Hinchingbrooke Priory

The History of Huntingdon

Hinchingbrooke Priory, or rather the Benedictine Priory of St. James in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, UK

The Priory of St James at Huntingdon


Some believe that Hinchingbrooke Priory originates from an earlier settlement of a Benedictine nunnery of the 12th century at Eltisley, which was destroyed. According to John Leland (1506-1552, working for King Henry VIII, recording all religious houses, published 1710), a nunnery where the body of Pandonia the Scottish Virgin was laid to rest next to a well. She was apparently the daughter of the King of Scotland, and fled to a relation who was the prioress of a nunnery at Eltisley, four miles from St Neots (external website in new window). On dying she was buried near the well which then became known as St Pandoria’s Well. Her remains were moved into Eltisley Church during 1344, approved and funded by Sir Richard, parish priest there. Leland claims Eltisley was destroyed necessitating their move to the site we now call Hinchingbrooke, but was called Priory of St James outside Huntingdon up to the 15th Century, only changing to Hinchingbrooke Priory for the last century of its existence.

This was only ever a small group never known to number above ten nuns with a prioress, and possible a priest living possibly in the old gate lodge, or nearby. Despite starting out a relatively poor house they managed to stay for over 460 years. Over the centuries they slowly acquired various incomes.

William de Eynesford, 1 sheaf of corn from each acre of his estate in Great Staughton. Confirmed by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1186 and 1198.

William the Lion, holder of the Honour of Huntingdon donated lands during the 12th century.

King John in 1199 sent 15shillings as rent due from 60 acres of meadow outside the priory gate.

And by the time of the dissolution of monasteries in 1536 the priory owned

  • 90 acres of arable land in open fields in Hinchingbrooke and Huntingdon.
  • 20 acres of pasture called the Vineyard
  • Profit of 20 pennies from the courts of Huntingdon
  • An enclosure containing a dovecote

Other lands in Huntingdonshire were in:

  • Great Stukeley
  • Houghton
  • Ellington
  • Alconbury
  • Little Paxton
  • Hail Weston
  • Waresley

Along with property in the counties of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Rutland.

Construction work of some kind was happening on the site during 1210, as Henry 3rd gave permission for two oaks to be given from the forest of Sapley, (it is possible this is the timber found in the Priory knave), along with some funding. And again in 1307 Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln contributed towards the works being carried out. So the site is slowly developing into a fully equipped nunnery, from the remains of the Norman Church which is thought to have been on the site before their arrival.

Additional income was also being raised by having well to do widows to stay until death in exchange for a lump sum of monies. The prioress took in Ambilia de Alnestone, (modern spelling is Elstow), but unfortunately it was not an equitable arrangement, with Ambilia taking legal action after being evicted by the Prioress. She recovered the use of her room, but not the endowment.

Records of some of the other troubles to befall the group have survived time. In 1359 the records of Lincoln show Bishop Gynwell setting penance for an erring nun there, to be last in the choir and chapter, on Fridays to fast with only bread and water, and to be served her meals on a bare table. We must bear in mind that the nuns generally came from a gentile background, with staff to do menial chores and wait table, cook etc. Sometimes punishment would include being sent to another convent, in 1441 Bishop Alnwick advises the Prioress of Ankerwyke, Clemence Medford, that she should not admit that nun of Hinchingbrooke into her house, or to live among the other nuns. It seems he feared her wickedness would contaminate the order.

In 1349 the Black Death wreaked havoc in the county, claiming the life of Isabel de Ulleswit, prioress at the time. 1425 sees the prioress complaining that the inhabitants from Huntingdon entered the grounds making off with some of her cattle, two of her servants, and behaving in a war like manner. The cause of the disturbance is not noted, but the perpetrators covered a number of the town tradesmen: 2 glovers, a fisher, a smith, a barber, a butcher, a sawyer, a fuller, 4 herdsmen, a tailor, a skinner, a cordwainer, a chapman, a hosier, and a chandler.

1415 the Prioress of Hinchingbrooke wins a lawsuit over tithes. The confusion arising from the fact that the patronage of St Peters Church and St Michael’s Church originally belonged to the Priory of Huntingdon, but they later passed into the control of the Prioress of Hinchingbrooke; St Michael’s apparently becoming a chapel of St Peters in the meantime. The Prioress occasionally during the 14th century leased St Peters and its chapel of St Michael to the rector of St Andrews; this leading to the confusion over tithes which the prioress successfully challenged.

Documents alluding to the end of the priory also survive. One dated 16th October 1535 with the remains of a seal marked A.W. for Alice Wylton the prioress at the time shows her demising land in Hemington in favour of Edward Montagu. Also in 1535 as the prioress lay dying Dr Leigh valued the priory and its contents, taking an inventory of all its goods, and ordering the coffers sealed until Cromwell's decision on its fate was known. This is Thomas Cromwell Earl of Essex working on behalf of Henry 8th on the dissolution of monasteries. Its end came in 1536, when it was closed and the order dissolved, as were most religious houses with a value of under £200, Hinchingbrooke was valued at £17 1s 4d, and as having only 3 nuns and a prioress. The building now lay dormant until 1538, when Richard Cromwell (Williams), is granted Hinchingbrooke along with other monastic spoils of the dissolution, including nearby Ramsey Abbey (external website in new window).

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