A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1971.
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9. ROWNEY PRIORY, GREAT MUNDEN
A small priory for Benedictine nuns was founded in honour of St. John Baptist c. 1164 (fn. 1) by Conan Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond, at Rowney in the parish of Great Munden, and endowed by him and later owners of property in the neighbourhood with tenements there of the annual value of 10 marks. (fn. 2) Among these benefactors were Richard son of Gilbert de Munden, John son of William de Munden, Stephen, Andrew and Richard de Scales, (fn. 3) Richard and Gerard de Furnival, (fn. 4) Guy Delaville and Reginald de Tanet, (fn. 5) the grant of the last in 'Chelsea,' (fn. 6) with that of Stephen de Scales in Munden receiving the confirmation of Pope Alexander. (fn. 7) The lords of the manor of Great Munden were as such patrons of Rowney, (fn. 8) which meant that at the election of a prioress their consent had to be obtained. (fn. 9)
It has been said that during the 14th century the priory was comparatively wealthy, (fn. 10) but for this idea there seems little or no ground. The advowson of the priory in 1302 was worth nothing, because of the poverty of the house, (fn. 11) the regular income of which according to a rental of c. 1336-7 was £7 1s. 4¼d., (fn. 12) and there is no proof that the convent received any considerable gifts afterwards.
Luke, rector of Throcking, was made master of the nunnery in March 1302, (fn. 13) Richard Punchard of Willian chaplain in 1318 at the request of the prioress, (fn. 14) while in February 1327-8 the administration of the house was committed to Ralph, rector of Great Munden. (fn. 15) John Prior of Wymondley in 1302 was appointed confessor to the nuns. (fn. 16) One of the convent in December 1350 received a papal indult to choose a confessor who might give her plenary remission at the hour of death. (fn. 17)
Out of the scanty information extant about Rowney a large proportion is discreditable to the nuns. From the Court Rolls of Munden Furnival in 1375 (fn. 18) it appears that the prioress had then been guilty of a hand-to-hand scuffle with a chaplain called Alexander of Great Munden, each being fined for drawing blood from the other, and the lady having also to pay for raising hue and cry unjustly on her opponent.
An order was issued in 1401 for the arrest of one of the nuns, Joan Adilesley, who was wandering about in secular dress (fn. 19); and a visitation of the house in 1418 (fn. 20) was followed by the deprivation of the prioress, Catherine Grenefeld. (fn. 21)
It is perhaps unfair to form an opinion from isolated cases separated by such long intervals of time, yet the suspicion is unavoidable that the place was not altogether what it ought to have been. It should, however, be remembered that life at Rowney may have been very hard. The revenues, always small and certainly not increased after the Black Death, could have supplied only the barest, necessaries. Early in the 15th century the chalices, books and ornaments were stolen by robbers, and the nuns were left without the means of performing the divine offices. On this occasion the Bishop of Ely helped the convent by offering an indulgence in 1408 to those who assisted them. (fn. 22)
The nuns on one occasion petitioned the chancellor, (fn. 23) saying that their church and other buildings were likely to fall down for lack of repairs, which they had no money to do, and begging him to grant them a patent for a proctor to go about the country to collect alms on their behalf. The convent at some time must have received such a licence, for a letter dated August 1431 authorizes a proctor (fn. 24) to solicit for them the charity of the faithful, since through misfortune they had come to such want that they could not live on their own resources.
They seem to have suffered, too, from the encroachments of unscrupulous neighbours. Margaret Lyle, the prioress, complained to the chancellor, c. 1431-43, (fn. 25) that one Thomas Howard had deprived them for years of Langhoe Wood, in Great Munden, which had long been theirs, and owing to a technical flaw in her evidence and her fear of him she had no remedy in common law.
The nuns in 1448 (fn. 26) found it difficult even to pay for a chaplain, and begged the king that they might have as priest John Tyvnham, an old Franciscan, who preached well and was of good reputation, because unless they had a young man, and that was not fitting, they were asked a larger salary than they could afford.
The continuance of a community there was at length found impossible. Through the neglect and bad management of the prioress, it was said, the property had so diminished that it was insufficient to maintain any nuns, support the necessary charges and rebuild the church and house, then in ruins. (fn. 27) The prioress and convent, therefore, on 11 September 1457 made over the place with all its possessions to John Fray, chief baron of the Exchequer, (fn. 28) who ten years before had bought the manor of Great Munden and the advowson of the priorty. (fn. 29)
Fray, unwilling that the religious services should lapse, established in the priory church and endowed with the conventual property a perpetual chantry of one chaplain to celebrate for the good estate of the king and himself, and for the souls of the founder and benefactors of the late nunnery. (fn. 30) The convent c. 1336 had land in Great and Little Munden, Standon, (fn. 31) Westmill, (fn. 32) Alswick in Layston, Sandon, Wyddial and Welwyn. (fn. 33) The net annual value of the chantry's property was estimated in 1535 at £13 10s. 9d. (fn. 34) and in 1548 at £18 15s. 1d. (fn. 35)
Prioresses of Rowney
Rose, resigned 1256-7 (fn. 36)
Nicholaa, elected 1256-7 (fn. 37)
Agnes de London, resigned August 1291 (fn. 38)
Joan de London, elected 1318 (fn. 41)
Joan Spenser, elected December 1327 (fn. 42)
Joan de London, occurs 1338 (?) (fn. 43)
Margaret Costance, died 1371 (fn. 44)
Catherine Grenefeld, removed 1418 (fn. 47)
Alice Lyle (?) (fn. 48)
Agnes Selby, surrendered the priory October 1457 (fn. 53)
The circular seal attached to a 13th-century charter (fn. 54) in the British Museum shows a right hand between two sprays of conventional foliage issuing from the base of the design supporting a dish on which lies the head of St. John Baptist. The legend is: SIGILL' OVENT. SBIMONIALIE DE RVGNH'