Houses of Cistercian nuns: Priory of Cookhill

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

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'Houses of Cistercian nuns: Priory of Cookhill', in A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 2, (London, 1971) pp. 156-158. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]

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Isabel de Mauduit, countess of Warwick, is said to have founded the Cistercian nunnery of Cookhill in 1260. (fn. 1) But it is evident the foundation was made in the twelfth century, though the actual date seems impossible to ascertain. The earliest mention is in an abstract of a deed by William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, confirming to the nuns of Cookhill the gift which Isabel the countess his mother, William the earl her brother, and Waleran the earl her grandfather made to them of the church of Netelton. (fn. 2) This carries the foundation back, at any rate, as far as the end of the twelfth century. More decisive than this, as a proof that the foundation could not possibly have been as late as 1260, is a suit, entered on the patent roll of 1227, between Sarah, prioress of Cookhill, and Peter Fitz Herbert and William Boterell, concerning the advowson of the church of Alcester. (fn. 3) Tanner says that Isabel 'might be styled the foundress, as having the patronage of this house by descent, or perhaps as restoring it after it might have been forsaken, or she might be a considerable benefactress, but she could not be the original foundress.' (fn. 4) Evidently she became a nun of Cookhill, for in the will of her husband, William Beauchamp, a legacy of 10 marks was made 'to the church and nuns of Kokeshull, and Isabel my wife.' (fn. 5) It is on record that she was buried among the nuns at Cookhill, and in the seventeenth century a tomb bearing her name and a broken inscription remained in the ruined chapel of the nunnery. (fn. 6)

As there seems to be no existing foundation charter it is impossible to say exactly what the original endowment of the nunnery included, but a charter of John, bishop of Worcester, given in 1288, confirming lands and possessions to Cookhill gives a summary of the endowments up to that date. Two hides and a half at Cookhill by the gift of Maud of Crombe D'Abitot; (fn. 7) four virgates at Clodeshale (Cladeswell, Worcester) and one virgate at Toidon by the gift of Sibyll, wife of Ralph of Hampton; Tatebecha (? Tachbroke, Warwick) by the gift of Walter de Trecha; lands at Spernovere (Spernall, Warwick) by the gift of William Durvassel; lands at Morton Underhill (in Inkberrow) by the gift of Robert, son of Odo; the mill of Campden (Chipping Campden, Gloucester) by the gift of 'Thomas, nephew of the earl of Gloucester'; churchscot from all the lands of William Beauchamp in Worcestershire which rendered the same; churchscot from Huddington (Worcester) by the gift of Alan Warnesto and his wife Cicely, and from Hatch Lench houses, by the gift of Stephen Beauchamp. (fn. 8) In the Taxation of 1291 there were three entries of the spiritualities of Cookhill entered but erased since the nuns were discharged payment on account of their poverty. (fn. 9) In 1330 the church of Bishampton was appropriated to the nuns of Cookhill 'for the relief of their poverty,' with reservation of a fit provision for the vicar. In 1535 the house had acquired several other small rents in Church Lench and in Worcester, also in Alcester (Warwick), Campden (Gloucester), and 'Gundycott' (Condicote, Worcester), and in Westhyde and Kempeley (Hereford). These temporalities reached only the value of £16 5s. 4d. while the spiritualities were worth £19 3s. 11d. (fn. 10)

Only on three recorded occasions was the house involved in any struggle over its possessions and rights. In 1227 Prioress Sarah claimed the advowson of the church of Alcester against William Boterell and Peter Fitz Herbert; (fn. 11) in 1331 prioress Cecilia came to terms with the prior and convent of Worcester, probably after some dispute concerning lands or rights, and agreed to pay them an annual pension of one mark; (fn. 12) while in 1367 a dispute concerning the right of burial in the churchyard of Spernall between the prior of Studeley and the prioress of Cookhill ended in favour of the former. (fn. 13)

