Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Barrow Gurney

A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Barrow Gurney', in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2, (London, 1911) pp. 107-109. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

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The founder of the Priory of Barrow Gurney, also called Minchin Barrow, is not known, but appears to have been a Gurney, and one connected with the family of Fitzhardinge lords of Berkeley. In 1283 the Berkeley family were certainly patrons of the priory. (fn. 1)

The foundation was dedicated to the honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. Edward, king and martyr, and had clearly been established before 1212, when Hugh de Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, made his will, and left 10 marks to the nuns of Barrow. (fn. 2) Some time before its dissolution it seems as if the additional dedication in honour of the Holy Trinity had been made.

Previous to the Taxatio (fn. 3) of 1291, the house obtained a pension on the church of Twerton, near Bath, the advowson of which church belonged to the Prioress and convent of Kington.

Richard de Acton, in 1362, (fn. 4) gave land and houses in Wells and Barrow Gurney to provide a chaplain to pray for the soul of Guy de Brian, (fn. 5) and seven years later he and others gave 72 acres of arable and 7 acres of meadow in Barrow Gurney to provide a lamp to burn in the priory church of the Blessed Mary of Barrow. Next year, 1370, (fn. 6) John Blanket of Bristol gave property in Bristol and the suburbs to provide bread and wine for the high altar.

In the Valor of 1535 (fn. 7) the property of the house was assessed as worth £29 6s. 8½d. on which there were charges of £5 12s. 4¾d., leaving a clear value of £23 14s. 3¾d.

The nuns of the house seem all to have been drawn from good families, but were not therefore exempt from jealousies and worldly interests.

On 26 June 1315 the bishop (fn. 8) wrote to the prioress enjoining obedience, on pain of excommunication, to the regulations he was going to lay down and to the custodian he was going to appoint over the possessions of the house. She should for the future cease to interest herself with worldly and secular matters, should above all things apply herself to the worship of God and obediently and carefully attend to the government of her sisters. The prioress and the other nuns should eat and sleep together unless hindered by ill-health or other just cause. She should not concede to any one of her nuns permission to go into or beyond the vill, except for great and lawful cause, and then they should go in pairs and in their nuns' habits, and should not wander to places where their leave did not extend, nor voluntarily absent themselves beyond the time of their leave. Silence, too, was to be observed as their rule demanded, and the prioress should not carry herself harshly towards her nuns, but should live in charity, love, and unanimity.

In the next month (July) the bishop writes to William de Sutton, (fn. 9) asking him to take over the administration of the priory, the prioress being evidently incompetent. What happened as the result of this we do not know, but on 4 October 1316 the bishop wrote to the Dean of Wells and Canon Penkridge, asking them to examine the election process of Joan de Gurney, elected prioress, and if they were satisfied with the procedure to induct her into the office. (fn. 10)

In July 1317 we find that the bishop blessed four nuns of the house of Barrow, who had just made their profession before him in his chapel at Banwell, namely, Joan de Gurney, Agnes de Saut Marais, Milburga de Durnford, and Basilia de Sutton. (fn. 11) It then appeared that Dame Joan had been elected prioress before she was professed, and as this was uncanonical the election was void, but on 26 October 1317, as she was now a professed nun, Bishop Drokensford collated her on his own authority as Prioress of Barrow. (fn. 12) Dame Joan, however, though of noble birth, seems to have been incompetent and quite unfitted for her post. The nunnery was mismanaged, and the prioress given to wandering, and Bishop Drokensford appointed the rectors of Chew and Harptree to inquire and take measures on 6 September 1323. (fn. 13) The arrangements made by these two commissioners seem to have been of little avail, for on 18 January 1325 he issued a commission to his official to visit the priory and to remove the prioress. (fn. 14) On 3 May 1325 Joan de Gurney resigned, and on 4 June the bishop bade his official examine into the election of Agnes de St. Cruce. (fn. 15) There were clearly however difficulties in the way, for on 4 October 1325 he again issued a commission to three canons to examine into the election of Agnes de St. Cruce as prioress, and if it was regular to confirm her in her office. (fn. 16)

The prioress who had been removed was closely related to the patron of the priory, and possibly difficulties had been placed in the way of obtaining from the patron his licence for the election.

The next year (9 February 1326), the bishop wrote to the nuns bidding them obey their new prioress.

On entering into his diocese, Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, according to the prevailing custom, claimed the right to nominate a member of the house, and sent word to the prioress that the convent should receive Elizabeth daughter of Sir Hamon Fitz Richard. (fn. 17)

On 28 March 1398 (fn. 18) Pope Boniface IX wrote to the Prior of Bath to inquire into the facts concerning Isabella Poleyns and Joan Bozum, Benedictine nuns of Barrow in the diocese of Wells. On their own authority and without seeking licence, with no intention of apostatizing, but on account of penury of victuals, they had transferred themselves to another monastery of the same order in the diocese of Llandaff, and now they desired to return and be restored, each of them, to her old room over the parlour.

