A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
The Nuns of Elstow
Elstow Church with the remains of the Abbey
Countess Judith founded the Roman Catholic Benedictine Abbey of Elstow, Bedfordshire in 1078. She was born in 1054/55 and was the half-sister of William the Conquerer and the widow of Waltheof, Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon. She had holdings of land in ten English counties. Waltheof and his brother conspired with the Danes to subvert the newly-established English dynasty of William only three years after his conquest of England. When this uprising failed, he submitted to the King who, in response, confirmed his rights as Earl and gave him his niece, Judith, in marriage. In 1074, he declined pressure to join with another conspiracy against the absent King but promised not to betray the plotters. However, Judith learnt of the revolt, told William, and as a result Waltheof was first imprisoned at Winchester and then beheaded in 1075. It was possibly as a reaction of contrition and atonement for her part in the death of her husband that Judith built Elstow Abbey. The Abbey was noted in the Domesday Book of 1086.
A Royal Charter was a formal document issued by the sovereign which granted rights and privileges to individuals or organisations. Between 1124 and 1135, a Charter of William’s successor, Henry I, legally confirmed an earlier gift of ‘the Church of St Andrew, Hiche (ie Hitchin) with lands and liberties’. Rev SR Wigram in his book, “Chronicles of the Abbey of Elstow” (on which this article is primarily based) suggests that the Church at Hitchin was undergoing the process of conveyance either to the Abbey or to Judith who may have made them over to the Abbey at the time the materials for the Domesday Survey were being collected. St Andrews Church was annexed to St Mary of Elstow and its name gradually morphed from Church of the Nuns of St Mary to St Mary’s Church. Another Royal Charter passed between 1130 and 1160 during the reign of Henry II confirmed several new gifts conferred on Judith in Hertfordshire. These included:
37 “Of the gift of Maleverer and Cecilia his wife, the Church of Dumeslai (sic) and six acres of land in the same vill(age).” 38 “Of the gift of Roger de Chandos and by Grant of Robert his son (who came to England during the Conquest) the whole land which he had in Dineleshou”
A Benedictine Nun
‘Dumeslai’ and ‘Dineleshou’ likely refer to Dinsley - some decades later, in 1185, the inquest of the Knights Templar recorded ‘In the village of Prestune are four carucates (around 480 acres) given by Bernard de Balliol (who had died by 1167 and Oliver de Malvoier (sic).’
Then, during the reign of Henry III, there was an agreement between Almeric de St Maur, Master of the (Templar’s) Temple and Mabilia, Abbess of Elstow for the provision of a chaplain for the chapel at Preston. Three Charters alluded to this during the rule of Henry III in around 1218/19:
“Covenant between the Masters and Brothers of the Temple and the Abbess of Elmestowe concerning tithes in Hichen (sic) and the annual payment of one mark of silver”. The Brothers were to pay the Nuns tithes of corn in the parish of Hitchin and also the tithes of all newly-tilled lands, men and assizes at the time of this covenant. The nuns granted that the Templars at Preston in the parish of Hitchin have a chaplain to be selected by themselves to celebrate divine service for them throughout the year at the appointed times (ie three days a week - Wednesday, Friday and Sunday - celebrating Mass, Matins and Vespers). The nuns for the support of this chaplain shall give the brothers one mark of silver: one half at the feast of St Michael and the other half at Easter - and four pounds of wax at the feast of St Michael.
These documents are also of interest as they contain only the second-known historical reference to the place-name, Preston. By 1533, the holding of the Rectory of Hitchin, including Preston/Dinsley, accounted for around half the income of the nuns. It was assessed at £66 13s 4d out of a total holding of less than £128. The Abbey was a casualty of the Dissolution of Henry VIII and was closed in 1539, when it was transferred to Trinity College, Cambridge. Thus, one monarch gave; and another, took away.
The ruins of the Abbey
So, during four centuries from around 1086, the dominant religion at Dinsley, and therefore Preston, was Roman Catholicism.