Religious Houses: House of Benedictine nuns

Pages 156-159

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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In this section

House Of Benedictine Nuns


The priory of St. Leonard, Stratford at Bow, first mentioned in 1122, (fn. 2) was a house of Benedictine nuns. (fn. 3) In the 16th century the nuns accepted a tradition (fn. 4) that the house had been founded by a Bishop of London, who was, according to Leland, William, Bishop of London 1051-75. (fn. 5) Leland also suggests that William Roscelin granted an estate in Bromley to the nuns, (fn. 6) in which case Roscelin may be regarded as co-founder of the house. It would appear more probable that the founder of the priory was Maurice, Bishop of London 1086-1107, or Richard de Belmeis I (1108-27). No manor attributable to this house occurs in Domesday, but a 5-hide manor of Bromley is mentioned in the Middlesex Hidage post 1096. (fn. 7) Since the foundation almost certainly included land nearby and since this Bromley manor is not attributed specifically to any other holder, it is a fair inference that it was the nuns' manor. Comparison with the Domesday Survey suggests that this manor included 2 hides which in 1086 belonged to the Bishop of London's manor of Stepney and three hides which were held by Robert, son of Roscelin.

The priory stood near the banks of the Lea. The chapel of St. Mary in the priory church served as the parish church for the parish of St. Leonard, Bromley, and its site is indicated today by a small park lying about 200 yards south of Bow Bridge. The priory lay to the south of the church. (fn. 8)

In 1535 the priory was worth £121 a year and had possessions in Middlesex, London, Surrey, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Kent, and Hertfordshire. (fn. 9) In Middlesex the nuns had the manor of Bromley, to which part of East Smithfield belonged. This property included at least two water-mills on the Lea. (fn. 10) From the end of the 12th century the nuns held the advowson of Islington church. (fn. 11) In London the priory held various tenements, devised by citizens, in Ivy Lane, (fn. 12) Candlewick Street, (fn. 13) the parish of St. Antholin, (fn. 14) and the parish of St. Benet Sherehog. (fn. 15) In Surrey the nuns held houses, shops, and tenements in Southwark, devised in 1350 by a royal clerk to support a chaplain in the chapel of St. Mary in the priory church, (fn. 16) and a number of other small properties and rents. (fn. 17) In Cambridgeshire they held the manor of Haslingfield, given to them by Christine de Sumeri and her sons, and confirmed by King Stephen. (fn. 18) It was held in free alms. (fn. 19) Property in Cambridge itself, which had been acquired by St. Leonard's in the 14th century, (fn. 20) had been alienated before the Dissolution. In Essex the priory had lands and rents in Great Oakley, Lambourne, Corringham, Ilford, (fn. 21) and West Ham (acquired in the 13th century), (fn. 22) a portion of the tithes of Wethersfield, (fn. 23) and the rectories of Buttsbury, Berners Roding, and Norton Mandeville, (fn. 24) the last by the gift, made before 1188, of Galiena Dammartin and her son Bartholomew. (fn. 25) In Kent the nuns had the tithes of the manor of Fawnes, (fn. 26) probably in Crundale parish. In Hertfordshire the priory was said in 1535 to receive revenues from East Reed and Braughing, but there is no other record of possessions in these places. (fn. 27)

Apart from the two manors of Bromley and Haslingfield the nuns' most valuable properties were their four appropriated churches. (fn. 28) Between 1163 and 1183 they were involved in a controversy with the Canons of St. Paul's about Islington church. The matter was finally settled and in the presence of Bishop Gilbert Foliot it was agreed that the nuns were to hold the church from the canons for the annual payment of a mark, and were to find a suitable clerk to serve it. (fn. 29) No vicarage was established in any of the Essex churches as long as the priory held them, (fn. 30) but one was established in Islington at some time between 1259 and 1347. (fn. 31)

