English Literature



In the year 1000 only six or seven religious houses for women existed in England. When religious houses were dissolved in the sixteenth century, approximately seventy-five Benedictine nunneries were active. Nuns’ primary duties were prayer, contemplation of religious texts, and duties that sustained their house. Nunneries’ wealth varied widely, from those that received royal patronage or that benefited from the bequests of affluent families, to houses that were in constant peril of economic failure. Prioresses and abbesses often were women of some social standing. They were in charge of not only the spiritual but also the physical well-being of usually about twelve sisters; they had to be adept at managing property, assigning work, buying and selling goods, finances, overseeing support staff, novices’ education, and discipline. The Ankerwyke priory of Benedictine nuns in Buckinghamshire west of London was founded about 1160 and contained eight nuns in 1441. The properties mentioned in the bishop’s record that were administered by the prioress, Dame Clemence Medforde, were all within a 20-mile radius of the abbey. The following excerpt is fairly typical of bishops’ visitation accounts, revealing situations in which rules are frequently broken while accusations and revenge are common among the inhabitants of houses. It follows the usual form of such documents: introduction, detecta (the house members’ depositions) and comperta (the bishop’s findings) here combined, publication of the findings before the convent, and injunctions.

Of bishop William Alnwick’s forty-two surviving accounts from 1438–45, nine contain injunctions in English, all of which are addressed to women’s houses. (Alnwick also presided over Lollard cases, for which see “Lollardy Trials,” p. 59).The visitation of the priory of Ankerwyke of the order of St. Benet, the diocese of Lincoln, begun and performed in its chapterhouse, on the tenth day of the month of October in the year of our Lord, 1441, by the reverend father in Christ and lord, William, by the grace of God bishop of Lincoln, in the sixteenth year of his consecration and sixth of his translation . . .1 [1.] Dame Margery Kyrkeby says that all the houses and buildings within the priory are going to ruin, and three useful and necessary houses have fallen down, thrown to the ground because of the carelessness and negligence of the prioress, namely the sheepfold (which was worn out by the fault of the prioress, who was then at a wedding at Bromhall),2 another house in which dairy products are made, also a barn of which the timber, because it was not gathered together, is now burned. She3 confesses being at the wedding; she confesses the burning and also the remainder of the article. [2.] Also, that the prioress alone keeps and all her time has kept the common seal of the house so that she can do with it whatever she wishes without the knowledge and consultation of the nuns. She confesses that she alone has kept the seal in her turn for the time, years and days, and sometimes with other fellow nuns, provided there have been any who are discrete there. [3.] Also, there used to be customarily many notable vestments; where they have gone or whether they be there is not known; it is believed, however, that they have been removed from the house.

She says that all the things that she received from the last prioress remain there in the house, about which she shows a schedule concerning the donation of the vestments and jewels. [4.] Also, they had four chalices, and now they do not even have one. She confesses that there were four, of which two were in the house; the third is in pawn to Thomas Stanes [with the consent of the convent]; the fourth has been taken apart, also with the convent’s consent. [5.] Also, the prioress caused a silver thurible and a silver chalice, the heaviest which they had, to be broken up to make a cup for use at table, and she gave the chalice and censer as broken silver to one brother William Tudyngtone, a monk of Chertsey,4 so that he might take an order to make the aforesaid cup from it and because the prioress had been given to understand that he had paid for the making of the chalice . . .5 and she did not have enough to pay him. The cup remains in the hands of the said monk. She confesses the article, but she first had communication, as she asserts, with the convent, who all say that concerning this a discussion was not held in the chapter nor was the consent of all had, but only that the majority had no knowledge of the deed before it was done. [6.] Also, she says that there used to be ten beautiful psalters kept in the house, some of which the prioress has given away and alienated. She confesses that she lent three, one to the prioress of Bromhall; she denies she did it without the consent of the convent. [7.] Also, that in the past year in a place called “ly parkis,” two miles distant from the priory, she sold a hundred oaks without asking any counsel or consent of the convent and under no compulsion of necessity. She denies the article.[8.] Also, at Alderbourne6 she caused beeches to be felled at an unseasonable time so that they will never grow again, and therefore they are destroyed forever.

