A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1904.
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HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE NUNS
2. THE ABBEY OF ELSTOW
The Benedictine abbey of Elstow was founded near the end of the eleventh century by Judith, the widow of Earl Waltheof and niece of the Conqueror: (fn. 1) tradition said that it was her act of reparation for the betrayal of her husband to death. (fn. 2) She endowed it with the vills of Elstow and Wilshampstead and a part of Maulden, (fn. 3) the conventual church being identical with the parish church of Elstow; it was dedicated to the honour of St. Mary and St. Helen. (fn. 4) From the thirteenth century at any rate the house was reckoned as a royal foundation, and the patronage remained with the Crown until the dissolution. The confirmation charter of Henry I., granted about 1126, (fn. 5) names amongst the benefactors Nicholas and Richard Basset, Nigel de Stafford, and Countess Maud, daughter of Judith and wife of Simon de Senliz. The property of the abbey was considerable, and very widely scattered; the mandates for restitution of the temporalities were addressed to the escheators in twelve counties.
The list of abbesses serves to show that the daughters of baronial families were frequently received at Elstow; the later names are those of the neighbouring gentry. The external history of the house is chiefly gathered from the numerous lawsuits in which it was involved. In the twelfth century there was a long dispute with the monks of Newhouse, concerning the church of Halton-super-Humber; the terms of the award, and of the papal mandate which afterwards became necessary, suggest that the nuns had been behaving in a somewhat aggressive manner. (fn. 6) A papal mandate was also required to settle a dispute between the nuns of Elstow and the canons of Dunstable; (fn. 7) it is probable that the same abbess, Cecily, was concerned in both these suits, and she had similar dealings with Newnham Priory (fn. 8) —all with reference to the advowsons of churches. At another time there were difficulties with St. Alban's Abbey. (fn. 9) Matthew Paris (fn. 10) relates the story of the abbess of Elstow and the sword: how, at the time of the pulling down of St. Paul's church by Fawkes de Bréauté, she took the sword out of the hand of the image of St. Paul in her own church, and declared that she would not restore it until he avenged himself upon the common enemy. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, in the year 1306, a rather interesting suit was begun between the abbess at that time, Clemence de Balliol, and the brethren of St. Leonard's Hospital. (fn. 11) The latter had been erecting new buildings on either side of the pathway which led from Elstow to Bedford, and obtained permission in consequence to close it, and make another which should pass round instead of through the hospital. This the abbess objected to, on the ground that the old way was more direct and convenient for her people. The two paths were carefully measured, and it was decided, against the abbess, that the new way was not appreciably longer than the old. But she was still dissatisfied, and the brethren seem to have been hindered from carrying out their plans for another two years, when they obtained letters patent from the king for the closing of the path.
In 1337 Elizabeth Morteyn, who was then abbess, claimed the 'third penny' from the town of Bedford, in virtue of an alleged grant from Malcolm (IV.), King of Scotland; the case was carried before Parliament, and the burgesses were successful in proving that Malcolm never had any lordship in the town. (fn. 12) Six years earlier a previous abbess was summoned to show by what title she claimed view of frankpledge and 'judicialia' in Elstow, Wilshampstead, Maulden, and Kempston: she was obliged to confess that her administration had been lax, and could only secure her rights by the payment of a fine. (fn. 13) It was only a short time after this that the parish church of Elstow, as well as the tithes of both rectories, were finally appropriated by the monastery, under the sanction of Bishop Bek; and 'to avoid the inconvenience caused by the chanting of psalms in the nave of the monastery,' the chapel of St. Helen, which stood in the churchyard, was to serve in future as a parish church. (fn. 14) From this time forward little is known of the external history of the house, except that it was much patronised by seculars, whom the bishops never could succeed in keeping out for any length of time. Not long before the dissolution an attendant of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII., was professed there. (fn. 15)
This house was constantly visited by the Bishops of Lincoln; and the records of their injunctions from time to time show us something of its internal history. The first notice of this kind is in a letter, dated 24 June 1270, from Bishop Gravesend to Walter Giffard, Archbishop of York. (fn. 16) A sister of the latter, Agatha Giffard, was prioress of Elstow at the time, and had been at fault (as had the abbess also) 'through connivance or remissness' in some scandal that had lately occurred. What it was the bishop does not say; only he remarks 'from that house more frequently than from any other false reports of disgraceful acts are brought to us'; and he is evidently putting the case as mildly as he can, so as not to offend the archbishop.
