Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge

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

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 218-219. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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The origin of this convent is unknown and no one is recorded as having founder's rights or patronage until Bishop Alcock in 1496, when he planned to convert it into a college, justified his action by the questionable assertion that it was 'of the foundation and patronage of the Bishop of Ely'. (fn. 2) In 1138 King Stephen confirmed to the church and nuns of St. Mary of Cambridge the gift which William le Moyne (Monachus), goldsmith, made to them of 2 virgates of land, 6 acres of meadow, and 4 cottar holdings in Shelford in alms for the soul of King Henry (d. 1135). (fn. 3) Bishop Niel, who also confirmed this grant, (fn. 4) gave to 'the nuns of the cell newly founded outside the town of Cambridge' certain land, (fn. 5) afterwards stated to be 4 acres, (fn. 6) lying near to the said cell. In a charter of 1153 or 1154 Constance, widow of King Stephen's eldest son Eustace, granted to the nuns of Cambridge that their land should be free from payment of hagable and langable to the borough, and gave them such fishing and river rights as belonged to the borough. (fn. 7)

Other gifts of land in and around Cambridge were made by private persons, the most important being 80 acres in West Wratting given by Stephen and Juliane de Scalars when their daughter Sybil was admitted to the nunnery. (fn. 8) The nuns were therefore in a position to build a suitable convent, and between 1159 and 1161 King Malcolm IV of Scotland, who was also Earl of Huntingdon, gave to the nuns of Cambridge 10 acres adjoining Grenecroft (now Midsummer Common) on which to place their church; they were to pay a rent of 2s., but this his steward was to offer at the altar of the said church. (fn. 9) A second charter by Malcolm, (fn. 10) confirming the first but remitting the rent, is important as for the first time naming the convent as of St. Mary and St. Radegund, an ascription probably connected with Malcolm's visit to Poitiers, 'the special centre of the cult of St. Radegund', in 1159. (fn. 11)

Benefactions were numerous, but mostly on a small scale, and although the nuns had, in addition to many tenements in Cambridge itself, land in fourteen parishes in the county, seven in Essex, and at Rippingale in Lincolnshire, (fn. 12) the convent was never wealthy. No valuation of their temporalities is given in the Taxation of 1291; in 1277 their poverty was said to be notorious, and it was pleaded in 1340 as an excuse for exemption from the charges of procuration. (fn. 13) In 1450 their income was only about £75. (fn. 14) Two churches in the borough were given to them: that of All Saints in the Jewry by Sturmi, brother of the Prioress Lettice, in or shortly before 1180, (fn. 15) and that of St. Clement, assigned to the Almonry, by Hugh son of Absolom of Cambridge about 1215. (fn. 16) The nuns' demesnes seem to have been separated from the parish of All Saints to constitute the parish of St. Radegund about the middle of the 13th century, part of their conventual church being parochial and served by a stipendiary priest, who received £5 in the 15th century. (fn. 17) The advowson of the church of Reymarston (Norfolk) was conveyed to the priory in 1218, (fn. 18) but it was not appropriated.

Of the history of the community not much is recorded. Henry III when he was at Barnwell on 16 June 1244 ordered the sheriff to pay £5 to the nuns for their support, (fn. 19) and he possibly visited the priory in 1251, as on 1 April, when he was at Royston, he ordered 6 marks to be paid to the sheriff for a cup offered in the church of St. Radegund. (fn. 20) The house met with a series of disasters: in 1277 the bell-tower fell, in 1313 the nuns lost their house and goods by fire, another fire occurred in 1376, and in 1389 their buildings were ruined by violent storms; on each occasion appeals for contributions were supported by grants of indulgence made by various prelates. (fn. 21)

In 1373, during a vacancy in the see of Ely, Archbishop Wittlesey's delegate, Thomas de Wormenhale, visited the priory. It was evidently in a bad state, as the prioress excused herself for not finding priests to celebrate for their benefactors and for allowing the roof of the refectory to be so out of repair that it could not be used in rainy weather, on the ground that the burden of debts and taxation made it impossible to find the needful funds. She seems to have been a person of weak character, as she allowed the nuns to go out of the cloister with little excuse, and failed to make one of the sisters, Elizabeth Cambridge, get up to attend matins; she also allowed friars and scholars to visit her at inopportune times. (fn. 22) The prioress, Margaret Clavyle, eventually resigned early in 1378. (fn. 23)

Archbishop Courtenay in 1389, while making a visitation of the diocese of Lincoln, found Margaret Cailly, a professed nun of St. Radegund's, living in sin and a secular habit. He sent her to Bishop Fordham of Ely, who returned the apostate to her priory, ordering the prioress to keep her in close confinement and enjoining certain penances. (fn. 24) Archbishop Arundel visited the priory on 19 September 1401, but no record of his finding has been preserved. (fn. 25) By 1459 the priory was evidently in bad physical condition, as Bishop Gray promised 40 days' indulgence to those who would lend a helping hand for the repair of the bell-tower of the conventual church and the maintenance of books, vestments, and other church ornaments. (fn. 26) In September of that year the Prioress Agnes Seyntelowe died and the subprioress, Maud Sudbury, obtained the bishop's licence to elect a successor. In the ensuing election eleven nuns took part and Joan Lancastre, then sacrist, was elected. (fn. 27) That conditions generally were not good is suggested by the fact that one of the nuns who took part in the election, Ellen Craneswyk, in 1462 obtained leave to transfer to the Priory of Hinchinbrook (Hunts.); (fn. 28) and in the previous year Elizabeth Butiler, then aged nearly 16, who had been four years in the priory but was not professed, finding that she could not there serve God devoutly and quietly, appealed to the bishop and was allowed to transfer to St. Helen's, Bishopsgate. (fn. 29) By 1478 the convent had run up a bill of £21 for meat supplied to them by Richard Wodecote, butcher, (fn. 30) two of whose daughters were being boarded in the priory in 1481-2, at which date the treasurer's accounts show that the house was in desperate straits. (fn. 31)

