A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.
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7. THE PRIORY OF CANNINGTON
Cannington is a village about 3 miles north-west of Bridgwater, on the road to Nether Stowey and Holford. The priory, founded about 1138 by Robert de Courci, an adherent of the Empress Matilda, was situated 'hard adnexid to the est of the parish church.' (fn. 1)
Hugh de Wells, Archdeacon of Wells, and afterwards Bishop of Lincoln (1209-35), left in his will (1212) 5 marks to the nuns of Cannington. (fn. 2)
In 1333 (fn. 3) Robert Fitz Pain obtained licence to alienate to the prioress and nuns 80 acres of land at Cannington and Rodway, to maintain a chaplain to pray for his soul, and in 1354, (fn. 4) John de Chidiok and Robert de Sambourn obtained similar permission to give to the convent a rent-charge, and the advowson of the church of Witheridge in Devonshire, and this was confirmed in 1380. (fn. 5)
In 1382 (fn. 6) the rector of Spaxton, Robert Crosse, was the intermediary for a grant to the nuns of 120 acres of land in Pawlett.
In the Valor (fn. 7) of 1535 the house is declared in possession of the church and manor of Cannington, the church and lands in Witheridge, the free chapel of Puddletown St. Mary, Dorset, and lands and tenements at Stowey, Skilgate, Bridport and Bradford, Fiddington, Blackdown, Bristol and Godley. The value of the property was declared at £39 15s. 8d., of which 75s. had to be distributed in alms under Robert de Courci's bequest.
The nuns were drawn largely from the local county families, (fn. 8) and the house was used, as most houses of this size and kind were, as a place of retirement for the ladies of the county, either for the festivals of the church that they might observe them the better, or for their convenience and safety at times when their husbands and brothers were away.
Nominally the permission of the bishop had to be obtained before these houses could receive as paying guests the ladies who desired to retire there, but the ease with which these licences seem to have been granted is noticeable. The danger to the sisters from receiving these ladies was obvious. They were not bound by the rules which the sisters had to observe; they were not under any vows; they had been trained in the world; and they brought worldly ideas and all the pride of their position into these simple houses of sisters. Moreover those who were called upon to attend them, and the state in which they lived in the vacant rooms of the nunneries, must all have influenced detrimentally the good discipline of the house.
In the spring of 1313 (fn. 9) we find Bishop Drokensford granting to Dyonisia Peverel permission to stay (perhendinandum) at her own cost with the nuns of Cannington. Then the next year (fn. 10) the wife and sisters of John Fychet were allowed to spend their Christmas there, and a similar licence was granted to Isabel Barayl in 1315. (fn. 11) His successor, Bishop Ralph, in June 1336 (fn. 12) granted such a permission to Isabel Fychet, and in the same autumn he allowed (fn. 13) Joan Wason and Maud Poer to stay there for Christmas and till the following Easter with their two maids. In 1354 (fn. 14) Ralph issued a licence to Isolda, the wife of John Byccombe, to spend some time in the house.
In September 1311 (fn. 15) some disturbance had taken place in the churchyard, for Bishop Drokensford issued a commission to his suffragan, John, Bishop of Cork, to reconcile the cemetery of the poor nuns of Cannington, polluted by effusion of blood.
On 4 May 1317 (fn. 16) for some reason which is not stated, Emma de Bytelscomb, the prioress, resigned her office, and Matilda de Morton (fn. 17) appeared before Bishop Drokensford at Wiveliscombe, together with two sisters, Agnes de Newmarket and Sibyl de Horsy, who desired confirmation of Matilda's election as prioress in succession to Emma. On inquiry the election seems to have been found irregular; the sanction of the patron appears not to have been obtained, and at his request the house was granted permission to carry out the new election on 10 May.
