Houses of Benedictine nuns: Nunnaminster (Abbey of St Mary, Winchester)

A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1903.

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Nunnaminster (Abbey of St Mary, Winchester)', in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 2, (London, 1903) pp. 122-126. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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To the north-east of St. Swithun's, and immediately to the east of the New Minster, stood the great abbey of St. Mary, the nuns' minster, usually known as Nunnaminster. It was founded jointly by Alfred and his queen Eahlswith, about the close of the ninth century, (fn. 1) but the buildings were completed by their son, Edward the Elder. After Alfred's death, the queen retired to this monastery, where she died. It would seem probable that she should have been made abbess, but Leland describes Edburga the daughter of Edward, who died in 925, as the first abbess. (fn. 2)

The endowment of the monastery seems to have been inadequate for its maintenance, and it is said to have fallen into great poverty. King Edred bequeathed to it Shalbourn and Bradford in Wiltshire; (fn. 3) but notwithstanding this addition to its revenues, Bishop Ethelwold, possibly on account of its poverty but more probably with a view of establishing there the stricter form of Benedictine rule, practically refounded it in 963, (fn. 4) and apparently re-endowed it.

By the Domesday Book we learn that the abbess held Lyss, Froyle, Leckford Abbess, Long Stoke, Timsbury, and Ovington in Hampshire; Coleshill in Berkshire; and Urchfont and All Cannings in Wiltshire. We know nothing of the history of this monastery from this date till the middle of the twelfth century, when during the civil war between Maud and Stephen the city of Winchester, together with this monastery, was burnt in 1141. (fn. 5) It was a rule that upon the election of an abbess, the convent was. bound to find in early times a corrody and later a pension for a person nominated by the Crown, and in this way it appears that Juliana de Leygrave, niece of the king's (foster) mother, Alice de Leygrave, who suckled him in his youth, received at the election of Maud de Pecham in 1313 a nun's corrody for life, the value to be received by her wherever she might be, and a suitable chamber within the nunnery for her residence whenever she might wish to stay there. (fn. 6) This prerogative of the Crown seems to have been exercised at each election of an abbess, and writs for the payment of such corrodies or pensions are to be found among the public records. (fn. 7) The Crown also seems at a later date to have claimed a right to nominate a nun for admission to the monastery at the coronation of each sovereign, (fn. 8) and a like privilege was exercised by each Bishop of Winchester at his consecration. (fn. 9)

Besides the professed nuns and their household the abbey of Nunnaminster supported a certain number of chaplains or canons who had prebendal stalls in the abbey. (fn. 10) The original idea of having canons attached to these old Benedictine foundations seems to have been to provide the nuns with suitable chaplains, as well as with priests who could superintend the management of their temporalities. The canons of Nunnaminster could, however, as a rule, have been of little or no service to the monastery, whose income they drained. For instance, at his own request, the pope granted Roger Holm, canon of this monastery in 1349, the church of Elvydon, in the diocese of Salisbury, notwithstanding that he was also the holder of canonries in Lincoln and London, and was expecting a benefice from the Abbot of Ramsey. (fn. 11) Or again, Canon Richard of Norwich of this convent had papal sanction in 1355 to hold a London canonry, although in addition to the prebend from Nunnaminster he drew the emoluments of prebends from Salisbury and Kilkenny, and held the church of Adesham. (fn. 12) Throughout the papacy of Clement VI. (1342-52) pluralism was specially rampant, and there were few worse cases than those of the holders of prebends in the Hampshire nunneries of Nunnaminster, Romsey and Wherwell.

In 1317 papal sanction was obtained for Roger de Inkepen, a wealthy and beneficent citizen of Winchester, to found and endow a chapel in the cemetery of Nunnaminster, to be served by two priests, the patronage of which was to belong to him and his heirs. (fn. 13) This chapel was dedicated to the Holy Trinity; one of the priests was termed the warden and the other the chaplain; they lived together and had a common table; they were ordered to say daily mattins and evensong in the chapel in addition to the masses. (fn. 14) In December, 1321, this chapel was defiled by shedding of blood, when the bishop commissioned Peter, Bishop of Corbavia, to reconcile it. (fn. 15) We have mention also of another chantry in the monastery founded at the altar of St. Peter at the east end of the south quire aisle by Robert de Wambergh, Archdeacon of Wells, in 1328. It was endowed with lands at Urchfont for the support of a chaplain to pray for the souls of Emeline Longspee and others. (fn. 16)

