A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.
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HOUSES OF CISTERCIAN NUNS
9. THE PRIORY OF CATESBY (fn. 1)
Catesby Priory was a house of Cistercian nuns founded about the year 1175 by Robert de Easseby, grandson of Sasfrid, who held the manor of Catesby under William Peverel at the time of Domesday. It was originally endowed with the church of Catesby and chapel of Hellidon, and with lands, tenements, and mills in the same parish, also with the churches of Ashby and Basford (Nottingham) as well as with lands in both these parishes. The property of the house was gradually increased by gifts from different members of the Esseby family, and other benefactors. (fn. 2) At the time of the dissolution it was worth £145 0s. 6d., and received rents from lands in the counties of Leicester, Oxford, Warwick, and Buckingham, as well as from the county in which it was situated. (fn. 3)
It does not seem possible to recover anything of the early history of the house until the year 1229, when Hugh de Neville received a mandate from the king to allow the prioress of Catesby to have timber from the forest of Silverstone within the king's park for the building of her church, (fn. 4) and in 1232-3 Henry III. made a grant to the prioress of a cartload of firewood daily from his wood of 'Beisewood,' (fn. 5) and this privilege was subsequently confirmed by his successors Edward I., Edward III., and Henry IV. The pope in 1246 directed the bishop of Lincoln to hear the complaints of the sisters against certain clerics for wrongs done to them, and to adjudicate in the matter. (fn. 6)
Margaret Rich, sister of Edmund, the canonized archbishop of Canterbury, was at that time prioress, having been elected in 1245. (fn. 7) The saintly mother of the archbishop on her deathbed committed his two sisters, Margaret and Alice, to their brother's care, leaving a certain sum of money to procure their admission into a convent of high standing. The archbishop, however, considered such a dowry bordering on simony, and in his search for a convent home for his sisters that would be willing to receive the maidens with nothing but their piety to recommend them, came to the gate-house of the comparatively poor house of Catesby. The prioress received them with a warm welcome, and on her death was succeeded by Margaret the elder. On the archbishop's death in 1240 he bequeathed to his sister at Catesby his pall and a silver tablet engraved with a figure of Our Lord which he was in the habit of always carrying with him. Miracles soon became associated with these relics, and the story of them formed part of the evidence for St. Edmund's canonization. (fn. 8) Margaret died in 1257. Matthew Paris, who chronicles her death, describes her as 'a woman of great holiness, through whose distinguished merits miracles have been made gloriously manifest.' (fn. 9) She is sometimes termed St. Margaret of Catesby. It was no doubt through the influential position of Margaret that the convent obtained from the king in 1247 a grant of a weekly Monday market within their manor of Catesby, and two years later a grant of a three days' fair beginning on the eve of the Translation of Edward the Confessor. (fn. 10) In the autumn of the same year in which Margaret the elder sister died, Matthew Paris chronicles the death of the other sister Alice in almost identical words, and styles her prioress. (fn. 11) This is a mistake of the chronicler, who was then an old man, and not infrequently recorded the same event twice in the same year. Alice was never prioress. She died in 1270. (fn. 12)
During the rule of Felicia, who succeeded Margaret Rich as prioress, the death occurred of William de Mauduit, earl of Warwick, 1267; his body was buried at Westminster Abbey, but his heart was sent for interment to the priory of Catesby, (fn. 13) probably as a mark of special devotion to St. Edmund of Canterbury, whose altar in the conventual church was to some extent a place of pilgrimage. An undated charter, probably about this time, mentions a yearly rental of 2s. left to the nuns of Catesby for the support of a lamp to burn before the relics in their church. (fn. 14) Another grant of 1276 bequeathed a rental of 30d. to maintain a light before the image of St. Anne in the priory church of Catesby. (fn. 15)
The first recorded admission of a superior of this house by the diocesan is that of Amabilia in 1276, entered in the register of Bishop Gravesend, where mention is also made of brother Hugh as master of the house. (fn. 16) In 1279 Henry de Erdington bestowed on the convent the advow son of the church of Yardley (Worcestershire) on condition that the nuns should appoint a canon of their house, as soon as the appropriation had been made, to say mass for him and his family, and that he should be buried before the altar in the chapel dedicated to St. Edmund of Canterbury. There was, however, some difficulty about this appropriation, and not long after the church of Yardley was bestowed on the abbey of Merivale. (fn. 17)
