Houses of Benedictine nuns: The nunnery of Armathwaite

A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1905.

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: The nunnery of Armathwaite', in A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2, (London, 1905) pp. 189-192. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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The nunnery of Armathwaite was situated in a lovely glen near the junction of the river Croglin with the Eden in the southern angle of the parish of Ainstable, a few miles from the vill of Armathwaite on the other side of the river Eden in the forest of Inglewood. At an early period it was known as the nunnery of Ainstable from the name of the parish. It was said to have been founded by William Rufus on 6 January 1089 for black nuns of the Order of St. Benedict in the honour of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, but no one at the present time credits the extraordinary charter upon which the allegation was made. Freeman stated that the charter was 'spurious on the face of it,' (fn. 1) and the editors of the Calendars of Patent Rolls have pronounced it 'a forgery.' (fn. 2) The genuineness of the document was accepted without question by the older writers, no doubt for the reason that it was confirmed in 1480 by Letters Patent of Edward IV. It is very difficult to conceive how a document so full of anachronisms could have imposed on anybody. By this so-called charter William Rufus, King of the English and Duke of the Normans, was supposed to give the nuns the 2 acres of land upon which the house was built, and in addition the 3 carucates of land and 10 acres of meadow lying next the nunnery, 216 acres in the forest of Inglewood on the north of a certain water called Tarnwadelyn, common of pasture throughout the same forest for themselves and their tenants, sufficient wood for their buildings by delivery of his foresters, an annual rent of 40s. from the king's tenements in Carlisle to be paid by the keeper of the city at the feasts of Pentecost and St. Martin, and freedom from toll throughout the whole of England. Besides it was claimed in this charter that Rufus had granted to the nuns, within their house and their lands adjoining, all the liberties which he had conceded to the monastery of Westminster without molestation of any of the king's sheriffs, escheators, bailiffs or lieges. All these privileges were to be had and enjoyed from the king and his heirs in pure alms of his free will and concession 'as hert may it thynk or ygh may it se.' (fn. 3) It cannot be said that the nuns were too modest in their desire for special privileges.

On the strength of the forged charter a claim to the liberty of sanctuary was put forward, for we are probably justified in ascribing to this date the erection of the square pillar about 3 yards high, inscribed with a cross and the words 'Sanctuarium 1088,' which was placed on rising ground above the nunnery, and by which the nuns bolstered up their claim to exercise the rights in this respect enjoyed by the abbey of Westminster. This sanctuary stone (fn. 4) has been the delight and puzzle of antiquaries for many generations.

Very few authentic references to this house which may be said to possess the element of interest have been found. (fn. 5) The earliest notice of its existence that has been met with may be dated about 1200. It occurs in a charter of Roger de Beauchamp to the priory of St. Bees, wherein it is stated that the land he gave to that monastery was near the land of the nuns of 'Ainstapillith' in 'Leseschalis' or Seascale on the western coast. (fn. 6) Like the rest of the religious houses the nuns of 'Ermithwait' suffered heavy losses during the Scottish wars. Edward II. compassionating the state of the poor nuns of 'Ermynthwait' who had been totally ruined by the Scots, granted them pasture for their cattle in Inglewood Forest during pleasure. (fn. 7) In 1331 they were excused the payment of £10 due to the Crown for victuals bought by them in the previous reign, for the reason that their lands and rents were greatly destroyed by the wars with Scotland. (fn. 8)

