20 October 2022

Dame Dorothy Comberford,
an important abbess in
Tudor London, and her family

The Minories in London was once an influential house of Poor Clares … but who was Dame Dorothy Comberford, one of the last Abbesses? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Shortly before the Dissolution of the Monastic Houses at the beginning of the Tudor Reformation, Dame Dorothy Comberford was one of the last Abbesses of the Minoresses of Saint Clare without Aldgate, near the Tower of London.

Her lifetime first as a prominent nun and then as abbess in this important abbey in London can be traced in contemporary documents, that show she yielded considerable influence in the Church in the decades immediately preceding the Reformation. However, placing her in the Comberford family tree and ascertaining her biographical and genealogical data and her immediate family connections with any certainty are proving far more difficult tasks.

Surviving documents show Dorothy Comberford was the abbess from 1524 in succession to Alice FitzLewes, until around 1531, and she used her position and influence to secure the appointment of another family member, the Revd Richard Comberford, as Vicar of Hartington in Derbyshire and in the Diocese of Lichfield in 1528.

The Abbey of the Minoresses of Saint Clare without Aldgate was also known variously as the ‘Abbey of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Aldgate,’ or the ‘House of Minoresses of the Order of Saint Clare of the Grace of the Blessed Virgin Mary,’ or the ‘Minoresses without Aldgate,’ or ‘Saint Clare outside Aldgate,’ or the ‘Minories, London.’

Saint Botolph without Aldgate seen from the Minories … the Minories stood within the parish outside the mediaeval walls of the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The abbey was a community of Franciscan women living an enclosed life. It was established in the late 13th century on a site often said to be of five acres, although it may have been half that size. It stood in the parish of Saint Botolph at Aldagte, outside the mediaeval walls of the City of London, in a place now known as The Minories, which is, in turn, a corruption of the term minoresses.

The women in the enclosed abbey were popularly known as Poor Clares, the female equivalent of the Franciscans or Friars Minor, which explains the name Minoresses. Their house in Aldgate was founded by 1291, and some authorities say the community may have been on the site as early as 1281.

There is a persistent tradition that the house was founded by Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, a son of Henry III of England and brother of King Edward I. The Poor Clares of Aldgate, it is said, were brought to England by Edmund’s second wife, Blanche of Artois, the widowed Queen of Navarre. The nuns probably came to London from a house in Longchamp in France, founded by Blanche’s aunt, Isabella, a sister of King Louis IX of France, who gave her name to the Isabella Rule for the Poor Clares.

The endowments of the Minories included the lands and Manor of Hartington, in Dovedale, on the borders of Derbyshire and Staffordshire

Edmund Lancaster provided an initial endowment of lands and tenements in the London suburbs and later in Derbyshire, including the lands and Manor of Hartington. Hartington is 12 miles north of Ashbourne, at the north end of Dovedale in Derbyshire and the Peak District National Park. It is on the banks of the River Dove, which marks the border with Staffordshire, and was in the Diocese of Lichfield.

The Domesday Survey (1086) makes no mention of a church in Hartington, but the Manor of Hartington was then held by the Ferrers family, and Saint Giles Church may date from the 12th century. The market and fair rights, dating from the reign of King John, were obtained by William Ferrers, Earl of Derby, in 1204. The Ferrers family also held Matlock, Brassington, and other neighbouring lands.

On the attainder of Robert de Ferrers, Hartington was granted to King Edward I’s brother, Edmund of Lancaster, and the manor remained annexed to the Duchy of Lancaster until the early 17th century. The church in Hartington, with all its profits, was given to the Minoresses of Aldgate by Edmund as their earliest endowment. The appointment of the Vicar of Hartington was in the gift of the Minoresses, and an institution on their nomination is recorded in the Lichfield Diocesan Registers in the year 1335.

From the outset, the abbey’s royal foundation and continuing royal connections gave a certain cachet to the house. In the early days, women aspiring to become professed nuns had to be of noble birth, although by the 14th century the daughters of wealthy merchants were also entering.

After the death of Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick, in 1401, his widow Margaret Beauchamp (née Ferrers), was given papal permission to reside in the abbey with three matrons. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, placed his young daughter Isabel in the abbey. He had a house next to the conventual church and was allowed to have a private entrance so he could visit her.

The Abbess sent a gift of distilled water of roses to the Tower of London for Elizabeth of York, the wife of Henry VII, in 1502. The Queen, in turn, gave a gift of money to three nuns and a servant of the Abbess.

