Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Kington St Michael

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1956.

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Kington St Michael', in A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3, (London, 1956) pp. 259-262. British History Online [accessed 19 April 2024]

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The Benedictine priory of St. Mary at Kington St. Michael was founded before 1155, when the nuns there were mentioned in the Pipe Roll. (fn. 1) The Empress Maud was named as founder by John Aubrey, who used a cartulary of the house which is now lost; (fn. 2) but the foundation has generally been attributed to the family of Robert Wayfer of Brimpton, the earliest known benefactor. (fn. 3) He gave land in Kington to the nuns and fixed the site of their house, (fn. 4) and in the time of Bishop Jocelyn of Salisbury (1142-84) he also gave the tithes of Steepleton Iwerne (Dors.), and the church of Lazartone, in Stourpaine (Dors.), to the priory. (fn. 5) Shortly afterwards Adam de Brinton, who may have been the son of Robert, granted to the nuns all the land which they already held of him in Kington. These lands in Kington were confirmed to the priory by Hugh de Mortimer, whose tenants the Brintons had been, (fn. 6) and Roger de Mortimer, brother of Hugh, gave his tithes at Stratfield Mortimer and Aldworth (Berks.) and at 'Biselee'. (fn. 7) Later the family is found holding ¼ fee in Brimpton (Berks.), whence the founder's family came. (fn. 8) It is possible that the story of the royal foundation arose from the fact that two royal almswomen were once maintained by the priory. In 1218 the Sheriff of Gloucestershire was ordered to pay the prioress £2 for the support of these two women, (fn. 9) and in subsequent years until 1229 regular and increasing sums were given from the Exchequer. (fn. 10) The corrody still existed in 1232, when the two almswomen were granted an oak from Chippenham Forest for building their house, (fn. 11) but no earlier or later evidence of their existence has been found.

Owing to the loss of the cartulary any account of the possessions of the priory is bound to be fragmentary. The lands were never extensive, for at the Dissolution the gross revenue amounted to only £38, of which a large proportion was derived from tithes. (fn. 12) The names of several other early benefactors are, however, known. Parnel Bluet, wife of William de Felcham, gave all her lands in Bradley (Hants) between 1194 and 1199; Richard Heriet gave the advowson of the church of Great Somerford in the presence of Bishop Herbert Poore (1194-1217), and William and Godfrey Malreward that of Twerton (Som.); William Harpetre tithes at Stourpaine and Sandford (Dors.), and Alexander of Studley sites for granges at Studley in Calne and Cadenham, together with tithes in the same places. (fn. 13) The priory's claim to the tithes of Studley was disputed by the Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, who held the prebend of Calne, but he gave way in 1243. (fn. 14)

How certain other lands were acquired is unknown. These included lands in Compton (Berks.) by 1220, a messuage in Bristol, and 1/5 of a fee in Great Somerford by 1242. (fn. 15) The advowson of the parish church of Kington St. Michael was part of the great estate which was in dispute in the 13th century between the bishops of Bath and Wells and the abbey of Glastonbury. By the settlement made in 1275 the bishop, Robert Burnell, secured the advowson. (fn. 16) In 1291 the priory obtained it from him by way of exchange. The bishop gave to the priory I acre of land in Kington, lying in the east field in the part called 'Goldthawe' between the land of the prioress and that of Richard Carpenter, together with the advowson. At the same time the prioress and convent gave him all their lands in West Compton, Aldworth, Hodcott in West Ilsley, and Newenham in Warfield (all in Berks.), the hundred of Compton, and the patronage of the chapel of Hodcott. (fn. 17) At the Dissolution the priory held a manor at Kington, and the abbey of Glastonbury was still holding lands there. (fn. 18) Meanwhile, as has been said, the nuns had been given the advowson of Twerton, and in 1321 they persuaded the Bishop of Bath and Wells to appropriate the church to them, (fn. 19) in spite of the protests of the Chapter of Wells, who attributed their repeated requests for its appropriation to feminine greed (aviditate feminea). (fn. 20) Ultimately the priory had to pay 10s. yearly to the church of Wells and 13s. to the Archdeacon of Bath in compensation, (fn. 21) and the priory displayed its 'greed' by failing to provide a permanent vicar to Twerton until 1342. (fn. 22)

When William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, died in 1225, he made bequests to several of the religious houses of Wiltshire. Kington's share was 100 ewes and 6 cows. (fn. 23) At this period the nuns were building or rebuilding their church, and received several royal grants of timber for the purpose between 1222 and 1234. (fn. 24) The church was again rebuilt in the early 15th century. (fn. 25) The repeated struggles for tithes and appropriations were no doubt forced on the priory by its poverty, which made such gifts not only welcome but necessary. In 1285 the nuns were fined £20 by the justices in eyre in Berkshire, but fortunately they secured a royal grant that it should be paid in annual instalments of 5s. This grant was forfeited in 1297, but restored to them at the instance of Mary, the king's daughter, a nun of Amesbury. (fn. 26) Another dispute arose in 1324. The prioress attempted to present to the church of Great Somerford, but John Mautravers challenged her right. The case was fought in the Common Bench, and the prioress did not present again. (fn. 27)

