An Elizabethan Beguinage in Hempstead cum Eccles, Norfolk?

Evidence of a Beguinage?

Agnes Vincent, of the east Norfolk village of Hempstead cum Eccles clearly states in the text of her will that three of her kinswomen, Catherine, Audrey and Elizabeth Derham were all ‘dwelling in my house’; with Catherine described as being ‘in service’. The will was proved at Norwich on September 14th 1583 (NRO, NCC will register Bate 125). Given the custom of the day it is curious that four unmarried women were all living together under one roof in this period, albeit Agnes was probably a widow. The will is also distinguished by the range of religious vocabulary and grammar used by the testatrix, particularly in the way she expresses her faith, indicating that she was an extremely pious Protestant and was also quite well educated, although she was not literate. Given the extent of Agnes Vincent’s religious conviction this testament may provide an example, albeit a very late example, of a beguinage in the style of similar all-female religious lay communities found mostly in mid-15th century Flanders, but also uniquely in Norwich.

The Briton’s Arms Beguinage Theory

The Briton’s Arms in Elm Hill, Norwich is a three-storied timber frame building dating from the late 14th century. From its architectural structure and ready accessibility to St. Peter Hungate church the building is thought to be the location of a mid-15th century beguinage in medieval Norwich. This religious lay community of women is cited as a unique English example of a beguinage stemming from the presence and influence of Flemish immigrants in the city, although the women living in Norwich are never actually described as beguines.

‘There are references to three such communities in late medieval Norwich. They are called “poor women” or “sisters” who are “dedicated to chastity” or “dedicated to God”. One of these groups is known to have lived in the churchyard of St Peter Hungate in the first half of the fifteenth century, and the Briton‘s Arms was almost certainly their home’. [1]

The beguines were Christian lay religious orders active in northern Europe, particularly in the Low Countries in the 13th–16th centuries where the women lived in towns and attended to the poor, undertaking charitable deeds. A beguinage [Beginhof in Flemish] was usually located near the town centre close to a river that provided water for their work in the Flanders cloth industry. Norfolk historian Francis Blomefield notes that in Norwich, ‘the house….was anciently inhabited by women, who dwelt together there under a religious vow and were called the sisters of St. Peter, sometimes called the sisters of Houndgate, and sometimes ‘the widows’ there…’ [2]

Elm Hill, Norwich

The Briton’s Arms, Elm Hill, Norwich

Alternative Religious Women Communities

Further evidence for these communities comes from probate records for Norwich where the works of the women were recognised by charitable provisions in the wills of Lord Mayors, their wives and the clergy living in medieval towns. Roberta Gilchrist of the University of East Anglia cites as an example,

‘In 15th century Norwich….two separate groups of sisters lived in tenements within the city. Links to the continental tradition are especially strong for the later example which was established in a tenement in St. Lawrence’s parish owned by a merchant formerly of Bruges.’ [3]

Thrift as a Means to Salvation

Beguines lived in semi-monastic communities but did not take formal religious vows. Although they promised not to marry, ‘as long as they lived as Beguines’, they were free to leave at any time. They formed part of a larger spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century that stressed imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion. This philosophy is accurately reflected in the text of Agnes Vincent’s will where she says she is,

‘….trustinge and steadfastly behovinge by and thoroughe the Zilout merittes of thrift Jesus my onlye Saviour to meet by and thoroughe his passion deathe and blood sheddinges with the zeste of his obedience to the will of his father and senyt I hope and fferventlye believe to be saved and defended frome the firste wrath of god ffrome hell and condempnacon….’

The emphasis on salvation through thrift is also expressed by the testratrix where she believes her ‘Bodie and sowle to be ioined to them agayne everlastingly to memoryse and inioye eternal ioy and happenes with thrifte in the kingdom of glorie….’

