Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Mystery of the Ancrene Wisse and the Canonesses of Canonsleigh

Looking toward Canonsleigh from the Tiverton Canal

 It was serendipitous to find that one of the medieval age’s most significant and famous religious manuscripts had a connection with a priory of mid-Devonian nuns. Late in the C13 manuscript copies of an instruction manual designed originally for anchoress recluses, The Ancrene Wisse (or Ancrene Riwle), was taken and left at the Augustinian priory of Canonsleigh, presumably intended to instruct the nuns in their devotions. There it seems to have languished there for several centuries, before being moved on around the country; at one time it was in the hands of Robert Talbot, Prebendary of Norfolk, who died in 1558.
The origins of the Ancrene remain rather vague and much is unknown, even with all the research tools of the C21, but the original treatise seems to have been written during the early decades of the C13 by a Domenican or Augustinian monk for three aristocratic sisters who lived somewhere in the welsh borders or west midlands.
            The presence of one of the manuscripts of the Ancrene in the county suggests that Devon was not a medieval back-water as far as women and literary texts were concerned and instead indicates that there were women in the area who had contact with at least one of the most important religious texts of the period. Perhaps one, or several of Canonsleigh’s canonesses may have themselves contributed to parts of the manuscript; maybe they were involved in the overseeing and influencing of its textual production and promotion and even in that of other medieval manuscripts.
  A bit of burrowing around into abandoned corners of medieval her/story is called for at this point, then I’ll return to focus on the Ancrene Wisse.
   A prime example of now forgotten both his and her-story, Canonsleigh, or Legh Canonicorum, or Mynchynleye, near Burlescombe was in its time ‘stately’, a ‘great abbey’. At one time it was rich, at its height had about fifty postulants and was reputedly famed for the piety of its canonesses. Now, a damaged C15 gatehouse with two small two-light windows, the ruin of the priory is situated near Burlescombe, on the eastern side of the county. Canonsleigh lies in a low lying spot near the main railway line, the Motorway and the Tiverton canal.

   Its scatterings of ivy covered stones belie the priory’s high status during medieval times. Even in 1892 the gatehouse was still perfect and was studded with oak leaves and quatre-foils picked out in colour’, but other than that there was very little of the original building left and it was impossible for archaeologists at the end of the C19 to reconstruct the general arrangement of the place. Some fifty years before that, in 1831, there was still a ‘porter's lodge, which is still entire’, and the ancient gateway, ‘in which is a fine Norman arch’ was not only still ‘beautifully ornamented with oak leaves, [and] quatrefoils’, but also with ‘grotesque heads highly coloured’. Observers noted that ‘over the gateway [it had] a large chamber, approached by a winding staircase of stone within a turret: there are also some portions of the walls of the eastern wing of the abbey, now in ruins’.

     Observers at this time concluded that Canonsleigh Priory had been of ‘great extent’, a ‘ruin of massive structure’ made up of ‘great conventual buildings’.
  There are tantalising documentary fragments about women in the religious community living at Canonsleigh. Details of dates suggest that there may have been connections between certain of them and other women closely involved in the establishment of other monastic establishments within the county and even further afield in the south-west. Is there any link between these women, their involvements within the religious community and the Ancrene Wisse being gifted to the local priory? The text was first sent to Canonsleigh between 1284 and 89, bestowed on the community by the priory’s wealthy and possibly literary-minded re-founder, Matilda or Maud de Clare, Countess of Gloucester. 
  Matilda de Clare’s life as a prominent member of one of the topmost hierarchical C13 noble families is well-documented; not so much is known about her involvement with Canonsleigh, or about why she presented the Ancrene Wisse to the establishment. But what material there is is fascinating. Matilda’s contemporary, Amicia de Clare’s endowment of the more famous Buckland Abbey in 1280 is more
likely to be remembered. Amicia was the widow of Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon, who had died by 1244, and Buckland Abbey was granted to her for the souls of Henry III and his wife Eleanor as well as for her own daughter, Isabella Countess of Devon (who had gifted her own lands for the new building) and another daughter, who was a nun at Laycock. Within four years of the establishment of the Abbey its founder Amicia was dead and buried in its grounds.
   Matilda de Clare re-founded Canonsleigh as Priory in 1284, after its original purpose as a Priory founded for Augustinian canons came to a rather mysterious end as a result of what appear to have been several scandals, during which its seven surviving members were evicted. It was Matilda’s second attempt at forming a priory for she had already tried to do so at Sandleford Priory in Berkshire. For some reason this plan had fallen through and ten years later she turned her attention to Devon where she had to fight for her new convent because there were disputes from the Prior which attempted to stop her involvement:
Canonsleigh Priory was founded between 1161-117, by Walter de Claville, originally for Canons, but  was transferred about 1284 to Canonesses, the first Abbess being appointed by Bp. Ouivil, on 28 Oct. of that year; but only after considerable opposition from the Prior, who appealed to Archbishop Peckham, and the Archbishop to the King, but without effect.

