Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Ickleton

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.

'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Ickleton', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 223-226. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]

In this section


The earliest reference found to the priory at Ickleton is a commission, issued between 1174 and 1181 by Pope Alexander III to the Abbot of St. Albans and the Prior of Kenilworth, to adjudicate on a claim made by the nuns for a pension of 40s. out of Fowlmere Church, which they alleged that St. Thomas of Canterbury had granted them, apparently about 1163. (fn. 1) In 1185 when the Honour of Boulogne came into the king's hand, Henry II gave them 30s. 5d. in alms from the farm of the city of Winchester; (fn. 2) and in 1203-4 founder's rights were exercised by Hubert Walter, not as archbishop but in his private capacity as the son of Walter de Valoignes, (fn. 3) who held of that honour in Ickleton; King John had, in 1199, confirmed a gift of land in Ickleton made to the canons of West Dereham by Archbishop Hubert and Theobald his brother, subject to a yearly payment of 30s. to the nuns of Ickleton. (fn. 4) The prioress held her manorial rights in Ickleton of the Honour of Boulogne in 1279, and claimed a fair and market there by a charter of King Stephen. (fn. 5) Stephen cannot have been founder of the house, for an inquest of 1338 showed that the Crown had no claim to its patronage, and had never claimed fealty from the prioress nor taken seisin on a vacancy, (fn. 6) but the priory was probably founded towards the end of his reign, and almost certainly by a member of the family of Valoignes. Later the patronage passed to the Bishop of Ely; in 1284 Archbishop Pecham required the prioress to receive as a nun Margery, kinswoman of William de Kilkenny, the late bishop, (fn. 7) and in the 15th century the bishops exercised founder's privileges.

The priory was neither large nor wealthy, 'the poor nuns' of Ickleton being exempted from taxation in 1256 (fn. 8) and on many later occasions. The nuns' manor in Ickleton was one of several, all small; and about 1290 it was valued at £15 6s. 7½d. (fn. 9) Few additions were made to its possessions in this county, but a messuage in Duxford was acquired under licence in 1393. (fn. 10) In 1299 the prioress, being called upon to show warrant for her Thursday market, annual fair on the feast of St. Mary Magdalen (the patron saint of the priory), and court leet in Ickleton, claimed fair and market under a charter of Henry III and other liberties by prescription. (fn. 11) The market had been granted, or renewed, in 1222 at the instance of 'Luke the chaplain', (fn. 12) and confirmed, together with the fair, by charter in 1227. (fn. 13) Of the two appropriated churches, that of Ickleton was probably part of the original endowment: that of Arrington was given to the priory with 30 acres of land by Maud de Dive about 1220. (fn. 14) In 1272 Geoffrey de Brynkley, Prior of Swavesey, claimed tithes in Arrington against Margaret St. Andrew, Prioress of Ickleton, and her convent; the tithes were adjudged to the prioress, on payment of a pension of 12s. to the Prior of Swavesey at Easter. (fn. 15) Margaret's family held the small manor of Netherhall in Arrington of Lady Clare about 1279, and she may have been the Prioress of Ickleton who gave to Arrington Church a complete vestment of bawdekin, with tunicle and dalmatic. (fn. 16)

Outside Cambridgeshire, and particularly in Essex, the priory held more extensive property from an early date. In 1239 the prioress was granted a market in Stock Harward, (fn. 17) which she held of the Ferrers, lords of Ginges Joyberd in Butsbury; and this manor, with land in several other parishes in Essex, remained in the possession of the house until its suppression. (fn. 18) The omission of their temporalities from the Exchequer copy of the taxatio of Pope Nicholas was cited by Bishop Montacute in 1338 in proof of the poverty of the nuns of Ickleton, (fn. 19) but their revenue was higher than that of the slightly larger convents of St. Radegund and Swaffham Bulbeck, which in 1379 were of less than 40 marks annual value, while Ickleton was reckoned among the houses with an annual value of between 40 and 100 marks. (fn. 20)