On 31 May the commission appointed by the bishop to inquire into the details of the procedure of the election of Matilda de Morton demanded from the sisters whether any objections were made to the elected one, and Joan de Bratton, one of the sisters, objected on the ground of irregularity. The commission sat again on 9 June, when, in addition to the four mentioned, seven other sisters gave their evidence, and on 18 June the election of Matilda, which had been provisionally confirmed by the bishop, was quashed by the commissioners, and she was found to be unfit and irregularly chosen. In her place Joan de Bere was substituted. On 12 July Joan seems to have been induced to resign; Matilda and Joan renounced any intention of appeal against the bishop's decision, and on 15 August (fn. 18) the bishop, being satisfied that the house would accept his judgement, formally collated to the prioress-ship Matilda de Morton.
In 1328 (fn. 19) rumours seem to have reached Bishop Drokensford, and he appointed Canon Walter de Hulle to go to Cannington to inquire. It was said that some of the nuns were in the habit of walking about at night and wandering, without permission, from the precincts of the convent. The result of this inquiry is not recorded, but in 1351 Bishop Ralph issued a commission to John de Sydenhale and Nicholas de Pontesbury to inquire and correct things they might find amiss at Cannington. Here a painful exposure resulted from their inquiries. (fn. 20)
The prioress, Avice de Raigners, was found to have taken a bribe of £20 each from four whom she had admitted as nuns, and to have sold several corrodies, that is to say rights to nominate a pensioner to live in the house. This lay as a burden on the estates of the priory which were already insufficient for the support of the nuns, and brought in ladies with no vocation for a religious life to live with those who were professed. Two nuns, Matilda Pulham and Alice Northlode, the lady whom the bishop himself had forced on the house in 1333, (fn. 21) were found guilty of nightly conferences with the two chaplains, Richard Sompnour and Hugh Wyllinge, in the nave of the church of the said monastery. Matilda also had used threats and had acted in an indecent manner towards the servants of the house. Worse was to be feared from their conduct. Matilda was ordered to sit at the bottom of the choir, and at the bottom in the refectory, and Alice was to take the seat next above her, and they were on no account for a whole year to be allowed to go beyond the cloister of the house. Joan Trimelet who, to the grave confusion of their religious profession and scandal of the house, had given birth to a child, was ordered a year's penance. The sub-prioress was suspended for neglect of her duty, and for absence from the morning offices in the chapel, and two other nuns were joined in commission with her to carry out the duties of that post.
The charge against the prioress of having sold corrodies without a licence took a definite form in 1370 as the result of an inquest, in 1368, on the death of Roger Montfort, who died an outlaw and whose sole possessions consisted of a life interest in a corrody at Cannington Priory.
Some slight evidence of the terror caused by the Great Pestilence is perhaps shown in the licences sought and obtained from the pope (fn. 22) by 'Avis de Reigneres' the prioress in January 1349, and by Joan Trimelet June 1349, to choose any confessor they could find at the hour of their death.
Little is known of the later history of the priory. In 1504 Cecilia de Verney was elected and the mandate for her induction was issued by Archbishop Warham (fn. 23) during the vacancy of the see owing to Bishop Hadrian de Castello's appointment not having been as yet confirmed.
On 20 November 1536 (fn. 24) the prioress, Cecilia de Verney, received a pension of 10 marks. In 1556 none of the sisters are mentioned in Cardinal Pole's list, but Thomas Hache, the steward of the house, was still in receipt of a pension. (fn. 25)
Prioresses of Cannington
Emma de Bytelescumb, resigned 1317 (fn. 26)
Joan de Bere, elected and deposed, (fn. 27) 1317
Matilda de Morton, collated 1317 (fn. 28)
Willelma de Blachyngdon, elected 1334, died 1336 (fn. 29)
Joan de Bere, re-elected 1336, died 1343 (fn. 30)
Avice de Reigners, elected 1343 (fn. 31)
Joan, occurs 1412 (fn. 32)
Joan de Chedeldon, died 1440 (fn. 33)
Joan Gofyse, elected 1440 (fn. 34)
Eleanor (fn. 35)
Cecilia de Verney, elected 1504, surrendered 1536 (fn. 36)