There may also be a small clue that one of the women, Elizabeth Derham, undertook ‘good works’ where she is bequeathed 6s8d in the 1580 will of Oliver Haylotte of neighbouring Lessingham (NRO, NCC will register Moyse 201). Wealthy Oliver leaves a wide range of such gifts not only to his immediate family but also to the poor of Lessingham, Hempstead, Happisburgh and Ingham. Agnes also appoints, ‘my foresaid kinswooman Audrie Derham…my sole executrix’, and whilst this is not unusual, in such circumstances it was the custom of the day to appoint a male supervisor of the will. However, Agnes does not do this, perhaps demonstrating a more independent spirit in changing times. The will is however witnessed by three men, the parish priest John Skynner, John Gosselyn and William Wright, a carpenter.

To date the location of the house where Agnes and her companions lived in Hempstead is unknown, although even today the main cluster of dwellings within the parish lie close to the church. There is no firm evidence that the group undertook social work in the area, nor indeed is there evidence that they were engaged in the textile industry in 1583, but probate evidence does reveal firm links in Tudor Hempstead with the Flemish weaving industry.

The Derham Family of Tudor Hempstead

In her will Agnes makes it clear that she is the head of the household, with Katherine Derham being in her service. Audrey and Elizabeth Derham are also living in her house, although we don’t know the precise relationship between the three Derham’s, or their precise relationship to Agnes who describes them as her kinswomen. As a best guess the three younger women were probably nieces, the daughters of one or more of Agnes’s brothers. Agnes was probably a widow and is described as such in the NRO catalogue, perhaps based on the fact that in Tudor times married women were not able to make a will.

Members of the Derham family can be traced from Hempstead’s probate record, beginning in 1498 with Robert Derham of Hempstead (NRO, NCC will register Woolman 22) and his son William Derham, [4] husbandman of Hempstead, whose will was proved at North Walsham on November 22nd 1533. There is a memorial tablet in Latin to Robert Derham in the centre of the nave of Hempstead church as follows:

Quote for blog

The spelling of Robert’s name on his brass may be significant in that it can also be rendered as de Ram, a traditional Flemish name which appears in 1577 in Norfolk with the will of Flemish immigrant Joos de Ram (NRO, NCC will register Cawston 261).

William Derham had two sons, Robert and Thomas, [5] and four daughters, Audrey, Isabell, Margaret and Agnes, with this last and youngest daughter perhaps being Agnes Vincent, the dates fit reasonably well. William directs that his son Thomas

second quote v3

Although William doesn’t specify exactly which daughter he means, from the progression of the text of the will Agnes is the likeliest candidate.

Care in the Community

Up to the time of the Protestant Reformation provision for the poor and sick, education of the young and underpinning community support was largely in the hands of the parish guilds, local chantrys, nearby priories and mendicant friars living within the community; but all this had been swept away during the reigns of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI. Whilst the counter-Reformation in the Catholic reign of Queen Mary attempted to restore some of these institutions, little was actually achieved by the time of her early death in 1558.

Undoubtedly this loss of support at the parish level had to be replaced by something similar, and it seems possible that some of this function in Hempstead was undertaken by a small group of women living communally and inspired by strict Protestant doctrine. Whether this arrangement of four unmarried women living together merely stems from a convenient family arrangement; a beguinage as found in 14th century Flanders; or ‘sisters of Houndgate’ as described in 15th century Norwich remains open to debate. Perhaps we are seeing here in late 16th century Hempstead a reflection, a distant echo of such an institution with a small group undertaking social work based on a long-established Flemish heritage in this part of east Norfolk: the sort of informal community supported by wealthier members of the parish as described by Roberta Gilchrist.

Which begs the question, if this is true could there be similar examples lurking in the probate records of other Norfolk towns and villages?

Researched and compiled by David Stannard




[1] Williams N. (2007) The Briton’s Arms, Elm Hill –The only surviving medieval beguinage in England Onderzoeksrapport

[2] Blomefield, Francis (1806) The History of the City of Norwich Vol IV

[3] Gilchrist, Roberta (1994) Gender and Material Culture – the archaeology of religious women Rutledge

[4] Norfolk Record Office Archdeaconry of Norfolk Will Register ANW Liber 9 Gillior fo.75


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1 Response to An Elizabethan Beguinage in Hempstead cum Eccles, Norfolk?

  1. Pingback: Distributing the wealth of the super rich in Elizabethan Norfolk | Norfolk Record Office

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