Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Westwood

A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1971.

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Westwood', in A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 2, (London, 1971) pp. 148-151. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]

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The priory of St. Mary of Westwood of the order of Fontevrault (fn. 1) was founded in the early part of the reign of Henry II. by members of the de Say family. (fn. 2) The charter of the new foundation, granted by the king at Worcester, confirmed to the nuns of the church of Fontevrault the gifts bestowed on them by Osbert Fitz-Hugh and Eustacia de Say his mother, consisting of the site of their new dwelling, with land at Westwood and Crutch, a salt pit in Droitwich, and the church of Cotheridge, with whatever gifts might be hereafter added to them. (fn. 3) Successive royal charters confirmed that of Henry II. and enacted that the nuns should hold their lands free of all exactions, suits, and quarrels, with right of soc, sac, thol, theam, and infangnetheof. (fn. 4)

The affection entertained for the order of Fontevrault by the Norman and early Plantagenet kings is very strongly marked. Eleanor, the queen of Henry II., is said to have loved every nun at Fontevrault as if she had been her daughter, and to have desired to take the veil there. She was buried in the abbey with her husband and son. (fn. 5) Thus favoured it is not surprising to find other grants following those of the noble founders. Alicia, the lady of Salwarpe, gave the nuns half a yardland in Boicot for the good estate of her own soul and of her children and for the souls of her husband William Beauchamp and her son William, the grant being confirmed by Walter Beauchamp. (fn. 6) John English gave them a mill outside Droitwich called Middelmulne and some land for a yearly rent of three marks. (fn. 7) William Bray gave with his daughter Amabilia the service or rent of half a hide of land which he held of the Knights Hospitallers in Piddle, and the service of another yardland leased to Henry Luvet at a rent of 3s., with a cottage, four acres of land, and a meadow, for which the nuns agreed to pay annually a pound of cumin at Christmas. (fn. 8) From William Fitz-Alewy of Droitwich they obtained a rent of 3s. in Estwood from half a yardland at the brook, parcel of the fee of Thomas le Mey, to whom they were to pay annually a clove gilliflower. (fn. 9) Cecilia de Turberville, with the consent of Walter her son, and for the soul of William de Turberville her husband, gave to God and the Blessed Mary of Westwood all the land at Kindon which had been granted to her and her husband on their marriage by Hugh de Arderne, for which the sisters were to pay an annual rent of a soar hawk or 12d. to Thomas de Arderne and his heirs. (fn. 10)

An hereditary right seems to have been possessed by descendants of the founders to have a nun maintained in this house. William de Stuteville, who married Margaret de Say, relinquished this claim and confirmed the charters previously granted by Hugh de Say, (fn. 11) Robert Mortimer, and Margaret de Say, according to the tenor of the charter of Osbert Fitz-Hugh, 'founder of the church of Blessed Mary of Westwood.' (fn. 12) The church of St. Nicholas of Droitwich was granted to the church of Fontevrault by Matthew count of Boulogne. His daughter Ida, the countess of Boulogne, confirmed the gift of the chapel together with the land forming its endowment at the petition of M. abbess of Fontevrault, whom the countess styles karissima matertera mia. (fn. 13) The same lady also confirmed the grant made by Robert de Caverugge of the whole of his estate in Cotheridge for the annual payment of 5s. to herself and her heirs in remission of all exaction and secular service. The donation was confirmed by Reginald and William de Benhall, descendants of the donor, with the stipulation that the sisters should receive the daughter of Reginald as a nun. (fn. 14) Among other benefactors in the neighbourhood were John, the dean of Droitwich, who gave land adjoining the estate which his father held of the church of Deer hurst, (fn. 15) and Osbert Fitz-Osbert Bende, who gave land in Droitwich, parcel of the fee of Deerhurst, with two helflings and a half of salt at 'Northeremest Wich' for an annual rent of 4½d. and six baskets of salt to the church and a pair of white gloves yearly to his heirs. (fn. 16) Richard, priest of St. Augustine of Dodderhill, bequeathed land in Ruinestret, Droitwich, to the nuns of the Blessed Mary of Westwood with his body to be buried in their church, (fn. 17) Alured Luverun 2s. yearly out of a salt pit in Droitwich to provide tallow for light in the convent, (fn. 18) and Adam Fitz-Adam Luvetun of Droitwich 12d. for the provision of light in the infirmary. (fn. 19) By another concession the nuns obtained a right of transit over the bridge of 'Brerhulle' for their carts carrying hay and corn from haymaking until Michaelmas, and carrying wood from haytime to All Saints. (fn. 20) According to the Valor of 1535 the priory appears to have held the manor of Cold Ashton or Little Ashton in Gloucestershire, which was leased at an annual rent of £5 4s. (fn. 21)

