WILTON ABBEY

A Benedictine convent in Wiltshire, England, three miles from Salisbury. A first foundation was made as a college of secular priests by Earl Wulstan of Wiltshire, about 773, but was after his death (800) changed into a convent for 12 nuns by his widow, St. Alburga, sister of King Egbert. Owing to the consent given by this King he is counted as the first founder of this monastery. St. Alburga herself joined the community, and died at Wilton. King Alfred, after his temporary success against the Danes at Wilton in 871, founded a new convent on the site of the royal palace and united to it the older foundation. The community was to number 26 nuns.

Wilton is best known as the home of St. Edith, the child of a "handfast" union between Edgar, King of the English (944-75), and Wulfrid, a lady wearing the veil though not a nun, whom he carried off from Wilton probably in 961. After Edith's birth, Wulfrid refused to enter into a permanent marriage with Edgar and retired with her child to Wilton. Edith, who appears to have been learned, received the veil while a child, at the hands of Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester, and at the age of fifteen refused the abbacy of three houses offered by her father. She built the Church of St. Denis at Wilton, which was consecrated by St. Dunstan, and died shortly afterwards at the age of twenty-three (984). Her feast is on 16 Sep. St. Edith became the chief patron of Wilton, and is sometimes said to have been abbess. In 1003 Sweyn, King of Denmark, destroyed the town of Wilton, but we do not know whether the monastery shared its fate. Edith, the wife of Edward the Confessor, who had been educated at Wilton, rebuilt in stone the monastery which had formerly been of wood. In 1143 King Stephen made it his headquarters, but was put to flight by Matilda's forces under Robert of Gloucester. The Abbess of Wilton held an entire barony from the King, a privilege shared by only three other English nunneries, Shaftesbury, Barking, and St. Mary, Winchester.

In 1485, with the arrival of the new Tudor dynasty, changes began to take place all over the country. The chief effect on Wilton was the confiscation and closure of the Abbey on 25 Mar 1539. King Henry VIII is often accused of destroying the country's religious foundations merely in order to fill his depleted coffers, but the truth of the matter is that many of the monasteries and abbeys had deviated greatly from their original purpose, and few of their original duties - offering prayers, giving of alms and providing hospitality - were being carried out in the manner their founders had intended. The Abbey of Wilton was no exception; there had been scandals at various times in the past, and King Henry is on record as having made a number of accusations against the Abbess, Isabella Jordan, sister of Agnes, the Abbess of Syon. Her appointment as Abbess of Wilton led almost directly to the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. Anne Boleyn was detemined, at the death of the old Abbess Cecily Willoughby, on 24 Apr 1528, to get Eleanor Carey, the sister of her brother in law, Sir William Carey, elected as Abbess. The Cardinal, to whom the nuns had delegated the choice of a new Abbess, wished to appoint Isabella, who was the Prioress at that time, and promised to appoint Eleanor as Prioress. His Commissary, by the simple method of imprisoning the nuns who objected, got the convent to elect her. The King was furious, not so much because Isabella was 'spotted with incontinence' and had had in her young days two illegitimate children, as for his promise to Anne to have this place to Eleanor or other Carey sister who was also a nun at Wilton. But Dame Eleanor had no better reputation than Isabella. 'As touching the matter of Wilton', Henry wrote to Anne, 'my lord cardinal has had the nuns before him and examined them, Master Bell being present, who has certified to me that for a truth she has confessed herself (which we would have abbess) to have had two children by sundry priests, and further since has been kept by a servant of Lord Broke that was, and not long ago; wherefore I would not for all the world clog your conscience nor mine to make her ruler of a house who is of such ungodly demeanour, nor I trust, you would not that neither for brother nor sister I should so stain mine honour and conscience'. For a short time the Cardinal's nominee won the place. But Anne never forgave it.

In 1534 the said Isabella was replaced by Cecily Bodenham whose appointment was made not by the choice of the nuns of the community as had always been the custom in the past, but by the nomination of the Court. This appointment was strange because the previous Abbess was not yet dead and, because Cecily Bodenham was not of the Abbey but from a small Priory in Kingston St Michael. She was, however known to both King Henry and Anne Boleyn . She was obviously compliant to the King’s wishes during the Dissolution for one of the nuns recorded in her diary:

"Methinks the Abbess hath a faint heart and doth yield up our possessions to the spoiler with a not unwilling haste …Master Richard Neville, the Sub-Seneschal, informeth me that His Majesty’s Commissioners do purpose to reward her with a fair house at Foffount and a goodly stipend withal."

During her tenure, Cecily Bodenham leased Fuggleston Manor, held by the abbey, to Henry Bodenham, doubtless a relative, but when she surrendered the abbey, she claimed to be “without father, brother, or any assured friend” .

Cecily Bodenham surrendered her convent on 25 Mar 1539. The nuns were each awarded an annual pension, ranging from Cecily Bodenham's one hundred pounds together with a property at Fovant, a Prioress who retired on £10 p.a., down to an annuity which varied from £7.6.8d to £2 for the most junior of the nuns. In all thirty-three nuns were provided for at a cost of nearly three hundred pounds a year.

The Abbess brought about a dozen nuns with her to the Manor Farm House, the others were either settled in Ung’s Farm (just outside Wilton) or to other Houses of their choice. Apart from the house they were given an orchard, gardens, 3 acres of meadow and one load of wood p.a. from Fovant woods. While in Fovant she paid for the building of the south aisle of St George’s Church, and her coat of arms was still there many years later when John Aubrey visited in the late 18 th century.

The rich lands and properties of Wilton went to the Crown and all the other goods were confiscated. In 1541 a large portion of the estate was granted to Sir William Herbert, a descendent of the Earls of Pembroke of the first creation.

to Life Page to Home Page