A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1903.
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4. THE ABBEY OF ROMSEY
The statements with regard to the early foundation of Romsey are confusing and conflicting, but it would seem probable that Edward the Elder founded this house about the year 907, and that his daughter St. Elfleda became abbess and was buried there. (fn. 1) In 967 Edgar, grandson of Edward the Elder, reconstituted the abbey, dedicating it to the honour of St. Mary and St. Elfleda, and placed there nuns under the Benedictine rule over whom he appointed Merwenna as abbess. (fn. 2) In this reconstitution Bishop Ethelwold (96384) took a considerable part. (fn. 3)
Of Merwenna little is known; she is said to have been of noble Irish birth. Elwina, the second abbess, succeeded about 993, when Hampshire was overrun by the Danes, and it is supposed that the abbess and her nuns had to take refuge in Winchester.
The considerable holdings of the abbey at the time of the Domesday Survey consisted of the vill of Romsey, fourteen burgesses in Winchester, Itchenstoke, Sidmohton, a hide in Totton and a hide in Sway in Hampshire, and Edington and Steeple Ashton in Wiltshire.
In 1086 Christine, sister of Edgar Atheling, took the veil at Romsey, as stated in the Saxon chronicle, and became abbess. To the same retreat Christine was followed by her young niece Maud, but she did not take the vows, and became the Queen of Henry I., being married at Martinmas, 1100. (fn. 4)
Mary, daughter of King Stephen, became abbess here about 1160, and it was her uncle, Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester (112971), who was probably the builder of the greater part of Romsey Abbey as it now stands. Abbess Mary in 1160 left her monastery to become the wife of Matthew, son of Theodoric, Earl of Flanders. By him she had two daughters, but was afterwards separated from her husband. According to Matthew Paris this separation was brought about by the censure of the Church, and she returned in penitence to Romsey.
In 1283 this nunnery was visited by the energetic Archbishop Peckham. Among the numerous decrees, issued as a result of the visit, was the forbidding the abbess to have more than two secular maids; the loss of her pittance in the frater by any nun breaking silence in the cloister; forbidding a nun ever speaking to a man (save in confession) unless two of her sisters were present; confessions to be made in the church, either before the high altar, or at the side of it towards the cloister; forbidding the nuns to eat or drink in any house in Romsey under pain of a year's suspension; and the forbidding of the entry of any male, under pain of excommunication, into the rooms of the nuns, save in times of sickness to the farmery, and then only the confessor, the doctor, or a near relative. At the same time Peckham decided a dispute as to the steward, Richard de Chalfhunte, who held office against the will of the convent, and ordered the abbess to take to her aid three coadjutors from among the nuns, and to transact no convent business without their assent, namely Margaret de Verder, Philippa de Stoke, and Joan de Ronedonne. (fn. 5)
In August, 1286,Archbishop Peckham issued a mandate to William Shirlock, a prebendary of Romsey, charged with illicit wandering (inhoneste devagantem] through the town of Romsey and elsewhere, not to dare to enter the cloister nor the abbey church of Romsey so long as there were probable grounds of suspicion against him. This was accompanied by an inhibition addressed to the nuns of Romsey to hold no manner of conversation with this prebendary in their house or elsewhere. At the same time a mandate was despatched to Master Henry, official of Winchester diocese, directing him to inquire into the case of William Shirlock, accused of disturbing the nuns of Romsey, and leading a dishonourable and dissolute life. (fn. 6)
The taxation of 1291 valued the temporalities of the Abbey of Romsey in the archdeaconry of Winchester at £78 7s. 6d., in the deanery of Potterne (Sarum) at £100, in the deanery of Wyly, 10s., and in the archdeaconry of Gloucester at £5, giving a total of £183 17s. 6d. In addition to this the abbess received a pension of £5 6s. 8d. from the church of Inmere (Sarum), and of £9 3s. 4d. from the church of Weston (Worcester).
