House of Austin nuns: The priory of Crabhouse

Pages 408-410

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

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In 1765 there was presented to the British Museum an interesting fourteenth-century MS. Register of Crabhouse Nunnery in French, (fn. 1) which escaped the attention of monastic and topographical writers until 1892, when it received full and competent treatment in the publication of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society. (fn. 2)

From this register and that of Castle Acre, (fn. 3) it is established that Lena, the daughter of Godric de Lynne, 'a maiden whose heart the Holy Spirit moved to seek a desert place where she might serve God without disturbance of any earthly thing, found the place called Crabhouse (in Wiggenhall parish) all wild, and far around on every side was no human habitation.' This site was granted about 1181 to the maiden by Roger, the prior of Ranham and his canons, with the consent of William de Lesewis, lord of the site and founder of Normansburgh Priory. 'In this place,' continues the register, 'there assembled along with Lena other maidens, and there they caused a chapel to be reared in honour of God, and of His dear Mother the Virgin Mary, and of St. John the Evangelist, in which place for many a day they served God.'

Godfrey de Lesewis (William's son) granted the cell in Normansburgh to the monks of Castle Acre, and included amongst its lands the hermitage of Wiggenhall used by the hermit Joan. (fn. 4) This hermit Joan is mentioned, though not by name, in the Crabhouse register, wherein the overwhelming of the nuns' original habitation by a flood is described, and all save one, 'who made herself a recluse in the cemetery of Mary Magdalene of Wigenhall,' departed. It is difficult, however, to reconcile the picturesque narrative of the French register with the documents of the Castle Acre chartulary, (fn. 5) but it was definitely established as an Austin nunnery early in the thirteenth century.

The register contains particulars of a great variety of small undated bequests made to the priory in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and similar entries are to be found from time to time in the patent rolls. Incidental mention is made of the building of the church, frater, dorter, and farmery; and there are frequent references to the conventual mill. Most of its property was in the same marshy situation as the actual site of the house, which was on the banks of the tidal Ouse; the boundaries named are frequently dykes, and it is evident that the priory took its full share in the draining of the fens. (fn. 6) There is no record of this house in the taxation roll of 1291.

Licence was obtained in 1328 by the priory, at the request of John de Ros, steward of the household, to appropriate that moiety of the church of St. Peter, Wiggenhall, which was of their advowson. (fn. 7) This appropriation was chiefly brought about, as we learn from the register, by Robert Welle, a great benefactor of the nuns. He pardoned them a debt of £100 in return for a field in Setchey; but he eventually restored the land to provide the habits of the ten nuns of the house who had been the longest professed.

Agnes de Methelwold, prioress from 1315 until her death in 1344, seems to have been a good administrator, as well as a bringer of comparative wealth to the convent. We are told that she spent over one hundred pounds of silver in building a hall, a grange, a stable, a bakery, and a noble room (une chambre nobeles). Under her rule particular rents were assigned for providing the house with bread, ale, flesh, fish, and red herrings; others for iron and nails for repairs; and others for dress and shoes, and for towels and linen. Further sums were set aside for the repairs of the house and church, the sea and marsh dykes, the wages of the household servants, the feeding of the cattle, and for fuel.

Margaret de Hattisle and Cicely de Beauprey, nuns of Crabhouse, obtained indults in 1352, to choose confessors for plenary remission at the hour of death. (fn. 8)

Joan Wiggenhall, a famous prioress, was elected on 28 October, 1420, and confirmed and installed on 25 November. (fn. 9) In the year of her election Prioress Joan took down the great barn by the convent gatehouse, and rebuilt it in time for the next harvest, at a cost of £45 9s. 6d., exclusive of the timber that was felled on their own lands, and of the tiles that were re-used from the old barn. To this barn-making Sir John Inglethorpe, the convent's patron, bequeathed £20, and the archdeacon of Lincoln gave ten marks. In 1421 Joan extended the prioress's lodgings at a cost of ten marks, and spent twenty marks for the rebuilding of the convent's moiety of the chancel of St. Peter's, Wiggenhall. In 1422 the prioress spent twenty marks on the precinct walls, and forty marks on the cloister. Taking advice in 1423 as to the bad condition of the conventual church, Joan decided to take it down and rebuild it: 'Trostynge to the helpe of oure Lorde and to the grete charite of goode cristen men.' The one who came chiefly to her assistance in this and other good works was her cousin Edmund Perys or Pery, rector of Watlington, who by his will of 1427 desired to be buried in the conventual church of Crabhouse. The nuns' new church was over three years in building, and cost 400 marks, 'whereof William Harold that lithe in the chapel of our Lady payde for the ledyinge of the chirche vij skore mark,' Richard Steymour, citizen of Norwich, paid £40 for the roof, and he also gave them the stalls and reredos at a cost of £20, and two antiphoners of the great value of twenty-six marks, 'whiche lygen in the queer.' Among other contributions were twenty-one marks from 'the gylde of the Trinite whiche Naybores helde in this same chirche.' During the time the work of the church was in progress the prioress also built 'the longe chaumber on the este syde of the halle whiche costes xxiiij mark.'

