A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.
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8. THE NUNNERY OF SETON OR LEKELEY
The nunnery of Seton occupied a picturesque position on the northern boundary of the parish of Bootle beneath the rising grounds of Corney. It was originally called the nunnery of Lekeley from the name of the land in the vill of Seton on which it was built. No fewer than four religious houses owned land in this vill. The abbey of Holmcultram had the whole of Lekeley with the exception of the land granted to the nunnery, (fn. 1) and the priory of St. Bees had a grant of land in Seton from Henry son of Thomas, which Thomas was at one time parson of Bootle. (fn. 2) Before 1190 the abbey of Cockersand was in possession of 6 acres in Seton in Coupland with a share of the pasture of the vill. (fn. 3)
The nunnery was founded at Lekeley by Henry son of Arthur son of Godard, lord of Millom, towards the close of the twelfth century. Though the foundation charter is not forthcoming, we have authentic evidence of the grant. When Henry son of Arthur, with the consent of Godit, his wife, gave Lekeley in free marriage to Henry son of William with his daughter Gunnild, he excepted the land there which he had already bestowed on the nuns (excepta terra in Lekeleya quam dedi sanctimonialibus servientibus Deo et sancte Marie in Lekeleya). (fn. 4) As Henry Kirkby was reputed to have been the founder at the time of the dissolution, (fn. 5) it must have been Henry son of Arthur, lord of that district, to whom reference was made. The nunnery was entitled in the name of the Blessed Virgin and its inmates observed the Benedictine rule. (fn. 6)
Religious associations of women did not flourish in Cumberland. The rough life and continual warfare of a border county did not tend to promote institutions more adapted to settled and peaceful districts. Though the nunnery of Lekeley was far removed from the Scottish frontier, in a secluded position on the south-western seaboard, it was always in a crippled state of finances. On 13 November, 1227, Archbishop Walter Gray granted, with the assent of William, archdeacon of Richmond, the appropriation of the church of St. Michael of Irton to the prioress and convent of Lekeley in consideration of their poverty. (fn. 7) At a later date the condition of the institution was even more deplorable. On 1 April, 1357, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, in the sixth year of his palatinate, learning on undoubted authority that the priory of Seton was so poor (ita exilis) that there was not a sufficiency to support the prioress and nuns, granted the appropriation of the hospital of St. Leonard, Lancaster, which was at that time vacant and of his patronage, with all its lands and possessions, as a help to the sustentation of the house. The duke also gave to the prioress and nuns the advowson of the chantry of one chaplain in the hospital, and enjoined the burgesses of Lancaster to assent to the gift and to bestow the alms and duties on the said hospital which were incumbent on them from time immemorial. (fn. 8) The abbey of Holmcultram seems to have been considerate to the poor nuns of Seton. On 18 October, 1459, Thomas York, abbot of that house, leased all the lands the abbey possessed between Esk and Duddon, called Lekeley, to Elizabeth Croft, prioress, for twelve years at an annual rent of twenty shillings. (fn. 9)
A fragment of what appears to have been the monumental slab of a prioress is built into the wall of a barn at High Hyton not far from the nunnery towards the sea. It has occupied this position from a time beyond memory. One end of the slab has been broken off and lost. The inscription cut on either side of a pastoral crook reads: + HIC IACET . . . DENTONA AN . . . The fragment measures 34 inches in length and 22 inches in width. From the charges made in 1536 by Layton and Legh in their infamous 'book of compertes' we learn that Joan Copland was the prioress at that date and that Susanna Rybton was an inmate of the house. In the previous year, when the ecclesiastical survey was made, Joan Seton is named as the prioress, but she was probably the same person under another surname.
