In the late 1530´s an era of over 1 000 years of monasticism in England went to its grave. For many of those who had spent their lives as monks, or as I will write about here, nuns, this was a surely earth shattering ending to a way of life one surely thought would last for the remainder of one´s life.
For a long time throughout history, the life choices of women were basically restricted to either marriage, or if her family belonged to the nobility – or increasingly towards the end of monasticism – the upper gentry, or to the joining of a convent.
In those convents, women could achieve something similar to freedom, but a freedom within restraints, the restraints of the order they had join itself.
I have chosen to write about Barking Abbey, focusing on the women of living there during the last years before the surrendering of the abbey to the crown.
Barking Abbey, founded around 666 in Essex by St. Erkenwald for his sister St. Ethelburga who was the first abbess there, was a royal monastery which originally housed both nuns and monks, but this would change during the Middle ages. As a royal monastery, the king originally had the right to choose the abbess, but after pressure from the pope, this changed during the reign of King John, and the nuns got the right to elect their abbess themselves. What remained was that at his accession, each king had the right to appoint a nun to the monastery.
During the centuries prominent women had been holding the position as abbess, among whom can be mentioned three Maudes, the wife of Henry I, the wife of King Stephen and the daughter of Henry II.
Henry II also used the position as a prioress at Barking Abbey for the reparation of the murder of Thomas Becket by appointing his sister Mary Becket. Here Edward II kept the wife of Robert the Bruce, Elizabeth, for a year before she was traded for English prisoners held in Scotland, and years later his grandson, John of Gaunt would pay the admission dowry to Barking Abbey for Elizabeth Chaucer, the daughter of his friend, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
During the centuries, Barking Abbey remained one of the most powerful and rich abbey in the country, and the abbess here had precedence over all other abbesses in England. Had she been a man, she automatically would have had a place among the Lords in parliament and she was one of only four abbesses in the country who had baronial status, the others being the abbesses of Shaftsbury, Wilton and St Mary´s at Winchester.
After a decision made by St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century, Barking Abbey followed the Rule of St. Benedict. Out of the around 138 nunneries that existed in England between 1270 and 1536, more than half belonged to the Benedictine order.
The Benedictine order was, and is, an order which is more moderate than many other monastic orders and St. Benedict himself said in the prologue of his Rules, which the Benedictine nuns (and monks) follow that he intended to prescribe “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome” for his followers and instead his approach to seeking God has been seen as both sensible and humane.
He also prescribed a balance between prayer and work, the Benedictines shouldn´t be so consumed by work that they forgot their spiritual responsibilities nor should they send so much time in prayer that their work was neglected.
All things – eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working and praying – should be done in moderation; “All things must be given its due, but only its due. There should be something of everything and not too much of anything”.
The vows a Benedictine nun made when being professed was that of stability, fidelity (to the monastic way of life) and obedience. While “chastity” and “poverty” is mentioned in the Benedictine Rules, they are not the most important vows.
The 31 women who at the time of the surrender of Barking Abbey had chosen to take the vows and to live according to the Rules were Dorothy Barley abbess and professed around 1507, Thomasina Jenney, Margaret Scrope, Dorothy Fitzlewes, Agnes Townesend who had been professed in or shortly before 1499, at which time Margaret Cotton had been a novice.
At the time of the election of Dorothy Barley for abbess in 1527, Gabriel Shelton, Margery Paston and Elizabeth Badock had been novices, to become professed nuns in 1534 together with Anne Snowe, Agnes Bukham, Margaret Bramstone, Elizabeth Bainbridge and Katherine Pollard, in a time when they no doubt they had thought they would survive the bath of steel and fire which would firstly would affect the smaller and poorer convents.
The other nuns, with no information of when they had been professed to be found, was Joan Fynchham, Margery Ballard, Martha Fabyan, Ursula Wentworth, Joan Drurye, Elizabeth Wyatt, Agnes Horsey, Susanna Suliarde, Elizabeth Banbrik, Mary Tyrell, with Margaret Kempe, Elizabeth Prist, Audrey and Winifred Mordant, Alice Hyde, Lucy Long, Matilda Gravell and Margaret Grenehyll being the youngest.
It is sometimes suggested that the option of joining the monastic life was something that was open to anyone, but this was not quite the case. Just as in arranging a marriage, a dowry would need to be provided, even though it was not officially allowed. This is illustrated not least in the earlier history of Barking Abbey, which seems to have been the nunnery of choice the upper classes. It is also demonstrated by the fact that the women at Barking Abbey whom it is possible to trace all belonged to nobility or upper gentry. Those women whom it is possible to trace among the last nuns of Barking Abbey also demonstrates that it was the daughters of the upper layers of society who either chose or was made to join the monastery.
Also during the last years, the names of the nuns where they too can be traced, confirm the assumption; Margery Paston was the daughter of Sir William Paston of Norfolk, Gabrielle Shelton daughter of Sir John and Lady Anne Shelton, the latter aunt of Anne Boleyn, to mention but two examples.
House of Benedictine Nuns: Barking Abbey in “A history of the County of Essex: Volume 2, ed. William Page and J Horace Round (London 1907) British History Online
A nun´s life: Barking Abbey in the late-medieval and early modern periods – Theresa L. Barnes, Portland State University, 2004.
Barking Abbey: A study in its external and internal administration from the conquest to the dissolution – Winifred K. Sturman, University of London, 1961.
Dugdale Monasticon, Vol 1, part 15: Charthe longynge to the Office of the Celeresse of the Monasterye of Barkinge. 1655.
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of Henry VIII, August-December 1539.
Barking Abbey, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, Museum and Heritage, Local History Resources.
Essex Record Office