In 1300 the nuns of Elstow, as well as many others, were enjoined to observe the statute De Claustura Monialium of Boniface VIII. (fn. 17) This statute was aimed no doubt at a real abuse; but it imposed upon the nuns a degree of enclosure to which they were not bound by the Benedictine rule, and consequently was difficult to enforce. At Elstow it was probably not obeyed at all; for in 1359 Bishop Gynwell (fn. 18) at his visitation reported that there had been 'too much wandering of the nuns out of the monastery.' He had other complaints to make, which show for the first time what was then and afterwards the great snare into which this house fell. The story of Abbess Mabel and the sword of St. Paul shows a right and wholesome interest in the affairs of the church and the world, such as any good religious might take under the common interpretation of the rule of St. Benedict; but as time went on this interest became excessive, and was attended by an inevitable laxity of discipline. From the time of St. Hugh there had been a school in the monastery for children of both sexes; (fn. 19) most of the nuns were well born and had friends about the Court who sought various pretexts for visiting and lodging in the monastery. Even if the nuns had wished to prevent these visits, it would not always have been easy; the Papal Letters of the fourteenth century show that noble ladies, even queens, often asked licences from the pope to spend a few nights in a nunnery. And the depreciation of the value of property after the great pestilence made the poorer houses sometimes thankful to accept boarders, like many French convents at the present day. But at Elstow it is to be feared that the nuns were really at fault in this matter; that the spiritual life of the convent was marred by worldliness from first to last.
Bishop Gynwell enjoined that no secular women, except necessary maidservants, should dwell in the convent without special licence; (fn. 20) all were to depart within fifteen days on pain of excommunication, because 'by the living together of secular women and nuns, the contemplation of religion is withdrawn, and scandal engendered.' Only quite young children were to be allowed to remain; (fn. 21) and there was to be no more laxity or favour shown in the correction of breaches of rule.
Bishop Buckingham issued three different sets of injunctions. In 1379 (fn. 22) he wrote to the Abbess Anstis to order the removal of all secular persons, men and women, from the precincts of the monastery, as 'dangerous to the purity and spiritual devotion of the religious.' In 1387 he held a regular visitation, and his injunctions, though they do not point to any serious irregularities, are of an interesting character; their aim seems rather to set forth to the nuns their duties in general, and to exhort them to greater fervour, than to correct abuses. There are the usual orders about the singing of the divine office, the administration of the revenues of the convent, the repair of the buildings, the due care of the sick; the nuns are cautioned to avoid scandal by refraining from conversation with all men, both secular and religious, especially the mendicant friars, and their near neighbours, the canons of Caldwell; not to go out without permission, and to return home before sunset; to be careful that they wear the religious habit of their order and the veil, and not to seek such ornaments as fur, or girdles ornamented with silver; to be humble, obedient, charitable, loving one another in the bond of peace; so that at last 'adorned with the fruit of good works, their lamps burning in their hands, they may be worthy to enter into the marriage chamber of the Heavenly Bridegroom unto whose service they have dedicated themselves.' (fn. 23) In 1388 (fn. 24) the bishop only sent a personal admonition to the abbess to be sure and provide a 'fit and secure place' where offenders against the rule might be detained. (fn. 25)
Bishop Repingdon visited the monastery at the beginning of the fourteenth century. His injunctions show that no lasting reform had been effected by his predecessors. No seculars male or female above the age of twelve were to be admitted; the nuns were not to go into Bedford or Elstow; only suitable persons were to be professed. (fn. 26)
Bishop Grey (fn. 27) admonished the nuns to increase their numbers, that the divine office might not be neglected; but none was to be admitted unless she could read and sing, and then only with the consent of the 'greater and wiser' part of the convent. No seculars except young children were to be allowed in the monastery; an apostate nun was to be brought back. This was the last visitation before the well known injunctions of Bishop Longland in 1530. (fn. 28) The tone of these makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the house had become thoroughly secularised. The ladies had for the most part given up the most distinctive features of their common life; they had forsaken the use of the refectory, and lived more like pensioners in a boarding-house, having their little private 'households,' where they received and ate with their friends. They were accustomed to wear scarlet stomachers, 