Houses of Cistercian nuns: The priory of Nuncotham

Pages 151-153

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

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The priory of Nuncotham in Brocklesby parish was founded, probably in Stephen's reign, by Alan de Moncels, (fn. 1) in whose family the patronage long continued. The possessions of the nuns were confirmed to them by Henry II and John. (fn. 2) They were probably never very extensive, for at the end of the twelfth century the bishop thought them only sufficient to support thirty nuns. (fn. 3) By the fifteenth, century there were only fourteen, and about the same number at the end. The income of the house at the last was under £50, so that it might have been dissolved under the first Act of Suppression. As a matter of fact, however, it stood till 9 July, 1539. (fn. 4) The prioress then received a pension of £6; her twelve sisters annuities varying from £2 to 30s. (fn. 5)

The priory was from the first under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Lincoln, and either St. Hugh himself, or Hugh of Wells, drew up a constitution for the nuns at a time when they had apparently been living a little beyond their means. After consultation with the master and the prioress and convent he decided that henceforth the number of nuns should not be more than thirty, with twelve lay brethren for the outdoor works connected with the priory. There were to be two chaplains, besides the master, attached to the house. The customs as to the keeping of the convent seal and the showing of accounts were to be the same as were usual in all religious orders. The nuns, the chaplains, the lay brethren, and. lay sisters, as well as their guests, were all to fare alike as to food; only the sick were to have anything different from the rest. No secular guest was to be admitted for more than one night at a time. No nun might talk alone with a stranger, and not even the lay sisters might live at the granges of the priory, and away from the monastery. Visits to friends were only to be allowed under special licence, and in case of real necessity. No nun or sister was to have anything of her own, or to receive money or any other temporal property for herself by way of contract. (fn. 6)

It is important to note the exact terms of this constitution, partly because it was probably the same for all Cistercian nunneries at the time, and partly that it may be seen exactly where, as time went on, it was less well kept. It was evidently intended at the beginning of the thirteenth century that the nuns should be, as far as possible, withdrawn from seculars and secular affairs; it was also intended that their individual poverty should be real and absolute.

As to seclusion from the world, Nuncotham Priory was beset by the same difficulty as almost all small nunneries at the end of the fourteenth century. The nuns were poor; it seemed a matter almost of necessity that they should seek some way of increasing their income; it was not enough merely to keep a school; and so the common practice of receiving lady boarders was adopted here as elsewhere. The ladies who came to board in convents wanted to live economically, and doubtless also to have a devotional atmosphere about them; but they did not want actually to be nuns, nor to leave the world quite behind them. As a natural consequence they brought the world with them into the cloister; and hence the frequent complaints of bishops in visitations of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, that ' the conversation of seculars disturbed the contemplation of religion.' In 1382 Bishop Bokyngham ordered nuns of this priory, as he had done in so many other cases, to 'amove all secular persons from their precincts '—especially Dame Joan Mounceys, who had taken up her abode permanently in the guesthouse. (fn. 7) His injunctions were apparently not of much avail. When Bishop Alnwick came in 1440 the priory had become in many ways secularized. The nuns were living innocently indeed. There were no conspicuous breaches of rule, nor any signs of luxury or extravagance. The choir office was not omitted or seriously neglected, though some of the obedientiaries were occasionally too busy to attend it. But the nuns paid long visits to their friends, and travelled quite a distance sometimes for this purpose. Many of them had private rooms and gardens in the monastery, and servants of their own to wait upon them, (fn. 8) and occasionally in the evening one or other would be absent from compline, because she was so busy looking after her flowers. Servants slept in the dormitory, and many seculars boarded in the monastery. The allowance for clothing to each nun, however, had been lately reduced, through the poverty of the house; the bread and beer provided for all was of very poor quality; and the monastic buildings were in need of repair.

The bishop gave such injunctions as might have been expected. Secular servants were to be banished from the dormitories; the choir and refectory to be regularly attended; visits to friends were limited to three days, unless there were great and reasonable cause for a longer stay; corrodies were not to be granted without leave of the bishop. (fn. 9)

Bishop Atwater's visitation in 1519 revealed the same old difficulty. His only injunction, however, to the nuns was to admit no seculars to eat and drink with them, save in one public place appointed by the prioress, and in the presence of several sisters. (fn. 10)

The visitation of Bishop Longlands in 1531 is of greater interest. He evidently found the prioress, Joan Thompson, living just as if the house was her own property, and forgetting that it was only under her charge for the benefit of the community. She had been for some time in the habit of keeping her own kinsfolk at the expense of the convent. She had bestowed its goods liberally on her brother and his children, and granted corrodies far too freely. There had been gaieties and Christmas sports allowed, quite unbecoming to the dignity of a religious house. The sisters, as of old, had been too fond of paying visits to their friends, sometimes on pretext of making pilgrimages. The children brought up in the monastery were not properly taught, and the divine office had evidently been neglected or hurried through.

