House of Benedictine nuns: Priory of St Mary, Neasham

A History of the County of Durham: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

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, 'House of Benedictine nuns: Priory of St Mary, Neasham', in A History of the County of Durham: Volume 2, (London, 1907) pp. 106-108. British History Online [accessed 20 May 2024].

. "House of Benedictine nuns: Priory of St Mary, Neasham", in A History of the County of Durham: Volume 2, (London, 1907) 106-108. British History Online, accessed May 20, 2024,

. "House of Benedictine nuns: Priory of St Mary, Neasham", A History of the County of Durham: Volume 2, (London, 1907). 106-108. British History Online. Web. 20 May 2024,

In this section



The nunnery of Neasham was the only religious house within the limits of the county that stood independent of the powerful church of Durham. (fn. 2) Situated on the River Tees, two miles from Sockburn, in the parish of Hurworth, (fn. 3) it was founded for eight nuns (fn. 4) of the Benedictine Order, and was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. (fn. 5) The founder's name is unknown; probably he was one of the early barons of Greystoke. (fn. 6)

In February, 1156-7, Pope Adrian IV confirmed the privileges of the monastery by a bull in which he spoke of it as already well established. (fn. 7) Amongst its possessions he expressly mentioned the place in which the church is situated, called Mahaldecroft, (fn. 8) given by Emma, daughter of Waldef, and a carucate of land of the lordship of the same Emma in Neasham, together with common of pasture, the cultivated ground called Sadelflat, the mill upon the Kent, and the ground between the mill and the church; one carucate of land in Hurworth given by Engelais, sister to Emma; all the tithes of the convent's lordship in Neasham; and a carucate of land in Thornton given by Alan son of Torphin. The pope exempted the nuns from payment of tithes, and granted them free right of sepulture. (fn. 9)

This grant of Emma (then described as widow of Ralph de Teisa,) was confirmed by a charter of Henry II, (fn. 10) and again by her son, Ralph Fitz-Ralph. (fn. 11)

Bishop Hugh gave to the convent 2 acres of land at 'Wayngate-Letch,' (fn. 12) and during his pontificate Roger de Conyers gave 17 acres in Bishopton. (fn. 13)

William Fitz-Ralph granted the nuns permission to grind their corn at the manor mill without multure; and Ralph Fitz-William, lord of Neasham, confirmed this grant, ordering the miller to grind the nuns' corn well and take nothing, but providing that when they ground their hard corn they should pay the miller one such small white loaf as a nun hath for her daily allowance, and one small 'pain grossier'; and when they ground their barley, two flagons of ale. (fn. 14)

Before 1248 Nicholas, bishop of Durham, bestowed upon the nuns a portion in the church of Whitburn amounting to 20 marks per annum. (fn. 15)

Besides the above the convent acquired from time to time the tithes of Little Burdon; (fn. 16) a pension of 10 marks out of Washington rectory, (fn. 17) with regard to the payment of which difficulties seem sometimes to have arisen; (fn. 18) one acre of land at Lakelands; (fn. 19) rents in Hartlepool, North Auckland, and Hurworth; and small parcels of land in Little Burdon, Ellingstring, Nether Coniscliffe, and Hutton [Hoton]. (fn. 20) The latest gift, by which the house cannot have greatly benefited, was a tenement in Windlestone, granted in 1524 by R. Wensley, clerk, on condition that he received the rents thereof during his life. (fn. 21)

At no time does the convent appear to have been wealthy. In the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas IV (1292) the temporalities were rated at £19; (fn. 22) in the 'Nova Taxatio' (11 Edw. II) at £8 13s. 4d. only; (fn. 23) and at the dissolution the gross income is given as £26 9s. 9d., and the clear value as £20 17s. 7d. (fn. 24) The nuns however seem sometimes to have had a little money to invest. In 1325 they bought an oxgang in Little Burdon from Amabill, daughter of William of Hartlepool; (fn. 25) and in 1451 or 1452 the prioress had licence to purchase houses in Darlington. (fn. 26)

The history of Neasham Priory appears to have been singularly uneventful. It was to the bishop of Durham that the prioress appealed in case of any difficulty, and two at least of the bishops were among the benefactors of the house. (fn. 27)

In 1311 Agnes de Campioun, a nun of Neasham, was expelled from the convent, and refused re-admission, though promising all due obedience. Her offence is not stated, but the bishop on inquiry deemed it insufficient to justify such severity, and directed the dean of Darlington to re-instate her, unless the prioress and nuns could show good cause to the contrary, in which case they were to appear before the bishop in the Galilee at Durham and tell their side of the story. (fn. 28)

In July, 1319, the king granted a protection for one year to the prioress of Neasham, (fn. 29) presumably in order that she might travel.