In 1301 Bishop Pontoise visited the Abbey of Romsey, and as a result injoined that a balance sheet should be audited twice a year in the chapter house; that a bell should be rung for all the hours; that high mass should always precede nones; that the chaplains should be inhibited from ever celebrating after nones; that the doors of the cloister and dorter be better warded; that the safe custody of the seal be secured; that there should be no eating nor drinking with any religious or secular person in the town of Romsey; and that no corrody nor pension should be granted without the bishop's sanction. (fn. 7)
In February, 1305, the abbess found herself so infirm that she nominated Roger Bandet and Roger de Presland to act as her attorneys for three years; (fn. 8) and in June, 1307, a grant was made to the prioress and nuns of the custody of their abbey on the death, cession, resignation, or deposition of their Abbess Philippa. (fn. 9) This order was confirmed by Edward II. on his accession to the throne. The convent was visited in 1310, and the decrees consequent on the visitation are set forth in the bishop's register both in Latin and French. The decrees were divided into thirteen heads, and ordered that the mass of the Blessed Virgin, with at least eight nuns present, and the farmery mass should be celebrated daily, and that no seculars of any condition or age should come within the precincts to hear mass in the farmery; that a bell should ring for all the hours, and that high mass should be celebrated before nones; that no secular women should enter the convent at any time; that there should be a half-yearly balancing of accounts before the chapter; that the seal should only be affixed in chapter to documents read intelligibly; that two nuns should be appointed to assist the prioress in the receiving and disbursing of rents; that the doors of the cloister and the dorter should be warded, and that there was to be no eating nor drinking in the frater after compline; that children were not to be admitted to the dorter, nor to be in the quire when divine offices were celebrated; that curtains (if any existed) before the beds in the dorter were to be removed; and that woodmen and other work men were to be excluded from the convent. Special rules were also laid down as to the dietary of the farmery, and as to bloodletting. (fn. 10)
The claim of the Crown to enforce the payment of corrodies and pensions from monasteries under its patronage, to persons nominated by it, was frequently insisted upon at Romsey. In June, 1310, Juliana la Despenser was sent with letters under privy seal to the abbess and convent to be provided with fitting maintenance for herself and her maid during her lifetime. (fn. 11) In 1315 the abbess and convent were enjoined to give a pension to Richard de Ayreminn, they being obliged to grant a pension to one of king's clerks on account of the new creation of an abbess. (fn. 12) For the same reason John de St. Paul obtained a pension in 1333, (fn. 13) and Thomas Sampson, a scholar, in 1515. (fn. 14) The bishops of Winchester in like manner claimed the right to nominate a nun to be admitted to the abbey at their consecration. (fn. 15)
On 11 May, 1315, Alice de Roffa and Margaret de Middleton, nuns of Romsey, brought news to the king of the death of Abbess Alice, and obtained the necessary licence for another election. (fn. 16) It was alleged that the late abbess had come to her end by foul means, and on 28 May the justices, Henry de Scrop, John Daubernoun and John Bluet, were appointed a commission of oyer and terminer touching the persons who killed the late abbess at Romsey, on the confines of the counties of Hants and Wilts, from which two counties the jurors were to be selected. The cause of death is stated in the letters patent to have been intoxicatione, which we take to be drugging or poisoning, and not ' forced inebriation,' as Dugdale has it. (fn. 17) To this commission John Randolf (fn. 18) was added in July, but the result of the trial has not been recorded.
Meanwhile the king gave the custody of the abbey to Master Richard de Clare, but the prioress and nuns recovered it on paying a fine of forty marks. (fn. 19)
On 20 February, 1316, order was issued to the abbess to examine the rolls, etc., of Nicholas de Romsey, late justice-in-eyre of the forests this side Trent, which were said to be in her treasury, and all other muniments touching the said matters in her possession, and to send them under seal to Westminster. (fn. 20)
Bishop Orlton visited the house on November 28 and preached in the chapter house from the text, ' Que parate erant intraverunt cum eo ad nuptias.' (fn. 21)
In 1336 Edward III. granted to the convent the custody of the temporalities of their house during a vacancy, for which they were to pay £20 for each month of the vacancy. (fn. 22) By the return of the aid for making Edward the Black Prince a knight it appears that the abbess held in perpetual alms half a knight's fee in Sidmanton. (fn. 23)
In 1370 Bishop Wykeham authorized the abbess to appoint one or two chaplains, clean in life and pure in conscience, to confess herself and the sisters. (fn. 24) Later in his episcopate the bishop adopted the better plan of himself appointing the confessors. By an undated commission, apparently circa 1395, Ralph Basyng, a monk of Winchester, and two other priests were appointed to confess the abbess and nuns of Romsey. (fn. 25) Basyng was appointed to a similar position for the nuns of Wherweil in 1393. At the time of the nomination of Basyng and his two colleagues as confessors, the confessor's licence held by Friar John Burgeys was revoked, and a monition was issued to the abbess warning her not to allow any secular priest serving in the conventual church or in the town of Romsey to have access to her in the rooms or cloister of the abbey, nor to hold with them any conversation save in the presence of an honest and trustworthy sister nun.
