A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.
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6. THE PRIORY OF LITTLE MARLOW
The origin of this priory is quite unknown: neither the date of foundation nor the name of the founder can as yet be recovered. Leland indeed gives as the traditional founder one 'Geoffrey, Lord Spencer,' a personage unknown to history. (fn. 1) The patronage of the monastery and the parish church was in the family of d'Anvers early in the thirteenth century; the earls of Gloucester also gave their consent to the election of some prioresses of this period. (fn. 2) The earliest record of this priory is found in the Rolls of Bishop Hugh of Wells, under the year 1218, but it does not imply that the house was then newly founded. (fn. 3) It may indeed have come into existence almost any time in the later half of the twelfth century.
We hear of the priory in the thirteenth century only in connexion with a few unimportant lawsuits. (fn. 4) In 1292 the conventual church was rebuilt and its high altar dedicated by Bishop Sutton (fn. 5); but the nuns were very poor at the time, and received indulgences and a licence to beg alms in 1300 and 1311 from Bishop Dalderby. (fn. 6) In 1339 they made a grant to the Bishop of Lincoln in consideration of his improvement of the estate of their house, (fn. 7) but they were evidently still barely self-supporting, for the following year the assessors of the ninth of sheaves, lambs and fleeces in the county of Buckingham were ordered to supersede the assessment of that subsidy of the priory of Little Marlow, as it was so slenderly endowed that its goods did not suffice for the maintenance of the prioress and convent. (fn. 8) From 1338 to 1350 the prioress appears to have been a relation of Sir John de Stonore, a knight of the shire; and it is possible that his mediation secured better terms for the nuns than they would otherwise have been able to obtain, at the ordination of the vicarage of Little Marlow Church in 1344. (fn. 9) Early in the fifteenth century there was a long suit in connection with the advowson of the Church of Hedsor, which had belonged to the priory since the days of Hugh of Wells. It is difficult now to be quite sure of the rights of the matter, but the patronage of this church seems to have been resumed by the Crown, and the prioress had in some way impeded the presentation of a chaplain, and tried to reclaim the advowson. (fn. 10) In 1403 she made a complaint before the Court of King's Bench that John Stephen, chaplain of Hedsor, had broken into her close, had struck, wounded and ill-treated her and taken away goods to the value of 40s. and committed other enormities against the king's peace, to the grave damage of her house: and on a second occasion had taken away books, vestments, keys, household utensils, etc. John roundly denied the whole charge. (fn. 11) The Crown apparently declined to examine it, on the ground that the prioress had attempted to impede the presentation of this chaplain and to secure the advowson of the church. The prioress then brought forward two pleas: a fresh one against the chaplain, and another against the Crown, claiming the advowson of Hedsor; but nothing came of these; perhaps they were dropped as hopeless. (fn. 12)
There are no visitations of this house recorded in the episcopal registers except one of Bishop Dalderby in 1300, which was merely for the purpose of explaining to the nuns the Statute of Pope Boniface VIII. Pro clausura monialium. (fn. 13) This statute was intended to compel the English nuns of all orders to observe a stricter enclosure; but though Bishop Dalderby did his duty conscientiously by explaining it to all the houses under his care— sometimes under rather trying circumstances —it seems to have been quite ineffectual. The English Benedictine nuns and Austin canonesses never had been strictly enclosed, and quietly ignored the new regulations, even though they came from the pope himself. In later episcopal visitations the nuns of these two orders were often ordered not to go out without the consent of their superiors: but there was no established rule or custom before the Reformation to prevent them going out of the cloister at all.
