Another naughty nun to start the new year


augustinian nun.jpgThe Priory of Moxby in Yorkshire was an Augustinian foundation for nuns although it had originally been founded as a double house (the only Augustinian double house in England) and it seems that the nuns, well certainly one of them, were a bit naughty during the fourteenth century. Sabina de Applegarth is identified in a letter dated 1310 as having apostatized. Or put another way, decided that she didn’t want to be a nun anymore.


Archbishop Greenfield of York sent the letter instructing the priory to receive Sabina back into the fold as a penitent – we have no idea whether she’d been caught in civilian clothing or decided to hand herself in. That same year the prioress resigned and four years later after a visitation the nuns received a list of things they needed to do in order to be deemed good nuns – there was to be an annual accounting for income and expenditure. They were not to run up any new debts. Healthy nuns were not to lay around in the infirmary. The nuns were not to take in boarders or girls over twelve unless the bishop said they could. The nuns were to stay together as they were expected to do – think of the flock principle here. Nor were they to wander around in the woods on their own. They certainly weren’t to go gossiping with the locals or any passing brothers. The prioress was to eat with the other nuns (the flocking principle again) and she was to always be accompanied by another nun and to have a waiting-maid with her. Relatives weren’t welcome…were there an over abundance of giggling sisters, aunts and grannies?  Or was it a question of one too many brothers and uncles turning up?


By 1322 things had changed – the Scots had arrived and the unfortunate Sabina de Applegarth had been packed off to Nun Monkton to escape the hairy brutes. The other sisters were scattered across Yorkshire during that period but by 1325 they must have been back together although the prioress,  Joan de Barton, seems to have shaken off the accompanying nun and waiting maid deemed necessary by the Archbishop long enough to get into some rather close conversation with the chaplain, one Laurence de Systeford. History provides her penance and the crime – which is a relief after reading about all the earlier restrictions which hint at laxity but don’t actually spell them out.


In 1328, the past clearly forgotten, Sabina briefly made prioress but was removed the same year with instructions that she was never to hold an administrative post again nor was she to ever be allowed out of the convent again – this was also when a letter writing ban was imposed upon her: she wasn’t to write letters or to receive them – ever (what on earth had she been up to?)   To say that her career as a nun was chequered would be to put it mildly.


Historically speaking we know that the Priory of Moxby was badly damaged by the Scottish invasion of 1322 and we can see that the nuns didn’t seem particularly well managed – reading between the lines there are hints of Sabrina’s besetting sins but nothing that reveals the full extent of her naughtiness and certainly nothing as to why she became a nun in the first place as poverty and chastity do not seem to have been her vocation.



‘Houses of Austin nuns: Priory of Moxby’, in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1974), pp. 239-240 [accessed 3 January 2016].







3 thoughts on “Another naughty nun to start the new year

  1. Indeed was it her fault as she had informed all of her wish to renounce her habbit and be normal again to find love. Now the ever heavy and greedy church who in their mind owned her body as well as her mortal soul moved in to ruin her life for ever. Seems to me I would have rode in to save her myself having suffered Jesuit teaching and having full knowledge of how corruption starts I think my ride to her would have been blessed even by God.


    Kirklees Priory was founded in the twelfth century by Reinor de Fleming,the manor lord of Clifton, West Yorkshire. The Rule was Cistercian and at first very strict, but as time passed, the “White Ladies”–so called because of the colour of their undyed habits–became less dedicated to the religious ideal. Many of them were the unwanted daughters of gentry with no real vocation to the cloistered life. The sisters were often admonished by visiting bishops for indulging in worldy ways ,keeping dogs, trimming their habits up , going out dancing–and for inviting men onto the holy premises! In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII published a Papal Bull, PERICULOSO, which forbade such unseemly goings on, but the nuns threw the document after the bishop who came to deliver it , and chased him off the premises. In 1315 there were scandalous reports in circulation about the nuns of Kirklees. It was reported that one “Alice de Raggid, deceived by the allurements of frail flesh,in great levity of mind,hath gone forth from her house and hath wandered in great peril,having long ago put off her religious habit.” Later on, two more nuns, Elizabeth de Hopton and Joan de Heton, along with the rebellious Alice (who must have returned to the nunnery by then) were accused of admitting both clergy and laymen to “the secret places of the monastery……..from which there is suspicion of sin and great scandal arises.” No wonder Robin came to such a sticky end among such flighty creatures !
    The nunnery was finally dissolved, with the other Yorkshire monasteries, by Henry V111 IN 1539, after which Kirklees Hall was built on the nearby hillside,using the stones of the fallen priory. Only the gatehouse,where Robin died, was left standing. Today,like the grave,it is danger of being lost to our heritage as it is allowed to slowly crumble away, unchecked and unhindered by any official attempts to prevent the destruction.

