A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.
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10. THE PRIORY OF SEWARDSLEY
At Sewardsley or Sewersley, in the parish of Easton Neston, Richard de Lestre, lord of the manor, founded a small Cistercian nunnery in the reign of Henry II. (fn. 1) According to a deed of the twelfth century the founder notified to Robert, bishop of Lincoln, that he had granted lands in Sewardsley and Wimandesley, etc. to the priory of Sewardsley, with leave to turn three oxen, ten cows, and two hundred sheep into his pasture, the sisters promising in return to use his counsel in the reception of nuns and to admit none except through him. (fn. 2) The house continued under the patronage of his successors in the manor. In 1260-1 the Prioress Florence was admitted by the bishop with the approval of Sir Robert de Paveley the patron. (fn. 3) By his will dated 1240 William de Paveley left his body to be buried at the convent and bequeathed to the house his palfrey and trappings or two marks, and all his apparel and armour, including his breastplate, lance, helmet, sword, and leggings, together with two oxen. He also bequeathed among other gifts to religious houses half a mark to the pittance of this convent. (fn. 4)
The endowment of the priory was but small; the Valor of Henry VIII. gives its gross value at £18 11s. 2d.; out of this the prioress and convent had to pay £4 13s. 4d to the chaplain celebrating in the conventual church, and the clear income of the house amounted to only £12 6s. 7d. (fn. 5) Bishop Sutton in 1293 wrote to the prioress and convent desiring them to receive again Isabel, daughter of the late Philip de Covele, knt., who in a secular habit had gone to the bishop of London representing that fifteen years previously she had taken the habit of a nun at Sewardsley, that on the death of her mother she claimed her share of the inheritance, intending to provide fit maintenance for herself among the nuns, but finding the convent unable to support her she had licence to leave; she was excluded from inheritance with her sisters on account of her religious profession, and entered the monastery of Holywell, London, where she had remained for fourteen years, and borne herself chastely; she now desired, however, to return to Sewardsley. (fn. 6) The poverty from which the inmates of the house must have suffered did not lessen as time went on. Bishop Dalderby in the year 1300 granted an indulgence to those who should bestow alms on the house, (fn. 7) and the hard and difficult conditions of the life there may possibly be accountable for the lapse of another sister, Joan de Fynnemere, who in that same year is said to have abandoned her habit and returned to a secular life. The bishop ordered sentence of greater excommunication to be pronounced against her. (fn. 8) An indulgence to those who should come to the help of the poor nuns of Sewardsley was again granted by the bishop in 1319. (fn. 9) The sisters obtained a licence from the diocesan to beg for alms in consequence of the poverty of their house in 1366, (fn. 10) and in 1378 Bishop Bokyngham sanctioned the appropriation to the prioress and convent of the church of Easton Neston, his grant reciting that the value of their lands had been so affected by the pestilence that they were insufficient to maintain the number of sisters at first instituted. (fn. 11) The poor terms on which the Prioress Maud and the convent leased a great part of their property to John Shepherd of Holcot for life shows the desperate straits to which they were reduced. (fn. 12) The bishop of Lincoln at last, in January, 1459-60, at the request of Sir Thomas Greene their patron, appropriated the nunnery to the comparatively substantial Cluniac abbey of Delapré, the income of the former being insufficient to maintain the inmates or repair their buildings. (fn. 13) From this time to the dissolution, when there was a prioress and four nuns here, the abbey appears to have been responsible for the maintenance of the priory subjected to it.
This priory was associated in the year 1470 with a case of alleged witchcraft. In February Jaquetta, duchess of Bedford, appeared before the council at Westminster and complained that one Thomas Wake, esq., had in the time of the late troubles caused her to be accused of witchcraft, inasmuch as he had brought before the king and his lords at Warwick an image of lead made like a man-at-arms of the length of a man's finger broken in the middle and fastened with a wire, saying that it was made by her to use in witchcraft and sorcery, and had entreated John Daunger, parish clerk of Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire, to say that there were two other images made by her, one for the king and one for the queen. Thereupon the king had ordered the examination of Wake and Daunger, and in the great council of 19 January she had been cleared of the slander, and she now prayed that the restitution of her fame might be placed on record. In his examination, Wake stated that the image had been shown to various persons and had been exhibited in the nunnery of Sewardsley. (fn. 14)
With the exception of the visit paid by the bishop's official in 1300 (fn. 15) no record exists of a visitation which throws further light on the internal conditions of the house. (fn. 16) During the rule, which lasted from 1426-31, Bishop Gray issued a commission to inquire concerning alleged excesses of the prioress and her nuns; the result has apparently not been recorded. (fn. 17) In 1530 Agnes Carter was elected prioress on the death of Eleanor Scaresbrig, who had been appointed by the diocesan five years previously, (fn. 18) but the election was declared void by the bishop on the ground of her manifest unfitness. She is described as 'mulier corrupta, apostate, et unius prolis mater, et eo pretextu ad hujusmodum officium indigna.' (fn. 19)
The four commissioners for Northamptonshire religious houses, Edmund Knightley, John Lane, Robert Burgoyne, and George Giffard, visited Sewardsley in May, 1536, as we may gather from a joint letter sent from Northampton to Cromwell on 19 May, as well as from a letter of Giffard of the same date. (fn. 20) Elizabeth the last prioress of this nunnery received a small pension of £5. (fn. 21) The site and lands of the priory, together with the rectory of Easton Neston, were granted on lease to Thomas Broke of London, (fn. 22) but in 1550 came into the possession of Richard Fermor. (fn. 23)
Prioresses of Sewardsley
Felicia (fn. 24)
Juliana, (fn. 25) resigned 1260-1
Florence, (fn. 26) elected 1260-1
Iveta de Paveley (fn. 27)
Beatrice, (fn. 28) occurs 1282
Lucy of Wetamstede, (fn. 29) occurs 1304
Dionysia, (fn. 30) occurs about 1343
Margaret de Lodebrok, (fn. 31) elected 1349
Maud, (fn. 32) occurs 1371
Alice Basynge, (fn. 33) occurs 1432, resigned 1439
Alice Drakelow, (fn. 34) elected 1439
Eleanor Scaresbrig, (fn. 35) appointed 1526
Agnes Carter, (fn. 36) elected 1530
Elizabeth Campbell, (fn. 37) occurs 1536
A pointed oval seal of the priory, attached to a charter dated 1325, (fn. 38) represents the Virgin with crown seated on a throne, her right hand raised in benediction, in her left hand a sceptre. The Holy Child with nimbus is on her lap.