Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Carrow

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

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.

'Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Carrow', in A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, (London, 1906) pp. 351-354. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]

In this section


The Benedictine priory of Carrow was originally founded for a prioress and nine nuns, the number being afterwards increased to twelve.

There is some confusion as to its first foundation. King Stephen granted his lands in the fields of Norwich to God and the church of St. Mary and St. John of Norwich, and the nuns serving there, directing that the mans should found their church on the land named in this charter. Thereupon two nuns who were sisters, by name Seyna and Lescelina, began building the priory in 1146, and it was dedicated to the honour of St. Mary of Carhowe. From this it would appear that the priory of Carrow was an offshoot of an older Benedictine nunnery in Norwich, conjointly dedicated to the honour of the Blessed Virgin and St. John.

King John in 1199 granted the nuns a four days' fair, to be held on the vigil, the day and the two following days of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin; it was re-granted in an amended form in 1205. (fn. 2)

Agnes de Monte Ganisio was prioress in 1221, and as late as 1237, and during her rule, Henry III granted a confirmation charter. It was also in her time that the priory obtained from Margaret de Cheyney the valuable estate of the manor of Wroxham together with the advowson of the churches of Wroxham. (fn. 3)

The hundred rolls of the beginning of Edward I's reign have various references to this priory. (fn. 4) The most interesting statement is that of the jury of the hundred of Clakelose, who stated that William de Warenne gave a messuage and 40 acres of land at Stow Bardolph to the priory of Carrow at the time that his sister Muriel became a nun of that house. Reginald de Warenne and Alice his wife had previously given to the nuns the advowson of the church of Stow, a gift which was confirmed by William.

Numerous small benefactions continued to be made to the priory by some of the more important county families, who doubtless, like William de Warenne had relatives who were nuns there, or girls who received their education within the walls. (fn. 5) The taxation roll of 1291 gives its annual value at £69 2s. 1d., gathered from possessions in no fewer than seventy-five Norfolk parishes, and from two in Suffolk.

A return made to the crown in 1416, of the appropriated churches of the diocese, names the following which pertained to the priory of Carrow, with the dates of their appropriation:—East Winch (1261), Stow Bardolph (1262), Wroxham (1280), Surlingham (1339), Sulham (1349), and Swardeston (1361). (fn. 6)

The Valor of 1535 gave the clear annual value of the priory as £64 16s. 6¼d.

Of the early history of this priory there is little to record.

On 19 February, 1245, Walter Suffield was consecrated bishop of Norwich, and William de Burgh, bishop of Llandaff in the conventual church of Carrow. (fn. 7)

There is a notice of some trouble in 1250 with a neighbour, one Robert de Stamford, who held 8 acres near the priory and presumed to plough up and sow a strip of land between his field and the church which was used by the nuns for processions on festivals, (fn. 8) and in 1280 Archbishop Peckham ordered the deans of Norwich diocese to assist the nuns of Carrow to recover various rents detained by certain persons, and if necessary to excommunicate the offenders. (fn. 9) The most exciting event recorded, however, was the attack upon the priory on 18 June, 1381, when the rebellious peasantry, under Adam Smith and Henry Stanford of Wroxham, forced the prioress, to surrender her court rolls to be burnt. (fn. 10)

The convent and parish of Carrow, and parts belonging to it in Trowse Millgate and Bracondale, were an exempt jurisdiction; in 1327 Nicholas de Knapton, chaplain to the prioress, and the official of her jurisdiction proved wills and exercised the usual spiritual authority.

An indulgence of four years and four quatornes was granted by Boniface IX in 1391, to penitents who, on the feasts of the Blessed Virgin, visit and give alms for the consecration of the conventual church of Carrow. (fn. 11)

Edith Wilton, who was prioress from 1395 to 1430, was attached in 1416 on a charge of harbouring in sanctuary the murderers of one William Koc, of Trowse, at the appeal of Margaret his widow, who charged the prioress and one of her nuns named Agnes Gerbald with the crime. The prioress was arrested and imprisoned and called to answer at Westminster in Michaelmas term by Henry V. After many adjournments of the court, she was eventually acquitted. (fn. 12)

Prioress Mary Pygot (1444-72) attended the sumptuous funeral of John Paston, at Bromholm, in 1466. The prioress received 6s. 8d. and the maid that came with her 20d. (fn. 13) There was also given to the anchoress of Carrow 40d.

This anchoress was a woman of great celebrity, whose religious 'revelations' have been several times published. Though never canonized, she was usually known as Saint Juliana of Norwich. She was termed indifferently the anchoress of Carrow and the anchoress of St. Julian, because her ankerhold was in the churchyard of St. Julian-, Norwich, a church appropriated to the priory. Very possibly she had been a nun of Carrow in her youth. It must not be supposed that the anchoress attended the Paston funeral, for it was the very essence of the life of these recluses to live and end their days in a single chamber. Moreover Juliana must have been nearly a hundred years old at the date of this funeral. Donations to Juliana, the anchoress of Carrow, occur several times in wills of this period, coupled with a request for her prayers for the soul of the donor. Money received by anchorites was usually spent in alms to the poor. (fn. 14) Other anchoresses, termed 'of Carrow,' seem to have used her cell after her death.