    The prioress who killed Robin, either intentionally or accidentally, has never been identified. Existing lists of prioresses are incomplete, plus no one knows for certain exactly when Robin died, though the pseudo medieval inscription on his Gothic-style grave states 24 December,1247. This may have been a miswriting of an earlier inscription, as 1347 is the estimated date of death for Robin Hood of Wakefield. The grave of Prioress Elizabeth de Stainton is still standing in the grounds of Kirklees, a short distance from the gatehouse, but obviously there would have been many more unexcavated graves in the area as the nuns were there for over four hundred years. A large house now stands on the priory ruins. Another known prioress was Dame Mary Startin, who was in office in 1347–maybe she was the murderess ! According to the ballads, the prioress had a lover, Red Roger of Doncaster,who helped her in her evil task,though Robin managed to rise from his deathbed and kill him before expirin!


    The legend of Robin Hood is known throughout the world but most people associate the famous outlaw with Nottingham and Sherwood Forest. It is a less well known fact that Robin has Yorkshire connections , particularly in Calderdale ,whose council ironically are keen to build up the tourist industry, yet inexplicably ignore the famous outlaw’s grave on it’s doorstep. Today the medieval nunnery where Robin was done to death by the “wicked prioress” is reduced to a ruined gatehouse with a modern mansion , built by the late landowner, Lady Armytage , standing in the nunnery garden, while the historical hall, home of the Armytages for four centuries, has been turned into a condominium of luxury dwellings.
    Historians have largely ignored the legend of Robin’s death and little research has been done into the identity of the evil nun who bled Robin to death,or the reason for the murder. This has been partly due to the emphasis of Robin Hood tales becoming firmly attached to Nottingham, whose tourist authorities obviously have a better eye to business than those in Yorkshire. Another reason has been the difficulties encountered
    in gaining access to the Kirklees sites, as both Robin’s grave and the gatehouse are situated on private land. Recent information, however, suggests that Lady Armytage, was becoming more amenable to research and researchers. Indeed, no less a formidable academic trio than Professors Holt, Dobson and Knight embarked upon compiling a learned treatise on Kirklees and enjoyed the late ladyship’s full co-operation and assistance in their undertaking, though the local historical group, the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society, continued to be refused access to the sites.
    Have the esteemed professors , one wonders, solved the riddle of the prioress ? Have they been shown hitherto unseen documents , undiscovered by previous researchers ? The only prioress’s grave still in evidence at Kirklees is that of Elizabeth de Stainton (or Staynton) but there is no date on her tombstone. The Reverend Harold Pobjoy, the Hartshead vicar and historian who wrote A HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT PARISH OF HARTSHEAD CUM CLIFTON in the nineteen thirties , givesa list taken from Dugdale’s Monasticum. He also quotes from Hopkirk’s HUDDERSFIELD IT’S HISTORY AND NATURAL HISTORY 1846, which has a similar list, but unfortunately Hopkirk does not name his sources. The two lists can be slotted together without causing any discrepancy, although there are gaps. The problem of the prioress’s identity is further compounded by the fact that no one knows for certain the date of Robin’s death, but research suggests that it may have been 1347. The reasons for this are discussed in Barbara Green’s THE OUTLAW ROBIN HOOD HIS YORKSHIRE LEGEND. If the date of Robin’s death is 1347 then Dame Mary Startin was the prioress in office at the time, not Elizabeth de Stainton. According to Eileen Power in her book MEDIEVAL ENGLISH NUNNERIES (Cambridge University Press) Dame Mary died of the Black Death in 1350,although in some ballads the prioress is said to have committed suicide after murdering Robin).
    Elizabeth de Stainton, on the other hand, could not have been prioress in 1347.She was one of four daughters of John de Stainton of Woolley,near Wakefield. Following her father’s death, Elizabeth’s mother married Hugh de Toothill and Elizabeth and her sister were sent to be nuns at Kirklees for reasons of family economy. William de Notton,her uncle and their guardian,took provision to ensure than the girls had not been forced into the religious life, and a document was signed at Monk Bretton Priory in 1347 protecting the interests of Elizabeth and her sister (from a deed at Woolley Hall,in the possession of Lieut Commander Wentworth). Graham Collins and Martin Keatman in their book ROBIN HOOD THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH (1995) have a theory about Elizabeth which connects her with Robert and Matilda Hood of Wakefield. They suggest that when Elizabeth’s mother married Hugh de Toothill, his daughter by his first wife, called Matilda,married Robin. There is mention of a woman called Matilda in the Wakefield Court Rolls of 1314 being arrested for stealing the lord’s firewood.
    They assume that this Matilda became Robin’s wife and Elizabeth’s sister in law, but do not explain why Elizabeth went on to murder him in later years.If this hypotheses is correct,however,we might consider a lethal love triangle here,Robin falling in love with Matilda while Elizabeth was packed off to the nunnery suffering from a medieval “fatal attraction”–exacting her revenge for her thwarted passion,in later years! (“hell hath no fury……”). However, as we have seen, the dates do not fit — this scenario is thirty years too early. Another mysterious clue lies in a document quoted by Wakefield historian J.W.Walker. This is also mentioned by Pobjoy,who reports a dispute over eighteen acres of land between “ the Prioress of Kirklees and Esmon,son of the noble Richard of England and Earl of Kent in 1373.” The Latin text
    reads: “1373, Orate pro Elizabetha de Staynton quondon prioressa Kirklees quo intempere illus du carta fust adquista” and translates: “Pray for Elizabeth de Staynton formerly prioress of Kirklees at which time the document was aquired. ” This seems to suggest that Elizabeth was prioress prior to 1373,but it can be read either way.JW Walker also quotes another document which he states that the prioress of Kirklees(he infers Elizabeth) signed a legal document in 1348,but the British Library have been unable to verify the entry which was not under the reference quoted (Harleian 4360 Folio 517) so the riddle still remains. Finally, why did the prioress kill Robin ? Venesection,or “bleeding” was common medical practise in the Middle Ages. Many people must have died as a result, but it was an ignominious end for the swashbuckling Robin ,whether by accident or design. The ballads state that the prioress, and her lover“Red Roger of Doncaster” THE CONVENT PRIEST murdered Robin in revenge for his opposition to the corruption in the Church. If it was murder–for whatever reason– it was a particularly treacherous and gruesome act,and it has even been suggested that there could be links with pagan sacrifice or vampirism ! There is a fascinating mystery here still waiting to be solved, but until all the evidence is uncovered, this part of Robin’s legend will remain shrouded in darkness, Yorkshire’s buried treasure, or even Blair Witch 111 !