When the prioress, Amice, died in 1298, the sub-prioress and convent wrote to Simon of Ghent, Bishop of Salisbury, to report the fact. Although their letter was not in due form, he excused them on account of the frailty and simplicity of their sex, and gave them licence to elect; the Rector of Kington Langley being given charge of the bishop's interests during the vacancy. Amice of Wallingford having been chosen, the bishop instructed the Rector of Nettleton to install her as prioress. (fn. 28) The bishops of Salisbury continued to be patrons and visitors of the house, a fact which apparently displeased the nuns, for in 1490 they attempted to free themselves from the bishop's authority by forging a papal bull. This document, apparently the work of a franciscan, employed by Alice Lawrence, the prioress, was addressed to the Abbot of Glastonbury, and transferred to him the bishop's rights over the priory. (fn. 29) It was a clumsy procedure, for the bishop had only to refer the matter to Rome in order to expose it. This was done: Alice Lawrence had to resign, and the convent asked the bishop to nominate a successor. He accordingly appointed Katharine Moleyns, a nun of Shaftesbury, who was installed in 1492. (fn. 30)

In the following year Katharine Moleyns caused a new book of obits to be drawn up for the priory. This book (fn. 31) still survives in Cambridge, furnishing the names of a number of benefactors and prioresses. It also contains a copy of the letters appointing Katharine Moleyns as prioress, the order for receiving brothers and sisters, and that for receiving nuns, into the house, together with an extremely detailed account of the possessions of the priory in Kington. In the time of this prioress there were nine nuns in the house, Joan Bristow, Joan Hodges, Agnes Burnell, Alice Mershefield, Christine Westbourne, 'mulier' Chynne, Alice Lawrence (the former prioress), Christine Woodland, and Alice Hawkins, (fn. 32) but by 1535 their number had fallen to three. (fn. 33) In 1511 a curate of Castle Combe was accused of robbing the priory and carrying off the prioress, probably the same Cicely Bodenham who afterwards became Abbess of Wilton. (fn. 34)

In 1534 the revenues of the nuns were derived from their demesne lands in their manor of Kington, from rents and tithes there, from rents in Sherston, Leigh Delamere, Great Somerford, Cadenham, Boyton and Calne, Thame in Dodington (Glos.), Bradley (Hants), and Bristol, and from tithes in Uffcott, Cadenham, and Calne, in Stourpaine (Dors.), and Twerton (Som.). The total amounted to £38 3s. 2d., of which £13 14s. 8½d. was taken by the salaries of their officials, including Sir Henry Long, the steward, and one priest. (fn. 35) John Ap Rice visited the priory in August 1535. He reported that there were only three ladies there, of whom two were convicted of incontinence. One who was under 24, and did not desire to remain, was discharged. Mary Denys, 'a faire yong woman of Laycok', was chosen prioress. (fn. 36) The commissioners of the following year reported rather more favourably. They said that the value of the house was formerly £25 9s. 1½d., and now £35 15s. with 100s. from the demesnes. There were 4 religious of honest conversation, all desirous of remaining in religion, and 11 servants, namely a chaplain, a clerk, 4 women servants, 1 waiting servant, and 4 hinds. The church and dwellinghouse were in good state, the lead and bells were valued at 105s., ornaments at 8s. 6d., 'stuffe' at 2s. 10d., and stores of corn and cattle at £12 19s. 8d. The nuns were owed £50 and had no debts. The 'copyswoods', 36 acres, were valued at £24. (fn. 37) The total annual values of this survey corresponded very closely with the £36 10s. which was the gross revenue shown by the first Ministers' Account. (fn. 38)

The priory was dissolved with the smaller houses. Mary Denys, the prioress, who still had a long life before her, was given a pension of £5 a year. She died in Bristol in 1593. (fn. 39) The priory with its lands and revenues were granted in 1537 to Robert Long of Draycot for 21 years, with a reversion to Sir Richard Long. (fn. 40) The buildings were not on a large scale, the precinct covering only about 3 acres in all. Of the church nothing is left above ground, but the whole range of 15thcentury buildings on the west side of the cloister, and the earlier frater on the south side, are still standing. These buildings, somewhat altered by successive owners, form part of a farmhouse, about ¾ mile north-west from Kington St. Michael village. Part of the site was excavated by Sir Harold Brakspear, who published a full description and plan. (fn. 41)

Prioresses of Kington St. Michael (fn. 42)

Mary, occurs 1243. (fn. 43)

Clarice, before 1290. (fn. 44)

Amice, died 1298. (fn. 45)

Amice of Wallingford, elected 1298. (fn. 45)

Joan Duredent, occurs 1319, (fn. 46) died 1326. (fn. 47)

