A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1980.
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HOUSE OF BENEDICTINE NUNS
THE PRIORY OF CHESTER
In the middle 12th century Ranulph II, earl of Chester, granted some crofts from his demesne to the nuns of Chester. On the site, to the north west of the castle, were to be built the conventual buildings and a church dedicated to St. Mary. (fn. 1) It has been pointed out that the earl was dealing with a body of nuns already in existence and the original founder was possibly Hugh, son of Oliver, a citizen of Chester, who held the crofts from the earl. (fn. 2) The community is, however, unlikely to have been in being for long before the site was granted and Ranulph II was traditionally regarded by the nuns as their founder. (fn. 3) In its very early days the community was connected in some way with the nunnery founded c. 1145 at Clerkenwell in Middlesex. (fn. 4) In 1186 Urban III confirmed to St. Mary, Clerkenwell, the grant by Ranulph, Earl of Chester, of the conventual church of the nuns of Chester, and in a confirmation by Richard I in 1190 the grant was said to have been of the place where the nuns of Chester dwelt. (fn. 5) Any connexion between the two houses had lapsed by the early 13th century. (fn. 6) Ranulph II was not a very generous benefactor to the nuns of Chester. When granting the site of the church and convent he freed the nuns of all tolls and secular exactions and gave them the privilege of their own court; he also gave them the right to fish from a boat on the Dee and annual rents of 40s. in 'Wic' and one mark in the earldom of Chester. (fn. 7) His son, Hugh II, gave them the church of Over, and their right to the advowson of its dependent chapel of Budworth was confirmed by Hugh's son, Ranulph III. (fn. 8) In addition Ranulph III gave them the manor of Wallerscote in Delamere forest and the right to grind corn for their table free in the mills of Chester. (fn. 9)
Members of the circle of the earls of Chester increased the house's possessions by giving land, usually in Chester or its suburbs and often on the occasion of members of their families joining the community. Richard the Butler, who witnessed the 'foundation' charter, gave the nuns three tenements in Lorimers' Row when his mother Gunmore took the veil (fn. 10) and a few years later Matilda de Roges brought with her to the convent land in Christleton granted by her son Robert. Richard, son of Alfred, gave the nuns land in Handbridge with his daughters Beatrice and Juette and this grant was confirmed by Simon his brother-in-law who was probably a member of the Boydell family. Simon himself, his brother William, and his son Ralph made further grants to the house of land in Chester, Claverton, and Golborne. Brice Panton and Margery his wife gave some land in Nantwich in the early 1180s; their grant was witnessed by Nicholas and Lewis, sons of William the reeve, whose mother Eddusa granted the nuns a salt-pit in Nantwich when her daughter Agatha joined the community. (fn. 11) The latter grant was witnessed by Peter, the clerk of the earl of Chester, who himself gave them land on the walls of Chester close to their buildings. (fn. 12) In the 1230s and 1240s the house acquired land in Waverton and c. 1269 William Tabley granted all his demesne in Old Waverton in return for burial in the nuns' graveyard and other spiritual benefits. (fn. 13) Many of the grants during the 13th century were not of land but of rents, which were evidently worth more to the nuns as many of the early grants of lands in Chester and elsewhere were converted into rent-charges during the century. (fn. 14) The nuns acquired only one new church during the 13th century. In 1219 Hugh of Wells, bishop of Lincoln, granted them the church of Sutterby in Lincolnshire; they were presenting to it at the end of the century but had lost it by the dissolution. (fn. 15)
Little is known about the size or state of the house in its first 150 years. It was evidently regarded as an attractive place for burials and in an agreement with the monks of St. Werburgh's and the canons of St. John's the nuns promised not to entice any of the inhabitants of Chester to be buried with them and to share the offerings of those who chose to be buried within their precinct. (fn. 16) The nuns were partially supported by alms of 40s. a year from the earls of Chester in the 12th and early 13th centuries and those alms, together with a quarter of the tithes of the expenses of the royal household whenever the king was in Chester, continued to be paid by the Crown after 1237. (fn. 