Wherwell Parish History III
In AD 1266 Henry III granted to the Abbess and her successors, the right to hold a weekly Market to be held on Wednesdays. There is no trace of this now, but it must have been a source of considerable profit to the Lord of the Manor.
Rumours of bad behaviour amongst nuns were constantly circulating, especially susceptible to temptation were the Abbesses. For example in 1284 the stern reformer Archbishop Peckham wrote injunctions to the Abbess of Wherwell. Apart from prohibiting young boys from attending the school, which was run there to educate children, he reprimanded the Abbess on her personal behaviour. Apparently she had been stinting her nuns of food and drink, whilst causing magnificent feasts to be prepared for herself in her own room. Peckham ordered that whenever there was a shortage of food in the convent, she was to dine with the nuns, and no meal was to be laid in her chamber for servants or strangers, but all visitors were to be entertained in the exterior guest hall. If at such times she were in ill health, and unable to use the common diet, she might remain in her room in the company of one or two of the nuns. At times when there was no lack of food in the convent and when she was entertaining guests in her own room, all potations were to cease and all servants and visitors to depart at the hour of compline. To reinforce his injunctions and ensure that they followed to the letter, Archbishop Peckham appointed a certain J. de Ver to act as co-adjutress (whose duties were no doubt similar to those of a political officer in the Red Army).
Further injunctions were written seeking to reverse the introduction of individual cells. It was felt that proper behaviour could only be ensured if sleeping arrangements were communal and there were not even curtains in the dorter. But it was an up-hill struggle. In 1368 William of Wykeham wrote to the Abbess of Wherwell: “Lately, it has come to our ears by popular report of trusty men, that contrary to the honesty of religion you admit various religious men, especially of the mendicant orders, lightly and promiscuously to pass the night in your habitations, from which grows much matter for laxity and scandal, since the cohabitation of religious clerks and nuns is altogether forbidden by the constitutions of the holy fathers”.
Again in 1387 William of Wykeham wrote exceptionally full and formal injunctions to ensure the correct and proper claustration of all the nuns. He also complains of the abbess’ illicit detention of “certain distributions and pittances as well as in money as in spices” which divers benefactors had bestowed.
However, a study of the visitation documents makes clear that the nuns never really made any attempt to obey the rule, which imposed a strict enclosure upon them. In the end the church decided to try to regulate rather than control this behaviour. For example the rules for visiting friends ran as follows:
“No lady of religion is to go and visit her friends, but if it be once a year at the most and then for reasonable cause and by permission; and then let her have a companion professed in the same religion, not of her own choice but whomsoever the Prioress will assign to her and she who is once assigned to her for companion shall not be assigned the next time…”
Wherwell remained an important and peaceful place for years, looking after the needs of the surrounding neighbourhood and even helping King Henry VIII in AD 1523 by supplying 52 Archers and 118 Billmen when a muster of men was called in Hampshire to help in the war with France. But life in the Abbey was never to recover the peak it had reached under Euphemia and immediately thereafter. The most serious blow was the Black Death, which ravaged the area in the period 1348 and 1349. By 1501 the number of nuns had only recovered to 22, whilst at the time of the dissolution on 20th November 1539 this had risen to 25.
The Dissolution of the monasteries, which followed as a result of Henry VIII’s quarrel with the Pope, was an inevitable step to bind the propertied classes to his assumption of authority over the Church in England. The economic impact was great, and not everyone felt that the change was for the good. A petition was presented to the King at the time:
"Great hurt and decay is thereby come, and hereafter shall come to your realm, and great impoverishment of many your poor obedient subjects, for lack of hospitality and good householding which was in them to be kept to the great relief of the poor people of all the country adjoining to the said monasteries, besides the maintenance of many servants, husbandmen and labourers that daily were kept in the said religious houses”.
Nevertheless there was to be no turning back. The last Abbess of Wherwell was Morphuet Kyngesmill, cousin of the last Prior and first Dean of St Swithin's Cathedral at Winchester, and sister of one of the Commissioners of the Dissolution. It is to be noted that she was able to arrange for herself an annual pension of £40 p.a. A considerable sum in those days. The former prioress of Wherwell, Alice Gilford, received a mere £6 p.a.