A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE NUNS
6. THE ABBEY OF GODSTOW
At the beginning of the Chartulary of Godstow, of which we have both a Latin (fn. 1) and an English version, (fn. 2) there is a description of the foundation of the abbey. Dame Ediva, a resident at Winchester, widow of Sir William Launcelene, had a vision, bidding her settle near Oxford until God should send her a token 'in what wise she should build a place' to His service. When for some time she had lived a holy life at Binsey, one night a voice told her to rise, and go where a light from heaven touched the ground, and there establish a nunnery for twenty-four 'of the moost gentylwomen that ye can find.' Apparently she saw the light at Godstow, northward from Binsey. Going to King Henry I she told him 'what God in a vision her had sent,' and with his help a monastery was founded on Easter eve in honour of St. Mary and St. John the Baptist. As the king left England in August 1133, and never returned, we may assume that the date of the foundation of Godstow was not later than Easter, 1133. (fn. 3) The story proceeds to say that Dame Edith was abbess of the convent 'LI' years, a length of time which in the circumstances of the case is incredible. But we shall see that she and her successor, who was also apparently named Edith, covered together a period of nearly fifty-one years.
In 1139 the church was dedicated. There were present the king, the queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of Lincoln, Salisbury, Exeter, Worcester, and others, and the gifts bestowed by them on the abbey are enumerated in a charter of Bishop Alexander. (fn. 4) The date of this dedication must be after 8 January, on which day Theobald was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury, yet not long after, since (as the deed shows), Alberic, the pope's legate, whose departure from England followed the consecration of Theobald, had not yet started. When we notice that 18 January and 24 June were the two great festivals of Godstow, (fn. 5) it seems likely that the former commemorated the dedication of their church.
As the abbey was erected on the land of John de St. John, he was considered the patron and founder; but the most liberal benefactors were King Stephen, his wife and son. Of the leading barons, Miles of Gloucester, and the earl of Leicester, made donations, and likewise not only the bishops that were present, but also the abbots of Abingdon and Westminster. About 1144 Reginald Baalun, son of Roger earl of Hereford, gave his manor of Eaton in Wiltshire, which in 1535 produced £50 a year. Other gifts followed rapidly; for Godstow, always an aristocratic nunnery, was at the height of its reputation during the twelfth century, and the chartulary shows that wives and daughters of many of the leading families of the south became nuns there. About 1180 the abbey received gifts from Walter de Clifford in Frampton and Pauntley, Gloucestershire; and one of the deeds (fn. 6) mentions that Margaret his wife, and Rosamund his daughter, were both buried at Godstow. The latter is known as 'the fair Rosamund.' That she received her education at Godstow, as the guide-books suggest, is nowhere indicated; nor need she ever have lived there. It was a common custom of the time for well-born people to choose a monastery in which they were to be buried; and it was considered an honour to be the burying place of one of the king's mistresses. (fn. 7) When she died at Woodstock, early in 1176, 'for love of her the king conferred many benefits on the convent.' (fn. 8) A commentary on these words is supplied by the Pipe Roll of Michaelmas, 1176, which shows that the king was sending lathes and roofing shingles from Wallingford to Godstow, and was also supplying building material (no doubt stone) from Gloucestershire. The chartulary also tells us that about the same time he became patron of the abbey by the grant of Bernard of St. Walery, the house of St. Walery having succeeded to the property of John de St. John, (fn. 9) and in the same year the king enriched the abbey with the two churches of Wycombe and Bloxham. In 1191, when Bishop Hugh visited Godstow, the tomb of Rosamund was treated almost like a shrine; but the bishop ordered that the body should be removed from before the high altar and buried outside. (fn. 10)
The chartulary shows that the abbey at different times had property in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Dorsetshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Sussex, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, and Yorkshire. It possessed the churches of St. Giles, Oxford, and Pattishall, Northamptonshire, both given in 1139; of Dinton, Buckinghamshire, given about 1170; and also of Wycombe and Bloxham, all of these having been appropriated before 1220. (fn. 11) Great Tew was acquired in 1309 and appropriated then. (fn. 12) There were also pensions from the churches of Lamyatt in Somerset and Daglingworth in Gloucestershire. At one time also Easington in Oxfordshire paid a pension, but the nuns surrendered both pension and advowson to the bishop. (fn. 13) The king remained patron of the abbey until its dissolution, and had the right of nominating a nun at his coronation. (fn. 14)
Such evidence as we have suggests that the monastic rule was well kept at Godstow at the end of the twelfth century. We may deduce this partly from the fact that Archbishop Geoffrey wished to make the priory of St. Clement's, York, subject to it; (fn. 15) partly also from the vision of the monk of Eynsham at Easter, 1196, (fn. 16) which, without mentioning Godstow, speaks several times of an abbey of nuns near Eynsham, whose prayers were much desired by those whom the monk saw in torments. Godstow is about three miles from Eynsham, and there was no other abbey of nuns in Oxfordshire. Of one abbess he tells how she washed the limbs of lepers, anticipating one of the best-known passages in the life of St. Hugh.
