the Abbess of Barking and her men to fell oak-trees and oak-trunks in her demesne woods within the forest to the value of £40[290], while in 1299 the Abbess of Wilton was given leave to fell sixty oaks in her own wood within the bounds of the forest of Savernake, in order to rebuild[Pg 106] some of her houses, which had been burnt down[291]. The grant of fairs and markets was even more common and more lucrative, for the convent profited not only from the rents of booths and from the entrance-tolls, but not infrequently from setting up a stall of its own, for the sale of spices and other produce[292]. Henry III granted the nuns of Catesby a weekly market every Monday within their manor of Catesby and a yearly fair for three days in the same place; and almost any monastic chartulary will provide other instances of such rights[293].

The majority of the special perquisites which have been described would originate in special grants from the Crown; but it must be remembered that every manorial lord could count on certain perquisites ex officio, for which no specific grant was required. For his manor provided him with more than agricultural produce on the one hand and rents and farms on the other. Through the manor court he also received certain payments due to him from all free and unfree tenants, in particular those connected with the transfer of land, the heriot and the fines already mentioned. From unfree tenants he could also claim various other dues, the mark of their status; merchet, when their daughters married off the estate, leyrwite, when they enjoyed themselves without the intermediary of that important ceremony, a fine when they wished to send their sons to school[Pg 107] and a number of other customary payments, exacted at the manor court and varying slightly from manor to manor. Moreover the tolls from the water- or wind-mill at which villeins had to grind their corn all went to swell the purse of the lord[294]. This is not the place for a detailed description of manorial rights, which can be studied in any text-book of economic history[295]; a word must, however, be said about the mortuary system, which did not a little to enrich the medieval church.

When a peasant died the lord of the manor had often the right to claim his best animal or garment as a mortuary or heriot, and by degrees there grew up a similar claim to his second best possession on the part of the parish priest.

“It was presumed,” says Mr Coulton, “that the dead man must have failed to some extent in due payment of tithes during his lifetime and that a gift of his second best possession to the Church would therefore be most salutary to his soul”[296].

From these claims, partly manorial and partly ecclesiastical, religious houses benefited very greatly, and their accounts sometimes mention mortuary payments. The Prioress of Catesby in the year 1414-15 records how her live stock was enriched by one horse, one mare and two cows coming as heriots, while she received a payment of 20s. for two oxen coming as heriot of Richard Sheperd[297]. In the chartulary of Marham is recorded a mortuary list of sixteen people, who died within the jurisdiction of the house, and the mortuaries vary from a sorrel horse and a book to numerous gowns and mantles[298]. The system was[Pg 108] obviously capable of great abuse, and Mr Coulton considers that it did much to precipitate the Reformation, for the unhappy peasant resented more and more bitterly the greed of the church, which chose his hour of sorrow to wrest from him the best of his poor possessions; it must have seemed hard to him that his horse or his ox should be driven away, if he could not buy it back, to the well-stocked farm of a community which was vowed to poverty, far harder than if his lord were a layman, as free as he was himself to accumulate possessions without soiling the soul. When the parish priest followed the convent with a claim upon what was best, his despair must have grown deeper and his resentment more bitter. It was often difficult to collect these payments, just as it was often difficult to collect tithes, even when a priest was less loth to curse for them than Chaucer’s poor parson. Vicars were obliged to sue their wretched parishioners in the ecclesiastical courts, and monasteries were sometimes fain to commute such payments for an annual rent, collected by the tenants[299]. But the best ecclesiastics recognised that the system was somewhat out of keeping with Christian charity. Caesarius of Heisterbach has a story of Ulrich, the good head of the monastery of Steinfeld, who one day

came to one of his granges, wherein, seeing a comely foal, he enquired of the [lay] brother whose it was or whence it came. To whom the brother answered, “such and such a man, our good and faithful friend, left it to us at his death.” “By pure devotion,” asked the provost, “or by legal compulsion?” “It came through his death,” answered the other, “for his wife, since he was one of our serfs, offered it as a heriot.” Then the provost shook his head and piously answered: “Because he was a good man and our faithful friend, therefore hast thou despoiled his wife. Render therefore her horse to this forlorn woman; for it is robbery to seize or detain other men’s goods, since the horse was not thine before [the man’s death]”[300].

[Pg 109](3) Issues of the manor. Before passing on to sources of income of a more specifically ecclesiastical character, some account must be given of the third great class of receipts which came to a convent in its capacity of landowner, to wit the “issues of the manor.” Attached to almost every nunnery was its home farm, which provided the nuns with the greater part of their food[301]. A large nunnery would thus reserve for its own use several manors and granges, but usually other manors in its possession would be farmed by bailiffs, who sold the produce at market and paid in the profits to the treasuress or to one of the obedientiaries; or else a manor would be leased to a tenant. The surplus produce of the home farm, which could not be used by the nuns, was also sold. The treasuress usually entered the receipts and expenditure of the home farm in her household account and she had to keep two sets of records, the one a careful account of all the animals and agricultural produce on the farm, with details as to the use made of them; and the other (under the heading of “issues of the manor”) a money record of the sums obtained from sales of live stock, wool or grain. An analysis of the produce of the home farm of Catesby (1414-5)[302] shows that the chief crops grown were wheat and barley. Of these a certain proportion was kept for seed to sow the new crops; almost all the rest of the wheat was paid in food allowances to the servants and 1 qr. 3 bushels in alms “to friars of the four orders and other poor”; most of the barley was malted, except 6 qrs. delivered to the swineherd to feed hogs; and what remained was stored in the granaries of the convent. Oats and peas were also grown and part of the crop used for seed, part for food-allowances to the servants and oatmeal for the nuns. The Prioress also kept a most meticulous account of the livestock on her farm. All were numbered and classified, cart-horses, brood-mares, colts, foals, oxen, bulls, cows, stirks (three-year old), two-year old,[Pg 110] yearlings, calves, sheep, wethers, hogerells, lambs, hogs, boars, sows, hilts, hogsters and pigs. In each class it was carefully set down how many animals remained in stock at the end of the year and what had been done with the others. We know something of the consumption of meat by the nuns of Catesby and their servants in this year of grace 1414-5, when the old rule against the eating of meat was relaxed; and we see something of the cares of a medieval housewife in those days before root-crops were known, when the number of animals which could be kept alive during the winter was strictly limited by the amount of hay produced on the valuable meadow land. Only in summer could the convent have fresh meat; and on St Martin’s day (Nov. 11) the business of killing and salting the rest of the stock for winter food began[303]. From good Dame Elizabeth Swynford’s account it appears that five oxen, one stirk, thirty hogs and one boar were delivered to the larderer to be salted; in summer time, when the convent could enjoy fresh meat, five calves, fourteen sheep, ten hogs and twelve pigs were sent in to the kitchen; and twenty cows were divided between the larder and the kitchen, to provide salt and fresh beef. There is unfortunately no record of the produce of the dairy, which supplied the convent with milk, cheese, eggs and occasional chickens.

But the home-farm served the purpose of providing money as well as food. The hides of the oxen and the “wool pells” of the sheep, which had been killed for food or had fallen victim to that curse of medieval farming, the murrain, were by no means wasted. Five hides belonging to animals which had died of murrain were tanned and used for collars and other cart gear on the farm; but all the rest were sold, thirty-six of them in all. Most lucrative of all, however, was the sale of wool pells and wool, and Dame Elizabeth Swynford is very exact; eighteen wool pells, from sheep which the convent had eaten as mutton, sold before shearing for 35s. 10d., thirty-eight sold after shearing for 9s. 6d., thirty-six lamb skins for 1s.; and 6d. was received “for wynter lokes sold.” Moreover the convent also sold one sack and eight weight of wool at £5. 4s. the sack, for a total of £6. 16s.[Pg 111] Altogether the “issues of the manor” amounted to the substantial sum of £24. 8s. 8d., chiefly derived from these sales of wool and wool pells and from the sale of some timber for £6. 13s. 4d.[304] These details about wool are interesting, for it is well known that the monastic houses of England, especially in the northern counties, were great sheep farmers. Most accounts mention this important source of revenue and in the series of rolls kept by the treasuresses of St Michael’s Stamford, it is regularly entered under the heading “Fermes, dismes, leynes et pensions,” a somewhat miscellaneous classification[305]. In the thirteenth-century Pratica della Mercatura of Francesco Pergolotti there is incorporated a list of monasteries which sell wool, compiled for the use of Italian wool merchants and giving the prices per sack of the different qualities of wool at each house. The list contains a section specially devoted to nunneries, in which twenty houses are mentioned, all but two of them in Lincolnshire or Yorkshire[306]. Armed with this information the[Pg 112] Italians would journey from nunnery to nunnery and bargain with the nuns for their wool: the whole crop would sometimes be commissioned by them in advance, sold on the backs of the sheep. The English distrusted these dark smooth-spoken foreigners; many years later the author of the Libel of English Policie charged them with dishonest practices and complained of the freedom with which they were allowed to buy in England:

In Cotteswold also they ride about,
And all England, and buy withouten doubte
What them list with freedome and franchise,
More than we English may gitten many wise[307].

But it must have been a great day for the impoverished nuns of Yorkshire when slim Italian or stout Fleming came riding down the dales under a spring sun to bargain for their wool crop. What a bustling hither and thither there would be, and what a confabulation in the parlour between my lady Prioress and her steward and her chaplain and the stranger sitting opposite to them and speaking his reasons “ful solempnely.” What a careful distinguishing of the best and the medium and the worst kind of wool, which the Italian calls buona lana and mojano lana and locchi. What a haggling over the price, which varies from nunnery to nunnery, but always allows the merchant to sell at a good profit in the markets of Flanders and Italy. What sighs of relief when the stranger trots off again, sitting high on his horse and taking with him a silken purse, or a blood-band or a pair of gloves in “courtesy” from the nuns. What blessings on the black-faced sheep, when the sorely-needed silver is locked up in the treasury chest and debts begin to look less terrible, leaking roofs less incurable, pittances less few and far between.

(4) Miscellaneous payments. A last source of temporal revenue consisted in the sums paid for board and lodging by visitors, regular boarders and schoolchildren. Though such visitors were frowned at by bishops as subversive of discipline, the nuns welcomed their contributions to the lean income of the convent,[Pg 113] and in most nunnery accounts payments by boarders will be found among other miscellaneous receipts.

(5) Spiritualities. In the revenues which have hitherto been considered, the monastic rent-rolls differed in no way from those of any lay owner of land. The source of revenue now to be distinguished was more specifically ecclesiastical. All monasteries derived a more or less large income from certain grants made to them in their capacity as religious houses. Most important of these was the appropriation of benefices to their use. When a church was appropriated to a monastery, the monastery was usually supposed to put in a vicar at a fixed stipend to serve the parish, and the great tithes (which would otherwise have supported a rector) were taken by the corporation. Sometimes half a church was so appropriated and half the tithes were taken. The practice of appropriating churches was widespread; not only the king and other lay patrons, but also the bishops used this means of enriching religious bodies and the favourite petition of an impecunious convent was for permission to appropriate a church[308]. Over and over again the gift of the advowson of a church to a monastery is followed by appropriation[309]. The [Pg 114]permission of the bishop of the diocese and of the pope was necessary for the transaction, but it seems rarely to have been refused; and

it has been calculated that at least a third part of the tithes of the richest benefices in England were appropriated either in part or wholly to religious and secular bodies, such as colleges, military orders, lay hospitals, guilds, convents; even deans, cantors, treasurers and chancellors of cathedral bodies were also largely endowed with rectorial tithes[310].

The practice of appropriation became a very serious abuse, for not all monasteries were conscientious in performing their duties to the parishes from which they derived such a large income, and ignorant and underpaid vicars often enough left their sheep encumbered in the mire, or swelled with their misery and discontent the democratic revolution known by the too narrow name of the Peasants’ Revolt[311]. Moreover there is no doubt that sometimes the monks and nuns neglected even the obvious duty of putting in a vicar, and the hungry sheep looked up and were not fed. The Valor Ecclesiasticus throws an interesting light on this subject. The nuns of Elstow Abbey held no less than eleven rectories, from which they derived £157. 6s. 8d., but they paid stipends to four vicars only, and the total of the four was £6. 6s. 8d.[312] The nuns of Westwood received £12. 12s. 10d. from two rectories and paid to a deacon in one of them 11s. 4d.[313] The Minoresses without Aldgate held four rectories; from that of Potton (Beds.) they received £16. 6s. 8d. and paid the vicar £2; from that of Kessingland, Suffolk, £9 and paid the vicar £2. 4s. 4d.[314] Another very common practice which cannot have conduced to the welfare of the parishioners was that of farming out the proceeds of appropriated churches, just as manors were farmed out. The farmer paid the nuns a lump sum annually and took the proceeds of the tithes. The purpose of such an arrangement was convenience, since it saved the convent the trouble of collecting the revenues and tithes. It was open to objection from all points of view; for on the one hand the[Pg 115] nuns might, and often did, make bad bargains, and on the other they were still less likely to care for the spiritual welfare of the unfortunate parishioners, whose souls were to all intents and purposes farmed out with their tithes; though the payment of a vicar was sometimes made by the nuns or stipulated for in the agreement with the farmer. The Valor Ecclesiasticus gives the total spiritual revenue of the 84 nunneries holding spiritualities as £2705. 17s. 5d. and of this sum spiritualities to the value of £1075. 0s. 6d., belonging to 33 houses were entered as being at farm[315].

Account rolls often throw a flood of light upon the income derived from appropriated churches. To the nuns of St Michael’s Stamford had been assigned by various abbots of Peterborough the churches of St Martin, St Clement, All Souls, St Andrew and Thurlby, and in the reign of Henry II two pious ladies gave them the moieties of the church of Corby and chapel of Upton[316]. Moreover in 1354, after the little nunnery of Wothorpe had been ruined by the Black Death, all its possessions were handed over to St Michael’s and included the appropriation of the church of Wothorpe; the bishop stipulated that the proceeds of the priory with the rectory should be applied to the support of the infirmary and kitchen of St Michael’s and that the nuns should keep a chaplain to serve the parish church of Wothorpe[317]. Corby and Thurlby were afterwards farmed out by the nuns[318] and in 1377-8 they brought in £19 and £20 respectively, while the nuns got £26. 0s. 8d. from “the church of All Saints beyond the water,” £1. 13s. 4d. from the parson of Cottesmore and a pension of 6s. 8d. from the church of St Martin. They paid the vicar of Wothorpe a stipend of £2 a year[319]. Over half their income was usually derived from “farms, tithes and pensions,” i.e. from ecclesiastical sources of revenue.

It was also very common to make grants of tithes out of[Pg 116] piety to a monastery, even when a grant of the advowson of the church was not made. A lord would make over to it the tithes of wheat, or a portion of the tithes, in certain parishes, or perhaps the tithes of his own demesne land. Sometimes the rector of a parish would pay the monks or nuns an annual rent in commutation of their tithes; sometimes he would dispute their claim and the tedious altercation would drag on for years, ending perhaps in the expense of a law-suit[320]. Besides advowsons and tithes various other pensions and payments were bestowed upon religious houses by benefactors, who would leave an annual pension to a monastery as a charge upon a particular piece of land, or church, or upon another monastery[321].

Another “spiritual” source of revenue consisted in alms and gifts given to the nuns as a work of piety. Sometimes a nunnery possessed a famous relic, and the faithful who visited it showed their devotion by leaving a gift at the shrine. The Valor sometimes gives very interesting information about these cherished possessions, described under the unkind heading Superstitio. The Yorkshire nuns possessed among them a great variety of relics, some of them having the most incongruous virtues. At Sinningthwaite was to be found the arm of St Margaret and the tunic of St Bernard “believed to be good for women lying in”[322], at Arden was an image of St Bride, to which women made offerings[Pg 117] for cows that had strayed or were ill. The nuns of Arthington had a girdle of the Virgin and the nuns of St Clement’s York and Basedale both had some of her milk; at St Clement’s pilgrimages were made to the obscure but popular St Syth[323]. In other parts of the country it was the same. St Edmund’s altar in the conventual church of Catesby was a place of pilgrimage, for he had bequeathed his pall and a silver tablet to his sister Margaret Rich, prioress there[324]; and in 1400 Boniface IX granted an indult to the Abbess of Barking to have mass and the other divine offices celebrated in an oratory called “Rodlofte” (rood-loft), in which was preserved a cross to which many people resorted[325]. The nuns of St Michael’s Stamford not infrequently record sums received from a pardon held at one of their churches, and almost every year they received sums of money in exchange for their prayers for the souls of the dead. “Almes et aventures,” souls and chance payments, was a regular heading in their account roll, and the name of the person for whose soul they were to pray was entered opposite the money received. Miscellaneous alms from the faithful were always a source of revenue, though necessarily a fluctuating source[326].

Such were the chief sources from which a medieval nunnery derived its income. We must now consider the chief expenses which the nuns had to meet out of that income. It has already been shown that the total income of a nunnery was paid into the hands of the treasuress or treasuresses, save when the office of treasuress was filled by the head of the house, or when a male custos was appointed by the bishop to undertake the business. It has also been shown that the treasuress paid out certain sums to the chief obedientiaries (notably to the cellaress), to whose use certain sources of income were indeed sometimes[Pg 118] earmarked, and that these obedientiaries kept their separate accounts. The majority of nunnery accounts which have survived are, however, treasuresses’ accounts; that is to say they represent the general balance sheet at the end of the year, including all the chief items of income and expenditure. The different houses adopt, as is natural, different methods of classifying their expenses[327]. The great abbey of Romsey classifies thus: (1) The Convent, including sums for clothing, for the kitchen expenses and for pittances, amounting in all to £105. 17s. 10d. (2) The Abbess, who kept her separate household in state; this includes provisions for herself and for her household and divers of their expenses, a sum of £8. 12s. in gifts, a sum in liveries for the household and spices for the guest-house and a sum in servants’ wages, amounting to £108. 17s. in all. (3) Divers outside expenses, including repairs of houses belonging to the Romsey mills, a sum for legal pleas, another for annuities to the convent and to the king’s clerks, who had stalls in the abbey, over £40 in royal taxes and £1. 14s. 8d. in procurations, amounting to £108 in all. (4) Miscellaneous expenses include £8. 19s. 4d. in alms to the poor, £6. 13s. 4d. in wine for nobles visiting the abbess, a sum for mending broken crockery, a sum for shoeing the horses of the Abbess’ household, and in horse-hire and expenses of men riding on her business, 14s. in oblations of the Abbess and her household and £10 in gift to Henry Bishop of Winchester on his return from the Holy Land. (5) Repairs and other expenses at six manors belonging to this wealthy house, amounting to[Pg 119] £77. 2s.d. The total expenses of the abbey this year (1412) came to £431. 18s. 8d., against a revenue of £404. 6s. 1d., drawn from six manors and including rents, the commutation fees for villein services, the sale of wool, corn and other stores and the perquisites of the courts. The deficit is characteristic of nunneries[328].

An interesting picture of many sides of monastic life is given by a general analysis of the chief classes of expenditure usually mentioned in account rolls. They may be classified as follows: (1) internal expenses of the convent, (2) divers miscellaneous expenses connected with external business, (3) repairs, (4) the expenses of the home farm and (5) the wage-sheet.

(1) The internal expenses of the convent. The details of this expenditure are sometimes not given very fully, because they were set forth at length in the accounts of the cellaress and chambress; but a certain amount of food and of household goods and clothes was bought directly by the treasuress and occasionally the office of cellaress and treasuress was doubled by the same nun, whose account gives more detail. Expenditure on clothing appears in one of two forms, either as dress-allowances paid annually to the nuns[329], or as payments for the purchase of linen and cloth and for the hiring of work-people to spin and weave and make up the clothes[330]. Expenditure on food is usually concerned with the purchase of fish and of spices, the only important foods which could not be produced by the home farm.

Among other internal expenses are the costs of the guest-house and the alms, in money and in kind, which were given to the poor. Account rolls sometimes throw a side light on the fare provided for visitors: for instance the treasuress of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, enters upon her roll in 1449-50 the following items under the heading Providencia Hospicii:

And paid to William Rogger, for beef, pork, mutton and veal bought for the guest house, by the hand of John Grauntyer, 24s. 8d. And for bread, beer, beef, pork, mutton, veal, sucking pigs, capons, chickens, eggs, butter and fresh and salt fish, bought from day to day for the guest house during the period of the account, as appears more fully set out in detail, in a paper book examined for this account,[Pg 120] £11. 7s.d. And for one cow bought of Thomas Carrawey for the guest house vj s viij d. Total: £13. 8s.d.[331]

In this year the total receipts were £77. 8s.d. and the expenditure £72. 6s.d., so that quite a large proportion of the nuns’ income was spent on hospitality. On the other hand the food was no doubt partly consumed by these “divers noble persons,” who paid the convent £8. 14s. 4d. this year for their board and lodging. It is a great pity that the separate guest-house account book referred to has not survived. At St Michael’s Stamford the roll for 15-16 Richard II contains a payment of 26s. 10d. “for the expenses of guests for the whole year,” and 6s. 8d. “for wine for the guests throughout the year”[332]; this is a very small amount out of a total expenditure of £116. 15s.d. and it seems likely that the greater part of the food used for guests was not accounted for apart from the convent food.

The expenditure of nuns on alms is interesting, since almsgiving to the poor was one of the functions enjoined upon them by their rule; and many houses held a part of their property on condition that they should distribute certain alms. Some information as to these compulsory alms, though not of course as to the voluntary almsgiving of the nuns, is given in the Valor Ecclesiasticus. A few entries may be taken at random. St Sepulchre’s, Canterbury, paid 6s. 8d. for one quarter of wheat to be given for the soul of William Calwell, their founder, the Thursday next before Easter[333]. Dartford was allowed £5. 12s. 8d. for alms given twice a week to thirteen poor people[334]; Haliwell distributed 12s. 8d. in alms to poor folk every Christmas day in memory of a Bishop of Lincoln[335]. Nuneaton was allowed “for certain quarters of corn given weekly to the poor and sick at the gate of the monastery at 12d. a week, by order of the foundress, £2. 12s. 0d.; for certain alms on Maundy Thursday in money, bread, wine, beer and eels by the foundation, to poor and sick within the monastery, £2. 5s. 4d.[336] Polesworth gave “on Maundy Thursday at the washing of the feet of poor persons, in drink and victuals, by the foundation £1. 6s. 0d.[337] A chartulary[Pg 121] of the great Abbey of Lacock, drawn up at the close of the thirteenth century, contains an interesting list of alms payable to the poor and pittances to the nuns themselves on certain feasts and anniversaries. It runs:

We ought to feed on All Souls’ day as many poor as there are ladies, to each poor person a dry loaf and as a relish two herrings or a slice of cheese, and the convent the same day shall have two courses. On the anniversary of the foundress (24 Aug. 1261) 100 poor each shall have a wheaten loaf and two herrings, be it a flesh-day or not, and the convent shall have to eat simnels and wine and three courses and two at supper. On the anniversary of her father (17 April 1196) each year thirteen poor shall be fed. On the anniversary of her husband thirteen poor shall be fed, and the convent shall have half a mark for a pittance. On the anniversary of Sir Nicholas Hedinton they should distribute to the poor 8s. and 4d., or corn amounting to as much money, i.e. wheat, barley and beans, and the convent half a mark for a pittance. The day of the burial of a lady of the convent 100 poor, to each a mite or a dry loaf.... The day of the Last Supper, after the Maundy, they shall give to each poor person a loaf of the weight of the convent loaf, and of the dough of full bread, and half a gallon of beer and two herrings, and half a bushel of beans for soup[338].

Account rolls sometimes contain references to food or money distributed to the poor on the great almsgiving day of Maundy Thursday, or on special feast days. The nuns of St Michael’s Stamford regularly bought herrings to be given to the poor on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, St Laurence’s day, St Michael’s day and St Andrew’s day. The nuns of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, in 1450-1 distributed 2s. 1d. among the poor on Maundy Thursday and gave 10d. “to certain poor persons lately labouring in the wars of the lord king”[339]. The Prioress of St Mary de Pré, St Albans, has an item “paid in expenses for straungers, pore men lasours, tennents and fermours for brede and ale and other vitaills xxxvjs viijd[340]. It is interesting to note that nunneries are not infrequently found giving alms in money or kind to the mendicant friars. The Prioress of Catesby gave away 1 qr. 3 bushels of wheat “to brethren of the four orders and other poor” in 1414-5[341]. The Oxford friary received from Godstow in memory of the soul of one Roger Whittell fourteen[Pg 122] loaves every fortnight and 3s. 4d. in money and one peck of oatmeal and one of peas in Lent. The Friars Minor of Cambridge were sometimes sent a pig by the Abbess of Denny[342]. It will be seen in a later chapter that the poor Yorkshire nunneries of St Clement’s York and Moxby were considerably burdened by the obligation to pay 14 loaves weekly to the friars of York[343]. In general, however, it is difficult to form any just estimate as to how much almsgiving was really done by the nuns. There is no evidence as to whether they daily gave away to the poor, as their rule demanded, the fragments left over from their own meals; for such almsgiving would be entered neither in account rolls nor in chartularies and surveys dealing with endowments earmarked for charity.

Another class of gifts which deserves some notice consists of gratuities to friends, well-wishers or dependents of the house, for benefits solicited or received. No one in the middle ages was too dignified to receive a tip. The nuns of St Michael’s, Stamford, regularly give what they euphemistically term “gifts” or “courtesies” to a large number of persons, ranging from their own servants at Christmas to men of law, engaged in the various suits in which they were involved. To the high and mighty they present wine, or a capon, or money discreetly jingling in the depths of a silken purse. To the lowly they present a plain unvarnished tip. The nuns of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, pay 12d. “for a crane bought and given to the chancellor of the university of Cambridge, for his good friendship in divers of my lady’s affairs in the interest of the convent”; and “the four waits of the Mayor of Cambridge” receive a Christmas box of 2s. 3d. “for their services to the lady Prioress and convent.” Dono Data is a regular heading in their accounts, and in 1450-1 there is a long list of small gifts to dependents, ranging from 1d. to 10d., and a sum of 2s. for linen garments bought for gifts at Christmas[344]. Similarly the cellaress of Syon in 1536-7 gave her servants at Christmas a reward of 20s. “with their aprons”[345]. Whether to ensure that a lawsuit should go in favour of the convent, or merely to reward faithful service or to celebrate a feast, such[Pg 123] payments were well laid out and no careful housekeeper could afford to neglect them.

(2) Divers expenses include payments for various fines, amercements and legal expenses and also for the numerous journeys undertaken by the prioress or by their servants on convent business. The legal expenses which fell upon the nuns of St Michael’s, Stamford, ranged from a big suit in London and various cases over disputed tithes at the court of the bishop of Lincoln, to divers small amercements, when the convent pigs “trespassed in Castle meadow”[346]. The payments for journeys often give a vivid picture of nuns inspecting their manors and visiting their bishop[347]. Under this heading is also included a payment for ink and parchment and for the fee of the clerk who wrote out the account.

(3) Repairs were a very serious item in the balance sheet of every monastic house, and in spite of the amount of money, which account rolls show to have been spent upon them, visitation reports have much to say about crumbling walls and leaking roofs. It was seldom that a year passed without several visits from the plumbers, the slaters and the thatchers, to the precincts of a nunnery; and once arrived they were not easy to dislodge. If perchance the nunnery buildings themselves stood firm, then the houses of the tenants would be falling about their ears; and once more the distracted treasuress must summon workmen. Usually the nuns purchased the materials used for repairs and hired the labour separately, and the workers were sometimes fed in the nunnery kitchen; for it was customary at this time to include board with the wages of many hired workmen.

The accounts of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, in 1449-50 will serve as an example of the expenditure under this heading[348]. It was a heavy year, for the nuns were having two tenements built in “Nunneslane” adjoining their house, and the accounts give an interesting picture of the building of a little medieval house of clay and wattle, with stone foundations, whitewashed walls and thatched roof. First of all Henry Denesson, carpenter, a most important person, was hired to set up all the woodwork[Pg 124] at a wage of 23s. 4d. for the whole piece of work; he had an assistant John Cokke, who was paid 14d. for ten days’ work; Simon Maydewell was kept hard at work sawing timber for his use for ten days at 14d. and over a cart load and a half of “splentes” (small pieces of wood laid horizontally in a stud wall) were purchased at a cost of 6s. 2d. Henry and John spent ten days setting up the framework of the two cottages, but they were not the only workers. The “gruncill” (or beam laid along the ground for the rest to stand on) had to be laid firmly on a stone foundation; the walls had to be filled between the beams with clay, strengthened with a mixture of reeds and sedge and bound with hemp nailed firmly to the beams. The account tells us all about these operations:

and in hemp with nails bought for binding the walls 16d., and in stone bought from Thomas Janes of Hynton to support the gruncill 6s. 8d., and in one measure of quicklime bought for the same work 3s., and in six cartloads of clay bought of Richard Poket of Barnwell 18d., and in the hire of Geoffrey Sconyng and William Brann, to lay the gruncill of the aforesaid tenements and to daub the walls thereof (i.e. to make them of clay), for the whole work 17s. 3d. And in reeds bought of John Bere, “reder,” for the aforesaid tenements 2s. 4d., and in “1000 de les segh” (sedge) for the same work 5s. And in 22 bunches of wattles 22d., and in boards bought at the fair of St John the Baptist to make the door and windows 2s. 10d., and in 1000 nails for the said work, together with 1000 more nails bought afterwards 2s.d.

Finally the houses had to be roofed with a thatch of straw and a fresh set of workmen were called in:

and for the hire of John Scot, thatcher, hired to roof with straw the two aforesaid tenements, for 12 days, taking 4d. a day, at the board of the Lady (Prioress) 4s. And for the hire of Thomas Clerk for 8½ days and of Nicholaus Burnefygge for 10 days, carrying straw and serving the said thatcher 3s. 1d.; and in the hire of Katherine Rolf for the same work (women often acted as thatchers’ assistants) for 12 days at 1½d. a day, 18d.

And behold two very nice little cottages.

But let not the ignorant suppose that this completed the expenditure of the nuns on building and repairs. Henry Denesson, the indispensable, soon had to be hired again to set up some woodwork in a tenement in Precherch Street, and to build a gable there. A kitchen had to be built next to these tenements,[Pg 125] and the business of hiring carpenters, daubers and thatchers was repeated; John Scot and John Cokke once more scaled the roofs. Then a house in Nun’s Lane was burnt and sedge had to be bought to thatch it. Then three labourers had to be hired for four days to mend the roofs of the hall, kitchen and other parts of the nunnery itself, taking 5d. a day and their board. Then the roofs of the frater and the granary began to leak and the same labourers had to be hired for four more days. Then, just as the treasuress thought that she had got rid of the ubiquitous Henry Denesson for good, back he had to be called with a servant to help him, to set up the falling granary again. Then a lock had to be made for the guests’ kitchen and for three other rooms in the nunnery; and when John Egate, tiler, and John Tommesson, tenants of the nuns, got wind that locks were being made, they must needs have some for their tenements. Then a defect in the church had to be repaired by John Corry and a cover made for the font. There was more purchase of reeds and sedge, boards and “300 nails (12d.) and 100 nails (2d.) bought at Stourbridge Fair” for 14d. Last came the inevitable plumber:

And for a certain plumber hired to mend a gutter between the tenement wherein Walter Ferror dwells and a tenement of the Prior of Barnwell, with lead found by the said Prior, together with the mending of a defect in the church of St Radegund 14d. And in the hire of the aforesaid plumber to mend a lead pipe extending from the font to the copper in the brewhouse, together with the solder of the said plumber 8d.

In all the cost of repairs and buildings came to £8. 3s. 7d. out of a total expenditure of £72. 6s.d.

(4) Expenses of the home farm. The home farm was an essential feature of manorial economy and particularly so when the lord of the manor was a community. The nuns expected to draw the greater part of their food from the farm; livestock, grain and dairy all had to be superintended. A student of these account rolls may see unrolled before him all the different operations of the year, the autumn ploughing and sowing, the spring ploughing and sowing, the hay crop mown in June and the strenuous labours of the harvest. He may, if he will, know how many sheep the shepherd led to pasture and how many oxen the oxherd drove home in the evening, for the inventory on the[Pg 126] back of an account roll enumerates minutely all the stock. There is something homely and familiar in lists such as the tale of cattle owned by the nuns of Sheppey at the Dissolution:

v contre oxen and iij western oxen fatt, ... xviij leane contre oxen workers, xij leane contre sterys of ij or iij yere age, xxviij yeryngs, xxxviii kene and heifors ... xxvi cattle of thys yere, an horse, j olde baye, a dunne, a whyte and an amblelyng grey, vj geldings and horse for the plow and harowe, with v mares, xliij hogges of dyvers sorts, in wethers and lammys ccccxxx, ... and in beryng ewes vijc, ... in twelvemonthyngs, ewes and wethers vicxxxv ... in lambys at this present daye vclx[349].

How these lean country oxen, the “one old bay, a dun, a white and an ambling grey,” bring the quiet English landscape before the reader’s eyes. Time is as nothing; and the ploughman trudging over the brown furrows, the slow, warm beasts, breathing heavily in the darkness of their byre, are little changed from what they were five hundred years ago—save that our beasts to-day are larger and fatter, thanks to turnips and Mr Bakewell. Kingdoms rise and fall, but the seasons never alter, and the farm servant, conning these old accounts, would find nothing in them but the life he knew:

This is the year’s round he must go
To make and then to win the seed:
In winter to sow and in March to hoe
Michaelmas plowing, Epiphany sheep;
Come June there is the grass to mow,
At Lammas all the vill must reap.
From dawn till dusk, from Easter till Lent
Here are the laws that he must keep:
Out and home goes he, back-bent,
Heavy, patient, slow as of old
Father, granfer, ancestor went
O’er Sussex weald and Yorkshire wold.
O what see you from your gray hill?
The sun is low, the air all gold,
Warm lies the slumbrous land and still.
I see the river with deep and shallow,
I see the ford, I hear the mill;
I see the cattle upon the fallow;
And there the manor half in trees,
And there the church and the acre hallow
[Pg 127]Where lie your dead in their feretories....
I see the yews and the thatch between
The smoke that tells of cottage and hearth,
And all as it has ever been
From the beginning of this old earth[350].

The farm labourer to-day would well understand all these items of expenditure, which the monastic treasuress laboriously enters in her account. He would understand that heavy section headed “Repair of Carts and Ploughs.” He would understand the purchases of grain for seed, or for the food of livestock, of a cow here, a couple of oxen there, of whip-cord and horse-collars, traces and sack-cloth and bran for a sick horse. Farm expenses are always the same. The items which throw light on sheep-farming are very interesting, in view of the good income which monastic houses in pastoral districts made by the sale of their wool. The Prioress of Catesby’s account for 1414-5 notes:

In expences about washing and shearing of sheep v s vj d. In ale bought for caudles ij s. In pitchers viij d. In ale about the carriage of peas to the sheepcote iv d ob. In a tressel bought for new milk viij d. In nails for a door there iv d ob. In thatching the sheepcote viij d. In amending walls about the sheepcote ix d;

and in her inventory of stock she accounts for

118 sheep received of stock, whereof there was delivered to the kitchen after shearing by tally 14, in murrain before shearing 12, and there remains 101; and for 5 wethers of stock and 2 purchased, whereof in murrain before shearing 3, and there remains 4; and for 144 lambs of issues of all ewes, whereof in murrain 23; and there remains 121[351].

The nuns of Gracedieu in the same spring had a flock of 103 ewes and 52 lambs; and there is mention in their accounts of the sale of 30 stone of wool to a neighbour[351]; and the nuns of Sheppey, as the inventory quoted above bears witness, had a very large flock indeed.

Some of the most interesting entries in the accounts are the payments for extra labour at busy seasons, to weed corn, make hay, shear sheep, thresh and winnow. The busiest season of all,[Pg 128] the climax of the farmer’s year, was harvest time; and most monastic accounts give it a separate heading. The nuns of St Michael’s, Stamford, year after year record the date “when we began to reap” and the payments to reapers and cockers for the first four or five weeks and to carters for the fortnight afterwards. Extra workers, both men and women, came in from among the cottagers of the manor and of neighbouring manors; in some parts of the country migrant harvesters came, as they do to-day, from distant uplands to help on the farms of the rich cornland. To oversee them a special reap-reeve was hired at a higher rate (the nuns of St Michael’s paid him 13s. 8d. in 1378); gloves were given to the reapers to protect them from thistles[352]; special tithers were hired to set aside the sheaves due to the convent as tithes (the convent paid “to one tither of Wothorpe,” an appropriated church, “10s., and to two of our tithers 13s. 4d.”). The honest Tusser sets out the usage in jingling rhyme:

Grant haruest lord more by a penie or twoo
to call on his fellowes the better to doo:
Giue gloues to thy reapers, a larges to crie,
and dailie to loiterers haue a good eie.

Reape wel, scatter not, gather cleane that is shorne,
binde faste, shock apace, haue an eie to thy corne.
Lode safe, carrie home, follow time being faire,
goue iust in the barne, it is out of despaire.

Tithe dulie and trulie, with hartie good will
that God and his blessing may dwell with thee still:
Though Parson neglecteth his dutie for this,
thank thou thy Lord God, and giue erie man his[353].

Usually the workers got their board during harvest and very well they fared. The careful treasuresses of St Michael’s get in beef and mutton and fish for them, to say nothing of eggs and bread and oatmeal and foaming jugs of beer. Porringers and platters have to be laid in for them to feed from; and since they work until the sun goes down, candles must be bought to light[Pg 129] the board in the summer dusk. At the end of all, when the last sheaf was carried to the barn and the last gleaner had left the fields, the nuns entertained their harvesters to a mighty feast.

It was a time for hard work and for good fellowship. Says Tusser:

In haruest time, haruest folke, seruants and all,
should make all togither good cheere in the hall:
And fill out the black boule of bleith to their song,
and let them be merie all haruest time long.

Once ended thy haruest let none be begilde,
please such as did helpe thee, man, woman and childe.
Thus dooing, with alway such helpe as they can,
those winnest the praise of the labouring man[354].

The final feast was associated with the custom of giving a goose to all who had not overturned a load in carrying during harvest, and the nuns of St Michael’s always enter it in their accounts as “the expenses of the sickle goose” or harvest goose.

For all this good feasting, yet art thou not loose
till ploughman thou giuest his haruest home goose.
Though goose go in stubble, I passe not for that,
let goose haue a goose, be she leane, be she fat[355].

An echo of old English gaiety sounds very pleasantly through these harvest expenses.

(5) The wages sheet. The last set of expenses which the monastic housewife entered upon her roll was the wages sheet of the household, the payments for the year, or for a shorter period, of all her male and female dependents, together with the cost of their livery and of their allowance of “mixture,” when the convent gave them these. We saw in the last chapter that the nuns were the centre of a small community of farm and household servants, ranging from the reverend chaplains and dignified bailiff through all grades of standing and usefulness, down to the smallest kitchen-maid and the gardener’s boy.

Such is the tale of the account rolls. It may be objected by some that this talk of tenement-building, and livestock, ploughshares and harvest-home has little to do with monastic life, since it is but the common routine of every manor. But this is the very reason for describing it. The nunneries of England[Pg 130] were firmly founded on the soil and the nuns were housewives and ladies of the manor, as were their sisters in the world. This homely business was half their lives; they knew the kine in the byre and the corn in the granary, as well as the service-books upon their stalls. The sound of their singing went up to heaven mingled with the shout of the ploughmen in the field and the clatter of churns in the dairy. When a prioress’ negligence lets the sheepfold fall into disrepair, so that the young lambs die of the damp, it is made a charge against her to the bishop, together with more spiritual crimes. The routine of the farm goes on side by side with the routine of the chapel. These account rolls give us the material basis for the complicated structure of monastic life. This is how nuns won their livelihood; this is how they spent it.



[Pg 131]



Some respit to husbands the weather may send,
But huswiues affaires haue neuer an end.
Tusser, Fiue Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1573).


Every monastic house may be considered from two points of view, as a religious and as a social unit. From the religious point of view it is a house of prayer, its centre is the church, its raison d’être the daily round of offices. From the social point of view it is a community of human beings, who require to be fed and clothed; it is often a landowner on a large scale; it maintains a more or less elaborate household of servants and dependents; it runs a home farm; it buys and sells and keeps accounts. The nun must perforce combine the functions of Martha and of Mary; she is no less a housewife than is the lady of the manor, her neighbour. The monastic routine of bed and board did not work without much careful organisation; and it is worth while to study the method by which this organisation was carried out.

The daily business of a monastery was in the hands of a number of officials, chosen from among the older and more experienced of the inmates and known as obedientiaries. These obedientiaries, as Mr C. T. Flower has pointed out in a useful article[356], fall into two classes: (1) executive officials, charged with the general government of a house, such as the abbess, prioress, subprioress and treasuress, and (2) nuns charged with particular functions, such as the chantress, sacrist, fratress, infirmaress,[Pg 132] mistress of the novices, chambress and cellaress. The number of obedientiaries differed with the size of the house. In large houses the work had naturally to be divided among a large number of officials and those whose offices were heaviest had assistants to help them. A list of the twenty-six nuns of Romsey in 1502, for instance, distinguishes besides the abbess, a prioress, subprioress, four chantresses, an almoness, cellaress, sacrist and four subsacrists, kitcheness, fratress, infirmaress and mistress of the school of novices[357]. But in a small house there was less need of differentiation, and though complaint is sometimes made of the doubling of offices (perhaps from jealousy or a desire to participate in the doubtful sweets of office), one nun must often have performed many functions. It is common, for instance, to find the head of the house acting as treasuress, a practice which undoubtedly had its dangers.

The following were the most important obedientiaries, whose duties are distinguished in the larger convents. (1) The Treasuress, or more often two treasuresses. Her duty was to receive all the money paid, from whatever source, to the house and to superintend disbursements; she had the general management of business and held the same position as a college bursar to-day. (2) The Chantress or Precentrix had the management of the church services, trained the novices in singing and usually looked after the library. (3) The Sacrist had the care of the church fabric, with the plate, vestments and altar cloths and of the lighting of the whole house, for which she had to buy the wax and tallow and wicks and hire the candle-makers. (4) The Fratress had charge of the frater or refectory, kept the chairs and tables in repair, purchased the cloths and dishes, superintended the laying of meals and kept the lavatory clean. (5) The Almoness had charge of the almsgiving. (6) The Chambress ordained everything to do with the wardrobe of the nuns; the Additions to the Rules of Syon thus describe her work:

The Chaumbress schal haue al the clothes in her warde, that perteyne to the bodyly araymente of sustres and brethern, nyghte and day, in ther celles and fermery, as wel of lynnen as of wollen; schapynge, [Pg 133]sewynge, makyng, repayryng and kepyng them from wormes, schakyng them by the help of certayne sustres depute to her, that they be not deuoured and consumed of moughtes. So that sche schal puruey for canuas for bedyng, fryses, blankettes, schetes, bolsters, pelowes, couerlites, cuschens, basens, stamens, rewle cotes, cowles, mantelles, wymples, veyles, crounes, pynnes, cappes, nyght kerchyfes, pylches, mantel furres, cuffes, gloues, hoses, schoes, botes, soles, sokkes, mugdors, gyrdelles, purses, knyues, laces, poyntes, nedelles, threde, wasching bolles and sope and for al suche other necessaryes after the disposicion of the abbes, whiche in no wyse schal be ouer curyous, but playne and homly, witheoute weuynge of any straunge colours of sylke, golde, or syluer, hauynge al thynge of honeste and profyte, and nothyng of vanyte, after the rewle; ther knyues unpoynted and purses beyng double of lynnen clothe and not of sylke[358].

(7) The Cellaress looked after the food of the house and the domestic servants, and usually superintended the management of the home farm. It was her business to lay in all stores, obtaining some from the home farm and some by purchase in the village market, or at periodical fairs. She had to order the meals, to engage and dismiss servants and to see to all repairs. As one writer very well says, her “manifold duties appear to have been a combination of those belonging to the offices of steward, butler and farmer’s wife”[359]. The Rules of Syon again deserves quotation:

The Celeres schal puruey for mete and drynke for seke and hole, and for mete and drynke, clothe and wages, for seruantes of householde outwarde, and sche shall haue all the vessel and stuffe of housholde under her kepynge and rewle, kepynge it klene, hole and honeste. So that whan sche receyueth newe, sche moste restore the olde to the abbes. Ordenyng for alle necessaryes longynge to al houses of offices concernyng the bodyly fode of man, in the bakhows, brewhows, kychen, buttry, pantry, celer, freytour, fermery, parlour and suche other, bothe outewarde and inwarde, for straungers and dwellers, attendyng diligently that the napery and al other thynge in her office be honest, profitable and plesaunte to al, after her power, as sche is commaunded by her souereyne[360].

A very detailed set of instructions how to cater for a large abbey is to be found in a Barking document called the Charthe longynge to the office of the Celeresse of the Monasterye of Barkinge[361]. (8) The Kitcheness superintended the kitchen, under the direction[Pg 134] of the cellaress. (9) The Infirmaress had charge of the sick in the infirmary; the author of the Additions to the Rules of Syon, a person of all too vivid imagination, charges her often to

chaunge ther beddes and clothes, geue them medycynes, ley to ther plastres and mynyster to them mete and drynke, fyre and water and al other necessaryes, nyghte and day, as nede requyrethe, after counsel of the phisicians, ... not squames to wasche them, and wype them, nor auoyde them, not angry nor hasty, or unpacient thof one haue the vomet, another the fluxe, another the frensy, which nowe syngethe, now wel apayde, ffor ther be some sekenesses vexynge the seke so gretly and prouokynge them to ire, that the mater drawen up to the brayne alyenthe the mendes[362].

(10) The Mistress of the Novices acted as schoolmistress to the novices, teaching them all that they had to learn and superintending their general behaviour.

Certain of these obedientiaries, more especially the cellaress, chambress and sacrist, had the control and expenditure of part of the convent’s income, because their departments involved a certain number of purchases; indeed while the treasuress acted as bursar, the housekeeping of the convent was in the hands of the cellaress and chambress. Every well organised nunnery therefore divided up its revenues, allocating so much to the church, so much to clothing, so much to food, etc. Rules for the disposition of the income of a house were sometimes drawn up by a more than usually thrifty treasuress for the guidance of her successors, and kept in the register or chartulary of the nunnery. The Register of Crabhouse Priory contains one such document written (in the oddest French of Stratford-atte-Bowe) during the second half of the fourteenth century:

“The wise men of religion who have possessions,” says this careful dame, “consider according to the amount of their goods how much they can spend each year and according to the sum of their income they ordain to divers necessities their portions in due measure. And in order that when the time comes the convent should not fail to have what is necessary according to the sum of our goods, we have ordained their portions to divers necessary things. To wit, for bread and beer, all the produce of our lands and tenements in Tilney and all the produce of our half church of St Peter in Wiggenhall, and, if it be necessary, all the produce of our land in Gyldenegore. For meat and fish and for herrings and for feri and asser[363] and for cloves is set [Pg 135]aside all the produce of our houses and rents in Lynn and in North Lynn and in Gaywood. For clothing and shoes all the produce of our meadow in Setchy, ... and the remnant of the land in Setchy and in West Winch is ordained for the purchase of salt. For the prioress’ chamber, for tablecloths and towels and tabites[364] in linen and saye, and for other things which are needed for guests and for the household, is set aside all the produce of our land and tenements in Thorpland and in Wallington. For the repair of our houses and of our church in Crabhouse and for sea dykes and marsh dykes and for the wages of our household and for other petty expenses is ordained all the produce of our lands, tenements and rents in Wiggenhall, with the exception of the pasture for our beasts and of our fuel. Similarly the breeding of stock, and all the profits which may be drawn from our beasts in Tilney, in Wiggenhall and in Thorpland, and in all other places (saving the stock for our larder, and draught-beasts for carts and ploughs and saving four-and-twenty cows and a bull) are assigned and ordained for the repair of new houses and new dykes, to the common profit of the house[365].”

This practice of earmarking certain sources of income may be illustrated from almost any monastic chartulary, for it was common for benefactors to earmark donations of land and rent to certain special purposes, more especially for the clothing of the nuns, for the support of the infirmary, or for a special pittance from the kitchen[366]. Similarly bishops appropriating churches to monastic houses sometimes set aside the proceeds for special purposes[367]. The result of the practice was that the obedientiaries of certain departments, more especially the cellaress, chambress and[Pg 136] sacrist, had to keep careful accounts of their receipts and expenditure, which were submitted annually to the treasuress, when she was making up her big account. Very few separate obedientiaries’ accounts survive for nunneries, partly because the majority were small and the treasuress not infrequently acted as cellaress and did the general catering herself. Cellaresses’ accounts, however, survive for Syon and Barking, chambresses’ accounts for Syon and St Michael’s Stamford (the latter merely recording the payment to the nuns of their allowances) and sacrists’ accounts for Syon and Elstow[368]. In one column these accounts set out the sources from which the office derives its income. This might come to the obedientiary in one of two ways, either directly from the churches, manors or rents appropriated to her, or by the hands of the treasuress, who received and paid her the rents due to her office, or if no revenues were appropriated to it, allocated her a lump sum out of the general revenues of the house. Thus at Syon the cellaress drew her income from the sale of hides, oxhides and fleeces (from slaughtered animals and sheep at the farm), the sale of wood, and the profits of a dairy farm at Isleworth, while the chambress simply answered for a sum of £10 paid to her by the treasuresses. In another column the obedientiary would enter her expenditure. This might take two forms. According to the Benedictine rule and to the rule of the newly founded and strict Brigittine house of Syon, all clothes and food were provided for the nuns by the chambress and cellaress; and accordingly their accounts contain a complete picture of the communal housekeeping. In the later middle ages, however, it became the almost universal custom to pay the nuns a money allowance instead of clothing, a practice which deprived the office of chambress of nearly all its duties and possibly accounts for the rarity of chambresses’ account rolls. The Syon chambress’ account is an example of the first or regular method; the St Michael’s, Stamford, account of the second. More rarely the nuns received money allowances for a portion of their food. The growth of this custom of paying money allowances[Pg 137] will be described in a later chapter[369]; here it will suffice to consider the housekeeping of a nunnery in which that business was entirely in the hands of the chambress and cellaress.

The accounts throw an interesting light on the provision of clothes for a convent and its servants. An account of Dame Bridget Belgrave, chambress of Syon (who had to look after the brothers as well as the sisters of the house) has survived for the year 1536-7. It shows her buying “russettes,” “white clothe,” “kerseys,” “gryce,” “Holand cloth and other lynen cloth,” paying for the spinning of hemp and flax, for the weaving of cloth, for the dressing of calves’ skins and currying of leather, and for 3000 “pynnes of dyuerse sortes.” She pays wages to “the yoman of the warderobe,” “the grome,” the skinner and the shoemakers and she tips the “sealer” of leather in the market place[370]. Treasuresses’ accounts also often give interesting information about the purchase and making up of various kinds of material. At St Radegund’s, Cambridge, the nuns were in receipt of an annual dress allowance, but the house made many purchases of stuff for the livery of its household and in 1449-50 the account records payments

to a certain woman hired to spin 21 lbs. of wool, 22d.; and to Alice Pavyer hired for the same work, containing in the gross 36 lbs. of woollen thread 6s.; and paid to Roger Rede of Hinton for warping certain woollen thread 1½d.; and to the same hired to weave 77 ells of woollen cloth for the livery of the servants 3s. 5d.; and paid to the wife of John Howdelowe for fulling the said cloth 3s. 6d.; and paid to a certain shearman for shearing (i.e. finishing the surface of) the said cloth 14½d.

The next year the nuns make similar payments for cleaning, spinning, weaving, warping, fulling and shearing wool (an interesting illustration of the subdivision of the cloth industry) and disburse 9s. 9d. to William Judde of St Ives for dyeing and making up this cloth into green and blue liveries for the servants of the house[371].

The cellaresses’ accounts, which show us how the nun-housekeeper catered for the community, are even more interesting than the chambresses’ accounts. The convent food was derived from two main sources, from the home farm and from purchase. The home farm was usually under the management of the[Pg 138] cellaress and provided the house with the greater part of its meat, bread, beer and vegetables, and with a certain amount of dairy produce (butter, cheese, eggs, chickens). Anything which the farm could not produce had to be bought, and in particular three important articles of consumption, to wit the salt and dried fish eaten during the winter and in Lent, the salt for the great annual meat-salting on St Martin’s day, and the spices and similar condiments used so freely in medieval cooking and eaten by convents more especially in Lent, to relieve the monotony of their fasting fare. The nuns of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, used to get most of their salt fish at Lynn, whence it was brought up by river to Cambridge. From the accounts of 1449-51 it appears that the senior ladies made the occasion one for a pleasant excursion. There is a jovial entry in 1450-1 concerning the carriage by water from Lynn to Cambridge of one barrel[372] and a half of white herrings, two cades[373] of red herrings, two cades of smelts, one quarter of stockfish and one piece of timber called “a Maste” out of which a ladder was to be made (2s. 4d.), together with the fares and food of Dame Joan Lancaster, Dame Margaret Metham, Thomas Key (the bailiff) and Elene Herward of Lynn to Cambridge (2s. 8d.). Another entry displays to us Dame Joan Lancaster bargaining for the smelts and the stockfish at Lynn. Fish was usually bought from one John Ball of Lynn, who seems to have been a general merchant of considerable custom, for the nuns also purchased from him all the linen which they needed for towels and tablecloths, and some trenchers. Occasionally, also, however, they purchased some of their fish at one or other of the fairs held in the district; in 1449-50 they thus bought 8 warp[374] of ling and 6 warp of cod from one John Antyll at Ely fair and 14 warp of ling from the same man at Stourbridge fair, an interesting illustration of how tradesmen travelled from fair to fair. At St John Baptist’s fair in the same year they bought a horse for 9s. 6d., 2 qrs. 5 bushels of salt, some timber boards and three “pitcheforke staves.” In the following year they bought timber, pewter pots, a churn, 10 lbs. of soap and 3 lbs. of pepper at the famous fair of Stourbridge,[Pg 139] and salt and timber at the fair of St John Baptist. In 1481-2 they bought salt fish, salt, iron nails, paper, parchment and “other necessities” at the fairs of Stourbridge and of St Etheldreda the Virgin[375].

The fish-stores illustrate a side of medieval housekeeping, which is unfamiliar to-day. Fresh fish was eaten on fish-days whenever it could be got. Most monastic houses had fishing rights attached to their demesnes, or kept their own fish-pond or stew. The nuns of St Radegund’s had fishing rights in a certain part of the Cam known as late as 1505 as “Nunneslake”[376]. But a great deal of dried and salted fish was also eaten. In their storehouse the nuns always kept a supply of the dried cod known as stockfish for their guest-house and for the frater during the winter. It was kept in layers on canvas and was so dry that it had to be beaten before it could be used; it is supposed to have derived its name from the stock on which it was beaten, or, as Erasmus preferred to say, “because it nourisheth no more than a dried stock”[377]. For Lent the chief articles of food were herrings and salt salmon, but the list of salt store purchased by the cellaress of Syon in 1536-7 shows a great variety of fish, to wit 200 dry lings, 700 dry haberden (salted cod), 100 “Iceland fish,” 1 barrel of salt salmon, 1 barrel of [white] herring, 1 cade of red herring and 420 lbs. of “stub” eels[378]. The chief food during Lent, besides bread and salt fish, was dried peas, which could be boiled or made into pottage. Thus Skelton complains of the monks of his day:

Saltfysshe, stocfysshe, nor heryng,
It is not for your werynge;
Nor in holy Lenton season
Ye wyll nethyr benes ne peason[379].

[Pg 140]In Lent also were eaten dried fruits, in particular almonds and raisins and figs, the latter being sometimes made into little pies called risschewes[380]. The nuns of Syon purchased olive oil and honey with their other Lenten stores. The list of condiments which they bought during the year, for ordinary cooking purposes, or for consumption as a relief to their palates in Lent, or as a pittance on high days and holidays, includes, in 1536-7, sugar (749¾ lb.), nutmegs (18 lb.), almonds (500 lb.), currants (4 lb.), ginger (6 lb.), isinglass (100 lb.), pepper (6 lb.), cinnamon (1 lb.), cloves (1 lb.), mace (1 lb.), saffron (2 lb.), rice (3 qrs.), together with figs, raisins and prunes[381]. Surely the poor clown, whom Autolycus relieved so easily of his purse, was sent to stock a convent storehouse, not to furnish forth a sheep-shearing feast and the sister who sent him was a sister in Christ:

Let me see, what am I to buy...? Three pound of sugar; five pound of currants; rice,—what will this sister of mine do with rice?... I must have saffron, to colour the warden pies; mace, dates,—none; that’s out of my note; nutmegs seven; a race or two of ginger,—but that I may beg;—four pound of prunes and as many of raisins of the sun[382].

Lent fare was naturally not very pleasant, for all the mitigations of almonds and figs. At other times of the year the convent ate on fish-days fresh fish, when they could get it, otherwise dried or salt fish, and on meat-days either beef or some form of pig’s flesh, eaten fresh as pork, cured and salted as bacon, or pickled as sowce[383]. Mutton was also eaten, though much more seldom, for the sheep in the middle ages was valued for its wool, rather than for its meat, and was indeed a scraggy little animal, until the discovery of winter crops and the experiments of Bakewell revolutionised stock-breeding and the English food-supply in the eighteenth century. The nuns also had fowls on festive occasions, eggs, cheese and butter from the dairy and[Pg 141] vegetables from the garden. The staple allowance of bread and beer made on the premises was always provided by the convent, even when the nuns had a money allowance to cater for themselves in other articles of food[384]. Some idea of the menu of an average house is given in the Syon rule:

For the sustres and brethren sche [the cellaress] shal euery day for the more parte ordeyne for two maner of potages, or els at leste for one gode and that is best of alle. If ther be two, that one be sewe [broth] of flesche and fische, after [according to what] the day is; and that other of wortes or herbes, or of any other thing that groweth in the yerthe, holsom to the body, as whete, ryse, otemele, peson and suche other. Also sche schal ordeyne for two sundry metes, of flesche and of fysche, one fresche, another powdred [salted], boyled, or rosted, or other wyse dyghte, after her discrecion, and after the day, tyme and nede requyreth, as the market and purse wylle stretche. And thys schal stonde for the prebende, which is a pounde of brede, welle weyed, with a potel of ale and a messe of mete.... On fysche dayes sche schal ordeyn for whyte metes, yf any may be hadde after the rewle, be syde fysche metes, as it is before seyd. Also, ones a wyke at the leste, sche schal ordeyn that the sustres and brethren be serued withe newe brede, namely on water dayes, but neuer withe newe ale, nor palled or ouer sowre, as moche as sche may. For supper sche schal ordeyn for some lytel sowpyng, and for fysche and whyte mete, or for any other thynge suffred by the rewle, lyghte of dygestyon equyualente, and as gode to the bodyly helthe.... On water dayes sche schal ordeyne for bonnes or newe brede, water grewel, albreys and for two maner of froytes at leste yf it may be, that is to say, apples, peres or nuttes, plummes, chiryes, benes, peson, or any suche other, and thys in competent mesure, rosten or sothen, or other wyse dyghte to the bodyly helthe, and sche must se that the water be sothen with browne brede in maner of a tysan, or withe barley brede, for coldenes and feblenes of nature, more thys dayes, than in dayes passed regnynge[385].

[Pg 142]On certain special days the nuns received a pittance, or extra allowance of food, sometimes taking the shape of some special delicacy consecrated to the day. On Shrove Tuesday they often had the traditional pancakes, or fritters, called crisps at Barking[386] and flawnes at St Michael’s, Stamford[387]. Maundy Thursday, otherwise called Shere Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) was the great almsgiving day of the year. On this day the kings and queens of England, as well as the greatest dignitaries of the church and of the nobility, were accustomed to give gowns, food and money to the poor, who clustered round their gates in expectance of the event, and ceremonially to wash the feet of a certain number of poor men and women, to commemorate Christ’s washing of His disciples’ feet. Benefactors who left land to monastic houses for purposes of almsgiving often specified Maundy Thursday as the day on which the alms were to be distributed. It was customary also for monks and nuns to receive a pittance on this day; and welcome it must have been after the long Lenten fast. The nuns of Barking had baked eels, with rice and almonds and wine. The nuns of St Mary de Pré (St Albans) had “Maundy ale” and “Maundy money” given to them. The nuns of St Michael’s, Stamford, had beer and wafers and spices[388]. There was always a feast on Christmas[Pg 143] day and on most of the great feasts of the church and the various feasts connected with the Virgin. There was a pittance on the dedication day of the convent and sometimes on other saints’ days. There were also pittances on the anniversaries of benefactors who had left money for this purpose to the convent, and sometimes also on profession-days, which were “the official birthdays of the nuns”[389]. In the monotonous round of convent life these little festivities formed a pleasant change and were looked forward to with ardour; in some of the larger houses a special obedientiary known as the Pittancer had charge over them.

Food is one of the housekeeper’s cares; servants are another; and between them they must have wrinkled many a cellaress’ brow, though the servant problem at least was a less complicated one in the middle ages than it is to-day. The persons to whom regular yearly wages were paid by a convent fall into four classes: (1) the chaplains, (2) the administrative officials, steward, rent-collectors, bailiff, (3) the household staff and (4) the hinds and farm-servants.

[Pg 144](1) The chaplains. The account rolls of a nunnery of average size usually contain payments to more than one priest. The nuns had to pay the stipend of their own chaplain or mass-priest, of any chaplains or vicars whom they were bound to provide for appropriated churches, and sometimes of a confessor. The number of chaplains naturally varied with the size of the house and with the number of appropriated churches. Great houses such as Barking, Shaftesbury and Wilton had a body of resident chaplains attached to the nunnery church and paid the stipends of priests ministering to appropriated parishes. Poor and small nunneries, such as Rusper, paid the fee of one resident chaplain. It is worthy of note that certain important and old established abbeys in Wessex had canons’ prebends attached to their churches. At each of the abbey churches of Shaftesbury, St Mary’s Winchester, Wherwell and Wilton there were four prebendary canons, at Romsey there were two (one of whom was known as sacrist). Moreover at Malling in Kent there were two secular prebends, known as the prebends of magna missa maioris altaris and alta missa. These prebends were doubtless originally intended for the maintenance of resident chaplains, but as early as the thirteenth century the prebends were almost invariably held by non-residents and pluralists as sinecures, the reason being, as Mr Hamilton Thompson points out, “the rise in value of individual endowments and the consequent readiness of the Crown, as patron of the monasteries, to discover in them sources of income for clerks in high office.” Thus these great abbeys also followed the usual custom of hiring chaplains to celebrate in their churches, though some of the wealthier prebends were taxed with stipendiary payments towards the cost of these[390].



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(In the top left hand corner is a nun at confession; in the other corners are visions appearing to a nun at prayer.)


