A History of the County of Derby: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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HOUSE OF BENEDICTINE NUNS
1. THE PRIORY OF KING'S MEAD
In a general charter of confirmation to the abbot and canons of Darley, soon after their foundation, Bishop Walter Durdent, c. 1160, makes special mention of the nuns of Darley. He assigned the care of them to the Abbot Albinus, whom he names as the builder of their house. (fn. 1)
This nunnery of St. Mary de Pratis, or King's Mead, was the only Benedictine foundation in the county. It was situated to the west of the town of Derby, just a mile from Darley Abbey, as stated by Bishop Walter, in the meadows by the side of the Oddebrook. These meadows, parts of which belonged to the abbey, were usually known as King's Mead, and hence the title by which the nunnery was generally distinguished.
Very soon after the foundation of this small house a warden was appointed, whose duty it was probably to act as resident chaplain, but more especially to look after the temporalities of the priory. Such a course was by no means unusual with Benedictine nunneries. The three large nunneries in Hampshire of pre-Norman establishment, Nunnaminster, Wherwell, and Romsey, had a small number of canons attached to them, who in the earlier days not only had seats in quire, but on certain occasions even in chapter. The two small Benedictine nunneries of northern Northamptonshire, Winthorpe and St. Michael's, Stamford, had each a resident master, or warden, who was duly instituted by the bishop. The large nunnery of Nuneaton, Warwickshire, had a like custom which prevailed till its dissolution; in this case the resident chaplain was termed the prior, and thirteenth and fourteenth century covenants ran in the name of the prior and prioress. Within a few years of its foundation, William de Bussel, then warden (custos) of the nuns, and Emma the prioress, confirmed to Dean Hugh, the co-founder of Darley Abbey, a toft in Bag Lane (Baggelone), at a rental of 8d. (fn. 2)
In a grant of Hubert de Burgh, earl of Kent, between 1227 and 1243, to Croxton Abbey, it was covenanted that 2 marks yearly were to be paid by the abbey to the nuns of St. Mary by Derby. (fn. 3)
Henry III, in 1229, granted the nuns of Derby a messuage and 12 acres of land in 'Bistallegh' and Ashop. (fn. 4) In 1230 a grant was made to Emma, prioress of King's Mead, of 13 acres of land and a messuage in Stokes, together with pasture for 300 sheep and their lambs, and for 8 oxen, 6 cows, 30 goats, and 20 pigs in the same vill, by Lancelin FitzLancelin and Avice his wife. The donors and their heirs were to be always sharers in the benefits and prayers of the conventual church of King's Mead. (fn. 5) In 1236 Henry de Doniston and Eleanor his wife, in conjunction with Robert de Stanton, granted an acre of wood at Thursmanleigh to Rametta, the prioress of King's Mead, and her convent. (fn. 6)
The happy and quiet dependence of this nunnery on the powerful abbey was not of long duration. Various differences and disputes arose between the two as to the specific endowments that accrued to the nunnery. These contentions at last grew sufficiently grave to demand the intervention, about 1250, of Bishop Roger de Weseham (1245-57); his decision is prefaced by devout aspirations for the peace that holy religion above all things demands, so that Martha may the more securely and efficaciously give herself to frequent ministrations, and Mary the more quietly and happily meditate at the feet of her Master. The agreement, arranged by the bishop, to which both parties signified their solemn assent, was to the effect that henceforth the nuns and their property should be altogether free from the control of the abbot and canons, a condition expressed in the most absolute terms, so that nihil potestatis nihil juris remained to the abbey. At the same time certain properties were definitely assigned to the priory. These included King's Mead; the church of St. Werburgh, Derby; 'Welleflat'; 'Sirreiers' mill, and the adjacent meadow; eighteen acres of the land of Ralph Unenath; 'Becroft'; and the houses (mansiones) which the nuns have in Derby. (fn. 7)
A covenant entered into between Walter the abbot (1247-59) and Sibil the prioress, apparently at the same time as the episcopal agreement or shortly afterwards, testified that the prioress and the nuns granted to the canons an acre and a half of land at Scarcliffe and an acre at Langwith in East Derbyshire, without any service. (fn. 8)
On 2 September, 1327, the prioress and nuns put forth a petition to the king, showing that great numbers of persons came to their house to be entertained, but owing to the badness of the past years, and the unusually heavy mortality amongst their cattle, their revenues are so reduced that they beg the king to take the monastery into his special protection and grace,—granting the custody of it, if it please him, to Robert of Alsop and Simon of Little Chester—until the priory be relieved and able again to exercise hospitality. As the result of this petition (fn. 9) protection was granted by Edward III for three years in December, 1327, to the priory of Mary de Pré by Derby, on account of its poverty and debts. At the same time Robert of Alsop and Simon of Little Chester were appointed custodians, who, after due provision for the sustenance of the prioress and nuns, were to apply the issues and rents to the discharge of the liabilities of the house and to the improvement of its condition. (fn. 10) The house was much in debt at this time, and the bishop refers to its poverty at the appointment of Joan Touchet as prioress (fn. 11) in December, 1334, on the resignation of Ellen de Beresford. (fn. 12) Joan died, doubtless of the plague, in 1349, and was followed by Lady Alice de Ireland.
