Houses of Cistercian nuns: The priory of Stixwould

Pages 146-149

A History of the County of Lincoln: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.

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The seven Cistercian nunneries (fn. 1) of Lincolnshire were all founded in the twelfth century, and all but one during the first half of it; but it is hard to say which was actually the earliest, as none can be exactly dated. Perhaps the priory of Stixwould has as good a claim as any; it was founded by Lucy countess of Chester, (fn. 2) who could not possibly have lived far into the reign of Stephen, and may have endowed this house even under Henry I. Her son Ranulf, who died 1153, was also a benefactor of Stixwould, and so was Ralf FitzGilbert, the founder of Markby.

The revenue of this house from the first shows that it was never intended to contain a very large number of nuns; in the fifteenth century there were usually from twelve to sixteen, but at the foundation there may have been perhaps twenty or thirty. The priory was involved in several lawsuits during the thirteenth century. As early as 1194 there was a suit concerning a knight's fee in Bucknall with Ralf de Lindsey, (fn. 3) another about the same time as to advowson of the church of Willoughby. (fn. 4) A dispute with the abbot of Kirkstead as to common of pasture was settled in 1202 (fn. 5); Guy son of Simon quit-claimed to the priory in 1205 the advowson of Wainfleet church. (fn. 6) From 1207 to 1209 a suit was going forward as to the church of Lavington and its chapels, which had been granted originally by Ralf FitzGilbert, and were now reclaimed by his grandson. The charters, when produced, confirmed the claim of the nuns, and Hugh FitzRalf was ordered not to vex them further. (fn. 7)

In 1308 the prioress complained that in the time of the late king certain men had impounded some of her cattle, and committed other trespasses on her property, assaulting a canon and a lay brother of her house and several of her servants. (fn. 8) The offenders were imprisoned for a time. (fn. 9) There were similar complaints of trespass in 1317, (fn. 10) 1327, (fn. 11) 1328, (fn. 12) and 1365. (fn. 13) In 1419 the nuns were released from payment of a subsidy on account of their poverty. (fn. 14)

As the revenue of the priory was less than £200, it was dissolved under the first Act of Suppression before Michaelmas, 1536 (fn. 15); but the king ordered that after the nuns had been dismissed the house should remain standing, to provide a refuge for the nuns of Stainfield, who had been promised a licence to continue, and for others besides. (fn. 16) It was apparently on this account that the ' rewards' of the dismissed nuns of Stixwould, twelve in number, were paid out of the proceeds of the dissolved priory of Stainfield; each received the usual sum of 20s. (fn. 17) The nuns of Stainfield then took their places, but with a much diminished revenue, for the king had ordered Sir Richard Rich to take a fine of 900 marks from the property of Stixwould, and to reserve for him besides a pension of £34. 10s. 7d., (fn. 18) and the collection of this sum seems to have involved the sale of nearly all the stock of the priory. (fn. 19) The result was that in January, 1537, (fn. 20) the new occupants of Stixwould were obliged to write to John Heneage and beg him to intercede for them with the king, (fn. 21) at least to remit the pension; for they were so much impoverished that unless they had some such help they would have to give up the priory, ' which were great pity, if it pleased God and the king other wise.' The letter is signed, ' Your poor bedeswomen, the whole convent of Stixwould,' and has been printed in full more than once, (fn. 22) though the circumstances under which it was written have not been clearly understood. No answer to the letter is preserved, but six months later, 9 July, 1537, the king issued letters patent for the refoundation of the house under the Premonstratensian rule, (fn. 23) with Mary Missenden (probably one of the Benedictine nuns of Stainfield) (fn. 24) as prioress. They were to hold the site and all the original possessions of Stixwould as the late: prioress held them before the suppression, at a yearly rent of £15 5s. 1d., payable to the king.

From this charter of re-foundation one of two conclusions may be drawn. Either the king was deaf to the entreaties of the nuns, and they were compelled to surrender soon after their letter of January, whereupon Henry founded his new monastery at Stixwould, now for the second time emptied of its inhabitants; or, as seems far more probable, the new foundation was his answer to their petition, (fn. 25) involving only a change in the tenure of the house, which was to be held by the nuns (i.e. those originally of Stainfield), under new conditions, and for a lower rent. (fn. 26) The king's reason for placing the house under the Premonstratensian rule is hard even to guess at; it cannot be that he had a number of dismissed nuns of that order to provide for, as they were extremely rare at all times in England, and their only house in Lincolnshire (Irford) was still standing.

