Houses of Benedictine nuns: Priory of Wilberfoss

Pages 125-126

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

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It is not evident when, or by whom, the priory of St. Mary Wilberfoss was founded. Leland states (fn. 1) that Alan of Catton was the founder, and in a confirmation in 1464 (fn. 2) by George, Duke of Clarence, at that time patron and founder, it is said that Alan gave his hall (aula) in Wilberfoss, and all other lands. Alan's charter is, however, preceded by one by Jordan son of Gilbert, who granted the nuns the church of Wilberfoss with its chapel of Newton and 7 bovates of land. In neither case is any definite date indicated, but the confirmation of Jordan's gift of the church of Wilberfoss by his overlord, William de Percy, is addressed to Henry, (fn. 3) Archbishop of York (who died in 1153), and the ratification was granted by Archbishop Roger, (fn. 4) who succeeded in 1154.

Henry II confirmed the gifts to the nuns, as their charters testified, and Henry III in 1227 confirmed several other grants of land fully specified. In 1282-3 (fn. 5) Archbishop Wickwane wrote to the nuns that he had learnt from public report that they had burdened their house at the instance of great persons by receiving nuns, and taking secular women and girls as boarders. This he strictly forbade. On 7 May 1294 (fn. 6) Archbishop Romanus committed the custody of the house to Robert, rector of Sutton-on-Derwent.

A visitation of Wilberfoss was held by commissioners of Archbishop Greenfield in 1308, (fn. 7) and the archbishop sent a decretum, much of which is in common form. Special features are that the nuns were not to linger in the hostilaria or elsewhere for amusement with outsiders after compline, and that they were not to wear red, or unsuitable clothes, nor supertunics too long, like secular women, as some had begun to do.

The doors of the church, dormitory, and those round the cloister were to be closed at the proper time. At the election which followed the resignation of Emma de Waltringham in 1310 (fn. 8) the names of the nuns are given: Emma de Waltringham, the late prioress, comes first, and it is said ' consentit in dominam Margaretam de Alta Ripa, et eligit earn,' Beatrice de Neuton, the sub-prioress, comes next; then follow in order Matildis Gurneys, Matildis Dine, Alicia Vghtred, sacrista, Maria de Preston, Margareta Chauncy, celeraria, Hawisia de Barton, Isolda Cayvill, cantrix, Elena Gra, alia sacrista, Helewis de Langtoft, senex domina, Matildis de Wyktoft, Lucia de Collurn, hostelaria, Margareta de Brampton, alia celeraria, Agnes Dareyns, Juliana Darreyns, Isabella de Milington, Agnes de Lutton, and Johanna de Portington; nineteen, who all voted for Margaret Dawtrey. From this it appears that there were then twenty nuns, and it is added, ' nec sunt plures moniales in domo predicta.'

In 1312 (fn. 9) one of them, Agnes de Lutton, got into trouble, and Archbishop Greenfield imposed the usual penance for immorality.

A commission was issued in 1319 (fn. 10) for the election of a prioress, but no names are mentioned.

In 1348 (fn. 11) Archbishop Zouch wrote to Isabella Spynys, the prioress, commending her for her good government, and granting her, if she decided to resign, to occupy for life certain buildings adjoining the common cellar. These had been constructed by contributions from her relations and friends.

In 1397 the house was in a bad financial state, and the Chapter of York (both see and deanery being vacant) issued a letter (fn. 12) on behalf of the nuns, whose revenues had become so small that they were insufficient for their sustenance. In 1409 (fn. 13) Archbishop Bowett issued a commission to inquire respecting the excesses and defects of Eleanor Dakyrs, the prioress.

Little is known of the subsequent history of the nunnery. In 1526 its clear annual value was returned as only £12, the smallest of any monastery in the East Riding except Nunburnholme. (fn. 14) There were at the Dissolution eleven nuns (fn. 15) including Elizabeth Lord, the prioress, ' all of good conversation.' Against all the names, except that of the prioress and the three younger nuns whose names come last, is written the word ' religion,' indicating that they desired to keep their vows. The prioress received a yearly pension of £8, the others either 33s. 4d. or 26s. 8d., two however only receiving 20s.

Prioresses of Wilberfoss

Christiana, occurs 1231 to 1235 (fn. 16)

Letitia, occurs 1240 (fn. 17)

Isabella, living 1276 (fn. 18)

Emma, occurs 1298 (fn. 19) (de Waltringham), resigned 1310 (fn. 20)

Margaret Dawtrey, elected 1310 (fn. 21)

[Name unknown] elected 1319 (fn. 22)

Isabella de Spynys, occurs 1348 (fn. 23)

Agnes, occurs 1396 (fn. 24)

Eleanor Dakyrs, occurs 1409 (fn. 25)

Emmota Farethorpe, occurs 1438 (fn. 26)

Elizabeth, occurs 1464 (fn. 27)

Anne Kirkby, confirmed 1475, (fn. 28) resigned 1479 (fn. 29)

Margaret Easingwald, confirmed 1479, (fn. 30) died 1512 (fn. 31)

Elizabeth Lord, confirmed 1512, (fn. 32) last prioress


  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 354.
  • 2. Ibid. 356, no. v.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid. 355, no. ii.
  • 5. York Archiepis. Reg. Wickwane, fol. 20, 175.
  • 6. Ibid. Romanus, fol. 67b.
  • 7. Ibid. Greenfield, fol. 95.
  • 8. The account of the election occurs on three slips of parchment, inscribed between folio 118 and folio 119 of Archbishop Greenfield's register.
  • 9. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, ii, fol. 94b.
  • 10. Ibid. Melton, fol. 276.
  • 11. Ibid. Zouch, fol. 193.
  • 12. Ibid. sed. vac. fol. 217. Pope Boniface IX had also granted, on 20 Dec. 1389, a relaxation of penance to penitents who on the feast of the dedication visited and gave alms towards the conservation of the church of the Benedictine priory of Wilberfoss; Cal. of Papal Letters, iv, 393.
  • 13. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 354.
  • 14. S.P. Dom. 1526 (Return made by Brian Higdon).
  • 15. Suppression P. (P.R.O.), ii, 64.
  • 16. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 226.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Coram Rege R. 155, m. 26.
  • 20. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, fol. 119.
  • 21. Ibid.
  • 22. Ibid. Melton, fol. 276.
  • 23. Ibid. Zouch, fol. 193.
  • 24. Baildon's MS. Notes.
  • 25. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 354.
  • 26. Reg. of Wills, York, iii, fol. 542. John Appilby of Wilberfoss by will (17 Sept. 1438) bequeathed ' domine Emmote Farethorpe priorisse de Wilberfosse unum lectum ad electionem suam propriam,' and named her his executrix.
  • 27. Mentioned in charter of confirmation; Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 356, no. v.
  • 28. York Archiepis. Reg. G. Nevill, fol. 175.
  • 29. Ibid. L. Booth, fol. 111.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Ibid. Bain bridge, fol. 42b. Her gravestone was moved to Pocklington Church, where it still remains; Arch. Journ. v, 337.
  • 32. Ibid. Elizabeth Lord after the Dissolution went to live at York, where her sister had married George Gale, goldsmith and Lord Mayor of the city in 1534 and 1549. Elizabeth Lord died in 1550-1. In her will (Test. Ebor. vi, 307) she directed that her body was to be ' buried in the grownde within the churche of the Holie Trinitie in Gotheromgate, in the ladie quere, nyghe unto my broder's stall in the said churche.' In 1553 the site of the priory of Wilberfoss was granted to her brother-in-law, George Gale; Reg. of Corpus Christi Guild, York, 174 n.