In March, 1366, Bishop Stretton appointed Robert Attemore, rector of Broughton, to visit this nunnery whenever needful. (fn. 13)
From this date there is but little to be gleaned of the history of the priory save the election of the successive superiors as chronicled in the diocesan registers. It is noteworthy that all these prioresses without exception were members of the leading families of the county, who were in the habit of sending their daughters to be educated at: the only nunnery that Derbyshire possessed. (fn. 14)
In the time of Henry VII a bill in Chancery was filed by the abbot of Burton against Isabel de Stanley, prioress of King's Mead, alleging that she had refused for twenty-one years to pay certain rents which he demanded as due to him, and that when his bailiff went to distrain she declared with great malice,
Wenes these churles to overlede me or sue the law agayne me ? They shall not be so hardy but they shall avye upon their bodies and be nailed with arrowes; for I am a gentlewoman comen of the greatest of Lancashire and Cheshire; and that they shall know right well. (fn. 15)
In November, 1509, Thomas Weell, bishop of Pavada, who was then acting as suffragan for Coventry and Lichfield, was commissioned by Bishop Blyth to inclose Joan Hethe, nun of the priory of the Blessed Mary juxta Derby, for a solitary life in the chapel at Macclesfield, in the parish of Prestbury. (fn. 16)
The Valor of 1535, when Joan Curzon was prioress, gave the clear annual value of this small house as £18 6s. 2d. The rectory of St. Werburgh was of little worth, merely bringing in 40s. a year. With such an endowment as this the house could scarcely have been maintained unless a fair income had been obtained through the nuns acting as teachers to their boarders. Such a fluctuating source of income would obtain no recognition in the Valor.
The alarm caused to the nuns by the sham royal visitor James Billingford, in 1534, has been already mentioned, (fn. 17) but more genuine and abiding alarm resulted from the visitation of those authorized royal officials commissioners Legh and Layton early in the year 1536. In their extraordinary and incredible comperta even these men had no charges to bring against the prioress and nuns, but under the head of Superstitions they stated that a part of the shirt of St. Thomas of Canterbury was preserved at the priory, which was an object of reverence to pregnant women. They reported that the rentals of the house only produced £10 a year, and that it was in debt to the extent of 20 marks. (fn. 18)
Prioresses of King's Mead
Emma, c. 1160 (fn. 19)
Margaret, early thirteenth cent. (fn. 20)
Emma II, occurs 1230 (fn. 21)
Raimon, early thirteenth cent. (fn. 22)
Rametta, occurs 1236 (fn. 23)
Sibilla, c. 1258 (fn. 24)
Ellen de Beresford, resigned 1334 (fn. 25)
Alice de Ireland, appointed 1349 (fn. 27)
Margaret Cholmeley, appointed 1487 (fn. 31)
Isabel de Stanley, occurs Henry VII (fn. 32)
Elizabeth, occurs 1514 (fn. 33)
Alices Knowles, died 1531 (fn. 34)
Joan Curzon, appointed 1531 (fn. 35)
There are several impressions extant of the first seal of this nunnery, (fn. 36) c. 1200, but they are all too imperfect for the legend to be deciphered.
It is a pointed oval seal with the Blessed Virgin seated on a throne and the Holy Child on her left knee. The upper part of the impression of a later seal remains attached to a document of 1461; the legend has evidently been the angelic salutation:—
+ AVE MA . . . .DRS . . ECE. (fn. 37)