A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.
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HOUSE OF AUGUSTINIAN NUNS
15. THE PRIORY OF EASEBOURNE (fn. 1)
The priory of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (fn. 2) was founded in the thirteenth century by one of the family of Bohun of Midhurst, probably Sir John, (fn. 3) for a prioress and ten nuns (fn. 4) of the Augustinian order. (fn. 5) The original endowment included the church of Easebourne, of which Midhurst was a chapel, which was valued in 1291 at £26 13s. 4d., the temporalities of the priory at the same date being worth £41. (fn. 6) Property had been acquired in the Isle of Thorney before 1313, (fn. 7) and in 1332 John de Bohun made a considerable grant of land in Sturminster Marshall (Dorset). (fn. 8) Five years later the priory had licence to acquire lands to the value of 10 marks, (fn. 9) but only a few small grants appear to have been made after this; and the Black Death in 1350, with the subsequent economic revolution, reduced the nuns to great poverty, to relieve which the prior and convent of Lewes granted them the churches of Compton and Up Marden, reserving a pension of 40 shillings and stipulating for the provision of sufficient vicarages. (fn. 10)
Though but poorly endowed Easebourne appears to have always been an aristocratic community. In 1283 Archbishop Peckham, who as primate had the right of appointing one nun, desired the prioress to receive Lucy, daughter of the late Sir William Basset, as an inmate, (fn. 11) and in 1295 the prioress of Easebourne, one of the ladies by whose oath Margaret de Camoys purged herself on a charge of adultery, was Isabel de Montfort. (fn. 12) Amongst later prioresses and sisters of this house we find members of such well-known families as Sackville, Covert, Hussey, Tawke, and Farnfold.
Unfortunately high birth is not the most necessary qualification for the religious life, and what we know of the inmates of this priory is but little to their credit. A visitation (fn. 13) held in January, 1442, revealed the fact that the house was in debt to the extent of £40 through the extravagance of the prioress, who was continually riding about with a large train of attendants, fared sumptuously, and dressed so finely that the fur trimmings of her mantle alone were worth 100 shillings (well over £100 of modern money); but though luxurious herself she apparently believed in vicarious mortification of the flesh, as she made her sisters work like hired workwomen, and kept them true to their vow of poverty by appropriating all the profits of their labour. The bishop removed the prioress from office, putting the house under the control of a clerk and a layman until it should be free from its debts, for the reduction of which he ordered the prioress to sell her costly furs; at the same time she was ordered to diminish her household and reduce expenses in other ways, and to cease from compelling the sisters to work; if any of them wished to work they might do so and might receive half the profits, the other half being converted to the advantage of the house. The success of the commissioners in dealing with the finances of the priory seems to have been small, as in 1451 the debts and expenses of the house were £66 6s. 8d., to meet which there was only a sum of £22 3s. (fn. 14) The inventory of the furniture of the priory drawn up at this time (fn. 15) seems to speak of a state between poverty and riches. The community at this date probably numbered eight, as there is mention of eight psalters and eight beds; there is also mention of two other beds with hangings of red worsted, in one of which we may no doubt see the 'bed of red worsted with a half-canopy embroidered' which John de Bishopeston, chancellor of Chichester, bequeathed to his niece, a nun of Easebourne, in 1374. (fn. 16)
When Edward Story was appointed bishop of Chichester in 1478 he apparently heard that things were not well at Easebourne, and in May of that year took the unusual step of summoning the prioress to Chichester, where she took an oath to resign at one if the bishop should require it. At the same time the bishop enjoined her immediately to remove the sub-prioress from office; to hold at least one chapter every week and correct the faults of the nuns; to see that neither she herself nor any of the sister should leave the precincts for the purpose of drinking or other improprieties; and finally, to select every week one of the nuns to be her personal chaplainess in order of seniority, but omotting the sub-prioress. (fn. 17) In the following month the bishop visited Easebourne and found matter enough for reformation. (fn. 18) Silence was ill-kept, and the prioress was lax in enforcing the statutes; moreover her kinsmen constantly stayed for weeks in the house enjoying the best of everything, while the nuns had to put up with the worst. A certain 'brother William Cotnall,' who appears to have had control of the priory's affairs and the common seal, had used the latter for the advantage of his friends and had also disposed of certain jewels for his own benefit; he further admitted having had improper relations with Philippa King, one of the nuns, who had since absconded with another sister, Joan Portesmouth, in company with a chaplain and one of the earl of Arundel's retainers. One of the sisters attributed the apostasy of these two nuns to the illdiscipline of their superior, coupled with the fact that they had each had one or more children long before their withdrawal. Another sister said that she had heard that the prioress herself had had one or two children many years before. It would almost seem that this remote priory served as a kind of reformatory for young women of good family who had strayed from the path of virtue. (fn. 19) The bishop's injunctions following on this visitation are not preserved.
A visitation held in August, 1521, shows a better state of affairs; the cloisters required repair, but the prioress had already bought the necessary materials, and the only other complaint was that the prioress, Margaret Sackville, did not pay her sisters their annual allowance of 13s. 4d. for clothing. As no accounts were produced for examination the visitor adjourned the visitation to 17 October. (fn. 20) The community at this time consisted of the prioress, four professed nuns, and one novice, Joan Sackville, but in 1524 there were seven sisters besides the prioress; of these, however, one is noted as twelve years old and another as ideota. On this occasion (fn. 21) the chief complaint made by the nuns was that the sub-prioress was too strict; she, however, retorted by complaining of their disobedience, and the visitor contented himself with ordering her to behave well to her sisters. No very serious matter was brought forward, though the sub-prioress mentioned that Ralph Pratt, farmer of the church of Easebourne and apparently receiver of the priory, some twelve years before had led astray Joan Covert, then a sister of the house. Orders were given for the prioress to render account yearly, and for the door leading into the church from the cloister to be kept locked. The privacy of the nuns in their portion of the church of Easebourne was further provided for by Sir David Owen, who had succeeded to the patronage, when he made his will in 1529, giving instructions for the building of a covered wooden passage from the nuns' dorter to the choir. (fn. 22) Sir David also left to the priory many ornaments and rich vestments, but his pious care was in vain, for he outlived the nunnery, dying only in 1542, whereas the priory being only of the clear value of £29 16s. 7d. (fn. 23) was suppressed in 1536, and granted to Lord Treasurer FitzWilliam. (fn. 24)
Prioresses of Easebourne
Alice, before 1279 (fn. 25)
Isabel de Montfort, occurs 1302 (fn. 26)
Edith, occurs 1313 (fn. 27)
Beatrice, occurs 1327 (fn. 28)
Mary, occurs 1339 (fn. 29)
Margaret Wyvile, occurs 1362 (fn. 30)
Margery, occurs 1411 (fn. 31)
Elizabeth, occurs 1440 (fn. 32)
Agnes Tawke, occurs 1478 (fn. 33)
The seal (fn. 36) is not now known, but was oval, with the Virgin and Child under a carved canopy; in base a man handing a book to a seated nun (?). Legend:—
SIGILLUM DOMUS SANCTE MARIE DE ESEBORNA.