Houses of minoresses: Abbey of Waterbeach

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 minoresses: Abbey of Waterbeach', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, (London, 1948) pp. 292-295. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

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In the year 1293 nuns of a branch of the Second Order of St. Francis called Minoresses came to England. The special Rule called the Isabella Rule, approved in its final form (fn. 1) by Urban IV in 1263, had been intended exclusively for the convent of Longchamp, founded in 1255 by Isabelle, the sister of St. Louis, but was adopted by the English houses, at no time more than four in number, all of which derived directly or indirectly from Longchamp. At the special request of St. Louis those who kept his sister's Rule were to be called sorores minores or Minoresses. (fn. 2) The Rule followed in England shared the characteristic English tendencies towards frequency of Communion and the mitigation of austerities. Moreover the Isabella Rule alone contains a clause by which the Visitor, at the end of his visitation, having imposed penance, was to burn all evidence in the presence of the assembled convent. (fn. 3) One source of information as to the internal condition of religious houses is therefore entirely closed as touching Waterbeach and Denney.

Denise, daughter and heir of Nicholas Anesty, the foundress of Waterbeach, had been married in early youth to Walter, brother of Archbishop Stephen Langton. (fn. 4) As the widow of Warin Munchensey, who died in 1255, she received the king's permission in 1281 to grant her manor at Waterbeach 'to religious men, or to found there a house of Religious' (fn. 5) and had papal approbation for her plan of bringing the minoresses to her property. A bull of Martin IV (fn. 6) of the same year grants 100 days' indulgence to those who visit for prayer 'the church of the enclosed sisters of the Order of St. Clare' without the walls of London and the church of the same Order at Waterbeach. Actually no sisters arrived to live at either house until 1293-4, and when they came they were, to speak quite strictly, not of the 'Order of St. Clare'.

The house without the walls of London and that at Waterbeach were occupied almost simultaneously. In June 1293 the minoresses are spoken of as about to be brought to London; (fn. 7) by August 1294 they were settled there; (fn. 8) at Ascensiontide 1294 four Sisters of the Order of Friars Minor came from France to the church and numerous other buildings which Denise Munchensey had been preparing for them at Waterbeach during the last year. (fn. 9)

In 1295 both houses obtained the privilege of exemption from episcopal jurisdiction (fn. 10) and were thus under the direct and sole jurisdiction of the Franciscan Minister General and the Provincial in England. (fn. 11) In 1296 the Isabella Rule was explicitly granted to both by a papal bull which describes it as that followed in the monastery of the Humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Longchamp near St. Cloud, Paris. (fn. 12) The first Abbess of Waterbeach was Joan de Nevers, (fn. 13) who had been Abbess of Longchamp from March 1289 to April 1294. (fn. 14)

Denise Munchensey granted the manor of Waterbeach to her nuns in 1294, (fn. 15) and in 1296 she gave them the advowson of the church of Ridgewell, in Essex. (fn. 16) The grant of the manor caused immediate difficulty with the canons of Barnwell, for Waterbeach Church belonged to them and they and Constantine their vicar feared the loss of the lesser tithes and the obventions, since the minoresses were exempt from the payment of tithe. The canons 'strenuously opposed the foundation', but it was finally agreed (fn. 17) that the sisters were to pay 22s. yearly to the vicar, in compensation for his loss of tithe; the secular servants of the nuns who lived permanently within their gates and were employed in the cellar, kitchen, and the like, and one bailiff (custos deputatus) of the manor, unless they were originally parishioners, were not to pay any dues, except by special grace of the abbess; servants working outside the inclosure in fields or fisheries or fen within the parish were to pay oblations to the mother church of Waterbeach, and to receive the sacraments there, and if any of them died and was to be buried elsewhere the first mass of the funeral was to be said at Waterbeach and the customary oblations made there.

In 1304 Denise Munchensey died. (fn. 18) Her grandchild, another Denise, had married Sir Hugh de Vere, and it was her husband who in 1296 obtained licence for the elder lady to alienate Ridgewell Church to the abbey. (fn. 19) In 1299 the minoresses of Waterbeach were trying to evade the agreement of 1294, and were supported by the elder Denise. The canons of Barnwell appealed to Archbishop Winchelsey, who was administering the diocese of Ely during a vacancy. (fn. 20) On 18 March 1299 the archbishop wrote to Denise and to Sir Hugh de Vere threatening excommunication if they continued to uphold the nuns in their obstinacy. (fn. 21) The case was carried to Rome and decided in favour of the composition of 1294, but the abbess was allowed 100 marks in consideration of her waiting her papal privilege. (fn. 22) Meanwhile she complained that Benedict, Prior of Barnwell, with others, had carried off her goods. (fn. 23) Probably he had tried to distrain for what she owed.