With the exception of detailed grants entries respecting this nunnery are few and information scanty. The order was exempted by Honorius III. in 1224 from episcopal jurisdiction and made immediately subject to the holy see, consequently the registers of the diocese contain but slight reference. During the twelfth century the priory had a lengthy controversy with the chapter of Worcester respecting the church of St. Augustine of Dodderhill (fn. 22) which the abbess of Fontevrault claimed for the 'poor nuns' of Westwood by the gift of Osbert Fitz-Hugh and the assent and 'council of A. bishop of Worcester' (fn. 23) and of the king. The 'abbess A.' (fn. 24) wrote to Roger then bishop of the diocese desiring him 'as strife was unbecoming a servant of God' to determine the dispute with the aid of certain councillors, among whom she named the aforesaid Osbert, promising to abide by their decision. (fn. 25) The matter was finally compromised in 1178 by the chapter of Worcester retaining the church and assigning to the nuns all the land in Clerehall with a meadow and its appurtenances, and all tithes of their lands in the parish of Dodderhill, that is to say the tithes of Westwood, Clerehall, and Crutch, with the burial and obventions of all men within these lands. (fn. 26) Two bequests to the house are recorded in the register of Bishop Giffard, the one of a mark bequeathed by William Beauchamp in his will dated January, 1268–9, (fn. 27) and the other of £10 by Roger de Clifford in 1284. (fn. 28) Edward I. is said to have held the order of Fontevrault in great esteem, and the prioress and convent received special royal protection in October, 1277, to last over Easter, with exemption from a general levy on grain made by the king in various counties for the support of the army in Wales. (fn. 29)

The house seems, in the absence of direct evidence, to have been distinguished for the piety of its inmates who were largely recruited from noble families, 'for the worthiness of these nuns being of eminent families in this and other shires,' remarks Habington, speaking later; (fn. 30) but it does not appear to have been a wealthy establishment. The prior of Worcester as custodian of spiritualities of the see 'sede vacante' directed his commissary in 1312 to exact none of the dues which might pertain to his office from the possessions of the prioress and convent of Westwood, being desirous to spare their poverty. (fn. 31)

The connexion of the priory with the diocesan was slight but never unfriendly. Bishop Maidstone soon after his promotion to the see in 1313 granted an indulgence of 40 days to the prioress and nuns of Westwood, (fn. 32) and in December, 1337, Bishop Hemenhale admitted the profession of eighteen religious within the conventual church of Westwood. (fn. 33)

