Monday, April 25, 2016

The Abbey of Romsey and St. Etheldreda

The BBC reports on efforts to identify whose hair was found in a coffin under Romsey Abbey in the nineteenth century. There have been theories of course:

. . . about who the hair might have belonged to but nothing more than that. Frank Green, who is the archaeological adviser to Romsey Abbey, has been wondering about it for years.

"[We've always believed] it was a person of some significant status because there was originally an outer wooden coffin and an inner wooden coffin inside the lead one."

Over the years there has been speculation that it was the hair of a saint.

"The two saints are St Morwenna who was the first abbess here and St Ethelflaeda, who is our patron saint," Romsey's vicar, Reverend Canon Tim Sledge, explains.

"And I think that's the rather romantic, hopeful, aspirational thing about this. These two saints are unique to Romsey - no one else has ever heard of them. They are our two saintly celebrities."

The BBC story describes the testing that has been conducted so far and archaeologists can date it to the mid to late Saxon era.

Of course, the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII as recounted by British History Online:

Elizabeth Ryprose, the last abbess, was elected on 15 December, 1523. The documents relative to this election are set forth in great detail in the episcopal registers. (fn. 35) The temporalities were restored in the following month. (fn. 36) In November 1537 the abbey, alarmed at the fate of the smaller houses, procured an elaborate inspection and confirmation of all their royal charters from the time of Henry I. downwards. (fn. 37) But this was so much waste of parchment and fees.

Sir Richard Lister wrote to Cromwell in September, 1537, informing him that the nuns of Romsey, hearing they were in danger of suppression, were making leases and alienating their goods. He desired to know whether he was to stay them in this. (fn. 38)

On 28 December, 1538, John Foster reported to Sir Thomas Seymour as to the state of the house of Romsey. He pronounced the house out of debt; that the plate and jewels were worth £300; the bells worth £100. The church is described as a great sumptuous thing, all of freestone and covered with lead, and worth £300 or £400 more. The annual rents are returned at £481 1s. 8d. The names of the abbess, Elizabeth Ryprose, the prioress, Edith Banester, and the subprioress, Katharine Wadham, are set down, together with twenty-three other nuns. Mr. Foster wrote: ' In answer to your letter by Mr. Flemynge, whether the abbess and nuns would be content to surrender their house, the truth is, that, in consequence of the motion made by your kinswomen and other friends, they will be content to do you any pleasure, but they would be loath to trust to the commissioners' gentleness, as they hear that other houses have been straitly handled.' (fn. 39)

Nearly a third of this community had made their religious profession in July, 1534, very shortly before the beginning of their troubles. One of these was Katherine, youngest daughter of Sir Nicholas Wadham, Governor of the Isle of Wight, whose sister Jane had also been for some years a professed nun of the same abbey. John Foster, whose letter to Seymour has just been cited, lived at Baddesley near Romsey, and was convent steward. His reference to ' kinswomen' applied to the two Wadham nuns and to another nun of the name of Elizabeth Hill. Sir Nicholas Wadham's first wife was a daughter of Robert Hill of Antony, and his second was Margaret, sister to Queen Jane Seymour and Sir Thomas Seymour. Through their influence it was hoped that a quiet surrender would be made. (fn. 40)

Whether this was effected or not cannot now be asceertained, for there is no extant formal surrender. But the abbess and convent in January, 1539, had licence to alienate their lordships or manors of Edingdon and Steeple Ashton and all their lands and tenements in Hampshire and Wiltshire to Sir Thomas Seymour.

Notice that detail: "Nearly a third of the community had made their religious profession in July, 1534"--therefore this was an active, growing community with recent vocations and younger nuns. So now these young nuns were to be paid small pensions, not allowed to marry, cast out into the world by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, still bound by their vows but unable to live their vocations. This website offers more information about the abbey, which had suffered great losses during the Black Death, and other ups and downs through its history. 


  1. This is a fascinating story. A quick correction - St Ethelfleda of Romsey is not the same person as Etheldreda of Ely. Ethelfleda was abbess of Romsey in the tenth century, c.300 years after St Etheldreda's death, and her cult was, as the Canon correctly indicates, barely known outside Romsey either in the Middle Ages or today.