In the year 1281 the king ordered the sheriff to arrest the abbess and produce her before him at the next Parliament. (fn. 17) It sounds as if there was some serious offence; but as it is described elsewhere (fn. 18) as trespass against the mayor and bailiffs of Oxford and the king's ministers, which trespass was forgiven her, it was probably the encroachment, of which we hear in 1276, (fn. 19) when she was accused of enclosing 60 acres of the demesne of the king and of the common pasture of the citizens of Oxford. In 1285 it was presented that she had appropriated 40 acres of pasture of the demesne of the king, but she was able to show for it a grant of Henry III. (fn. 20)
In November, 1284, Archbishop Peckham wrote to the abbess of Godstow expressing his disbelief in a charge of unchastity rumoured against the sub-prioress, but ordering her and the other nuns to be careful to avoid all suspicious appearances, especially as regarded scholars, priests, and monks, in connexion with whom scandal was particularly liable to arise. (fn. 21) About the same time he gave instructions for the full and careful performance of divine service, enjoining amongst other things that the 'childish celebrations' of Innocents' Day should not continue beyond that day. He gave the usual elaborate injunctions for avoiding scandal, and ordered that no scholars of Oxford should be allowed to speak with any nun unless known to be a relation in at least the third degree. Confessions were to be made in a place exposed to public view near the altar, and the confessors were to be two or four special friars preachers, and the same number of minors, the chief of the chaplains, and the master, if he were a priest. This master, (fn. 22) as we here learn, was the head of a small community of brethren, including the principal chaplain, who conducted the services in the abbey church. At this time their numbers had become excessive, and the archbishop ordered that no more should be admitted until there were only four—then only by consent of the master, the abbess, and the chief chaplain. (fn. 23)
In 1290 the bishop excommunicated certain unknown persons, who in the neighbourhood of Wycombe stopped a carriage belonging to Godstow, and carried off a nun, Agnes de Shene. But as, shortly afterwards, we find the nun herself is excommunicated, together with another apostate nun, a kinswoman of the Countess of Warwick, the bishop had evidently discovered that the nuns were privy to the plot. (fn. 24) On the other hand, in 1339 we hear of an apostate nun, who repented and received absolution. (fn. 25)
Though Godstow was rich, with an income in 1291 of nearly £200, yet, as was often the case, it suffered from debt more than many poor houses. For ladies so aristocratic a somewhat expensive style of living, with several servants and chaplains, was natural. In 1316, at the request of the abbess and nuns, the king, taking the abbey into his protection 'on account of its poverty and miserable state,' appointed the abbot of Eynsham and the prior of Bicester to be keepers of the abbey, paying the nuns a certain allowance, and applying the residue to the discharging of debts. (fn. 26) Nineteen years later, on the death of Margery Dyve, the abbess, the profits during the vacancy were remitted to the abbey by the king's order 'because of its poverty and misfortunes.' (fn. 27)