The Minories had close links with the Tower of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Dorothy Comberford was a nun in the Minories by 1514, when Nicholas Shelton made a bequest to her and to his son-in-law Thomas Comberford.

The abbey suffered more than once from the plague and other epidemics. The Bubonic Plague reappeared in London in 1514, driving Henry VIII and many other leading people, including Erasmus, away from the city. A resurgence of the plague came the following year by April, and 27 of the abbey’s nuns died of the plague in 1515.

The convent buildings were destroyed by fire shortly after the outbreak of plague. In addition to gifts from of private individuals, the mayor, aldermen, and citizens of London made a contributions of 200 marks. Cardinal Wolsey made a special request to the Court of Common Council in 1520 and another 100 marks were given to complete the rebuilding. Henry VIII also gave £200 at this time, although within two decades he would close and despoil the house.

The list of the abbesses is incomplete. But after the plague and fire, Dame Dorothy Comberford is recorded as Abbess in 1524, 1526, 1529 and again in 1531. As Dorothy Comberford, abbess of the Minoresses of Saint Clare without Aldgate, London, she signed the lease of the Rectory of Hartington 1526, and her signature appears on the receipt.

The monument to George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, in Sheffield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

This receipt from Dorothy Comberford as abbess is dated 20 October 1526 and confirms that she and the convent had received £26 30s 4d from George Talbot (1468-1538), 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, for the lease of the Rectory of Hartington, Derbyshire, and the house there.

The Talbots of Shrewsbury already had a long connection with the abbey, and at least four prominent women in the family of were buried there, including George Talbot’s mother:

• Lady Catherine Stafford, Countess of Shrewsbury, daughter of Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, and wife of John Talbot (1448-1473), 3rd Earl of Shrewsbury.

• Lady Elizabeth Talbot (1443-1507), wife of John de Mowbray, 4th Duke of Norfolk. She was a daughter of John Talbot (1387-1453), 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. Her sister, Lady Eleanor Butler (1436-1468), was allegedly a mistress of Edward IV and was later known as ‘the Holy Harlot’. On the sudden death of her husband, Elizabeth was forced to take a diminished dower, and she lived in the Great House within the Close in the Minories at a rent of £10.

• Lady Anne Mowbray (1472-1481), youngest daughter of the 4th Duke of Norfolk and child bride of Edward IV’s son, Richard Duke of York, one the ‘Princes in the Tower.’ When Anne died shortly before her ninth birthday, she was buried in Westminster Abbey but her body was moved in 1502 to her mother at the Minories, where she was buried there as Dame Anne, Duchess of York.

• Mary Champernoun, wife of Sir Humphrey Talbot (ca 1434-1492), who died at Saint Catharine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai. She asked in her will which to be buried ‘within the inner choer of the churche of the Mynores withoute Algate of London.’

Affixed to this receipt, which is now in the British Museum, is an imperfect version of the seal of Dorothy Comberford. It is in the shape of a pointed oval or a lozenge, red, showing the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, and in the base on the left the abbess kneeling in prayer under a carved arch, and with a fragmentary legend, ‘…bbatiss … de gr…ie…’.

Another seal of the same abbess represents a female saint, full length, holding in her right hand a pair of pincers and in her left a book. The legend reads: Sigillvm Ord’ Minoris.

The seal of Dame Dorothy Comberford as Abbess of the Abbey of Saint Clare at the Minories

Dorothy Comberford also used her position and influence to secure the appointment of another family member, the Revd Richard Comberford, as Vicar of Hartington in Derbyshire and in the Diocese of Lichfield in 1528.

The Revd William Bray became Vicar in 1509 after the death of the Revd William Cockys. Then, after Bray’s death, Richard Comberford became Vicar in 1528, although the Lichfield Episcopal Registers show he needed a papal dispensation to accept this nomination, not because of any perceived nepotism but because of his youth.

As the prioress of the Minories, Dame Dorothy Comberford, granted a 33-year lease of Appledurcombe Priory on the Isle of Wight to Sir James Worsley (1495-1538) in 1528. The priory of Appledurcombe was held by the Crown during the wars with France in the reigns of Edward I and III, and was suppressed with other alien houses in 1414, and was bestowed by the Crown on the Nuns Minoresses without Aldgate. When the convent of the Minoresses was suppressed in 1538, Worsley was perfectly positioned to obtain a permanent grant of Appledurcombe Priory before he died.

Dorothy Comberford was still the abbess in 1531, and was succeeded soon after by the last abbess, Dame Elizabeth Salvage.