Matilda evidently eventually got her way. Canonsleigh’s refounding as priory was only some four years after Amicia’s endowment of Buckland; the two noblewomen were kinswomen. Amicia was Matilda’s husband Richard de Clare’s sister, so they were sisters in law. Were the two foundations linked in some way? Were the two women, separately or together, part of a medieval community of literarily inclined religious women? Certainly both of them seemed to be in comparable positions and to have similar fates, for both of their husbands had died years before and both of them also were destined to die shortly after the completion of the foundation.
   Matilda, Countess of Gloucester must have been interested in and influenced by the cult of Etheldreda, the C7 saint

Etheldreda: Princess, Queen, Abbess and Saint
St Etheldreda
for she arranged for Canonsleigh to be re-dedicated to Etheldreda. Matilda’s husband Richard, heir to the huge Clare estates, had died in 1267 and she died some four years after the priory was founded, after a long and vigorous widowhood during which the Clare estates were held in her dower. During her long widowhood Matilda ‘rerouted some dower property in the favour of women’. Possibly inspired by the earlier saint’s life, she may have imitated her in her mode of patronage. For C21 women the combined themes of religion, self-abasement and chastity, both in terms of leading a present day life and that of discovering details about the lives of those in the past, must seem unattractive. Secular in our habits and beliefs, we find the concept of an early female saint who was a C7 celebrity icon on the grounds of her virginity, and goodly, self-sacrificing deeds, to be at the least boring, and probably also incongruous. Why would such a woman motivate and stir up a cultish following for decades, indeed for centuries after her death? We have to abandon cherished modern conceptions and try instead to put ourselves into the spiritually inclined shoes of women who were living then. Not an easy feat, because it means re-imagining a shadowy age where women would have idolised and emulated the deeds of such a saintly female predecessor. Saint Etheldreda, perhaps the most famous of the several women saints known especially for their virtuous reputation, was recognised and acclaimed by Bede. She received much in the way of literary, hagiographic attention. So much so that her life, works and her status as preeminent saint were still widely acclaimed four centuries later; hence the interest of Matilda which led to the introduction of Etheldreda as recipient of Canonsleigh’s new dedication. 
  One may wonder in any case why a C13 noblewomen such as Matilda de Clare should have taken it into her head to immerse herself in re-inventing or refounding a religious establishment placed in a little rural backwater of Devon. For she was a member of the highest echelon of the noble classes, mixed in the top social circles and would have received the latest in education; one report suggests that she (or was it perhaps her own children) was educated at Windsor Castle with Henry III’s daughters. When she was 15 her parents had paid Henry III £5000, an enormous fee, for his permission for her to marry Richard de Clare, who was from one of the country’s most elite baronies. But Matilda’s links with and choice of Devon for a priory were most likely not to have been just a whim of the moment, nor was it just her sister in law Amicia whose influence as patron and founder of convents may have drawn her down to the South-West. Intricately interconnected individuals in the networks of Matilda’s extended family and their associates had deep roots in the county; often these were doubly connected with her because of their dual paternal and maternal lineage. During this period tentacles of Norman baronial Welsh Marcher and other families extended deeply into south-western lands. 
