The nunneries

"Come, I'll dispose of thee among a sisterhood of holy nuns".

Romeo and Juliet.

THE two nunneries in this county were both small and in common with the other nunneries in England very little is known about either.

Most of the Orders in this country, except the Carthusians, recognized nuns as part of their system, and although the number of nunneries in England prior to 1066 was small, by 1536 there were 140. Excluding the double houses of the Gilbertines, about half the 140 followed the Rule of St. Benedict, while the remainder followed the Rules of the other great Orders. About a quarter of the nunneries had annual incomes of less than £50 a year, the average annual income per head for maintenance being much less than the average income of the monks. The number of nuns was also small as only four nunneries had over thirty nuns, while sixty-three had under ten.

In one respect the nunneries differed from the monasteries as the nuns were drawn, almost without exception, from the aristocratic or upper class, and only to a small extent from the wealthy burgess families. The abbess or prioress was invariably a lady of very high degree and was always addressed as "My Lady". To go outside our county for an example of this we find one at Derby, as in the fourteenth century when the abbot of Burton sent his bailiff to collect some rents from the prioress at Derby which, he alleged, were twenty years in arrear, she did not plead the Statute of Limitations or its fourteenth century equivalent, but assailed the bailiff furiously and said "For I am a gentlewoman, come of the greatest of Lancashire and Cheshire, and that the abbot shall know right well". She was in fact a Stanley. The record does not state if the prioress paid or not.   Probably not.

Life in a nunnery was based on the idea of claustration as in the monasteries, but at a nunnery near Oxford this principle was endangered by occasional visits by enterprising undergraduates from the University in that city, with the result that the abbot of the nearby abbey who had the spiritual oversight of the nuns wrote "We order the nuns to refuse to converse with all scholars so coming", but the records do not say whether nature or the abbot won in this contest.

The staffs, mode of life, buildings and general conditions were about the same as in a monastery, though labour had to be engaged for work which in a monastery would normally be done by the monks or lay brothers, and the nuns needed a chaplain. At Gracedieu, it appears that the chaplain used to go haymaking with the cellaress and bring her home riding pillion, much to the disgust (or envy) of the other nuns. Their allowance of beer was seven gallons each per week—the same as the monks had. There were the usual complaints about food and beer. When the Bishop visited Carrow Nunnery, near Norwich, an aged nun named Katherine Furze complained that the beer was weak, but unfortunately we do not know his Lordship's reply. At the Visitation at Campsey in Suffolk in 1322, Margaret Bracton, a nun, complained that the dinner was late, the meat burnt to a cinder, and that a month ago they were fed from the meat of an ox which had to be killed as it was at the point of death. The menu for the nunnery at Barking for an Autumn in the thirteenth century has survived, and it appears that the allowance of pork at Martinmas, when the annual slaughter took place, was as follows:—a cheek, an ear and one foot for each nun.  They ate a good deal of salt fish, as we might expect.

Some nunneries took a few young girls of good birth for education and training and were paid for so doing. Modern writers tend to discount the extent of this education and think it would not be correct to describe these efforts as schools. The Viscountess Lisle sent her young daughter Bridget Plantagenet (grand-daughter of a king) to Winchester Nunnery, and evidently sent the abbess a gift while Bridget was there as the following letter from the abbess to Lady Lisle will show: "Heartily recommending me to your Ladyship ascertaining you that I have received from your servant this Summer a side of venison and 21 dozen peewits". The Abbot of Rievaulx, the Mother House of Rufford Abbey, did not approve of girl pupils as witness the following letter: "The mistress sits at the window, the child in the cloister. She looks at each of them; and during their possible actions now is angry, 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". With all due respect to the Lord Abbot, a very human picture.

The finances of nunneries were often in a bad way, and Professor A. Hamilton Thompson blames their bailiffs for this.

Bleeding was the rule in all nunneries, as in the monasteries, and the nuns appear to have bled each other. We shall remember the wicked prioress of Kirklees who bled Robin Hood: "She laid the blood irons to Robin's vein".

(a) Wallingwells

Benedictine nun.

This small priory of St. Mary was situated at Wallingwells or Walden-le-Wells, in the park of Carlton-in-Lindrick, on the northwest side of our county, adjoining Yorkshire. It was founded by Ralph de Chevrolcourt between 1135-1154 for nuns who followed the Rule of St. Benedict—Tanner quotes a document which reads "Ordinis S. Augustini". After a quiet and uneventful career about which there is little to relate as most of what has survived is mainly administrative and routine, this small house met the same fate as its sister houses. When Legh and Layton visited the priory in 1536 they found the annual value to be £60, but they were hardly running true to form when they failed to find, or create scandal which they could report to their master. In 1537 Margaret Goldsmith, the prioress, entered into an agreement with Richard Oglethorpe, by which she demised the nunnery estates to him on certain terms for twenty-one years, retaining however, the conventual buildings, but on 14th December, 1539 the poor prioress had to surrender her priory, notwithstanding that in 1536 she had paid the sum of £66 13s. 4d. for a licence to continue. The prioress was granted a pension of £6, (£300) and the eight others received pensions in proportion to their seniority.