Here and there the episcopal registers of Durham contain brief references to the convent, but nothing of importance occurs till 29 November, 1428, when the nuns, assembled in their chapter-house, wrote to the bishop, (fn. 30) asking his consent to the election of Margaret of Danby, professed nun of the House of Nuns at Newcastle, to succeed Jane Egleston, the late prioress, who had resigned. The names of the nuns are given:—Jane Egleston, Jane Tympson, Alice Bewlof, Margaret Hawyk, Margaret of Witton, Agnes of Tudowe, Beatrix of Kyllom, and Jane of Blakiston.

The bishop at once gave his consent, and wrote to Dionysia Aslakby, prioress of St. Bartholomew's, Newcastle, asking her to send Margaret of Danby to Neasham. (fn. 31) Her reply is worth quoting, if only as a testimony to the character of the prioress-elect; she acknowledges the receipt of the bishop's letter about the postulation
of our sister Dame Margaret Danby, whilk postulacion I graunte fully with assent of my chapiter atte Reverence of God and in plesing of yor gracious lordship; notwythstondyng yat she is ful necessarye and profitable to us both in spirituell governance and temporell. (fn. 32)

On 15 December, the prioress of St. Bartholomew's appeared before the bishop and confirmed this assent; (fn. 33) and five days later the bishop wrote to Dame Margaret appointing her prioress of Neasham, and at the same time sent letters to the convent to admit her, and to the archdeacon of Durham to induct her. (fn. 34)

Her reign was a short one. On 26 January, 1429-30, the nuns (fn. 35) wrote again to the bishop, telling him of her death. (fn. 36) Two days later they elected Margaret Hawyk, who was duly installed. There is some reason to fear that during her rule the manners and morals of the house deteriorated. In June, 1436, the bishop commissioned the abbot of Bellalanda and the rector of Houghton to visit the convent, and to inquire into the rule, life, and conversation of its inmates, whether nuns, priests, or seculars. (fn. 37) The result of this investigation was not altogether satisfactory; for the bishop cited the prioress and nuns to appear before him on 4 October, 1436, (fn. 38) and gave them strict injunctions as to their behaviour. He laid special stress upon the observance of the canonical hours, the rule of silence, and the daily meeting of the sisters in the chapter-house. The nuns when not engaged in divine service, or at refection, were to be occupied in reading, prayer, or meditation. The defects in the conventual church, cloisters, and other buildings were to be made good before the following midsummer, and the chalices, jewels, and ornaments, then in the hands of sundry creditors, were to be redeemed. No secular person was to pass the night in the house, nor were the nuns, unless indisposed, to sleep elsewhere than in the dormitory; doors were to be shut at a certain hour; and the sisters were to hold no intercourse with secular persons, except for the service of the house and with the permission of the prioress. (fn. 39)

Notwithstanding the bishop's orders, the nuns proved disobedient, and in July, 1437, their time of grace having expired, the bishop again sent commissioners; this time to inquire into defects and excesses committed contrary to his injunctions and to punish the offenders. (fn. 40) This resulted in the resignation of Margaret Hawyk, on 10 August, 1437, (fn. 41) and the nuns received licence to choose a new prioress. (fn. 42) They elected Agnes Tudowe, one of their number, (fn. 43) but the manner of their choice displeased the bishop, and they were obliged to renounce the postulation and humbly to submit to him in the matter before he would be appeased. (fn. 44) This done, however, he appointed the said Agnes, 'by his authority,' (fn. 45) issuing a mandate for her installation and a dispensation for her 'super defectu natalium.' (fn. 46) He then extended the time for the completion of the repairs, and recovery of the ornaments, and gave orders with regard to the ex-prioress. She was to have her keep and all necessaries from the goods of the house, and to have the use of her private room, so long as her conduct was satisfactory and her religious duties regularly performed. (fn. 47)

