Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of St Sepulchre, Canterbury

A History of the County of Kent: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1926.

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of St Sepulchre, Canterbury', in A History of the County of Kent: Volume 2, (London, 1926) pp. 142-144. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]

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In the chronicle of William Thorne this house is said to have been founded by Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109), in the parish church of St. Sepulchre, of his patronage. (fn. 1) William Calwell is called the founder in the Valor; and probably the bulk of the endowment came from him, the archbishop merely sharing in the foundation. The priory was situated within the limits of the fee of St. Augustine, and in 1244 the prioress and nuns bound themselves not to enter on or appropriate any lands belonging to the abbey without licence from it. (fn. 2) In 1184 the abbot and convent gave the church of St. Edmund, Redingate, Canterbury, to them in frankalmoign for a rent of 12d. yearly. (fn. 3) The prior and convent of Christchurch granted to them as much wood in the wood of Blean as one horse, going twice each week-day, could bring thence; but in 1270 in lieu of this they granted a definite portion of the wood. (fn. 4)

Henry III on 19 March, 1247, granted to the prioress and nuns a charter confirming in detail gifts of land by various donors; (fn. 5) and in 1255, at the instance of Lauretta, recluse of Hackington, he granted that they should be quit for five years of suit of court-for certain land. (fn. 6)

Archbishop Peckham in 1285 gave 10 marks to the nuns for roofing their dormitory. (fn. 7) On 20 April, 1284, he issued injunctions (fn. 8) to them, in consequence of a visitation. The prioress was to be strictly impartial, and strife was to cease in the monastery. Quarrelsome nuns were to be put in solitary confinement in a dark house under the dormitory, where no secular was ever to enter, whether a nun be there or not. The new house where religious and even secular men used to come for talk with the nuns and other women was interdicted. Any nun talking with any man, except in the case of confession, was to go with two of her fellows to the common parlour. Seculars were not to frequent the refectory or cloister. No man was to enter the precinct after sunset unless life be in peril, and then only in suitable society. No nun was to enter the town without a companion or go to any place, for confession unless she had no other confessor; and she was not to take food or drink or prolong her stay. All suspected women and servants were to be removed, and no woman was to stay in the nunnery in future without the archbishop's special licence. This ordinance was to be read in chapter on the first day of each month. The archbishop at the same time ordered (fn. 9) his commissary to take the ordinance to the priory and appoint two coadjutors for the prioress, as the goods of the house had been much wasted by her negligence; Sarah was to be one of these, but Benedicta was not to be one, as she had offended the whole college by her abuse. The vicar of Wickham was to take care of the goods of the house. The commissary was also to receive the purgation of Isabel de Scorue, who had been guilty of a scandal with the cellarer of Christchurch, and to forbid her and other nuns to go to that church or the cellarer to come to the nunnery or have access to any nun.

Archbishop Langham found at a visitation on 3 March, 1368, that Joan Chiriton, prioress, did not govern well. Among other faults she permitted the rector of Dover and other suspected persons to have access to Marjory Child: and Joan Aldelose, and these alone among the nuns were allowed to visit the town. The prioress was removed on account of the scandal, and Agnes Broman appointed in her place. (fn. 10)

In 1369 a chantry was founded (fn. 11) in the priory church for the soul of Robert Vyntier of Maidstone and his parents and brothers, and his executors granted the manor of ' Scheforde by Maidstone called La Mote' to the chaplain. The patronage of the chantry was to belong to the archbishop, and the prioress and nuns were to have all profits from the manor in times of vacancy for the use of a chaplain to be found by them. Archbishop Morton by his will in 1500 granted the manor to the convent to find a priest to serve the chantry. (fn. 12)

Archbishop Warham ordered proper accounts to be given after a visitation in 1511. (fn. 13) At this visitation Mildred Hale, prioress, said that the nuns did not rise for mattins in the middle of the night, but at dawn, because the doors of the cloister were being mended and the roof covered, and there was so much noise outside the church. There were then five other nuns in the priory.

St. Sepulchre's came into unenviable notoriety towards the end of its career through Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent. (fn. 14) She was originally a domestic servant at Aldington, and was attacked by disease and in consequence developed religious mania about the year 1525. The parson of the parish reported the case to Archbishop Warham, and the latter ordered the prior of Christchurch to inquire into it. Two monks were sent for this purpose, and one of these, Edward Bockyng, conceived the idea of making use of her for the Catholic party; he carefully educated her in the legends of the saints and theological arguments, gave as much publicity as possible to her utterances, and in 1527 procured her admission to St. Sepulchre's, where for several years she continued to grow in importance, Bockyng's information enabling her to avoid serious error in her prophecies. She became one of the chief opponents of the divorce of Queen Katharine, and declared that if it came to pass the king would die a villain's death, although Katharine refused to have anything to do with her, and it is clear from the letters (fn. 15) of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, that he was under no illusions whatever about her. So far she had been allowed to talk unchecked. But when the marriage of Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn had come to pass and he still lived, it was necessary to explain her prophecies, and she did so by saying that he was no longer king. Cromwell then took the matter up; Cranmer, who had succeeded Warham as archbishop, examined her carefully and secured her confession; an act of attainder (fn. 16) was passed against her and her accomplices; and she was executed on 20 April, 1534. St. Sepulchre's cannot, however, be considered principally responsible for the affair.

