Benedictine nuns: St Helen's, Bishopsgate

A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1909.

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'Benedictine nuns: St Helen's, Bishopsgate', in A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark, (London, 1909) pp. 457-461. British History Online [accessed 20 April 2024]

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The nunnery of St. Helen was founded in the early part of the thirteenth century (fn. 1) by William son of William the goldsmith, in the place where a church of St. Helen had already existed in the reign of Henry II. The church had been granted to the dean and canons of St. Paul's by a certain Ranulf and Robert his son, who with a third person to be named by them were to hold it for their lives. (fn. 2) After the dean and canons gained possession they gave the patronage to William son of William, and not only allowed him to found the nunnery, but also to bestow on it the advowson of the church on condition that the prioress after election by the nuns should be presented to the dean and chapter and swear fealty to them, (fn. 3) and should promise to pay a pension of ½ mark from the church, the obventions of which the convent might for the rest convert to their own use, and neither to alienate the right of patronage nor become subject to any other body.

Though there is evidence that the claim of the nuns to some land was disputed, and was renounced by them before 1216, (fn. 4) there is nothing to show what the endowment of the nunnery was at its foundation. Among its earliest possessions, however, may be reckoned a quit-rent of 4s. in the parish of All Hallows Lombard Street, sold by the prioress probably before 1230, (fn. 5) a rent of 26s. 8d. from land in the parish of St. Mildred, Canterbury, alienated by the convent in 1247, (fn. 6) and 6½ acres of land which they held in Stepney in 1248. (fn. 7) The earliest notices of the house occur in the will of William Longespee, earl of Salisbury, who left five cows to the nuns in 1225, (fn. 8) and in the gift of two oaks made by Henry III in 1224 to the master of St. Helen's, (fn. 9) an officer of whom there is no other mention.

The nuns figure in the inquisition of 1274–5 (fn. 10) as having about sixteen years before closed with an earthen wall a lane called St. Helen's Lane running from Bishopsgate Street to St. Mary Axe, down which men had been used to ride and take carts. This is probably the lane crossing their ground which Henry III in 1248 had licensed them to inclose. (fn. 11)

Edward I gave to the priory in 1285 a piece of the True Cross (fn. 12) which he had brought from Wales, and went on foot accompanied by earls, barons, and bishops to present the relic. The nuns about this time seem to have been in need of financial help. They petitioned the king to examine their charters and allow them to hold in frankalmoign henceforth, (fn. 13) and it was no doubt in consequence of the inquiry he had ordered that he gave them in 1306 the right to hold a market and fair at Brentford. (fn. 14) Archbishop Peckham, in May, 1290, gave the prioress and nuns leave to celebrate the Festival of the Invention of the Cross notwithstanding the interdict placed on the City by his authority. (fn. 15) In October of the same year the pope offered relaxation of penance for a year and forty days to penitents visiting the convent church on the festivals of St. Helen and of Holy Cross, (fn. 16) and an indulgence of forty days was given by Ralph, bishop of London, in 1306, to those visiting the church and making contributions to the fabric. (fn. 17) These grants were in all probability made in aid of the rebuilding of the church, the expense of which had largely been defrayed by two brothers, Salomon and Thomas Basing, the latter bequeathing also to its maintenance by will enrolled in 1300 (fn. 18) some rents in the parish of St. Bartholomew the Little and elsewhere. Several of the Basings became nuns of St. Helen's, (fn. 19) one indeed was elected prioress in 1269; (fn. 20) this may account in part for the benefactions of the family, which altogether must have been extensive: William, the sheriff of 1308, is said by Stow to have been reputed a founder, (fn. 21) and Henry de Gloucestre, grandson of Thomas, by will dated 1332 (fn. 22) established there a chantry of two chaplains which he endowed with an income of 11 marks of silver.

