A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.
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HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE NUNS
3. THE PRIORY OF ST. MICHAEL, STAMFORD
On the south-east side of Stamford, at the Northamptonshire end of the bridge over the Welland, lies that part of the town which is called Stamford Baron or Stamford St. Martin's. In this quarter about the year 1155 a Benedictine nunnery, dedicated to St. Michael, was founded by William of Waterville, abbot of Peterborough. The convent was originally designed on a large scale for the support of forty nuns. (fn. 1) The founder assigned to them the church of St. Martin, out of the profits of which they were to make an annual payment of half a mark to the chanter of Peterborough Abbey and 10s. to the sacrist. (fn. 2) Subsequent abbots conferred on the nuns the churches of Thurlby, and of St. Clement, All Saints, and St. Andrew, in the Lincolnshire portion of Stamford. Moieties of the church of Corby and the chapel of Upton were granted in the reign of Henry II. by Ascelina de Waterville and Maud de Diva, her sister, the daughters of Geoffrey de Waterville. (fn. 3) These and other gifts were from time to time sanctioned by the crown. An elaborate inspeximus and confirmation was granted to the convent by Edward IV. in 1464 recording previous confirmations by Henry II., John, Henry III., Edward I., and Richard II. (fn. 4) According to the Taxation of 1291 the temporalities and spiritualities of the priory within the diocese of Lincoln amounted to £66 13s. 4d. (fn. 5)
This priory was from the earliest time subject to the abbey of Peterborough to a remarkable extent. It was the custom on the morrow of the feast of St. Michael, when the convent paid an annual pension of a silver mark to the abbot, for the prioress in the name of her chapter to make formal recognition of their subjection, which was usually done under their common seal. (fn. 6) The consent of the abbot was necessary to the election of each successive prioress, and to him also pertained the right of receiving the profession of the sisters; on St. James's Day, 1298, we read that Abbot William of Woodford received the profession of Joan, daughter of Sir Waleran Mortimer, at Peterborough, as a sister of St. Michael's Priory, and wrote to the prior at Stamford to give her the veil (quod conferret habitum). The admission is entered in the abbey register and witnessed by several of the monks. (fn. 7) The abbot also had the appointment and removal at pleasure of a custos or warden, occasionally termed canon and sometimes prior. The diocesan claimed the right of instituting the warden from time to time and occasionally he was duly presented. A. de Boby 1221, Richard de Scoter 1223, Henry de Silkeston 1224, Serlo de Burgo 1230, Henry de Overton 1271, Wairin 1295, Stephen de Burgh 1302, and Thomas de Stanford and William de Gretford 1334, were successively presented at Lincoln as warden of St. Michael's Priory. (fn. 8) The warden acted as senior chaplain in the conventual church, heard the confession of the nuns, and had certain powers of supervision over the temporalities.
About the year 1230 the sisters employed a clerk to solicit a confirmation of their privileges at the Roman Court, and by their actions embroiled themselves with the abbey. Their agent in his zeal exceeded (as they alleged) his instructions, and obtained the insertion of certain articles abrogating the necessity of the abbot's sanction for the election of a prioress, and annulling the payment of pensions from several churches that had been assigned to them. The abbot and monks in consequence proceeded to take action against the nuns, who, being aware of the unfair advantage taken by their proctor, sent the prioress with the charters of their house to lay the matter before the archbishop of Canterbury and his suffragans, asking for their intervention to restore to them the friendship of their powerful neighbours, and renouncing all claim to the papal privileges that had been thus unduly obtained. (fn. 9) On the death of the prioress Alice about 1240, the nuns elected Petronilla of Stamford as their superior, the appointment being confirmed by Bishop Grossetête 'saving the rights of the abbey.' (fn. 10)
In 1270 Bishop Gravesend sanctioned the personal visitation of this house once a year by the abbot and two or three of the monks with power to correct and reform. (fn. 11) The abbot usually visited the convent in person at the feast of St. Michael. The register of the abbey shows that Abbot William of Woodford was there on 29 September, 1297. On that occasion the visitor absolved from the greater excommunication three of the nuns, Alexandra de Langtoft, Cecilia Fleming, and Margery Arkeld; the offences of the two first are not named, but Margery is said to have been excommunicated for laying violent hands upon Emma, a novice, the daughter of Matthew de Eston, who had been recently admitted to the priory. (fn. 12) Abbot Godfrey de Crowland formally visited the priory on 20 July, 1300. (fn. 13) The result was probably omne bene, otherwise visitation injunctions and decrees would have been recorded in the register; the like seems to have been the case with another visitation held by the same abbot on Wednesday after the Purification, 1303. (fn. 14) Shortly before this Abbot Godfrey detected some mismanagement of the revenues of the priory, and appointed Thomas of Salisbury, a monk of Peterborough, special warden for a season, with full powers over the temporalities and of adjudicating and ordering all temporal matters both within and without the convent as he should think profitable, reserving to the prior and prioress the spiritual disposition of all things concerning their house. (fn. 15)