When the Valor Ecclesiasticus was published in 1535, Hartington still remained in the hands of the Minoresses. Robert Morton was then the Vicar, and the endowment of the vicarage consisted of three houses; the Easter dues; fees for marriages, funerals and the purification of women; and the tithes of pigs, ducks, geese, and hemp; the whole bringing in an average income of £10 (the equivalent of £6,614 in 2022).

Dorothy Comberford’s successor, Dame Elizabeth Salvage, was the last Abbess, and in 1539 she had to surrender the house with the dissolution of the monastic houses. When the Nunnery of the Poor Clares was dissolved, its property was valued by the last abbess at £418 8s 5d (the equivalent of £313,000 in 2022).

The abbess, Dame Elizabeth Salvage, received a life pension of £40 a year (the equivalent of £30,000 in 2022), four nuns received life pensions of £3 3s 8d each, 10 nuns received £2 13s 4d, nine nuns £2, and a novice £1 6s 8d. No provision was made for the six lay sisters.

There is a possibility that Dorothy Comberford did not die in office, but that she had retired to another community. Dorothy Comb’ford or Comberford appeared on a list of pensions granted to the late abbess and sisters of the surrendered Elstow Abbey, a Benedictine Abbey of nuns in Bedfordshire. It was closed in 1539, and the abbess and 23 nuns were pensioned off.

Following the Dissolution, the abbey in Minories was for a time the residence of John Clerk, Bishop of Bath and Wells. Later, it housed officers of the Tower of London. During the reign of Edward VI, it was given in 1552 to Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk, the father of Lady Jane Grey. It reverted to the Crown in 1554, and housed the Ordnance Office and its stores when they transferred there from the Tower of London.

The Merchant Sailors’ War Memorial in Trinity Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The nuns’ chapel became a parish church, and was known as the Church of the Holy Trinity by 1563. Considerable changes were made to the building: all the ancient monuments were removed, a gallery, a new pulpit and pews were installed, and a steeple was built. The church escaped the Great Fire of London but fell into disrepair and was rebuilt in brick in 1706, retaining the north wall of the mediaeval building.

The church claimed the rights of a royal peculiar until 1730, outside the jurisdiction of the Diocese of London, and the right to perform marriages without licence. Some of the abbey buildings survived until they were destroyed by fire in 1797.

The church was closed in 1899 and united with the parish of Saint Botolph’s Aldgate. The former church continued in use as a parish hall until it was destroyed by bombing during World War II. The mediaeval north wall survived until the clearance of the site in 1956-1958.

The modern street named Minories runs north-south from Aldgate to Tower Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Minories remains the name of a small former administrative unit, and also of a street in London. Both the street and the former administrative area take their name from the Abbey of the Minoresses of Saint Clare without Aldgate. Both are just to the east of, and outside, the line of London’s former defensive walls in the East End.

The modern street named Minories runs north-south from Aldgate to Tower Hill. A side-street off Minories is named Saint Clare Street. The area of the former administrative unit was outside the City of London (most recently in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets), with the street partially in the City and partly in Tower Hamlets. Boundary changes in 1994 mean the area of both is now wholly within the City of London.

Meanwhile, Dorothy Comberford’s receipt and seal, along with other documents from the abbey, were bought by the British Museum in 1804, when the library of the antiquarian John Topham (1746-1803) was sold by Sotheby’s.

A small side-street off Minories is named Saint Clare Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Identifying Dame Dorothy Comberford

While many details of Dorothy Comberford’s time as Abbess in Aldgate, including her property transactions in Derbyshire, Bedfordshire and Hampshire, survive, we are still left wondering about the precise details of her life in the nunnery. We know she was a nun by 1518, but do not know when she entered the priory; we know that she was abbess or prioress between 1524 and 1531, but we do not know the precise year she was appointed, nor do we know whether she died in office or retired to another house, and if so, where she lived and died in the post-Dissolution years.

It is even more difficult to identify her place in the Comberford family tree and to be sure about her parents or siblings. Indeed, the same could be said about Richard Comberford, whom she appointed in his youth to be Vicar of Hartington in Derbyshire in 1528.

Dorothy Comberford’s influential place in church life and her social standing, and her connection with the Diocese of Lichfield may indicate that both she and Richard Comberford were members of the Comberford family of Comberford Hall, near Lichfield and Tamworth. But even then, these are no more than mere genealogical clues and no certainties.

Similarly, the connections of the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury, with the convent may point to a Staffordshire link. But, while the Talbot family had political connections with the Comberford family, these are tenuous links that provide no verifiable evidence; indeed, the Talbots had wider property interests and family political alliances throughout late mediaeval England.