The site was granted to R. Pype and Fran. Boyer in 6 Eliz. 1563-4. There are no visible remains of the church or convent.

(b) Broadholme

This was the only other nunnery in the county and contained Premonstratensian Canonesses. It was situated on the east side of Nottinghamshire in the parish of Broadholme, which abuts on Lincolnshire. At the time of the Dissolution it was one of only two houses for these canonesses in England, although Leland states that it was founded for both sexes by Agnes de Camville late in the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), but by 1320, at the latest, it contained only canonesses. Queen Isabel was a patroness of the priory.

In 1349-1350 the first of two abductions from this priory is recorded. Margaret Everingham of Laxton, probably a member of the well-known family of Everingham of Laxton, was one of the canonesses. The leader of the abductors was the Reverend William Fox, Vicar of Lea near Gainsborough, and he was assisted in his nefarious project by two Franciscan friars, and the gang therefore consisted wholly of ecclesiastics. Fox and Co. forcibly removed Margaret, stripped her of her habit and clothed her in a green gown, and also took away goods of the value of forty shillings. The party was duly indicted but the Patent Rolls do not appear to record the result of the case if it ever came to a trial, but it is known that Parson Fox continued in the living of Lea for many years after this exploit. In 1383 a second abduction disturbed the serenity of this small and remote priory. It appears that a body of men attacked the priory, besieged the prioress and her canonesses and threatened them with death. They then broke into the priory and dragged out a married woman named Isabella de Kent whom they found crouching in the belfry. Here again the Patent Rolls are silent about the result of this case, if tried. Married women were not ordinarily received in nunneries, and it would almost appear that we may have here the imperfect account of a conjugal disharmony.

In 1494 there were only nine canonesses and it is unlikely that there were more when the priory was dissolved in 1536. Joan Angevin, the last prioress, received a pension of seven marks, but the canonesses do not appear to have been pensioned.

In 1534 the net annual value was only £16 5s. 2d., a low income even for a small nunnery. In 1537 the site and buildings were alienated by the Crown to Randolf Jackson, Chester Herald, on terms unknown, and nothing now remains of the priory except some worked stones in a neighbouring farmhouse, traces of the fishpond, and a few indications that the priory once stood there.

The Friaries

"Instruct me how I may formally in person
bear me like a true friar".

Measure for Measure.

THE arrival of the friars in England in the thirteenth century was an event of the greatest moment, especially for the monasteries, as very few were founded after that date and even benefactions to monasteries almost ceased, as men's minds then turned to these mendicant Orders. The arrival of a new concern claiming to make use of new methods would not be viewed with equanimity by the old-established concern at Lenton.

By 1256 no fewer than 1,242 friars were living in forty-nine friaries in this country; the average per house was therefore a little higher than the average in the monasteries. As already stated, the old Orders were perturbed at the arrival of the friars, and the parish clergy also felt that they had grounds for complaint as they soon began to suffer loss of customary fees and other sources of income. These difficulties continued in a more or less acute form to cause trouble right up to the Dissolution, and a few instances are given later. A noteworthy feature on the arrival of the friars was the fact that they drew considerable moral and financial support from the well-to-do merchants in the towns, whereas the monasteries had always depended on the wealthy landowners for financial help.

The friaries were run much as the monasteries, although claustration was not insisted on as the friars were itinerant and revivalist preachers and needed freedom for carrying on their work and were the Salvation Army of those days. By the date of the Dissolution the friars, in common with the monks, had lost much of their early zeal, and like them had greatly declined in number.

All the friaries were virtually dissolved in 1539, mainly by Richard Ingworth, Bishop of Dover, although he claimed that they had surrendered. Very few friars were awarded pensions as their friary funds did not allow of pensions, although some received ex gratia sums of money, some married, and some received livings.

(a) The Franciscans

Franciscan Friar.
Franciscan Friar.

The Franciscans, Greyfriars or Minorites, reached Nottingham about 1230, settling in the Broad Marsh area on a damp, poor site, extending to the River Leen. Their habit was a loose, grey garment reaching to the ankles, with a cowl of the same shade, the cloak being girdled with a cord, and they wore sandals on their feet. By the early fourteenth century they had accumulated sufficient funds to enable them to erect a stone church and buildings, and their church and churchyard were dedicated in 1303 and soon afterwards the church was enlarged.

St. Francis had enjoined on his friars that they had no home and must be prepared to spend much of their lives on the road or as mendicant pilgrim lodgers, and might be sent or might offer to go anywhere in the world where their work called them, but this conception soon faded away. About 1220 certain rules were imposed on the Franciscans, which to some extent brought them more into line with the old Orders, and in 1223 the Pope approved a Rule drawn up by St. Francis, and a year later it was resolved to despatch a mission to England, and they were under that Rule when they reached our shores. By 1239 they had thirty-four friaries in England and Scotland, nearly all in towns. Their habitations were at first very primitive and their sites small, and even at the Dissolution their houses were smaller and less ornate than those of the other Orders. It is often said that they deliberately selected low, damp sites, but that theory has in great measure been discarded, although their site in Broad Marsh was certainly damp. Soon after they reached Nottingham they produced a great figure in the person of William of Nottingham who was the Provincial for the fourteen years which ended in 1254.