On 8 January 1278 Ickleton Priory was visited by Archbishop Kilwardby's deputy. (fn. 21) In August 1345 Hugh Seton visited Ickleton as Vicar-General of Archbishop Stratford, and left injunctions that married laywomen were not to be received for holidays, nor as boarders within the walls of the priory; if, by permission, any was so admitted, the prioress was to be responsible for her blameless reputation; he required those already staying in the house to remove before Michaelmas, and that secular women should not stand in the choir during the canonical day-hours, or while mass was celebrated, as had become the custom; and that no nun should keep a dog or lapdog within the priory, or, above all, take it into choir. (fn. 22) The injunction against boarders seems to have been liberally interpreted, for in January 1378 one Agnes Hervey died in the priory, and her executors, John Quaille, vicar of Ickleton, and Geoffrey Dole, the nuns' chaplain, proved her will in the conventual church; and in the same month the will of Juliana Canon, corrodaria in the Priory of Ickleton, was similarly proved. (fn. 23) No details of the visitations of the Bishops of Ely have been preserved, though several are recorded: Lisle, after his second visitation, on 3 June 1352, dedicated the conventual church and cemetery and bestowed the munus benedictionis on three nuns. (fn. 24) In February of the same year Pauline Gras, nun of Ickleton, received a papal indult to choose her confessor. (fn. 25)

In 1379, the year of the clerical poll-tax, there were nine nuns at Ickleton. (fn. 26) Avice Kersen or Kersonyng, the prioress, had been prioress at Thomas de Wormenhale's visitation in 1373, (fn. 27) and was still prioress in 1402. (fn. 28) One of the nuns, Rose Arsyk, was no doubt of the Silverley family which, for several generations, was in close touch with the religious life. (fn. 29) No chaplain resident in the priory appears as such in the lists, but John Belyng was a chaplain at Ickleton and unbeneficed; (fn. 30) John Quaille was vicar. About this time Geoffrey Dole, the nuns' chaplain in 1378, gave to the parish church 'a good complete vestment of blue cloth-of-gold, with chasuble, cope, tunic, and dalmatic, alb, amice, stole, and fanons'. (fn. 31)

In the riots of 1381 James Hog of Ickleton, and others, burnt all the prioress's court rolls and documents on Sunday, 16 June, (fn. 32) apparently the only case in Cambridgeshire in which the property of a nunnery was destroyed. In 1402 Avice Kersen claimed exemption of her house from taxation on the ground of poverty and that they had the appropriation of two churches only. (fn. 33)

In 1452 it was plainly stated that the priory was 'of the foundation of the Bishops of Ely', (fn. 34) and on 10 August 1444 the sub-prioress and nuns, before proceeding to the election of a prioress to succeed Margaret Hokle asked licence of the bishop 'as patron' to do so. (fn. 35) The process of the election of Alice Pyrry (and of her immediate successors, Constance Bosom and Denise Thyrston) is given in great detail in the register of the Bishop of Ely. Alice Graunysdon was subprioress and Joan Harlston precentrix; eleven nuns took part in the election in 1444. At the election of Denise Thyrston in 1490 there were again nine professed nuns. Constance Bosom, who became prioress in 1458, appears as Prioress of Ickleton on one of the mortuary rolls of Robert Ebchester, Prior of Durham, who died 1488. Two such rolls for this prior were taken to Ickleton: (fn. 36) a roll for the Priors William Ebchester and John Burnby, sent out after the death of the latter in October 1464, had also been sent from Durham to Ickleton among many other houses. (fn. 37)

On 5 October 1516 Bishop Nicholas West of Ely said pontifical high mass in the convent church at the profession of Elizabeth Olte and Margaret Charleton, in the presence of a large congregation. (fn. 38) Apparently he stayed the night at Ickleton, for a composition, dated 6 October, between the prioress and Robert Burton, the vicar, was the result of his arbitration. (fn. 39) The vicar claimed that the cure of souls in the nuns' household belonged to him, but the bishop decided that all servants and members of the household who slept under the monastery roof should receive all sacraments within it and pay all tithes and oblations there (fn. 40) without interference from the vicar. He also decided that all tithes and offerings 'as well personal as parochial', except private presents, belonged to the convent, and that 'since the assigning of a confessor or confessors to the Priory of Ickleton, and to other priories of women in religion within our jurisdiction, belongs to us, we rule that the right of hearing the confessions of the prioress and nuns belongs to a suitable chaplain deputed by us or our successors, and not to the vicar'. The convent were to pay the vicar £8 6s. 8d. as stipend, he was to have the dwellingplace formerly assigned for the vicar to live in, with the adjoining close, containing about 3 acres, which was in one piece with the churchyard, and all emoluments from churchyard and close; he was to repair the house and all buildings at his own expense; he was to keep the roll of prayers 'which is in the vulgar tongue The Bederoll', in which was written the names of all the departed for whom prayer was wont to be made from the pulpit or the chancel gates on Sunday. The vicar was, moreover, to have all charitable gifts made by his parishioners or by outsiders. He must, as a good and diligent curate, serve his parishioners, and also be as diligent in seeking and receiving all tithes and other dues for the comfort of the priory as he would be in his own cause. Finally the bishop decreed that every vicar of Ickleton, before his admission, should swear to abide by the arbitration, and that express mention of it should be made in his letters of institution, without which the presentation was to be invalid.

