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On Ministering to ‘Certayne Devoute and Religiouse Women’: Bishop Fox and the Benedictine Nuns of Winchester Diocese on the Eve of the Dissolution

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Joan Greatrex*
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada


It was not until after almost thirty years in the royal service and on the episcopal bench that Richard Fox retired to Winchester and turned his full attention to his pastoral office. There, at the age of sixty-eight and afflicted with failing eyesight, he set out to reform his flock. In a letter to Cardinal Wolsey he admitted that his mind had been ‘trowled nyght and daye with other mens enormites and vices’, and that he was anxious to ‘do soom satisfaccion for xxviij years negligence’. Ten years later there was a modest undertone of relief in his report to the Cardinal:

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1990

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1 P. S. and Allen, H. M., eds, Letters of Richard Fox, 1486-1527 (Oxford, 1929), pp. 823 Google Scholar; the letter was written on 23 April in the year 1516, according to the editors, and therefore just before Fox resigned the Privy Seal. In a letter to Wolsey the following year he refers to his negligence of thirty years and to the two sees of Exeter and of Bath and Wells which he had held but never visited, ibid., p. 93. The phrase quoted in the title of this paper is from Fox’s introduction to die RuleofSeyntBenel and is also to be found in Letters, p. 87.

2 Ibid., p. 151,18 January [1527].

3 Ibid., p. 150, from the same letter as the preceding.

4 Ibid., p. 88.

5 That is, of Hartley Wintney, the only Cistercian house for women in Winchester diocese, founded in the late twelfth century.

6 Allen, Letters, p. 88.

7 Ibid.

8 BL press mark G.10245 and Oxford, Bodleian, Arch. A.d.15.

9 Allen, Letters, pp. 86-7.

10 Ibid., p. 87.

11 Oxford, New College, MS 3691, fol. 86r.

12 Ibid., fol. 8or.

13 That is St Mary’s Winchester; Goodman, A. W., ed., Registrum Henrici Woodlock Diocesis Wintoniensis, AD 1305-16, CYS, 44 (1941), pp. 51523 Google Scholar, where both Latin and French versions are given.

14 But the readings in the refectory also appear to have been in Latin: Allen, Letters p. 87.

15 Lapidge, M., ‘Aethelwold as Scholar and Teacher’, in Yorke, B., ed., Bishop Aethelwold, His Career and Influence (Bury St. Edmunds, 1988), pp. 1012 Google Scholar.

16 This is true of all the nunneries with only one or two exceptions; see Power, E., Medieval English Nunneries c.1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, 1922), pp. 2404 Google Scholar.

17 See Ker, N. R., ed., Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, Royal Historical Society (London, 1964)Google Scholar, for these manuscripts of which five were Latin psalters; the Wintney Rule is BL, MS Cotton Claudius D. III, and has been edited by A. Schröer, Der Winteney—Version [sic] der Regula S. Benedicti, lateinisch undenglisch (Halle, 1888).

18 In Three Middle-English Versions of the Rule of Si. Benet, EETS 120 (1902). Both of these versions are incomplete as some chapters have been omitted and others rearranged.

19 Wiltshire Record Office, Register of Ralph Erghum, fol. 32V.

20 Baskerville, G., English Monks and the Suppression of the Monasteries (London, 1937), p. 208 Google Scholar.

21 Nuns at Barking were reading English Bibles in 1400; see Deanesley, M., The Lollard Bible and other Medieval Biblical Versions (Cambridge, 1920), p. 336 Google Scholar. Also, in the 1440s Bishop Alnwick addressed English injunctions to his nuns; see A. H. Thompson, ed., Visitations of Religious Houses in the Diocese of Lincoln, Records of Visitations Held by William Alnwick, Bishop of Lincoln, AD 1436-1449, CYS, 24 (1919) and 33 (1927).

22 The date has been assigned in W. A. Jackson, F. S. Ferguson, and Pantzer, K. F., eds, A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland and Ireland, 1475-1640, Bibliographical Society (London, 1986) 1 Google Scholar, item 3305; the Fox translation is item 1859. In his Bibliografia dela Regla Benedictina (Montserrat, 1937), Dom A M. Albareda lists both editions, the former on p. 308 (undated) and the latter on pp. 307-8.

23 See n. 18, above. It is worth noting that the English is as ‘modern’ as that used by Fox.

24 More’s Journal, which includes his expense accounts, has been edited by E. S. Fegan, The Journal of Prior William More, Worcestershire Historical Society, 32 (1914); see p. 240 for the list of copies of the Rule.

25 Knowles, RO, 3 (1971) p. 63. Additional references on pp. 92 and 122 are contradictory, but on p. 91 he refers to W. A. Pantin, ‘Abbot Kidderminster and Monastic Studies’, DR, 47 (1929), in which (pp. 209–10) Kidderminster’s writings on the Rule are quoted from Thomas Tanner’s Bibliolheca BritannicoHihemica (London, 1748), p. 450. I am grateful to Mrs Angela Smith for bringing some of these points to my attention.

26 Neither of the copies of his translation (see n. 8 above) has been paginated; references are therefore given according to chapter numbers. The punctuation by means of diagonal strokes has been retained.

27 In the prologue and passim.

28 Cap. 3.

29 Cap. 64. References to the Rule other than to the Fox edition are to the edition by McCann, Abbot Justin, The Rule of Saint Benedict in Latin and English (London, 1952)Google Scholar; this quotation is on p. 144.