The Pope exempted the Franciscans from the jurisdiction of the bishops soon after their arrival in England, and in 1250 he authorised them to bury in their churches all who might ask this favour, thereby depriving the local parish priest of his burial dues and causing ill-feeling, but a few years later ordered that in the case of any such burials the fees should be paid to the parish clergy. A long series of disputes was engendered by the decision of 1250 and was not settled till 1311. The rights of the parochial clergy to certain customary fees of which they said the friars had largely deprived them and the jurisdiction of the ordinary over the friars were the main items. The settlement of that year re-enacted a repealed Bull of 1300, and in brief gave the friars an adequate status, while at the same time preserving the rights of the parochial clergy. No material change was made in this settlement throughout the Middle Ages, though disputes on these matters recurred.

By 1223 the system of organization was threefold, namely, a head of all Franciscan friars known as a minister general, a Minister Provincial in charge of a province, and wardens in charge of subdivisions of provinces.

The vocation of the Franciscans required poverty, simplicity and the renunciation of security; thus differing from that of the great monastic Orders, especially in respect of security which the latter enjoyed increasingly as the centuries moved on.

In 1291 the Franciscans were ordered to supply preachers for Nottingham, Newark and Bingham, to preach on the crusade. In the reign of Henry IV one of the friars was executed in 1402 at Tyburn for preaching that King Richard II was still alive. There is one record of a man claiming sanctvary in their church although the number of recognized sanctuaries in England was always limited. Roger Bacon and Duns Scotus were Franciscans.

The friary was surrendered in 1539 to Dr. London by Thomas Basford, warden, and seven others. Thomas Skevington, sometime warden, died in 1540 and was buried in St. Peter's Churchyard, Nottingham, as the former friary was in that parish but, having been dissolved, the friars' cemetery would not be available when he died. He left a few small articles to St. Peter's Church. The Franciscans are stated to have caused more trouble to the king's visitors when they arrived to close the friaries than all the other Orders of friars put together.

After remaining in Crown hands for nine years the friary house and site were granted to Thomas Heneage, and nothing remains of the buildings, although a stone wall, or part of it, and the friars' cross were not demolished till 1571-1572.

(b) Observant Friars

These friars were an off-shoot of, and a stricter kind of Franciscans, who came into existence late in the day as they did not appear till the fifteenth century. They settled in Newark about 1499 and were dissolved in 1539 after a life in that town of only some forty years. King Henry VII seems to have taken a great interest in the Observants as he is said to have founded several houses for them, and when he died he left the Newark Observants the considerable sum of £200. Nothing appears to be known about the income of this small house or about the number of friars in it when the end came. Richard Andrewes of Gloucestershire and Nicholas Temple were the recipients of the site, gardens and churchyard, and the house now known as the Friary in Appleton Gate, Newark, standing on the site of the former friary, may have been erected from some of the original masonry.

(c) The Carmelites

Site of Carmelite Friary, Nottingham.
Site of Carmelite Friary, Nottingham.

The Carmelites appear to have originated from the congregation of hermits which grew into the Order of Our Lady of Carmel, and first appear on Mount Carmel in the twelfth century, having received a Rule about 1210 from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. On being forced to leave Mount Carmel, they moved to Cyprus and Europe and then to England in 1240. Their Rule was replaced by Constitutions in 1250. The Pope had recognized them as mendicants in 1229. In 1241 they were presented to King Henry III by certain nobles, including Sir Richard Grey of Codnor. Their first friary was erected in Kent. Their habit was white and they were commonly referred to as the White Friars.

The Carmelite Friary in Nottingham was founded about 1272 by Lord Grey of Wilton and Sir John Sturley or Shirley on a site between Friar Lane and St. James's Street, Nottingham, although they had been in the town for some years prior to that date. As in the case of the Franciscans, there is comparatively little of value to say about the Carmelites. In 1393 a certain Henry de Whalley, having killed his wife, fled to the friary church for sanctuary, "the breathless fellow at the altar foot", and as he could not be taken the town seized his goods. In 1511 the friars had the honour of a visit from King Henry VIII who left them some small gifts, unlike his predecessor, King John, who visited a religious house in East Anglia and borrowed a silk cloth from one of the monks and presented it to the abbot as his personal gift. In 1532 Richard Sherwood, the prior or warden, killed William Bacon, one of his friars, during a drinking bout in the house, but was pardoned by the king. If he had been tried he could have pleaded Benefit of Clergy and would probably have been discharged, as that privilege was not taken away for murder till 1547. (I. Ed. VI c. 12). Two Carmelites of this friary achieved distinction in the fourteenth century as writers and preachers respectively.

Carmelite Friar.
Carmelite Friar.

When the friary surrendered on 5th February, 1539, only the prior, Roger Cappe, and six friars were in residence. In 1541 the Crown granted the friary to James Sturley of Nottingham, probably a descendant of the Sturley who was one of the joint founders in 1272. During the course of street widening operations some years ago, skeletons and worked stones were found on the former friary site.