Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Swaffham Bulbeck

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 Swaffham Bulbeck', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 226-229. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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The priory at Swaffham Bulbeck was probably founded in the second half of the 12th century, either by that Isabel de Bolebec who became the wife of the 3rd Earl of Oxford c. 1209, (fn. 1) or by her parents, who by this marriage became the 'ancestors of the Earls of Oxford' described as its founders in the Hundred Rolls. (fn. 2) The first contemporary mention of a Prioress of Swaffham is a reference to land held by her in Silverley in 1199. (fn. 3) At its foundation the priory was endowed with the church of Swaffham Bulbeck and 4 virgates of land there; (fn. 4) later more land was acquired in the parish. In 1375 the then prioress brought a suit against Giles Crakesloth and others for disseising her of a tenement in Norwich, of which she alleged her predecessor, Agnes, to have been seised in King John's time, and another prioress, named Sybil, to have been seised in that of Henry III. She won her case, and, if the facts were as stated, this house in the Drapery at Norwich must have been given to the nunnery soon after its foundation. (fn. 5) In 1234-5 Walter Marescall and his wife Amabel gave 6 acres of land and a croft in Swaffham Bulbeck to the prioress for a rent of 1s. 6d., and on condition of being remembered in the prayers of the nuns: (fn. 6) in 1242-3 Robert de Valoignes made the substantial gift of a carucate of land in Ditton Valence on a similar condition, (fn. 7) and in 1252-3 Roger Lambert and Isabel his wife gave a further 4 acres in Swaffham. (fn. 8) A little later various gifts of rents were made to them: as of 10s. in Livermere in 1269, (fn. 9) of 7s. in Babraham in 1285-6, (fn. 10) and of a mark in Ashley and Silverley, from Geoffrey Arsyk, in the same year. (fn. 11) In 1279 land was held in Burwell of Thomas de Burgh by the payment of a pair of gilt spurs to the lord and of a mark to the Prioress of Swaffham; (fn. 12) the convent held 60 acres in Toft (fn. 13) and as much in Hardwick, (fn. 14) as well as small properties in the town of Cambridge, producing £2 11s. 8d. in rents. (fn. 15) The priory, although small, and never rich, had distinguished friends, and at her death in 1360 Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady Clare, left 12 dishes (esqueles) of silver and 11 pieces of cloth of gold to the ladies of Swaffham. (fn. 16)

Archbishop Kilwardby sent his clerks to visit the priory on Saturday, 18 December 1277, while he held an ordination in Bottisham Church. (fn. 17) He was on his way from Anglesey to Ely, and Swaffham lay slightly off the route. The nuns were, however, by no means out of the world, for within 50 yards of their gatehouse lay the wharf communicating with Swaffham Lode, by which until about 1870 a brisk ship-borne trade was carried on with London, Newcastle-on-Tyne, the east coast ports, and Amsterdam. The nuns, as ladies of the manor, had an active interest in the traffic by this waterway, and some of the commodities which appear in the compotus of Margaret Ratcliff in the 15th century figure in the accounts of the company which owned the sea-going barges of the last century.

In 1338 Swaffham is included in a list of religious houses from which nothing could be obtained, either because of their poverty or because they were exempt. (fn. 18) During the vacancy of the see of Ely in 1345 the house was visited by Hugh Seton, official of the archbishop, who ordered that novices must not be accepted in excess of the ability of the house to maintain them and that at Swaffham only two must be received. (fn. 19) On 23 May 1346 Bishop Lisle of Ely visited in person; (fn. 20) he noted the ruinous state of the buildings, and, in spite of the Black Death three years later, the nuns seem to have set about rebuilding, for in 1352 after Lisle's return from abroad he came to Swaffham again, blessed nuns, and consecrated the conventual church. (fn. 21)