An undated charter of Stephen, first recorded in an inspeximus of 1366, is the earliest statement of liberties enjoyed by the priory. It is, however, a statement in general terms, for it merely confirmed the priory's tenure in Haslingfield of all the liberties which Christine de Sumeri had there, whatever they may have been. (fn. 32) Liberties confirmed to the priory by Henry II included quittance of the shire, the hundred, and assizes, as well as the amercements of its own men in whatever court they were imposed and their chattels if they suffered as felons; the confirmation was produced in an inspeximus of 1318. (fn. 33) The last was successfully maintained in 1229 when the chattels of one of the priory's Bromley men were delivered to the prioress in virtue of the charters of Henry II and Richard I. (fn. 34) All these liberties were confirmed in 1189, 1198, 1247, 1318, 1366, 1390, 1408, and 1414. (fn. 35)

In 1293-4 quo warranto proceedings were taken to determine the priory's right to conduct its own assizes of bread and ale and its own view of frankpledge and its right to a pillory in Bromley. The prioress denied that the priory had a pillory but defended its other privileges by producing charters granted by Richard I and Henry III. (fn. 36) Five years later quo warranto proceedings were taken to test the priory's right to sac and soc, tol and team, infangentheof, and similar conventional privileges, together with view of frankpledge and to the chattels of felons and amercements of its own men. The evidence showed that all these liberties, except view of frankpledge, had been confirmed by Henry III, and a local jury swore that the priory had enjoyed view of frankpledge from time immemorial. (fn. 37) In 1347 the priory was able to prove that the manor of Haslingfield was held in free alms, and therefore was exempt from the aid levied in that year. (fn. 38)

The dowries of the nuns who entered it and gifts from the citizens of London also increased the wealth of the convent. In 1282 Archbishop Pecham, who was trying to secure the admission of a particular postulant, promised that the convent would acquire numerous friends and rich benefactors through her. (fn. 39) There is, however, no specific information about the dowries of Stratford nuns. The priory occurs frequently in the wills of the citizens of London (fn. 40) and in those of local people. (fn. 41) Some of the bequests were made with a request that prayers be said for the donor or his family. (fn. 42) Sometimes the bequests were made not to the convent but to individual nuns; (fn. 43) in 1433 Alice Seyntpoull left a gift to Idonea Appelby, a nun there, (fn. 44) and in 1477 John Gayton, 'Steward of the House and Church of Saint Leonard called the Nunnery', left a small pension to his daughter Elizabeth, (fn. 45) who later became the prioress. In 1392 the widow of a draper left 20 marks to a relative-possibly a daughter-living at St. Leonard's, on condition that she became a nun. (fn. 46) London priests also remembered the convent in their wills. (fn. 47) It was probably by means of such bequests that some city properties were burdened with rents to the nuns such as those reserved for them in 1273, when some tenements in the parish of St. Stephen, Walbrook changed hands. (fn. 48)

The priory received occasional gifts from the king. Small money grants from Henry II are recorded in the pipe rolls. (fn. 49) In the 13th century the nuns had gifts of wood from the forest in Essex; (fn. 50) a grant of this kind, made in 1267, gave timber for use in the building operations on the priory church. (fn. 51)

The nuns had to make a number of annual payments out of these endowments. The annual mark for Islington church continued to be paid to St. Paul's until the Dissolution, and the canons also received a number of other payments. Synodals and procurations had to be paid annually for the churches held by the nuns, and there were small payments to other religious houses. (fn. 52) In 1371 the nuns acquired the farm of two parts of the tithes of Buttsbury from the priory of Tutbury (Staffs.). They were to pay 13s. 4d. every year at Easter, and 40s., as well as all the arrears, in case of default. (fn. 53) One payment expected from St. Leonard's was felt to be exceptionally heavy. In 1339 the prioress complained that she was forced to pay a disproportionate sum for the upkeep of a wall along the Thames known as 'le priouressewal' in respect of some land she held in West Ham Marsh. This land, acquired in the 13th century, had been under water for several years, yet the prioress had often been distrained to pay whilst other landowners, whose holdings in the area were more profitable, were not assessed. The prioress brought her grievances before the commissioners of walls and ditches, who decided that all who held land in the marsh should share the burdens and that St. Leonard's should not be taxed disproportionately. (fn. 54)