Probably only one vicar of Ickleton ever took this oath, for the priory was dissolved with the lesser houses. Robert Burton died in 1527, apparently on most amiable terms with the prioress and her chaplain, to whom and to the sisters jointly he left 10s. to say a dirge and mass for all Christian souls, 'to my Lady Prioress my best pan and my greatest pot of brass', and to Dame Margaret Charlton, one of the two novices whose profession had preceded his agreement with her prioress, 6s. 8d. 'to pray for my soul'. (fn. 41) The other novice professed in 1516, Elizabeth Olte, may possibly be the 'Dame Elizabeth Trotter, prophessyd noyne in the Abbay of Ikelyngton' who owned, and probably wrote, a book of prayers now at St. John's College, Cambridge. (fn. 42)

A codicil to the will of John Fraunces, proved 15 January 1519, sets out that the testator, moved by 'John Fownten, gentleman . . . by the means of pity to remember my Lady Prioress and her sisters of Ickleton with alms', left them £2 13s. 4d. to be set off against a debt of £2 6s. 8d. in money and £1 10s. 2d. for 6 qrs. of malt, which the prioress owed him: (fn. 43) between April and October 1536 the prioress and convent granted a corrody to John Fountayne, gentleman: (fn. 44) probably he was their steward. In 1519-20 Bishop West 'granted 10s. a year to the Abbess of Ickleton by name of alms'. (fn. 45) In December 1520 Thomas Aspedon of Ickleton, weaver, provided for a trental to be said in Ickleton Church by a chantry-chaplain of his own choice, but left 4d. to the nuns' chaplain, 20d. 'to my Lady Prioress', and 'to every other lady 4d.' (fn. 46) Probably their last legacy was that of William Spicer, rector of Clopton, who, by his will dated 1 March 1536, gave the nuns 40s. (fn. 47) The exact date of the surrender of the house is unknown, but the prioress presented Philip Vogan, S.T.B., to Arrington on 6 April 1536, (fn. 48) and the convent acted in its corporate capacity after 23 April. (fn. 49) The Valor gives the annual value of the priory at £71 9s. 10½d. in 1535. (fn. 50) On 3 October 1536 the Earl of Northumberland wrote to Cromwell to remind him that he had been promised three 'abbeys' at the valuation of the king's officers. Of these, Ickleton was promised to Dr. Wendy, his physician, but no lease was yet made out for it, only 'bare letters' by the king's bill, and it appeared that 'one Slether' was negotiating for the nunnery; he begged Cromwell to provide otherwise for Slether. (fn. 51) On 28 April 1537 he wrote again complaining of delay, although Dr. Wendy had been granted the demesnes of Royston Priory in compensation for Ickleton 'for which a signed bill was passed, but by the labours of others did not take effect'. (fn. 52) On 16 March 1537 the site of the priory was granted to John Slether on a twenty-one years' lease, (fn. 53) but in 1538 Bishop Goodrich exchanged the manor of the Bishops of Ely at Hatfield with the king for the Priories of Swaffham and Ickleton with all their lands and possessions, (fn. 54) and was given the reversion of the site of Ickleton and of the Impey Hall estate of the nuns at Stock Harward, which was also at farm on a twenty-one years' lease. (fn. 55)

Prioresses of Ickleton

Ellen, occurs 1232 (fn. 56)

Lettice, occurs 1256-7 (fn. 57)

Margaret de St. Andrew, occurs 1272 (fn. 58)

Cecily, occurs 1288-9 (fn. 59)

Mary, died before 8 Aug. 1338 (fn. 60)

Avice Kersonyng, or Kersen, occurs 1373, (fn. 61) 1379, (fn. 62) 1402 (fn. 63)

Margaret Hokle, died 6 Aug. 1444 (fn. 64)

Alice Pyrry, elected 17 Aug. 1444, (fn. 65) died 7 Feb. 1458 (fn. 66)