Edmund Perys, the prioress's chief supporter, 'passed to God on the Wednesday next after the concepcyon of Oure Lady,' 1427; and then another good friend came to her help, who was also her cousin, Dr. John Wiggenhall, at that time rector of Oxborough. In 1429 he was abbot of West Dereham, and subsequently held many important offices. His father and mother were buried at Crabhouse. In 1429 he helped the prioress to complete and furnish the church, setting up the images, paving both nave and quire, providing stalls and doors for the quire, and cloths for the altars. The barn at Wiggenhall St. Peter was repaired in 1430 at a charge of £5, and a new malt-house rebuilt at Crabhouse for ten marks. In 1431 the hall or frater was taken down and built anew at a cost of seventy marks. That same year the new malt-house and an old one, with all the malt, were burnt in a fire caused by a careless woman; but the prioress, nothing daunted, with the help of Dr. Wiggenhall and others, set to work, and in the course of two years built a new malthouse, with a dovecot over the kiln, of better worth than the two that were burnt, at a cost of £50. In 1434 Joan repaired and heightened the bakehouse, raised the steeple and re-roofed it with lead at a cost of £10, and spent £8 on rebuilding and slating the north side of the cloister. In 1435 the dorter (the first set up in the place) was in such grievous decay that the prioress, 'dredyinge the perischynge of her sisters whiche lay thereine,' took it down, but was too busy in the other works, such as the cart-house, turf-house and stables, that cost eighty marks, to do more to it that year. In 1436, 'in the xvij yere of the same prioress, be the help of God and of goode cristen men sche began the grounde of the same dortoure that now standith, and wrought thereupon fulli vij yere betynes as God wolde send hir good.' There was a great dearth of corn in 1438, and Joan must needs have suspended all further work, if it had not been for the generosity of Dr. Wiggenhall, who sent her 100 combs of malt and 200 combs of barley, in addition to 20 marks, For the soule of my lord of Exetyr.' £40 and 5 marks were at the same time provided. The dorter, and a house at Lynn called Corner Bothe, which had long been ruinous, were completed in the winter of 1444. After an energetic rule of twenty-four years, just when all the work on which she had been so long engaged was accomplished, Joan Wiggenhall died, and was succeeded, early in 1445, by Margaret Dawbeny.

In 1461 Master Stephen Bole, rector of Eccles, built a good house at the west end of the conventual church of Crabhouse, at a cost of £45, also in the time of Prioress Margaret; the same Stephen made other gifts to the convent, particularly in helping with the wall of the porch, to the extent of £47 10s., and after Etheldreda Wulmer was appointed prioress in 1469, on the death of Margaret, Master Stephen continued his charitable gifts to the priory, particularly in the making of a new well.

On 9 September, 1476, there was an unusual ceremony in the nuns' church at Crabhouse, which was doubtless celebrated in the nave. By special licence of the bishop of Norwich, Thomas Hunston and Margaret Keroyle were married in the monastery. The vicar of St. Mary Magdalene, Wiggenhall, received a composition in lieu of his fees. (fn. 10)

The convent was visited on 10 July, 1514, by Master Thomas as commissary for the bishop. Elizabeth Bredon, the prioress, testified to the general obedience and religious life of the sisters, save one, and to the good repair of the buildings. The house was in debt 10 marks, but was owed 5 marks. Different nuns mentioned the bad condition of the roof of the Lady Chapel, and the disobedience and quarrelsome character of others, and of the in frequency of confession. A painful scandal of the previous year came to light with respect to one of the sisters. (fn. 11) The bishop enjoined obedience on the sisters, and on the prioress the granting greater facilities for confession. Agnes Smyth, the penitent offender, was ordered to take the lowest seat for a month, and to say in cloister seven times during that period the whole psalter.

The visitation of six years later, when Margaret Studefeld was prioress, was in every way satisfactory; there was nothing to report. (fn. 12)

The Valor of 1535 gave the clear annual value of the house at £30 6s. 2d. A stipend of £5 6s. 8d. was paid to the chaplain for officiating in the church.

