Houses of Benedictine nuns: Abbey of Chatteris

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: Abbey of Chatteris', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 220-223. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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Of the eight or nine convents for women existing in England at the time of the Conquest, Chatteris had been latest founded. Ednoth, the first professed Abbot of Ramsey after the death of Ailwin, its founder, had a sister Ælfwen, wife of Athelstan, ruler of East Anglia, and brother and sister collaborated in the foundation, which took place between 1006, when Ednoth became Bishop of Dorchester, and his death at Assandune in 1016. (fn. 1) Ælfwen, who cannot have been a young woman when her nunnery was founded, (fn. 2) probably ruled it as abbess, in the tradition of noble Saxon ladies. (fn. 3)

Any connexion between Ramsey and Chatteris was finally severed when Henry I gave to the church of Ely and Hervey its bishop the abbey of Chatteris with all its possessions and feudal rights, to hold as freely as any other lands pertaining to the see. (fn. 4) A charter confirmed by Richard I in the first year of his reign so far subordinated Chatteris to Ely that the temporalities of the nuns came into the king's hand during a vacancy in the see. (fn. 5) When this happened, the nuns received an allowance of 20s. of rent from a mill in Thriplow 'which is part of the temporal possessions of the bishop'. (fn. 6) In 1130 Hervey secured relief for the abbey from the 'wardpenny' of 6s. 7d. due each year (fn. 7) —a transaction which the nuns' 15th-century chronicler attributes to the bishop's paternal desire that they should be spared any distraction or need to take thought for the morrow.

The lands given to Chatteris before the Domesday Survey (fn. 8) were not extensive and were all in Cambridgeshire with the exception of their manor of Kersey in Suffolk and of 3½ hides in Barley in Herts. These possessions at the time of the Survey consisted of 5 hides and 40 acres in Foxton, half a hide in Burwell, 2 hides at Barrington, 1 hide and 1½ virgates at Shepreth, a hide in Over, and a quarter of a virgate in Orwell. (fn. 9) Comparatively little real property was given to the abbey after this date, although for about 200 years the nuns continued to receive occasional gifts. Later, as was almost universally the case, such gifts ceased altogether.

The cartulary which was written about 1456 for Agnes Archefeld, the abbess, and Henry Bubworth, vicar of Chatteris, begins with a short account of the founding of the abbey followed at once by a bull of 1242 given by Innocent IV but stated to be a repetition of that by which Alexander III had confirmed to the nuns their possessions and privileges in 1162. In addition to their Domesday possessions the convent now held lands in Chatteris, of which parish the church had been given them by Bishop Niel; the church at Shepreth had been given by Bishop Eustace in 1220, and they had land and a mill in Thriplow; property in Cambridge had also been acquired. Some, at least, of these gifts were appropriated to special purposes: Alice le Moyne gave a rood to maintain a light in the church; (fn. 10) Richard de Ely a rent of 4s. for the infirmary; John de Cambridge a selion to the almonry, (fn. 12) which had also a rent of 5s. in Chatteris; (fn. 13) John Vinien, a considerable benefactor, allotted a rood among his donations to the upkeep of the parish church, and one selion ad sustentacionem pauperum. (fn. 14) In 1291 the temporalities of the nuns in Cambridgeshire were valued at £57 2s. 2d., Shepreth Church at £16 13s. 4d., and Chatteris Church at £13 6s. 8d. (fn. 15)