Constance Bosom, elected 8 Mar. 1458, (fn. 67) died 8 July 1490 (fn. 68)

Denise Thyrston, elected 20 July 1490 (fn. 69)

Joan Ashwell, occurs 1516, (fn. 70) surrendered 1536 (fn. 71)


  • 1. Liverani, Spicilegium Liberianum, 761. The approximate date of the commission is fixed by a reference to the 'blessed Thomas, Archbishop', who was canonized 24 Feb. 1173, and to a certain Bishop of Winchester, still an archdeacon when the question had first arisen, who seems to be Richard of Ilchester (bp. 1174-82); Alexander died 1181; that of the alleged grant is fixed by the suggestion that the claim arose when William of Laventon was Archdeacon of Ely and a reference to Robert de Melun, Bishop of Hereford (1163–7) 'of happy memory'. St. Thomas became archbishop in 1163, and was out of England after 1164.
  • 2. Pipe Roll 31 Hen. II (Pipe Roll Soc.), 214.
  • 3. Ibid. 5 John, p. 27. Hubert owed 2 palfreys, one for the confirmation of the Prioress of Ickleton, the other for that of the Prioress of Campsey. The latter house was founded by the archbishop's brother Theobald for their sisters, who took the veil there c. 1195. King John confirmed the foundation charter of Campsey in the same year 1203–4: V.C.H. Suffolk, ii, 112.
  • 4. Rot. Cart. (Rec. Com.), 21.
  • 5. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 570. She claimed other liberties 'by the Count of Bologne' (ibid.), possibly referring to Stephen's son William.
  • 6. Cal. Inq. Misc., ii, 1612; Cal. Close, 1337–9, p. 455.
  • 7. Reg. Epist. Johis. Pecham (Rolls Ser.), iii, 1077.
  • 8. Lunt, The Valuation of Norwich, 211. The temporalities of the priory are omitted from the Taxation of Pope Nicholas (1291).
  • 9. Mon. Angl. iv, 439.
  • 10. Cal. Pat. 139–6, p. 326.
  • 11. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 440.
  • 12. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i, 508.
  • 13. Cal. Chart. R. i, 30.
  • 14. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 55. The churches of Arrington and Shingay were given to St. Martin of Séez by Earl Roger, the Domesday tenant: Cal. Docts. France, 324. Cf. Farrer, Feudal Cambs. 254. By 1278 the Preceptory of Shingay had acquired the church there (v. infra, p. 267), paying a pension to the Abbot of Séez. In 1402 the Prioress of Ickleton certified that she had only two appropriated churches—Ickleton and Arrington: Mon. Angl. iv, 439. In the clerical subsidy roll of 1452 Shingay Church was said to belong to the nuns of Ickleton, but in 1458 the Bishop of Ely certified the Exchequer that they possessed only a pension in Shingay, formerly belonging to the Abbey of Séez, and exempt, like all their property, from tenths, on the ground of poverty: Ely Epis. Reg. Gray, fol. 107 (E.D.R. 1906, p. 170).
  • 15. Cole MS. xxii, fol. 84v.
  • 16. C. L. Feltoe and E. H. Minns, Vetus Liber Archid. Eliens. 103.
  • 17. Cal. Chart. R. i, 244, confirmed 1268; ibid. ii, 92.
  • 18. In addition to the nuns' manor (later called Impey Hall) in Butsbury and Stock, their Essex property included land in Strethall, Gt. Chesterfield, Littlebury, Elmington, Greshall, and Ashdon: Mon. Angl. iv, 440–1.
  • 19. Ely Epis. Reg. Montacute, fol. 42; Cole MS. xxiii, fol. 29.
  • 20. W. M. Palmer, 'Clerical Subsidy', East Anglian, xiii, 123.
  • 21. C. L. Feltoe and E. H. Minns, Vetus Liber Archid. Elien. 18.
  • 22. Mon. Angl. iv, 440–1.
  • 23. Cole MS. lix, fol. 56, citing Rolls of Consistory Court of Bp. Ely.
  • 24. Ely Epis. Reg. Lisle, fol. 65v; Cole MSS. xxiii, fol. 104.
  • 25. Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 454.
  • 26. East Anglian, xiii, 123.
  • 27. Canterbury Archiepis. Reg. Whittlesey, fol. 154v.