Although the earlier history of this house is so little known, we happen to possess some interesting details of its latter days and of the circumstances immediately preceding its dissolution. The last prioress, Margaret Vernon, appears to have been on friendly terms with Thomas Cromwell, even while he was still in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, and not so well known to the religious of England generally as he afterwards came to be. The study of this lady's character does not produce a very pleasant impression. Her house was doubtless in excellent order, and she showed herself a good steward of its property: she may quite well have been a kind and considerate superior; but she was very evidently a scheming and worldly woman, with a keen eye for her own advancement and no real love for the little priory over which she ruled. As early as 1529 we find her writing to Cromwell about a vacancy in the priory of St. Helen's. (fn. 14) She had heard from 'Lewys, a goldsmith in the town,' that the sub-prioress was likely to secure the post; if she herself still has any chance, Cromwell may offer his master the sum 'we were at a point for'; in any case she begs him to let her know 'my lord's pleasure,' so that she may settle herself in quietness. Her intrigues were not successful at this time, and she turned herself to arranging the affairs of her own house. (fn. 15) But not very long after she wrote to Cromwell again to inquire when he would be in her neighbourhood, and when she would be likely to find him in his own house, as she required his counsel on several matters. (fn. 16)
In 1530 Bishop Longland visited Little Marlow and found there five nuns besides the prioress; every one of them answered Omnia bene except Dame Katherine Picard, who drew attention to the fact that there was no sub-prioress. There were no injunctions delivered. (fn. 17)
In 1535 the royal visitors arrived, and in accordance with the injunction which forbade the profession of any under twenty-four years of age, dismissed three of the nuns. (fn. 18) They do not seem to have found anything else amiss. Dame Margaret however found these proceedings 'not a little to her discomfort,' and wrote to Cromwell again for advice. (fn. 19) The First Act of Suppression was passed very soon after, and the local commissioners (fn. 20) reported of this house as in good estate, and out of debt, mentioning at the same time that there were only two nuns there, (fn. 21) who both desired to enter other houses of religion, and four servants attached to the monastery, two men and two women.
The surrender of the house was received by William Cavendish on or before 23 September, 1536; in a letter of that date he reports his discharge of the religious whom he found there, adding that 'my lady took the matter very like a wise woman,' and delivered him all the goods of the house. (fn. 22) 'My lady' had probably some assurance already from Cromwell of preferment to another monastery, and had few regrets in leaving Little Marlow. (fn. 23) She was made Abbess of Malling three months later, and surrendered that house also on 29 October, 1538, having profited not a little by the exchange, (fn. 24) for the revenues of Little Marlow would only have furnished her with a pension of £4 or £5, while the Abbess of Malling received an annuity of £50.
The original endowment of the house cannot be exactly given, as no foundation charters remain. It seems to have comprised some land about the priory, and the churches of Little Marlow and Hedsor. The latter was lost at the beginning of the fifteenth century. In 1291 the temporalities of the priory outside this county were only reckoned at 1s. per annum. (fn. 25) The revenue of the house is given in the Valor Ecclesiasticus as £23 3s. 7d. (fn. 26); the local commissioners a little later give the same total. (fn. 27) The moveable goods of the house at the dissolution were worth £17 0s. 2d., the bells, lead, etc., £4 10s. 8d. (fn. 28) The ministers' accounts amount to £22 16s. 10d. (fn. 29) The revenues of this house were granted to the new foundation at Bisham. (fn. 30)
Prioresses of Little Marlow
A., (fn. 31) died 1230
Maud d'Anvers, (fn. 32) elected 1230, occurs 1232
Admiranda, (fn. 33) elected 1237, occurs 1247
Cecily of Turville, (fn. 34) occurs 1256, resigned 1258
Christine de Whitemers, (fn. 35) elected 1258, died 1264
Felicia of Kimble, (fn. 36) elected 1264, resigned 1265
Gunnora, (fn. 37) elected 1265, resigned 1271
Margery of Waltham, (fn. 38) elected 1271
Agnes of London, (fn. 39) resigned 1291
Agnes of Clevedon, (fn. 40) elected 1291, resigned 1298
Julian of Hampton, (fn. 41) elected 1298, resigned 1305
Rose of Weston, (fn. 42) elected 1305
Joan de Stonore, (fn. 43) elected 1338, died 1350
Margery Jeromide, (fn. 44) elected 1350
Susanna of Hampton, (fn. 45) occurs 1395
Elizabeth Broke, (fn. 46) resigned 1474
Isabel Savage, (fn. 47) elected 1474
Eleanor Kirby, (fn. 48) occurs 1492
Eleanor Bernard, (fn. 49) occurs 1516
Margaret Vernon, (fn. 50) last prioress, occurs 1528