It’s an Arden’ough’ life...
By Judith Arnopp
Many years ago now I was lucky enough to study medieval monastic history beneath the tutorage of Janet Burton. I attended her first lecture with a idealistic view of the medieval period. For me then the medieval period was a crystal clear world in which the laity were shielded from their sin by the selfless devotion of the Roman church. I signed up to the module on monasticism expecting to study a simple life, goodly men praying for the souls of their fellows. The monks of my imagination were self-denying, nurturing, healing. The nuns were Ingrid Bergman figures, their faces illuminated with religious goodness, mouthing gentle prayers in softly lit chapels, accompanied wherever they went by strains of plainsong. A single lecture with Janet shattered this ideal and made me sit bolt upright and vow that one day I would write a historical novel about nuns.
François Bonvin [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Popular history tends to focus on the vast abbeys like Fountains, Glastonbury and Rievaulx which somewhere along the way lost sight of the simple life they initially embraced. By the time of the dissolution these abbeys had become immensely rich and in some cases, were no stranger to corruption. In the case of the Cistercians, who had broken from the mainstream monastic way to ahdere closer to the rule of St Benedict, and forbidden the extravagance of stained glass, patterned floor tiles and multitudinous chapels, the regulations were clearly breached. But it was difficult to avoid. By way of securing themselves a place in Heaven, laymen endowed lavish gifts on the abbeys: gifts of land, chapels, windows etc. They paid for prayers to be said for their souls for all eternity. Ultimately the wealth of the monasteries outstripped that of the crown. It was affluence that drew the greedy eye of Cromwell and his king, and the accusations of corruption had less to do with outrage and more to do with the desire to justify their plundering of the holy church.
Hans Holbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cromwell’s campaign to close the monasteries began slowly at first. Picking up where his old master, Wolsely, had left off, he began tentatively chipping away at smaller, less profitable foundations or houses where moral decay had become the rule rather than the exception. Abbey treasures went straight into the king’s coffers, the lands became the property of the crown, leased to the king’s favourites by way of securing both their loyalty and ensuring their support for the dissolution of the monasteries. But some of the smaller abbeys closed at this time were barely scraping a living.
Arden Priory was situated in an unpopulated region on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors, the inhabitants now nothing more than a whisper on the historical record. There was nothing romantic about the cheerless life they led. The nuns at Arden were a group of half starved women living on the edge of civilisation, closed off from the world, from family and friends and all comforts. Assisted by just a few servants, the women undertook all manual work themselves, caring for livestock, cooking, cleaning, nursing … everything. Even today, stripped of twenty-first century luxuries of glazing and heating, life in rural North Yorkshire can be hard; in 1536 it was extreme.
Arden Hall on the site of the priory. Uncredited / Arden Hall via Wikimedia
Arden Priory was founded in 1150 by Peter de Hoton, confirmed by Roger de Mowbray between 1147 and 1169. It was never a rich foundation. One can only imagine the misery of a life of unceasing labour, meagre accommodation, glassless windows, fasting, overworked and ill-clad. In 1397, long before the dissolution, there were just six nuns at Arden: Christina and Elizabeth Darrel, Elizabeth Slayne, Alicia Barnard Agnes of Middleton, and Elizabeth of Thronton. They were overseen by the Prioress, who is named simply as Eleanor. At this time it seems relations between the nuns was not good. The sisters accused the prioress of pawning the church silver, selling wood without consent and providing so few candles in the quire that there was insufficient light to say the offices. They also complained the buildings were in a state of disrepair. But this doesn’t necessarily suggest the prioress was corrupt, it rather points to dire need. Janet Burton in her book Monasteries and Society in the British Isles in the Late Middle Ages says:
“What emerges from their complaints is that this small community of seven women, living in the bleak environment of the North Yorkshire Moors, was suffering conditions of extreme poverty and hardship. It was life on the edge.”
