House of Cistercian nuns: The abbey of Marham

Pages 369-370

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

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This abbey of Cistercian nuns was founded by Isabel, widow of Hugh de Albini, earl of Arundel. It was dedicated to the honour of the Blessed Virgin, St. Barbara, and St. Edmund, on 27 January, 1249, by Richard, bishop of Chichester. The original endowment was the lands of the foundress at Marham, together with the manor and all its services; they were granted for the good of the souls of William Earl Warenne and Surrey her father, of Maud her mother, daughter of William Marshall, earl of Pembroke, of Hugh her husband, and of all her ancestors and successors.

On St. Bartholomew's Day, 1252, this nunnery, with, the sanction of the pope and the bishop of Norwich, was formally incorporated into the abbey of Waverley, the first and mother-house of the Cistercian order in England; the nunnery making an offering to Waverley of four marks and a cask of wine. (fn. 1) On 3 September of the same year the gifts of the foundress were confirmed by Henry III, and they received further confirmation at the hands of Isabel's brother, John, Earl Warenne. (fn. 2) Walter, bishop of Norwich, in 1251, with the consent of the prior and convent of West Acre, and of Nicholas, vicar of the churches of the Holy Trinity and St. Andrew in Marham, licensed this house to have free sepulture in their own church by their own priests, and right to say mass and perform divine service there, on condition that none of the parishioners of the two churches were admitted to any sacrament or were buried in the conventual church. There was also a special reservation of the rights of the parochial churches in case of strangers desiring burial in the abbey church. The prior and convent of West Acre were rectors of the two parish churches.

The advowson of the church of Carleton St. Peter was given to the convent by the foundress, with an acre of land there; the rectory was appropriated and a vicarage ordained in 1274.

A papal mandate was granted in May, 1290, on the petition of Queen Eleanor, to the abbot (bishop) of Norwich to appropriate to the prioress and convent of Marham the church of Stow Bedon, with the consent of the bishop and dean and chapter. (fn. 3) In March, 1291, a further mandate was received by the abbot to at once proceed in this appropriation, notwithstanding that in former letters the word ' prioress' had been written in error for that of ' abbess ' and ' dean and chapter' for ' prior and chapter' in ' the clause requiring their consent to the said appropriation. (fn. 4)

In consequence of the smallness of its endowments, the abbey was excused payment of tenths at the time of the taxation of 1291.

In November, 1302, licence was granted for the alienation in mortmain by John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, to the abbess and nuns of Marham, of the advowson of the church of Dudlington, (fn. 5) and the abbess and convent obtained leave in 1327 to appropriate the church of Hackford, which was already in their patronage through the gift of Sir Andrew Hengham. The church was valued at £4 6s. 8d. (fn. 6) The advowson of the church of Rockland St. Peter was confirmed to the abbey in 1346 by Sir Constantine Mortimer, and leave obtained by the bishop for its appropriation three years later. In the following year they also received the appropriation of the church of Rockland All Saints. (fn. 7)

In 1385 the abbess and nuns received grants from Richard Holdyche and John Clenchewarton of the manor of ' Beleter,' in Marham, and of 160 acres of land, forty of meadow, and 10s. in rent, of the yearly value of ten marks. (fn. 8)

The Valor of 1535 returned the gross annual value of this small abbey as £42 4s. 7¾d. and the clear value £39 0s. 1¾d.

A papal indult was granted in 1354 to Egidia Howard, nun of St. Mary's, Marham, to choose a confessor who should give her, being penitent, plenary remission at the hour of death. (fn. 9)

The chartulary contains a mortuary list from 1401 to 1453, with sixteen names of lay persons who died in their house or within its jurisdiction, and who were probably buried there. The mortuaries were chiefly gowns or mantles; thus Sir Ralph Hersent, a gown of violet colour; Isabel Cooper, a gown of cloth of gold; John Dolman, his best russet gown; Cecil Narburgh, a gown of blood colour furred with minever; Matilda de Marham, a mantle furred with white; Lady Eleanor, relict of Sir William Ingoldesthorpe, a mantle furred with grey. But the mortuary of Thomas Rynstede was a sorrel horse and that of Sir John Champeney, a priest who had a chamber in the abbey precincts, a book, which was sold for eight marks.