    The answer to the mystery of Matilda’s special focus on west country Canonsleigh may be found in a chain of similar endowments and establishments by coeval women in her immediate family, several of them seemingly linked with contemporary scandals and their consequent grisly repercussions.Cornworthy, another Augustinian convent down in the south-western corners of the county, was probably founded by Eva Marshal, (1203-46), who as sister to Walter Marshal, 5th Earl of Pembroke, became sister in law to Margaret Quincey Countess of Lincoln, Matilda’s mother, (who is often listed as the most prominent women of the C13). On her maternal side Eva was an aunt, through marriage, to Matilda de Clare; for in 1242 Matilda’s mother, the Countess of Lincoln, married Walter as her second husband.    Eva had married the ill-fated Willam de Braose, whose family roots were partially set in Devon; found in the private bedchamber of Joan, Lady of Wales, wife of the notorious Prince Llewleyn the Great, William was duly hanged in 1230, leaving behind him his widow Eva plus four daughters. Both the Braose family and Williams’ mother’s family, the de Briweres, held extensive lands in Devon: the de Briweres had founded Torre Abbey and the de Braoses held Barnstaple and Totnes. As William de Braose’s widow, Eva, known as Lady Abergavenny, controlled Totnes just to the north of Cornworthy, whose priory is thought to have been first built in or just before, the 1230’s. Perhaps the thirty year old Eva founded the convent at Cornworthy to commemorate and to atone for her husband’s sins. Others have come to the same conclusion.
 An even more notorious scandal affecting an earlier generation of the de Braose family hooks others into the familial network of Matilda de Clare, foundress of Canonsleigh, as well as reputedly, into the obscure
background of the Ancrene Wisse itself. Margaret de Braose, wife of Walter de Lacey, who was (Eva’s husband), William de Braose’s aunt – and therefore related through marriage to Matilda de Clare – founded Aconbury Priory in Herefordshire in 1216, in memory of members of her family who had suffered untimely deaths. That priory commemorated her mother and eldest brother, Maud de St Valery and William de Braose, following their macabre burial alive at Corfe castle in 1210. Matilda de Clare was related to the de Braose family through her father as well as her mother, for it was probably her paternal grandmother, also Matilda de Clare, know as the Countess of Clare, who had married (though some dispute this) – as her first husband – William the younger de Braose, before his incarnation at Corfe. This would make the earlier Matilda de Clare a sister-in-law to Margaret de Braose, founder of Aconbury. Matilda de Clare the younger, founder of Canonsleigh, was therefore also distantly related on her father’s side, through marriage, to Eva probable founder of Cornworthy. So we can begin to trace a web of related women patrons and founders of religious establishments in the west country. Perhaps most interesting in light of Matilda de Clare and Canonsleigh is that it was her own grandmother – whose name her granddaughter had presumably taken - who was one of the earliest benefactors of another and probably nearest convent geographically to Canonsleigh, that of Buckland Minchin, in Durston, just over the border, east of Taunton in Somerset. (Curiously, there has been some confusion re the two women and their roles as benefactors; several writers have labelled the earlier Matilda de Clare as the woman who founded Canonsleigh, rather than her granddaughter, but have not noticed the time discrepancies which would make that impossible).
      Her sister in law, Margaret de Braose had funded the Nunnery of Augustinian Canononesses of the order of the Hospitallers at Aconbury and Matilda Countess of Clare, amongst her numerous other gifts to religious establishments, was involved in the establishment and funding of the convent of the Hospitaller nuns at Buckland Minchin in 1192, approximately one hundred years before that of Canonsleigh’s reformulation, but only a decade or so before the founding of Aconbury, which was also Hospitaller. Buckland had originally been formulated as a house of Augustinian canons but had been re-formed in 1186, as a result of serious crimes perpetuated by those canons. Later, the Sisters of the Order of St John – brought together at one site from several different places in England - adopted the Augustinian tenet for canonesses to rule and structure its day.