In 1437, Sir John Graystock, knight, died seised of the advowson and patronage of Neasham Priory. (fn. 48)

In July, 1504, the little village of Neasham was roused from its wonted quiet by a visit from Princess Margaret on her bridal journey to Scotland. On the outskirts of the village she was met by Sir Robert Bowes and Sir William Hilton, with a fair company of horsemen, well appointed, and at the gate of the convent she was received by the prioress and her nuns, one of whom bore the Cross. We are not told that the princess entered the priory, but she drew rein, and the bishop gave her the Cross to kiss. (fn. 49)

At the time of the Valor Ecclesiasticus, the convent held lands, houses, or rents in Neasham, Hurworth, Little Burdon, Shildon, (fn. 50) Washington, Hutton, Bishop Auckland, Bishopton, Long Newton, Coniscliffe, Darlington, Hyndale, Windlestone, Sadberge, and Gateshead, (fn. 51) in the county of Durham; and in Yarm, Skelton, and Ellingstring, in the county of York. (fn. 52)

By letters patent under the Great Seal, reciting the Act of 21 Henry VIII, the king in July, 1537, exempted the priory of Neasham from that Act, and provided for 'Jane Lawson, prioress of the Order of St. Benet,' to be prioress of the house. (fn. 53) This lady, possibly foreseeing the coming storm, (fn. 54) at once granted a lease of the possessions of the priory in Neasham to her brother, James Lawson, a merchant of Newcastle, under a rent of £2. (fn. 55) On 29 December, 1540, she surrendered the priory into the king's hands; (fn. 56) and the house, site, church, bell-tower, and cemetery were granted to James Lawson for a consideration of £227 5s. (fn. 57) No imputation seems to have been thrown on the character of the inmates. (fn. 58)

The following pensions occur in the pension roll of 2 & 3 Philip and Mary:—Jane Lawson, £6 per annum; Elizabeth Harper, Margaret Trollope, Jane Lownke, Barbara Midleton, and Elizabeth Hugill, £1 6s. 8d. each; and Margaret Dawson, £1. (fn. 59)

Jane Lawson survived the dissolution of her house some seventeen years. Her will is dated at Neasham, (fn. 60) where it seems probable that she lived on in the old conventual buildings, (fn. 61) possibly as tenant to her brother. She was a practical and successful farmer, and her inventory includes land at Neasham and elsewhere, live-stock, and a quantity of corn, standing and in the barn. In June, 1557, four of her former nuns were still living; to each of them she left 6s. 8d., and 1s. to each of her 'god-bairns' in Hurworth, besides other substantial legacies. She died before 16 July, 1557. (fn. 62)

Prioresses of Neasham

Margaret, occurs 1350 (fn. 63)

Jane de Coniscliff, order for installation, 3 August, 1366 (fn. 64)

Jane Egleston, resigned, 1428 (fn. 65)

Margaret de Danby, appointed 20 December, 1428, died before 26 January, 1429-30 (fn. 66)

Margaret Hawyk, elected 28 January, 142930, resigned 10 August, 1437 (fn. 67)

Agnes Tudowe, appointed November, 1437 (fn. 68)

Elizabeth Naunton, occurs 1488-99 (fn. 69)

Jane Lawson, occurs 1537, (fn. 70) resigned 29 December, 1540 (fn. 71)

The seal of the house, which was appended to the above-mentioned lease in 1537, represented the Blessed Virgin seated in a chair of ancient form, crowned, having a sceptre in her hand, and the Infant Jesus in her lap. Legend:—

Sigillum . Sancte . Marie . Virginis . De . Neasham (fn. 72)


