Houses of Benedictine nuns: St Mary de Pre priory, St Albans

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: St Mary de Pre priory, St Albans', in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4, (London, 1971) pp. 428-432. British History Online [accessed 4 March 2024]

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The foundation of the nunnery of St. Mary de Pré in 1194 by Warin, Abbot of St. Albans, was the outcome of a vision. St. Amphibalus appeared in a dream to a man of Walden, and ordered him to tell the abbot to honour the place where the relics of himself and his companions on their way to the abbey had met the shrine of St. Alban, (fn. 1) for the spot was very dear to God and those martyrs. (fn. 2)

In obedience to this direction Warin built there a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and houses for leprous women, (fn. 3) who were to be veiled and live under a rule. The endow ment was made entirely at the abbey's expense, (fn. 4) and was of a nature to keep the new priory very dependent on St. Albans. Warin gave to the house (fn. 5) the site, church and buildings on both sides of the street and various tithes, including those of the abbey's demesne of Luton, of the new assart at Sarratt and all assarts made in future and of all pannage belonging to St. Albans; a rent of 20s. in Cambridge for the sisters' clothing (fn. 6); and to each leper up to the number of thirteen a monk's left-off frock and cloak; for their maintenance the corrodies already given for past abbots, and one at the death of every abbot in future, (fn. 7) until they numbered thirteen; the corrodies of Kings Offa and Henry and Pope Hadrian when the holders died, and meanwhile an allowance of bread, meat and ale from St. Albans; two loaves from every ovenful of the abbot's portion; leave to grind a measure of oats and another of malt at certain mills; 3d. a week from the toll of the town of St. Albans; food for two horses every day from the abbey granary; and a cartload of wood every week; while the chaplain and his clerk were to receive their food daily from the abbey, a mark a year from Walden Church and half a mark from the church of Newnham.

The sisters were fortunate in their first warden, John de Walden, who was an able advocate of their cause, and as he enjoyed the royal favour it was probably through him that King John confirmed to them in 1199 2 acres in Eastbrook (fn. 8) given them by Queen Eleanor, and granted them a yearly fair on the vigil and feast of the Nativity of the Virgin (fn. 9); in 1204 he further gave them 30 acres of assart in Eastbrook Wood (fn. 10) and in 1215 received the house and sisters into his protection. (fn. 11)

A papal mandate of January 1223 (fn. 12) forbade the abbot and convent to use their patronage to lay burdens on the lepers at Pré, but the actual grie\?\ance of the subject community is unfortunately not explained. According to Matthew Paris Pré was so poor in the middle of the 13th century that its inmates had scarcely the necessaries of life. (fn. 13) The exaction of the clerical tenth in 1254 must therefore have pressed hardly on them, especially since the house had just then to be rebuilt. It seems indeed that they could not have finished what they had begun if Pope Alexander IV had not helped them by offering indulgences to those who contributed to the work. (fn. 14)

Abbot Richard de Wallingford (1328-36) made a few regulations for the house. (fn. 15) He required the brothers at their reception to swear fealty to St. Albans before the abbot and archdeacon, and vow never to procure the entrance of brothers, sisters or nuns except through the abbot; they must also promise in writing to live in chastity, voluntary poverty and obedience according to the rule of St. Benedict. Up to this time it is said the brothers and sisters had professed no certain rule.

Some idea of the life led by the inmates may be gathered from the ordinances drawn up (fn. 16) possibly by Abbot Michael or his successor Thomas de la Mare (fn. 17) who is known to have made a rule for Pré. (fn. 18)

