A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.
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HOUSE OF AUSTIN NUNS
14. THE ABBEY OF BURNHAM
The abbey of St. Mary the Virgin at Burnham was founded in 1266 for Austin canonesses by Richard, King of the Romans, who endowed it with the surrounding lands and the church of Burnham. (fn. 1) A complaint was made ten years later that he had gone beyond his rights in his desire to provide for the needs of the nuns: that he had turned aside a watercourse through the village of Cippenham to the monastery, had given them twenty acres of wood from the common, and diverted a pathway which used to lead from Burnham to Dorney (fn. 2); but it is uncertain whether these wrongs were proved. The endowment was not a very large one, but on the analogy of other houses it may have provided for about twenty nuns at the beginning: at the dissolution however there were only ten.
The first abbess, Margery of Aston, had been sub-prioress of Goring. She was installed, and made her profession of 'subjection, reverence and obedience, under the rule of St. Augustine' to Bishop Gravesend on the Feast of St. John Baptist, 1266, in the presence of an honourable company, which included the Archdeacon of Exeter, some canons of Missenden, and the prioress of Goring, her late superior. (fn. 3)
Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, the son of the founder, confirmed his father's charters, and with the licence of the king granted to the nuns the privilege of free election without reference to himself or his heirs, so that his ministers might not interfere with the abbey lands in time of voidance. (fn. 4) This charter was sometimes infringed, but the right could be proved by appeal to it. (fn. 5)
In 1330 the abbess was involved in an expensive suit with reference to a part of the manor of Bulstrode which had been recently leased to her by the king at a rent of £15 a year. Geoffrey de Bulstrode disputed the abbess's right, on the ground that the land had been taken from him by Hugh le Despenser, and made it impossible for her to pay her farm: he broke into her houses, wrecked her mill, cut down her hedges, corn and trees, and sent cattle to feed on her pastures; and he so ill-treated her servants that she could not get any one to serve her in that place. (fn. 6) A commission of oyer and terminer was granted to examine the matter, and in the next year it was clearly proved that Geoffrey had no rights in the disputed lands, which were freshly granted to the abbess in fee farm. (fn. 7) Her losses however had been severe, and she was compelled to ask a remittance of her rent for two years, which was granted. (fn. 8) In 1335 she was still in arrears, (fn. 9) in 1337 the king pardoned her a debt of £57 6s. 4d. because of the poverty of her house (fn. 10); and the following year the collectors of wool were ordered to cause the abbess and convent of Burnham to have respite till the following Easter, for the wool they owed to the king. (fn. 11) In 1396 the nuns were in some danger of losing the church of Dorney (fn. 12) : but they evidently succeeded in proving their right, as it was part of their property at the dissolution.
The history of the house during the fifteenth century is obscure: only a few names of abbesses can be recovered. As its whole revenue was under £200 a year, it should have been dissolved under the first Act of Suppression, but on the petition of the local commissioners the house was continued, and so the surrender was delayed until 19 September, 1539, when it was received by Dr. London. (fn. 13) The Deed of Surrender is extant, and takes the common form 'with our unanimous assent and consent.' It is signed by the abbess, Alice Baldwin, and nine nuns. It is probable that some pensions were reserved, but their number and value does not remain on record.
There are several notices in the Episcopal Registers relating to the internal history of the house. In 1281 the nuns of Burnham incurred the displeasure of Archbishop Peckham (fn. 14) by refusing to receive a certain Maud de Weston at his request. They seem to have given no satisfactory reason for this refusal except vague suggestions that they could not receive postulants without the consent of their patron (fn. 15); and when the archbishop pressed the matter they pleaded their poverty. He wrote them a sharp letter in reply, declaring that he was never one to put pressure on the poor, but showing very clearly that he did not believe their excuses to be true ones. (fn. 16) He accused them indeed plainly of pride, or some other personal motives, and added that if they did not give him some lawful and adequate reason for refusing his candidate, he would provide for their alleged poverty by sending others in addition.
In 1300 Bishop Dalderby visited the house to explain the statute Pro clausura monialium. He ordered them, as he did all the convents of nuns in his diocese, to keep strictly within their enclosure and to admit no secular person within the cloister door on any excuse. (fn. 17) It is probable however that the nuns of Burnham paid no more heed to these admonitions than did their sisters in other houses.
