Houses of Benedictine nuns
Abbey of Wherwell

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Victoria County History

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H. Arthur Doubleday, William Page (editors)

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1903

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132-137

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'Houses of Benedictine nuns: Abbey of Wherwell', A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 2 (1903), pp. 132-137. URL: http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=38098 Date accessed: 20 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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5. THE ABBEY OF WHERWELL

The Benedictine nunnery of Wherwell was founded about 986 by Elfrida, the widow of King Edgar, in expiation for her part in the murders of her first husband Ethelwolf and of her son-in-law King Edward. Here she spent the latter part of her life in penitence, and here she was buried.

Elfrida died on 17 November, 1002, and the nuns ever after observed her obit on that day. An account of the founding of this abbey and its various obits, as well as an elaborate transcript of its evidences, is preserved in a stoutly bound chartulary, purchased by the British Museum in 1869, which has hitherto escaped attention. (fn. 10)

This chartulary of the abbey of Benedictine nuns of St. Cross, Wherwell, was compiled in the fourteenth century, and contains copies of 463 charters, records of suits and other documents, in Latin and French, from the confirmation by Henry III. of the foundation charter to 1364. There are also thirty-two charters of later insertion, and a few documents from the reign of Richard II. to that of Henry V. are copied at the end.

In the year of Elfrida's death, and apparently immediately after its occurrence, King Ethelred granted a charter of confirmation of all his mother's gifts to the abbey, which was then under the rule of the Abbess Heanfied. This grant included exemption from all earthly service, and the gift of land and houses at ' Edelingdene,' Winchester and Bullington. (fn. 11)

According to the Annals of Winchester and Florence of Worcester, Emma the mother, and Edith the wife, of Edward the Confessor were both for a time under confinement in the monastery of Wherwell, but there is some confusion between the king's wife and mother, and it seems doubtful whether Emma ever was sent to Wherwell. (fn. 12)

The Domesday returns of the abbey property, which lay entirely in Hampshire, comprised the vills of Wherwell, Tufton Goodworth, Little Anne, Middleton, Bullington, and houses in Winchester. (fn. 13) The annual revenue then amounted to £14. 10s.

About 1186 the Abbess Maud 'of sweet memory,' and of ' good and noble birth,' began her rule over the abbey, which she maintained for forty years, dying at the age of eighty. She was succeeded in 1226 by her friend and fellow worker Euphemia, in whose time a large number of undated charters relative to small gifts or grants was made.

She died on 26 April, 1257. Her benefactions to the abbey and her kindly rule are gratefully acknowledged by the compiler of the chartulary at considerable length. The following is a free English rendering of this important and interesting entry:—

On the 6th of the Kalends of May, in the year of grace, 1257, died the blessed mother abbess Euphemia, most worthy to be remembered, who, by our affection and good fellowship, and with divine sanction, succeeded the late abbess Maud of sweet memory. It is, therefore, most fitting that we should always perpetuate the memory, in our special prayers and suffrages, of one who ever worked for the glory of God, and for the weal of both our souls and bodies. For she increased the number of the Lord's handmaids in this monastery from forty to eighty, to the exaltation of the worship of God. To her sisters, both in health and sickness, she administered the necessaries of life with piety, prudence, care, and honesty. She also increased the sum allowed for garments by 12d. each. The example of her holy conversation and charity, in conjunction with her pious exhortations and regular discipline, caused each one to know how, in the words of the Apostle, to possess her vessel in sanctification and honour. She also, with maternal piety and careful forethought, built, for the use of both sick and sound, a new and large farmery away from the main buildings, and in conjunction with it a dorter and other necessary offices. Beneath the farmery she constructed a watercourse, through which a stream flowed with sufficient force to carry off all refuse that might corrupt the air.

