Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Nunkeeling

Pages 119-122

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

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This nunnery was founded in 1152 by Agnes de Arches, also called Agnes de Catfoss, (fn. 1) in honour of St. Mary Magdalene (fn. 2) and St. Helen for the health of the soul of her husband, Herbert St. Quintin, and for the souls of Walter and Robert, her sons, and those of her parents and friends. (fn. 3)

Agnes, the prioress, and the convent of Keeling in June 1299 covenanted to celebrate every year the obit of Master William de Haxby, canon of Beverley. They also undertook to malt 3 bushels of good wheat yearly against the anniversary, so that each nun on that day might have a gallon of ale well worth a penny, and pittance of the same value. (fn. 4)

In 1281-2 (fn. 5) Archbishop Wickwane wrote to the convent of Nunkeeling forbidding them to receive anyone as nun or sister, or to admit anybody to live in the nunnery without his special licence, and in 1294 (fn. 6) his successor, Archbishop Romanus, appealed to the Bishops of Winchester and Lincoln, collectors of the tenth, on behalf of the nuns of ' Killing,' whose poverty was so great that the means of their house scarce sufficed for their food and raiment. On 15 July 1310 (fn. 7) Archbishop Greenfield wrote to the prioress and convent that in consequence of what had been revealed to his commissaries they were within three days of the receipt of his letter to remove Isabella de St. Quintin from the office of cellarer in the presence of the whole convent. She was not to be appointed to any other office, and was to keep convent, quire, &c., and not go outside the house. Two secular women in the house, Beatrice and Nella Scot, were to be removed.

In 1314 (fn. 8) the same archbishop held a visitation of the priory, and issued a decretum. No nun was to be absent from divine service on account of her being occupied with silk work (propter occupacionem opens de serico). The keys of the cloister were to be in custody of the sub-prioress and another worthy nun, and the sub-prioress and her colleague were to be studiously careful in the matter of locking the doors. The prioress and sub-prioress were to inquire diligently, and see who the persons were by whom the alms of the house had been pilfered and diminished, and if they found that the elemosinaria had committed fraud or been negligent, she was to be removed from office.

No young nun concerning whom sinister suspicion might arise was to have her meals with the brothers or other persons, either religious or secular, in the hall of the hospitium, or elsewhere outside the inner cloister, neither was a nun to tarry for any length of time in those places with such persons, or converse with them, except in the presence of a nun of mature age. Nonuns were to make themselves remarkable as regards their girdles or shoes, or wear anything unsuitable to religion.

The prioress was not to allow the nuns to go out except on the business of the house, or to visit friends and relations, and then such a nun was to have another as companion, and was not to be away longer than fifteen days. All. the money due to the house was to be received by two bursars, elected by the convent.

The prioress was to keep convent in quire at divine service, she was to have her meals in the refectory and sleep in the dormitory, unless hindered by entertaining notable guests, or other lawful causes. In important business she was to take counsel with her sisters, and all were forbidden to lease manors, sell corrodies, or receive to the habit of a nun, a sister, or a conversus, any person, or to take boarders, or to retain girls in the house after they were twelve years old.

On 23 July 1316, (fn. 9) the see of York being vacant, the commissioners of the dean and chapter visited the nunnery, and on 11 August Avice de la More, the prioress, resigned her office into the hands of the dean in the chapterhouse at York. The new prioress then elected was Isabella de St. Quintin, (fn. 10) who a few years before had been deprived of the office of cellarer for misconduct and pronounced ineligible for office in the house. The dean and chapter quashed the election as canonically defective in procedure, but appointed her to the vacant office on 19 August, and on 21 September (fn. 11) the dean and chapter wrote to the new prioress and the convent, making provision for Avice de la More, who for a long period had laudably and usefully superintended the house. She was to have a chamber for herself in their monastery, and a nun of the house assigned her by the prioress as a companion. She was to receive for her sustenance bread, ale, cooked food and victuals daily as two nuns of the same house, and her nun associate as one nun.

On 27 July 1318 (fn. 12) Avice de la More, on account of her conspiracies, rebellions, and disobedience to her prioress, had to be warned to desist, or she would be deprived of the provision made for her when she ceded the office of prioress. But besides warning her the archbishop ordered her each Friday to say the seven penitential psalms with the litany, humbly and devoutly, and on those days she was to receive a discipline in chapter, and to fast on bread, ale, and vegetables, with one service of fish.

