House of Austin nuns: The priory of Harrold

A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1904.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


'House of Austin nuns: The priory of Harrold', A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904), pp. 387-390. British History Online [accessed 17 June 2024].

. "House of Austin nuns: The priory of Harrold", in A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904) 387-390. British History Online, accessed June 17, 2024,

. "House of Austin nuns: The priory of Harrold", A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1, (London, 1904). 387-390. British History Online. Web. 17 June 2024,

In this section



The priory of Harrold was probably founded between 1140 and 1150, (fn. 1) on land which was then a part of the honour of Huntingdon, and held by Sampson le Fort (fn. 2) of the Scottish kings. The site of the priory with the churches of St. Peter, Harrold, and Brayfield (Northants) was originally granted to Gervase, abbot of St. Nicholas of Arrouaise, that he might send there some nuns of his order (fn. 3) : they were at first governed by a prior, with a few canons, (fn. 4) to protect or guide the sisters 'according to the institutions of St. Nicholas of Arrouaise.' (fn. 5) The priory has some distinguished names amongst its earlier benefactors. Sampson le Fort's charter was probably confirmed first by David I. of Scotland and his son Henry, Earl of Huntingdon, (fn. 6) and certainly afterwards by Malcolm IV., (fn. 7) William the Lion, (fn. 8) Simon, Earl of Northampton, (fn. 9) and Robert Bruce (fn. 10); while Baldwin des Ardres, Count of Guisnes, granted to the nuns the church of Stevington before 1153, (fn. 11) and the name of Roger de Quincy, (fn. 12) constable of Scotland, appears later. Before the year 1181 however the prior and canons had ceased to exist, and the nuns were making efforts to free themselves from immediate subjection to the abbot of Arrouaise; and after appeals from both parties to Pope Alexander III. the matter was finally referred to the arbitration of St. Hugh of Lincoln. Robert of Bedford, the precentor of the cathedral, was sent to treat with the abbot of Missenden, who was acting as proctor to the abbot of Arrouaise; and the result of his negotiations was that Gervase set the nuns free for ever from subjection to the parent abbey, and yielded to them the two churches of Harrold and Brayfield, with all the other gifts of Sampson le Fort, on condition that they paid half a mark yearly to the abbot of Missenden. (fn. 13) Thenceforward until the dissolution the convent was ruled by a prioress, (fn. 14) having sometimes a warden or master, (fn. 15) like other small houses of nuns, and at one time a few lay brothers. (fn. 16) Of the number of the nuns there is no indication until the very end, when there were only six at the outside. Nor is it easy to discover whether in giving up their direct connection with the abbey of Arrouaise, they ceased at once to observe the Arrouasian rule and to wear the habit of that order; or whether, as seems more likely, the change was later. (fn. 17) At the dissolution they were reckoned as ordinary Austin canonesses. (fn. 18) The house has very little history of any kind. The chartulary in the British Museum, (fn. 19) which contains an abstract of the charters in the possession of the priory in the reign of Henry V., shows various small grants of lands and tenements in Bedfordshire, and a few suits concerning churches. (fn. 20) The latest item of importance is an account of the impropriation of the church of Shakerstone in 1416. (fn. 21) Early in the thirteenth century the advowson of the priory was probably held by Ralf Morin of Harrold and his son John, (fn. 22) and in 1279 certainly by Sir John de Grey. (fn. 23) The name of Sir Gerard Braybrook (fn. 24) occurs frequently in some later charters. The last patron of all was Lord Mordaunt of Turvey, one of whose ancestors had witnessed a foundation charter of the priory. The house was probably never very rich, though no exact statement of its income can be made earlier than the dissolution.

