By Cait Stevenson
The priory at Amesbury is legendary—literally. It’s the convent where Thomas Malory has Guinevere retire to finish her life in penance. Malory followed his source material, the 14th century stanzic Morte Arthure, whose author had probably picked a convent where actual English royal women sometimes retired. The history of religious community at Amesbury stretched back even before the Norman conquest. By 1400, surely the house had hosted any number of devout, humble nuns who spent their lives praying for the souls of community patrons.
But you’re not here to read about those nuns, and I’m certainly not here to write about them.
From 1177, Amesbury had been a daughter house of the famous Fontevrault Abbey in Anjou, France, featuring both a women’s and a men’s community. But, for those of you keeping score at home, in the late fourteenth century England and France were none too happy with each other. Relations between mother and daughter house were strained to the point of nonexistence, and Amesbury was playing the part of the rebellious teenager. Monks were deserting their pastoral posts and in some cases their vows altogether; nuns were having covert affairs with local men and—worse—getting caught.
In 1398, with a special royal commission ready to impose outside control, prioress Sibyl Montague (Mountagu) stepped up and made darn sure everyone knew prior Robert Daubeneye (or Dawbeney) was to blame. Although some of her nuns sided with the prior, the powerful prioress expelled Daubeneye from the double-house without even a pension to support himself. In one of the most organized dioceses in one of the most organized national churches in Europe with connections to the secular government at all levels, surely Daubeneye as a deeply religious monk determined to restore his dignity would—
–hire a local gang to kidnap the prioress, yup.
In March 1400, indeed, the king’s court had to commission a squad of clerical and lay investigators to rescue Sibyl and her supporters from jail, arrest Daubeneye and the nuns who had collaborated with him, and—oh yeah—take back the gold and silver and jewels they had stolen from Amesbury.
Amazingly, the next we hear about the case is just ten days later, when, and I am not making this up, Daubeneye counter-sued. He claimed that his kidnapping Sibyl at arrow-point was justified because she was violating the community’s foundation and customs. In fact, Sibyl’s terrible horrible crime had been a move to centralize community authority. She had eliminated the high-ranking positions of eight monks and replaced them with local, non-monastic clergy (presumably her allies), and had taken it upon herself to conduct all of the house’s external affairs. Daubeneye tacked on some additional half-hearted accusations (“and done other evils,” says the court report), but his fall from power was clearly the painful heart of it.
The commission did what any good commission would do. They sent spies to the community to “inform themselves as well and secretly as possible about [the nuns’] behavior, governance, and conversation.” Quite naturally, the spies found just enough evidence to, of course, naturally, allow secular authorities to justify seizing control of the priory’s finances. Just until the leadership dispute was settled, naturally.
Of course, in practice, it turned out that the clerks assigned to run Amesbury’s business affairs were the most corrupt at all. They grabbed all the profits for themselves. And the last we hear about the matter is the frustrated archbishop of Canterbury stepping in to make sure the daughter house started acting like an adult.