Barking Abbey, part II

While the women of the poorer classes have been working since the beginning of time,hildegard_of_bingen_and_nuns “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.

medieval-nunsAll 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.

Sources:

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

 

 

 

Barking Abbey, part 1

In the late 1530´s an era of over 1 000 years of monasticism in England went to its grave. Forbarking_abbey_curfew_tower_london 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.

220px-st_margarets_barking_-_dsc06985Barking 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 inbarking 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.

Tbenedicthe 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.

At the time of the dissolution, Barking Abbey was the third wealthiest in England, with an barkingabbey-1500income of around £1 084 per year, superseded only by Shaftsbury Abbey and Sion Abbey.

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.

 

Sources:

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