The chaplain of a house usually resided on the premises, sometimes receiving his board from the nuns; occasionally inventories mention his lodgings, which were outside the nuns’ cloister. Thus the Kilburn Dissolution inventory, after describing all the household offices, goes on to describe the three chambers for the chaplain and the hinds, the “confessor’s chamber” and[Pg 145] the church[391]. At Sheppey the chamber over the gatehouse was called “the confessor’s chamber” and was furnished forth with

a hangyng of rede clothe, a paynted square sparver of lynen, with iij corteyns of lynyn clothe, a good fetherbed, a good bolster, a pece of blanketts and a good counterpeynt of small verder, in the lowe bed a fetherbed, a bolster, a pece of blanketts olde, and an image coverled, a greate joynyd chayer of waynscot, an olde forme, and a cressar of iron for the chymneye[392].

The relations between the nuns and their priest were doubtless very friendly; he would be their guide, philosopher and friend, sometimes acting as custos of their temporal affairs and always ready with advice.

Madame Eglentyne, it will be remembered, took three priests with her upon her eventful pilgrimage to Canterbury, and one was the never-to-be-forgotten Sir John, whom she mounted worse than his inimitable skill as a raconteur deserved:

Than spak our host, with rude speche and bold
And seyde un-to the Nonnes Preest anon,
“Com neer, thou preest, com hider thou sir John,
Tel us swich thing as may our hertes glade,
Be blythe, though thou ryde up-on a jade.
What though thyn hors be bothe foule and lene,
If he wol serve thee, rekke not a bene;
Look that thyn herte be mery evermo.”
“Yis, sir” quod he, “yis, host, so mote I go,
But I be mery, y-wis I wol be blamed”:—
And right anon his tale he hath attamed,
And thus he seyde unto us everichon,
This swete preest, this goodly man, sir John[393].

Certainly the convent never went to sleep in a sermon which had the tale of Chauntecleer and Pertelote for its exemplum.

Yet the nuns were not always happy in their priests. There is the case (not, it must be admitted, without its humour) of Sir Henry, the chaplain of Gracedieu in 1440-41. Sir Henry was an uncouth fellow, it seems, who was more at home in the[Pg 146] stable than at the altar. He went out haymaking alone with the cellaress, and in the evening brought her back behind him, riding on the same lean jade. Furthermore “Sir Henry the chaplain busies himself with unseemly tasks, cleansing the stables, and goes to the altar without washing, staining his vestments. He is without devotion and irreverent at the altar and is of ill reputation at Loughborough and elsewhere where he has dwelt.” Poor Sir Henry,—

See, whiche braunes hath this gentil Preest,
So greet a nekke, and swich a large breest!
He loketh as a sperhauk with his yën;
Him nedeth nat his colour for to dyen
With brasil, ne with greyn of Portingale.

The bishop swore him to “behave himself devoutly and reverently henceforward at the altar in making his bow after and before his masses”[394].

(2) The administrative officials. These varied in number with the size of the house and the extent of its possessions. The chief administrative official was the steward, who is not, however, found at all houses. Sometimes the office of steward was complimentary and the fee attached was nominal. The Valor Ecclesiasticus shows that great men did not disdain the post; Andrew Lord Windsor was steward of the Minoresses without Aldgate, of Burnham and of Ankerwyke[395]. Henry Lord Daubeney was steward of Shaftesbury[396], George Earl of Shrewsbury of Wilton[397], Henry Marquess of Dorset of Nuneaton[398], Sir Thomas Wyatt of Malling[399], Sir W. Percy of Hampole, Handale and Thicket[400], Lord Darcy of Swine[401], the Earl of Derby of St Mary’s Chester[402], and Mr Thomas Cromwell himself of Syon and Catesby[403]. Some houses, such as Wilton, had more than one steward, and Syon maintained stewards as well as bailiffs in most of the counties in which it had land. Some of these great men were obviously not working officials; but many of the houses maintained stewards at a good salary, who superintended their business affairs, kept the courts of their manors, and were sometimes lodged[Pg 147] on the premises[404]. The larger houses also paid one or more receivers and rent-collectors and sometimes an auditor, but in the average house the most important administrative official was the bailiff.

While large landowners kept bailiffs at each of the different manors which they held, most nunneries employed a single bailiff, an invaluable factotum who performed a great variety of business for them, besides collecting rents from their tenants and superintending the home farm. Thomas Key, the bailiff of St Radegund’s Cambridge, 1449-51, is an active person; he receives a stipend of 13s. 4d. per annum and an occasional gift from the nuns; he rides about collecting their rents in Cambridgeshire; he accompanies them to Lynn on the annual journey to buy the winter stock of salt fish, or sometimes goes alone; he can turn his hand to mending rakes and ladders (for which he gets 8d. for four days’ work), or to making the barley mows at harvest time, taking 3d. a day for his pains; and indeed he is regularly hired to work during harvest, at a fee of 6s. 8d. and two bushels of malt[405]. Often the bailiff’s wife was also employed by the nuns; the nuns of Sheppey paid their bailiff, his wife and his servant all substantial salaries[406]. Some nunneries had a lodging set apart for him in the convent buildings, outside the nuns’ cloister[407].

Evidence often crops up from a variety of sources concerning the relations between the nuns and this important official. That these might be very pleasant can well be imagined. Sometimes a bailiff of substance and standing will place his daughter in the nunnery which he serves[408]; sometimes when he dies he will remember it in his will[409]. But all bailiffs were not good and faithful[Pg 148] servants. Mr Hamilton Thompson considers that male stewards and bailiffs were often “responsible for the financial straits to which the nunneries of the fifteenth century were reduced, and ... certainly did much to waste the goods of the monasteries, generally in their own interests”[410]. Such a man was Chaucer’s Reeve, though he did not waste land, for the reason that one does not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs:

His lordes sheep, his neet, his dayerye,
His swyn, his hors, his stoor and his pultrye,
Was hoolly in this reves governing,
And by his covenaunt yaf the rekening....
His woning was ful fair upon an heeth,
With grene treës shadwed was his place.
He coude bettre than his lord purchace.
Ful riche he was astored prively,
His lord wel coude he plesen subtilly,
To yeve and lene him of his owne good,
And have a thank, and yet a cote and hood[411].

Several records of law-suits are extant, in which prioresses are obliged to sue their bailiffs in the court of King’s Bench for an account of their periods of service[412], and visitation documents sometimes give a sorry picture of the convent bailiff. The bailiff of Godstow (1432) went about saying that there was no good woman in the nunnery[413]; the bailiff of Legbourne (1440) persuaded the prioress to sell him a corrody in the house and yet he “is not reckoned profitable to the house in that office, for several of his kinsfolk are serving folk in the house, who look out for[Pg 149] themselves more than for the house”[414]; the bailiff of Redlingfield (1427) was the prioress’s lover[415].

Romsey Abbey seems at various times to have been peculiarly unfortunate in its administrative officials. In 1284 Archbishop Peckham had to write to the abbess Agnes Walerand and bid her remove two stewards, whom she had appointed in defiance of the wishes of the convent and who were to give an account of their offices to his official[416]. At the close of the fifteenth century, when the abbey was in a very disorderly state under Elizabeth Broke, there was serious trouble again. In 1492 this Abbess was found to have fallen under the influence of one Terbock, whom she had made steward. She herself confessed that she owed him the huge sum of 80l. and the nuns declared that in part payment of it she had persuaded them to make over to him for three years a manor valued at 40l. and had given him a cross and many other things. His friends haunted her house, especially one John Write, who begged money from her for Terbock. The nuns suspected him of dishonesty, asked that the rolls of account for the years of his stewardship might be seen and declared that the house was brought to ill-fame by him[417]. In 1501 Elizabeth Broke had fallen under the influence of another man, this time a priest called Master Bryce, but she died the next year. Her successor Joyce Rowse was equally unsatisfactory and equally unable to control her servants. Bishop Foxe’s vicar-general in 1507 enjoined that a nun should be sought out and corrected for having frequent access, suspiciously and beyond the proper time, to the house of the bailiff of the monastery, and others who went with her were to be warned and corrected too; moreover he summoned before him Thomas Langton, Christopher George and Thomas Leycrofte, bailiffs, and Nicholas Newman, villicum agricultorem,[Pg 150] and admonished them to behave better in their offices on pain of removal[418].

(3) The household staff naturally varied in size with the size of the nunnery. The Rule of St Benedict contemplated the performance of a great deal if not all of the necessary domestic and agricultural work of a community by the monks themselves. But this tradition had been largely discarded by the thirteenth century, and if the nuns of a small convent are found doing their own cooking and housework, it is by reason of their poverty and they not infrequently complain at the necessity. They were of gentle birth and ill accustomed to menial tasks. The weekly service in the kitchen would seem to have disappeared completely. The larger houses employed a male cook, sometimes assisted by a page, or by his wife, and supervised by the cellaress, or by the kitcheness, where this obedientiary was appointed. There were also a maltster, to make malt, and a brewer and baker, to prepare the weekly ration of bread and ale; sometimes these offices were performed by men, sometimes by women. There was a deye or dairy-woman, who milked the cows, looked after the poultry, and made the cheeses. There was sometimes a lavender or laundress, and there were one or more women servants, to help with the housework and the brewing. The gate was kept by a male porter; and there was sometimes also a gardener. In large houses there would be more than one servant for each of these offices; in small houses the few servants were men or maids of all work and extra assistance was hired when necessary for making malt or washing clothes. In large houses it was not uncommon for each of the chief obedientiaries to have her own servant attached to her checker (office) and household, who prepared the meals for her mistress and for those nuns who formed her familia and messed with her. The head of the house nearly always had her private servant when its resources permitted her to do so, and sometimes when they did not.

(4) The farm labourers. Finally every house which had attached to it a home farm had to pay a staff of farm labourers. These hinds, whose work was superintended by the bailiff and cellaress, always included one or two ploughmen, a cowherd and oxherd, a shepherd, probably a carter or two and some general[Pg 151] labourers. Again the number varied very considerably according to the size of the house and was commonly augmented by hiring extra labour at busy seasons. The farm was cultivated partly by the work of these hired servants, partly by the services owed by the villeins.

The nuns, with their domestic and farm servants, were the centre of a busy and sometimes large community, and a very good idea of their social function as employers may be gained from the lists of wage-earning servants to be found in account rolls or in Dissolution inventories. We may take in illustration the large and famous abbey of St Mary’s, Winchester, and the little house of St Radegund’s, Cambridge. St Mary’s, Winchester, had let out the whole of its demesne in 1537, and the inventory drawn up by Henry VIII’s commissioners therefore contains no list of farm labourers. The household consisted of the Abbess and twenty-six nuns, thirteen “poor sisters,” twenty-six “chyldren of lordys knyghttes and gentylmen browght vp yn the sayd monastery,” three corrodians and five chaplains, one of whom was confessor to the house, and twenty-nine officers and servants. The Abbess had her own household, consisting of a gentlewoman, a woman servant and a laundress, and the prioress, subprioress, sacrist and another of the senior nuns each had her private woman servant “yn her howse.” There were also two laundresses for the convent. The male officers and servants were Thomas Legh, generall Receyver (who also held a corrody and had two little relatives at school in the convent), Thomas Tycheborne clerke (who likewise had two little girl relatives at school and a boy who will be mentioned), Lawrens Bakon, Curtyar (officer in charge of the secular buildings of the nunnery), George Sponder, Cater (caterer or manciple, who purchased the victuals for the community), William Lime, Botyler, Rychard Bulbery, Coke, John Clarke, Vndercoke, Richard Gefferey, Baker, May Wednall, convent Coke, John Wener, vndercovent Coke, John Hatmaker, Bruer, Wylliam Harrys, Myller, Wylliam Selwod, porter, Robert Clerke, vnderporter, William Plattyng, porter of Estgate, John Corte and Hery Beale, Churchemen, Peter Tycheborne, Chyld of the hygh aulter, Rychard Harrold, seruaunt to the receyver and John Serle, seruaunt to the Clerke[419].

[Pg 152]St Radegund’s, Cambridge, in 1450 was a much smaller community, numbering about a dozen nuns. In the treasurers’ accounts the wage-earning household is given as follows, together with the annual wages paid by the nuns. The confessor of the house came from outside and was a certain friar named Robert Palmer, who received 6s. 8d. a year for his pains; they also paid a salary of 5l. a year to their mass-priest, John Herryson, 2s. 4d. to John Peresson, the chaplain celebrating (but only per vices, from time to time) at the appropriated church of St Andrew’s, and 13s. 4d. to the “clerk” of that church, a permanent official. Thomas Key, the invaluable bailiff and rent-collector mentioned above, got the rather small salary of 13s. 4d., but added to it by exactly half as much again during harvest. Richard Wester, baker and brewer to the house, received 26s. 8d., John Cokke, maltster (and probably also cook, as his name suggests) received 13s. 4d. The women servants included one of those domestic treasures, who effectively run the happy household which possesses them, or which they possess: her name was Joan Grangyer and she is described as dairy-woman and purveyor or housekeeper to the Prioress; the nuns paid her 20s. in all, including 6s. 8d. for her livery and 2s. 4d. as a special fee for catering for the Prioress. Then there was Elianore Richemond, who seems to have been an assistant dairy-maid, for in the following year the nuns had replaced her by another woman, hired “for all manner of work in milking cows, making cheese and butter,” etc.; her wages were 8s. 4d., including a “reward” or gift of 20d. The other women servants were Elizabeth Charterys, who received 3s. 1d. for her linen and woollen clothes and her shoes, but no further wages, and Dionisia yerdwomman, who received 9s. and doubtless did the rough work. This completed the domestic household of the nuns. Their hinds included three ploughmen, John Everesdon (26s. 8d.), Robert Page (16s.) and John Slibre (13s. 4d. and 2s. 6d. for livery); the shepherd, John Wyllyamesson, who received 22s. 8d. and 8d. for a pair of hose; the oxherd Robert Pykkell, who took 6s. 8d.; and Richard Porter, husbandman, who was hired to work from Trinity Sunday to Michaelmas for 13s. 4d.[420]

It will thus be seen that the size of a convent household might vary considerably. The twenty-six nuns of St Mary’s[Pg 153] Winchester had gathered round themselves a large household of nine women servants, five male chaplains and twenty male officers and servants; but they boarded and educated twenty-six children, gave three corrodies and supported thirteen poor sisters (who may however have done some of the work of the house). The twelve nuns of St Radegund’s lived more economically, with three male and four female servants and six hinds, besides the chaplains; but even their household seems a sufficiently large one. The ten nuns of Whitney Priory employed two priests, a waiting maid for the prioress, nine other women servants and thirteen hinds[421]. It is notable that the maintenance of a larger household than the revenues of the house could support is not infrequently censured in injunctions as responsible for its financial straits. At Nuncoton in 1440 the Prioress said that the house employed more women servants than was necessary[422] and a century later Bishop Longland spoke very sternly against the same fault:

that ye streight upon sight herof dymynishe the nombre of your seruants, as well men as women, which excessyve nombre that ye kepe of them bothe is oon of the grette causes of your miserable pouertye and that ye are nott hable to mayntene your houshold nouther reparacons of the same, by reason whereof all falleth to ruyne and extreme decaye. And therefore to kepe noo moo thenne shalbe urged necessarye for your said house[423].

On the other hand many nunneries could by no means be charged with keeping up an excessive household. Rusper, which had leased all its demesnes, had only two women servants in its employ at the Dissolution[424], and nuns sometimes complained to their visitors that they were too poor to keep servants and had to do the work of the house themselves, to the detriment of their religious duties in the choir. At Ankerwyke one of the nuns deposed that

[Pg 154]they had not serving folk in the brewhouse, bakehouse or kitchen from the last festival of the Nativity of St John the Baptist last year to the Michaelmas next following, in so much that this deponent, with the aid of other her sisters, prepared the beer and victuals and served the nuns with them in her own person.

At Gracedieu there was no servant for the infirmary and the subcellaress had to sleep there and look after the sick, so that she could not come to matins. At Markyate and Harrold the nuns had no washerwoman; at the former house it was said “that the nuns have no woman to wash their clothes and to prepare their food, wherefore they are either obliged to be absent from divine service or else to think the whole time about getting these things ready”; at the latter a nun said “that they have no common washerwoman to wash the clothes of the nuns, save four times a year, and at other times the nuns are obliged to go to the bank of the public stream to wash their clothes”[425]. It was probably on account of the poverty of Sinningthwaite that Archbishop Lee ordered “the susters and the nonys there [that] they kepe no seculer women to serve them or doe any busynes for them, but yf sekenes or oder necessitie doe require”[426].

As to the relations between the servants and their mistresses both visitation reports and account rolls sometimes give meagre scraps of information, which only whet the appetite for more. The payment of the servants was partly in money, partly in board or in allowances of food, partly in livery; stock-inventories constantly make mention of allowances of wheat, peas, oats or oatmeal and maslin (a mixture of wheat and rye) paid to this or that servant, and account rolls as constantly mention a livery, a pair of hose, a pair of shoes, or the money equivalent of these things, as forming part of the wage. The more important agricultural servants had also sometimes the right to graze a[Pg 155] cow, or a certain number of sheep on the convent’s pastures. Some servants, however, received wages without board, others wages without livery. Account rolls seem to bear witness to pleasant relations; there is constant mention of small tips or presents to the servants and of dinners made to them on great occasions. This was Merry England, when the ploughman’s feasts enlivened his hard work and comfortless existence; he must have his Shrovetide pancakes, his sheep-shearing feast, his “sickle goose” or harvest-home, and his Christmas dinner; and the household servants must as often as may be have a share in the convent pittance. The very general custom of allowing the female servants to sleep in the dorter (against which bishops were continually having to make injunctions) must have made for free and easy and close relations between the nuns and the secular women who served them; and sometimes one of these would save up and buy herself a corrody in the house to end her days[427]. Occasionally these close relations led to difficulties; a trusted maid would gain undue influence over the prioress and the nuns would be jealous of her. Thus at Heynings in 1440 it was complained that the prioress “encourages her secular serving women, whom she believes more than her sisters in their words, to scold the same her sisters”[428]. Sometimes also a servant would act as a go-between between the nuns and the outside world, smuggling in and out tokens and messages and sundry billets doux[429].

On the other hand there were sometimes difficulties of a different nature. The servants got out of hand; they brought discredit on the nuns by the indiscretions of their lives; they gossiped about their mistresses in the neighbourhood, or were quarrelsome and pert to their faces. At Gracedieu in 1440-41 a nun complained “that a Frenchwoman of very unseemly conversation is their maltstress, also that the secular serving folk hold the nuns in despite; she prays that they may be restrained; and chiefly are they rebellious in their words against[Pg 156] the kitchener”[430]; evidently the author of the Ancren Riwle spake not utterly from his imagination when he bade his ladies “be glad in your heart if ye suffer insolence from Slurry, the cook’s boy, who washeth dishes in the kitchen”[431]. At Markyate also the servants had to be warned “that honestly and not sturdyly ne rebukyngly thai hafe thaym in thaire langage to the sustres”[432] and at Studley a maidservant had boxed the ears of a novice of tender age[433]. At Sheppey in 1511 it was said that “the men servants of the prioress do not behave properly to the prioress, but speak of the convent contemptuously and dishonestly, thus ruining the convent”[434].

The peculiar difficulties suffered in this respect by an important house, which maintained a large body of servants, are best illustrated, however, in the case of Romsey Abbey. At this house in 1302 Bishop John of Pontoise ordained

that a useless, superfluous, quarrelsome and incontinent servant and one using insolent language to the ladies shall be removed within a month, ... and especially John Chark, who has often spoken ill and contumaciously in speaking to and answering the ladies, unless he correct himself so that no more complaints be made to the bishop[435].

John Chark possibly learned to bridle his tongue, but the tone among the Romsey servants was not good, for in 1311 Bishop Henry Woodlock ordered that “no women servants shall remain unless of good conversation and honest; pregnant, incontinent, quarrelsome women and those answering the nuns contumaciously, all superfluous and useless servants, [are] to be removed within a month”[436]. In 1387 the difficulties were of another order; writes William of Wykeham:

the secular women servants of the nuns are wont too often to come into the frater, at times when the nuns are eating there, and into[Pg 157] the cloister while the nuns are engaged there in chapter meetings, contemplation, reading or praying, and there do make a noise and behave otherwise ill, in a way which beseems not the honesty of religion. And these secular women often keep up their chattering, carolling (cantalenas) and other light behaviour, until the middle of the night, and disturb the aforesaid nuns, so that they cannot properly perform the regular services. Wherefore we ... command you that you henceforth permit not the aforesaid things, nor any other things which befit not the observances of your rule, to be done by the said servants or by others, and that you permit not these servants to serve you henceforth in the frater, and a servant or any other secular person who does the contrary shall be expelled from the monastery. Moreover we forbid on pain of the greater excommunication that any servants defamed for any offence be henceforth admitted to dwell among you, or having been admitted, be retained in your service, for from such grave scandals may arise concerning you and your house[437].

We have spoken hitherto about the regular hired servants of the house; but it must not be forgotten that nuns normally had a larger community dependent in part upon them. From time to time they were wont to hire such additional labour as they required, whether servants in husbandry taken on for the haymaking and harvest season, artificers hired to put up or repair buildings, workers in various branches of the cloth industry to make the liveries of the servants, itinerant candle-makers to prepare the winter dips, or a variety of casual workers hired at one time or another for specific purposes. The nuns of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, entered in their accounts a large number of payments besides those to their regular servants. In moments of stress they were wont to fall back upon a paragon named Katherine Rolf. We first meet her in 1449-50 weeding the garden for four days, for the modest sum of 4½d.; but soon afterwards behold her on the roof, aiding the thatchers to thatch two tenements, at 1½d. a day for twelve days. In the next year she is more active still; first of all she is found helping the candle-makers to make up 14 lbs. of tallow candles for the guest-house. Then she combs and cleans a pound of wool for spinning. Then she appears in the granary helping the maltster to thresh and winnow grain. In the midst of these activities she turns an honest penny by selling fat chickens to the convent. The nuns also disburse small sums of money to the man who[Pg 158] cleanses the convent privies, to the slawterman for killing beasts for the kitchen, to Richard Gardyner for beating stockfish, to Thomas Osborne for making malt, to Thomas the Smith for providing a variety of iron implements and cart-clowtes, for shoeing the horses and for mending the ploughshares, and for “blooding the horses on St Stephen’s day” (Dec. 26), to Thomas Boltesham, cowper, for mending wooden utensils, to Thomas Speed for helping in the kitchen on fair-day and to John Speed for working in the garden. Besides these they hire various day-labourers to work in the fields during the sowing season, hay-making and harvest, or to lop trees round the convent and hew up firewood, or to prune and tie up the vines (for there were English vineyards in those days). Then there is a long list of carpenters, builders, thatchers, and plumbers engaged in making and repairing the buildings of the convent and its tenants. Finally there are the various cloth workers, spinners, weaver, fuller, shearman, dyer and tailor hired to make the servants’ clothes, concerning whom something has already been said[438].

Thus many persons came to depend upon a nunnery for part of their livelihood, who were not the permanent servants of the house, and this goes further than any imagined reverence for the lives and calling of their inmates to explain the anxiety shown in some places for the preservation of nunneries when the day of dissolution came. The convents were not only inns and boarding-houses for ladies of the upper class and occasionally schools for their daughters; they were the great employers and consumers of their districts, and though their places must sooner or later be taken by other employers and consumers, yet at the moment many a husbandman and artificer must have seen his livelihood about to slip away from him. The nuns of Sheppey, in their distant and lonely flats, clearly employed a whole village[439]. They could[Pg 159] not count on hiring carpenter and thatcher for piece-work when they wanted them in that thinly populated spot, so they must hire them all the year round. Twenty-six hinds and seven women they had in all, working in their domestic offices or on the wide demesne, most of which they farmed themselves, for food was far to buy if they did not grow it. Three shepherds kept their large flock, a cowherd drove their kine and hogs, a horse-keeper looked to their 17 horses. All the other men and women were busy with the beasts and the crops in the field, or with work in the brew house, the “bultyng howse,” the bakehouse and the dairy. So also at the abbey of Polesworth, where fifteen nuns employed in all thirty-eight persons, women servants, yeomen about the household and hinds. “In the towne of Pollesworth,” said the commissioners, who were gentlemen of the district and not minded to lose the house:

ar 44 tenementes and never a plough but one, the resydue be artifycers, laborers and vitellers, and lyve in effect by the said house.... And the towne and nonnery standith in a harde soile and barren ground, and to our estymacions, yf the nonnery be suppressed the towne will shortely after falle to ruyne and dekaye, and the people therin, to the nombre of six or seven score persones, are nott unlike to wander and to seke their lyvyng as our Lorde Gode best knowith[440].

So also at St Mary’s, Winchester, whose household we have described:

the seid Monastery ... standith nigh the Middell of the Citye, of a great and large Compasse, envyroned with many poore housholdes[Pg 160] which haue theyr oonly lyuynge of the seid Monastery, And have no demaynes whereby they may make any prouysion, butt lyue oonly by theyr landes, making theyr prouysion in the markettes[441].

The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and a livelihood fulfils itself in many ways; yet many labouring folk as well as gentlemen must have felt like the commissioners at Polesworth and St Mary’s, Winchester, when the busy monastic housewives were dispersed and the grain and cattle sold out of barn and byre. There is no-one so conservative as your bread-winner, and for the best of reasons.



[Pg 161]



Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen, six; result, happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six; result, misery.

Mr Micawber.


In the history of the medieval nunneries of England there is nothing more striking than the constant financial straits to which they were reduced. Professor Savine’s analysis of the Valor Ecclesiasticus has shown that in 1535 the nunneries were on an average only half as rich as the men’s houses, while the average number of religious persons in them was larger[442]; and yet it is clear from the evidence of visitation documents that even the men’s houses were continually in debt. It is therefore not to be wondered at that there was hardly a nunnery in England, which did not at one time or another complain of poverty. These financial difficulties had already begun before the end of the thirteenth century and they grew steadily worse until the moment of the Dissolution. The worst sufferers of all were the nunneries of Yorkshire and the North, a prey to the inroads of the Scots, who time after time pillaged their lands and sometimes dispersed their inmates; Yorkshire was full of nunneries and almost all of them were miserably poor. But in other parts of the country, without any such special cause, the position was little better. When Bishop Alnwick visited the diocese of Lincoln in the first half of the fifteenth century, fourteen out of the twenty-five houses which he examined were in financial difficulties. Moreover not only is this true of small houses, inadequately endowed from their foundation and less likely to weather bad times, but the largest and richest houses frequently complained of insufficient means. It is easy to understand the distress of the poor nuns of Rothwell; their founder Richard, Earl of Gloucester,[Pg 162] had died before properly endowing the house, and the prioress and convent could expend for their food and clothing only four marks and the produce of four fields of land, in one of which the house was situated[443]. But it is less easy to account for the constant straits of the great Abbey of Shaftesbury, which had such vast endowments that a popular saying had arisen: “If the Abbot of Glastonbury could marry the Abbess of Shaftesbury, their heir would hold more land than the King of England”[444]. It is comprehensible that the small houses of Lincolnshire and the dangerously situated houses of Yorkshire should be in difficulties; but their complaints are not more piteous than those of Romsey, Godstow and Barking, richly endowed nunneries, to which the greatest ladies of the land did not disdain to retire.

The poverty of the nunneries was manifested in many ways. One of these was the extreme prevalence of debt. On the occasion of Bishop Alnwick’s visitations, to which reference has been made above, no less than eleven houses were found to be in debt[445]. At Ankerwyke the debts amounted to £40, at Langley to £50, at Stixwould to 80 marks, at Harrold to 20 marks, at Rothwell to 6 marks. Markyate was “indebted to divers creditors for a great sum.” Heynings was in debt owing to costly repairs and to several bad harvests, and about the same time a petition from the nuns stated that they had “mortgaged for no short time their possessions and rents and thus remain irrecoverably pledged, have incurred various very heavy debts and are much depressed and brought to great and manifest poverty”[446]. In some cases the prioresses claimed to have reduced an initial debt; the Prioress of St Michael’s, Stamford, said that on her installation twelve years previously the debts stood at £20 and that they were now only 20 marks; the Prioress of Gracedieu said that[Pg 163] she had reduced debts from £48 to £38; the Prioress of Legbourne said that the debts were now only £14 instead of £63[447]. But from the miserable poverty of some of these houses (for instance Gokewell, where the income in rents was said to be £10 yearly and Langley, where it was £20, less than half the amount of the debts) it may be inferred that the struggle to repay creditors out of an already insufficient income was a hopeless one; and the effort to do so out of capital was often more disastrous still. Nothing is more striking than the lists of debts which figure in the account rolls of medieval nunneries. In thirteen out of seventeen account rolls belonging to St Michael’s Stamford[448] and ranging between 1304 and 1410, the nuns end the year with a deficit; and in fourteen cases there is a schedule of debts added to the account. Sometimes the amount owed is small, but occasionally it is very large. In the first roll which has survived (1304-5) the deficit on the account is some £5 odd; the debts are entered as £23. 1s. 11d. on the present year (which were apparently afterwards paid, because the items were marked “vacat pour ceo ke le deners sount paye”) and fifteen items amounting to £52. 3s. 8d. and described as “nos auncienes dettes estre cest aan”; in fact the debts amount to considerably more than the income entered in the roll[449]. Similarly in 1346-47 the debts amount to £51 odd and in 1376-77 to £53 odd, and in other years to smaller sums. In some cases a list of debts due to the convent is also entered in the account, but in only four of these does the money owed to the house exceed the amount owing by it; and “argent aprompté” or “money borrowed” is a regular item in the credit account. Similarly the treasuresses’ accounts of Gracedieu end with long schedules of debts due by the house[450]. Nor was it only the small houses which got into[Pg 164] debt. Tarrant Keynes was quite well off, but as early as 1292 the nuns asked the royal leave to sell forty oaks to pay their debts[451]. Godstow was rich, but in 1316 the King had to take it under his protection and appoint keepers to discharge its debts, “on account of its poverty and miserable state,” and in 1335 the profits during vacancy were remitted to the convent by the King “because of its poverty and misfortunes”[452]. St Mary’s, Winchester, was a famous house, but it also was in debt early in the fourteenth century[453]. It should be noticed that the last cases (and that of St Michael’s Stamford, 1304-5) are anterior to the Black Death, to whose account it has been customary to lay all the financial misfortunes of the religious houses. It is undeniable that the Black Death completed the ruin of many of the smaller houses, and that matters grew steadily worse during the last half of the fourteenth and throughout the fifteenth century; but there is ample evidence that the finances of many religious houses, both of men and of women, had been in an unsatisfactory condition at an earlier date; and even the golden thirteenth century can show cases of heavy debt[454].

In the smaller houses the constant struggle with poverty must have entailed no little degree of discomfort and discouragement. Sometimes the nuns seem actually to have lacked food and clothes, and it seems clear that in many cases the revenues of these convents were insufficient for their support and that they were dependent upon the charity of friends. A typical case is that of Legbourne, where one of the nuns informed Bishop Alnwick (1440) that since the revenues of the house did not exceed £40 and since there were thirteen nuns and one novice, it was impossible for so many of them to have sufficient food and clothing from such inadequate rents, unless they [Pg 165]received assistance from secular friends[455]. Fosse in 1341 was said to be so slenderly endowed that the nuns had not enough to live on without external aid[456]; and in 1440 Alnwick noted “all the nuns complain ever of the poverty of the house and they receive nothing from it save only food and drink”[457]. Of Buckland it was stated that “its possessions cannot suffice for the sustenance of the said sisters with their household, for the emendation of their building, for their clothes and for their other necessities without the help of friends and the offering of alms”[458]. Cokehill in 1336 was excused a tax because it was so inadequately endowed that the nuns had not enough to live upon without outside aid[459]. Davington in 1344 was in the same position; although the nuns were reduced to half their former number, they could not live upon their revenues without the charity of friends[460]. Alnwick’s visitations, indeed, show quite clearly that in poor houses the nuns were often expected to provide either clothes or (on certain days) food for themselves, out of the gift of their friends[461]. At Sinningthwaite, in the diocese of York, the position appears even more clearly; in 1319 it was declared that the nuns who had no elders, relatives or friends, lacked the necessary clothes and were therefore afflicted with cold, whereupon the Archbishop ordered them to have clothes provided out of the means of the house[462]. The clause of the Council of Oxford which permitted poor houses to receive a sum sufficient for the vesture of a new member was evidently stretched to include the perpetual provision of clothing by external friends, and this is sometimes indicated in the wording of legacies. Thus Roger de Noreton, citizen and mercer of York, left the following bequest in 1390:

I bequeath to Isabel, my daughter, a nun of St Clement’s, York, to buy her black flannels (pro flannelis suis nigris emendis), according to the arrangement of my wife Agnes and of my other executors, at fitting times, according to her needs, four marks of silver[463].

[Pg 166]Sir Thomas Cumberworth, dying in 1451, specifically directed that “ye blak Curteyne of lawne be cut in vailes and gyfyn to pore nones”[464].

The nuns were not always able to obtain adequate help from external friends in the matter of food and clothes; and evidence given at episcopal visitations shows that they sometimes went cold and hungry. Complaints are common that the allowance paid to the nuns (in defiance of canon law) for the provision of food and of garments had been reduced or withdrawn; and so also are complaints that the quality of beer provided by the convent was poor, though here the propensity of all communities to grumble at their food has to be taken into account[465]. But more specific information is often given; and though it is clear that financial mismanagement was often as much to blame as poverty, the sufferings of the nuns were not for that reason any less real. The Yorkshire nunnery of Swine is a case in point. It was never rich, but at Archbishop Giffard’s visitation in 1268 the nuns complained that the maladministration of their fellow canons[466] had made their position intolerable. Although the means of the house, if discreetly managed, sufficed to maintain them, they nevertheless had nothing but bread and cheese and ale for meals and were even served with water instead of ale twice a week, while the canons and their friends were provided for “abundantly and sumptuously enough”; the nuns were moreover insufficiently provided with shoes and clothes; they had only one pair of shoes each year[467] and barely a tunic in every three and a cloak in every six years, unless they managed to beg more from relatives and secular friends[468]. Fifty years later there was still scarcity at Swine, for the Prioress was ordered to see that the house was reasonably served with bread, ale and other necessities[469]. At Ankerwyke (1441) the frivolous and incompetent Prioress, Clemence Medforde, reduced her nuns to[Pg 167] similar discomfort. Margery Kirkby, whose tongue nothing could stop, announced that “she furnishes not nor for three years’ space has furnished fitting habits to the nuns, insomuch that the nuns go about in patched clothes. The threadbareness of the nuns” added the bishop’s clerk “was apparent to my lord. (Patebat domino nuditas monialium.)” Three of the younger nuns also made complaints; Thomasine Talbot had no bedclothes “insomuch that she lies in the straw,” Agnes Dychere “asks that sufficient provision be made to her in clothing for her bed and body, that she may be covered from the cold, and also in eatables, that she may have strength to undergo the burden of religious observance and divine service, for these hitherto had not been supplied to her”; and Margaret Smith also complained of insufficient bedclothes. Poor little sister Thomasine also remarked sadly that she had no kirtle provided for her use[470].

The history of Romsey shows that even the rich houses suffered from similar inconveniences. In 1284 Peckham speaks of a scarcity of food in the house and forbids the Abbess to fare sumptuously in her chamber, while the convent went short[471]; in 1311 it was ordered that the bread should be brought back to the weight, quantity and quality hitherto used[472]; and in 1387 William of Wykeham rather severely commanded the Abbess and officiaries to provide for the nuns bread, beer and other fit and proper victuals, according to ancient custom and to the means of the house[473]. Campsey was another flourishing house, but in 1532 a chorus of complaint greeted the ears of the visitor,[Pg 168] and (as in so many cases) the ills were all put down to the mismanagement of the Prioress, Ela Buttry. She was not too luxurious, but too stingy; Katherine Symon said that noble guests, coming to the priory, complained of the very great parsimony of the Prioress; Margaret Harmer said that the sisters were sometimes served with very unwholesome food; Isabel Norwich said that the friends of the nuns, coming to the house, were not properly provided for; Margaret Bacton said that dinner was late through the fault of the cook and that the meat was burnt to a cinder; Katherine Grome said that the beef and mutton with which the nuns were served were sometimes bad and unwholesome and that within the past month a sick ox, which would otherwise have died, had been killed for food, and that the Prioress was very sparing both in her own meals and in those with which she provided the nuns; and four other sisters gave evidence to the same effect[474]. One has the impression that the nuns were elderly and fussy, but there was evidently a basis for their unanimous complaint, and it is easy to imagine that food may sometimes have been very bad in convents which (unlike Campsey) were burdened with real poverty[475].

Another sign of the financial distress of the nunneries was the ruinous condition of their buildings. The remark written by a shivering monk in a set of nonsense verses may well stand as the plaint of half the nunneries of England:

Haec abbathia ruit, hoc notum sit tibi, Christe,
Intus et extra pluit, terribilis est locus iste.

(“This abbey falleth in ruins, Christ mark this well! It raineth within and without; how fearful is this place!”)[476]. Time after time[Pg 169] visitations revealed houses badly in need of repair and roofs letting in rain or even tumbling about the ears of the nuns; time after time indulgences were granted to Christians who would help the poor nuns to rebuild church or frater or infirmary. The thatched roofs especially were continually needing repairs. It will be remembered how the Abbess Euphemia of Wherwell rebuilt the bell tower above the dorter,

which fell down through decay one night, about the hour of mattins, when by an obvious miracle from heaven, though the nuns were in the dorter, some in bed and some in prayer before their beds, all escaped not only death but any bodily injury[477].



Brass of Ela Buttry, the stingy Prioress of Campsey († 1546), in St Stephen’s Church, Norwich. Stingy even in death, she has appropriated to her own use the brass of a 14th century laywoman.


At Crabhouse in the time of Joan Wiggenhall

the dortour that than was, as fer forthe as we knowe, the furste that was set up on the place, was at so grete mischeef and, at the gate-downe, the Prioresse dredyinge perisschyng of her sistres whiche lay thereinne took it doune for drede of more hermys,

and next year “sche began the grounde of the same dortoure that now stondith and wrought thereupon fulli vij yere betymes as God wolde sende hir good[478].” The Prioress of Swine was ordered in 1318 to have the dorter covered without delay, so that the nuns might quietly and in silence enter it, without annoyance from storms, and to have the roofs of the other buildings repaired as soon as might be[479]. At St Radegund’s Cambridge, in 1373, the Prioress was charged with suffering the frater to remain unroofed, so that in rainy weather the sisters were unable to take their meals there, to which she replied that the nunnery was so burdened with debts, subsidies and contributions, that she had so far been unable to carry out repairs, but would do so as quickly as possible[480]. At Littlemore in 1445 the nuns did not sleep in the dorter for fear it should fall[481]. At Romsey in 1502 the wicked Abbess Elizabeth Broke had allowed the roofs of the chancel and dorter to become defective, “so that if it happened to rain the nuns were unable[Pg 170] to remain either in the quire in time of divine service or in their beds and the funds that the abbess ought to have expended on these matters were being squandered on Master Bryce”; the fabric of the monastery in stone walls was also going to decay through her neglect, and so were various tenements belonging to the house in the town of Romsey[482]. Over a hundred and twenty years before, William of Wykeham had found Romsey hardly less dilapidated, with its church, infirmary and nuns’ rooms “full of many enormous and notable defects,” and the buildings of the monastery itself and of its different manors in need of repair[483]. Of the unfortunate houses within the area of Scottish inroads, Arden, Thicket, Keldholme, Rosedale, Swine, Wykeham, Arthington and Moxby were all ruinous at the beginning of the fourteenth century; the monotonous list includes the church, frater and chapter house of Arden, the cloister of Rosedale, the bakehouse and brewhouse of Moxby, the dorter and frater of Arthington[484].

In the sixteenth century the distress was, as usual, at its worst. At the visitation of the Chichester diocese by Bishop Sherburn in 1521 the cloister of Easebourne needed roofing and Rusper was “in magno decasu”; six years later Rusper was still “aliqualiter ruinosa”[485]. At the Norwich visitations of Bishop Nykke the church of Blackborough was in ruins, and the roofs of cloister and frater at Flixton were defective; while at Crabhouse buildings were in need of repair and the roof of the Lady chapel was ruinous[486]; Joan Wiggenhall must have turned in her grave. Bishop Longland’s visitations of the diocese of Lincoln show a similar state of affairs. In 1531 he commanded the[Pg 171] Abbess of Elstow “that suche reparacons as be necessarye in and upon the buildinges within the said monasterye, and other houses, tenements and fearmes thereto belonging, be suffycyently doon and made within the space of oon yere,” and the Prioress of Nuncoton, “that ye cause your firmary, your chirche and all other your houses that be in ruyne and dekaye within your monastery to be suffycyently repayred within this yere if itt possible may”; and reminded the nuns of Studley that they “muste bestowe lardge money upon suche reparacons as are to be doon upon your churche, quere, dortor and other places whiche ar in grete decaye”[487]. At Goring, also, the nuns all complained that the buildings were utterly out of repair, especially the choir, cloister and dorter[488].

The frequency of fires in the middle ages was probably often to blame for the ruin of buildings. There were then no contrivances for extinguishing flames, and the thatched and wooden houses must have burned like stubble. Thus it was that “thorow the negligens of woman[489] with fyre brent up a good malt-house with a soler and alle her malt there” at Crabhouse,[Pg 172] and Joan Wiggenhall had to repair it at a cost of five pounds[490]. There is a piteous appeal to Edward I from the nuns of Cheshunt, who had been impoverished by a fire and sought “help from the King of his special grace and for God’s sake”; but “Nihil fiat hac vice,” replied red tape[491]; an undated petition in the Record Office says that the house, church and goods of the nuns had twice been burned and their charters destroyed[492]. In 1299 the Abbess of Wilton received permission to fell fifty oaks in the forest of Savernake “in order to rebuild therewith certain houses in the abbey lately burnt by mischance”[493]. At Wykeham, in Edward III’s reign, the priory church, cloisters and twenty-four other buildings were accidentally burned down and all the books, vestments and chalices of the nuns were destroyed[494]. Similarly the nuns of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, lost their house and all their substance by fire at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and in 1376 their buildings were again said to have been burned; either they had never recovered from their first disaster or a second fire had broken out[495]. The nuns of St Leonard’s, Grimsby, apparently lost their granaries in 1311, for they sought licence to beg on the ground that their houses and corn had been consumed by fire, and in 1459 they asked for a similar licence, because their buildings had been burnt, and their land inundated[496]. The convent of St Bartholomew’s, Newcastle, gave misfortune by fire as one reason for wishing to appropriate the hospital or chapel of St Edmund the King in Gateshead[497].

Sometimes poverty, misfortune and mismanagement reduced the nuns to begging alms. About 1253 the convent of St Mary of Chester wrote to Queen Eleanor, begging her to confirm the election of a prioress “to our miserable convent amidst its multiplied desolations; for so greatly are we reduced that we are compelled every day to beg abroad our food, slight as it is”[498]. Similarly the starving nuns of Whitehall, Ilchester, were reduced to “begging miserably,” after the régime of a wicked[Pg 173] prioress at the beginning of the fourteenth century[499]. In 1308 the subprioress and convent of Whiston mentioned, in asking for permission to elect Alice de la Flagge, that the smallness of their possessions had compelled the nuns formerly to beg, “to the scandal of womanhood and the discredit of religion”[500]. In 1351 Bishop Edyndon of Winchester “counted it a merciful thing,” to come to the assistance of the great Abbeys of Romsey and St Mary’s Winchester, “when overwhelmed with poverty, and when in these days of increasing illdoing and social deterioration they were brought to the necessity of secret begging”[501]. At Cheshunt in 1367 the nuns declared that they often had to beg in the highways[502]. At Rothwell in 1392 the extreme poverty of the nuns compelled some of them “to incur the opprobrium of mendicity and beg alms after the fashion of the mendicant friars”[503]. In all these cases it is evident that objection was taken to personal begging by the nuns, and it is clear that such a practice, which took the nuns out into the streets and into private houses, was likely to be subversive of discipline. The custom of begging through a proctor was open to no such objection; and it was common for bishops to give to the poorer houses licences, allowing them to collect alms in this manner. Early in the fifteenth century the nuns of Rowney in Hertfordshire petitioned the Chancellor for letters patent for a proctor to go about the country and collect alms for them, and their request was granted[504]. Many such licences to beg occur in episcopal registers; Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln granted them to Little[Pg 174] Marlow (1300 and 1311)[505], St Leonard’s Grimsby (1311)[506], and Rothwell (1318)[507]; and St Michael’s Stamford (1359) and Sewardsley (1366) received similar licences from his successors[508]. The distinction between begging by the nuns and begging by a proctor is clearly drawn in the licence granted by Bishop Dalderby to Rothwell. Addressing the clergy in the Archidiaconates of Northampton and Buckingham he writes:

Pitying, with paternal affection, the want of the poor nuns of Rothwell in our diocese, who are oppressed by such scarcity that they are obliged to beg the necessities of life, we command and straitly enjoin you, that when there shall come to you suitable and honest secular proctors or messengers of the same nuns (not the nuns themselves, that they may have no occasion for wandering thereby), to seek and receive the alms of the faithful for their necessities, ye shall receive them kindly and expound the cause of the said nuns to the people in your churches, on Sundays, and feast days during the solemnisation of mass, and promote the same by precept and by example once every year for the next three years, delivering the whole of whatever shall be collected to these proctors and messengers[509].

The Bishops sought to relieve necessitous convents by offering particular inducements to the faithful to give alms, when they were thus requested. Along with mending roads and bridges, ransoming captives, dowering poor maidens, building churches and endowing hospitals, the assistance of impecunious nunneries was generally recognised as a work of Christian charity, and indulgences were often offered to those who would aid a particular house[510]. The same Bishop Dalderby, for instance, granted indulgences for the assistance of Cheshunt, Flamstead[511], Sewardsley,[Pg 175] Catesby, Delapré[512], Ivinghoe[513], Fosse[514], St James’ outside Huntingdon and St Radegund’s, Cambridge[515]. Archbishop Kemp of York granted an indulgence of a hundred days valid for two years to all who should assist towards the repair of Arden (1440) and of Esholt (1445), and Archbishop William Booth (1456) granted an indulgence of forty days to penitents contributing to the repair of Yedingham[516]; indeed it is probable that the money for the much needed work of roofing a building could be collected only by means of such special appeals. The Popes also sometimes granted indulgences; Boniface IX did so to penitents who on the feasts of dedication visited and gave alms towards the conservation of the churches and priories of Wilberfoss, St Clement’s, York, and Handale[517]. The history of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, will serve to illustrate the method by which the Church thus organised the work of poor-relief in the middle ages; and it will be noticed that this nunnery was an object of care to Bishops of other dioceses beside that of Ely[518]. In 1254 Walter de Suffield, Bishop of Norwich, granted a relaxation of penance for twenty-five days to persons contributing to the aid of the nuns; in 1268 Richard de Gravesend, Bishop of Lincoln, ordered collections to be made in the churches of the Archidiaconates of Northampton and Huntingdon on their behalf; in 1277 Roger de Skerning, Bishop of Norwich, ordered collections to be made in his diocese for the repair of the church; in 1313 the Official of the Archdeacon of Ely wrote to the parochial clergy of the diocese recommending the nuns to them as objects of charity, having lost their house and goods by fire, and in the same year Bishop Dalderby granted an indulgence on their behalf for this reason[519]; while in 1314 John de Ketene, Bishop of Ely, confirmed the grants of indulgence made by his brother bishops to persons contributing to their relief and to the rebuilding of the house. The next indulgence mentioned is one of forty days granted by[Pg 176] Thomas Arundel, Bishop of Ely, in 1376, also on the occasion of a fire; in 1389 Bishop Fordham of Ely granted another forty days indulgence for the repair of the church and cloister and for the relief of the nuns[520], and in 1390 William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury, made a similar grant, mentioning that the buildings had been ruined by violent storms; finally in 1457 Bishop Grey of Ely granted a forty days indulgence for the repair of the bell-tower and for the maintenance of books, vestments and other church ornaments[521]. There is no need to suppose that St Radegund’s was in any way a particularly favoured house; and such a list of grants shows that the Church fulfilled conscientiously the duty of organising poor-relief and that the objects for which indulgences were granted were not always as unworthy as has sometimes been supposed[522].

The financial straits to which the smaller convents were continually and the greater convents sometimes reduced grew out of a number of causes; and it is interesting to inquire what brought the nuns to debt or to begging and why they were so often in difficulties. A study of monastic documents makes it clear that a great deal of this poverty was in no sense the fault of the nuns. Apart from obvious cases of insufficient endowment, the medieval monasteries suffered from natural disasters, which were the lot of all men, and from certain exactions at the hands of men, which fell exclusively upon themselves. Of natural disasters the frequency of fires has already been mentioned. Another danger, from which houses situated in low lying land near a river or the sea were never free, was that of floods. The inundation of their lands was declared one of the reasons for appropriating the church of Bradford-on-Avon to Shaftesbury in 1343; and in 1380 the nuns were allowed to appropriate another church, in consideration of damage done to their lands by encroachments of the sea and losses of sheep and cattle[523]. In 1377 Barking suffered the devastation by flood of a large part of its possessions along the Thames and never recovered its former[Pg 177] prosperity[524]; and in 1394 Bishop Fordham of Ely granted an indulgence for the nuns of Ankerwyke, whose goods had been destroyed by floods[525]. In the north the lands of St Leonard’s, Grimsby, were flooded in 1459[526]; in 1445 the nuns of Esholt suffered heavy losses from the flooding of their lands near the river Aire, which had been cultivated at great cost and from which they derived their maintenance[527]; and in 1434 Archbishop Rotherham appealed for help for the nuns of Thicket, whose fields and pasturages had been inundated and who had suffered much loss by the death of their cattle[528]. Heavy storms are mentioned as contributing to the distress of Shaftesbury in 1365[529] and of St Radegund’s, Cambridge, in 1390[530]. Moreover some houses suffered by their situation in barren and unproductive lands. Easebourne in 1411 complained of “the sterility of the lands, meadows and other property of the priory, which is situated in a solitary, waste and thorny place”[531]; Heynings put forward the same plea in 1401[532]; and Flamstead in 1380[533].

But far more terrible than fire and flood were those two other scourges, with which nature afflicted the men of the middle ages, famine and pestilence. The Black Death of 1348-9 was only one among the pestilences of the fourteenth century; it had the result of “domesticating the bubonic plague upon the soil of England”; for more than three centuries afterwards it continued to break out at short intervals, first in one part of the country and then in another[534]. The epidemics of the fourteenth[Pg 178] century were so violent that in forty years the chroniclers count up five great plagues, beginning with the Black Death, and Langland, in a metaphor of terrible vividness, describes the pestilence as “the rain that raineth where we rest should.” The Black Death was preceded by a famine pestilence in 1317-8, when there was “a grievous mortalitie of people so that the sicke might vnneath burie the dead.” It was followed in 1361 by the Second Plague, which was especially fatal among the upper classes and among the young. The Third Plague in 1368-9 was probably primarily a famine sickness, mixed with plague. The Fourth plague broke out in 1375; and the Fifth, in 1390-1 was so prolonged and so severe as to be considered comparable with the Black Death itself. Moreover these are only the great landmarks, and scattered between them were smaller outbreaks of sickness, due to scarcity or to spoiled grain and fruit. The pestilences continued in the fifteenth century (more than twenty-one are recorded in the chronicles), but, except perhaps for the great plague of 1439, they were seldom universal and came by degrees to be confined to the towns, so that all who could used to flee to the country when the summer heat brought out the disease in crowded and insanitary streets. But if country convents escaped the worst disease, those situated in borough towns ran a heavy risk.

Often enough these plagues were preceded and accompanied by famines, sometimes local and sometimes general. The English famines had long been notorious and were enshrined in a popular proverb: “Tres plagae tribus regionibus appropriari solent, Anglorum fames, Gallorum ignis, Normannorum lepra”[535]. The three greatest outbreaks took place in 1194-6, in 1257-9 and in 1315-6 (before the plague of 1318-9). The dearth which culminated in the last of these famines had begun as early as 1289; and the misery in 1315 was acute:

“The beastes and cattell also,” says Stow, translating from Trokelowe, “by the corrupt grane whereof they fed, dyed, whereby it came to passe that the eating of flesh was suspected of all men, for flesh of beasts not corrupted was hard to finde. Horse-flesh was counted great delicates the poore stole fatte dogges to eate; some (as it was sayde) compelled through famine, in hidden places did eate the flesh of their owne children, and some stole others, which they devoured.[Pg 179] Theeves that were in prisons did plucke in peeces those that were newly brought among them and greedily devoured them halfe alive.”

There was another severe famine in 1322, and in 1325 a great drought, so that the cattle died for lack of water. Famine accompanied the pestilences of 1361, 1369, 1391 and 1439; and these are only the more outstanding instances. Here again, however, the fourteenth century was on the whole worse off than the fifteenth; almost every year was a year of scarcity and the average price of wheat during the period 1261 to 1400 was nearly six shillings (i.e. nearly six pounds of modern money)[536]. Moreover the ravages of murrain among cattle and sheep were hardly intermittent from the end of the thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century[537]. The fatal years 1315-9 included not only a famine and a plague but also (1318-9) a murrain among the cattle, which was so bad that dogs and ravens, eating the dead bodies, were poisoned and died, and no man dared eat any beef. In the year of the Black Death also there was “a great plague of sheep in the realm, so that in one place there died in pasturage more than five thousand sheep and so rotted that neither beast nor bird would touch them”; and murrains accompanied the four other great plagues of the century. Indeed dearth, murrain and pestilence went hand in hand, in that unhappy time we call the “good old days.”

These natural disasters could not but have an adverse effect upon the fortunes of the monastic houses; and many charters and petitions contain clauses which specifically attribute the distress of this or that nunnery to one of the three causes described above. During the famine years of 1314-5 Walter Reynolds, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Bishop of Winchester, urging him to take some steps for the relief of the nuns of Wintney, who were dispersing themselves in the world, because no proper provision was made for their food[538], and about the same time the convent of Clerkenwell addressed a petition to Queen Isabel, stating that they were “moet enpouerees par les durs annez” and begging her to procure for them the King’s leave to accept certain lands and rents to the value of twenty[Pg 180] pounds[539]. In 1326 (after the great drought) the nuns of King’s Mead, Derby, begged the King to take them under his special protection, granting the custody of the house to two custodes, on the ground that, owing to the badness of past years and the unusually heavy mortality among cattle their revenues were reduced and they were unable to meet the claims made by guests upon their hospitality[540]. The ravages of the Black Death were most severe of all and many houses never recovered from it[541]. In the diocese of Lincoln the nunnery of Wothorpe lost all its members save one, whom the Bishop made Prioress; and in 1354 it was annexed to St Michael’s Stamford[542]. Greenfield Priory, when he visited it in 1350, “per tres menses stetit et stat priorisse solacio destituta”[543]; and other houses in this large diocese which lost their heads were Fosse, Markyate, Hinchinbrooke, Gracedieu, Rothwell, Delapré, Catesby, Sewardsley, Littlemore and Godstow[544]. In the diocese of York the prioresses of Arthington, Kirklees, Wallingwells and St Stephen’s Foukeholm died; the latter house, like Wothorpe, failed to recover and is never heard of again[545]. Other parts of the country suffered in the same way. At Malling Abbey in Kent the Bishop made two abbesses in succession, but both died and only four professed nuns and four novices remained, to one of whom the Bishop committed the custody of the temporalities and to another that of the spiritualities, because there was no fit person to be made Abbess[546]. At Henwood, in August 1349, there was no Prioress, “and of the fifteen nuns who were lately there, three only remain”[547].

The death of the nuns themselves was, moreover, the least disastrous effect of the pestilence; it left a legacy of neglected lands, poverty and labour troubles which lasted for long after[Pg 181] a new generation of sisters had forgotten the fate of their predecessors. The value of Flixton dwindled after the Black Death to half its former income, and the house was never prosperous again[548]. In 1351 the nuns of Romsey petitioned for leave to annex certain lands and advowsons and gave as one of the reasons for their impoverishment “the diminution or loss of due and appointed rents, because of the death of tenants, carried off by the unheard of and unwonted pestilence”[549], and in 1352 the house of St Mary’s Winchester made special mention, in petitioning for the appropriation of a church, of the reduction of its rents and of the cattle plague[550]. The other great plagues of the century aggravated the distress. St Mary’s Winchester and Shaftesbury mentioned the pestilence (of 1361) in petitions to the King three years later[551]. Four of the sixteen nuns of Carrow died in the year of the third pestilence (1369)[552], and in 1378, three years after the fourth pestilence, the licence allowing Sewardsley to appropriate the church of Easton Neston, recites that the value of its lands had been so diminished by the pestilence that they no longer sufficed to maintain the statutory numbers[553]. In 1381 (mentioned as a plague and famine year in some of the chronicles) a bull of Urban IV, appropriating a church to Flamstead, after recapitulating the slender endowments of the house, repeats the complaint that

the servants of the said priory are for the most part dead, and its houses and tenants and beasts are so destroyed that its lands and possessions remain as it were sterile, waste and uncultivated, wherefore, unless the said Prioress and Convent be by some remedy succoured, they will be obliged to beg for the necessities of life from door to door[554].

In 1395, four years after the “Fifth” pestilence and itself a year of bad plague and famine, the nuns of Legbourne complained that their lands and tenements were uncultivated, “on account of the dearth of cultivators and rarity of men, arising out of unwonted pestilences and epidemics”[555]. The outbreak of 1405-7 was followed by a petition from Easebourne[Pg 182] for licence to appropriate two churches, on the ground of “epidemics, death of men and of servants,” and because

the lands and tenements of the Prioress and Convent notoriously suffer so great ruin that few tenants can be found willing to occupy the lands in these days, and the said lands, ever falling into a worse state, are so poor that they cannot supply the religious women with sufficient support for themselves or for the repair of their ruinous buildings.[556]

The worst of these natural disasters was not the actual damage done by each outbreak, but the fact that famine, murrain and pestilence followed upon pestilence, murrain and famine with such rapidity, that the poorer houses had no chance of recovery from the initial blow dealt them by the Black Death. The nuns of Thetford, for instance, were excused from the taxation of religious houses under Henry VI, on the ground that their revenues in Norfolk and in Suffolk were much decreased by the recent mortality and had so continued since 1349[557]. Even the well-endowed houses found recovery difficult, and the history of the great abbey of Shaftesbury illustrates the situation very clearly. In 1365, shortly after the pestis secunda, the nuns received a grant of the custody of their temporalities on the next voidance, and losses by pestilence were mentioned as one reason for the decline in their fortunes. In 1380 their lands were flooded and they suffered heavy losses in sheep and cattle. In 1382 (the year of the fifth plague) they were obliged to petition once again for help, representing that although their house was well-endowed,

toutes voies voz dites oratrices sont einsi arreriz a jour de huy, quoy par les pestilences en queles lours tenantz sont trez toutz a poy mortz, et par murryne de lour bestaille a grant nombre et value, nemye tant seulement a une place et a une foitz, einz a diverses foitz en toutes leurs places, quoy par autres grandes charges quelles lour convient a fine force de jour en autre porter et sustenir, q’eles ne purront, sinoun qe a moelt grant peine, sanz lour endangerer al diverses bones gentz lours Creditours, mesner l’an a bon fyn[558].

Again towards the middle of the fifteenth century Bishop Ayscough sanctioned the appropriation of a church to the abbey, which had pleaded its great impoverishment through pestilence, failure of crops, want of labourers, and through the excessive[Pg 183] demands of such labourers as could be obtained[559]. If Shaftesbury found recovery so difficult, it may easily be imagined what was the effect of the natural disasters of the fourteenth century upon smaller and less wealthy houses.

The revenues of the nunneries, often scant to begin with and liable to constant diminution from the ravages of nature, were still more heavily burdened by a variety of exactions on the part of the authorities of Church and State. The procurations payable to the Bishop on his visitation fell heavily upon the smaller houses; hence such a notice as that which occurs in Bishop Nykke’s Register under the year 1520: “Item the reverend father with his colleagues came down to the house of nuns that afternoon, and having seen the priory he dissolved his visitation there, on account of the poverty of the house”[560]. St Mary Magdalen’s, Bristol, was on account of its poverty exempt from the payment of such procurations[561] and the Bishops doubtless often exercised their charity upon such occasions[562]. Papal exactions were even more oppressive; John of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester, pleaded with the papal nuncio in 1285 that he would forbear to exact procurations from the poor nuns of Wintney, whom the Bishop himself excused from all charges in view of their deep poverty[563]; and in 1300 Bishop Swinfield of Hereford made a similar appeal to the commissary of the nuncio, and secured the remission of procurations due from the nuns of Lingbrook and the relaxation of the sentence of excommunication, which they had incurred through non-payment[564].[Pg 184] The obligation to pay tithes also fell heavily upon the poorer houses; it was for this reason that Archbishop John le Romeyn appealed to the Prior of Newburgh in 1286 not to exact tithes from the food of animals in Nether Sutton, belonging to the poor nuns of Arden[565]; and in 1301 the Prior of Worcester desired his commissary to spare the poverty of the nuns of Westwood and not to exact tithes or any other things due to him from them or from their churches[566]. Added to ecclesiastical exactions were the taxes due to the Crown. In 1344 the nuns of Davington addressed a petition to Edward III, representing that, owing to their great poverty, they were unable to satisfy the King’s public aids without depriving themselves of their necessary subsistence, a plea which was found to be true[567]. The frequency with which such petitions for exemption from the payment of taxes were made and granted, is in itself a proof that the burden of taxation was a real one, for the Crown would not have excused its dues, unless the need for such an act of charity had been great[568]; and it is obvious that the sheer impossibility of collecting the money from a poverty-stricken house must often have left little alternative. The houses that did contribute were not slow to complain. “The unwonted exactions and tallages with which their house and the whole of the English Church has been burdened” were pleaded by the nuns of Heynings as in part responsible for their poverty in 1401[569]; similarly “the necessary and very costly [Pg 185]exactions of tenths and other taxes and unsupportable burdens” occurs in a complaint by Romsey in 1351; and the Abbess and Convent of St Mary’s, Winchester, stated in 1468, that they were so burdened with the repair of their buildings and with the payment of imposts, that they could not fulfil the obligations of their order as to hospitality[570].