Foundations of the order of Fontevrault drew to them a community of both sexes living side by side in separate dwellings, the women's division dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and the men's to St. John the Evangelist, the idea of the founder being that their relations should be based on the text John xix. 27. (fn. 34) Supreme authority over the whole order in matters temporal and spiritual (fn. 35) was vested in the abbess of Fontevrault, and in the case of daughter houses in the prioress over the community. Allusions to a prior at Westwood are very slight, and information can hardly be gathered as to the existence of a division for religious men. A note appears on three charters confirming grants to the house, 'acquired by N. de Ambr' then prior,' (fn. 36) but this may be a mistake for 'prioress'. (fn. 37) An entry under the year 1316 speaks of Richard 'le Prior of Westwood' and Geoffrey 'le Priouresbrother.' (fn. 38) In 1344 during the war with France the priors of Westwood and Nuneaton, of the order of Fontevrault, received a licence from the king to attend a general chapter by the order of their superior on condition that they carried nothing beyond their reasonable expenses. An oath was exacted that they would' behave well' and would not tell the king's adversaries of his secrets, but would rather inform him of any attempts against himself. (fn. 39) This is the only recorded instance on the part of Westwood of a representative being sent to attend a chapter of the order. In a deed of the year 1352 it appears that 'the prior, prioress, and canons of Westwood' bestowed on William Was de Shrawley, who held a yardland and a quarter of arable land in the manor of Shrawley, a weekly allowance of half a measure of good, pure, and well-winnowed corn. (fn. 40)

It is a question to what extent the priory of Westwood was really dependent on the abbey of Fontevrault. It is not included in any list of alien houses, nor is any mention made of it in the return of the prior of Worcester to the king's writ of 1374 desiring to be certified as to the number of benefices held by aliens. (fn. 41) The advowson of the priory in the year 1330–1 appears to have come into the hands of the Talbot family, (fn. 42) and in February, 1341–2, the king's escheator was directed to deliver the advowson of the priory of Westwood with other manors and churches to John Talbot 'son and heir of Joan' late the wife of Richard Talbot of Richard's Castle. (fn. 43)

There is little material for the history of Westwood during the last half of the fourteenth century until the time of the Great Schism in the papacy, 1378–1447. Edward III. in October, 1356, granted a licence to William de Salwarpe, clerk, and Thomas his brother to assign various lands in Salwarpe and salt works in Droitwich for the provision of two chaplains to celebrate daily in the church of St. Michael, Salwarpe, for the souls of the faithful departed. Subsequently the salt works were bestowed on the prioress and convent of Westwood in accordance with this ordination. (fn. 44)

The order of Fontevrault was temporarily discredited for the adherence of the abbess to the anti-pope Clement VII. during the schism. The priory on the death of the prioress Isabella Gros 'extra Romanam curiam' applied to Urban VI. to confirm the election by the convent of Edith de Benacre as her successor, and to appoint a deputy to whom in all future vacancies the nuns might apply during the schism, the abbess by becoming schismatic having forfeited the right of confirmation of elections which undoubtedly belonged to her 'as much by the institution of the order approved by the apostolic see as by ancient and acknowledged custom.' (fn. 45) The pope wrote to the prior of Worcester empowering him to examine the mode of election of the elected prioress, and if found canonical to admit and induct her into corporal possession of the priory, committing to him also a similar duty in all vacancies that should occur in the house while the schism lasted. (fn. 46) Prioress Edith de Benacre, however, seems to have resigned her office almost immediately, and in her place the sisters elected Mary de Acton, the subprioress, on the feast of Holy Trinity 1384, her appointment being approved by the prior of Worcester who caused her to be installed. (fn. 47)

In 1405 on the resignation of Eleanor Porter the prior confirmed the election by the convent of Isabella Russell and issued a mandate for her induction. (fn. 48) According to an entry under date of 8 November Elizabeth Norton was prioress in 1465. Hers is the last name recorded till we come to that of the last prioress, Joice or Joys or Jocosa Acton. According to the Valor of 1535 the estates of that priory at the time yielded a clear income of £75 18s. 11d., (fn. 49) so that Westwood came within the terms of the earlier act for the suppression of religious houses of less than £200 yearly value. (fn. 50) In March, 1536-7, the priory with the rectory was granted to Sir John Packington (fn. 51) for the yearly farm of £22, regarded by him as but poor compensation for his 'painful office in North Wales.' (fn. 52) This was followed in March, 1539, by a further grant of the reversion and annual rent of a crown lease of the rectory of Cotheridge together with other possessions of the late priory of Westwood to be held in as full a manner as Joyce Acton the late prioress held the same. (fn. 53) A yearly pension of £10 was granted to this lady on 11 March, 1536-7, (fn. 54) but no mention is made of other inmates at the date of the surrender of the house, nor do they appear as recipients of that measure of compensation.