On 29 May, 1372, Bishop Wykeham wrote to the Abbess and Convent of Romsey desiring them, at the request of William, Earl of Pembroke, to receive his noble kinswoman, Dame Elizabeth de Berkele, during the absence of Maurice Wytht, her husband, on foreign service with the earl. (fn. 26) The letter was to be taken as an episcopal licence, for without such leave the reception of a guest would have been quite irregular. At the same time a like letter was sent to the nunnery of Wherwell, so that Dame Elizabeth could make her choice of houses or change her residence during her husband's absence. The Earl of Pembroke was in charge this year of the disastrous expedition to relieve Rochelle, when his ships were burnt by the Spanish fleet and he himself taken prisoner.
A curious dispute arose in the time of Bishop Wykeham between the (canon) sacrist of the abbey church and the vicar of the parish church of Romsey. An order from the bishop to the rural dean of Sombourn to inhibit the vicar, John Folyot, and his chaplains, pending the decision of a cause promoted by the abbess and convent against them, states that it had been the usage, time beyond memory, for the sacrist of the abbey church to bless the palms and boughs of other trees used at mass on Palm Sunday, and that from the high altar and not elsewhere; nevertheless the vicar and chaplains had interrupted the sacrist in the exercise of this privilege. (fn. 27) The instruction to the rural dean is dated 13 March, 1372, and as Easter that year fell on March 20, the inhibition would be in good time to prevent a scandal on the ensuing Palm Sunday. The north aisle of the great abbey church of Romsey was used as the parish church. The high altar would be in the nuns' quire. It can therefore be readily understood that the vicar ministering to the people would resent the palms being blessed out of sight of the congregation.
At this time there was also a dispute between the town and the abbey as to the repair and maintenance of this north aisle or chapel, and on 15 March, 1372, the bishop appointed Thomas de Sheptone, canon of Wells, and two other commissioners to hold an inquiry in order to settle upon whom this responsibility lay. (fn. 28) On 10 May, 1403, a faculty was granted to the vicar and parishioners of Romsey to pull down and rebuild the wall of the north aisle of Romsey Minster from the transept to the porch in order to enlarge it. The petition of the parishioners stated that the aisle was so narrow and confined that on Sundays and festivals there was no suitable or even decent accommodation for the worshippers, and they expressed a desire not only to make their part of the minster larger, but fairer. The bishop granted the faculty in language strongly approving of the beautifying of God's sanctuary, and of providing fully for the numerous population of both sexes of the town of Romsey, for whom this north aisle was their only parish church; but he made it a condition that not only was the work to be done at their own expense, but it was to be sustained in like manner. On the day following the grant of this faculty the bishop sent a letter to the abbess and nuns of Romsey advising and exhorting them to show favour and kindness to the project of the vicar and parishioners. (fn. 29)
Henry, Bishop of Annadown, acting as suffragan to Wykeham, was at Romsey abbey on Sunday, 19 September, 1400, when he received thirteen novices, Margery Camoys, Alice Warennere, Joan Stratford, Alice Northlode, Alice Forester, Elizabeth Sampson, Maud Lovell, Katherine de la Mare, Alice Chamberlayn, Isabel Lekforde, Alice Artone, Juliana Shirnham, and Joan Umfray. (fn. 30) From the names it may be assumed that the abbey received ladies of position and good birth among its professed members.
The abbess, Dame Lucy Everard, was apparently ailing in 1402. In August of that year licence was granted her for a twelvemonth to hear divine service in her oratory in the presence of one of the sisters and her servants.