  3. Posted by Barbara Green with the kind permission of David Glover, historian and local lecturer.Many thanks David.(David has the link) I have posted it Julia’s as it is a very interesting piece of the Kirklees Priory “jigsaw.” and I am will be better appreciated also, than on my Robin Hood sites which don’t seem to get many sensible posts–but we won’t go there. This is a valuable nugget of history,and as far as I know you are the discoverer of it–I am so glad we met up at the Minster and your lecture at Square Chapel.

    The story of Jane Kyppax, last prioress of Kirklees Priory (itself within the boundaries of today’s Calderdale), who retired with some of her nuns to a house in Mirfield after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, is quite well known. Jane was buried in Mirfield Church on 5 February 1562, and her former colleagues may also have been buried there..
    So it was a great surprise to find that one of the last nuns of Kirklees was buried in Halifax Parish Church. So far as I know, this fact has been lost sight of for many years; here is the story.
    At the time when the priory was surrendered to the king in November 1539, there were six nuns, along with the prioress. Their names are all recorded, and they were all given pensions. The last and youngest nun was named Isabel Sautenstall, Saltynstall, or Saltonstall. It seems certain that this lady, who was aged 24 in 1539, was a member of our local Saltonstall family, from whom was descended our “Halifax” Lord Mayor of London, Sir Richard Saltonstall (c1520-1601, an ancestor of the late Princess Diana, as I have previously proved); and that other Sir Richard Saltonstall (1586-1661), instrumental in settling early colonial Massachusetts, many of whose descendants live in the U.S.A today. However, I have not yet determined how Isabel fits in to the Saltonstall pedigree locally.
    From contemporary records published recently by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, I learned that Isabel Saltonstall was given a pension of 33s. 4d. (approx £1.65) per annum, and came to live in Halifax. She was known here as “Isabell Saltonstall alias Nonne”. In 1576/7 she appeared in court over a defamation case, which must have caused some scandal locally, accused of “having called Marjory Hall, wife of Richard Hall, ‘Gregory Waterhouse’s whore.’ Richard Hall had retaliated by labelling Isabel a whore; and his friends had alleged that she had had a child in fornication.” However, the judge found in Isabel’s favour, and fined Hall 50s. (£2.50) for his vexatious accusation. Isabel did well to win: Gregory Waterhouse was a litigious man, one of the most powerful and corrupt in Halifax at the time. He lived at Siddal Hall, and was son of the Lord of the Manor. The YAS records indicated that Isabel was still drawing her pension in 1582, so I went to the transcripts of the Halifax Parish Church Burials Register to see if I could find her entry. And, there it was, recorded on 28th May 1584 –
    “Isabell Saltonstall als. Nune de Southourum”
    So now, after some four centuries, we learn that an ex-nun lies buried in Halifax Minster. She would have been over 70 years old. Nothing marks her last resting-place today. Gregory Waterhouse, extremely unpopular with local residents – and who probably had a “mistress” – died in October 1589, being buried in the Rokeby Chapel at the church; a carved monumental slab was placed over his vault. I have a sketch reproduction of this stone, which vanished over 300 years ago. But in the church of Whitwell, Derbyshire, I have recently seen a brass memorial placed by Gregory’s youngest son Toby, who was vicar there.
    David C Glover – January 2010

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