Moreover she built there a place set apart for the refreshment of the soul, namely a chapel of the Blessed Virgin, which was erected outside the cloister behind the farmery. With the chapel she enclosed a large space, which was adorned on the north side with pleasant vines and trees. On the other side, by the river bank, she built offices for various uses, a space being left in the centre where the nuns are able from time to time to enjoy the pure air. In these and in other numberless ways, the blessed mother Euphemia provided for the worship of God and the welfare of the sisters. But notwithstanding all this, she also so conducted herself with regard to exterior affairs, that she seemed to have the spirit of a man rather than a woman. The court of the abbey manor, owing to the useless mass of squalid outbuildings, and the propinquity of the kitchen to the granary and old hall, was in much danger of fire; whilst the confined area and the amount of animal refuse was a cause of offence to both the feet and nostrils of those who had occasion to pass through. The mother Euphemia, realizing that the Lord had called her to the rule of the abbey of Wherwell, not that she might live there at ease, but that she might, with due care and despatch, uproot and destroy and dissipate all that was noxious, and establish and erect that which would be useful, demolished the whole of these buildings, levelled the court, and erected a new hall of suitable size and height. She also built a new mill, some distance from the hall, and constructed it with great care in order that more work than formerly might be done therein for the service of the house. She surrounded the court with a wall and the necessary buildings, and round it she made gardens and vineyards and shrubberies in places that were formerly useless and barren, and which now became both serviceable and pleasant. The manor house of Middleton, which occupied a dry situation and was close to a public thoroughfare, and was further disfigured by old and crumbling buildings, she moved to another site, where she erected permanent buildings, new and strong, on the bank of the river, together with farmhouses. She also set to work in the same way at Tufton, in order that the buildings of both the manor houses in that neighbourhood might be of greater service and safer against the danger of fire. These and other innumerable works, our good superior Euphemia performed for the advantage of the house, but she was none the less zealous in works of charity, gladly and freely exercising hospitality, so that she and her daughters might find favour with One Whom Lot and Abraham and others have pleased by the grace of hospitality. Moreover, because she greatly loved to honour duly the House of God and the place where His glory dwells, she adorned the church with crosses, reliquaries, precious stones, vestments, and books. And because the bell tower above the dorter fell down through decay one night, about the hour of mattins, when by an obvious miracle from heaven, though the nuns were at that moment in the dorter, some in bed and some in prayer before their beds, all escaped not only death but even any bodily injury, she caused another bell tower of worked stone to be erected, conformable to the fair appearance of the church and the rest of the buildings, of commanding height, and of exquisite workmanship. But as she advanced in years, towards the end of her life, there was imminent danger of the complete collapse of the presbytery of the church; by the advice of skilled builders, she caused the presbytery to be taken down to the last stones of the foundations; and because the ground was found to be undermined and unsafe, she caused the damp soil to be dug out to a depth of twelve feet till firm and dry ground was found, when, having invoked the grace of the Holy Spirit, with prayers and tears she laid with her own hands the first stone of the foundations. Moreover she rejoiced to have found favour with God, so that before her last days were ended she saw this work that she had begun brought to its desired end. Thus she, who had devoted herself when amongst us to the service of His house and the habitation of His glory, found the due reward for her merits with our Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers and merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the blessed apostles Sts. Peter and Paul, in whose honour, at the instigation of the abbess Euphemia, this church was dedicated, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost, ever liveth and reigneth God through all the ages of eternity. Amen.

The taxation of 1291 valued the temporalities of the Abbey of Wherwell at the very considerable sum of £201 18s. 5½d.; and, in addition to this, the abbess received pensions of £1 10s. from the church of Wallop and £1 6s. 8d. from the church of Berton.

On 12 August, 1291, Pope Nicholas IV. granted a relaxation of one year and forty days of enjoined penance to penitents who visited the church of the Abbess and Convent of Wherwell, on the four feasts of the Blessed Virgin, and on that of the Holy Cross and its octave. (fn. 1)

Bishop Pontoise visited this house in 1301, and ordered that silence should be better observed, and that there should be more diligence in the care of temporal matters; he also rebuked two of the religious for being quarrelsome. (fn. 2) In 1308 Bishop Woodlock visited Wherwell, but the visitation did not result in any injunctions. (fn. 3) In August, 1315, Abbess Isabel, staying in perpetual seclusion in her house like other abbesses and nuns of that order, according to a new constitution, nominated Robert de Cormailles and John de Swyltenham her attorneys for one year. (fn. 4)