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the abbey, like other similar foundations, seems to have got into pecuniary difficulties. In 1343 the convent attributed one of the chief causes of their poverty to the action of the king in taking the profits of the temporalities during a vacancy, and to assist them they petitioned the pope for licence to appropriate the parish church of Froyle. To this the pope assented, but ordered that it should be done through the diocesan. (fn. 17) The preliminary arrangements for this appropriation had been carried out by Bishop Orlton just before his death; but on the succession of Bishop Edingdon, that prelate, with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, refused his sanction. Whereupon the convent in 1346 again approached the pope, setting forth the state of affairs, and pleading the sterility of their lands, the destruction of their woods, the diminution of their rents, and the excessive number of nuns and sisters, whereby they were unable to pay their debts, provide for the inmates, or repair the buildings. They further pleaded the reduction of their temporalities through royal administration. The pope in reply empowered the Bishop of Hereford to carry out the appropriation. (fn. 18) In the same year Bishop Edingdon issued an inhibition to the abbess not to receive sisters beyond the ancient number. (fn. 19)

A few years later in 1349 the monastery suffered on account of the Black Death. The abbess, Maud Spine, apparently succumbed to this plague, at all events there was a vacancy in that year. (fn. 20) The cattle plague which followed the Black Death severely affected the convent. This, coupled with the general reduction of their rents and the barrenness of their lands, caused by the sparsity and dearness of labour, were among the causes again pleaded on behalf of Nunnaminster, in a petition to the pope in 1352, for the appropriation of the church of Gretford, in the diocese of Lincoln, valued at 40 marks. The prayer was granted, and the ordinance of the vicarage was committed to the Bishops of Salisbury, Worcester and Wells. (fn. 21) Notwithstanding that the custody of the temporalities during a vacancy was granted to the prioress and conVent at a rent to the Exchequer in I464, (fn. 22) which, as we have seen, was a concession much sought after by the convent, the abbess and convent in 1468 again complained that they were so burdened with the repair of their houses and church, and with the payment of tenths and other imposts that they could not fulfil the obligations of their order as to hospitality. To assist them in their distress King Edward IV. granted that they should have view of frankpledge and assize of bread and ale, with waif and stray at their towns of Urchfont and Allcannings, in the county of Wilts, from ail their tenants and other resients. (fn. 23) In 1476 a further grant was made, as the previous one was not so valid as had been hoped, that the nuns should have all sums of money and rents due to the king from themselves or their tenants or other residents in the same towns. (fn. 24)

On 24 January, 1370, the bishop excommunicated certain persons who had been instrumental in the abduction of one of the nuns; (fn. 25) and in June of the same year he issued his mandate to the abbess to re-admit a nun, Isabel Gerway, who had apostatized, but was then anxious to return. (fn. 26) The name of the abducted nun is not given in the first of these documents, and they both probably refer to the same sister.

Some idea as to the internal rule of the house can be obtained from the frequent visitations of the bishops of the diocese. In 1308 Bishop Woodlock commissioned Lawrence, sub-prior of St. Swithun, and Master Stephen de Dene, his commissary general, to visit the nunnery; on 16 March, 1309, he issued an elaborate series of injunctions for the better government of the house, divided into thirteen heads. (fn. 27) Bishop Stratford (1323-33} also held, or caused to be held, various visitations of his monastery, and on two occasions cited the Abbess Maud for the correction of excesses. (fn. 28)

It is recorded that Bishop Orlton (1333-45) personally visited Nunnaminster on 9 April, 1334, when he preached in the chapter house from the text, ' Deo per omnia placentes.' In 1336 he commissioned his official to visit for the correction of excesses (the usual phrase), and there was a further visitation in 1337. (fn. 29) Bishop Wykeham paid considerable attention to the monastery. In 1384 he addressed a mandate to the abbess for the correction of nuns who were disobedient to their officers, and censured the superior for lack of discipline. (fn. 30) In September, 1396, the bishop commissioned Nicholas Wykeham, Archdeacon of Wilts, and John Elmere, the official, to visit the abbey, (fn. 31) and on 14 June, 1403, he granted his licence to the abbess and nuns to hear divine service in their new Lady Chapel adjoining the quire. (fn. 32) By his will Wykeham left to the abbess five marks, and each of the nuns one mark.

