Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Nuneaton

Pages 66-70

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

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The celebrated abbey of Fontevrault, Anjou, was founded in 1100 by Robert de Arbriscelle, for both monks and nuns of the Benedictine order. Many French convents were subordinate to this monastery, as well as the three English cells of Amesbury (Wilts.), Grove (Beds.) and Nuneaton.

The latter appears to have been originally founded at Kintbury in Berkshire by Robert earl of Leicester and Gervase Paynel, who was his son-in-law, having married the earl's daughter Isabel, widow of Simon de Senliz, earl of Northampton. About 1153-5 the earl of Leicester gave to the abbey of Fontevrault 25 librates of land in Kintbury and in the soke of Hungerford for the erection of a convent of nuns belonging to that abbey. (fn. 2) At the same time Gervase Paynel granted to Fontevrault and to 'the nuns of Keneteburi serving God in that place' his mill of Inkpen (Berkshire). (fn. 3) For some reason, however, the site of the foundation was speedily removed to Eaton in Warwickshire, subsequently known as Nuneaton; and about 1155 Gervase Paynel confirmed his gift of the mill of Inkpen 'to Saint Mary and the nuns of Eton of the order of Fontevrault serving God and Saint Mary in that place.' (fn. 4) Robert, earl of Leicester, in a charter (fn. 5) possibly slightly earlier than that of Gervase Paynel, as it does not mention the mill of Inkpen, confirmed to the convent of the order of Fontevrault which he had founded at (Nun)eaton the manor of Eaton, except the lands at Stockingford held by the canons of St. Mary 'de Prato' of Leicester and those held by the nuns of Chaise-Dieu (in Eure) in Attleborough or Eaton; (fn. 6) also land paying £25 rent in Kintbury, his holding in Upwell and Outwell (Norfolk); the gift of his daughter Isabel and her son Earl Simon of land and pasture in Waltham (Leicestershire); (fn. 7) land in Swinford, and rent in Leicester.

In this confirmation charter the nunnery is called an abbey, and it is so termed in most of the early charters, and occasionally in the later; but from the time of its foundation its head never appears to have had a higher title than prioress. Associated with the prioress was a prior, leases and similar deeds running in the names of 'the prioress and prior and all the convent both of brethren and sisters.' These brethren, of whom the prior was the head, were not monks, but a community of secular chaplains, similar apparently to that which existed at Godstow Abbey. (fn. 8) A deed of about 1160 is attested by Hugh, Fromund, Nigel, Robert 'the bearded,' Bertram, and Humfrey, all called 'brethren,' whose names are preceded by those of William and Vital, priests, who may also have belonged to the community. (fn. 9) In 1328 there were seven chaplains, including the prior. (fn. 10) The title of prior appears to have lapsed in the fifteenth century, and is not found after 1424, the chief chaplain being referred to after this date as 'master and receivergeneral of the convent.' The post of prior, in its business aspect, can have been no sinecure, for not only were the priory estates widely scattered, but the number of inmates was remarkably large. In 1328 there were eighty-nine nuns, (fn. 11) while a century earlier, in 1234, there had been ninety-three. (fn. 12) These numbers must have diminished considerably after the Black Death of 1350, for in 1370 there were only forty-six nuns, (fn. 13) and there would seem to have been about forty nuns in 1459, as the prioress in that year arranged for forty choir stalls to be made by Thomas Karver of Lichfield, (fn. 14) from which same city, it may be observed, two free-masons were obtained in 1516 to complete the stonework of the cloisters. (fn. 15) At the election of Elizabeth Hasilrigg as prioress in 1507 the nuns numbered twenty-three in all, (fn. 16) and the same number received pensions upon the dissolution of the priory. Besides the prioress there were the claustral prioress, sub-prioress, third prioress, 'fratrissa,' and 'celleraria.' (fn. 17) The 'celleraria' appears to have had part control of the infirmary, as about 1180 Aileva dē Kerleton, wife of Robert the Cook, quadam infirmitate detenta, put herself into the hands of Dame Cecilia, the 'celleraria,' and Dame Eidiez de Hinkelai, at the same time granting to the priory certain houses in Leicester and Bristol, cattle, a fur mantle and cape, and a gold ring, on condition that if she recovered the priory should restore her enough to live upon, and receive her as a nun when she should so desire. (fn. 18)

