A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1971.
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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Sopwell Priory', in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4, (London, 1971) pp. 422-426. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol4/pp422-426 [accessed 1 March 2024]
HOUSES OF BENEDICTINE NUNS
5. SOPWELL PRIORY
The Benedictine nunnery of St. Mary of Sopwell, near St. Albans, is said by Matthew Paris to have owed its foundation to the building by Geoffrey, sixteenth Abbot of St. Albans (1119-46), of a cell and houses for two holy women who had settled near Eywood about 1140 in rough shelters made of branches of trees wattled together. (fn. 1) His account cannot be altogether correct, for the cell first occupied by the convent was an ankerhold repaired or rebuilt by a recluse named Roger. (fn. 2) Still, the house apparently arose in Geoffrey's time, (fn. 3) and as very early in its history it became dependent on St. Albans, the abbot was probably concerned in its foundation, (fn. 4) with the object no doubt of accommodating the nuns who existed at St. Albans Abbey through the Saxon period down to about this date.
While Geoffrey was abbot the cemetery of the nuns was consecrated by Bishop Alexander, probably Alexander Bishop of Lincoln (1123-48), and it was then ordained that without the consent of the abbot none might enter the convent, the number of which was limited to thirteen. (fn. 5) Geoffrey is also said to have directed that the nuns for their safety and good name were to be locked in at night under the abbot's seal, and that maidens only were to be received into the community. (fn. 6)
Among the earliest grants to Sopwell were those of Henry de Albini (fn. 7) and his son, the former giving in frankalmoign 2 hides of land in his manor of Cotes, in Cardington parish, co. Bedford, (fn. 8) and the other adding a virgate in the same place when his sister Amicia became a nun at Sopwell (fn. 9); Roland de Dinan's gift to the nuns of half a hide in Ickleford; Richard de Tany's (fn. 10) grant of land called Black Hide in the soke of Tyttenhanger (fn. 11); that of Hugh de Keynes (fn. 12) of a hide in Croughton, co. Northants. (fn. 13) Other benefactions included assarted land in Shenley, (fn. 14) the yearly allowance of 50s. from the issues of Hertfordshire, granted in 1247 by Henry III to support a chaplain celebrating daily the mass of the Virgin, (fn. 15) a rent of 5s. in West Wycombe received in 1281 (fn. 16) from Henry de Norwyco, whose daughter Philippa was a nun at Sopwell in February 1266-7, and was then promised by Abbot Roger the first livery to fall vacant of the three called the Maundy of St. Mary, delivered daily from the abbey's refectory and kitchen. (fn. 17)
The convent, apparently not satisfied with its dependent position, on one occasion tried to elect the prioress. On the death of Prioress Philippa, c. 1330, they talked the matter over among themselves, and the majority decided on Sister Alice de Hakeneye. (fn. 18) The Abbot of St. Albans hearing what had occurred sent Nicholas de Flamstede, the prior, to the priory unexpectedly. He said that although the abbot had the right to select their head he wished to hear their opinions, and asked each to state her choice in writing. Sixteen and more gave their votes for Alice de Hakeneye, about three for the sub-prioress, Alice de Pekesden. Nicholas, however, by previous instructions from the abbot, declared Alice de Pekesden prioress and installed her. She was probably indeed the best fitted for the post, for she is said to have been more zealous for religion than all the rest.
A glimpse of the state of the house twenty years later is afforded by the injunctions issued by Abbot Michael in 1338 after a visitation. (fn. 19) These order that the nuns were to sing the mass of St. Alban once a week with a few exceptions; that no sister undergoing the penance of silence was to be debarred from religious exercises or from seeing mass celebrated; that the custom of the chaplain of our Lady to help the confessor at certain services was to be observed; that when it was time to rise the sub-prioress was to ring the bell in the quire and no one was to leave the dormitory before without permission, all must then get up and attend the mass of our Lady, and after this sit in the cloister occupied with their private devotions until Prime, at which all except the sick were to be present, then they should attend the chapter and in the interval until their meal go about their work; the doors of the garden and parlour were to be closed when curfew was sounded at the abbey, and the door of the garden should not be opened before Prime; that in chapter only three persons should speak—the president, sub-prioress or her substitute, and the sister charged with an offence; those disobedient to the prioress in chapter were to be put on bread and water for the day; that all who broke the silence ordered by their rule should acknowledge their fault in chapter and receive regular discipline, and if they did not do so voluntarily they should be charged by the guardian of the order and have the hardest penance; that those who quarrelled and thus created disorder should not be spoken to and be in penance for three days; that the sisters were not to come into the parlour to speak to secular persons except with neck and face covered with kerchief and veil as ordained by their order; that only persons of good same were to be allowed to enter the priory and were never to eat in the nuns' rooms without the abbot's special permission; that workpeople such as tailors and furriers employed at the priory must be respectable, and should have a place near the cloister set apart for them, and were never to be called into the rooms; that nuns who were ill were to be in the infirmary according to the custom formerly observed; the prioress was forbidden to give leave to the nuns to remain with guests for the night and the dormitory was to be occupied by the sisters only. These rules perhaps suggest precautionary measures rather than indicate great lack of discipline.