The master, who must be versed in temporal affairs, was to transact the business of the house with the advice of his brothers and the prioress and to render an account to the abbot every year; chapters were to be held twice a week by such brothers as were monks to treat of the needs of the house; when the bell was rung in the morning all were to rise, and after washing their hands go to church, where the brothers and chaplains were to say the matins of our Lady and of the day, then after a short interval the hours, and finally high mass, at which all unless very ill were to be present; the brothers were to have a common board, and the prioress, nuns and sisters were likewise to dine together in the frater, and none was to be late or leave before grace; from Easter to All Saints there were to be two meals a day, from All Saints to Lent one only, except on Sundays; intervals between mass and vespers were to be occupied with work or devotions in church; talking in church and after Compline was forbidden; the doors between the men and women were to be closed except at service-time; the brothers were not to speak to the nuns and sisters, and all were forbidden to talk to seculars where suspicion of evil might arise; no men must eat in the nuns' close without leave of the prioress; visitors were to be kindly received, men by the brothers, women by the nuns and sisters, who must never allow secular persons to eat in the private rooms, such as the dormitory; the prioress was to see that the nuns slept in their beds in one house and the sisters in another; no brother or sister must go out of the house to roam about (fn. 19) or talk to friends or enter a town without leave of the master and consent of the archdeacon; obedience to the master was enjoined on the brothers and obedience to the prioress on the sisters and nuns.

The division of the inmates into nuns and sisters holding an inferior position seems not to have been contemplated by Abbot Warin, who intended the house apparently for thirteen sisters, but the mention of a prioress in 1255 proves that the two classes existed soon after the foundation. (fn. 20) Of the proportion of sisters to nuns there is no information, but in 1341-2 there were four sisters, (fn. 21) in 1342-3 five, (fn. 22) and in 1352-3 eight nuns besides the prioress. (fn. 23) As leprosy died out and the house became less of a hospital, (fn. 24) the distinction was found unsatisfactory, and Abbot Thomas de la Mare (1349-96) provided that no more sisters were to be received and those there then might become nuns if they wished. (fn. 25) At the same time he insisted on a higher standard of education. Most of the nuns were so unlettered that they could only repeat one or two prayers, (fn. 26) but the abbot now required them to learn the service and say it daily, and because they had no books gave them some from St. Albans. (fn. 27) In the interests of discipline he ordained also that all entering the house in future must profess the rule of St. Benedict in writing and take the vows before the Archdeacon of St. Albans. (fn. 28) He did not forget their temporal welfare, but had what was due to them from the monastery noted in a register to prevent its withdrawal at any time. (fn. 29)

The accounts of the wardens 1341-57 (fn. 30) provide much information as to buildings, (fn. 31) food (fn. 32) and domestic economy generally. Among the receipts are one or two interesting items: 40s. paid at the entrance of the abbot's sister in 1342-3; 15s. 3d. paid to Sister Isabella Rutheresfeld for her ale (fn. 33) in 1350-1; £10 received from John Kyrkely on becoming a brother of the house in 1352-3. (fn. 34) Every expense is noted, the lock for the larder, thread and pack-needles, wax and cotton for candles and payment to a man making them, the stipend of a brewer for four days and payment to a barber. The servants in 1350-1 numbered fifteen and comprised three tenatores, apparently farmers, a huntsman, cowherd, shepherd, swineherd, four ploughmen, a maidservant of the kitchen, the nuns' maid, the master's servant, and a man collecting bread and ale for the nuns at St. Albans. The income in 1341-2 was about £55, the expenses £46; both were much the same in 1342-3; in 1350-1 the receipts were £63 13s. 5½d., expenses £75 3s. 9½d., but in 1352-3 the balance was £15 on the right side; so on the whole the management must have been good. (fn. 35)

Early in the 15th century the nuns received an important addition to their property, Henry V in 1416 granting them the reversion, after the death of Queen Joan, of the alien priory of Wing, co. Bucks. (fn. 36) He also exempted the estate from payment of all subsidies, though owing to an omission in the wording of the grant the convent's claim in this respect was not acknowledged until 1440. (fn. 37) On the accession of Edward IV the convent obtained a fresh patent, which mentioned the parish church and its advowson as well as the manor. (fn. 38)

From 1461 to 1493 the accounts of the house, (fn. 39) now kept by the prioress, again supply many details about its administration. (fn. 40) There were then nine or ten nuns besides the prioress, and the expenses were usually kept within the limits of an income of about £65. The house financially seems generally to have been well ordered.

