Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Ankerwick

A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Ankerwick', A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1, (London, 1905), pp. 355-357. British History Online [accessed 18 June 2024].

. "Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Ankerwick", in A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1, (London, 1905) 355-357. British History Online, accessed June 18, 2024,

. "Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Ankerwick", A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1, (London, 1905). 355-357. British History Online. Web. 18 June 2024,

In this section


The priory of Ankerwick (fn. 1) seems to have been founded during the reign of Henry II., probably not before 1160, (fn. 2) by Gilbert de Muntfichet, lord of Wyrardisbury, whose son Richard was also reckoned as a founder and benefactor. This is another poor and small monastery of which very little is known; it was dedicated to the honour of St. Mary Magdalene. At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were six or seven nuns besides the prioress: an income of about £20 would probably never have supported more. And yet we find here, as at Ivinghoe and Little Marlow, the names of some well-known county families among the prioresses.

Of the external history of the house absolutely nothing is known: it probably went through the same struggles as other small monasteries during the fourteenth century, (fn. 3) and the death of a prioress (unnamed) is recorded in 1349. (fn. 4) We may surely hope that in the course of three or four hundred years it was in some sense a source of blessing to the neighbourhood, although of this we have no record. It was surrendered some time before 8 July, 1536, when the prioress, Magdalen Downes, received a pension of £5 a year. (fn. 5)

What we know of the internal history of this house we must frankly own is not greatly to its credit; yet the recorded episcopal visitations are separated by considerable spaces of time, and it would be rash to conclude from their tone that the monastery was never in a very satisfactory condition. As early as 1197 (fn. 6) a single runaway nun managed to give the priory a good deal of trouble. She is described as 'A. the daughter of W. Clement,' and had been fifteen years professed; at the end of that time she grew weary of the cloister and returned to her friends. Now if she had only asked them for shelter and protection, very little might have been heard of the affair: she would have been ordered to return, and excommunicated if she did not obey; and that might have been the end of the matter. But she was bold enough to claim a share in her father's property on the ground that she had been forced into the monastery against her will by a guardian who wished to secure the whole inheritance; and this roused her own relations against her. They appealed to no less a person than the pope himself, Celestine III., who first appointed delegates to hear the case, and then, as the nun still proved difficult to deal with, sent a formal letter to be published by the Abbot of Reading and the prior of Hurley, ordering her to return to her monastery on pain of excommunication. The affair came at last into the Curia Regis, (fn. 7) and side by side with the papal letter is the official declaration of the prioress that 'A.' had actually been fifteen years professed, had been precentrix in the choir, and had lived all the time 'as a nun among nuns'; with a mandate to the dean and archdeacon of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury to excommunicate 'A.' and a certain W. de Bidun, who had aided and abetted her. The story serves to show how even in the twelfth century, when the religious houses of England were in their first fervour, there were cases of unfaithfulness to the religious ideal; further, in what a serious light apostasy was regarded; and again, the tremendous ecclesiastical machinery that might be brought to bear upon one insignificant nun.

Bishop Burghersh issued a commission in 1338 (fn. 8) for the visitation of this monastery, both head and members, to correct, punish and reform in all points needed. The entry is merely formal, and the results are not given. In 1382 Bishop Bokyngham excommunicated a nun of Ankerwick for leaving the monastery by night, and all those who aided her in any way: as well as certain who had carried away goods belonging to the priory. (fn. 9)

In 1441 in the course of his general visitation Bishop Alnwick came to this house, and called all the sisters, according to custom, into the chapter house. The prioress, Dame Clemence Medford, had no complaint to make, except that the nuns were given to eat and drink between meals, contrary to the rule of St. Benedict; the sub-prioress answered Omnia bene; but the other sisters had a good deal to say. Dame Margery Kirby declared that the house was ruinous, that a barn had been lately burnt down, and that the prioress kept the convent seal in her own hands and disposed of the goods of the priory without consulting her sisters at all. Dame Julian Messenger said that the prioress wasted the goods of the monastery, often invited guests of her own but would never let the other nuns invite any one, and was very austere in her dealings with them generally: she also said that the novices had no informatrix to instruct them in the rule and in the choir office. Another sister, who had been ill, complained that she had not proper coverings for her bed nor warm clothes for herself, nor such food as might make her strong enough to 'endure the burden of religion.' There were three others of tender age and much simplicity (perhaps these were the novices) who said nothing at all.

