A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1971.
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6. CHESHUNT PRIORY
Nothing is known about the foundation of the priory of St. Mary, Cheshunt, (fn. 1) for Benedictine nuns except that it took place before 18 December 1183, for Pope Lucius III then issued a bull in its favour. (fn. 2) By this its property was taken under the papal protection, the celebration of service was allowed there during an interdict, the nuns were to have their own chaplain to minister in their church, and a cemetery in which they and others who so desired could be buried; the election of the prioress was to belong to the convent and to be free; archbishops and bishops were not to levy undue contributions from them; and none was to molest them or carry off their possessions.
Henry II in 1186 made the nuns a gift from the issues of Winchester. (fn. 3) In 1229 Henry III ordered that they should have peaceful possession of a virgate of land in Feltham, co. Middlesex, given them by William de Rivers, (fn. 4) and in 1240 gave them all the lands and tenements formerly held by the canons of Cathale. (fn. 5) Possibly this charter merely confirmed the grant of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex, (fn. 6) by which the convent received all the land given to the brothers of Cathale by Humphrey's uncle, William de Mandeville, viz., that which lay between the priory's estate and the bounds of Enfield Park, pasture for 15 horses, 60 oxen, and 100 sheep, and pannage for pigs in the park, and a special entrance into the park for them and their carts; in return they were to find a chaplain to celebrate for ever for the souls of William de Mandeville, Humphrey and his wife Maud.
The nuns in 1290 petitioned the king for help in distress caused by a fire, and although nothing was done then, (fn. 7) in 1297 they were excused from payment of the eleventh out of compassion for their poverty. (fn. 8) Not many years passed before the same misfortune again befell the priory. An undated petition from the nuns to the king and council, (fn. 9) begging for a renewal of their charters destroyed by fire, says that their house, church and goods have been twice burned, to the great impoverishment of the convent; from their lands and rents they have an income of only £26 on which to support thirteen ladies, two chaplains and other ministers and servants, and they therefore ask that they may acquire more property in mortmain. To their first request assent was made, and the exemplification in 1315 (fn. 10) of the charter of 1240 seems to have been the result.
It was doubtless the priory's special need that moved the Bishop of Lincoln in 1312 to offer an indulgence of thirty days to those contributing to the fabric of the conventual church, dormitory and other places of the house, or to the maintenance of the 'poor handmaids of Christ' themselves. (fn. 11) The poverty of the convent was evidently considered by Ralph Bishop of London, their diocesan, in dealing with a case there in April 1309. (fn. 12) The nuns had elected a prioress whom the bishop refused to confirm as unfit for the post; he thought, however, that the difficulties of the house might perhaps be more quickly overcome by one of the convent than if a stranger were appointed; he therefore allowed them to elect a second time. The sale of their Feltham property in 1311 (fn. 13) may have been forced on them by necessity.
The nuns were excused in November 1340 (fn. 17) from payment of the ninth of sheaves on pleading the insufficiency of their property for their maintenance and their previous exemption in consequence from all such contributions; and in October 1346 (fn. 18) the king ordered that the tenth and fifteenth should not be demanded of them. The convent escaped payment only by reiterated complaints, (fn. 19) so that it was a great point gained when the king on 13 January 1352 granted (fn. 20) them a perpetual acquittance of all tenths, fifteenths, aids and charges whatsoever.
Edward III was apparently kindly disposed to them. On 8 September of that year he gave them licence to acquire in mortmain land and rent to the annual value of £10, (fn. 21) and on 3 July 1358 granted them free warren in all their lands in Cheshunt. (fn. 22) Moreover, when the nuns represented their extreme want to him again in 1367, saying that they had often had to beg in the highways, he ratified their property to them as desired, (fn. 23) and in 1370 made them a present of £10. (fn. 24)
When Queen Isabella was on her way to Hertford in May 1358 the nuns came out to meet her, as they did every time she subsequently passed the priory. (fn. 25)
There seems always to have been a close connexion between Cheshunt Nunnery and London. The value of its possessions in the city and suburbs in 1367 far exceeded that of its property elsewhere, (fn. 26) and it is mentioned frequently in wills of London citizens during the 14th and 15th centuries. (fn. 27) The bequests were often small, but not always. In 1392 Maud Holbech left 10 marks, (fn. 28) and in 1431 Thomas Elsyng, rents in St. Lawrence Lane (fn. 29) to the house, which must have derived substantial benefit from the legacies of Agnes Gyffard (fn. 30) and Richard Jepe, rector of All Hallows, Honey Lane. (fn. 31) Agnes Gyffard's daughter Cecilia was a nun at Cheshunt, (fn. 32) and personal ties may account in other instances for the interest of Londoners in the priory.
There is little information about the house except on the financial side. Tiphania Chaumberleyn, the prioress, obtained a papal indult on 30 May 1352 (fn. 33) to choose a confessor to give her plenary remission at the hour of death. When she died many years afterwards an irregularity of form made void the election of her successor, Agnes Amys, but the bishop, Robert Braybrook (1382-1405), finding her very suitable for the office, provided her to the priory by his authority. (fn. 34) Agnes Amys paid 20s. in 1415 for a confirmation of the Letters Patent exempting the convent from payment of aids, (fn. 35) which were again confirmed in 1429 (fn. 36) and 1470. (fn. 37) Prioress Margaret Chawry had some litigation with Nicholas Cowper, vicar of Cheshunt. Sir Thomas Lovell, who had leased a farm of her in 1508, refused to pay tithes; Cowper therefore demanded them from her and took proceedings in the Consistory Court of the Bishop of London, Richard Fitz James. (fn. 38) The prioress won her case, whereupon Cowper appealed to the archbishop's court (fn. 39) and in 1520 to Rome. (fn. 40) Lovell died in May 1524 and Margaret wrote to Bishop Tunstall begging him to make Cowper drop the suit and pay her expenses and to induce Lovell's executors to make some recompense. She evidently felt that she had suffered because Lovell was too powerful to be coerced. (fn. 41)
The dissolution of the priory under the Act of 1536 occurred before 9 September of that year, the house and all its possessions being then granted by the king to Anthony Denny. (fn. 42)
It is not unlikely that poverty prompted their early surrender. As the lead on the church was only worth £2, (fn. 45) it looks as if the building was in ruins. (fn. 46) The debts, too, were £8 9s. 8d., (fn. 47) while the net income was only £13 10s. (fn. 48)
Prioresses of Cheshunt
Isabel, (fn. 49) occurs c. 1227-74
Cassandra, occurs 30 September 1250 (fn. 50)
Dionisia, occurs 1256-7 (fn. 51)
Alice (fn. 52)
Agnes (fn. 53)
Mary, occurs 20 February 1298 (fn. 54)
Helen, resigned 1309 (fn. 55)
Emma de Haddestoke, elected April 1309, but the election annulled (fn. 56)
Cecilia Gyffard, occurs 1 August 1451 (fn. 63)
Isabel Forest, occurs 8 February 1470 (fn. 64)
Isabel, occurs December 1474, 1475, 147682 (fn. 65)
Alice Clerk, occurs 1483-8 (fn. 66)
Margery Hill, the last prioress (fn. 71)
The first seal is a pointed oval of the 12th century, (fn. 72) showing the Virgin seated on a throne adorned with animals' heads and feet; the Child sits on her lap, and she holds a ball in either hand, that in her left having a lily issuing from it. Legend: . . . LLVM . C. . . .
Another seal attached to a document of 1474 (fn. 73) is a very small pointed oval, on which is shown the Virgin, crowned and enthroned, holding the Child on her right arm and in her left hand a sceptre.