During the time of Bishop Sutton, in 1298, a nun of Harrold was found guilty of a breach of her vow of chastity; (fn. 25) and in 1311 Bishop Dalderby issued a commission for the visitation and correction of this house amongst others. (fn. 26) No account of this visitation is preserved, nor are any others recorded; only in 1369 (fn. 27) Bishop Gynwell appointed Dame Katherine of Tutbury (afterwards prioress) to administer the revenues of the priory during vacancy, and to reform excesses. It may be that during her term of office the house was well governed, and had a better reputation; but this is of course mere conjecture. The name of this prioress and her successor, Emma Drakelowe, are found in many of the charters relating to tenements and leases in the chartulary. Nothing further is known of the state of the priory, internal or external, until it was visited by Dr. Layton in 1535, (fn. 28) with other houses in Bedfordshire. If the accusations contained in his letter to Cromwell were true, the priory had certainly ceased to be in any real sense a religious house. He declared that he found there a prioress and four or five nuns, of whom one had 'two fair children' and another 'one child and no more'; and also describes how Lord Mordaunt had induced the prioress and her 'foolish young flock' to break open the coffer containing the charters of the priory, and to seal a writing in Latin of which they did not understand a word, but were told it was merely the lease of an impropriate benefice. 'All say they durst not say him nay,' he adds; 'and the prioress saith plainly that she would never consent thereto.'

In the case of Chicksand, which is charged with similar misdoings in the same letter, the very form and content of the accusation challenge criticism at once. But if the charges laid against Harrold are denied, it can only be on the simple ground that Layton is a discredited witness. There is no actual evidence for or against his statements. But unhappily there is nothing at all improbable in the story of Lord Mordaunt and the charters. The patron of a house so small and so poor would be in a position to take a very high hand with the little convent, especially as one or two of the nuns would very likely be members of his own family. However this may be, the house was certainly dissolved under the Act of 1536, and a pension of £7 assigned to the prioress, Elinor Warren. (fn. 29)

The priory was endowed by Sampson le Fort with the churches of St. Peter, Harrold, and Brayfield, Northants, with their appurtenances, and a few acres of land besides. (fn. 30) The church of Stevington (fn. 31) was added soon after, and that of Shakerstone (Leicester) in the fifteenth century. (fn. 32) No statement can be made as to the value of its lands in the thirteenth century, as it is not mentioned at all in the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas, nor in the Feudal Aids. The total income of the priory in 1535 was £40 18s. 2d.; (fn. 33) the first valuation after the dissolution, in 1536, amounted to £57 10s., including the four rectories mentioned above, with small parcel of land, rents and tenements in the counties of Bedford, Huntingdon and Buckingham. (fn. 34)

Prioresses of Harrold

Agnes (fn. 35) died 1245

Basile (fn. 36) de la Legh, elected 1245, occurs 1252

Juliane (fn. 37)

Amice, (fn. 38) occurs 1264 and 1268

Margery of Hereford, (fn. 39) resigned 1304

Cecily de Cantia, (fn. 40) elected 1304

Petronilla of Radwell, (fn. 41) elected 1335, resigned 1354

Christine Murdak, (fn. 42) elected 1354, resigned 1357

Maud de Tichemersh, (fn. 43) elected 1357, occurs 1364

Katherine of Tutbury, (fn. 44) elected 1369, occurs 1384

Emma Drakelowe, (fn. 45) occurs 1405 and 1413

Elizabeth Chiltern, (fn. 46) resigned 1470

Margaret Pycard, (fn. 47) elected 1470

Helen Crabbe, (fn. 48) died 1501

Eleanor Pygot, (fn. 49) elected 1501, died 1509

Agnes Gascoigne, (fn. 50) elected 1509

Elinor Warren, (fn. 51) surrendered 1536

The seal of the priory represented St. Peter, standing, in mitre and chasuble, two keys in the right hand and a crosier in the left. The legend is very indistinct, only the last two words being legible . . . PETRI CATENAS. (fn. 52)