The bishop passed over the minor complaints—probably he had heard the like elsewhere—and simply ordered the prioress to consult her sisters as to the disposal of property; the common seal was to be in the custody of two sisters, of whom Dame Margery Kirby was to be one: two keys were to be made, one for the prioress and the other for a sister who should be elected by the rest of the convent. (fn. 10)

In 1519 Bishop Atwater visited the priory. (fn. 11) Two cases of apostasy were recorded: one who had worn the habit four years had forsaken her monastery; another had not only left the monastery, but had married, and was living in sin (fn. 12) in the house of a relative. There were two novices at this time in the priory, of whom one was Magdalen Downes, afterwards prioress; and the unhappy examples she saw before her at this time may have left their mark upon her. For she has the unenviable distinction of being the only nun in Buckinghamshire who married after the dissolution of the house—she was still living in 1552 and drawing her annual pension. (fn. 13) The note affixed to her name in the pension list— 'Is married and so remains'—whatever it may really be intended to convey, (fn. 14) has cer tainly a sinister suggestiveness about it: for indeed it might seem worthy of remark that one who had so lightly broken her ancient vows should have stability enough to keep a new one.

The original endowment of the priory comprised the demesne called Ankerwick in Wyrardisbury parish, with small parcels of land in the same neighbourhood, as well as in Egham (Surrey), Greenford and Stanwell (Middlesex), Henley, Windsor, etc. (fn. 15) King Henry III. in 1242 granted the nuns licence to pasture sixty pigs every year in the king's forest of Windsor, quit of herbage and pannage. (fn. 16) The temporalities mentioned in the Taxatio were only worth 10s., (fn. 17) and they had no spiritualities at all. The Valor Ecclesiasticus reports the value of the revenue of this monastery as £22 0s. 2d. clear (fn. 18); the ministers' accounts give a total of £44 12s. 6d., including the demesne land and the manors of Alderbourne, Bucks, Greenford and Stanwell Park, Middlesex, and a manor in Egham, Surrey. (fn. 19)

The revenues of this priory were granted by the king for the foundation of the new abbey of Bisham, which was destined to be so shortlived. (fn. 20)

Prioresses of Ankerwick

Lettice, (fn. 21) occurs 1194

Emma, (fn. 22) occurs 1236, died 1238

Celeste, (fn. 23) elected 1238

Julian, (fn. 24) elected 1244

Joan of Rouen, (fn. 25) elected 1251

Margery of Hedsor, (fn. 26) occurs 1270, resigned 1305

Alice de Sandford, (fn. 27) elected 1305

Emma of Kimberley, (fn. 28) elected 1316, died 1327

Joan of Oxford, (fn. 29) elected 1327, died 1349

Joan Godman, (fn. 30) elected 1384, died 1390

Maud Booth, (fn. 31) elected 1390, resigned 1401

Elizabeth Golaffre, (fn. 32) elected 1401

Clemence Medford, (fn. 33) occurs 1441

Margery Kirby, (fn. 34) elected 1443

Margaret Peart, (fn. 35) died 1478

Eleanor Spendlow, (fn. 36) elected 1478

Alice Worcester, (fn. 37) occurs 1526 and 1535

Magdalen Downes, (fn. 38) last prioress

A round seal attached to a charter (fn. 39) of Letia or Lettice, Prioress of Ankerwick, dated 5 Richard I. The colour is mottled green, the edge of the seal is chipped. It represents the priory church with half timbered walls, round-headed doorway, thatched roof, bell turret topped with a cross, and a cross at each gable end. Legend: +SIGILL' ECCL' E IBE M[A]RIE MĀG DE ANK'WIC.

A similar seal, dark brown in colour, the sides much broken and the edge chipped away, may be found attached to a charter of the Prioress Margery and the convent, (fn. 40) dated Conversion of St. Paul. Legend: SIG . . . E . . . DE. ANK'WIC.