Bishop Goldwell personally visited Carrow on 10 October, 1492. He was met by the prioress and nuns in solemn procession, and with the banner of the holy cross borne before him, amid the ringing of the bells, proceeded to the altar and gave the episcopal benediction. Thence the bishop went at once to the chapter-house, accompanied by Nicholas Goldwell, archdeacon of Norwich, Thomas Wotton, bachelor of laws, and John Aphowell, the notary, when the prioress and twelve nuns were severally and separately examined. Katharine Segryme was prioress, and Cecilia Ryall sub-prioress. The respective statements are not given', but the report shows that there was nothing serious amiss. The prioress was too partial, and there was not a sufficiency of bread. (fn. 15)

Bishop Nicke personally visited the priory on 25 August, 1514. Isabel Wigan, the prioress, who had been elected that year, and seven of the nuns contented themselves with omnia bene. Anne Martin sub-prioress said that Margaret Kidman, one of the nuns, was not gentle in her behaviour, and Joan Grene thought that the food was sometimes insufficient. (fn. 16)

On 14 June, 1526, the bishop held another visitation. Prioress Isabel reported favourably and denied that the house, was in debt. The aged sub-prioress Anne Martin, who had been sixty years in religion, knew of nothing worthy of reformation, but not unnaturally thought that the sisters read and sang in the offices quicker than was seemly and without due pause; she also complained of the weakness of the beer. Margaret Steward, who had been a nun for thirtyeight years, also complained that there was not sufficient pause in the offices, and that breach of silence was not punished. Katharine Jerves, chantress, who had also been professed for thirtyeight years, reported favourably of everything save the weakness of the beer. Agnes Warner also complained of rapidity and lack of pause in the offices. Agnes Swanton, sacrist, professed for twenty-one years, stated that they had no clock. Anne London and Cecilia Suffield had no complaints. Joan Botulph said that the festivals of the Name of Jesus and of St. Edward were not observed; that the obedientiaries were held liable for breakages of the pots and pans; and that at Christmas there was a game of the assumption of the functions of an abbess by one of the younger nuns, the expenses of which were defrayed by friends. The result was that the bishop enjoined on the prioress to provide a clock by Michaelmas; to celebrate the divine service with greater reverence and due pauses; to replace broken vessels at the general expense; to abandon the girl-abbess play; to impose penalties for breach of silence; and to observe the feasts of the Name of Jesus and of St. Edward as in other parts of the diocese. (fn. 17)

Six years later, namely on 10 June, 1532, another visitation of Carrow Nunnery, destined to be the last, took place, and all the aged ladies were still in their peaceful cloisters. The prioress simply made a good report, in which she was joined by Agnes Swanton the sacrist. Anne Martin was evidently too old to continue to act as sub-prioress, and was then in charge of the farmery. Margaret Steward, as sub-prioress, complained that some of her younger sisters persisted in wearing silk waistbands, and were addicted to gossip. Katharine Jerves and Anne Langdon referred to the absence of gates between the quire and nave. Joan Botulph complained that the festival of relics was not duly observed; that the nuns did not have their faces veiled when they left the convent; that they had no annual pension; that laity could enter the quire through the absence of gates or doors; that the priest saying vespers could scarcely be heard by the sisters in quire, through lack of a desk for his book. Cecilia Suthefield's one complaint was as to there being no regular pension. Matilda Gravell said that the rule of one of the nuns waiting on the others at table in the fratry was not observed, and that they did not keep the octave of St. Benedict.

Thereupon the visitor enjoined that the younger nuns, who were not office-holders, should sit together in the afternoon in a room assigned them by the prioress according to past custom; that the sub-prioress should not permit the absence, or call from quire any of the nuns during compline save once a week; that after the feast of St. Peter ad Vincula, no laity should enter through the west door of the quire; that the feast of relics should be duly observed as elsewhere as a double, on the Sunday after the Translation of St. Thomas; and that the prioress, according to ancient custom, should see that one of the nuns served her sisters in the fratry. (fn. 18)

In the Litle Boke of Phyllyp Sparow, by John Skelton, rector of Diss and poet laureate to Henry VIII, reference is made to Jane Scrope, who was probably one of the young ladies brought up in Carrow Priory. In the poem Jane laments the untimely fate of her pet sparrow, killed by Gilbert or Gib, the priory cat. Jane in her wrath thus excommunicates pussy:—

That vengeaunce I aske and cry

By way of exclamation,

On al the whole nacion

Of cattes wilde and tame

God send them sorrow and shame;

That Cat specially

That slew so cruelly

My litle prety Sparow

That I brought up at Carow. (fn. 19)

The county Suppression Commissioners reported that they found eight religious persons in the priory ' of very good name by report of the country, four of whom desired dispensations and four preferred to continue in religion.' There were seventeen other persons who had their living at the house, two being priests, seven hinds for the husbandry, and eight women servants. The house was in very good repair; the bells and lead worth £145, and the movable goods £40 16s. 11d.