     So, it can be seen that there are hints that these west country priories may well have been linked via the networks of family related female patrons who had instigated their foundations and by interchanges between one another. Nor would it be strange for Matilda de Clare of Canonsleigh to be in possession of such an iconic medieval text as the Ancrene Wisse; the literary skills and patronage of medieval queens and their close aristocratic sisters is now well-documented. Matilda’s mother, Margaret Quincey, was amongst a cluster of women who are known to have owned books and she also held books that had been gifted to her. For instance, between the death of John de Lacy and her second marriage, Margaret was presented with Les Reules Seynt Roberd, rules for the good management of the countess's household and estates, which were probably adapted by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, from rules which he had written for the management of his own episcopal estates. Her daughter-in-law Alice Saluzza owned a copy of the Rutland Psalter; her cousin Joan de Quincey owned The Apocalypse.
     Matilda de Clare the younger was the earliest identifiable known owner of the manuscript of the Ancrene Wisse, which found its way to Canonsleigh, and we can fill out the rich contexts of her links with the Devon priory. However, the particular circumstances of her bringing the manuscript to Devon are and probably will remain unknown. Here again, one can hazard legitimate theories and at least suggest a context for the text’s presence at the priory. Matilda’s own familial networks could easily have led her not only to rural Devon but also to her own ownership of one of manuscripts of the Ancrene. Some academics studying the Ancrene Wisse believe that the ‘Corpus Christi’, (see about the surviving manuscripts of the Ancrene here) one of the very earliest of the manuscript copies, dating from the beginning of the C13, may have been meant for a single anchoress, and that two of Margaret de Braose’s sisters, Annora de Braose and Loretta de Braose may have been intended owners or readers. After Margaret’s marriage to the younger William de Braose, her sisters would have become distant kinswomen to the earlier Matilda de Clare and later on their life-stories would likely have been familiar to the younger noblewoman.
        It may have been the husband of Annora, Hugh de Mortimore, who was the patron of the first three anchoress owners of the Ancrene and his wife may have been the recipient of the first translation into French. After his death Annora herself became a recluse at Iffley in Oxfordshire.
         Loretta, Countess of Leicester, also became a recluse in Kent from 1221 to her death in 1266. Interestingly, like others of the de Brasoe family, Loretta, was linked with the south-west, particularly to Devon, as an inheritor of land; in other words she was linked to the land in spirit, if not in person. A few years after she was established as anchoress, she became involved with Buckland Minchin, for in 1227 she endowed ‘masses to be said in the ‘major ecclesia’, the larger church there, ‘which had a cemetery’. Presumably she administered her 1227 charter from her cell in Kent. One academic believes that ‘the plight of the nuns of Buckland Minchin spoke cogently to Loretta’, who was ‘one of the most high-profile, politically and socially influential of female anchorites of England during the whole of the Middle Ages.’
     In the same year Loretta gifted part of her manorial inheritance at Tawstock to Buckland Priory, for before her involvement with that priory Loretta had inherited de Braose lands there. These included (I think, but am not sure of this) both ‘Templeton’ at the Tawstock estate near Barnstaple and ‘Templeton’ just west of Tiverton, which appears at that period to have been part of the same manor. Both were linked with the Knights of the Templar.
     So, what can be said about the Ancrene Wisse at Canonsleigh? It is known that the priory held at least two copies of the Ancrene; that additions and corrections were there made to that manuscript. The Ancrene was copied and expanded many times in its early history and whilst it was at Canonsleigh was ‘worked on and corrected by a scribe who hailed from West Norfolk’. The loose pages of manuscript, expanded with several extra leaves, was bound together by an illuminated Book of Hours of the Visitation. 