During the next few years the endowments of the nunnery received further additions: in 1344 the prioress and convent undertook to found a chantry in their church and one in St. Mary le Bow for the soul of Walter Dieuboneye of Bletchingley, cheesemonger of London, in consideration of his gifts to them; (fn. 23) in 1346 John de Etton, rector of Great Massingham, left them his dwelling-house and fourteen adjacent shops near Cripplegate for the maintenance of chantries; (fn. 24) and for the same purpose Walter de Bilynham bequeathed to the priory in 1349 tenements in the parishes of St. Mary Magdalen Old Fish Street, and St. Mary Axe, at Holborn Cross and 'Cokkeslane'; (fn. 25) the church of Eyworth, co. Bedford, was also appropriated to them in 1331 by the pope at the king's request. (fn. 26) The nunnery, either through misfortune or mismanagement, could not have been very prosperous for some years before the Black Death, or the church would not have been reported in 1350 as in danger of going to ruin, a state of things which the pope tried to remedy by the grant of another indulgence. (fn. 27) Its need at this time may give a clue to the date of the attempt to recover the market and fair of Brentford, rights which the nuns considered they had lost because, being an inclosed order, they were unable to follow them up. (fn. 28) In 1374 the priory received an important bequest of lands and tenements in the parishes of St. Martin Outwich, St. Helen, St. Ethelburga, and St. Peter Broad Street, from another London citizen, Adam Fraunceys, mercer, charged with the maintenance of two chantries in the chapels of St. Mary and of the Holy Ghost (fn. 29) in the church.

A curious case occurred in 1385. Joan Heyronne, one of the nuns, on the plea that she was so crippled with gout that she was unable to perform her canonical duties, secretly appealed to the pope, and obtained from him an order that an allowance of £10 a year should be paid to her from the goods of the monastery. Constance, the prioress, seems to have resented this action, and with the help of the sub-prioress and one of the nuns kept Joan shut up in a room, it was alleged without food suitable to her state of health, until the dean and chapter of St. Paul's commanded that she should be set at liberty and permitted to go where she would in the priory. (fn. 30) On which side right lay is doubtful: the prioress may have been exasperated by intrigues against her authority, but she appears to have been unduly severe, and this view of her rule is perhaps confirmed by the flight and marriage of another of her nuns in 1388. (fn. 31)

Too much discipline was certainly not the characteristic of the house in the next century, judging from two sets of injunctions, one issued by Dean Kentwode in 1432, (fn. 32) and the other believed to be also of that period. (fn. 33)

From the latter (fn. 34) it appears that the nuns hurried through the services, for they were ordered to say them fully and distinctly and not so fast as they had been doing, and that they were addicted to vanity in dress, (fn. 35) perhaps a result of the entertainment of guests by the prioress, which was forbidden in future. The prioress seems not to have taken her position seriously enough: she was told to content herself with one or two dogs, and one of her maids was to be removed for certain causes moving the dean and chapter, 'et hoc propter majorem honestatem dicte priorisse.' The dean was probably not satisfied about the administration of the house, since he required the holder of a corrody to show the grant, that it might be known whether he had fulfilled the services due from him, and ordered an inquiry to be made of the prioress and each nun whether there were other burdens on the nunnery; the prioress was also to show who had the custody of the missals, books, and ornaments, and how they were kept; and the number of seals was to be reported.

Dean Kentwode in 1432, after providing that divine service should be performed night and day, that the rule of silence was to be duly observed, and full confessions made to the confessor appointed by him, proceeded to order that secular women were not to sleep in the dorter; nor were secular persons to be admitted after compline or locked within the bounds of the cloister; a discreet nun was to be appointed to lock the convent doors so that nobody could get in or out, that the place be not slandered in future, and the prioress herself was to keep the keys of the postern door between the cloister and churchyard, 'for there is much coming in and out at unlawful times'; the nuns were not to look out into the street, not to speak to secular persons, nor receive gifts or letters from them without leave of the prioress, and the letters were to be such as could cause no ill report; measures were to be taken that strangers should not see the nuns nor the nuns them at service in the church; sisters appointed to office must be of good character; a suitable sister was to be chosen to teach the rule to those who did not know it; a proper infirmary was to be established where the sisters could be tended in illness; no dancing or revelling except at Christmas and other suitable times, and then in absence of seculars, was to be allowed. As was not unnatural amid so much laxity the business of the house was mismanaged, and fees, liveries, and perpetual corrodies were given to various persons, officers of the house and others, 'to . . . the dilapidation of the house's goods.' The impression gathered from the injunctions is that the priory was regarded as a kind of boarding-house. It is not unlikely that the rich City families found it a convenient place in which they could dispose of their unmarried daughters with an allowance, (fn. 36) and did not much consider whether they had a religious vocation.