Naturally there were many distinguished ladies in the priory; the founder's wife, Amice, became a nun there, (fn. 19) and his daughter Hawise was also an inmate. The earl had given 100s. of land in ' Dadelinton' to the nuns with his daughter, but Hugh de Novilla deprived them of the land; they thereupon entrusted their charter to the abbot of Leicester, who undertook to guard it until the earl had made good the loss. (fn. 20) Accordingly, Robert (IV), then earl, granted 9 virgates of land formerly held by Aaron the Jew of Lincoln in Belgrave in exchange for 'the land of Dadelinton which my father gave with my sister Hawise of pious memory.' (fn. 21) Apparently in this case the girl had been entrusted to them for education and not to become a nun, as she subsequently married the earl of Gloucester, (fn. 22) and, as countess of Gloucester, left her body to the priory with 100s. rent from Nutfort mill in Pimperne, Dorset. (fn. 23) Emma, mother of Ralph de Tureville, became a nun here shortly after the foundation of the house, and persuaded her son to grant the church of Burton Hastings. (fn. 24)

Several other churches were obtained; that of Burley in Rutland being given by Richard, bishop of Winchester, at whose disposal it had been put by David de Armentières about 1182 (fn. 25); that of Waltham-on-the-Wolds by the nuns of St. Paul, Beauvais, to whom Earl Simon de Senliz had given it about 1186; (fn. 26) the chapel of Blendworth, in Hampshire, given for the soul of William, its founder, by Geoffrey the Fowler and his wife about 1170, (fn. 27) and in the same county the church of Petersfield with Mapledurham chapel, Catherington church, and that of Chawton given by Henry II before 1163. (fn. 28) Also those of Hodnell, obtained from Kenilworth Priory; St. Gregory's, Sudbury, from William, earl of Gloucester; Mursley (Buckinghamshire), from Richard Fitz Nigel, and Claybrooke (Leicestershire), from Isabel de Wateville, mother of Arnold de Bosco. (fn. 29) The church of Marton was given by Robert de Craft, (fn. 30) and confirmedabout 1160 by William, earl of Warwick, as being situated upon the fee of his man Hugh FitzRichard, (fn. 31) the founder of Wroxall Priory; to this church a number of neighbouring vills paid yearly rents of rye and corn as 'churchamber,' (fn. 32) and to it was appurtenant the chapel of Honingham, which the nuns surrendered to the priory of Monks Kirby about 1170, reserving a rent of 5s. (fn. 33)

Henry II granted the nuns a fair at Nuneaton on the feast of the Invention of the Cross and the four following days. (fn. 34) Henry III confirmed this in 1239, and extended the fair to the two days preceding the feast. (fn. 35) In 1226 Henry III granted the priory a Tuesday market at Nuneaton; (fn. 36) and the market day was changed in 1233 to Saturday. (fn. 37)

In 1236-8 the nuns were rebuilding their church, and the king granted them ten oaks out of Kenilworth Woods and fifteen out of Cank Forest. (fn. 38)

Yet in spite of these and many other gifts Gregory IX, in 1234, granted leave to the priory and nuns of Nuneaton of the order of Fontevrault, who for the past half-year had been unable to support themselves, to hold for their uses, on its voidance, the church of Chawton (Hants) in their patronage, valued under sixteen marks, provided that a vicar was appointed and a portion reserved for episcopal and archidiaconal procurations. (fn. 39) In May, 1255, Pope Alexander IV, in consideration of their hospitality and great service to the poor, sanctioned the appropriation by the nuns of the church of Claybrooke in the diocese of Lincoln, which was of their patronage, on the next voidance, without the assent of either bishop or archdeacon, provided a portion was reserved for a perpetual vicar. (fn. 40)

The taxation of 1291 shows how large had been the benefactions to this priory. The temporalities of the nuns of Nuneaton in the deanery of Arden were declared of the annual value of £49 3s. 7d., and the three churches appropriated to them in the county, Burton, Marton, and Hodnell had a united annual value of £13. The temporalities in the diocese of Lincoln were worth £26 2s. 2d., and in the diocese of Sarum £16 10s. 8d., as well as smaller sums elsewhere. (fn. 41) But next year, in 1292, John, bishop of Winchester, allowed the nuns to appropriate the church of Catherington 'as their revenues have diminished, and three or four times a week they have lived on hard bread.' (fn. 42) Later, in 1451, their revenues had been further reduced, and they had suffered by royal officials seizing their goods on the way to Nuneaton fair; accordingly they received licence to acquire property to the value of 20 marks, and exemption from such seizures. (fn. 43) The Valor of 1535 gives the clear annual value of the priory of Nuneaton as £253 14s. 5½d. The nuns gave in yearly alms £6 17s. 4d.