Bishop Sandale, in March, 1317, directed the Archdeacon of Surrey to make inquiries respecting a poor clerk, John de Apola, in the town of Guildford and the district, whence he is said to have come, whether he was freeborn and legitimate, and of good life and honest conversation, and whether there is any papal or canonical obstacle to his holding a benefice. The result was to be made known to the Abbess and Convent of Wherwell, whence it would seem probable that John was a chaplain of that house, and about to be presented to one of their benefices. (fn. 5)

The right of the Crown at each election of an abbess to nominate a clerk to receive a pension from the monastery until he should be provided with a suitable benefice was exercised from time to time. (fn. 6)

On 14 August, 1319, the Abbess and Convent of Wherwell were cited by the bishop to a visitation that he proposed to hold at their house on the day after the feast of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin. As this visitation did not lead to any injunctions, it is fair to assume that the result was omnia bene.

In June, 1321, Bishop Asserio wrote letters to the convent requesting that Isabel, the daughter of Richard de Sutton, might be admitted as a nun. (fn. 7) In December, 1324, the bishop appointed John Berman to hear the nuns' confessions. (fn. 8)

At the beginning of the year 1330 Abbess Isabel Wyntreshull was probably seriously ill, for on 11 January the convent obtained letters patent granting that whenever her place became void through death or otherwise, the prioress and convent should have the custody and full and free administration of the temporalities. (fn. 9) This grant was confirmed two years later. (fn. 10) In March, 1331, the bishop interfered, and appointed a nun to preside over the convent in consequence of Isabel's impotence. (fn. 11)

There is evidence at this time of the widespread possessions of this convent (confined entirely to Hampshire at the Domesday Survey), for mandates for the restitution of the temporalities of Wherwellin 1333, to Abbess Maud, were sent to the escheators of the counties of Bedford, Berks, Bucks, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hants, Oxford, Somerset and Wilts. (fn. 12)

In 1334 an indulgence was obtained for the altar constructed in the conventual church of Wherwell in honour of our Lord's resurrection. (fn. 13) On 23 May, 1337, the house was visited by Bishop Orlton. (fn. 14)

In the time of the Abbess Maud (1333-40) an inventory of the ' jewels' in the custody of the sacrist was drawn up. It comprised a cup of silver gilt within and without, the gift of Abbess Maud, with thirteen gold rings affixed above, and precious stones affixed to the foot, pro Corpore Christi; a cup of silver not gilt, the gift of Abbess Ellen de Percy; a gilt cup for a ciborium; another gilt cup in the shape of a tower for a ciborium; another cup well gilt within and without for a ciborium; a silver pyx pro Corpore Christi; a cup (ciphus) of silver, with a foot on which was depicted St. Thomas of Canterbury; a gilt cup which bore the figure of St. Thomas of Canterbury; a lesser chalice gilt within and without; three small broken chalices; two small chalices for the high altar; a small chalice for the altar of St. Cross; a chalice for the altar of St. Catherine; a chalice for the altar of St. Mary Magdalene (the sum of the chalices pertaining to the church of Wherwell was eleven); two great crosses; two silver basins for the high altar; four silver cruets for wine and water for the altars; two silver cruets for daily use at the high altar; two silver candlesticks; a good censer of silver, and two worse ones of silver; two ships for incense, with two small spoons; a small silver crown, with eleven gold rings fixed in it, for the high altar; another better crown of silver, with nineteen gold rings; and two silver basins for the high altar. (fn. 1)

Wykeham was consecrated bishop on 10 October, 1367, and on the 17th received the temporalities from the king. He did not lose much time in making good his right to nominate a novice for the Wherwell nunnery, for on 14 October he ordered the abbess and convent to receive Joan Krompe, a lady of good and honourable condition. (fn. 2) In the following year the bishop sent letters to the Abbess of Wherwell straitly enjoining her, for the avoidance of scandalous gossip, never to allow friars nor any other religious or secular men to stay the night in the convent, and threatening canonical penalties if this order was neglected. (fn. 3)

On 3 March, 1377, Bishop Wykeham appointed Walter Chapellayne, a Franciscan of Winchester, to confess the nuns until the quindene of Easter. (fn. 4) This interim appointment was continued for between fifteen and sixteen years, when Walter Chapellayne's confessor's licence was revoked, and the abbess and convent were admonished, on 1 August, 1393, to accept Ralph Basyng, a monk of Winchester Cathedral, as their confessor. (fn. 5)