She denies the article. [9.] Also, the prioress has never rendered an account of her receipts and expenses, and yet all alone she receives, pays, and administers everything without any communication with the convent, even taking care of weighty business and leases and, even though she says that at the time of her installation the house had three hundred marks debt, this deponent says distinctly that then it was only thirty pounds in debt, and this amount was paid from other sources and in no way from the goods of the prioress or priory. She confesses that she never has rendered an account; she confesses also that she alone has received and administers everything without the knowledge of the convent. She denies that she has made leases unless it be with the knowledge of the convent. 10. Also, she caused a wood called Rowel, situated at Parnysshe,7 to be felled unseasonably, leaving the boughs to lie after felling so that it is not likely that the wood will grow again for the profit of those now living. She denies the article. 11. (See 1.) Also, she says that the prioress has destroyed an entry, namely “a gatehouse,” through which necessary items were brought in and chaff and other refuse were removed, and now that this entry has been blocked up they are carried out through the church to the great disgrace of the house. She confesses the whole article but says that she did it for greater seemliness in order to shut the pigs and other beast out of the cloister, which formerly, coming in through that entry, befouled it. 12. Also, to the fault of the prioress, six nuns have now left the house in apostasy. She confesses that so many nuns have left but without her knowledge. 13. Also, she has appropriated to herself in the dormitory four nuns’ places and has blocked up the view of the Thames, which was a great comfort to the nuns. She confesses blocking up the view because she saw that men stood in the narrow space close to the window and talked with the nuns; she confesses the appropriation of the places. 14. Also, the prioress wears very expensive gold rings with diverse precious stones and also girdles silvered and gilded over, and silken veils, and her veil is too high on her forehead so that her forehead, being entirely uncovered, can be seen by all, and she wears furs of vair.

She confesses the use of several rings and girdles, and silken veils and the high carriage of her veils; she confesses also the use of vair furs. She has sworn that she will reform these things, having pledged to do so. 15. Also, she wears shifts of cloth of Rennes, which costs sixteen pence an ell. She denies the article. 16. Also, she wears kirtles laced with silk, and silver and silver gilt pins, and she has made all the nuns wear the same. She confesses the article with regards to herself; she has sworn that she will reform these things and has sworn to perform her penance, etc. [17.] Also, she wears above her veil a cap of estate furred with budge. She confesses; however, it is because of various infirmities in her head. She has sworn as above that she will reform these things. [18.] Also, she does not supply, nor for three years has supplied, fitting habits for the nuns to such an extent that the nuns go about in patched clothes. The threadbareness of the nuns was apparent to the lord. [19.] Also, the prioress invited several outside people from the neighborhood to this visitation at great cost to the house, saying to them, “Stand on my side in this time of visitation, for I do not want to resign.” She confesses the entertainment of her friends, but it was not to this end . . . And on this Monday, namely the twenty-ninth of the said month of October, in this year and the aforesaid chapterhouse, the said reverend father sat in his capacity of judge in the business of his visitation and then ordered that the prioress and convent of the said place be called before him, who all appeared before him in person. And when they thus appeared, the same reverend father, the process of such business previously had and done, and also the adjournment of the same visitation having been first recited by him and acknowledged by the same nuns, put forth in detail and rehearsed to the same prioress article by article all that had been made known to him concerning the prioress. These things having been put to her, some the same prioress confessed and some she denied, just as it is written down at the end of every article; and concerning her denials, so far as they concern dilapidation and so involve deprivation, the lord decreed that an inquiry should be made after the summons of the same prioress and the others who ought to be summoned for this purpose, reserving to himself the power of proceeding against her as regards the rest according to her responses and the process held concerning them.