Nor was taxation for public purposes the only demand made upon the religious houses. Abbeys holding of the King in chief had to perform many services appertaining to tenants in chief, which seem oddly incongruous in the case of nunneries. The Abbesses of Shaftesbury, St Mary’s Winchester, Wilton and Barking, were baronesses in their own right; the privilege of being summoned to parliament was omitted on account of their sex; but the duty of sending a quota of knights and soldiers to serve the King in his wars was regularly exacted[571]. In 1257 Agnes Ferrar, Abbess of Shaftesbury, was summoned to Chester to attend the expedition against Llewelyn ap Griffith, and her successor, Juliana Bauceyn, was also summoned in 1277 to attack that intrepid prince[572]. The Abbess of Romsey had to find a certain number of men-at-arms with their armour for the custody of the maritime land in the county of Southampton; she resisted when an attempt was made to exact an archer as well and successfully showed the King “that she has only two marks’ rent in Pudele Bardolveston in that county”[573]. Less lawful exactions were even more burdensome, and the nunneries suffered with the rest of the nation under the demand for loans and the burden of purveyance[574]. In December 1307 the Abbess of Barking, in common with the heads of ten other religious houses, was requested to lend the King

two carts and horses to be at Westminster early on the day of St Stephen to carry vessels and equipments of the King’s household to Dover, the King having sent a great part of his carts and sumpter horses to sea, so that he may find them ready when he arrives[575];

[Pg 186]it is true that he engaged to pay out of his wardrobe the costs of the men leading the carts and of the horses going and returning, but meanwhile the Abbey lost their services, and carts and horses were very necessary on a manor; moreover it was common complaint that the tallies given by the King’s servants for what they took were sometimes of no more value than the wood whereof they were made:

I had catell, now have I none;
They take my beasts and done them slon,
And payen but a stick of tree.

Similarly in June 1310 the King sent out a number of letters to the heads of religious houses, requesting the “loan” of various amounts of victuals for his Scottish expedition, and among the houses upon whom this call was made were the nunneries of Catesby, Elstow, St Mary’s Winchester, Romsey, Wherwell, Barking, Nuneaton, Shaftesbury and Wilton[576].

The nunneries also suffered considerable pecuniary loss by the right possessed in certain cases by the patron of a house, to take the profits of its temporalities during voidance through the death or resignation of its superior, sometimes enjoying them himself and sometimes granting the custody of the house to someone else[577]. It is obvious that serious loss might be entailed upon the community, if the patron refrained for some time from granting his congé d’élire. It was for this reason that the Convent of Whiston wrote in 1308 to the Bishop-elect of Worcester, their patron, praying that “considering the smallness of the possessions of the nuns of Whiston, in his patronage, which compelled the nuns formerly to beg, and for the honour of religion and the frailness of the female sex” he would grant them licence to elect a new prioress and would confirm the same election; and the Prior of Worcester also addressed a letter to the commissary-general on their behalf[578]. The King exercised with great regularity his rights of patronage, and the direct pecuniary loss, sustained by a house in being deprived of the profits of its temporalities, seems to have been the least of the evils which[Pg 187] resulted, if the state of affairs described in the petition addressed to the crown by the Abbess and Convent of Shaftesbury in 1382 was at all common. After a moving description of the straits to which they were reduced[579], they begged that the King would, on future occasions of voidance, allow the community to retain the administration of the Abbey and of its temporalities, rendering the value thereof to the King while the voidance lasted, so that no escheator, sheriff or other officer should have power to meddle with them:

understanding, most redoubtable lord, that by means of your grace in this matter great relief and amendment, please God, shall come to your same house, and no damage can ensue to you or to your heirs, nor to any other, save only to your officers, who in such times of voidance are wont to make great destructions and wastes and to take therefrom great and divers profits to their own use, whence nothing cometh to your use, as long as the said voidance endures, if only for a short time[580].

St Mary’s, Winchester, also pleaded the royal administration of its temporalities as one reason for its impoverishment, when petitioning the Pope for leave to appropriate the church of Froyle in 1343 and 1346[581].

Sometimes the abbeys found it cheaper to compound with the King for a certain sum of money and thus to purchase the right of administering their own temporalities, saving to the King, as a rule, knights’ fees, advowsons, escheats and sometimes wards and marriages. Romsey Abbey secured this privilege, after the escheator had already entered, in 1315, for a fine of forty marks; but in 1333, when there was another voidance, the convent had to agree to pay £40 for the first two months and pro rata for such time as the voidance continued, saving to the King knights’ fees, advowsons and escheats[582]. In 1340 the royal escheator was ordered to let the Prioress and Convent of[Pg 188] Wherwell have the custody of their temporalities, in accordance with a grant made some years previously, by which the house was to render £230 for a year and pro rata[583]. In 1344 a similar order was made in the case of Wilton, whose late Abbess (prudent woman) had seized the opportunity to purchase the right for £60 from the King, when he lay at Orwell before crossing the sea[584]. Similarly, the next year, Shaftesbury received the custody of its temporalities in consideration of a fine of £100, made with the King by its Abbess, in the second year of his reign[585]. With four great abbeys falling vacant in little over ten years, the royal exchequer reaped a good harvest; and though the payment of a lump sum was better than falling into the hands of the escheator, and though the nuns would make haste to elect a new abbess as soon as possible, a voidance was always a costly matter.

But perhaps the most serious tax upon the resources of the nunneries was the right, possessed by some dignitaries (notably the King and the Bishop of the diocese), to nominate to houses in their patronage persons whom the nuns were obliged to receive as members of their community or to support as corrodians, pensioners or boarders. The right of nominating a nun might be exercised upon a variety of occasions. The Archbishop might do so to certain houses in his province on the occasion of his consecration, and this right was energetically enforced by Peckham, who nominated girls to Wherwell, Castle Hedingham, Burnham, Stratford, Easebourne and Catesby[586]. A Bishop possessed, in some cases, a similar right on the occasion of his consecration. Rigaud d’Assier, Bishop of Winchester, sent nuns to Romsey, St Mary’s Winchester and Wherwell[587]; Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, nominated to Minchin Barrow and to Cannington[588]; Stephen Gravesend, Bishop of London, sent a girl[Pg 189] to Barking[589]; and the successive bishops of Salisbury exercised the prerogative of placing an inmate in Shaftesbury Abbey and of appointing one of the nuns to act as her instructor[590]. The existence of this right seems to have varied with different dioceses and its exaction with different bishops, if it is possible to judge from the absence of commendatory letters in some registers and their presence in others. The Bishop of a diocese also sometimes had the right of presenting a nun to a house when a new superior was created there. This was the case at Romsey, where nuns were thus nominated in 1307, 1333 and 1397[591], and at Romsey also there occurs one instance (the only one of the kind which search has yet yielded) of the nomination of a nun by the bishop, because of “a profession of ladies of that house which he had lately made.” Bishop Stratford thus appointed Jonette de Stretford (perhaps a poor relative) “en regard de charite” in 1333, a month after having appointed Alice de Hampton by reason of the Abbess’ creation[592].

The King possessed in houses under his patronage rights of nomination corresponding to those of the Bishop. That of presenting a nun on the occasion of his coronation was frequently exercised. Edward II sent ladies to Barking, Wherwell and St Mary’s Winchester[593]; Barking received nuns from Richard II, Henry IV and Henry VI[594] and Shaftesbury from Richard II, Henry V and Henry VI[595]. He also possessed the right in certain abbeys of presenting a nun on the occasion of a voidance and there are many such letters of presentation enrolled upon the Close rolls; for instance Joan de la Roche was sent to Wilton in 1322[596], Katherine de Arderne to Romsey in 1333[597] and Agnes Turberville to Shaftesbury in 1345[598].

Sometimes similar rights to these were exercised by private persons, who held the patronage of a house or with whom it was connected by special ties; the family of le Rous of Imber, for[Pg 190] example, had the right (resigned in 1313) of presenting two nuns, with a valet, to Romsey Abbey[599]. But the royal rights were always the most burdensome and, though such privileges as those described above, and the even more burdensome right to demand corrodies and pensions, normally affected only great abbeys such as Barking, Romsey, St Mary’s Winchester, and Shaftesbury, the smaller houses (not under royal patronage) were not always exempt from sudden demands—witness the case of Polsloe below—and a wide range of nunneries was affected by archiepiscopal and episcopal rights. Moreover even the great houses, in spite of their large endowments, were crippled by the system, as may be gathered from their constant complaints of poverty and of overcrowding. The obligation to receive fresh inmates by nomination was especially burdensome when it was incurred on more than one occasion by the same house and coincided with other exactions. The case of Shaftesbury is noticeable in this connection; the King claimed the right to administer its temporalities during voidance, to nominate a nun on his own coronation and on the election of an Abbess, to demand a pension for one of the royal clerks on the latter occasion, and to send boarders or corrodians for maintenance; and the Bishop of Salisbury could nominate a nun on his own promotion to the see and could demand a benefice for one of his clerks on the election of an Abbess. It is, of course, possible that all these prerogatives were not invariably exercised and that a new inmate was not sent to Shaftesbury every time a King was crowned, a Bishop consecrated or an Abbess elected; but it was exercised sufficiently often to be a strain upon the house.

Even when the right of nomination was confined to one occasion, it seems to have been generally resented and frequently resisted. The reason for resistance lay in the fact that the house was forced to support another inmate without the hope of receiving the donation of land or rents, which medieval fathers gave to the convents in which their daughters took the veil; and as the dowry system became more and more common, the[Pg 191] hardship of having to receive a nun for nothing would soon appear intolerable. In some cases a sturdy resistance against this “dumping” of nuns finds an echo in the bishops’ Registers. Four houses out of the six to which Peckham nominated new inmates attempted a refusal, and the excuses which they offered are interesting. Two years after his consecration the nuns of Burnham were still refusing to receive his protégée, Matilda de Weston; they had begun by trying to question his right to nominate and he seems to have taken legal action against them, after which they pleaded poverty (resulting from an unsuccessful lawsuit) and also an obligation to receive no novice without the consent of Edmund Earl of Cornwall, son of their founder. The Archbishop directed a stern letter to them, rejecting both their excuses and announcing his intention of pursuing his right, but the end of the matter is not known[600]. An equally determined resistance was offered by the Prioress of Stratford, who had been ordered to receive Isabel Bret. In 1282 Peckham wrote to her for the third time, declaring that her excuses were frivolous; she had apparently objected that the girl was too young and that her house was too heavily burdened with nuns, lay sisters and debts for another inmate to be received, but the Archbishop declared the youth of the candidate to be rather a merit than a defect and pointed out that, so far from being a burden to their house, she would bring it honour, for by receiving her they would multiply distinguished friends and benefactors and would be able to rely on his own special protection in their affairs[601]. A further letter to the Bishop of London is interesting, because it mentions a third objection made by the recalcitrant nunnery.

“We have received your letter,” writes Peckham, “in favour of the Prioress and Convent of Stratford, urgently begging us to moderate our purpose concerning a certain burden which is alleged to be threatening them from us, on account of the insupportable weight and the poverty of the house and the deformity of the person, whom we have presented to them for admission. Concerning which we would have you know that already in the lifetime of your predecessor of good memory, we had ordered them to receive that same person and for two years we continued to believe that they would yield to our[Pg 192] wishes in the matter, yet without burden to themselves, by the provision of the parents of the said little maid; especially seeing that never yet have we been burdensome to any monastery making a truthful plea of indigence. We believe that what they allege about deformity would be an argument in favour of our proposal; would that not only these women of Stratford, concerning whom so many scandals abound, but also all who so immodestly expose themselves to human conversation and company, were or at least appeared notable for such deformity that they should tempt no one to crime! We have moreover heard that the greater part of the convent would willingly consent to the reception of the girl, were they not hindered by the malice of the prioress; nevertheless, lest we should seem deaf to your entreaties, we suspend the whole business until we come to London, to ascertain how our purpose may be carried out without notable damage to them[602].”

The Archbishop had his way however; for eleven years later the will of Robert le Bret was enrolled in the Court of Husting and contained a legacy of rents on Cornhill “to Isabella his daughter, a nun of Stratford”[603]. Peckham also wrote in a tone of strained patience to the nuns of Castle Hedingham, who had refused to receive Agnes de Beauchamp, warning them that besides incurring severe punishment at his own hands, further obstinacy would offend the Queen of England, at whose instance he had undertaken the promotion of the said Agnes[604]. The Prioress of Catesby was equally troublesome and as late as 1284 the Archbishop wrote reprimanding her for her inconstancy and feigned excuses, because, after promising to receive the daughter of Sir Robert de Caynes and after repeated requests on his part that they should admit the girl, she and her nuns had written asking to be allowed to admit another person in her stead[605].

Real poverty often nerved the nuns to such bold resistance. In the Register of Bishop Grandisson of Exeter there is a letter from Polsloe Priory, written in 1329 and addressed to Queen Philippa, on the subject of a certain Johanete de Tourbevyle[606],[Pg 193] whom she had requested the nuns to receive as a lay sister. Written in the French of their daily speech, with no attempt at formal phraseology, their naive plea still rings with the agitation of the “poor and humble maids,” torn between anxiety not to burden their impecunious house, and fear of offending the new-made Queen of England:

To their very honourable and very powerful and redoubtable lady, my lady Dame Philippa, by the grace of God queen of England, etc., her poor and humble maids, the nuns of Polsloe, in all that they may of reverence and honour; beseeching your sweet pity to have mercy on our great poverty. Our very noble dame, we have received your letters, by the which we understand that it is your will that we receive Johanete de Tourbevyle among us as sister of the house, to take the dress of a nun in secular habit. Concerning the which matter, most debonair lady, take pity upon us, if it please you, for the love of God and of His mother. For certainly never did any queen demand such a thing before from our little house; though mayhap they be accustomed to do so from other houses, founded by the kings and holding of them in chief; but this do not we, wherefore it falls heavily upon us. And if it please your debonair highness to know our simple estate, we are so poor (God knows it and all the country) that what we have suffices not to our small sustenance, who must by day and night do the service of God, were it not for the aid of friends; nor can we be charged with seculars without reducing the number of us religious women, to the diminution of God’s service and the perpetual prejudice of our poor house. And we have firm hope in God and in your great bounty that you will not take it ill that this thing be not done to the peril of our souls; for to entertain and to begin such a new charge in such a small place, a charge which would endure and would be demanded for ever afterwards, would be too great a danger to your soul, my Lady, in the sight of God, wherefrom God by His grace defend you! Our most blessed Lady, may God give you a long and happy life, to His pleasure and to the aid and solace of ourselves and of other poor servants of God on earth; and we should have great joy to do your behests, if God had given us the power[607].

The nuns evidently asked the support of the Bishop (which accounts for the presence of their letter in his Register) for about the same time Grandisson also wrote an informal letter in French to the King, begging him to give up his design to place his cousin Johanete de Tourbevyle at Polsloe, on the ground that the nuns held all that they possessed in frank almoign and were so poor that it would be unpardonable to[Pg 194] entail upon them a charge, which would become a precedent for ever:

“Wherefore, dear Sire,” he continued, “If it please you, hold us excused of this thing and put this thought from you. And for love of you, to whom we are much beholden aforetime, and to show you that we make no feigned pretence, ordain, if it please you, elsewhere for her estate, and we will very willingly give somewhat reasonable out of our own goods towards it; for this we may safely do[608].”

It is not impossible that the disinclination of the nunneries to receive royal and episcopal nominees was in part due to dislike of taking an entirely unknown person into the close life of the community, in which so much depended upon the character and disposition of the individual. The right seems nearly always to have been exercised in favour of well-born girls, but though the bishops endeavoured to send only suitable novices, their knowledge of the character of their protégées would sometimes appear to have rested upon hearsay rather than upon personal acquaintance—“ut credimus,” “come nous sumez enformez.” On at least one occasion the nuns who resisted a bishop’s nominee were to our knowledge justified by later events. In 1329 Ralph of Shrewsbury, the new Bishop of Bath and Wells, wrote to the Prioress and Convent of Cannington, desiring them to receive Alice, daughter of John de Northlode, to whom he had granted the right, “par resoun de nostre premiere creacion,” on the request of Sir John Mautravers; four years later he was obliged to repeat the order, because the convent “had not yet been willing to receive the said Alice.” The end of the story is to be found in the visitation report of 1351[609]. It is impossible to say whether the convent corrupted Alice or Alice the convent; but it is unfortunate that the Bishop’s nominee should have been implicated.

The obligation to receive a nun on the nomination of the king or the bishop was not the only burden upon the finances of the nunneries. Abbeys in the patronage of the Crown were upon occasion obliged also to find maintenance for other persons, men as well as women, who never became members of their community. The right to demand a pension for one of the royal[Pg 195] clerks was sometimes exercised on the occasion of a voidance, and the money had in most cases to be paid until such time as the young man was provided with a suitable benefice by the Abbey. The Abbess of Romsey was ordered to give a pension to William de Dereham in 1315 by reason of her new election[610]; John de St Paul was sent to the same house in 1333[611], William de Tydeswell in 1349[612]. The right is also found in exercise at Wherwell[613], St Mary’s, Winchester[614], Shaftesbury[615], Wilton[616], Delapré (Northampton)[617], Barking[618] and Elstow[619]. In certain cases the Bishop possessed a similar right on the occasion of his own consecration; for instance John of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester, wrote to the Abbess of St Mary’s, Winchester, in 1283, complaining

that whereas his predecessors had by a laudable custom presented their own clerks to the first benefice in the patronage of a religious house vacant after their establishment in the bishopric, they (the nuns) had recently presented a nominee of their own to a benefice then vacant.

Two years later the Abbess and Convent of Wherwell wrote to him, voluntarily offering him the next vacant benefice in their patronage for one of his clerks; and in 1293 he reminded the nuns of Romsey that they were bound by agreement to do likewise[620]. Similarly Simon of Ghent, Bishop of Salisbury, directed the Abbess of Shaftesbury to provide for Humphrey Wace in 1297[621]. The demand to pension a clerk, like the demand to receive a nun, was sometimes resisted by the convents. In the early part of his reign Edward II ordered the Sheriff of Bedford

to distrain the Abbess of Elstow by all her lands and chattels in his bailiwick and to answer to the King for the issues and to have her[Pg 196] body before the King at the octaves of Hilary next, to answer why, whereas she and her convent, by reason of the new creation of an Abbess, were bound to give a pension to a clerk, to be named by the King and he had transferred the option to his sister Elizabeth Countess of Hereford and had asked the Abbess to give it to her nominee they had neglected to do so[622].

The end of the story is contained in a petition printed in the Rolls of Parliament, wherein the Abbess and Convent of “Dunestowe” (Elstow) informed the King in 1320

que, come il les demaunde par son Brief devant Sire H. le Scrop et ses compaignons une enpensione pur un de ses clerks par reson de la novele Creacion la dite Abbesse et tiel enpensione unqs devant ces temps ne fust demaunde ne donee de la dite meson, fors tant soulement que la dereyn predecessere dona a la requeste nostre Seigneur le Roy a la Dameysele la Countesse de Hereford, un enpension de c s. Par qi eles prient que nostre Seigneur le Roy voet, si lui plest, comander de soursere de execucion faire de la dite demaunde, que la dite Abbay est foundee de Judit, jadis Countess de Huntingdon, et la dite enpension unques autrement done[623].

The reference to the Countess of Hereford’s “dameysele” shows that the pension was not invariably given to a clerk, and it appears that the King tried to substitute corrodies, pensions and reception as a nun for each other according to the exigencies of the moment. In 1318 he sent Simon de Tyrelton to the Abbess and Convent of Barking,

they being bound to grant a pension to one of the King’s clerks, by reason of the new creation of an abbess, and the King having requested them to grant in lieu of such pension the allowance of one of their nuns to Ellen, daughter of Alice de Leygrave, to be received by her for life, to which they replied that they could not do so, for certain reasons[624].

In 1313, in pursuance of his right to nominate a nun on the new creation of an abbess, he had sent Juliana de Leygrave “niece of the King’s foster-mother, who suckled him in his youth,” to St Mary’s, Winchester, in order that she might be given a nun’s corrody for life (the value of which was to be given her wherever she might be) and a suitable chamber within the nunnery for her residence, whenever she might wish to stay there[625].

[Pg 197]The obligation to provide corrodies for royal nominees pressed more heavily than the duty of pensioning royal clerks. A corrody was originally a livery of food and drink given to monks and nuns, but the term was extended to denote a daily livery of food given to some person not of the community and frequently accompanied by suitable clothing and a room in which to live. Hence corrodians were often completely kept in board and lodging, having the right to everything that a nun of the house would have (a “nun’s corrody”) and sometimes allowed to keep a private servant, who had the right to the same provision as the regular domestics of the house (a “servant’s corrody”). The King, indeed, looked upon the monastic houses of his realm as a sort of vast Chelsea Hospital, in which his broken-down servants, yeomen and officials and men-at-arms, might end their days. Thus he obtained their grateful prayers without putting his hand into his purse. There must have been hundreds of such old pensioners scattered up and down the country, and judging from the number of cases in which one man is sent to receive the maintenance lately given to another, deceased, some houses had at least one of them permanently on the premises. Many a hoary veteran found his way into the quiet precincts of a nunnery:

His helmet now shall make a hive for bees;
And, lovers’ sonnets turn’d to holy psalms,
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees,
And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms.

In the intervals between feeding on prayers he must have been vastly disturbing and enthralling to the minds of round-eyed novices, with his tales of court and camp, of life in London town or long campaigns in France, or of how John Copeland had the King of Scots prisoner and what profit he got thereby.

In the last three months of 1316 Edward II sent seventeen old servants to various religious houses, and among them Henry de Oldyngton of the avenary was sent to Barking, to receive such maintenance as William de Chygwell, deceased, had in that house[626]. In 1328 Roger atte Bedde, the King’s yeoman, who served the King and his father, was sent to St Mary’s, Winchester,[Pg 198] instead of James le Porter, deceased[627]; and in 1329 the Abbess and Convent of Shaftesbury were requested to admit to their house Richard Knight, spigurnel of the King’s chancery, who had long served the King and his father in that office, and to administer to him for his life such maintenance in all things as Robert le Poleter, deceased, had in their house[628]. The unlucky convent of Wilton apparently had to support two pensioners, for in 1328 Roger Liseway was sent there in place of Roger Danne and the next year John de Odiham, yeoman of the chamber of Queen Philippa, took the place of John de Asshe[629].

It was doubtless even more common for the widows of the King’s dependents to be sent to nunneries, and he must often have received such a petition as was addressed by Agnes de Vylers to Edward III:

A nostre Seigneur le Roi et a son Conseil, prie vostre poure veve Agneys, qi fut la femme Fraunceys de Vylers, jaditz Bachiler vostre piere, qe vous pleise de vostre grace avoir regard du graunt service qe le dit Fraunceys ad fait a vostre dit piere et ed vostre ayel, en la Terre Seinte, Gascoigne, Gales, Escoce, Flaundres et en Engleterre, et graunter au dit Agneys une garisoun en l’Abbeye de Berkyng, c’est assaver une mesoun & la droite de une Noneyme pour la sustinaunce de lui et de sa file a terme de lour vie, en allegaunce de l’alme vostre dit piere, qi promist al dit Fraunceys eide pour lui, sa femme et ses enfaunz.

“Il semble a conseil q’il est almoigne de lui mander ou aillours, s’il plest a Roi,” was the reply; so Agnes and her daughter might end their days in peace, and Barking be the poorer for their appetites[630]. At Barking the King had the right to claim a corrody at each new election of an abbess, as Agnes de Vylers doubtless knew; as early as 1253 its Abbess was exempted from being charged with conversi and others, because she had granted food and vesture for life to Philippa de Rading and her daughter[631]. Other nunneries in the royal patronage were under a similar obligation. In 1310 Juliana la Despenser was sent to Romsey, to be provided with fitting maintenance for herself and for her maid during her lifetime[632] and in 1319 Mary Ridel was sent to[Pg 199] Stainfield to be maintained for life[633]. There were the usual attempts to escape from a costly and burdensome obligation; Romsey seems to have been successful in repelling Juliana la Despenser, for in the following month the King sent her to Shaftesbury, requesting the nuns to “find her for life the necessities of life according to the requirements of her estate, for herself and for the damsel serving her, and to assign her a chamber to dwell in, making letters patent of the grant”[634]. Stainfield was less successful in the matter of Mary Ridel; the usual plea of poverty was considered insufficient and the convent was ordered to receive her, to supply her with food, clothing and other necessities and to make letters patent, specifying what was due to her[635].

Certain convents were in addition handicapped by the obligation to make certain grants or liveries, in kind or in money, to other monastic houses. The nunneries of St Clement’s, York, and Moxby seem to have involved themselves—as a condition, perhaps, of some past benefaction—in a curious obligation to the friars of their districts. At a visitation of the former house in 1317, Archbishop Melton found that the Friars Minor of York, every alternate week of the year, and the Friars Preachers of York in the same manner, had for a long time been receiving fourteen conventual loaves; the nuns were ordered to show the friars the Archbishop’s order and to cease from supplying the loaves as long as their own house was burdened with debt; and in no case was the grant to be made without special leave from the Archbishop[636]. The next year, on visiting Moxby, Melton was obliged to make an injunction as to the bread and ale called “levedemete,” which the Friars Minor were accustomed to receive from the house; if it were owed to them it was to be given as due, if not it was not to be given without the will of the head[637]. At Alnwick’s first visitation in 1440 the Prioress of St Michael’s, Stamford, declared that the house was burdened with the payment of an annual pension of 60s. to the monastery of St Mary’s, York, “and that for tithes not worth more than forty pence annually; also it is in arrears for twenty years and[Pg 200] more”[638]. The nuns also had to pay various small sums to Peterborough Abbey, by which they had been founded and to which they always remained subordinated[639].

The support of resident corrodians and the payment of pensions and liveries were, however, less onerous than the duty of providing hospitality for visitors, which the nunneries performed as one of their religious obligations. Date and Dabitur did not always accompany each other. The great folk who held the Pope’s indult to enter the houses of Minoresses were probably generous donors; but the unenclosed orders had to lodge and feed less wealthy guests and often enough they found the obligation a strain upon their finances. When the nuns of King’s Mead, Derby, in 1326, petitioned the King to take the house into his special protection, they explained that great numbers of people came there to be entertained, but that owing to the reduction in their revenue they were unable to exercise their wonted hospitality[640]; and the number of guests was mentioned by the nuns of Heynings in 1401 as one reason for their impoverishment[641]. At Nunappleton in 1315 the Archbishop of York had to forbid two sets of guests to be received at the same time, until the house should be relieved of debt; and at Moxby (which was also in debt) he ordained that relatives of the nuns were not to visit the house for a longer period than two days; Nunappleton was evidently a favourite resort, for in 1346 another archbishop speaks of guests flocking—hospites confluentes—to the priory and orders them to be admitted to a hostelry constructed for the[Pg 201] purpose. At Marrick in 1252 it was ordered that guests were not to stay for more than one night, because the means of the house barely sufficed for the maintenance of the nuns, sisters and brethren[642].

Another charge which fell heavily upon the nunneries, sometimes not entirely by their own fault, was that of litigation. This was only an occasional expense, but when it occurred it was heavy, and a suit once begun might drag on for years. Moreover the incidental expenses in journeys and bribes, which all had to be paid out of the current income of a house already (perhaps) charged with the payment of tithes and taxes and badly in need of repair, were often almost as heavy as the costs of the litigation. For instance an account of Christian Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de Pré (near St Albans), contains the following list of expenses incurred by her in the prosecution of a law suit in 1487, during the rule of her predecessor Alice Wafer:

Item when I ryde to London for the suyt that was taken ayenst dame Alice Wafer in the commen place, for myself and my preest and a woman and ij men, their hyre and hors hyre and mete and drynke, in the terme of Ester ye secunde yere of the regne of kyng Henry the vijth xx. s. Item paid aboute the same suyt at Mydsomer tyme, for iiij men, a woman and iiij horses xvi s. Item paid for the costs of a man to London at Mighelmas terme to Master Lathell, to have knowledge whethir I shuld have nede to come to London or not xij d[643]. Item for the same suyt of Dame Alice Wafer for herself and a suster wt. her, ij men, ij horses, in costs at the same time xiiij s. Item for the same suyt when I cam from London to have councell of Master More and men of lawe for the same ple x s. Item whan I went to Master Fforster to the Welde to speke wt. him, to have councell for the wele of the place, for a kercher geven to hym, ij s. Item on other tyme for a couple of capons geven to Master Fforster ij s. Item for a man rydyng to London at Candilmas to speke wt. Master Lathell and[Pg 202] Master More and for iiij hennys geven to them and for the costs of the same man and his hors iij s. iiij d. Item whan I went to London to speke wt. Master Lathell for to renewe our charter of the place and other maters of our place xj s. Item in expenses made upon Master Ffortescue atte dyvers tymes, whan I wente to hym to have his councell for the same suyt in the common place xiij s. iiij d. Item paid to a man to ryde to Hertford to speke wt. Norys, that he shuld speke to Master Ffortescue for the same ple viij d. Item in costs for a man to go to Barkhamsted to Thomas Cace viij d. Item whan I went to Master Ffortescue to his place, for mens hire and hors hire for the same mater ij s. Item whan I went to London at an other tyme for the same plee, for iiij men and iiij hors hire xvj s.[644]

After this one does not wonder that in 1517 the convent of Goring pleaded that owing to lawsuits it was too poor to repair its buildings[645].

The account rolls of the Priory of St Michael’s, Stamford, are full of references to expenses incurred in legal business. On one occasion the nuns bought a “bill” in the Marshalsea “to have a day of accord” and the roll for 1375-6 contains items such as,

Paid for a purse to the wife of the Seneschal of the Marshalsea xx d. Paid for beer bought for the Marshalsea by the Prioress ij s. ij d. Paid for capons and chickens for the seneschal of the Marshalsea xxiij d. ob.[646]

Poor Dames Margaret Redynges and Joan Ffychmere “del office del tresorie,” ending the year £16. 8s.d. in debt, must often have sighed with Langland

Lawe is so lordeliche. and loth to make ende,
Withoute presentz or pens. she pleseth wel fewe.

Nor was it only the expenses of great lawsuits which bore heavily upon the nunneries; a great deal of lesser legal business had to be transacted from year to year. The treasuresses’ accounts of St Michael’s, Stamford, contain many notices of such business; the expenses of Raulyn at the sessions, expenses of the clerks at the Bishop’s court or at the last session at Stamford, a suit[Pg 203] against a neighbouring parson over tithes, four shillings to Henry Oundyl for suing out writs; and innumerable entries concerning the inevitable “presentz or pens,” a douceur to the Bishop’s clerk, a courtesy to the king’s escheator, a present to the clerks at the sessions, a gift “to divers men of law for their help on divers occasions.” All nunneries had constantly to meet such petty expenses as these; and if we add an occasional suit on a larger scale the total amount of money devoured by the Law is considerable.

So far mention has been made only of such reasons for their poverty as cannot be considered the fault of the nuns. The inclemency of nature, the rapacity of lay and ecclesiastical authorities and the law’s delays could not be escaped, however wisely a Prioress husbanded her resources. Nevertheless it cannot be doubted that the nuns themselves, by bad management, contributed largely to their own misfortunes. Bad administration, sometimes wilful, but far more often due to sheer incompetence, was constantly given as a reason for undue poverty. It was “negligence and bad administration” which nearly caused the dispersion of the nuns of Wintney during the famine year of 1316[647]; and those of Hampole in 1353[648]. At Davington in 1511 one of the nuns deposed that “the rents and revenues of the house decrease owing to the guilt of the officers”[649]. The fault was often with the head of the house, who loved to keep in her own hands the disposal of the convent’s income, omitted to consult the chapter in her negotiations, retained the common seal and did not render accounts. An illustration of the straits to which a house might be reduced by the bad management of its superior is provided by the history of Malling Abbey in the early part of the fourteenth century, as told by William de Dene in his Historia Roffensis. In 1321 an abbess had been deposed, ostensibly on the complaint of her nuns and because the place had been ruined by her; but too much importance must not be assigned to the charge, for she was a sister of Bartholomew de Badlesmere, at that time a leader of the baronial party against[Pg 204] Edward II, and it was by the King’s command that Hamo of Hythe, Bishop of Rochester, visited Malling and deprived her[650]; her deposition was probably a political move. The same cannot however be said of Lora de Retlyng, who became abbess in 1324.

“The Bishop,” says William de Dene, “although unwilling, knowing her to be insufficient and ignorant, set Lora de Retlyng in command as abbess, a woman who lacked all the capacity and wisdom of a leader and ruler, the nuns enthusiastically applauding; and the next day he blessed her, which benediction was rather a malediction for the convent. Then the Bishop forbade the Abbess to give a corrody to her maid-servant, as it had been the ill custom to do, and he sequestrated the common seal, forbidding it to be used, save when his licence had been asked and obtained”[651].

Twenty-five years passed and in 1349 the chronicler writes:

The Bishop of Rochester visited the abbeys of Lesnes and Malling, and he found them so ruined by longstanding mismanagement, that it is thought they never can recover so long as this world lasts, even to the day of judgment[652].

Malling had suffered severely from the Black Death in the previous year, but our knowledge of the character of Lora de Retlyng and the plain statement of William de Dene (“destructa per malam diutinam custodiam”), make it clear that bad management and not the pestilence was to blame for its poverty[653].

Financial mismanagement was, indeed, the most frequent of all charges brought against superiors at the episcopal visitations. When Alnwick visited his diocese of Lincoln several cases of such incompetence came to light. At St Michael’s, Stamford (1440), it was found that the Prioress had never rendered an account during the whole of her term of office, and one of the nuns declared that she did not rule and supervise temporal affairs to the benefit of the house; two years later the Bishop visited the convent again and the Prioress herself pleaded bodily weakness, adding

that since she was impotent to rule the temporalities, nor had they any industrious man to supervise these and to raise and receive the produce of the house, and since the rents of the house remained unpaid in the hands of the tenants, she begged that two nuns might be deputed to rule the temporalities, and to be responsible for receipts and payments.

[Pg 205]In 1445, however, one of the appointed treasuresses, Alice de Wyteryng, admitted that she neither wrote down nor accounted for anything concerning her administration, and another nun complained that, if Wyteryng were to die, it would be impossible for any of them to say in what state their finances stood[654]. At the poor and heavily indebted house of Legbourne (1440) the Prioress, unknown to the Bishop, but with the consent of the Convent, had sold a corrody to the bailiff of the house, Robert Warde, who was nevertheless not considered useful to the house in this post; the tenements and leasehold houses belonging to the house were ruinous and like to fall through the carelessness of the Prioress and bailiff, and one aggrieved nun stated that “the prioress is not circumspect in ruling the temporalities and cares not whether they prosper, but applies all the common goods of the house to her own uses, as though they were her own[655].” At Godstow also it was complained that the steward had an annual fee of ten marks from the house and was useless[656]. At Heynings (1440) the Prioress was charged with never rendering accounts and with cutting down timber unnecessarily, but she denied the last charge and said she had done so only for necessary reasons and with the express consent of the convent[657]. At Nuncoton corrodies had been sold and bondmen alienated without the knowledge of the nuns[658]. At Harrold it was found that no accounts were rendered, that a corrody had been sold for twenty marks, and that when the Prioress bought anything for the convent, no tallies or indentures were made between the contracting parties, so that after a time the sellers came and demanded double the price agreed upon; one nun also asked that the Bishop should prevent the selling or alienation of woods[659]. At Langley (which was miserably poor) there was a similar complaint of the sale of timber[660]. These are the less serious cases of financial mismanagement; the cases of Gracedieu, Ankerwyke and Catesby have already been considered. Sometimes the extravagance or incompetence of a Prioress became so notorious as to necessitate her suspension or removal; as at Basedale in 1307[661], Rosedale in 1310[662], Hampole in 1353[663], Easebourne in[Pg 206] 1441[664] and St Mary de Pré at the end of the fifteenth century[665]. But more frequently the bishops endeavoured to hem in expenditure by elaborate safeguards, which will be described below.

Besides cases of incompetence and cases of misappropriation of revenues by an unscrupulous prioress, the mismanagement of the nuns may usually be traced to a desperate desire to obtain ready money. One means by which they sought to augment their income was by the sale of corrodies in return for a lump sum[666]. A man (or woman) would pay down a certain sum of money, and in return the convent would engage to keep him in board and lodging for the rest of his natural life; at Arden for instance, in 1524, Alice widow of William Berre paid twelve[Pg 207] pounds and was granted “mett and drynke as their convent hath” at their common table, or when sick in her own room, and “on honest chamber with sufficient fyer att all tyme, with sufficient apperell as shalbe nedful”[667]. Obviously, however, such an arrangement could only be profitable to the nuns, if the grantee died before the original sum had been expended in boarding her. The convent, in fact, acted as a kind of insurance agency and the whole arrangement was simply a gamble in the life of the corrodian. The temptation to extricate themselves from present difficulties by means of such gambles, was one which the nuns could never resist. They would lightly make their grant of board and lodging for life and take the badly needed money; but it would be swallowed up only too soon by their creditors and often vanish like fairy gold in a year. Not so the corrodian. Long-lived as Methusaleh and lusty of appetite, she appeared year after year at their common table, year after year consumed their food, wore their apparel, warmed herself with their firewood. Alice Berre was still hale and hearty after twelve years, when the commissioners came to Arden and would doubtless have lasted for several more to come, if his Majesty’s quarrel with Rome had not swept her and her harassed hostesses alike out of their ancient home; but she must long before have eaten through her original twelve pounds[668]. There is an amusing complaint in the Register of Crabhouse; early in the fourteenth century Aleyn Brid and his wife persuaded the nuns to buy their lands for a sum down and a corrody for their joint and separate lands. But the lands turned out barren and the corrodians went on living and doubtless chuckling over their bargain, and “si cher terre de cy petit value unkes ne fut achate,” wrote the exasperated chronicler of the house[669]. Bishop Alnwick found two striking instances of a bad gamble during his visitations in 1440-1; at Langley the late Prioress had sold a corrody to a certain John Fraunceys and his wife for the paltry sum of twenty marks, and they had already held it for six years[670]; worse still, at Nuncoton there were two corrodians, each of whom had originally paid[Pg 208] twenty marks, and they had been there for twelve and for twenty years respectively[671].

In the face of cases like these it is difficult not to suspect that unscrupulous persons took advantage of the temporary difficulties of the nuns and of their lack of business acumen. There is comedy, though not for the unhappy Convent, in the history of a corrody which, in 1526, was said to have been granted by Thetford to “a certain Foster.” Six years later there was a great to-do at the visitation. The nuns declared that John Bixley of Thetford, “bocher,” had sold his corrody in the house to Thomas Foster, gentleman, who was nourishing a large household on that pretext, to wit six persons, himself, his wife, three children and a maid; but Bixley said that he had never sold his corrody and there in public displayed his indenture. What happened we do not know; Thomas Foster, gentleman, must be the same man who had a corrody in 1526, and how John Bixley came into it is not clear. It looks as though the Convent (which was so poor that the Bishop had dissolved his visitation there some years previously) was trying by fair means or foul to get rid of Thomas Foster and his family; doubtless they had not bargained for a wife, three children and a maid when they rashly granted him one poor corrody[672]. It is easy to understand why medieval bishops, at nearly every visitation, forbade the granting of fees, corrodies or pensions for life or without episcopal consent; “forasmoche as the graunting of corrodyes and lyveryes hath bene chargious, bardynouse and greuouse unto your monastery” wrote Longland to Studley in 1531:

As itt apperithe by the graunte made to Agnes Mosse, Janet bynbrok, Elizabeth todde and other whiche has right soore hyndrede your place, In consideracon therof I charge you lady priores upon payne of contempte and of the lawe, that ye give noo moo like graunts, and that ye joutt away Elizabeth Todde her seruant ... and that[Pg 209] Elizabeth Todde haue noo kowe going nor other bestes within eny of your grounds[673];

and Dean Kentwood, visiting St Helen’s Bishopsgate in 1432 found that “diverce fees perpetuelle, corrodies and lyuers have been grauntyd befor this tyme to diverce officers of your house and other persones, which have hurt the house and be cause of delapidacyone of the godys of youre seyde house”[674]. Even the nuns themselves sometimes realised that the sale of corrodies had brought them no good; they often complained at visitations that the Prioress had made such grants without consulting them; and the convent of Heynings gave “the multiplication of divers men who have acquired corrodies in their house,” as one reason for their extreme poverty, when they petitioned for the appropriation of the church of Womersley[675].

The nuns were wont to have recourse to other equally improvident expedients for obtaining money without regard to future embarrassment. They farmed their churches and alienated their lands and granges or let them out on long leases. These practices were constantly forbidden in episcopal injunctions[676]; at the visitation of Easebourne in 1524 the Prioress, Dame Margaret Sackfelde, being questioned as to what grants they had made under their convent seal, said that they had made four, to wit, one to William Salter to farm the rectory there, another of the proceeds of the chapel of Farnhurst, another of the proceeds of the chapel of Midhurst and another to William Toty for his corrody; this was corroborated by the subprioress, who also mentioned a grant of the proceeds of the church of Easebourne to a rather disreputable person called Ralph Pratt; and this is only a typical case[677]. The nunnery of Wix was reduced to such penury in 1283 on account of various alienations that Pope Martin IV granted the nuns a bull declaring all such grants void:

It has come to our ears that our beloved daughters in Christ, the Prioress and convent of the monastery of Wix (who are under the[Pg 210] rule of a prioress), of the order of St Benedict, in the diocese of London, as well as their predecessors, have conceded tithes, rents, lands, houses, vineyards, meadows, pastures, woods, mills, rights, jurisdictions and certain other goods belonging to the said monastery to several clerks and laymen, to some of them for life, to some for no short time, to others in perpetuity at farm or under an annual payment, and have to this effect given letters, taken oaths, made renunciations, and drawn up public instruments, to the grave harm of the said monastery; and some of the grantees are said to have sought confirmatory letters in common form, concerning these grants, from the apostolic see[678].

This comprehensive catalogue gives some indication of the losses which a house would suffer from reckless grants. The sale of timber and the alienation or pawning of plate were other expedients to which the nuns constantly resorted and which were as constantly prohibited by the bishops[679]. The Prioress of Nunmonkton in 1397, “alienated timber in large quantities to the value of a hundred marks”[680]; the cutting down of woods was charged against the Prioresses of Heynings, Harrold, Langley, Gracedieu, Catesby and Ankerwyke at Alnwick’s visitations; at Langley it was moreover found that the woods were not properly fenced in after the trees were felled and so the tree-stumps were damaged[681]; the necessity for raising the money was sometimes specifically pleaded, as at Markyate, where a small wood had been sold “to satisfy the creditors of the house”[682]. These sales of timber were a favourite means of obtaining ready money; but too often the loss to the house by the destruction of its woods far outweighed the temporary gain and the Abbeys of St Mary’s Winchester and Romsey made special mention of this cause of impoverishment in the middle of the fourteenth century[683]. The alienation or pawning of plate and jocalia was often resorted to in an extremity. At Gracedieu in 1441 the jewels of the house had been pawned without the knowledge of the convent, so that the nuns (as one of them complained) had not one bowl from which to drink[684]; the next year it was asserted that[Pg 211] the Prioress of Catesby “pawned the jewels of the house for ten years, to wit one cup for the sacrament, which still remained in pawn, and also other pieces of silver”[685]. When Bishop Longland visited Nuncoton in 1531 he found that the Prioress had in times past sold various goods belonging to her house, “viz. a bolle ungilte playn with a couer, oon nutt gilte with a couer, ij bolles white without couers, oon Agnus of gold, oon bocle of gold, oon chalice, oon maser and many other things”[686]; and in 1436 it was ordered that the chalices, jewels and ornaments of St Mary’s Neasham, which were then in the hands of sundry creditors, were to be redeemed[687]. In the case of Sinningthwaite in 1534 the convent was in such a reduced state that Archbishop Lee was actually obliged to give the nuns licence to pledge jewels to the value of £15[688]. The charge of pawning or selling jewels for their own purposes was often made against prioresses whose conduct in other ways was bad; for instance against Eleanor of Arden in 1396[689], Juliana of Bromhale in 1404[690], Agnes Tawke of Easebourne in 1478[691] and Katherine Wells of Littlemore in 1517[692].

To financial incompetence and to the employment of improvident methods of raising money, the nuns occasionally added extravagance. The bishops forbade them to wear gay clothes for reasons unconnected with finance; nevertheless their silks and furs must have cost money which could ill be spared, and it is amusing to notice that even at Studley, Rothwell and Langley, which were among the smallest and poorest houses in the diocese of Lincoln and in debt, the nuns had to confess to silken veils. The maintenance of a greater number of servants than the revenues of the house could support was another not uncommon form of extravagance[693]. Instances of luxurious living on the part of the heads of various houses have been given elsewhere[694]; it need only be remarked that a self-indulgent prioress might cripple the resources of a house for many years to come, whether by spending its revenues too lavishly, or by raising money by the alienation of its goods.

[Pg 212]One other cause of the poverty of nunneries must be noticed, before turning to the attempts of bishops and other visitors to find a remedy. Overcrowding was, throughout the earlier period under consideration, a common cause of financial distress; and the admission of a greater number of nuns than the revenues of the convent were able to support was constantly forbidden in episcopal injunctions. Certainly this was not invariably the fault of the nuns. They suffered (as we have seen) from the formal right of bishop or of patron to place a nun in their house on special occasions, and they suffered still more from the constant pressure to which they were subjected by private persons, anxious to obtain comfortable provision for daughters and nieces. It was sometimes impossible and always difficult to resist the importunity of influential gentlemen in the neighbourhood, whose ill-will might be a serious thing, whether it showed itself in open violence or in closed purses. The authorities of the church had sometimes to step in and rescue houses which had thus been persuaded to burden themselves beyond their means. In 1273 Gregory X issued a bull to the Priory of Carrow, with the intention of putting a stop to the practice.

Your petition having been expounded to us, containing a complaint that you have, at the instant requests of certain lords of England, whom you are unable to resist on account of their power, received so many nuns already into your monastery, that you may scarce be fitly sustained by its rents, we therefore, by the authority of these present letters, forbid you henceforth to receive any nun or sister to the burden of your house[695].

Some nine years later Archbishop Wickwane wrote in the same strain to the nuns of Nunkeeling and Wilberfoss:

Because we have learned from public rumour that your monastery is sometimes burdened by the reception of nuns and by the visits of secular women and girls, at the instance of great persons, to whom you foolishly and unlawfully grant easy permission, we order you ... henceforward, to receive no one as nun or sister of your house, or to lodge for a time in your monastery, without our special licence[696].

Bishop Stratford, in his visitation of Romsey in 1311, forbade additions to the nuns, the proper number having been exceeded, and again in 1327 he wrote:

[Pg 213]It is notorious that your house is burdened with ladies beyond the established number which used to be kept; and I have heard that you are being pressed to receive more young ladies (damoyseles) as nuns, wherefore I order you strictly that no young lady received by you be veiled, nor any other received, until the Bishop’s visitation, or until they have special orders from him[697].

The situation at the great Abbey of Shaftesbury was the same. As early as 1218 the Pope had forbidden the community to admit nuns beyond the number of a hundred because they were unable to support more or to give alms to the poor; in 1322 Bishop Mortival wrote remonstrating with them for their neglect of the Pope’s order and repeating the prohibition to admit more nuns until the state of the Abbey was relieved, on the ground that the inmates of the house were far too many for its goods to support; and in 1326 (in response to a petition from the Abbess asking him to fix the statutory number) the Bishop issued an order stating that the house was capable of maintaining a hundred and twenty nuns and no more and that no novices were to be received until the community was reduced to that number[698].

Episcopal prohibitions to receive new inmates without special licence were very common, especially in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Bishops realised that overcrowding only increased the growing poverty of the nunneries. In the poor diocese of York, between 1250 and 1320, the nuns were over and over again forbidden to receive nuns, lay sisters or lay brothers without the licence of the Archbishop. Injunctions to this effect were issued to Marrick (1252), Swine (1268), Wilberfoss (1282), Nunappleton (1282, 1290, 1346), Hampole (1267, 1308, 1312), Arden (1306), Thicket (1309, 1314), Nunkeeling (1282, 1314), Nunburnholme (1318), Esholt (1318), Arthington[Pg 214] (1318) and Sinningthwaite (1319)[699]. At Swine, after the visitation by Archbishop Walter Giffard in 1267-8, it was noted among the comperta

that the house of Swine cannot sustain more nuns or sisters than now are there, inasmuch as those at present there are ill provided with food, as is said above, and that the house nevertheless remains at least a hundred and forty marks in debt; wherefore the lord Archbishop decreed that no nun or sister should thenceforward be received there, save with his consent[700].

A very severe punishment was decreed at Marrick, where the Archbishop announced that any man or woman admitted without his licence would be expelled without hope of mercy, the Prioress would be deposed and any other nuns who agreed condemned to fast on bread and water for two months (except on Sundays and festivals)[701]. In other dioceses the bishops pursued a similar policy. But it was not easy to enforce these prohibitions. Four years after Archbishop Greenfield’s injunction to Hampole (1308) he was obliged to address another letter to the convent, having heard that the prioress had received

a little girl (puellulam), by name Maud de Dreffield, niece of the Abbot of Roche, and another named Jonetta, her own niece, at the instance of Sir Hugh de Cressy, her brother, that after a time they might be admitted to the habit and profession of nuns[702].

The predicament of the Prioress is easily understood; how was she to refuse her noble brother and the Abbot of Roche? They could bring to bear far more pressure than a distant archbishop, who came upon his visitations at long intervals. Moreover the ever present need of ready money made the resistance of nuns less determined than it might otherwise have been; for a dowry in hand they were, as usual, willing to encumber themselves with a new mouth to feed throughout long years to come.

Prohibitions from increasing the number of nuns become more rare in the second half of the fourteenth and during the fifteenth century. Even when the population recovered from the havoc[Pg 215] wrought by the Black Death, the numbers in the nunneries continued steadily to decline. Perhaps fashion had veered, conscious that the golden days of monasticism were over; more likely the growing poverty of the houses rendered them a less tempting retreat. A need for restricting the number of nuns still continued, because the decline in the revenues of the nunneries was swifter than the decline in the number of the nuns. Thus in 1440-1 Alnwick included in his injunctions to seven houses a prohibition to receive more nuns than could competently be sustained by their revenues[703], and the evidence given at his visitations shows the necessity for such a restriction. The injunction to Heynings is particularly interesting:

For as mykelle as we fonde that agayn the entente and the forbedyng of the commune lawe there are in your saide pryorye meo nunnes and susters professed then may be competently susteyned of the revenews of your sayde pryorye, the exilitee of the saide revenews and charitees duly considered, we commaunde, ordeyn, charge and enioyne yowe vnder payne etc. etc. that fro this day forthe ye receyve no mo in to nunnes ne sustres in your saide pryory wyth owte the advyse and assent of hus (and) of our successours bysshope of Lincolne, so that we or thai, wele informed of the yerely valwe of your saide revenews may ordeyn for the nombre competente of nunnes and susters[704].

Nevertheless even at Nuncoton, one of the houses to which a similar injunction was sent, a nun gave evidence “that in her oun time there were in the habit eighteen or twenty nuns and now there are only fourteen,” and the Bishop himself remarked that “ther be but fewe in couent in regarde of tymes here to fore”[705]. Everywhere this decline in the number of nuns went steadily on during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries[706]. And from the beginning of the fifteenth century there appear, here and there among visitatorial injunctions, commands of a[Pg 216] very different nature; here and there a Bishop is found trying, not to keep down, but to keep up the number of nuns. Instead of the repeated prohibitions addressed to Romsey at the beginning of the fourteenth century, there is an injunction from William of Wykeham in 1387, ordering the Abbess to augment the number of nuns, which had fallen far below the statutory number[707]. Similarly in 1432 Bishop Gray wrote to Elstow,

since the accustomed number of nuns of the said monastery has so lessened, that those who are now received scarcely suffice for the chanting of divine service by night and day according to the requirement of the rule, we will and enjoin upon you the abbess, in virtue of obedience and under the penalties written above and beneath, that, with what speed you can, you cause the number of nuns in the said monastery to be increased in proportion to its resources[708].

At Studley in 1531, although the house was badly in debt, the nuns were ordered to live less luxuriously and “to augment your nombre of ladyes within the yere”[709]. In this connection Archbishop Warham’s visitation of Sheppey in 1511 is significant. The Prioress, when questioned as to the number of nuns in the house, said that “she had heard there were seventeen; she knew of fourteen; she herself wished to increase the number to fourteen if she could find any who wished to enter into religion”[710]. It is an interesting reflection that Henry VIII may simply have accelerated, by his violent measure, a gradual dissolution of the nunneries through poverty and through change of fashion.

This account of the attempts of medieval bishops to prevent the nunneries from burdening themselves with inmates, beyond the number which could be supported by their revenues, leads to a consideration of the other methods employed by them to remedy the financial distress in which the nuns so often found themselves. These methods may be divided into three classes; (1) arrangements to safeguard expenditure by the head of the house and to impose a check upon autocracy, (2) arrangements to prevent rash expenditure or improvident means of raising money, by requiring episcopal consent before certain steps could be[Pg 217] taken, and (3) if the incompetence of the nuns were such that even these restrictions were insufficient, the appointment of a male custos, master or guardian, to manage the finances of the house.

Arrangements for safeguarding expenditure by the head of the house were of four kinds: (1) provision for the consultation of the whole convent in important negotiations, (2) provision for the safe custody of the common seal, (3) provision for the regular presentation of accounts, and (4) the appointment of coadjutresses to the Prioress, or of two or three treasuresses, to be jointly responsible for receipts and expenditure. It was a common injunction that the whole convent, or at least “the more and sounder part of it,” should be consulted in all important negotiations, such as the alienation of property, the leasing of land and farms, the cutting down of woods, the incurring of debts and the reception of novices[711]. It has already been shown that Prioresses acted autocratically in performing such business on their own initiative, and the injunction sent by Peckham to the Abbess of Romsey shows the lengths to which this independence might lead them[712]. Flemyng’s injunction to Elstow in 1421-2 is typical:

That the Abbess deliver not nor demise to farm appropriated churches, pensions, portions, manors or granges belonging to the monastery, nor do any other such weighty business, without the express consent of the greater and sounder part of the convent[713].

At Arthington in 1318 the Prioress was specially ordered to consult the convent in sales of wool and other business matters[714]; the Prioress of Sinningthwaite the next year was told to take counsel with the older nuns and in all writings under the common seal to employ a faithful clerk and to have the deed read, discussed and sealed in the presence of the whole convent, those who spoke against it on reasonable grounds being heard and the deed if necessary corrected[715]. Provision for the safe custody[Pg 218] of the common seal, and for the assent of the whole convent to all writings which received its imprint, was a necessary corollary to the demand that the Prioress should consult her nuns in matters of business. Medieval superiors were constantly charged with keeping the common seal in their own custody[716] and nuns and bishops alike objected to a custom which rendered the convent responsible for any rash agreement into which the Prioress might enter. Elaborate arrangements for the custody of the seal are therefore common in visitatorial injunctions. In 1302 Bishop John of Pontoise wrote to Romsey that

whereas from the bad keeping of the common seal many evils to the house have hitherto happened (as the Bishop has now learned from the experience of fact), and also may happen unless wholesome remedy be applied, three at least of the discreeter ladies shall be appointed by the Abbess and by the larger and wiser part of the convent to keep the seal; and when any letter shall be sealed with the common seal in the chapter before the whole convent, it shall be read and explained in an intelligible tongue to all the ladies, publicly, distinctly and openly and afterwards sealed in the same chapter, (not in corners or secretly, as has hitherto been the custom,) and signed as it is read, so that what concerns all may be approved by all. Which done the seal shall be replaced in the same place under the said custody[717].

These injunctions were repeated by Bishop Woodlock nine years later, but in 1387 William of Wykeham laid down much more stringent rules. The seal was to be kept securely under seven, or at least five locks and keys, of which one key was to be in the custody of the abbess and the others to remain with some of the more prudent and mature nuns, nominated by the convent; no letter was to be sealed without first being read before the whole convent in the vulgar tongue and approved by all or by the greater and wiser part of the nuns[718]. Seven locks was an unusually large number; usually three, or even two, were ordered. At Malling, where, as we have seen, Bishop Hamo of Hythe unwillingly confirmed an “insufficient and ignorant” woman as Abbess, he took the extreme step of sequestrating the common seal and forbidding it to be used without his permission[719].

[Pg 219]Another method of keeping some control over the expenditure not only of the head or treasurers of the house, but also of the other obedientiaries, was by ordering the regular presentation of accounts before the whole convent; and in spite of the injunctions of councils and of bishops no regulation was more often broken. Bishop Stapeldon’s rules, drawn up for the guidance of Polsloe and Canonsleigh, afford a good example of these injunctions, and deal with the presentation of accounts by the bailiffs and officers of the house, as well as by the Prioress:

Item, let the accounts of all your bailiffs, reeves and receivers, both foreign and denizen, be overlooked every year, between Easter and Whitsuntide, and between the Feast of St Michael and Christmas, after final account rendered in the Priory before the Prioress, or before those whom she is pleased to put in her place, and before two or three of the most ancient and wise ladies of the said religion and house, assigned by the Convent for this purpose; and let the rolls of the accounts thus rendered remain in the common treasury, so that they may be consulted, if need shall arise by reason of the death of a Prioress, or of the death or removal of bailiffs, receivers or reeves. Item, let the Prioress each year, between Christmas and Easter, before the whole convent, or six ladies assigned by the convent for this purpose, show forth the state of the house, and its receipts and expenses, not in detail but in gross (ne mie par menue parceles mes par grosses sommes), and the debts and the names of the debtors and creditors for any sum above forty shillings. And all these things are to be put into writing and placed in the common treasury, to the intent that it may be seen each year how your goods increase or decrease[720].

Bishop Pontoise ordered that at Romsey an account should be rendered twice a year and at the end thereof the state of the house should be declared by the auditors of the convent, or at least by the seniors of the convent, but finding the practice in abeyance in 1302 he ordered the account to be rendered once a year[721]; his ordinance was repeated by Bishop Woodlock in 1311[722] and by William of Wykeham in 1387[723], both of whom specially refer to the rendering of accounts by officials and obedientiaries[Pg 220] as well as by the Abbess[724]. More frequently, especially in the smaller houses, the Bishops confined their efforts to extracting the main account from the Prioress, with the double object, so ungraciously expressed by Archbishop Lee, “that it may appere in whate state the housse standith in, and also that it may be knowen, whethur she be profitable to the house or not”[725]. How far it was a common practice that the accounts should be audited by some external person, it is impossible to say. Our only evidence lies in occasional injunctions such as those sent by Bishops Pontoise and Woodlock to Romsey, or by Bishop Buckingham to Heynings; or an occasional remark, such as the Prioress of Blackborough’s excuse that she did not render account in order “to save the expenses of an auditor”[726]; or an occasional order addressed by a Bishop to some person bidding him go and examine the accounts of a house. In 1314 William, rector of Londesborough, was made custos of Nunburnholme on peculiar terms, being ordered to go there three times a year and hear the accounts of the ministers and prepositi of the house; his duties were thus, in effect, those of an unpaid auditor and no more[727]. It is probable that the accounts of bailiffs and other servants were audited by the custos, in those houses to which such an official was attached[728]; whether his own accounts were scrutinised is another matter. In 1309 Archbishop Greenfield wrote to his own receiver, William de Jafford, to audit the accounts of Nunappleton[729], and after the revelations of Margaret Wavere’s maladministration at Catesby in 1445, a commission for the inspection of the accounts was granted to the Abbot of St James, Northampton[730]. In some cases the annual statement[Pg 221] of accounts was ordered to be made before the Bishop of the diocese, as well as the nuns of the house, and in such cases he would act as auditor himself[731].

It was also a common practice for the Visitor to demand that the current balance sheet and inventory (the status domus) of a monastic house should be produced, together with its foundation charter and various other documents, before he took the evidence of the inmates at a visitation. The register of Bishop Alnwick’s visitations shows the procedure very clearly; usually there is simply a note to the effect that the Prioress handed in the status domus, but at some houses the Bishop encountered difficulties. At St Michael’s Stamford, in 1440, the old Prioress (who, it will be remembered, had rendered no account at all during her twelve years of office) was unable to produce a balance sheet, or one of the required certificates, and Alnwick was obliged to proceed with her examination “hiis exhibendis non exhibitis.” He made shift however to extract some verbal information from her; she said that the house was in debt £20 at her installation and now only 20 marks, that it could expend £40, besides 10 marks appropriated to the office of pittancer and besides “the perquisites of the stewardship”; she said also “that they plough with two teams and they have eight oxen, seven horses, a bailiff, four serving-folk, a carter for the teams, and a man who is their baker and brewer, whose wife makes the malt”[732]. At Legbourne also the Prioress

showed the state of the house, as it now stands, as they say, but not annual charges, etc.... She says that the house owed £43 at the time of her confirmation and installation and now only £14; nevertheless because the state of the house is not fully shown, she has the next day at Louth to show it more fully[733].

At Ankerwyke also Clemence Medforde gave in an incomplete balance sheet:

she shewed a roll containing the rents of the house, which, after deducting rent-charges, reach the total of £22. 6. 7. Touching the[Pg 222] stewardship of the temporalities and touching the other receipts, as from alms and other like sources, she shews nothing, and says that at the time of her preferment the house was 300 marks in debt, and now is in debt only £40, and she declares some of the names of the creditors of this sum[734].

A special demand for a complete statement of accounts was sometimes made in cases where gross maladministration was charged against a prioress. Thus in 1310 Archbishop Greenfield ordered an investigation of certain charges (unspecified, but clearly of this nature) made against the Prioress of Rosedale; her accounts,

as well as those of all bailiffs and other officials and servants who were bound to render accounts, were to be examined and the prioress was ordered to render to the commissioners full and complete accounts from the time of her promotion, as well as a statement of the then position of the house,

and a further letter from the Archbishop to the Subprioress and nuns ordered them to display the status domus to the commissioners, as it was when the Prioress took office and as it was at the time he wrote. She resigned shortly afterwards, sentiens se impotentem; but in 1315 her successor was enjoined to draw up a certified statement showing the credit and debit accounts of the house and to send it to the Archbishop before a certain date[735]. Usually the Bishop demanded not only the account roll of a house, but also an inventory, doubtless in order that he might see whether anything had been alienated, and these inventories sometimes remain attached to the account of the visitation preserved in the episcopal register[736].

[Pg 223]If a Prioress were found to be hopelessly incompetent or unscrupulous, but not bad enough to be deprived of her position, Bishops sometimes took the extreme measure of appointing one or more coadjutresses, to govern the house in conjunction with her; and often (even when there was no complaint against the Prioress) the nuns were ordered to elect treasuresses, to receive and disburse the income of the house from all sources. One of the comperta at the visitation of Swine in 1268 was to the effect that

the sums of money which are bestowed in charity upon the convent, for pittances and garments and other necessary uses, are received by the Prioress; which ought the rather to be in the custody of two honest nuns and distributed to those in need of them, and in no wise converted to other uses[737].