It was possibly partly to meet the expense of repairing the church that the nuns in February 1353 obtained a licence to acquire in mortmain property up to the yearly value of £10. (fn. 22) This modest limit does not appear to have been reached; in 1354 land and rents in Mildenhall to the value of 30s. were obtained, (fn. 23) and in 1363 land worth 10s. in Swaffham Bulbeck was given to the priory, (fn. 24) but no other additions of real estate can be traced until 1379, when a further 20s. in land and rent in Hardwick and Toft was acquired under the same licence. (fn. 25)

Against these accessions of income must be put the loss of their gatehouse in 1368 by the carelessness of a servant sleeping there, who left a candle burning, which fell on his bed and burnt him and the gatehouse. (fn. 26) A general process of decay alike in buildings and finances towards the end of this century is suggested by Bishop Fordham's action in 1395 in granting 40 days' indulgence to any who contributed to the repair of the church, cloisters, and other buildings of Swaffham Priory and to the maintenance of the nuns. (fn. 27)

Thomas de Wormenhale's visitation (fn. 28) of Swaffham Priory on 2 August 1373 produced a complaint not without interest for liturgical history, in addition to mere grumbles about food and financial troubles. It was stated that from the time of their foundation it had been the custom of the nuns to say the night and day offices according to the Rule of St. Benedict as observed by the monks of Ely, but that certain of the present and former nuns had introduced antiphons, verses, and collects of various saints into the services, so that the due and accustomed order was either negligently performed or sometimes omitted. The community was directed to return to the strict form of the Benedictine use for all choir offices and to leave the extra observances to private devotion.

The Poll-Tax returns in 1379 show that there were then besides the prioress, the Lady Eve Wastoneys, six nuns: the Lady Ellen de Ufford (probably of the family of the Earl of Suffolk), Margaret de Foxton, Margery de Rydon, Agnes de Swaffham, Isabel Loche, and Elizabeth de Teversham. (fn. 29) The priory was at this time said to be worth 'under £40'; about a century earlier its temporalities were valued at £26 0s. 5d. (fn. 30) and during the 14th and 15th centuries it was usually exempt from taxation because of its poverty. (fn. 31) A detailed account of the revenues of the priory for one year from 25 April 1481 (fn. 32) shows a total of £66 2s. 8½d. Of this £22 15s. came from rents and leases, £36 16s. 8d. from the sale of wood, wheat, and other farm produce, and the remainder from miscellaneous sources, including gifts and bequests. Of the miscellaneous receipts the most interesting are payments for boarders. These are all calculated at 6d. a week and are for terms varying from 6 to 40 weeks; there are nine persons named, and in seven cases the entry is 'for board (mensa) of his son' or 'daughter'. Although in the first two instances, Richard Potecary and John Kele, both of Cambridge, the entry is only 'for board' it is probable that all the boarders were children; they can hardly have been a direct source of profit, but their parents may have showed their appreciation in some more substantial form. The poverty of the house was no doubt partly relieved by the fact that some of its inmates were connected with families of wealth and distinction. In 1399 Bishop Fordham received the professions of three nuns here, Margaret de Lisle, Cecily Brettenham, and Cecily Pakenham, all names of well-known families. (fn. 33) Bequests to the house and to individual nuns were fairly frequent; in 1448 Alice Langham of Snailwell left to her daughter Agnes, a professed nun of Swaffham, a set of bedclothes, a chest, some pieces of plate, and 8 marks in money, and to the prioress 3s. 4d. (fn. 34) Thomas Fyncham of Cambridge in 1517 left 20s. a year for life to Alice Wood, a nun in this priory. (fn. 35) Nicholas Hughson left 20s. to the prioress and convent in 1512, and Thomas Bentley in 1523 left 4s. to each nun there to pray for his soul. (fn. 36)

John Smith, vicar of Swaffham Bulbeck, in 1532 left 2s. to the prioress, 12d. to each nun, and 12d. to Sir Christopher their priest. (fn. 37) In 1379 there were two chaplains in the priory. (fn. 38) These mass priests were seculars, but the special confessors appointed for the nuns by the bishop were usually regulars and often friars, though in 1377 Henry, vicar of St. Cyriac's, Swaffham Prior, was so appointed. (fn. 39) In 1388 and 1389 William de Bottesham, sub-prior of Anglesey, was the nuns' confessor, (fn. 40) as was John de Norwich, Prior of the Dominicans of Cambridge, in 1393, (fn. 41) and in 1404 Bishop Fordham licensed the prioress, Elizabeth, to choose her own confessor for three years. (fn. 42)

