PATRONS OF ST FIRMIN’S CHURCH 1190-1536

Con­vent of St. Michael and All Angels 12th Century

William De Waterville, 21st. Abbot of Peterborough comes into the story because in 1156 he founded the Con­vent of St. Michael and All Angels at Stamford Baron, and endowed it with the land, which now forms Thurlby Grange.  In addition, he gave them St. Martin’s Church at Stamford Baron.  He also endowed other religious foundations, one of them being the Church of St. John the Baptist, which stands on the west side of Peterborough Market Place. He did much to improve and enlarge the Abbey Church and the monastic buildings. Before his election to the Abbey of Peterborough, William De Waterville was one of the chaplains of King Henry the Second.  He was deposed after holding his Abbey for twenty years.

The land on which the Convent was built had been formerly occupied by an Anglo-Saxon castle, which in 880 was held by King Al­fred to keep in check the Danish invaders who were at that time mas­ters of the town of Stamford, and of a fortress on the north side of the river Welland.  The Castle was overthrown shortly after, but in 922 Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder repaired it.  This contrib­uted towards his success in recapturing Stamford.  About 1152, dur­ing the war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda’s son Henry (who later became King Henry the Second) the castle was finally razed to the ground.  Four years later it was applied The Convent probably stood near to what is now known as Nun’s Farm, close by Stamford Town railway station.  The nuns were of the Order of St Benedict, and it was Waterville’s intention that they should be forty in number; that a prior should manage their bus­iness matters, hear their confessions and officiate at the services in their chapel.  The affairs of the Convent will be recorded later since no doubt they provided talking points for the people of Thurlby.

The Normans introduced a practice whereby patrons bestowed the advowson and also the ecclesiastical income of a parish to monastic bodies. This is what William De Waterville did with Thurlby in favour of the Convent of St. Michael.

A convent was unable to perform the duties of a rector, so it appointed a chaplain who was removable, except by special grant, at the pleasure of the convent, and who was forced to accept whatever payment the convent might choose to allow out of the income of the rectory.  This was found to be unsatisfactory for the bishop, the chaplain and the parishioners alike.

The Convent of St. Michael seems to have accepted its res­ponsibilities towards the people of Thurlby.  In 1179 an agreement was entered into whereby the appointment of the chaplain was made permanent, and a definite income was assigned to him.  This does not seem to have been general elsewhere.

As patrons of the benefice of Thurlby, in 1190 they appointed Simon the priest to be in charge of the Church and Thomas the chaplain succeeded him in 1195.  It was not until the next century that clergy were instituted to the benefice as vicars Bishop Hugh De Wells of Lincoln (1209 – 1235) decided that he would correct the situation.  In all parishes where the rectory was held by a convent he established vicarages. There were nearly three hundred such vicarages ordained, Thurlby being one.  He fixed the average amount of the vicar’s income at about one third of the total income of the rectory, plus a suitable vicarage house.  The charges on the benefice were to be met in like proportion.

The first Vicar of Thurlby was Thomas, who vacated the ben­efice for some reason not recorded, in 1220. It is possible that he was the same man as Thomas the chaplain who was appointed as chaplain by the Convent of St. Michael in 1195.

The Convent was so closely associated with the parish that news of the happenings there must have formed talking points for the parishioners.

  •  1220 A. de Boby was instituted Prioress.
  • 1230 Dionisia was instituted Prioress.
  • 1240 Petronilla was Prioress.
  • 1248 Sibyl was instituted Prioress.
  • 1271 Amicia resigned as Prioress Elizabeth was elected.
  • 1286 Elizabeth resigned as Prioress Maud of Lynn was elected.

Less than a century after Thurlby Church had been given as an endowment to the Convent of St. Michael at Stamford Baron, it was decided to enlarge it.  Petronilla was Prioress at the time  (1240) and it can be assumed that she supervised the work that was done. To the Saxon and Norman work was added nearly all of what we see now, except for the chapel to the north of the Chancel, the Clerestory and Spire.

This enlargement of Thurlby Church was a remarkable undertaking for a community as poor in worldly goods as St Michaels.  It is the result of faith, prayer and sacrifice, to which succeeding generations have become the heirs.

The Abbot of Peterborough was Visitor to the Convent.  This means that he exercised general supervision over it, in recognition of which the Convent made to the Abbey an annual payment.  In 1297 the Abbot held a Visitation of the Convent.  Margery Arketel of Stamford had laid violent hands on Emma, daughter of Matthew of Easton.   Alexandra of Langtoft and Cicely Fleming had committed some unspecified offences.   All three had been punished by being excom­municated.  After enquiry, and one supposes admonition, the Abbot absolved them.

Black Death

There is a record that as a result of this plague the Convent of St. Mary in Great Wothorpe was united to the Convent of St. Michael’s, Stamford, the patrons of the living.