In 1311 Denise the younger and her husband had a papal indult to enter the nunnery of Waterbeach twice a year with a retinue, as 'founders' of the house. (fn. 24)

The bull of 1295 not only exempted the minoresses from episcopal jurisdiction, it exempted them also from all secular dues and exactions, royal or otherwise. It is addressed to the abbess and convent of the Piety of St. Mary—or in later phraseology, of Our Lady of Pity—of 'Waterbesche' of the Order of St. Clare. (fn. 25) In September of the same year the Pope granted to the 'inclosed sisters' of both Waterbeach and the Minories an indulgence of 1 year and 40 days for those who visited their churches, under the usual conditions, on the Feasts of the B.V.M., St. Francis, St. Antony, and St. Clare. (fn. 26)

It is possible that the first grant of Waterbeach to Denise Munchensey was made under the influence of Queen Isabelle, who was the greatgreat-niece of Blessed Isabelle: her own sister was a nun at Longchamp. In 1314 she acquired licence for Waterbeach to receive rents and lands in mortmain to the value of £20 a year, (fn. 27) under which Christine de Kirkeby gave the abbey a messuage, 8 acres of land, and the advowson of the church of Biddenham in Beds. (fn. 28) Later, in 1342, a papal mandate was issued to the Bishop of Ely to appropriate to the abbey of Waterbeach the church of Biddenham of the value of £10 yearly. (fn. 29) In 1318 Stephen de Clopton, who in 1305 had acted as attorney for Joan, the abbess, (fn. 30) gave two messuages in Cambridge to the nuns. (fn. 31) He was at this time parson of Buckenham Ferry in Norfolk. An attempt to obtain the appropriation of Chesterton Church to Waterbeach in 1298 (fn. 32) proved abortive.

In 1327 the manor of Denney was granted to the Countess of Pembroke for life (fn. 33) and in 1336 she granted her life-interest to the sisters at Waterbeach. (fn. 34) In 1339 she first obtained permission to transfer the whole community from Waterbeach to her new manor, and to consolidate the two fees. (fn. 35) This was for Denise Munchensey's original foundation the beginning of the end, and by 1351 it was finally merged—not without considerable opposition—in Mary de St. Pol's new foundation on her manor of Denney (fn. 36) (q.v.).

The first nuns were French and were all noble ladies, for the Rule of Longchamp that none but women of noble birth (and that in the strict French sense) could be professed there held good until in 1330 John XXII forbade its enforcement. (fn. 37) The minoresses in England remained an aristocratic order, but they were never so exclusive as their sisters of Longchamp.

Although the abbess and certain sisters were removed to Denney by 1342, (fn. 38) some nuns were left there and the original abbey struggled on under sufferance for 4 years more, and then in open rebellion against the authorities until 1351. By 1349 they had had 'the temerity to choose another abbess' for themselves, had received other women as sisters, and had announced that they did not propose to leave Waterbeach. (fn. 39)

Meanwhile Mary de St. Pol's petition to the Pope to compel the removal of the recalcitrant nuns to Denney was granted. (fn. 40) The Pope communicated with the Provincial of the Friars Minor of England on 3 February 1349, and sent a mandate to John Trilleck, Bishop of Hereford, (fn. 41) and to Thomas Lisle, Bishop of Ely, (fn. 42) to compel the minoresses to obey their abbess. Trillek issued a commission for the execution of the mandate, (fn. 43) and the score or so of sisters at Waterbeach were forcibly removed to Denney, (fn. 44) where all but four or five of them consented to remain under the obedience of Katherine de Bolewyk, abbess at Denney, although a papal letter of 1351 refers to these four or five as still holding out. On 1 May 1351 the Countess of Pembroke executed a deed at Fotheringhay, which was confirmed by Edward III at Westminster on the 13th of the same month. She reserved to herself the patronage of the abbey and required the abbess and sisters of Denney to maintain a chaplain at Waterbeach to pray for the soul of Denise de Munchensey as well as for her own soul and those of her friends. (fn. 45) It is to be feared that Denise was soon forgotten: Joan Keteryche, abbess of Denney, writing in 1459 knows only one 'blyssid foundatrice'.

One reason for some of the nuns staying at Waterbeach is said to have been fear lest the monastery should fall into lay hands, (fn. 46) and to prevent this Clement VI granted permission to the Provincial Minister to receive it and replace the sisters by twelve friars, who were to be provided with food and clothing from Denney. (fn. 47) But the brethren seem to have been as unwilling to go to Waterbeach as the sisters were loath to leave it. If the situation was bad in 1342, it was no better, and the buildings were probably worse, by 1349. In 1350 the king requested the Minister General to compel brethren of the Order to dwell in the deserted house, (fn. 48) but nothing seems to have been done. Perhaps the Black Death afforded a reason, or at least an excuse, and by 1359 the monastery at Waterbeach was not only deserted but 'already well-nigh desolate'. (fn. 49) In that same year Innocent VI licensed the removal of all bodies buried in the monastery or its cemetery at Waterbeach to Denney. (fn. 50) The foundations of the ruined house disappeared under the grass; but about a hundred years ago, according to Clay, the big stones from them were occasionally dug out to mend the roads. (fn. 51)

The abbesses of Waterbeach whose names have come down may have covered almost the whole period of the abbey's existence. Joan de Nevers, the first of them, was probably still living in 1305. (fn. 52) A reference to Joan Trengge in a Court Roll of 1414 (fn. 53) would carry her date back to 1325 or earlier. Isabel de Olneye was the immediate predecessor of Katherine, abbess in 1338, (fn. 54) who was presumably identical with Katherine de Bolewyk, first Abbess of Denney. Emma occurs in 1348: (fn. 55) she was probably the abbess irregularly elected by the rebellious nuns.