In 1320 a dispute seems to have arisen as to the right of appointing a prioress. The abbess and convent of Fontevrault, to whom the priory of Nuneaton was subject, appointed Katherine de Stamforde one of the nuns, but the bishop of Lichfield and Coventry ' intruded' Isabella de Sullec (sic, recte Sudlee), also a nun, who held office as prioress 'in contempt of the pope' and to the injury of the abbess and convent of Fontevrault, who thereupon petitioned the pope for redress. In November of 1320, John XXII issued a mandate to the bishops of Salisbury and Hereford to examine and report to him on the subject. (fn. 44)

There was a writ of inquiry from the king's court addressed to the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield in 1358, with reference to Joan wife of Nicholas Grene. It would appear that Joan had pleaded that the cause in which she was defendant (a question of inheritance) should be heard in the ecclesiastical courts on account of her having been professed at Nuneaton Priory. But the bishop denied that Joan had ever been professed at Nuneaton, and forwarded a certificate of having solemnly admitted, twenty years before, thirty nuns at Nuneaton, at the request of the earl of Lancaster, the patron. It transpired that the priory of Nuneaton was exempt from episcopal visitation, but the nuns were admitted by the bishop or his suffragan. (fn. 45)

In 1391 Pope Boniface IX wrote to the prior of Coventry requiring him to confirm the election of Rose de Everingham. The like confirmation was to be made so long as the schism lasted, the abbess of Fontevrault, to whom the confirmation belonged of right, being an adherent of the antipope. (fn. 46) The influence of the mother house was further affected by the French wars, and in 1412 the pope commissioned the bishop of Salisbury to visit the priory at Nuneaton as often as necessary so long as the abbess of Fontevrault, to whom the right of visitation belonged, should be prevented by the continuance of war between England and France. (fn. 47)

In 1462, 'on account of the bad and wasteful governance of Maud the prioress,' the priory had been taken into the king's hands. On 20 September he issued letters patent by which it was entrusted to the custody of the abbots of Leicester and Merevale, the prior of Coventry, Sir William Hastings of Hastings, Richard Byngham, a justice of the bench, and three others, who were directed to apply all issues beyond the necessary sustenance of the prioress and convent and their servants to the relief of the priory, and they were also to inquire into all the excesses and alienations which had been committed. (fn. 48)

The immediate result was not altogether satisfactory, for although the abbot of Merevale and the prior of Coventry in 1465 removed 'Dame Maude Everyngham prioresse of Nuneton and Sir Simon Byllyngay (fn. 49) broder of the same place,' by whose misrule the goods of the priory had been wasted, and entrusted the management of the house to Sir William Ecle and Sir John Westby, 'breder of the same place,' yet the ex-prioress and Simon contrived to get the revenues into their own hands and to waste them as before, (fn. 50) and indeed Maud Everingham appears in January 1471 acting as prioress, having no doubt taken advantage of the confusion due to the brief restoration of Henry VI to oust Elizabeth Barton, the lawful prioress. (fn. 51)

In September, 1533, Sir Walter Smyth, sheriff of Warwickshire and Leicestershire, who had been knighted at the coronation of Anne Boleyn, wrote to Cromwell as to this priory, alleging that it kept no good rule either to God or the world, charging one of the nuns (the name is not mentioned) with unchastity. He asked that the king should be moved, as founder (patron), in the matter to appoint a new prioress. If his prayer was granted the king should have £100, and Cromwell should have £40 for himself. (fn. 52) But there were others who held a very different view as to the character and value of the nunnery, and when Cecily, Lady Dudley, wrote to Cromwell on 24 February, 1537, complaining of the poverty of herself and her husband, who were utterly undone unless the king took pity on them, she stated that she had but little above £20 a year to find her and one of her daughters with a woman and a man to wait upon them, and unless the good prioress of Nuneaton had given them meat and drink free of cost, she could not tell to what straits she would have been driven. Moreover, whenever her children came to see her at the priory, the prioress entertained them as long as they liked to tarry, with horse meat and man's meat to boot, and when they departed put a piece of gold or two in their purses. If aught should come to the house of Nuneaton she would stand in a very hard case. (fn. 53)