In the winter of 1535-6 the religious houses of Norfolk were exposed to the visitors of Cromwell's appointment, John ap Rice and Dr. Legh. It is fortunate, so far as this small nunnery is concerned, that by all the laws of evidence and of ordinary probability, there is not the slightest reason to give credence to their astounding charges. They actually wrote down that the prioress had given birth to one child, two of the other nuns had children by single men, and another two children, one by a priest and one by a layman! (fn. 13) But on the heels of these vile informers came the county commissioners, who made a long and thorough inquiry into the conditions of this house. These gentlemen object whatever in anything but a truthful report; they did not hesitate to give credence to scandal in three out of all the many religious houses of the diocese. Of this priory, however, they reported of the four religious persons found there that 'ther name is goode,' and still more definitely, on the actual deposition of the prioress they wrote, Bona fama et conversatio. They reported that there were four women servants and two hinds that had their living at the house; that the lead and bells were worth £40 4s., and the house in requisite repair; and that the goods were worth £15 5s. 8d.; and that the house was not in debt, and had no debts owing to it. (fn. 14)

On the day of the suppression the three nuns received 26s. 8d. each as 'rewards,' that is, sums of ready money until pensions were arranged, Margaret Studefeld, the prioress, had no reward assigned her. (fn. 15)

The commissioners certified on 16 February, 1537, to the sale to Henry Webbe of all the goods and chattels of this house, except the plate. for £9. The plate in Richard Southwell's keeping was valued at 115s.

Prioresses of Crabhouse

Catherine (fn. 16)

Cecilia, (fn. 17) 1249

Christian de Tilney, (fn. 18) c. 1270

Agnes de Methelwold, (fn. 19) elected 1315

Margaret Costayn de Lenn, (fn. 20) elected 1342

Olive de Swaffham, (fn. 21) elected 1344

Cecilia de Welle, (fn. 22) elected 1351

Cecilia Beaupre, (fn. 23) elected and died 1395

Matilda Talbot, (fn. 24) elected 1395

Joan Wiggenhall, (fn. 25) elected 1420

Margaret Dawbeny, (fn. 26) elected 1445

Etheldreda Wulmer, (fn. 27) elected 1469.

Elizabeth Bredon, (fn. 28) occurs c. 1500, 1514

Margaret Studefeld, occurs 1520, last prioress

There is a cast of an imperfect impression of a thirteenth-century seal of this nunnery at the British Museum. It is a pointed oval (2× 1½ in.) of an eagle displayed. Legend:—



  • 1. Add. MS. 4731.
  • 2. Norf. Arch. xi, 1-71. The original MS. has been carefully consulted for the purposes of this sketch, but the descriptive article and excerpts by Miss Mary Bateson have proved most helpful.
  • 3. Dugdale, Mon. v, 69-70.
  • 4. Ibid. 69.
  • 5. See Dr. Jessopp's explanation in Miss Bateson's article, Norf. Arch. xi, 5.
  • 6. Hund. R. (Rec. Com.), i, 459.
  • 7. Cal. of Pat. 2 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 25.
  • 8. Cal. Papal Reg. iii, 474.
  • 9. Reg. p. 151. The account of the works of this prioress are added to the register in English.
  • 10. Reg. fol. 1.
  • 11. This is absolutely the one solitary instance of immorality which comes before us in all these visitations of the Norfolk (Norwich diocese) nunneries, which cover a period of just forty years; Dr. Jessopp's Introd. to Norw. Visit. xlii.
  • 12. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. (Camd. Soc.), 108-10, 168.
  • 13. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 144.
  • 14. Chant. Cert. Norf. No. 90.
  • 15. Suppression Papers (P.R.O.) 83/1
  • 16. Add. MS. 4731.
  • 17. Ibid; occurs same year in Assize R. 560, m. 30d, where Catherine is called her predecessor.
  • 18. Add. MS. 4731.
  • 19. Norw. Epis. Reg. i, 63.
  • 20. Ibid. iii, 61.
  • 21. Ibid. iv, 101.
  • 22. Ibid. 133.
  • 23. Ibid. vi, 219.
  • 24. Ibid.
  • 25. Add. MS. 4731, fol. 51.
  • 26. Norw. Epis. Reg. x, 60.
  • 27. Ibid. xi, 172.
  • 28. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. (Camd. Soc.), 108.
  • 29. B.M. lxix, 15.