So small a religious house was not likely to play an important part in the political or ecclesiastical history of the kingdom. In the 14th century, however, Stratford for a time became fashionable. The convent appears to have been the residence of Elizabeth of Hainault, and at her death in 1375 she seems to have been on terms of intimacy with the Stratford nuns. (fn. 55) She directed that she should be buried in the chapel of St. Mary in the priory church and it has been concluded that she lived in the convent. (fn. 56) It was presumably to visit her aunt that Elizabeth of Ulster, wife of Prince Lionel, went to Stratford in 1356; her infant daughter Philippa seems to have stayed at the nunnery. (fn. 57) Elizabeth of Hainault made bequests to a nun called Argentyn (fn. 58) who was also mentioned as one of the nuns in 1380-1; (fn. 59) she occurs twice in Elizabeth's will. If, as has been suggested, (fn. 60) Argentyn was the model in part for 'madame Eglentyne' in the Canterbury Tales, (fn. 61) she must have been a woman of a certain gentility and fashion.

Although in the 14th century the priory acquired prestige from the visits of members of the royal family, (fn. 62) this must have been a severe strain on a house that was far from wealthy. In 1282 the prioress called attention to the poverty of the convent. (fn. 63) As a house which claimed to be small and poor, Stratford was often exempted from taxation. In 1235 and again in 1237 part of the money owed by the nuns for the tax on movables was remitted. (fn. 64) When a second tax was raised in 1237, the commissioners were ordered, pending investigations, to take nothing from Stratford; (fn. 65) later, all that was owed by the priory on that occasion was remitted. (fn. 66) In 1359 the nuns were excused payments for their lands in Bromley which had been flooded by the Lea. (fn. 67) This seems to have been regarded as an important precedent, since the pardon was exemplified by Richard II in 1380. (fn. 68) In 1409 it was conceded that the nuns should be excused all payments for their lands in Bromley for the fifteenth and all payments for a fifteenth less than £28. (fn. 69) In 1354 an indulgence was granted to those who visited the priory (fn. 70) and in 1411 another was granted to all who visited it and gave alms for the fabric and for the support of the community. (fn. 71)

In 1282 the prioress had a dispute with Archbishop Pecham. The archbishop ordered her to admit as a nun the daughter of one of the citizens of London. The prioress refused, saying that the girl was too young and that the convent had its full complement of nuns and could not afford any more. Pecham dismissed these excuses as frivolous, reminded the prioress that she owed him obedience as her metropolitan, and threatened to excommunicate her. (fn. 72) She then turned for help to the Bishop of London, stating, in addition to her other objections, that the girl was deformed. Replying to a letter on the subject from the bishop, Pecham alleged that the greater part of the convent was on his side, and that only the prioress was making difficulties. He added that he wished that not only the Stratford nuns, about whom there were so many scandals, but all other worldly nuns were deformed, so that they might lead no one into sin. (fn. 73)

