A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1904.
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HOUSE OF THE GILBERTINE ORDER
11. THE PRIORY OF CHICKSAND
The Gilbertine priory of Chicksand was founded about the year 1150 by Roais (fn. 1) and her husband Payn de Beauchamp, baron of Bedford. The foundress had been previously the wife of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, who died in 1144, and was buried in the abbey of Walden, which he had founded some years before. (fn. 2) After the death of her second husband, the Countess Roais was frequently at Chicksand, and when her eldest son, (fn. 3) Geoffrey de Mandeville, died in 1166, she endeavoured to secure his burial there; but being defeated in this purpose by the monks of Walden Abbey (who naturally desired that the son of their founder should be buried in their church) she retaliated by carrying off the whole furniture and hangings of his private chapel for the adornment of her own priory. (fn. 4)
The countess was herself buried at Chicksand; and the wife of Geoffrey Fitz Piers, the heiress of the Mandevilles, was at first laid in the same church, though she was afterwards carried to Shouldham Priory. (fn. 5) Simon de Beauchamp and his son William confirmed the gifts of Payn and Roais. (fn. 6) The priory was well endowed, and able at first to support a large number of canons, nuns and lay brothers—perhaps as many as a hundred; but after a succession of bad seasons (which were felt with almost equal severity at Dunstable and other religious houses of the neighbourhood) its resources were so much diminished that in 1257 fifty of the nuns and ten lay brothers had to be dispersed among other houses of the order. (fn. 7) The priory of Chicksand did not recover its prosperity for a very long time. In 1307 (fn. 8) the nuns received a grant of forty acres of land in the neighbourhood, and the whole manor of Chicksand was confirmed to them ten years later; (fn. 9) but they were nevertheless in very heavy debt at the time and continued to be so for a good while after. In 1309 (fn. 10) the prior of Chicksand, William de Hugate, borrowed 100 marks from the prior of Newnham, but this was only a small item. Another prior, John, in 1324 (fn. 11) acknowledged a debt of 400 marks to a merchant of Florence; and not long after he owned himself to be under a bond for 3,300 gold florins, for which he was obliged to demise to his creditor for life the manor in Meppershall called 'the chapel of St. Thomas,' with the grange of Haynes, for £200 a year; besides selling two woods, and granting the fruits of the church of Haynes for seven years. (fn. 12) Simon his predecessor had demised to the same creditor, a merchant of Genoa, the manor of Wolverton, Bucks. (fn. 13) An agreement was made by which the alienation of the property in Haynes and Meppershall was to be averted by the payment of £1,200 (fn. 14) in instalments; and it seems that this sum was finally paid, (fn. 15) for the grange of Haynes and manor of Meppershall were still a part of the property of the priory at the dissolution. But the whole convent was in sore straits for many years. Four times (fn. 16) between 1340 and 1347 the prior was obliged to sue for a remission of the tenths due to the king; on the first of these occasions he pleaded that all his lands, manors and churches were in the hands of creditors, and that his brethren and sisters knew not how to live, although many of them had been sent away already to other houses of the order; and the second pardon was granted on the ground that the religious were so poor that they were unable to give alms or carry on any of their ordinary works of charity. In the midst of this distress came the great pestilence; its effects on this particular priory are not known, but it must in one way or other have made matters worse, and it is probable that the number of canons and nuns at Chicksand was never again so large as in the early part of the thirteenth century. During the last hundred years of the priory's existence its material prosperity seems to have been restored in some measure; but the deed of surrender gives the names of only eight canons and eighteen nuns. (fn. 17)
Of the internal history of the convent from 1150 to 1535 scarcely a trace remains. In 1324, the time of their great poverty, the king placed one of his wards under the charge of the nuns of Chicksand; (fn. 18) from which we may gather that they, like other religious of less strict enclosure, took boarders from time to time for the support of the house. At the time of the dissolution it seems that there were only two prioresses (fn. 19) instead of the three prescribed by the rule; but there is no means of finding out whether this was only an accident or whether it was a change of custom. The Gilbertines were exempt from episcopal visitation; and beyond a few grants of indulgences for their chapels and altars, no mention is made of Chicksand in the Lincoln registers. (fn. 20) The argument from silence is not a very valuable one; but in the case of such an order as this, it is certainly the evidence which the nuns themselves would have preferred, if they were faithful to the spirit of their rule. In passing from the rule of St. Benedict to that of Sempringham, we enter a wholly different atmosphere, and have to do with quite another ideal in the religious life. The rule of St. Benedict owes its great and lasting influence mainly to the fact that its author sought to define and organise the normal religious life, to establish a 'school of the service of the Lord' in which large numbers of very varying disposition and attainment might live together in unity. In consequence of this aim his rule is as broad as it is high, and has as much power to tranquillise as to inspire. But the ideal of the Gilbertines was strictly an ascetic one, for the few and not for the many; and their rule is full of petty regulations and restrictions which would be intolerable to all but those who sought after a 'strange and separate perfection'; who desired not merely to be free from the 'evil that is in the world,' but to shut the world out utterly and for ever. No doubt after a time their asceticism, like that of the Cistercians to whom they were so closely allied, became much modified; but so long as the rule in its main outlines remained the same, nuns of such strict enclosure, separated alike from their brethren in the order and the world outside, bound even to recite their office in so low a tone that it could scarcely be heard beyond the party wall of their choir, (fn. 21) could wish no higher praise than that of being quite unknown. The evil report which Layton gave them at the last is worth very little consideration. He clearly testified that he found them strictly enclosed; and also that the charges which he laid against two of the nuns on the evidence of 'an old beldame' were absolutely denied by the accused, by their two prioresses, and by all their sisters. (fn. 22) If the character of the ladies of the convent (we might add also, the ladies of the Hall) were to stand or fall by the testimony of the village gossips and their own dismissed servants, it would have a poor chance at any period of history.