At Nunkeeling in 1314 it was ordained that all money due to the house should be received by two bursars, elected by the convent[738], and in 1323 Bishop Cobham of Worcester made a similar injunction at Wroxall, that two sisters were to be chosen by the chapter, to do the business of the convent in receiving rents, etc.[739] Elaborate arrangements for the appointment of treasuresses were made by Bishop Bokyngham at Elstow and at Heynings, in 1388 and 1392 respectively, and by Bishop Flemyng at Elstow in 1421-2[740]. It will suffice here to quote the much earlier arrangement made by Archbishop Peckham at Usk in 1284:

“Since,” he wrote, “lately visiting you by our metropolitan right, we found you in a most desolate state (multipliciter desolatas), desiring to avoid such desolation in future, we order, by the counsel of discreet men, that henceforth two provident and discreet nuns be elected by the consent of the prioress and community; into whose hands all the money of the house shall be brought, whether from granges, or[Pg 224] from appropriated churches, or coming from any other offerings, to be carefully looked after by their consent. And as well the Prioress as the other nuns shall receive (money for) all necessary expenses from their hands and in no manner otherwise. And we will that these nuns be called Treasuresses, which Treasuresses thrice in the year, to wit in Lent, Whitsuntide and on the Feast of St Michael, shall render account before the Prioress for the time being and before five or six elders of the chapter.”

In addition they were to have a priest as custos or administrator of their temporal and spiritual possessions[741].

The appointment of a coadjutress to the head of a house in the administration of its affairs is of the same nature. The appointment of coadjutresses was a favourite device with Archbishop Peckham, to check an extravagant or incapable head. At the great abbey of Romsey three coadjutresses were appointed, without whose testimony and advice the Abbess was to undertake no important business[742]. At Wherwell one coadjutress only, a certain J. de Ver, was appointed in 1284, and the same year the Archbishop wrote to his commissary on the subject of the Priory of the Holy Sepulchre, Canterbury:

Since by the carelessness and neglect of the Prioress the goods of the house are said to be much wasted, we wish you to assign to her two coadjutresses, to wit Dame Sara and another of the more honest and wise ladies; but let neither be Benedicta, who is said to have greatly offended the whole community by her discords.

Here, as at Usk, Peckham appointed in addition a master to look after their affairs[743]. At the disorderly house of Arthington Isabella Couvel was in 1312 associated with the Prioress Isabella de Berghby, but the Prioress seems to have resented the appointment and promptly ran away[744]. In the Exeter diocese Bishop Stapeldon made Joan de Radyngton coadjutress to Petronilla, Abbess of Canonsleigh in 1320[745]; and in the diocese of Bath and Wells Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury in 1335 appointed two coadjutresses to Cecilia de Draycote, Prioress of White Hall, Ilchester, and in 1351, when his visitation had revealed many scandals at Cannington, including the simoniacal admission of nuns and unauthorised sale of corrodies by the Prioress, the[Pg 225] Bishop, instead of depriving her “tempered the rigour of the law with clemency” and appointed two coadjutresses without whose consent she was to do nothing[746]. Bishop Alnwick made use of this method of controlling a superior in several cases where serious mismanagement had come to light at his visitation[747], and other instances of this method of controlling the administration of a superior might be multiplied from the episcopal registers.

The appointment of treasuresses and of coadjutresses and the provision for due consultation of the chapter, custody of the common seal and presentment of accounts had the purpose of safeguarding the nuns against reckless expenditure or maladministration by the head of the house, and, where the injunctions of the Visitor were carried out, such precautions doubtless proved of use. Some further check was, however, necessary, to safeguard the nuns against themselves, and to prevent the whole convent from rash sales of land, alienation of goods and from all those other improvident devices for obtaining ready money, to which they were so much addicted. The Bishop often attempted to impose such a check by forbidding certain steps to be taken without his own consent. The business for which an episcopal licence was necessary usually comprised the alienation of land or its lease for life or for a long term of years, the sale of any corrodies or payment of any fees or pensions, and (as has already been pointed out) the reception of new inmates, who might overcrowd the house and thus impose a strain upon its revenues[748]. Other business, such as the sale of woods, was sometimes included[749]. The prohibition of corrodies, fees and pensions was doubtless intended to protect the nuns against the exactions of patrons and other persons, who claimed the right to pension off relatives or old servants by this means, as well as against their own improvidence in selling such doles for[Pg 226] inadequate sums of ready money. As typical of such prohibitions may be quoted Alnwick’s injunction (given in two parts) to Harrold in 1442-3:

Also we enioyne yow, prioresse, and your sucessours vndere payne of pry[v]acyone and perpetuelle amocyone fro your and thaire astate and dygnyte that fro hense forthe ye ne thai selle, graunte ne gyfe to ony persone what euer thai be any corrody, lyverye, pensyone or anuyte to terme of lyve, certeyn tyme or perpetuelly, but if ye or thai fyrste declare the cause to vs or our successours bysshoppes of Lincolne, and in that case have our specyalle licence or of our saide successours and also the fulle assent of the more hole parte of your couent. Also we enioyne yow prioresse and your successours vndere the payne of priuacyone afore saide that ye ne thai selle, gyfe, aleyne, ne felle no grete wode or tymbere, saue to necessary reparacyone of your place and your tenaundryes, but if ye and thai hafe specyalle licence ther to, of vs or our successours bysshoppes of Lincolne and the cause declared to vs or our successours[750].

An exceptionally conscientious Bishop would sometimes send even more full and elaborate instructions to a nunnery on the management of its property, and examples of such minute regulations are to be found in the injunctions sent to Elstow Abbey at different times by Bishop Bokyngham (1387)[751], Archbishop Courtenay (1389)[752] and Bishop Flemyng (1421-2)[753]. Bishop Bokyngham also sent very full injunctions to Heynings in 1392 and these may be quoted to illustrate the care which the Visitors sometimes took to set a house upon a firm financial footing, so far as it was possible to do so by the mere giving of good advice:

The Prioress, indeed, shall attempt to do nothing without the counsel of two nuns, elected by the convent to assist her in the government[Pg 227] of the aforesaid priory, both within and without; and when any important business has to be done concerning the state of the priory, the same Prioress shall expound it to the convent in common, and shall settle and accomplish it according to their counsel, to the advantage of the aforesaid house. And each year the receiver shall display fully in chapter to the convent in common the state of the house and an account of the administration of its goods, clearly and openly written.... Item we command and ordain that the common seal and muniments of the house be faithfully kept under three locks, of which one key shall be in the custody of the prioress, another of the subprioress and the third of a nun elected for this purpose by the convent.... Item we enjoin and command that two receivers be each year elected by the chapter, who shall receive all money whatsoever, forthcoming from the churches, manors or rents of the said priory, the which two elected (receivers), together with the Prioress and with an auditor deputed in the name of the convent, shall hear and receive in writing the computation, account and reckoning of all bailiffs without the precincts of the house, who receive any moneys, or any other goods whatsoever in the name of the said convent, from churches, manors or rents. And afterwards the same two elected receivers, before the Prioress and two other of the greater, elder and more prudent nuns, elected to this end by the convent, shall faithfully render at least twice every year the account and computation of all the receipts and expenses of the same (receivers) within the precincts of the aforesaid house, to the said Prioress and two sisters elected and deputed in the name of the convent. And when this has been done, we will and enjoin that twice in every year the Prioress of the aforesaid house show the whole state of the aforesaid house in chapter, the whole convent being assembled on a certain day for this purpose. And we will that the roll of the aforesaid balance sheet, or paper of account or reckoning, remain altogether in the archives of the aforesaid house, that the prioress and the elder and more prudent (nuns) of the aforesaid house may be able easily to learn the state of the same in future years and whenever any difficulty may arise. And let bailiffs be constituted of sufficient faculties and of commendable discretion and fidelity, the best that can be found, and let them similarly render due account every year before the same prioress and convent.... Furthermore we will that the Prioress and convent of the aforesaid house do not sell or concede in perpetuity or grant for a term corrodies, stipends, liveries or pensions to clerics or to laymen, save with our licence first sought and obtained[754].

At Elstow Bokyngham gave a more detailed injunction about the appointment of bailiffs and other officers.

[Pg 228]Let the Abbess for the government of the aforesaid monastery have faithful servants, in especial for the government and supervision without waste of the husbandry and the manors and stock and woods of the aforesaid house; the which the Abbess herself is bound, if she can, to supervise each year in person, or else let her cause them to be industriously supervised by others; and to look after the external and internal business of the house and to prosecute it outside let her appoint also some man of proven experience and of mature age[755].

The purpose of those regulations and restrictions which have hitherto been described, was to assist the nuns in managing their own finances. But the nuns were never very good business women, and they were moreover in theory confined to the precincts of the cloister, so that it was difficult for them to manage their own business, unless they imperilled their souls by excursions into the world. During the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, therefore, a common method of extricating them from their difficulties was by appointing a male guardian, known in different places as Custos, Prior, Warden or Master, to supervise the temporal affairs of a house and to look after its finances. In the early history of Cistercian nunneries each house was governed jointly by a Prior and Prioress and in some cases a few canons are found holding the temporalities jointly with the nuns. Of these Cistercian houses Mr Hamilton Thompson says:

As in the case of the Gilbertine priories, such nunneries are rarely found outside Lincolnshire and Yorkshire: they were under the bishop’s supervision and their connexion with the order of Cîteaux was nominal. Their geographical distribution, as well as the fact that St Gilbert attempted to affiliate his nunneries to the Cistercian order and modelled them upon its rule, provokes the suspicion that such houses were a result of the growth of the Gilbertine order, and, if not intended to become double houses, were at any rate imitations of the corporations of nuns at Sempringham and elsewhere[756].

References to canons occur in connection with the houses of Stixwould, Heynings and Legbourne in Lincolnshire[757], Catesby in Northamptonshire[758] and Swine in Yorkshire[759]. The comperta[Pg 229] of Archbishop Giffard’s visitation of Swine in 1267-8 show that the house at that time closely resembled the double houses belonging to the Gilbertine order.

Item compertum est, that the two windows, by which the food and drink of the canons and lay brothers are conveyed (to them), are not at all well guarded by the two nuns who are called janitresses, inasmuch as suspicious conversations are frequently held there between the canons and lay brothers on the one hand and the nuns and sisters on the other. Item compertum est that the door which leads to the church is not at all carefully kept by a certain secular boy, who permits the canons and lay brothers to enter indiscriminately in the twilight, that they may talk with the nuns and sisters, the which door was wont to be guarded diligently by a trusty and energetic lay brother.

It has already been described how the ill-management of the canons and lay brothers (“who dissipate and consume, under colour of guardianship, the goods outside, which were wont to be committed to the guardianship of one of the nuns”) caused the nuns to go short in clothes and food and even to be reduced to drinking water instead of beer twice a week, though the canons and their friends “did themselves very well” (satis habundanter et laute procurantur)[760]. In most cases this double constitution of nuns and canons was in abeyance in Cistercian houses before the fourteenth century, though a prior and canons are mentioned at Stixwould in 1308[761] and Richard de Staunton,[Pg 230] “canon of Catesby,” was made master of that house as late as 1316[762].

In other houses where no trace of canons has survived there are often references to the resident Prior, especially in the dioceses of York and Lincoln, and this official is sometimes found in Benedictine houses (e.g. Godstow[763], St Michael’s Stamford[764], and King’s Mead, Derby[765]). He seems to have acted as senior chaplain and confessor to the nuns as well as supervising their financial business. In cases where a nunnery was in some sort of dependence upon an abbey or priory of monks, it is usual to find a religious of that house acting as custos of the nuns. At St Michael’s Stamford, for instance, the abbots of Peterborough had the right of nominating a resident prior, subject to the approval of the Bishop of Lincoln, and the office was often held by a monk of Peterborough[766]. Similarly a monk of St Albans acted as custos of Sopwell[767] and a canon of Newhouse dwelt at Brodholme “to say daily mass for the sisters and to overlook their temporalities”[768]. The joint rule of Cistercian houses by a Prior and Prioress seems to have died out in most cases by the end of the thirteenth century, but it was customary for some secular or regular cleric to be appointed in most of the small and poor houses of York and Lincoln to look after their business[769].[Pg 231] Usually the custos appointed was the vicar or rector of some neighbouring parish. Archbishop Romeyn, for instance, placed Sinningthwaite, Wilberfoss and Arthington under the guardianship of the rectors of Kirk Deighton, Sutton-on-Derwent and Kippax respectively, and he made the vicars of Thirkleby and Bossall successively masters of Moxby[770]. Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln appointed neighbouring rectors and vicars to be masters of Legbourne, Godstow, Rowney, Sewardsley, Fosse, Delapré, St Leonard’s Grimsby, and Nuncoton[771].

Sometimes, on the other hand, canons or monks of religious houses in the vicinity were charged with looking after the affairs of nunneries. Swine was managed by Robert de Spalding, a canon of the Premonstratensian house of Croxton, and in 1289-90 Archbishop Romeyn wrote remonstrating with the Abbot of Croxton for recalling him, and begging that he might be allowed to continue at Swine, “cum idem vester canonicus proficuos labores ibidem impenderit ad relevacionem probabilem depressionis notorie dicte domus”; but the capable Robert was not allowed to return and in 1290 John Bustard, canon of St Robert’s Knaresborough, was appointed in his place. John was not a success and the next year the Abbot removed him; in 1295 Robert of Spalding became master again and in 1298 the rector of Londesborough was appointed[772]. At Catesby in 1293 the office of master was held by a certain Robert de Wardon, a canon of Canons Ashby, who had apparently left the nuns and gone back to his own house, to the great detriment of the nunnery, for Bishop Sutton wrote in 1293 to the Prior of Canons Ashby, bidding him send back the truant[773]. Similarly a canon of Wellow is found as warden of St Leonard’s Grimsby in 1232 and in[Pg 232] 1303[774], a monk of Whitby as guardian of Handale and Basedale in 1268[775], a canon of Newburgh at Arden in 1302[776] and a canon of Lincoln at Heynings in 1291: concerning the latter Bishop Sutton wrote to the nuns that since, “because of private business and various other impediments he is prevented from looking after your business as much as it requires, the vicar of Upton your neighbour is to look after your affairs in his absence,” and in 1294 he was definitely replaced by the rector of Blankney[777]. It is clear from this letter that the masters of nunneries could be non-resident and this was no doubt usually the case when the office was held by the rector of a neighbouring parish. Indeed sometimes the same man would be master of more than one nunnery; as in the case of the monk of Whitby mentioned above. It was probably rare after the beginning of the fourteenth century for a custos to reside at a nunnery, as the early Cistercian priors had done[778].

The appointment of custodes to manage the finances of nunneries was a favourite policy with Archbishop Peckham, doubtless because it facilitated the enforcement of strict enclosure upon the nuns. At Godstow there was already at the time a master, but Peckham also gave the custody of Davington to the vicar of Faversham in 1279, and that of Holy Sepulchre, Canterbury, to the vicar of Wickham in 1284, while at Usk in 1284 he ordered the nuns to have “some senior priest circumspect in temporal and in spiritual affairs to be, with the consent of the diocesan, master of all your goods, internal and external, temporal and spiritual”[779]. At other times a custos would be appointed to meet a particular difficulty when the financial state of a house had become specially weak. About 1303, for[Pg 233] instance, a monk of Peterborough was made for a season special warden of St Michael’s, Stamford, “with full powers over the temporalities and of adjudicating and ordering all temporal matters both within and without the convent as he should think profitable”; the appointment is specially interesting because there was at the time a resident prior at St Michael’s and the “spiritual disposition of all things concerning the house” is reserved to this prior and to the prioress[780]. A more serious crisis occurred at the Priory of White Hall, Ilchester, which was evidently in a disorderly condition at the beginning of the fourteenth century. In 1323 Bishop John of Drokensford wrote to Henry of Birlaunde, rector of Stoke and to John de Herminal, announcing that the Prioress, Alice de Chilterne, was defamed of incontinence with a chaplain and had so mismanaged and turned to her own nefarious uses the revenues of the house that her sisters were compelled to beg their bread; she had however submitted herself to the Bishop, but as public affairs called him to London and as he did not wish to leave the nunnery unprovided for, he committed the custody to these two men, ordering them to administer the necessities of life to the Prioress and sisters, according to the means of the house, until his return[781]. Some ten years later Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury similarly gave the custody of White Hall, Ilchester, to the rectors of Limington and St John’s Ilchester[782]. The nunnery of Barrow, near Bristol, was also in a disorderly condition; in 1315 John of Drokensford wrote to the Prioress ordering her to leave the management of secular matters to a custos appointed by him, and the same day appointed William de Sutton; and in 1324-5, when he had been obliged to remove the Prioress Joanna Gurney, he committed the custody of the house to William, rector of Backwell, ordering him to do the best he could with the advice of the subprioress and one of the nuns[783]. More often sheer financial distress, rather than moral disorder, was the reason for which a custos was appointed to a house. At St Sepulchre’s[Pg 234] Canterbury, the rector of Whitstable was made custos, “by reason of the miserable want and extreme poverty of the said house” (1359) and for the same reason another secular cleric received the “supervision, custody or administration” of the same house in 1365[784]. In 1366 Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham,

pitying the miserable state of St Bartholomew’s at Newcastle-on-Tyne, both as to spirituals and temporals, and dreading the immediate ruin thereof, unless some speedy remedy should be applied, committed it to the care of Hugh de Arnecliffe, priest in the church of St Nicholas in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, strictly enjoining the prioress and nuns to be obedient to him in every particular and trusting to his prudence to find relief for the poor servants of Christ here, in their poverty and distress.[785]

Sometimes the nuns themselves begged for a custos to assist them, in terms which show that they found the management of their own finances too much for them. At Godstow in 1316 the King was obliged, at the request of the Abbess and nuns, to take the Abbey into his special protection “on account of its miserable state,” and he appointed the Abbot of Eynsham and the Prior of Bicester as keepers, ordering them to pay the nuns a certain allowance and to apply the residue to the discharging of their debts[786]. Similarly in 1327 the Prioress and nuns of King’s Mead, Derby, represented themselves as much reduced, and begged the King to take the house into his special protection, granting the custody of it to Robert of Alsop and Simon of Little Chester, until it should be relieved. Three months later Edward III granted it protection for three years and appointed Robert of Alsop and Simon of Little Chester custodians, who, after due provision for the sustenance of the prioress and nuns, were to apply the issues and rents to the discharge of the liabilities of the house and to the improvement of its condition[787]. Some interesting evidence in this connection was given during Alnwick’s visitations of the diocese of Lincoln. When Clemence Medforde, the Prioress of Ankerwyke, was asked whether she had observed the Bishop’s injunctions, she answered

that such injunctions were, and are, well observed as regards both her and her sisters in effect and according to their power, except the[Pg 235] injunction whereby she is bound to supply to her sisters sufficient raiment for their habits, and as touching the non-observance of that injunction she answers that she cannot observe it, because of the poverty and insufficiency of the resources of the house, which have been much lessened by reason of the want of a surveyor or steward (yconomus). Wherefore she besought my lord’s good-will and assistance that he would deign with charitable consideration to make provision of such steward or director.... And when these nuns, all and several, had been so examined and were gathered together again in the chapter house, the said Depyng (the Visitor) gave consideration to two grievances, wherein the priory and nuns alike suffer no small damage, the which, as he affirmed, were worthy of reform above the rest of those that stood most in need of reform, to wit the lack of raiment for the habit, of bedclothes and of a steward or seneschal, but in these matters, as he averred, he could not apply a remedy for the nonce without riper deliberation and consultation with my lord[788].

Similarly the old Prioress of St Michael’s Stamford, when asking for the appointment of two nuns as treasuresses, complained “that she herself is impotent to rule temporalities, nor have they an industrious man to supervise these and to raise and receive (external payments)”; another nun said that “they have not a discreet layman to rule their temporalities,” and a third also complained of the lack of a “receiver”[789]. At Gokewell, on the other hand, the Prioress said “that the rector of Flixborough is their steward (yconomus) and he looks after the temporalities and not she”; he was evidently a true friend to the nuns, for she said “that the house does not exceed £10 in rents and is greatly in debt to the rector of Flixborough”[790]. The terms of appointment of custodes often specify the inexpertness of the nuns, or their need for someone to supervise the management of their estates[791]. Perhaps the fullest set of instructions to a custos which have survived are those given by Archbishop Melton to Roger de Saxton, rector of Aberford, in making him custos of Kirklees in 1317:

Trusting in your industry, we by tenour of the present (letters) give you power during our pleasure to look after, guard and administer the temporal possessions of our beloved religious ladies, the Prioress and convent of Kirklees in our diocese, throughout their manors and buildings (loca) wherever these be, and to receive and hear the account of all servants and ministers serving in the same, and to make those[Pg 236] payments (allocandum) which by reason ought to be made, as well as to remove all useless ministers and servants and to appoint in their place others of greater utility, and to do all other things which shall seem to you to be to the advantage of the place, firmly enjoining the said prioress and convent, as well as the sisters and lay brothers of the house, in virtue of holy obedience, that they permit you freely to administer in all and each of the aforesaid matters[792].

It must have been of great assistance to the worried and incompetent nuns to have a reliable guardian thus to look after their temporal affairs, and it is difficult to understand why the practice of having a resident prior died out at the Cistercian houses and at Benedictine houses (e.g. St Michael’s, Stamford) which had such an official in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Even the appointment of neighbouring rectors as custodes of nunneries in the York and Lincoln dioceses ceased, apparently, to be common by the middle of the fourteenth century[793]. It is a curious anomaly that this remedy should have been applied less and less often during the very centuries when the nunneries were becoming increasingly poor, and stood daily in greater need of external assistance in the management of their temporal affairs.



[Pg 237]



Abstinence the abbesse myn a. b. c. me tauȝte.
Piers Plowman.


The Benedictine ideal set study together with prayer and labour as the three bases of monastic life and in the short golden age of English monasticism women as well as men loved books and learning. The tale of the Anglo-Saxon nuns who corresponded with St Boniface has often been told. Eadburg, Abbess of Thanet, wrote the Epistles of St Peter for him in letters of gold and sent books to him in the wilds of Germany. Bugga, Abbess of a Kentish house, exchanged books with him. The charming Lioba, educated by the nuns of Wimborne, sent him verses which she had composed in Latin, which “divine art” the nun Eadburg had taught her, and begged him to correct the rusticity of her style. Afterwards she came into Germany to help him and became Abbess of Bischofsheim and her biographer tells how

she was so bent on reading that she never laid aside her book except to pray or to strengthen her slight frame with food and sleep. From childhood upwards she had studied grammar and the other liberal arts, and hoped by perseverance to attain a perfect knowledge of religion, for she was well aware that the gifts of nature are doubled by study. She zealously read the books of the Old and New Testaments and committed their divine precepts to memory; but she further added to the rich store of her knowledge by reading the writings of the holy Fathers, the canonical decrees and the laws of the Church.

So also an anonymous Anglo-Saxon nun of Heidenheim wrote the lives of Willibald and Wunebald[794].

The Anglo-Saxon period seems, however, to have been the only one during which English nuns were at all conspicuous for learning. There is indeed very scant material for writing their history between the Norman Conquest and the last years of the thirteenth century, when Bishops’ Registers begin. It is[Pg 238] never safe to argue from silence and some nuns may still have busied themselves over books; but two facts are significant: we have no trace of women occupying themselves with the copying and illumination of manuscripts and no nunnery produced a chronicle. The chronicles are the most notable contribution of the monastic houses to learning from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries; and some of the larger nunneries, such as Romsey, Lacock, and Shaftesbury, received many visitors and must have heard much that was worth recording, besides the humbler annals of their own houses. But they recorded nothing. The whole trend of medieval thought was against learned women and even in Benedictine nunneries, for which a period of study was enjoined by the rule, it was evidently considered altogether outside the scope of women to concern themselves with writing. While the monks composed chronicles, the nuns embroidered copes; and those who sought the gift of a manuscript from the monasteries, sought only the gift of needlework from the nunneries.

It is not, perhaps, surprising that the nuns should have written no chronicles and copied few, if any, books. But it is surprising that England should after the eighth century be able to show so little record of gifted individuals. Even if the rule of a professedly learned order were unlikely to prevail against the general trend of civilisation and to produce learned women, still it might have been expected that here and there a genius, or a woman of some talent for authorship, might have flourished in that favourable soil; or even that a whole house might have enjoyed for a brief halcyon period the zest for learning, when “alle was buxomnesse there and bokes to rede and to lerne.” In Germany, at various periods of the middle ages, this did happen. The Abbey of Gandersheim in Saxony was renowned for learning in the tenth century and here lived and flourished the nun Roswitha, who not only wrote religious legends in Latin verse, but even composed seven dramas in the style of Terence, a poem on the Emperor Otto the Great and a history of her own nunnery. From the internal evidence of her works it has been thought that this nun was directly familiar with the works of Virgil, Lucan, Horace, Ovid, Terence and perhaps Plautus, Prudentius, Sedulius, Fortunatus, Martianus Capella and Boethius; but apart from this evidence of learning, her plays[Pg 239] show her to have been a woman of originality and some genius; they are strange productions to have emanated from a tenth century convent[795]. It was in Germany again, at Hohenburg in Alsace, that the Abbess Herrad in the twelfth century compiled and decorated with exquisite illuminations the great encyclopedia known as the Hortus Deliciarum. This book, one of the finest manuscripts which had survived from the middle ages and a most invaluable source of information for the manners and appearance of the people of Herrad’s day, was destroyed in the German bombardment of Strasburg in 1870[796]. The same century saw the lives of the two great nun-mystics, St Hildegard of Bingen and St Elisabeth of Schönau, who saw visions, dreamed dreams and wrote them down[797]. In the next century the convent of Helfta in Saxony was the home of several literary nuns and mystics and was distinguished for culture; its nuns collected books, copied them, illuminated them, learned and wrote Latin, and three of them, the béguine Mechthild, the nun Saint Mechthild von Hackeborn and the nun Gertrud the Great, have won considerable fame by their mystic writings[798]. Even in the decadent fifteenth century examples are not wanting of German nuns who were keenly interested in learning; and in the early sixteenth century Charitas Pirckheimer, nun of St Clare at Nuremberg and sister of the humanist Wilibald Pirckheimer, was in close relations with her brother and with many of his friends and full of enthusiasm for the new learning[799].

It is strange that in England there is no record of any house which can compare with Gandersheim, Hohenburg or Helfta; no record of any nun to compare with the learned women and great mystics who have been mentioned. The air of the English nunneries would seem to have been unfavourable to learning. The sole works ascribed to monastic authoresses are a Life of St Catherine, written in Norman-French by Clemence, a nun of Barking, in the late twelfth century[800], and The Boke of St Albans,[Pg 240] a treatise on hawking, hunting and coat armour, printed in 1486, by one Dame Juliana Berners, whom a vague and unsubstantiated tradition declares to have been Prioress of Sopwell. Nor do nuns seem to have been more active in copying manuscripts. Several beautiful books, which have come down to our own day, can be traced to nunneries, but there is no evidence that they were written there and all other evidence makes it highly improbable that they were. It is true that in 1335 we find this entry among the issues of the Exchequer:

To Isabella de Lancaster, a nun of Amesbury, in money paid to her by the hands of John de Gynewell for payment of 100 marks, which the lord the King commanded to be paid her for a book of romance purchased from her for the King’s use, which remains in the chamber of the lord the King, 66 l. 13 s. 4 d[801],

but it is unlikely that the book thus purchased by the King from his noble kinswoman was her own work.

This period of the later ages was, indeed, unfavourable to learning among monks as well as among nuns. As the universities grew, so the monasteries declined in lustre; learning had no longer need to seek refuge behind cloister walls, and the most promising monks now went to the universities, instead of studying at home in their own houses. The standard of the chronicles rapidly declined and the best chronicler of the fourteenth century was not a monk like Matthew Paris, but a secular, a wanderer, a hanger-on of princes, Froissart. As the fifteenth century passed learning declined still further; and it is evident from the visitations of the time that the monks, whatever else they might be, were not scholars. We should expect the decline in learning to be more marked still among the nuns, considering how little they had possessed in preceding centuries; and the matter is worth some study, because it concerns not only the education of the nuns themselves, but the education which they were qualified to give to the children who were sent to school with them.

A word may first be said on the subject of nunnery libraries. Concerning these we have very little information; and, such as it is, it does not leave the impression that nunneries were rich in books. No catalogue of a nunnery library[802] has come down to[Pg 241] us and such references to libraries as occur in inventories show great poverty in this respect, the books being few and chiefly service-books. An inventory of the small and poor convent of Easebourne, taken in 1450, shows what was doubtless quite a large library for a house of its size. It contained two missals, two portiforia (breviaries), four antiphoners, one large Legenda, eight psalters, one book of collects, one tropary, one French Bible, two ordinalia in French, one book of the Gospels and one martyrology[803]. The inventories of Henry VIII’s commissioners give very little information as to books and seem to have found few that were of any value. The books found at Sheppey are thus described: “ij bokes with ij sylver clapses the pece, and vj bokes with one sylver clasp a pec, l bokes good and bad” (in the church), “vij bokes, whereof one goodly mase boke of parchement and dyvers other good bokes” (in the vestry), and “an olde presse full of old boks of no valew” (in a chapel in the churchyard) and “a boke of Saynts lyfes” (in the parlour)[804]. At Kilburn were found “two books of Legenda Aurea, one in print, the other written, both English, 4d.”; the one in print must have been Caxton’s edition, thus valued, together with a manuscript, at something like 6s. 8d. in present money for the pair! Also “two mass books, one old written, the other in print, 20d., four processions in parchment (3s.) and paper (10d.), two Legends in parchment and paper, 8d., and two chests, with divers books pertaining to the church, of no value”[805]. It will be noted that the books are almost always connected with the church services. It is perhaps significant that in only one list of the inmates of a house is a nun specifically described as librarian[806].

[Pg 242]Something may be gleaned also from the legacies of books left to nuns in medieval wills. These again are nearly always psalters or service books of one kind or another; and indeed the average layman was more likely to possess these than other books, for all alike attended the services of the church. Thus Sir Robert de Roos in 1392 leaves his daughter, a nun, “a little psalter, that was her mother’s”[807]; Sir William de Thorp in 1391 leaves his sister-in-law, a nun of Greenfield, a psalter[808]; William Stow of Ripon in 1430 leaves the Prioress of Nunmonkton a small psalter[809], William Overton of Helmsley in 1481 leaves his niece Elena, a nun of Arden, “one great Primer with a cover of red damask”[810], and so on. There may be some significance in the fact that John Burn, chaplain at York Cathedral, leaves the Prioress and Convent of Nunmonkton “an English book of Pater Noster”[811]. It strikes a strange and pleasant note when Thomas Reymound in 1418 leaves the Prioress and Convent of Polsloe 20s. and the Liber Gestorum Karoli, Regis Francie[812], and when Eleanor Roos of York in 1438 leaves Dame Joan Courtenay “unum librum vocatum Mauldebuke,” whatever that mysterious tome may have contained[813].

Some light is also thrown backward upon their possessors by isolated books which have come down to our own day and are known to have belonged to nuns. These come mostly, as might be expected, from the great abbeys of the south, where the nuns were rich and of good birth, from Syon and Barking, Amesbury, Wilton and Shaftesbury, St Mary’s Winchester, and Wherwell[814]. Sometimes the MS. records the name of the nun owner. Wright and Halliwell quote from a Latin breviary, in[Pg 243] which is an inscription to the effect that it belonged to Alice Champnys, nun of Shaftesbury, who bought it for the sum of 10s. from Sir Richard Marshall, rector of the parish church of St Rumbold of Shaftesbury. There follows this prayer for the use of the nun:

Trium puerorum cantemus himnum quem cantabant in camino ignis benedicentes dominum. O swete Jhesu, the sonne of God, the endles swetnesse of hevyn and of erthe and of all the worlde, be in my herte, in my mynde, in my wytt, in my wylle, now and ever more, Amen. Jhesu mercy, Jhesu gramercy, Jhesu for thy mercy, Jhesu as I trust to thy mercy, Jhesu as thow art fulle of mercy, Jhesu have mercy on me and alle mankynde redemyd with thy precyouse blode. Jhesu, Amen[815].

A manuscript of Capgrave’s Life of St Katharine of Alexandria, which belonged to Katherine Babyngton, subprioress of Campsey in Suffolk, has a very different inscription:

Iste liber est ex dono Kateryne Babyngton quondam subpriorisse de Campseye et si quis illum alienauerit sine licencia vna cum consensu dictarum [sanctimonialium] conuentus, malediccionem dei omnipotentis incurrat et anathema sit[816].

Sometimes the owner of a manuscript is known to us from other sources. There is a splendid psalter, now in St John’s College, Cambridge, which belonged to the saintly Euphemia, Abbess of Wherwell from 1226 to 1257, whose good deeds were celebrated in the chartulary of the house[817]. In the Hunterian Library at Glasgow there is a copy of the first English translation of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi, which belonged to Elizabeth Gibbs, Abbess of Syon from 1497 to 1518; it is inscribed

O vos omnes sorores et ffratres presentes et futuri, orate queso pro venerabili matre nostra Elizabeth Gibbis, huius almi Monasterii Abbessa [sic], necnon pro deuoto ac religioso viro Dompno Willielmo Darker, in artibus Magistro de domo Bethleem prope sheen ordinis Cartuciensis, qui pro eadem domina Abbessa hunc librum conscripsit;

the date 1502 is given[818].

[Pg 244]The books known to have been in the possession of nuns throw, as will be seen, but a dim light upon the educational attainments of their owners. More specific evidence must be sought in bishops’ registers, and in such references to the state of learning in nunneries as occur in the works of contemporary writers. It is clear that nuns were expected to be “literate”; bishops sending new inmates to convents occasionally assure their prospective heads that the girls are able to undertake the duties of their new state[819]. What to be sufficiently lettered meant, from the convent point of view, appears in injunctions sent to the Premonstratensian house of Irford, forbidding the reception of any nun “save after such fashion as they are received at Irford and Brodholme, to wit that they be able to read and to sing, as is contained in the statute of the order”[820]; and again in injunctions sent by Bishop Gray to Elstow about 1432:

We enjoin and charge you the abbess and who so shall succeed you ... that henceforward you admit no one to be a nun of the said monastery ... unless she be taught in song and reading and the other things requisite herein, or probably may be easily instructed within a short time[821].

Further light is thrown on the question by an episode in the life of Thomas de la Mare, Abbot of St Albans from 1349 to 1396. At that time the subordinate nunnery of St Mary de Pré consisted of two grades of inmates, nuns and sisters, who were never on good terms. The Abbot accordingly transformed the sisters into nuns and ordained that no more sisters should be received, but only “literate nuns.” But hitherto the nuns also had been illiterate; “they said no service, but in the place of the Hours they said certain Lord’s Prayers and Angelic Salutations.” The Abbot therefore ordered that they should be[Pg 245] taught the service and that in future they should observe the canonical hours, saying them without chanting, but singing the offices for the dead at certain times. Since they had apparently no books, from which to read the services, he gave them six or seven ordinals, belonging to the Abbey of St Albans, which caused not a little annoyance among the monks. In order that nuns should not be rashly and easily admitted, he ordered that henceforth all who entered the house were to profess the rule of St Benedict in writing[822].

The requirements seem to be that the nun should be able to take part in the daily offices in the quire, for which reading and singing were essential. It was not, it should be noted, essential to write, though Abbot Thomas de la Mare required the nuns of St Mary de Pré to profess the rule in writing and about 1330 the nuns of Sopwell (another dependency of St Albans) were enjoined by the commissary of a previous Abbot to give their votes for a new Prioress in writing[823]. Nevertheless, strange as this may appear to many who are wont to credit the nuns with teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and a number of other accomplishments to their pupils, it is probable that some of the nuns of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were unable to write. The form of profession of three novices at Rusper in 1484 has survived and ends with the note “Et quelibet earum fecit tale signum crucis manu sua propria ✠”[824] which might possibly imply that these nuns could not write their names. It is significant that the official business of convents, their annual accounts and any certificates which they might have to draw up, were done by professional clerks, or sometimes by their chaplains. Payment to the clerk who made the account occurs regularly in their account rolls; and the Visitations of Bishop Alnwick, to which reference will be made below, show that they[Pg 246] were often completely at a loss, when writing had to be done and there was no clerk to do it.

Again it would seem clear that the nun who was fully qualified to “bear the burden of the choir” ought to be able to understand what she read, as well as to read it, and this raises at once the study of Latin in nunneries. Here again the nuns do not emerge very well from inquiry. Some there were no doubt who knew a little Latin, even in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; but the more the inquirer studies contemporary records, the more he is driven to conclude that the majority of nuns during this period knew no Latin; they must have sung the offices by rote and though they may have understood, it is to be feared that the majority of them could not construe even a Pater Noster, an Ave or a Credo. Let us take the evidence for the different centuries in turn. The language of visitation injunctions affords some clue to the knowledge of the nuns. It must be remembered that throughout the whole period Latin was always the learned and ecclesiastical language; and the communications addressed by a bishop to the monastic houses of his district, notices of visitation, mandates and injunctions would normally be in Latin; and when he was addressing monks they were in fact almost always in this tongue. After Latin the language next in estimation was French. This had been the universal language of the upper class and up till the middle of the fourteenth century it was still par excellence the courtly tongue. But it was rapidly ceasing to be a language in general use and the turning-point is marked by a statute of 1362, which ordains that henceforth all pleas in the law courts shall be conducted in English, since the French language “is too unknown in the said realm.” At the close of the century even the upper classes were ceasing to speak French and the English ambassadors to France in 1404 had to beseech the Grand Council of France to answer them in Latin, French being “like Hebrew” to them[825]. In the fifteenth century French was a mere educational adornment, which could be acquired by those who could get teachers.

The linguistic learning of English nuns at different periods was similar to that of the gentry outside the convent. It was not[Pg 247] possible after the beginning of the fourteenth century (perhaps even during the last half of the thirteenth century) to assume in them that acquaintance with Latin, the learned and ecclesiastical tongue, which was generally assumed in their brothers the monks. Their learning was similar to that of contemporary laymen of their class, rather than of contemporary monks; and it went through exactly the same phases as did the coronation oath. About 1311 the King’s oath occurs in Latin among the State documents, with the note appended that “if the King were illiterate” he was to swear in French, as Edward II did in 1307; but in 1399 when Henry IV claimed the throne, he claimed it in English, “In the name of the Fadir, Son and Holy Gost, I Henry of Lancastre, chalenge þis Rewme of Yngland”[826]. Similarly towards the close of the thirteenth century the English bishops begin to write to their nuns in French, because they are no longer “literate,” in the sense of understanding Latin. Throughout this century the nuns are able to speak the courtly tongue; they use it for their petitions; and Chaucer’s Prioress boasts it among her accomplishments at the close of the century,

And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For French of Paris was to her unknowe.

But French, like Latin, is beginning to die away. It hardly ever occurs in petitions after the end of the century; and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Bishops almost invariably send their injunctions to the nuns in English. The majority of nuns during these two centuries would seem to have understood neither French nor Latin[827].

The evidence of the bishops’ registers is worth considering in more detail. The bishops were genuinely anxious that the reforms set forth in their injunctions should be carried out by the nuns, and they were therefore at considerable pains to send the injunctions in language which the nuns could understand. There are few surviving injunctions belonging to the thirteenth century; and their evidence is missed. Archbishop Walter Giffard[Pg 248] in 1268[828] and Archbishop Newark in 1298[829] write to the nuns of Swine in Latin, a language which they seem to have employed habitually when writing to nunneries. Archbishop Peckham sometimes writes to the Godstow nuns in Latin (1279) and sometimes in French (1284)[830]; it is to be noted that his French letter is of a more familiar type. Bishop Cantilupe of Hereford writes about 1277 to the nuns of Lymbrook in Latin, but his closing words raise considerable doubt as to whether an understanding of Latin can be generally assumed in nunneries at this period, for he says “you are to cause this our letter to be expounded to you several times in the year by your penancers, in the French or English tongue, whichever you know best”[831].

The evidence for the next century is even less ambiguous, for nearly all injunctions are in French and sometimes it is specifically mentioned that the nuns do not understand Latin. Bishop Norbury in 1331 translates his injunctions to Fairwell into French[832], because the nuns do not understand the original in Latin, and Bishop Robert de Stretton, writing to the same house in 1367, orders his decree to be “read and explained in the vulgar tongue by some literate ecclesiastical person on the day after its receipt”[833]. Bishop Stapeldon’s interesting injunctions to Polsloe and Canonsleigh in 1319 are in French, but he seems to assume some knowledge of Latin in the nuns, for he orders that if it be necessary to break silence in places where silence is ordained, speech should be held in Latin, though not in grammatically constructed sentences, but in isolated words[834]. In 1311 Bishop Woodlock sending a set of Latin injunctions to the great Abbey of Romsey, announces that he has caused them to be translated into French, that the nuns may more[Pg 249] easily understand them[835]; but Wykeham writes to them in Latin in 1387[836]. In the Lincoln diocese during this century the custom of the bishops varies. Gynewell writes to Heynings and to Godstow in French, but to Elstow in Latin[837]; Bokyngham writes to both Heynings and Elstow in Latin, but in ordering the nuns of Elstow in 1387 to keep silence at due times, he adds “Et vulgare gallicum addiscentes inter se eo utantur colloquentes”[838], a significant contrast to Stapeldon’s recommendation of Latin in similar circumstances some seventy years earlier.

When we pass from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century it is clear that even French was becoming an unknown tongue to the nuns; nearly all injunctions are from this time forward written in English. At Redlingfield in 1427, the seven nuns and two novices were assembled in the chapter house, where the deputy visitor read his commission, first in Latin and then in the vulgar tongue, in order that the nuns might better understand it[839]. It is true that Bishops Flemyng and Gray send Latin injunctions to Elstow and Delapré Abbeys in 1422 and 1433 respectively; but Flemyng orders “that the premises, all and sundry, be published and read openly and in the vulgar mother tongue eight times a year”[840], and Gray writes that his injunctions are to be translated into the mother tongue and fastened in some conspicuous place[841]. The best evidence of all for the state of learning in nunneries during the first half of the fifteenth century is to be found in the invaluable records of Alnwick’s visitations of the Lincoln diocese. Now it should be noted that when Alnwick visited houses of monks or canons, the sermon, which was generally preached on such occasions by one of the learned clerics who accompanied him, was invariably preached in Latin. Moreover, all injunctions sent to male houses after visitation were sent in Latin also. The assumption still was that these monasteries were homes of learning and acquainted with the language of learning. With the nunneries it was otherwise. The sermons were always preached “in the vulgar tongue” and[Pg 250] the injunctions were always sent in English. It was not even pretended that the nuns would understand Latin. Moreover it is quite plain that when the preliminary notices of visitation had been sent in Latin, they had been very imperfectly understood; and that when it was necessary for a Prioress herself to draw up a certificate in writing, she was often quite unable to do so.

A few extracts from Alnwick’s records will illustrate the complete ignorance of Latin and general illiteracy in these houses. At Ankerwyke (1441) it is noted:

And then when request had been made of the prioress by the reverend father for the certificate of his mandate conveyed to the said prioress for such visitation, the same prioress, instead of the certificate delivered the original mandate itself to the said reverend father, affirming that she did not understand the mandate itself, nor had she any man of skill or other lettered person to instruct what she should do in this behalf[842].

At Markyate (1442), when the same certificate was asked for, the Prioress

said that she had not a clerk who was equipped for writing such a certificate, on the which head she submitted herself to my lord’s favour and then showed my lord in lieu of a certificate the original mandate itself and the names of the nuns who had been summoned[843].

Similarly the Prioress of Fosse showed the original mandate in place of the certificate, and the Prioresses of St Michael’s Stamford and Rothwell had failed to draw up the certificate[844]. The Prioress of Gokewell (1440) was said to be “exceedingly simple,” all the temporalities of the house being ruled by a steward; she also declared that “she knows not how to compose a formal certificate, in that she has no lettered persons of her counsel who are skilled in this case,” and she had been unable to find the document reciting the confirmation of her election[845]. The poor convent of Langley seems to have been reduced to complete confusion by the episcopal mandate. The Prioress

says that she received my lord’s mandate on the feast of St Denis last. Interrogated whether she has a certificate touching execution thereof, she says no, because she did not understand it, nor did her chaplain also, to whom she showed it; concerning the which she surrendered herself to my lord’s favour. Wherefore, when the original[Pg 251] mandate had been delivered to my lord and read through in the vulgar tongue, my lord asked her if she had executed it. She says yes, as regards the summons of herself and her sisters.... Interrogated if she has the foundation charter of the house and who is the founder, she says that Sir William Pantolfe founded the house, but because they are unversed in letters they cannot understand the writings[846].

It is unnecessary to multiply the evidence of visitation records for the rest of the fifteenth and for the early sixteenth century: the general effect is to show us nuns who know only the English language[847]. Let us turn to the interesting corroborative evidence provided by those who were at pains to make translations for their use. It must be admitted that this evidence only confirms the suggestion made above that the nuns often did not understand the very services which they sang, let alone the Latin version of their rule, or the Latin charters by which they held their lands. That they often sang the services uncomprehendingly like parrots is actually stated by Sir David Lyndesay, the Scottish poet, in his Dialog concerning the Monarché (1553). He apologises for writing in his native tongue, unlike those clerks, who wish to prohibit the people from reading even the scriptures for themselves, and adds

Tharefore I thynk one gret dirisioun
To heir thir Nunnis & Systeris nycht and day
Syngand and sayand psalmes and orisoun,
Nocht vnderstandyng quhat thay syng nor say,
Bot lyke one stirlyng or ane Papingay
Quhilk leirnit ar to speik be lang usage
Thame I compair to byrdis in ane cage[848].

Several translations of the rule of St Benet were made for the special use of nuns, who knew no Latin. A northern metrical version of the early fifteenth century explains

Monkes and als all leryd men
In Latin may it lyghtly ken,
And wytt tharby how they sall wyrk
To sarue god and haly kyrk.
[Pg 252]
Bott tyll women to mak it couth,
That leris no latyn in thar youth,
In inglis is it ordand here,
So that thay may it lyghtly lere[849].

About a century later, in 1517, Richard Fox, the Bishop of Winchester, published for the benefit of the nuns of his diocese another English translation of the Rule of St Benedict. In the preface he rehearses how nuns are professed under the Rule and are bound to read, learn and understand it:

and also after their profession they should not onely in them selfe kepe observe execute and practise the said rule but also teche other and heir sisters the same, and so moche that for the same intent they daily rede and cause to be rede some parte of the sayd rule by one of the sayd sisters amonges them selfe as well in their Chapiter House after the redinge of the Martyrologe as some tyme in their Fraitur in tyme of refections and collacions, at the which reding is always don in the latin tonge, whereof they have no knowledge nor understandinge but be utterly ignorant of the same, whereby they do not only lose their tyme but also renne into the evident danger and perill of the perdicion of their soules.

He adds that in order to save the souls of his nuns, and in particular to ensure that novices understand the Rule before profession,

so that none of them shall nowe afterward probably say that she wyste not what she professed, as we knowe by experience that some of them have sayd in tyme passed, for these causes at thinstant requeste of our ryght dere and well-beloved daughters in oure Lorde Jhesu, the Abbasses of the Monasteries of Rumsay, Wharwel, Seynt Maries within the Citie of Winchester and the Prioresses of Wintnay, our right religious diocesans, we have translated the sayd rule unto our moders tonge; comune, playne rounde Englishe, easy and redy to be understande by the sayde devoute religiouse women[850].

The inconvenience of not being able to read the foundation charter and other legal documents of the house, as confessed by the Prioress of Langley at Alnwick’s visitation, was very great; and about 1460 Alice Henley, the Abbess of Godstow, caused[Pg 253] a translation to be made of the Latin register, in which were copied all the charters of her abbey. The translator’s preface to the work is interesting:

The wyseman tawht hys chyld gladly to rede bokys and hem well vndurstonde for, in defaute of vndyrstondyng, is ofttymes caused neclygence, hurte, harme and hynderaunce, as experyence prevyth in many a place. And for as muche as women of relygyone in redynge bokys of latyn, byn excusyd of grete vndurstandyng, where it is not her modyr tonge; Therfore, how be hyt that they wolde rede her bokys of remembraunce of her munymentys wryte in latyn, for defaute of undurstondyng they toke ofte tymes grete hurt and hyndraunce; and, what for defaute of trewe lernyd men that all tymes be not redy hem to teche and counsayl, and feere also and drede to shewe her euydence opynly (that oftyntyme hath causyd repentaunce). Hyt wer ryht necessary, as hyt semyth to the undyrstondyng of suche relygyous women, that they myght haue, out of her latyn bokys, sum wrytynge in her modyr tonge, wher-by they might haue bettyr knowlyge of her munymentys and more clerely yeue informacyon to her serauntys, rent gedurarys, and receyuowrs, in the absent of her lernyd councell. Wher-fore, a poore brodur and welwyller ... to the goode Abbas of Godstowe, Dame Alice henley, and to all her couent, the whych byn for the more party in Englyssh bokys well y-lernyd, hertyly desyryng the worship, profyt and welfare of that deuoute place, that, for lak of vndurstondyng her munymentys sholde in no damage of her lyflod huraftur fallyn, In the worship of our lady and seynt John Baptist patron of thys seyd monastery, the sentence for the more partyre of her munymentys conteynd in the boke of her regystr in latyn, aftyr the same forme and ordyr of the seyd boke, hath purposyd with goddys grace to make, aftur hys conceyt, fro latyn into Englyssh, sentencyosly, as foloweth thys symple translacion[851].

It will be noticed that the benevolent translator of this Godstow register says that the nuns are for the most part well learned in English books. The same impression is given by the translations which were made for the nuns of Syon. The most famous of these is the Myroure of Oure Ladye, written for the nuns by Thomas Gascoigne (1403-58) and first printed in 1530. This book contains a devotional treatise on divine service, with a translation and explanation of the “Hours” and “Masses” of our Lady, as they were used at Syon. The author explains his purpose thus:

Forasmoche as many of you, though ye can synge and rede, yet ye can not se what the meanynge therof ys; therefore to the onely worshyp[Pg 254] and praysyng of oure lorde Jesu chryste and of hys moste mercyfull mother oure lady and to the gostly comforte and profyte of youre soules, I haue drawen youre legende and all youre seruyce in to Englyshe, that ye shulde se by the vnderstondyng therof, how worthy and holy praysynge of oure gloryous Lady is contente therin & the more deuoutely and knowyngly synge yt & rede yt and say yt to her worshyp.

He adds that he has explained the various parts of the divine service for “symple soulles to vnderstonde,” but that he has translated few psalms, “for ye may haue them of Rycharde hampoules drawynge, and out of Englysshe bibles, if ye haue lysence therto”[852].

From a passage in the Myroure it appears that the sisters were accustomed to spend some of their time in reading and advice is given to them as to the sort of books to read and the way in which to profit by them; from this it is quite clear that secular learning had no place among them, their reading being confined to works of ghostly edification[853]. It was their ignorance of Latin which caused the insertion of English rubrics in the Latin Processionale of the house and which inspired Richard Whytford, one of the brothers, to translate the splendid Martilogium, which is now in the British Museum, “for the edificacyon of certayn religyous persones unlerned that dayly dyd rede the same martiloge in Latyn, not understandynge what they redde”; his translation was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1526[854]. Gascoigne’s mention of English bibles is interesting. Miss Deanesly, in her study of The Lollard Bible, has shown that “it is likely that English nuns were the most numerous orthodox users of English bibles between 1408 and 1526,” but that the evidence for this use is slight and drawn almost entirely from Syon and Barking, two large and important houses[855]. Her conclusion is that

it was not the case that the best instructed nuns used Latin Bibles and the most ignorant English ones: but that the best instructed[Pg 255] nuns were allowed to use English translations, perhaps by themselves, perhaps to help in the understanding of the Vulgate, while the smaller nunneries and least instructed nuns almost certainly did not have them at all.

This goes to confirm the conclusion that even in the greatest houses, where the nuns were drawn from the highest social classes and might be supposed to be best educated, the knowledge of Latin was dying out.

Other occupations besides reading filled the working hours of the nuns and of these spinning and needlework were the most important. Most women in the middle ages possessed the art of spinning and Aubrey’s Old Jacques may have remembered aright how “he saw from his house the nuns of the priory (Kington St Michael) come forth into the nymph-hay with their rocks and wheels to spin,” though his memory misled him sorely as to the number of these ladies. Sometimes a visitation report gives us a glimpse of the nuns at work: at Easebourne in 1441 the nuns say that the Prioress “compels her sisters to work continually like hired workwomen and they receive nothing whatever for their own use from their work, but the prioress takes the whole profit”[856] and at Catesby in the following year a young nun complains that the Prioress “setts her to make beds, to sewing and spinning and other tasks”[857]. Nevertheless it does not seem that the nuns were in the habit of spinning the wool and flax for their own and their servants’ clothes and account rolls often contain payments made to hired spinsters, as well as to fullers and weavers.

It is more probable that they busied themselves with needlework and embroidery, which were the usual occupations of ladies of gentle birth[858]. Very few traces have unfortunately survived of the work of English nuns. In earlier centuries English needlework had been famous and the nuns had been pre-eminent in the making of richly embroidered vestments. In the thirteenth[Pg 256] century, too, English embroidery far surpassed that made in other countries and it has been conjectured that “the most famous embroidered vestments now preserved in various places in Italy are the handiwork of English embroiderers between 1250 and 1300 though their authorship is not as a rule recognised by their present possessors”[859]. Some of these may have been made by nuns; it is thought that the famous Syon cope, for long in the possession of the nuns of Syon, may have been made in a thirteenth century convent in the neighbourhood of Coventry; but such examples of medieval embroidery as have survived usually bear no trace of their origin; since a vestment cannot be signed like a book and it must be remembered that there was a large class of professional “embroideresses” in the country.

Some, however, of the splendid vestments and altar cloths possessed by the richer nunneries were probably the work of the nuns. At Langley in 1485 there were, among other rich pieces of embroidery

iiij fronteys (altar frontals) of grene damaske powdered with swanys and egyls, ... iiij fronteys of blake powdered with swanys and rosys, ... a vestment of blew silke brodyt complete with all yt longyth to hyt, a vestment of grene velwett complete with a crucifixe of silver and gylte apon ye amys, a complete vestiment of red velwet, a vestiment of swede (sewed) work complete, a vestiment of blake damaske brodyrt with rosys and sterys, a complete vestiment of white brodyrte with rede trewlyps (true-love knots), ... j gret cloth (banner) of rede powderyd with herts heds and boturfleys ... a large coverlet of red and blew with rosys and crossys, a tapett of ye same; j large coverlett of rede and yowlowe with flowrs de luce, a tapett of ye same; a large coverlett of blew and better blew with swanys and coks, a tapett of ye same; a coverlett of grene and yowlowe with borys and draguyns, a tapett of ye same; ... a coverlett of ostrych fydyrs and crounyd Emmys (monogram of the Blessed Virgin Mary); a coverlet of grene and yowlowe with vynys and rosys; a coverlet of grene and yowlowe with lylys and swannys; a coverlet of blew and white whyl knotts (wheel knots) and rosys; a coverlet of red and white with traylest (trellis) and Bryds; a coverlet of red and blew with sterrys and white rosys in mydste; a coverlet of yowlowe and grene with egyles and emmys; v coveryngs of bedds, yat hys to sey A coveryng of red saye, a coveryng of panes (stripes) of red and grene and white saye, a coveryng of red[Pg 257] and blake saye, a coveryng of red and blew poudyrd with white esses and sterys, a blew saye with a red dragne[860].

Many of these embroideries and tapestries were doubtless legacies or gifts; but it is impossible not to picture the white fingers of the nuns at work on swans and roses, harts’ heads and butterflies, stars and true-love knots. One may deduce that the nuns of Yorkshire, at least, busied themselves in these pursuits from an injunction sent to Nunkeeling, Yedingham and Wykeham in 1314 that no nun should absent herself from divine service “on account of being occupied with silk work” (propter occupacionem operis de serico)[861].

Reference to the sale of embroidery by nuns is surprisingly rare in account rolls. The household roll of the Countess of Leicester in 1265 contains an item, “Paid to the nuns of Wintney, for one cope to be made for the use of Brother J. Angelus by the gift of the Countess at Panham 10d.[862], which small sum must have been a part payment in advance, perhaps towards the purchase of materials; the nuns of Gracedieu, too, sold a cope to a neighbouring rector for £10, early in the fifteenth century[863], and on one occasion the cellaress of Barking derived a part of her income for the year from the sale of a cope[864], but search has revealed no further instances. The nuns also probably made little presents for their friends, such as purses (though the Gracedieu nuns always bought the purses which they gave to their bailiff, to Lady Beaumont, or to other visitors) and the so-called “blood-bands.” In an age when bleeding was the most[Pg 258] common treatment for almost every illness and when monks, in particular, were regularly bled several times a year, these little bandages were common presents, being sometimes made of silk. The author of the Ancren Riwle thus bade his anchoresses “make no purses to gain friends therewith, not blodbendes of silk, but shape and sew and mend church vestments and poor people’s clothes”[865]. The nuns of the diocese of Rouen in the mid-thirteenth century were accustomed to knit or embroider silken purses, tassels, cushions or needlecases for sale or as gifts, and Archbishop Eudes Rigaud was continually forbidding them to do any silk work except for church ornament[866]. There is some reason to think that the nuns, then as now, sometimes eked out their income by doing fine needlework for ladies of the world, though there is no mention of it in nunnery accounts, or indeed in any English records. Among the correspondence of Lady Lisle in the first half of the sixteenth century, however, are several letters to and from a certain Antoinette de Favences at Dunkirk, who would appear to have been a nun, for she signs herself sister Antoinette de Favences and is addressed by Lady Lisle as Madame and Dame. This woman was employed to make caps and coifs for Lady Lisle’s family and friends and there is much correspondence between them as to night-caps which are too wide, lozenge-work and such matters; in one letter Lady Lisle speaks of sending “16 rozimbos and 2 half angels of Flanders, a Carolus of gold,” in payment for the caps[867].

What other accomplishments the nuns may have possessed we do not know. They were possibly skilled in herbs and in the more simple forms of home medicine and surgery, for it was the function of the lady of the manor to know something of these things, though doctors were available (for nuns as well as for lay folk) in more serious illnesses[868]. They doubtless bled each other as did the monks, else how was the wicked Prioress of Kirklees, who slew Robin Hood, so skilled?:

[Pg 259] Doun then came Dame Priorèss
Doun she came in that ilk,
With a pair of blood-irons in her hand,
Were wrappèd all in silk....

She laid the blood-irons to Robin’s vein
Alack the more pitye!
And pierc’d the vein and let out the blood
That full red was to see.

There is an occasional brief reference to the recreation of nuns in their “seynys” in visitations[869], but the precaution was less necessary and less frequent than it was in houses of monks[870]. No doubt, also, the nuns sometimes nursed their boarders, some of whom must have been old and ailing; wills are occasionally dated from nunneries[871]. The nuns of Romsey had a hospital attached to the house, in which were received as sisters any parents and relatives of the nuns, who were poor and ill[872], but this does not prove that the nuns nursed them, and references in visitation reports show that even sick nuns were often looked after by lay servants in the infirmary, or if permanently disabled, occupied a separate room, with a separate maid to attend them. It is not likely that the nuns left their convents, save very[Pg 260] occasionally, to undertake sick-nursing; this would have been against the spirit of their rule, for their main business was not (as was that of the sisters who looked after spitals) to care for the sick, but to live enclosed in their houses, following the prescribed round of church services. It is however of interest that the will of Sir Roger Salwayn, knight of York (1420) contains this legacy: “Also I will that the Nunne that kepid me in my seknes haue ij nobles, and that ther be gif into the hous that she wonnes in xxs, for to syng and pray for me”[873]. Nuns may have emerged sometimes to nurse friends and relatives, whose sick-beds they were always allowed to attend; but there is no documentary evidence for the belief of modern writers, who would fain turn the nun into a district visitor, smoothing the pillows of all who ailed in her native village.

These then were the educational attainments of the English nuns in the later middle ages: reading and singing the services of the church, sometimes but not always writing, Latin very rarely after the thirteenth century, French very rarely after the fourteenth century; needlework and embroidery; and perhaps that elementary knowledge of physic, which was the possession of most ladies of their class. It was, in fact, very little more than the education possessed by laywomen of the same social rank outside and there is little trace of anything approaching scholarship. The study of the education of the nuns during this period leads naturally to one of the most vexed questions in the field of monastic history, the extent to which the nunneries acted as girls’ schools. There is no doubt that every nunnery was prepared to educate young girls who entered in order to take the veil; if the nunnery were fairly large these scolae internae probably included several novices at a time. At Ankerwyke in 1441 three young nuns complained that they had no governess to instruct them in “reading, song and religious observance,” and mention is made of three other sisters “of tender age and slender discretion, seeing that the eldest of them is not more than thirteen years of age”; the Bishop appointed a nun to be their teacher, “enjoining her to perform the charge laid upon her and to instruct them in good manners”[874]. Similarly at Thetford, where[Pg 261] there were three novices in 1526, the Bishop found “non habent eruditricem”[875]. At the larger houses, such as Romsey, the magistra noviciarum was a regular obedientiary[876].



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(In the bottom left hand corner the mistress of the novices, with birch in hand, is instructing two young novices; in the bottom right hand corner the abbess and a nun are at prayer.)


The vexed question, however, does not concern these schools for novices. It has been the custom, not only of writers on monasticism but also of the man in the street, to assume that the nunneries were almost solely responsible for the education of girls in the middle ages. There was little evidence for the assumption, but it was always made, and until the combined attack made upon it in 1910 by Mr Coulton and Mr Leach it was unchallenged[877]. With the publication of bishops’ registers, however, we have something more definite to go upon and it is now possible to come to some sort of conclusion, based on the evidence of visitation injunctions, account rolls and other miscellaneous sources. This conclusion may be summarised as follows. It was a fairly general custom among the English nuns, in the two and a half centuries before the Dissolution, to receive children for education. But there are four limitations, within which and only within which, this conclusion is true. First, that by no means all nunneries took children and those which did take them seldom had large schools; secondly, that the children[Pg 262] who thus received a convent education were drawn exclusively from the upper and the wealthy middle classes, from people, that is to say, of birth and wealth; thirdly, that the practice was a purely financial expedient on the part of the nuns, at first forbidden, afterwards restricted and always frowned upon by the bishops, who regarded it as subversive of discipline; and fourthly, that the education which the children received from the nuns, so far as book-learning as distinct from nurture is concerned, was extremely exiguous. In fine, though nunneries did act as girls’ schools, they certainly did not educate more than a small proportion even of the children of the upper classes, and the education which they gave them was limited by their own limitations[878].