Little is known about the Convent of St. Mary.  It was founded about 1120, possibly by Edmund, Earl of Woodstock or some member of the Royal Family. It may have stood on the site now known as Wothorpe Ruins. The names of the following prioresses have been preserved

  • 1224  Dionisid De Caldwell  
  • 1288  Maud De Clinton  
  • 1290  Isoda 
  • 1313  Emma De Pincebek 
  • 1349  Agnes Bowes  

It was while the last named ruled over the house that the great pestilence visited the Nunnery and caused the death of several nuns.   If there were any survivors they may have fled from the   infected premises. At any rate, the Convent was merged with that of St. Michael in 1354 by order of John Gynwell, Bishop of Lincoln.

14th and 15th Century

  • 1306 Mabel Le Venure was instituted Prioress, resigned 1337
  • 1337 Mabel Be Reyby elected Prioress.
  • 1359 Agnes De Braceborough elected Prioress,
  • 1370 Isabel of Maltby was Prioress.

About 1320, steps were taken to lot in more light at St Firmin’s Mabel Le Venure was Prioress, and she probably set things in motion.

About 1359, when Agnes of Braceborough was Prioress, the Chapel to the north of the Chancel was added. The door in the north wall suggests that it was intended to be used, cither when the rest of the Church was closed, or by persons who desired to worship apart from the congregation.  The   squint in the   south wall of the Chapel seems to strengthen the latter suggestion. It would be interesting to learn whether any of the nuns were sent periodically to Thurlby, and whether this Chapel was built for their use. Under the orders of their Rule they would not be   permitted to use the Nave. There must have been a strong reason for adding it to an already spacious Church, for .it was built while there was still confusion and distress which wore the results of the Black Death.  The finances of the Convent were, in the year that the Chapel was built, at such a low ebb that Bishop Gynewell of Lincoln had to licence the nuns of St. Michael’s to beg for alms to assist them in their poverty,

Some interesting details of the management of the Convent’s Thurlby estate at this period have been uncovered by a research worker at the Public Record Office.

Each woman paid a dowry when she became a nun. This dowry varied from ten marks (£6. 13. 6) to fifteen marks  (£10). The Con­vent was always in financial straits, and on account of this they began to take in boarders, charging one shilling a week for adults and sixpence a week for children. This the Bishop of Lincoln forbade but it seems that his prohibition was disregarded, and the practice brought them into trouble, as will be related later.

The nuns wore the habit of their Order, the Benedictines, which was of black wool with a wimple, or head veil, of linen.  They were given an allowance for the purchase of clothing – three shillings a year for a novice, four shillings a year for a nun.

Management of affairs was supposed to be in the hands of men attached to the Convent the chief being the Prior or Warden, who in addition to his duties as Chaplain had general oversight of the estates.  At Thurlby there was the bailiff, and under him the sergeant and four or five servants, who attended to the day to day work on the farm.

The farm at Thurlby seems to have provided most of the food required by the Convent, for the nuns, and also for the visitors they were compelled to entertain.  Wheat and oats were grown for flour, barley for brewing, and peas for soup, bullocks, pigs and poultry for flesh.   Pork and poultry provided Christmas fare.   A flock of sheep was maintained in the parish, which varied in number from 460 in 1339 to 100 in 1472 and 200 in 1515.   It would provide wool and mutton. Except during Advent and Lent, 700 eggs a week   (at 7d a hundred) were consumed.   Fish, chiefly herring, was eaten on Fridays and Fasts, with an occasional salmon.

Only two definite statements of the Convent’s income have so far come to light.  In 1291 it was £66.13s.4d, in 1374 it was £173 17s 7d. These included the revenues from the Churches appro­priated to the Convent St. John’s, Corby; All Saints, St. Andrew’s, St.Clement’s, St Martin’s, Stamford, St. Firmin’s, Thurlby and St. John the Baptist’s, Upton and rents from land and profits from farms.

From the incomes already stated, certain formal payments had to be made, as follows;

The Convent was subject to the Abbot of Peterborough, and every Prioress was bound to pay fealty to him for the land in Thurlby. On one occasion this journey cost her 91/2d for the hire of horses for herself and her companions.   There was also an annual payment of a silver mark to be made in recognition of the Abbey’s supremacy.  They were also free tenants of the Abbey.   At this time they paid 4 1/2d. rent for the ‘old manor and 3s. 4d. and a pound of wax for the ‘new manor formerly La Mar’.  This suggests that they took over the lands in Thurlby, which the De La Mares held under the Abbey.  Probably a lump sum was paid at the beginning of the tenancy.

From time to time the Bishop of Lincoln would hold a Visit­ation of the Convent. In 1346 the fee was forty shillings.  In addition the Convent had to provide accommodation for the Bishop, two chaplains, a servant and their horses. The Archdeacon of Lincoln held a yearly Visitation for which the fee was 7s. 6d. The Prior and a companion received 17d. for a visit to Thurlby.

