Monthly Archives: April 2012

Naughty Nuns

The origin of the Priory of St Radegund is not clear.During the 12th century nuns were granted land and property to support ‘the nuns of cell newly founded outside the town of Cambridge’.   The new Priory accumulated a healthy property portfolio that included farms in the local villages,houses in Cambridge and two churches (All Saints in the Jewry, now All Saints Passage, and St Clement Danes, in Bridge Street) as well as fishing and river rights along the Cam.

However, such benefits although numerous were small scale and the convent was never wealthy.

When, in 1277 their bell-tower fell in and fire twice, 1313 and 1376, destroyed their home and possessions , the shortage of funds was pressing. On a visit by an Archbishop in 1373 the prioress was accused of failing in her duties as she had allowed the building to deteriorate, let the nuns go out of the cloister with little excuse, failed to make one of the sisters get up to attend matins and welcomed friars and scholars to visit her at inopportune times.

Another Archbishop visiting the Priory in 1389 found one of the nuns living in sin and a secular habit.

Things were no better in the 15th century. A Bishop Alcock visited in 1487 and declared that all the nuns were unfit.  By 1496 the priory was in utter ruin.

It was suggested that, the priory, its lands and assets:

‘through the negligence and the imprudent and dissolute character and incontinency of the Prioresses and religious women of the said house, caused by its proximity to the University of Cambridge, are to such an extent dilapidated, destroyed, devastated, alienated, diminished and removed and the women themselves are reduced to such great want and poverty that they do not have the means to maintain or support the divine offices, hospitality or other matters of mercy and piety there to be practised according to the original foundation and ordinance of their founders or in any way to sustain or support themselves’.

Whatever the truth of this, in June 1496 Henry VII gave Bishop Alcock permission to found what was to become Jesus College on the site. The master, fellows and scholars of the new college were to inherit:

‘the said house or Priory and of all and each of its lands, tenements, rents, services, fees, portions and other possessions bestowed of old upon and gathered in the same Priory, both spiritual and temporal, and the jewels and any ecclesiastical ornaments whatsoever belonging to and pertaining to the same’

This still meant the rents from property in the surrounding villages and houses in Cambridge, sale of corn and stores, tithes,payments from the vicar of St Clements, receipts for dues payable in the market and profits from the fair which the nuns were allowed to hold on the Festival of Assumption.

This was the Garlick Fair, celebrated annually within the walls of the nunnery in what was the Nuns’ Close, now the Master of Jesus College’s garden.  Later the College moved the fair to the western part of the Close, where it gave its name to Garlick Fair Lane, now Park Street.

The Garlick Fair was never grand and few details remain in written records. Nevertheless, its longevity must mean that it had some economic and social significance in the Cambridge area. It continued into the 19th century.

Whether the nuns of St Radegund were as decadent as was accused or were simply struggling to survive in a male dominated world, we will never know.  They certainly fell foul of the trend to endow colleges at Cambridge, shared by kings and other wealthy benefactors with an eye to the immortality of their souls.

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