'voyded shoes' and low-necked dresses like those of secular women, and 'cornered crests' instead of veils. The lady abbess when she walked in procession was followed by a train of servants, and leant upon the arm of one of them. The 'chapelayne,' Dame Katherine Wingate, had been wont to absent herself from matins, and to take her meals in the abbess's buttery with the steward. Nevertheless the bishop evidently thought the case was not past remedy, and it is noteworthy that after all nothing worse than secularity is implied in these injunctions. He reminds them that 'the more secret religious persons be kept from the sight and visage of the world and strangers, the more close and entire their mind and devotion shall be to God'; and so orders a door at least 5 feet high to be erected at the lower end of the choir, so that the nuns might neither see nor be seen by strangers at office time; and the cloister door between the monastery and the church, as well as the outer door towards the court, were to be kept shut as far as possible. There were to be no more 'households' kept except the abbess's, and a 'misericorde' where four or five of the sisters with 'one sad lady of the elder sort,' nominated by the abbess, might take their meals in turn and meet their friends. The rest were to go to the 'fratry.' (fn. 29)
How far these injunctions produced any effect it is impossible to say. The house was not mentioned by Layton in the letter (fn. 30) in which he records his visit to Bedfordshire. It did not fall under the Act of 1536, and was not surrendered until 26 August 1539. (fn. 31) The deed of surrender is still extant; it contains the ordinary formula, the same as that of Wardon and Chicksand, and has no signatures, but only the seal. The pension lists of 1539-40 (fn. 32) assign £50 to the abbess, Elizabeth Boyvill, and smaller sums to twenty-three nuns besides. If there were so many at this time, we may conclude that the house held perhaps twice as many in the thirteenth century, but there is no record of the original number. The usual officials are named from time to time: the prioress, the sacristan, afterwards called the 'chapelayne,' the chantress. It appears that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there were a few lay brothers attached to the house, but it is not clear what was their exact status. (fn. 33)
The original endowment of the abbey included the vills of Elstow and Wilshampstead with 5 hides and 1½ virgates in Maulden, and the church of Hitchin in Hertfordshire. (fn. 34) Small portions of land in Buckinghamshire, Leicestershire, Gloucestershire and Northampton shire were added by other benefactors as portions with the daughters whom they sent to school or into religion. (fn. 35) The churches of Elstow, Wilshampstead, Maulden, Kempston, Flitton, Westoning, with Hitchin (Herts), Inworth (Essex), Clanfield (Oxon), Westbury (Bucks), Harringworth and Wilbarston (Northants) were in the gift of the abbey from the thirteenth century to the Dissolution; while Goddington (fn. 36) (Oxon) and Tingrith (Beds (fn. 37) ) were claimed by it in the thirteenth century, and Halton-super-Humber (fn. 38) (Lincoln) in the twelfth. Portions of tithes from several other churches were paid to the monastery. In 1291 its income was about £110 (fn. 39); at the Dissolution it was £284 12s. 11d. clear. (fn. 40)
In 1316, 1346 and 1428 (fn. 40) the abbess of Elstow held the vills of Elstow, Wilshampstead and Maulden in pure alms, and some small fractions of knight's fees in Flitton and Cotes, with a quarter of a fee in Moulsoe, Bucks. (fn. 41) In the ministers' accounts after the Dissolution the property was valued at £234 8s. 7d. after the subtraction of some parcels of lands annexed to the honour of Ampthill; the site of the monastery and its demesne lands being reckoned as £77 17s. 10d. (fn. 42)
Abbesses of Elstow
Cecily, (fn. 43) occurs c. 1180
Mabel, (fn. 44) elected 1213 (?), occurs 1218 and 1222
Wymark, (fn. 45) died 1241
Agnes of Westbury, (fn. 46) elected 1241, resigned 1249
Aubrée de Fécamp, (fn. 47) elected 1249
Annora, (fn. 48) died 1281
Beatrice de Scoteny, (fn. 49) elected 1281, died 1294
Clemence de Balliol, (fn. 50) elected 1294, resigned 1314
Joan de Wauton, (fn. 51) elected 1315, died 1318
Elizabeth de Beauchamp, (fn. 52) elected 1318, died 1331
Juliane Basset, (fn. 53) elected 1331, died 1333
Elizabeth Morteyn, (fn. 54) elected 1333, occurs 1351
Anstis (Anastasia) Dene, (fn. 55) occurs 1370, resigned 1392
Margaret Pygot, (fn. 56) elected 1392, died or resigned 1409
Joan Trailly, (fn. 57) elected 1409, died 1430
Rose Waldgrave, (fn. 58) died 1463
Elizabeth Hasylden, (fn. 59) elected 1463, occ. 1473
Margaret Godfrey, (fn. 60) elected 1487, died or resigned 1501
Elizabeth Hervey, (fn. 61) elected 1501, died 1524
Agnes Gascoigne, (fn. 62) elected 1524, died 1529
Elizabeth Boyvill, (fn. 63) elected 1529
The seal of the abbey is found attached to the deed of surrender already mentioned. It is dark green, pointed oval, and represents Blessed Mary the Virgin standing with the Holy Child in her arms. St. Helen stands on the right, bearing the cross. An abbess kneels below, with crosier, and a nun on either side.