A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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7. THE PRIORY OF LITTLEMORE
The Benedictine priory of Littlemore was founded by Robert de Sandford, one of the knights of the abbot of Abingdon, on a piece of pasture in Sandford, called Cherley, and was endowed by him with 6 virgates of land. (fn. 1) As he was of full age as early as 1111, (fn. 2) and when the Pipe Rolls of Henry II begin had been succeeded by his son Jordan, we may assign the foundation of the nunnery to the reign of Stephen. A charter of his is preserved by which he grants 'to St. Mary, St. Nicholas and St. Edmund' the land of Cherley; and he speaks of the 'church of Cherley' and Maud the prioress, and mentions that his young daughter was a nun there. (fn. 3) In a few years, however, it seems to have been settled that the patron saint was St. Nicholas only, and the name of the priory, which for some time varied between Sandford and Littlemore, is always Littlemore after the middle of the thirteenth century. Various members of the family of Sandford made other gifts; one gave 9 virgates more in Sandford; (fn. 4) one must have given the church, of which the nuns had an appropriation as early as 1220; (fn. 5) in 1222 Hugh de Sandford granted 10s. a year from Wytham, Berkshire; (fn. 6) the priory also held tithes in Bayworth (in the parish of Sunningwell), and Lambourn, Berkshire; land in Sydenham, and Garsington, Oxon; and Kennington, and Liverton in Chilton, Berkshire: (fn. 7) it also claimed at one time the advowson of the church of Puttenham, Hertfordshire, but resigned it to Osbert, prior of Ashby, for the annual payment of a mark. (fn. 8) It also possessed some outlying property in Cambridgeshire in 'Bureweya' or 'Bergheia,' in the parish of Soham, granted by Roger de Sandford and confirmed by Henry II. (fn. 9) This property in 1279 brought in 40s. a year and 4,000 eels, (fn. 10) and in 1433, when the priory was allowed to exchange it for houses in Oxford, it was worth 60s. a year. (fn. 11) When Thomas de Sandford granted his share of the manor of Sandford to the Templars, the advowson of the priory went with it; and the Templars were the patrons from about the year 1240 until their dissolution.
In the early years of Henry III the house received several marks of royal favour. The Close Rolls of 1220-2 show that the king paid 40s. a year for the maintenance of a 'boarder' (prebendaria) at Littlemore; in 1232 he granted it permission to send a sumpter horse twice a day into Shotover Forest to collect dead wood, and in the same year confirmed to it a hide of land in Hendred, Berkshire. (fn. 12) In 1245 Pope Innocent issued a bull to the effect that, as the nuns were unable by their own resources to complete the rebuilding of their church, he granted during the next three years an indulgence of ten days to all who aided the work. (fn. 13) From this date the history of the house is almost a blank; it is not mentioned in the papal registers, or the registers of the bishop of Lincoln. In the Taxatio of 1291 it is omitted, no doubt because of its poverty, while it fails to appear in the Valor of 1535, because it had already been dissolved.
When it was visited in 1445 by Dr. John Derby, commissary of the bishop of Lincoln, the number of nuns seems to have been seven. They did not sleep in the dormitory, for fear it should fall; it was stated that they broke their rule, by eating flesh every day in the refectory; a certain Cistercian monk, and also a secular clerk, visited the prioress frequently and drank with her; there were three lay women who boarded in the nunnery, one paying 8d. a week and the two others 4d. each. Among other injunctions the visitor ordered that no secular persons, especially scholars of Oxford, were to be admitted to the convent, and that each nun should be allowed a separate bed. (fn. 14) Two years later a clerk of Oxford left them a small legacy to repair the house. (fn. 15)
When a visitation was held in 1517 by Edmund Horde, commissary of the bishop, the house was in a shocking state. The comperta are, that the prioress had ordered the five nuns under her to say that all was well; she herself had an illegitimate daughter, and was still visited by the father of the child, Richard Hewes, a priest in Kent; that she took the 'pannes, pottes, candilsticks, basynes, shetts, pellous, federe bedds, &c.,' the property of the monastery, to provide a dowry for this daughter; that another of the nuns had, within the last year, an illegitimate child by a married man of Oxford; that the prioress was excessive in punishments, and put the nuns in stocks when they rebuked her evil life; that almost all the jewels were pawned, and that there was neither food, clothing, nor pay for the nuns; that one who had thought of becoming a nun at Littlemore was so shocked by the evil life of the prioress that she went elsewhere. A few months afterwards (fn. 16) the bishop summoned the prioress to appear before him, and after denying the charges brought against her, she finally admitted them; her daughter, she said, had died four years before, but she owned that she had granted some of the plate of the monastery to Richard Hewes. In her evidence she stated that though these things had been going on for eight years, no inquiry had been made, and, as it seems, no visitation of the house had been held; only, on one occasion, certain injunctions of a general kind had been sent her. As a punishment, she was deposed from the post of prioress, but was allowed to perform the functions of the office for the present, provided that she did nothing without the advice of Mr. Edmund Horde. But some nine months later when the bishop himself made a visitation 'to bring about some reformation,' things were as scandalous as ever. The prioress complained that one of the nuns 'played and romped (luctando)' with boys in the cloister, and refused to be corrected. When she was put in the stocks, three other nuns broke the door and rescued her, and burnt the stocks; and when the prioress summoned aid from the neighbourhood, the four broke a window and escaped to friends, where they remained two or three weeks; that they laughed and played in church during mass, even at the elevation. The nuns complained that the prioress had punished them for speaking the truth at the last visitation; that she had put one in the stocks for a month without any cause; that she had hit another 'on the head with fists and feet, correcting her in an immoderate way,' and that Richard Hewes had visited the prioress within the last four months. From the evidence it is clear that the state of things was well-known in Oxford, where each party seems to have had its adherents. (fn. 17) The record carries us no further than 1518, but it shows that in this case at all events Cardinal Wolsey was justified, when in 1524, he asserted that Littlemore ought to be dissolved. It was worth at that time, £12 in spiritualities (no doubt the church of Sandford), and £21 6s. 6d. in temporalities, (fn. 18) some part of this being from houses in Oxford. At a collection for a subsidy in the previous year the income was stated to be £34 13s., of which £7 6s. 8d. was in spiritualities. (fn. 19) The priory was actually dissolved in February, 1525, (fn. 20) the prioress receiving a pension of £6 13s. 4d. (fn. 21)
Prioresses of Littlemore
Maud, (fn. 22) c. 1150
Isabel de Henred, elected 1230 (fn. 25)
Isabel de Turribus, occurs 1265, (fn. 26) died 1266
Amabilia de Saunford, elected 1266, died 1274 (fn. 27)
Amice de Saunford, elected 1274, (fn. 28) died 1277
Maud, elected 1277 (fn. 29)
Maud de Gloucester, died 1293 (fn. 30)
Emma de Waneting, elected 1293 (fn. 30)
Agatha de Oxford, died 1340 (fn. 35)
Asselina Bulbek, appointed 1349 (fn. 37)
Joan, occurs 1403 (fn. 40)
The seal is a pointed oval, representing a tabernacle or shrine with closed doors; below in adoration, a figure with a pastoral staff between two swinging censers. Legend:—
S' COE P'ORIE SCE MARIE ET SCI NICHI DE LITLEMORA . . . . . . ANNO DNI MCCCXVIII.