A History of the County of Leicestershire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.
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HOUSE OF AUGUSTINIAN NUNS
11. THE PRIORY OF GRACE DIEU
The Priory of Grace Dieu at Belton was founded by Rose de Verdon for Austin nuns between 1235 (fn. 1) and 1241, and endowed with the manor and advowson of Belton, and the manor of Kirkby in Kesteven. (fn. 2) In the early days of the house there was anxiety about both its spiritual state and its material possessions, and the wellknown Franciscan, Adam Marsh, intervened on behalf of the priory, writing to the Bishop of Lincoln, the Archdeacon of Leicester, and others. (fn. 3) An agreement concluded between John de Verdon, son of the foundress, and the convent, provided that the nuns should not elect a prioress without the patron's licence, and that the patron should have the right of presenting the prioresselect to the bishop. (fn. 4) The life of the nuns at Grace Dieu seems to have had some special features; they were forbidden ever to leave the precincts of the priory, (fn. 5) while shortly before the Dissolution they described themselves as 'White Nuns of St. Augustine', and thought that there was no other house of their own Order in England. (fn. 6) There is no evidence that Grace Dieu was ever connected with any of the separate congregations which lived under the Augustinian rule, and it seems probable that the peculiarities of Grace Dieu were merely especial customs of the house.
The priory obtained some additions to the endowments originally given by its foundress. Amice de Freschenville gave lands at Staveley Woodthorp (Derbys.), to provide for the nuns' clothing, (fn. 7) and in 1306 the Earl of Buchan obtained a licence to grant a hundred acres at Whitwick to Grace Dieu. (fn. 8) Belton church was appropriated to the priory before 1270. (fn. 9) The priory also obtained the manors of Houghton (Northants.), Great Limber (Lines.), and Harby (Notts.). (fn. 10)
There is some information about the state of the nunnery during the 15th century. A surviving account book of the priory for the years from 1414 to 1418 gives some insight into the life of the nuns. (fn. 11) There were at that time fourteen nuns at Grace Dieu, besides several daughters from local families lodging there. The nuns were each allowed 6s. 8d. a year for clothing. The priory possessed a considerable quantity of livestock, though much of its land at Belton was evidently rented out. The accounts mention the names of twenty-two male and eight female servants. A less attractive picture of the priory is given in the record of Bishop Alnwick's visitation at the beginning of 1441. (fn. 12) The prioress was accused of favouritism, and of failing to render account of the convent's affairs to the other nuns. The cellaress was said to be too familiar with the convent's chaplain, to be very lax in her attendance in choir, and to manage all the priory's affairs without consulting others. The infirmary was in a bad state of repair. The priory had previously been £48 in debt, and in 1441 it was still in debt for £38. The bishop issued injunctions designed to remedy the faults disclosed. In 1441 the number of nuns was again fourteen. Grace Dieu was visited by the bishop's commissary in 1518, when complaints were made by several nuns about minor defects in the management of the house. (fn. 13) At a visitation by the chancellor of the diocese in 1528 there were again fourteen nuns present. Nothing requiring correction was found. (fn. 14)
The clear yearly income of the house was assessed at about £92 in 1535. (fn. 15) In the following year Dr. Legh and Dr. Layton reported that the nuns reverenced the girdle and part of the tunic of St. Francis, and accused two of the nuns of incontinence. (fn. 16) A commission of the local gentry, however, visiting the convent in the same year, stated that the fifteen nuns there were virtuous and all desired to continue in religion. Nine persons were supported by the priory's charity. The buildings were in good repair, though not stately. There were twenty-seven male and nine female servants, about the same number as in the early 15th century. (fn. 17) The priory would have been suppressed with the other small religious houses, (fn. 18) but in August 1536 the prioress obtained a licence for the nunnery to continue its existence. (fn. 19) The priory was finally surrendered in October 1538. (fn. 20) An inventory of the convent's possessions, taken immediately after the surrender, shows that to the end some of the priory's land was being farmed under the direct control of the nuns. The same inventory mentions the church, cloister, and chapter house, with other buildings. (fn. 21) The First Minister's Account shows a gross income of £73. 11s. 8d. (fn. 22)
Prioresses of Grace Dieu
Mary of Stretton, elected 1242-3. (fn. 23)
Agnes of Gresleye, occurs 1268-9, (fn. 24) died 1286. (fn. 25)
Agnes, died 1318. (fn. 26)
Joan of Hastings, elected 1318, (fn. 27) died 1330. (fn. 28)
Joan Meinwaryng, elected 1331, (fn. 29) died 1349. (fn. 30)
Cicely of Strawley, elected 1349. (fn. 31)
Margaret of Twyford, resigned 1400. (fn. 32)
Margaret Rempston, elected 1400, (fn. 33) died 1418. (fn. 34)
Alice Dunwich, elected 1418, (fn. 35) occurs 1441. (fn. 36)
Elizabeth Shirburne, occurs 1485. (fn. 37)
Margaret Zouche, occurs 1493, (fn. 38) died 1524. (fn. 39)
Agnes Liderland, elected 1524, (fn. 40) surrendered the priory, 1538. (fn. 41)
The 13th-century seal (fn. 42) of this priory is a vesica, 2⅛ by 1¼ in., having a figure of our Lord seated on His throne, blessing with His right hand, and holding a book in His left. In the base is a female figure, probably representing the priory's foundress, kneeling and holding a charter. All that remains of the legend are the words
A seal (fn. 43) of Prioress Agnes of Gresleye has a representation of the Virgin Mary on a throne, holding the infant Jesus on her left knee. The sun and moon are on either side of her head, and in the base of the seal is a kneeling nun, probably representing the prioress. The legend has been wholly broken away. When complete, the seal would have been about 1½ by 1 in.