On 12 September, 1539, the prioress Agnes Oulton and the convent were supposed to surrender their house; but the deed of surrender has no signatures, merely twenty-seven crosses. (fn. 54) London received the surrender and signed the pensions, namely, £40 to the prioress; £3 each to Agnes Wilsey, Isabel Purfreye, Joan Whalleye, Elizabeth Milwarde, Mary Worseley, and Joan Wetnall; 53s. 4d. each to Isabel Babington and Joyse Fitzherbert; 46s. 8d. each to Anne Everatte, Lucy Hasilbrigge, Joan Bate, Joan Haseley, Margaret Dyxwell, and Rose Ceton; 40s. each to Joan Copstone, Mary Barington, Ellen Townesende, Dorothy Riddell, and Joyse Clarke; 26s. 8d. to Elizabeth Berdemore, Isabel Bannester, Joan More, and Agnes Kingstone; and 33s. 4d. to Joan Palmer. Robert Glen, chaplain to the nunnery, had a pension of £6. (fn. 55) Seventeen of the nuns were living and drawing their pensions in 1553.

Eight months after the surrender Henry VIII gave the site and all the priory's possessions to his servant, Sir Marmaduke Constable. (fn. 56)

Prioresses of Nuneaton

Agnes, c. 1160 (fn. 57)

Alice, occurs 1163-c. 1175 (fn. 58)

Juliana, occurs 1180-3 (fn. 59)

Alice, occurs 1186-c. 1198 (fn. 60)

Mabel, occurs 1202 (fn. 61)

Emma, occurs 1206-8 (fn. 62)

Ida, occurs 1214-26 (fn. 63)

Sibil, occurs 1227-32 (fn. 64)

Ida, occurs 1240-7 (fn. 65)

Cecilia de Lexynton, occurs c. 1256 (fn. 66)

Cecilia de Sutton, occurs c. 1257-c. 1272 (fn. 67)

Agnes de Sutton, occurs 1284-7 (fn. 68)

Agatha de Sutton, occurs 1290-7 (fn. 69)

Hawise de Sancto Mauro, occurs 1298-1300 (fn. 70)

Joan de Bristoll, occurs 1303-18 (fn. 71)

Isabel de Sudlee, occurs 1321 (fn. 72)

Katherine de Stafford, occurs 1322-3 (fn. 73)

Agatha de Auerham, occurs 1329-32 (fn. 74)

Margery de Shireford, occurs 1342-5 (fn. 75)

Agatha Bruys, occurs 1350-65 (fn. 76)

Margaret Seliman, occurs 1367-86 (fn. 77)

Rose Everingham, 1387-98 (fn. 78)

Eleanor Frechevyle, occurs 1401-3 (fn. 79)

Margaret Wanere, occurs 1408-9 (fn. 80)

Elizabeth Walcote, occurs 1412-46 (fn. 81)

Maud Everingham, occurs 1448, deposed c. 1465 (fn. 82)

Elizabeth Barton, elected 1465, occurs 1485 (fn. 83)

Maud Everingham, occurs 1486-99 (fn. 84)

Christine Topcliff, occurs 1500, resigned 1507 (fn. 85)

Elizabeth Haselrigge, elected 1507-21 (fn. 86)

Agnes Olton, occurs 1522, surrendered 1539 (fn. 87)

Priors of Nuneaton

William, c. 1160 (fn. 88)

Hugh, c. 1160-c. 1175 (fn. 89)

Berengar, c. 1180 (fn. 90)

Vital, occurs c. 1180-3 (fn. 91)

A., occurs c. 1202 (fn. 92)

N., occurs 1208 (fn. 93)

G., temp. John (fn. 94)