On 30 July, 1378, an inspection and confirmation was granted to the abbess and nuns of Wherwell, on a fee of one mark, of an unauthentic charter of King Alfred, purporting to grant the nuns the wood of Wherwell Harewood. (fn. 6) And again in December, 1384, letters patent were granted to the abbess, to the effect that during the king's life she should have chattels of fugitives. The abbey held Mestowe Hundred, and among other liberties the chattels of fugitives. In the late king's reign Henry Harold of Wherwell killed his wife Isabel and fled to the church of Wherwell. The abbess asserted her right, and his chattels were seized, to the value of £35 4s. 8d., by Gilbert Josep, her reeve. The question was tried by the judges of the Bench in the late reign, but though judgment had been found for the abbess to the effect that the king had no right to such chattels save in the time of voidance of the abbey, the decision was not formally delivered by reason of a difference of opinion among the justices. The signet letter of Richard II. also provided that the abbess should not be molested for the sum seized in the case of the fugitive Harold. (fn. 7)

On 16 June, 1393, excommunication was denounced against certain persons unknown who abducted Katherine Faukener, a nun of Wherwell. (fn. 8) A different colour is however given to this ' abduction ' by an entry in the episcopal register seven years later, namely on 12 April, 1400, when the Abbess of Wherwell was enjoined to receive Katherine Faukener, who had run away, the bishop urging that the Church ought never to shut its bosom to any one returning, in the firm hope of a fruitful penitence. (fn. 9)

On 31 March, 1501, the priory was visited by Dr. Hede, acting as commissary for the Prior of Canterbury, during the vacancy of the see. Maud Rowse, the abbess, testified to the regular attendance at the night and day hours; that the yearly rents had risen to 40 marks; that the house was not in debt nor any of its valuables pledged; that a balance sheet was presented in chapter every Michaelmas; that the common seal was kept in the treasury within two chests having six keys, of which two pertaining to the outer chest and one to the inner were in her custody, one of the outer and another of the inner chests in the custody of the prioress, and the other of the inner chest in the custody of the sacrist; and that there was sufficient store of grain and other things for the current year. Maud Byrte, prioress, stated that silence was duly observed at the customary times and places. Katherine Polton, sacrist, and Christine Hopkyn, precentor, and eighteen other members of the convent, including six novices, also gave evidence that omnia bene. (fn. 10)

The Abbess Maud died on 24 January, 1518; the convent obtained the congè d'ètre on 3 February. In a letter of Bishop Fox to Wolsey, dated 15 February, he thanks the Cardinal for expediting the king's letters for a free election of a new Abbess of Wherwell. As the sisters had made a choice pleasant to God and true to the king, he begged his favour for the bearer to obtain the royal assent. The sister who carried the letter was Avelene Cowdrey, the subprioress, selected by her fellow nuns as their abbess. The king gave his assent on 26 February, the bishop confirmed the election on 3 March, and on 13 March the temporalities were restored. (fn. 1)

In October, 1533, one John Cooke, a confidential servant of the Crown, was commended to the Abbess of Wherwell for a ' farm' both by the king and Cromwell, but the abbess declined. (fn. 2) It was probably owing to this among other causes that Sir William Poulet and Thomas Legh were instructed in the following April to move my lady of Wherwell to resign her office on an honest and competent pension, with liberty to stay in her own house, or in any other place of religion she liked. (fn. 3) In the first instance she plainly answered that she would in no case resign until she had spoken with the king himself. Disgraceful charges were now made against the abbess in connection with the Bishop of London, and she was summoned to London and appeared several times before the Council. A commission was appointed in June, 1534, to examine into the charges. (fn. 4) There is no formal record of the result, but it may be safely taken for granted that the scandal was rebutted. In September, 1535, those birds of ill-omen, Thomas Legh and John Ap-Rice, visited Wherwell monastery at Cromwell's command, and on the promise of the large pension of £20 per annum induced the prioress to resign. (fn. 5)

The election of Abbess Kingsmill on 25 September seems to have been arranged, as it was expected that she would be a ready tool in the hands of Cromwell for ' resignation ' purposes.