The ' new monastery of King Henry VIII' was of short duration. On 29 September, 1539, Mary Missenden and her sisters surrendered their priory with all its possessions; the prioress receiving in compensation a pension of £15, and fourteen nuns annuities varying from 66s. to 40s. (fn. 27) Eleven of these were still living in 1553, of whom only one, Agnes Bonner, had married. (fn. 28)

The constitution of the smaller Cistercian nunneries is difficult to understand without a more special study than is possible within the limits of such an article as this. Three, at least, of those in Lincolnshire—Stixwould, Heynings, and Legbourne—appear to have been double foundations; they had not merely the usual lay brethren, who were often attached to nunneries for the sake of the field work and other labours which women could not well undertake or superintend, (fn. 29) but also a few monks or canons who held the temporalities jointly with the nuns. (fn. 30) They had in early days a prior who ruled jointly with the prioress. A similar arrangement may be occasionally found in Augustinian (fn. 31) and Premonstratensian houses (fn. 32); it seems, indeed, that several experiments were made in double foundations during the twelfth century, the most notable being, of course, the order of Sempringham. These small Cistercian nunneries of Lincolnshire were all founded about the same time as the Gilbertines; but it is hard to say whether they followed the model of the Gilbertines, or whether St. Gilbert adopted and made general in his order an institution he had observed amongst the Cistercians, to whom we know he looked very largely for inspiration.

The priory of Stixwould had canons and a prior all through the thirteenth century. The last mention we find of them is in 1308. (fn. 33) It was liable to episcopal visitation throughout its history; indeed, none of the small Cistercian priories shared the exemption which all abbeys of the order claimed and kept until the dissolution. As will be seen later, St. Hugh, or Bishop Hugh of Wells, arranged the constitution of Nuncotham; and a commission for the visitation of Stixwould is found in the Memoranda of Bishop Dalderby, under the year 1311. (fn. 34) A mandate of Bishop Burghersh, issued in 1322, was disregarded by certain of the nuns here, who were excommunicated in consequence; after salutary penance, they received absolution. (fn. 35)

When Bishop Flemyng visited the house between 1420 and 1431 it was noticed that the annual allowances of 6s. 8d. due to the nuns for clothing had not been regularly paid (fn. 36); and at Bishop Alnwick's visitation of 1440 this was still a cause of complaint. The bishop had to note a good many irregularities at this time, similar to those which he had observed at Nuncotham just before. The nuns (about sixteen in number) had in many cases separate households, and some of them kept secular boarders on their own account, and when they ate together in the refectory they did not all fare alike. (fn. 37) The children of the convent school and the servants of the nuns slept in the dormitory. The boarders kept by the cellaress were said to be of suspicious character, especially one Janet Barton. The house was eighty marks in debt. One old sister who could not walk complained that she scarcely ever heard mass except on the principal feasts, as she could find no one to carry her.

The bishop ordered that the sums due for clothing should be paid regularly; all seculars were to be removed from the house within three months, and none were to spend the night within the cloister except honest and necessary servants. Janet Barton was to be at once dismissed, and no boarders received in future without special licence from the bishop, save two widows, Elizabeth Dymoke and Margaret Tylney, ' by whose abiding as we trust no grief but rather avail' was procured to the monastery. Certain irregularities of ritual were to be corrected. (fn. 38)

In 1519 Bishop Atwater found about the same number of nuns in the priory. The sick were not well provided for, and the prioress was accused of spending the night outside the cloister too often with secular friends. He ordered that in future she should sleep in the monastery, but might keep a private house within the cloister for her greater refreshment and for receiving her friends. The nuns were to be redistributed in the different houses of the priory, so that some should board with the prioress and some with the sub-prioress. (fn. 39) No other complaint was brought against any of them, either at this time or just before the dissolution of the house in 1536. The nuns of the new foundation clung to the religious life as long as they possibly could, and were ready to endure poverty and distress rather than forsake it.

