The Poor Nuns of Cumbria

The two nunneries in Cumbria together had less income in a year than Furness Abbey alone had in a fortnight

Although there were at least six monasteries, plus four friaries, in Cumbria before the Dissolution, there were only two nunneries – at Armathwaite (now Nunnery House, on the Eden between Armathwaite and Lazonby) and Seaton (now Seaton Hall, near Bootle, between Millom and Ravenglass),both Benedictine. Both were impoverished: the two together had less income in a year than Furness Abbey received every fortnight.

Armathwaite was founded by William Rufus, and its original endowment included land in the Forest of Inglewood. When Henry VIII’s commissioners visited Armathwaite in 1535, they found it was headed by a Prioress called Agnes Derwentwater. The house owned the tithes of Ainstable, worth £6 a year, the house was worth £2 6s 8d, there was a glebe worth 6s 8d, and other lands in Cumberland worth £10 8s 10d. The total value, £19 2s 2d, was about equivalent to the annual wages of two skilled tradesmen. By contrast, Furness Abbey was worth over £800. At the Dissolution, there were just three nuns, including Agnes, who was given a pension of just £2 13s 4d a year (scarcely more than labourer’s wages), which she continued to draw until 1556, when she presumably died.

Seaton, also apparently known as Leakley, was even poorer, worth a mere £12 12s 0½ d - not much more than a yeoman and his family might make in a year. It seems to have been founded by the ancient lords of Millom, but as early as the reign of Henry IV it was recorded that the nunnery was too poor to maintain the nuns there. At the time of the Dissolution, its Prioress was Johanna Seton, but we don’t know how many other nuns, if any, there were there. During the Pilgrimage of Grace, one Thomas Skelton ‘ryoutouslye entryde into the seyde late proyrye ... and there put in the late pryores of the same late pryorye, whoe remained ther afterwarde by the space of a quarter of a yere and more with her hole retinue’. It is not recorded what happened subsequently to Skelton, nor to Johanna.

See William Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum (published 1846, vol 3, pp.270-271 (Armathwaite) and vol 4, pp.226-229, (Seaton) and Valor Ecclesiasticus Temp Henry VIII, vol 5, (published 1825) pp. 291,265

Photo of Nunnery House by Bill Shannon

Posted by Bill Shannon