The poverty of the house of Cookhill is indeed almost the chief feature of its known history. Almost every reference to the nuns is to speak of their poverty, to exempt them with other slenderly endowed houses from payment of any extraordinary taxation or to grant them respite for the arrears already owing to the king. Thus in 1276 the king granted for the relief of their poverty six oaks from the forest of 'Kanek,' for timber. (fn. 14) In 1279 an ordinance was issued by the bishop concerning tithes of sheaves and hay from the parishes of Church Lench and Hatch Lench given 'for the relief of the nuns of Cockhulle.' (fn. 15) In 1313, (fn. 16) and again in 1402, (fn. 17) Cookhill was exempted from payment of tenths because its rents were 'poor and weak.' In 1336 the king ordered the treasurer and barons of the exchequer to cause the nuns of Cookhill to have respite for £15 due from them as arrears to the king, 'as their house is so slenderly endowed that they have not enough to live upon without outside aid (aliena subvencione).' (fn. 18) Doubtless their poverty was chiefly due to their slender endowment, but it was perhaps also partly due to the unwise conduct of their 'temporal business,' judging from an entry in the episcopal registers under the year 1285, when the bishop wrote to the prioress and nuns, as a result of the visitation of John de Farley, his official, that for the better conduct of their temporal business Thomas the chaplain should have full charge of their temporal affairs. (fn. 19) This letter also gives a valuable light on the history of the house in the thirteenth century. Evidently the rules of the order had not been well observed, for the bishop ordered the prioress and convent not to go out of their cloister unless compelled by necessity, and not to wander about in the town. (fn. 20) Similar orders issued in 1365 by Bishop Wittesleye to all the nuns of the diocese of Worcester (fn. 21) point to certain irregularities in the nunneries of the diocese and probably in Cookhill among them. At the same time the frequent visitations to Cookhill recorded in the episcopal registers do not generally seem to have been followed by any injunctions or corrections, although offences and irregularities were more likely to come to light in a small and poor nunnery than in a larger and richer.

Of the nuns themselves it is difficult to learn much. In the few mentions of them that exist both the prioresses and the nuns seem to have been of good family, although, judging from the poverty of the house, they could not have been rich enough to be generous benefactors when they took the veil. A Margaret Butler (fn. 22) is mentioned in 1272 as desiring to be professed 'in the church of Cookhill,' (fn. 23) and in 1365 a Joan Helwene, nun of Cookhill, was made prioress of Pynley. (fn. 24) The pension list of 1540 showing the number of nuns at the Dissolution as seven, including the prioress, is the first clue to the numbers of the house. (fn. 25) Probably the numbers had never been higher than this.

For some reason hard to discover, since bribing was out of the question, Cookhill was exempted from suppression in 1537, and Elizabeth Hews (Hughes) was appointed prioress. (fn. 26) However it may have been granted to her for the purpose of surrender, which evidently took place in 1538 or 1539, and the pension list is dated from 1540. (fn. 27) No further details exist concerning the dissolution except the list of scanty possessions entered in the ministers' accounts for 1542. (fn. 28)

Prioresses of Cookhill

Sarah, occurs 1227. (fn. 29)

Agnes de Alyncester, resigned 1290. (fn. 30)

Cecilia de Sarnefend, installed 1290, (fn. 31) occurs 1331. (fn. 32)

Sarah, died 1349. (fn. 33)

Christina Durvassel, elected 1349. (fn. 34)

Alice Rous, elected 1361. (fn. 35)

Elizabeth Hughes, elected 1537, (fn. 36) surrendered 1538 or 1539.

The common seal of the nunnery represents a lady, possibly Isabel de Beauchamp, holding in the left hand a falcon, in the right a destroyed object. (fn. 37) Dugdale describing the seal attached to a document in the Augumentation Office describes the figure as holding a book in her left hand. (fn. 38) The inscription is very imperfect—

SIGILL': SANCTE . . . . .