It is fortunate that we have at least one undoubted record which throws a good light on the internal constitution of the nunnery and its relation to the diocese of Carlisle. From this we learn that the nuns had the liberty of free election of a prioress, and that with the bishop, to whom she made obedience, rested the confirmation and institution of the person elected. There is little doubt that the bishop exercised a jurisdiction in the visitation of the house. (fn. 9) In their petition to Bishop Welton in 1362 the nuns stated, through Cecily Dryng the sub-prioress, that the convent, wishing to provide a prioress in the room of Dame Isabel deceased, assembled in the chapter house on the Thursday next after the Feast of St. Bartholomew for the purpose of consultation, and unanimously elected Dame Katherine de Lancaster, their fellownun, to the vacant post. A record of the election was sent to the bishop under the seal of the house, whereupon he confirmed it and committed to Dame Katherine the cure and administration in spiritualities and temporalities of the said priory, due profession of obedience having been first made. On 2 September the bishop issued his mandate to the Archdeacon of Carlisle to assign to the said prioress her stall in the choir and place in the chapter. (fn. 10)

When we come to the period when the foundation charter was forged we get some hint to account for its fabrication, and to explain why it was that the nuns were able to impose on the authorities. From letters patent of Edward IV., dated 9 April 1473, we learn that it was represented to the king by the prioress and convent of the house or priory of 'Armythwayte,' situated near the marches of Scotland, which was of the foundation of his progenitors and of his patronage, that the houses, enclosures and other buildings of the said priory had been destroyed by the Scots, and that the house had been despoiled of its goods, relics, ornaments, books and jewels, and the charters and other muniments burnt or carried off, and in these circumstances the king confirmed the nuns' estate in the priory and all its possessions, and especially in an ancient close called 'the Noune close,' (fn. 11) that they might pray for his good estate and the good estate of Elizabeth his consort and of Edward his son, and for their souls after death. (fn. 12) Seven years after this date, that is on 20 June 1480, Isabel the prioress and nuns, bereft of charters and title-deeds, presented their compilation, which they ascribed to William Rufus, and had it inspected and confirmed as already mentioned.

From the fourteenth century wills on record in the diocesan registers, we learn that this nunnery had some friends and received bequests as well as the other religious institutions in the county. In 1356 Dame Agnes, the consort of Sir Richard de Denton, bequeathed 10s. and in 1358 John de Salkeld 40s. to the prioress and her sisters of 'Hermythwayt.' Richard de Ulnesby, rector of Ousby or Ulnesby, was good enough in 1362 to bequeath them a cow which he had in that parish, while a citizen of Carlisle, William de London, in 1376, and a country gentleman, Roger de Salkeld, in 1379, made them bequests of money. (fn. 13)

In the valuation of 1291 the temporalities of the prioress of 'Ermithwayt' were assessed at £10, but in 1318 they were not taxed as they were totally destroyed (fn. 14) by the Scots. The value of the priory in 1535 (fn. 15) amounted to the sum of £19 2s. 2d., which included £6 from the rectory of the church of 'Aynstablie,' of which the prioress was patron. The annual outgoings, amounting to 110s. 2d., were composed of a pension of 12d. to the priory of Wetheral, 2s. 6d. for procurations to the bishop, and 106s. 8d. for the stipend of the chaplain of the nunnery. There is no evidence to show by whom or at what date the rectory of Ainstable was appropriated to the nunnery, and, strange to say, there is no record of any institution to the benefice in the mediæval registers of the see of Carlisle. The real property of the house at the time of the dissolution was scattered in small parcels so far apart as Ainstable, Kirkoswald, Cumwhitton, Blencarn, Kirkland, Glassonby, Crofton and Carlisle. The most extensive estate they possessed in one place was 'the Nouneclose,' consisting of 216 acres, and split up into several tenements. The 40s. rent in Carlisle said to have been 'given by William the Conqueror' was worth nothing. (fn. 16)

The house seems to have been dissolved soon after 31 July 1537, when the inventory of its possessions was made. It consisted of a prioress and three nuns, against none of whom did the commissioners bring an accusation in their notorious Black Book. Anne Derwentwater received a pension of 53s. 4d. a year, and was still in receipt thereof in 1555. (fn. 17) The priory and rectory of Ainstable were leased to Leonard Barowe of Armathwaite on 20 July 1538, (fn. 18) but the manor was afterwards sold by Edward VI.