Richard, occurs 1227 (fn. 95)

Robert, occurs c. 1228-c. 1245 (fn. 96)

Gilbert, occurs 1247 (fn. 97)

William de Verny, occurs 1256-c. 1260 (fn. 98)

Peter de Palerne, temp. Henry III (fn. 99)

Henry, occurs c. 1272 (fn. 100)

Roger de Verny, occurs 1287-92 (fn. 101)

Walter, occurs 1294 (fn. 102)

Hugh, occurs 1298-1300 (fn. 103)

Robert, occurs 1308-18 (fn. 104)

Robert de Rodbourn, occurs 1328 (fn. 105)

Richard de Greneburgh, occurs 1329 (fn. 106)

Robert de Radbury, occurs 1330 (fn. 107)

Richard de Overton, occurs c. 1342 (fn. 108)

John de Wappenbury, occurs 1342-3 (fn. 109)

John Rodene, occurs 1345-62 (fn. 110)

Henry de Eton, occurs 1364-5 (fn. 111)

Baldwin, occurs 1366-72 (fn. 112)

William Ledbury, occurs 1373-7 (fn. 113)

Roger Appleby, occurs 1382, resigned 1401 (fn. 114)

John Denes, occurs 1424 (fn. 115)

The fourteenth-century seal (fn. 116) of the prioress is a pointed oval, showing the Virgin and Child under a carved and pinnacled canopy; on the plinth below the Virgin's feet, AVE MARIA; in arch below the half-length figure of the prioress in adoration, between two shields, dexter the three leopards of England, sinister two bars and three roundels in chief. Legend:—

....... PRIORISSE DE . . TON

A seal attached to deed of c. 1272 (fn. 117) shows the prioress standing under a trefoiled canopy.



The seal of Prior Henry attached to the same deed shows the prior standing with right hand raised; the legend is illegible.

The seal (fn. 118) used by Prioress Rose Everingham in 1398 was a small oval with the Virgin and Child under a canopy. Legend:—