The original endowment probably included the demesne land at Stixwould with other lands in Honington, Barkston, and Bassingthorpe, (fn. 40) and the rectories of Wainfleet, Hundleby, Honington, and Lavington. (fn. 41) The temporalities of the nuns in 1291 were assessed at £12. (fn. 42) In 1303 they held a quarter of a knight's fee in Honington, half a fee in Stoke, and one-third in Bassingthorpe, with a small fraction beside (fn. 43); the same return was made in 1346. (fn. 44) In 1534 the revenue of the priory was valued at £114 5s. 2½d. clear; (fn. 45) at the new foundation it was placed at £152 10s. 7d., and included the profits of the four rectories of Wainfleet, Honington, Hundleby, and Lavington, and the manors of Stixwould, Horsington, Hundleby, Hallmat and Hundleby-Grange, and Bassingthorpe. (fn. 46) The Ministers' Accounts give a total of £165 7s. 3½ d. (fn. 47)

Priors Of Stixwould

Hugh, (fn. 48) occurs 1202 and 1205

Geoffrey, (fn. 49) occurs 1227 and 1228

Gilbert of Eton, (fn. 50) occurs 1308

Prioresses Of Stixwould

Margaret Gobaud, (fn. 51) elected 1274

Eva, (fn. 52) died 1304

Isabel de Dugby, (fn. 53) elected 1304, occurs 1317

Elizabeth, (fn. 54) occurs 1327and 1328

Elizabeth de Swylington, (fn. 55) elected 1346

Isabel Mallet, (fn. 56) died 1376

Eustace Ravenser, (fn. 57) occurs 1393, died 1403

Katharine Roose, (fn. 58) elected 1403

Eleanor Welby, (fn. 59) occurs 1440

Helen Key, (fn. 60) before 1536

Mary Missenden, (fn. 61) last prioress, appointed 1537


  • 1. A careful inspection of the episcopal registers and visitations has made it quite certain that all these were really of the Cistercian order, though Dugdale and Tanner could not speak certainly.
  • 2. See account of the priory of Spalding. Ranulf de Meschines, her last husband, died 1129.
  • 3. Abbrev. Placit. (Rec. Com.), 3.
  • 4. Curia Reg. R. (Rec. Com.), 308.
  • 5. Boyd and Massingberd, Abstracts of Final Concords, 41.
  • 6. Ibid. 62.
  • 7. Abbrev. Placit. (Rec. Com.), 46, 58.
  • 8. Pat. 2 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 22 d.
  • 9. Close, 2 Edw. II, m. 16.
  • 10. Pat. 10 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 30 d.
  • 11. Ibid. I Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 22 d.
  • 12. Ibid. 2 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 33 d.
  • 13. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, 28 d.
  • 14. Ibid. Memo. Flemyng, 248.
  • 15. The ' wages ' and ' rewards ' of the nuns of Stixwould and their chaplains are entered on John Freeman's accounts of dissolved houses, dated Michaelmas, 1536 (Mins. Accts. 27-28 Henry VIII, No. 166); and this is entirely borne out by the king's letter to Sir Richard Rich, dated August, 1536 (L. and P. Hen. VIII, xi, App. 4). Abbot Gasquet states that a fine was paid for the continuance of Stixwould in 1536 or 1537 (Hen. VIII and the English Monasteries, ii, 23, 30: 9 July, 1536, on the one page, and 9 July, 1537, on the other). If this is correct (the reference to Pat. 29 Hen. VIII, pt. i, m. 29, is obviously a mistake, as that is the charter of re-foundation), and if the name of Stixwould really appears on the list of such fines, it may be a mistake for Stainfield, to which the king says plainly he had promised continuance, speaking at the same time of the fate of Stixwould as in no way uncertain.
  • 16. L. and P. Hen. VIII, App. 4; see Stainfield Priory.
  • 17. Under the heading of ' wages' is given—' Steinfield, for twelve nuns of Stixwold, £6; two priests, 23s. 4d.'; and under ' Money paid in regard,' again—' Steinfield, eleven nuns of Stixwold, 20s.; sub-prioress, 30s. The prioress only of Stainfield received anything from the revenues of that house. The nuns were not paid anything, as they were to go to Stixwould (Mins. Accts, 27-28 Hen. VIII, No. 166).
  • 18. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xi, App. 4.
  • 19. So the nuns state in their letter.
