Tuesday, 2 September 2014


The endowments and gifts provided by a nun's family when she joined the community would cover a fairly modest lifestyle.  The sums were also important to the maintenance of the buildings and to providing charity to all-comers.  For although nunneries and monasteries were largely closed communities, for centuries they fed the poor and tended to the sick.  They also provided shelter for travelers, all part of their vocation and implicit in the 'Rules' of St Benedict and (in Harrold's case) St Augustine.

Pilgrims were a frequent sight on the roads
of medieval England, and would expect
hospitality from the religious houses they
passed by.
The nuns would have hoped and expected wealthy visitors to pay towards their keep, but they could not insist on this, and they could turn nobody away.  While many monastic communities were deliberately built in remote areas (like hermits, they would try and shut themselves away from the world), the Bedfordshire houses at Harrold, Elstow and Chicksands were all on busy medieval roads.

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries the nuns of Harrold had to plead poverty, citing their duty to "maintain great and expensive hospitality" through being close by the public road.  At this time one of the Bedford to Northampton roads passed through Pavenham and crossed the Great Ouse at Harrold bridge. According to the Viatores, at least some of this road was Roman in origin, and stretched back to Biggleswade. When it reached the Chellington and Carlton area it would have linked up with another former Roman road linking Wellingborough (a busy medieval market town), Irchester and Fenny Stratford on the old Watling Street in what is now Milton Keynes.  Apart from the wealthy, pilgrims and official travelers Harrold would have had to provide for the poor and homeless of the area for nearly four hundred years.

It is interesting to note that nearby Lavendon Abbey cited the same ruinous costs of providing hospitality to those coming along the high roads as a reason for financial hardship in the community. Although there were monastic communities at various time in Bedford, Northampton and Wellingborough, as well as in Lavendon, Harrold would have been the only provider of charity in a locality including Chellington, Carlton, Stevington, Odell and Sharnbrook.  With rich farmland and rising temperatures in the early medieval period, the population of this part of Bedfordshire boomed, with most of the local churches having to build new chapels and add aisles in the 13th and 14th centuries.  This growth stopped in about 1350 with the arrival of the Black Death.

Who was available to care for the sick at this time?  In the absence of any formal medical care it would have probably fallen to the nuns of Harrold Priory.   Chellington, just across the river from the priory, had been a busy and prosperous village up until this period, and there is speculation that the population was decimated by the Black Death or plague, with survivors moving to surrounding villages.

  • William Page (editor) (1912), A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3, Victoria County History, pp.63-68
  • Power, Eileen (2010), Medieval English Nunneries: C1275 to 1535, Cambridge University Press
  • Viatores (1964), Roman roads in the south-east midlands, Victor Gollancz
  • 'House of Premonstratensian canons: The abbey of Lavendon', A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1 (1905), pp. 384-386. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=40317

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