  • 1. For the lists of prioresses and priors, and for most of the material in the account of this priory the reader is indebted to Mr. H. J. Ellis, who kindly gave access to his indexes and abstracts of the magnificent series of Nuneaton charters acquired by the British Museum amongst the Aston Hall deeds.—ED.
  • 2. Add. Chart. 47384.
  • 3. Ibid. 47423.
  • 4. Ibid. 47424.
  • 5. Round, Cal. Doc. France, 376.
  • 6. These lands had been granted to Chaise-Dieu in exchange for others originally granted to the nuns by the earl at Olney, Berkshire; Add. Chart. 47382.
  • 7. Add. Chart. 47629, 47640.
  • 8. V. C. H. Oxford, ii, 73.
  • 9. Add. Chart. 47854.
  • 10. Ibid. 47398.
  • 11. Add. Chart. 47398.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. a Ibid. 49729.
  • 14. Ibid. 48698.
  • 15. Ibid. 48753.
  • 16. Ibid. 47412.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Ibid. 47601.
  • 19. Genealogist (New Ser.), x, 6.
  • 20. Add. Chart. 47580.
  • 21. Ibid. 47551.
  • 22. Genealogist (New Ser.), x, 7.
  • 23. Add. Chart. 45517.
  • 24. Ibid. 47398.
  • 25. Ibid. 47789.
  • 26. Ibid. 47638, 47640.
  • 27. Ibid. 47849.
  • 28. Ibid. 47398.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ibid. 48299.
  • 31. Ibid. 47383.
  • 32. Ibid. 48304.
  • 33. Ibid. 48303.
  • 34. Ibid. 47394.
  • 35. Chart. R. 23 Hen. III, m. 4.
  • 36. Close, 10 Hen. III, m. 13.
  • 37. Chart. R. 17 Hen. III, m. 4.
  • 38. Close, 21 and 23 Hen. III.
  • 39. Cal. Papal Let. i, 138; Add. Chart. 47398.
  • 40. Cal. Papal Let. i, 315.
  • 41. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 74, 192, 256.
  • 42. Add. Chart. 47398.
  • 43. Ibid. 48677.
  • 44. Cal. of Papal Let. ii, 209.
  • 45. Lich. Epis. Reg. Northburgh, ii, fol. 144, 145b, 146, 147, 148b.
  • 46. Cal. Papal Let. iv, 400.
  • 47. Ibid. vi, 373.
  • 48. Pat. 2 Edw. IV, pt. i, m. 3; Add. Chart. 47465.
  • 49. Maud Everingham in 1465 presented Simon Byllyngay to the vicarage of Claybrooke; Add. Chart. 47574.
  • 50. Early Chan. Proc. bdle. 28, No. 282.
  • 51. Add. Chart. 47654.
  • 52. L. and P. Hen. VIII, vi, 1184.
  • 53. Ibid. xii (2), App. 6.
  • 54. Dep. Keeper's Rep. viii, App. ii, 35.
  • 55. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), 156.
  • 56. Ibid. xv, 733.
  • 57. Add. Chart. 47631, 47854.
  • 58. Ibid. 47398 (4 and 5), 47559.
  • 59. Add. Chart. 47601.
  • 60. Ibid. 47638, 47954, 49117-8.
  • 61. Ibid. 48145.
  • 62. Ibid. 47646, 67973.
  • 63. Ibid. 47958, 49068.
  • 64. Ibid. 48490, 48052.
  • 65. Ibid. 47997, 48497.
  • 66. Ibid. 48498-9.
  • 67. Ibid. 47961-2, 48335.
  • 68. Ibid. 47550, 48509.
  • 69. Ibid. 48097, 48005.
  • 70. Ibid. 48355-6, 48521.
  • 71. Ibid. 48357, 48534; probably vacated in 1320, in April of which year the office of prioress was vacant; ibid. 47860.
  • 72. Ibid. 48535; 'intruded' by the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield in 1320, Cal. Papal Let. ii, 209.
  • 73. Add. Chart. 47861 (5), 49145; originally appointed by the abbey of Fontevrault in or before 1320, but ousted by the bishop's nominee, Isabel; Cal. Papal Let. ii, 209.
  • 74. Add. Chart. 48539, 48542.
  • 75. Ibid. 48006, 48554.
  • 76. Ibid. 47604, 48578.
  • 77. Ibid. 49072, 48611.
  • 78. Ibid. 49074, 47672.
  • 79. Ibid. 49075, 48638.
  • 80. Ibid. 47648, 48641.
  • 81. Ibid. 48642, 47403.
  • 82. Ibid. 47674, 48704.
  • 83. Ibid. 47409, 48732.
  • 84. Ibid. 48057, 48035.
  • 85. Ibid. 47807, 47412.
  • 86. Ibid. 47412, 48758.
  • 87. Ibid. 47872, 47415.
  • 88. Ibid. 47631.
  • 89. Ibid. 47854, 47483.
  • 90. Ibid. 47559, 47602.
  • 91. Add. Chart. 47601.
  • 92. Ibid. 47645, 48145.
  • 93. Ibid. 47646.
  • 94. Ibid. 47484.
  • 95. Ibid. 48490.
  • 96. Cal. Anct. D. (P.R.O.), A. 5785; Add. Chart. 47742, 48088.
  • 97. Add. Chart. 48497.
  • 98. Ibid. 47594, 48498-48502.
  • 99. Ibid. 48151.
  • 100. Ibid. 48335, 48506.
  • 101. Ibid. 48509, 48521.
  • 102. Ibid. 48515.
  • 103. Ibid. 48355, 48521.
  • 104. Ibid. 48051, 48534.
  • 105. Ibid. 47861(5).
  • 106. Ibid. 47794, 48539.
  • 107. Ibid. 47398(21).
  • 108. Ibid. 47657.
  • 109. Ibid. 48425, 48549.
  • 110. Ibid. 48554, 48572.
  • 111. Ibid. 48575-8.
  • 112. Ibid. 47626, 48453.
  • 113. Ibid. 49715, 48053.
  • 114. Ibid. 47438; he resigned upon being appointed bishop of Ossory; Cal. Papal Let. v, 288; Pat. 2 Hen. VI, pt. i, m. 7.
  • 115. Add. Chart. 47673.
  • 116. Ibid. 47674, 48633.
  • 117. Ibid. 48335; B.M. lxxiii, 24.
  • 118. Add. Chart. 48634.