After having held the position for about thirty years, Elizabeth Brooke, who was elected abbess in 1472, brought the gravest discredit on the abbey. The scandal of her life was naturally accompanied by general laxity of discipline and by the decay of the fabric. In 1494 Archbishop Morton caused Robert Sherborne (afterwards Bishop of Chichester), treasurer of Hereford Cathedral, to visit those religious houses of Winchester diocese that were subject to diocesan control. Abbess Brooke confessed on that occasion to a debt of £80; she suspected that the nuns made egress through the church gates, but denied that any frequented taverns or suspected places. Isabel Morgan, prioress, testified, on the contrary, that some of the nuns did frequent taverns, and went into the town without leave; she also hinted at a scandal concerning the abbess. Various of the nuns were examined, and one of them complained that their sins or faults were not punished, and that the doors were not kept shut. (fn. 31)
This nunnery was again visited on 27 March, 1502, by Dr. Hede, the commissary of the Prior of Canterbury, during the vacancy of the sees of both Canterbury and Winchester. The abbess stated that the statutory number of nuns was forty, that they did not take their meals in the frater but in certain rooms assigned them by the abbess, that there were no debts and no valuables pledged, that there was a secular chaplain in the monastery according to their statutes. Isabel Maryuleyn, prioress, testified to the due observance of the night and day offices; that the abbess was very remiss in correcting the delinquencies of the sisters. Cecily Reed, sub-prioress, had but little to say. Joan Skelyng stated that the abbess was wont to pay certain salaries to the nuns of 10s. or 6s. 8d.; that a great scandal had arisen concerning the abbess and Master Bryce super mala et suspecta conversations; that lately, at the instigation of Master Bryce, the abbess had been negligent in correcting the sisters. Joan Paten, precentor, said that tenements in the town of Romsey belonging to the monastery were in decay through the fault of the abbess; that since the coming of Master Bryce the abbess had conducted herself badly towards the sisters, and that she would accept no one's advice but his; that since his coming she had not taken her meals with the nuns, and that there were rumours of incontinence. Thomasine Ashley, almoner, stated that the bread had diminished in quantity; that one Gilbert de Wilshire had certain letters pertaining to the convent under the common seal without the consent of the chapter; that the abbess and her accomplices had broken open the chest in which the common seal was enclosed, and that Joyce Rowse, who had the custody of one key by the mandate of the late Bishop of Winchester, could testify to this. Edith Holloway, cellarer, said that Mary Tystede and Agnes Harvey wore their hair long. Anne Rowse, sacrist, said that the abbess was somewhat remiss in correction, and made further charges of a pecuniary character against Master Bryce. Joyce Rowse agreed with Thomasine Ashley as to the custody of the common seal and the dismissal of the holders of the keys; she further said that the abbess under the influence of Master Bryce behaved cruelly towards her sisters and that there was a great scandal about them; that the roof of the chancel was defective through the fault of the abbess, and she gave particulars as to various defalcations in the priory accounts. Maria Fystede, cantatrix, referred to the condition of the accounts in the time of the late abbess Joan Brygges, and said that rents which were then only 90 marks under the present abbess had grown to 300 marks; but that the bread and cheese in the convent had lessened in measure through the intervention of Master Bryce; that Bryce was suspected of being the father of a girl in Wiltshire; that houses in the town as well as the dorter and the chancel were in decay through the fault of the abbess, and that Master Bryce kept two or three horses at the expense of the monastery; that he had obtained a large salary under the common seal as chaplain of the farmery, and that he sat at table with the abbess and that there was common scandal about them. Ellen Tawke, third cantatrix, testified that the dorter and chancel were defective in their roofs; that the abbess had been in that office for thirty years, but what gain she had brought the monastery she was ignorant, but rather believed that the annual rents had increased to 111 marks from 50; that the houses of the monastery were in decay through the fault of Master Bryce, whose advice was followed by the abbess, and that scandal had arisen about them. Christine More, fourth cantatrix, said that the house was not in debt more than twenty marks, and that as for the rest it was omnia bene. Avice Haynow said that the chancel and the dorter were in decay, so that if it happened to rain the nuns were unable to remain either in quire, in the time of the divine service, or in their beds, and that the funds that the abbess ought to have expended on these matters were being squandered on Master Bryce, and that there was a grave scandal about these two. Agnes Harvey, sub-sacrist, made similar statements as to the roofs of the quire and dorter, and that the actual fabric of the monastery in the stone walls was going to decay through the fault of the abbess, and gave further particulars of the expenses incurred through Master Bryce. She also asserted that Emma Powes was guilty of incontinence with the vicar of the parish church. Emma Powes, who had been professed in a certain priory near Derby, and from that place had been removed to another priory in Hereford diocese, where she had been prioress, and thence had come to this house, said that silence was not observed in the dorter, and that the roof of the quire and the lady chapel were in decay. Alice Whytingstale, mistress of the school, said that the abbess at various times had prohibited her from receiving the Eucharist and from making her usual confession, and that since the arrival of Master Bryce the abbess had not conducted herself amicably towards her sisters. She also gave evidence as to the faulty roofs, and that a corrody had been granted to Master Bryce of the annual value of £20, and that he had caused a great scandal. The testimony of six other nuns were also set forth of a brief character. The visitation is left incomplete, much of the last folio being blank. (fn. 32)
The result of this grievous exposure seems to have brought about the enforced resignation of the aged and evil abbess, and in June, 1502, Joyce Rowse was elected abbess and received the temporalities. (fn. 33)
It was difficult for the abbey to recover from the long laxity that had so unhappily prevailed under Elizabeth Brooke, and in 1506 Bishop Fox had to remove the sub-prioress and to administer severe censures. (fn. 34)
Abbess Joyce resigned in September, 1515, and on the 16th of that month the congè d'elire was granted to the prioress and convent, who elected Anne Westbrook, ' sexteyn ' of the monastery, as their abbess.
