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The Priory of Chicksands

Alabaster figure of the Father and Son from Chicksands Priory [Z50/28/1]
Alabaster figure of the Father and Son from Chicksands Priory [Z50/28/1]

The priory of Chicksands was founded as a house of the Gilbertine order – the only monastic order originating from Britatin. The Gilbertines revived the idea of the double monastery, in which a society of canons regular ministered to the needs of a community of enclosed nuns. The sexes were strictly separated, joining only for services, and even then with the added protection of a stone partition so high that they could not see each other which ran the length of the church keeping canons and nuns completely segregated.

The Victoria County History for Bedfordshire tells us that the Priory of Chicksands was founded in around 1150 by Payn and Roias de Beauchamp, Baron of Bedford and his wife. The Priory was considered to be Roias's foundation, and she was frequently at the Priory following Payn's death. When her son, Geoffrey de Mandeville (by her first husband of the same name) died in 1166, she attempted to arrange for his burial at Chicksands. However, the monks of Warden Abbey insisted that Geoffrey be buried at Walden Abbey, as his father, their founder, had been. Roias tried to prevent this by sending his body to Chicksands with an armed retainer. However she was intercepted, and his body taken to Warden. In response, Roias removed all the furniture and hangings from the earl's private chapel at Warden to Chicksands Priory! When the Countess died she herself was buried at Chicksands.

The priory was well endowed and in the beginning could support many canons, nuns and lay brothers – possibly as many as a hundred. However, a series of bad harvests in the early to mid-13th century meant that in 1257, fifty members of the priory community had to be relocated to other Gilbertine houses. The whole Manor of Chicksands was confirmed to the priory in 1317, but this did not resolve the fact that the priory was in debt, and remained so for some time. On four occasions between 1340 and 1347 the prior was forced to sue for a remission of tithes due to the king.

Although it's possible that the priory's finances may have improved after this, the deed of surrender issued during Henry VIII's dissolution listed only eight canons and eighteen nuns at Chicksands. The priory was surrendered on 22nd October 1538, with pensions being assigned to the canons, the prioresses, and possibly the nuns.

What was likely the canon's cloister, located south of the church, still survives, although drastically altered. The only surviving feature of the church is a 13th century south doorway [CRT130/CHI6]

A description of Beadlow Cottage near Clophill which appeared in a sale catalogue in 1973 suggested that 'It is always possible that underneath the property is a long since hidden cellar', claiming that 'legend has it that from the cottage a tunnel was once driven to the nearby Chicksands Priory' (Z160/922). David Garner, writing in 1987 also mentioned tunnels leading from the Priory. Two which supposedly run between the Priory and Campton and Haynes Churches, have never been found. The only tunnel to have been found passes beneath the nearby river, and its original purpose is unknown. Garner also mentions a hunt which took place for a tunnel which allegedly led to Barclays Bank in Shefford! Despite many searchers however, this was 'disappointingly' unsuccessful [X758/12/26].

Roger Ward tells us that Chicksands Priory even has its own ghost legend, in the shape of the 'fallen nun'. Allegedly, one of the Priory's nuns named Rosata was friendly with one of the canons. This developed into a romantic relationship, and eventually, Rosata became pregnant with the canon's child. When her condition became known, the Prior was so furious that he ordered Rosata to watch her lover be executed, before being walled up alive in the cloisters. A plaque can be seen in the priory which translates as "By virtues guarded and manners graced, Here, alas, is fair Rosata placed". In the twentieth century, Air Force personnel and members of the public have enjoyed strange experiences at the Priory. According to the legend, Rosata walks free of her imprisonment in the East cloisters, seeking the father of her unborn baby, on the 17th of each month [CRT130/CHI5].

Known Priors of Chicksands

  •  Walter – occurs 1204-5 and 1209-10
  •  Simon – occurs 1224
  •  Thomas – occurs 1240
  •  Hugh – occurs 1245
  •  William de Hugate – occurs 1309
  •  Simon
  •  John de L'isle – occurs 1316, 1324, 1325
  •  John Bruton – occurs 1388
  •  Ralf – occurs 1409
  •  Stephen – occurs 1473
  •  John Atoun – occurs 1481 and 1493
  •  John Spencer – occurs 1529 and 1535
  •  John Plomer – occurs 1538

Known Prioresses of Chicksands

  •  Emma – occurs 1428
  •  Margaret Burton and Margaret Graynger – occurs 1538

A number of resources are available which provide further information about the priory. These include further pages on this website, pamphlets published by The Friends of Chicksands Priory [pamphlet 130 CHI]. Detailed notes concerning the building itself, created by Dr Andor Gomme [CRT 130 CHI 6], and a description in O'Brien and Pevsner's The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough (2014). All of these resources are available in our public search room.