  • 28. Mon. Angl., iv, 439.
  • 29. For the connexion of this family with the Preceptory at Chippenham and the nunnery at Swaffham v. infra, pp. 227, 264.
  • 30. East Anglian, xiii, 191.
  • 31. Feltoe and Minns, op. cit. 71. The inventories in the Archdeacon's Book show that the nuns' two churches of Ickleton and Arrington were well furnished: perhaps Robert atte Lane, who gave service books to Ickleton towards the end of the 14th century, was also chaplain at the priory: ibid. 103.
  • 32. E. Powell, Rising in East Anglia, 46.
  • 33. Ely Epis. Reg. Fordham; Cole MS. xxiv, fol. 200. Ickleton Church was worth £10, Arrington £6 13s. 4d.
  • 34. Cole MS. xlv, fol. 83, from MS. Wren, 212–7.
  • 35. Ely Epis. Reg. Bourchier, fol. 61; E.D.R. 1904, p. 51.
  • 36. Obituary Roll of Priors Wm. Ebchester and John Burnby, ed. James Raine (Surtees Soc. 1856), 80, 87.
  • 37. Ibid. 25.
  • 38. Mon. Angl. iv, 441.
  • 39. Cole MS. xxvi, fol. 134; E.D.R. 1911, p. 150.
  • 40. This is definite proof that the nuns did not share the parish church.
  • 41. W. M. Palmer, MS. Extracts from Wills.
  • 42. MS. T. 9. 1; it is bound up with the York Psalter printed in 1516, the year of the profession of the two girls (puellae) and the prayers are written in the same hand as the inscription on the fly-leaf. Cf. M. R. James, Catalogue of MSS. of St. John's College, 368.
  • 43. Cole MS. lx, fol. 126–7.
  • 44. Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. 91, fol. 7.
  • 45. Cole MS. i, fol. 11, from MS. Wren, 332, 9. Dame Elizabeth Trotter also calls her convent an 'abbey', and, at its dissolution, the Earl of Northumberland claimed Ickleton as one of three 'abbeys' promised him by the king; but the term was often loosely used.
  • 46. W. M. Palmer, MS. Extracts from Wills.
  • 47. W. M. Palmer, 'History of Clopton', Cambs. Antiq. Soc. Trans. xxxiii, 45.
  • 48. Ely Epis. Reg. Goodrich; E.D.R. (1912), 35.
  • 49. In granting the corrody to Fountayne (Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. 91, fol. 7) and executing a bond for payments to Wm. Capon and John Reynoldson: ibid. 92, fol. 107v.
  • 50. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 505. A valuation made just after the dissolution of the priory gives a total of £70 10s. 2½d., with another £15 11s. 8½d. for the Essex manor of Stock Harward: Mon. Angl. iv, 441–2.
  • 51. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xi, 529.
  • 52. Ibid. xii (i), 1057, 1211.
  • 53. Ibid. xiii (ii), 1182 (19).
  • 54. Ibid. 904.
  • 55. Ibid. Impey Hall was charged with rents to Tyrrell and Ferrers (heirs of the original benefactors of Ickleton Priory) and with an annual payment of 40s. to the nuns' bailiff and steward.
  • 56. Anct. D. (P.R.O.), B. 11550.
  • 57. Rye, Cambs. Fines (C.A.S.), 36.
  • 58. Mon. Angl. iv, 439.
  • 59. Rye, op. cit. 59.
  • 60. Cal. Close, 1337–9, p. 455.
  • 61. Cant. Archiep. Reg. Whittlesey, fol. 154v.
  • 62. East Anglian, xiii, 123.
  • 63. Mon. Angl. iv, 439.
  • 64. Ely Epis. Reg. Bourchier, fol. 61; E.D.R. 1904, p. 51.
  • 65. Ibid. Alice Stubbard of Bury in 1418 left 12d. to every nun in Ickleton and 2s. to Dame Alice Perye: Tymms, Bury Wills (Camden Soc.), 2.
  • 66. Ely Epis. Reg. Grey, fol. 148; E.D.R. 1907, p. 95.
  • 67. Ibid. She took part in the election of Alice Pyrry as Constance 'Bosyng'. In 1488 her name is given, on the Obituary Roll of Robert of Ebchester, as 'Bozim': Surtees Soc. xxxi, 80.
  • 68. Ely Epis. Reg. Alcock, fol. 183–7, 197–9; E.D.R. 1910, p. 15.
  • 69. Ibid.
  • 70. Cole MS. xxvi, fol. 134; Mon. Angl. iv, 441.
  • 71. She received a pension of £8: Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. 232, fol. 18.