17) Henry III also remitted a rent of 10 marks a year due from two carucates of the royal demesne held by the nuns; in 1244 the remission was said to be on account of their poverty and the losses they had sustained by Welsh raids. (fn. 18) The house was certainly in financial difficulties by the middle of the century. In 1246 the justice of Chester was empowered to give the royal assent to the election of a new prioress to save expense to the nuns and in 1253, at the time of another election, the nuns complained to Queen Eleanor that they were reduced to begging daily for their food. (fn. 19) A few years later the house was under the wardenship of the prior of Denhall hospital; (fn. 20) that guardianship and a handful of new grants of lands and rents made in the later 13th century may have been in response to the poverty of the house. One provided a lamp in the nuns' dormitory. (fn. 21) It was at that time that John Noble, citizen of Chester, and his wife, Eve Doubleday, later remembered as a principal benefactor, gave the nuns property in Chester the rents from which were to be used by the warden or prioress to maintain the church fabric and provide 12d. for each nun on her anniversary. (fn. 22) By 1277 the nuns had converted their various royal alms into a fixed annual payment of 24 marks and by 1300 the sum had been increased to £26 12s. 2d. by the addition of compensation for the loss of tithes in Over caused by the surrender of land to the king to endow Vale Royal abbey, and by the exchange of land in Wallerscote for a rent of 10s. from Middlewich. (fn. 23) At the dissolution that payment of alms was the largest single item in the revenues of the house and the fact that arrears of £93 16s. 6d. were owing in 1297 must have added considerably to the nuns' financial hardship, although payment was regular in the earlier 14th century. (fn. 24)
There were few new grants of land or rents during the earlier 14th century, except for a plot of land acquired in exchange for a plot of a similar size next to the Franciscan friary and for two tenements in Northgate Street granted by Cecily Crompton who was named first in a chantry for benefactors set up in 1343. (fn. 25) In 1318 the prioress sold the half of Over rectory. (fn. 26) When Bishop Roger Northburgh visited the house in 1331 he found that its revenues were hardly sufficient to support its members and he forbade the prioress to admit any more nuns without his permission; he also forbade corrodies and fees for admitting novices. The prioress and other officers were to present their accounts once or twice a year to the whole convent or to a committee of the more senior nuns and the convent seal was to be kept in a coffer whose keys were to be held by the prioress, the subprioress, and a nun chosen by the convent. Apart from lax financial administration Northburgh found little wrong with the state of the house and the rest of his injunctions dealt with the problems commonly found in nunneries at that period. (fn. 27) The number of laywomen in the house caused concern to the farmer of the royal mills of the Dee. He demanded tolls for the corn and malt ground for the sustenance of the 'divers ladies, damsels and children' kept at the prioress's table but was ordered in 1358 to extend freedom from toll to all the inmates. (fn. 28) The Black Prince also supported the nuns when their freedom from toll and exemption from local taxation for their tenants was attacked by the Chester authorities. In May 1354 the mayor and sheriffs were ordered to stop distraining the nuns' tenants for a contribution towards a fine of 500 marks, but later in the year those tenants who engaged in trade and benefited from the franchises of the city were excluded from the exemption. (fn. 29) The privileges enjoyed by the nuns' tenants caused considerable concern and jealousy in the city; when the Black Prince issued a charter in 1358 defining the extent of the privileges those tenants who were freemen were excluded and the nuns were warned that they must not allow their tenants to exercise any craft or trade injurious to the citizens. (fn. 30) In 1383 the prioress and convent complained to the king that their tenants were prevented from enjoying the privileges granted by the Black Prince and it was confirmed that their tenants who were not members of the gild merchant were to be quit of tolls. (fn. 31) In 1391-2, however, under an agreement with the city authorities the prioress was obliged to give a bond of £1,000 that her tenants would appear at courts and pay dues like other citizens. (fn. 32) That attack on the nuns' privileges does not appear to have been successful for long, as the prioress asserted the full privileges of the house at the quo warranto inquiries in 1499 and in the 16th century the nuns were paying the city an annual gable rent of 20s. 'for liberties given unto them'. (fn. 33)