  • 1. One confirmation charter of Malcolm IV. (1153–65) speaks of all the lands which they held in the time of his father and grandfather; and the first charter of Sampson le Fort speaks of the assent and consent of Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, who died in 1148 (Lansd. MS. 391, ff. 4, 6).
  • 2. 'Sampson Fortis' is the name on the charters; but Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii. 329 speaks of 'Sampson le Fort' as donor of the church of Harewold.
  • 3. The charters of Sampson le Fort and of Simon, Earl of Northampton, were made direct to Gervase, 'ad sustentationem sororum suarum sanctimonialium super ecclesiam de Harewolde' (Lansd. MS. 391, ff. 4, 5).
  • 4. The prior and canons are mentioned in one charter of Malcolm IV. (Lansd. MS. 391, f. 6); another has 'sororibus et fratribus eas tuentibus secundum institutiones ecclesiæ Sancti Nicholai de Arrowasia' (ibid. f. 5), and that of Simon, Earl of Northampton, has 'sororum sanctimonialium et cum eis Deo servientium'; one of Sampson le Fort has only the sisters (ibid. f. 4), and another the 'brothers and sisters' (Dugdale, Mon. vi.). It seems fairly clear that the sisters were the first consideration, and that the brothers were only there for the sake of the sisters (as originally in the Gilbertine rule). It would be easier to speak with confidence if there were any other house of Arrouasian nuns besides this with which to compare it; but though there were plenty of houses of Arrouasian canons (Nutley, Bourne, St. Peter's Dorchester, etc.), this appears to be the only house of nuns of this order in England.
  • 5. The charter of Malcolm IV.(Lansd. MS. 391, f.6) speaks of lands held in the time of his father and grandfather.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Ibid.f.5.
  • 9. Ibid.f.5b.
  • 10. Ibid. f. 4. This was Robert de Bruce, son of Payn de Bruce, who held lands in Bedfordshire in 1131 (Pipe R. [Rec. Com.], 103).
  • 11. Lansd. MS. 391, f. 11b; it was confirmed by 'Eustace the king's son,' which must be before 1153.
  • 12. Ibid. f. 13.
  • 13. The whole of this transaction is found in Lansd. MS. 391, ff. 18b, 19; but it is dated quite clearly 1288: which is manifestly impossible. It may perhaps be a mistake for 1188, which would do quite well for St. Hugh and Robert of Bedford. At the same time it seems extraordinary that Gervase, who was made abbot of Arrouaise in 1124 (Helyot and Bullot, Hist. de Ordres Mon. ii. 107), should still be abbot in 1188. Gervase's name also appears on the foundation charter of Bourne, 1138.
  • 14. A prioress is first mentioned in connection with Harrold early in the thirteenth century (see list of prioresses).
  • 15. Linc. Epis. Reg., Memo. Sutton, 14.
  • 16. Ibid. Memo. Dalderby, 31, 'To the prioress and convent of Harewold, to receive back a brother who being professed returned to secular life.'
  • 17. Most of the other Arrouasian houses lost their distinctive features and became Augustinian before the dissolution, except Nutley and St. Peter's, Dorchester. There was probably never much distinction. The order of St. Nicholas of Arrouaise in Artois was founded by Heldemar of Tournay and his hermit companions in 1090 (Helyot and Bullot, Hist. des Ordres Mon. ii. 107), about the same time that the Augustinian order was being reformed or re-organised on the basis of the rule taken from St. Augustine's letter to certain religious women (No. 211, ed. Migne), and quite independently; but afterwards it was looked upon as merely a branch of the Augustinian order, so much so that the abbot of St. Peter's, Dorchester, was fined for not appearing at the last great chapter of the order, though he pleaded that his house was Arrouasian, and that he was not therefore bound to come (Cott. MS. Vesp. D i. f. 64). The Arrouasian canons originally wore a white habit and no linen; they ate no meat, and kept a strict rule of silence (Hist. des Ordres Mon. ii. 107).
