Houses of Austin nuns: Priory of Campsey

Pages 112-115

A History of the County of Suffolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1975.

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The priory of Campsey, or Campsey Ash, was founded about the year 1195, by Theobald de Valoines, who gave all his estate in that parish to his two sisters Joan and Agnes, to the intent they should build a monastery in honour of the Blessed Virgin, for themselves and other religious women. In accordance with his desire the sisters built and established here a house of Austin nuns, of which Joan became the first prioress, Agnes succeeding her. King John confirmed the grant of Theobald in January, 1203-4. (fn. 1)

Among the earliest subsequent benefactors were Simon de Brunna and John L'Estrange of Hunstanton, both of whom gave lands in Tottington. (fn. 2)

In 1228-9 a dispute arose as to certain tithes between the prioress and convent of Campsey and the prior and convent of Butley, which was in the first instance brought before the abbot of St. Benet of Holme and other papal commissioners. The prioress and convent of Campsey appealed again to Rome against the decision, whereupon the commissioners excommunicated them. Pope Gregory IX referred the appeal to the prior of Anglesey and others; and the priory of Butley, because these judges refused to admit the execution of the excommunication, obtained papal letters on that point to the prior of Yarmouth and others. Before this last commission, the prioress and convent of Campsey pleaded that as the sentence was issued after the appeal, every excommunicated person being allowed to defend himself, the other judges had acted rightly in refusing to admit the execution. The prior of Yarmouth and his colleagues declined to receive such plea, and the prioress again appealed to the pope. Eventually, in June, 1230, the original papal order against the nuns of Campsey was enforced, whereby the small tithes of the church of Dilham and of the mill of the same place were to be paid to the priory of Butley. (fn. 3)

The taxation roll of 1291 shows that the temporalities of this priory were by that date widely scattered over Suffolk, with certain lands and rents in Norfolk and Essex; their total annual value was assessed at £67 3s. 3¾d. The value of the four churches then appropriated, Allesby (Lincoln), Tottington (Norfolk), and Ludham and Bruisyard, was £40, giving a total of £107 3s. 3¾d. (fn. 4)

The steady way in which the endowments of this house increased during the fourteenth century bears testimony to the good repute of the nuns. Licence was granted in 1319 to the prioress and nuns at the request of Robert de Ufford to acquire lands and tenements to the annual value of £10; and in the same year the convent obtained grants in Bruisyard and adjacent parishes, worth £7 17s. 8d. a year. (fn. 5)

John de Framlingham, clerk, obtained licence in 1332, at the request of Queen Philippa, for the alienation to the prioress and nuns of Campsey, of the manor of Carlton-by-Kelsall and the advowson of the church of that town. It was provided that the priory was to grant the manor for life to a chaplain, on condition that he, with two other chaplains, to be found by him, celebrated daily in the church of Carlton for the soul of Alice de Henaud, the Queen's aunt, and for the soul of the grantor after his death. On the death of the chaplain the priory was to resume possession of the manor and regrant it to another chaplain on like conditions. (fn. 6) Licence was also granted in 1342, to Robert de Ufford, earl of Suffolk, to alienate to the prioress and convent of Campsey an acre of land in Wickham and the advowson of the church of that town with leave to appropriate it. (fn. 7)

The prioress and convent had licence in 1343 to alienate to the dean and chapter of Lincoln a pension of £10 that they had received yearly out of the church of Allsby, to find two chaplains to celebrate daily in the cathedral church of Lincoln, for the soul of Robert de Alford, rector of Anderby. (fn. 8)

In 1346 Thomas de Hereford had licence to alienate to this priory the advowson and appropriation of the church of Hargham, to find chaplains to celebrate daily in the priory church for the soul of Ralph Ufford. (fn. 9) Later in the same year the church of Burgh, Suffolk, was appropriated to the priory under like conditions. (fn. 10) Both these appropriations were made at the request of Maud countess of Ulster. This lady, in 1347, entered the religious life among the nuns of Campsey, taking the habit of a regular, and taking with her as dower the issues of all her lands and rents in England, by crown licence, for a year after her admission. It was also granted that when, at the end of the year, the king or the heir entitled to them, took this property, Henry earl of Lancaster, her brother, and five others, whom she had appointed her attorneys, were to pay for her sustenance and for the relief of the priory, which was very lean, 200 marks yearly for her life. (fn. 11) In October of the same year, licence was obtained for Countess Maud to ordain a perpetual chantry of five chaplains (one being the warden) to celebrate daily in the chapel of the Annunciation of our Lady, in the priory church, for the honour of God and His Virgin Mother, and for the saving of the souls of William de Burges, earl of Ulster, her first husband, and of Ralph de Ufford, her second husband (whose body was buried in that chapel), also of Elizabeth de Burges and Maud de Ufford, her daughters by the said husbands, and for the good estate of the countess and of John de Ufford and Thomas de Hereford, knights, and for their souls after death. A messuage in Asshe, and the churches of Burgh and Hargham, lately given to the priory, were to be assigned to the warden of this chantry. (fn. 12)

Roger de Boys, knight, and others obtained licence in 1383 to alienate to this priory the manor of Wickham Market and 5 acres of meadow and 5 of pasture in Mellis, of the yearly value of £18 18s. to support an increased number of nuns and chaplains, and to find a wax candle to burn in the quire of their church on the principal festivals, (fn. 13) and in 1390 Sir Roger de Boys and others, on payment of £50 to the king, were allowed to alienate to the priory the manor of Horpol, a fourth part of the manor of Dallinghoo, and the manor of Hillington, in aid of the maintenance of five chaplains to celebrate daily in the priory, and of two nuns there serving God. (fn. 14) This remarkable foundation is fully described in a small chartulary at the Public Record Office. (fn. 15) It is the only instance of which we are aware where a small college of secular priests was actually established within the precincts of a nunnery.