And because the same prioress complained of sister Margery Kyrkeby in that she had called the same prioress a thief, the same Margery, being judicially impeached touching this, expressly denied the charge and cleared herself of it based alone on her own testimony. Afterwards, because the prioress confessed that for a long time past, even for very many days and years, she had had in her own keeping the common seal and very many, even all, of the archives of the house, the lord ordained that all these should be kept in one chest under two locks, the keys of which the prioress should wear one and sister Margery Kyrkeby, chosen for this by the convent, the other; and that nothing should be sealed with the said seal unless with the common counsel and consensus of the more reasonable part and majority of the convent and in the chapterhouse; and until provision of such locks should be made, the lord had the common seal shut up in a little box under his own seal. And then the same reverend father warned the said prioress, in virtue of the obedience proffered by her, to admonish and correct her sisters who are at fault in any way in the chapter, not in the hearing of any secular people, in a motherly and sisterly and temperate manner, and in no way severely, as has been her way, and in all other respects to treat them gently and supply and cause to be supplied to them sufficient raiment, habits, bed clothes, and nourishment. He also enjoined the individual members of the convent, under pain of imprisonment, that they should humbly obey the prioress in all lawful things and pay her reverence and show her honor, not any disobedience or disgrace. And because the young nuns asked that a governess in reading, song, and the regular observances should be appointed them, the lord, with the consent of all, appointed sister Juliane Messangere, enjoining her to perform the charge laid upon her and to instruct them in good manners and in no way so that they go contrary to the prioress in anything . . . [T]he same deputy, wishing first and before all to obtain the clearest and fullest information and assurance concerning the observance or want of observance of such injunctions, as he affirmed, caused all the nuns except the prioress to go out of the chapterhouse and, proceeding in such business of the inquiry and having required the same prioress to tell the truth in virtue of obedience, diligently examined her concerning all and each individual injunction, and whether she, her fellow nuns, and the sisters have observed or not observed the same injunctions or any of them.

And she, answering, said that these injunctions were and are in effect and according to her power well observed as regards both her and her sisters except the injunction whereby she is bound to supply to her sisters sufficient raiment for their habits and, concerning the non-observance of that injunction, she responds that she cannot observe it because of the poverty and insufficiency of the resources of the house, which have been much lessened because of the lack of a surveyor or steward. For which reason she besought the lord’s goodwill and assistance that he would deign with charitable consideration to make provision for such a steward or director.[Injunctions:] Wyllyam, by the grace of God, bysshope of Lincoln, to our wele belufed doghters in Cryste, the prioresse, and the covent of the priorye of Ankerwyke, of the ordere of Seynt Benette, of our diocyse, helthe, grace, and our blessyng. Now late we visytyng yow and your saide pryorye, by our inquisicyon then made fonde certeyn grete and notable defautes, grete and dewe [refor]macyone requiryng, for the reformacyone whereof we sende yowe here theise our injunccyons, comaundementes, and ordynaunces by yow to be keppede undere the peynes here by nethe writen.

1 . . . In the fyrste we commaunde, charge, and enjoyne yowe, prioresse, undere payne of grete contempte, that nyghtly ye lygge in the dormytorye to oversee your susters how thai are there governede after your rewle, and that often tyme ye come to matynes, messe, and other houres, ther to be present in the qwere but if grete sekenesse or unevytable occupacyons lette yowe.And also if hit happe yow to come late to the qwere at any houre, that ye make not the qwere to begynne agayne any houre than begunne, ne that ye putte the qwere to any other observaunce in saying of devyne servyce other wyse than the laudable custome of the place has been here afore.

2 . . . Also, we enjoyne yow, pryoresse, undere the same peyne, 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 saide su[sters] moderlie wyth all resonable favour, and that ye rebuke ne repreve thaym cruelly ne fervently at no tyme, specyally in audience of seculeres, and that ye kepe pryvye fro seculeres your correccyons and actes of your chapitere.

3. Also, undere the same peyne we enjoyne yow, prioresse, that aftere your rewle ye kepe the fraytour8 but if resonable cause excuse yowe ther fro. Also, we enjoyne yowe of the covent and everyche oon of yowe undere peyn of imprisonyng, that mekely and buxumly ye obeye the prioresse, procedyng discretely in hire correccyone, and also that in every place ye do hire dewe reverence, absteynyng yowe fro alle elacyone of pryde and wordes of disobeysaunce or debate.

4. Also, we enjoyne yowe, prioresse and covente and everyche one of yowe undere peynes here above and bynethe wryten, that ye absteyne yow fro all drynkenges after complyne but if sekenesse cawse the contrary and that every day and on one as complyne is sayde, ye alle go to the dormytorye, not to come owte save to matynes un to pryme be runge on the morwe next aftere.