Of its condition in other respects nothing is known (fn. 41) except from the letter of Archbishop Morton to the Abbot of St. Albans in July 1490. (fn. 42) Morton had heard on good authority, he said, that Helen Germyn, the prioress, was a married woman who had left her husband for a lover, and that she and others of the convent were leading notoriously immoral lives with some of the monks of St. Albans. There was enough truth in the report to cause Helen's removal, (fn. 43) and apparently the selection of the next prioress from Sopwell. (fn. 44)

Beyond the accounts of the prioress in 1515 (fn. 45) and in 1526-7 (fn. 46) there is no further information about Pré until April 1528, when it was found on an inquiry (fn. 47) that the last prioress, Eleanor Barnarde, had died in the previous June, and that the three nuns composing the convent had deserted the place. It had apparently been represented to Pope Clement VII before that regular discipline was much relaxed and the nuns did not live as good lives as they ought; for it was on this ground that in May 1528 he dissolved the priory and annexed it to the abbey of St. Albans, then held by Cardinal Wolsey in commendam. (fn. 48) In July Henry VIII granted the site of the late nunnery with all its possessions to Wolsey himself, (fn. 49) who conferred it on his new college at Oxford. (fn. 50) Its property comprised, (fn. 51) the manors of Pré, 'Playdell' (fn. 52) and Beaumonts, rent in lieu of tithes in Redbourn, Sarratt, Codicote (co. Herts.) and Dallow (fn. 53) (in Luton, co. Bedford), and various parcels of land, the manor of Wing with the advowson of the church and the rectory and the manor of Swanbourne (co. Bucks.), in which place the nuns had a holding in 1252. (fn. 54)

Wardens or Masters of St. Mary De Pré Priory

John de Walden, the first master (fn. 55)

Richard, occurs 1235 (fn. 56)

William, occurs 1248 (fn. 57)

Richard, occurs 1278 (fn. 58)

Roger, occurs c. 1316 (fn. 59)

John le Patere, occurs March 1325 (fn. 60)

Richard de Bovyndon, occurs September 1341 to September 1342 (fn. 61)

Nicholas Redhod, occurs March 1352 to March 1353 (fn. 62)

John de Kyrkely, occurs 13 August 1356 to 25 March 1357 (fn. 63)

Prioresses of St. Mary De Pré Priory

— de la Moote, occurs 1401 (fn. 64)

Lucy Botelere (?), occurs 1430 (fn. 65)

Isabella Benyngton, occurs 1446 (fn. 66); Isabella, occurs 1460-1 (fn. 67)

Isabella or Elizabeth Baron, (fn. 68) occurs September 1468-71, (fn. 69) retired 4 April 1480 (fn. 70)

Alice Wafer, appointed April 1480, (fn. 71) occurs 1482-5 (fn. 72)

Christiana Basset, occurs March 1487 to December 1488 (fn. 73)

Helen Germyn, occurs July 1490 (fn. 74)

Amy Goden, occurs 29 September 1490-3 (fn. 75)

Margaret Vernon, occurs 29 September 151315 (fn. 76)

Eleanor Barnard, the last prioress, died 4 June 1527 (fn. 77)

The seal of the house attached to a 13thcentury charter (fn. 78) is a pointed oval. On it is represented a three-quarter length figure of the Virgin, crowned and enthroned, with a sceptre in her right hand; she holds on her left knee the Child, who has a cruciform nimbus. At the sides are two lily branches. Below, under the words AVE MARIA, which the cutter has reversed, is a leper-woman praying, and behind her a star. The only letters remaining of the legend are: S' . . . E . . TO.


