History of White Ladies Priory

The first reference to the Priory of St Leonard, now known as White Ladies Priory, is a grant of land dated 1186. The architectural evidence also suggests a late 12th-century foundation date.

White Ladies Priory from the south-east

White Ladies Priory from the south-east

The White Ladies

The romantically named ‘white ladies’ of this priory were medieval nuns – Augustinian canonesses, who, as their name suggests, wore habits of undyed cloth.

Most of the major religious orders founded convents for women, who followed a similar rule to that of their male counterparts.

The first reference to the Priory of St Leonard, now known as White Ladies Priory, is a grant of land dated 1186. The architectural evidence also suggests a late 12th-century foundation date.

    

Little Altered

Unusually for a monastic site, the buildings seem to have been little altered throughout their 350-year history.

White Ladies was never a large or rich house, and in 1535 there were just six nuns left, with an annual income of £17. The following year, it was one of the first religious houses to be suppressed, though four nuns apparently remained until 1538.  

After the suppression of the monasteries most of the convent buildings were taken down, though parts of the church remained.

The site passed through various owners, notably the Skevington family. They built a large timber-framed house here, though this was demolished in the 18th century.

    

Charles II

A brief moment of high drama came in 1651 when, following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester, the future Charles II hid here, disguised as a woodsman with his face darkened with soot.

By then, both the priory and nearby Boscobel House were owned by the Giffords, a Roman Catholic family, and the church precinct was used for Catholic burials until 1844.

One of the finely carved capitals on the north wall

One of the finely carved capitals on the north wall

Description

The nuns’ church was a relatively small and plain building without aisles. Several walls survive to their original height.

At the east end is the presbytery, now just a low wall, where the high altar stood. The nuns’ choir stalls stood to the west of this between two small transepts. The wide, round-headed archway leads from the choir into the foundations of the north transept. As elsewhere in the church, the arch, column shafts and capitals are skilfully carved in a solid, simple design typical of the best Romanesque architecture. 

The west end of the church has no door but there are remains of two windows. Doorways lead out of the nave to the north and south. The north door led into the cloister, now a mere platform on the ground. This was probably timber-framed, hence the lack of standing remains.

The plan of White Ladies was unusual in having the cloister and domestic buildings on the north side of the church rather than on the south. The fairly low roof line of the church perhaps ensured that these buildings were not always in shade, and their position may have been chosen because it was nearer to the water supply.

The wall on the south side enclosed the burial ground. Hard against the east wall was the Tudor timber-framed house built by the Skevington family.  

    

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Further Reading

Gilyard-Beer, R, White Ladies Priory (HMSO guidebook, London, 1982)

Northcote, P, A Twelfth-Century Nun (Oxford, 1966) 

Weaver, OJ, Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory (English Heritage guidebook, London, 1987)

 

Note 

The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.

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