The convent in 1458 paid £76 16s. 8d. in part payment of a larger sum, (fn. 37) and this borrowing of money may be a sign that they had begun the alterations to the church to which Sir John Crosby is said to have contributed 500 marks. (fn. 38) Crosby would have been interested as a parishioner of St. Helen's, for he built his magnificent house close to the priory upon land rented to him by the convent in 1466. (fn. 39)

The satisfactory state of the house in the early sixteenth century is shown by the bishop of London's choice of one of the sisters to be prioress of Holy Cross at Castle Hedingham; (fn. 40) but the spirit of unrest roused by the religious changes under Henry VIII seems soon to have affected the priory, since in 1532 some nuns ran away. (fn. 41) A proof of the importance of the house at this time is furnished by the intrigues over the election of the last prioress in 1529. (fn. 42) A certain Margaret Vernon, who was not a member of the convent, solicited the support of Wolsey and of Cromwell in turn. According to her, the king's saddler had offered 200 marks to secure the appointment of his sister, and Margaret herself owned that she had been willing to pay Wolsey £100 for the post, which she however never obtained, Mary Rollesley, a sister of the house, (fn. 43) being made prioress.

There is some excuse for the nuns in the grants of annuities made by them in 1534–8, although they were forbidden by the Kentwode Injunctions: one was to Cromwell, (fn. 44) and the others to various persons 'for good counsel,' (fn. 45) of which they certainly stood in need. But these were as useless in averting the fate of the house as was the denial by the nuns of the papal supremacy, (fn. 46) though they may have obtained better conditions for the inmates. The priory was surrendered 25 November, 1538, (fn. 47) but there are no signatures to the deed.

In January, 1539, the king granted to the prioress, Mary Rollesley, a life pension of £30; to Mary Shelton one of £4; to five other nuns pensions of £3 6s. 8d. each; and to the remaining eight pensions of four marks each. (fn. 48) The number of nuns appears to have been about stationary since 1466, when eleven besides the prioress witness a deed. (fn. 49) The convent was probably much larger in the fourteenth century, for in 1372 seven nuns took the vows at one time. (fn. 50)

The only official mentioned besides the prioress is the sub-prioress. The business of the nunnery was managed by a steward, (fn. 51) who collected the rents of the lands owned by the priory, and had an annual salary of £12 with 20s. for his livery, eatables and drinkables, two cart-loads of fuel, 10 qrs. of charcoal, and the use of a chamber within the priory precinct. (fn. 52)

From a document apparently of the sixteenth century (fn. 53) the household expenses of the priory for a year were £134 1s. 6d.; of this the sum of £22 was spent on corn, £60 13s. 4d. on meat and other victuals, £10 on thirty pittances. The debts of the house at the same time amounted to £90 4s. 4d., and included £15 owing to Robert 'at ye Cokke,' brewer, £6 13s. 4d. to a 'cornman,' £4 to a fishmonger, and 56s. 2d. to another, £9 12s. 4d. to a butcher, £6 13s. 4d. to a draper, and 20s. to John, the servant of the prioress.

The income of the house amounted in 1535 to £376 6s. gross and £320 15s. 8½d. net, (fn. 54) and was chiefly derived from possessions in London, (fn. 55) where the nuns held nearly the whole of St. Helen's parish and lands and rent in sixteen other parishes. (fn. 56) The convent also owned at this time the manor of Bordeston or Burston in Brentford, (fn. 57) which they had held in 1290, and woods in Edmonton, co. Middlesex; rents in Eyworth, co. Bedford, where they had land in 1316; (fn. 58) land in East Barming, co. Kent; (fn. 59) the manor of Marks (fn. 60) and land at Walthamstow, (fn. 61) co. Essex; rents in Ware, co. Herts., where they had a holding in 1392; (fn. 62) the manor of Datchet, (fn. 63) co. Bucks.; since 1303 and earlier they had held the advowsons of St. Mary Axe, St. John Walbrook, St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Ethelburga, with pensions of 4 marks and 2s. respectively from the last two; (fn. 64) to them also belonged the rectory of St. Helen's (fn. 65) and the church of Eyworth, (fn. 66) appropriated to them in 1331. (fn. 67) The prioress in 1346 held a fraction of a knight's fee in East Barming, (fn. 68) and in conjunction with Anna le Despenser half a knight's fee in Eyworth. (fn. 69)

Prioresses of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate

D. occurs c. 1210 (fn. 70)
Matilda (fn. 71)
Helen, occurs 1229–30, 1235–6, 1243–4, (fn. 72) 1247, (fn. 73) 1248, (fn. 74) died 1255 (fn. 75)
Scholastica, died 1269 (fn. 76)
Felicia de Basinges, elected 1269 (fn. 77)
Joan de Wynton, died 1324 (fn. 78)
Beatrix le Boteler, died 1332 (fn. 79)
Eleanor de Wynton, elected 1332, (fn. 80) occurs 1344 (fn. 81)
Margery de Honilane, occurs 1354 (fn. 82)
Constance Somersete, occurs 1385, (fn. 83) died 1398 (fn. 84)
Joan, occurs 1399 (fn. 85)
Alice Wodehouse, occurs 1458 (fn. 86)
Alice Ashfield, occurs 1466 (fn. 87)
Alice Trewethall, occurs 1488 (fn. 88) and 1497–8 (fn. 89)
Elizabeth Stamp, occurs 1512 (fn. 90) and 1518, (fn. 91) resigned 1528 (fn. 92)
Mary Rollesley, elected 1529, (fn. 93) surrendered 1538 (fn. 94)