The two succeeding heads, Isolda Hastings and Biblisia, were both admitted by the bishop of Lincoln. (fn. 18) Immediately upon the promotion of the latter in March, 1290-1, the right of the priory to the park of Westbury (Bucks) was disputed, but the cause was decided in favour of the nuns. (fn. 19) An entry in the Close Rolls under the year 1279 gives the enrolment of a grant by William Bagot to Queen Eleanor of the advowson of the priory of Catesby. (fn. 20) The cellaress of the house, Joan of Northampton, was elected by the nuns at the conclusion of the brief rule of Biblisia, but licence not having been obtained first from the diocesan, the bishop of Lincoln declared the election void, but afterwards confirmed the same on the ground of the merits of the said Joan, (fn. 21) and similarly in 1310 on the election of Joan of Ludham. (fn. 22) Building and repairing operations were in progress, we read, in the early part of the fourteenth century. In 1301 an indulgence was granted by Bishop Dalderby to those helping to rebuild the conventual church of the nuns of Catesby, and the same bishop in 1312 granted another indulgence to those who should assist in paving the cloisters and house of the priory. (fn. 23)
With regard to masters or wardens, frequent mention occurs of them. In 1286, Hugh, formerly master of the house of Catesby, (fn. 24) together with the prioress and nuns, elected brother John one of the canons. The master had the rule of the house, admitting the canons, as well in spiritualities as in temporalities. This is shown by a writ attached to the roll. (fn. 25) Robert of Wadington, canon of Canons Ashby, was appointed master of the priory by Bishop Sutton in 1293, and in the following year was succeeded by William de Grutterworth, another canon of Ashby. (fn. 26) In 1293 Bishop Sutton wrote to the prioress of Catesby as to the absence of the master, and the improper treatment of the prioress of St. Michael's without Stamford, and certain of her nuns whom the bishop had instituted as nuns of Catesby. (fn. 27) Richard of Staverdon, canon of Catesby, was appointed master in 1316, (fn. 28) in succession to Roger of Daventry, 1297. It appears that lay brothers (conversi) were at one time connected with this house, as well as canons and wardens. In 1307 Bishop Dalderby wrote to the bishop of London to procure the return of Robert of Weston, a lay brother of Catesby monastery, who took the habit of religion, but after some time threw it aside, and for some ten years past had lived in London with a certain woman to the scandal of religion. At the same time excommunication was pronounced against Robert de Gretworth, also a canon of the same house, who, under pretence of going to Rome, had thrown aside the habit of religion, and led a dissolute life. (fn. 29) It seems doubtful if the office of master or warden was retained after the fourteenth century, but so long as it lasted the master appears to have been recognized as official head of the priory in pecuniary matters. In 1310, when large supplies of victual by way of loan were exacted from the heads of religious houses in England for the expedition of Edward II. into Scotland, the master of Catesby came eighth on the list of the Northamptonshire houses, between the priors of Daventry and Canons Ashby. (fn. 30)
The priory received various evidences of royal favour and consideration in connexion with the exaction of aid or subsidy. In 1315 the crown granted 'protection with clause nolumus' (fn. 31) for one year to the prioress of Catesby or rector of the church of Basford, and the same to the vicar of Basford; a general protection for all her possessions was granted to the prioress for two years in 1316. (fn. 32) In March, 1321-2, Edward II. ordered his ministers to levy nothing from the prioress of Catesby, and to restore anything they might have levied by virtue of a general levy of 500 marks from the knights and squires of Northamptonshire, as it was not his intention that anything should be levied from the prioress or other religious who held in frankalmoign free from aid or tallage with the community of the county. (fn. 33)
There was considerable dispute from time to time with regard to the patronage of the churches of Catesby and Canons Ashby. On 21 March, 1389, Dr. Walter Gibbes, as commissary-general of the archbishop of Canterbury, in the course of his visitation of Lincoln diocese came to the priory of Canons Ashby, and he then gave a formal certificate that, having inspected their instruments, he found that the prioress and convent of Catesby did rightfully possess the parish churches of Catesby and Ashby. (fn. 34)
A full statement of the accounts of Catesby Priory in the year 1415 and during the rule of Elizabeth Swynford possesses many points of interest. There were no arrears of rent; the chief receipts were: From rents of lands, £43 9s. 6d.; from farms and tolls of wind- and water-mills, £29 2s. 1d., the payments being made in kind, such as wheat, maslin, barley, pigs, geese, and hens; from oblations at the altar of St. Edmund, 7s. 4d.; from issues of the manor of Catesby, chiefly wool and hides, £24 8s. 8d.; and from court perquisites and fines 24s. 8d., yielding a total of receipts of £98 3s. 6d. The expenses, given in the greatest detail, amounted to £94 1s. 7½d. Tallow for candles cost 2s.; pitchers, 8d.; 2,000 slates bought at Chorlton, 8s. 4d.; 700 tiles bought at Coventry, 4s. 6d.; a tablecloth for the hall, 1s. 10d.; a cow bought at Daventry, 6s. 8d.; four skins of parchment, 1s. 2d.; 18 pounds of wax, 10s. 6d.; 4 pounds of cotton, 4s. 4d. A man's wages for walling was 2d. a day, and hired women were paid 1d. a day. (fn. 35)
On the death of Prioress Agnes Terry in 1431 the bishop gave leave for the election of a successor. (fn. 36) Her name is not known, but in January, 1444-5, she was suspended from office and administration by the diocesan, who granted a commission for an inspection of the accounts of the house to the abbot of St. James, Northampton. The administration of the priory was committed to Agnes Allesby and Isabel Benett, nuns of the house; (fn. 37) both eventually became superiors in succession.