  • 1. The house at Neasham is occasionally spoken of as an abbey, as by Leland (Coll. iv, 275), but there does not appear to be any warrant for this, though the modern house built on the site of the convent is called Neasham Abbey. (Boyle's Guide to Co. Dur. 658.) In all formal ecclesiastical documents the house is spoken of as a priory.
  • 2. Surtees, Hist. Dur. iii, 258.
  • 3. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. (ed. 1846), iv, 548-50.
  • 4. Tanner, Notit. Monas. Northumb. xxii.
  • 5. Dugdale, ut supra.
  • 6. Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 258. So Dugdale.
  • 7. Dur. Epis. Reg. Langley, fol. 86.
  • 8. Possibly 'Madencroft,' mentioned in Hen. VIII's grant to Lawson. See below.
  • 9. Dur. Epis. Reg. Langley, fol. 86. [This bull is printed, with a translation, in Arch. Aeliana, xvi, 268-73.]
  • 10. Printed by Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 258.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Ibid. 259.
  • 13. Ibid. 258.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Cart. Antiq. Aug. Off. D. 48.
  • 16. Confirmed, Orig. Bull, Gregory VIII dat. apud Viterbo.
  • 17. Ratified, Cart. dat. apud Wodestock, 24 May, 1276.
  • 18. Reg. Palat. Dun. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 336-7; Dur. Epis. Reg. Hatfield, fol. 151 d.
  • 19. Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 259.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Ibid.
  • 22. Printed by Dugdale, Mon. Angl. (ed. 1846), iv, 318.
  • 23. Ibid. 330b.
  • 24. Transcript of Return, 26 Hen. VIII, First Fruits Office.
  • 25. Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 259.
  • 26. Rud's MSS.
  • 27. See above.
  • 28. Reg. Palat. Dun. (Rolls Ser.), i, 33.
  • 29. Pat. 13 Edw. II, m. 43.
  • 30. Dur. Epis. Reg. Langley, fol. 147.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. Ibid.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. The list of names corresponds to the one given above, omitting Jane Egleston.
  • 36. Dur. Epis. Reg. Langley, fol. 164.
  • 37. Ibid. fol. 231.
  • 38. Ibid. fol. 233 d.
  • 39. Ibid. fol. 256.
  • 40. Ibid. fol. 248 d.
  • 41. Ibid.
  • 42. Ibid. fol. 249.
  • 43. Ibid. fol. 252 d.
  • 44. Ibid. fols. 254, 254 d.
  • 45. Ibid. fol. 254 d.
  • 46. Ibid. fol. 255.
  • 47. Ibid. fol. 257.
  • 48. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. (ed. 1846), iv, 548.
  • 49. 'The Fyancells of Margaret,' &c., by John Yonge, Somerset, who attended her; from a MS. of J. Anstis, esq. Garter. Lel. Coll. iv, 275.
  • 50. Robt. Bellasis died (1421-2) seised of a messuage and 15 acres of land in Shildon, held of the prioress; Dugdale, Mon. Angl. (ed. 1846), iv, 548.
  • 51. Wills and Invent. (Surt. Soc.). ii, 119, note.
  • 52. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. (ed. 1846), iv, 548. In MS. Harl. 606, Scotton is mentioned as part of the possessions of the former priory of Neasham.
  • 53. MS. of Sir J. Lawson, Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. iii, 256.
  • 54. Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 260, note C.
  • 55. Ibid.
  • 56. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. (ed. 1846), iv, 548.
  • 57. MS. of Sir J. Lawson, Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. iii, 256.
  • 58. Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 260.
  • 59. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. (ed. 1846), iv, 548, note N.
  • 60. Wills and Invent. (Surt. Soc.), i, 156.
  • 61. Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 260. The inventory of her household furniture includes many ecclesiastical utensils, ornaments, &c., and 'the chapter' is mentioned amongst the rooms.
  • 62. Wills and Invent. ut supra.
  • 63. Dur. Curs. Rolls, Rot. A. Hatfield.
  • 64. Dur. Epis. Reg. Hatfield, fol. 139.
  • 65. Dur. Epis. Reg. Langley, fol. 147.
  • 66. Ibid. fols. 147, 164.
  • 67. Ibid. fols. 164, 248 d.
  • 68. Ibid. fol. 257.
  • 69. Surt. Hist. Dur. iii, 259.
  • 70. MS. of Sir J. Lawson, Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. iii, 256.
  • 71. Cf. Rymer's Feod. xiv, 659.
  • 72. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. (ed. 1846,), iv, 548.