Abbot Adam of Boothby visited the priory in the autumn of 1323. His mandate for an impending visitation, dated 6 October, was directed to the prior, prioress, and convent, and bade the prior issue visitation summonses for the Monday before the feast of St. Luke. On the appointed day the prior and prioress, with all the nuns, brethren, and lay sisters who by right or custom were obliged to be present at the visitation, assembled in the conventual church of St. Michael. The lord abbot, who had associated with himself for visitation purposes two of his fellow monks, Hugh of Stukely and Robert of Tanser, began his inquiries touching the state of the monastery, the life and conversation of the prior and prioress, as also of the nuns and other persons there abiding. The reality of the visitation, which included private interrogation of each member of the house, is evident from the fact that the inquiry extended over the whole of Monday and Tuesday, so that it was found necessary to adjourn the visitation of the hospital of St. Thomas and the lazar-house of St. Giles of Stamford Baron, which were also under the abbot's jurisdiction, until the Wednesday. (fn. 16)
The sad story of Sister Agnes of this house, extending over nine years, so far as it can be gleaned from the episcopal registers, affords striking evidence of the zeal and painstaking determination of Bishop Dalderby. In 1309 the bishop excommunicated Agnes de Flixthorp (alias de Wissenden), nun of the house of St. Michael without Stamford, for apostasy in leaving the monastery and leading a secular life, and warned all persons not to receive her into their houses nor give her aid or counsel, and that any who did so should be cited to appear before the bishop. (fn. 17) In 1310 the bishop sent a letter to the crown authorities asking for the arrest of Agnes, an apostate. She was then living at Nottingham, and the archdeacon was instructed to warn her to return to her monastery, resume the habit, and submit to discipline. (fn. 18) In the same year the bishop caused it to be generally proclaimed that Agnes de Flixthorp, a nun of this house, was leading a worldly life, and lay under excommunication. He also addressed a letter to the abbot of Peterborough to see to her being taken back to her monastery, and there shut up and guarded by persons whom he could trust, forbidding all the sisters of the house to go to her, except for the health of her soul, under pain of excommunication. The defaulter was then secured and returned to Stamford. Her imprisonment was to be very rigid, for a further letter to the prioress of St. Michael's ordered that Agnes should be confined in a chamber with stone walls, and that each leg (utramque tibiam) should be shackled with fetters until she consented to resume her habit. (fn. 19) In March, 1311, the bishop sent a letter to Ada, sister of William de Helewell, instructing her to take the custody of Agnes, the apostate nun of St. Michael's without Stamford. In August of the same year the bishop issued his mandate to the official of the archdeacon of Lincoln, the rector of Barnack, and another, to go to the convent of St. Michael, and there to inquire, by the confession of Agnes and others, into the truth of the matter of her apostasy; for Agnes had declared that she was never professed, as she was married to one whose name she refused to give before she entered religion, and still continued in her obstinacy. (fn. 20) The report of this commission is not entered in the diocesan register, but the substance of it can be gathered from a letter addressed by the bishop of Lincoln to the bishop of Exeter in November of the same year. In that letter it was stated that Agnes Flixthorpe, after having been a professed nun of St. Michael's for twenty years, left the house and was found wearing a man's gilt embroidered gown; that she was brought back to her house, excommunicated, and kept in solitude; and that she remained obstinate and refused to put on her religious habit. The bishop, thinking it desirable that she should be removed from the diocese for a time, prayed his brother of Exeter that she might be received into the house of Cornworthy, (fn. 21) there to undergo penance, and to be kept in safe custody away from all the sisters. A mandate was at the same time sent to the prioress of St. Michael's to deliver Agnes to Peter de Helewell, clerk, to be conveyed to Cornworthy. (fn. 22) In December, 1312, the poor woman declared her penitence, and the bishop of Exeter was commissioned to absolve her; (fn. 23) but there must have been a relapse, for the unhappy Agnes remained in solitary confinement at Cornworthy until August, 1314, when Peter de Helewell was commissioned to bring her back to Stamford. (fn. 24) The register of Bishop Dalderby contains yet one more entry relative to the 'apostate,' who in truth was probably a lunatic. In September, 1318, a letter was addressed to the prioress, wherein it was recited that Agnes Flixthorp had three times left her order and assumed a secular habit, and had then for two years remained in the world; the prioress was ordered, under pain of excommunication, and without any dissimulation, to find Agnes and bring her back to the convent as an obstinate apostate, and to keep her in safe custody at her peril. She was to be kept in solitude, to receive no letter or messages, and to undergo the discipline. (fn. 25) There is no further information as to Agnes; Bishop Dalderby died about a year after this injunction, and it is but charitable to hope that no further steps were taken to secure the poor woman.