A seal in the Augmentation Office represents St. Helen standing under the Cross, which she embraces with her left arm, and holding in her left hand the three nails of the Passion. On the right, opposite to the empress, is a multitude of women with extended arms and upraised countenances. Beneath is a trefoiled niche, and under it a woman's (?) head and left arm in the same attitude as that of the figures above. The legend is:—



  • 1. Before 1216, as Alard, the dean of St. Paul's who gave permission for the foundation, died in that year. Newcourt, Repert. Eccl. Lond. i, 363.
  • 2. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 551.
  • 3. The dean and chapter were careful to guard their rights from any episcopal encroachment which might result from the bishop's receiving the profession of nuns there. Lond. Epis. Reg. Sudbury, fol. 139.
  • 4. Cott. Chart. v, 6 (2).
  • 5. Guildhall MS. 122, fol. 263.
  • 6. Cal. of Chart. R. i, 318.
  • 7. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, Liber A. fol. 44.
  • 8. Rot. Lit. Claus. (Rec. Com.), ii, 71.
  • 9. Ibid. i, 601b, 618, 643.
  • 10. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 413, 409, 420.
  • 11. Cox, Ann. of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, 11.
  • 12. Chron. of Reigns of Edw. I and Edw. II (Rolls Ser.), i, 93. The chronicler says the Holy Cross called 'Neit.'
  • 13. Parl. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 475. Annis incertis Edw. I and Edw. II. The petition must have been after Nov. 1290, as they ask the favour 'for the sake of the soul of the late Queen.'
  • 14. Chart. R. 35 Edw. I, m. 18, No. 49.
  • 15. Reg. Epist. Johan. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), iii, 970 and 971.
  • 16. Cal. Pap. Letters, i, 521.
  • 17. Lond. Epis. Reg. Baldock and Gravesend, fol. 7.
  • 18. Sharpe, Cal. of Wills, i, 147. He speaks of himself and his brother Salomon as erecting the church. In this will, however, no mention is made of William, said to be brother of Thomas. Cox, op. cit. 6.
  • 19. Dyonisia de Gloucestre, a nun of St. Helen's, received from her uncle, Thomas Basing, a quit-rent in the parish of St. Botolph Billingsgate, for life. Sharpe, Cal. of Wills, i, 147. Elizabeth, daughter of Henry de Gloucestre, was also a nun there. Cox, op. cit. 7.
  • 20. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, A. Box 77, No. 2039.
  • 21. Stow, Surv. of Lond. (ed. Strype), ii, 100.
  • 22. Cox, op. cit. 6 and 7.
  • 23. Harl. Chart. 44, F. 45; Sharpe, Cal. of Letter Bk. F. 115.
  • 24. Sharpe, Cal. of Wills, i, 687. He left bequests to two nuns of the house, one of whom was his sister.
  • 25. Ibid. i, 581.
  • 26. Cal. Pap. Letters, ii, 368.
  • 27. Cal. Pap. Pet. i, 198.
  • 28. Parl. R. (Rec. Com.), ii, 403, No. 138. Annis incertis Edw. III.
  • 29. Sharpe, Cal. of Wills, ii, 171.
  • 30. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, A. Box 25, No. 1112.
  • 31. Ibid. A. Box 25, No. 1110.
  • 32. Cott. Chart. v, 6, printed in Dugdale, op. cit. iv, 553.
  • 33. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix, App. i, 57.
  • 34. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, A. Box 77, No. 2041.
  • 35. They were ordered to wear veils according to the rules of their order, not too sumptuous in character.
  • 36. Besides the provisions by legacies already mentioned there is a deed (B.M. Chart. Toph. 39, quoted in Dugdale, op. cit. iv, 552) where a sum of 100s. was to be paid annually to the convent during the life of one of the nuns, Joan de Bures. The fact that Richard II in 1377 exercised his coronation right and nominated a nun to the priory seems to imply that by that time admission was desirable but not easy. Cal. of Pat. 1377–81, p. 20.
  • 37. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, A. Box 77, No. 2046.
  • 38. Weever, Ancient Fun. Monum. 421.
  • 39. Add. MS. 15664, fol. 228–30.