The orders given by Abbot Thomas (fn. 20) (1349-96) to the Warden or Master of Sopwell show the necessity of more care: henceforth no man, secular or regular, was to be allowed to enter the nunnery without the abbot's permission, and then not before Prime had been sung, and he was not to stay after the bell had been rung for supper at St. Albans; and the master himself was always to enter and leave in the company of others and not to remain longer than the time fixed above, except in special circumstances.
There are occasional references to individual nuns that are not without interest. Agnes Paynel figures in the Book of Benefactors of St. Albans (fn. 21) for her gift of three copes with beautiful orphreys, chasuble, tunic and dalmatic of black satin, powdered with stars and the letters A and Pin gold, for her monetary contributions to various works of the abbey and a gold ring offered to St. Alban's shrine. Letitia Wyttenham, prioress 1418-35, also ranked as a benefactor (fn. 22) on account of her industry in embroidering and mending the vestments of St. Albans. Cecilia Paynel and Margaret Euer, nuns of Sopwell, were admitted to the fraternity of St. Albans in 1428 on the same day as the Earl of Warwick's household. (fn. 23) Lady Margaret Wynter made regular profession at Sopwell in June 1429, (fn. 24) and offered a girdle enriched with precious stones worth 10 marks. (fn. 25) Two more nuns mentioned in the 15th century were of London citizen families, and received bequests, the one (fn. 26) of a mark, the other (fn. 27) of 2 marks a year.
Visitors of high rank were not uncommon at the time of Margaret Wynter's admission. The Duke of Gloucester in 1427 and Cardinal Beaufort in 1428 called at the nunnery on their way from St. Albans to Langley, (fn. 28) and the Duchess of Clarence was apparently staying at Sopwell in 1429, when she was received into the fraternity of St. Albans. (fn. 29) One of the convent's guests was the cause of an alarming attack on the priory in 1428. (fn. 30) William Wawe, the famous robber-captain, expecting to find a certain Eleanor Hulle (fn. 31) there, broke into the place with his men one night. After terrifying the nuns with threats they began to plunder, when hue and cry was raised by an energetic man in the village, (fn. 32) and the robbers made off.
Abbot William Wallingford on 8 March 1480-1 commissioned John Rothbury, the archdeacon, and Thomas Ramrugge, sub-prior of St. Albans, to visit the house of Sopwell and remove the prioress, Joan Chapel, from her office on account of her age and infirmities, putting Elizabeth Webbe in her place. (fn. 33) The abbot must have regretted his choice afterwards. When Rothbury some years later deposed her she brought an action against him in the Court of Arches and was reinstated. Upon this two monks of St. Albans, sent by Rothbury, came to the nunnery, broke down Elizabeth's door with an iron bar, beat her and put her in prison. (fn. 34) She then appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury as chancellor, (fn. 35) and it can hardly be doubted that she was the authority for some of Morton's charges against St. Albans. In his letter to the abbot, 5 July 1490, (fn. 36) he accused him of changing the prioresses not only at Pré but at Sopwell as he pleased, and deposing the good and religious for the benefit of the evil and vicious, so that religion was cast down and needless expense caused. He also said that the monks put in as wardens used their opportunities to dissipate the goods of these houses, and he no doubt had grounds for his statement. In 1500-1 Elizabeth Prioress of Sopwell, probably the same Elizabeth Webbe, complained to the chancellor (fn. 37) that a deed of lease by the convent had been secretly altered to their disadvantage by Thomas Holgrave, keeper of the priory, and his clerk, who had been bribed by the tenant.
The house was dissolved in March or April 1537 (fn. 38) under the Act of 1536. Very different reports of Sopwell were given by John ap Rice in October 1535, (fn. 39) and the commissioners sent to receive the surrender in March 1537, (fn. 40) the first telling Cromwell that, as he would see by the 'comperta,' it would be well to suppress the priory, the others declaring that the five nuns composing the convent were of good character.
There were then two children living at the priory, probably for instruction by the nuns. (fn. 41)
A pension of £6 a year was assigned to the prioress, Joan Pygot (fn. 42); the other nuns, a priest and four servants received £10 5s. 8d. among them. (fn. 43) The buildings, which were in a fair state of repair, contained little of much value beyond the lead on the roofs, priced at £40, and the four bells, reckoned at £18. (fn. 44) The plate consisted of a silver-gilt chalice and paten weighing 14 oz. (fn. 45) The furniture of the church, (fn. 46) including an alabaster table, the hanging of the quire, two altar frontals, (fn. 47) and a copper cross, was sold for £1 15s. 6d.; the timber-work of the quire for 40s.; the stone in the church with the vestry staff for 60s.; and the stuff in the parlour for 10s. (fn. 48)
Prioresses Of Sopwell
E., occurs 1233 (fn. 51)
Alice de Pekesden, appointed c. 1330 (fn. 55)
Margaret Fermeland, occurs February 1341 (fn. 56)
Eleanor, occurs 4 November 1465 (fn. 65)
Joan Chapel, removed March 1480-1 (fn. 66)
Agnes Wakefield, occurs November 1528 (fn. 69)
Joan Pygot, occurs 2 March 1537 (fn. 70)