On 27 September, 1535, John Tregonnell wrote to Cromwell giving a rapid digest of his recent monastic visits, in which the following passage occurs: 'Catesby, a house of nuns of the Cistercian order, has £90 lands yearly, and is under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Lincoln, by usurpation I suppose, as the order has always been exempt. The prioress and sisters are free from suspicion.' (fn. 38) The local commissioners, when they visited Catesby on 12 May, 1536, on the eve of the dissolution of the smaller houses, were so struck with its admirable condition that they felt constrained to anticipate their general report, and forwarded a letter to the chancellor of the Court of Augmentations direct from the priory, wherein they stated, 'The house of Catesby we founde in very perfect order, the prioress a sure, wyse, discrete, and very religious woman with ix nunnys under her obedyencye, as religious and devoute and as good obedyencye as we have in tyme past seen or be lyke shall see. The seid house standyth in suche a quarter muche to the releff of the kynges people and his graces pore subjectes their lykewyse much relieved. Only the reporte of dyvers worshyppfulles were thereunto adjoining us; of alle other yt ys to us openly declared. Wherefore yf yt should please the kynges highnesses to have remorse that any suche religious house shall stande, we thinke his grace cannot appoynt any house more mete to share his most gracious charitie and pity on than the said house of Catesby. Further, ye shall understand that as to her bounden dewtye towards the kynges highness in this his affayres, also for discrete entertainment of us his commyssioners and our company, we have not found nor belyke shall fynde any such of more dyscrecion . . . From Catesby the xii day off this present moneth off May. Edmund Knyghtley, John Lane, George Giffard, Robert Burgoyn.' (fn. 39)
This favourable notice in no way softened the king's heart or turned him from his object. On 19 June, George Giffard, writing to Cromwell from Garendon Abbey, complained that the king, when he read their letter as to Catesby Priory, remarked, 'It was like we had received rewards which caused us to write as we did.' (fn. 40) The commissioners were ordered to return to Catesby and complete their task. George Giffard wrote again to Cromwell from Catesby on 27 June, saying they were there 'to begin our suppression,' but even then they seemed to regret the work of ejection, and asked whether a letter from the chancellor of the Augmentations Office was a sufficient warrant for them to proceed. (fn. 41) Though ejected that year there must have been some further delay, for the nuns were still in possession three months from the last date given. The poor prioress Joyce, 'a right sad matron,' according to Dr. Tregonnell, in her despair not only offered to buy her house off the king for 2,000 marks, but offered Cromwell 100 marks to buy him a gelding, with an additional promise (it is to be feared of small attraction) that if he would save her house he should have her life-long prayers and those of all her sisters. (fn. 42) Cruel as it may seem, it was probably as well that the poor lady did not obtain her desire, as further delay could only have proved a treacherous delusion.
Before the end of the year the work of destruction was accomplished. The prioress, to whom was granted a pension of £20, with her nine nuns and twenty-six dependents, was turned out; plate was seized to the value of £29 4s., furniture, vestments, and other ornaments and goods of the church and buildings £400, lead torn from the roofs £110, and £3 for the broken metal of two hand bells. (fn. 43)
Prioresses of Catesby
Margaret Rich, (fn. 44) elected 1245, died 1257
Felicia, (fn. 45) occurs 1259, died 1275
Mabel, (fn. 46) elected 1275, resigned 1284
Isolda Hastings, (fn. 47) elected 1284-5, resigned 1290-1
Biblisia, (fn. 48) elected 1290-1, died 1291
Joan of Northampton, (fn. 49) elected 1291, died 1311
Joan of Ludham, (fn. 50) elected 1311, resigned 1338
Alice of Rolleston, (fn. 51) elected 1338, died 1344
Katherine de Boydon, (fn. 52) elected 1344, died 1349
Orabel of Raundes, (fn. 53) elected 1349, died 1361
Joan Fabian, (fn. 54) elected 1361, died 1370
Joan Ashby, (fn. 55) elected 1370
Elizabeth Swynford, (fn. 56) elected 1405
Agnes Terry, (fn. 57) died 1431
Agnes Allesby, (fn. 58) elected 1452-3
Isabel Benett, (fn. 59) occurs 1468
Amabilia, (fn. 60) occurs 1471
Joan, (fn. 61) occurs 1495
Joyce Bekeley, (fn. 62) occurs 1510, surrendered 1563
The pointed oval seal ad causas of the priory taken from a cast at the British Museum, (fn. 63) with an indistinct and imperfect impression, represents the Virgin seated on a throne in a canopied niche, the Child on her left knee. In base under a trefoiled arch the prior in prayer to the left.