  • 1. The name of Ankerwick is not found in Domesday: it suggests that the priory was built on the site of an ancient hermitage.
  • 2. It has been suggested that the priory was of earlier date, from the mention of 'Hugh abbot of Chertsey' among its benefactors (there was an abbot of that name at Chertsey early in the twelfth century). But the charters referring to Wyrardisbury Church in Hist. Mon. S. Petri Glouc. i. 164-174 make it clear that an earlier date than 1154 would make it impossible for Gilbert father of Richard de Montfichet to be the founder. Robert Gernon was the Domesday tenant of Wyrardisbury, and granted the church to Gloucester Abbey; William de Muntfichet succeeded Robert Gernon and lived all through the reign of Henry I., for he founded Stratford Abbey in 1135; his son Gilbert, founder of Ankerwick, was a minor at the time of his father's death and through the civil war under Stephen, and not able to act on his own account till the reign of Henry II. was well begun. The name of Gilbert de Muntfichet occurs in the Red Book of the Exchequer (Rolls Ser.), i. 38 and 730, under the years 1167-8: his son Richard's from 1187 to 1212. The events mentioned in Curia Regis R. 48 go back to the year 1182.
  • 3. During the reign of Edward III. the prioress petitioned Parliament for redress, complaining that Hugh le Despenser the elder had disseised her convent of 59 acres of land in Datchet. Whether her petition was granted is not recorded. Rolls of Parliament (Rec. Com.), ii. 406.
  • 4. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Gynwell, 26. The congé d'élire is dated 11 Kal. May 1349, but the names of the prioresses are left blank.
  • 5. Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. 232, f. 37.
  • 6. Curia Regis R. 48, m. 14.
  • 7. This would be in the natural course after the excommunication had been pronounced, and the case came within the reach of the secular arm. The Roll is dated 9 John: but the letter of Celestine III. of which it contains a copy is dated in the 5th year of his pontificate, i.e. 1197. Some parts of the membrane are very much faded, and doubtless some points in the story have been missed.
  • 8. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Burghersh, 332.
  • 9. Ibid. Memo. Bokyngham, 247.
  • 10. Visitations of Bishop Alnwick, in the episcopal registry at Lincoln. Margery Kirby occurs as prioress two years after this visitation (Dugdale, iv. 230, from Browne Willis): if her complaints were dictated by a true zeal for the religious life, and not by any desire to find fault with her superior, her election may have brought a change for the better.
  • 11. Ibid. Visitations of Atwater.
  • 12. The report says in adulterio: it was of course the marriage that was the sin. It might be wondered how it would be possible for a nun at that time to find a priest who would perform the marriage ceremony for her: but one who would leave her monastery for this purpose would probably not scruple to conceal the fact that she was a nun.
  • 13. Exch. Mins. Accts. Bdle. 76, No. 26.
  • 14. The phrase is at any rate unique. The record in which it occurs is of great interest: it is a list drawn up in 1552, for the diocese of Lincoln, of all the pensioned monks, nuns, and cantarists still living; it gives their present abode, their means of livelihood, and states in every case whether they have married or not. The ordinary phrase is simply nunquam nuptus (or nupta) or est nuptus, without qualification. The names of monks who married will be given in connection with their own monasteries. Magdalen Downes is the only married nun in this county. There were several nuns of Elstow in Bedfordshire (one who was professed at sixteen and only twenty-three at the surrender) and of other monasteries, living in the same neighbourhood; all entered as nunquam nupta. Fifteen married nuns in all are mentioned in the counties of Bedford, Buckingham, Hertford and Lincoln, of these fourteen belonged to Lincolnshire (eight of them Gilbertine). It is a remarkably small proportion, when we remember the numbers turned adrift between 1536 and 1538, and the change in public opinion in the reign of Edward VI.
  • 15. Cal. of Chart. R., i. 472.
  • 16. Ibid. 269.
  • 17. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 206b.
  • 18. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv. 222.
  • 19. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 232.
  • 20. L. and P. Henry VIII. xii. (2) 1311.
  • 21. 'Letia'; Campbell Ch. x. 7.
  • 22. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 230. The name of the prioress who died 1238 is not given in the episcopal register; but it was probably the same who was living in 1236.
  • 23. Linc. Epis. Reg. Rolls of Grosstête.
  • 24. Ibid.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Cal. of Anct. D., A. 1590; called Margery of Hedsor in Close, 8 Edw. I. m. 6d.
  • 27. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Dalderby, 178. Probably of the family which had the advowson of Missenden Abbey a little earlier.
  • 28. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, 336.
  • 29. Ibid. Inst. Burghersh, 333d.
  • 30. Ibid. Inst. Bokyngham, 376d.
  • 31. Ibid. 400.
  • 32. Ibid. Inst. Beaufort, 180. This is another well-known name in Bucks.
  • 33. Visitations of Bishop Alnwick.
  • 34. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 230.
  • 35. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Rotherham, 101d.
  • 36. Ibid. Collated by the bishop, as there were not enough nuns to elect, and confirmed by letters patent. Pat. 18 Edw. IV. pt. 2, m. 10.
  • 37. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv. 222.
  • 38. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Longland, 190. The date of her election is certainly 1526, when Alice Worcester is said to have resigned; but Alice Worcester is named still as prioress in the Valor Eccl.
  • 39. B. M. Campbell Chart., x. 7.
  • 40. P.R.O. Doc. with seals attached, Ser. S. B. 12.