Medieval nuns have traditionally been given short shrift in English scholarship. All too often, they’ve been dismissed as pale imitators of their male counterparts. This isn’t a view I share. In fact, there’s a mountain of evidence showing that nuns were a vibrant and successful component of monastic life in medieval England. A shining example is Denny Abbey, Cambridgeshire.
The monastery has a fascinating history and between the 12th and 16th centuries was successively occupied by three different religious orders: Benedictine monks, followed by Knights Templar and finally Franciscan nuns, or as they are also known, the Poor Clares.
They took their name from St Clare (d.1253), who founded a religious order deeply influenced by St Francis of Assisi. Like Franciscan friars, they wore distinctive grey-brown habits and lived a life dedicated to poverty. But unlike their brethren who went out into the world to minister to Christ’s poor, the Clares lived a strictly cloistered life, their only interaction with the indigent was via the charity distributed at their gatehouses. Given the order’s name it might come as something of a surprise to hear that its most enthusiastic supporters were often the poshest of the posh.
Denny was no exception, having as its founder Mary St Pol, the countess of Pembroke. A deeply pious widow, she had ambitions to live among the company of holy nuns and in 1333 she received papal approval to do so. Her plans received a boost when the king granted her in perpetuity the empty monastery at Denny, vacated a quarter of a century earlier due to the suppression of the Knights Templar. By 1339, a community of nuns was settled at the site, the pope subsequently issuing an indulgence granting spiritual privileges, such as remission from harsh penances, to benefactors who visited the abbey on the feasts of St Clare and various other saints.
The monastery’s church, originally built for the Benedictines 200 years earlier and then modified by the Templars, was extended, making space for the stalls where the 40 or so nuns gathered to say the services that punctuated their day. The 12th-century nave was divided into two storeys, the upper floor proving apartments for the countess of Pembroke, who could watch in comfort the services celebrated below through a specially built window, or “pew”. She died in 1377 and was buried before the high altar of the church wearing the habit of a Poor Clare. The nuns remembered their founder in their daily prayers.
A cloister with a garden at its centre was located to the north of the church, and at its northern end was the refectory where the nuns ate together as a community. Although battered over the centuries, it remains largely intact vividly evoking the grandeur of the monastery, the in situ tiled pavement providing a rare glimpse of its long lost decoration. Archaeological excavations unearthed fragments of the 14th-century stained glass that once filled the abbey’s windows and also uncovered intriguing evidence of the nuns diet. The nuns may have been Poor by name, but this didn’t necessarily extend to their foodstuffs. The fruits consumed by the nuns were every bit as luxurious and expensive as those scoffed in aristocratic households.
This comes as no surprise when you realise that the Denny nuns, like their monastic sisters at convents across England, and indeed Europe, were from the upper strata of society. The Denny community largely consisted of the daughters of the East Anglian gentry, though at the end of the 14th century their number also included Thomasine Philpot, daughter of the Lord Mayor of London. Most of the nuns had a genuine monastic vocation. However, not all were there willingly, convents often used as refuges (or dumping grounds) for the unmarriagable daughters of the elite. In 1535 six Denny nuns tearfully begged the commissioners of Henry VIII to be released from their vows.
The abbesses of Denny cut a substantial figure in local society. Abbess Joan Keteryche, for example, was a kinswoman of John Paston, the Norfolk lawyer, gentleman and famous letterwriter, and in 1459 wrote to him asking for alms for Denny. The nuns were occasionally in need of such friends in high place. For example a legal spat with a local gent at the end of the 15th century left the monastery seriously out of pocket.
The religious welfare of the nuns was entrusted to the fellows of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and resident chaplains (who lived in strict separation from the nuns) sang the daily Mass. This didn’t mean that the nuns lacked religious agency of status. Noble ladies from across the realm sought the spiritual counsel of the Denny community, and the monastery was among the many religious houses graced with a visit by Margery Kempe, the 15th-century pilgrim and mystic. Her trip didn’t get off to the best of starts, Margery missing the ferry across the watery landscape surrounding the abbey. Whether this occasioned one of her frequent bouts of “boisterous weeping” isn’t recorded.
Men and women entrusted their spiritual salvation to the nuns, leaving bequests to the monastery in return for prayers for their souls. Its patronage circle extended as far as northern England, Agnes Stapleton, a Yorkshire gentlewoman, making a bequest to Denny in 1448. Other patrons included Sir Richard Sutton, one of the founders of Brasenose College, Oxford, who bequeathed £2 (believe me, that was quite a sum back then) to the abbey in 1524
Intellectual life at Denny also appears to have been lively. The nuns entered into a correspondence with Erasmus, one of the greatest thinkers of Renaissance Europe. Dame Elizabeth Throckmorton, who was elected abbess in 1512, even owned one of Erasmus’s works in an English translation made by William Tyndale, who also translated the New Testament into English, an accomplishment that led to his execution in Antwerp for heresy.
But Dame Elizabeth was no supporter of Protestantism. Religious life came to an end at Denny in 1539. This was something that the redoubtable abbess could not tolerate. She therefore retired to her family manor at Coughton Court, Warkwickshire, where in the company other Denny nuns, she continued to wear the habit of the Poor Clares and live according to the rule of the order. Medieval nuns were a force to be reckoned with until the very end.
More about life in a convent in the Middle Ages and up to the Dissolution: Anchored in the past: Anchorwycke and the nuns who suffered there.