In spite of Layton's charges, the priory of Chicksand was not surrendered till 22 October 1538, (fn. 23) and pensions were then assigned to all the canons and probably all the nuns also; the prioresses received £3 6s. 8d. each. (fn. 24)
Payn and Roais de Beauchamp endowed the priory at its foundation with the church of Chicksand and lands attached; the grange of Haynes with 400 acres, and the church there with its appurtenances; a mill and half a virgate with a house in Willington; 20 acres in Cople and 3 virgates in Campton, besides half the demesne of another benefactress, Adeliza, wife of Walter de Mareis, consisting of wood, plain, meadow and pastures. (fn. 25) To this Simon de Beauchamp added the churches of Cople and Keysoe, Stotfold with the chapel of Astwick, and Linslade, Bucks; confirming a number of small gifts besides. (fn. 26) The income of the priory in 1291 was £124 15s. 5¾d., (fn. 27) besides the churches in Bedfordshire; but this of course takes no account of its debts. By this time some lands had been acquired in the counties of Northampton, Buckingham, Huntingdon, Norfolk and Suffolk, and portions of tithes in the three London churches of St. Mary's Colechurch, St. Mildred's Wallbrook, and St. Stephen's Jewry (fn. 28); and shortly afterwards the manor of Tadlow, Cambridgeshire, (fn. 29) and the manor of Chicksand. (fn. 30) The priors of Chicksand held in 1284 two knight's fees of the barony of Beauchamp, and a fraction of a fee in Warden (fn. 31); in 1302 a fraction of a fee in Tadlow (which was still held in 1428 and had increased to a quarter of a fee (fn. 32) ); in 1316 half a fee in Campton and a quarter in Southill and in Sandy, with a small fraction in Stanford (fn. 33); in 1346 one fee in Campton and half a fee in Chicksand, with onetenth in Houghton (fn. 34); in 1428 half a fee in both Campton and Chicksand, and a fraction in Stanford. (fn. 35) In 1535 the income of the priory was stated at £212 3s. 5d. (fn. 36); and just after the dissolution at £259 6s. 2d., including the manors of Meppershall, Stotfold, Chippenham (Suffolk), Wolverton (Bucks) and Hargrave (Northants), and the rectories of Keysoe, Cople, Stotfold, Haynes and Linslade. (fn. 37)
Priors of Chicksand
Walter, (fn. 38) occurs 1204-5 and 1209-10
Simon, (fn. 39) occurs 1224
Thomas (fn. 40) occurs 1240
Hugh, (fn. 41) occurs 1245
William de Hugate, (fn. 42) occurs 1309
Simon (fn. 43)
John de L'isle, (fn. 44) occurs 1316, 1324, 1325
John Bruton, (fn. 45) occurs 1388
Ralf, (fn. 46) occurs 1409
Stephen, (fn. 47) occurs 1473
John Atoun, (fn. 48) occurs 1481 and 1493
John Spencer, (fn. 49) occurs 1529 and 1535
John Plomer, (fn. 50) occurs 1538
Prioresses of Chicksand
Emma, (fn. 51) occurs 1482
Margaret Burton and Margaret Graynger (fn. 52) were the two prioresses in 1538
Four different seals of this priory are extant. The one appended to the deed of surrender is bright red, and represents the Annunciation; the angel kneeling and holding a cross, and our Lady standing, each under a canopy, a figure kneeling below. Legend: S. CONVE . . . CHIKESAND AD CAVSAS. (fn. 53)
Another seal also represents the Annunciation, and is similar to the above, but both figures are standing. (fn. 54) Legend: s' CONVENTVS SCE MARIE DE CHIKESAND AD CAVSAS.
A small round seal has our Lady with the holy Child, and another figure on the right. (fn. 55) Legend destroyed all but the letter E.
The fourth has our Lady crowned, holding the Child on her left arm; to the right a monk kneeling, and possibly St. Catherine on the left, holding up her hands in prayer. (fn. 56)