5.And also that none of yow, the prioresse ne none of the covente, were no vayles of sylke, ne no sylvere pynnes, ne no gyrdles herneysed wyth sylvere or golde, ne no mo rynges on your fyngres then oon, ye that be professed by a bysshope, ne that none of yow use no lased kyrtels, but butonede or hole be fore, ne that ye use no lases a bowte your nekkes wythe crucyfixes or rynges hangyng by thayme, ne cappes of astate obove your vayles . . . othere then [your r]ule askes, and that ye so atyre your hedes that your vayles come downe nyghe to your yene.

6. Also, we enjoyne yow, prioresse, undere paynes of contempte and grete cursyng that ye ministre to your susters of the covent sufficyently in mete and drynke, and also in clothes to thair habite and beddes, as your religyone wylle demaunde; and also that when frendes of your sustres come to visite thaym honestly, ye receyve hem and suffre thaym to speke wyth hem so that no sclaundere ne token of evelle falle ther bye to your saide susters ne to your place. And what ever 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 evel come therbye noyther to the place ne to the persones therof.

7. Also, we enjoyne yowe, prioresse, undere peyne of cursyng, that fro hense forthe ye susteyne ne seculere persones wythe the commune godes of the place neyther wyth ynne ne wythe owte; and that fro hens forthe ye receyve no mo in to nunnes then may competently be susteyned of the commune godes of the place, ne that for receyvyng of any in to nunnes, ye exacte, ne receyve by paccyon, ne covenaunt, or promysse none wardly gode otherwyse then thai or thaire frendes of thair charitee wylle gyfe yowe.

8. Also, we charge yow, prioresse, undere the same payne of cursyng, that ye hafe an honeste woman servaund in your kychyne, brewhowse and bakehowse, deyhowse,9 and selere wythe an honeste damyselle wythe hire to saruf 10 yowe and your sustres in thise saide offices so that your saide sustres for occupacyone in ony of the saide offices be ne letted fro divine seruice ne fro lernyng of thaire servyce and observaunces of religyone, lyke as we assygnede thaym a nunne to informe thaym ther yn.

9. Also, we enjoyne yowe, prioresse, undere payne of deposicyone, that fro hense forthe the commune seale and all the munymentes of your place be surely keppede in a chyste undere two lokkes of diverse forme and makyng, the keyes where of oon shalle remeyne in your kepyng and an other in the kepyng of dame Margery Kyrkeby, chosen ther to by the covent, and that nothyng be sealed wythe the saide seale but in the chapitere and by the fulle assent of the more parte of the covent.

10. Also, we charge yow, prioresse, undere the payne of perpetuelle privacyone fro your state and dignytee of prioressye, that fro hense forthe ye graunte, gyfe, ne selle to any manere persone fee, rente, annuytee, corrodye, ne lyverye to terme of lyve, certeyn tyme ne perpetuelly, ne that ye gyfe ne selle no wodes ne tynbere wythe owtene specyalle leve of us or our successours, bysshops of Lincolne, asked and had, and wythe the assent of the more partye of the covent . . .

11. Also, we charge yow, prioresse, unde[r] peyne of cursyng, that ye do take downe that perclose11 that ye dyde make in the dormytorye and that ye oversee that every nunnes celle be open in toward the dormytory, as your rewle demaundes. 12. Also, we enjoyne yow, pryoresse, undere peyne of suspensyone fro alle administracyone in spirituele and temporele, that as ye may resonabylly come to aftere the suffycyence of your commune godes, ye do repare the howses and beeldynges wythe yn your place, specyally thoe that are falle to ruyne in your tyme and defawte, and also your tenementes owtward, the whiche are ryght ruynouse, as we are informede; and also that wyth yn this and the fest of Paske next folowyng,

12 ye do bryng in to the place alle the jewels of the place, as chalices, censures, psawters, and other what ever thai be the whiche ye hafe oythere lente owte or laide to wedde.13 13. And also that every yere be twyx the festes of Seynt Mighelle in Septembre and Seynt Martyne in Novembre ye shew to your susters in playn chapytere or to whome you wylle assigne a fulle and playn accompte of your mynystracyone in all the commune goodes of your place what is dewe and receyved and how th[ai a]re dispendede.

4 thoughts on “Prioresses

  1. What subjects do you take in sixth form? And do you … — I take english literature, psychology, sociology and…

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