In addition to the annual payment of alms (fn. 34) the nuns were occasionally helped by members of the royal family. (fn. 35) That help often took the form of timber from the forests of the earldom: in 1362 they were given six oaks from Peckforton park and in 1394 two oaks from Shotwick park to repair the church and other buildings. (fn. 36) Between 1400 and 1417 they were regularly allowed ten loads of fuel. (fn. 37) More substantial help, however, came from additional endowments. In 1362 the Black Prince granted them the advowson of the church of Llangathen (Carms.) and in 1365 the advowson of the chapel of Llanharan (Glam.); in 1373 they were released from the penalties of the Statute of Mortmain for neglecting to obtain a royal licence to appropriate their new church and chapel. (fn. 38) In 1388 they were released, because of their poverty, from the obligation as rectors of Llangathen to maintain a chaplain to say mass in Dryslwyn castle. (fn. 39) In the same year the king, who had learnt that the nuns had 'but a half-penny a day each for their pittance, besides bread and ale', granted them the advowson, with licence to appropriate, of the church of Lanbeblig and its chapel of Carnarvon. (fn. 40) The house already had a connexion with Carnarvon since in 1379 a chantry had been established for Robert Parys of Carnarvon (d. by 1377) and his wife at the altar dedicated to St. John the Baptist. (fn. 41) The Welsh churches added much to the income of the house: in 1535 they yielded £18 out of a total income of £25 10s. from spiritualities. (fn. 42) When the churches were temporarily lost as a result of the Welsh revolt in the early 15th century the nuns were granted compensation of 10 marks a year out of the fee farm of Shrewsbury and the payment was continued until 1447 on account of the poverty of the house. (fn. 43) In 1381 the prioress and convent were licensed to acquire in mortmain lands worth 20 marks a year again allegedly because of the poverty of the house; (fn. 44) it took ten years for the nuns to amass lands and rents of the permitted value. (fn. 45) The new property was concentrated in Chester, Claverton, and Lache and was added to other property in the same area which the nuns had acquired by purchase or exchange; in 1352 they bought two houses and 40 a. of land in Lache and in 1360 they exchanged their manor of Wallerscote for a house and 87 a. of land also in Lache. (fn. 46)
The additional endowments seem to have alleviated the financial problems of the house although payment of alms became irregular in the 15th century. (fn. 47) The house was regularly exempted from taxation in view of its poverty, (fn. 48) but difficulties in the 15th century were caused rather by incompetence. Numbers were limited according to the income: in 1379 and 1381 there were 13 nuns; 8 nuns (not including novices) petitioned the bishop at an election in 1473; from 1496 to the dissolution in 1540 the number of professed nuns and novices fluctuated between 12 and 14. (fn. 49) The names of nuns which have survived suggest that many of the inmates in the later middle ages were the daughters of Cheshire gentlemen and Chester citizens. (fn. 50) Ties of kinship and friendship probably explain the occasional bequest to members of the house at that period: in 1415 Adam de Mottrum, precentor of Salisbury cathedral, left ten marks to the prioress and nuns and three years later Thomas of Crewe left 100 marks to his sister Elizabeth, the prioress. (fn. 51) If some of the nuns were of good family, they were not, in general, very competent. In the middle years of the 15th century they could not conduct valid elections of prioresses: in 1441 the bishop collated after a threemonth vacancy, in 1449 and 1479 elections were declared void because of incorrect procedure, and in 1453 the nuns asked for help from the bishop as they were not skilful enough to elect by themselves and could not afford legal advice. (fn. 52) Mismanagement was probably at its worst in 1455 when Bishop Reginald Boulers ordered a visitation to remedy certain flagrant abuses. He had heard that the church and other buildings needed repair urgently and that the goods of the house were being dissipated by the prioress's negligence. (fn. 53) The injunctions issued in 1456 after the visitation dealt with various aspects