The first visitation of which we have record was in 1357. The bishop orders that the nuns shall not absent themselves from the monastery for more than three weeks, and then only for reasonable and necessary cause; and that inasmuch as secular people living in the abbey have greatly disturbed the service of God, no secular woman is to be an inmate, except the necessary servants and such persons as have corrodies. (fn. 28) However, in 1363, his successor, at the earnest prayers of Alice, wife of Alan of Ayote, granted permission that she might stay for two years at Godstow at her own expense. (fn. 29) In 1384, the abbey being vacant, the bishop warns the prioress that nuns should not be permitted out of the convent, cases of scandal having arisen; and in 1392 the abbess is ordered to forbid the visits of John de Kirkeby, chaplain of Wolvercot. (fn. 30) In 1432 the discipline of the house was lax; the bishop ordered that the porter was to take an oath not to admit strangers; certain women, who were evil examples by their extravagant dress, were to be excluded; the bailiff was to have no more secret talk with any nun, 'forasmuch as he says that there is no good woman in the monastery'; there is to be no drinking (potationes) after compline, but all were to go to the dormitory; if any nuns admit secular men to feasts in their rooms they are to be excommunicated, 'for the scholars of Oxford say that they can have all kinds of good cheer (omnimodas solaciones) (fn. 31) with the nuns to their heart's desire'; nuns are not to go into Oxford, nor to talk with secular persons in the nave of the church, or in the chapels, but only in the hall of the abbess, and in the hearing of another nun; the porter is not to convey letters or presents or tokens to any scholar at Oxford or other secular person. One nun had broken the vow of chastity. (fn. 32)
At the visitation by Bishop Alnwick in 1445, the house consisted of the abbess and sixteen nuns, and returned its income at £200. The abbess complained that the scholars of Oxford had common access to the monastery and the cloisters, and that she could not stop it; that secular people had access to the nuns in the choir during divine service, and also in the refectory at meal-time; the prioress complained that nuns went often to Oxford, that one had frequent converse in the church with a certain Hugh Sadeler of Oxford; several, however, of the nuns said 'omnia bene.' The bishop's injunctions were much as before concerning the exclusion of secular people; the abbess was herself to sleep often in the dormitory, and was to rise to mattins with the sisters 'at least on all double feasts.' No seculars were to sojourn in the abbey except it be children, and in that case, if boys, they must not be more than nine years old; if girls, not more than twelve. No corrodies were to be granted.
On the death of Alice Henley in August, 1470, there seems to have been a disputed election. The Patent Rolls of April, 1471, inform us that Margaret More had been elected, but in October, 1471, Alice Nunny is described as abbess of Godstow in succession to Alice Henley, and she is pardoned for having obtained a papal confirmation without the royal assent; while in October, 1480, a general pardon is granted to Margaret More, 'nun of Godstow, alias late abbess.'
At the visitation of 1517 (fn. 33) we have nothing more than the usual injunction against the admission of secular people within the monastery. In 1520 the house consisted of the abbess, fourteen nuns, and a lay sister. Mention is also made of three junior nuns, whose names are not given. The income of the house was more than 400 marks. There was nothing more seriously amiss than that the elder nuns refused to sing as the precentrix directed.