In 1311 a certain nun, Margery of Hedsor, left the house and forsook the habit of religion: she was excommunicated in consequence, and the sentence was renewed at intervals until 1317. (fn. 18) In that year she brought in a plea that she had been compelled by her father to enter the monastery when under age, and had been previously contracted in marriage to Roger Blacket of Rickmansworth. The real truth of the matter is not known, as the results of the inquiry which followed are not given; but it is instructive to note that the bishop gave orders that the sentence of excommunication should be removed, if the plea was proved on examination to be a true one. (fn. 19)
In 1339 two nuns of Burnham were transferred to Goring 'for the peace and quiet of the house.' (fn. 20) Such occasional notices as these, though they must be duly recorded in a detailed history of the monastery, really tell us very little of its inner life, and may be even misleading if they are made too much of. Far more serious evidence than this, as regards the general tone of the house, is found in the visitation reports of Bishops Grey and Atwater. It seems that early in the fifteenth century the nuns of Burnham, like those of Elstow in Bedfordshire, had attempted to increase their revenues by taking in a number of ladies as boarders, and with much the same results: the house had become secularized. When Bishop Grey visited the abbey between 1431 and 1436, he ordered the removal of all seculars whatsoever. (fn. 21) The order was probably obeyed only for a time, for Bishop Atwater in 1519 called attention to the same point. He enjoined the abbess again on no account to allow secular women to lodge in the monastery; and not even young children (infantes) were to be admitted to the dormitory of the nuns. Other signs of worldliness appear in the injunction that the nuns should not use girdles ornamented with gold or silver, nor wear any rings except that which was the sign of their profession. (fn. 22) He allowed them how ever to adopt the use of Sarum instead of the original office of St. Augustine. (fn. 23)
Bishop Longland visited the house in 1530, but the report of his visitation is incomplete. The abbess, the chantress, the sub-chantress, and seven other nuns assembled in the chapter house to meet him. The abbess reported Omnia bene; the chantress drew attention to the fact that there was no prioress. (fn. 24) None of the other speeches are legible, but the proceedings do not seem to have been lengthy; there was probably little to remark upon, and it seems that Bishop Atwater's injunctions had been more effectual than Bishop Grey's. The request of the local commissioners that the house might be continued, in spite of its small value, is sufficient evidence of the good reputation which it had at the last in its own neighbourhood. The report of the commissioners states that there were nine nuns in the house, all of whom desired to go into another religious house. The household consisted of thirty-seven servants, of whom two were priests, twenty-one hinds, and fourteen women servants. (fn. 25)
The original endowment of the abbey included the manor of Burnham with the advowson of the parish church; and land appurtenant to the manor of Cippenham with a mill, fishery and other rights. (fn. 26) To these was added later the church of Dorney.
In 1291 the temporalities of the abbey amounted to £18 16s. 11d.; the spiritualities to £44 13s. 4d., (fn. 27) out of which two vicars' portions had to be paid. Between 1284 and 1346 the abbess held half the vill of Burnham and half the hamlet (fn. 28) of Beaconsfield. The Valor Ecclesiasticus gives a clear value of £50 2s. 4¼d., including the churches of Burnham and Dorney, and the manors of Stoke Poges and Holmer (fn. 29); the Ministers' Accounts amount to £126 5s. 1¾d. (fn. 30)
Abbesses of Burnham
Margery of Aston, (fn. 31) first abbess, elected 1266, resigned 1274
Maud of Dorchester, (fn. 32) elected 1274, resigned 1274
Joan of Rideware, (fn. 33) elected 1274, died 1314
Idonea de Audley, (fn. 34) elected 1316, died 1334
Joan de Somerville, (fn. 35) elected 1334
Margery de Louches, (fn. 36) elected 1334, resigned 1339
Joan of Dorney, (fn. 37) elected 1339
Agnes Frankleyn, (fn. 38) elected 1367, resigned 1393
Elizabeth Warde, (fn. 39) elected 1393
Alice Golafre, (fn. 40) elected 1403
Agnes Gower, (fn. 41) elected 1457
Agnes Sturdy, (fn. 42) occurs 1459
Joan Radcliffe, (fn. 43) resigned 1507
Margaret Gibson, (fn. 44) elected 1507, resigned 1536
Alice Baldwin, (fn. 45) last abbess, elected 1536
Red, pointed oval seal of the fourteenth century attached to the Deed of Surrender, dated 19 September, 1539, (fn. 46) represents the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin in a double arcaded canopied niche pinnacled and crocketed. In base a shield of arms, on a chief three lozenges between two initial letters S and perhaps T. Legend: SIGILLVM CONVENTVS [MONI]ALIVM DE BVRNHAM.