That the custom of receiving schoolgirls was fairly general appears from the wide area over which notices of such children are spread. The references range in date from 1282 to 1537; they give us, if a doubtful reference to King’s Mead, Derby, be accepted, the names of forty-nine convents, which at one time or other had children in residence. These convents are situated in twenty-one counties. The greater number of references naturally occur in those dioceses for which the episcopal registers are most complete; Yorkshire affords fifteen names and two which are doubtful; Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire and Leicestershire, counties in the large Lincoln diocese, afford seventeen between them, five from Lincolnshire and two from each of the others. These references do not prove that the houses in question had continuously throughout their career a school for girls; sometimes only one or two children are mentioned and usually the evidence concerns but a single year out of two and a half centuries. Sometimes, however, a happy chance has preserved several references to the same house, spread over a longer period, from which it is perhaps not too rash to conclude that it was the regular practice of that house to receive children. For Elstow, for instance, there is an early reference to a boy of five sent there for education by St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, towards the close of the twelfth century. In 1359 Bishop Gynewell prohibited[Pg 263] all boarders there, except girls under ten and boys under six. In 1421 Bishop Flemyng prohibited all except children under twelve and in 1432 Bishop Gray altered this to girls under fourteen and boys under ten, and children are mentioned at Alnwick’s visitation in 1442. Similarly at Godstow there are references to children in 1358, 1445 and 1538, at Esholt in Yorkshire in 1315, 1318 and 1537, at Sopwell in 1446 and 1537, at Heynings in 1347, 1387 and 1393, at Burnham in 1434 and 1519.

The mention of boys in these references needs perhaps some further emphasis, for it is not usually recognised that the nunneries occasionally acted as dame-schools for very young boys. “Abstinence the abbesse myn a.b.c. me tauȝte,” says Piers Plowman, “And conscience com aftur and kennide me betere.” It is true that a Cistercian statute of 1256-7 forbade the education of boys in nunneries of that order[879], but the ordinance soon became a dead letter, and five of the convents at which Alnwick found schoolboys (c. 1445) were Cistercian houses. Boys were specifically forbidden at Wherwell in 1284, at Heynings in 1359 and at Nuncoton in 1531, which argues that they were then present, and they are mentioned at Romsey (1311), at five Yorkshire convents (1314-17), at Burnham (1434), at Lymbrook (1437), at Swaffham Bulbeck (1483) and at Redlingfield (1514), a chronologically and geographically wide range of houses. Occasionally some details as to a particular boy may be gleaned; the five year old Robert de Noyon, sent by Bishop Hugh to Elstow “to be taught his letters,” the two Tudor boys commended to Katharine de la Pole, the noble Abbess of Barking; the little son and heir of Sir John Stanley, who made his will in 1527 and then became a monk, leaving the boy to be brought up until twelve years of age by another Abbess of Barking, after which he was to pass to the care of the Abbot of Westminster; and Cromwell’s son Gregory and his little companion, sent to be supervised, though not taught by Margaret Vernon, Prioress of Little Marlow[880]. But as a rule the boys in nunneries were very young; it was not considered decorous for them to stay with the nuns later than their ninth or tenth year; the bishop forbade it and[Pg 264] besides, the education which the good sisters could give them would not have been considered sufficient. The rule which gives a man child to a man for education is of very old standing.

Such is the evidence for concluding that the custom of receiving children for education in nunneries was widespread. It remains to consider carefully the limitations within which this conclusion is true. In the first place, not all nunneries received children. It is obviously impossible, considering the gaps in our evidence, to attempt an exact estimate of the proportion which did so. Some sort of clue may be obtained by an analysis of the Yorkshire visitations of Archbishops Greenfield and Melton at the beginning of the fourteenth century (1306-20) and of Alnwick’s Lincoln visitations (1440-5). The Yorkshire evidence is rather scanty, being based on the summaries of injunctions, which are given in the Victoria County Histories, and any statistics must needs be approximate only. The two archbishops between them visited nineteen nunneries and mention of children is made at twelve, i.e. about two-thirds. The information given by the invaluable Alnwick is more exact. From the detecta of some of the nuns and from the number of prohibitions of this practice, it is obvious that Alnwick was accustomed to ask at his visitations whether children were sleeping in the nuns’ dorter; he also made careful inquiry as to the boarders. The probability, therefore, is that we have in his register an exact record of those houses in which children were received. Analysis shows that of the twenty houses which he visited he found children, often boys as well as girls, at twelve, i.e. a little over two-thirds, which is substantially the same result as was given by the Yorkshire analysis a century earlier. The estimate is interesting, but it cannot be considered conclusive without the corroborative evidence from other dioceses, which is unfortunately lacking. It is a hint, a straw, which shows which way the wind of research is blowing, for if it is unsafe to argue from silence that the nuns of other convents did take pupils, it is equally unsafe to argue that they did not.

The fact is, however, clearly established that all nunneries did not take children; possibly about two-thirds of them did. The further fact has then to be recognised that even those nunneries had not necessarily what we should regard as a school[Pg 265] for girls. Not only does it sometimes seem as though children were taken occasionally and intermittently, rather than regularly, but the numbers taken were rarely great. Sometimes we do hear of a house with a large number of pupils. At St Mary’s Winchester in 1536 there were as many as twenty-six children, to twenty-six nuns; and at Polesworth in 1537 Henry VIII’s commissioners state vaguely that “repayre and resort ys made to the gentlemens childern and studiounts that ther doo lif, to the nombre sometyme of xxxti and sometyme xjti and moo.” There were fifteen nuns in the house at the time and it is likely that the number of children given is a pardonable exaggeration by local gentlemen who were interested in preserving the nunnery; but it seems undoubted that there was a comparatively large school there. At Stixwould, again, in 1440 there were about eighteen children to an equal number of nuns. These, however, are the largest schools of which we have record. At St Michael’s Stamford in 1440 there were seven or eight children to twelve nuns, at Catesby in 1442 six or seven children to seven nuns. At Swaffham Bulbeck, where there were probably eight or nine nuns, there were nine children in 1483. These also are schools, though small schools. But at other houses there were only one or two children at a time. The accounts of the Prioress of St Helen’s Bishopsgate in 1298 mention only two children, there were only two at Littlemore in 1445 and two at Sopwell at the time of the Dissolution. It must be remembered that many nunneries were themselves very small and their inmates could not have looked after a large number of children. The examples quoted above suggest that the number of children hardly ever exceeded the number of nuns. To what conclusion are we driven when we find that a possible two-thirds of the convents of England received children and that the largest school of which we have record numbered only twenty-six children (or thirty if we take the higher and less probable figure for Polesworth), while most had far fewer? Surely to represent a majority of girls, or even a majority of girls of gentle birth, as having received their nurture in convents, would be on the evidence absurd.

The second limitation of convent education in medieval England is contained in the words “girls of gentle birth.”[Pg 266] Tanner’s statement that “the lower rank of people, who could not pay for their learning”[881], as well as noblemen’s and gentlemen’s daughters, were educated in nunneries has not a shred of evidence to support it, though it has been repeated ad nauseam ever since he wrote it. Every scrap of evidence which has come down to us goes to prove that the girls educated in nunneries were of gentle birth, daughters of great lords, or more often daughters of country gentlemen, or of those comfortable and substantial merchants and burgesses, who were usually themselves sprung from younger sons of the gentry. The implication is plain in Chaucer’s description, in The Reves Tale, of the Miller’s wife, who was “y-comen of noble kin” and daughter of the parson of the toun, and who “was y-fostred in a nonnerye”:

Ther dorste no wight clepen hir but “dame” ...
And eek, for she was somdel smoterlich
She was as digne as water in a dich;
And ful of hoker and of bisemare.
Her thoughte that a lady sholde hir spare,
What for hir kinrede and hir nortelrye
That she had lerned in the nonnerye.

An analysis of some of the schoolgirls whose names have come down to us confirms this impression. The commissioners who visited St Mary’s, Winchester, in 1536 drew up a list of the twenty-six “chyldren of lordys, knyghttes and gentylmen brought up yn the saym monastery.” They were

Bryget Plantagenet, dowghter unto the lord vycounte Lysley (i.e. Lisle); Mary Pole, dowghter unto Sir Geffrey Pole knyght; Brygget Coppeley, dowghter unto Sir Roger Coppeley knyght; Elizabeth Phyllpot, dowghter unto Sir Peter Phyllpot, knyght; Margery Tyrell; Adrian Tyrell; Johanne Barnabe; Amy Dyngley; Elizabeth Dyngley; Jane Dyngley; Frances Dyngley; Susan Tycheborne; Elizabeth Tycheborne; Mary Justyce; Agnes Aylmer; Emma Bartue; Myldred Clerke; Anne Lacy; Isold Apulgate; Elizabeth Legh; Mary Legh; Alienor North; Johanne Sturgys; Johanne Ffyldes; Johanne Ffrances; Jane Raynysford.

The house was evidently at this time a fashionable seminary for young ladies. It must be remembered that it was a general[Pg 267] custom among the English nobility and gentry to send their children away to the household of a lord, or person of good social standing, in order to learn breeding and it was not uncommon to send boys to the household of an abbot. In 1450 Thomas Bromele, Abbot of Hyde, thus entertained in his house eight “gentiles pueri,” there were many “pueri generosi” at Westacre in 1494, and Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, is stated by Parsons to have had, among his 300 servants, “multos nobilium filios”[882]. It was doubtless much in the same way that the children of lords, knights and gentlemen were put in the charge of the Abbess of St Mary’s Winchester, a great lady, who had her own “gentlewoman” to attend upon her and her own private household. It is probable that the nuns taught these children, but the boys who went as wards to abbeys seem often to have taken their tutors with them, or at least to have been taught by special tutors. At Lilleshall, for instance, the commissioners found four “gentylmens sons and their scolemaster”[883] and it is significant that when little Gregory Cromwell was sent to be brought up by Margaret Vernon, Prioress of Little Marlow, he was taught by a private tutor and not by the nun.

Other references to the children received in nunneries confirms the impression that they were of gentle birth. At Polesworth, as at St Mary’s, Winchester, the commissioners specified “gentylmens childern and studiounts.” At Thetford a daughter of John Jerves, generosus, is mentioned in 1532 and two daughters of Laurens Knight, gentleman, were at Cornworthy, c. 1470. The accounts of Sopwell in 1446 mention the daughter of Lady Anne Norbery; at Littlemore in 1445 the daughter of John FitzAleyn, steward of the house, and the daughter of Ingelram Warland are boarders. Among the Carrow boarders, who may be set down as children, are the son and two daughters of Sir Roger Wellisham,[Pg 268] the daughter of Sir Robert de Wachesam, a niece of William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, and girls with such well-known names as Fastolf, Clere, Baret, Blickling, Shelton and Ferrers, though the last two may be adult boarders. The Gracedieu boarders nearly all bear the names of neighbouring gentry and one was the daughter of Lord Beaumont. In the course of time, as the urban middle class grew and flourished, the daughters of the well-to-do bourgeoisie were sometimes sent to convents for their education. Thus among the Carrow boarders we find a daughter of John de Erlham, a merchant and citizen of Norwich, and Isabel Barber, daughter of Thomas Welan, barber, who afterwards, however, became a nun. It is plain from the wills which have been preserved that the wealthy Norwich burgesses were in the habit of sending their daughters as nuns to Carrow, and it is a natural supposition that they should have sent them sometimes as schoolgirls; but by birth and by wealth these city magnates were not far removed from the neighbouring gentry. The school at Swaffham Bulbeck in 1483 was less fashionable than that at Carrow and did not cater for the nobly born; it was a small house and the names of the children suggest a sound middle class establishment, perhaps the very one in which Chaucer’s Miller’s wife of Trumpington was educated, full of the sons and daughters of the burgesses of Cambridge, Richard Potecary of Cambridge, William Water, Thomas Roch, unnamed fathers “of Cambridge,” “of Chesterton,” Parker “of Walden,” and “the merchant.”

None of these examples can possibly be twisted into a case for the free, or even the cheap, education of the poor. Just as we never find low-born girls as nuns, so we never find them as schoolgirls and for the same reason; “dowerless maidens,” as Mr Leach says, “were not sought as nuns.” As will be seen hereafter, the reception of school children was essentially a financial expedient; one of the many methods by which the nuns sought to raise the wind[884]. The fees paid by these children[Pg 269] are recorded here and there, in nunnery accounts; education was apparently thrown in with board, and the usual rate for board for children during the century and a half before the Dissolution seems to have been about 6d. a week, though the charge at Cornworthy c. 1470 was 10d. a week and at Littlemore in 1445 only 4d. a week[885]. Occasionally the good nuns suffered, like so many schoolmistresses since their day, from the difficulty of extracting fees. Among the debts owing to the nuns of Esholt at the Dissolution was one of 33s. from Walter Wood of Timble in the parish of Otley for his child’s board for a year and a half; and at Thetford in 1532 the poor nuns complained that “John Jerves, gentleman, has a daughter being nurtured in the priory and pays nothing.” The most melancholy case of all has been preserved to us owing to the fact that the nuns, goaded to desperation, sought help from the Chancellor. About 1470 Thomasyn Dynham, Prioress of Cornworthy, made petition to the effect that Laurens Knyghte, gentleman, had agreed with Margaret Wortham the late Prioress, that she should take his two daughters “to teche them to scole,” viz. Elizabeth, aged seven years, and “Jahne,” aged ten years, at the costs and charges of Laurens, who was to pay 20d. a week for them. So at Cornworthy they remained during the life of Margaret, to the great costs and charges and impoverishing of the said poor place, by the space of five years and more, until the money due amounted to £21. 13s. 4d., “the which sum is not contented ne paid, nor noo peny thereof.” Laurense meanwhile departed this life, leaving his wife “Jahne” executrix, and Jahne, unnatural mother that she was, married again a certain John Barnehous and utterly refused to pay for her unhappy daughters. One is uncertain which to pity most, Thomasyn Dynham, a new Prioress left with this incubus on her hands, or Elizabeth and Jane Knyghte, trying hard to restrain their appetites and not to grow out of their clothes under her justly incensed regard. Jane was by now grown up and marriageable according to the standards of the time and it is tantalising not to know the end of the dilemma. A proneness to forget fees seems to have been[Pg 270] shared by greater folk than Mistress Knyghte, as the petition of Katherine de la Pole, Abbess of Barking, concerning Edmond and Jasper Tudor, whose “charges, costs and expenses” she had taken upon herself, will show.

Both this matter of fees and the names of schoolgirls which have survived are against any suggestion that the nuns gave schooling to poor girls. There is not the slightest evidence for anything like a day school, and the only hint for any care for village girls on the part of the nuns is contained in a letter from Cranmer, when fellow of Jesus College, to the Abbess of Godstow:

Stephen Whyte hath told me that you lately gathered round you a number of wild peasant maids and did make them a most goodly discourse on the health of their souls; and you showeth them how goodly a thing it be for them to go oftentimes to confession. I am mighty glad of your discourse[886].

But this is obviously an isolated discourse and in any case it has nothing to do with education. So far as it is possible to be certain of anything for which evidence is scanty, we may be certain that poor or lower-class girls were no more received in nunneries for education, than they were received there as nuns. No single instance has ever been brought of a lowborn nun or a lowborn schoolgirl, in any English nunnery, for the three centuries before the nunneries were dissolved.

The third limitation to which convent education was subjected is an important one; the reception of children by the nuns was never approved and always restricted by their ecclesiastical superiors. The greater number of references to schoolchildren which have come down to us are these restrictive references. The attitude of monastic visitors towards children was in essence the same as their attitude towards boarders. The nuns received both, because they were nearly always in low water financially and wished to add to their scanty finances by the familiar expedient of taking paying guests. But the bishops saw in all boarders, whether adults or schoolchildren, a hindrance to discipline; they objected to them for the same reason that they[Pg 271] objected to pet dogs and silver girdles and with just as little success.

The ecclesiastical case against schoolchildren may be found delightfully set forth in the words addressed, it is true, to anchoresses, but expressing the same spirit as was afterwards shown by Eudes Rigaud, Johann Busch and other great medieval visitors towards nuns. Aelred, the great twelfth century Abbot of Rievaulx, writes thus:

Allow no boys or girls to have access to you. There are certain anchoresses, who are busied in teaching pupils and turn their chambers into a school. The mistress sits at the window, the child in the cloister. She looks at each of them; and, during their puerile actions, now is angry, now laughs, now threatens, now soothes, now spares, now kisses, now calls the weeping child to be beaten, then strokes her face, bids her hold up her head, and eagerly embracing her, calls her her child, her love[887].

Similarly the author of the Ancren Riwle warns his three anchoresses:

An anchoress must not become a schoolmistress, nor turn her anchoress-house into a school for children. Her maiden may, however, teach any little girl, concerning whom it might be doubtful whether she should learn among boys, but an anchoress ought to give her thoughts to God only[888].

The gist of the matter was that the children constituted a hindrance to claustral discipline and devotion. It is plain, however, that in this, as in so many other matters, the reformers were only “beating the air” in vain with their restrictions. Sympathy must be with the needy nuns, for even if discipline were weakened thereby, the reception of children was in itself a very harmless, not to say laudable expedient; and so the neighbouring gentry as well as the nuns considered it.

An analysis of the attitude of medieval visitors to schoolchildren shows us the usual attempt to limit what it was beyond their power to prohibit. Eudes Rigaud, the great Archbishop of Rouen, habitually removed all the girls and boys whom he found in the houses of his diocese, when he visited them during the years 1249 to 1269. But in England, at least, the nuns very soon became too strong for the bishops, who gradually adopted the policy of fixing an age limit beyond which no children might[Pg 272] remain in a nunnery and sometimes of requiring their own licence to be given before the boys and girls were admitted. Since the danger of secularisation could not be removed, it was at least reduced to a minimum, by ensuring that only very young boys and only girls, who had not yet attained a marriageable age, should be received. The age limit varied a little with different visitors and different houses. In the Yorkshire diocese early in the fourteenth century the age limit was twelve for girls; boys are rarely mentioned, but at Hampole in 1314 the nuns were forbidden to permit male children over five to be in the house, as the bishop finds has been the practice. Bishop Gynewell in 1359 allowed girls up to ten and boys up to six at Elstow, but forbade boys altogether at Heynings. Bishop Gray allowed girls under fourteen and boys under eight at Burnham in 1434 and Bishop Stretton in 1367 allowed boys up to seven at Fairwell. The age limit tended, it will be seen, to become higher in the course of time; Alnwick writing to Gracedieu in 1440, forbade all boarders “save childerne, males the ix and females the xiiij yere of age, whom we licencede you to hafe for your relefe”[889]; he allowed boys often at Heynings and Catesby and boys of eleven (an exceptionally high age) at Harrold.

There was a special reason, besides the general interference with discipline, for which the bishops objected to children in nunneries. It seems very often to have been the custom for the nuns to take, as it were, private pupils, each child having its own particular mistress. This custom grew as the practice of keeping separate households grew. Thus at Catesby the Prioress complained to Alnwick that sister Agnes Allesley had “six or seven young folk of both sexes, that do lie in the dorter”; at St Michael’s Stamford, he found that the Prioress had seven or eight children, at Gracedieu the cellaress had a little boy and at Elstow, where there were five households of nuns, it was said that “certain nuns” brought children into the quire. In fact, the nuns would appear to have kept for their own personal use the money paid to them for the board of their private pupils. This was a sin against the monastic rule of personal poverty[Pg 273] and the bishops took special measures against such manifestations of proprietas. William of Wykeham in 1387 forbids the nuns of Romsey to make wills and to have private rooms or private pupils, giving this specific reason, and at St Helen’s Bishopsgate in 1439 Dean Kentwode enjoined “that no nonne have ne receyve noo schuldrin wyth hem ... but yf that the profite of the comonys turne to the vayle of the same howse.” Similarly the number of children who might be taken by a single nun was sometimes limited; Gynewell wrote to Godstow in 1358 “that no lady of the said house is to have children, save only two or three females sojourning with them” and at Fairwell in 1367 no nun might keep with her for education more than one child.

Another habit against which bishops constantly legislated was that of having the children to sleep in the dorter with the nuns. This practice was exceedingly common, for many of the nunneries which took children were small and poor; they had possibly no other room to set aside for them, and no person who could suitably be placed in charge of them. Moreover in some cases adult boarders and servants also slept in the dorter. Alnwick was constantly having to bid his nuns “that ye suffre ne seculere persones, wymmen ne children lyg by nyghte in the dormytory,” but Atwater and Longland in the sixteenth century still have to make the same injunction. Bokyngham in 1387 ordered that a seemly place outside the cloister should be set apart for the children at Heynings; the reason was that (as Gynewell had expressly stated on visiting this house forty years before) “the convent might not be disturbed.” Indeed little attempt was made by the nuns to keep the children out of their way. They seem to have dined in the refectory, when not in the separate rooms of their mistresses, for Greenfield forbids the Prioress and Subprioress of Sinningthwaite (1315) to permit boys or girls to eat flesh meat in Advent or Sexagesima, or during Lent eggs or cheese, in the refectory, “contrary to the honesty of religion,” but at those seasons when they ought to eat such things, they were to be assigned other places in which to eat them. There are references, too, to disturbances and diversions created by the children in the quire. At Elstow in 1442 Dame Rose Waldegrave said that “certain nuns do sometimes have with them in[Pg 274] time of mass the boys whom they teach and these do make a noise in quire during divine service”[890]. To us the picture of these merry children breaking the monotony of convent routine is an attractive one; more attractive even than the pet dogs and the Vert-Verts. But to stern ecclesiastical disciplinarians it was not so attractive, and their constant restriction, though it never succeeded in turning out the children, must have kept down the number who were admitted.

The evidence which has so far been considered shows that, though the reception of children to be boarded and taught in nunneries was fairly common, it was subjected to well marked limitations. There remains to be considered one more question the answer to which is in some sort a limitation likewise. What exactly did the nuns teach these children? We are hampered in answering this question by the difficulty of obtaining exact contemporary evidence. Most modern English writers content themselves with a glib list of accomplishments, copied without verification from book to book, and all apparently traceable in the last resort to Fuller and John Aubrey, the one writing a century, the other almost a century and a half after the nunneries had been dissolved. Fuller (whom Tanner copies) says:

Nunneries also were good Shee-schools, wherein the girles and maids of the neighbourhood were taught to read and work; and sometimes a little Latine was taught them therein. Yea, give me leave to say, if such Feminine Foundations had still continued ... haply the weaker sex (besides the avoiding modern inconveniences) might be heightened to a higher perfection than hitherto hath been obtained[891].

[Pg 275]Aubrey, speaking of Wiltshire convents says:

There the young maids were brought up ... at the nunneries, where they had examples of piety, and humility, and modesty, and obedience to imitate, and to practise. Here they learned needle-work, the art of confectionary, surgery (for anciently there were no apothecaries or surgeons—the gentlewomen did cure their poor neighbours: their hands are now too fine), physic, writing, drawing etc.[892]

One would have thought the familiar note of the laudator temporis acti to be plainly audible in both these extracts. But a host of modern writers have gravely transcribed their words and even, taking advantage no doubt of Aubrey’s “etc.” (much virtue in etc.), improved upon them. In the work of one more recent writer the list has become “reading, writing, some knowledge of arithmetic, the art of embroidery, music and French ‘after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,’ were the recognised course of study, while the preparation of perfumes, balsams, simples and confectionary was among the more ordinary departments of the education afforded”[893]. Another adds a few more deft touches: “the treatment of various disorders, the compounding of simples, the binding up of wounds, ... fancy cookery, such as the making of sweetmeats, writing, drawing, needlework of all kinds and music, both vocal and instrumental”[894]. The most recent writer of all gives the list as “English and French ... writing, drawing, confectionary, singing by notes, dancing, and playing upon instruments of music, the study also of medicine and surgery”[895]. Though the historian must groan, the student of human nature cannot but smile to see music insinuate itself into the list and then become “both instrumental and vocal”; confectionery extend itself to include perfumes, balsams, simples, and the making of sweetmeats; arithmetic appear out of nowhere; and (most magnificent feat of the imagination) dancing trip in on light fantastic toe. From this compound of Aubrey, memories of continental convents in the seventeenth and eighteenth[Pg 276] centuries and familiarity with the convent schools of our own day, let us turn to the considered opinion of a more sober scholar, who bases it only upon contemporary evidence:

“No evidence whatever,” says Mr Leach, “has been produced of what was taught in nunneries. That ... something must have been taught, if only to keep the children employed, is highly probable. That the teaching included learning the Lord’s Prayer, etc. by heart may be conceded. Probably Fuller is right in guessing that it included reading; but it is only a guess. One would guess that it included sewing and spinning. As for its including Latin, no evidence is forthcoming and it is difficult to see how those who did not know Latin could teach it[896].”

Direct evidence is therefore absolutely lacking; all we can do is to deduce probabilities from what we know of the education of the nuns themselves, and it must be conceded that this was not always of a very high order. It is quite certain, from the wording of some of the visitation injunctions, that the quality and extent of the teaching must have varied considerably from house to house. It was probably good (as the education of women then went) at the larger and more fashionable houses, mediocre at those which were small and struggling. Latin could not have been taught, because, as has already been pointed out, the nuns at this period did not know it themselves; but the children were probably taught the Credo, the Ave and the Pater Noster in Latin by rote. They may have been taught French of the school of Stratford atte Bowe, as long as that language was fashionable in the outside world and known to the nuns, but it died out of the convents after the end of the fourteenth century. It seems pretty certain that the children must have been taught to read. “Abstinence the abbesse myn a.b.c. me tauȝte,” says Piers Plowman; the Abbess of St Mary’s Winchester buys the matins books for little Bridget Plantagenet; and it will be remembered that the nuns of Godstow were said[Pg 277] about 1460 (fifteen years after Alnwick visited the house and gave permission for children to be boarded there) to be “for the more party in Englyssh bokys well y-lernyd.” Caesarius of Heisterbach has a delightful story, repeated thus in a fifteenth century Alphabet of Tales:

Caesarius tellis how that in Freseland in a nonrie ther was ii little maydens that lernyd on the buke, and euer thai strafe whethur of thaim shulde lern mor than the toder. So the tane of thaim happened to fall seke and sho garte call the Priores vnto hur & sayd: “Gude ladie! suffre nott my felow to lern vnto I cover of my sekenes, and I sall pray my moder to gif me vj d & that I sall giff you & ye do so, ffor I drede that whils I am seke, that sho sall pas me in lernyng, & that I wolde not at sho did.” And at this wurde the priores smylid & hadd grete mervayle of the damysell conseyte[897].

Whether girls were taught to write, as well as to read, is far more doubtful. It is probable that the nuns did not always possess this accomplishment themselves, nor did sober medieval opinion consider it wholly desirable that girls should know how to write, on account both of the general inferiority of their sex, and of a regrettable proclivity towards clandestine love letters[898]. Still, writing may sometimes have formed part of the curriculum; there is no evidence either way. For drawing (by which presumably the art of illumination must be meant) there is no warrant; a medieval nunnery was not a modern “finishing” school.

So much for what may be called book learning. Let us now examine for a moment the other accomplishments with which nunnery-bred young ladies have been credited. We may, as Mr Leach suggests, make a guess at spinning and needlework, though here also there is no evidence for their being taught to[Pg 278] schoolgirls. Jane Scroupe, into whose mouth Skelton puts his “Phyllyp Sparowe,” was apparently being brought up at Carrow, and describes how she sewed the dead bird’s likeness on her sampler,

I toke my sampler ones,
Of purpose, for the nones,
To sowe with stytchis of sylke
My sparow whyte as mylke.

Confectionery does not seem very probable, for at this period the cooking for the convent was nearly always done by a hired male cook and not (as laid down in the Benedictine rule) by the nuns themselves, who were apt to complain if they had to prepare the meals. For “home medicine” there is absolutely no evidence, though all ladies of the day possessed some knowledge of simples and herb-medicines and the girls may equally well have learned it at home as among the nuns. It is probable that the children learned to sing, if the nuns took them into the quire; but for this there is no definite evidence, nor has any document been quoted to prove that they learned to play upon instruments of music. It is true that the flighty Dame Isabel Benet “did dance and play the lute” with the friars of Northampton[899] and that “a pair of organs” occurs twice in Dissolution inventories of nunneries[900], but an organ is hardly an instrument of secular music to be played by the daughter of the house in a manorial solar; and Dame Benet’s escapade with the lute was a lapse from the strict path of virtue. Finally to suggest that the nuns taught dances verges upon absurdity. That they did sometimes dance is true, and grieved their visitors were to hear it[901]; but what Alnwick would have said to the suggestion that they solemnly engaged themselves to teach dancing to their young pupils is an amusing subject for contemplation. Evidence for everything except the prayers of the church and the art of reading is non-existent; we can but base our opinion upon conjecture and probability; and the probability for instrumental music is so slight as to be non-existent. If it be argued that gentlewomen were expected to possess these arts, it may be replied that the children whom we find at nunneries probably had opportunity[Pg 279] to learn them at home, for they seem sometimes to have spent only a part of the year with the nuns. It is true that board is sometimes paid for the whole year, and that little Bridget Plantagenet stayed at St Mary’s Winchester for two or three years, while her parents were absent in France; moreover we have already heard of poor Elizabeth and Jane Knyghte, left for over five years at Cornworthy. But an analysis of the Swaffham Bulbeck accounts shows that the children (if indeed they are children) stayed for the following periods during the year 1483, viz., two for forty weeks, one for thirty weeks, one for twenty-six weeks, two for twenty-two weeks, one for sixteen weeks, one for twelve weeks and one for six weeks. It is much more likely that girls were sent to the nuns for elementary schooling than for the acquirement of worldly accomplishments.

As has already been pointed out, it is difficult to get any specific information as to the life led by the schoolchildren in nunneries. But by good fortune some letters written by an abbess shortly before the Dissolution have been preserved and give a pleasant picture of a little girl boarding in a nunnery. The correspondence in question took place between Elizabeth Shelley, Abbess of St Mary’s Winchester, and Honor, Viscountess Lisle, concerning the latter’s stepdaughter, the lady Bridget Plantagenet, who was one of the twenty-six aristocratic young ladies then at school in the nunnery[902]. Lord Lisle was an illegitimate son of Edward IV, and had been appointed Lord Deputy of Calais in 1533; and when he and his wife departed to take up the new office, they were at pains to find suitable homes for their younger children in England. A stepson of Lord Lisle’s was boarded with the Abbot of Reading and his two younger daughters, the ladies Elizabeth and Bridget Plantagenet, were left, the one in charge of her half-brother, Sir John Dudley, and the other in that of the energetic Abbess of St Mary’s Winchester. It must be admitted that the correspondence between the abbess and Lady Lisle shows a greater preoccupation with dress than with learning. The Lady Bridget grew like the grass in springtime; there was no keeping her in clothes.

“After due recommendation,” writes the abbess, “Pleaseth it your good ladyship to know that I have received your letter, dated the[Pg 280] 4th day of February last past, by the which I do perceive your pleasure is to know how mistress Bridget your daughter doth, and what things she lacketh. Madam, thanks be to God, she is in good health, but I assure your ladyship she lacketh convenient apparel, for she hath neither whole gown nor kirtle, but the gown and kirtle that you sent her last. And also she hath not one good partlet to put upon her neck, nor but one good coif to put upon her head. Wherefore, I beseech your ladyship to send to her such apparel as she lacketh, as shortly as you may conveniently. Also the bringer of your letter shewed to me that your pleasure is to know how much money I received for mistress Bridget’s board, and how long she hath been with me. Madam, she hath been with me a whole year ended the 8th day of July last past, and as many weeks as is between that day and the day of making this bill, which is thirty three weeks; and so she hath been with me a whole year and thirty three weeks, which is in all four score and five weeks. And I have received of mistress Katherine Mutton, 10s., and of Stephen Bedham, 20s.; and I received the day of making this bill, of John Harrison, your servant, 40s.; and so I have received in all, since she came to me, toward the payment for her board, 70s. Also, madam, I have laid out for her, for mending of her gowns and for two matins books, four pair of hosen, and four pairs of shoes, and other small things, 3s. 5d. And, good madam, any pleasure that I may do your ladyship and also my prayer, you shall be assured of, with the grace of Jesus, who preserve you and all yours in honour and health. Amen.”

But for the matins books, sandwiched uncomfortably between gowns and hosen, there is no clue here as to what the Lady Bridget was learning.

The tenor of the next letter, written about seven months later, is the same, for still the noble little lady grew:

“Mine singular and special good lady,” writes the Abbess, “I heartily recommend me to your good ladyship; ascertaining you that I have received from your servant this summer a side of venison and two dozen and a half of pee-wits.”

(What flesh-days there must have been in the refectory!)

“And whereas your ladyship do write that you sent me an ermine cape for your daughter, surely I see none; but the tawny velvet gown that you write of, I have received it. I have sent unto you, by the bringer of your letter, your daughter’s black velvet gown; also I have caused kirtles to be made of her old gowns, according unto your writing; and the 10s. you sent is bestowed for her, and more, as it shall appear by a bill of reckoning which I have made of the same. And I trust she shall lack nothing that is necessary for her.”

Another letter shows that the wardrobe difficulty was no whit abated, but the Abbess dealt with it by the rather [Pg 281]hard-hearted expedient of sending poor Bridget away on a visit to her father’s steward at Soberton in Hampshire, in her outgrown clothes, in order that he might be moved to amend her state. Clearly it was not always easy to get what was requisite for a schoolgirl from a gay and busy mother, disporting herself across the sea:

“This is to advertise your ladyship,” says the Abbess, “Upon a fourteen or fifteen days before Michaelmas, mistress Waynam and mistress Fawkenor came to Winchester to see mistress Bridget Lisle, with whom came two of my lord’s servants, and desired to have mistress Bridget to sir Anthony Windsor’s to sport her for a week. And because she was out of apparel, that master Windsor might see her, I was the better content to let her go; and since that time she came no more at Winchester: Wherein I beseech your ladyship think no unkindness in me for my light sending of her: for if I had not esteemed her to have come again, she should not have come there at that time.”

The reason why lucky little Bridget was enjoying a holiday appears in a letter from the steward, Sir Anthony Windsor, to Lord Lisle, in which he not only takes a firm line over the dress problem (as the Abbess foresaw), but seems also to cast some aspersion upon the nunnery; the nuns, he evidently thought, had no idea how to feed a growing girl, or how to spoil her, as she ought to be spoiled:

Also mistress Bridget recommendeth her to your good lordship, and also to my lady, beseeching you of your blessing. She is now at home with me, because I will provide for her apparel such things as shall be necessary, for she hath overgrown all that she ever hath, except such as she hath had of late: and I will keep her here still if it be your lordship’s and my lady’s pleasure that I shall so do, and she shall fare no worse that I do, for she is very spare and hath need of cherishing, and she shall lack nothing in learning, nor otherwise that my wife can do for her.

Apparently she never went back to the nunnery, and a few years later it was dissolved:

And when (s)he came to Saynte Marie’s aisle
Where nonnes were wont to praie,
The vespers were songe, the shryne was gone,
And the nonnes had passyd awaie.

A word should perhaps be added as to the “piety and breeding,” which Lady Bridget and other little schoolgirls learned from the nuns, for good sentimentalists of later days often looked back and regretted the loss of a training, presumably instinct[Pg 282] with religion and morality. It is well nigh impossible to generalise in this matter, so greatly did convents differ from each other. St Mary’s Winchester was of very good repute, and for this we have not only the testimony of the local gentlemen, who were commissioned to visit it by Henry VIII in 1536, but also of the visitation which was held by Dr Hede in 1501. Undoubtedly the aristocratic young ladies who went there did not lack the precept and example of pious and well bred mistresses. The statement of the commissioners at Polesworth that the children there were “right virtuously brought up” has often been quoted. So also has the plea of Robert Aske, who led the ill-fated Pilgrimage of Grace, by which the people of Yorkshire sought to bring back the old religion, and in particular the monastic houses; in the abbeys, he said, “all gentlemen (were) much succoured in their needs, with many their young sons there assisted and in nunneries their daughters brought up in virtue”[903]. Less well-known is the tribute of the reformer Thomas Becon (1512-67), the more striking in that he was a staunch Protestant, who had suffered for his faith. Although he refers in disparagement to the nunneries of his own day, his description of the relations between nuns and their pupils cannot be founded solely upon an imaginary golden age:

“The young maids,” he writes, “were not enforced to wear this or that apparel; to abstain from this or that kind of meats; to sing this or that service; to say so many prayers; to shave their heads; to vow chastity; and for ever to abide in their cloister unto their dying day. But contrariwise, they might wear what apparel they would, so that it were honest and seemly and such as becometh maidens that profess godliness. They might freely eat all kinds of meats according to the rule of the gospel, avoiding all excess and superfluity, yea, and that at all times. Their prayers were free and without compulsion, everyone praying when the Holy Ghost moved their hearts to pray; yea, and that such prayers as present necessity required, and that also not in a strange tongue, but in such language as they did right well understand. To shave their heads and to keep such-like superstitious observances as our nuns did in times past and yet do in the kingdom of the pope, they were not compelled. For all that they were commanded to do of their schoolmistresses and governesses was nothing else than the doctrine of the gospel and matters appertaining unto honest and civil manners; whom they most willingly obeyed. Moreover, it was lawful for them to go out of the cloister when they[Pg 283] would, or when they were required of their friends; and also to marry when and with whom they would, so that it were in the Lord. And would God there were some consideration of this matter had among the rulers of the christian commonwealth, that young maids might be godly brought up, and learn from their cradles ‘to be sober-minded, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, housewifely, good, obedient to their husbands’”[904].

These eulogies are all necessarily tinged by the knowledge that the nunneries either were about to disappear, or had disappeared, from England. They had filled a useful function and men were willing to be to their faults a little blind. It cannot be doubted that the gentry and the substantial middle class appreciated them; up to the very eve of the Dissolution legacies to monastic houses are a common feature in wills. Only an inadequate conclusion, however, is to be reached from a study of tributes such as those of the commissioners at St Mary’s Winchester and Polesworth and of Robert Aske. If we turn to pre-Reformation visitation reports, which are free from the desire to state a case, the evidence is more mixed. It is only reasonable to conclude that many nunneries did indeed bring children up, with the example of virtue before their eyes, and the omnia bene of many reports reinforces such a conclusion. But it is impossible also to avoid the conviction that other houses were not always desirable homes for the young, nor nuns their best example. When Alnwick visited his diocese in the first half of the fifteenth century there were children at Godstow, where at least one nun was frankly immoral and where all received visits freely from the scholars of Oxford; nor was the general reputation of the house good at other periods. There were children also at Catesby and at St Michael’s Stamford, which were in a thoroughly bad state, under bad prioresses. At Catesby the poor innocents lay in the dorter, where lay also sister Isabel Benet, far gone with child; and they must have heard the Prioress screaming “Beggars!” and “Whores!” at the nuns and dragging them round the cloister by their hair[905]. At St Michael’s Stamford, all was in disorder and no less than three of the nuns were unchaste, one having twice run away, each time with a different partner. The visitation of Gracedieu on the same[Pg 284] occasion shows too much quarrelling and misrule to make possible a very high opinion of its piety or of its breeding. If we turn to another set of injunctions, the great series for the diocese of York, it must be conceded that though the gentry of the county doubtless found the convents useful as schools and lodging houses, it is difficult to see how Aske’s plea that “their daughters (were) brought up in virtue” could possibly have been true of the fourteenth century, when the morals and manners of the nuns were extremely bad. There is not much evidence for the period of which Aske could speak from his own knowledge; but at Esholt, where two children were at school in 1537, one of the nuns was found to have “lyved incontinentlie and vnchast and ... broght forth a child of her bodie begotten” and an alehouse had been set up within the convent gates, in 1535[906]. The only safe generalisation to make about this, as about so many other problems of medieval social history, is that there can be no generalisation. The standard of piety and breeding likely to be acquired by children in medieval nunneries must have differed considerably from time to time and from house to house.



[Pg 285]



Where is the pain that does not become deadened after a thousand years? or what is the nature of that pleasure or happiness which never wearies by monotony? Earthly pleasures and pains are short in proportion as they are keen; of any others, which are both intense and lasting, we can form no idea.... To beings constituted as we are, the monotony of singing Psalms would be as great an affliction as the pains of hell and might even be pleasantly interrupted by them.

Jowett, Introduction to Plato’s Phaedo.


St Benedict’s common sense is nowhere more strikingly shown than in his division of the routine of monastic life between the three occupations of divine service, manual labour and reading. Not only has this arrangement the merit of developing the different sides of men’s natures, spirit, body and brain, but it fulfils a deep psychological necessity. The essence of communal life is regularity, but no human being can subsist without a further ingredient of variety. St Benedict knew well enough that unless he provided the stimulus of change within the Rule, outraged nature would seek for it outside. Hence the careful adjustment of occupations to combine variety with regularity. The services were the supreme joy and duty of the monk and nun and the life of the convent was centred in its church. But these services were not excessively long and were divided from each other by periods of sleep by night and of work, or study, or meditation by day, after the manner which Crashaw inimitably set forth in his Description of a Religious House and Condition of Life:

A hasty portion of prescribèd sleep;
Obedient slumbers, that can wake and weep,
And sing, and sigh, and work, and sleep again;
Still rolling a round sphere of still-returning pain.
Hands full of hearty labours; pains that pay
And prize themselves; do much, that more they may,
And work for work, not wages; let tomorrow’s
New drops wash off the sweat of this day’s sorrows.
A long and daily-dying life, which breathes
A respiration of reviving deaths.

[Pg 286]The monastic day was divided into seven offices and the time at which these were said varied slightly according to the season of the year. The night office began about 2 a.m., when the nuns rose from their beds and entered their choir, where Matins were said, followed immediately by Lauds. The next service was Prime, said at 6 or 7 a.m., and then throughout the day came Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline, with an interval of about three hours between them. The time of these monastic Hours (as they were called) changed gradually after the time of St Benedict, and later None, which should have been at 3 p.m., was said at noon, leaving the nuns from about 12 midday to 5 p.m. in the winter and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer for work. Compline, the last service of all, was said at 7 p.m. in winter and at 8 p.m. in summer, after which the nuns were supposed to retire immediately to bed in their dorter, where (in the words of the Syon Rule) “none shal jutte up on other wylfully, nor spyt up on the stayres, goyng up or down, nor in none other place repreuably, but yf they trede it out forthwyth”![907] They had in all about eight hours sleep, broken in the middle by the night service; and they had three meals, a light repast of bread and beer after Prime in the morning, a solid dinner to the accompaniment of reading aloud, and a short supper immediately after vespers at 5 or 6 p.m.[908]

Except for certain specified periods of relaxation, strict silence was supposed to be observed for a large part of the day, and if it were necessary for the nuns to communicate with each other, they were urged to do so in an abbreviated form, or by signs. Thus in 1319 Bishop Stapeldon of Exeter wrote to the nuns of Polsloe

that silence be kept in due places, according to the Rule and observances of St Benedict; and, if it be desirable that any word be spoken in the aforesaid places, for any reasonable occasion, then let it be gently and so low that it be scarce heard of the other nuns, and in as few words as may be needed for the comprehension of those who hear; and better in Latin than in any other tongue; yet the Latin need not be well-ordered by way of grammar, but thus, candela, liber, missale, gradale, panis, vinum, cervisia, est, non, sic and so forth[909].

[Pg 287]The nuns of Syon had a table of signs drawn up for them by Thomas Betsone, one of the brethren of the house, a person of extraordinary ingenuity and no sense of humour[910]. The sort of dumb pandemonium which went on at the Syon dinner table must have been more mirth provoking than speech. The sister who desired fish would “wagge her hande displaied sidelynges in manere of a fissh taill,” she who wanted milk would “draw her left little fynger in maner of mylkyng”; for mustard one would “hold her nose in the uppere part of her righte fiste and rubbe it,” and another for salt would “philippe with her right thombe and his forefynger ouere the left thombe”; another, desirous of wine, would “meue her fore fynger vp and downe vpon the ende of her thombe afore her eghe”; and the guilty sacristan, struck by the thought that she had not provided incense for the mass, would “put her two fyngers vnto her nose thirles (nostrils).” There are no less than 106 signs in the table and on the whole it is not surprising that the Rule enjoins that “it is never leful to use them witheoute some reson and profitable nede, ffor ofte tyme more hurt ethe an euel sygne than an euel worde, and more offence it may be to God”[911].



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The time set apart in the monastic day for work was divided between brain work and manual labour. In the golden days of monasticism the time devoted to reading enabled the monasteries to become homes of learning; splendid libraries were collected for the use of the monks and in the scriptorium men skilled in writing and in illumination copied books and maintained the great series of chronicles, in which the middle ages live again. The nuns of certain Anglo-Saxon houses, and of certain continental houses at a later date, had some reputation for learning. In early days, too, the hours devoted to labour were spent in the fields, or more often in the workshops of the house; and those who had been skilled in crafts in the world continued to exercise them. The nuns of Anglo-Saxon England were famed for the needlework executed during the hours of work. Besides this labour the Rule ordained that the monks and nuns should take it in turns to serve their brethren in the kitchen every week and an eleventh century chronicler records “in the monasteries[Pg 288] I saw counts cooking in the kitchens and margraves leading the pigs out to feed”[912]. It was by reason of this intellectual and manual labour that the early monks rendered, as it were incidentally, an immense service to civilisation. Their aim and purpose was the salvation of their souls, but because the Rule under which they lived declared that labour was one of the means to that salvation, they added many of the merits of the active to those of the contemplative life. The early Benedictines were great missionaries, ardent scholars, enlightened landowners and even energetic statesmen. The early Cistercians made the woods and wildernesses, in which they settled, blossom like a rose. But apart from the social services thus rendered to civilisation, the threefold division of monastic life into prayer, study and labour was vital to monasticism itself, since it afforded the essential element of variety in routine.

The benefits of routine are obvious: any life which exists for the regular performance of specific duties, above all any life which is carried on in a community, must depend very largely upon fixed hours and carefully organised occupations. The Rule of St Benedict made a serious attempt to render monastic life possible and beneficial to the average human being, by the combination of regularity and variety which has been described above. There was constant change of occupation, but there was no waste and no muddle. It is extremely significant that monasticism broke down directly St Benedict’s careful adjustment of occupations became upset. With the growing wealth of the monasteries manual labour became undignified; some orders relied on lay brethren, the majority on servants. Gone was the day when counts cooked in the kitchens; in the fourteenth century monks and nuns paid large wages to their cooks and even in a small nunnery it was regarded as legitimate cause for complaint not to have a convent servant. Learning also fell away after the growth of the universities in the twelfth century; the poverty of the monastic chronicles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is one witness to the fact; the necessity to send injunctions to nunneries first in French and then in English, as the knowledge of Latin and then of French died out in them, is another. Of the three occupations, learning, manual labour[Pg 289] and divine service, only the last was left. Is it surprising that that also began to be looked upon as a weary and monotonous routine, when the monks and nuns came to it, not fresh from the stimulus of study or of labour, but from indolence, or from the worldly pleasures of the tavern, the hunt, the gambling board, the flirtation, the gossip, wherewith they often filled the spare time, which the wise Benedictine Rule would have filled with a change of occupation?

All safeguards against a petrifying routine were now broken down. We are wont to-day to look with disquiet upon the life of a clerk in an office, endlessly adding up rows of figures, with an interval for luncheon; but the clerk has his evenings, his Sundays, his annual holiday, his life as son, or husband, or father. For the medieval monk there was no such relaxation. When the salutary labour of hand and brain ordained by St Benedict no longer found a place in his life, he was delivered over bound to an endless routine of dorter, church, frater and cloister, which stretched from day to night and from night to day again. For nuns the monotony was even greater, for they had lost more completely than monks their early tradition of learning and they could not pass happy years in study at a university (as a few monks from great abbeys were able to do), nor find some solace in exercising the functions of a priest; moreover women were more apt even than men to enter the religious life without any real vocation for it, since there was hardly any other career for unmarried ladies of gentle birth. It would be an exaggeration to say that this uneventful life was necessarily distasteful. To the majority it was doubtless a happy existence; monotony appears peace to those who love it.

No cruel guard of diligent cares, that keep
Crown’d woes awake, as things too wise for sleep:
But reverent discipline and religious fear,
And soft obedience, find sweet biding here;
Silence and sacred rest; peace and pure joys;
Kind loves keep house, lie close and make no noise.

Here behind the walls of the convent “a common grayness silvered everything” and all care was remote, save that, never to be escaped by womankind, of making two ends meet.

Nevertheless the danger was there. Only a minority, one may be sure, revolted actively against the duties which are[Pg 290] sometimes, most significantly, called “the burthen of religion”[913]. That minority is known to us, for the sinner and the apostate, whether inspired by lust or by levity, mere victims to their own weakness, or active rebels against an intolerable dulness, have left their mark in official documents. But the number can only be guessed at of those others, who carried in their hearts for all their staid lives the complaint of the Latin song:

Sono tintinnabulum
Repeto psalterium,
Gratum linquo somnium
Cum dormire cuperem,
Heu misella!
Nichil est deterius tali vita
Cum enim sim petulans et lasciva[914].

The bell I am ringing,
The psalter am singing,
And from my bed creeping
Who fain would be sleeping,
Misery me!
O what can be worse than this life that I dree,
When naughty and lovelorn and wanton I be?

“Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room” is a charming justification of the sonnet, but it is neither good psychology nor good history.

It can never be too often repeated that many monks and nuns entered religion as a career while still children, with no particular vocation for the religious life. To such, even though they might experience no longing for the forbidden pleasures of the world, the monotony of the cloister would often be hard to bear. Their young limbs would kick against its restrictions and the changing moods of adolescence would turn and twist in vain within the iron bars of its unadaptable routine. Even to those no longer young happiness would depend at the best upon the fostering of a quick spiritual life, at the worst upon lack of imagination and of vitality. The undaunted daughter of desires, the man in whom religion burned as a strong fire, could find[Pg 291] happiness in the life. But lesser brethren could not. Ennui, more deadly even than sensual temptation, was the devil who tormented them. So in the convents of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a sympathetic eye and an understanding mind will diagnose the fundamental disease as reaction against routine by men and women in whom Nature, expelled by a pitchfork, had returned a thousand times more strong.

This reaction from routine took several forms. It is somewhere at the bottom of all the more serious sins, which the pitchfork method of attaining salvation brought upon human creatures with bodies as well as souls. In this chapter, however, we are concerned not with these graver faults of immorality, but with things less gross, and yet in their cumulative effect no less fatal to monastic life. Such was the neglect of that praise of God, which was the primary raison d’être of the monk and nun, so that services sometimes became empty forms, to be hurried through with scant devotion, occasionally with scandalous irreverence. Such was the deadly sin of accidie, the name of which is forgotten today, though the thing itself is with us still. Such were the nerves on edge, the small quarrels, the wear and tear of communal life; such also the gay clothes, the pet animals and the worldly amusements, with which nuns sought to enliven their existence. For all these things were in some sense a reaction from routine.

Carelessness in the performance of the monastic hours was an exceedingly common fault during the later middle ages and often finds a place in episcopal injunctions. Sometimes monks and nuns “cut” the services, as at Peterborough in 1437, when only ten or twelve of the 44 monks came on ordinary days to church[915], or at Nuncoton in 1440, where many of the nuns failed to come to compline, but busied themselves instead in various domestic offices, or wandered idly in the garden[916]. Often they[Pg 292] came late to matins, a fault which was common in nunneries, for the nuns were prone to sit up drinking and gossiping after compline, instead of going straight to bed[917]; and these nocturnal carousals, however harmless in themselves, did not conduce to wakefulness at one a.m. Consequently they were somewhat sleepy, quodammodo sompnolentes, at matins and found an almost Johnsonian difficulty in getting up early. At Stainfield in 1519 Atwater found that half an hour sometimes elapsed between the last stroke of the bell and the beginning of the office and that some of the nuns did not sing but dozed, partly because they had not enough candles, partly because they went to bed late; they also performed the offices very negligently[918]. But most often of all the fault of monks and nuns lay in gabbling through the services as quickly as possible in order to get them over. They left out syllables at the beginning and end of words, they omitted the dipsalma or pausacio between two verses, so that one side of the choir was beginning the second half, before the other side had finished the first; they skipped sentences; they mumbled and slurred over what should have been “entuned in their nose ful semely.”

Episcopal injunctions not infrequently animadvert against this irreverent treatment of the offices. At Catesby in 1442 Isabel Benet asserted that “divine service is chanted at so great speed that no pauses are made,” and at Carrow in 1526 several of the older nuns complained that the sisters sang and said the service more quickly than they ought, without due pauses. A strong injunction sent to Nuncoton in 1531 declares that the hours have been “doon with grete festinacon, haste and without deuocon, contrarye to the good manner and ordre of religion”[919].[Pg 293] Indeed so common was the fault that the Father of Evil was obliged to employ a special devil called Tittivillus, whose sole business it was to collect the dropped syllables and gabbled verses and carry them back to his master in a sack. One rhyme distinguishes carefully between the contents of his sack:

Hii sunt qui psalmos corrumpunt nequiter almos,
Dangler, cum jasper, lepar, galper quoque draggar,
Momeler, forskypper, forereynner, sic et overleper,
Fragmina verborum Tutivillus colligit horum[920].

A holy Cistercian abbot once interviewed Tittivillus; this is the tale as the nuns of Syon read it in their Myroure of Oure Ladye:

We rede of an holy Abbot of the order of Cystreus that whyle he stode in the quyer at mattyns, he sawe a fende that had a longe and a greate poke hangynge about hys necke, and wente aboute the quyer from one to an other, and wayted bysely after all letters, and syllables, and wordes, and faylynges, that eny made; and them he gathered dylygently and putte them in hys poke. And when he came before the Abbot, waytynge yf oughte had escaped hym, that he myghte have gotten and put in hys bagge; the Abbot was astoned and aferde of the foulenes and mysshape of hym, and sayde vnto hym. What art thow; And he answered and sayd. I am a poure dyuel, and my name ys Tytyuyllus, and I do myne offyce that is commytted vnto me. And what is thyne offyce sayd the Abbot, he answeryd I muste eche day he sayde brynge my master a thousande pokes full of faylynges, and of neglygences in syllables and wordes, that ar done in youre order in redynge and in syngynge. And else I must be sore beten[921].

Carelessness in the singing of the services was not, however, the most serious result of reaction against routine. If the men and women of sensibility failed to keep intelligence active in the pursuit of spiritual or temporal duties, if they cared no longer to use brain and spirit as they performed the daily round, accidia[922], that dread disease, half ennui and half melancholia, which, though common to all men, was recognised as the peculiar[Pg 294] menace of the cloister, lay ever in wait for them. Against this sin of intellectual and spiritual sloth all the great churchmen of the middle ages inveigh, recognising in it the greatest menace of religious life, from which all other sins may follow[923]. If accidia once laid hold upon a monk he was lost; ceasing to perform with active mind his religious duties, he would find them a meaningless, endless routine, filling him with irritation, with boredom and with a melancholy against which he might struggle in vain. The fourth century cenobite Cassian has left a detailed description of the effects of accidia in the cloister, declaring that it was specially disturbing to a monk about the sixth hour “like some fever which seizes him at stated times,” so that many declared that this was “the sickness that destroyeth in the noon day,” spoken of in the ninetieth psalm[924]. Many centuries later Dante crystallised it in four unsurpassable lines. As he passed through the fifth circle of hell he saw a black and filthy marsh, in which struggled the souls of those who had been overcome by anger; but deeper than the angry were submerged other souls, whose sobs rose in bubbles through the muddy water and who could only gurgle their confession in their throats. These were the[Pg 295] souls of men who had fallen victims to the sin of accidia in their lives

Fitti nel limo dicon: Tristi fummo
Nel’ aer dolce che dal sol s’ allegra,
Portando dentro accidioso fummo:
Or ci attristiam nella belletta negra.

Fixed in the slime, they say, “Sullen were we in the sweet air, that is gladdened by the sun, carrying lazy smoke in our hearts; now lie we sullen here in the black mire”[925].

But the working of the poison is most brilliantly described by Chaucer, in his Persones Tale:

“After the sinnes of Envie and of Ire, now wol I speken of the sinne of Accidie. For Envye blindeth the herte of a man, and Ire troubleth a man; and Accidie maketh him hevy, thoghtful and wrawe. Envye and Ire maken bitternesse in herte; which bitternesse is moder of Accidie and binimeth him the love of alle goodnesse. Thanne is Accidie the anguissh of a trouble herte.... He dooth alle thing with anoy and with wrawnesse, slaknesse and excusacioun, and with ydelnesse and unlust.... Now comth Slouthe, that wol nat sufre noon hardnesse ne no penaunce.... Thanne comth drede to biginne to werke any gode werkes; for certes he that is enclyned to sinne, him thinketh it is so greet an empryse for to undertake to doon werkes of goodnesse.... Now comth wanhope, that is despeir of the mercy of God, that comth somtyme of to muche outrageous sorwe, and somtyme of to muche drede; imagininge that he hath doon so much sinne, that it wol nat availlen him, though he wolde repenten him and forsake sinne: thurgh which despeir or drede he abaundoneth al his herte to every maner sinne, as seith seint Augustin. Which dampnable sinne, if that it continue unto his ende, it is cleped sinning in the holy gost.... Soothly he that despeireth him is lyk the coward champioun recreant, that seith creant withoute nede. Allas! allas! nedeles is he recreant and nedeles despeired. Certes the mercy of God is euere redy to every penitent and is aboven alle hise werkes.... Thanne cometh sompnolence, that is sluggy slombringe, which maketh a man be hevy and dul in body and in soule; and this sinne comth of Slouthe.”

He proceeds to describe further symptoms,

“Necligence or recchelnesse ... ydelnesse ... the sinne that man clepen Tarditas” and “Lachesse,”

and concludes thus,

“Thanne comth a manere coldnesse, that freseth al the herte of man. Thanne comth undevocioun, thurgh which a man is so blent, as seith seint Bernard, and hath swiche langour in soule, that he may neither rede ne singe in holy chirche, ne here ne thinke of no devocioun, ne travaille with his handes in no good werk, that it nis him unsavory and al apalled. Thanne wexeth he slow and slombry, and sone wol[Pg 296] be wrooth, and sone is enclyned to hate and to envye. Thanne comth the sinne of worldly sorwe, swich as is cleped tristicia, that sleeth man, as seint Paul seith. For certes swich sorwe werketh to the deeth of the soule and of the body also; for therof comth, that a man is anoyed of his owene lyf. Wherfore swich sorwe shorteth ful ofte the lyf of a man, er that his tyme be come by wey of kinde”[926].

This masterly diagnosis of the sin of spiritual sloth and its branches is illustrated by several stories which bear unmistakably the impress of a dreadful truth. Johann Busch’s account of his early temptations and doubts has often been quoted. A strong character, he overcame the temptation and emerged stronger[927]. But Caesarius of Heisterbach has two anecdotes of weaker brethren which show how exactly Chaucer described the anguish of a troubled heart. The first is of particular interest to us because it concerns a woman:

“A certain nun, a woman of advanced age, and, as was supposed, of great holiness, was so overcome by the vice of melancholy (tristitiae) and so vexed with a spirit of blasphemy, doubt and distrust, that she fell into despair. And she began altogether to doubt those things which she had believed from infancy and which it behoved her to believe, nor could she be induced by anyone to take the holy sacraments; and when her sisters and also her nieces in the flesh besought her why she was thus hardened, she answered “I am of the lost, of those who shall be damned.” One day the Prior, growing angry, said to her, “Sister, unless you recover from your unbelief, when you die I will have you buried in a field.” And she, hearing him, was silent but kept his words in her heart. One day, when certain of the sisters were to go on a journey I know not whither, she secretly followed them to the banks of the river Moselle, whereon the monastery is situated, and when the ship, which was carrying the sisters, put off, she threw herself from the shore into the river. Those who were in the ship heard the sound of a splash, and looking out thought her body to be a dog, but one of them, desiring (by God’s will) to know more certainly what it was, ran quickly to the place and seeing a human being, entered the river and drew her out. Then when they perceived that it was the aforesaid nun, already wellnigh drowned, they were all frightened, and when they had cared for her and she had coughed up the water and could speak, they asked her, “Why, sister, didst thou act thus cruelly?” and she replied, pointing to the Prior, “My lord there threatened that I should be buried when dead in a field, wherefore I preferred to be drowned in the flood rather than to be buried[Pg 297] like a beast in the field.” Then they led her back to the monastery and guarded her more carefully. Behold what great evil is born of melancholy (tristitia). That woman was brought up from infancy in the monastery. She was a chaste, devout, stern and religious virgin, and, as the mistress [of the novices] of a neighbouring monastery told me, all the maidens educated by her were of better discipline and more devout than others”[928].

The other anecdote tells of an old lay brother, who at the end of a long life fell into despair:

“I know not,” says Caesarius, “by what judgment of God he was made thus sad and fearful, that he was so greatly afraid for his sins and despaired altogether of the life eternal. He did not indeed doubt in his faith, but rather despaired of salvation. He could be cheered by no scriptural authorities and brought back to the hope of forgiveness by no examples. Yet he is believed to have sinned but little. When the brothers asked him, ‘What makes you fear, why do you despair?’ he answered, ‘I cannot pray as I was used to do, and so I fear hell.’ Because he laboured with the vice of tristitia, therefore he was filled with accidia, and from each of these was despair born in his heart. He was placed in the infirmary and on a certain morning he prepared him for death, and came to his master, saying, ‘I can no longer fight against God.’ And when his master paid but little attention to his words, he went forth to the fish pond of the monastery near by and threw himself into it and was drowned”[929].

Only a small minority, it is needless to say, was driven to this anguish of despair. For the majority the strain of conventual life found outlet, not in these black moods, but in a tendency to bicker one with another, to get excitement by exaggerating the small events of daily existence into matter for jealousies and disputes. For the strain was a double one; to monotony was added the complete lack of privacy, the wear and tear of communal life; not only always doing the same thing at the same time, but always doing it in company with a number of other people. The beauty of human fellowship, the happy friendliness of life in a close society are too obvious to need description.

For if heuene be on this erthe · and ese to any soule,
It is in cloistere or in scole · by many skilles I fynde;
For in cloistre cometh no man · to chide ne to fiȝte,
But alle is buxomnesse there and bokes · to rede and to lerne,
In scole there is scorne · but if a clerke wil lerne,
And grete loue and lykynge · for eche of hem loueth other[930].