In June 1298, while the see of Ely was vacant, the nuns, having elected their prioress as abbess, requested confirmation of the election from Archbishop Winchelsey, who sent his official to Chatteris to investigate. (fn. 16) The Bishop of Ely, as patron, exercised the right to nominate a nun when confirming the election of a new abbess, and the official having declared the election canonical Winchelsey nominated one Idonea de Chilham, a lady of his own diocese, described as 'illiterate' and therefore incompetent to be a choirnun. The new abbess and her convent protested, but the archbishop, although he promised that no precedent for the nomination of a lay-sister should be created, insisted on his choice. (fn. 17) Apparently the nuns fed and clothed Idonea as a lay-sister, and she protested in her turn. On 16 June 1300 Ralph de Walpole, now Bishop of Ely, was requested by Winchelsey to see to it that Idonea was provided for as a professed nun. (fn. 18) About the same time Hugh le Despencer ceased to pay an annuity of £10 granted to the abbey by his ancestors and was admonished to do so by the archbishop. (fn. 19) Between 1306 and 1310 the barns, convent, and church of the nuns were burnt down, leaving them dependent on Robert Orford, who had succeeded Walpole as Bishop of Ely: he wrote to Ralph Baldock, Bishop of London, begging for the remission of tithe due on their Hertfordshire property. (fn. 20) In 1332 the abbess and convent received licence to acquire land up to £10 annual value; (fn. 21) and one or two of the admonitions of Hugh Seton, Canon of Exeter, who carried out a visitation on behalf of the archbishop during the vacancy following the death of Bishop Montacute in 1345, may reflect difficulties following the fire. He forbade Alice Shropham, the abbess, to undertake any work costing more than 10 marks, or to spend money from the convent chest without the consent of her nuns, or without their consent to appoint any bailiff, steward, or estate agent. An order that the doors of the choir are to be kept shut except at the moment of the Elevation may possibly indicate the use of the nave of the nuns' church by a certain number of Chatteris families as their parish church, as recorded at the Dissolution. There would seem to have been some slackness in the house in 1345, for not only are there further directions about strictness in financial matters, and the usual effort to banish dogs, falcons, and small birds, if not from the inclosure, at least from the choir at service time, but the abbess and prioress are admonished to correct their sisters with modesty, sincerity, and charity, and the community to receive correction in like spirit. Aged and infirm nuns are to be treated kindly and, if necessary, excused from attendance in the choir and so forth. It is also laid down that no servant or handmaid, dismissed from the service of the abbess or any of her nuns for notoriously scandalous fault, should be received back in any capacity, either as hired worker, domestic, or voluntary helper. (fn. 22)

In October 1347 Alice Shropham resigned, and the process of electing her successor shows that there were then 15 fully professed nuns in the community. (fn. 23) Among those who took part one was of the well-known family of St. George and another of that of Haltoft. Only the prioress, Joan de Drayton, is distinguished by her office; one nun was 'absent from chapter, but present within the walls of the monastery, sick'. Three or four of the nuns mentioned in this list were still alive in 1379, (fn. 24) and Margery Haltoft, or Hotot, was then abbess. The parish and conventual churches were reconsecrated by Bishop Lisle in 1352. (fn. 25) He ceremonially blessed several nuns on this occasion and carried out a visitation, of which no report survives. Alice Shropham was still living, and on 29 January 1355 she was given a papal indult to choose her confessor for absolution in the hour of death. (fn. 26)

At the visitation in 1373 the chief complaints against the abbess, Margery Hotot, were that she failed to consult the convent on important business, but relied too much on the advice of one Edward Grenge, and that she had withdrawn an annual sum of 10s. provided for the clothing of the sisters. She replied that she did not fail to consult her nuns, but that Edward Grenge was an expert whom she was glad to consult on matters which did not concern the convent, and that as for the 10s., the house was so burdened with subsidies and tithes that she had no choice but to apply this money towards paying them: but she would try to do better in future. (fn. 27)

Margery Hotot, if there was truth in her plea of poverty due to taxation, had more trouble a few years later, for in 1379, her house being accounted over the annual value of 100 marks and under that of 200, she paid 30s. and each of her 14 nuns 20d. to the clerical subsidy of that year, (fn. 28) to which John 'clericus in abbathia de Chateris' paid 4d. (fn. 29) Perhaps about this period the vicar of Chatteris was acting as their confessor; the vicar was present at the election of Maud Bernard as abbess in 1347, when no chaplain is mentioned, (fn. 30) but this was not unusual. In 1388 the Bishop of Ely gave the abbess and nuns of Chatteris licence to choose their confessor: (fn. 31) confessor and domestic 'masspriest' in a house of nuns were seldom identical.