Although the Bishop of London was the diocesan as well as the patron of the nunnery, (fn. 74) little is known of its relations with him. Bishop Gilbert Foliot presided when the nuns made their agreement with the Canons of St. Paul's about Islington church. (fn. 75) In 1282, as has been seen, Bishop Richard Gravesend interceded on their behalf with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The only occasion recorded of the bishop being present at the clothing and profession of new nuns was in 1397, when Bishop Braybrooke celebrated High Mass in the priory church and received the profession of six novices. (fn. 76) Only in the 16th century is there any information about the bishop's part in the election of prioresses. The bishop's vicar presided at the election in 1520 and the bishop subsequently confirmed the new prioress. (fn. 77) In 1528 Prioress Eleanor Sterkey resigned her office into the hands of Bishop Tunstal. The nuns, perhaps under pressure, decided to settle the election of the new prioress by way of simple compromise, and to this end submitted their rights to the bishop, who appointed Sybil Kirke, formerly Prioress of Kilburn. (fn. 78) It is possible that this action and appointment was connected with some attempt to reform the nunnery, for a party gathered round Eleanor Sterkey, who was still living in the convent after her resignation. A petition to the king was followed in 1533 by a second petition, this time to Cromwell, asking for the removal of the 'supposed prioress' and claiming that Sybil Kirke made up the shortness of meat and drink with a fresh supply of threatening words; the old lady 'who is the rightful prioress' was like to die for want of sustenance. (fn. 79) It is possible that this was a somewhat exaggerated picture of an attempt by the new prioress to enforce the Rule. The new prioress was supported by Bishop Stokesley, whose chancellor confirmed her in office and encouraged her to be firm. (fn. 80) The outcome of these disturbances is not known, but for some years after the Dissolution Sybil Kirke continued to receive the pension due to the head of the house. (fn. 81)

In 1354 there were 30 nuns in the priory (fn. 82) but the poll tax of 1380-1 gives the names of only 14 nuns, including the prioress and sub-prioress. (fn. 83) There were eight professed nuns and one novice at the election of the prioress in 1520, (fn. 84) and ten professed nuns at the election in 1528. (fn. 85)

As a small house, with an income of less than £200, St. Leonard's was among those foundations suppressed in 1536. In 1537, after the dispersal of the nuns, the site of the priory was granted to William Rolte, together with most of its property except some of the London city tenements, which were granted to Sir Ralph Sadler. (fn. 86) Rolte did not hold the lands for long, and by 1540 the whole property had passed to Sadler. (fn. 87) In 1541 his tenure was confirmed by the king, and the original grant to William Rolte was cancelled. (fn. 88)

There are no means of determining the plan of the convent. The royal grant of 1537 mentions the house and site of the priory, and the church, 'steeple', and churchyard. (fn. 89) The 'steeple' disappeared, but the eastern limb of the church continued to be used for worship. The description by Lysons (fn. 90) and prints of the early 19th century (fn. 91) give little idea of the appearance of this part of the church in the Middle Ages. In 1805 the church was a small rectangular building, lighted by an haphazard collection of windows of indeterminate dates; the medieval floor appears to have been considerably lower than the ground level of 1805, (fn. 92) and the east window had been replaced c. 1700 by a primitive apse for the communion table. Inside there were signs that there had been a south aisle, but the most striking feature was the Norman choir arch, with dog-tooth ornament, at the west end. The arch had been blocked up and everything to the west of it had disappeared by 1805. The building as Lysons saw it survived until 1842, although in a dilapidated condition. In 1842-3 a new church in the neo-Norman style was erected on the site. (fn. 93) This was destroyed in the Second World War.

Prioresses of Stratford

Lucy, occurs c. 1264-c. 1284 (fn. 94)
Isabel Blunt, occurs 1341 (fn. 95)
Maud, occurs 1371 (fn. 96)
Mary Suharde, occurs 1375, 1396, 1397 (fn. 97)
Alice Burford, occurs 1412, and before 1425 (fn. 98)
Anne Graciane, died 1436 (fn. 99)
Margaret Holbeche, occurs 1436 (fn. 100)
Katherine Washburne, occurs 1477 (fn. 101)
Elizabeth Gayton, occurs 1509-10; died 1520 (fn. 102)
Helen Hyllard, elected 1520; died 1522 (fn. 103)
Eleanor Sterkey, elected 1522; resigned 1528 (fn. 104)
Sybil Kirke, elected 1528 (fn. 105)

The common seal of the priory, as used in Prioress Lucy's time (occurs 1264-84), is a pointed oval, 2½ by 1½ in., and shows a bishop (? St. Leonard) standing beneath a canopy, his right hand raised in blessing, his left holding a crozier. (fn. 106) Legend, lombardic:


An oval seal of a later date, 1¼ by 1 in., depicts the Virgin on right with the Child on her right arm with a figure (? a nun) in prayer on her left facing right. (fn. 107) Legend defaced.