[Pg 298]But it is necessary also to remember the other side of the picture. Personal idiosyncrasies were no less apt to jar in the middle ages than they are today; there are unfortunates who are born to be unpopular; there are tempers which will lose themselves; and in conventual life there is no balm of solitude for frayed nerves. These nuns were very human people; a mere accident of birth had probably sent them to a convent rather than to the care of husband and children in a manor-hall; just as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a mere accident of birth made one son the squire, another the soldier and a third the parson. No special saintliness of disposition was theirs and no miracle intervened to render them immune from tantrums when they crossed the convent threshold. Nothing is at once more striking and more natural than the prevalence of little quarrels, sometimes growing into serious disputes, among the inmates of monasteries. Browning’s Spanish Cloister was no mere figment of his inventive brain; indeed it is, if anything, less startling than the medieval Langland’s description of the convent, where Wrath was cook and where all was far from “buxomnesse.” Certainly Langland’s indictment is a violent one; the satirist must darken his colours to catch the eye; and, had Chaucer been the painter, we might have had a dispute couched in more courteous terms and more “estatlich of manere.” But the satirist’s account is significant, because his very office demands that he shall exaggerate only what exists; his words are a smoke which cannot rise without fire. So Langland may speak through the lips of Wrath, with two white eyes:

I have an aunte to nonne · and an abbesse bothe,
Hir were leuere swowe or swelte · þan suffre any peyne.
I haue be cook in hir kichyne · and þe couent serued
Many monthes with hem · and with monkes bothe.
I was þe priouresses potagere · and other poure ladyes
And made hem ioutes of iangelynge · þat dame Iohanne was a bastard,
And dame Clarice a kniȝtes douȝter · ac a kokewolde was hire syre,
And dame Peronelle a prestes file · Priouresse worth she neuere
For she had childe in chirityme · all owre chapitere it wiste ·
Of wycked wordes I, Wrath · here wortes imade,
[Pg 299]Til “thow lixte” and “thow lixte” lopen oute at ones,
And eyther hitte other · vnder the cheke;
Hadde thei had knyves, by Cryst · her eyther had killed other[931].

From “thow lixte” to “Gr-r-r you swine” how little change!

Sober records bear out Langland’s contention that Wrath was at home in nunneries. Some of the worst cases have already been described; election disputes, disputes arising from a prioress’s favouritism, Margaret Wavere dragging her nuns about the choir by their hair, and screaming insults at them, Katherine Wells hitting them on the head with fists and feet[932]. Doubtless quarrels seldom got as far as blows; but bad temper and wordy warfare were common. Insubordination was sometimes at the root of the discord; nuns refused to submit meekly to correction after the proclamation of their faults in chapter, or to obey their superiors. The words of another satirist show that the monastic vow of obedience sometimes sat lightly upon their shoulders:

Also another lady there was
That hyȝt dame dysobedyent
And sche set nowȝt by her priores.
Ans than me thowȝt alle was schent,
For sugettys schulde euyr be dylygent
Bothe in worde, in wylle and dede,
To plese her souerynes wyth gode entent,
And hem obey, ellys god forbede.
And of alle the defawtes that I cowde se
Thorowȝ schewyng of experience,
Hyt was one of the most that grevyd me,
The wantyng of obedyence
For hyt schulde be chese in consciens
Alle relygius rule wytnesseth the same
And when I saw her in no reverence,
I myȝt no lenger abyde for schame,
For they setten not by obedyence.
And than for wo myne hert gan blede
Ne they hadden her in no reuerence,
But few or none to her toke hede[933].

[Pg 300]Again the colours are darkened, but the eyes of the satirist had seen.

At St Mary’s, Winchester, insubordination was evidently the chief fault. William of Wykeham writes to the Abbess:

By public rumour it has come to our ears that some of the nuns of the aforesaid house ... care not to submit to or even to obey you and the deans and other obedientiaries lawfully constituted by you in those things which concern regular observances nor to show them due reverence, and that they will not bear or undergo the reproofs and corrections inflicted upon them by their superiors for their faults, but break out into vituperation and altercation with each other and in no way submit to these corrections; meanwhile other nuns of your house by detractions, conspiracies, confederacies, leagues, obloquies, contradictions and other breaches of discipline (insolenciis) and laxities (concerning which we speak not at present)

neglect the rule of St Benedict and other due observances. The Abbess is warned to punish the nuns and to enforce the rule more firmly than heretofore and to furnish the Bishop with the names of rebels. At the same time he addresses a letter to the nuns bidding them show obedience to their superiors and receive correction humbly “henceforth blaming no one therefore nor altercating one with another, saying that these or those were badly or excessively punished”[934]. It would seem that discipline had become lax in the convent and that the Bishop’s attempt to introduce reform by the agency of the abbess was meeting with opposition from unruly nuns. Visitors were forced constantly to make the double injunction that nuns should show obedience to their superiors and that those superiors should be equable and not harsh in correction:

Also we enioyne you, pryoresse, ... that oftentymes ye come to the chapitere for to correcte the defautes of your susters, and that as wele then as att other tymes and places ye treyte your said susters moderlie wyth all resonable fauour; and that ye rebuke ne repreue thaym cruelly ne feruently at no tyme, specyally in audience of seculeres, and that ye kepe pryvye fro seculeres your correccyons and actes of your chapitere.... Also we enioyne yowe of the couent and eueryche oon of yowe vndere peyn of imprisonyng, that mekely and buxumly ye obeye the prioresse procedyng discretely in hire correccyone, and also that in euery place ye do hire dewe reuerence, absteynyng yowe fro all elacyone of pryde and wordes of disobeysaunce or debate[935].

[Pg 301]Sometimes it was one unruly member who set the convent by the ears. There is an amusing case at Romsey, which is reminiscent of David Copperfield:

On 16 January 1527 in the chapter house of the monastery of Romsey, before the vicar general, sitting judicially, Lady Alice Gorsyn appeared and confessed that she had used bad language with her sisters [her greatest oath evidently transcended “by sëynt Loy”] and spread abroad reproachful and defamatory words of them. He absolved her from the sentence of excommunication and enjoined on her in penance that if she used bad language in future and spread about defamatory words of them, a red tongue made of cloth should be used on the barbe under the chin (in sua barba alba) and remain there for a month[936].

a kinder punishment than the scold’s bridle or the ducking stool of common folk. Occasionally an inveterate scold would be removed altogether by the Bishop and sent to some convent where she was not known; two nuns were transferred from Burnham to Goring in 1339 “for the peace and quiet of the house” and in 1298 a quarrelsome nun of Nuncoton was sent to Greenfield to be kept in solitary confinement as long as she remained incorrigible, “until according to the discipline of her order she shall know how to live in a community”[937]. It was more difficult to restore peace when a whole nunnery was seething with dispute and heart-burnings. General injunctions to cease quarrelling would seem to show that this was sometimes the case, and, without having recourse to such an extreme instance as that of Littlemore in the sixteenth century, it is possible to quote from bishops’ registers documents which go far to bear out even Langland’s picture. One such document may be quoted in[Pg 302] illustration, the comperta of Archbishop Giffard’s visitation of Swine in 1268:

It is discovered that Amice de Rue is a slanderer and a liar and impatient and odious to the convent and a rebel; and so are almost all the convent when the misdeeds of delinquents are proclaimed in chapter; wherefore the prioress or whoever is acting for her is not sufficient, without the help of the lord archbishop, to make corrections according to the requirements of the rule.... Item, it is discovered that three sisters in the flesh and spirit, to wit, Sibyl, Bella and Amy, frequently rebel against the corrections of the Prioress, and having leagued together with them several other sisters, they conspire against their sisters, to the great harm of the regular discipline; and Alice de Scrutevil, Beatrice de St Quintin and Maud Constable cleave to them.... Item, it is discovered that the Prioress is a suspicious woman and too credulous and breaks out at a mere word into correction, and frequently punishes unequally for the same fault and pursues with long rancour those whom she dislikes, until the time of their vindication cometh; whence it befals that the nuns, when they suspect that they are going to be burdened with too heavy a correction, procure the mitigation of her severity by means of the threats of their relatives. Item, it is discovered that the nuns and the sisters are at discord in many things, because the sisters contend that they are equal to the nuns and use black veils even as the nuns[938], which is said not to be the custom in other houses of the same order[939].

Apostasy, accidia, quarrels, all rose in part from monotony. The majority of nuns were probably content with their life, but they strove to bring some excitement and variety into it, not only unconsciously by cliques and contentions, but also by a conscious aping of the worldly amusements which enlivened their mothers and sisters outside the convent walls. The châtelaine or mistress of a manor, when not busied with the care of an estate, amused herself in the pursuit of fashion; even the business-like Margaret Paston hankered after a scarlet robe. She amused herself with keeping pets, those little dogs which scamper so gaily round the borders of manuscripts, or play so[Pg 303] gallant a part in romances like the Châtelaine of Vergi. She hawked and she hunted, she danced and she played at tables[940]. All these occupations served to break the monotony of daily life. The nuns, always in touch with the world owing to the influx of visitors and to the neglect of enclosure, remembered these forbidden pleasures. And they sought to spice their monotonous life, as they spiced their monotonous dishes. Gay clothes, pet animals, a dance, a game, a gossip, were to them “a ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for fastyngdayes.” So we find all these worldly amusements in the convent.

Dear to the soul of men and women alike, dear to monks and nuns as well as to the children of the world, were the gay colours and extravagant modes of contemporary dress. Popular preachers inveighed against the devils’ trappings of their flocks, but when those trappings flaunted themselves in the cloister there was matter for more than words. As early as the end of the seventh century St Aldhelm penned a severe indictment of the fashionable nuns of his day:

A vest of fine linen of a violet colour is worn, above it a scarlet tunic with a hood, sleeves striped with silk and trimmed with red fur; the locks on the forehead and the temples are curled with a crisping iron, the dark head-veil is given up for white and coloured head-dresses, which, with bows of ribbon sewn on, reach down to the ground; the nails, like those of a falcon or sparrow-hawk, are pared to resemble talons[941].

Synods sat solemnly over silken veils and pleated robes with long trains; they shook their heads over golden pins and silver belts, jewelled rings, laced shoes, cloth of burnet and of Rennes, dresses open at the sides, gay colours (especially red) and fur of gris[942]. High brows were fashionable in the world and the nuns could not resist lifting and spreading out their veils to expose[Pg 304] those fair foreheads (“almost a spanne brood, I trowe”); when Alnwick visited Goring in 1445 he

saw with the evidence of his own eyes that the nuns do wear their veils spread out on either side and above their foreheads, (and) he enjoined upon the prioress ... that she should wear and cause her sisters to wear their veils spread down to their eyes[943].

The words of Beatrix’s maid in Much Ado About Nothing spring to the mind: “But methinks you look with your eyes as other women do.” For three weary centuries the bishops waged a holy war against fashion in the cloister and waged it in vain, for as long as the nuns mingled freely with secular women it was impossible to prevent them from adopting secular modes. Occasionally a conscientious visitor found himself floundering unhandily through something very like a complete catalogue of contemporary fashions. So Bishop Longland at Elstow in 1531:

We ordeyne and by way of Iniuncon commande undre payne of disobedyence from hensforth that no ladye ne any religious suster within the said monasterye presume to were ther apparells upon ther hedes undre suche lay fashion as they have now of late doon with cornered crests, nether undre suche manour of hight shewing ther forhedes moore like lay people than religious, butt that they use them without suche crestes or secular fashions and off a lower sort and that ther vayle come as lowe as ther yye ledes and soo contynually to use the same, unles itt be at suche tymes as they shalbe occupied in eny handycrafte labour, att whiche tymes itt shalbe lefull for them to turne upp the said vayle for the tyme of suche occupacon. And undre like payne inoyne that noon of the said religious susters doo use or were hereafter eny such voyded shoys, nether crested as they have of late ther used, butt that they be of suche honeste fashion as other religious places both use and that ther gownes and kyrtells be closse afore and nott so depe voyded at the breste and noo more to use rede stomachers but other sadder colers in the same[944].

It is interesting to conjecture how the nuns obtained these gay garments and ornaments. The growing custom of giving them a money allowance out of which to dress themselves instead of providing them with clothes in kind out of the common purse, certainly must have given opportunity for buying the[Pg 305] gilt pins, barred belts and slashed shoes which so horrified their visitors. We know from Gilles li Muisis that Flemish nuns at least went shopping[945]. But an even more likely source of supply lies, as we shall see, in the legacies of clothes and ornaments, which were often left to nuns by their relatives[946].

Not only in their clothes did medieval nuns seek to enliven existence after the manner of their lay sisters. The bishops struggled long and unsuccessfully against another custom of worldly women, the keeping of pet animals[947]. Dogs were certainly the favourite pets. Cats are seldom mentioned, though the three anchoresses of the Ancren Riwle were specially permitted to keep one[948], and Gyb, that “cat of carlyshe kynde,” which slew Philip Sparrow, apparently belonged to Carrow; perhaps there was spread among the nunneries of England the grisly tradition of the Prioress of Newington, who was smothered in bed by her cat[949]. Birds, from the larks of the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen, to the parrot Vert-Vert at Nevers, are often mentioned[950]. Monkeys, squirrels and rabbits were also kept. But dogs and puppies abounded. Partly because the usages of society inevitably found their way into the aristocratic convents, partly[Pg 306] because human affections will find an outlet under the most severe of rules:

(Objet permis à leur oisif amour,
Vert-Vert était l’âme de ce séjour),

the nuns clung to their “smale houndes.” Archbishop Peckham had to forbid the Abbess of Romsey to keep monkeys or “a number of dogs” in her own chamber and she was charged at the same time with stinting her nuns in food; one can guess what became of the “rosted flesh or milk and wastel-breed”[951]. At Chatteris and at Ickleton in 1345 the nuns were forbidden to keep fowls, dogs or small birds within the precincts of the convent or to bring them into church during divine service[952]. This bringing of animals into church was a common custom in the middle ages, when ladies often attended service with dog in lap and men with hawk on wrist[953]; Lady Audley’s twelve dogs, which so disturbed the nuns of Langley, will be remembered[954]. Injunctions against the bringing of dogs or puppies into choir by the nuns are also found at Keldholme and Rosedale early in the fourteenth century[955]. But the most flagrant case of all is Romsey, to which in 1387 William of Wykeham wrote as follows:

[Pg 307]Item, because we have convinced ourselves by clear proofs that some of the nuns of your house bring with them to church birds, rabbits, hounds and such like frivolous things, whereunto they give more heed than to the offices of the church, with frequent hindrance to their own psalmody and that of their fellow nuns and to the grievous peril of their souls; therefore we strictly forbid you, all and several, in virtue of the obedience due unto us, that you presume henceforward to bring to church no birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things that promote indiscipline; and any nun who does to the contrary, after three warnings shall fast on bread and water on one Saturday for each offence, notwithstanding one discipline to be received publicly in chapter on the same day.... Item, whereas through the hunting-dogs and other hounds abiding within your monastic precincts, the alms that should be given to the poor are devoured and the church and cloister and other places set apart for divine and secular services are foully defiled, contrary to all honesty, and whereas, through their inordinate noise, divine service is frequently troubled, therefore we strictly command and enjoin you, Lady Abbess, in virtue of obedience, that you remove these dogs altogether and that you suffer them never henceforth, nor any other such hounds, to abide within the precincts of your nunnery[956].

But the crusade against pets was not more successful than the crusade against fashions. The feminine fondness for something small and alive to pet was not easily eradicated and it seems that visitors were sometimes obliged to indulge it. The wording of Peckham’s decree leaves an opening for the retention of one humble and very self-effacing little dog, not prone to unseemly yelps and capers before the stony eye of my lord the Archbishop on his rounds; Dean Kentwode in the fifteenth century ordered the Prioress of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, to remove dogs “and content herself with one or two”[957], and in 1520 the Prioress of Flixton was bidden to send all dogs away from the convent “except one which she prefers”[958]. Perhaps the welcome of a thumping tail and damp, insinuating nose occasionally overcame the scruples even of a Bishop, who probably kept dogs himself and mourned

if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte.

Dogs kept for hunting purposes come into rather a different category. It is well known that medieval monks were mighty[Pg 308] hunters before the Lord[959], and the mention of sporting dogs at Romsey and at Brewood (where Bishop Norbury found canes venatici[960]) encourages speculation as to whether the nuns also were not “pricasours aright” and

yaf not of that text a pulled hen
That seith that hunters been nat holy men.

It is significant that Dame Juliana Berners is supposed by tradition (unsupported, however, by any other evidence) to have been a prioress of Sopwell. The gift of hunting rights to a nunnery is a common one; for instance, Henry II granted to Wix the right of having two greyhounds and four braches to take hares through the whole forest of Essex[961]. Doubtless these rights were usually exercised by proxy[962]; but considering the popularity of hunting and hawking as sports for women, a popularity so great that no lady’s education was complete if she knew not how to manage a hawk and bear herself courteously in the field, it is[Pg 309] surprising that there is not actual mention of these pastimes among nuns as well as among monks.

Besides gay clothes and pets other frivolous amusements broke at times the monotony of convent life. Dancing and mumming and minstrelsy were not unknown and the nuns shared in the merrymaking on feasts sacred and profane, as is witnessed by the account rolls of St Mary de Pré (1461-90), with their list of payments for wassail at New Year and Twelfth Night, for May games, for bread and ale on bonfire nights and for harpers and players at Christmas[963]. In 1435 the nuns of Lymbrook were forbidden “all maner of mynstrelseys, enterludes, daunsyng or reuelyng with in your sayde holy place”[964], and about the same time Dean Kentwode wrote to St Helen’s Bishopsgate: “Also we enioyne you that all daunsyng and reuelyng be utterly forborne among yow, except Christmasse and other honest tymys of recreacyone among yowre self usyd in absence of seculars in all wyse”[965]. The condemnation of dancing in nunneries is not surprising, for the attitude of medieval moralists generally to this pastime is summed up in Etienne de Bourbon’s aphorism, “The Devil is the inventor and governor and disposer of dances and dancers”[966]. Minstrels were similarly under the ban of the church, and clerks were forbidden by canon law and by numerous papal, conciliar and episcopal injunctions to listen to their “ignominious art”[967], a regulation which, needless to say, went unobeyed in an age when many a bishop had his private histrio[968], and when the same stern reformer Grosseteste, who warned his clergy “ne mimis, ioculatoribus aut histrionibus intendant,” loved so much to hear the harp that he kept his harper’s chamber “next hys chaumbre besyde hys stody”[969]. Langland asserts that churchmen and laymen alike spent on[Pg 310] minstrels money with which they well might have succoured the poor:

Clerkus and knyȝtes · welcometh kynges mynstrales,
And for loue of here lordes · lithen hem at festes;
Muche more, me thenketh · riche men auhte
Haue beggars by-fore hem · which beth godes mynstrales[970].

Even in monasteries they found a ready welcome[971] and the reforming council of Oxford passed an ineffectual decree forbidding their performances to be seen or heard or allowed before the abbot or monks, if they came to a house for alms[972]. Indeed there was sometimes need for care. Where but at one of those minstrelsies or interludes forbidden at Lymbrook did sister Agnes of St Michael’s Priory, Stamford, meet a jongleur, who sang softly in her ear that Lenten was come with love to town? The Devil (alas) had all the good tunes, even in the fifteenth century. “One Agnes, a nun of that place,” reported the Prioress, “has gone away into apostasy cleaving to a harp-player, and they dwell together, as it is said, in Newcastle-on-Tyne”[973]. For her no longer the strait discipline of her rule, the black-robed nuns[Pg 311] and heaven at the end. For her the life of the roads, the sore foot and the light heart; for her the company of ribalds with their wenches, and all the thriftless, shiftless player-folk; for her, at the last, hell, with “the gold and the silver and the vair and the gray, ... harpers and minstrels and kings of the world”[974], or a desperate hope that the Virgin’s notorious kindness for minstrels might snatch her soul from perdition[975].

But the merrymakers in nunneries were not necessarily strange jongleurs or secular folk. The dancing and revelry, which were forbidden at Lymbrook and allowed in Christmastime at St Helen’s, were probably connected with the children’s feast of St Nicholas. As early as the twelfth century the days immediately before and after Christmas had become, in ecclesiastical circles, the occasion for uproarious festivities[976]. The three days after Christmas were appropriated by the three orders of the Church. On St Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26) the deacons performed the service, elected their Abbot of Fools and paraded the streets, levying contributions from the householders and passers-by; on St John the Evangelist’s Day (Dec. 27) the deacons gave way to the priests, who “gave a mock blessing and proclaimed a ribald form of indulgence”; and on Innocents’ Day it was the turn of the choir or schoolboys to hold their feast. In cathedral and monastic churches the Boy Bishop (who had been elected on December 5th, the Eve of St Nicholas, patron saint of schoolboys) attended service on the eve of Innocents’ Day, and at the words of the Magnificat “He hath put down the mighty from their seat” changed places with the Bishop or Dean or Abbot, and similarly the canons and other dignitaries of the church changed places with the boys. On Innocents’ Day all services, except the essential portions of the mass, were performed by the Boy Bishop; he and his staff processed through the streets, levying large contributions of food and money and for about a fortnight[Pg 312] his rule continued, accompanied by feasting and merrymaking, plays, disguisings and dances. These Childermas festivities took place in monastic as well as in secular churches, but they seem to have been more common in nunneries than in male communities. Our chief information about the revelries comes from Archbishop Eudes Rigaud’s province of Rouen[977]; but English records also contain scattered references to the custom. Evidently a Girl Abbess or Abbess of Fools was elected from among the novices, and at the Deposuit she and her fellow novices, or the little schoolgirls, took the place of the Abbess and nuns, just as the Boy Bishop held sway in cathedral churches, and feasting, dancing and disguising brought a welcome diversion into the lives of both nuns and children. Even the strict Peckham was obliged to extend a grudging consent to the puerilia solemnia held on Innocents’ Day at Barking and at Godstow (1279), insisting only that they should not be continued during the whole octave of Childermas-tide and should be conducted with decency and in private:

The celebration of the Feast of Innocents by children, which we do not approve, but rather suffer with disapproval, is on no account to be undertaken by those children, nor are they to take any part in it, until after the end of the vespers of St John the Evangelist’s Day; and the nuns are not to retire from the office, but having excluded from the choir all men and women ... they are themselves to supply the absence of the little ones lest (which God forbid) the divine praise should become a mockery[978].

A more specific reference still is found at Carrow in 1526; Dame Joan Botulphe deposed at a visitation that it was customary at Christmas for the youngest nun to hold sway for the day as abbess and on that day (added the soured ancient) was consumed and dissipated everything that the house had acquired by alms or by the gift of friends[979]. The connection between these revels and the Feast of Fools appears clearly in the injunction sent by Bishop Longland to Nuncoton about the same time:

[Pg 313]We chardge you, lady priores, that ye suffre nomore hereafter eny lorde of mysrule to be within your house, nouther to suffre hereafter eny suche disgysinge as in tymes past haue bene used in your monastery in nunnes apparell ne otherwise[980].

The admission of seculars dressed up as nuns, and of boys dressed up as women, the performance of interludes and the wild dancing were reason enough for the distaste with which ecclesiastical authorities regarded these festivities. For the nuns clearly did not exclude strangers as Peckham had bidden. Indeed it seems probable that where they did not elect a Girl Abbess, they admitted a Boy Bishop, either from some neighbouring church, or just possibly one of their own little schoolboys. Among the accounts of St Swithun’s monastery at Winchester for 1441 there is a payment

for the boys of the Almonry together with the boys of the chapel of St Elizabeth, dressed up after the manner of girls, dancing, singing and performing plays before the Abbess and nuns of St Mary’s Abbey in their hall on the Feast of Innocents[981];

and the account of Christian Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de Pré, contains an item “paid for makyng of the dyner to the susters upon Childermasday iij s iiij d, item paid for brede and ale for seint Nicholas clerks iij d”[982]. The inventories of Cheshunt and Sheppey at the time of the Dissolution contain further references to the custom and seem to show that nunneries occasionally “ran” a St Nicholas Bishop of their own: at Cheshunt there was found in the dorter “a chisell (chasuble) of white ffustyan and a myter for a child bysshoppe at xx d”[983], and at Sheppey, in a chapel, “ij olde myters for S. Nicholas of fustyan brodered”[984].

These childish festivities sound harmless and attractive enough, and modern writers are sometimes apt to sentimentalise over their abolition by Henry VIII[985]. But in this, as in his[Pg 314] injunction of enclosure, Henry was fully in accordance with the best ecclesiastical precedent. For the Boy Bishop was originally a part of the Feast of Fools and the Feast of Fools had an ancient and disreputable ancestry in the Roman Saturnalia. At a very early date a regulation made to curtail such performances at St Paul’s declared that “what had been invented for the praise of sucklings had been converted into a disgrace”[986]. In 1445, at Paris, it was stated by the Faculty of Theology at the University that the performers

appeared in masks with the faces of monsters or in the dresses of women, sang improper songs in the choir, ate fat pork on the horns of the altar, close by the priest celebrating mass, played dice on the altar, used stinking incense made of old shoes, and ran about the choir leaping and shouting[987];

and about the same time the Synod of Basle had specifically denounced the children’s festival in hardly less violent terms as

that disgraceful, bad custom practised in some churches, by which on certain high days during the year some with mitre, staff and pontifical vestments like Bishops and others dressed as kings and princes bless the people; the which festival in some places is called the Feast of Fools or Innocents or Boys, and some making games with masks and mummeries, others dances and breakdowns of males and females, move people to look on with guffaws, while others make drinkings and feasts there[988].

It is only necessary to compare these denunciations with such accounts of the festivities in nunneries as have survived, to understand that the revelling and disguising were less harmless than modern writers are apt to represent them. Mr Leach attributes the schoolboys’ feast to the fact that regular holidays were unknown in the medieval curriculum and that the boys found in the ribaldries of Childermastide some outlet for their long suppressed spirits. Similarly the cramped and solemn existence led by the nuns for the rest of the year probably made their one outbreak the more violent. Nevertheless one cannot avoid feeling somewhat out of sympathy with the bishops. “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Nuns were ever fond of ginger “hot i’ the mouth.”



[Pg 315]



All things are to be common to all.
Rule of St Benedict, ch. XXXIII.

The Rule of seint Maure or of seint Beneit,
Because that it was old and somdel streit
This ilke monk leet olde thinges pace
And held after the newe world the space.
Chaucer, Prologue, ll. 173-6.


The reaction from a strict routine of life led monks and nuns to a more serious modification of the Rule under which they lived than that represented by pet dogs and pretty clothes, which were after all only superficial frivolities. They sought also to modify two rules which were fundamental to the Benedictine ideal. One was the rigidly communal life, the obligation to do everything in company with everyone else. The other was the obligation of strict personal poverty. A monastery was in its essence a place where a number of persons lived a communal life, owning no private property, but holding everything in the name of the community. The normal routine of conventual life, as laid down in the Benedictine Rule, secured this end. The inmates of a house spent almost the whole of their time together. They prayed together in the choir, worked together in the cloister, ate together in the frater, and slept together in the dorter. Moreover the strictest regulations were made to prevent the vice of private property, one of the most serious sins in the monastic calendar, from making its appearance. All food was to be cooked in a common kitchen and served in the common frater, in which no meat was allowed. All clothes were to be provided out of the common goods of the house, and it was the business of the chamberer or chambress to see to the buying of material, the making of the clothes and their distribution to the religious; so carefully was proprietas guarded against, that all old clothes had to be given back to the chambress, when the new ones were[Pg 316] distributed. Above all it was forbidden to monks and nuns to possess and spend money, save what was delivered to them by the superior for their necessary expenses upon a journey[989].

But this combination of rigid communism with rigid personal poverty was early discovered to be irksome. It seems as though the craving for a certain privacy of life, a certain minimum of private property, is a deeply rooted instinct in human nature. Certainly the attempt of monasticism to expel it with a pitchfork failed. Step by step the rule was broken down, more especially by a series of modifications in the prescribed method of feeding and clothing the community. Here, as in the enclosure question, the monks and nuns came into conflict with their bishops, though the conflict was never so severe. Here also, the result of the struggle was the same. A steady attempt by the bishops to enforce the rule was countered by a steady resistance on the part of the religious and the end was usually compromise.

The most marked breakdown of the communal way of life in the monasteries of the later middle ages is to be seen in the gradual neglect of the frater, in favour of a system of private messes, and in the increasing allocation of private rooms to individuals. The strict obligation upon all to keep frater daily was at first only modified in favour of the head of the house, who usually had her own lodgings, including a dining hall, in which the rule permitted her to entertain the guests who claimed her hospitality and such nuns as she chose to invite for their recreation. From quite early times, however, there existed in many houses a room known as the misericord (or indulgence), where the strict diet of the frater was relaxed. Here the occupants of the infirmary, those in their seynies and all who needed flesh meat and more delicate dishes to support them, were served. From the fourteenth century onwards, however, the rules of diet became considerably relaxed and flesh was allowed to everyone on three days a week[990]. This meant that the misericord was in constant use and in many monasteries the frater was divided into two stories, the upper of which was used as the frater proper, where no meat might be eaten, and the lower as a[Pg 317] misericord[991]. According to this arrangement a nun might sometimes be dining in the upper frater, sometimes in the misericord and sometimes in the abbess’ or prioress’ lodgings; and, of these places, there was a distinct tendency for the upper frater to fall into disuse, since it could in any case only be used on fish (or, according to later custom, white meat) days.

But a habit even more subversive of strictly communal life and more liable to lead to disuse of the frater was rapidly spreading at this period. This was the division of a nunnery into familiae, or households, which messed together, each familia taking its meals separately from the rest. The common frater was sometimes kept only thrice a week on fish days, sometimes only in Advent and Lent, sometimes (it would seem) never. This meant the separate preparation of meals for each household, a practice which, though uneconomical, was possible, because each nun’s food allowance was fixed and could be drawn separately. Moreover, as we shall see hereafter, the growing practice of granting an annual money allowance to each individual, though used for clothes more often than for food, enabled the nuns to buy meat and other delicacies (if not provided by the convent) for themselves. The aristocratic ladies of Polsloe even had their private maids to prepare their meals[992].

This system was evidently well established at a comparatively early date. It is mentioned in Peckham’s injunctions in 1279 and in Exeter and York injunctions belonging to the early years of the fourteenth century. To illustrate how it worked, we may analyse the references to familiae in Alnwick’s visitations of the diocese of Lincoln (1440-5)[993]. The number of households in a[Pg 318] nunnery necessarily differed with the size of the house and it is not always easy to determine the proportion of households to nuns, because internal evidence sometimes shows that all the inmates were not present and enumerated at the visitation. Thus at Elstow the abbess “says that there are five households of nuns kept in the monastery, whereof the first is that of the abbess, who has five nuns with her; the second of the prioress, who has two; the third of the subprioress, who has two; the fourth of the sacrist, who has three; and the fifth of Dame Margaret Aylesbury, who has two”; but only thirteen nuns gave evidence[994]. In this house the frater was kept on certain days of the week, one nun deposing “that on the days whereon they eat together in frater, they eat larded food in the morning and sup on flesh, and they eat capons and other two-footed creatures in frater.” At Catesby the prioress deposed that she had four nuns in her familia and that there were three other households in the cloister. At Stixwould there were “five separate and distinct households”; at Nuncoton there were three; at St Michael’s Stamford, the prioress and subprioress each had one, but all ate together in the frater on fish-days; at Stainfield the prioress, the cellaress and the nun-sisters each kept a household. At Gokewell and Langley the nuns were said to keep divers households “by two and two” and at Langley the prioress added, “but they do eat in the frater every day”; also she says that she herself has three women who board with her and the subprioress one; also she says that the nuns receive naught from the house but their meat and drink and she herself keeps one household on her own account. At Gracedieu the prioress deposed

that frater is not kept nor has it been kept for seven years and that the nuns sit in company with secular folk at table in her hall every day and that they have reading during meals; also she says there are two households only in the house, to wit in her hall and the infirmary, where there are three at table together;

here the prioress’ hall simply took the place of the frater. There were four households at Godstow and apparently several at Legbourne.

This division into households which messed separately went[Pg 319] hand in hand with another practice, which also softened the rigours of a strictly communal life, to wit the allocation of separate rooms to certain nuns. The obedientiaries of a house often had private offices, or checkers, in which to transact their business, and the custom grew by which the head of each familia had her own room, in which her household dined. The visitation reports continually refer to these private cells and to their use as dining rooms and places of reception for visitors. Sometimes the nuns even slept in them, though the dorter was always much more strictly kept than the frater; at Godstow in 1432 for instance, Bishop Gray enjoins “that the beds in the nuns’ lodgings (domicilia) be altogether removed from their chambers, save those for small children” (apparently their pupils) “and that no nun receive any secular person for any recreation in the nuns’ chambers under pain of excommunication”[995]. Some light is thrown upon these camerae by the inventories of medieval nunneries. Thus the inventory of the Benedictine Priory of Sheppey made at the Dissolution describes the contents of “the greate chamber in the Dorter,” which was used as a treasury in which to keep the linen, vestments and plate of the house, and in which one of the nuns Dame Agnes Davye seems to have slept; there follows a description of the chambers of eight nuns, with the furniture in each, from which it is clear that they had brought their own furniture with them to the monastery. These “chambers” may have been separate rooms or may have been partitions of the dorter, but if the latter they were evidently so large as to be to all intents and purposes separate rooms, for the furniture commonly includes painted cloth or paper hangings for the room, a chest and a cupboard, besides the bed; in three there is mention of windows and in two of fire irons. The most likely conjecture is that the dorter was used as a treasury and bedroom for one nun and the other chambers are separate rooms[996]. At some other houses the dorter is mentioned but was clearly divided into separate cells by wainscot partitions, and the wainscotting was sometimes sold at the Dissolution[997].

[Pg 320]The attitude of ecclesiastical authorities to the modification of the communal rule involved in familiae and camerae was, for various reasons, one of strict disapproval. The custom of providing separate messes was extremely uneconomical; the passing of much time in private rooms was open to suspicion, especially when male visitors were received there; communal life was an essential part of the monastic idea; finally the amenities of private life were apt (as we shall see) to bring in their train the amenities of private property. The policy of the bishops was, for all these reasons, to restore communal life. They made general injunctions that frater and dorter should duly be kept by all the nuns, they made special injunctions for the abolition of separate households, and above all they condemned private rooms:

“Also we enioyne yow, pryoresse,” writes Alnwick to Catesby in 1442, “that ye dispose so for your susters that the morne next aftere Myghelmasse day next commyng wythe owten any lengare delaye, ye and thai aftere yowre rewle lyfe in commune, etyng and drynkyng in oon house, slepyng in oon house, prayng and sarufyng [serving] God in oon oratorye, levyng vtterly all pryuate hydles [hiding-places], chaumbres and syngulere housholdes, by the whiche hafe comen and growen grete hurte and peryle of sowles and noyesfulle sklaundere of your pryorye”[998].

[Pg 321]But such injunctions were not easily enforced, and the politic bishops sometimes tried to reduce rather than to abolish the households and private rooms. It was often necessary—and indeed reasonable—to recognise the three familiae of the abbess’ or prioress’ lodgings, the misericord or infirmary and the frater[999]. Sometimes the bishops tried to enforce the rule, laid down by the legate Ottobon (1268), to limit the number who dined at the superior’s table, viz. that at least two-thirds of the convent were to eat each day in the frater[1000]. At Godstow Bishop Gray, in 1432, allowed three households besides that of the frater[1001]. The condemnation of private rooms, and more especially of the reception of visitors therein, was more severe; but here too, it[Pg 322] was necessary in large convents for the obedientiaries to have their offices, and other individuals were sometimes given special permission to use separate camerae. Some bishops allowed them to sick nuns, but others enforced the use of the common infirmary[1002].

It has already been said that this approximation to private life was bound to bring with it an approximation to private property and it remains now to analyse the process by which these new methods of providing food, and even more effectively, new methods of providing clothes, resulted in a spread of proprietas, which was considered perfectly legitimate by the nuns and within limits condoned by the bishops. The impression left upon the mind by a study of monastic records during the last two centuries of the middle ages is that in many houses the rule of strict personal poverty was in practice almost completely abrogated, for it is quite obvious that the nuns had the private and individual disposal of money and goods. Indeed some convents seem almost like the inmates of a boarding house, each of whom receives lodging and a certain minimum of food from the house, but otherwise caters for herself out of her private income. This is a considerable departure from the rule of St Benedict, and it is worth while to analyse the sources from which the nuns drew the money and goods of which they disposed. These sources may be classified under five headings: (1) the annual allowance of pocket money (called peculium) which was allowed to each nun from the funds of the house and out of which she had to provide herself with clothes and other[Pg 323] necessities; (2) pittances in money; (3) gifts in money and kind from friends; (4) legacies; (5) the proceeds of their own labour.

(1) The practice of giving a peculium in money out of the common funds of the house to monks and nuns began at quite an early date (it is mentioned at the Council of Oxford in 1222) and was so much an established custom in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that to withhold it was considered by bishops a legitimate cause of complaint against superiors. The amount of the peculium varied at different houses. In the majority of cases it was intended to be used for clothes and its payment is sometimes entered in account rolls. At Gracedieu the nuns had “salaries” of 6s. 8d. a year each for their vesture and the careful treasuress enters all their names[1003]. At St Michael’s, Stamford, a chambress’ account, which has been preserved among the treasuress’ accounts, shows that in 1408-9 the prioress was paid 5s. for her “camise” and all the other eleven nuns 4s. each, while the two lay sisters had 3s. each[1004]. Similarly at St Radegund’s, Cambridge, a certain pension from St Clement’s Church was ear-marked for the clothing of the nuns and was paid over directly to them[1005]; and the Prioress of Catesby in 1414-5 includes under “customary payments” money paid “to the lady Prioress and her six nuns and to one sister and her three brethren by the year for clothing”[1006]. The fact that the peculium was a payment made from the common funds and not the privately owned income of an individual allowed it to escape the charge of proprietas, but it was nevertheless an obvious departure from the Benedictine rule, which forbade the individual disposal of property and made quite different arrangements for the provision of clothing.

(2) Another class of payments made to individuals from the convent funds was that of pittances. A pittance was originally an extra allowance of food and it was quite common for a benefactor to leave money to a convent for a pittance on the anniversary of his death. These pittances were, however, sometimes paid in money and most account rolls will provide examples of both. The nuns of Barking receive “Ruscheaw silver” as well[Pg 324] as the little pies called “risshowes” in Lent; the nuns of St Mary de Pré (St Albans) had “Maundy silver” as well as ale and wine on Maundy Thursday; the nuns of St Michael’s Stamford receive their pittances sometimes in money, sometimes in spices or pancakes, wine or beer. The nuns of Romsey had a pittance of 6d. each on the feast of St Martin and another of 6d. each “when blood is let”[1007].

(3) The third source from which nuns obtained private possessions lay in the gifts, both in money and in kind bestowed upon them by their friends. It has already been shown, in Chapter I, that there was a growing tendency in the later middle ages for a nun to be supported by means of an annuity, paid by her relatives and often ending with her life. The fact that these annuities were ear-marked for the support of individuals must have increased the temptation to regard them as the property of those individuals, a temptation which was not present in the old days when an aristocratic nun brought with her a grant of land to the house. One is tempted to conjecture that individuals occasionally retained in their own hands the expenditure of part at least of their annuities. Specific information from English sources is unfortunately rare; but in the diocese of Rouen in the middle of the thirteenth century Archbishop Eudes Rigaud sometimes found it necessary to enjoin that certain nuns who possessed rents which were reserved for their own use, should either transfer them to the common funds, or else dispose of them only with the consent of the prioress, a significant modification, which suggests that he was unable to eradicate a deeply rooted custom, although it was strictly against the rule[1008]. It was some twenty years later (c. 1277) that Bishop Thomas of Cantilupe, writing to the nuns of Lymbrook, enjoined:

Let none of you keep in her own hand any possession or rent for clothing and shoeing herself, even with the consent of the prioress, albeit such possession or rent may be given to her by parents or friends, because the goods of your community suffice not thereto; but let it be given up wholly to your prioress, that out of it she may[Pg 325] minister to those to whom the gift was made, according to their needs; otherwise they may easily fall into the sin of property and a secular craving for gifts, thus rashly violating their vow[1009].

There are also occasional references to “poor” nuns, without such annuities or dress-allowances, which suggest that the annuitants had personal disposal of their own money. Thus John Heyden, esq., in 1480, bequeaths “to every nun in Norfolk not having an annuity 40d”[1010], and Bishop Gray in 1432 refers to “a certain chest within the monastery [of Godstow] for the relief of needy nuns,” to which the sum of a hundred shillings was to be restored[1011].

But whether or not nuns were in the habit of retaining in their own possession regular annuities, it is plain that they did so retain the various gifts in kind and in money, brought to them from time to time by their friends; and, judging from the constant references in the visitation reports, these presents must have been fairly numerous. They varied from the gifts, rewards, letters, tokens and skins of wine, which the gatekeeper of Godstow smuggled in to the nuns from the scholars of Oxford, to the more sober presents of money, clothes and food given to them by fond relatives for their relief “as in hire habyte and sustenaunce.”

(4) One kind of gift deserves, however, a more careful consideration, for the preservation of many thousands of medieval wills allows us to speak in detail of legacies to individual nuns, which occur sometimes in company with legacies to the whole community, sometimes alone. These bequests took many different forms. Sometimes a father leaves an annuity for the support of his daughter in her convent[1012]. More frequently a nun becomes the recipient of a lump sum of money and from the wording of the legacies it is perfectly clear that these sums are to be delivered into her own hands for her own use. Let us, for instance, analyse the legacies left by Sir John Depeden, a northern knight who was a good friend to poor nuns. He first of all leaves twenty shillings each to the following twelve[Pg 326] nunneries, that they may pray for his soul and his wife’s: Esholt, Arthington, Wilberfoss, Thicket, Moxby, Kirklees, Yedingham, Clementhorpe, Hampole, Keldholme, Marrick (all in Yorkshire) and Burnham (in Buckinghamshire). He then continues:

And I give and bequeath to dame Joan Waleys, nun of Watton, to her own use (ad usum suum proprium), 40s. And I give and bequeath to dame Margaret Depeden, nun of Barking, to her own use, 5 marks and one salt cellar of silver. And I give and bequeath to Elizabeth, daughter of John FitzRichard, nun of Appleton, to her own use, 40s.;

moreover he leaves to the Prioress of the last mentioned house 6s. 8d. and to each nun there 2s.[1013] There is an obvious distinction here between the lump sums left to the common funds of the twelve nunneries grouped together and the gifts to individuals which follow. It is moreover quite common for a testator, who wishes to give money in charity to a whole house (as distinct from one who makes a bequest to a relative or friend therein), to distinguish the amounts to be paid to the prioress and to each of the nuns. Thus John Brompton, merchant of Beverley (n.d., c. 1441-4) while leaving a lump sum of 20s. to the nuns of Watton “for a pittance,” 10s. to the nuns of Nunkeeling and 5s. to the nuns of Burnham, thus provides for all the inmates of Swine:

Item I bequeath to the Prioress of Swine, 3s. 4d., and to each nun of the said house 2s., and to the vicar there 3s. 4d. and to each chaplain there celebrating divine service in the churches of the said town 12d., item to Hamond, servant there 12d., and to each woman serving the aforesaid nuns within the aforesaid abbey, 6d.[1014]

Thus also James Myssenden of Great Limber (1529) distinguishes between the convent and the individual nuns of Nuncoton: “To the monastery of Cotton, 3l. 6s 8d, to Dame Johan Thomson, prioress of the same 40s, to Dame Margaret Johnson 6s 8d, to Dame Elynor Hylyarde 6s 8d, to every other nun of the convent 12d”; and Dame Jane Armstrong, vowess, of Corby, in the same year leaves the nuns of Sempringham 6s. 8d., “of which Dame Agnes Rudd is to have 40d”[1015]. Similar instances may be multiplied from any collection of wills[1016].

[Pg 327]Moreover it seems plain that the money thus willed was actually paid over to individuals by their convent. The account roll of the treasuress of St Radegund’s Cambridge, in 1449-50, contains an item:

And to Dame Alice Patryk lately dead in full payment of all debts 3s. 4d. from the legacy of Peter Erle, chaplain, lately deceased. And to Dame Joan Lancaster in part payment of 6s. 8d. bequeathed to her by the aforesaid Peter 3s. 4d., and to Dame Agnes Swaffham, subprioress, in part payment of 6s. 8d., 20d.[1017]

But it was not only money which was bequeathed to nuns. They often received quite considerable legacies of jewels and plate, robes and furniture. What would we not give today to look for a moment at the beautiful things which Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham, left to his sister Joan, the Prioress of Swine, in 1404?

Item, one large gilded cup, with a cover and a round foot, and in the bottom a chaplet of white and red roses and a hind carven in the midst and all round the outside carven with eagles, lions, crowns and other ingenious devices (babonibus), and in the pommel a nest and three men standing and taking the chicks from the nest, of the weight of 18 marks.... Item a robe of murrey cloth of Ypres (? yp’n) containing a mantle and hood furred with budge (? purg’), another hood furred with ermine, a cloak furred with half vair, a long robe (garnach’) furred with vair.... Item one bed of tapestry work of a white field, with a stag standing under a great tree and on either side lilies and a red border, with the complete tester and three curtains of white boulter[1018].

In the same year Anne St Quintin left the same noble lady “one silken quilt and one pair of sheets of cloth of Rennes”[1019]. Eleven years earlier Sir John Fairfax, rector of Prescot, had left his sister Margaret Fairfax, Prioress of Nunmonkton (of whom we have already heard much that was not to her good):

one silver gilt cup with a cover, and one silver cup with a cover, one mazer with a cover of silver gilt, one pix of silver for spices, six silver[Pg 328] spoons, one cloak of black cloth furred with gray, one round silver basin and ten marks of silver[1020].

Master John de Wodhouse in 1345 leaves Dame Alice Conyers, nun of Nunappleton, “fifteen marks [and] a long chest standing against my bed at York, one maser cup with an image of St Michael in the bottom and one cup of silver, which I had of her gift, with a hand in the bottom holding a falcon”[1021], and Isabella, widow of Thomas Corp, a London pepperer, in 1356, leaves

to Margaret, sister of William Heyroun, vintner, nun at Barking, a silver plated cup with covercle, twelve silver spoons, two cups of mazer and a silver enamelled pix, together with three gold rings, with emerald, sapphire and diamond respectively and divers household goods[1022].

Possibly some of these splendid pieces of plate found their way to the altar, and the cups and spoons to the frater of the house, but the nuns undoubtedly sometimes kept them for private use in their own camerae. Here also were kept the beds, such as that splendid one left by Bishop Skirlaw to his sister, the “bed of Norfolk” which Sir Robert de Roos left to his daughter Joan (1392)[1023], the “bed of worstede with sheets, which she kindly gave me,” left by William Felawe, clerk, to Katherine Slo, Prioress of Shaftesbury (1411)[1024]. Doubtless Juliana de[Pg 329] Crofton, nun of Hampole, knew what use to make of “six shillings and eightpence and a cloak lined with blue and two tablets and one saddle with a bridle and two leather bowls”[1025]; here at one gift was the wherewithal for writing a letter to announce a visit and for paying that visit on horseback, in gay and unconventual attire. Indeed the constant legacies of clothes to nuns go far to explain where it was that they obtained those cheerful secular garments, against which their bishops waged war in vain. In days when clothes were made of heavy and valuable stuffs and richly adorned, it was a very common custom for a woman to divide up her wardrobe between different legatees, and men also handed on their best garments. When in 1397 Margaret Fairfax is found using “divers furs and even gray fur (gris)”[1026], one remembers, with a sudden flash of comprehension, the “cloak of black cloth furred with gray” which her brother left her four years earlier. What did Elizabeth de Newemarche, nun, do with the mantle of brounemelly left her by Lady Isabel Fitzwilliam?[1027] What did Sir William Bonevyll’s sister at Wherwell do with “his best hoppelond with the fur”?[1028] What above all did the Prioress of Swine do with all those costly fur trimmings left her by the Bishop of Durham? Yorkshire nunneries were apt to be undisciplined and worldly; great ladies there, if Archbishop Melton is to be believed, sometimes considered that they might dress according to their rank[1029]. We may safely guess that the Prioress of Swine, like her contemporary at Nunmonkton, wore the furs; and visitation records do not lead us to suppose that other nuns sold their blue-lined cloaks and houppelonds for the sake of their convents, or bestowed them on the poor.

It is a common injunction that nuns are to wear no other ring than that which, at their consecration, made them brides[Pg 330] of Christ[1030]; but the rule was often disobeyed and Dame Clemence Medforde’s “golden rings exceeding costly with divers precious stones”[1031] are explained when we remember the “three gold rings, one having a sapphire, another an emerald and the third a diamond” which the rich pepperer’s widow left to Dame Margaret Heyroun[1032]. Madame Eglentyne herself may have owed to one of the many friends, who held her digne of reverence, her “peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,” of small coral. When Sir Thomas Cumberworth died in 1451 he ordered that “the prioris of Coton, of Irford, of Legburn and of Grenefeld have Ilkon of yam a pare bedys of corall, as far as that I have may laste, and after yiff yam gette [give them jet] bedes”[1033], and so also Matilda Latymer left her daughter at Buckland a set of “Bedys de corall”[1034] and Margerie de Crioll left a nun of Shaftesbury “my paternoster of coral and white pearls, which the Countess of Pembroke gave me”[1035].

(5) The fifth and last source from which nuns could derive a private income was by the work of their own hands and brains. It has been stated above that very little is known about the sale of fine needlework by nuns, but a very interesting case at Easebourne seems to show that they sometimes considered themselves entitled to retain for their own private use the sums which they earned. In 1441 one of the complaints against the gay prioress was that she “compels her sisters to work continually like hired workwomen, and they receive nothing whatever for their own use from their work, but the prioress[Pg 331] takes the whole profit.” The bishop’s injunction is extremely significant:

the prioress shall by no means compel her sisters to continual work of their hands and if they should wish of their own accord to work, they shall be free to do so, but yet so that they may reserve for themselves the half part of what they gain by their hands; the other part shall be converted to the advantage of the house and unburdening it from debt[1036].

In fine, the Bishop is obliged to acquiesce in a serious breach of the Benedictine rule: the plea of the nuns to commit the sin of proprietas is considered as a reasonable demand; and the compromise that half their earnings should go to the common fund is intended rather to check the prioress than the nuns. From the injunctions of other bishops it would appear that the private boarders and private pupils taken by individual nuns sometimes paid their fees to those individuals and not to the house[1037]; the “household” system made the reception of such boarders easy.

From whatever source nuns obtained control of money and goods, whether from the peculium, from gifts, from legacies, or from the proceeds of their own labour, one thing is clear: in a fourteenth or fifteenth century house, where the system of the peculium and the familia obtained, there was a considerable approximation to private life and to private property. The control of money and goods and the division into households, catering separately for themselves, worked in together. The responsibility of the convent towards its members was sometimes limited to a bare minimum of food, such as the staple bread and beer, and perhaps a small dress allowance. All the rest was provided by the nuns themselves. In strict theory annuities, gifts and legacies, were put into common stock and administered by the convent. In practice they were obviously retained in individual possession and administered as private property by the nuns. Even legacies of lump sums to a whole convent were probably divided up between the nuns, an equal sum being paid to each and perhaps double to the prioress.

An analysis of the conditions revealed at Alnwick’s visitation of the Lincoln diocese in 1440-5 throws an exceedingly[Pg 332] interesting side-light, not only on the vow of monastic poverty, as understood in the fifteenth century, but also on the domestic economy of the houses, the majority of which were small and poor. It may also conveniently be compared with the evidence given by the same visitations as to the system of familiae in these houses. At some the house supplied all food and clothes or a peculium for clothes, at some it provided only a bare minimum of food, at some neither dress nor dress allowance was provided. At Legbourne

every nun has one loaf, one half gallon of beer a day, one pig a year, 18d. for beef, every day in Advent and Lent two herrings, and a little butter in summer and sometimes two stone of cheese a year and 8d. a year for raiment and no more;

the sum of 2s. 2d. a year for beef and clothes was certainly not excessive[1038]. At Stixwould

every nun receives in the year one pig, one sheep, a quarter of beef, two stones of butter, three stones of cheese, every day in Advent and Lent three herrings, six salt fish and twelve doughcakes a year; and they were wont to have 6s. 8d. for their raiment, but for several years back (one nun said for twenty years) as regards raiment they have received nothing.

At St Michael’s Stamford, the house provided only “bread and beer and a mark for fish and flesh and other things and as to their raiment they receive naught of the house”; out of the mark the nuns catered for themselves. Other houses provided still less out of the common funds; at Gokewell the nuns received nothing from the house but bread and beer and at Markyate (a poor house, of not unblemished reputation and badly in debt) “they receive of the house only bread, beer and two marks for their raiment and what else is necessary for their living, which are less than enough for their sundry needful wants”; Alnwick ordered all victuals to be given them “of the commune stores of the house owte of one selare and one kytchyne” and fixed the dress allowance at a noble yearly, but he did not say how the house was to raise funds. At Nuncoton the allowance was[Pg 333] 8s. a year, but when Alnwick came the nuns had received only 1s. each. At Fosse, Langley and Ankerwyke the houses provided meat and drink, but no dress or dress allowance; and at Catesby it was complained that “the prioress does not give the nuns satisfaction in the matter of their raiment and money for victuals and touching the premises the prioress is in the nuns’ debt for three-quarters of the year”[1039]. From these references it is plain that the nuns usually bought their own clothes and often catered for themselves in flesh food; also that the poverty of many houses was so great that the nuns could not have lived decently without the help of friends, whether because their dress allowances were always in arrears, or because the house recognised no responsibility to clothe them from its exiguous funds. Yet as regards food at least, the habit of catering separately for separate messes was undoubtedly less economical than the regular maintenance of a common table would have been.

A highly interesting light on the control of money allowances for the purchase of food by the individual nuns of a convent is thrown by convent account rolls. These accounts show two different methods of catering in force. In one all the housekeeping was done by the cellaress, who bought such stores as were needed to supplement the produce of the home farm and provided the nuns with the whole of their food. This is the normal method, which accords with the Rule; it is to be found in the Syon cellaresses’ rolls and in the roll of Elizabeth Swynford, Prioress of Catesby (1414-15). The latter sets forth: (1) the produce of the home farm, how many animals were delivered to the larder, how many to the kitchen, how much grain was malted, etc.; (2) the payments for food bought to supplement this home produce:

in flesh and eggs bought from the feast of St Michael until Lent 33/0½, and in expenses of the house from Easter unto the feast of St Michael in beef and eggs bought, £7. 1. 9., ... in 2 barrels 4 kemps of oil and salt fish bought in time of Lent £3. 0. 6,

besides sundry odd purchases of red herrings, pepper, saffron, salt, garlic and fat[1040].

[Pg 334]But some account rolls show an entirely different method of housekeeping. By this the convent provided the nuns with their daily ration of bread and beer and perhaps with a certain amount of green food and dairy produce, but paid them an allowance of money with which to buy their meat and fish food for themselves. On this system the convent still had to provide the nuns with their pittances, though often enough these too were paid in money, and usually also with the bulk of their Lenten fare of salt fish and spices, which was bought in large quantities at a time and stored. An extreme example of this system is found in the account of Christian Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de Pré (St Albans) in 1486-8. Under the heading Comyns, Pytances and Partycions she pays to herself as prioress:

for her comyns for xxj monethes ... vj l. viij s iiij d. ... Item paid to dame Alice Wafyr for her comyns for xxj monethes ... vj l. viij s iiij d. ... Item paid to vij susters of the same place for their comons for xxj monethis ... xxj li. vj s viij d. Item paid to dame Johan Knollys for her comyns for v monethis xvj s viij d. ... Item paid for brede and ale and fewell departyd amongs the susters by a yere and a half lij s. Item paid for ij bushell of pesyn departyd amongs the susters in Lente xvj d.

The rest of the section contains notices of special pittances, paid sometimes in money and sometimes in kind; for instance 10s. 6d. is paid for “Maundy Ale” and 10d. for wine on two Maundy Thursdays, but the sisters also get “Maundy money” amounting to 21d. One interesting item runs: “delyvered of the rente in Cambrigge amongs the susters for the tyme of this accompte xlviij s”; these rents, which are entered among the receipts, were no doubt ear-marked for the nuns, possibly as peculia for the purchase of clothes, possibly as a pittance[1041]. The same system of housekeeping was obviously also in vogue at St Michael’s, Stamford, at the time of Alnwick’s visitation; but the account rolls of this house are not easy to interpret, because although they contain no reference to catering, other than certain pittances and feasts on Maundy Thursday and other festal occasions, neither do they contain any reference to commons money. No separate cellaress’ accounts have survived to throw any further[Pg 335] light upon the subject. At Elstow Abbey some years later the practice of paying “commons” money was well established[1042].

It is tempting to conjecture what considerations may have prevailed to make some houses substitute money grants for the provision of food in kind. The tendency certainly grew with the custom of forming familiae which messed separately and it certainly increased with time. Even at Catesby, which we saw to be a typical example of communal housekeeping in 1414-5, it seems to have become customary to give money for some at least of the victuals in 1442. The tendency also grew with poverty, as appears from Alnwick’s visitations, though it is not clear whence the nuns obtained the wherewithal to feed themselves adequately, unless they had the use of extra funds of their own. It may also be conjectured that the system would be easier to work in a town than in the depths of the country. In a town the nuns could buy in the open market, and it was as easy for individuals to buy in small quantities as for the cellaress to buy wholesale. In the country, however, the convent would not only be more dependent on the home farm, but such purchases as had to be made at occasional fairs and weekly markets could more easily be made in bulk, a consideration which also accounts for the fact that the barrels and cades of salt fish for Lent were usually laid in wholesale by the cellaress. Moreover it would often be convenient for a town house to lease out the greater number of its demesnes and to depend upon what it could purchase for its daily fare. St Mary de Pré is particularly interesting in this respect; the 1486-8 account shows no sign of any home farm; the income of the house is derived almost entirely from “rents of assise and rents farm” within the town of St Albans and in other places and from tithes, and the proportion of farms or leases is noticeably large. Even the bread and beer distributed among the sisters did not come from a home farm; it was bought with 52s. received from the Abbot of St Albans for that purpose; the kitchener of the parent abbey[Pg 336] similarly provided the nuns with 12s., “for potage money departyd amongs the susters for a yere,” and at the forester’s office they received 8s. for their fuel.

Occasional references show what a variety of household charges the nuns sometimes had to bear out of their peculia, and the other sources of their private income. At Campsey in 1532, for instance,

the subprioress says that the prioress will not allow her servants to go out upon the necessary errands of the nuns, but they hire outsiders at their own cost and Dame Isabella Norwiche says that sick nuns in the time of their sickness bear the cost of what is needful to them and it is not provided at the charge of the house[1043].

At Sheppey also, in 1511, there was no infirmary and when ill the nuns had to hire women for themselves and pay for them out of their own money[1044]. At Langley in 1440 Alnwick ordered that each nun should have yearly a cartload of fuel, cut at the cost of the house, but carried at the cost of the nuns[1045]. At Wherwell there was a custom by which, on the first occasion that a nun took her turn in reading from the pulpit, a certain sum of money or a pittance was exacted from her for the benefit of the convent, a custom forbidden by Bishop John of Pontoise in 1302[1046]; and there is mention of another pittance in 1311, when Bishop Woodlock ordered that for digging the grave and preparing the coffin of a nun who had died and for pittances to the sisters on the day of her burial, the goods of the deceased nun should not be expended, because she ought not to have private property, but the common goods of the church were to be spent; which seems like locking the stable door after the horse has gone[1047].

It is interesting to trace the attitude of ecclesiastic authorities to these various manifestations of proprietas. The bishops found some difficulty in persuading nuns, accustomed to expend money for themselves and to dine in familiae in separate rooms, accustomed also to receive gifts and legacies in money and kind, that they must hold all things in common. At Arthington, in 1307, two nuns, Agnes de Screvyn (who had resigned the post[Pg 337] of Prioress in 1303) and Isabella Couvel, asserted that certain animals and goods belonging to the priory were their private property and Archbishop Greenfield bids the Prioress admonish them to resign these within three days “to lawful and honest uses,” according to her judgment[1048]. Similarly Bishop Bokyngham writes to Heynings in 1392:

We order that cows, sows, capons, hens and all animals of any kind soever, together with wild or tame birds, which are held by certain of the nuns (whether with or without licence) ... shall be delivered up to the common use of the convent within three days, without the alienation or subtraction of any of them[1049].

In the light of these passages it is interesting to find that cows and pigs are among the legacies sometimes left to nuns[1050]. At Nuncoton, in 1440, where certain nuns were in the habit of wandering in their gardens and gathering herbs instead of attending Compline,

Dame Alice Aunselle prays that they may all live in common and that no nun may have anything, such as cups and the like, as her own; but that if any such there be, they be kept in common by their common servant and that they may not have houses or separate gardens appointed, as it were, to them[1051],

which illustrates how easily the household system slid into proprietas. It was sometimes even necessary to forbid nuns to make wills and bequeath their property. This was forbidden by the Council of Oxford in 1222[1052] and in 1387 William of Wykeham sent a stern injunction to the nuns of Romsey, pointing out that by making wills they were falling into the sin of property[1053].[Pg 338] In 1394, on the death of Joan Furmage, Abbess of Shaftesbury,

the bishop ordered the Abbey to be sequestrated and annulled the will by which she had alienated the goods of the house in bequests to friends, declaring such a disposition to be injurious to the community and contrary to the usage of religious women[1054].

The history of the attitude of ecclesiastical authorities to two sources of private income, the peculium and the gifts from friends to individuals, is of even greater significance than these attempts to cope with private goods, for it shows how powerless the bishops were against the steady weakening of discipline in monastic houses. Here, as in the enclosure struggle and the struggle against familiae, they were forced into compromise at best and at worst into acquiescence. At its first appearance the custom of giving a peculium to individuals was severely condemned as a manifest breach of the rule:

“Moneys shall not be assigned to each separately for clothes,” says the Council of Oxford in 1222, “But such shall be diligently attended to by certain persons deputed to this purpose, chamberers or chambresses, who according to the need of each and the resources of the house, shall minister garments to them.... Also it shall not be lawful for the chamberer or chambress to give to any monk, canon or nun, monies or anything else for clothes, nor shall it be lawful for monk, canon or nun to receive anything; otherwise let the chamberer be deposed from office and the monk, canon or nun go without new clothes for that year”[1055].

Similarly, in the Constitutions of the legate Ottobon in 1268, the peculium is grouped with other forms of property; ch. XL enacts that no religious is to possess property and that the head of the house is to make diligent search for such property twice a year[1056], and ch. XLI enacts that no money is to be given to a religious for clothes, shoes and other necessities, but he is to be[Pg 339] given the article itself[1057]. In 1438 a severe injunction from Bishop Spofford of Hereford to the nuns of Aconbury shows the close connection between the peculium and the private camera of the nuns[1058]. Yet in 1380 we find a bishop of Salisbury assigning a weekly allowance of 2d. to each nun of Shaftesbury from the issues of the house[1059]; and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries nuns regularly complain to their visitors when their allowances are in arrears and the bishops regularly ordain that the money is to be paid[1060]. In the thirteenth century it is a fault in the Prioress to give the nuns a peculium; in the fifteenth century it is a fault to withhold it.