  • 1. In its first form it was approved by Alexander IV in 1259.
  • 2. A. F. C. Bourdillon, in Brit. Soc. Franc. Studies, xii, 'Order of Minoresses in England', 8. Urban decreed that those who followed his Rule, intended for the general use of the Order, were to be called the Order of St. Clare, whence the modern name Claresses, or Poor Clares.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. This was pointed out by Miss Hope Emily Allen: it shows that Denise had been brought in girlhood into touch with the circle which welcomed the Friars Minor on their first coming to England in 1222.
  • 5. Cal. Chart. R. ii, 254; Cal. Pat. 1272–81, p. 453.
  • 6. Bull. Fran., ed. Sbaralea and Eubel, iii, 471.
  • 7. Cal. Pat. 1292–1301, p. 24.
  • 8. Ibid. 86.
  • 9. Liber Memorandorum, ed. J. W. Clark, 214. Ascension Day fell on 20 May.
  • 10. Cal. Papal Letters, i, 560.
  • 11. These alone stood between the abbess and the Pope. Only a Friar Minor appointed by the Minister could carry out the annual visitation required by the Rule. The licence of the Minister was necessary for the founding of a daughter house; the election of an abbess was only valid when he confirmed it. He could remove an abbess or confessor and could release a minoress from her inclosure.
  • 12. Archaeologia, xv, 93, 97.
  • 13. Cal. Chart. R. iii, 373; Lib. Mem. 216.
  • 14. Gaston Duchesne, Hist. de l'Abbaye royale de Longchamp, 120.
  • 15. Cal. Pat. 1292–1301, p. 63.
  • 16. Ibid. 190; Cal. Papal Letters, i, 566.
  • 17. Lib. Mem. 214–18: two friars witness the composition as well as two canons of Barnwell and others.
  • 18. Cal. Fine R. i, 493; Cal. Close, 1302–7, p. 513.
  • 19. Cal. Pat. 1292–1301, p. 190.
  • 20. See Rose Graham in Trans. Roy. Hist. Soc., 4th Ser., xii, 49 seq.
  • 21. Reg. Winchelsey (Canterbury and York Soc.), 323, 324.
  • 22. Baker MSS. xxviii, 41.
  • 23. Cal. Pat. 1292–1301, p. 458.
  • 24. Cal. Papal Letters, ii, 82.
  • 25. Cott. Chart. xi, 19. This bull is not found in Bull. Fran.
  • 26. Cal. Papal Letters, ii, 560.
  • 27. Cal. Pat. 1313–17, p. 131.
  • 28. Ibid. 341, 345.
  • 29. Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 68; cf. ibid. ii, 413.
  • 30. Cal. Close, 1301–7, p. 315.
  • 31. Cal. Pat. 1317–21, p. 166.
  • 32. Cal. Close, 1296–1302, p. 199. See 'Chesterton Church and the Abbey of Vercelli', J. E. Foster, in Cambs. Antiq. Soc., no. liii, 185 seq.
  • 33. Cal. Pat. 1327–30, p. 27.
  • 34. Ibid. 1334–8, p. 248.
  • 35. Ibid. 242.
  • 36. Bull. Fran. vi, 253; Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 433.
  • 37. Bourdillon, op. cit. 51.
  • 38. Cal. Pat. 1340–5, p. 381.
  • 39. Cal. Close, 1349–54, p. 237; Bull. Fran. vi, 253; Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 433.
  • 40. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 160.
  • 41. Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 285.
  • 42. Bull. Fran. vi, 223–4.
  • 43. Reg. Trillek (Cant. and York Soc.), 153, 154, 156.
  • 44. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 209.
  • 45. Cal. Pat. 1350–4, p. 73.
  • 46. Cal. Papal Pet. i, 160.
  • 47. Bull. Fran. vi, 223, 224; Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 285.
  • 48. Cal. Close, 1349–54, p. 237.
  • 49. Cant. Reg. Islip, fol. 153.
  • 50. Cal. Papal Letters, iii, 605.
  • 51. W. K. Clay, History of Waterbeach, p. 99.
  • 52. Cal. Chart. R. iii, 373; Lib. Mem. 216; Cal. Pat. 1292–1301, p. 345; ibid. 1301–7, p. 315.
  • 53. Cole MS. xxxvi, fol. 142, 146: William Smith, aged 13, claimed property as great-grandson and heir of Geoffrey and Maud Sharpe to whom Joan Trengge granted it: Clay, op. cit. 96.
  • 54. Assize R. 100, m. 14.
  • 55. Hailstone, Hist. of Bottisham (C.A.S.), 280 n.