A Court was held at Thurlby and that cost 2s. 3d. including refreshments for some of the parishioners. In 1361 five of the King’s men with eighty dogs had to be provided for, for two nights.

On St. Firmin’s Day (September 25th.) alms were distributed to the parishioners.  In the 14th century they took the form of half a quarter of wheat, half a quarter of rye, two bushels of peas, one hundred herring.  This was called ‘St. Firmin’s Dole’.

The harvest failed in 1374 and grain had to be bought at a cost of £40. 8s. 71/2d an abnormally high sum.   In 1391 they borrowed £18 1s.8d. for the costs of harvesting, £10. of this from John Alrede of Thurlby.

The Convent seems to have found the management of estates burdensome.   Often their rents were in arrears for several years. They became involved in lawsuits which were costly, and sometimes made it necessary for some of them to journey to London.   It is only to be expected that they would suffer loss through sheer inexperience. Life in a nunnery could hardly be expected to qualify them for the running of an estate.

The solution they eventually applied was to farm out the revenues of the appropriated churches and estates.   By this method the ‘farmer’ undertook to pay them a fixed sum each year and, in return, he would collect the revenues.   But this did not work out as smoothly as was hoped, and the system was open to abuse. The ‘farmer would wish to make a profit on the deal, some of them proved to be of a grasping character, careless of the parishioners

15th Century

About the year 1440, while Elizabeth Weldon was Prioress, Thurlby Church received the last additions to its fabric.  The great East Window, that we now know was put in, as were the large ones in the South Choir Aisle Chapel and in the North and South Transepts. The height of the Nave was increased by the addition of the clerestory.  It can be said that never before, nor since, has Thurlby Church been seen to such great advantage. It should be realised that these last additions were carried out by the Convent at a time when it was passing through a period of great stress and when the financial situation as well was serious.   It has been recorded that in 1426 and 1440 the Convent was so poor that it could pay only half the -fees due to the Archdeacon for his Visitation.

16th Century -The End of St. Michael’s Convent, Stamford Baron.

King Henry the Eighth found two men who were ready to serve his purposes when it came to dealing with the possessions of the Church.   One was Thomas Wolsey, and when he had served his turn, then Thomas Cromwell, who after eleven years faithful service was executed. Cromwell “boasted that he would make his master more wealthy than all the princes of Christendom, and turned his eyes to the mon­asteries as an easy prey.    Now, if anyone intends to plunder with impunity on a large scale, the procedure is to look for precedents and to claim that it is being done in the national interest, this Cromwell did, and in addition, he launched a   ‘smear’   campaign against his intended victims.

The first step was to find out exactly what were the posses­sions of the monasteries.  The result of the   enquiry was a report called   “Valor Ecclesiasticus” or the King’s Book.   The value of the “benefice of Thurlby was given as £10.9s.3d.  The value of the Peter­borough Abbey estate in Thurlby was estimated to be £27.12s.7d.  The total value of St. Michael’s was placed at  £65.19s.0d.    These   amounts should be multiplied by thirty to arrive at the equivalent in money values, say in 1938.

When the   ‘Valor’   was completed Cromwell was in a position to know where he was in the matter, and where to put on the screw.

The next  step was a Visitation to investigate the internal condition of the monasteries.  This began in 1535. The agents em­ployed were lawyers aided by certain clergy.  These clergy had little liking for monks and this dislike coloured their findings.  An un-favourable report was a foregone conclusion, and it was re-enforced by allegations from discontented monks and nuns.   The findings were that monks and nuns in the smaller houses were living in idleness and immorality, but the greater monasteries were well kept and observed religion. Next, the contemplated looting had to be legalised.  Par­liament was called upon to pass an Act, in 1536, to suppress those monasteries whose revenues did not amount to £200 a year, thus St. Michael’s fell under the axe.  The nuns could decide whether to take a pension and fend for themselves, or to be transferred to a larger house.  The servants and employees of the house were given one year’s wages and dismissed.  The only record traced so far is that Isabel Savage the Prioress at the suppression was awarded a pension of £8. And that she died about 1562.The only other l6th century Prioress whose name has been recorded was Margaret Stainbarn, Prioress in 1528.

At the suppression of the Convent the estate was, presumably confiscated by the Crown, and it passed, by exchange of lands, to Eton College in 1546. With the ownership of this land went the Lay Impropriatorship, or responsibility for the maintenance of the fabric of the Chancel of the Parish Church, St Firmin’s, the responsibility remains theirs to this day.

“The Rule of St Benedict”

Benedict’s Rule stands tall in the great tradition of christian monasticism. It is a Christian rule in the sense that its spiritual doctrine picks up on the values of the Bible (e.g., prayer, fasting, service of neighbor) and arranges for a life in which these values can be lived out in community. Benedicts Rule  is not written for monastic hermits, though Benedict has high regard for them; it is written for ordinary Christians who wish to immerse themselves in a pattern of living in which the life of Christ can be lived out with understanding and zeal.

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