The custom as to presents from friends was that the nuns might receive gifts, only by the permission of their superior, to whom everything must be shown[1061]. Thus Archbishop Wickwane writes to Nunappleton in 1281: “that no nun shall appropriate to herself any gift, garment or shoes of the gift of anyone, without the consent and assignment of the prioress”[1062]; Archbishop Greenfield in 1315 forbids the nuns of Rosedale to accept or give any presents without the consent of the Prioress[1063]; and Archbishop Bowet in 1411 enacts that any nun of Hampole receiving gifts or legacies from friends is at once on returning to reveal them to the Prioress[1064]. Occasionally a Prioress, whether out of zeal for the Rule or for some other reason, showed herself unwilling to allow the nuns to receive presents. The nuns of[Pg 340] Flixton in 1514 complained: “that they receive no annual pensions and that the prioress is angry when anything is given to them by their friends”[1065] and Alnwick in 1441 wrote to the Prioress of Ankerwyke, whose nuns complained both of insufficient clothes and of her bad temper when their friends came to see them,

And what euer thise saide frendes wyll gyfe your sustres in relefe of thaym as in hire habyte and sustenaunce, ye suffre your sustres to take hit, so that no abuse of euel come therbye noyther to the place ne to the persones therof[1066].

It was indeed almost a necessity to encourage the reception of presents, when (as so often happened towards the close of the middle ages) nuns were dependent for clothes upon their friends. But with Bishop Praty ordering that the nuns of Easebourne shall receive half the sums paid them for their work, and with Bishop Alnwick encouraging presents and enforcing the payment of peculia, it is plain that the Lady Poverty had fallen upon evil days.



[Pg 341]



De sorte qu’une Religieuse hors de sa clôture est comme une pierre hors de son centre; comme un arbre hors de terre; comme Adam et Eve hors du Paradis terrestre; comme le corbeau hors de l’arche qui ne s’arreste qu’à des charognes; comme un poisson hors de l’eau, selon le grand Saint Antoine et Saint Bernard; comme une brebis hors de sa bergerie et en danger d’estre devorée des loups, selon Saint Theodore Studite; comme un oiseau hors de son nid et une grenouille hors de son marais, selon le même Saint Bernard; comme un mort hors de son tombeau, qui infecte les personnes qui s’en approchent, selon Pierre le Vénérable et la Règle attribuée à Saint Jérôme; et par consequent dans un état tout à fait opposé à la vie Régulière qu’elle a embrassée.

J. B. Thiers (1681).


The famous chapter LXVI of the Benedictine Rule enunciated the principle that the professed monk should remain within the precincts of his cloister and eschew all wandering in the world[1067]. It is clear, however, that the Rule allowed a certain latitude and that monks and nuns were to be allowed to leave their houses under certain conditions and for necessary causes. Brethren working at a distance or going on a journey may be excused attendance at the divine office, if they cannot reach the church in time[1068]. Brethren sent upon an errand are forbidden to accept invitations to eat outside the house without the consent of their superior[1069]. Moreover longer journeys are plainly contemplated, in which they might have to spend a night or more outside their monastery[1070]. But no one might ever leave the cloister bounds[Pg 342] without the permission of the superior; and it was the obvious intention of St Benedict to reduce to a minimum all wandering in the world. Strictly speaking this system of enclosure applied equally to monks and to nuns; but from the earliest times it was considered to be a more vital necessity for the well being of the latter; and the history of the enclosure movement is in effect the history of an effort to add a fourth vow of claustration to the three cardinal vows of the nun[1071]. The reasons for this severity are sufficiently obvious, and show that curious contradiction of ideas which is so common in all general theories about women. On the one hand the immense importance attached by the medieval Church to the state of virginity, exemplified in St John Chrysostom’s remarks that Christian virgins are as far above the rest of mankind as are the angels, made it all important that this priceless jewel should not be exposed to danger in a wicked world[1072]. On the other hand the medieval contempt for the fragility of women led to a cynical conviction that only when they were shut up behind the high walls of the cloister was it possible to guarantee their virtue; aut virum aut murum oportet mulierem habere[1073]. Both views received support from the [Pg 343]deep-rooted idea as old as the Greeks and an unconscionable time in dying, that “a free woman should be bounded by the street door”[1074]. Medieval moralists were generally agreed that intercourse with the world was at the root of all those evils which dimmed the fair fame of the conventual system, by affording a constant temptation to frivolity and to grosser misconduct. Moreover the tongue of scandal was always busy and the nun’s reputation was safe only if she could be placed beyond reproach. Hence those regulations which Mr Coulton compares to “the minutely ingenious and degrading precautions of an oriental harem”[1075].

Based upon such considerations as these, the movement for the enclosure of nuns began very early in their history and continued with unabated vigour long after the Reformation[1076]. Some years before the compilation of the Benedictine Rule St Caesarius of Arles, in his Rule for nuns, had forbidden them ever to leave their monastery; and from the sixth to the eleventh century decrees were passed from time to time by various provincial councils, advocating a stricter enclosure of monks and nuns, but especially of the latter. Already by the twelfth century monasticism had declined from its first fervour, and it is significant that the reformed orders which sprang up during the great renaissance of that century all made a special effort to enforce enclosure upon their nuns. The nuns of Prémontré and Fontevrault were strictly enclosed and in the middle of the following[Pg 344] century the statutes promulgated by the Chapter-General of the Cistercian Order (1256-7) contain a clause ordering nuns to remain in their convents, except under certain specified conditions, while the rule given by Urban IV to the Franciscan nuns (1263) went further than any previous enactments in binding them by a vow of perpetual enclosure, against which no plea of necessity might avail. Various synods and councils continued to repeat the order that nuns were not to leave their houses, except for a reasonable cause, but it is plain from the evidence of ecclesiastics, moralists and episcopal visitations that the nuns all over Europe paid small heed to their words. Finally, at the beginning of the new century, came the first general regulation on the subject which was binding as a law upon the whole church, the famous Bull Periculoso, promulgated by Boniface VIII about the year 1299.

This decree, often afterwards confirmed by Popes and Councils, remained the standard regulation upon the subject and in view of its cardinal importance its terms are worthy of notice:

Desiring to provide for the perilous and detestable state of certain nuns, who, having slackened the reins of decency and having shamelessly cast aside the modesty of their order and of their sex, sometimes gad about outside their monasteries in the dwellings of secular persons, and frequently admit suspected persons within the same monasteries, to the grave offence of Him to Whom they have, of their own will, vowed their innocence, to the opprobrium of religion and to the scandal of very many persons; we by the present constitution, which shall be irrefragably valid, decree with healthful intent that all and sundry nuns, present and future, to whatever order they belong and in whatever part of the world, shall henceforth remain perpetually enclosed within their monasteries; so that no nun tacitly or expressly professed in religion shall henceforth have or be able to have the power of going out of those monasteries for whatsoever reason or cause, unless perchance any be found manifestly suffering from a disease so great and of such a nature that she cannot, without grave danger or scandal, live together with others; and to no dishonest or even honest person shall entry or access be given by them, unless for a reasonable and manifest cause and by a special licence from the person to whom [the granting of such a licence] pertains; that so, altogether withdrawn from public and mundane sights, they may serve God more freely and, all opportunity for wantonness being removed, they may more diligently preserve for Him in all holiness their souls and their bodies.

[Pg 345]The Bull further, in order to avoid any excuse for wandering abroad in search of alms, forbids the reception into any non-mendicant order of more sisters than can be supported without penury by the goods of the house; and, in order to prevent nuns being forced to attend lawcourts in person, requires all secular and ecclesiastical authorities to allow them to plead by proctors in their courts; but if an Abbess or Prioress has to do personal homage to a secular lord for any fief and it cannot be done by a proctor, she may leave her house with honest and fit companions and do the homage, returning home immediately. Finally Ordinaries are enjoined to take order as soon as may be for proper enclosure where there is none to provide that it is strictly kept according to the terms of the decree, and to see that all is completed by Ash Wednesday, notifying any reasonable impediment within eight days of Candlemas[1077].

For the next three centuries Councils and Bishops struggled manfully to put into force the Bull Periculoso, but without success; the constant repetition of the order that nuns should not leave their convents is the measure of its failure. In the various reformed orders, which were founded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the insistence upon enclosure bears witness to the importance which was attached to it as a vital condition of reform: Boniface IX’s ordinances for the Dominicans (1402), St Francis of Paula’s rule for his order in Calabria (1435), the rule of the Order of the Annunciation, founded by Jeanne, daughter of Louis XI, at the close of the fifteenth century, Johann Busch’s reforms in Saxony, the reformed rules given by Étienne Poncher, Bishop of Paris, to the nuns of Chelles, Montmartre and Malnouë (1506) and by Geoffrey de Saint Belin, Bishop of Poitiers, to the nuns of the Holy Cross, Poitiers (1511), all insist upon strict enclosure[1078]. Similarly a long list might be drawn up of general and provincial councils and synods which repeated the ordinance, culminating in the great general Council of Trent, which renewed the decree Periculoso and was itself[Pg 346] followed by another long series of provincial councils, which endeavoured to put its decree into force. But these efforts were still attended by very imperfect success, for the worldly nuns of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries chafed at the irksome restriction no less than did their predecessors of the middle ages. When, in 1681, Jean-Baptiste Thiers published his treatise on the enclosure of nuns he announced his reason to be that no point of ecclesiastical discipline was in his day more completely neglected and ignored[1079].

This brief sketch of the enclosure movement in the Western Church is necessary to a right understanding of the special attempts which were made in England to keep the nuns in their cloisters by means of an absolute enforcement of the Benedictine Rule. Visitatorial injunctions on this subject during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and up to the Reformation were based upon three enactments: the constitutions of the legate Ottobon in 1268, the vigorous reforms of Archbishop Peckham (1279-92) and the Bull Periculoso. The Cardinal Legate Ottobon had come to England in 1265, on the restoration of Henry III after Evesham, with the purpose of punishing bishops and clergy who had supported the party of Simon de Montfort and the barons. When peace was finally signed in 1267, largely by his intervention, he was able to turn his attention to general abuses prevalent in the English church and one of the reforms which he attempted to enforce was the stricter enclosure of nuns. Chapter LII of his Constitutions [Quod moniales a certis locis non exeant] is an amplification of the Benedictine rule of enclosure, made far more rigid and severe. “Lest by repeated intercourse with secular folk the quiet and contemplation of the nuns should be troubled,” minute regulations were laid down as to their movements. They were allowed to enter their chapel, chapter,[Pg 347] dorter and frater at due and fixed times; otherwise they were to remain in the cloister; and none of these places were to be entered by seculars, save very seldom and for some sufficient reason. No nun was to converse with any man, except seriously and in a public place, and at least one other nun was always to be present at such conversations. No nun was to have a meal outside the house except with the permission of the superior and then only with a relative, or some person from whose company no suspicion could arise. All other places, beyond those specified, were entirely forbidden to the nuns, with the exception, in certain circumstances, of the infirmary. No nun was to go to the different offices, except the obedientiaries, whose duties rendered it necessary and they were never to go without a companion. The Abbess or head of the house was never to leave it, except for its evident advantage or for urgent necessity, and she was always to have an honest companion, while the lesser nuns were never to be given licence to go out, except for some fit cause and in company with another nun. Finally nuns were not to leave their convents for public processions, but were to hold their processions within the precincts of their own houses. The legate strictly enjoined that “the prelates to whose jurisdiction belonged the visitation of each nunnery should cause these statutes to be observed”[1080].

It will be realised that these injunctions were exceedingly severe and that the visitors were not likely to find their task a sinecure. There is little evidence for determining how far any serious attempt was made to enforce the legate’s Constitutions[1081], but if we may judge from the language of Peckham, some ten years later, any attempts which may have been made had not been strikingly successful. One of the first actions of this energetic archbishop on his elevation to the see of Canterbury was to carry out a visitation of the nunneries of Barking and[Pg 348] Godstow and to send to both houses injunctions laying great stress on strict enclosure (1279). In 1281 he followed up these injunctions by two general decrees for the enclosure of nuns; and in 1284 he visited the three nunneries of Romsey, Holy Sepulchre (Canterbury) and Usk and sent injunctions enforcing the Constitutions of 1281[1082]. In these injunctions he laid down with great exactness the conditions to be observed in granting nuns permission to leave their convents. The Godstow injunction runs thus:

For the purpose of obtaining a surer witness to chastity, we ordain that nuns shall not leave the precincts of the monastery, save for necessary business which cannot be performed by any other persons. Hence we condemn for ever, by these present [letters] those sojourns which were wont to be made in the houses of friends, for the sake of pleasure and of escaping from discipline [ad solatium et ad subterfugium disciplinae]. And when it shall befall any [nuns] to go out for any necessity, we strictly order these four [conditions] to be observed. First, that they be permitted to go out only in safe and mature company, as well of nuns as of secular persons helping them. Secondly that having at once performed their business, so far as it can be by them performed, they return to their house; and if the performance of the business demand a delay of several days, after the first or second day it shall be left to proctors to finish it. Thirdly that they never lodge in the precincts of men of religion or in the houses of clergy, or in other suspected habitations. Fourthly that no one absent herself from the sight of her companion or companions, in any place where human conversation might be held, nor listen to any secret whispering, except in the presence of the nuns her companions, unless perchance father or mother, brother or sister have something private to say to her[1083].

The Barking injunctions are slightly different and the first condition imposed therein is interesting: “That they be sent forth only for a necessary and inevitable cause, that is in particular the imminent death of a parent, beyond which cause we can hardly imagine any other which would be sufficient”[1084]. These injunctions are very severe, since they limit the occasions upon which a nun might leave her convent to the performance of some negotiation connected with the business of the house and[Pg 349] to attendance at the deathbeds of relatives and entirely forbid all visits for pleasure to the houses of friends.

In 1281 Peckham published a mandate directed against the seducers of nuns; after excommunicating all who committed or attempted to commit this crime and declaring that absolution for the sentence could be given only by a Bishop or by the Pope (except on the point of death), he proceeded to deal with the question of the enclosure of nuns, on the ground that their wandering in the world gave opportunity for such crimes, and sternly forbade them to pay visits for the sake of recreation, even to the closest relatives, or to remain out of their houses for more than two days on business[1085]. The same year he also dealt with the subject in the course of a set of constitutions, concerning various abuses, which he considered to be in need of reform. The language of the chapter in which he treats of the claustration of nuns is in parts the same as that of the ordinance against seducers, but it is less severe, for it enacts only that nuns shall not stay “more than three natural days for the sake of recreation, or more than six days for any necessary reason, save in case of illness.” Moreover the Archbishop adds: “we do not extend this ordinance to those who are obliged to beg necessities of life, while they are begging”[1086]. It was this modified version of his ordinance which he tried to impose in his visitation of 1284, for at Romsey he recognised that the nuns might be leaving the house for recreation and not merely upon[Pg 350] the business of the convent; the Abbess, for instance, is to take her three coadjutresses with her when she goes out on business, and two of them if she go causa solatii. At this house he forbade nuns to go out without a companion, or to stay for more than three days with seculars and condemned their practice of eating and drinking in the town: no nun, either on leaving or returning to the convent, was to enter any house in the town of Romsey, or to eat or drink there, and no cleric or secular man or woman was to give them any food outside the precincts[1087]. At St Sepulchre (Canterbury) Peckham regulated the visits of nuns to confessors outside the house, and at Usk he ordered that no nun was to go out without suitable companions, or to stay more than three or four days in the houses of secular persons[1088].

The next effort made in England to enforce enclosure upon nuns was the result of Boniface VIII’s Bull Periculoso. Bishops’ registers about the year 1300 sometimes contain copies of this severe enactment. One of the earliest efforts to carry it out was made by Simon of Ghent, Bishop of Salisbury, who on November 28th, 1299, issued a long letter to the Abbess of Wilton (obviously inserted in the register as a specimen of a circular sent to each nunnery in the diocese), embodying the text of the bull and ordering her to put it into force, and in 1303 he issued a mandate for the enclosure of the nuns of Shaftesbury, Wilton, Amesbury, Lacock, Tarrant Keynes and Kington[1089]. The Register of Godfrey Giffard, Bishop of Worcester, contains a note in the year 1300:

As to the shutting up of nuns. It is expedient that a letter of warning be sent according to the form of the constitution and directed to every house of nuns, that they do what is necessary for their inclusion and cause themselves to be enclosed this side the Gule of August.

The Bishop seems however from the beginning to have doubted his capacity to carry out the decree, for further on the register contains another note, “As to whether it is expedient to enclose the nuns of the diocese of Worcester”[1090]. An undated note of Inhibiciones facte monialibus de Werewell in the Register of John of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester, among other documents belonging to 1299-1300, is probably in part a result of Periculoso:

[Pg 351]We forbid on pain of excommunication any nun or sister to go outside the bounds of the monastery until we have made some ordinance concerning enclosure. Item let no one be received as nun or sister until we have enquired more fully into the resources of the house. Item we order the abbess to remove all secular women and to receive none henceforth as boarders in their house. Item let her permit no secular clerk or layman to enter the cloister to speak with the nuns[1091].

But the most detailed information as to the efforts of a conscientious bishop to enforce Boniface VIII’s decree in England is contained in the Register of Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln. Dalderby was a new broom in the diocese and he determined to sweep clean. On June 17th, 1300, he directed a mandate to the archdeacons of his diocese ordering each to associate with himself some other mature and honest man and to visit the religious houses in his own archdeaconry, explaining the terms of the new bull intelligibly to the nuns and ordering them to remain within their nunneries and to permit no one to enter the precincts contrary to the tenour of the decree, until the Bishop should be able to visit them in person; the heads of the houses were to be specially warned to carry out the decree and for better security a sealed copy of it was to be deposited in each house by the commissioners[1092].

In the course of the next two months Dalderby visited, either in person or by commissioners, Marlow, Burnham, Flamstead, Markyate, Elstow, Goring, Studley, Godstow, Delapré (Northampton) and Sewardsley[1093]. At each house the bull was carefully explained to the nuns in the vulgar tongue, they were ordered to obey it and a copy was left with them. But this campaign was not unattended with difficulties. The nuns were bitterly opposed to the restriction of a freedom to which they were accustomed and which they heartily enjoyed, and an entry in Dalderby’s Register, describing his visitation of Markyate, shows that even in the middle ages a bishop’s lot was not a happy one:

On July 3rd, in the first year [of his consecration], the Bishop visited the house of nuns of Markyate and on the following day he caused to be recited before the nuns of the same [house] in chapter the statute put forth by the lord Pope Boniface VIII concerning the enclosure[Pg 352] of nuns, explained it in the vulgar tongue and giving them a copy of the same statute under his seal, ordered them in virtue of obedience henceforth to observe it in the matter of enclosure and of all things contained in it, and especially to close all doors by which entrance is had into the inner places of their house and to permit no person, whether dishonest or honest, to enter in to them, without reasonable and manifest cause and licence from the person to whom [the granting of such a licence] pertains. Furthermore he specially enjoined the Prioress to observe the said statute in all its articles and to cause it to be observed by the others. But when the Bishop was going away, certain of the nuns, disobedient to these injunctions, hurled the said statute at his back and over his head, and as well the Prioress as the convent appeared to consent to those who threw it, following the bishop to the outer gate of the house and declaring unanimously that they were not content in any way to observe such a statute. On account of which, the Bishop, who was then directing his steps to Dunstable, returned the next day and having made inquisition as to the matters concerned in the said statute, imposed a penance on four nuns, whom he found guilty and on the whole convent for their consent, as is more fully contained in his letters of correction sent to the aforesaid house.

Afterwards he sent letters to the recalcitrant convent warning them for the third time (they had already been warned once by the Official of the Archdeacon of Bedford and a second time at the visitation which has just been described) to keep the new decree, on pain of the major excommunication, from which only the Pope could absolve them[1094].

There was opposition at other convents, too, though we hear of no more attacks on the episcopal shoulders. On August 19th Dalderby wrote as follows to Master Benedict de Feriby, rector of Broughton, Northants (a church in the presentation of the Abbess and Convent of Delapré):

It has come to our ears, by clamorous rumour, that some of the nuns of our diocese, spurning good obedience, slackening the reins of honesty and shamelessly casting aside the modesty of their sex, despise the papal statute concerning enclosure directed to them, as well as our injunctions made to them upon the subject, and frequent cities and other public places outside their monasteries, and mingle in the haunts of men;

he proceeded to order Feriby to visit nunneries wherever he considered it expedient to do so, and to punish those who were guilty of breaking the statute, signifying to the Bishop, by a[Pg 353] certain date, the names of all who had been accused of doing so, whether they had been found guilty or not[1095]. This mandate is no doubt in part explained by two other letters which he dispatched on the same day; one of them was directed to the Archdeacon of Northampton and set forth (in language which often repeats verbatim the phrases of the papal bull) that at the Bishop’s recent visitation of Delapré (Northampton) he had found three nuns in apostasy, having cast off their habits after being a long time professed, and left their house to live a secular life in the world[1096]. The other letter contains a sentence of the greater excommunication against a nun of Sewardsley, for similar conduct[1097]. These cases of apostasy were less rare than might be imagined; Dalderby had to deal with two others during his episcopate, one at St Michael’s, Stamford[1098], and the other at Goring[1099]; and during the rule of his predecessor Sutton three nuns had escaped from Godstow and one from Wothorpe[1100]. They illustrate the undoubted truth that it was only the existence (already in the thirteenth century) of very grave disorders, which led reformers like Ottobon, Peckham and Boniface VIII to “beat the air” with such severe restrictions.

These three documents, the Constitutions of Ottobon and of Peckham and the Bull Periculoso, were the standard decrees on the subject of the claustration of nuns in England and were used as a model by visitors in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. William of Wykeham, for example, in the exceptionally full and formal injunctions which he sent to Romsey and to Wherwell in 1387 continually refers by name to Ottobon and to Peckham, and the wording of the Bull Periculoso is followed verbatim in the mandate directed by Bishop Grandisson of Exeter to Canonsleigh in 1329 and in the commission sent by his successor Bishop Brantyngham to two canons of Exeter in 1376, concerning the wanderings of the nuns of Polsloe. But a study of the visitation documents of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries makes it clear that the nuns never really made any attempt to obey the regulations which imposed a strict enclosure upon them; and that the bishops upon whom fell the brunt of[Pg 354] administering Periculoso themselves allowed a considerable latitude, directing their efforts towards regulating the conditions under which nuns left their convents, rather than to keeping them within the precincts. Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien and the steady opposition of the nuns forced a compromise upon their visitors. The canonist John of Ayton, reciting the decrees of Ottobon and of Boniface, with their injunction that bishops shall “cause them to be observed,” exclaims

Cause to be observed! But surely there is scarce any mortal man who could do this: we must therefore here understand “so far as lieth in the prelate’s power.” For the nuns answer roundly to these statutes or to any others promulgated against their wantonness, saying “In truth the men who made these laws sat well at their ease, while they laid such burdens upon us by these hard and intolerable restrictions!” Wherefore we see in fact that these statutes are a dead letter or are ill-kept at the best. Why, then, did the holy fathers thus labour to beat the air? Yet indeed their toil is none the less to their own merit; for we look not to that which is but to that which of justice should be[1101].

Dalderby’s experience at Markyate shows that John of Ayton’s picture was not too highly coloured, and since it was impossible to enforce “hard and intolerable restrictions” without at least a measure of co-operation from the nuns themselves, the bishops took the only course open to them in trying to minimise the evil. Their expedients deserve some study, and as a typical set of episcopal injunctions dealing with journeys by nuns outside their cloisters it will suffice to quote those sent by Walter Stapeldon, Bishop of Exeter, to the nunneries of Polsloe and Canonsleigh. These rules were drawn up in 1319, only twenty years after the publication of the Bull Periculoso, but they are already far removed from the strict ideal of Boniface VIII. Stapeldon was a practical statesman and he evidently realised that the enforcement of strict enclosure was impossible in a diocese where the nuns had been used to considerable freedom and where all the counties of the West saw them upon their holidays.

The clauses dealing with the subject run as follows:

De visitacione amicorum. No lady of religion is to go and visit her friends outside the priory, but if it be once a year at the most and then for reasonable cause and by permission; and then let her have a[Pg 355] companion professed in the same religion, not of her own choice, but whomsoever the Prioress will assign to her and she who is once assigned to her for companion shall not be assigned the next time, so that each time a lady goes to visit her friends her companion is changed; and if she have permission to go to certain places to visit her friends, let her not go to other places without new permission. De absencia Dominarum et regressu earum. Item, when any lady of religion eats at Exeter, or in another place near by, for reasonable cause and by permission, whenever she can she ought to return the same or the following day and each time let her have a companion and a chaplain, clerk or serving-man of good repute assigned by the prioress, who shall go, remain and return with them and otherwise they shall not go; and then let them return speedily to the house, as they be commanded, and let them not go again to Exeter, wandering from house to house, as they have oftentimes done, to the dishonour of their state and of religion. De Dominabus “Wakerauntes” [i.e. vagantibus]. Item, a lady who goes a long distance to visit her friends, in the aforesaid form, should return to the house within a month at the latest, or within a shorter space if it be assigned her by the Prioress, having regard to the distance or proximity of the place, where dwell the friends whom she is going to visit, but a longer term ought the Prioress never to give her, save in the case of death, or of the known illness of herself or of her near friends. Pena Dominarum Vagancium. And if a lady remain without for a long time or in any other manner than in the form aforesaid, let her never set foot outside the outer gate of the Priory for the next two years; and nevertheless let her be punished otherwise for disobedience, in such manner as is laid down by the rule and observances of the order of St Benet for the fault; and leave procured by the prayer of her friends ought not to excuse her from this penance[1102]. No lady of your religion, professed or unprofessed, shall come to the external offices outside the door of the cloister to be bled or for any other feigned excuse, save it be by leave of the Prioress or of the Subprioress, and then for a fit reason and let her have with her another professed lady of your religion, to the end that each of them may see and hear that which the other shall say and do[1103].

[Pg 356]The main lines along which the bishops attempted to regulate the movements of the nuns outside their houses appear clearly in these injunctions. It was their invariable practice to forbid unlicensed visits, in accordance with the Benedictine rule; no nun might leave her house without a licence from her superior and such licences were not to be granted too easily[1104] or with any show of favouritism[1105]; sometimes the licence of the Bishop was required as well[1106]. Such licences were not to be granted often (once a year is usually the specified rule)[1107] and the bishops sometimes tried to confine the visits of nuns to parents or to near relatives[1108]. An attempt was also made to regulate the length of[Pg 357] the visits. A maximum number of days was fixed and the nun was to be punished if she outstayed her leave[1109], except when she was detained by illness. This maximum differed from time to time and from place to place. Bishop Stapeldon, it will be recalled, allowed the nuns in his diocese to remain away for a month and longer; how he reconciled such laxity with his conscience and the Bull Periculoso is not plain. Archbishop Greenfield, at the same date, permitted his Yorkshire nuns a maximum visit of fifteen days[1110], and in 1358 Bishop Gynewell of Lincoln forbade the nuns of Godstow to remain away for longer than three weeks[1111]. When Alnwick visited the diocese of Lincoln[Pg 358] in 1440-5, he made careful inquiry into the length of the visits paid by the nuns and at Goring, Gracedieu, Markyate, Nuncoton and St Michael’s, Stamford, he found that the superior usually gave the nuns licence to remain away a week, though the Prioress of Studley gave exeats for three or four days only[1112]. A week does not seem a very lengthy absence, but Alnwick would have lifted horrified eyebrows at the action of his predecessor Gynewell, for he ordered the superiors “that ye gyfe no sustere of yowres leue to byde wythe thaire frendes whan thai visite thaym, overe thre dayes in helthe, and if thai falle seke, that he do fecche thaym home wythe yn sex dayes”[1113]. He shared the views of an even stricter reformer, Peckham[1114]. It was often stipulated that the nuns, whether they went on long or on short journeys, were to go only to the place which they had received permission to visit[1115]; and sometimes they were specially told that if they were obliged to spend the night away from their friends they were to do so, whenever possible, in another nunnery[1116].[Pg 359] But they were strictly forbidden to harbour in the houses of monks, friars, or canons[1117]. On short journeys, or on errands which could be speedily accomplished, they were forbidden to eat or drink out of their monasteries or to make unnecessary delay, but were to return at once and in no case to be out after nightfall[1118]. Moreover it was invariably ordered that a nun was on no account to leave her house, without another nun of mature age and good reputation who would be a constant witness to her behaviour[1119]; and both were to wear monastic dress[1120].

The chief aim of the ecclesiastical authorities was, however, to secure that leave of absence should be granted only for a reasonable cause. All conciliar and other injunctions for enclosure added a saving clause of “manifest necessity” and this gave an opening for an infinite variety of interpretation. The nuns, indeed, could fall back upon a threefold line of defence against the intolerable restrictions. They could appeal to the undoubted fact that strict and perpetual enclosure went beyond the requirements of their rule. They could adduce the custom by which, as long as their memory ran, nuns had been allowed to leave their convents under conditions. Finally they could with a little skill, stretch the “manifest necessity” clause to cover almost all their wanderings. Thus it happened that in[Pg 360] enforcing the Bull Periculoso the visitors of the later middle ages found themselves obliged to define, more or less widely according to local conditions, what was and what was not a reasonable cause, and to combat one after another certain specific excuses put forward by the nuns. The sternest reformers were agreed that enclosure might be broken, when the lives of the nuns were endangered. Fire, flood, famine, war and the ruin of their buildings were universally accepted as reasonable excuses[1121]. A nun could leave her house to be superior of another nunnery (a not infrequent practice), or to found new houses or to establish reform elsewhere.[1122] Moreover when a culprit stood in need of[Pg 361] condign punishment, she might be and often was sent to another house to do penance among strangers, who would neither sympathise with her nor run the risk of being contaminated by her[1123].

At this point, however, agreement ceased. The question of illness was beset with difficulties. It was agreed that a nun might leave her house, if she suffered from some contagious disease which threatened the health of her sisters[1124], but opinions[Pg 362] differed as to whether any relaxation was to be allowed in less severe cases, when only her own health was in question. The visitors sometimes issued licences for nuns to leave their houses in order to recruit their health; thus in 1303 Josiana de Anelaby, Prioress of Swine, had licence to absent herself from her house on account of ill-health[1125], in 1314 Archbishop Greenfield licenced a nun of Yedingham, who was suffering from dropsy, to visit friends and relatives with honest company, for the sake of improving her health[1126] and in 1368 Joan Furmage, Abbess of Shaftesbury, actually received a dispensation to leave the abbey for a year, and reside in her manors, for the sake of air and recreation[1127]. It is significant that the Novellae Definitiones of the Cistercian Order in 1350 strictly forbade nuns to go to the public baths outside their houses, which shows that they had been in the habit of doing so[1128]. But strict reformers were always opposed to such licences, and the specific prohibition of exeats for purposes of cures and convalescences was common in the[Pg 363] sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the practice had become almost universal in France[1129].

Again there was some difference of opinion as to whether a nun might leave her house, in order to enter one professing a stricter rule. Such a desire was in theory laudable and by Innocent III’s decretal Licet the principle was laid down that a bishop was bound de jure to grant leave for migration “sub praetextu majoris religionis et ut vitam ducant arctiorem,” as long as the motive of the petitioner was love of God and not merely temeritas[1130]. But temeritas was often to be suspected; women, as St Francis de Sales complained, were full of whimsies[1131]; ennui, fancy, a craving for change, a friend in another house, might masquerade as a desire to lead a stricter life elsewhere. Moreover a nun who desired to remove herself was not unlikely to encounter opposition from her own convent. An interesting case of such opposition occurred at Gracedieu in 1447-8. Margaret Crosse, a nun of that house, desired to be transferred to the Benedictine Priory of Ivinghoe “of a straiter order of religion and observance, not for a frivolous or empty reason, but that she may lead a life altogether and entirely harder.” She obtained letters of admission from the Prioress of Ivinghoe, but when she came to ask for leave to migrate, the Prioress and Convent of Gracedieu refused to release her from her obedience and confiscated the letters. Bishop Alnwick then wrote to Gracedieu, requiring the Prioress either to let her go, or to furnish[Pg 364] him with a reason for their refusal. The Prioress and Convent replied with some acerbity. Margaret, they said, desired to lead a life of less and not of more restraint and her real object was to join her sister, who was at that time Prioress of Ivinghoe, if indeed her request were not a mere pretext for apostasy; for

the said Margaret Crosse has caused and commanded certain goods, property and jewels belonging to our priory to be stealthily conveyed by certain of the said Margaret’s friends in the flesh from our priory to foreign and privy places, and to such conveyance done in her name has lent her authority, with the purpose, as is strongly suspected, of taking advantage of the darkness one night ... and transferring herself utterly and entirely of her own motion to places wholly strange, without having or asking and against our will[1132].

Moreover had the holy father considered the merits of their house and the loss to it, if Margaret seceded?

Inasmuch as in our priory according to the observances of the rule God is served and quire is ruled both in reading and singing and chanting the psalms and toiling in the vineyard of the Lord of Sabaoth at the canonical hours by day and night, while we also patiently endure grievous cares, fastings and watchings and further are instant together in contemplation, even as the holy Spirit designs to give us His inspiration. And the said Margaret Crosse, who is sufficiently trained in such regular observances and is very needful for the service of God in our priory aforesaid, wherein such regular observances and contemplations are not so fully kept as in our aforesaid priory ... would give herself to secular business in all matters, rather than to such contemplation or observance of the rule; and thereout shall arise to us and our priory not only grievous ill repute, but also no small loss, especially in that such chantings and regular observances would in likelihood suffer damage by reason of the said Margaret’s absence[1133].

There is an air of verisimilitude about the injured convent’s argument, though the visitation report of 1440-1 does not show them as the strict and pious community which they claim to be; but what came of the affair we do not know.

One plea to lead a stricter life was, however, less open to suspicion; that was the request to be enclosed as an anchoress.[Pg 365] Sometimes an anchoress had a companion, sometimes a servant[1134], but in any case her life was stricter than that of a nun, for she devoted herself to constant prayer and was bound to remain always in her little cell, which was usually attached to a church. There are several instances of nuns who left their communities to lead a solitary life in some anchorage. On one occasion when the nuns of Coldingham had been dispersed by the Scots, Beatrice de Hodesak left her convent and with the permission of the Archbishop and of her Prioress retired to an anchorage at St Edmund’s Chapel, near the bridge of Doncaster; another anchoress Sibil de Lisle was already living there (c. 1300)[1135]. Twenty years later Archbishop Melton gave Margaret de Punchardon, nun of Arden, permission to be enclosed, as an anchoress, in the cell attached to St Nicholas’ Hospital at Beverley, in company with Agnes Migregose [? Mucegrose, i.e. Musgrave] already a recluse there[1136]. The register of Bishop Gray of Lincoln contains an interesting commission (1435-6) addressed to the Abbot of Thornton, bidding him enclose Beatrice Franke, a nun of Stainfield, in the parish church of Winterton, together with the Abbot’s certificate that he has examined her and found her steadfast in her purpose and therefore

shutting up the aforesaid sister Beatrice in a building and enclosure constructed on the north side of the church and making fast the door thereof with bolts, bars and keys, we left her in peace and calm of spirit, as it is believed by the more part, in the joy of her Saviour[1137].

[Pg 366]Some nunneries themselves had anchorages attached, for instance Davington[1138], Polesworth[1139] and Carrow; and Julian of Norwich, anchoress at the parish church of Carrow in the fourteenth century, was one of the most famous mystical writers of the middle ages[1140]. Anchoresses do not seem always to have been content with their life and the strict preliminary examination of Beatrice Franke “concerning her withdrawal from the life of a community to the solitary life, concerning the length of time wherein she had continued in this purpose, concerning the perils of them that choose such a life and afterwards repent thereof” was probably a necessary precaution. The register of Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln contains a mandate to the nuns of Marlow, to readmit one such faint-heart, Agnes de Littlemore, a lay sister of the house, who had left it to become an anchoress and had repented of her decision[1141].

Illness and the desire to embrace a stricter rule were exceptional[Pg 367] causes for a temporary breach of enclosure. The great difficulty in administering Periculoso arose over more usual pretexts. The least objectionable occasion for leaving cloistral precincts was when convent business demanded it and this happened frequently to the superior and the treasuress or cellaress. The journeys which were frequently taken by the head of a house have already been considered[1142]; but the obedientiaries also found much scope for wandering in the duties of their offices. The treasuress and cellaress might be obliged day by day to visit, in the course of their duties, offices and buildings which lay outside the walls, and if they were not sober minded women there were ample opportunities for lingering and gossiping with secular persons and with servants. The Constitutions of the Legate Ottobon in 1268 attempted to minimise this danger by enacting that no nun was to go into the different officinae, except those whose offices rendered it necessary to do so, and they were never to go unaccompanied[1143]. The complaints brought by the nuns of Gracedieu in 1440-1 against their self-confident cellaress Margaret Belers show that some such regulation was necessary; it was said that she was accustomed to visit all the offices by herself, even the granges and other places where menfolk were working, and that she went there (good zealous housewife!) “over early in the morning before daybreak”; whereupon Bishop Alnwick ordered the Prioress to “suffre none of thaym, officiere ne other, to go to any house of office wythe owte the cloystere, but if ther be an other nunne approveded in religyone assigned to go wythe hire, eyther to be wytnesse of others conversatyon”[1144]. Convent business, however, frequently took the officials further afield than outlying granges and they undertook journeys hardly less often than did the head of the house. The Cistercian statutes[Pg 368] of 1256-7, in forbidding nuns to leave their convents, make exception “for the Abbess with two or at most three nuns and for the cellaress with one, who are permitted to go forth to look after the business of the house or for other inevitable causes”[1145]. The evidence of account rolls is invaluable in this connection and shows us the nuns going marketing or seeking tithes from recalcitrant farmers, or interviewing tenants about rent. The Chambress of Syon went to London three times in 1536, doubtless to buy the russets, white cloth, kerseys, friezes and hollands which figure so largely in her account and to take the spectacles to be mended; she was a thrifty lady and her expenses were only 6d., 2d. and 20d. respectively. Her sister the cellaress also went to London that year and spent 6d. on the jaunt[1146]. The nuns of St Michael’s, Stamford, sometimes took long journeys on convent business; in 1372-3 Dame Katherine Fitzaleyn went “to London and other places about our tithes,” at the heavy cost of 15s. 8d.[1147] From Stamford to London was a considerable journey, but the convent could not afford to lose its tithes. The same business took Dame Katherine to the capital another year; she hired three horses for six days and a serving man to go with them and she took with her Dame Ida, in accordance with the regulations; the whole cost of the expedition was £2. 11s., a very large sum, and we will hope that the tithes brought in more than enough to cover it[1148].

Sometimes, again, nuns left their houses to take part in ecclesiastical ceremonies, such as processions. There does not [Pg 369]seem much harm in the whole convent sallying forth on these solemn occasions and indeed bishops sometimes gave orders that they were to do so. In 1321 Rigaud de Asserio, Bishop of Winchester, sent a letter to the Prior of St Swithun’s monastery “to pray for peace, with solemn processions”; he was to cause the Abbot and Convent of Hyde, the Abbess and Convent of St Mary’s, Winchester, and all the other religious houses and parish priests of Winchester to come together in the Cathedral and then to proceed in solemn procession through the town[1149]. The strictest disciplinarians, however, looked with suspicion even upon religious processions and sought to keep nuns within the precincts of their cloister. Ottobon’s Constitutions contain a proviso that nuns are not to go out for public processions, but are to hold their processions within the bounds of their own house[1150] and the prohibition was repeated by Thomas of Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, writing to Lymbrook in 1277[1151], and by William of Wykeham (who specifically based his words upon Ottobon), writing to Romsey in 1387[1152]. A century later the custom was forbidden in France at the provincial Council of Sens, in 1460 and again in 1485, where it was referred to as “a dangerous and evil abuse”[1153]. Some explanation of this severity, which seems excessive, may perhaps be gleaned from an injunction sent by Bishop Longland to Elstow in 1531:

Moreover forasmoche as the ladye abbesse and covent of that house be all oon religious bodye unite by the profession and rules of holy sainct benedicte, and is nott conuenyent ne religious to be disseuerd or separate, we will and Inioyne that frome hensforth noon of the said abbesse seruauntes nor no ther secular person or persones, whatsoeuer he or they be, goo in eny procession before the said abbesse betwene hir and hir said covent, undre payne of exccommunycacon, and that the ladye abbesse ne noon of hir successours hereafter be ladde by the arme or otherwise in eny procession ther as in tymes paste hath been used, undre the same payne[1154].

Other religious ceremonies of a less formal nature occasionally called nuns, in a body or individually, out of their cloister. For[Pg 370] instance some of the greater abbeys were accustomed to receive into their fraternity benefactors and persons of distinction, both men and women, whom they wished to honour, nor were kings too proud to call themselves the confratres of Bury St Edmunds or St Albans and to receive from the monks the kiss of peace[1155]. The ceremony took place with great solemnity in the chapter-house and it is recorded that on one occasion (in 1428), when the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Gloucester and their households were received into the Fraternity of St Albans, Cecilia Paynel and Margaret Ewer, nuns of Sopwell, were also admitted. At another time the Prioress of Sopwell, together with a certain John Crofton and his wife, were received and gave the abbey a pittance and wine and a sum of money; while on another occasion still the Prioress and another nun of St Mary de Pré were similarly made consorores of the abbey, and marked their appreciation by the gift of a frontal for the high altar in the lady chapel[1156]. Sopwell and St Mary de Pré were dependents of St Albans and it is not improbable that their superiors and seniors often visited it on great occasions such as this; certainly the great magnates of the realm often called at Sopwell on their way from St Albans, and nuns of the house figure in its book of benefactors as donors of embroidery to the church[1157], while in matters of government the Abbot always kept a tight hand upon both houses. Again nuns sometimes attended the funerals of great folk; not only priors and prioresses, but also canons and nuns were expected to be present at Sir Thomas Cumberworth’s funeral and “month’s-mind”[1158] and in an account roll of St Michael’s, Stamford, there is an entry “paye a nos compaygnounes alaunt a Leycestre al enterment la Duchesse ij s”[1159].

[Pg 371]Attendance at religious processions and ceremonies might be, and attendance at funerals undoubtedly was, regarded by the more moderate and reasonable visitors as a legitimate reason for going outside the precincts of the cloister. One other excuse of the same nature, however, sometimes took a nun away from her convent for a considerable length of time and was never looked upon with any favour by the authorities of the church. Yet it is an excuse which we have the best of reasons for recognising, which is, indeed, bound up with all that most people know of the medieval nun—for Chaucer has taught us that nuns were wont to go upon pilgrimages. All pilgrimages did not, indeed, involve as long a journey as that taken by Madame Eglentyne. The ladies of Nuncoton could make a pilgrimage to St Hugh of Lincoln, without being away for more than a night and the ladies of Blackborough would not have to follow for a long distance the milky way to Walsingham[1160]. Nevertheless it is unnecessary to go further than Chaucer to understand why it was that medieval bishops offered a strenuous opposition to the practice; one has only to remember some of the folk in whose company the Prioress travelled and some of the tales they told. If one could be certain that she rode with her nun and her priests, or at least between the Knight and the poor Parson! But there were also the Miller and the Summoner and, worst of all, that cheerful and engaging sinner the Wife of Bath. If one could be certain that she listened only to the tale of Griselda, or of Palamon and Arcite, or yawned over Melibeus, and that she fell discreetly to the rear when the company laughed over the “nyce cas of Absalon and hende Nicholas”! If one could be certain that it was to the Wife of Bath alone that the Merchant made his apology

Ladies, I prey yow that ye be nat wrooth;
I can nat glose, I am a rude man.

Certainly the Wife of Bath was a host in herself, but the plural is ominous and the two nuns were the only other ladies in the[Pg 372] company. The sterner moralists of the middle ages bear out Chaucer’s picture of a typical pilgrimage with most unchaucerian denunciation[1161]. Pilgrims got drunk at times, as drunk as the Miller, “so that vnnethe up-on his hors he sat,” on the very first day of the journey, as drunk as the “sory palled gost” of a cook, when the cavalcade reached that

litel toun
Which that y-cleped is Bob-up-&-doun
Under the Blee in Canterbury weye.

Again, there are pilgrims, says Etienne de Bourbon, “who when they visit holy places sing lecherous lays, whereby they inflame the hearts of such as hear them and kindle the fire of lechery”; and like an echo rise the well-known words:

Ful loude he song “Come hider, love, to me,”
This somnour bar to him a stif burdoun
Was never trompe of half so greet a soun,

and shrill and clear sound the miller’s bagpipes, bringing the pilgrims out of town[1162]. No place for a cloistered nun was the inn though one feels that mine host’s wife, “big in arme,” would have kept the Tabard respectable, whatever might be said of the Chequer-on-the-Hoop. No place for her the road to Canterbury,[Pg 373] nor yet Canterbury itself, where the monk with the holy-water sprinkler was so anxious for a peep at her face and where she hobnobbed over wine in the parlour, with the hostess and the Wife of Bath[1163].

Madame Eglentyne, for all her simplicity, must have circumvented her Bishop before she got there. For the Bishops were quite clear in their minds that pilgrimages for nuns were to be discouraged. They were of Langland’s way of thinking:

Right so, if thow be religious, renne thow neuere ferther,
To Rome ne to Rochemadore, but as thi reule techeth,
And holde the vnder obedyence, that heigh wey is to heuene[1164].

As early as 791 the Council of Fréjus had forbidden the practice[1165] and in 1195 the Council of York decreed “In order that the opportunity of wandering about may be taken from them [the nuns], we forbid them to take the road of pilgrimage”[1166]. In 1318 Archbishop Melton strictly forbade the nuns of Nunappleton to leave their house “by reason of any vow of pilgrimage, which they might have taken; if any had taken such vows she was to say as many psalters as it would have taken days to perform[Pg 374] the pilgrimage so rashly vowed”[1167]. One has a melancholy vision of Madame Eglentyne saying psalters interminably through her “tretys” nose, instead of jogging along so gaily with her motley companions and telling so prettily her tale of little St Hugh. But the nuns of Nunappleton retained their taste for pilgrimages and nearly two centuries later (in 1489) we find Archbishop Rotherham admonishing their successors:

yat ye prioresse lycence none of your susters to goe pilgremage or visit yer frendes wtoute a grete cause, and yen such a sister lycencyate by you to have wt her oon of ye most sadd and well disposid sistirs to she come home agayne[1168].

At Wix, twenty years later, the nuns were forbidden to undertake pilgrimages without the consent of the diocesan[1169], and in 1531 Bishop Longland wrote to the Prioress of Nuncoton:

Forasmoche as by your negligent sufferaunce dyuers of your susters hath wandred a brode in the world, some under the pretence of pylgrymage, some to see ther frends, and otherwise whereby hath growen many Inconuenyences insolent behauiours and moche slaunder, as well to your house as to those susters, as by the texts of my said visitation doth euydently appere, I chardge you lady priores that from hensforthe ye neyther licence ne suffre eny your susters to goo out of your monastery,

without good cause and company of a “wise sobre and discrete suster,” and an injunction not to “tary out of the monastery in the nighte tyme”[1170]. But most significant of all is a case which occurred at the little Cistercian priory of Wykeham in Yorkshire in the fifteenth century. In 1450 Archbishop Kemp wrote to the Prioress, bidding her readmit an apostate nun Katherine Thornyf:

who, seduced by the Angel of Darkness, under the colour of a pilgrimage in the time of the Jubilee, without leave of the archbishop,[Pg 375] or officials or even of the prioress, set out on a journey to the court of Rome, in the company of another nun of the house, who, as it was reported, had gone the way of all flesh and on whose soul the Archbishop prayed for mercy. After the death of this nun, Katherine Thornyf had lived in sin with a married man in London.

Then she had been moved to penitence, after who knows what agony of soul, and had gone to the Archbishop seeking absolution; and so the prodigal, weary of her husks, came back to the nunnery she had left[1171]. The melancholy tale is borne out by all we know about medieval pilgrimages. Centuries before—in 774—an Archbishop of Milan had written to an Archbishop of Canterbury, advising that the Synod should prohibit women and nuns from travelling to Rome, on account of the dangers and temptations of the journey, “for very few are the cities in Lombardy ... France ... Gaul, wherein there is not to be found a prostitute of English race”[1172]; and the trouvère Rutebeuf, in the thirteenth century, spoke with less pity and a more biting satire of the pilgrimages of French nuns to Paris and Montmartre[1173].

Excursions on convent business or for attendance at ecclesiastical ceremonies (other than pilgrimages) were regarded as[Pg 376] legitimate, though strict disciplinarians sought to restrict them to occasions of real urgency. But for the most part we hear about journeys undertaken for pleasure and not for business, or at any rate the elastic term business is stretched to cover some very pleasant wandering in the world and much hobnobbing with friends. In spite of the Bull Periculoso[1174] bishops were never able to prevent nuns from going to stay with their friends, and sometimes the ladies made very long journeys for this purpose. Bishop Stapeldon, for instance, ordained that when the nuns of Canonsleigh in Devon went to visit their friends “in Somerset, Dorset, Devonshire or in Cornwall” they might not stay for longer than a month; but if they went outside these four counties the Abbess might allow them to stay longer still, having regard to the distance of their destination and to the time which would be spent in travelling[1175]. The bishops indeed were forced to regard such visits as “reasonable occasions” for a breach of enclosure, and their efforts, as has already been shown, were confined to regulating rather than to stopping the practice; for the relatives of the nuns, as well as the ladies themselves, would have been the first to resent any interference with their visits. Whatever might be the theory of the Church on the subject, blood was thicker than holy water; family affections and family interests persisted in the cloister and the nun was welcomed at many a hospitable board for her family’s sake as well as for her own. All this seems natural and obvious today and few would think the worse of the nuns for their opposition to the stricter form of enclosure. Nevertheless the authorities of the Church had reason for their distrust of these absences from the convent. Once away from the cloister and staying in a private house there was nothing to keep a nun from joining in the secular revelries of friends, and though her behaviour might be exemplary the convent rule aimed at keeping her unspotted even by temptation. An anecdote related by Erasmus in his dialogue “Ichthyophagia” shows that the danger of allowing[Pg 377] nuns to visit their friends might be a real one. Two nuns had gone to stay with their kinsfolk, and at supper

they began to grow merry with wine; they laughed and joked and kissed and not over-modestly neither, till you could hardly hear what was said for the noise they made.... After supper there was dancing and singing of lascivious songs and such doings I am ashamed to speak of, inasmuch as I am much afraid the night hardly passed very honestly[1176].

Moreover even if nuns visited their friends for a very short time, staying only one night, or even returning before nightfall to the convent, there was danger that they might join in the various revelries practised among secular folk, and reprobated by the Church as occasions for unseemly and licentious behaviour. Bishop Spofford of Hereford, indeed, found it necessary in 1437 to send a special warning against doing so to the nuns of Lymbrook; the Prioress was to “yife no lycence too noon of hur sustres her after to go to no port townes, no to noon othir townes to comyn wakes or festes, spectacles and othir worldly vanytees, and specially on holy-dayes, nor to be absent lyggying oute by nyght out of thair monastery, but with fader and moder, except causes of necessytee”[1177]. The words which the Good Wife spoke to her daughter come to mind:

Go not to þe wrastelings ne schotynge at cok
As it were a strumpet or a giggelot,
Wone at hom, douȝter, and love þi work myche[1178].

Clemence Medforde, Prioress of Ankerwyke, went to a wedding at Bromhale[1179]; yet weddings were of all those “comyn wakes and festes” most condemned by the Church for the unseemly[Pg 378] revelries which followed them. The Christen State of Matrimony, written in 1543, throws a flood of light upon the subject:

When they come home from the Church, then beginneth excesse of eatyng and dryncking—and as much is waisted in one daye, as were sufficient for the two newe maried Folkes halfe a yere to lyve upon.... After the Bancket and Feast, there begynnethe a vayne, madde and unmanerlye fashion, for the Bryde must be brought into an open dauncynge place. Then is there such a rennynge, leapynge, and flyngynge among them, then is there suche a lyftynge up and discoverynge of the Damselles clothes and other Womennes apparell, that a Man might thynke they were sworne to the Devels Daunce. Then muste the poore Bryde kepe foote with al Dauncers and refuse none, how scabbed, foule, droncken, rude and shameles soever he be. Then must she oft tymes heare and se much wyckednesse and many an uncomely word; and that noyse and romblyng endureth even tyll supper[1180].

It may be urged that the Brides of Heaven need not necessarily have attended these merry-makings after the ceremony; but the example of Isabel Benet, nun of Catesby, and the tenour of certain episcopal injunctions, show that nuns by no means despised dancing[1181]. The strict disciplinarian’s view of weddings is shown in the fact that members of the Tertiary Order of St Francis were forbidden to attend them; and even the civic authorities of London found it necessary to regulate the disorders which were prevalent on such occasions[1182].

[Pg 379]Again not only weddings, but also christenings, often involved unseemly revels and this could not fail to affect nuns who, despite canonical prohibition, were somewhat in demand as godmothers. Christening parties were gay affairs; the gossips would return to the house of the child’s parents to eat, drink and make merry: “adtunc et ibidem immediate venerunt in domam suam ad comedendum et bibendum et adtunc sibi revelaverunt de baptismo”[1183]. If Antoine de la Sale’s witty account of the “third joy of marriage” has any truth[1184], and it is upheld by more sober documents, bishops did well to mislike the christening parties for nuns; Mrs Gamp was quite at home in the middle ages; she was probably a crony of the Wife of Bath. It was in fact forbidden for monks and nuns to become godparents, not only, as Mr Coulton has pointed out, “because this involved them in a fresh spiritual relationship incompatible with their[Pg 380] ideal, but because it entangled them with worldly folk and worldly affairs”[1185]. Thus in 1387 William of Wykeham wrote to the nuns of Romsey: “We forbid you all and singly to presume to become godmothers to any child, without obtaining our licence to do so, since from such relationships expense is often entailed upon religious houses”[1186]. At Nuncoton in 1440 two nuns asked that their sisters might be forbidden the practice and Alnwick enjoined “that none of yowe have no children at the fount ne confirmyng”[1187] and nearly a century later a similar injunction was sent by Bishop Longland to Studley[1188].

There does indeed seem a certain incongruity in the presence of one who had renounced the world at a wedding or a christening, even had such ceremonies not been accompanied by very worldly revels. But they were less incongruous than was the attendance of Mary, daughter of Edward I, the nun-princess of Amesbury,[Pg 381] upon her step-mother Queen Margaret and later upon her niece Elizabeth de Burgh, during their confinements. A king’s daughter, however, could not be subjected to ordinary restraints; Mary led a particularly free life, constantly visiting court and going on pilgrimages, and there is no reason to suppose that ordinary nuns shared her privileges[1189].

Naturally occasions when a nun was away from her convent for the night, whether on business or on pleasure, were comparatively rare. For the most part the bishops had to deal with casual absences during the day and it was found extraordinarily difficult to confine such excursions to the “convent business” and “necessary reasons” laid down by the various enactments on enclosure. There seems to have been a great deal of wandering about without any specific purpose. Short errands perhaps took the nuns out for a few hours, or they went simply for air and exercise. Their rule and their bishops would have had them hear the “smale fowles maken melodye” and tread “the smalle, softe, sweete grass” within the narrow cloister court, or at least in the privacy of their own gardens[1190]. But the nuns liked highways and hedges, and often in springtime it was farewell their books and their devotion. Certainly the convent often did come out to take the air in its own meadows; John Aubrey (in a much-quoted passage) tells of the nuns of Kington in Wiltshire, and how “Old Jacques” could see them from his house

come forth into the nymph-hay with their rocks and wheels to spin: and with their sewing work. He would say that he had told threescore and ten, but of nuns there were not so many, but in all, with lay sisters and widows, old maids and young girls, there might be such a number[1191].

[Pg 382]Sometimes, indeed, at the busy harvest-time, when every pair of hands was needed on the manor farm, the nuns even went hay-making in the meadows. The visitations of Bishop Alnwick provide two instances of this and show also the abuses to which it might give rise, since the fields were full of secular workers. At Nuncoton in 1440 the subprioress deposed that

in the autumn season the nuns go out to their autumn tasks, whereby the quire is not kept regularly[1192], and ... in seed time the nuns clear the crops of weeds in the barns, and there secular folks do come in and unbecoming words are uttered between them and the nuns, wherefrom, as is feared, there are evil consequences[1193].

At Gracedieu the subprioress mentioned that “sometimes the nuns do help secular folk in garnering their grain during the autumn season,” but the most amusing revelations concern the conduct of the haughty cellaress Margaret Belers, who, whether on account of her autocratic government or because she was of better birth than they, was regarded by her sisters with the utmost jealousy. Belers, ran one of the detecta to the Bishop,

goes out to work in autumn alone with Sir Henry [the chaplain], he reaping the harvest and she binding the sheaves, and at evening she comes riding behind him on the same horse. She is over friendly with him and has been since the doings aforesaid.

Here was a pretty scandal; the Bishop (hiding, we will hope, a smile) made inquiries; Sir Henry was charged with the heinous crime of going hay-making with Dame Belers. But Sir Henry specifically denied his solitary roaming in the fields with the cellaress; he said however “that he has been in the fields with the others and Belers, carting hay and helping to pile the sheaves in stacks in the barns”; and Alnwick contented himself with enjoining the Prioress “that ye suffre none of your susters to go to any felde werkes but alle onely in your presence”[1194].

Such field work, when it was undertaken, must have afforded not only wholesome exercise, but a very pleasant relaxation[Pg 383] from the cramping life of the cloister; and the necessities of harvest overrode all rules. Whether the nuns took part in farm work at other seasons of the year is more difficult to discover; one is tempted to think that they must sometimes have given a helping hand with their own cattle and poultry, especially at very poor houses. The private cocks and hens which occasioned such rivalry at Saint-Aubin[1195], the never-to-be-forgotten donkey of Alfrâd[1196], bear witness not only to the sin of proprietas, but also to the personal care of the nuns for such livestock. But authority discouraged the practice at a later date, partly because it encouraged private property, partly because it brought the nuns into too close contact with the world[1197]. Nowhere has the attitude been better stated than in the amusing description given in the Ancren Riwle of the anchoress’ cow:

An anchoress that hath cattle appears as Martha was, a better housewife than anchoress: nor can she in any wise be Mary, with peacefulness of heart. For then she must think of the cow’s fodder and of the herdsman’s hire, flatter the heyward, defend herself when her cattle is shut up in the pinfold and moreover pay the damage. Christ knoweth it is an odious thing when people in the town complain of the anchoresses’ cattle. If, however, any one must needs have a cow, let her take care that she neither annoy, nor harm any one, and that her own thoughts be not fixed thereon[1198].

The more human bishops made allowance for a natural instinct by giving the convent permission to go for walks, though as a rule the grounds of the nunnery were specified:

“Let the door be closed at the right time,” wrote Archbishop Courtenay to Elstow in 1390, “And let no nun go out without licence of[Pg 384] the abbess or other president, yet so that leave of walking for recreation in the orchard or in any other seemly and close place at suitable times be not out of malice denied to the nuns provided that the younger do not go without the society of the elder”[1199].

Bishop Spofford of Hereford went even further; after forbidding any revelries to be held in the nunnery of Lymbrook, he added:

“and what dysport of walkyng forward in dewe tyme and place, so that yee kepe the dewe houres and tymes of dyuyne seruyce with inforth, and with honest company, and with lycence specyally asked and obteyned [from] the pryoresse or suppryoresse in her absence, and at yee be two to geder at the leest, we holde us content” (1437)[1200].

So in 1367 Robert de Stretton, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, forbade any nun of Fairwell to go into Lichfield without the Prioress’ leave, ordering that she should be accompanied by two sisters and should “make no vain and wanton delays,” but added that “this is not intended to interfere with the laudable custom of the whole or greater part of the convent walking out together on certain days to take the air”[1201]. This forerunner of the schoolgirls’ “crocodile” was not, however, what the nuns desired. It was wandering about the roads in twos and threes (sometimes, alas, in ones also) that they really enjoyed, and against this freedom the bishops continually fulminated. It must be remembered that walking in the public streets in the middle ages was very different from what it is today; it is impossible otherwise, as Mr Coulton has pointed out, to explain the extraordinary severity of all rules for the deportment of girls[1202]. The streets[Pg 385] were full of rough pastimes, hocking and hoodsnatching, football and the games of noisy prentices in the town; and in the country villages they resounded with the still more boorish sports of country folk and with the shrill quarrels of alewives and regrateresses and all the good-natured but short-tempered people, whom court rolls show us raising the hue and cry upon each other and drawing blood from each other’s noses. There is perhaps solicitude for the nuns in the injunction which Bishop Fitzjames sent in 1509 to the convent of Wix in Essex, forbidding them to permit “any public spectacles of seculars, javelin-play, dances or trading in streets or open places”[1203]. Manners were free in that age and the nuns would see and hear much that were best hidden from their cloistered innocence. Moreover if once they began to stop and pass the time of day with their neighbours, religious and secular, or to go into houses for some more private gossip, there was no knowing where such perilous familiarity would end; and the outspokenness with which bishops condemned such conduct by references to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, leaves no doubt as to what they feared[1204].

But nothing availed to keep the nuns within their cloisters; and hardly a set of episcopal injunctions but bears witness to the freedom with which they wandered about the streets and fields. The nuns of Moxby are not to go out of the precincts of their monastery often, nor at any time to wander about the woods[1205]. Alas, poor ladies:

In somer when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song.

The nuns of Cookhill are more urban; they are not to wander about in the town (1285)[1206] and the nuns of Wroxall are not to go on foot to Coventry or to Warwick “cum eles ount fet desordement[Pg 386] en ces houres” (1338)[1207]. The nuns of White Hall, Ilchester, “walk through the strets and places of the vill of Ilchester and elsewhere, the modesty of their sex being altogether cast off and they do not fear to enter the houses of secular men and suspected persons” (1335)[1208]. The nuns of Polsloe are not to go without permission into Exeter and are to return at once when their errand is accomplished, instead of “wascrauntes de hostel en hostel, si come eles unt maynte foiz fait, en deshonestete de lur estat et de la Religioun” (1319)[1209]—an echo here of the Good Wife’s advice, “and run thou not from house to house, like a St Anthony’s pig”[1210], or of the reminiscences of that other Wife of Bath:

For ever yet I lovede to be gay,
And for to walke, in March, Averille and May,
Fro hous to hous, to here sondry talis[1211].

The nuns of Romsey “enter houses of laymen and even of clerics in the town, eating and drinking with them” (1284)[1212]. The nuns of Godstow “have often access to Oxford under colour of visiting their friends” (1445)[1213]. The nuns of Elstow are a great trial to their diocesan; Bishop Gynewell finds that “there is excessive and frequent wandering of nuns to places outside the same monastery, whereby gossip and laxity are brought about” (1359)[1214]; Bishop Bokyngham boldly particularises:

We order the nuns on pain of excommunication, to abstain from any dishonest and suspicious conversation with secular or religious men and especially the access and frequent confabulations and colloquies of the canons of the Priory of Caldwell or of mendicant friars, in the monastery or about the public highways and fields adjoining (1387)[1215].