In the neighbourhood of this house many reminiscences of the nuns still survive to tell of their former occupation. The site of the priory has been called Nunnery from the dissolution to the present time, and the name of Nunclose in the forest of Inglewood near Armathwaite has not changed. When Mr. Samuel Jefferson wrote in 1840, part of the wall of the monastic buildings was standing on the west side of the dwelling house. (fn. 19) The field in which the sanctuary pillar was erected is still called 'Cross Close' to the north-east of the site. At a short distance was the burial ground, a small square of land surrounded by lofty trees. At this place was found a monk's head with a cowl very rudely cut in stone. When the old nunnery was taken down, as it is said, in 1715, a small painting on copper of a Benedictine nun, with a rosary, cross, a book in her hand and a veil on her head, was found in a niche in the wall. In the northwest end of the present house a stone from the old buildings was inserted bearing the following couplet:—

Though veiled Benedictines are remov'd hence, Think of their poverty, chastity, faith, obedience.

Near the site of the old house there is a spring still called the Chapel Well. Nicolson and Burn, (fn. 20) writing in 1777, printed a facsimile of an old inscription on a bed-head at Nunnery, then called the nun's bed, which may be read, 'Mark the end and yow shal naver doow amis.' Hutchinson, (fn. 21) a few years later, could not trace the inscription or find anybody who had ever seen it.

