While the women of the poorer classes have been working since the beginning of time, “work” was not an option for women of the higher classes of society and in many cases the options were two: get married or join a convent.
The fact that some women either by their own will or by the will of the family became nuns has sometimes inspired thinking in the terms of at what rate it was religious convictions that made people join a nunnery, but I feel that in using those words, we are beginning to apply our secular way of thinking to people living in an age when “not believing in God” was as unlikely an option as finding work was for an Earl´s daughter.
This alone was not the reason for the number of daughters from the nobility choosing, or being expected to, to join a convent. Both Power and Barnes point out that doing so what not necessarily an undertaking done for free, something which is indicated already in the paying of a dowry by John of Gaunt to Barking Abbey for the admittance of Elizabeth Chaucer. Just as a wedding, the joining of the monastic life was a cost that often needed to be covered by, if possible, the bride´s family regardless of the groom was a man of flesh and blood or God.
Another factor that speaks to the advantage for women of the nobility was that the woman wanting to become a nun was expected to have some level of education. Among the lower classes, the literacy among men was lower than 20 percent England in the 1550´s, and far lower among women. Literacy among women could be found among the gentry, the mercantile class and the nobility, which obviously in most cases excluded for example the thatcher´s daughter from a life as a nun.
In 1527 they had seen Dorothy Barley, when she would have been around 37 years old, become elected abbess, a process that required a license from the patron of the order, in this case the king as Barking Abbey was a royal monastery and once that was achieved four scrutineers were chosen. Their task was to appoint candidates for the role as abbess and then the election would be held on a feast day.
All nuns would cast their vote, and to be an eligible candidate the minimum requirement was that the nun in question was at least 21 years old, of legitimate birth and of good reputation. While her popularity among the other nuns no doubt played some part, and it has been suggested that the social standing of her family outside the monastery also played its part, what was most important was her merit and capability, or as expressed in the Benedictine Rule chapter 64 requires that a nun be chosen for wisdom and doctrine.
As Abbess Dorothy Barley had her own household away from the rest of the nuns, and most likely it was also here that the children staying as wards lived. From 1437 to 1440 the two small boys Jasper and Edmund Tudor stayed here under the supervision of Katherine de la Pole, and in the last decade leading up to the surrender of the Abbey, Sir John Stanley dedicated his son to the care of the Abbess of Barking Abbey, where the boy would stay until the age of 12.
Possibly was that the same John Stanley who was an illegitimate son of the Bishop of Ely, and if so, the boy in question would only have been four at the time he joined the Abbess of Barking Abbey. For the upbringing and education of the young boy, the abbess received £20 per year. There are in some documents signs that other children may have been boarded in the household of the abbess, but unfortunately the names of their families does not remain.
She, the abbess, would also have had the responsibility for both the financial and the judicial sides of the monastery. The financial matters included the administration of the abbeys funds, which derived from leases of demesne land of the 15 manors that was in the possession of the abbey, the lease for the mill in Barking as well as rents and taxes. Added to that there was an inflow of grain, produce, hay and wood from the manors.
The ones belonging to Barking at the time of the dissolution was basically the same that hed belonged to the abbey since the 13th century: Barking, Abbes Hall, Bulphan, Caldecoates, Cokermouth, Down Hall, Great Warley, Hanley Hall, Hewkesbury, Highall, Hockley, Ingatestone, Leaden Roding, Mucking, Tollesbury, Wangey Hall, Westbury, Wigborough and Wood Barns.
Both products and cash were used by the Obedentiaries, such as the Cellaress, the Sacrist and the Infirmaress, for the upkeep of the monastery and the sustenance of the nuns and those living in the monastery, not always just the nuns, which I will return to, it seems as if the different offices had their “own” manors from which they received the revenue to make the economy of their “department” go round financially.
The abbess would also be involved in handle litigations, a not a too uncommon occurrence for the abbey as a major landholder with tenants. For these instances she had the assistance of stewards, two during the last years of the existence of Barking Abbey. They also were in employ of the monastery to keep an eye on the manors and lands belonging to the abbey, and from the 13th century it was common practice that these stewards had a legal education.
While the abbess in modern day terminology in many ways would have been seen as the public relations officer, spending most of her time dealing with the monastery´s contacts with the outside world – requiring her to be respected in a society run by men – she also had assistance by people who, to continue the modern day terminology, was in charge of the HR-department.
This was the work of the prioress, second in command to the abbess and a position held in the last years of Barking Abbey by Thomasina Jenney who had been at the abbey since the late 15th century and up until 1508 had held the position as sacrist. In 1508 she was elected prioress, a position she held for the remainder of the abbey´s existence. She was assisted by a sub-prioress and due to the wealth and power of Barking Abbey, a third prioress, and their work was to oversee the work of the obedentiaries who all held different offices within the monastery.
While the abbess was elected, the prioress and the obedentiaries were appointed, and this was a process that took place every year on the first Monday of Lent in the Charter House after Mass. The work of the nuns holding the offices during the previous year was evaluated by the abbess and those who had excelled at their tasks might be in for a promotion while those who had performed a less than satisfactory work could be demoted from their positions and return to the life of an ordinary nun. One example of promotion is that of Margaret Scrope who had been made precentrix in 1527, lady of the pension in 1535-36 and promoted to sub prioress some time before 1539. Another example of someone who had clearly managed her office very well is Thomasina Jenney who, as previously mentioned, held her office as prioress for 30 years.
On this day positions which had become vacant due to for example the death of the previous holder was filled.
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