The music of medieval English nuns

I charge you Lady prioress, and all the sisters of your monastery and your successors, in the virtue of obedience and the pain of contempt, that from henceforth you make sure that the divine service is sung distinctly, in a serious and devout manner, with good pauses and punctuation and without any undue haste or speed…

Message from John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln to the sisters of the Benedictine nunnery of Nun Cotham after his inspection in 1531.

The amount of time that nuns spent singing can hardly be exaggerated. Not only were there eight daily offices, meaning that over the course of one week the entire psalter, in other words, all 150 psalms were chanted, but there were also daily masses (sometimes more than one), offices for the dead and all manner of other devotional services. As the Bishop of Lincoln’s quote shows, the singing wasn’t always perfect, but there must have been many moments of extreme beauty, flow and communal harmony witnessed during the 900-year history of monastic living on this island. I wanted to know more about what these nuns’ music sounded like. And in order to do that I coopted my friend and colleague, Vivien Ellis, to explore with me!

Vivien Ellis and Leah Stuttard

In my research, I relied heavily on a book by Anne Bagnall Yardley, Performing Piety: Musical culture in medieval English nunneries (2006). Even before I read it, I had a suspicion that there was music out there that English nuns had sung and that would still be preserved in manuscripts somewhere. I wasn’t disappointed. Here are introductions to some of the nunneries and their music books from which we drew melodies and inspiration that we now invite you to savour.

Barking Abbey

Barking Abbey was founded in 666 by St Erkenwald. His sister St Ethelburga was the first Abbess. The beautiful 15th century Barking Hymnal (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.3.54) is available online. Several of the hymns it contains are unique to this manuscript, and probably unique to Barking Abbey because they celebrate their homegrown saints, Erkenwald, Ethelburga, Wulfhilda and Hildelith. Singing these hymns was a way for the nuns there to feel proud of their own heritage and to increase their sense of belonging to the same institution from which saints came.

Wherwell Abbey

Wherwell Abbey, another very ancient Benedictine abbey, bequeathed us an exquisite tiny fourteenth-century psalter that I consulted in the British Library (MS Add 27866). A real jewel of a book, so mundane in its use (literally providing the absolute basis of all monastic prayer, all 150 psalms are written in here) and yet so utterly delightful. It fit in the palm of my hand (though I was told not to handle it quite as much as I was doing by one of the librarians!) The very everyday contents include an Office for the Dead, not a funeral service but something that would be sung daily to commemorate all the souls of the dearly departed, sisters both known and unknown, family members, people from the community. This brought the thought of death to the forefront of the nuns’ minds, but the service is also full of reminders of the promise of the resurrection. Through this the nuns would deepen their spiritual understanding that death is overcome through faith, a nourishing message of hope kindled through communal singing.

Syon Abbey

Syon Abbey was a Bridgettine House founded by Henry V in 1415 on the north bank of the River Thames to the west of London. The Bridgettine order had only recently come into being at that point. It had been created with a special dispensation from the Pope by the Swedish Saint Bridget, an extraordinary visionary and pilgrim who wanted her nuns to focus exclusively on the worship of the Virgin Mary. Their liturgy was quite limited, but the repetitive nature of it, following a weekly rather than the more complex yearly cycle of other monastic orders, endowed it with almost a mantra-like quality and allowed the sisters a very deep engagement with the melodies and their texts. The sisters resisted the dissolution by hightailing it to the continent where they set up eventually in Lisbon before coming back to these shores, to Devon, in the nineteenth century when circumstances were more favourable (or at least, no longer suicidal!) For this reason, there are a lot more books that have survived including a gorgeous complete Processional (Cambridge University Library, MS Add 8885) and a fragment of a Breviary (Cambridge University Library, MS Add 7634), both of which I went to see in the course of my research.


The Franciscan Minoresses (or sorores minores, ‘lesser sisters’) lived just outside the City of London near Aldgate. Their house was founded in the late thirteenth century and was one of five in England professing a version of the rule of St Clare. Finally destroyed in a fire in the late eighteenth century, the only memory of the building where they lived is in the names of two streets, Minories and St Clare Street. While in some versions of the Franciscan rule, nuns were denied the sensual pleasure of singing together in worship, a manuscript from this House proves that the sisters there participated musically in the offices. I went to see this manuscript one very cold day in November 2021. It’s housed in England’s first ever public lending library, the Cranston Library, which is found in a small room above the sacristy of the parish church in Reigate in Surrey. The reason we know it came from this particular house of sisters is because of an inscription on a pastedown at the end of the book: “Memorandum that dam Annes Porter gafe to dam An French meneres wythe owte Algate of lundun yis boke to gyfe after hir deses with the licens of hur sufferer to hom yt she woll.” Perhaps Agnes or Anne had been the cantrix (the leading singer) at Minories? This book would have served them well with music for those chants that were not the regular everyday ones sung in the choir stalls. The manuscript contains music for processions on important feast days like Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the words of graces to be chanted at mealtimes throughout the year and the moving service of the Commendatio Anime or Commendation of the Soul, sung around the deathbed of a dying sister and asking for angels and saints to accompany her soul to the presence of God.