That the house was in difficulties early in the 16th century is suggested by the fact that in 1505 the prioress, Christine Pope, pawned a chalice with the President of St. Catharine's Hall for £5. (fn. 43) Thirty years later, if rumour might be trusted, the spiritual side of the community was also at a low level. The prioress, Joan Spylman, was said to be 'naught' with a friar (fn. 44) of bad reputation, to whom she had given the benefice of Swaffham Bulbeck; and all the sisters of the convent were as bad as herself, according to Dr. Legh, who adds that they would all have left the place if he had not restrained them; and preparatory to so doing they had apparently sold all the corn, cattle, and household stuff. (fn. 45) Joan Spylman obtained a pension of £6 13s. 4d.; (fn. 46) but, although she had been so willing to abandon the priory, the neighbourhood appears to have retained an attraction for her, perhaps in the person of the friar, as in 1602 Robert Manning of Burwell, then aged 80, remembered that for more than a year after the dissolution of the house she remained 'in a cave in the ground at the Vicaredge'. (fn. 47)

In 1535 the value of the priory was stated as £40, no details being given; (fn. 48) but a valuation of the estates drawn up shortly after the house had been dissolved yields a total of £63 18s. 2d. (fn. 49) The smaller sum may have been the net value after deductions which are given in the later account, or it may be due to omission of the rectory of Swaffham Bulbeck, worth £20, (fn. 50) given by the prioress to her favoured friar.

Prioresses of Swaffham (fn. 51)

Agnes, tpe. John (1199-1216) (fn. 52)

Agnes, occurs 1234-5

Maud, occurs 1242-3, 1247-8, 1252-3

Sybil, tpe. Henry III (fn. 53)

Alice, occurs 1269, 1271, 1285-6 (fn. 54)

Agnes de Ely, died 1340

Isabel de Abbotslee, elected 1340 (fn. 55)

Eve Wastoneys, (fn. 56) occurs 1378-9

Elizabeth de Teversham, occurs 1397, 1404

Joan Clare, resigned 1460

Joan Sopham, or Swaffham, occurs 1473, (fn. 57) died 1480 or 1481 (fn. 58)

Margaret Ratcliff, occurs 1481

Christine Pope, occurs 1503, 1505 (fn. 59)