Prioresses Of Westwood

Isabella Gros. (fn. 55)

Edith de Benacre, (fn. 56) resigned 1384.

Mary de Acton, (fn. 57) elected 1384.

Eleanor Porter, (fn. 58) resigned 1405.

Isabella Russell, (fn. 59) elected 1405.

Elizabeth Norton, (fn. 60) occurs 1465.

Joice or Jocosa Acton, (fn. 61) surrendered 1536.

The impression of the fifteenth-century seal of this house taken from a cast at the British Museum (fn. 62) is very indistinct. It is a pointed oval 15/8 by 1 in., and represents the Annunciation of the Virgin under a canopy. The legend is defaced.


  • 1. This order, founded in 1101–2 soon after the council of Poictiers by Robert d'Arbrissel, sprang rapidly into fame and favour. The constitution of the order was confirmed by Pope Paschal II. in 1106, and the great abbey church of Fontevrault, built with means largely provided by the kings of France and England as well as by the bishop and inhabitants of the district, consecrated in 1119. Nicquet, Hist. de l'ordre de Fontevrault, 1342, p. 57–8. It was the last resting-place of Henry II. and Richard I.
  • 2. Osbert Fitz-Hugh, generally named as the founder, occurs in Pipe Rolls for 7 and 14 Henry II.
  • 3. Pat. 17 Edw. IV. pt. 2, m. 14, per Inspex.
  • 4. Ibid. The inspeximus charter of Edward IV. confirms previous confirmations granted by Henry III., the first and third Edwards, Richard II., Henry IV., and Henry VI.
  • 5. Nicquet, Histoire de Pordre de Fontevrault, p. 254.
  • 6. Cott. MS. Vespas, E. ix. f. 2d.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Ibid. f. 3.
  • 9. Ibid. f. 3d.
  • 10. Ibid. f. 4.
  • 11. The two brothers Osbert and Hugh Fitz-Hugh assumed the surname of their mother Eustacia de Say. Hugh succeeded Osbert who died without issue, and was succeeded by his son Richard, who dying also without issue was succeeded by his brother Hugh de Say, whose only daughter, Margaret, became his heiress and took for her second husband Robert de Mortimer, and for her third William de Stuteville in the reign of Henry III. Nash, Hist. of Worc. i. 240.
  • 12. Cott. MS. Vespas. E. ix. f. 5.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid. f. 5d.
  • 15. Cott. MS. Vespas. E. ix. f. 6d.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Ibid. f. 7.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Ibid. f. 9.
  • 20. Ibid. f. 9d.
  • 21. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii. 276.
  • 22. Habington speaking of Westwood says, 'In a vast and solitary wood, for the situation called Westwood in long outworn ages, a limb of St. Augustine's parish, usually called Dodderhill, was founded a house for religious women, who leaving the world, were devoted to God. . . . Westwood, in the territories of the Sayes, barons of Burford, and lords of Wychbold, was by their indulgence made a parish of itself, including Westwood, Crutch, and Clerehall.' Surv. of Worc. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), i. 459.
  • 23. Alfred, 1158–1160.
  • 24. Adelburga de Haute-Bruyere as third abbess was head of the order from 1155 to 1180. Nicquet, Hist. de l'ordre de Fontevrault, p. 410.
  • 25. Reg. of D. and C. of Worc. f. 22, cited by Nash, Hist. of Worc. i. 337.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), p. 7.
  • 28. Ibid. p. 283.
  • 29. Pat. 5 Edw. I. m. 4.
  • 30. Surv. of Worc. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), i. 459.
  • 31. Reg. Sede Vac. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 62.
  • 32. Worc. Epis. Reg. Maidstone, f. 1.