The low scheming to get hold of the plums of the falling abbeys receives apt illustration in the case of Wherwell. Abbess Kingsmill wrote in January, 1538, to Wriothesley, begging him to labour for the advowson of the prebend of Middleton for Dr. Legh, Now that it was void, Mr. Cooke pretended to a title to it, but the abbess hoped that Dr. Legh might enjoy their gift, for his learning and excellent qualities may profit her and her monastery, and not such as may buy it of Mr. Cooke, who, as she understands, has sold it to two or three already. (fn. 6) On 15 June of the same year, Mr. John Kingsmill, brother of the abbess, wrote to Wriothesley, begging for the prebend of Bath pertaining to the house of Wherwell, just vacant by the death of the prebendary, who was vicar of Wherwell. The next nomination was in Cromwell's hands, and if his lordship and Wriothesley esteemed it too small for them, he would like it for a friend of his sister the abbess or for himself. (fn. 7)

It was originally intended that the house should be granted to John Kingsmill, brother of the abbess, but on the eve of its surrender, Thomas West, Lord de la Warre, made such strong representations to Cromwell, because the nunnery stood so wholesomely in the country where he was born, and that his wife had no house to dwell in if he should die before her, that the site and estates of the house were eventually granted him. (fn. 8) Wherwell was surrendered on 21 November, 1539, when the complaisant abbess received the large annual pension of £40, the prioress £6, and twenty-three other nuns pensions varying from £5 to £2 13s. 4d.

At the time of the surrender ' The Houses and Buyldings assigned to remayne' were 'the late abbess lodging with the houses within the quadrante, as the water leadith from the easte side of the cloister to the gate, the farmery, the mylle and milhouse, with the slaughter house adjoynynge, the bruing and baking houses, with the granaries to the same, the barne and stabulles in the utter courte. Possession thereof delyvered to the Lord La Ware by force of Mr. Chancellor's letters.' The parts ' demed to be superfluous' were ' the church, quayer and steple covered with leade, the cloister covered with tyles and certain gutters of leade, the chapitre house, frayter, dormytory, convent kitchyn, and all th'olde lodgings betwene the granarie and the halle dore, covered with tyles.' The commissioners reserved ' to th' use of the king's magestie' 512½ ounces of silver plate. The ornaments, goods and cattle of the monastery, reserved for a like use, realized £75 18s. There were five bells in the steeple.

In addition to the pensions, three of the late religious of the monastery received by way of ' reward' or temporary forestalment of pension 40s. each, and four 20s. each. The sum of £25 3s. was also divided amongst forty-eight persons who had been chaplains, officials, or servants of the late monastery.

At the dissolution the lands returned as belonging to this abbey are the manors of Wherwell, Weston, Middleton, 'Totington,' Bullington, Good alias Goodworth, Clatford, Little Anne with all the prebend of Good alias Goodworth, ' Aisshesey ' in the Isle of Wight, East Compton with the portion of the tithes in ' Fowleston,' Bathwick, Woolley, ' Mattockesford ' in the parish of Botley, and lands, rents, etc., in Tetbury, 'Wringmershe,' Upton, ' Hethefylde ' and 'Bromeley,' Appleshaw, Wyke, Hursley, Estaston in the parish of Middleton, Winchester and Southampton. Also lands, rents, tithes, etc. in ' Hanydon' and 'Mildeston' in Wiltshire; in New bury and Inkpen in Berkshire; in ' Ertingdon,' Guildford and St. Nicholas next Guildford in Surrey.

The patronage of churches named by the commissioners includes the prebends of Wherwell and Milton and the vicarage of Goodworth in Hampshire, the vicarage of Compton in Berkshire, the parsonages of Collingborne and Everley in Wiltshire, and the prebend of Bathwick in Somerset. (fn. 1)

Abbesses Of Wherwell

Heanfled
Maud, 1186-1226
Euphemia, 1226-57
Mary, (fn. 4) 1259
Constance, (fn. 5) 1261-2
M. de Ticheburne, (fn. 6) 1262.
Mabel, 1270-81
Ellen de Percy, (fn. 7) 1282-98
Isabel de Wyntreshall, (fn. 8) 1298-1333
Maud de Littleton, (fn. 9) 1333-40
Amice Ladde, (fn. 10) 1340-61 (?)
Constance de Wyntereshall, (fn. 11) 1361
Joan Cotterell, (fn. 12) 1361-75
Cecily de Lavyngtone, (fn. 13) 1375-1412
Alice Parys, (fn. 14) 1412
Sibyl Boolde, died in 1451
Alice Serle, (fn. 15) 1451-2
Julian Overy, 1452-94
Maud Rowse, (fn. 16) 1494-1518
Avelene Cowdrey, (fn. 17) 1518-29
Anne Colte, (fn. 18) 1529-35
Morphita Kingsmill, (fn. 19) 1535-39