Pancras Lane … Thomas Comberford owned a number of properties in Saint Pancras Parish for a brief time in the 1510s and 1520s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The bequest by Nicholas Shelton to Dorothy Comberford and to his son-in-law Thomas Comberford in his will in 1514 might at first appear to offer a clue to her place in the Comberford family tree, but actually raise more questions than it answers.

This Thomas Comberford seems to be the same person as Thomas Comberford who, for a brief time in the 1510s and 1520s, owned a number of properties in Saint Pancras Parish, having succeeded to them after the death of Thomas Fyscher or Fisher, but his name disappears from the records of the parish some time in the 1520s.

I have speculated that this may be the same person as Thomas Comberford (1472-1532) of Comberford. He was a lawyer, a member of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, Lichfield, and a progressive farmer who owned lands in Wigginton, Hopwas, Coton, Comberford and Tamworth in Staffordshire, and the Manor of Watford, north of Daventry in Northamptonshire.

However, in his will Nicholas Shelton refers to Thomas Comberford as his son-in-law. Yet Thomas Comberford’s wife was Dorothea Fitzherbert, was a daughter of Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury and a sister of Canon Thomas Fitzherbert, Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, Canon William Fitzherbert, Chancellor of Lichfield, and Dame Alice Fitzherbert, the last Abbess of Polesworth Abbey, near Tamworth (1513-1539).

Michael Andrews-Reading is engaged in continuing research into the Comberford, Shelton and Browne families. He says both Thomas Comberford and Nicholas Shelton were Mercers of London. He offers the possibility that Nicholas Shelton was married twice, and that Thomas Comberford, although named as Shelton’s ‘son-in-law,’ was possibly his step-son, the child of an earlier marriage of his first wife.

However, the mother of Thomas Comberford of Comberford was Johanna Parles, an heiress who brought by marriage extensive estates to the Comberford family, including Watford and Shutlanger, near Stoke Bruerne, five miles south of Northampton, Alderton and Wappenhame.

Nicholas Shelton was a mercer and citizen of London. He served as Alderman for Castle Baynard ward in 1510-1515, Sheriff in 1511-1512; in the latter year he was also Master of the Mercers’ Company in 1512. His will dated 4 March 1515 was proved on 8 November 1515. Michael Andrews-Reading says it seems certain he was descended from the Shelton family of Shelton, Norfolk.

He was the father of nine children – four daughters and five sons – but none of these daughter married a Thomas Comberford: Julian Shelton married Richard Rawlins; Mary Shelton was a nun at Saint Helen’s, London; Anne Shelton married George Brown, and had no children; Katherine Shelton may never have married.

Thomas Comberford, mercer of London, the so-called ‘son-in-law’, or perhaps the stepson of Alderman Nicholas Shelton, acted as his principal executor in 1515. He is named in various family suits that followed, relating to the distribution of the estate, collection of debts etc. Michael Andrews-Reading suggests it is possible – ‘but by no means certain’ – that he is to be identified with Thomas Comberford of Comberford Hall, who certainly was involved in legal action against the other executors of Nicholas Shelton sometime between 1518 and 1529.

However, Dame Dorothy Comberford’s relationship to Nicholas Shelton and Thomas Comberford remains conjectural, he says. It may be that she was Thomas Comberford’s sister – her biographical dates certainly fit such a timeline – making her a daughter of John Comberford and the heiress, Johanna Parles. Perhaps too the Revd Richard Comberford of Hartington was her brother or nephew. But, once again, I have no evidence at present to support these conjectures.

Further possibilities may be offered by the Comberford family, settled in Stepney for a few generations. They may have been members originally of the Comberford family from Staffordshire or of Irish extraction. However, they only begin to appear in the parish records of Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney in the mid- and late 16th century, when George Comberford’s daughter Abigail was baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 18 October 1573, and married Nicholas Synnas in Saint Dunstan’s on 3 April 1592 to Nicholas Synnas. However, these records are a generation or two too late to help in placing Dame Dorothy Comberford on the Comberford family tree.

Further research rather than speculation is needed in this part of the family tree.

Comberford Hall, between Lichfield and Tamworth … was Dame Dorothy Comberford a member of this family? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Further Reading:

‘Friaries: The minoresses without Aldgate’, in A History of the County of London: Volume 1, London Within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark, ed William Page (London, 1909), pp 516-519. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/london/vol1/pp516-519 [accessed 20 October 2022].

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