Houses of Cistercians nuns: Priory of Swine

Pages 178-182

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

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The priory of Swine was founded by Robert de Verli, (fn. 1) at some period prior to the death of King Stephen, for his gift of the church of St. Mary of Swine was confirmed to the nuns there by Hugh Pudsey, Archdeacon of the East Riding and Treasurer of York, which offices he vacated in 1154, when he became Bishop of Durham.

At first there is evidence that the house was in some form a double monastery of men and women.

In a charter of Erenburgh, wife of Ulbert Constable, (fn. 2) the brothers and sisters serving God at Swine are alluded to, and in a charter of Edward I in 13053 is an inspeximus of an undated charter of Henry II to the brethren and nuns of the house of Swine, taking their house, lands, and possessions under his protection, and granting them certain liberties. There is also, in the same charter of Edward I, an inspeximus of a charter of confirmation by Henry II to the 'brethren and nuns' of Swine of their lands in frankalmoign. Again, in 1344, (fn. 3) in a charter of Edward III, the former charters of Edward I and Henry II are spoken of as made to the 'master and canons of the house of Swine,' while the second charter of Henry II is more particularly alluded to as having been to the 'church of St. Mary of Swine and the nuns' there. The matter is not altogether clear. There is no indication that Swine was in any way connected with Sempringham, or the Gilbertine order, but its constitution, as revealed by a visitation of Archbishop Giffard in 1267-8, (fn. 4) is something very like a Gilbertine house, with its canons and conversi, and the nuns and lay-sisters. It is however noteworthy that when appealing for outside assistance in regulating its affairs, Archbishop Romanus (fn. 5) did not apply to Sempringham, but to the Abbot of Prémontré and the abbots of that order, assembled in their general chapter.

In 1236 (fn. 6) Saer II of Sutton quitclaimed to the prioress, Sybil, and her successors the advowson of Drypool, and also gave certain marsh lands. The prioress, on her part, granted that she and her successors would find a suitable chaplain and clerk, vestments, and all necessaries for a service in the chapel of St. George at Ganstead for the souls of Saer, his ancestors and successors, and a free chantry in his manor of Southcoates, such as he formerly had at his own charges.

Among the later benefactors of Swine should be mentioned the munificent Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham, (fn. 7) a native of the parish, whose sister was at one time prioress. By his will, dated 7 March 1403-4, (fn. 8) Bishop Skirlaw bequeathed £100 to the monastery of the nuns of Swine for a perpetual obit, and by a codicil (1 August 1404) (fn. 9) signed in the great hall of the manor-house of Howden, in the presence of his sister Joan, Prioress of Swine, the bishop bequeathed 100s, to Katherine Punde, one of the nuns of Swine.

According to the Taxation of 1291 the church of Swine was rated at £53 6s. 8d., (fn. 10) and the temporalities of the prioress at £48. In a return made in 1526 (fn. 11) the clear yearly value was stated to be £78, and according to the Valor Ecclesiasticus (fn. 12) £83 3s. 9½d.

When Archbishop Giffard held a visitation on 13 January 1267-8 (fn. 13) it was found that Amice de Rue (presumably one of the nuns) was a slanderer, untruthful, careless, hurtful and rebellious towards the convent, and so were nearly all the others when the faults of the delinquents were made known in chapter, to such an extent that the prioress, or her vicegerent, without the help of the archbishop was unable to effect corrections, as the observance of the rule required. Silence was not kept in church, cloister, refectory, or dormitory. Three nuns, sisters by birth and profession, by name Sybil, Bella, and Amy, often rebelled against the corrections made by the prioress, and three other sisters, Alice de Scruteville, Beatrix de St. Quintin, and Maud Constable joined them. The sick nuns were badly provided for, and had little more to eat than those who were well had in the refectory, though Saer de Sutton had formerly given half a bovate of land to provide for the sick nuns and sisters, of which they received nothing. Alice Brun and Alice de Adeburn had received their veils simoniacally. (fn. 14) Money which had been given to the convent out of charity for pittances, and purchasing shifts (camisias) and other necessaries, the prioress received, and it would be better kept by two honest nuns, and never put to other uses. The nuns were not properly provided with shoes, only receiving one pair a year; similarly, as regarded clothes, they scarcely received a single tunic in three years, and a single cloak in twenty, unless they were able to beg more from relatives and secular friends. The prioress was a suspected woman, too credulous, and too ready of tongue, breaking out in correction and frequently for equal offences dealt unequal punishments, and with long-continued hatred persecuted those she hated, until an opportunity came for wreaking her vengeance; so that the nuns, when they realized that they would receive too heavy a punishment, contrived by the threats of their neighbours that the severity would be mitigated. There were many discords between the nuns and the sisters, and the sisters maintained that they were the equals of the nuns, and might wear the black veil like nuns, which was not the custom in other houses. (fn. 15) Two windows, through which the food and drink of the canons and conversi were passed, were not properly kept by the nuns, called janitrices, so that suspected confabulations between the canons and conversi on the one part, and the nuns and sisters on the other, frequently took place.