The various particulars set forth in the ordination of this chantry by the Bishop of Norwich, under date 3 October, 1390, provide that the gifts of lands in Bruisyard, Swefling, Peasenhall, Badingham, Cranford, and Parham, by Sir Roger Boys and others were to be used towards the adding of three chaplains to the two chantry chaplains already provided by the foundation of 1383; that they were especially to pray for the souls of William de Ufford and Robert de Ufford and their wives, and for all the faithful, in the chapel of St. Thomas the Martyr, within the convent precincts; that the convent was to build for them a suitable manse with chambers and common rooms within the close near to the chapel; that one of the five secular priests was to be warden or master; that they were to have a common dormitory and refectory; that the priory was to pay the master 13 marks a year and the other four chaplains 10 marks each; that the priory was to provide lights, wax, wine, and vestments for the chapel of St. Thomas, and also to keep the buildings in proper repair; that the chaplains were to be allowed free ingress and egress through the convent at all suitable hours; that the master and chaplains were strictly to abstain from entering the cloister or other buildings of the nuns; and that the master was to celebrate high mass in the conventual church on the great feasts and on principal doubles. The chartulary also contains a copy of the assent of Mary the prioress and the nuns to this ordinance, sealed in their chapter-house on 5 October; and of that of the dean and chapter of Norwich, sealed on 7 October. The surplus of this endowment, after paying the stipend of the master and chaplains, was to go to the common fund of the priory, and to be used towards the sustenance of two additional nuns.

Licence was obtained by the priory for 50 marks in 1392 for the alienation by Robert Ashfield and others of 12s. 4d. rent in Tottington, Norfolk, and of the reversion of that manor after the deaths of John de Bokenham senior and John de Bokenham junior, to find three tapers to burn daily before the high altar at high mass in the conventual church. (fn. 16)

Licence for £40 was granted in 1400 to the prioress and nuns of Campsey for Robert Ashfield and others to assign to them the manor called Blomvyle by Perham, together with considerable lands in Wickham Market and adjacent places, and the advowson of Pettistree, with leave to appropriate. (fn. 17)

In 1416 an important return was made of the appropriated churches of the diocese of Norwich, with the dates of the appropriation. The following are those entered as pertaining to the priory of Campsey:—

Ludham, 1259; Bredfield, 1259; Tottington, 1302; Wickham Market, 1343; Tunstead, 1350; and Pettistree, 1413. (fn. 18)

The Valor of 1535 gives the clear annual value of this priory as £182 9s. 5d. The temporalities consisted of the manors, with members, of Campsey, Wickham Market, Overhall and Netherhall Denham, Tottington-cum-Stanford, and Swefling, of the clear value of £158 19s. 5½d. The spiritualities, then consisting of the rectories of Wickham and Pettistree (Suffolk) and Tunstead and Tottington (Norfolk) were valued at £23 9s. 11½d. (fn. 19) The wealthy chantry of Ufford foundation, within the conventual church, was worth £35 6s. 8d., and was most certainly part of the priory's property, as the surplus, after paying the chantry priests' stipends, went to the common fund of the nunnery. To exclude this from the sum total of the priory's income was a mere piece of trickery to bring this house within those that were to be suppressed in 1536, and which were bound to have a less income than £200.

Archdeacon Goldwell visited Campsey on 24 January, 1492, as commissary of his brother the bishop. The visitation was attended by Katharine the prioress, Katharine Babington, the sub-prioress, and eighteen other nuns. Each was examined severally and separately, but nothing was found that demanded reformation. (fn. 20)

Bishop Nykke personally visited Campsey in 1514. The prioress, Elizabeth Everard, gave a good account of everything pertaining to the house, and in this she was supported by Petronilla Fulmerston, the sub-prioress, and eighteen other nuns, none of whom had any complaint to make. (fn. 21)

A prioress and the full number of twenty nuns were found here at the visitation of 1520, when everything was again found to be satisfactory. (fn. 22) The like number attended the visitation of 1526, when Elizabeth Buttry was prioress. Each of these ladies bore testimony to the good estate of the house in slightly varied phraseology. The only shadow of a complaint was from Margaret Harman, the precentrix, who, after stating that for the past thirty-five years she had never known anything worthy of correction or reformation, added that the office books in choir needed some repair. (fn. 23)