But the sisters of Elstow remain on good terms with their neighbours; Bishop Flemyng forbids the nuns “to have access to the town of Bedford or to the town of Elstow or to other towns or[Pg 387] neighbouring places” and straitly enjoins the canons “that no canon of the said priory, under what colour of excuse soever, have access to the monastery of the nuns of Elstow; nor shall the same nuns for any reason whatever be allowed to enter the said priory, save for a manifest cause, from which reproach or suspicion of evil could in no way arise; nor even shall the same canons and nuns meet in any wise one with another, in any separate or private places; nor shall they talk together anywhere one with another, save in the presence and hearing of more than one trustworthy, who shall bear faithful witness of what they say or do” (1421-2)[1216]. The nuns of Nuncoton in the sixteenth century are even more addicted to the society of canons and Bishop Longland writes to them in stern language:

And that ye, lady prioresse, cause and compell all your susters (those oonly excepte that be seke) to kepe the quere and nomore to be absent as in tymes past they haue been wont to use, being content yf vj haue been present, the residue to goo att lybertie where they wold, some att thornton [Augustinian house at Thornton-upon-Humber], some at Newsom [or Newhouse, a Premonstratensian house close to Nuncoton, in the same parish of Brocklesby], some at hull, some att other places att their pleasures, which is in the sight of good men abhomynable, high displeasur to God, rebuke shame and reproache to religion and due correction to be doon according unto your religion frome tyme to tyme[1217].

Indeed these colloquies with monks and canons in their own monastery were nothing unusual. Bishops and Councils constantly forbade nuns to frequent houses of monks, or to be received there as guests, but the practice continued. Sometimes they had an excuse; the nuns of St Mary’s, Winchester, were in the habit of going to St Swithun’s monastery to confess to one of the brothers, who was their confessor and in ill-health, and Bishop Pontoise appointed another monk in his place, who should come to the nuns when summoned, thus avoiding the risk of scandal[1218]. Similarly Peckham forbade the nuns of Holy Sepulchre, Canterbury, to enter “any place of religious men or elsewhere, under colour of confessing,” unless they had no other confessor, in which case they were to return directly their business[Pg 388] was accomplished and not to stay eating and drinking there[1219]. But sometimes the nuns had less good reason. At Elstow, as we know, they gossiped in the fields and highways; and if nuns were sometimes frivolous, so were monks. What are we to think of that nun of Catesby (gone to rack and ruin under the evil rule of Margaret Wavere), who

on Monday last did pass the night with the Austin friars at Northampton and did dance and play the lute with them in the same place until midnight (saltauit et citherauit usque ad mediam noctem) and on the night following she passed the night with the Friars preachers at Northampton, luting and dancing in like manner[1220].

There rises to the memory an irresistibly comic sonnet of Wordsworth:

Yet more—round many a convent’s blazing fire
Unhallowed threads of revelry are spun;
There Venus sits disguised like a nun,—
While Bacchus, clothed in semblance of a friar
Pours out his choicest beverage high and higher
Sparkling, until it cannot choose but run
Over the bowl, whose silver lip hath won
An instant kiss of masterful desire—
To stay the precious waste. Through every brain
The domination of the sprightly juice
Spreads high conceits to madding Fancy dear,
Till the arched roof, with resolute abuse
Of its grave echoes, swells a choral strain,
Whose votive burthen is “Our kingdom’s here.”

Alack, had the nun of Catesby forgotten that “even as the cow which goeth before the herd hath a bell at her neck, so likewise the woman who leadeth the song and dance hath, as it were, the devil’s bell bound to hers, and when the devil heareth the tinkle thereof he feeleth safe, and saith he: ‘I have not lost my cow yet’”?[1221] Had she forgotten the awful vision of that holy[Pg 389] man, to whom the devil appeared in the form of a tiny blackamoor, standing above a woman who was leading a dance, guiding her about as he wished and dancing on her head?[1222] But indeed Isabel (or Venus) Benet was not the woman to care for so slight a matter as the rule of her order or the dreams of holy men[1223]. Her case provides an admirable illustration of the motives which prompted the extreme severity of episcopal attempts to enforce enclosure and to cut nuns off from the society of neighbouring monasteries[1224].



“Isabel Benet did pass the night with the Austin friars at Northampton
and did dance and play the lute with them.” (See page 388.)
The Legend of Beatrice the Sacristan. (See page 511.)



Even if they did not often go to such extremes as to spend a night dancing with friars, the nuns foregathered sometimes in the most strange places. The complaint that priests and monks and canons were tavern-haunters occurs with wearisome iteration in medieval visitation documents, but surely a tavern was the last place where one would expect to find a nun; “Deus sit propitius isti potatori,” were a strange invocation on lips that prayed to “Our blisful lady, Cristes moder dere.” Yet nuns sometimes abused their liberty to frequent such places. Archbishop Rotherham wrote to the Prioress of Nunappleton in 1489 “yat noon of your sistirs use ye alehouse nor ye watirside, wher concurse of straungers dayly resortes”[1225]; and at Romsey in 1492 Abbess Elizabeth Broke deposed that she suspected the nuns of slipping into town by the church door and prayed that they might not frequent taverns and other suspected places, while her Prioress also said that they frequented taverns and continually went to town without leave[1226]. Bald statements, but it is easy to call up a picture of what lies behind them, for of medieval taverns we have many a description touched by master hands. So we shall see nuns at the tunning of Elynour Rummynge, edging in by the back way “over the hedge and pale,” to drink her noppy ale[1227]. Or again we shall see Beton the Brewster standing in her doorway beneath the ivy bush, hailing Dame Isabel and Dame Matilda, as they patter along upon their “fete ful tendre”; and we shall hear her seductive cry “I have good ale, gossip” (no nun ever despised good ale—only when it was valde tenuis did[Pg 390] she object) “I have peper and piones and a pounde of garlike, A ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for fasting days.” We shall never—thanks to Langland—have any difficulty in seeing that interior, when the nuns have scuttled through the door, the heat, the smell of ale and perspiring humanity, the babel of voices as all the riff-raff of the village greets the nuns and gives them “with glad chere good ale to hansel”; and the scene that follows, “the laughyng and lowrying and ‘let go the cuppe,’” the singing, the gambling, the drinking, the invincible good humour and the complete lack of all decency. We can only hope that Dame Isabel and Dame Matilda left before Glutton got drunk[1228]. But it is consoling to reflect that the alehouses frequented by the nuns of Nunappleton and of Romsey were probably less low places, for it is not easy to picture Chaucer’s Prioress on a bench between Clarice of Cokkeslane and Peronelle of Flanders. Probably their taverns at the waterside were more like the Chequer-on-the-Hoop, where Madame Eglentyne and the Wife of Bath pledged each other in the hostess’ parlour[1229]; or like the tavern where the good gossips

Elynore, Jone and Margery
Margaret, Alis and Cecely

met and feasted, all unknown to their husbands and cherished the heart with muscadel[1230]; or liker still, perhaps, to that lordly tavern kept by Trick, where the city dames come tripping in the morning, as readily as to minster or to market and where he draws them ten sorts of wine, all out of a single cask, crying: “dear ladies, Mesdames, make good cheer, drink freely your good pleasure, for we have leisure enough”[1231]. But however select the house, whether they met there buxom city dames drinking away their husbands’ credit, or merely Tim the tinker and twain of his prentices, whether they were quizzed by “those idle gallants who haunt taverns, gay and handsome,” or hobnobbed with “travellers and tinkers, sweaters and swinkers,” the alehouse was assuredly no place for nuns[1232].

[Pg 391]Enough has been said to show why the authorities of the Church tried so hard to force enclosure upon nuns, and why they strove at least to limit excursions to “necessary occasions” and “convent business,” to prevent unlicensed wandering and to provide that no nun went out without a companion. And enough has perhaps also been said to show how completely they failed. The modern student of monasticism, bred in an age which regards freedom as its summum bonum and holds discipline at a discount, cannot but feel sympathy with the nuns. The enclosure movement did go beyond the restriction imposed upon them by their rule; they were themselves so often unsuited to the life into which circumstances, rather than a vocation, had forced them; and they would have been something less than human if they had not answered—as John of Ayton made them answer—“In truth the men who made these laws sat well at their ease while they laid such burdens upon us.” It was the bishops, not the popes and the councils, who knew where the shoe pinched. Dalderby, rubbing his insulted shoulders, Alnwick, laboriously framing his minute injunctions, Rigaud, going away from Saint-Saëns “quasi impaciens et tristis,” these had little time to sit well at their ease; and the compromises which were forced upon them are the best proof that the ideal of Periculoso was too high. Nevertheless sympathy with the nuns must not blind us to the fact that hardly a moralist of the middle ages but inveighs against the wandering of nuns in the world and adds his testimony to the fact (already clear from the visitation[Pg 392] comperta) that all the graver abuses which discredited monasticism rose in the first instance from the too great ease with which monks and nuns could leave their convents. “De la clôture,” as St François de Sales wrote long afterwards, “dépend le bon ordre de tout le reste.” It is significant that on the very eve of the Reformation in England a last attempt was made to enforce a strict and literal enclosure. That ardent reformer of nunneries, Bishop Fox, frankly pursued the policy in his diocese of Winchester and was apparently accused of undue severity, for in 1528 he wrote to Wolsey in defence of his action:

Truth it is, my lord, that the religious women of my diocese be restrained of their going out of their monasteries. And yet so much liberty appeareth some time too much; and if I had the authority and power that your grace hath, I would endeavour me to mure and enclose their monasteries according to the observance of good religion. And in all other matters, concerning their living or observance of their religion, I assure your grace they be as liberally and favourably dealt with as be any religious women within this realm[1233].

Wolsey himself was driven to the same conclusion as to the necessity of enclosure, and tried to enforce it at Wilton, after the scandals which came to light there before the election of Isabel Jordan as Abbess. His chaplain, Dr Benet, who had been sent to reform the nunnery, wrote to him on July 18th and described his difficulty in “causing to be observed” the unpopular decree:

Please it your grace to be advertised, that immediately after my return from your grace I repaired to the monastery of Wilton, where I have continually made mine abode hitherto and with all diligence endeavoured myself to the uttermost of my power to persuade and train the nuns there to the accomplishment of your grace’s pleasure for enclosing of the same; whom I find so untoward and refusal (sic) as I never saw persons, insomuch that in nowise any of them, neither by gentle means nor by rigorous,—and I have put three or four of the captains of them in ward,—will agree and consent to the same, but only the new elect and her sisters that were with your grace; which notwithstanding, I have closed up certain doors and ways and taken such an order there that none access, course or recourse of any person shall be made there.[1234]

About the same time the Abbess-Elect herself wrote to Wolsey, telling him that:

[Pg 393]since my coming home I have ordered me in all things to the best of my power, according to your gracious advertisement by the advice of your chancellors and have ofttime motioned my sisters to be reclused within our monastery; wherein they do find many difficulties and show divers considerations to the contrary;

she besought him to have patience and promised to “order my sisters in such religious wise and our monastery according to the rule of religion, without any such resort as hath been of late accustomed”[1235]. Evidently nuns had not changed since the day when the sisters of Markyate threw the Bull Periculoso at Bishop Dalderby’s retreating back.

But their struggles were in vain and a worse fate awaited them. The Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII was preceded by an order to his commissioners, that they should enforce enclosure upon the nuns. The injunction met with the usual resistance at the time and later apologists of the monastic houses have blamed the King for undue and unreasonable harshness. But if Henry VIII was too strict, so also was Ottobon, so Peckham, so Boniface VIII, so almost every bishop and council of the past three hundred years. In this at least, low as his motives may have been, the man who was to claim the headship of the English Church was the lineal descendant of the most masterful of medieval popes. The instructions given to the commissioners were the last of a long series of injunctions, in which it was attempted to reform the nunneries by shutting them off from the world. It is plain that even in the thirteenth century some such reform was necessary, and the history of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries only shows the necessity becoming more urgent. Whatever may have been Henry VIII’s motives, however greedy, however licentious, however unspiritual, it would be impossible to contend that his decree of enclosure was not in accordance with the best ecclesiastical tradition and amply justified by the condition of the monastic houses.



[Pg 394]



Ès maisons de nonnains aucun sont bien venut,
Et as gens festyer n’a nul règne tenut;
On y va volentiers et souvent et menut
Mais mieuls sont festyet jovène que li kenut.
Gilles li Muisis († 1352).


In the last chapter the question of enclosure was considered only from one point of view, that of keeping the nuns within the precincts of their cloister. But there was another side to the problem. In order to preserve them unspotted from the world it was necessary not only that the nuns should keep within their cloisters, but that secular persons should keep outside. It was useless to pass regulations forbidding nuns to leave their houses, if visitors from the world had easy access to them and could move freely about within the precincts. Ottobon, Peckham, Boniface VIII, Henry VIII, and all who legislated on the subject from the earliest years to the Council of Trent, combined a prohibition against the entrance of seculars, with their prohibition against the exit of nuns[1236]. Some intercourse with seculars was bound to occur, even in the best regulated nunnery. The nuns were often served by layfolk and it was a recognised obligation that they should show hospitality to guests. In both cases they were of necessity brought in contact with worldly folk, and as usual they made the most of their opportunity.

Even more disturbing to monastic discipline were the casual visits of friends in the neighbourhood, coming to see and talk with the nuns for a few hours. Visitation documents show that there was a steady intercourse between the convent and the world. Letters and messages passed between the nuns and their friends outside, and a great many of the private affairs of the convent found their way to the ears of seculars. “From miln and[Pg 395] from market, from smithy and from nunnery, men bring tidings” ran the proverb[1237], and complaints were common that the secrets of the chapter were spread abroad in the country side. At the ill-conducted house of Catesby in 1442 the Prioress (herself the blackest sheep in all the flock) complained that

secular folk have often recourse to the nuns’ chambers within the cloister, and talkings and junketings take place there without the knowledge of the Prioress; ... also the nuns do send out letters and receive letters sent to them without the advice of the prioress. Also ... that the secrets of the house are disclosed in the neighbourhood by such seculars when they come there. Also the nuns do send out the serving-folk of the priory on their businesses and do also receive the persons for whom they send and with whom they hold parleyings and conversations, whereof the Prioress is ignorant[1238].

At Goring in 1530 the Prioress complained that one of the nuns persisted in sending messages to her friends[1239], and at Romsey in 1509 Alice, wife of William Coke, the cook of the nunnery, was enjoined “that she shall not be a messenger or bearer of messages or troths or tokens between any nun and any lay person on pain of excommunication and as much as in her lies shall hinder communications of lay persons with nuns at the kitchen window”[1240]. At St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, it was even necessary to order the nuns to refrain from kissing secular persons[1241].

Sometimes the visitation detecta or comperta or injunctions give specific details as to the visitors who were most assiduous in haunting a nunnery. It is amusing to follow the reference to scholars of Oxford in the records of those houses which were in the neighbourhood of the University. Godstow was the nearest and the students seem to have regarded it as a happy hunting ground constituted specially for their recreation. Peckham, in his set of Latin injunctions to the Abbey, wrote after giving minute regulations as to the terms upon which nuns might converse with visitors:

When the scholars of Oxford come to talk with you, we wish no nun to join in such conversations, save with the licence of the Abbess[Pg 396] and unless they be notoriously of kin to her, in the third grade of consanguinity at least; we order the nuns to refuse to converse with all scholars so coming; nor shall you desire to be united in any special tie of familiarity with them, for such affection often excites unclean thoughts[1242].

The most detailed information, however, is to be found in the injunctions sent by Bishop Gray to Godstow in 1432:

That no nun receive any secular person for any recreation in the nuns’ chambers under pain of excommunication. For the scholars of Oxford say they can have all manner of recreation with the nuns, even as they will desire.... Also that the recourse of scholars of Oxford to the monastery be altogether checked and restrained.... Also that (neither) the gatekeeper of the monastery, nor any other secular person convey any gifts, rewards, letters or tokens from the nuns to any scholars of Oxford or other secular person whomsoever, or bring back any such scholars or persons to the same nuns, nay, not even skins containing wine, without the view and knowledge of the abbess and with her special licence asked and had, under pain of expulsion from his office (and) from the said monastery for ever; and if any nun shall do the contrary she shall undergo imprisonment for a year[1243].

In a commission addressed two years later to the Abbot of Oseney and to Master Robert Thornton the Bishop spoke in very severe terms of the bad behaviour of the nuns, and ordered the commissioners to proceed to Godstow and to inquire whether a nun, who had been with child at the time of his visitation, had been preferred to any office or had gone outside the precincts and whether his other injunctions had been obeyed, especially “if any scholars of the university of Oxford, graduate or non-graduate, have had access to the same monastery or lodging in the same, contrary to the form of our injunctions aforesaid”[1244]. But the situation was unchanged when, thirteen years later,[Pg 397] Alnwick came to Godstow. Elizabeth Felmersham, the Abbess, deposed

that secular folk have often access to the nuns during the divine office in quire, and to the frater at meal-time.... She cannot restrain students from Oxford from having common access in her despite to the monastery and the claustral precincts. The nuns hold converse with the secular folk that come to visit the monastery, without asking any leave of the abbess.

Other nuns deposed that sister Alice Longspey[1245] often conversed in the convent church with Hugh Sadler, a priest from Oxford, who obtained access to her on the plea that she was his kinswoman and that Dame Katherine Okeley:

holds too much talk with the strangers that come to the monastery in the church, in the chapter-house, at the church-door, the hall door and divers other places; nor is she obedient to the orders and commands of the abbess according to the rule[1246].

Other houses also found the clerks of Oxford too attractive. At Alnwick’s visitation of Littlemore Dame Agnes Marcham (a lady with a tongue) spoke of “the ill-fame which is current thereabouts concerning the place,” and said

that a certain monk of Rievaulx, who is a student at Oxford and is of the Cistercian order, has common and often access to the priory, eating and drinking with the prioress and spending the night therein, sometimes for three, sometimes for four days on end. Also she says that master John Herars, master in arts, a scholar of Oxford and a kinsman of the prioress, has access in like manner to the priory, breakfasting, supping and spending the night in the same[1247].

The state of the house in the sixteenth century was infinitely worse and it well merited its early suppression in 1526[1248]. At another house, Studley, visited by Alnwick in 1445, the significant request was made:

that the vicar of Bicester, who is reckoned to be of ripe judgment and age and sufficient knowledge, may be appointed as confessor to the[Pg 398] convent and in no wise an Oxford scholar, since it is not healthy that scholars of Oxford should have a reason for coming to the priory[1249].

Nor does the proximity of Cambridge appear to have had a less disturbing effect upon morals and discipline. In 1373 it was found that the Prioress of St Radegund’s

did not correct Dame Elizabeth de Cambridge for withdrawing herself from divine service and allowing friars of different orders, as well as scholars, to visit her at inopportune times and to converse with her, to the scandal of religion[1250],

and in 1496, when John Alcock, Bishop of Ely, converted the nunnery into the college afterwards known as Jesus College, its dilapidation was ascribed to “the negligence and improvidence and dissolute disposition and incontinence of the religious women of the same house, by reason of the vicinity of Cambridge University”[1251]. Plainly the scholars who hung about the portals and tethered their horses in the paddocks of Godstow, and who gossiped with the sisters of Studley and Littlemore and St Radegund’s, were not of the type of that clerk of Oxenford, who loved his twenty red and black-clad books better than “robes riche or fithele or gay sautrye”; and it is to be feared that their speech was not “souninge in moral vertu.” Rather they belonged to the tribe of Absolon, who could trip and dance in twenty manners:

After the scole of Oxenforde tho,
And with his legges casten to and fro,
And pleyen songes on a small rubible,

or of hende Nicholas (“of derne love he coude and of solas”), or of those two clerks of Cambridge, Aleyn and John, who harboured with the Miller of Trumpington, or of “joly Jankin,” the Wife of Bath’s first husband. The nuns certainly got no good from these young men of light heart and slippery tongue.

Sometimes, as it appears from the cases of Alice Longspey, Katherine Okeley and Elizabeth de Cambridge, certain nuns rendered themselves particularly conspicuous for intercourse with seculars, or certain men were assiduous nunnery-haunters and forbidden by name to frequent the precincts. At a visitation[Pg 399] of St Sepulchre’s, Canterbury, in 1367-8, it was found that

Dame Johanna Chivynton, prioress there, does not govern well the rule nor the religion of the house, because she permits the rector of Dover Castle and other suspect persons to have too much access to sisters Margery Chyld and Juliana Aldelesse, who have a room contrary to the injunction made there on another occasion by the Lord [Archbishop], and these suspect persons often spend the night there[1252].

At Nuncoton in 1531 Longland writes:

We chardge you, lady prioresse, undere payne of excommunicacon that ye from hensforth nomore suffre Sir John Warde, Sir Richard Caluerley, Sir William Johnson, nor parson ..., ne the parson of Skotton, ne Sir William Sele to come within the precincts of your monasterye, that if they by chance do unwares to you that ye streight banish them and suffre not theme ther to tary, nor noone of your sustres to commune with them or eny of them. And that ye voyde out of your house Robert lawrence and he nomore resorte to the same[1253].

Incidents such as these can be multiplied from the records of episcopal visitations[1254] and general complaints are even more common. It appears that secular persons set at naught the rule[Pg 400] which confined them to the prioress’ hall, the parlour and the guest-house, and penetrated at will into the private parts of the monastery, haunting now the cloister, now the infirmary, now the frater, now the choir[1255]. Bishop Gynewell’s injunction to Heynings in 1351 called attention to a state of affairs which was common enough in the century which opened with Periculoso:

“Because,” he wrote, “we have heard that great disturbance of your religion hath been made by seculars, who enter into your cloister and choir, we charge you that henceforth ye suffer no secular man, save your patron or other great lord[1256] to enter your cloister, nor to hold therein parley or other dalliance with any sister of your house, whereby your silence or religion may suffer blame”[1257].

Moreover it is clear that the nuns sometimes escaped to the guest-house to enjoy a gossip with their visitors; at Alnwick’s visitation of Heynings in 1440 a lay sister deposed “that the nuns do hold drinkings of evenings in the guest-chamber even after compline, especially when their friends come to visit them” and the Bishop enjoined

for as muche as we founde that there are vsede late drynkynges and talkyng by nunnes as wele wythe yn as wythe owte the cloystere wythe seculeres, where thurgh some late ryse to matynes and some come not at thayme, expressly agayns the rule of your ordere, we[Pg 401] charge yow and yche oon singulere that fro this day forthe ye neyther vse spekyng ne drynkyng in no place aftere complyne, but that after collacyone and complyne sayde ych oon of yow go wythe owte lengere tarying to the dormytorye to your reste[1258].

In the course of time a series of regulations was devised to govern the entrance of seculars into the nunneries, hardly less detailed than those which governed the visits of nuns to the world. An attempt was made to prevent certain classes of persons from being allowed to sleep in a house; also to keep all visitors out of certain places and during certain hours; and elaborate rules were made fixing the conditions under which nuns might hold conversations or exchange letters with seculars. The rule which forbade nuns to harbour in houses of religious men was often supplemented by a regulation forbidding friars, or other men belonging to religious orders, from being received as guests by nuns. At Godstow in 1284 Peckham forbade the reception of religious men for the night[1259] and in 1358 Bishop Gynewell enjoined the same convent “for certain reasons, that no friars of any order whatever be harboured by night within the doors of your house, nor by day save it be for great necessity and reasonable cause, and not habitually”[1260]. William of Wykeham directed a special mandate on the subject to Wherwell in 1368:

“Lately,” he says, “it has come to our ears by popular report of trusty men, that contrary to the honesty of religion you admit various religious men, especially of the mendicant orders, lightly and promiscuously to pass the night in your habitations, from which grows much matter for laxity and scandal, since the cohabitation of religious clerks and nuns is altogether forbidden by the constitutions of the holy fathers.”

[Pg 402]He proceeds to forbid the reception of friars or other religious men to lodge in the abbey, though food might be given them in alms[1261]. As in the rules regulating visits paid by nuns, attempts were sometimes made though not insisted upon with any severity, to restrict the visitors who might spend the night to near relatives. At Godstow, for instance, Bishop Gray ordered in 1432 that strangers “in no wise pass the night there, unless they be father and mother, brother and sister of that nun for whose sake they have so come to the monastery”[1262]; and Archbishop Lee wrote to Sinningthwaite in 1534 forbidding any visitor to have recourse to the Prioress or nuns “onles it be their fathers or moders or other ther nere kynesfolkes, in whom no suspicion of any yll can be thought”[1263].

The chief efforts of the authorities were, however, directed not towards keeping certain persons altogether out of the nunneries, but towards keeping all visitors out of certain parts of the house and during certain hours. The general rule was that no secular was to enter after sunset or curfew, and elaborate arrangements were made for locking and unlocking the doors at certain times. At Esholt and Sinningthwaite Archbishop Lee enjoined

that the prioress provide sufficient lockes and keys to be sett upon the cloyster doores, incontinent after recept of thies injunctions and that the same doores surely be lockid every nyght incontinent as complane is doone, and not to be unlocked in wynter season to vij of the clock in the mornyng and in sommer vnto vj of the clock in the mornyng; and that the prioresse kepe the keyes of the same doores, or committ the custodie of them to such a discrete and religious suster, that no fault nor negligence may be imputed to the prioresse, as she will avoyde punyshment due for the same[1264].



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[Pg 403]At the same time, for better security, he ordered the nuns to be locked into their dorter every night until service time. Sometimes the nuns objected to being shut in the house so early in the summer time, when the days were long and the trees in the convent garden green. The nuns of Sheppey were plaintive on the subject in 1511. Amicia Tanfeld said

that the gate of the cloister is closed immediately after the bell rings for vespers and remains shut until it rings for prime[1265]; this, in the opinion of the convent is too strict, especially in summer time, because it might remain open until after supper, as she says.

Elizabeth Chatok, cantarista[1266], said the same “clauditur nimis tempestive tempore presertim estiuali”; perhaps she was thinking of better singers than herself, who piped their vespers outside that closed door,

And songen, everich in his wyse
The most solempne servyse
By note, that ever man, I trowe,
Had herd; for som of hem song lowe
Some hye and al of oon accord[1267].

Her sisters agreed with her, but the stern archbishop took no notice of their plaints[1268].

Strict regulations were also made for keeping secular visitors out of certain parts of the convent. The dorter, frater, fermery, chapter and cloister and the internal offices of the house were supposed to be entered only by the nuns[1269]:

[Pg 404]“And in order that the quiet of your cloister be in future observed better than has been customary,” wrote Peckham to the nuns of Wherwell in 1284, “we order ... that no secular or religious person be permitted to enter the cloister, nor the interior offices, save for a manifest and inevitable reason, that is bodily infirmity, for which a confessor or doctor or near relative may be allowed to enter, but always in safe and praiseworthy company. So that no one shall hear the confession of a healthy nun or woman in cloister or chapter or in the interior offices.... And we consider healthy anyone who is able, conveniently and without danger to life, to enter the church or the parlour”[1270].

At Romsey he further ordered four nuns to be made scrutineers: “Who shall expel from the cloister as suspect all persons of whatsoever condition wishing to stare at the nuns or to chatter with them”[1271]. But the rule was constantly broken and it has been shown that seculars penetrated to all parts of the convents. Injunctions order them to be excluded now from dorter, now from frater, now from fermery, according as visitation showed them to be in the habit of entering one part of a house or another. Sometimes special orders were given for the making and locking of doors separating the cloister from the outside court, or the nuns’ choir from the rest of the church, a necessary precaution when the nave of a conventual church was used as a parish church. Bishop Longland wrote to Elstow (1531):

Forasmoche as the more secrete religious persones be kepte from the sight and visage of the world and straungers, the more close and entyer ther mynd and devoc[i]on shalbe unto god, we ordeyn and Inioyne to the lady abbesse that before the natiuyte of our lorde next ensewing she cause a doore with two leves to be made and sett upp att the lower ende of the quere and that doore to be fyve foote in hight att the leaste and contynually to stand shitt the tymes of dyvyne seruice excepte it be att comming in or out of eny off the ladyes and mynystres off the said churche. And under like payne as is afore we chardge the said ladye abbess that she cause the doore betwene the convent and the parishe churche contynually to be shitt, unless itt be oonly the tymes of dyvyne service, and likewise she cause the cloistre door[Pg 405] towardes the outward court to be continually shitt, unles itt be att suche tymes as eny necessaryes for the convent shall be brought in or borne out att the same, and thatt she suffre noo other back doures to be opened butt upon necessarye, grett and urgent causes by her approved[1272].

Special attempts were made to prevent secret communications between nuns and secular persons in corners and passages or through windows, and to block up unnecessary doors by which persons might enter:

“We ordeyn and injoyne yow, prioresse and convent,” writes Dean Kentwode to St Helens, “That ye, ne noone of yowre sustres use nor haunte any place withinne the priory, thoroghe the wiche evel suspeccyone or sclaundere mythe aryse; weche places for certeyne causes that move us, we wryte here inne owre present iniunccyone, but wole notyfie to yow, prioresse: nor have no lokyng nor spectacles owtewarde, thorght the wiche ye mythe fall into worldly dilectacyone[1273].”

Archbishop Lee showed no such desire to spare the feelings of the nuns of Esholt by not openly specifying the places where they were wont to whisper with their friends:

Item where there is on the backside of certen chambres, on the south side of the church where the sustres worke, an open way goyng to the watirside, and to the brige goyng over the water, without wall or[Pg 406] doore, so that many ylles may be committed by reason hereof; wherfore in avoyding such inconveniences that myght folow yf it shuld so remayne, by thies presentes we inioyne the prioresse, that she, incontinent withoutzt delay aftre the recept herof cause a strong and heigh wall to be made in the said voyde place[1274].

Above all it was reiterated at visitation after visitation that no nun was to receive a man in her private chamber or to hold conversations with any stranger there and that certain conditions were to be observed in all conversations between the nuns and their visitors. Archbishop Rotherham’s injunction to Nunappleton in 1489 is typical:

Item yat none of your sustirs bring in, receyve or take any laie man, religiose or secular into yer chambre or any secret place, daye or knyght, not wt yaim in such private places to commyne ete or drynke wtout lycence of you, Prioresse[1275].

At Sopwell in 1338 an interesting addition was made to the ordinary rule:

And because it is seemly that ladies of religion in the presence of seculars should bear themselves according to rule in dress and in deportment, we will and ordain that none of you henceforward come to the parlour to talk with seculars if she have not her cowl and her headdress of kerchiefs and veil, according to the rule (son cool et son covert de cuverchiefs et de veil ordine), as beseemeth your religion. And none save honest persons shall be suffered to enter, and if such person wish to remain for a meal, let him eat in the parlour, by permission of the confessor, and on no account in the chambers without our express permission, or that of our own prior, if we be absent. Concerning the workmen, whom you need for your necessities, to wit tailors and furriers, we will for that such workmen a place be ordained near the cloister, where such workmen may do their works, and that they be by no means called into the chambers, nor into any private place. And let the workmen be such that no suspicion of evil may be roused by them[1276].

[Pg 407]At Barking Peckham ordered in 1279 that no secular man or woman was to enter the nuns’ chambers, unless a nun were so ill that it was necessary to speak to her there, in which case a confessor, doctor, father or brother might have access to her[1277].

The rules laid down for the holding of conversations between nuns and visitors required that the permission of the head of the house should first be obtained, and that the meeting should take place in the locutorium or parlour, or occasionally in the abbess’s hall[1278], and in the hearing of “at least one other nun of sound character,” or more frequently two other nuns. Sometimes it was added that conversations were not to be too lengthy:

“Let it not be permitted to any nun,” wrote Peckham to Romsey, “to hold converse with any man save either in the parlour or in the side of the church next the cloister. And in order that all suspicion may henceforth be removed, we order that any nun about to speak[Pg 408] with any man, save in the matter of confession, have with her two companions to hear her conversation, in order that they may either be edified by useful words, if these are forthcoming, or hinder evil words, lest evil communications corrupt good manners”[1279].

Alnwick’s injunction to Godstow in 1445 was couched in very similar terms:

That ye suffre none of your susters to speke wythe any seculere persone ne religiouse, but all onely in your halle in your presence and audience, or, by your specyalle licence asked and had, in the presence of two auncyent nunnes approuved in the religyon so that ye or the said two nunnes here and see what that say and do, and so that thaire spekyng to gedre be not longe but in shorte and few wordes[1280].

It was also attempted to exercise control over communication between the nuns and the world by means of messages and letters. Alnwick sent injunctions on this point to Langley, Markyate and St Michael’s, Stamford (“ne that ye suffre none of youre sustres to receyve ne sende owte noyre gyfte ne lettre, but ye see the gyftes and wyte what is contyened in the lettres”)[1281], and in 1432 Dean Kentwode wrote to St Helen’s, Bishopsgate:

Also we ordeyne and injoyne yow, that noone of yow speke, ne comone with no seculere persone; ne sende ne receyve letteres myssyves or gyftes of any seculere persone, withowte lycence of the prioresse: ... and such letters or gyftes sent or receyved, may turne into honeste and wurchepe and none into velanye or disclaundered of yowre honeste and religione[1282].

It is common to find among episcopal injunctions to nunneries one to the effect that no secular woman is to sleep in the dorter with the nuns. The fact that this injunction had constantly to be repeated shows that it was as constantly broken. Servants, boarders and school children seem in many houses to have shared the dorter with the nuns, an arrangement which must have been exceedingly disturbing to all parties. Alnwick found the practice at eleven out of the twenty houses which he visited in[Pg 409] 1440-5. At Catesby, Langley, Stixwould and St Michael’s, Stamford, little girls, between the ages of five and ten, used to sleep with the nuns; there were six or seven of them at that ill-conducted house, Catesby, in the charge of Agnes Allesley, who was so disobedient to the bishop[1283]. At Gracedieu the cellaress had a boy of seven with her in the dorter[1284]. At Legbourne a nun complained that “the Prioress suffers secular women, both boarders and servants, to lie by night in the dorter among the nuns, against the rule”[1285] and at Heynings (which was much haunted by visitors) a lay sister deposed that “the infirmary is occupied by secular folk, to the great disturbance of the sisters; ... also that secular serving women do lie among the sisters in the dorter, and especially one who did buy a corrody there”[1286]. At the other houses (Godstow, Nuncoton and Stainfield) it was simply mentioned that secular persons lay in the dorter, without details as to whether they were servants, boarders or children[1287]. In all cases Alnwick strictly forbade the practice, and a prohibition to this effect is common in episcopal injunctions[1288].

These injunctions against the use of the dorter by seculars illustrate another aspect of the movement for enclosure. The majority of the other injunctions which have been quoted were attempts to regulate the intercourse of nuns with casual visitors, strangers who came for a day, or perhaps for two or three days. But a far more dangerous menace to the quiet of the cloister lay in the constant presence of secular boarders and corrodians, who made their home in a nunnery. Ladies who wished to end their days in peace sometimes went there as boarders or as corrodians; it is, no doubt, decent sober women such as these,[Pg 410] who are sometimes exempted by name in episcopal injunctions ordering the exclusion of boarders from a house. But more often women would seek the temporary hospitality of a nunnery when, for some reason, they wished to leave their homes. A monastic house was, on the whole, a safe refuge, and many a knight going to the wars went with a lighter heart when he knew that his wife or daughter was sleeping within convent walls. In 1314 John of Drokensford, Bishop of Bath and Wells, licensed the Prioress of Cannington to lodge and board the wife and two daughters of John Fychet during his absence abroad[1289], and in 1372 William of Wykeham sent letters to the Abbesses of Romsey and Wherwell on behalf of another wife left alone in England:

“The noble Earl of Pembroke,” wrote the Bishop, “has begged us by his letters to direct our special letters to you on behalf of the noble and gently-born lady, Lady Elizabeth de Berkele, a kinswoman of the aforesaid Earl, that she may lodge within your house ... while Sir Maurice Wytht [sic ? knyght] the same lady’s husband, remains in the company of the aforesaid Earl in parts beyond the sea”;

and so, in spite of a recent prohibition to these houses to receive boarders, they are to take in Lady Berkeley[1290]. Sometimes the wording of these licences shows that the ladies required only a temporary shelter and had by no means retired from the world. Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury gave leave to Joan Wason and Maude Poer to stay at Cannington from December 1336 till the following Easter, and Isabel Fychet received a similar licence; in 1354 Isolda wife of John Bycombe was licensed to stay there from March till August[1291]. Sometimes these ladies brought their servants or gentlewomen with them; Joan Wason and Maude Poer had permission to take two “dammoiselles” and Isabel[Pg 411] Fychet one maid to Cannington; when Lady Margery Treverbyn, a widow, went with every profession of piety to Canonsleigh in 1328, she was accompanied by “a certain priest, a squire (domicellus) and a damsel (domicella)”[1292]; the widow of Sir John Pateshull was licensed to dwell in Elstow with her daughter and maids in 1350[1293]; the familia of Elizabeth Berkeley is mentioned in William of Wykeham’s licence and in 1291 John le Romeyn, Archbishop of York, gave the convent of Nunappleton permission to receive Lady Margaret Percy as a boarder for a year, “provided that her household during that time shall not be other than respectable (honesta)”[1294]. In the list (compiled by Mr Rye) of boarders in Carrow Priory during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, several ladies are mentioned as being accompanied by servants; Lady Maloysel and servant, Isabell Argentoin and servant, the Lady Margaret Kerdeston and woman, Margaret Wryght and servant, Lady Margaret Wetherby, her servant Matilda and her chaplain William. The same list shows that not only women but men were received as boarders, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by their wives, and though some of the names given are doubtless those of little boys, who were receiving their education in the nunnery, others can be clearly identified as adults[1295]. The Paston Letters afford a famous case in which both a girl and her betrothed, who had quarrelled with her parents, were lodged for a time in a nunnery. Margery Paston had fallen in love with her brother’s bailiff, Richard Calle, to the fury of her family, who swore that “he should never have their good will for to make her to sell candle and mustard in Framlingham.” The two lovers plighted their troth, a ceremony as binding in the eyes of the Church as marriage itself, and Richard Calle appealed to the Bishop of Norwich to set the matter beyond doubt by an inquiry. The spirited Margery “rehearsed what she had said, and said, if those words made it not sure, she said boldly that she would make that surer or than she went thence, for she said she thought in her conscience[Pg 412] she was bound, whatsoever the words were,” whereupon her mother refused to receive her back into her house, and the Bishop himself was obliged to find a lodging for her. This he did at first with some friends and afterwards at a nunnery, where Richard Calle also was lodged, for John Paston mentions him shortly afterwards in a letter to his brother, “As to his abiding it is in Blakborow nunnery a little fro Lynn and our unhappy sister’s also”[1296].

It is plain from visitation records that the boarders who flocked to the nunneries were exceedingly disturbing to conventual life and sometimes even brought disrepute upon their hostesses by behaviour more suited to the world than to the cloister. Alnwick’s register contains some amusing and instructive evidence on this point. At Langley, a very worldly and aristocratic person, Lady Audley, was occupying a house or set of rooms (domum) within the Priory, paying 40s. yearly and keeping the house in repair; but she had no intention of giving up the ways of the world; pet dogs were her hobby, and the helpless Prioress complained to Alnwick (a Bishop must sometimes have had much ado to keep a straight face at these revelations):

Lady Audley, who boards in the house, has a great abundance of dogs, insomuch that whenever she comes to church there follow her twelve dogs, who make a great uproar in church, hindering them in their psalmody and the nuns hereby are made terrified![1297]

“Let a warning be directed to Lady Audley to remove her dogs from the church and the choir,” says a note in the Register; and Lady Audley, followed by her twelve dogs, recedes for ever from our view, unless reincarnated four centuries later in the person of Hawker of Morwenstow. A boarder at Legbourne had a different taste in pets. Dame Joan Pavy informed the Bishop: “That Margaret Ingoldesby, a secular woman, lies of a night[Pg 413] in the dorter among the nuns, bringing with her birds, by whose jargoning silence is broken and the rest of the nuns is disturbed”[1298]. Exasperated Dame Joan, trying to steal some sleep before groping her way down to matins! She had never heard of Vert-Vert, nor even of Philip Sparrow and she would not have been of the young and pretty novices, whose toilet the immortal parrot superintended with a connoisseur’s eye. The Bishop cut the Gordian knot for her by ordering all seculars to be turned out of the dorter. At Stixwould there were two widows, Elizabeth Dymmok and Margaret Tylney, with their maidservants, staying with the Prioress, and two other adult women staying with the cellaress; and

there is in the same place a certain woman suspect [she was probably a servant] who dwells within the cloister precincts, Joan Bartone by name, to whom one William Traherne had had suspicious access, bringing her therafter before the ecclesiastical judge in a matrimonial suit, and she is very troublesome to the nuns[1299].

At Gracedieu it was found that the Prioress divulged the secrets of the house to her secular boarders[1300]. At other houses also it was complained that the boarders not only disturbed convent life, but attracted many visitors. At Nuncoton the Subprioress “prays that the lodgers be removed from the house, so that they mingle not among the nuns, for if there were none the Prioress might be able to come constantly to frater; and because there is great recourse of strangers to the lodgers, to the sore burthen of the house”; another nun also deposed “that there is great recourse of guests on account of the lodgers” and a third asked that boarders of marriageable age should be altogether removed from the house, frater and dorter, “by reason of the divers disadvantages which arise to the house out of their stay”[1301]. At Godstow in 1432 Bishop Gray enjoined:

[Pg 414]that Felmersham’s wife with her whole household, and other women of mature age be utterly removed from the monastery within one year next to come, seeing that they are a cause of disturbance to the nuns and an occasion of bad example by reason of their attire and those who come to visit them[1302].

It is indeed easy to understand why bishops objected so much to the reception of these worldly women as boarders. If instead of Felmersham’s wife we read “the wife of Bath” all is explained. That lady was not a person whom a Prioress would lightly refuse; the list of her pilgrimages alone would give her the entrée into any nunnery. Smiling her gat-toothed smile and riding easily upon her ambler, she would enter the gates and alight in the court, and what a month of excitement would pass before she rode away again. It is hard not to suspect that it was she who introduced “caps of estate” (were they “as broad as is a buckler or a targe”?) to the Prioress of Ankerwyke and crested shoes to the nuns of Elstow; and it may have been she (alas) who taught some of them to step “the olde daunce”[1303]. Bad enough for their peace of mind to meet her at a pilgrimage, but much worse to have her settled in their midst, gossiping as endlessly as she gossiped in her prologue, and amplifying her reminiscences for a less sophisticated audience. This was one reason why the bishops made a special injunction against the reception of married women. The presence of men was open to even more serious objections. At Hampole in 1411 the Archbishop of York made the significant injunction that the Prioress was not to allow any corrodiarii or others to retain suspected women with them in the house[1304]. At St Michael’s, Stamford, in 1442 Alnwick discovered

that Richard Gray lately boarding in the priory together with his legitimate wife, procreavit prolem de domina Elizabetha Wylugby moniali[Pg 415] ibidem, and boarded there until last Easter against the injunction of the lord (bishop)[1305].

So also at Easebourne in 1478 it was deposed that “a certain Sir John Senoke[1306] much frequented the priory or house, so that during some weeks he passed the night and lay within the priory or monastery every night, and was the cause ... of the ruin” of two nuns who had gone into apostasy at the instigation of various men[1307].

The reception of secular women as boarders without the consent of the diocesan was forbidden as early as 1222 by the Council of Oxford[1308] and the bishops henceforth pursued a steady policy of ejection:

“Since,” wrote Bishop Flemyng to Elstow, “from the manifest conjectures and assurances of our eyes we have learned that by reason of the stay of lodgers, especially of married persons, in the said monastery, the purity of religion (and) pleasantness of honest conversation and character, (which) in their fragrance in our judgment far surpass temporal goods, and the destruction of which far exceeds the waste of temporal wealth, have suffered grave shipwreck, and may suffer, as is likely, more heavily in future, we ordain, enjoin and charge you who are now abbess and the other several persons who shall be abbesses in the said monastery, under pain of deprivation, beside the other penalties written beneath, which likewise, if you do contrary to that which we command, it is our will that you incur thereupon, that henceforward you admit or allow to be admitted or received to lodge or stay within the limits of the cloister, no persons male or female, how honest soever they be, who are beyond the twelfth year of their age, nor any other persons soever, and married persons in special, without the site of the same monastery, unless you have procured express and special licence in the cases premised from ourselves or from our successors, who for the time being shall be bishops of Lincoln”[1309].

Always the reason given is that these boarders are a disturbance to conventual discipline:

“Item because religion has been much disturbed among you by reason of secular women lodging in your house,” wrote Bishop Gynewell to Heynings in 1351, “we forbid on pain of excommunication that after the feast of St Michael next to come any secular woman be allowed to remain in your Priory, save your servants who be necessary for your service”[1310].

[Pg 416]“Also for as myche as we fynde detecte,” Alnwick wrote nearly a century later to the same house, “that for the multitude of sujournauntes wythe [yow] as wele wedded as other ofte tymes the qwyere and the rest of yowe in your obseruances is troubled, we charge [yow] pryoresse vnder payne of the sentence of cursyng that fro this day forthe ye receyve no sodeiyourauntes that pas[se a man] x yere, a woman xiii yere of age, wytheowten specyalle leve of hus or our successours bushops of Lincolne asked [and had]”[1311].

But the attempt to clear the convents of secular boarders was entirely unsuccessful. The bishops had two powerful forces against them, the desire of the impoverished nuns to make money and the desire of seculars for a quiet and inexpensive hostel; and the nuns continued to take boarders, in spite of a series of prohibitions. At Romsey, for instance, Peckham forbids boarders, c. 1284; in 1311 Bishop Woodlock has to repeat the prohibition “because of the continual sojourn of seculars we find the tranquillity of the nuns to be much disturbed and scandals to arise in your monastery”; in 1346 Edynton orders the removal of all secular persons within a month; in 1363 he has to write again, complaining that he has heard by public report that they have not obeyed his former letter and ordering them to remove all perhendinatrices within fifteen days[1312]. At Godstow injunctions to this effect are made in succession by Gynewell (1358), Gray (1432-4) and Alnwick (1445)[1313]; at Elstow by Gynewell (1359), Bokyngham (1387), Flemyng (1421-2) and Gray (c. 1432)[1314]. Moreover the bishops themselves were sometimes obliged to leave the nuns a loophole of escape, by excepting certain women from the general prohibition; thus Alnwick excepted the two widows[Pg 417] Elizabeth Dymmok and Margaret Tylney at Stixwould[1315]; Brantyngham excepted “the noble woman Lady Elizabeth Courtenay, wife of the noble man Sir Hugh de Courtenay, Knight” at Canonsleigh (1391)[1316]; and Archbishop Rotherham at Nunappleton (1489) excepted children “or ellis old persones, by which availe biliklyhood may growe to your place”[1317]. Often too they were persuaded to grant licences to boarders, at the prayer of influential persons who must not be offended[1318]. The largest loophole which they were obliged by the pressure of circumstances to leave open was, however, the permission to receive small children for education[1319].

It is clear from the evidence of visitation documents that nuns often took boarders of their own free will, for the sake of the money which thus accrued to their impecunious houses; certainly no episcopal injunction was more consistently disobeyed. On the other hand great ladies often thrust themselves upon a convent, which dared not say them nay, and it is not at all unusual to find the nuns complaining of the disturbance caused to their daily life by visitors. The matter was complicated by the fact that the exercise of hospitality was one of the chief functions of monastic houses in the middle ages, and was so far regarded as a right by their neighbours that remonstrances were actually made if the quality of the entertainment offered was not considered sufficiently good. At Campsey in 1532 one of the nuns declared that “well-born guests (hospites generosae) coming to the priory complained of the excessive parsimony of the Prioress”[1320]. Complaints by the nuns of the spiritual disturbance caused by this influx of visitors, show that the right was vigorously exercised. In 1364 the Pope granted permission to Margaret de Lancaster, an Augustinian Canoness of the same nunnery of Campsey, to transfer herself to the Order of St Clare,[Pg 418] she having already caused herself to be enclosed at Campsey in order to avoid the number of nobles coming to the house[1321]; and in 1375 he commanded the Bishop of St Andrews to make order concerning the Prioress and nuns of the Benedictine convent of North Berwick, “who have petitioned for perpetual enclosure, they being much molested by the neighbourhood and visits of nobles and other secular persons”[1322]. Even enclosure was not always a protection against visitors; for the Popes constantly granted indults to great persons, allowing them to enter, with a retinue, the houses of monks and nuns belonging to enclosed orders. A few instances may be taken at random. John of Gaunt in 1371 received an indult to enter any monasteries of religious men and women once a year, with thirty persons of good repute[1323]; Joan Princess of Wales in 1372 was given permission to enter monasteries of enclosed nuns with six honest and aged men and fourteen women and to eat and drink, but not to pass the night therein[1324]; Thomas of Gloucester and his wife, the notorious Eleanor de Cobham, had an indult to enter monasteries of enclosed monks and nuns six times a year, with twenty persons of either sex[1325]. Sometimes, it is true, the visitors were forbidden to eat, drink or spend the night in the house[1326], but often they received special permission to do so; thus in 1408 Philippa, Duchess of York, was given an indult allowing her to take five or six matrons and to stay in monasteries of enclosed nuns for three days and nights at a time[1327] and in 1422 Joan Countess of Westmoreland received one to enter any nunnery with eight honest women, and to stay there with the nuns, eating, drinking and talking with them and spending the night[1328]. An indult granted in 1398 to Margery and Grace de Tylney “noblewomen,” to enter “as often as they please with six honest matrons, the monastery of enclosed nuns of the Order of St Clare, Denney”[1329], and a faculty granted in 1371 to “John, Cardinal of Sancti Quatuor Coronati”[1330], empowering him to give leave to a hundred women of high birth of France and England, to enter nunneries once a year, [Pg 419]accompanied each by four matrons[1331], give some idea of the extent to which it was usual for guests to visit even houses belonging to enclosed orders.

Nuns do not seem to have concerned themselves with political movements, unlike the monks, who in great abbeys were sometimes keen politicians. But it sometimes happened that the strife and intrigue and tragedy of the outside world entered into quiet convents, through this custom of using them as boarding houses. Not otherwise can we account for a curious case in which the nuns of Sewardsley were involved in 1470, when a certain Thomas Wake accused Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, of making an image of lead to be used in witchcraft against the King and Queen, which image he said had been shown to various persons and exhibited in the nunnery of Sewardsley[1332]. Moreover echoes of great doings came to nuns when the hapless wives and daughters of the King’s enemies were placed in their custody, a kindlier fate than imprisonment in a fortress or in charge of some loyal noble’s sharp-tongued wife. The course of Edward II’s troubled reign may be traced in the story of the women who were successively sent as prisoners, or (worse still) as nuns, to various priories. The first to suffer was the King’s niece Margaret; she had been married by him to Piers Gaveston and had seen her husband miserably slain at Thomas of Lancaster’s behest; she was married again to Sir Hugh Audley and ten years later, poor pawn in the game of politics, she suffered for her second husband’s share in Lancaster’s rebellion, when the crime of Blacklow Hill was expiated on the hill of Pontefract.

“Margarete countesse de Cornewaille,” says the chronicle of Sempringham, “La femme Sire Hugh Daudelee, e la niece le roi, fu ordinee a demorer en guarde a Sempringham entre les nonaignes, a quel lieu ele vint le xvi jour de Mai (1322) e la demorra”[1333].

[Pg 420]In the same year the Abbess of Barking was ordered “to cause the body of Elizabeth de Burgo, late wife of Roger Damory, within her abbey, to be kept safely and not to permit her to go outside the abbey gates in any wise until further orders”[1334]. In 1324 another rebel, Roger Mortimer, broke his prison in the Tower and escaped across the sea to France. But three poor children, his daughters, could not escape, and on April 7th of the same year the sheriff of Southampton received an order to cause Margaret, daughter of Roger Mortimer of Wygmore, to be conducted to the Priory of Shouldham, Joan, his second daughter, to the Priory of Sempringham, and Isabella, his third daughter, to the Priory of Chicksand, “to be delivered to the priors of those places (all were Gilbertine houses) to stay amongst the nuns in the same priories.” The Prior of Shouldham had 15d. weekly for Margaret’s expenses and a mark yearly for her robe, and each of the other two little girls received 12d. weekly for expenses and a mark for her robe[1335]. The she-wolf of France bided her time, and when the game was hers she was no less swift to avenge her wrongs; to Sempringham (where her lover’s daughter had gone two years before) now went the two daughters of the elder Hugh Despenser, to pray for the souls of a father and brother done most dreadfully to death[1336]. The perennial wars with Scotland also found their echo in the nunneries. In 1306 the Abbess of Barking was ordered “to deliver Elizabeth, sister of William Olifard [? Olifaunt] Knight, who is in their custody by the King’s permission to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, the King having granted her to the said Henry”[1337]; she was doubtless a relative of that “Hugh Olyfard, a Scot, the King’s enemy and rebel,” who together with one “William Sauvage the King’s approver” had broken his prison at Colchester some three years before, and fled into sanctuary in the convent church[1338]. Barking was a favourite prison, doubtless on account of its situation, and in 1314 the sheriffs of London were ordered “to receive Elizabeth, wife of Robert de Brus, from the Abbess of Berkyngg, with whom she had been staying by the King’s order and to take her[Pg 421] under safe custody to Rochester and there deliver her to Henry de Cobham, constable of the castle”[1339].

The mention of the Scot Hugh Olyfard, who took sanctuary in the church of Barking, recalls another reason for which the world might break into the cloister. The terrified fugitive from justice would take sanctuary in a convent church if it lay nearest to him, and the peace of chanting nuns would be rudely broken, when that unkempt and desperate figure sprang up the choir between them and flung itself upon their altar steps. The hand of a master has drawn for us what the trembling novices saw, peeping from their stalls:

... the breathless fellow at the altar foot,
Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
With the little children round him in a row
Of admiration, half for his beard and half
For that white anger of his victim’s son
Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
Signing himself with the other because of Christ
(Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
After the passion of a thousand years),
Till some poor girl, her apron o’er her head
Which the intense eyes looked through, came at eve
On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
Her pair of ear-rings and a bunch of flowers
The brute took growling, prayed and then was gone[1340].

[Pg 422]But sometimes more than a momentary disturbance was occasioned to the nunnery; in 1416, for instance, Edith Wilton, Prioress of Carrow, was attached, together with one of her nuns, on the charge of harbouring in sanctuary the murderers of William Koc of Trowse, at the appeal of his widow Margaret. She was arrested, imprisoned and called to answer at Westminster, but after the court had adjourned many times she was acquitted[1341]. An abbess of Wherwell was involved in a lawsuit over a case of sanctuary for somewhat different reasons; she claimed the right of seizing chattels of fugitives in the hundred of Mestowe[1342], a right which was disputed by the crown officials. One Henry Harold of Wherwell had killed his wife Isabel and fled to the church of Wherwell and the Abbess had promptly seized his chattels to the value of over £35, by the hands of her reeve[1343].

These cases of violence will lead us to the consideration of breaches of enclosure which were in no sense the fault of the unhappy nuns. Visits from their peaceful friends they welcomed; the sojourn of great folk they bore; but they would fain have passed their days undisturbed by war’s alarms and by the assault and battery of private feuds. But it was not to be. Alarums and excursions sometimes shattered their peace and, especially in the Northern counties, violent attacks at the hands of robbers, lawless neighbours, or enemies of the realm were only too common.[Pg 423] Disorder was general and grew worse in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The nunnery of Markyate was once assaulted in the night by fifty robbers and the nuns pillaged and robbed of everything valuable[1344], and in 1408 the Bishop of Ely gave an indulgence for the relief of the nuns of Rowney, “whose chalices, books, ornaments and other goods have been stolen by evil men, so that they have not the wherewithal to perform the divine office”[1345].

Neighbourly disagreements sometimes developed into petty warfare, as the Paston Letters show, and an almost exact parallel to the dispute between John Paston and Lord Molynes over the manor of Gresham is to be found in a complaint made in 1383 by the Prioress of Brodholme, who asserted that a gang of men (whom she named)

“had broken her close at Brodholme, felled her trees and underwood, dug in her soil, carried off earth, trees, underwood and other goods, depastured her corn and grass, assaulted her servants and besieged her and her nuns in the Priory and threatened them with death”[1346].

Such instances might be multiplied[1347]. Sometimes the presence of secular boarders led to unpleasant experiences for the nuns. The Lincoln registers record two such cases, which incidentally furnish an additional reason why the reception of boarders was frowned upon by the Church. In 1304 certain

“satellites of Satan whose names we know not” (Bishop Dalderby informs his official), “lately came in great numbers to the monastery of the nuns of Goring, where they boldly laid violent hands upon Henry, chaplain of the parish church and brother John le Walleys, lay brother of the same place (from whom they drew blood) and upon certain nuns of the house who struggled to guard their monastery, and then they entered and rode their horses up to the high altar of the church, polluting that holy place shamefully with the footprints and dung of their horses.”

Their object was apparently to seize a certain Isabella de Kent, a married woman then dwelling in the nunnery, and they pursued her to the belfry, where she had taken refuge and dragged her[Pg 424] away with them[1348]. An even worse disturbance took place at Rothwell in 1421-2. A gang of ruffians broke open the cloister and doors, seized one Joan (a boarder) and carried her away to a lonely house, where their leader forcibly violated her, with every circumstance of brutality. She escaped back to the priory, whereupon the leader

entering the same priory a second time, like a tyrant and pirate with a far greater multitude of like henchmen and people untamed and savage in his company, with naked swords and other sorts of divers weapons of offence, fell ... upon the same woman, who was then in the presence of the prioress and the nuns in the hall of the said priory and ... daringly laid wicked, sacrilegious and violent hands, notwithstanding the worship both of their persons and of the place, upon the prioress and nuns of the said place, honourable members of the church and persons hallowed to God accordingly—who endeavoured gently to appease their baseness and savagery, so far as their sex as women allowed—and cudgelled them with cruel strokes, threw them down on the ground and, trampling on them with their feet, mercilessly kicked them and violently dragged off their garments of their habits over their heads, and even as robbers, having caught their prey, carried off the said woman, dragging her with them out of the priory[1349].

Even more significant is the licence granted to the Abbess and Convent of Tarrant Keynes in 1343 to cut down two hundred acres of under-wood in their demesne land, “on their petition setting forth that their house and possessions in the county of Dorset had been burned and destroyed by an invasion of the king’s enemies in those parts”[1350]; or the permission given to the Abbess of Shaftesbury in 1367 to crenellate her Abbey, presumably for purposes of defence[1351]. The south coast was a constant[Pg 425] prey to pirates, and it was still within the memory of man that, at the beginning of the French war

the Normayns Pycardes and Spanyerdes entred into the toune (of Southampton) and robbed and pilled the toune, and slewe dyvers and defowled maydens, and enforced wyves, and charged their vessels with the pyllage and so entred agayne into their shyppes[1352].

The sanctity which attached to the person of a nun was apt to be forgotten in the brutal warfare of the day and the Abbess might well fear for her flock. The English nunneries did not, indeed, experience anything to compare with the unimaginable sufferings endured by French convents during the hundred years’ war[1353]. But they were by no means immune from the effects of civil war; Wilton, Wherwell and St Mary’s, Winchester, were all burned during the struggle between Stephen and Matilda[1354], and during the Wars of the Roses the nuns of Delapré were unwilling witnesses of the Battle of Northampton (1460), which was held “in the medowys beside the Nonry”; after the fight was over the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London rested at the nunnery and many of the slain were buried in its churchyard[1355].

The most striking example of the effect of warfare upon monastic houses in England is, however, provided by the history of the northern monasteries, which were throughout their history (but especially during the first part of the fourteenth century) in danger from the inroads of the Scots. So great was the destruction wrought in 1318 that it was necessary to make a new assessment of church property for purposes of taxation, in part of the province of York[1356]. Nor was the trouble purely material, though[Pg 426] the poverty of the nunneries (in particular) was sometimes abject and the harrying of their lands must have made prosperity at all times a vain hope. The moral results of such disorder were even more serious. It was almost impossible to maintain an ordinary communal life, when at any moment it might be necessary to disperse the nuns and quarter them in other houses out of the line of the marauders’ march. Even in houses which were never actually attacked, the prevalent unrest, the lawlessness which is naturally engendered by border warfare, must have been disorganising and demoralising. It is easy to understand why cases of immorality and grave disorder are more prevalent in the convents of the north of England than in those of any other district.

In 1296 the chronicler of Lanercost describes thus the first great raid of the Scots:

In this raid they surpassed in cruelty all the fury of the heathen; when they could not catch the strong and young people, who took flight, they imbrued their arms, hitherto unfleshed, with the blood of infirm people, old women, women in childbed and even children two or three years old, proving themselves apt scholars in atrocity, insomuch that they raised little span-long children pierced on pikes, to expire thus and fly away to the heavens. They burnt consecrated churches; both in the sanctuary and elsewhere they violated women dedicated to God [i.e. nuns] as well as married women and girls, either murdering them or robbing them, after gratifying their lust. Also they herded together a crowd of little scholars in the schools of Hexham and having blocked the doors set fire to that pile [so] fair [in the sight of God]. Three monasteries of holy collegiates were destroyed by them, Lanercost, of the Canons Regular; and Hexham of the same order and [that] of the nuns of Lambley; of all of these the devastation can by no means be attributed to the valour of warriors, but to the dastardly conduct of thieves, who attacked a weaker community, where they would not be likely to meet with any resistance[1357].

Some allowance must be made for the indignation of a canon of Lanercost, whose own house had been burnt; but even so it is plain that the religious houses must have endured terrible things at the hands of the Scots; and the peril of the nuns was to honour as well as to life and home.

In several cases record of the actual dispersal of the nuns has[Pg 427] been preserved, though such dispersal lasted only for a short time. The priory of Holystone, which lay right upon the border, was in a particularly exposed position and in 1313, when Bruce was devastating the northern counties, a letter from the Bishop of Durham bears vivid testimony to its miserable plight:

“The house of the said nuns,” he says, “situated in the March of England and Scotland, by reason of the hostile incursions which daily and continually increase in the March, is frequently despoiled of its goods and the nuns themselves are often attacked by the marauders, harmed and pursued and, put to flight and driven from their home, are constrained miserably to experience bitter suffering. Wherefore we make these things known to you, that you may compassionate their poverty, which is increased by the memory of happier things, and that your pity and benevolence may be shown them, lest (to the disgrace of their estate) they be forced publicly to beg”[1358].

The expiration of the truce with Scotland in 1322 was followed by another raid and by Edward II’s unsuccessful campaign, in the course of which the Scots overran Yorkshire and very nearly captured the King at Byland Abbey. The canons of Bridlington (whither he fled) departed with all their valuables to Lincolnshire, sending an envoy to purchase immunity from Bruce at Melton. The poor nuns of Moxby and Rosedale did not escape