The door which led to the church was very carelessly kept by a secular servant, who allowed the canons and conversi to enter in the dusk that they might hold conversations with the nuns and sisters. The door used to be diligently kept by a faithful and active conversus. The household of Robert de Hiltun, kt., wandered dissolutely about the cloister and parlour, and in a very suspicious manner conversed with the nuns and sisters, whence danger was suspected. Robert himself was very troublesome, and for fear of his oppression the canons of the house lately, without the consent of the convent, gave him a barn full of corn, which should have been for the maintenance of the convent. The canons and conversi, under pretence of taking care of the external property of the house, wasted it, which, if it were carefully looked after, would suffice for the maintenance of all. The nuns were only receiving bread, cheese and ale, and on two days in the week they only had water. The canons, however, and their accomplices were having plenty, and were daintily provided for. It was found that the house of Swine could not maintain more nuns or sisters than were then there. Moreover, the house was in debt to the amount of 140 marks at least, and on that account the archbishop decreed that no one was to be received as nun or sister without his consent. The correction of these matters, if not carried out by the canons and convent within a short time, the archbishop specially reserved to himself to effect, as soon as he had leisure.

It is not improbable that the disclosures made at this visitation had as their ultimate result the removal of the canons not many years later.

On 15 March 1267-8 (fn. 16) the archbishop wrote 'religiosis mulieribus et fil' in Deo dilectis priorisse et canonicis de Swyne' a letter which dealt generally with the conduct of the nuns and sisters. Nothing is said about the canons, but a custos of the house is alluded to, and for the better providing of the convent, 40 marks was to be entrusted to one of the brothers. (fn. 17)

That the separation of the canons and nuns of Swine was being effected about this time seems also clear from a letter addressed by Archbishop Romanus on 3 September 1287 (fn. 18) to the abbots of the Premonstratensian order, then assembled in their general chapter, asking that Brother Robert de Spalding, canon of Croxton, of their order, whom with special consent of the abbot he had appointed master of the house of the poor women of Swine, might be allowed to hold that office, so that he could assist by his circumspect industry in relieving the poverty and downfall which threatened. Here Swine is alluded to as a house of women, as if it were intended to lay special stress on the fact that it was no longer a double monastery.