Dr. Hede visited St. Mary's on 2 March, 1501, when Abbess Joan Legh washable to give satisfactory evidence as to the order and administration of her house. The common seal was kept in a chest, the three keys of which were in the respective possession of the abbess, prioress and sacrist. Margaret Fawcon, the prioress, testified that all the sisters had their meals in the frater, save one who was very aged. Agnes Tystede, subprioress, testified that all the convent rose at night for mattins, save the sick and aged. Christiane Whytyngton, infirmarer, stated that the annual balance sheet was duly presented in chapter. Margaret Bawdewin, precentor, testified that omnia bene. Agnes Trusset, the second cantor, Agnes Kyng, the third cantor, and Agnes Massaw, the fourth cantor, gave brieif evidence to the same effect, and so also did Alice Tystede, scrutator, Agnes Byrcher, Margaret Shafte, Agnes Cox, senior teacher (dogmatista), and Margaret Legh, mistress of the novices. Elia Pitte, the librarian, was also well satisfied with that which was in her charge. (fn. 33)

The first commissioners appointed for visiting the Hampshire monasteries were Sir James Worsley, John and George Poulet, and William Berners. Their report of St. Mary's, Winchester, was highly favourable. They visited this nunnery on 15 May, 1536, and examined on oath Elizabeth Shelley, the abbess; Thomas Lee, auditor; Thomas Legh, receiver; and Thomas Ticheborne, clerk. They found in the convent 102 persons, namely, 26 religious, 5 priests, 13 lay sisters, 9 women servants, 20 officials and waiting servants, 3 corrodiers, and 26 children. Their names are all set forth in full. Of the religious persons, all, save four, were professed, and ' every of them entende to kepe theyr habits and religion to what house religious or ever they shall be comytted by the kinge's highness, Dame Frith Welbek only excepted, which desireth thanne to be comytted to any oder house to have capacite.' All the professed are termed Dames. The five chaplains were Master John Hazard, confessor, and four others.

Among the women servants were Jane Sherley, ' the abbas gentyllwoman,' as well as a servant. The prioress, sub-prioress and ' sexten ' (sacrist) had each their servant in their respective houses, and so had 'Dame Maud Burne in her house.' The other three were ' lavenders ' (washerwomen) to the abbess and convent. The officials and servants were a general receiver, clerk, ' curtyar ' (curtiler), cater, butler, cook, under-cook, baker, convent cook, under convent cook, brewer, miller, porter, under-porter, porter of Eastgate, two ' churchemen,' ' Peter Tycheborne chylde of the high aulter,' and two servants of the receiver and clerk respectively. The corrodiers were Thomas Legh, John Lichfeld and Richard Yeckley.

The twenty-six ' chyldren of lordys, knyghttes and gentylmen brought up yn the sayd monastery ' were: ' Bryget Plantagenet, dowghter unto the lord vycounte Lysley; Mary Pole, dowghter unto Sir Gefferey Pole knyght; Brygget Coppeley, dowghter unto Sir Roger Coppeley knyght; Elizabeth Phyllpot, dowghter unto Sir Peter Phyllpot knyght; Margery Tyrell; Adryan Tyrell; Johanne Barnabe; Amy Dyngley; Elizabeth Dyngley; Jane Dyngley; Frances Dyngley; Susan Tycheborne; Elizabeth Tycheborne; Mary Justyce; Agnes Alymor; Emma Bartue; Myldred Clerke; Anne Lacy; Isold Apulgate; Elizabeth Legh; Mary Legh; Alienor North; Johanne Sturgys; Johanne Fylder; Johanne Francis; Jane Raynysford.'

The commissioners put on record that the religious persons of this house 'have been and are of very clene, vertuous, honest, and charitable conversation, order, and rule synce the furst profession of thym, which is also reported not only by the Mayors and Comynaltye of the Citye of Winchester, butt also by the most worshipfull and honest persons of the Centre adjoynynge thereunto, which have daylye made a contynuall sute unto the said Commyssioners to be suetors unto the Kinges highnes for tolleracon of the said monastery.'

'Item the said monastery is in a very good state of Reparacon and standeth nigh the middell of the Citye of a great and large com passe envyround with many poor household es which have theyr only lyvynge of the said monastery, and have no demaynes whereby they may make any provysion butt lyve only by theyr handes, making theyr provysion in the markettes.'