Dionisia Dareyns, for her disobedience and other things, was not to go out of the precincts except in worthy company. Each Friday she was to receive a discipline until she showed signs of true contrition. Avice de Lelle was strictly forbidden to go outside the inner cloister of the house, in any manner, or to talk to Robert de Eton, chaplain, or any other secular person whomsoever. She had confessed incontinence, and was to undergo the penance appointed by the rules of the order, and this was not to be mitigated until she had shown signs of true contrition and amendment, concerning which the prioress and convent were to certify the archbishop.

On Thursday before the translation of St. Thomas the Martyr in the same year, (fn. 13) the archbishop again visited the house and a month later (30 January) sent a series of injunctions very similar to those of 1314. As regards taking boarders, the archbishop granted the prioress and convent licence, on 21 May 1319, (fn. 14) to take Margaret de Tweng to board in the house, at her own charges.

Dissensions appear to have arisen again in the following year, and the archbishop issued a commission on 3 December 1319, (fn. 15) inquiring as to the rebellious nuns of the house of Keeling, clamorous information having reached his ears that certain of the nuns had laid aside the obedience and devotion to which they were bound by their vows and had intrigued for the injury and confusion of the house and their sister nuns. They had revealed the secrets of the chapter to seculars and to adversaries outside. (fn. 16) At the same time the archbishop wrote to Avice de la More that he had learnt with a bitter heart that she had broken her vow of obedience in arrogancy and elation of heart towards her prioress, who was placed in charge of her soul and body, and without whom she had no proper will. (fn. 17) The archbishop exhorted her in the Lord to desist from such behaviour, and study to live according to rule.

There is after this a long silence in the Registers as to Nunkeeling, except records of the election and confirmation of prioresses of the house. On 4 March 1444 (fn. 18) Archbishop Kemp wrote to Joan Bramston, the prioress, on behalf of Alice Dalton, one of the nuns who had been guilty of immorality and had apostatized. She had undergone a penance at Yedingham, where she had exhibited much contrition, and now desired to be received back at Nunkeeling, and this the archbishop directed to be done.

On 8 October 1487 (fn. 19) Archbishop Rotherham granted licence to the prioress and convent to celebrate yearly the day of the deposition of the glorious confessor, St. John of Bridlington, as a double feast, and ordered 'officia divina de propria historia dicti gloriosi confessoris, ipso die dicenda, legenda, et cantanda' in the monastic church.

Nunkeeling was one of the religious houses in the county which for some unknown reason escaped immediate dissolution with the rest, being refounded by Letters Patent on 14 December 1537, but it surrendered in 1540. (fn. 20) The deed of surrender has no signature, but the convent seal is attached. The last prioress, Christine Burgh, or Brughe, belonged to the Richmondshire family of that name, and after the Dissolution she settled at Catterick, where she survived till 1566. In her will (fn. 21) she describes herself as ' Cristine Burghe of Rychemond in the countie of Yorke, gentylwoman, and laite Priores of the laite dissolved nunrie of Nunkyllyng,' and directs that her body is to be buried in the choir of Richmond Church. One bequest is to 'Isabell Bane, gentylwoman, some tym a sister of Nunkyllyng,' to whom she left ' one old ryall.' (fn. 22) The total of her effects was valued at £14 10s. 10d.

In a list of the members of the convent which seems to have been drawn up on 30 May 1536 (fn. 23) ' Nonnekelyng' is described as of the Order of St. Benedict; Joan Alanson, aged sixty, was prioress, and the other nuns were: Cristine Burgh (46), Agnes Hall (54), Alice Stapleton (40), Margaret Sedgewick (46), Elizabeth Bayne (40), Joan Mason (55), Isabella Mettam (36), Alice Mason (36), Alice Thomlynson (36), Dorothea Wilberfosse (25), and Joan Bowman (26). They are described as ' All good religious persons of good maner,' and against each name is written in the margin ' religion,' indicating that each desired to remain bound by her vows.