The prioress Elizabeth Buttry had only just been appointed when the last-named highly favourable visitation was held. Judging from the last visitation of 25 June, 1532, her rule over this happy, peaceful nunnery was unsatisfactory. Only six out of the eighteen nuns examined made an omnia bene report. The remainder all complained of the too great strictness and austerity, and more particularly of the parsimonious and stingy character of the prioress. Even Margaret Harman, who was then sacrist, and who had been a nun of this house for fortyone years, said that the food was sometimes not wholesome. Others complained much more bitterly of the food and of the unhealthy character of the meat. Katharine Grome, the precentrix, said that within the last month they had had to eat a bullock that would have died of disease if it had not been killed. Another sister complained of the unpunctuality of the cook; their dinner hour was supposed to be six, but sometimes it was eight o'clock before they had finished the meal. There was, however, no kind of moral delinquency alleged of anyone; and the bishop, after enjoining the prioress to provide a more liberal and wholesome diet, and the cook to be more punctual, gave his blessing, and dissolved the visitation. (fn. 24)

The exact date of the suppression of this house is not known, but it was some time in the year 1536.

An inventory of the goods and chattels was drawn up on 28 August of that year by the Suffolk commissioners. The high altar of the conventual church was well furnished with a white silk frontal, a carved wooden reredos, four great candlesticks of latten, a lamp of latten, and a pix of silver gilt weighing 9 oz., &c. The chapel of our Lady had an alabaster reredos. In the vestry was a good supply of vestments, altar cloths, frontals, and silk curtains, as well as a silver cross worth £5, a silver censer £4 13s. 4d., and a silver-gilt chalice £2 7s. 8d. The household furniture was simple. The cattle and stores brought up the inventory to the good sum of £56 13s. (fn. 25)

Prioresses of Campsey

Joan de Valoines, (fn. 26) occurs 1195 and 1228-9

Agnes de Valoines, (fn. 27) occurs 1234

Basilia, (fn. 28) occurs 1258

Margery, (fn. 29) occurs 1318

Maria de Wingfield, (fn. 30) 1334

Maria de Felton, (fn. 31) died 1394

Margaret de Bruisyard, (fn. 32) 1394

Alice Corbet, (fn. 33) 1411

Katharine Ancel, (fn. 34) 1416

Margery Rendlesham, (fn. 35) 1446

Margaret Hengham, (fn. 36) 1477

Katharine, (fn. 37) 1492

Anna, (fn. 38) 1502

Elizabeth Everard, (fn. 39) 1513

Elizabeth Blennerhasset, (fn. 40) 1518

Elizabeth (or Ellen) Buttry, (fn. 41) 1526

The fourteenth-century pointed oval seal of this priory bears the Blessed Virgin, crowned and seated on a throne, the Holy Child standing on the right knee, within a triple arched canopied niche. In base between two flowering branches, a shield bearing per pale a cross lozengy, diapered, a chief dancetty. Legend:—



  • 1. Chart. 5 John, m. 15, No. 124.
  • 2. Stevens, Contin. of Mon. i, 523.
  • 3. Cal. Pap. Reg. i, 121-4.
  • 4. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 27, 29, 58, 67b, 83, 95, 97b, 102, 103, 112b, 116b, 119b, 124b, 131b.
  • 5. Pat. 13 Edw. II, m. 15, 30.
  • 6. Pat. 6 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 2.
  • 7. Ibid. 16 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 18, 13.
  • 8. Ibid. 17 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 35.
  • 9. Ibid. 20 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 26; pt. iii, m. 25.
  • 10. Ibid. pt. iii, m. 24.
  • 11. Ibid. 21 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 37.
  • 12. Pat. 21 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 5.
  • 13. Ibid. 7 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 39.
  • 14. Ibid. 13 Ric. II, pt. iii, m. 27.
  • 15. Exch. L. T. R. Misc. Bks. No. 112.
  • 16. Pat. 16 Ric. II, pt. i, m. 34.
  • 17. Ibid. 1 Hen. IV, pt. v, m. 4.
  • 18. Norw. Epis. Reg. viii, fol. 128.
  • 19. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 415-17.
  • 20. Jessopp, Visit. 35-6.
  • 21. Ibid. 133-4.
  • 22. Ibid. 179-80.
  • 23. Ibid. 219.
  • 24. Ibid. 290-2.
  • 25. Proc. Suff. Arch. Inst. viii, 113-16.
  • 26. Add. MS. 1909b, fol. 66b.
  • 27. Ibid.
  • 28. Tanner MSS. Norw.
  • 29. Add. MS. 1909b, fol. 66b.
  • 30. Norw. Epis. Reg. ii, 65.
  • 31. Ibid. vi, 195.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. Ibid. vii, 43.
  • 34. Tanner MSS. Norw.
  • 35. Norw. Epis. Reg. xi, 1.
  • 36. Ibid. xii, 59.
  • 37. Ibid. xii, 112.
  • 38. Ibid. xiii, 21, 36.
  • 39. Tanner MSS. Norw.
  • 40. Ibid.
  • 41. Jessopp, Visit. 219. She died in 1543, and was buried in St. Stephen's Church, Norwich.
  • 42. B.M. Cast, lxxi, 101.