They returned the monastery as out of debt, and reported that the convent seal was put in a bag sealed with the seal of Richard Poulet, locked in a coffer with three keys, which remained in the custody of the abbess and two of the chief governors of the monastery; that the value of the lead on the church and houses was £154 10s., and there were five great bells and one little one, worth £28 2s. 6d.; that the inventory of the jewels, ornaments, household stuff, stock and stores amounted to £486 13s. 7d.; that £24 6s. 8d. was owing to the monastery; that the annual value of the lands and possessions was £330 18s. 6¼d., and that the value of the woods was £231 6s. 4d. (fn. 34)

The Valor of 1535 returned the gross annual value of the abbey as £245 17s. 2½d., whilst the clear value was only £179 7s. 2d., which brought it well within the limit of the Act of the following year for the suppression of the smaller monasteries. It is difficult to account for the great discrepancy between this valuation and that made by the commissioners in 1536 as given above even after making allowance for the former being an assessment value. It was possibly owing to this higher estimate that St. Mary's escaped the destruction of those houses whose revenue was less than £200 per annum, but more particularly on account of the payment of the great sum or bribe of £333 6s. 8d. On 27 August, 1536, letters patent placed the establishment on a new and diminished foundation, the Wiltshire manors of Urchfont and All Cannings being granted to Sir Edward Seymour (Viscount Beauchamp) and Anne his wife. Elizabeth Shelley was at the same time confirmed in her position as abbess. (fn. 35)

But the respite was not for long. In September, 1538, Cromwell's commissioners proceeded ' to sweep away (from St. Mary's) all the rotten bones that be called relics.' (fn. 36) At last, on 15 November, 1539, the Surrender ' was signed, before Robert Southwell and other commissioners, pensions being granted to the abbess of £26 13s. 4d.; to the prioress, £5; to two nuns, £4; to two, £2 16s. 8d.; and to seventeen others, £2 13s. 4d. (fn. 37)

In the following years these pensions were confirmed, as well as 6s. 8d. each to twelve poor women called sisters, and the Site granted to John Bello and John Brarholme. The ' houses' that were recommended to be ' susstained ' were the abbess' lodging, stretching from the church to the frater on the north, with its court and appurtenances, the buttery, pantry, kitchen and larder; the gatehouse; the barn; the bakehouses; the brewhouse; the garner; the stables; and the mills. Among the superfluous buildings was of course the church, and also the cloister, chapter house, dorter, frater, farmery, convent kitchen, the two garners on the south side of the court, the priest's lodging and the plumber's house. The lead on the church, quire, aisles, steeple, cloister and other houses was estimated at 220 fothers. There were five bells, but no 'jewels.' There were 118 ounces of plate, and the ornaments, goods and chattels had been sold for £69 15s. 4d. (fn. 38)

At the time of the dissolution of the monastery the possessions included the manor of Froyle with the rectory, the manors of Itchen, Leckford Abbess, Timsbury, Greatford with the rectory, and Braceborough, and lands, rents, etc. in the city of Winchester, Lyss Abbas, Wetham, Godsfield, Shamelhurst, Swindon, 'Hacheborne,' Shipton Moyne, Blandford and ' Barnethorpe.' (fn. 39)

In the days of Camden, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there were considerable remains of the Nunnaminster; but now no traces of it exist save the name and certain watercourses. It stood between High Street and Colebroke Street.


Edburga, died 925
Ethelreda, 963
Edith, in the time of King Edgar
Alice, (fn. 40) 1084
Avice, (fn. 41) 1120
Clarice, 1174
Agnes, (fn. 42) 1236-64
Euphemia, (fn. 43) 1265-70
Lucy, (fn. 44) 1270-87
Christine de Winton, (fn. 45) 1287-99
Agnes de Ashley, (fn. 46) 1299-1313
Maud de Pecham, (fn. 47) 1313-37
Maud de Spine, 1337-49
Margaret Molins, 1349-64
Christiane Wayte, 1364-5
Alice de la Mare, (fn. 48) 1365-85
Joan Denemede, (fn. 49) 1385-1410
Maud Holme, (fn. 50) 1410-4
Christine Hardy, (fn. 51) 1414-8
Agnes Denham, 1418-49
Agnes Buriton, (fn. 52) 1449-86
Joan Legh, 1486-1527
Elizabeth Shelley, 1527-39