On 2 September 1410 Bishop Bubwith, at the request of Margery Fitz Nichol, prioress, who, on account of extreme old age and infirmity desired to be relieved of the government of the house, issued a commission of inquiry. (fn. 19) About a year and a half afterwards, it seems that the late prioress regarded her application to be allowed to resign as if it also had relieved her of her duties and her vows as a sister. For, on 14 April 1412, Bishop Bubwith sent instructions to her (fn. 20) to submit herself to the regular observance of her order, and not to allow old age to excuse her attendance at the services of the chapel. She must punctually attend the services, both of the night and the day, when she could conveniently be present, and any neglect on her part to do so would endanger her soul's welfare, and be a manifest violation of the rule of the Order to which she was pledged.

On 20 May 1432 Bishop Stafford wrote to Joan Stabler, one of the nuns of Barrow, telling her that since from lapse of time the nomination to the vacant post of prioress had fallen to him, he therefore appointed her to that office. (fn. 21)

On 3 February 1463 (fn. 22) Bishop Beckington issued a commission to John Erl, rector of Backwell, to receive the profession of two nuns of Barrow, Sibyl Prest and Isabella Bacwell.

The later history of the priory is unknown, and nothing remains to be recorded beyond the fact that in August 1535 the prioress, Isabella Cogan, resigned on a pension of £4, which was continued to her in 1537 by the Court of Augmentations. (fn. 23)

The house was dissolved on 19 September 1536. No list exists of the sisters who were dispersed, but a pension was granted to the prioress, Katharine Bowle or Bulle, of £5 yearly.

Prioresses of Barrow Gurney

Alice, occurs 1300 (fn. 24)

Joan de Gurney, elected 1316, resigned 1325 (fn. 25)

Agnes de Sancta Cruce, elected 1325, died 1328 (fn. 26)

Basilia de Sutton, elected 1328 (fn. 27)

Juliana de Groundy, elected 1340 (fn. 28)

Agnes Balun, elected 1348 (fn. 29)

Joan Panes, occurs 1377, 1388 (fn. 30)

Margery Fitz Nichol, resigned 1410 (fn. 31)

Joan Stabler, appointed 30 May 1432 (fn. 32)

Agnes Leveregge, 1463 (fn. 33)

Isabel Cogan, occurs 1502, resigned 1534 (fn. 34)

Katharine Bowle or Bull, 1535–7 (fn. 35)


  • 1. Esch. R. 53 Hen. III, fol. 23.
  • 2. This is borne out by the appearance of 'Bearwe' in the 'Mappa Mundi' usually ascribed to about 1200: Gervase of Cant. Op. Hist. (Rolls Ser.) ii. 422.
  • 3. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.) 199.
  • 4. Harl. MSS. 4120, fol. 178.
  • 5. Inq. p.m. 44 Edw. III, no. 46, Appendix xi.
  • 6. Pat. 44 Edw. III, pt. ii, no. 3.
  • 7. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.) i, 183.
  • 8. Drokensford's Reg. (Somers. Rec. Soc. i) 92.
  • 9. Ibid. 93.
  • 10. Ibid. 115.
  • 11. Drokensford's Reg. (Somers. Rec. Soc. i) 167.
  • 12. Ibid. 115.
  • 13. Ibid. 221.
  • 14. Ibid. 238.
  • 15. Ibid. 246.
  • 16. Ibid. 248.
  • 17. R. of Shrewsbury's Reg. (Somers. Rec. Soc. ix) 38.
  • 18. Cal. Papal Letters, v, 162.
  • 19. Bath Epis. Reg. Bubwith, fol. 40b.
  • 20. Ibid. fol. 57.
  • 21. Ibid. Stafford, fol. 75b.
  • 22. Ibid. Beckington, fol. 287.
  • 23. Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. vol. 92.
  • 24. Assize R. 1318, m. 20.
  • 25. Somers. Rec. Soc. Publ. i, 115.
  • 26. Ibid. 246, 248.
  • 27. Ibid. 294.
  • 28. Ibid. ix, 370.
  • 29. Ibid. x, 557.
  • 30. Harl. MSS. 4120, fol. 305; occurs as 'late prioress' in 1402.
  • 31. Wells Epis Reg. Bubwith fol. 40 in dorso.
  • 32. Ibid. Stafford fol. 75 in dorso.
  • 33. Collinson, Hist. and Antiq. of Somers. ii, 311. The bishops' registers are silent concerning her, and Collinson gives no authority. But cf. Wells Epis. Reg. Beckington, fol. 282.
  • 34. Wells Epis. Reg. King, fol. 139.
  • 35. Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. vol. 92 (Orders and Decrees, vol. ii), fol. 3.