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Saxon Rule

At the time of the Norman Conquest, the Saxons had only two monastic establishments of note in Herefordshire, a monastery in Leominster and St. Guthlac's in Hereford itself. The Priory at Leominster has very early beginnings as a nunnery in the 9th century, founded probably by one of the female members of the ruling Saxon family. These convents were run by very influential abbesses, who were in many cases royal princesses and often very scholarly. According to one source, the nuns at Barking were "well versed not only in Latin, writing and grammar but also in law, history and poetry" (Joe Hillaby, "Early Christian and Pre-Conquest Leominster: An Exploration of the Sources" in Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, Volume XLV Part III, 1987, p. 586). It is important to remember that this is a period in history when few people could read and write, and it was even more unusual for a woman to be able to do so.

Historians have traditionally underestimated the sphere of influence of women, and the lack of contemporary sources makes the study of the role of women in this early period of English history difficult. However, more recent scholarship is reassessing the position of women in both the Saxon period and the later Middle Ages.

It is well known that many Saxon monasteries and convents were attacked and pillaged by Vikings. The convent at Leominster, however, suffered at the hands of a powerful Saxon nobleman. In 1046, on his way home from a military expedition to Wales, Swein, brother of Harold Godwinson (later to be King Harold), had the abbess dragged out of the convent by force and then raped her. In fact, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he "kept her as long as it suited him, and afterwards let her travel home" (p.164). After this appalling incident, the convent was closed and Swein exiled from England. This was one of several reasons why the Godwinson family fell out of favour with King Edward the Confessor and why he appointed his Norman nephew Ralph as Earl of Hereford. Leominster Priory was not re-founded until 1123, when it was set up as a priory under the rule of Reading Abbey. 

St. Guthlac's Priory, Hereford

St.Guthlac's Priory was situated in the castle precinct in Hereford, until it was moved in 1143 to a site near the present Commercial Road and Country Bus Station, when it became affiliated with St. Peter's in Hereford and with the Abbey in Gloucester. During excavations on Castle Green numerous bones were uncovered which are believed to have come from St.Guthlac's cemetery.

Both Leominster Priory and St.Guthlac's Priory followed the rule of the Benedictine Order.

For more information on St. Guthlac's, see Ron Shoesmith, "St. Guthlac's Priory, Hereford", in Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club, Volume XLIV Part III, 1984, pp. 321-357.
[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2002-3]

Last Updated: 20/07/2009 17:24:29