Medieval nun

History - Hampole Priory

At the accession of King Stephen (1135) the manor of Hampole was held by William de Clairfait who, jointly with his wife Avice de Tanais, was associated with the founding of a priory for nuns at Hampole.

The period of Stephen's reign (1135 - 1154) was a time of anarchy in England, owing to the rival claim to the throne of his cousin, the Empress Matilda. On the death of her father, Henry I, who had decreed that Matilda should inherit the throne, Stephen usurped her power and civil war resulted which lasted until Stephen's death. Whilst most Norman barons were divided in their support for Stephen and Matilda, other nobles took advantage of the disorder to wage war upon their neighbours and at the same time oppress the poorer citizens.

Despite the nineteen years of unrest, the period was one of astonishing activity in the building of churches and monasteries. Many of these endowments were allegedly acts of contrition by landowners seeking to make amends for the havoc caused to the lives of ordinary people caught up in the conflicts of a time when "men said openly that Christ and His saints were asleep".


Whether the founding of Hampole Priory was just such an attempt to make amends for some misdeeds by William de Clairfait is not known, but from the outset generous gifts of property were made to the Priory. Even so, the Priory of Hampole was never wealthy.

Provision for the wealth of nunneries was always below that of male monasteries since the founders of female religious houses were usually of lower rank than the royal or baronial families who founded monasteries for men. This accorded with the lower status afforded to women under the Normans than that they had enjoyed under Saxon/Danish rule.

By a decree of Pope Adain (1156) Hampole Nuns were required to follow the Benedictine Rule. However by the end of the 12th century, it was common for many newly founded nunneries in the north to claim that they followed the Cistercian rule. This was perhaps because Cistercian (male) monasteries were exempt from paying tythes.

No doubt suspicious of the poverty of nunneries, as well as problems of discipline, the Cistercian monks refused to recognise the claim of the nunneries until an instruction was given by the pope that the monks should accept the nuns into their order.

Despite this, contact between male Cistercian houses and nunneries was actively discouraged, and in 1267 the guardianship of Hampole Priory was recorded as being under William de Bardney, a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Whitby.

Although deriving income from the gift of rectories (and therefore the tythes) of the churches of Adwick, Marr and High Melton, as well as the revenues from estates at Hampole, Moorhouse, Clayton and elsewhere, the priory remained poor relative to the incomes of the great abbeys of Yorkshire.

At its dissolution on 19th November 1539, the income of Hampole Priory was given as £63 annually, less than one-thirteenth of that of Yorkshire's richest monastery, the Benedictine Abbey of St. Mary's, York.

On the surrender of the priory to Thomas Leigh (a clerk of the Chancery), the last prioress (Isabella Arthington, aged 53) and her eighteen colleagues received pensions and were left to fend for themselves or seek shelter with relatives. The prioress' annual pension was £10. The other nuns, aged between 66 and 19, were awarded amounts between £3. 6s. 8d and £2.

The fact that the nunnery was amongst the last to be suppressed was due, it appears, to a report of Sir Brian Hastings, who, after his visit to the Priory in April 1537, assured Cromwell that the nuns of Hampole were "of good fame". Although the prioress obtained in March 1538 a promise of exemption from suppression, it proved to be a mere delaying of the inevitable.

An excavation of the site of Hampole Priory, undertaken in 1937 by the Rev. Professor C. E. Whiting, revealed that some of the foundations of priory buildings lie beneath the village green. However, nothing now remains in situ above ground of the nunnery which once contained the tomb and shrine of one of the greatest mystics of the 14th century, Richard Rolle.