Religious houses: Introduction

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1948.

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


'Religious houses: Introduction', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman( London, 1948), British History Online [accessed 19 July 2024].

'Religious houses: Introduction', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Edited by L F Salzman( London, 1948), British History Online, accessed July 19, 2024,

"Religious houses: Introduction". A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. Ed. L F Salzman(London, 1948), , British History Online. Web. 19 July 2024.

In this section


ALTHOUGH the religious houses of Cambridgeshire were not very numerous they present some features of outstanding interest. The Benedictine monasteries of Ely and Thorney were Saxon foundations, and the wide estates and privileges of Ely made it a social as well as a religious power in the county even before it became the seat of a bishopric. The nunnery of Chatteris was also founded before the Conquest. (fn. 1)

Neither Cluniacs nor Cistercians were represented; but the Austin Canons had three houses, of which Barnwell Priory was important for its connexions with the University and Borough of Cambridge and from the exceptionally detailed account of its early history which has survived. The purely English Order of St. Gilbert of Sempringham had likewise three houses, of which that of St. Edmund in Cambridge partook of the nature of a college for students of the Order.

The Knights Templars and Hospitallers were both represented. Shingay was one of the most wealthy of the Hospitaller Preceptories, and Chippenham is of peculiar interest as serving as an infirmary, or nursing home, for the sick members of that Order, as did Denney for that of the Templars.

The four great Orders of the Friars—Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Austins—had important establishments in Cambridge, where, as at Oxford, they played a conspicuous part in the life of the University. There were also in the town small communities of the shortlived lesser Orders of Pied Friars and Friars of the Penance of Jesus Christ. According to Mathew Paris, in 1257 a dwelling-place in Cambridge in the street leading to Trumpington was granted to the Bethlehemite Friars. (fn. 2) He goes on to describe their dress as like that of the Friars Preachers (Dominicans) with the addition of a red star with five rays and a blue centre, and adds that at this time so many types of Friars cropped up that the Orders seemed a confused disorder. It is probable that he himself had confused the Friars of Penance with the Bethlehemites, for there is no trace of any such establishment ever having existed in Cambridge.

Particular interest attaches to the abbey of Minoresses established first at Waterbeach and subsequently refounded at Denney, where it flourished, being next in importance to the London convent. An attempt to introduce the Brigettine nuns into the county at Cherry Hinton in the 15th century came to nothing.

The hospitals in this county were few and insignificant. The leper hospital of Sturbridge, or Barnwell, owes any importance it possesses to its connexion with the great Fair and to the architectural interest of its chapel; and St. John's, Cambridge, acquired fame only through being converted into the college of that name. An alleged hospital at Leverington is only heard of in a statement made in 1686 that it had been destroyed 150 years earlier. (fn. 3)

A mysterious 'Prior' of Whittlesford Bridge is found in the 13th century, the first actual reference being in 1236, when he held 1 virgate in Duxford of the fee of William de Colevile. (fn. 4) In 1279 the prior held this land and a messuage of 2½ acres, a water-mill, and a free chapel, all held free of rent under Roger de Colevile, by grant of the Bishop of Ely, who had it by the gift of William de Colevile. He also had de antiquo tempore a fair there. (fn. 5) This points to the founder having been the William de Coleville who acquired land in Duxford by marriage about 1200 and died in 1230. (fn. 6) There is no known reference to any convent, and if the prior was originally the head of a hospital, as the chapel is sometimes termed, the institution had a short life. From at least 1337, about which time or slightly earlier the chapel of St. John that still exists must have been completely rebuilt, (fn. 7) it was a sinecure free chapel to which the collation of masters or wardens are duly recorded until the reign of Edward VI. (fn. 8) The story is further complicated by a grant from Bishop Fordham in 1401 of indulgence for the chapel of Whittlesford Bridge and John Lucas, hermit there, (fn. 9) which in fact refers to the chapel of St. Anne in Hinxton parish, on the other side of the bridge. (fn. 10) This Hermitage is referred to in an inquiry as to 'concealed lands' held in 1585:— 'We find lykewise that an Ermite dwelt in a howse in Hingston . . . standinge in a parcell of ground contayninge two acres, which sayd ermyte dwellinge there did cast hollywater on them that came to him fortye yeares sithence and tooke the profitts thereof.' (fn. 11) William Popeley had been hermit there in 1527 and was bound to make offerings at the parish church on certain feast days and to provide dinner for the vicar when he came on St. Anne's day to celebrate in the chapel. (fn. 12)