In 1289 (fn. 19) another member of the St. Quintin family is met with as a nun, and on 10 May the archbishop directed the prioress to restore the black veil to her, which on account of her demerits had been taken from her for a year. On 4 January 1289-90, (fn. 20) the archbishop wrote to the Abbot of Croxton, asking that Brother R. de Spalding might be allowed to continue his work at Swine till Easter. The abbot had recalled him just at a time when his labours were bearing fruit, and the archbishop asked that he might remain till he had been able to render a complete statement of affairs, which would be, God willing, before Easter. Less than a month later (30 January), (fn. 21) the archbishop addressed a general letter universis, &c., saying that R. de Spalding, whom his abbot had recently permitted to be appointed master of the nuns of Swine, had laboured most industriously and commendably in regard to the affairs of the house. On 28 September, (fn. 22) Josiana de Anlaghby was appointed prioress, Cecilia de Walkingham having resigned, and on the following day the archbishop commissioned the Master (fn. 23) and Prioress of Swine to inquire the names of the nuns who acted disobediently towards them, and did evil to the house on the occasion of the creation of the new prioress, that they might be sent to Rosedale vestri ordinis, (fn. 24) there to dwell in penance. (fn. 25) The master and prioress were also ordered to send Elizabeth de Rue to Nunburn holme (fn. 26) under the charge of a brother of the house and a horseman. The archbishop further directed by a letter to the Master and Prioress of Swine that they were to restore to Elizabeth de Arranis, (fn. 27) their nun, the veil of consecration (consecracionis velum) which she had laid aside on account of her transgression, but she was the more firmly to persevere with the rest of her penance. On 3 April following (fn. 28) the archbishop appointed Robert Bustard, canon of the house of St. Robert of Knaresborough, Master of Swine in place of Robert de Spalding, but next (fn. 29) year he wrote to the Master of St. Robert's that he had not administered the affairs of Swine circumspectly, and the archbishop asked that he might be recalled to Knaresborough. In another letter, (fn. 30) to the prioress and convent, the archbishop stated that for reasons which he did not care to give at the time, Helewyse Darains, one of their nuns, was to be sent to Wykeham for a time, while a nun of that house, of good and praiseworthy conversation, was to come to them.

Archbishop Newark notified the convent of a proposed visitation on Tuesday after the feast of St. Giles in his first year (1 September 1298), (fn. 31) and from a part of the injunctions which he gave on that occasion, which are legible, it appears that silence was to be more properly observed, and the doors more diligently guarded; the nuns were not to use large collars, barred girdles, or laced shoes (zolariis longis, zonis barratis et sotularibus laqueatis).

Archbishop Corbridge issued a commission on 9 April 1303 (fn. 32) to Roger de Mar, succentor of York, to correct the matters discovered at the visitation of Swine, and to inquire into the temporal and spiritual condition of the house, and to confirm, if needed, the election of a new prioress. There does not, however, appear to be any record of the visitation itself.

In 1306 (fn. 33) a letter was addressed by Archbishop Greenfield to the rural dean of Beverley, as to a case promoted against John, the son of Thomas the Smith of Swine, for fornication committed with Alice Martel, nun of Swine. On 2 February 1308 (fn. 34) the archbishop wrote to Joan de Moubray, the prioress, and the convent, forbidding them to make any alienations or new leases of their lands or rents or other property, to the injury of the house, and on 21 April (fn. 35) following he forbade them to take boarders, &c. Whether these two letters directly led to her resignation or not does not appear, but a little afterwards (fn. 36) the archbishop directed the nuns to make due provision for Joan de Moubray, their late prioress. Once again we hear of a case of immorality in a letter addressed in 1310 (fn. 37) to Roger de Driffield (quondam abbati) of Meaux concerning Brothers Robert de Merflet and Stephen de Ulram his fellow monks, who had been guilty of incontinence and incest with Elizabeth de Ruda, nun of Swine.

On 26 January 1318 (fn. 38) Archbishop Melton issued a commission to Richard de Melton, rector of Brandesburton, to inquire into the excesses of the nuns of Swine, and on 20 February (fn. 39) he sent the nuns a long list of injunctions, in which he enjoined the prioress and sub-prioress to keep convent, and ordered that his predecessor's injunctions were to be observed. The prioress for the time being was to see that the house was reasonably served with bread, ale and other necessaries. The prioress and convent, according to their rule, were to say matins with the other canonical hours each day of the year with note, unless lawfully prevented. The prioress and all who had administration of the goods of the house were without delay to have the dormitory covered, so that the nuns might quietly and in silence be received in it, without annoyance from storms, and they were to have the roofs of other buildings repaired as soon as might be. No nun able to be present at divine offices was to be excused from them on account of any external occupation, unless the great need of the house demanded it, and as to that the archbishop charged the conscience of the prioress as she would answer to the Most High. The prioress was to make both old and young nuns keep to the cloister at due times, and especially the young ones who had not yet rendered their service. All the nuns, not being sick, were to sleep in the dormitory, and not in different places, causing scandal to arise against them. No brothers or other guests were to be received inside the inner door, to eat, drink, or pass the night under any condition. No nun was to presume, under pain of the greater excommunication, to use supertunics, barred girdles, in one combination of garment, outwardly or inwardly cut, or ornamented in a curious fashion.

