“Little better than brothels” – the Cells of the Abbey of St Albans, Hertfordshire
In my recent post about the quarrel between William Wallingford, Abbot of St Albans, and John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, we saw that John Morton declared in his letter to Abbot Wallingford that the nunneries at Sopwell and St Mary de Pré were “little better than brothels”. Rather strong words, so I decided to find out a bit more about these houses of ill repute.
They were two of the three cells (or daughter houses) which were situated close to the town and the abbey of St Albans. The third one, the Hospital of St Julian, was for leprous men and was not mentioned in Morton’s letter. It was founded by Abbot Geoffrey (1119-46) along Watling Street. In 1344 it was decided that it should house 6 lepers, primarily from the abbey. If a married man wanted to enter, he had to adopt a religious life, which freed him from the tie of marriage. The hospital was annexed to the abbey in 1505. There are no remains of this hospital, though the name St Julian is still used for an area of the modern city. Several skeletons have been discovered during building works at the corner of Vesta and Watling Street, which probably come from St Julian’s cemetery.
St Mary de Pré was founded in 1194 by Warin, who was then Abbot of St Albans. A man of Walden had had a vision of St Amphibalus (the early Christian priest who had converted St Alban) who instructed him to tell the abbot to honour the place where the relics of Amphibalus and others had met the shrine of St Alban. So Warin built a church in this spot (on Watling Street) and houses for leprous women, who had to be veiled and live according to a rule. The whole organisation of this establishment was made in such a way to keep it dependent on the abbey. Until 1357 Pré was ruled by a Master or Warden and was a hospital for leprous nuns, but as leprosy died out its role changed and it became an ordinary priory ruled by a prioress. Apparently there was a division between nuns and sisters, the latter having an inferior position.
In 1416 the priory was granted by Henry V the reversion of the alien priory of Wing (Bucks) and it was exempted from payment of all subsidies. This was confirmed by a fresh patent from Edward IV.
In addition to accusing the nuns of the priory of a rather unconventional lifestyle, John Morton also claimed in his letter that the prioress in those days, a Helen Germyn, was a married woman who had left her husband for a lover. It seems that Helen was removed from her position, though she might have died, and was replaced by Amy Goden from Sopwell.
In April 1528 an inquiry found that the last prioress had died the previous June, and that the three nuns which had been left at the convent had deserted the place. It was then dissolved and annexed to the abbey of St. Albans, where at that time Cardinal Wolsey was the absentee abbot. In July Henry VIII granted the site of the late nunnery with all its possessions to Wolsey himself, who used all its property to fund his new college at Oxford. After his downfall, Henry VIII seized the land and leased it to a London merchant and then to a yeoman of the King’s guard. In 1531 he swapped Pré with St Albans Abbey. After the dissolution the site was granted to Sir Ralph Rowlatt. One of the buildings was still standing in the 18th century, today aerial photographs show the outlines of buildings. When digging pipe trenches the foundations of walls have been revealed. Off St Michael’s Street there is a Prae Close remembering St Mary de Pré.
It is difficult to ascertain what actually happened in the case of Helen Germyn. The author of the VCH thinks Helen’s replacement shows that the allegations were true, though also acknowledging that she might have died. He does not explain, however, why her replacement should have been chosen from the equally notorious Sopwell of all places. If you want someone to sort out a rather lax discipline, wouldn’t it make more sense to get someone in with a proven track record of strict adherence of the rules?
The third of the cells was St Mary of Sopwell. Like St Julian it was founded by Abbot Geoffrey (1119-46), apparently for the nuns who had from Saxon times existed at St Albans Abbey itself. The convent was to be completely dependent upon the abbey. The number was limited to thirteen nuns, and the abbot had to give his consent to who might be accepted. It was “maidens only” and the nuns were to be locked in at night.
I found St Mary of Sopwell particularly interesting as seems to have attracted women with spirit and intellect.
In approx. 1330 the nuns decided to fight for women’s rights and challenged the existing order. When Prioress Philippa died, they had a general meeting and came to a majority decision in favour of Sister Alice de Hakeneye. As soon as he heard about this, the abbot send his prior over, who asked each sister to state her choice in writing. The result was 16 votes for Alice de Hakeneye against 3 votes for the sub-prioress Alice de Pekesden. This was not the result the abbot wanted and majority decision notwithstanding he installed Alice de Pekesden. This show of male dominance was a few years later followed up with further restrictions.
In 1420s and 1430s a Dame Eleanor Hull was a frequent visitor at the priory. She was the daughter of a retainer of John of Gaunt and was married to John Hull, esquire, also a retainer of John of Gaunt and later ambassador to Castile for both Henry IV and Henry V. After her husband’s death, c. 1421, she spent much of her time at Sopwell. Eleanor is known to have translated religious texts from French into English. Cambridge University Library has a manuscript with two text attributed to her: a translation of a commentary on the Seven Penitential Psalms and a translation of a collection of prayers and meditations. It is assumed that she did these translations in the early years of widowhood, while actually staying at Sopwell, where she might have had access to the library at the abbey. She had probably enjoyed a better than average education, which also included Latin, and as a royal servant she would have had a knowledge of spoken and written French. It is assumed that she translated the prayers and meditations before the commentary on the Penitential Psalms, which is a much more ambitious work.