of this financial mismanagement. The prioress had pawned the ornaments of the house and had mortgaged unnecessarily three pastures belonging to it; in future she was to alienate none of its goods or property without the consent of the whole convent and the permission of the bishop. She was also ordered to present the convent with accounts for her period in office and to prepare annual accounts in future. The arrangements made in 1331 to guard the convent seal were reiterated and it was ordered that no nun should hold more than one office unless the majority of the convent thought it necessary. The latter injunction was directed against Joan Brett who was cellarer, kitchener, and sacristan and had failed to present her accounts. The rest of the injunctions dealt with the regular observance of services, the maintenance of silence, and the exclusion of lay people from the convent; one nun was accused of incontinence and spreading disorder in the community and the prioress was ordered to report any other offenders. (fn. 54)
The state of the house improved at the beginning of the 16th century under the rule of Margery Pasmyche who was prioress from 1491 until her death in 1525. (fn. 55) When Bishop Geoffrey Blythe first visited the house in 1519 the prioress reported that it was free from debt and in good order; she was supported by the subprioress and other nuns, one of whom expressed a desire to become a minoress. (fn. 56) The position had not changed in 1521 when the subprioress expressed great admiration for her superior. (fn. 57) At Blythe's third visitation in 1524 religious observance was still being properly maintained but some problems emerged, possibly as a result of heavy taxation and the senility of the prioress. There were debts, though not large or intolerable, (fn. 58) and one of the nuns was accused of bad temper and malicious gossip. (fn. 59) She was reported by the royal visitors in 1536 to have borne a child by a priest. (fn. 60) The nuns still seem to have been popular in Chester in the years before the dissolution. They distributed a tenth of their gross income in alms on Maundy Thursday (fn. 61) and were still occasionally remembered in the wills of local people in preference to the Dominicans and Franciscans. (fn. 62) Margaret Hawarden, by her will proved in 1521, left £10 for the 'making of the cloister', £1 to be distributed among the nuns, and individual gifts to the prioress and several of the nuns. (fn. 63) Hugh Chamber, who had been steward of the nunnery, asked in 1535 to be buried in the church in front of the image of Our Lady of Pity and left 3s 4d. to each professed nun, 12d. to each novice and 12s. to each of the two chantry priests as well as a silver standing cup to the house. (fn. 64)
In the 15th century the policy of exchanging scattered and isolated pieces of property for lands and tenements in and immediately around Chester continued. (fn. 65) The nuns probably cultivated some of the land around their house but by the end of the Middle Ages their property in Chester, Handbridge, and Lache was let to many small tenants: in 1526 they had 48 tenants in Handbridge and tenants in most streets in the city, including 24 in Nuns Lane. (fn. 66) Rents from the property, which seems at that period to have been efficiently administered, amounted to more than three-quarters of the total income of the house from temporalities of £74 14s. in 1535. (fn. 67) The income from spiritualities was £25 10s. and the gross income £99 16s. 2d., rather below the average annual income of £130 for English nunneries at that period. (fn. 68) The net income was £66 18s. 4d. out of which annual fees were paid to the chief steward, the earl of Derby, a receiver or steward, an auditor, and bailiffs in Chester, Waverton, and Saughall. (fn. 69) In the year following the dissolution the nunnery's estates, valued £136 1s. 2d. gross, were, apart from the Welsh churches and a rent from Lathom in Lancashire, entirely in Cheshire. Besides the property in Chester, Lache, and Handbridge, there were rents from salt houses in Middlewich and Nantwich and from small holdings of property in Eccleston, Thornton Hough, Davenham, Willaston, Neston, Rowton, Christleton, Bidston, Over, Heswall, Waverton, Saughall, Nantwich, Northwich, and Middlewich; spiritualities in Cheshire consisted of the rectory of Over and pensions from Budworth chapel and Handley church. (fn. 70)