  • 1. It is variously called St. Leonard Bromley and St. Leonard Stratford; the latter is the style in the earliest reference to the house (1122) and in Dugdale and the Valor.
  • 2. Rouleaux des Morts, ed. L. Delisle, 341; Med. Rel. Houses, 219.
  • 3. Guildhall MS. 9531/3, f. 346v.
  • 4. Ibid. ff. 157, 159v; 9531/10, f. 117v.
  • 5. Leland, Collectanea, i. 55.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. See p. 137.
  • 8. L.C.C. Survey of Lond. i. 15-16.
  • 9. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 120-3.
  • 10. Ibid. 122; Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i. 409.
  • 11. St. Paul's MS. W.D. 9, f. 148v; B.M. Add. MS. 35824, f. 10v.
  • 12. Cal. of Wills in Court of Husting, ed. R. R. Sharpe, ii (1), 120.
  • 13. Ibid. ii (2), 446.
  • 14. Ibid. 490-1.
  • 15. Ibid. 522-3.
  • 16. Cal. Pat. 1348-50, 463.
  • 17. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 122; Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i. 409.
  • 18. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 120.
  • 19. Cal. Close, 1346-9, 185.
  • 20. B.M. Add. MS. 5843, p. 357.
  • 21. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i. 409; Dugdale, Mon. iv. 122.
  • 22. Cal. Pat. 1338-40, 261-3.
  • 23. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 123.
  • 24. Ibid. 122.
  • 25. Guildhall MS. 9531/6, ff. 173v-4.
  • 26. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i. 409.
  • 27. Ibid.; Dugdale, Mon. iv. 123; V.C.H. Herts. iii. 251 306-15.
  • 28. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 122.
  • 29. St. Paul's MS. W.D. 9, f. 148v.
  • 30. Ibid. ff. 56, 58v, 87v; Newcourt, Repertorium, ii. 118, 439-40, 503.
  • 31. St. Paul's MS. W.D. 9, f. 48v; Newcourt, Repertorium, i. 677.
  • 32. Cal. Chart. R. v. 194.
  • 33. Ibid. iii. 383-4.
  • 34. Close R. 1227-31, 213.
  • 35. Ibid.; Cal. Chart. R. i. 323-4; iii. 384; v. 194-5, 325, 441, 469.
  • 36. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 121.
  • 37. Ibid.
  • 38. Cal. Close, 1346-9, 185.
  • 39. Reg. Epist. Joh. Pecham (Rolls Ser.), i. 356.
  • 40. Cal. Wills in Court of Husting, i. 84; ii (1), 8, 37, 114, 119, 177, 185, 206, 212, 220, 224, 234, 300, 341, 349.
  • 41. Guildhall MS. 9171/1-10, passim.
  • 42. Cal. Wills in Court of Husting, ii (2), 446, 490-1; Cal. of Plea and Memoranda R. (Lond.), 1458-82, 102.
  • 43. Cal. Close, 1354-60, 517-18; Cal. Wills in Court of Husting, i. 34, 110; ii (1), 120; Guildhall MS. 9171/5, f. 123.
  • 44. Ibid. 9171/3, f. 350v.
  • 45. Ibid. 9171/6, ff. 234v-6v; p. 177.
  • 46. Cal. Wills in Court of Husting, ii (1), 303.
  • 47. Reg. Abp. Langham (Cant. and York Soc.), 356; W.A.M., Cart. of St. Martins-le-Grand, f. 94v.
  • 48. B.M. Harl. Chart. 47. I. 44.
  • 49. Pipe R. 1183 (P.R.S. xxxii), 75; 1188 (P.R.S. xxxviii), 30, 31.