Her connection with Sopwell was not without excitement: In 1428, apparently due to her influence at court, the famous robber captain William Wawe and his band broke into Sopwell hoping to find her there. While they were plundering the priory, a man in the village around it raised the alarm and the robbers ran away.
In the post about Abbot Wallingford we heard that he introduced the printing press to St Albans, and that one of the books printed was The Boke of St Albans. It is supposed to have been written by Juliana Berners. The first edition of The Boke of St Albans was the last of eight books printed in St Albans by an unknown schoolmaster in 1486. There is no title page, but at the end of the first edition there is an attribution “Explicit Dam Julyans Barnes in her boke of huntyng”. She is thought to have been a prioress of Sopwell in the 15th century, and though she is not contained in the list of prioresses in the VCH, there is a gap between 1430 and 1480. She is thought to have been born c. 1388. and probably grew up at court, where she developed her love of hawking, hunting and fishing as well as field sports. Taking up a religious life did not change this, as the book deals with hawking and hunting. Juliana’s book on fishing is supposed to be the first book on the subject to have been written by a woman. With this book she made Sopwell famous world-wide and apparently there are many sporting organisations in the USA which bear her name. In St Albans there is a ‘Berners Drive’. 
In 1480 Abbot William Wallingford send the archdeacon and sub-prior of St Albans to Sopwell, to replace the previous prioress, who was old and infirm, with an Elizabeth Webbe. A few years later the archdeacon wanted to depose her, but she decided to fight and brought an action against him in the Court of Arches and was reinstated. That is when it got nasty, as the archdeacon sent two monks to the nunnery, who broke down her door with an iron bar, beat her and put her in prison. Elizabeth then went one step further and complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury – our friend John Morton. I think the author of the VCH is at least in part correct in saying that that “it can hardly be doubted that she was the authority for some of Morton’s charges against St. Albans”. She remained as prioress and continued fighting for the rights of the women of Sopwell.
While it is easily understandable that Elizabeth Webbe would have painted the archdeacon’s choice for prioress in as negative a light as possible to Morton, it is more difficult to see that she would have described the priory community as a whole as “little better than brothels”. This would have reflected badly on herself, as she had until the attempted replacement been in charge for 10 years. Possibly for Archbishop Morton the women at Sopwell were too independent and female independence has often been equalled with loose morals.
Until the dissolution Sopwell remained to offer shelter for women with an independent spirit. Anne Boleyn, another lady, who was not easily intimidated, has some connection to Sopwell. She is said to have stayed there while Henry VIII tried to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, as she was safe at the priory, but it was close enough to London for Henry to visit frequently – in secret of course. It is said that Henry proposed to her under a cedar tree near St Stephen’s church. They were married on 25 January 1533, according to some at Sopwell. The street name ‘Boleyn Drive’ remembers her stay at Sopwell.
After the dissolution (the end for Sopwell came in March or April 1537), and Anne’s execution, Henry VIII used Sopwell to reward Richard Lee for his service with the Army of Calais. Richard continued to serve in Calais until on returning to England, he was was also given the grounds of the monastery of St Albans, as well as other former Abbey properties. Richard acquired more and more properties in the centre of the town and became one of its wealthiest men. In 1549 he started building work at the priory to transform it into a comfortable family residence, using bricks and flint from the monastery. After the death of his wife and the marriage of their two daughters, he started rebuilding the hall with new foundations in the same spot as the priory had been. The ruins we can see today are those of this new building. The ruinous state is due to Sir Harbottle Grimstone, who bought it in 1669, to use it as a quarry for his nearby house Gorhambury. 
1. Vivian H Galbraith, The Abbey of St. Albans from 1300 to the Dissolution of the Monasteries: The Stanhope Essay, 1911, p. 59. You can find the book on the internet here (accessed 5 January 2010)
2. “St Albans – Churches, Chapels and Religious Houses”, Medieval St Albans. (accessed 8 June 2010)
3. Ibid.; Victoria County History (VCH): “Houses of Benedictine nuns: St Mary de Pre priory, St Albans”, A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4 (1971). On the internet on British History Online (accessed 7 June 2010)
4. Victoria County History (VCH): “Houses of Benedictine nuns: Sopwell Priory”, A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4 (1971), pp. 422-426. On the internet on British History Online (accessed 07 June 2010)
5. Alexandra Barratt, “Dame Eleanor Hull: The Translator at Work”, Medium Aevum, Vol. 72, 2003. You can find an excerpt here (accessed 7 June 2010).
6. “St Albans – Churches, Chapels and Religious Houses”
7. “Book of St Albans”, Wikipedia. (accessed 7 June 2010)
8. “Juliana Berners”, Wikipedia. (accessed 7 June 2010)
9. “Sopwell Street Names”, Sopwell Residents’ Association. (accessed 7 June 2010)
10. VCH: “Sopwell Priory”
11. Anthony James Armstrong, “Sopwell Priory, Hertfordshire”, The Tangible Past. (accessed 8 May 2010)
12. “Sopwell Street Names”