The total revenue of the nunnery in 1535 was returned at £13 17s. 4d., and after deducting reprises, £12 12s. (fn. 10) This sum was made up of the following items: value of the site of the priory, 30s.; rents and farms in 'Whitebyke' and tenements in 'Furdes' and 'Bolle,' 14s. 4d.; rents in the vill of Lancaster, £6 0s. 4d.; spiritualities of the church of Irton, £5 12s. 8d. By the valuation of James Rokeby on 24 June, 1536, the demesne lands in the occupation of the priory were worth £3 6s. 8d., and the gross issues of the rectory of Irton were £13 6s. 8d. The value of the demesne lands when granted to Hugh Ascue of the king's household in 1542 was set down at £4 11s. 4d. In the following year the rectory of Irton was leased to the same person for twenty-one years. (fn. 11)
A tradition about the manner of granting Seton Priory, which survived till late in the seventeenth century, is of curious interest. Edmund Sandford, writing about the year 1675, has left us this version of it. 'The religious house was gott,' he said, 'by one Sir Hugo Askew, yeoman of the seller unto Queen Catherin, in Henry the Eights time, and borne in this contry. And when that Queen was deforced from her husband, this yeoman was destitute, and he aplied himself for help to Lo(rd) Chamberlain for some place or other in the king's service. The Lord Steward knew him well because he had helpt him to a cup wine the best, but told him he had no place for him, but a charcole carrier. Well, quoth this Monsir. Askew, help me with one foot and let me gett in the other as I can. And upon a great holiday, the king looking out at some sports, Askew got a cortier, a frinde of his, to stand before the king, and then he got on his vellet cassock and his gold chine and baskett of chercols on his back, and marched in the king's sight with it. O, saith the king, now I like yonder fellow well that disdains not to doe his dirty office in his dainty clothes—what is he? Says his frinde that stood by on purpose, It is Mr. Askew that was yeoman o'th celler to the late Queen's Matie and now glad of this poore place to keep him in yr Maties service, which he will not forsake for all the world. The kinge says, I had the best wine when he was i'th celler; he is a gallant wine taster, let him have his place againe and afterwards knighted him.' (fn. 12)
After Askew got his lease of the priory lands in 1537, he was not allowed to have peaceable possession, for an attempt was made, when the commonalty of the northern counties rose in rebellion, to oust him and restore the nuns to their old home. By a petition in 1540 'to the Righte Worshipfull Sor Richarde Riche, Knighte, Chauncellor of the Kynge's Courte of Augmentacons in (of) the Revenues of his Crowne, moste humblye sheweth, and complaynethe unto your good maystershippe, your dailye oratour, Hughe Ascue, officer in the kynges graces sellar, that where your seide oratour hathe of the kinges grace's dymyse by indenture undre his grace's grete seale of his Courte of Augmentacons of the revenues of his Crowne, the house and scite of the late pryorye or house of nunes of Seyton in the countie of Cumberland wt all and singuler the appurtenances, by auctorytie of parlyamente suppresside and dissolvyde, into whiche saide house or pryorye by vertue of his seide lease yor saide oratour dyd entre and was therof peassablye possesside and the same did furnyshe wt suche goodes and catalls as he then hadd. So yt is that one Thomas Skelton beynge accompanyde wt diveres other rebellyous and mysdemenyde persons at the tyme of the commocon in the Northe, ryoutouslye entryde into the seyde late pryorye then beinge in your oratour's hande, as ys aforesaide, and there put in the late pryores of the same late pryorye, whoe remanede ther afterwarde by the space of a quarter of a yere and more wt here hole retinue at the onlye coste and charge of your oratour, and the goodes and catalls of your seid oratour dyd waste, dystroye, and carye awaye to the value of xxiiil. Wherfore it maye please your good maistershipe the premises tenderlye consideryde to graunte the kynges graces lettres of pryvye seale to be directide unto the saide Thomas Skelton, commaundynge him by the same, other to restore unto your said oratour his saide goodes and catalls so by him so dystraynede and caryede awaye, or agrewithe your seide oratour that he be and personallye appere before your maistershippe in the Kinges Courte of Augmentacons of the revenues of his crowne at a certayne daye and undre a certeyne payne by your good maistershippe to be lymittede, then and ther to aunswere to the premisses and further to abyde suche ordre and dyrectyon in the premisses as shall seme to your good maistershippe to stonde wt equite and good consceyence, and your seide oratour shall daylye praye to God, etc.' (fn. 13)
Prioresses of Seton
Elizabeth Croft, (fn. 14) occurs 1459
Joan Seaton, (fn. 15) occurs 1535
Joan Copland, (fn. 16) occurs 1536