  • 1. William of Malmesbury ascribes the foundation solely to Alfred, but the Hyde Chartulary (Harl. MSS. 1761, f. 14) describes the queen as fundatrix ecclesie Sancte Marie sanctimonialium Wynton'.
  • 2. Ann, Monastici (Rolls Series), ii. 10.
  • 3. Liber de Hyda, 346 and note.
  • 4. Ang. Sax. Chron. (Rolls Series), ii. 93.
  • 5. Ann. M anastici (Rolls Series), ii. 52.
  • 6. Close, 6 Edw. II. m. 4d.
  • 7. See grant to William de Boiston, clerk, of a pension in 1337 (Close, 11 Edw. III. p. 2, m. 5d); and to Richard Withers in 1527 (Letters and Papers, Hen. VIII. iv. 32i3[3]).
  • 8. See the nomination of Agnes Denham in 1418 (Pat. 1 Rich. II. pt. 2, m. 3).
  • 9. See mandate for the admission of Dyamunda daughter of Richard de Sutton in 1320 (Winton. Epis. Reg., Asserio, f. 1); the same for Joan Testwood in 1367 (ibid. Wykeham, iii. f. 10b).
  • 10. Dugdale's Monasticon, ii. 452.
  • 11. Cat. of Papal Petitions, i. 152.
  • 12. Ibid. i. 281; see also the petition for a canonry for William de Meon in 1343 (ibid. i. 58). Reference has already been made to the rebuke by the bishop in 1318 of the unseemly dress of one of the chaplains of the nunnery (supra, p. 28).
  • 13. Ibid. ii. 160.
  • 14. Pat. II Edw. II. pt. I. m. 1; 12 Edw. II. pt. 1, m. 20; St. Swithun's Chartulary, ff. 60-1b.
  • 15. Winton. Epis. Reg., Asserio, f. 7b.
  • 16. Pat. 2 Edw. III. pt. 1, m. 11.
  • 17. Cal. of Papal Petitions, i. 56; Cal. of Papal Letters, iii. 112. The licence had been obtained for this appropriation as far back as 1330, but it had never been completed (Pat. 4 Edw. III. p. I, m. 39).
  • 18. Cal of Papal Petitions, i. 122.
  • 19. Winton. Epis. Reg., Edingdon, ii. f. 3b.
  • 20. Ibid. i. f. 51.
  • 21. Cal. of Papal Petitions, i. 230.
  • 22. Pat. 4 Edw. IV. pt. 2, m. 7.
  • 23. Pat. 8 Edw. IV. pt. 3, m. 3.
  • 24. Ibid. 16 Edw. IV. pt. 1, m. 20.
  • 25. Winton. Epis. Reg., Wykeham, iii. f. 30a.
  • 26. Ibid. 36b.
  • 27. Ibid. Woodlock, f. 150.
  • 28. Ibid. Stratford, ff. 56,57b 79, 176-7.
  • 29. Ibid. Orlton, i. fF. 10ob, 41, 548.
  • 30. Ibid. Wykeham, f. 21 2a.
  • 31. Ibid. iii. f. 291.
  • 32. Ibid. 356b.
  • 33. Sede Vacante Register, Canterbury Priory.
  • 34. Aug. Off. Misc. Books, cccc. 24.
  • 35. Pat. Hen. VIII. pt. 2. m. 14, vide supra.
  • 36. Letters and Papers, Hen. VIII. xiii. (2) 401.
  • 37. Aug. Off. Misc. Books, ccxlv. 96.
  • 38. Aug. Off. Misc. Books, ccccxciv. ff. 11-5.
  • 39. From the first Minister's Account cited in Dugdale's Monasticon.
  • 40. Ann. Monastici (Rolls Series), ii. 34.
  • 41. Ibid. 52.
  • 42. Ibid. 102; and iv. 455.
  • 43. Ibid. ii. 102.
  • 44. Ibid. 109; and iv. 460.
  • 45. Pat. 16 Edw. I. mm. 3, 18, 15.
  • 46. Ibid. 27 Edw. I. mm. 37, 36.
  • 47. Ibid. 6 Edw. II. pt. 2, mm. 16, 15, 13; and Winton. Epis. Reg., Woodlock, f. 180.
  • 48. Winton. Epis. Reg., Edingdon, i. ff. 112, 129.
  • 49. Ibid. Wykeham, i, f. 161; Pat. 8. Rich. II. pt. 2, mm. 35, 29, 23; Add. Charters, 17, 497508.
  • 50. Winton. Epis. Reg., Beaufort Registers, f. 26.
  • 51. Add. Charters, 17, 509.
  • 52. Winton. Epis. Reg., Waynflete, f. 10b.