In August 1533 Margaret Develyn, Abbess of Chatteris, conceded the next presentation to the vicarage of Shepreth to Robert Cowper, M.A., John Pory, M.A., and another. (fn. 32) Margaret Develyn was succeeded by Anne Gayton, who on 1 April 1535 had appointed John Goodrich chief steward of the abbey at a salary of 40s. to be paid by the bailiff of her Foxton manor: in the following year the abbess and convent gave him the advowson of St. Peter's Church in Chatteris. He was confirmed in his office of chief steward of the former possessions of Chatteris Abbey in April 1542 'since it had not been fraudulently obtained'. (fn. 33) Although in 1535 the abbey was returned as of the clear value of only £97 3s. 4d., (fn. 34) in August 1536 the Abbey of St. Mary of Chatteris had licence to continue unsuppressed, the Act of 27 Henry VIII notwithstanding; Anne Gayton to remain abbess. (fn. 35) The house survived for almost exactly two years longer; then, on 3 September 1538, the commissioners, Legh and Phillipp, took the surrender of Anne Gayton and her ten nuns (fn. 36) and on the same day Legh wrote to Cromwell that he had put Walter Cromwell in possession of the monastery, to hold it for the king; but that there were fourteen families in the town 'which kept their parish church in the abbey' and, although there was another parish church to which he thought it better that they should be transferred, he would therefore wait Cromwell's pleasure before taking any further action about the conventual church. (fn. 37) The inventory, (fn. 38) which bears the same date, included the furnishings of St. Mary's Church, however, as well as those of the domestic buildings.

It was not uncommon for nuns to seek parochial status for their conventual churches, as a source of income, and such churches, though usually much smaller than those attached to the great religious houses of men in which provision for parishioners had been conceded, had similar screen divisions. This accounts for the note in the inventory that certain articles of church furniture were 'in the quere, convent syd, of the chauncell'. These included the high altar with its 'table' of alabaster, a crucifix with three saints, and two great candlesticks of latten. There were also in the choir 'certain old boards'—probably the nuns' stalls—two censers, two lamps, two iron lecterns, and a little bell. In the north aisle another table of alabaster, a clock, and 'all the gravestones and pavement in the choir belonging to the nuns' were accounted for; the south aisle was apparently the part of the church assigned to the parishioners. The usual vestments, altarcloths, &c., appear in the vestry, but the only church plate included in the list was a single chalice and the silvered figure from a wooden cross; these were sold, with the nuns' ten silver spoons, for £8 6s. 8d. The lead, including that of the steeple, was valued at £80, the four small bells at £15. The commissioners put the value of the furnishings of the house and church at £71 6s. 8d. Some details of the dormitory produced 20s. worth of 'old cells', showing that these Benedictine nuns, like many monks, had adopted the cubicle system; again, the guest chamber contained comfortable provision for not more than three guests, or corrodarians, consisting of feather-beds, with mattresses, blankets, coverlets, bolsters, pillows, and curtains, and of chairs with cushions, valued at 35s. 4d.; and the guests' hall was furnished with chairs, a table of wainscot, painted hangings, and brass branch-candlesticks, beside ample linen and tableware in the butteries. In the cellarer's chamber there were plenty of linen, candlesticks, and a chafing-dish for the nuns' use, but, as usual, in the refectory nothing but old boards and forms and a little bell.

On their departure the abbess received £3 6s. 8d., Ellen Smith, the prioress, and each other nun, £2. (fn. 39) The warrant for their pensions was dated 17 February 1539; (fn. 40) under this Anne Gayton received £15 a year, the prioress and one nun £4, six of the nuns £2 13s. 4d., and the other two 40s. each. In 1555 the late abbess, prioress, and four nuns were still drawing their pensions. (fn. 41)

Abbesses of Chatteris (fn. 42)

A. de Rouen
Mabel de Bancis
Mary de St. Clare

Emma de Somersham, occurs 1265, 1268

Agnes de Ely, occurs 1280 (fn. 44)

Amice de Cambridge, occurs c. 1280, 1300 (fn. 45)

Mary de Schuldham, occurs 1306, 1317 (fn. 46)

Alice de Shropham, occurs 1339, (fn. 47) resigned 1347

Maud Bernard, elected 13 Oct. 1347

Margaret Hotot, occurs 1362, 1369, 1379 (fn. 48)

Agnes Ashfield, occurs 1437

Margery Ramsey, occurs 1442, (fn. 49) died 27 Jan. 1488

Anne Basset, elected 11 Feb. 1488, occurs 1500 (fn. 50)

Margaret Develyn, (fn. 51) occurs 1533

Anne Gayton, surrendered 3 Sep. 1538

The 12th-century seal of the abbey is a pointed oval, showing the Blessed Virgin, crowned and seated on a throne of which the sides terminate in animals' heads and feet, and holding in her right hand a sceptre and in her left a book. Legend: SIGILLVM . SANCTE . MARIE. (fn. 52)


