Jill Redford (ed.), The cartulary of Alvingham Priory, Boydell and Brewer for the Lincoln Record Society, Woodbridge, 2018.

Jill Redford (ed.), The cartulary of Alvingham Priory, Boydell and Brewer for the Lincoln Record Society, Woodbridge, 2018. £60.00, ISBN 9781910653043, pp. l + 580.

Reviewed by: Katharine Sykes, University of Birmingham, October 2018.


This is a very useful edition of the cartulary of Alvingham Priory, a mixed communityof canons, nuns lay brothers and lay sisters that belonged to the order of Sempringham, the only monastic order to be founded in medieval England. Whilst it will be of particular relevance to anyone working on monastic foundations for women – and men and women – in England in the central and later Middle Ages, this edition offers intriguing glimpses into the day-to-day running of a mixed community of religious men and women that are of much broader significance.

The order of Sempringham takes its name from the place of its foundation – Sempringham in Lincolnshire – where a zealous parish priest and local landowner, Gilbert, assembled a community of devout women in the 1130s. Over time, Gilbert added laybrothers and sisters to meet the needs of the women; in 1147, after an unsuccessful approach to the Cistercian general chapter Gilbert added canons to provide leadership and pastoral care to his fledgling communities. By the time of Gilbert’s death, the order was composed of nine mixed houses (for men and women) and approximately four single-sex houses for men; further foundations followed, and although prospective houses were mooted as far away as Normandy and Rome, it remained largely confined to its heartlands in Eastern England.[1]

The Gilbertines have long suffered from a relative lack of visibility in both the physical and institutional landscape: there are few standing remains to bear witness to the order’s presence within the landscape of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and as all of its successful foundations were confined to England, the order died out after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. However, there are considerable textual remains: a copy of the order’s statutes survives, along with several copies of the Life of Gilbert and his canonization dossier.[2] In addition, original charters and transcripts survive from several houses, along with two complete cartularies (compilations of charters): one for Malton (a single-sex house for men) and one for Alvingham (a mixed house for men and women).[3] Whilst the cartulary of Alvingham has been the subject of several doctoral theses, this is the first time either of the surviving Gilbertine cartularies has been made available to a wider audience.[4]

This edition represents the fruits of Jill Redford’s doctoral research, in slightly compressed format (the original thesis, which includes a complete transcription of all documents, is available online). Many of the charters in this edition have been calendared; full references in the text refer the reader on to the relevant printed editions and discussions. This does not detract from the usefulness of this edition, but anyone seeking the complete cartulary experience will have to do a bit of legwork.

The edition of the charters is prefaced with a short introduction, which sets out the circumstances of Alvingham’s foundation and its place within the order. Most notable here is Redford’s challenge to the accepted foundation narrative: in place of a single founder, the charters suggest a more complicated, piecemeal process of foundation, in which a semi-formal community gradually evolved into a more established, institutional entity, with considerable endowments (p. xxiii-xxv).

As one might expect from a cartulary, the majority of the entries in the cartulary are concerned with the spiritual and temporal assets that made up Alvingham’s portfolio. In addition to royal writs and papal privileges, the cartulary bears witness to the gradual accumulation of estates and rents, along with spiritual assets such as the advowsons of parish churches. Some grants of land accompanied the entrance of men and women into the community, or into confraternity; others were sales of land designed to reduce the burden of debts on gentry estates. Interspersed between terriers of land and headcounts of sheep are glimpses of events of national and international significance: one entry (no. 280) registers a letter from Edward I sent to all of the houses of the order, asking them to house the daughters of Llewelyn and Dafydd ap Grufudd, the last independent princes of Wales (p. 111). Alvingham did not take up the burden – Llewelyn’s daughter Gwenllian went to Sempringham and her cousin Gwladys went to another north Lincolnshire house, Sixhills. More frequent, however, are the vignettes into the daily life of the community: no. 293 records the allocation at the request of Ranulph, prior of Alvingham, of one mark per year from a series of specified rents in Lincoln and Raithby. This was to be used to provide the nuns of Alvingham with new linen; an additional 10s was to be used to provide a pittance for the canons on the feasts of SS Nicholas and Katherine. In return the canons would perform a weekly mass in the chapels of SS Nicholas and Katherine, as well as other specified offices, including, in the fullness of time, a series of post-mortem obits for Ranulph’s soul (p. 116)

This edition has obvious relevance for anyone working on the history of monasticism in medieval Lincolnshire, or the order of Sempringham, or on foundations for women (and men) in England after the Norman Conquest. But it also has much wider significance in relation to the foundation and administration of female and double monasteries in the central and later Middle Ages. In contrast with recent work on mixed communities in German-speaking lands, which suggests that mixed communities were frequently the product of pragmatic accommodations rather than design, Alvingham represents something quite different.[5] Its origins are murky, but by the 1150s it was part of an order that was explicitly mixed-sex in composition, and potentially international in scope. Neither Alvingham nor the order of Sempringham quite hit the Premier League of monastic foundations, but that does not detract from the intrinsic interest of the surviving records of the houses of the order. Alvingham’s cartulary provides a fascinating insight into how a mixed community might have worked in practice.


[1] The classic account of the foundation of the order, its endowments and muniments is B.J. Golding, Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertine Order (Oxford, 1995).

[2] The statutes are printed in W. Dugdale (ed.), Monasticon Anglicanum, ed. J. Caley et al., 6 vols. (London, 1846), vol. vi, part 2, pp. xix-lviii; the vita and canonisation dossier are edited and translated in R. Foreville and G. Keir (eds.), The Book of St Gilbert (Oxford, 1987)

[3] Charters and transcripts survive for Sempringham, Bullington, Sixhills amongst other houses; a selection are edited in F.M. Stenton (ed.), Documents illustrative of the social and economic history of the Danelaw from various collections (London, 1920). The Malton Cartulary is British Library, MS Cotton Claudius D XI; the Alvingham cartulary is Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud 642.

[4] B.J. Golding, ‘The Gilbertine priories of Alvingham and Bullington: their endowments and benefactors’, Unpublished DPhil thesis (University of Oxford, 1979); J. Redford, ‘An edition of the cartulary of Alvingham priory (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 642), PhD thesis (University of York, 2010).

[5] See, for example, the articles in F.J. Griffiths and J. Hotchin (eds), Partners in spirit: women, men and religious life in Germany, 1100-1500 (Turnhout, 2014).