In 1526 (fn. 34) the income was gross £289, net £234; in 1535, (fn. 35) when the number of inmates was twenty, the income was gross £319, net £258. When John Tregonwell visited Godstow in September, 1535, he reported favourably to Cromwell of all the convent; even a nun who had been sent thither by the bishop some fourteen years before to expiate a grievous lapse from virtue had ever since lived honestly. (fn. 36) Possibly it was at this visitation that orders were given for the closing of the back gate of the precincts, to the great inconvenience of visitors, as the abbess testified in the following year when she wrote to Cromwell sending him a present of apples and a fee of 40s. (fn. 37) To further secure his favour she offered him, in March, 1538, the stewardship of the abbey, worth only 40s., but placing at his disposal for the king's service some twenty or thirty men. (fn. 38) The royal visitors reported in 1538 that there was great strictness of life at Godstow, 'that most of the young gentlewomen of the country were sent there to be bred, so that the gentry of the country desired the king would spare the house.' (fn. 39) On 4 November, 1539, (fn. 40) Dr. London came to the abbey to secure its surrender. It is generally supposed that he behaved badly to the nuns, and that the abbess made a firm stand for her religious principles, but though she resisted London, it was not on religious grounds. In a letter (fn. 41) dated 5 November, addressed to Cromwell she said that London was of old her enemy, because, when she was appointed abbess through Cromwell's help, London had wished that some one else should be elected. She complained that he 'tarried and continued to her great charge and cost;' that he used first threats and then entreaties to secure the surrender of the house. She professed herself quite ready to surrender to Cromwell or the king, but not to her ancient enemy London, and asserted that she was no waster of the goods of the house, as London said. There is preserved a letter of London, (fn. 42) written 6 November, which is certainly more charitable than that of the abbess. He begs the nuns may be allowed suitable pensions, especially the abbess, who had been obliged to borrow money of her friends to pay her firstfruits. This loan, which must have been made at least four years before, was apparently still unpaid. On 26 November the abbess thanks Cromwell for removing Dr. London, 'who was ready to suppress the house against my will, and had done it indeed, if you had not sent so speedily contrary commandments.' She adds that the nuns did not use or regard pope, nor purgatory, image nor pilgrimage, nor praying to dead saints, and did not cling too much 'to this' (i.e. monastic) 'garment and fashion of life.' (fn. 43) The abbey was surrendered to Sir John Williams 17 November, 1539, the abbess receiving a pension of £50 and her sixteen sisters smaller sums. (fn. 44)
Abbesses of Godstow
Edith II, occurs 1168 (fn. 45)
Agnes c. 1182-95 (fn. 46)
Felicia Bade, occurs 1220, and 1225 (fn. 49)
Flandrina, elected 1242, (fn. 52) deposed 1248
Emma Bloet, elected 1248, (fn. 53) resigned 1269
Isolda de Durham, elected 1269, (fn. 54) resigned 1278
Rose de Oxeye, elected 1278, (fn. 55) resigned 1283
Mabel la Wafre, elected 1283, (fn. 56) resigned 1295
Alice de Gorges, elected 1295, (fn. 57) died 1304
Maud Upton, elected 1304, (fn. 58) died 1316
Margery Dyve, elected 1316, (fn. 59) died 1335
Margery Tracy, occurs 1375, (fn. 64) died 1384
Joan, occurs 1428 (fn. 69)
Agnes, elected 1430 (fn. 70)
Elizabeth Felmersham, occurs 1435 and 1445 (fn. 71)
Alice, occurs 1451, (fn. 72) died 1470
Margaret More, elected April 1471 (fn. 73)
Alice Nunny was abbess, October 1471, (fn. 74) resigned 1481
Katherine Field, elected 1481 (fn. 75)
Isabel Braynton, elected 1494, (fn. 76) died 1517
Margaret Tewkisbury, elected 1517, (fn. 77) resigned 1535
Katharine Bulkeley, alias Bewmarys, elected 1535, (fn. 78) surrendered 1539
The remarkable early twelfth century seal is a pointed oval: the Virgin, seated on a throne on the left, a palm-branch in the right hand; before her on the right St. John Baptist, holding in the left hand a scroll inscribed: ECCE AGNVS DEI. The left hand of the Virgin, and the right hand of St. John hold up an Agnus Dei on a circular plaque. At the Virgin's feet Ediva, the first abbess, kneeling in adoration, with the name EDIVA over her head. (fn. 79) Legend:—
This was in use as late as 1371, (fn. 80) but in 1379 (fn. 81) we find a new seal: a pointed oval, two figures in canopied niches, the Virgin with Child on the left, (?) Ediva on the right; below, a kneeling figure in adoration. Legend:—
A fourteenth century seal of an abbess is a pointed oval: St. John Baptist standing in canopied niche, with tabernacle work at the sides, with the Agnus Dei on a plaque in the left hand, and pointing to it with the right hand. In base, under a four-centred arch, with masonry at the sides, Ediva the first abbess with crown and pastoral staff, kneeling in prayer. (fn. 82) Legend:—
The matrix of a counterseal or signet found within the walls of the abbey represents the head of St. John Baptist in a dish. (fn. 83)