The Visitation : Book of Hours (Detail) by Simon Marmion 14.88X20.00. Art Poster Print
The Visitation; Book of Hours
The additions consisted of Latin antiphones, (liturgical material which included lines in praise of St Etheldreda) and some lines in French on the subject of Jesus as lover. The jury is still out whether the Ancrene’s purpose at the priory was for use by nuns for their own devotions, or was there as only as a copy exemplar for scribes to use; certainly its many alterations seem to have been accomplished with great haste. Possibly these two functions merged, as ‘there was a need for multiple copies of the text to be made quickly’, for a perhaps rapidly expanding number of anchoresses. It seems that the Ancrene was used a kind of over-riding manual, what you might call a medieval spiritual reference-tome. As well as absorbing advice from its directive counsel, the nuns may also have kept – probably owned – an individual Book of Hours as a devotional tool. Almost perhaps a sacred equivalent to the C21 secular smart-phone, each book would have been expensively and luxuriantly made and would have contained personalised and idiosyncratic material pertinent to its user/owner: a portrait; lavishly decorated borders; extra-pages containing vernacular prayers; devotions and prayers to local saints and so on. Books of Hours were ‘intensely personal objects, carried about, when small enough, in a sleeve, or at the belt.'
     Unfortunately, other than Matilda herself, not many of the women connected with Canonsleigh during its time as Augustinian priory can be identified. However, a list of the Abbesses’ names are preserved in the Cartulary and even the names of the first Abbess and presumably those of two of her postulants survive in the archives. This document indicates that there was some to-ing and fro-ing between Lacock (Lakok) priory and Canonsleigh; Lacock, another Augustinian convent, had also been founded during the early C13 by Ela Countess of Salisbury, another link in the extended family network. The notification to Peter Quivel Bishop of Exeter from Alice, Abbess of "Lakok", in the diocese of Salisbury, together with the Lady Matilda, Countess of Gloucester and Hertford, concerns the translation of the ladies Matilda de Tablere, Juliana of Bristoll and Clemencia of Ovile [or Onile] from Lakok to Legh. Matilda de Tablere took the oath as the first Abbess of Legh or Canonsleigh on 28th October 1284, at the time the new saint Etheldreda was chosen as patron. There may be some confusion of name and role with the two Matildas; it seems that probably Matilda, the founder’s postion was as a titular Abbess to the convent. Not many years after her death another member of the Clare family also took the reins; Petronilla Clare was mentioned as Abbess in 1318.At least one other C14 noblewomen’s life-path directed her to the priory. Lady Elizabeth Courtenay, wife of Sir Hugh de Courtenay was granted an ‘exception’ to stay at the priory; what misfortune or situation may have led her there is unknown. Even if we do not know much detail about the Canonsleigh women themselves, it’s possible to sketch a cameo of the nuns’ life there. It appears that even with the help of the ample advice supplied within the pages of the Ancrene, the postulants were not always as pious or avidly loyal to their faith as their reputation alleged. Anything but, if Bishop Stapleton’s list of behavioural changes in 1314, some twenty or so years after Matilda’s death, was necessitated by the nuns’ own behaviour. But then, even though during her long widowhood, Matilda had promoted and bestowed much of her wealth on a variety of ecclesiastical houses, her own reputation as a charitable benefactor known for her devout personality has also been questioned; perhaps the postulants’ own reputation was influenced and ultimately tarnished by the conduct of their earlier founder.
     The Bishop had apparently found it necessary to reprimand the nuns and sent a letter to ‘ses cheres fiulles en Dieu’ attempting to regulate their future conduct. He has ‘heard there are many scandals’; there is ‘ un us’ – a door into the cellar, where a man brews the ‘braes’ and ‘another under the new chamber of the Abbess’ and consequently orders that these two must be blocked up by a wall of stone by the following Easter. The Bishop sent an almost identical encyclical to the Abbess of the Benedictine Polsloe Priory as to Canonsleigh’s Abbess, but the differences between the letters show that the Austin Canonsleigh recruits were under less restriction than their Polsloe comrades, because unlike them they were allowed to go and visit friends.