  • 40. Lond. Epis. Reg. Fitz James, fol. 137B.
  • 41. L. and P. Hen. VIII, v, 982. Petition to the king of John Stanton, servant to Thomas Patmer, late merchant of London, now in the bishop of London's prison. On complaining to Parliament on behalf of his master he had been told by the Lord Chancellor that he was at the conveying of certain nuns from St. Helen's.
  • 42. Ibid. v, 19. Margaret Vernon's letters are placed under 1531, but the last prioress was elected in 1529.
  • 43. Madox, Formul. Angl. 440. Elizabeth Rollesley, by will dated 1513, left to her daughter Mary, a nun of St. Helen's, a legacy of £5.
  • 44. Cox, op. cit. 14.
  • 45. Cox, op. cit. 20. 21 Jan. 1538, a pension of 4 marks to John Lewstre. Ibid. 22. 26 June, 1538, to John Rollesley an annuity of 4 marks. Ibid. 23, 24 and 25.
  • 46. L. and P. Hen. VIII, vii, 1025 (2).
  • 47. Ibid. xiii (2), 908.
  • 48. Aug. Off. Misc. Bk. 233, fol. 101–3. Six nuns were alive in 1556, of whom one was allowed 66s. 8d. a year, the others 53s. 4d. each. Add. MS. 8102, fol. 3.
  • 49. Add. MS. 15664, fol. 230.
  • 50. Lond. Epis. Reg. Sudbury, fol. 139.
  • 51. Cox, op. cit. 15.
  • 52. Ibid.
  • 53. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's. A. Box 77, No. 2042.
  • 54. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i, 393.
  • 55. These were worth £312 6s. 4d. a year. Ibid. i, 392.
  • 56. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xviii (1), 982, 346 (54), 981 (68); xix (1), 1035 (50, 55, 68, 135), etc.
  • 57. Parl. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 475.
  • 58. Feud. Aids, i, 19.
  • 59. Hasted, Hist. of Kent, ii, 151. 'St. Helen's is a deputed manor in Barming . . . it formerly belonged to the nunnery of St. Helen's, London, hence its name.'
  • 60. Morant, Hist. of Essex, i, 68.
  • 61. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xv, 557.
  • 62. Cal. of Pat. 1391–6, p. 156.
  • 63. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xv, 498 (35).
  • 64. Mun. Guildhall Lond. ii (1), 236.
  • 65. Ibid.
  • 66. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv, 196.
  • 67. Cal. Pap. Letters, ii, 368.
  • 68. Feud. Aids, iii, 45.
  • 69. Ibid. i, 22.
  • 70. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix, App. i, 57. Her letter —Cott. Chart. v, 6 (2)—must be before 1216 as it is addressed to A. the Dean.
  • 71. A grant by her is witnessed by William Fitz Alice and John Travers, so that it must have been made early in the thirteenth century. Guildhall MS. 122, fol. 263.
  • 72. Hardy and Page, Cal. of Lond. and Midd. Fines, 18, 22 and 28.
  • 73. Cal. of Chart. R. (P.R.O.), i, 318.
  • 74. E. the prioress, presumably Elena. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, Liber A. fol. 44.
  • 75. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix, App. i, 27.
  • 76. Ibid. 57.
  • 77. Ibid.
  • 78. Ibid. 27.
  • 79. Ibid. 28.
  • 80. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix, App. i, 28. She was sub-prioress.
  • 81. Harl. Chart. 44, F. 45.
  • 82. Cal. Pap. Letters, iii, 528; Sharpe, Cal. of Letter Bk. G. 44.
  • 83. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix, App. i, 27.
  • 84. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, A. Box 25, No. 1106. She is here called Constance only.
  • 85. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix, App. i, 28.
  • 86. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, A. Box 77, No. 2046. She seems to have resigned before 1466, for a nun of this name witnessed a lease then. Add. MS. 15664, fol. 230.
  • 87. Ibid.
  • 88. Doc. of D. and C. of St. Paul's, A. Box 76, No. 2012.
  • 89. Cox, op. cit. 12.
  • 90. Ibid.
  • 91. a Christie, Some Account of Parish Clerks, 38.
  • 92. L. and P. Hen. VIII, v, p. 9 n.
  • 93. Ibid.
  • 94. Ibid. xiii (2), 908.
  • 95. Cox, op. cit. 15. Cf. imperfect example attached to Harl. Chart. 44, F. 45.