Houses of Benedictine nuns: Abbey of Polesworth

Pages 62-65

A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


In this section



There is an interesting legendary account of the founding of this abbey, copied by Dugdale in 1640 from an old roll in the possession of John Ferrers of Tamworth Castle. (fn. 1) According to this story King Egbert had an only son, Arnulph, who was a leper. Hearing from an Irish bishop that a king of Connaught had a daughter Modwen, a nun, who possessed marvellous powers of healing, he sent his son into Ireland, where he was cured by that holy woman. Thereupon Egbert invited St. Modwen to come to England, promising to found a monastery for her and her convent. At that time one of the petty Irish wars had brought about the burning of her religious house in Ireland, so that the saint was glad to accept of the offer, and brought over with her two of her fellow nuns. Thereupon the king assigned her a dwelling called Trensall, in the Forest of Arden, and recommended his daughter Edith to join her so as to be instructed in religion after the rule of St. Benedict. Thence they moved together with St. Lyne and St. Osyth to a monastery founded for them at Polesworth, on the bank of the Anker, of which house the king's daughter Edith shortly became abbess.

According to Matthew Paris (fn. 2) this nunnery would seem to have been honoured by the residence of another saintly lady of royal birth about 925, the sister of Ethelstan, and repudiated wife of Sihtric, king of Northumbria, who ended her days here.

Another account, that of John of Tynemouth, ascribes the foundation of Polesworth to Ettenwolf, son of King Edgar, whose son Alfred was healed of some incurable complaint.

At the time of the Conquest, according to Dugdale's account, Sir Robert Marmion expelled the nuns from Polesworth, when they retired to Oldbury, a cell of their house, but within a twelvemonth, after feasting at Tamworth Castle, Sir Robert had a vision of St. Edith, who reproached him for the wrong done to her nuns, whereupon they were restored to Polesworth. Whatever may be the truth of the vision of St. Edith, which took a most detailed form, there seems no doubt that Sir Robert Marmion and Millicent his wife did bring the prioress, Osanna, and her nuns from Oldbury and established them at Polesworth under the patronage of St. Edith (fn. 3); for Dugdale cites a charter to that effect, and their donation of the town of Polesworth and their whole demesne in Waverton. (fn. 4)

Among their numerous early benefactors were Walter de Hastings, who gave them Oldbury; Robert Marmion, son of Robert and Millicent, the church of Quinton, Gloucestershire; Robert Fitzwalter, a mill at Kingsbury, with meadows and lands; Alice de Harcourt, a mill at Hurley; Picot Archer (temp. Henry II), land at Drayton, Leicestershire; William de Hardreshull, the church of Ansley (temp. John); Erneburga, the mother of William de Hastings, the church of Barwell, Leicestershire; William Savage, his ground in Pooley Wood, where the chapel above St. Edith's Well was built; Ralph, Lord Basset, an annual rent of a mark of silver, for augmenting their diet on the day of St. John Baptist; and Robert de Grendon, the chapel of Hoo and lands there, on condition of the nuns finding two priests to celebrate there for his soul and those of his family. (fn. 5)

Henry III granted the abbey in 1242 a weekly market at Polesworth, and a three days' fair at the festival of St Margaret. (fn. 6)

According to the Taxatio of 1291 the temporalities of the abbey in the deanery of Arden were of the annual value of £20 2s. 11d., (fn. 7) and they also held temporalities in the archdeaconry of Leicester of the annual value of £9 6s. 11d. (fn. 8) The church of Polesworth, appropriated to the convent, was of the yearly value of £14 13s. 4d., and that of Ansley, similarly appropriated, £4. (fn. 9) There was also a pension from the church of Quinton, Gloucestershire, of 40s., (fn. 10) which church was subsequently appropriated, in 1398. (fn. 11)

Pope John XXII, in September, 1327, issued his mandate to the bishop of Hereford, to do justice between the rector of Eyton and the abbess and convent of Polesworth. Roger, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, had unreasonably ordered the rector to pay two-thirds of his small income to the abbess, by way of pension, although the convent was already well provided, and the rector was obliged to take an oath to do this. But when Thomas the rector took possession of his rectory he found that a third portion did not suffice for his support, whereupon the pope ordered the archdeacon of Salop and two other members of the Lichfield chapter to absolve him from his oath. Pending the cause, the convent were ordered to do nothing, but they brought the matter before the secular courts, on the ground that the pension was a charge on the rectory, and that Bishop Walter de Langton had sequestrated the funds. The rector had recourse to the archdeacon and his colleagues, but they refused to take further cognizance of the dispute. The rector then appealed to the pope, whereupon the abbess and convent deprived him of the rectory, and presented it to William de Ippeston. The rector prayed the pope for a remedy, declaring that he feared to summon the convent within the diocese of Lichfield. (fn. 12)