No lady of religion is to go and visit her friends outside the priory, but if it be once a year at the most and then for reasonable cause and by permission; and then let her have a  companion professed in the same religion, not of her own choice, but whomsoever the Prioress will assign to her and she who is once assigned to her for companion shall not be assigned the next time, so that each time a lady goes to visit her friends her companion is changed; and if she have permission to go to certain places to visit her friends, let her not go to other places without new permission. De absencia Doninarum et regressu earum. Item, when any lady of religion eats at Exeter, or in another place near by, for reasonable cause and by permission, whenever she can she ought to return the same or the following day and each time let her have a companion and a chaplain, clerk or serving-man of good repute assigned by the prioress, who shall go, remain and return with them and otherwise they shall not go; and then let them return speedily to the house, as they be commanded, and let them not go again to Exeter, wandering from house to house, as they have oftentimes done, to the dishonour of their state and of religion. De Dominabus "Wakeraustes" [i.e. vagantibus ]. Item, a lady who goes a long distance to visit her friends, in the aforesaid form, should return to the house within a month at the latest, or within a shorter space if it be assigned her by the Prioress, having regard to the distance or proximity of the place, where dwell the friends whom she is going to visit, but a longer term ought the Prioress never to give her, save in the case of death, or of the known illness of herself or of her near friends. Pena Dominarum Vagancium. And if a lady remain without for a long time or in any other manner than in the form aforesaid, let her never set foot outside the outer gate of the Priory for the next two years; and nevertheless let her be punished otherwise for disobedience, in such manner as is laid down by the rule and observances of the order of St Benet for the fault; and leave procured by the prayer of her friends ought not to excuse her from this penance 
The canonesses were also assumed to have some knowledge of Latin:
Bishop Stapeldon's interesting injunctions to Polsloe and Canonsleigh in 1319 are in French, but he seems to assume some knowledge of Latin in the nuns, for he orders that if it be necessary to break silence in places where silence is ordained, speech should be held in Latin, though not in grammatically constructed sentences, but in isolated words.
However, the postulants must have taken the Bishop’s permit too much to heart, perhaps gone gadding about the countryside and staying away for days; for in 1329 Bishop John de Grandisson sent out another rather stern injunction telling them that they must keep stricter order and that visits must be curtailed to those that could be made within one day:
 Since it is not suitable for decent women to wander about nor to mix often with gatherings of men because, especially in the case of religious women, owing to the danger to their chastity, one must be on guard the more strictly lest, casting aside the modesty appropriate to a nun as well as the moderation of their sex in an unchaste manner, they rush about with foolish people as an offence to Him to Whom they vowed of their own free will their integrity of life as well as to the shame of the religious life and a scandal to many, we therefore command, firmly enjoining you for certain reasons,by virtue of your obedience and under pain of the greater excommunication, not to allow before our visitation any nuns of your house for any reason whatever to go outside the boundaries of your convent for a distance too great to allow them to return on the same day without our special licence so that they, cut off entirely from common and worldly shows in this way, may be able to serve God more freely and, with the opportunity for unrestrained play removed, guard their hearts and bodies more diligently for Him . Given at Crediton on 9 Kal .
Within a month the Bishop sent to Canonsleigh yet again with a somewhat softer reprimand telling the nuns that they could go and visit away, but only if they were accompanied by more senior members of the community. Somewhere along the line there had obviously been an issue at the convent with free-wheeling, holidaying nuns taking liberties. Some critics believe it was that they went off to Exeter to various theatrical spectacles that were then taking place, which were anything but respectfully religious.
      But where in this apparently distinctly un-pious environment does the Ancrene Wisse fit? It seems that the text must have been highly valued by the postulants at Canonsleigh; not only did they have two copies, but much care was taken in the editing of the manuscripts. This suggests that the nuns were of more serious inclination than might initially seem. There must have been some attention paid to holy and literary matters within the community because some academics believe that one of its nuns may have composed, or contributed to a hymn of praise in Latin on the subject of Etheldreda/Aethelthryth that is included in the Canonsleigh copy. Perhaps the nuns were familiar with Latin and committed in part to the rituals and respect due to to their faith. It is also possible that there was some connection between the manuscript’s original purpose as instruction for anchoresses and its presence in the Canonsleigh community; after all there is precious little known about the priory other than its Augustinian roots. Surely it is unlikely that the Ancrene was specifically taken there as a manual for an unknown anchoress.
     Devon – and Somerset – are counties apparently not much associated with the solitary spirituality of anchoresses; yet there was a recluse ensconced in a cell at the south of the church at Axminster in 1300 and a number of female recluses were at one time or another squirrelled away in solitude, in cells somewhere in these counties. There was an anchoress living in a cell at St. Leonard’s in Exeter at the end of the C14, for in 1397 Alice Bernard was enclosed in a ‘house in the cemetery; she had a ‘book of sermons in English’ which the rector of Little Torrington left her three years later.
   Another recluse was in the city in the mid C13: 
    Soon after [Exeter] bridge was finished a troublesome situation arose. We are told in a legal record dated 1249 that a certain female hermit had shut herself up on the bridge of Exe and was obstructing traffic. Carts could not get by, to the grave damage of the city's trade. We do not know what kind of structure this thoughtless female had shut herself in to cause all this annoyance, but whatever it was the city authorities were very patient. They had complained to the justices five years earlier, and nothing had been done.
 In 1329 another Alice was a recluse based at Pilton in Barnstaple:
Licence to Alice, recluse in a certain cell cubiculo built adjoining the chapel of St Agnes in the cemetery of the parish church of Pilton, to have divine service celebrated by suitable chaplains twice a year (per biennium).