Joan Spylman, surrendered 1535


  • 1. At the time of the Domesday Survey the younger son of Hugh de Bolebec, lord of 'Ricott', Oxon., held land in Swaffham of his kinsman Walter Giffard, adjoining that of Aubrey de Vere; Aubrey's successor, the first Earl of Oxford, wishing to round off his property, gave the king 500 marks for the marriage of Isabel, the infant daughter and heiress of Walter de Bolebec, to his son. This marriage proving childless, the boy's younger brother Robert succeeded him, and gave 200 marks and 2 palfreys for another Isabel, aunt and heir of the first: Rot. de Dominabus (Pipe R. Soc.), pp. xl, xli. The fact that the bride offered 450 marks and 3 palfreys in 1208 that she might not be compelled to marry (Madox, Hist. of Exch. 428) suggests that she may have already founded the nunnery at 'Little Swaffham,' hoping perhaps to endow it with her lands and to become a nun there.
  • 2. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 494.
  • 3. R. Cur. Reg. (Rec. Com.), i, 403; Abbrev. Plac. (Rec. Com.), 7.
  • 4. Hund. R. ii, 494.
  • 5. Cole MS. xviii, fol. 131–2, citing 'Martin MSS. Deed 32', from an assize. According to Blomefield (Hist. of Norfolk, iv, 223) the nuns of Swaffham had a rent out of a shop in the Drapery, given them in 1272 by William of Dunwich, who died in that year (ibid. 450), but he does not give his authority for the statement. The original gift may have been made subject to a rent, which William remitted.
  • 6. Feet of F. Cambs. 19 Hen. III.
  • 7. Ibid. 26 Hen. III.
  • 8. Ibid. 37 Hen. III.
  • 9. Ibid. Suff. 53 Hen. III.
  • 10. Ibid. Cambs. 14 Edw. I.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 499.
  • 13. Ibid. 520.
  • 14. Ibid. 539.
  • 15. Ibid. 360, 369, 370, 378, 388, 401.
  • 16. Nichols, Royal Wills, 32.
  • 17. Vetus Liber Archid. Eliens. (ed. Feltoe and Minns), 18.
  • 18. Ely Epis. Reg. Montacute, fol. 42; Cole MS. xxiii, fol. 29.
  • 19. Ely Epis. Reg. Lisle, fol. 47v; Cole MS. xxiii, fol. 95.
  • 20. Reg. Lisle, fol. 65v.
  • 21. Ibid.
  • 22. Cal. Pat. 1350–4, p. 406.
  • 23. Ibid. 1354–8, p. 24.
  • 24. Ibid. 1361–4, p. 392.
  • 25. Ibid. 1377–81, p. 369.
  • 26. W. M. Palmer, 'The Benedictine Nunnery of Swaffham 'Bulbeck', C.A.S. xxxi, 62–2.
  • 27. Ely Epis. Reg. Fordham, fol. 184v; Cole MS. xxiv, fol. 226.
  • 28. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Whittlesey, fol. 154.
  • 29. Palmer, op. cit. 40.
  • 30. Mon. Angl. iv, 457.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Ibid. 459–60. Extracts from the expense side of this account are given by Palmer, op. cit. 43–5.
  • 33. Palmer, op. cit. 31.
  • 34. Bury Wills (Camden Soc.), 12.
  • 35. Palmer, op. cit. 54.
  • 36. Ibid.
  • 37. Ibid. 47.
  • 38. Ibid. 40.
  • 39. Mon. Angl. iv, 458.
  • 40. Ibid.
  • 41. Ibid.
  • 42. Ibid.
  • 43. W. H. S. Jones, Hist. of St. Catharine's Coll. 60.
  • 44. Apparently one Bassam, who seems to have got the nuns to make a grant of the advowson, or of the next presentation, to Edward Foxe, Bishop of Hereford and Provost of King's, through which Bassam hoped to secure another living for himself: L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 1251. He may be the Andrew Basham who was Prior of the Carmelites in 1535: Venn, Alumni Cant.
  • 45. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ix, 708.
  • 46. Ibid. xiii (1), p. 574.
  • 47. Palmer, op. cit. 52.
  • 48. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 505.
  • 49. Mon. Angl. iv, 460–1.
  • 50. Ibid. 461.
  • 51. Palmer, op. cit. 38–9, where references to the original sources are given. Cf. Mon. Angl. iv, 458.
  • 52. So alleged in 1375 (Cole MS. xviii, fol. 131), but may have been later and identical with the next.
  • 53. Named in the suit of 1375: ibid.
  • 54. Assize R. 84, m. 2d. Mention of her predecessor Agnes. She is probably the Alice de Ely who, with her convent, granted land in Silverley to the Hospitallers of Chippenham: Cott. MS. Nero C. ix, fol. 62v.
  • 55. An account of her election on 17 December 1340 is given in Bishop Montacute's register (Palmer, op. cit. 41). The bishop found that the election was defective in form, so quashed it, but presented her to the office as a fit person, and instructed the archdeacon to install her.
  • 56. One of this name was Prioress of St. Radegund's, Cambridge, in 1359.
  • 57. a Will of Henry Cottyng: P.C.C. Wattys, 15.
  • 58. Mon. Angl. iv, 459.
  • 59. W. H. S. Jones, Hist. of St. Catherine's Coll. 60.