The convent was visited by Bishop Northburgh in 1352. The consequent decree, written in French, as was usual when sent to nuns, dealt merely after the general fashion with small matters of ritual, silence, and the exclusion of secular women. (fn. 13)

After the death of Abbess Agnes de Somerville, a return of the temporalities of Polesworth was made by John de Windsor, the king's escheator for Warwickshire, on 7 January, 1362. From this it appears that there was then at Polesworth a dove-cote of the annual value of 2s., 3 carucates of land, 30s.; 13 acres of meadow, 16s.; two water-mills, 2 marks; 5 virgates of land, yielding 30s. rents; seven cottars, paying 20s. rents, four tenants at Bromcote, paying 20s. 8d. rents; pleas and perquisites of the court of Polesworth half a mark, and two views of frankpledge a year 10s. (fn. 14)

Matilda Botetourt, elected on 8 March, 1362, had to obtain an episcopal dispensation to hold office, being under 20 years of age. (fn. 15) This early promotion was not the only mark of favour that this prioress obtained, for in 1399 the pope granted her exemption from the jurisdiction of the archbishop, or the bishop of Lichfield. (fn. 16)

Certain discords arose as to the election by the convent of a successor to the Abbess Katherine in 1414. For the avoidance of dispute the nomination of the new abbess was assigned by the chapter with the king's assent to Henry Chicheley, archbishop of Canterbury, and his choice fell upon Benedicta, one of the Polesworth nuns. (fn. 17)

The abbey was visited by Bishop Boulers in 1456, when various irregularities were brought to light. The result was that decrees were issued in September of that year forbidding the residence of secular men and women within the precincts, and ordering their removal by the following February, and prohibiting the granting of corrodies or liveries. All the nuns were to take their meals in the refectory, and to be served by the nuns and not by seculars; they were to sleep in the one dormitory and in single beds; silence was to be observed in refectory and dormitory as well as in cloister; and no one was to leave the precincts without the express sanction of the abbess. The common seal was to be kept in an iron chest with three keys, there was to be no alienation of property or goods without the consent of the whole convent, and there was to be an annual presentment of accounts. (fn. 18)

The Valor of 1535 gave the clear annual value of the abbey as £87 16s. 3d. The definite alms to the poor included a yearly distribution of 26s. 8d. on Maundy Thursday, and a yearly charge of 26s. for rye bread distributed weekly to the poor at the monastery gate. (fn. 19)

The official report of the mixed commission of June 1536 stated the clear annual value of the house of the Black Nuns of St. Benedict of Polesworth to be £110 6s. 2d. The number of religious was fourteen with the abbess and 'one ancress,' . . . they are described as being of 'a very religious sorte and living and in vertue very excellent oon of theym beyng upon the poynt of a c yeres olde.' All of them desired to continue in their religion there, or to be transferred to other houses. The number of dependants that had their living of the house was 38, namely 3 priests, 8 yeomen, 17 hinds, 9 women servants, and one very old and impotent creature, sometime cook of the house, who had her living there by promise. The value of the lead and bells £52; the house in good and convenient repair; the value of stocks, stores, and movable goods £127 13s. 8d.; one hundred and eight acres of great woods, about 100 years old, £114 10s.; and debts owing by the house £27 3s. 4d. (fn. 20)

The Commissioners wrote to Cromwell on 28 July, 1536, from Maxstoke, describing their survey of Polesworth at greater length than in their formal report. The abbess, Dame Alice Fitzherbert, sixty years old, was a very discreet religious woman, and had ruled there for twentyseven years. There were twelve virtuous nuns under her of good repute in the county, and none of them would leave their habit. They advised Cromwell to mediate with the king so that the house might escape suppression. Thirty or forty gentlemen's children were often brought up in the house. They thought that the town would be ruined if the nunnery was abolished. (fn. 21) The result of this appeal was, that on the payment of £50, made in January 1537, Polesworth was granted royal letters patent to remain undissolved. (fn. 22)

The abbey was, however, 'surrendered,' notwithstanding its recent purchase of exemption, on 31 January, 1539, by Alice Fitzherbert, the abbess; but there are no signatures to the document. (fn. 23) Dr. London assigned to the abbess a pension of £26 13s. 4d., to Joan Penge, the prioress, and to Margaret Todye, who were aged, 53s. 4d. each, and 40s. to each of the twelve other nuns. In a letter to the Chancellor of the Augmentations, asking for confirmation of these sums, London wrote of the abbess as a lady of virtuous reputation and great age, and well deserving of this pension, as she had lately at great cost purchased the continuance of her house, and yet left it in a good state. (fn. 24)

Henry VIII sold the site and demesnes of the abbey in 1544 to Francis Goodyear. (fn. 25)


Edith, ? temp. Egbert

Osanna, occurs temp. Henry I

Muriel, occurs temp. John

Cicely, elected 1234 (fn. 26)