  • 50. Close R. 1231-4, 24; 1234-7, 50; 1247-51, 211, 422; 1251-3, 58; Cal. Pat. 1232-47, 493.
  • 51. Close R. 1264-8, 309.
  • 52. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 122-3.
  • 53. Cartulary of Tutbury Priory, ed. A. Saltman (Staffs. Rec. Soc. 4th ser. iv), 98-99, 252.
  • 54. Cal. Pat. 1338-40, 261.
  • 55. Guildhall MS. 9171/1, f. 16v.
  • 56. J. M. Manly, Some New Light on Chaucer, 202-20.
  • 57. B.M. Add. MS. 18632, f. 101v; E. A. Bond, 'New Facts in the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer', Fortnightly Review, 15 Aug. 1866.
  • 58. Guildhall MS. 9171/1, f. 16v.
  • 59. E 179/44/347.
  • 60. Manly, New Light on Chaucer, 202-20.
  • 61. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: Prologue, 1. 121.
  • 62. See above.
  • 63. Reg. Epist. Joh. Pecham (Rolls Ser.), i. 366.
  • 64. Close R. 1234-7, 55, 424.
  • 65. Ibid. 1237-42, 11.
  • 66. Ibid. 29.
  • 67. Cal. Pat. 1358-61, 175.
  • 68. Ibid. 1377-81, 534.
  • 69. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 441, 469.
  • 70. Cal. Papal Regs. iii. 523.
  • 71. Ibid. vi. 228.
  • 72. Reg. Epist. Joh. Pecham (Rolls Ser.), i. 356.
  • 73. Ibid. 366.
  • 74. See p. 156.
  • 75. Ibid.
  • 76. Guildhall MS. 9531/3, f. 346v.
  • 77. Ibid. 9531/9, ff. 157-9.
  • 78. Ibid. 9531/10, ff. 117-19v.
  • 79. L. & P. Hen. VIII, vi, p. 677.
  • 80. Ibid.
  • 81. Ibid. xiii (I), p. 574; xvi, pp. 354, 356.
  • 82. Cal. Papal Regs. iii. 523.
  • 83. E 179/44/347.
  • 84. Guildhall MS. 9531/9, f. 157.
  • 85. Ibid. 9531/10, f. 117v.
  • 86. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), p. 161.
  • 87. B.M. Add. MS. 35824.
  • 88. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xvi, p. 383.
  • 89. Ibid. xiv (1), p. 161.
  • 90. Lysons, Environs of Lond. ii. 62.
  • 91. Guildhall Libr. interleaved copy of Lysons, Environs of Lond.
  • 92. J. Dunstan, Hist. of Par. of Bromley, 72.
  • 93. Ibid. 70; E. Sinker, The Church in Bromley for a Thousand Years, 30-34.
  • 94. Dugdale, Mon. iv. 121.
  • 95. Cal. Close, 1341-3, 272.
  • 96. Cart. Tutbury Priory, ed. Saltman, 98.
  • 97. Guildhall MS. 9171/1, f. 16v; B.M. Add. MS. 5843, p. 357; Guildhall MS. 9531/3, f. 346v.
  • 98. Guildhall MS. 9171/2, f. 288v; P.C.C. 5 Luffenham, Southcote.
  • 99. Cal. Pat. 1429-36, 494.
  • 100. Cal. Wills in Court of Husting, ii (1), 47.
  • 101. Guildhall MS. 9171/6, ff. 234v-6v.
  • 102. L. & P. Hen. VIII, i (1), p. 232 (2nd edn.); Guildhall MS. 9531/9, f. 157.
  • 103. Guildhall MS. 9531/9, ff. 158-58v; L. & P. Hen. VIII, iii (2), p. 986.
  • 104. L. & P. Hen. VIII, iii (2), p. 986; Guildhall MS. 9531/10, f. 117v.
  • 105. Guildhall MS. 9531/10, f. 118.
  • 106. E 42/471.
  • 107. B.M. Seals LXVIII. 72. This is the same as a muchdamaged impression attached to a document of 1506: E 329/200.