Prioresses of Armathwaite

Isabel, (fn. 22) died 1362

Katherine de Lancaster, (fn. 23) elected 1362

Isabel, (fn. 24) occurs 1480

Isabel Otteley, (fn. 25) died 1507

Agnes or Annis Elvyngton, (fn. 26) died 1507

Agnes or Anne Derwentwater, (fn. 27) occurs 1535, 1537


  • 1. William Rufus, ii. 506.
  • 2. Cal. of Pat. 1476-85, p. 208.
  • 3. Aug. Off. Deeds of Surrender and B.M. Seals 4325. Hutchinson has given an illustration of Prior William de Tanfield's seal (Hist. of Cumb. i. 348).
  • 4. The charter has been printed in full by Dugdale (Mon. iii. 271) from the Inspeximus in Pat. 20 Edw. IV. pt. i. m. 4. The confirmation is dated at Westminster, 20 June, 1480, when the nuns paid half a mark in the hanaper. The adroit allusion by the nuns to the alleged charters of King Athelstan to St. John of Beverley—'Swa mikel fredom give I ye, Swa hert may think or eghe see' (Mon. ii. 129-30)—and to St. Wilfrid of Ripon— 'I will at thai alkyn freedom have: and in al thinges be als free as hert may thynke or eygh may se' (Thorpe, Diplom. Angl. 182)—need not be pointed out. The phrase in the Armathwaite charter must have been considered of great consequence at this period, for it is quoted in Letters Patent of Henry V. as the conspicuous privilege of Beverley and Ripon (Mon. vi. 1312). This allusion alone is enough to condemn the document as a forgery without the more visible evidence that Cumberland did not belong to the King of England in 1089, and that Rufus never used the title of 'Duke of the Normans.' In the paper survey of the nunnery at the time of the dissolution it is stated that the ' yerely rent going out of the lands of or Sov'ane lord the king in Karlell, to be paid by the hands of the keeper of the towne of Karlisle, by the yere xls.' was 'ex concessione Willelmi Regis Conquestoris' (Mon. iii. 273), a blunder worthy of comparison with the statements of the Rufus charter.
  • 5. A drawing of the 'sanctuary stone or pillar at Nunnery,' as the place is now called, will be found in B.M. Add. MS. 9642, ff. 91, 170. A dissertation with a picture of the stone was written by Mr. S. Pegge in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1755, pp. 440, 451. The same author writing in 1785 on the 'History of the Asylum or Sanctuary' stated that the sanctuary stone built into the pillar must have been the fridstoll. This however was very wonderful, as the stone, if it were the fridstoll, ought in all reason to have been within the nunnery. It could not well be taken thence and included within the pillar since the Reformation, because, to judge from the form of the letters in the inscription, the pillar appeared to be as old as the foundation of the nunnery. The matter deserved to be further inquired into; this however might be determined in the meantime that the privilege of sanctuary at this place extended to that pillar (Arch. viii. 28). The nuns made it clear in their charter that they wanted the liberty to extend to the lands adjacent to the house and not to the house alone. For this reason they were consistent in placing the 'sanctuary stone' on the boundary.
  • 6. Fordun mentions as a report current in his time that David I. founded a monastery of nuns of St. Bartholomew near Carlisle, but no institution of this name has been found (Scotichronicon [ed. Goodall], i. 301).
  • 7. Similar references, though of somewhat later date, will be found in the Reg. of Wetherhal, 267, 269, 272, 276.
  • 8. Pat. 11 Edw. II. pt. i. m. 25.
  • 9. Pat. 5 Edw. III. pt. ii. m. 5; Dugdale, Mon. iii. 271. The petition of the 'poures Nonaynes, la Prioresse et le Covent de Ermythwait en Comberland, que sount si nettement destruitz par les enemys descoce qeles nount unquore dount viure' is still on record. The victuals had been purchased from Sir John Lowther and his companions in the late reign. They prayed the king for the soul of his father and of his ancestors, and in the name of charity to pardon the debt 'a les dites dames'. (Anc. Petitions, No. 2230). Bishop Nicolson refers to 'Ermithwaite' as the ancient spelling of Armathwaite in his etymology of the place-name: 'In this neighbourhood there is also the site of a nunnery founded (or reestablished) by William Rufus: one of the territories whereof is still called Armethwait (antiently Ermit-thwait) and another Nunclose,' thus deriving it from 'Eremit' or 'hermitage,' the place of a recluse, a solitary recess (Letters [ed. J. Nichols], 404-6).
  • 10. The bishop's right of visitation is clear from the fact that the nunnery paid 7s. 6d. triennially in lieu of procurations at his visitation (Valor Eccl. [Rec. Com.], v. 292). In a later survey it is stated that a yearly pension of 2s. 6d. was due to the bishop out of the church of 'Aneslaplith' (Dugdale, Mon. iii. 273).
  • 11. Carl. Epis. Reg., Welton, ff. 98-9.
  • 12. It is very odd that in 1348 Edward III. should have granted to Thomas le Eawer and Robert de Meurose for their good service a certain close near Ternwatheland called 'la Nouneclose' within the king's forest of Inglewode (Rot. Orig. [Rec. Com.], ii. 193). From the name of the place it must have had some previous connection with the nunnery.
  • 13. Pat. 13 Edw. IV. pt. i. m. 13; Dugdale, Mon. iii. 271-2.
  • 14. Dioc. Reg. of Carl. MS. ii. ff. 29, 49, 86, 292, 304.
  • 15. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 320b, 333b.
  • 16. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v. 291-2.
  • 17. Dugdale, Mon. iii. 272-4.
  • 18. Q. R. Misc. Bks. xxxii. f. 71. The list of the pensioners in Cumberland and Westmorland, with the amount of their pensions, has been extracted by the present writer from this record and printed in the Trans. Cumb. and Westmld. Arch. Soc. xiii. 375-83.
  • 19. L. and P. Hen. VIII. xiv. (i.) 606.
  • 20. Leath Ward, 239-41.
  • 21. Hist. of Cumb. ii. 431.
  • 22. Hist. of Cumb. i. 192.
  • 23. Carl. Epis. Reg., Welton, ff. 98, 99.
  • 24. Ibid.
  • 25. Cal. of Pat. 1476-85, p. 208.
  • 26. Dugdale, Mon. iii. 272-4. She is perhaps the same person as the previous Isabel.
  • 27. Ibid. 270.
  • 28. Ibid. 272.