  • 20. This letter is dated only 8 January, but the reference in it to the payment of the same fine and pension as that named by the king in August, 1536, shows that it is rightly placed in the calendar under January, 1537; halfway between the transference of the nuns and the re-foundation on 9 July, 1537.
  • 21. Or rather with ' my lord privy seal' to use his influence with the king.
  • 22. In Wright's Suppression of Monasteries; Strype's Eccles. Memorials; Gasquet's Hen. VIII and the English Monasteries; and an abstract in L. and P. Hen. VIII, vii (1), 22.
  • 23. Pat. 29 Henry VII, pt. i, m. 29.
  • 24. The name is not an uncommon one, and if it stood quite alone the identification would be precarious; but on the pension list of the refounded Stixwould is found another name less common, ' Paga Overton,' who, with Mary Missenden, is named in Bishop Atwater's visitation of Stainfield in 1519.
  • 25. The fact that the king had all along intended to let the nuns of Stainfield continue, as stated in his letter, makes his tenderness of heart on this occasion easier to understand.
  • 26. They had been paying a yearly pension of £34, and their letter had implied that if this only were excused they could still contrive to maintain themselves.
  • 27. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), 235.
  • 28. Exch. Accts. bdle. 76, No. 26.
  • 29. A form of profession for the chaplain and lay brethren attached to Cistercian nunneries may be found in the Cistercian statutes of the thirteenth century. J. T. Fowler, Cistercian Statutes, 107.
  • 30. These cannot be quite on the same footing as the chaplains mentioned in the Cistercian statutes, as the latter were wholly under obedience to the abbess. The arrangement in the Cistercian nunneries of Lincolnshire is much more like that of the Gilbertines.
  • 31. See Harrold Priory, V.C.H. Beds., i, 387, note 9.
  • 32. Gasquet, Collectanea Anglo-Premonstratensia, Preface, vii.
  • 33. Pat. 2 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 22 d. The prior is once or twice called ' master' even before this; and after this date a secular priest was made master in the usual way (Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, 402 d.).
  • 34. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, 201' d.
  • 35. Ibid. Memo. Burghersh, 26 d.
  • 36. Visitations of Alnwick (Alnwick Tower), fol. 73 d.
  • 37. Ibid. At one table there was fish, and at another flesh, on the same day. The ordinary allowance in food for the nuns at this time was a loaf, an egg, and a portion of flesh and cheese; in Advent and Lent herrings and stockfish took the place of flesh.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. Visitations of Atwater (Alnwick Tower).
  • 40. Dugdale, Mon, v, 725.
  • 41. These four are all mentioned in early suits: the nuns once claimed Willoughby also, but it is uncertain by what right.
  • 42. Pope Nich Tax. (Rec. Com.), 59.
  • 43. Feud. Aids, iii, 127, 132, 152, 168.
  • 44. Ibid. 192, 196, 208, 211.
  • 45. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv, 37.
  • 46. Pat. 29 Hen. VIII, pt. i, m. 29.
  • 47. Dugdale, Mon. v, 725.
  • 48. Boyd and Massingberd, Abstracts of Final Concords, 41, 62.
  • 49. Ibid. 221; and Pat. 11 Hen. III, m. 2 d.
  • 50. Close, 2 Edw. II, m. 16.
  • 51. Linc. Epis. Reg. Rolls of Gravesend. The death of another prioress unnamed is recorded in 1236 (Rolls of Grosteste), showing that priors and prioresses existed together.
  • 52. Ibid. Inst. Dalderby, 10.
  • 53. Ibid. and Pat. 10 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 30 d.
  • 54. Pat. 1 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 22 d.; and 2 Edw. III, pt. 1, m. 33 d.
  • 55. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Burghersh, 17.
  • 56. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, 141 d.
  • 57. Cal. of Pap. Letters, iv, 482; and Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Repingdon, 42.
  • 58. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Repingdon, 42.
  • 59. Visitations of Alnwick (Alnwick Tower).
  • 60. Pat. 29 Hen. VIII, pt. i, m. 29.
  • 61. Ibid.