  • 1. Cott. MS. Jul. A. 1, fol. 71; Mon. Angl. ii, 616. Cf. W. G. Searle, Anglo-Saxon Bishops, Kings and Nobles, B. 27 (p. 407).
  • 2. She had been King Edgar's foster-mother: Chron. Abb. Rames. (Rolls Ser.), 11.
  • 3. Her son, or stepson, Ailwin had thus ruled his own foundation at Ramsey (ibid. 339) and Athelstan, her husband, died a monk at Glastonbury (ibid. 12).
  • 4. Jul. A. 1, fol. 74; printed Mon. Angl. ii, 617 (no. vi).
  • 5. Jul. A. 1, fol. 75v; the first witness to this charter is William Longchamp, 'Elect of Ely'.
  • 6. This arrangement apparently dated from the time of Henry III (Cal. Close, 1354–60, p. 448) and the payment is recorded in 1298 (P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1132, no. 10). The mill had been granted to the abbey by Bishop Niel (Jul. A. 1, fol. 134) and was given by the nuns to Bishop Hugh (1229–54), who assigned to them 16s. yearly for it (ibid. fol. 103–4).
  • 7. Mon. Angl. ii, 617. Cf. Pipe R. 31 Hen. I (H.M. Stat. Off.), 44.
  • 8. Mon. Angl. ii, 617.
  • 9. V.C.H. Cambs. i, 371–2.
  • 10. Jul. A. 1, fol. 89.
  • 11. Ibid. 94; Richard de Ely is almost certainly Richard FitzNeal.
  • 12. Ibid. 93.
  • 13. Ibid. 160. Ismaene, daughter of Ralph Bristow, also gave a rent of 4s. to the almonry: fol. 94.
  • 14. Ibid. fol. 81.
  • 15. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 268.
  • 16. Reg. Roberti Winchelsey (Cant. & York Soc.), 263.
  • 17. Ibid. 324.
  • 18. Ibid. 711–2.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Mon. Angl. ii, 619.
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1330–4, p. 242. As late as 1387 this amount had not been reached, tenements and rents, valued at 50s., in the neighbourhood being then acquired under this licence: ibid. 1385–9, p. 298.
  • 22. Ely Epis. Reg. Lisle, fol. 47v.
  • 23. Ibid. fol. 52.
  • 24. East Anglian, xiii, 121–2.
  • 25. Ely Epis. Reg. Lisle, fol. 65v.
  • 26. Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 553.
  • 27. Lambeth Reg. Whittlesey, fol. 152v.
  • 28. East Anglian, xiii, 121–2.
  • 29. Ibid. 189. There were five chaplains in Chatteris who each paid 2s., and Robert the vicar paid 5s.: ibid. 123.
  • 30. Ely Epis. Reg. Lisle, fol. 51–2.
  • 31. Ibid. Fordham, fol. 4v.
  • 32. Ely Epis. Reg. Goodrich, fol. 104v.
  • 33. Cole MSS. xviii, fol. 129; Add. Chart. 15681.
  • 34. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 499. A valuation made after the Dissolution gives a gross value of £122 7s. 11¾d.: Mon. Angl. ii, 620.
  • 35. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xi, 385 (22).
  • 36. Ibid. xiii (2), 272.
  • 37. Ibid. 275.
  • 38. Exch. K.R. Misc. 11/13.
  • 39. Ibid.
  • 40. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), p. 601.
  • 41. Mon. Angl. ii, 615.
  • 42. Ibid. 614–5.
  • 43. These four names occur in the cartulary without any indication of date. They probably belong to the 13th century.
  • 44. Cartulary, fol. 138v.
  • 45. Ibid. fol. 157.
  • 46. Ibid. fol. 159v.
  • 47. Cambridge University Library MS. 3824, fol. 168.
  • 48. East Anglian, xiii, 121.
  • 49. A bequest of 13s. 4d. to her in will of Nicholas Caldecote of Meldreth: P. C. C. Luffenham, 33.
  • 50. Ely Epis. Reg. Alcock, fol. 137.
  • 51. 'Margaret Sanclyn' inserted in Mon. Angl. as mentioned by Cole from a deed, of the time of Henry VIII, in the muniments of Trinity College, is probably a misreading of Develyn.
  • 52. Brit. Mus. Cat. of Seals, i, no. 2895.