  A female recluse was held near Kingsbridge in the mid C15:
[A] Commission to enclose Margaret Holt, widow of William, as an anchorite in a house pertaining to the chapel of our Lady of Langewyll, at Dodbrooke, Kingsbridge

Most interesting perhaps in light of the familial connections between Canonsleigh and Buckland Minchin is that another anchorite cell in the ‘land of the hermits’, may have been established during the C12 at the now deserted medieval village near Badgworthy on Exmoor. Granted to the Hospitallers, it was at the time attached to Buckland Priory. Although this was presumably for a male recluse, the possibility that the Buckland communities included anchorites at all makes it feasible that individual nuns could also have become anchoresses. One historian thought that a cave on the Gower peninsula called ’Minchin Hole’ was at one time possessed by the nuns of Buckland Minchin and used as a place of retreat by an anchoress, but the accuracy of this has been disputed.  
     Although there appears to be no evidence that any women living as anchoresses were attached as such to the Canonsleigh priory, the Cartulary does indicate that private oratories were provided there for several women, including Abbess Lucy Warre at the beginning of the C15; this suggests that some solitude was part of the priory’s daily ritual. 
   The provenance of most of the copies of the Ancrene is not established, but it is clear that there was female patronage involved in its early circulation. The Canonsleigh copy, (sometimes called the Cotton Cleopatra C manuscript), was copied by three scribes. Was one of these a woman? Traditionally, although the author of the text has been assumed male, some modern critics consider that it is not inconceivable that women, such as anchoresses themselves could have taken part in its writing, or copying; highly skilled female scribes were known to be working at other priories, such as Nunaminster. One critic believes that Cleopatra C may have been ‘copied by ... one of those clerically trained anchoresses, then corrected and expanded by the author himself’. Medieval nunneries often served as educational establishments where girls were taught to read and studied Latin and the vernacular French, or later on, English. Daughters of noble families boarded at both Cornworthy priory and at Lacock, both of which had connections with Canonsleigh. Other priories in the area may have associated with Canonsleigh, interacting with its nuns in their educational and literary endeavours and transferring nuns between establishments: 
     As may readily be imagined, the position of Lady Superior of any one of the three religious houses founded for women would be aspired to by ladies of the more important families in the county, desiring seclusion from the world. Of Polsloe, Dr. Oliver recovered a by no means full list of fifteen Prioresse; of the shorter history of Canon's Leigh Priory only nine Abbesses are known. The dignity of Abbess attached to the latter house doubtless proved an attraction, and we find at the dissolution of Canon's Leigh Priory, among the list of recipients of pensions, many familiar names of well-known Devonshire families. Of Cornworthy Priory, Dr. Oliver gives only eight Prioresses. Three more have fortunately been recovered, and, as the nunneries must have had many interests in common (there is an instance in the year 1416 of one of the nuns of Cornworthy obtaining licence to join the community of Canonsleigh). 

    Polsloe wasn’t far away and just over the border there was Buckland Minchin Priory, in Durston near Taunton, whose nuns were was of the order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John, but who, like the sisters at Canonsleigh adopted the rule of the Augustinian canon to structure their everyday life. At the beginning of the C13 there were three girls being supported at Buckland Minchin. Women were probably being educated in these communities, becoming proficient at reading and writing. A seal from Cornworthy priory from the C15 depicts such a scene:

It is oval, about 3 inches by 2 inches, and is the same as the imperfect drawing in Oliver's Monasticon; the representation is that of a female figure seated, holding up a rod in the right hand, in the left a book. In front, to dexter, stands a girl receiving instruction; the background is a lattice or network, and the whole is placed under a canopy with central dome. (The figures are supposed to represent St. Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read). The inscription around the seal reads: S. Prior is Et. Conventus. Sancte. Marie. De. Totonia

And there is even a cameo recording an episode concerning familial disputes re the financial implications of two of the little girls’ education at Cornworthy:

The most melancholy case of all has been preserved to us owing to the fact that the nuns, goaded to desperation, sought help from the Chancellor. About 1470 Thomasyn Dynham, Prioress of Cornworthy, made petition to the effect that Laurens Knyghte, gentleman, had agreed with Margaret Wortham the late Prioress, that she should take his two daughters "to teche them to scole," viz. Elizabeth, aged seven years, and "Jahne," aged ten years, at the costs and charges of Laurens, who was to pay 20 d. a week for them. So at Cornworthy they remained during the life of Margaret, to the great costs and charges and impoverishing of the said poor place, by the space of five years and more, until the money due amounted to รบ21. 13 s. 4 d., "the which sum is not contented ne paid, nor noo peny thereof." Laurense meanwhile departed this life, leaving his wife "Jahne" executrix, and Jahne, unnatural mother that she was, married again a certain John Barnehous and utterly refused to pay for her unhappy daughters. One is uncertain which to pity most, Thomasyn Dynham, a new Prioress left with this incubus on her hands, or Elizabeth and Jane Knyghte, trying hard to restrain their appetites and not to grow out of their clothes under her justly incensed regard. Jane was by now grown up and marriageable according to the standards of the time and it is tantalising not to know the end of the dilemma...