  • 1. For the importance of this encounter see St. Albans.
  • 2. Gesta Abbat. i, 199-200.
  • 3. Ibid. 201.
  • 4. Matthew Paris is rather bitter on the subject (Gesta Abbat. i, 205).
  • 5. Ibid. 202-4.
  • 6. Land in Cambridge was granted by Warin to Anchitel de Grantebreg and his heirs for this rent to St. Mary de Pré (Anct. D. [P.R.O.], A 11069).
  • 7. The seventh was claimed and granted on the death of Abbot William de Trumpington in 1235 (Gesta Abbat. i, 305).
  • 8. a Eastbrookhay in the parish of Hemel Hempstead (V.C.H. Herts. ii, 222).
  • 9. Cart. Antiq. M. 20; Inspex. of Ric. III (Dugdale, Mon. iii, 358, no. viii).
  • 10. Cart. Antiq. M. 18.
  • 11. Rot. Lit. Pat. (Rec. Com.), 131.
  • 12. Cal. of Papal Letters, i, 90. It was issued owing to a complaint of the lepers.
  • 13. Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.),v, 452.
  • 14. Dugdale, Mon. iii, 356, no. iv, v, vi.
  • 15. Gesta Abbat. ii, 213-14.
  • 16. Cott. MS. Nero, D 1, fol. 173-4 d.
  • 17. Both had personal reasons to be interested in Pré. Michael's sister Alice entered the hospital in 1342-3 (Mins. Accts. bdle. 869, no. 22), and Thomas's sister Dionisia became a nun there (Gesta Abbat. ii, 373).
  • 18. Gesta Abbat. ii, 402.
  • 19. The passage is headed 'Le defence de passir hors de la porte en perigrinage alir.'
  • 20. W. Page, 'The Hist. of Mon. of St. Mary de Pré, St. Albans and Herts. Archit. and Arch. Soc. Trans. (New Ser.), i, 12.
  • 21. Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 21.
  • 22. Ibid. no. 22.
  • 23. Ibid. no. 25.
  • 24. In the 13th century it was generally called a hospital, and represented officially by the master (Feet of F. Herts. 32 Hen. III, no. 344; 7 Edw. I, no. 97; Lay Subs. R. 19 & 24 Edw. I, bdle. 120, no. 2 and 5). In one instance the prioress and nuns figure with the master and brothers (Add. Chart. 19279).
  • 25. Gesta Abbat. ii, 401.
  • 26. They said the Lord's Prayer and the 'Hail Mary' instead of the service.
  • 27. Gesta Abbat. ii, 402.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Ibid. 401.
  • 30. Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 21-6.
  • 31. Besides the church there is mention of the hall, almshouse and bakehouse, all tiled, the chamber of the brothers, that of the nuns and sisters, the refectory, laundry-house and cowhouse outside the gates.
  • 32. Their purchases included salt for the larder and white salt for the household, spice, meat, olive oil, milk, cheese, butter and eggs; in 1350-1 100 fish, called Middelwoxefich; in 1356-7 1,000 herrings, 2 salmon for 4s., 6 salt fish 8s.; on feast of Nativity of B. V. Mary ox-meat 3s. and 4 geese 20d. In 1352-3 at each of the six principal feasts the nuns received 60 flagons of ale, and a memorandum was made that they ought to have 100 flagons (ibid. no. 25).
  • 33. Ibid. no. 23.
  • 34. Ibid. no. 25. He was warden of the house in 1356 (ibid. no. 26).
  • 35. Ibid. passim.
  • 36. Cal. Pat. 1416-22, p. 38. It was in his hands in 1420, and he then gave them the issues (ibid. p. 276).
  • 37. Ibid. 1436-41, p. 469.
  • 38. Ibid. 1461-7, p. 53. It cost the convent £9 17s. 6d. (Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 30).
  • 39. Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 30, 32, 33-6; Hen. VII, no. 274.