In the Valor of 1535 the possessions of the priory, including the parsonage of St. Mary Bredne, Canterbury, and the manor of the Mote by Maidstone, were valued (fn. 17) at £38 19s;. 7½d. yearly. The deductions amounted to £9 7s. 2d. and included one quarter of wheat to be given yearly for the soul of William Calwell, the founder, on Thursday before Easter; and so the net income remaining 'to the seid prioresse and vii nonnes for their mete, drynk, apparell and other chargs' was £29 12s. 5½d. The house consequently came under the operation of the Act of 1536 and was dissolved, the prioress receiving a pension (fn. 18) of 100s. yearly.

The site and possessions of the monastery were leased (fn. 19) to Robert Darkenall of Canterbury on 21 May, 1537, for twenty-one years at a rent of £39 9s. 3d.; and on 31 July 1538, the reversion was granted to the archbishop of Canterbury. (fn. 20)

Prioresses Of Canterbury

Juliana, occurs 1227, (fn. 21) 1236, 1244, (fn. 22) died 1258 (fn. 23)
Lettice, succeeded 1258 (fn. 23)
Benedicta, occurs circa 1300 (fn. 24)
Sarah de Peckham, elected 1324 (fn. 25)
Margaret Terry appointed 1349 (fn. 26)
Margery, occurs 1356 (fn. 21)
Cecily de Tonford, appointed 1356, (fn. 27) resigned 1366 (fn. 28)
Joan de Chiriton, elected 1366, (fn. 29) resigned 1368 (fn. 30)
Agnes Broman or Bourghman, elected 1368, (fn. 31) died 1369 (fn. 32)
Alice Guston, elected 1369, (fn. 32) removed 1376 (fn. 33)
Margery Child, succeeded 1376 (fn. 33)
Joan Whitfelde, died 1427 (fn. 34)
Lettice Hamon, elected 1427 (fn. 35)
Mildred Hale, occurs 1511 (fn. 36)
Philippa Jonys (fn. 37) or John, (fn. 38) the last prioress

The seal (fn. 39) (twelfth century) measures 2½ inches and represents the Holy Sepulchre in the form of a rectangular case with mosaic front; on it an angel seated; over it four columns supporting a dome-shaped tent or baldachin. Legend:—



  • 1. Twysden, Decem Scriptores, 1893.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Ibid. 1838.
  • 4. Harl. Chart. 75. F. 46.
  • 5. Chart. 31 Hen. III, m. 7.
  • 6. Pat. 40 Hen. III, m. 2.
  • 7. Reg. Epist. J. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), iii, 894.
  • 8. Ibid, ii, 706.
  • 9. Ibid. 708.
  • 10. a Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Langham, fol. 76b.
  • 11. Lit. Cant. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 493.
  • 12. Dugdale, Mon. iv,413.
  • 13. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Warham, fol. 36.
  • 14. For a fuller account of her, see Dict. Nat. Biog. iii, 343; Trans. Royal Hist. Soc. xviii, 107.
  • 15. Cal. of S.P, Spanish, 1531-3, ii.
  • 16. Stat. 25 Hen. VIII, cap. 12.
  • 17. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i, 29; Mon. iv, 415.
  • 18. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), p. 583.
  • 19. Ibid. p. 585.
  • 20. Ibid. 1519 (68).
  • 21. Dugdale, Mon. iv, 413.
  • 22. Feet of F. Kent, 20, 28 Hen. III.
  • 23. Gervase of Canterbury, Opera (Rolls Ser.), ii, 208.
  • 24. Harl. Chart. 76. G. 34.
  • 25. a Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Reynolds, 131b.
  • 26. b Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. viii, App. 337.
  • 27. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Islip, fol. 130b.
  • 28. Lit. Cant. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 467.
  • 29. Ibid. 468.
  • 30. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Langham, fol 77.
  • 31. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Langham, fol. 77.
  • 32. Ibid. Whittlesey, fol. 15.
  • 33. Ibid. Sudbury, fol. 13.
  • 34. Ibid. Chicheley, i, fol. 47.
  • 35. Ibid.; Lettice occurs as prioress in 1439 (Early Chan. Proc. bdle. 9, No. 105; bdle. 16, No. 625).
  • 36. See above.
  • 37. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i, 29.
  • 38. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), p. 583.
  • 39. B.M. Seals, lxv, 17.