In 1526 the house was valued at £22 15s.6d. (fn. 24) clear, and at the suppression at £35 15s. 5d. (fn. 25)

Prioresses of Nunkeeling

Avice, occurs 1250 (fn. 26)

Agnes de Beverley, confirmed 1267 (fn. 27)

Agnes la Ruisse, occurs 1273, (fn. 28) 1300 (fn. 29)

Avice de Mora, (fn. 30) sub-prioress, (fn. 31) succeeded 1303, (fn. 32) resigned 1316 (fn. 33)

Isabella de St. Quintin, 1316, (fn. 34) occurs 1329 (fn. 35)

Isabella de Burton, admitted 1400 (fn. 36)

Joan Bossall, occurs 1423 (fn. 37)

Joan Berneston, (fn. 38) occurs 1434, (fn. 39) resigned 1453 (fn. 40)

Joan Tryrn, sub-prioress, 1453, (fn. 41) died 1493 (fn. 42)

Eleanor Rooce, confirmed 1493 (fn. 43)

Margaret Fulthorpe, confirmed 1504 (fn. 44) died 1505 (fn. 45)

Isabella Metham, confirmed 1505 (fn. 46)

Joan Alanson, sub-prioress, confirmed 1522 (fn. 47)

Christine Brughe, confirmed 1537 (fn. 48)

The 13th-century seal (fn. 49) is a vesica, 2¾ in. by 2 in., with a full-length figure of the patron saint holding the cross. Of the nearly destroyed legend there remains:

. . . IGILL .. . . NE DE KILLIN . . .


  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 185. The chartulary of this house, Cott. MS. Otho C. viii, was practically destroyed by fire in 1731.
  • 2. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 163, no. 3.
  • 3. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 186.
  • 4. Poulson, Hist. and Antiq. of Holderness, i, 377.
  • 5. York Archiepis. Reg. Wickwane, fol. 20, 175 d.
  • 6. Ibid. Romanus, fol. 67 d.
  • 7. Ibid. Greenfield, i, fol. 124.
  • 8. Ibid. ii, fol. 123b.
  • 9. Ibid. sed. vac. fol. 95b.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Ibid. fol. 96.
  • 12. Ibid. Melton, fol. 269b.
  • 13. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 273b.
  • 14. Ibid. fol. 276b.
  • 15. Ibid. fol. 280.
  • 16. Ibid. fol. 281.
  • 17. ' Et sine qua velle non habes proprium,'
  • 18. York Archiepis. Reg. Kemp, fol. 87.
  • 19. Ibid. Rotherham, i, fol. 78.
  • 20. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 385.
  • 21. Richmondshire Wills (Surt. Soc.), 191.
  • 22. In 1548, when an inquiry was made as to the payment of pensions, return is made, ' Cristen Burgh of thage of lx yeres pencion by yere vij li and is paid,' of Isabell Bane the note is 'abest'; Exch. K.R. Accts. bdle. 76, no. 23. ' Isabell Beine' was still in receipt of her pension of 46s. 8d. in 1573; Yorks. Arch. Journ. xix, 102.
  • 23. Suppression Papers (P.R.O.), ii, 139.
  • 24. S.P. Dom. 1526. (Return signed by Brian Higdon.)
  • 25. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 385.
  • 26. a Assize R. 1046, m. 62.
  • 27. Harl. MS. 6970, fol. 70.
  • 28. Add. MS. 26736, fol. 174.
  • 29. Baildon, Mon. Notes, 163.
  • 30. Harl. MS. 6970, fol. 145.
  • 31. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 387.
  • 32. Harl. MS. 6970, fol. 145.
  • 33. Ibid. fol. 258.
  • 34. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 387.
  • 35. Baildon, Mon. Notes, 163.
  • 36. Harl. MS. 6969, fol. 87.
  • 37. Baildon, Mon. Notes, 163.
  • 38. York Archiepis. Reg. W. Booth, fol. 106.
  • 39. Baildon, Mon. Notes, 163.
  • 40. Ibid.
  • 41. York Archiepis. Reg. W. Booth, fol. 106.
  • 42. Ibid. Rotherham, i, fol. 79.
  • 43. Ibid.
  • 44. Ibid. Savage, fol. 53.
  • 45. Ibid. fol. 56.
  • 46. Ibid.
  • 47. Ibid. Wolsey, fol. 58.
  • 48. Ibid. Lee, fol. 31.
  • 49. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 3349; Harl. Chart. 44 E. 56.