Footnotes

10 Egerton MS. 2104. The account of the founding is on f. 43.
11 Ibid. ff. 15, 16.
12 Freeman's Norman Conquest, ii. note H.
13 V.C.H, Hants, i. 475.
1 Cal. of Papal Letters, i. 540; Egerton MSS. 2104, f. 33b.
2 Winton. Epis. Reg., Pontoise, f. 32.
3 Ibid. Woodlock, f. 159.
4 Pat. 33 Edw. I. m. 14.
5 Winton Epis. Reg., Sandale, f. 9.
6 Close, 7 Edw. III. pt. 2, m. 5d. and Letters and Papers Hen. VIII. ii. 4031.
7 Winton. Epis. Reg., Asserio, f. 2b.
8 Ibid. f. 12b.
9 Pat. 3 Edw. III. pt. 2, m. 5.
10 Ibid. pt. 1, m. 34.
11 Winton. Epis. Reg., Stratford, f. 66.
12 Pat. 7 Edw. III. pt. 2, m. 5.
13 Winton. Epis. Reg., Orlton, i. f. 5.
14 Ibid. f. 54b.
1 The sacrist of the church of Wherwell had various important duties, and there were special rents, realizing a total of 72s. 10d., attached to the office. The chartulary contains no fewer than thirty-two charters relating to the office of the sacrist (ff. 2002-11b).
2 Winton. Epis. Reg., Wykeham, iii. 11b.
3 Ibid. f. 25a.
4 Ibid. f. 150b.
5 Ibid. f. 261b, 262.
6 Pat. 2 Ric. II. pt. 1, m. 38.
7 Ibid. 8 Ric. II. pt. 1, m. 5.
8 Winton. Epis. Reg., Wykeham, iii. f. 258.
9 Ibid. iv. f. 319b.
10 Sede Vacante Register, Canterbury.
1 Letters and Papers, Hen. VIII. ii. 3920, 3952, 3970, 4006.
2 Ibid. vi. 1361.
3 Ibid. vii. 527-9.
4 Ibid. vii. 907.
5 Ibid. ix. 344, 439.
6 Ibid, xiii. 8.
7 Ibid. xiii. 1190.
8 Ibid. xiv. 425, 1427, 544, 547-9; Pat. R. 31 Hen. VIII. pt. 4. m. 4.
1 Aug. Off. Misc. Books, ccccxciv. 17-21.
4 Egerton MS. 2104, f. 35.
5 Ibid. f. 45b.
6 Royal Letters, 2437.
7 Pat. 10 Edw. I. m. 18.
8 Ibid. 27 Edw. I. m. 27. The Wherwell Chartulary contains copies of the letter of Prioress Benedicta to the bishop, asking him to confirm the election of Isabel (Jan. 25), and of the bishop's letter of consent dated February 2 (Egerton's MSS. 2104, ff. 119, 119b, 184b.
9 Winton. Epis. Reg., Stratford, f. 139; Pat. 7 Edw. III. pt. 2, m. 11.
10 Ibid. Orlton, f. 87; Pat. 14 Edw. III. pt. 1, m. 23.
11 Ibid. Edingdon, f. 111 b.
12 Tanner's Notitia, xlii.
13 Winton. Epis. Reg., Wykeham, i. ff. 66, 67. Reference has already been made to this election in the Ecclesiastical History section.
14 Ibid. Beaufort, f. 48b; Rymer's Fœdera, viii. 764-5.
15 Ibid. Waynflete, i. ff. 40, 50.
16 Tanner's Notitia.
17 Letters and Papers, Henry VIII. ii. 3920, 3952, 3970, 4006.
18 Ibid. iv. 5799, 5838.
19 Pat. 27 Hen. VIII. pt. i. m. 44.