  • 18. Leland—quoted Dugdale, Mon. vi. 330.
  • 19. Lansd. MS. 391.
  • 20. Stevington was claimed by the son of Baldwin des Ardres, but finally quitclaimed (ibid. f. 12b), and confirmed by John to the nuns of Harrold (Chart. R. 7 John, m. 1). The same church was again claimed in 1405 by Philip de Cornewayle, lord of Stevington, by right of his wife Constance, Countess of Huntingdon; but awarded to the prioress by Bishop Repingdon (Lansd. MS. 391, f. 13b). The church of Brayfield was also disputed at one time (ibid. f. 15b).
  • 21. Ibid. f. 18 (dated 1416) and 58b; also Pat. 7 Henry V. pt. 2, m. 39; and Linc. Epis. Reg. Mem. Repingdon, 128d, 129.
  • 22. There are several charters between Ralf and John Morin and the prioress (Lansd. MS. 391, ff. 7b, 8); and Ralf Morin in 1203 accused the nuns of trespassing on his lands, assarting his woods, etc., while he was disseised of them for the king's service (Cur. Reg. R. 27, 4 John, n. 2). In 1226 Ralf Morin claimed the church of Eythorne, Kent, against the Archbishop of Canterbury, who vouched to warrant the prioress of Harrold, who claimed that she and her nuns held the church by gift of Ralf's father Ralf. Ralf replied that they were only entitled to a pension of £2 a year from the church under a charter of the archbishop (Bracton's Note Book, iii. 543).
  • 23. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii. 329.
  • 24. Lansd. MS. 391, f. 44.
  • 25. Linc. Epis. Reg., Memo. Sutton, 192d. The partner of her guilt was condemned to be beaten through the market-place of Harrold; and when he refused to submit, excommunicated.
  • 26. Ibid. Memo. Dalderby, 202d.
  • 27. Ibid. Memo. Gynwell, 83.
  • 28. Wright, Suppression of Monasteries, 91 (Letter xlii.)
  • 29. L. and P. Hen. VIII. xiii. (1), 1520.
  • 30. Lansd. MS. 391, ff. 4–6.
  • 31. Ibid. f. 12.
  • 32. Ibid. f. 18b.
  • 33. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv. 204.
  • 34. Dugdale, Mon. vi. 331.
  • 35. Occurs Lansd. MS. 391, f. 37; and Epis. Linc. Reg. Rolls of Grossetête (at the election of the next prioress), 1245.
  • 36. Linc. Epis. Reg., Rolls of Grossetête; her name occurs under the date 11 November 1245 in Lansd. MS. 391, f. 37; and in Willis's Hist. of Bucks, p. 159 (1252).
  • 37. Occurs Lansd. MS. 391, f. 8, in an agreement with Ralf Morin, witnessed by W. de Beauchamp (i.e. before 1260, if this, as seems probable, was the elder William, whose charter to Chicksand Ralf Morin witnessed (Dugdale, Mon. vi. 950).
  • 38. Ibid. ff. 8, 13.
  • 39. Occurs ibid. f. 9b with Sir John de Grey; and Linc. Epis. Reg., Inst. Dalderby, 261.
  • 40. Ibid. 261 (John de Grey, patron).
  • 41. Ibid. Inst. Burghersh, 320d.
  • 42. Ibid. Inst. Gynwell.
  • 43. Ibid. 397; Lansd. MS. 391, 44.
  • 44. Linc. Epis. Reg., Inst. Gynwell, 83; Lansd. MS. 391, 35, etc.
  • 45. Lansd. MS. 391, ff. 13b, 34b, etc.
  • 46. Linc. Epis. Reg., Inst. Chedworth, 178.
  • 47. Ibid.
  • 48. Ibid. Inst. Smith, 443d.
  • 49. Ibid.
  • 50. Ibid. 457d.
  • 51. L. and P. Hen. VIII. xiii. (1), 1520. On the fly-leaf of Lansd. MS. 391 is written: 'Prioresses occurring in this book: Juliana abt. 1251, Agnes 1257, Amicia 1260 and 1265, Matildis about 1280, Cecilia 1312, Margeria de Hereford 1340, Katherine Tutbury and Emma Drakelowe.' The same list is given in Tanner, Not. Mon. 'from a MS. in the possession of Walter Clavel' (probably the Lansdowne MS.), and in Dugdale, Mon. vi. 330. It has not been followed here, because it is very difficult to make the dates on the fly-leaf correspond with those in the chartulary. The only Agnes who occurs is certainly earlier than Basile; and the latter name, which is quite distinct in the chartulary, with the date 30 Henry III., is not found on the fly-leaf at all; and Margery of Hereford is plainly misdated 1340.
  • 52. The same seal, much defaced, is attached to Add. Ch. 15726.