Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of St Stephen, Foukeholm

Page 116

A History of the County of York: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1974.

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It is not known when, or by whom, this small and poorly-endowed nunnery near Northallerton was founded. It is first mentioned in an undated Plea Roll of the time of King John, (fn. 1) when Maud, widow of William, brought an action against Robert de Alverton and the prioress of St. Stephen's, about her dower in a toft of land at Thirsk. It is again mentioned about 1240, when Acilla, prioress of St. Stephen's, and her convent vested all the temporal property of the house in William de Colville, the patron, and his heirs, so that when Acilla died a prioress might be elected in her place with consent and good will of William de Colville or his heirs; also that no one should be appointed magister or custos of the house, except by William de Colville and his heirs. Neither should the prioress and nuns receive any nun, or sister, or any secular man, or woman, or boys in their house, without such consent. The prioress and convent also conceded for themselves and their successors that all contentions moved between Philip de Colville their patron, father of William de Colville also their patron, on the one side, and themselves on the other, should be completely ended.

In 1292-3 (fn. 2) one of the Yorkshire Assize Rolls has an entry respecting it. It is there called the nunnery of St. Stephen of Foukeholm, in Birdforth. The house was, however, in the township of Thimbleby and parish of Osmotherley. The probable explanation is that Foukeholm, though in Thimbleby, was so close to the boundaries of the wapentake of Bird forth that it was misdescribed, by error, as being within the latter. The entry records that William, chaplain of Yarm, was indicted before the justices itinerant at York for the abduction of Cecilia, a nun of St. Stephen of Foukeholm. The nun returned of her own accord to St. Stephen's. At the same time, John le prior of ' Osmunderlay' (Osmotherley,) and William the son of Aldus', were indicted for breaking into a house belonging to the prioress.

In 1312 (fn. 3) Richard de Kellaw, Bishop of Durham, commissioned the warden of the spirituality of Allerton and the master of the hospital of Lazenby to act as judges in a case between the prioress and nuns of St. Stephen's and the prebendaries or portioners of Osmotherley as to the chapel of St. Stephen, and the obventions of the same. The nuns of St. Stephen's, of the Benedictine order, are mentioned in a papal mandate, 23 May 1330, (fn. 4) of John XXII.

In 1349 Alice Gower (fn. 5) was confirmed as prioress, and at the same time Elena de Angrom, a nun professed of the house, who had apostatized, appeared and was ordered to resume her habit of religion in the house, a penance being imposed for her apostasy. Agnes de Not', a sister of the house, was also on the same occasion summoned to appear and recognized the new prioress.

This is the last time St. Stephen's nunnery is mentioned. It seems not improbable that the ancestors of the Colvilles had founded it. (fn. 6) The Colvilles were also benefactors to St. James's Hospital, Northallerton, which when the Valor Ecclesiasticus was compiled held some of the former property of the priory, viz. the cowpastures of the Nunhouse. (fn. 7) A farm still bearing this latter name perpetuates the memory of the almost forgotten nunnery, which is not mentioned by Burton, Dugdale, or Tanner, and had wellnigh passed out of mind till Mr. W. Brown drew attention to it. (fn. 8)

Only a fragment of a seal is known. It is the upper part of the seal. It bears a figure standing, apparently female, with a crown, and bearing a sceptre in the left hand. (fn. 9)

Prioresses of Foukeholm

Acilla, occurs c. 1240 (fn. 10)

Alice Gower, confirmed 1349 (fn. 11)


  • 1. Yorks. Arch. Journ. ix, 334, from which almost the whole of the information here given has been derived.
  • 2. Yorks. Arch. Journ. ix, 334.
  • 3. Reg. Palat. Dunelm. (Rolls Ser.), i, 187.
  • 4. Cal. of Papal Letters, ii, 320.
  • 5. York Archiepis. Reg. Zouch, fol. 168.
  • 6. The deed by Acilla the prioress suggests this.
  • 7. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v, 85.
  • 8. Yorks. Arch. Journ. ix, 334-7. Mr. Brown found the deed by the Prioress Acilla among his family documents at Arncliffe Hall. He calls the nunnery that of St. Stephen of Thimbleby. It is usually called St. Stephen's only, but in one case cited in the text it is called the priory of St. Stephen's of Foukeholm, and in 1252 it occurs in a list of Yorkshire nunneries to which the king gave silver chalices as ' Fuckeholme': Lib. R. (Chan.) 36 Hen. III, m. 19.
  • 9. Yorks. Arch. Journ. ix, 335.
  • 10. Ibid.; Cott. MS. Nero D. iii, fol. 62.
  • 11. York Archiepis. Reg. Zouch, fol. 168.