  • 33. Ibid. Hemenhale, f. 12. The order of Fontevrault, though considered apart, seems to have been placed by the founder before his death under the rule of St. Benedict; but the abbess, Marie de Bretagne, writing in 1459 to Pope Pius II. for the reform of the order, represented that at Fontevrault existed a community composed of religious men and women in separate habitations, of whom the women followed the rule of St. Benedict and the men that of St. Augustine, and yet all were under the supremacy of the abbess, and this seems not uncommon in other houses of the order. It was definitely placed under the Benedictine rule by the statutes of the great reform drawn up by the commissioners of Pope Sixtus IV. in 1494, but continued to qualify as an order apart. Helyot, Hist. des Ordres Monastiques, vi. 97–8.
  • 34. As Fontevrault was founded in a wild rocky region and the first community subsisted entirely on alms sent them and on what they could take from the ground, their duties were divided, the women to sing the praises of God continually, and the men, their religious duties performed, to till and cultivate the ground for the benefit of all, thus approximating to the ideal in the mind of B. P. Robert of the service that should be rendered by the men to the women as St. John rendered it to the Blessed Virgin.
  • 35. This differentiated the order from that of St. Brigid, where authority was vested in a female head in matters temporal but not spiritual. Robert d' Arbrissel set the example to his followers by submitting himself to the first abbess of Fontevrault, Petronille de Chemille. Helyot, Hist. des Ordres Monastiques, vi. 94.
  • 36. Cott. MS. Vespas. E. ix. ff. 6d. 7, 8d.
  • 37. Tanner, Notitia, Worc. xviii. note 6.
  • 38. Pat. 9 Edw. II. m. 17d. and 10 Edw. II. m. 3d.
  • 39. Close, 18 Edw. III. pt. i. m. 7d.
  • 40. Reg. Sede Vac. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), p. 20. Later still, in the years 1433–4, Robert Finch of the diocese of Worcester was ordained deacon and priest to the title successively of the prioress and convent of Westwood and the prior and convent of Westwood. Ibid. 419, 422.
  • 41. Ibid. 307.
  • 42. Close, 4 Edw. III. m. 40d.
  • 43. Ibid. 15 Edw. III. pt. i. m. 34.
  • 44. Pat. 30 Edw. III. pt. iii. m. 16.
  • 45. Extracts from Liber Albus, f. 282; Nash, Hist. of Worc. i. 353.
  • 46. Ibid.
  • 47. Ibid. p. 354–5. The nuncio and collector of the papal camera in England called on the prior of Worcester to show why the first fruits of the priory should not be devoted to the camera by reason of the provision of the house made to the prioress Edith de Benacre by apostolic authority committed to himself. The said prioress having been summoned to appear protested that she could not legally be compelled to pay the demand, and the prior stated that the resignation of Edith had preceded his reception of the papal mandate for her provision and that the nuns had proceeded immediately to elect Mary de Acton.
  • 48. Liber Albus, f. 424-5; Nash, Hist. of Worc. i. 356-7.
  • 49. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii. 276.
  • 50. L. and P. Hen. VIII. x. 1238.
  • 51. Ibid. xiii. pt. i. p. 580.
  • 52. Ibid. xi. pt. 2, 775.
  • 53. L. and P. Hen. VIII i. 651, g. 44.
  • 54. Ibid. xiii. pt. 1, p. 576.
  • 55. Extracts from Liber Albus; Nash, Hist. of Worc. i. 354.
  • 56. Ibid.
  • 57. Ibid.
  • 58. Ibid. 356.
  • 59. Ibid.
  • 60. Pat. 5 Edw. IV. pt. 2, m. 18.
  • 61. L. and P. Hen. VIII. xiii. pt. i. p. 576.
  • 62. Brit. Mus. lxxiv. 74.