On 2 January 1319-20 (fn. 40) the archbishop wrote to the prioress and convent to receive Symon called Chapeleyne and Geoffrey Palmer in fratres vestros et conversos—an interesting fact, as bearing further on the existence of conversi attached to houses of nuns.

In September 1320 (fn. 41) the prioress, Josiana de Anlaghby, resigned on account of old age, and the archbishop directed the nuns to make due provision for her, who for a long period had laudably performed her duty.

In 1335 (fn. 42) William Bomour, conversus of the house of the nuns of Swine, on account of his excesses, which had been found out at a recent visitation, was transferred for a time to the monastery of Sawley at the cost of the house of Swine. In 1358 (fn. 43) Archbishop Thoresby ordered the nuns to receive back one of their number, Anne de Cawode, who had twice broken her vow and left their house, but no very bad record seems to be charged against her, except the bare fact of her apostasy.

In 1410, (fn. 44) at the request of the Prioress and convent of Swine and the vicar and inhabitants of the parish, Archbishop Bowett transferred the feast of the dedication of the church of Swine from 7 August to the Sunday next before the feast of St. Margaret each year, so as not to interfere with the ingathering.

The house, here said to be 'of the order of St. Bernard,' although well under the £200 limit, was exempted from suppression on 1 October 1537, Helen Deyn then being prioress; (fn. 45) she must have died or resigned shortly after this date, as the priory was surrendered on 9 September 1539 (fn. 46) by Dorothy Knight, the prioress, and nineteen nuns. (fn. 47)

It is interesting to trace two of these ladies later. In 1552-3, (fn. 48) when an inquiry was made on complaint of the non-payment of pensions to ex-religious, it was reported: 'Elizabeth Grymston of thage of xxxvj yeres and pencon by yere xliijs viijd and is maried to oon Pykkerd of Welwek, and paid.' Of another it is reported: 'Elisabeth Tyas morant apud Tykhill, and now maried to oon John Swyne gentilman, and pencon by yere xls and paid.'

Dorothy Knyght, the late prioress, was also alive 'of thage of 1 yeres and pencion xiijli vjs viijd and paid.' Elizabeth Clifton (another nun) 'of thage of xl yeres and pencon by yere lxvjs viijd, and haith sold her pencon to' [ ], while Elizabeth Elsley 'pencon by yere xls and remaynyth wt master Barton at Northallerton as it is seid.'

Prioresses of Swine

Helewis, occurs 1227, (fn. 49) mentioned 1236 (fn. 50)

Sibil, occurs 1236 (fn. 51)

Maud, occurs 1240-1 (fn. 52)

Sibil, occurs 1252 (fn. 53)

Mabel, occurs 1280 (fn. 54)

Gundreda, resigned 1288 (fn. 55)

Cecilia de Walkingham, confirmed 1288, (fn. 56) resigned 1290 (fn. 57)

Josiana de Anlaghby, confirmed 1290, (fn. 58) occurs 1293 (fn. 59)

Joan de Moubray, occurs 1308, (fn. 60) resigned 1309 (fn. 61)

Josiana de Anlaghby (second time), resigned 1320 (fn. 62)

Cecilia, occurs 1338 (fn. 63)

Joan Skirlaw, occurs 1404 (fn. 64)

Isabel Chetwynd, occurs 1437 (fn. 65)

Maud Wade, resigned 1482 (fn. 66)

Joan Kelk, confirmed 1482 (fn. 67)

Beatrice Lowe, confirmed 1498 (fn. 68)

Cecilia Eland, confirmed 1506 (fn. 69)

Elena Dene, confirmed 1520, (fn. 70) occurs 1537 (fn. 71)

Dorothy Knight, surrendered the house 1539 (fn. 72)

The circular seal (fn. 73) 1¾ in. in diameter, used in King Stephen's time, has a representation of our Lady seated, holding a lily, sceptre, and a book. The legend is:—


The second seal (fn. 74) is a vesica, 2 in. by 13/8 in., having our Lady crowned and seated and holding the Child. Below is the prioress kneeling in prayer. The legend is: —