Margaret de Appleby, elected 1237, (fn. 27) died 1269

Sara or Sarra de Mancestre, elected 1269, (fn. 28) died 1276

Albreda de Canvill, elected 1277, (fn. 29) occurs 1285 (fn. 30)

Katherine de Appleby, elected 1291, (fn. 31) died 1301

Erneberga de Herdeshull, elected 1301, (fn. 32) died 1322

Maud de Pipe, elected 1322 (fn. 33)

Letitia de Hexstall, elected 1348, (fn. 34) died 1349

Agnes de Somerville, elected 1349, (fn. 35) died 1362

Maud Botetourt, elected 1362, (fn. 36) resigned 1400 (fn. 37)

Katherine de Wyrley, elected 1400, (fn. 38) died 1414

Benedicta Pryde, elected 1414, (fn. 39) died 1469

Margaret Ruskyn, elected 1469 (fn. 40)

Elizabeth Bradfield, elected 1501, (fn. 41) died 1505

Elizabeth Fitzherbert, elected 1505, (fn. 42) died 1513

Alice Fitzherbert, elected 1513, (fn. 43) surrendered 1539

The first seal was a pointed oval: the abbess, or perhaps St. Edith, standing, with a long cloak, holding up in the left hand an object, probably a pastoral staff. Legend:—

. . . . VM SANC . . . . (fn. 44)

The second seal, of the fourteenth century, is a pointed oval: the Virgin with crown, standing in a heavily canopied niche, on the right arm the Child, in the left hand a sceptre. On each side a smaller but similar niche, containing on the left St. John the Evangelist holding a cup; on the right St. Edith, in the right hand a book, in the left hand a pastoral staff. In base, under a round-headed arch, carved and trefoiled, a shield of arms: a fesse double cotised, between six crosslets. Legend:—



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. ii, 365-6.
  • 2. Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.), i, 446.
  • 3. a Harl. Chart. 45 G. 25.
  • 4. Dugdale, Warw. ii, 1107.
  • 5. Dugdale, Mon. ii, 367.
  • 6. Chart. R. 26 Hen. III, m. 4.
  • 7. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 256b.
  • 8. Ibid. 67, 74.
  • 9. Ibid. 242.
  • 10. Ibid. 223.
  • 11. Pat. 22 Ric. II, pt. ii, m. 13.
  • 12. Cal. Papal Let. ii, 271.
  • 13. Lich. Epis. Reg. Northburgh, ii, fol. 130.
  • 14. Add. MSS. 6165, fol. 45.
  • 15. Lich. Epis. Reg. Stretton, fol. 11.
  • 16. Cal. Papal Let. v, 186.
  • 17. Rymer, Foedera, ix, 1528.
  • 18. Lich. Epis. Reg. Boulers, fol. 80b.
  • 19. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 78.
  • 20. Aug. Off. Misc. Bks. cliv, 127.
  • 21. Cott. MSS. Cleop. E. iv, 210.
  • 22. Pat. 28 Hen. VIII, m. 12.
  • 23. Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii, App. ii, 37.
  • 24. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), 207.
  • 25. Pat. 36 Hen. VIII, 26.
  • 26. Pat. 18 Hen. III, m. 14.
  • 27. Pat. 21 Hen. III, m. 6.
  • 28. Pat. 54 Hen. III, m. 25.
  • 29. Pat. 5 Edw. I, m. 27, 26.
  • 30. Assize R. 956, m. 32; Egerton Chart. 457.
  • 31. Pat. 19 Edw. I, m. 6.
  • 32. Pat. 29 Edw. I, m. 17, 14.
  • 33. Pat. 15 Edw. II, m. 25.
  • 34. Pat. 22 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 30; Lich. Epis. Reg. Northburgh, i, fol. 46 d.
  • 35. Pat. 23 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 58.
  • 36. Pat. 36 Edw. III, pt. i, m. 25. This abbess had to obtain an episcopal dispensation to hold office, being under twenty years of age; Lich. Epis. Reg. Stretton, fol. 114.
  • 37. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Arundel, fol. 488b.
  • 38. Pat. 2 Hen. IV, pt. i, m. 6.
  • 39. Pat. 2 Hen. V, pt. i, m. I; Rymer, Foedera, ix, 1528.
  • 40. Pat. 5 Edw. IV, pt. i, m. 1; 6 Edw. IV, pt. i, m. 5; Lich. Epis. Reg. Hales, fol. 19.
  • 41. Pat. 16 Hen. VII, pt. i, m. 13.
  • 42. Pat. 21 Hen. VII, pt. ii, m. 2; Lich. Epis. Reg. Blyth, fol. 10b.
  • 43. Ibid. fol. 11.
  • 44. Egerton Chart. 457.
  • 45. B.M. lxxiii, 25.