Elizabeth Ryprose, the last abbess, was elected on 15 December, 1523. The documents relative to this election are set forth in great detail in the episcopal registers. (fn. 35) The temporalities were restored in the following month. (fn. 36) In November 1537 the abbey, alarmed at the fate of the smaller houses, procured an elaborate inspection and confirmation of all their royal charters from the time of Henry I. downwards. (fn. 37) But this was so much waste of parchment and fees.
Sir Richard Lister wrote to Cromwell in September, 1537, informing him that the nuns of Romsey, hearing they were in danger of suppression, were making leases and alienating their goods. He desired to know whether he was to stay them in this. (fn. 38)
On 28 December, 1538, John Foster reported to Sir Thomas Seymour as to the state of the house of Romsey. He pronounced the house out of debt; that the plate and jewels were worth £300; the bells worth £100. The church is described as a great sumptuous thing, all of freestone and covered with lead, and worth £300 or £400 more. The annual rents are returned at £481 1s. 8d. The names of the abbess, Elizabeth Ryprose, the prioress, Edith Banester, and the subprioress, Katharine Wadham, are set down, together with twenty-three other nuns. Mr. Foster wrote: ' In answer to your letter by Mr. Flemynge, whether the abbess and nuns would be content to surrender their house, the truth is, that, in consequence of the motion made by your kinswomen and other friends, they will be content to do you any pleasure, but they would be loath to trust to the commissioners' gentleness, as they hear that other houses have been straitly handled.' (fn. 39)
Nearly a third of this community had made their religious profession in July, 1534, very shortly before the beginning of their troubles. One of these was Katherine, youngest daughter of Sir Nicholas Wadham, Governor of the Isle of Wight, whose sister Jane had also been for some years a professed nun of the same abbey. John Foster, whose letter to Seymour has just been cited, lived at Baddesley near Romsey, and was convent steward. His reference to ' kinswomen' applied to the two Wadham nuns and to another nun of the name of Elizabeth Hill. Sir Nicholas Wadham's first wife was a daughter of Robert Hill of Antony, and his second was Margaret, sister to Queen Jane Seymour and Sir Thomas Seymour. Through their influence it was hoped that a quiet surrender would be made. (fn. 40)
Whether this was effected or not cannot now be asceertained, for there is no extant formal surrender. But the abbess and convent in January, 1539, had licence to alienate their lordships or manors of Edingdon and Steeple Ashton and all their lands and tenements in Hampshire and Wiltshire to Sir Thomas Seymour. (fn. 41)
The clear annual value of the abbey was reckoned by the commissioners at £161 7s. 10d. (fn. 42) The lands returned on the first minister's account after the dissolution of the house were the manors of Romsey with the rectory and fair, Moor Abbas,' Moor Malwyn,' Itchenstoke with the rectory, Sway, Sidmonton, Holm Lacy (Hunlacey) with ' Torleton juxta Coates,' and ' Bardolfeston' in the parish of Puddle. (fn. 43)
The parishioners of Romsey managed to save the fine old conventual church from destruction by buying it back from the Crown in 1554 for £100. This is much below Steward Foster's valuation; but it must be recollected that the parish had an unassailable right to a considerable portion of it, which even Henry's counsellors could not ignore.
The pointed oval seal, of late twelfth cen tury date, of which an illustration is given, represents St. Elfleda, the abbess and patron saint, in full length with crozier in right hand and book in left. Legend: SIGIL'S MARIE . . . HOMES' ECL'E.
Abbesses of Romsey
Elfleda, died in 959
Hadewis or Avice, 1130-55
Juliana, (fn. 44) died in 1199
Maud Walerand, (fn. 45) 1199-1219
Maud Paria or Paricia, 1219-61
Alice Walrand, 1290-8.
Philippa de Stokes, (fn. 46) 1298-1307
dementia de Gildeford, (fn. 47) 1307-14
Alice de Wyntereshulle, 1315
Sibil Carbonel, 1315-33
Joan Icthe, (fn. 48) 1333
Isabel de Camoys, (fn. 49) 1352-96
Lucy Everard, (fn. 50) 1396
Felicia Aas, (fn. 51) died in 1419
Maud Lovell, 1419-62
Joan Brygges, 1462-72
Elizabeth Brooke, (fn. 52) 1472-1502
Joyce Rowse, 1502-15
Anne Westbrook, 1515
Elizabeth Ryprose, 1523-39