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 493.
  • 2. Ibid. 494, no. i. Chart. R. 98 (7 Nov. 33 Edw. I).
  • 3. Chart. R. 139 (21 June 18 Edw. III).
  • 4. Archbp. Giffard's Reg. (Surt. Soc.), 146.
  • 5. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 61b.
  • 6. Feet of F. Yorks. file 30, no. 1 (East. 20 Hen. III).
  • 7. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 253.
  • 8. Test. Ebor. i, 309.
  • 9. Ibid. 314.
  • 10. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 493.
  • 11. Dom. P. 1526 (return by Brian Higdon), see L. and P. Hen. VIII, iv, 2001.
  • 12. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v, 114.
  • 13. Archbp. Giffard's Reg. (Surt. Soc.), 147-8.
  • 14. That is, no doubt, payment beforehand had been made to the monastery on condition that they were to be received as nuns, a fault often condemned.
  • 15. On 21 June 1311 Archbishop Greenfield issued a general order that nuns only, and not sisters, were to use the black veil in the diocese of York; York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, ii, fol. 24.
  • 16. Archbp. Giffard's Reg. 249.
  • 17. The word 'frater' was commonly applied to a conversus. The conversi continued at Swine after the removal of the canons.
  • 18. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 61b.
  • 19. Ibid. fol. 62.
  • 20. Ibid. fol. 62b.
  • 21. Ibid. fol. 63.
  • 22. Ibid. fol. 63b.
  • 23. 'Commissio Magistro et Priorisse de Swyna. Ibid.
  • 24. Rosedale was a Cistercian house.
  • 25. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 63b.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. Ibid.
  • 28. Ibid. fol. 64
  • 29. Ibid. fol. 64b.
  • 30. Ibid. fol. 66.
  • 31. York Archiepis. Reg. Newark, fol. 6, and on 15 Sept. 1298 he created Dominus W. Derains, rector of Londesborough, Master of Swine. Ibid.
  • 32. Ibid. Corbridge, fol. 38.
  • 33. Ibid. Greenfield, fol. 34b.
  • 34. Ibid. fol. 112.
  • 35. Ibid. fol. 113.
  • 36. Ibid. fol. 118.
  • 37. Ibid. slip between fol. 121 and 122.
  • 38. Ibid. Melton, fol. 273b.
  • 39. Ibid. fol. 274.
  • 40. Ibid. fol. 278.
  • 41. Ibid. fol. 279b.
  • 42. Ibid. 323.
  • 43. Ibid. Thoresby, fol. 198b.
  • 44. Ibid. Bowett, fol. 175.
  • 45. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (1), 1008.
  • 46. Ibid. xiv (2), 141.
  • 47. Ibid. xv, p. 553.
  • 48. Exch. K.R. Accts. bdle. 76, no. 23.
  • 49. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 207.
  • 50. Feet of F. file 30, no. 1 (East. 20 Hen. III).
  • 51. Ibid.
  • 52. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 207.
  • 53. Ibid.
  • 54. Feet of F. file 59, no. 57 (Hil. 8 Edw. I).
  • 55. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 62 [for Walkington in the ordinary lists read Walkingham].
  • 56. Ibid.
  • 57. Ibid. fol. 63b.
  • 58. Ibid.
  • 59. Coram Rege R. 137, m. 5 (Trin. 21 Edw. I); see as to her sister Margery, an idiot, 1289, Yorks. Inq. ii, 89.
  • 60. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, fol. 112.
  • 61. Ibid. fol. 118.
  • 62. Ibid. Melton, fol. 279b.
  • 63. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 207.
  • 64. Test. Ebor. i, 314.
  • 65. Baildon, MS. Notes.
  • 66. York Archiepis. Reg. Rotherham, i, fol. 32b.
  • 67. Ibid.
  • 68. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 493.
  • 69. Ibid.
  • 70. York Archiepis. Reg. Wolsey, fol. 52b.
  • 71. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii, 1008: 'Helen Deyn.'
  • 72. Ibid. xv, p. 553.
  • 73. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 4133; Add. Chart. 26108.
  • 74. Ibid. 4135, lxxv, 12.