As a priory worth less than £200 the house should have been suppressed under the Act of 1536, but in the following year the prioress paid £160 for exemption. (fn. 71) On 21 January 1540 Elizabeth Grosvenor and the convent surrendered the house and all its possessions to the Crown. (fn. 72) The prioress was assigned a pension of £20, three of the senior nuns pensions of £4, seven other nuns and one of the novices pensions of between £2 13s. 4d. and £2, and the two other novices pensions of £1 6s. 8d.; 12 of those pensions were still paid in 1556 and Elizabeth Grosvenor, 'sometime lady of the nuns', was still alive in the early 1570s. (fn. 73) After the dissolution the lands of the nunnery were used to endow the new bishopric of Chester but the site was reserved to the Crown in the grant made to Bishop Bird in 1541. (fn. 74) In 1542 it was granted to Urian Brereton, a groom of the royal chamber, and the Breretons of Handforth occasionally resided at 'The Nunnes'. (fn. 75) The site was immediately to the north-west of the castle and a late 16th-century plan shows extensive buildings, some of which may have been added after the dissolution. To the north and west of the church, whose dimensions are given as 66 by 45 ft., were buildings arranged round a courtyard; the cloisters (90 by 60 feet) lay on the south side of the church and there were further buildings to the west and east of the cloisters and a chapel (27 by 14 feet) on the south-east side of the cloisters. (fn. 76) The buildings were damaged during the siege of Chester in 1645 by the owner, Sir William Brereton, and only a few ruins remained by the beginning of the 18th century. (fn. 77) A hundred years later the ruins were removed to improve the approach to the new shire hall and several stone coffins and fragments of windows and doorways were unearthed; the arched doorway, still standing in 1816, was removed c. 1840 to the house called St. John's Priory and later re-erected in Grosvenor Park. (fn. 78) The site was excavated in 1964 before the County Police Headquarters was built and the exact dimensions of the church (58 by 43 feet) and the cloisters (55 by 62 feet) were established. Inside the church the foundations of four piers, indicating three central arches, were discovered and, on the evidence of some decorative floor tiles and other sherds, a 13th- or 14thcentury date assigned to the remains. (fn. 79)
M[ary], occurs about 1200. (fn. 80)
Lucy, occurs at some time between 1199 and 1216. (fn. 81)
Alice, occurs at some time between 1202 and 1229. (fn. 82)
Alice of Stockport, died 1253. (fn. 83)
Alice de la Haye, elected 1253, died 1283. (fn. 84)
Alice de Pierrepont, occurs 1289-90 and about 1292 or about 1297. (fn. 85)
Agatha of Dutton, elected 1306, died 1312. (fn. 86)
Alice de Alderslegh, elected 1312. (fn. 87)
Emma de Vernon, elected 1316, occurs 1318. (fn. 88)
Mary of Chester, occurs 1328, died 1349. (fn. 89)
Helewise de Mottershead, elected 1349, occurs until 1355-6. (fn. 90)
Mary, occurs 1373. (fn. 91)
Agnes of Dutton, occurs 1374, died 1386. (fn. 92)
Alice of Doncaster, elected 1386, died 1408. (fn. 93)
Elizabeth of Crewe, elected 1408, died 1441. (fn. 94)
Alice Leyot, collated 1441, resigned 1449. (fn. 95)
Beatrice Le Heyre, appointed 1449, occurs 1458. (fn. 96)
Ellen Blundell, occurs 1459, died 1473. (fn. 97)
Joan Brett, appointed 1473, died 1476. (fn. 98)
Elizabeth Rixton, appointed 1476, died 1490. (fn. 99)
Margery Pasmyche, elected 1491, died 1525. (fn. 100)
Margery Tayllour, elected 1525, occurs until 1533. (fn. 101)
Elizabeth Grosvenor, occurs from 1534, surrendered the priory in 1540. (fn. 102)
Three seals of the house are known. The first, (fn. 103) which was in use at the beginning of the 13th century, is a pointed oval depicting what was possibly the west end of the church with a doorway under a central tower and two small flanking towers. Legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM ECCLESIE MONIALIS CESTRIE.
The second, (fn. 104) in use in the second half of the 12th century, is a pointed oval about 3 by 2 in. It depicts the Virgin crowned and seated on a throne, with feet on a projecting foot board, with the Child on her left knee and a sceptre in her right hand. Legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM CONVEN . . . MONIALIUM CESTRIE.
The third, (fn. 105) a common seal in use at the dissolution, is a pointed oval 2½ by 1½ in. It depicts the Virgin crowned and seated in a canopied niche with tabernacle work at the sides, with the Child, with crown and nimbus, standing on her left knee; she holds a sceptre in her right hand and in the base, under a roundheaded arch, is a prioress kneeling in prayer. Legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM COMMUNE PRIORISSE ET CONVENTUS MONIALIUM SANCTE MARIE CESTRIE.