   Though there is nothing comparable from Canonsleigh its Cartulary does refer to a manuscript held at the Bodleian library containing some poems on the education of children, which is supposed to have come from the priory.
   It is perhaps unlikely that more specific information about the Ancrene Wisse’s long period of mysterious presence in Devon will be forthcoming. Neither perhaps will anyone be able to ascertain much more about the real identities embodied within the intriguing names of the convent’s Abbesses. There are tantalising little bit-bits, which do provide clues and can begin to direct further research into a more or less ignored, but probably richly productive, aspect of the county’s past. Details of those long lost prioresses and Abbesses’ lives illuminate hidden treasures of Devon’s unknown religious and literary legacy.
   There is the letter of confirmation by Jane or Joan Arundell of her appointment as Abbess in 1449:

In the name of owre Lord, Amen. I suster Johan Arundell, mynchyn of the Monastery of Synt Johan the Apostell & Evangeliste & Etheldrede the Virgyn, of Canonlegh, & the Order of Seynt Austyn, in the Diocesis of Excet', Order & Rule of the holy Fader Seynt Austyn, in the saide Monastery of Canonlegh expresse professyd, yn laful age ysette, electe yn Abbasse of the said Monastery, & ofte witli instance & grete requeste yn the party of my susteryn & hiynchyns Johan, willyng not to withstande ne contradie the will of Almyghty Godde, to the worshipp of the Blessid Trinite, Fader, Sone, & Holy Gust, also to the worshipp of Seynt Johan Apostell & Evangel iste & Seynt. Etheklrede the holy Virgyn, yn whos namys & worshipp owre Conventuall Churche above saide worthely & holily is halwid, beyng yet ynne the tyme of Laws, as I am enformed, to geve my consent a fore saide, to the forsaide Ecleccion by my Susteris above saide of Me made, I consente by this present wryting.

   Time ticks relentlessly on and one document presents a quick slice of patronal history of the priory, from the years of its refounding by Matilda de Clare right through several centuries to the period when Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s mother used to stay at her manor in Sampford Peverell just a few crow-miles west along the muddy trackways:

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and Salisbury (the "king-maker"), appears to have been founder and patron in right of his wife Anne Beauchamp, ultimately heir of her brother, Henry, Duke of Warwick, himself heir of Isabel Despencer, by her second husband, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick: this Isabel being sister and heir of Richard Despencer, Earl of Gloucester, great-grandson of Edward, second son of Hugh le Despencer the younger, and heir of his mother Eleanor, eldest sister and coheir of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hereford, son and heir of Gilbert, son and heir of Matilda de Clare, the foundress of the abbey. On the attainder of the king-maker, who only survived Alice Parker's election by one year, having been slain at the battle of Barnet in 1471, his possessions coming to the crown, King Henry VII. became founder, and as such gave conge d'elire on the next election of an abbess in 1488, when Alice Parker died, and again in 1499, after the death of Joan Stubbe

    Presumably the Ancrene Wisse had long left its Canonsleigh repository by March 1470, when Christine, prioress of ‘Legh wrote to the Bishop telling him that Abbess Joan Arundell ‘the last Abbess has died and has been buried, that Alice Parker has been elected as her successor’. In this document ‘Christina also requests confirmation of the election’.

   Just a hundred years later, when Anne Dowriche had recently completed her long poem about the religious wars in France, the religious tenor of the county had completely changed, and Protestantism had been established, in keeping with that of the whole country. Canonsleigh’s fine priory had been dissolved in 1539, its last handful of postulants, including Elizabeth Carewe, Agnes Percy, Elizabeth Chudeley, Mary Pomeroy and Phillupe Fortescue, had all dispersed into the community, with full pension rights.

    Now, we can wander along the Tiverton canal towards the abandoned lands of the priory and try to imagine what we will of that forgotten past. Other than soaking in the sun and enjoying the still pleasant rural views our walks may well be futile.

   It is only evaporating-into-thin-air, once half-heard echoey sound-waves reverberating for ever round the lost inner spaces of the priory sanctuaries that could reveal to us the enigmatic secrets of the iconic manuscript that once imparted its grace upon the holy community of medieval nuns.

See also 

(This piece is written with the support of a number of sources, books and on the web. As there are so many I have not identified them in the blog, but any thing that is not mine is set in italics).

copyright: Julie Sampson

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