  • 1. Habington unhesitatingly ascribes the foundation to Isabel, quoting a record of John Rous 'quondam capellanus de Gibecliffe juxta Warwick.' 'Venerabilis Isabella uxor nobilis viri Will de Beauchamp . . . filia Aliciae Mauduit domina de Hanslap et soror Will de Mauduit com. War. et de Novo burgi ejusque ob. prolis defectum proxima haeres. Ista Domina apud Cokehull in com. Wigorn est sepulta inter moniales ibi quarum est fundatrix et patrona' (Habington, Surv. of Worc. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 311).
  • 2. MS. Macro. 12, ii. 18a (from Tanner, Notitia, 624). From this charter Nash deduces that Cookhill was founded by the year 1198.
  • 3. Cal. of Pat. 1225-32, 167.
  • 4. Tanner, Notitia, 624, n.
  • 5. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 8.
  • 6. Habington, Surv. of Worc. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 1,312.
  • 7. Habington quoting from 'The Book of Aydes,' 20 Edw. III. gives the prioress of Cookhill holding two and a half hides in Inkberrow (i.e. at Cookhill) which Osbert D'Abitot of Crombe Dabitot formerly held (Surv. of Worc. (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 311).
  • 8. From original charter in hands of William Brome, Esq. of Ewithington, Hereford, quoted in Nash, ii. 17.
  • 9. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.) 217b, 218b, 239b. These three entries are the church of Lench Roculf, valued at £5 6s. 8d.; a portion in the church of Alcester valued at £1 13s. 4d.; and a portion in the church of Spernall valued at £1 0s. 0d.
  • 10. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii. 262-3.
  • 11. Cal. of Pat. 1225-32, 167.
  • 12. Liber Albus, f. 140b. from MS. Soc. Antiq. cxlix.
  • 13. Worc. Epis. Reg. Wittesleye, fol. 7a. The dispute had arisen on the ground that the right of burial of those of free condition in the churchyard was assumed by the prioress to include those who 'since the epidemic' had become free. The right of burying those of free condition' belonged by ordination to the prioress and convent, that of burying the unfree to the prior and convent. The bishop inspected the letter of confirmation to the prior of Stodeley and decided in his favour that he should have the burial of those who beforetime held servile tenements, but were now free.
  • 14. Cal. of Close, 1272-9, 312.
  • 15. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 116.
  • 16. Worc. Epis. Reg. Reynolds, fol. 93b.
  • 17. Ibid. Clifford, 70d.
  • 18. Cal. of Close, 1333-7, 694.
  • 19. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 267.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Worc. Epis. Reg. Wittesleye, fol. 7a.
  • 22. A member of the Butler family who were lords of Oversley (Warwick).
  • 23. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.), 52.
  • 24. Worc. Epis. Reg. Wittesleye, fol. 12d.
  • 25. L. and P. Hen. VIII. xv. 35. The list is as follows:— Dame Elizabeth Hughes, prioress, £8     "     Anne Morgan                        66s.  8d.     "     Joan Belamy                         53s.  4d.     "     Alice Wastle                         53s.  4d.     "     Margaret Dyson                   53s.  4d.     "     Alice Reve                           53s.  4d.     "     Elizabeth Oweley                53s.  4d.
  • 26. Ibid. xii. i. 350.
  • 27. Ibid. xv. 35.
  • 28. Mins'. Accts. (Aug. Off.) 33 Hen. VIII.
  • 29. Cal. of Pat. 1225-32, 167.
  • 30. Worc. Epis. Reg. Giffard (Worc. Hist. Soc.) 342.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Liber Albus Worc. fol. 140b.
  • 33. Worc. Epis. Reg. Bransford II. fol. 11b.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. Ibid. Brian, fol. 38a.
  • 36. L. and P. Hen. VIII. xiii. i. 350.
  • 37. B. M. Seals, lxxiii. 94. The date is after 1260.
  • 38. Dugdale, Mon. v. 736.