When Prioress Joan Cambridge died in 1487 Bishop John Alcock visited the priory and, after declaring that all the nuns were unfit and disqualified to elect, himself appointed Joan Fulborne as prioress. (fn. 32) By 1496 the priory had been reduced to utter ruin by the incompetence, extravagance, and dissolute life of the nuns, attributed to their proximity to the University of Cambridge, so that they could no longer maintain divine services and works of piety, nor even support their own community, which was reduced to two only, 'of whom one is elsewhere professed (fn. 33) and the other is of illfame'. (fn. 34) Accordingly Henry VII granted Bishop Alcock licence to expel the nuns and to receive the buildings and estates of the priory for the foundation of the College of St. Mary the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Radegund the Virgin (fn. 35) —which was, however, almost from its inception known as Jesus College. (fn. 36)

Prioresses (fn. 37)

Lettice, occurs c. 1213, 1228

Milisent, occurs 1246, 1249

Dera, occurs 1258

Agnes Burgeylun, occurs 1274

Constance, 13th century

Amice de Driffeld, 13th century

Alice Chamberlain, c. 1278

Ellen, occurs 1289, 1299

Christiane de Braybrok, occurs 1311

Cecily de Cressingham, occurs 1315, 1316

Mabel Martin, occurs 1325, (fn. 38) 1330, 1332

Alice, occurs 1347

Eve Wasteneys, occurs 1359

Margaret Clavyle, occurs 1363, resigned 1 Feb. 1378

Alice Pilet, elected 20 Feb. 1378, occurs 1398

Isabel Sudbury, occurs 1402

Margaret Harlyng, elected 1407

Agnes Seyntelowe, occurs 1415, died 8 Sept. 1457

Joan Lancastre, elected 27 Sept. 1457, occurs 1466

Isabel, occurs 1468

Elizabeth Walton, occurs 1468, 1479

Joan Cambridge, elected 1483, died 1487

Joan Fulborne, appointed 12 Oct. 1487

The 12th-century seal of the convent shows St. Radegund standing with a knop-headed staff in her right hand and an open book in her left hand; a tasselled bag is slung over her right shoulder and hangs by her left arm. Legend: SIGILLVM SANCTE RADEGVNDIS. (fn. 39)

A seal ascribed to a (? 13th-century) prioress, Margaret, shows the Blessed Virgin Mary seated with the child on her left knee. Legend: MATER DEI MEMENTO MEI. (fn. 40)

A small common seal, used in 1485, shows St. Radegund, with arms upraised, between two palm branches. (fn. 41)

A seal (? ad causas) of 1392 shows the saint in a niche, with a kneeling nun below. (fn. 42)


  • 1. The history of this house has been very fully treated by Arthur Gray in his Priory of Saint Radegund (C.A.S. 1898), which includes transcripts or abstracts of nearly 400 original charters.
  • 2. Ibid. 44.
  • 3. Ibid. 4, 74.
  • 4. Ibid. 75.
  • 5. Ibid. 3, 74.
  • 6. Rot. Hundr. (Rec. Com.), ii, 358.
  • 7. Gray, op. cit. 9–11, 75.
  • 8. Ibid. 15, 77.
  • 9. Ibid. 11–13, 76–7.
  • 10. Ibid. 76.
  • 11. Ibid. 14.
  • 12. Ibid. 15.
  • 13. Ibid. 31–2.
  • 14. Ibid. 33.
  • 15. Ibid. 25.
  • 16. Ibid. 26.
  • 17. Ibid. 20–4.
  • 18. Ibid. 29.
  • 19. Cal. Lib. R. 1240–5, p. 244.
  • 20. Ibid. 1245–51, p. 344.
  • 21. Gray, op. cit. 79.
  • 22. Ibid. 35–6.
  • 23. Ibid. 36.
  • 24. Ibid. 37.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Ibid. 37–8.
  • 27. Ibid. 38–9.
  • 28. Add. Chart. 33622.
  • 29. Gray, op. cit. 40.
  • 30. Ibid. 41.
  • 31. Ibid. 42, 176–9.
  • 32. Ibid. 43.
  • 33. The meaning of this is not obvious; it may refer to Elizabeth Awdeley, who in 1511 was a nun at Davington Priory (Kent), where she had been twenty years, having been professed at Cambridge: Eng. Hist. Rev. vi, 28.
  • 34. Gray (op. cit. 45) says the word is infamis; other authors read infans, which is the reading given in Cal. Pat. 1494–1509, p. 72.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. Gray, op. cit. 45–6.
  • 37. Ibid. 30–1.
  • 38. Assize R. 98, m. 6d.
  • 39. Casts in Fitz William Museum, no. 141. A second example (no. 142) seems to have been recut.
  • 40. Ibid. The whereabouts of the original is unknown.
  • 41. Gray, op. cit. 140.
  • 42. Ibid. 81.