Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Children at Harrold Priory

Harrold Priory may have taken in orphans, both during the plague years and at other times, and certainly took in children as boarders.  There is a record that in 1401-1402 the Priory received alms and gifts of 76 shillings and 8 pence, out of total income for the year of £60.  Further dontations in the accounts were for the boarding of three children at £7 and 10 shillings, of which £6 12s. 4d. was for the board of 'Lady de Ponynges', the daughter of Sir Reginald de Grey (Tillotson 1989).  De Grey was at the time being held hostage by Owain Glyndwr and the grant was made by his feoffee (trustee) Sir Gerard Braybrooke, who was the local Member of Parliament in this part of Bedfordshire and a generous patron of Harrold Priory.  Although Sir Reginald was eventually released (through the good offices of his friend Braybrooke), it may have been considered safest to keep his daughter Elizabeth Eleanor Grey (1393-1448) lodged in Harrold, far away from the fighting in Wales. Eleanor was only 8 or 9 at this time, although already married to Sir Robert Poynings.  The de Grey family continued to be patrons of St Peter's church, Harrold right up until recent years.

A child receives medical attention
British Library, MS 42130, f. 61r. Gallican Psalter 
(‘the Luttrell Psalter’,1325-1340)
Boys boarding at Harrold would have been moved to a monastery as soon as they were old enough.  When Bishop Alnwick visited Harrold in 1440, he set an upper age limit of 11 for boys and 12 for girls.  The Prioress, Dame Alice Decun confirmed that there were children living in the Priory at the time, two girls aged 6 or 7 who were sleeping in the nuns' dormitory (Power 2010).

A century later, at the dissolution in 1536, it was noted that there were three children living at Harrold Priory.  Dr Layton, the King's agent implied that the Priory had ceased to be in any real sense a religious house. He declared that he found there a prioress and four or five nuns, of whom one had 'two fair children' and another 'one child and no more'; (taken from The House of Austin Nuns 1904).

Layton was sneering about these children and made the assumption that these were the nuns' own offspring, the product of a dissolute lifestyle (the same assumptions were made about children living at the time in nearby Elstow Abbey).  It is likely, though, that children at Harrold and other nunneries were orphans or were otherwise being cared for as charity.  This would have been as natural to the nuns as caring for the sick or providing hospitality to travelers.  The children would probably also have received an education.

  • William Page (editor) (1912), A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3, Victoria County History, pp.63-68
  • Power, Eileen (1922), Medieval English Nunneries: C1275 to 1535, Cambridge University Press
  • Tillotson, John H. (1989), Marrick Priory: A nunnery in late medieval Yorkshire, Borthwick Institute Publications.
  • 'House of Austin nuns: The priory of Harrold', A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1 (1904), pp. 387-390.

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