Mentions of hermits and anchorites in the county are numerous. A group of anchorites were the predecessors of the monks at Thorney (q.v.), and about 1100 'a man of great holiness, Godesone by name', lived as a solitary on the site later occupied by Barnwell Priory. (fn. 13) In 1170 the customary alms of the Bishop of Ely included 52s. to six recluses, 'and to the woman recluse of St. Mary who has been wont to have the bishop's dish (i.e. a daily allowance of food) 8s. 8d. this year'. (fn. 14) Early in the 13th century Maud de Somery made a grant to Isabel and Olive inclusis sub alis ecclesie at Fordham, (fn. 15) and traces of apparent ankerholds, or cells, have been noted at Bottisham Church. (fn. 16) In the late 14th century and throughout the 15th century there are frequent grants of indulgence to those who contribute to the repair of specified causeways and bridges and the support of the various 'hermits' charged with their maintenance. (fn. 17) An earlier instance is that of Brother William, hermit of Gamlingay, who in 1271 had protection for four years. (fn. 18) He may have been a religious solitary, but most of the bridge hermits probably had little more claim to be considered men of religion than the toll-gate keepers of the 18th century. Mostly they collected alms for the repairs and sometimes, no doubt, worked on them with their own hands. Two hermits were maintained by the Corporation of Cambridge: one had a hermitage and chapel at the Small Bridges close to Queens' College and collected tolls for the repair of the bridges and causeways leading to Barton; (fn. 19) the other was connected with the wayside chapel of St. Anne, on the Trumpington Road, established by Henry Tangmer who died c. 1361. (fn. 20) In 1494 Bishop Alcock, at the consecration of a chapel for Gonville Hall, received the profession of two hermits, Robert Michyll and John Smyth, who made a vow of 'perpetual chastity according to the rule of Blessed Paul the first hermit'. (fn. 21) Some of these solitaries were men of education: thus in 1455 John Wodfoul, chaplain and hermit of the chapel of St. Mary of Eldernall (in Whittlesey), bequeathed to his chapel a missal, to a Carmelite of Stamford another missal, a Legenda and responsory of the Sarum use, other books to the Priories of Barlings and Sempringham, and a Manuel de Peché to the vicar of St. Andrew's, Whittlesey. (fn. 22)


C.A.S.: publications of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society.

Cole MSS.: collections made by the Rev. William Cole (1714-82), now among the Additional MSS. at the British Museum.

E.D.R.: abstracts of the Ely Episcopal Registers were printed by the late Canon J. H. Crosby in the Ely Diocesan Remembrancer. References to these registers, which were not accessible during the war, were taken partly from a set of the Remembrancer and partly from an unpaged volume of offprints of the abstracts, formerly belonging to Dr. W. M. Palmer and now in the University Library.


  • 1. Leland, writing in the 16th century (Itinerary, ed. Toulmin-Smith, i, 1; v, 218) preserves the tradition of a pre-Conquest nunnery at Eltisley in which St. Pandonia, daughter of a Scottish king, died, and adds that it was afterwards transferred to Hinchingbrook, 8 miles distant across the border of Huntingdonshire.
  • 2. Chron. Majora (Rolls Ser.), v, 631.
  • 3. Tanner, Notitia Mon. 56, quoting a return by Bishop Francis Turner.
  • 4. Liber Memorandorum de Bernewelle, 256.
  • 5. Hundr. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 582.
  • 6. Farrer, Feudal Cambs. 117, 268.
  • 7. Cambs. Ant. Soc. x, 368.
  • 8. Ibid. 380–1.
  • 9. Ibid. 380.
  • 10. Ibid. 377–8.
  • 11. East Anglian, vi, 223.
  • 12. Ely Epis. Reg. West, fol. 72; E.D.R.
  • 13. Lib. Mem. 42.
  • 14. Pipe R. Soc. xv, 96; xvi, 116.
  • 15. Cole MS. xviii, fol. 129.
  • 16. Hailstone, Hist. of Bottisham, 28–30.
  • 17. Ely Epis. Regs. passim (see E.D.R. and Gibbons, Ely Epis. Records, 396–404).
  • 18. Cal. Pat. 1266–72, p. 538.
  • 19. Cooper, Annals, i, 145, 148, 151, 244, 440.
  • 20. Ibid. 105; Stokes, Outside Trumpington Gates (C.A.S.), 67.
  • 21. Ely Epis. Reg. Alcock, fol. 94; E.D.R. 1909, p. 46.
  • 22. Consistory Court of Ely, A. 40.