Denise of Horsell under Chobham (Surr.), appointed 1326. (fn. 48)

Isabel Huse, occurs 1327. (fn. 49)

Alice More, occurs 1431. (fn. 50)

Joan Denyton (Donyton), elected 1454. (fn. 51)

Alice Lawrence, resigned 1492. (fn. 52)

Katharine Moleyns, appointed 1492, (fn. 53) died 1506. (fn. 54)

Alice Staunton, appointed 1506. (fn. 54)

Cicely Bodenham, elected Abbess of Wilton 1534. (fn. 55)

Elizabeth Pede, occurs 1534. (fn. 56)

Mary Denys, appointed 1535. (fn. 57)


  • 1. Pipe R. 1156-8 (Rec. Com.), 59.
  • 2. W.A.M. iv, 72; Aubrey, Topog. Coll. ed. Jackson, 2.
  • 3. Dugd. Mon. iv, 397; W.A.M. iv, 51-52, 61; Archaeologia, lxxiii, 244-5.
  • 4. Dugd. Mon. iv, 399.
  • 5. Ibid. 400.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid. 399.
  • 8. Cal. Inq. p.m. iv, p. 163.
  • 9. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i, 355.
  • 10. Ibid. 384, 415, 457, 478, 494, 513, 515; ii, 33, 71.
  • 11. Close R. 1231-4, 62, 115.
  • 12. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 113.
  • 13. Dugd. Mon. iv, 399-400.
  • 14. Sar. Chart. & Doc. (Rolls Ser.), 288-9.
  • 15. Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 272; Close R. 1231-4, 283; Bk. of Fees, 296, 722, 863.
  • 16. V.C.H. Som. ii, 90-91; Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. Wells, i, 167-8, 311-12, 359-60, 472.
  • 17. Dugd. Mon. iv, 398; Cal. Chart. R. 1257-1300, 405; Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. Wells, i, 151.
  • 18. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), i, 145; ii, 113.
  • 19. Reg. Drokensford, Bath & Wells (Som. Rec. Soc.), 179.
  • 20. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. Wells, i, 200-1.
  • 21. Ibid. 397.
  • 22. Reg. Shrewsbury, Bath & Wells (Som. Rec. Soc.), 450.
  • 23. Rot. Litt. Claus. ii, 71.
  • 24. Ibid. i, 506; Close R. 1231-4, 371.
  • 25. W.A.M. iv, 62.
  • 26. Cal. Fine R. 1272-1307, 220, 383.
  • 27. W.A.M. xlvii, 330-4; C 47/84/1/11.
  • 28. Reg. Simon de Gandavo (Cant. & York Soc.), 582-3.
  • 29. W.A.M. iv, 56-57.
  • 30. Sar. Reg. Langton, 32-34.
  • 31. Camb. Univ. MS. DD. viii, 2; Cat. of MSS. preserved in the Library of the Univ. of Camb. i, pp. 334-6; partly printed in W.A.M. iv, 60-67, and Archaeologia, lxxiii, 245. Copy in Bodl. MS. Tanner, 342, f. 176. The list of benefactors and persons to be remembered is very long.
  • 32. Archaeologia, lxxiii, 246.
  • 33. L. & P. Hen. VIII, ix, p. 47.
  • 34. G. Poulett Scrope, Hist. of Castle Combe, 297.
  • 35. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 113-14.
  • 36. L. & P. Hen. VIII, ix, p. 47.
  • 37. Archaeologia, lxxiii, 246; SC 12/33/27.
  • 38. SC 6/Hen. VIII/3969.
  • 39. Archaeologia, lxxiii, 246.
  • 40. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiii, (1), p. 488.
  • 41. Archaeologia, lxxiii, 244-52; W.A.M. xliii, 18-25.
  • 42. The following names of prioresses of unknown date were collected by J. E. Jackson from the Book of Obits, and published in W.A.M. iv, 54-55: Edith of Bristow, Amice, Christine Charlton, Cecily, Lucy Pars, Susanna, Alice Hankerton, Christine Nye.
  • 43. Sar. Chart. & Doc. (Rolls Ser.), 288-9.
  • 44. Dugd. Mon. iv, 398; Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. Wells, i, 151.
  • 45. Reg. Simon de Gandavo (Cant. & York Soc.), 582-3.
  • 46. Sar. Reg. Mortival, ii, 113.
  • 47. Lamb. Reg. Reynolds, f. 194b.
  • 48. Ibid. f. 263a.
  • 49. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. Wells, i, 397.
  • 50. Sar. Reg. Neville, f. 30.
  • 51. Sar. Reg. Beauchamp, f. 28.
  • 52. Sar. Reg. Langton, f. 32.
  • 53. Ibid. f. 34.
  • 54. Sar. Reg. Audley, f. 132.
  • 55. Ibid. f. 140; L. & P. Hen. VIII, vii, pp. 235, 294.
  • 56. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 113.
  • 57. L. & P. Hen. VIII, ix, p. 47.