This house, in common with most religious foundations in Northamptonshire, suffered severely in the visitation of the plague in 1349. The small adjacent nunnery of Wothorpe was united in 1354 with the larger house of St. Michael, as described in the account of the former. Bishop Gynwell in his confirmation of the union speaks in the warmest terms of St. Michael's, and states that the amalgamation was granted at the express petition of the prioress and convent, setting forth the losses they had incurred through the recent epidemic, and in order that hospitality might be maintained. (fn. 26) The bishop in 1359 granted the nuns a licence to beg alms in order to assist them in their poverty. (fn. 27) Some years later the diocesan issued an inhibition to the prioress and convent forbidding the residence of any secular persons within the precincts of the priory, as being prejudicial to religion. (fn. 28)
Entries relating to this priory in the fifteenth century are rare. The prioress, Agnes Leek, appointed in 1413, resigned on 12 August, 1429, as set forth at some length in the register of Abbot John Deeping. The declaration of the prioress is entered in English. She describes herself as 'perioresse of ye nunnes of ye pryorye of Seynt Michel by syde Stamford of ye order of Cistewes of ye diocyse of Lincoln'; her resignation was not brought about by constraint, 'nor by strength, drede, nor decyt induced bot purely wyllfully sympylly and absolutely and by myne own fre and greable wytte.' Licence was at once granted by the abbot to the nuns to choose a successor. (fn. 29) This reference to the priory being of the Cistercian order is, we believe, an error of either Prioress Agnes or the scribe. The house is elsewhere expressly described as Benedictine, and as it was founded by a Benedictine abbot, it is scarcely likely that it would have followed the reformed rule of Cîteaux. In January, 1457-8, the bishop of Lincoln granted the prioress and nuns a licence to lease out and dispose of the fruits and revenues of any of their appropriated churches. (fn. 30)
Margaret Stainbarn was prioress on 29 September, 1528, when she executed on behalf of her convent a curious lease, which in view of the storms at that time gathering between the king and Rome was certainly a shrewd bargain. In return for a yearly rental of £6 13s. 4d. she made a lease for two years to Isaac Mychell of Blandford, Dorset, of 'all the comodyteys profetts and advantageys that by the Reyson or occasyon off all Indulgencies, pardons, and faculteys, be gyffen to the seyd Monastery by divers Holy Fathers, Popes of Rome. . . . . So that yt shalbe lafull to the seyd Isaac and to hys lafull assignes, in the Dyocese of Salysbury, Wynchester, Bathe, Excetter, Saint Davyd, London, and Canterbury, to declare the seyd Pryvylegeys and pardons, and to gedder the Brotherhed and Devocion of good Crystyn people, to hys best advantage and profet.' Payment was to be made at four yearly terms at the 'Crosse Aultar in the hye quere of the seyd Monastery,' beginning on Christmas Day next. (fn. 31)
The value of the house was declared in the Valor of 1535 at £65 19s. 9d. (fn. 32); it was suppressed with other houses of a less yearly value than £200 yearly. (fn. 33) Isabel Savage, the last prioress elected shortly before the suppression, obtained a pension of £8. (fn. 34) The site and demesne lands of the priory were granted by Henry VIII. to Richard Cecil 'of the Household.' (fn. 35) Francis Peck, who published the Annals of Stamford in 1727, says:— 'Nothing of the monastery or church is now standing, but the site is well known, and at this day called the Nunns in St. Martin's. There are divers traditions both of the beauty of the church and the stately remains pulled down in the memory of man; these last not without the loss of his life who threw down the first stone and the leg of another labourer miserably broken.' (fn. 36)
Prioresses of Stamford
Alice, (fn. 37) died about 1240
Petronilla of Stamford, (fn. 38) elected about 1240
Mabel le Venur, (fn. 39) appointed 1306, resigned 1337
Mabel de Reyby, (fn. 40) elected 1337
Agnes de Brakenburgh, (fn. 41) elected 1359
Agnes Leek, (fn. 42) appointed 1413, resigned 1429
Margaret de Gudchepe, (fn. 43) occurs 1486
Margaret Stainbarn, (fn. 44) occurs 1528
Isabel Savage, (fn. 45) occurs 1538
The small round seal of the priory, of which there is a cast at the British Museum, (fn. 46) represents St. Michael in conflict with the dragon; on the right is a figure kneeling in prayer. Legend:— . . . . O IOH' EST' MICHAEL ME [P]TEGE PESTE