The site and revenues were granted in 1538 to Sir John Shelton. (fn. 20)

Prioress Suffield obtained a pension of £8, which she was still enjoying in 1553.

Prioresses Of Carrow

Maud le Strange, (fn. 21) occurs 1196

Agnes de Monte Gavisio, (fn. 22) occurs 1224

Magdalen, (fn. 23) occurs 1264

Petronel, (fn. 24) died 1289

Amabel de Ufford, (fn. 25) died 1290

Katherine de Wendling, (fn. 26) elected 1290

Beatrice de Hulm, (fn. 27) elected 1310

Agnes de Carleton, (fn. 28) elected 1324

Agnes de Lenn, (fn. 29) elected 1328.

Cicely de Plumstede, (fn. 30) elected 1341

Alice de Hedersete, (fn. 31) elected 1349

Margery Cat, (fn. 32) elected 1365

Margery Engys, (fn. 33) elected 1369

Edith Wilton, (fn. 34) elected 1395

Alice Waryn, (fn. 35) elected 1430

Mary Pygot, (fn. 36) elected 1444

Joan Spalding, (fn. 37) elected 1472

Margaret Palmer, (fn. 38) occurs 1485

Katherine Segryme, (fn. 39) elected 1491

Isabel Wygan, (fn. 40) elected 1503

Cecily Stafford alias Suffield, (fn. 41) last prioress, 1535

The first twelfth-century seal (35/8 by 15/8 in.) represents the crowned Virgin in profile seated with Holy Child on left knee, and fleur-de-lis in right hand. Legend:—


The second seal, thirteenth-century (2½ by 15/8 in.) also bears the seated Virgin with Holy Child; but on the left is the prioress kneeling in adoration, holding a scroll bearing the words Mater D'Mem. Over the scroll is a crescent and a star. Over the Virgin's head a hand of blessing. Legend:—



  • 1. Blomefield, Hist. of Norf. iv, 525-30; Dugdale, Mon. iv, 68-73; Taylor, Index Monasticus, 11, 12; Account by Walter Rye and E. A. Tillett, Norf. Antiq. Misc. ii, 466-508; F. R. Beecheno, Notes on Carrow Priory (1886), privately printed. The account in this sketch is chiefly taken from Messrs. Rye and Tillett's paper, save where other references are given. The chartulary cited by Dugdale and Tanner has been long missing.
  • 2. Chart. R. 7 John, m. 7 d.
  • 3. The churches are named by the jury of the hundred of Taverham in 1275; Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 528.
  • 4. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 450,469, 501, 519, 525, 528.
  • 5. Blomefield says that Pope Gregory X in 1273, inhibited their receiving more nuns than their income would maintain, upon the priory's representation of the strong, pressure of the English nobility for admission of members of their families.
  • 6. Norw. Epis. Reg. viii, 126.
  • 7. Annals of Waverley, 336; Stubbs, Reg. Sacr. Anglic. 59.
  • 8. Assize R. 560, m. 7.
  • 9. Registrum Epistolarum J. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), i, 152.
  • 10. Powell, The Rising in East Anglia, 32.
  • 11. Cal. Papal Reg. iv, 373.
  • 12. Norwich City Muniments, Book of Pleas, fols. 39b-41.
  • 13. Paston Letters, ii, 266-7.
  • 14. N. and Q. (ser. 3, x), iii. 137; Rye and Tillett, Norf. Antiq. Misc. ii, 469-70.
  • 15. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. (Camd. Soc.), 15.
  • 16. Ibid. 145.
  • 17. Ibid. 209-10.
  • 18. Ibid. 273-5.
  • 19. Skelton, Works (1736), 223.
  • 20. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), 407.
  • 21. Blomefield, Hist, of Norf. iv. 525.
  • 22. Ibid.
  • 23. Ibid.
  • 24. Ibid.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. Norw. Epis. Reg. i, 39.
  • 28. Ibid, i, 111.
  • 29. Ibid, ii, 22.
  • 30. Ibid, iii, 44.
  • 31. Ibid, iv, 91.
  • 32. Ibid, v, 67.
  • 33. Ibid. 143.
  • 34. Ibid, vi, 205.
  • 35. Ibid, ix, 40.
  • 36. Ibid, xi, 55.
  • 37. Norw. Epis. Reg. xii, 27.
  • 38. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. cxv (Lothian MSS.).
  • 39. Norw. Epis. Reg. xii, 101.
  • 40. Ibid, xiii, 29.
  • 41. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.).
  • 42. B.M. lxxxiii, 38; Brit. Arch. Ann. Journ. xxxviii, 176.
  • 43. B.M. xxxv, 248; Dugdale, Mon. iv, pl. xxi.