Thursday, 14 August 2014

The break from Arrouaise: 1170-1188

Harrold Priory was originally founded as a 'daughter' house of the abbey of Arrouaise, near Calais in northern France.  From its foundation it appears to have been successful, attracting canons (priests), monks and nuns to its walls.  But a generation later its character had changed: Harrold appears now to be purely a nunnery with a prioress in charge, and it wanted its independence.  Following the death of Abbot Gervase the order had seemed to have lost control over its houses and was unsure of its direction.

The Arrouasian order resisted the call for autonomous houses but Harrold insisted that the distances involved made the control of their house from France impractical.  Other abbeys and nunneries in England in the 12th century argued the same, although many found little difficulty in being managed from a distance in this way.

Missenden Abbey as it is today
A compromise solution was suggested, that the Bedfordshire priory should instead be governed by the Abbey of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire (two days travelling away).  Harrold's prioress Gila undertook to gain the agreement of Arrouaise to this.  Details of this are recorded in the Great Missenden Cartulary (a collection of legal documents now in the British Library).  It was suggested that Harrold pay Arrouaise half a mark in rent to sweeten the arrangement.

Later, Abbot Walter of Arrouaise argued in the church courts that Missenden had obtained a forged charter from the Pope, and that any agreements made in respect of Harrold's changing status were null and void.  However, he maintains that Harrold should be subservient to Missenden.  Missenden, in turn, agreed to allow Harrold its independence in respect of a payment of half a mark - an agreement brokered by the bishop of Lincoln on 18 October 1188.

Thenceforth the Priory of Harrold came to be an independent house of nuns, living under the rule of St Augustine and answering to the Bishop of Lincoln.  The Augustinian rule was effectively no change for the nuns of Harrold - as Arrouasians they would have lived under it in any case.  The main change was that they were now effectively self-governed, something that would persist until the dissolution in the 16th century.

Some of the buildings of Great Missenden Abbey survive to this day: the site is currently owned by Buckingham New University and is run as a conference centre.


The Cartulary of Missenden Abbey
Thompson, Sally (1991), Women religious: The founding of English nunneries after the Norman Conquest, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Venarde, Bruce L. (1997), Women's monasticism and medieval society: nunneries in France and England, 890-1215, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

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