  • 40. The nuns had 10d. a week for board, and pittances on feasts of St. Nicholas, St. Leonard, the Circumcision, Epiphany, St. Mary Magdalene, and Nativity of B. V. Mary, 16 December and the anniversary of Henry V. On the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, the fairtime, over £1 was spent on the convent and visitors. Payments for wassail at New Year and Twelfth Night, harpers and players at Christmas, for May games, for bread and ale on bonfire nights, and for coals in the dormitory show that the nuns had amusements and even luxuries. A good deal of hospitality was shown to tenants, strangers and the poor, and rooms were let in the precinct, so that the convent was by no means cut off from the world. The accounts of 1490-3 (Mins. Accts. Hen. VII, no. 274) include payments for cutting the vine, mowing the convent garden, shaking the fruit trees there, gathering palm and flowers for Palm Sunday, cartage of herrings and sprats from London, and cleaning the great kitchen and guest-chamber, and making trestles and forms in connexion with the fair.
  • 41. A certain Joan Sturmyn had so much confidence in Alice Wafer, prioress 1480-5, that she entrusted to her keeping goods worth £50. It is clear, too, that though the goods were afterwards detained from Joan's executors, Alice was not to blame (Early Chan. Proc. bdle. 97, no. 6).
  • 42. Wilkins, Concilia, iii, 632.
  • 43. The accounts of the house (Mins. Accts. Hen. VII, no. 275) show that shortly before Michaelmas 1490 Amy Goden had succeeded Helen, here called Kydyer, who must therefore have been removed, unless by a coincidence she had died.
  • 44. In 1465 there was at Sopwell a nun called Amy Godyn (Anct. D. [P.R.O.], A 2491), the name of Helen's successor.
  • 45. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ii, 959.
  • 46. Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. cclxxii, fol. 79.
  • 47. Cardinal's Bdles. i.
  • 48. Dugdale, Mon. iii, 361, no. xi.
  • 49. L. and P. Hen. VIII, iv, 4472.
  • 50. Ibid. 5714, 5786.
  • 51. Ibid. 4472.
  • 52. In 1350-1 they kept a tenator and a huntsman here (Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 24).
  • 53. They had property here in 1350-1 (ibid. no. 23).
  • 54. Cal. Pat. 1247-58, p. 139.
  • 55. Gesta Abbat. i, 201.
  • 56. Ibid. 305.
  • 57. Feet of F. Herts. 32 Hen. III, no. 344.
  • 58. Ibid. 7 Edw. I, no. 97.
  • 59. Rentals and Surv. portf. 8, no. 38.
  • 60. Lansd. MS. 375, fol. 95 d.-96.
  • 61. Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 21.
  • 62. Ibid. no. 25.
  • 63. Ibid. no. 26.
  • 64. The sister of John de la Moote, Abbot of St. Albans, who when dying asked the convent to restore to her £40 which had been used for the monastery, or provide for her otherwise, such as by a livery (Gesta Abbat. iii, 452).
  • 65. She is not called prioress, but as she is the only one named among several nuns then received into the fraternity of St. Albans (Amundesham, Annales, i, 51), it is probable that she was the head.
  • 66. Dugdale, Mon. iii, 357.
  • 67. Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 30. Possibly Isabella Baron.
  • 68. She is in the Book of Benefactors of St. Albans, as giving 2 marks for the ornaments of the church and decoration of various altars (Cott. MS. Nero, vii, fol. 115).
  • 69. Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 32, 33.
  • 70. Reg. of St. Albans, ii, 209. She died in 1491 (Mins. Accts. Hen. VII, no. 275).
  • 71. Reg. of St. Albans, ii, 209.
  • 72. Mins. Accts. bdle. 867, no. 35-6. She either resigned or was removed, for she was living at Pré in 1487-8.
  • 73. Mins. Accts. Hen. VII, no. 274.
  • 74. Wilkins, Concilia, iii, 632.
  • 75. Mins. Accts. Hen. VII, no. 275.
  • 76. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ii, 959.
  • 77. Cardinal's Bdles. 1.
  • 78. Add. Chart. 19279.