The bishop ordered the office to be properly attended, and ' honourably and treatably sung,' without ' haste and festination.' The prioress was to use herself ' as a good mother, lovingly, charitably, and indifferently to all the sisters,' and ' not to give too light credence to every tale.' She was to keep about her none but her own mother, and one or two others of her ' saddest kinsfolk.' The cloister doors were to be duly fastened at night time, children banished from the dormitory, no ' lord of misrule' was to be allowed in the house, nor any ' disguisings in nun's apparel, nor otherwise.' The discipline of the order was to be revived generally, and friars and secular clergy were not to be too freely admitted to the monastery. A confessor was to be appointed for the convent, approved by the bishop's commissary. All the ladies were charged truly to observe their religion, and to be obedient to the prioress, leaving all dissensions, and ' uniting themselves to God by clean, chaste, and religious living'; to occupy themselves when the divine service was done with useful employments, and to flee all ill company. These injunctions were to be read once a month in chapter. (fn. 11)

When Dr. London took the surrender of this house in 1539, with those of Fosse, Irford, and Heynings, he remarked that they were wonderfully glad that they might marry, if professed under the age of twenty-one, by the new Acts of Parliament. (fn. 12) It is highly probable that some of the ladies of Nuncotham were eligible for this privilege, for ten of them lived on till 1553, (fn. 13) and the visitation of 1531 seems to suggest that they and their prioress were nearly all young. Only one of them was, however, married at the beginning of Mary's reign. (fn. 14)

The original endowment by Alan and Ingram de Moncels included the vill of (Nun) Cotham and divers small parcels of land, with the church of Cuxwold. (fn. 15) During the twelfth century the churches of Keelby, Burgh-on-Bain, and Croxton were given by other benefactors. (fn. 16) The temporalities of the priory in 1291 were worth £35 11S. 10d., and the spiritualities £12 13s. 4d. at least. (fn. 17) In 1303 the prior held half a knight's fee in Burgh and Girsby and part of a fee in Swallow; (fn. 18) in 1346 a fraction also in Habrough and Killingholme; (fn. 19) in 1428 (fn. 20) in addition portions of fees in Croxton, Brocklesby, and Little Limber. In1534 the clear income of the priory was £46 17s. 7d., including the rectories of Keelby, Croxton, Great Limber, Burgh-onBain, and Cuxwold. (fn. 21) The total given in the Ministers' Accounts is £59 16s. 1d. (fn. 22).

Prioresses Of Nuncotham

Maud, (fn. 23) occurs about 1170

Alice, (fn. 24) occurs 1218

Emma, (fn. 25) elected 1231, occurs 1234

Amy of Barrow, (fn. 26) died 1310

Christine Cotty, (fn. 27) elected 1310, died 1319

Isabel of Bonnington, (fn. 28) elected 1319

Cecily Hanlay, (fn. 29) died 1381

Alice Beaupas, (fn. 30) elected 1381

Elizabeth Skipwith, (fn. 31) occurs 1440

Joan Thompson, (fn. 32) last prioress, occurs 1531


  • 1. Dugdale,Mon. v, 675. Alan de Moncels' name is found on the great Roll of the Pipe (Rec. Com.), 28, 29, 34, &c., as holding property in Yorks. and Lincs.
  • 2. Chart. R. (Rec. Com.), 85.
  • 3. Dugdale, v, 675.
  • 4. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xix (1), 1242.
  • 5. Ibid. 1280.
  • 6. Dugdale, Mon. v, 675.
  • 7. Linc. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, 325.
  • 8. This, of course, was an abuse, and an almost complete defeat of the rule of poverty; but it should be noted that in monasteries of all orders in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the original ideal of individual poverty had been modified by actual dispensation, rather than by laxity; and it was not a breach of poverty, but the common custom of the time, for all monks and nuns to have a definite yearly allowance for clothing.
  • 9. Visitations of Alnwick (Alnwick Tower), 69-75.
  • 10. Visitations of Atwater (Alnwick Tower), 54.
  • 11. These injunctions have been printed in full in Archaeologia, xlvii, 55; and in the Lincoln diocesan magazine. They are, therefore, only summarized here.
  • 12. L. and P. Hen, VIII, xiv (1), 1321.
  • 13. Add. MS. 8102 (Pension Lists).
  • 14. Exch. Accts. bdle. 76, No. 26.
  • 15. Dugdale, v, 675.
  • 16. Keelby and Burgh occur in the confirmation bull of Pope Alexander III. Ibid. Croxton is named in the Taxatio.
  • 17. Pope Nich. Tax. 57, 58, 73b.
  • 18. Feud. Aids, iii, 137.
  • 19. Ibid. 214, 217.
  • 20. Ibid. 270, 271, 278, 279, 282, 285.
  • 21. Valor Eccles. (Rec. Com.), iv, 75.
  • 22. Dugdale, Mon. v, 675.
  • 23. Ibid. in charter of Pope Alexander III.
  • 24. Boyd and Massingberd, Abstracts of Final Concords, 131,144.
  • 25. Ibid. ii, 277; and Linc. Epis. Reg. Rolls of Wells.
  • 26. Linc. Epis. Reg. Inst. Dalderby, 32.
  • 27. Ibid.
  • 28. Ibid. 356.
  • 29. Ibid. Inst. Bokyngham, 115.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Visitations of Alnwick (Alnwick Tower).
  • 32. Arch, xlvii, 55. The name of the prioress is not mentioned, but that of her brother, George Thompson, shows that she was the same Joan Thompson who surrendered in 1539.