The abbess of Marham had the privilege of proving the wills of those who died within the precincts or jurisdiction of the house. In 1401 there was a dispute as to this privilege, but it was confirmed to them by the bishop of Norwich.

A return made to the crown of the appropriated churches of the diocese in 1416, names the churches of Carleton St. Mary, Doddington, Hackford, Marham, Rockland, and Stow Bedon as appropriated to Marham Abbey. (fn. 10)

The scandalous comperta of Legh and Ap Rice, drawn up in 1536, allege that the Abbess Barbara Mason and four of her nuns had confessed to grave incontinency. There seems to have been some foundation for these charges in this particular case, for when the county commissioners visited Marham later in the same year they reported that there were ' Religious persons of slaunderous Reporte whereof iij of them doue require ther Dispensacions, and the residue wyll contynue in Religione.' They further reported that there were twelve other persons having their living there, namely one priest, three women servants, and seven hinds; that the lead and the bells were worth £4 4s.; that the house was ' in sore decaye'; that the goods were worth £32 13s. 6d.; and that 110s. were owing to the convent.

An inventory was taken of this house on 6 August, 1535. It is difficult to understand why church ornaments should have found their way to the dormitory; their presence there points to much disorder. In the church there were two altar cloths and another hanging, a ferial vestment, a mass book and six other books, a latten censer, a sacring bell, and five small standards (candlesticks) of latten. In the dormitory, a cross plated with silver-gilt, a cope of green satin of Bruges, various old altar cloths and vestments and hangings, two candlesticks of coppergilt, a silver-gilt chalice, 'a rounde bezall garnyshed with iiij fete of sylver and guylt,' and another bezall similarly garnished. (fn. 11)

The goods and chattels of this house were sold, according to the county commissioners' certificate of 16 February, 1537, for £26 19s. 8d., save the plate in Richard Southwell's custody, which was valued at 61s. 8d.

A lease of the site of the abbey and its demesne lands was granted in 1537 to Thomas Bukworth, serjeant-at-arms. (fn. 12) On 3 July, 1546, this property was granted to Sir Nicholas Hare and John Hare, citizens of London.

Abbesses Of Marham (fn. 13)

Mary, the first abbess

Mary, (fn. 14) occurs 1305

Sarah, (fn. 15) occurs 1310

Agatha Howard

Mary de Ingham, (fn. 16) elected 1365

Egidia Howard, occurs 1380

Eleanor Weyland, occurs 1384, 1419

Margery, occurs 1435

Joan Narburgh, occurs 1453, 1467

Joan Heigham, occurs 1486, 1501

Barbara Mason, occurs 1511-35


  • 1. Annales de Waverleia (Rolls Ser.), ii, 34-5.
  • 2. The foundation and incorporation, &c., are described and the charters transcribed in a chartulary or register of the abbey, references to which are given in Blomefield, vii, 384-93. This chartulary, of seventy-four folios, is preserved at Stow Hall, Norfolk; a short analysis of it is given in Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. iii, 251. The subsequent information in this sketch is taken from the chartulary, where no other reference is given.
  • 3. Cal. Papal Reg. i, 513.
  • 4. Ibid, i, 530.
  • 5. Pat. 31 Edw. I, m. 46.
  • 6. Ibid, 1 Edw. III, pt. 1, m. 16.
  • 7. Ibid. 21 Edw, III, pt. 1, m. 32.
  • 8. Cal. of Pat. 9 Ric. II, pt. 1, m. 20.
  • 9. Cal. Papal Reg. iii, 533.
  • 10. Norw. Epis. Reg. viii, 127.
  • 11. Ch. Gds. K.R. 11/7.
  • 12. Aug. Off. Books, ccix, fol. 95.
  • 13. From the Chartul.
  • 14. Assize R. 591, m. 16.
  • 15. Ibid. 593, m. 12.
  • 16. Norw. Epis. Reg. v, 65.