30 See Knowles, RO, 2, pp. 249-50.

31 This is Fox’s only reference to subsequent legislation superseding the Rule; but see n. 45 below.

32 References to the 1515 Romsey election may be found in J. S. Brewer, ed., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, 2 (1864), items 935,942, and 1008. The others in the registers are Romsey (1502), Hampshire Record Office Ai/17, fols 21r-24v: Wherwell (1519), Ai/20 fols 2or-24r; Romsey (1523), Ai/21 fols 54r-62r; Nunnaminster (1527), ibid., fols 13or-9v.

33 McCann, Rule, p. 26.

34 Psalm 21 (22).7.

35 That is Prime, Terce, Sext, and None, and also Compline.

36 Cap. 18, McCann, Rule, p. 63.

37 That is Psalms 7, 8, and 9 up to verse 20, exactly as Benedict had intended.

38 McCann, Rule, p. 84.

39 Miss Power has no reference co nuns weaving, and suggests that they frequently employed others to provide for their needs; see Nunneries, p. 255.

40 Ibid., pp. 261-84 and 568-81.

41 In 1536 at Saint Mary’s Winchester there were twenty-six young girls living in the abbey with the twenty-six nuns. Their names are listed in VCHHants, 2 (1903), p. 125.

42 Goodman, Reg. Woodlock, pp. 758-9.

43 For example, in cap. 64.

44 Since the minimum age for profession was sixteen, and the noviciate normally lasted a year (as in cap. 58 of the Rule), the age for presentation and entry was not to be below fifteen; but see Power, Nunneries, pp. 25-9 for exceptions to this regulation.

45 As to abstinence from flesh meat (caps 36 and 40), Fox follows Benedict without comment or allusion to any mitigations such as those sanctioned by papal legislation in the thirteenth century; see Knowles, RO, 2, p. 359.

46 Benedict (and Fox) refers to the Collations or Conferences of Cassian; one wonders if these readings were in English.

47 The question is provocative but unanswerable. Miss Power sums up the accepted view of the general decline of learning among nuns in the later Middle Ages in Nunneries, pp. 240-6. However, two facts are worth noting: Elia Pitte is named as librarian at Nunnaminster in 1501 (VCH Hants, 2, p. 124), the only known instance of this office among nuns (Power, Nunneries, p. 241); injunctions to Romsey in 1507 and 1523 reveal worldliness and lack of discipline but not mental accidie (H. G. D. Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey: an Account of the Benedictine House of Nuns with Notes on the Parish Church and Town AD 907-1118 (Winchester, 1906), pp. 228-32,244).

48 McCann, Rule, p. 127. Since Fox’s nuns were not issued with writing equipment it seems reasonable to infer that few of them could write; see Power, Nunneries, p. 277.

49 See Power, Nunneries, pp. 341-93 (and esp. pp. 368-9) where this topic is treated in great detail.

50 The date of the foundation was March 1517, less than two months after the publication of his Rule.

51 Professor McConica’s phrase in T. H. Aston, gen. ed., The History of the University of Oxford, in progress, 3, McConica, J., ed., The Collegiate University (Oxford, 1986), p. 657 Google Scholar.

52 Ibid.

53 See Dobson, B., ‘The Bishops of late medieval England as Intermediaries between Church and State’, in Genet, J.-P., ed., État et Église dans la genèse de l’état moderne (Madrid, 1986), pp. 22738 Google Scholar.

54 Once again Power, Nunneries is the best general reference.

55 Hampshire Record Office, Ai/21, fol. 6gv.

56 H. Chitty, ed., Registra Stephani Gardiner et Johannis Voynet, Episcoporum Wintoniensium [1531-55], CYS, 37 (1930), p. 39; Liveing, Romsey, finds twenty-six nuns in 1538 (p. 237).

57 CUL, MSMm. 3. 13, fol. 3r.

58 Details are given in VCH Hants, 2, p. 151 (Wintney), pp. 136-7 (Wherwell), pp. 125-6 (Nunnaminster), p. 131 (Romsey).

59 See Liveing, Romsey, pp. 250–4.

60 The originals of these wills are in the Hampshire Record Office, B1547 no 98 and Bi 570 no 251; in the former, the five beneficiaries are each called ‘sister’, and were all present at the 1527 election (see n. 32 above), and, in the latter, three of the names can be identified in the election list of 1529, which is printed in F. T. Madge and H. Chitty, eds., Registrimi Thome Wolsey, Cardinali! Ecclesie Wintoniensis Administrions (1529-30), CYS, 32 (1926), p. 19. See also, J. Paul ‘Dame Elizabeth Shelley, Last Abbess of St Mary’s Abbey, Winchester’, in Hampshire Field Club Proceedings, 23, pt 2 (1965), pp. 60-71; I owe this reference to Mrs Barbara Carpenter-Turner.

61 See MRHEW, p. 286 for the Franciscans, and, for the Bridgettines, A.J. Collins, ed., The Bridgettine Breviary of Syon Abbey, HBS, 96 (1969), p. v.

62 McCann, Rule, p. 160 (cap. 72).

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On Ministering to ‘Certayne Devoute and Religiouse Women’: Bishop Fox and the Benedictine Nuns of Winchester Diocese on the Eve of the Dissolution
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