This picture of hardship, so far from my initial imaginings, has stayed with me during the ten years or so since I first heard of Arden. Being so far from the ‘concourse of men’ there few rich benefactors, the priory would have had little chance of increasing their wealth. If there was such a degree of poverty in the fourteenth century, what was the financial state by the time of the dissolution? ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ (a survey of church finances in England, Wales and parts of Ireland made in 1535 on Henry VIII’s orders) suggests that very little had changed. Poverty was aways the rule at Arden.
|Young nun digging a grave — Wikipedia|
The priory was visited by the king’s commissioners on 8th May 1536 and it was suppressed the following August. At the time of dissolution there were just six sisters, three of whom received pensions of twenty shillings each, two of ten shillings and one six shillings and eightpence. Sister Elizabeth Johnson, who was an octgenarian with limited hearing was granted forty shillings ‘toward her sustenance.’ The church ‘treasure’ seized by the king’s men consisted of a gilt challice weighing 14.5 oz and a flat piece of white silver weighing 8oz, and two bells valued at ten shillings. According to the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ the value of the house in 1536 was £12. 0s and 6d. It is noted that the nuns also had an image of St Brigid to whom they made offerings for cows that were ill or had strayed.
This points to a reality quite different from tales that were circulated in 1536 of corruption and ungodliness. Motivated by his favour of the new learning Cromwell and his men put forward stories of nuns indulging in sexual misconduct with monks, murdering their own infants, enjoying lewd and promiscuous lives. Even if they had the inclination, I would be surprised if the nuns of Arden found either the time or the energy for such practices.
The dissolution was almost universally resented by monks and traditionalists. Monasteries were a life-line; common people relied on them from birth to death for charity, employment and for healthcare. The closures united the populace both rich and poor, culminating in widespread protest that posed the biggest threat to the crown during Henry VIII’s reign. The first rising took place in Lincolnshire in October but was quickly put down, only to spring up again in Yorkshire when the people of the north, led by lawyer, Robert Aske, embarked upon a ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’.
Richard Croft / Lincolnshire Rising plaque
Gentry as well as commonfolk joined the peaceful march to persuade the king to change his mind; monks and laymen, nuns and children were among those who took to the road to preserve their way of life. The Pilgrimage of Grace was the worst uprising during Henry VIII’s reign, the rebels reaching more than 30,000, far outnumbering the royal army but after initially agreeing to consider their complaints, the king managed to get the upper hand. He ‘invited’ Robert Aske to spend Christmas at court, promising to consider their requests but when unrest broke out again in the East Riding it provided the king with the excuse he needed. The Duke of Norfolk was sent to deal with the rebels. The leaders were executed, and there were widespread hangings of common people, a deterrent to further protesters. Robert Aske was hung in chains on the walls of York and left to die.
By Banner_of_the_Holy_Wounds_(Pilgrimage_of_Grace).png: self-createdderivative work: Diego Sanguinetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
One by one the abbeys fell, monks and nuns were turned out, some abbots were tortured and executed. By 1540 the largest of the abbeys were closed, the lands distributed among the nobilty, the remains of once glorious buildings subjected to neglect and decay.
The plight of those affected by the dissolution has always intrigued me and I have enjoyed revisiting the period in Sisters of Arden which is due for publication later on this year. The records of Arden are scanty but by piecing together what little we know with wider records of the dissoultion and the pilgrimage of Grace, I have at last been able to explore the closure of the abbeys and the uprisings that followed from the perspective of a group of insignificant nuns.
Sisters of Arden follows the path of three nuns, Margery, Grace and Frances, from the closure of Arden, through the journeyings of the pilgrims on their march for Grace, where they experience the outside world for the first time. As their adventures take them the length and breadth of Yorkshire they move from determination to despair, from hope to disillusion. But, with their world in pieces, the only thing they can do is try to rebuild it.
Sisters of Arden
Arden Priory has remained unchanged for almost four hundred years. When a nameless child is abandoned at the gatehouse door, the nuns take her in and raise her as one of their own.
After the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536, the embittered King strikes out, and unprecedented change sweeps across the country. The bells of the great abbeys fall silent, the church fragments and the very foundation of the realm begins to crack.
Determined to preserve their way of life, Margery and the sisters of Arden join a pilgrimage thirty thousand strong and attempt to lead the heretic king back to grace.
Sisters of Arden is a story of valour, virtue and veritas.
Coming soon — December 2018
Judith Arnopp is the author of ten historical novels including The Winchester Goose, The Beaufort Chronicle (three book series), The Kiss of the Concubine and A Song of Sixpence. You can find her on Facebook • Twitter • Website • Blog.