Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII was famed for her piety, as was her half sister, Margaret St John.
Both women were the daughters of Margaret Beauchamp. Margaret St John was one of five daughters and two sons from her mother's first marriage to Oliver St. John. Margaret Beaufort was the only child of her second marriage to John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
Margaret Beaufort was married off to Edmund Tudor at the tender age of 12 and became the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty.
Margaret St John was destined for the religious life her sister craved. It has been suggested she might have departed to fulfil her vocation at Shaftesbury Abbey at an equally young age, barely out of childhood. Her obituary makes a reference that 'in her childhood being maried to Christe the king of kinges she shewed her self above others a most noble virgine.'
It is believed that the Benedictine nunnery at Shaftesbury was founded in 888 by Alfred the Great. The Abbey, dedicated to St Mary, added St Edward to it's title following the interment of the martyred Saxon King's body in 978. Benefactors were generous and throughout the 10th century the nuns added to their already considerable land holdings. In the Domesday survey of 1086 the Abbey held land in Tisbury, Donhead, Alvediston, Liddington and Downton in Wiltshire alone and at the time of Edward the Confessor the abbess owned 153 houses in Shaftesbury.
In fact a saying dating from the Middle Ages claimed 'if the abbot of Glastonbury could marry the abbess of Shaftesbury their heir would hold more land than the King of England.'
Subsequent Kings further endowed the Abbey. In 1090 William Rufus, the second son of William the Conqueror, confirmed various grants. William's brother Henry I confirmed the Manor of Donhead to pay for the nun's clothing while Henry II granted them his special protection.
But by 1218 the abbey appeared to be suffering the squeeze and the Pope forbade the community to exceed 100 nuns. Records reveal that the voting body at the election of Edith Bonham as Abbess in 1441 numbered 41 professed sisters and fourteen awaiting profession and nearly twenty years later when Margaret St John was elected there were 51 sisters.
The Benedictine nun's day was punctuated by prayers and periods of contemplation beginning with Lauds, the early morning service of divine office at 5am through to Matins, the night office recited at 2am. Aristocratic ladies were not required to do so much of the heavy work of the abbey which fell to those from the lower orders. And of course there were the indiscretions.
John Chandler quotes in 'A High Reality' that the Abbey during the time of Abbess Joan Formage elected in 1345 had - ‘some influential nuns, very often intent upon bringing men into the infirmary, held feats and drinking sessions resulting in drunkenness, and otherwise acted there contrary to the Rule. Others had amorous letters which they sent to lovers and suspect persons, sealed with appropriate seals and signets.’
The nuns took a vow of poverty, but Joan Formage didn't comply with this either. When she died in 1394 she left a will and several fur lined coats, five golden goblets and a cup with a golden lid and furniture which included a red bench embroidered with a design of birds and leaves, with ten red cushions.
So far there has been no evidence of impropriety to stain the reputation of Margaret St John, elected Abbess at Shaftesbury on March 9, 1460.
Shortly before her death in 1492 Margaret established a chantry, an endowment to fund either a chapel or a priest to pray for the souls of her royal relations and her parents.
Following the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 by Margaret's great nephew, Henry VIII, the fabric of the Abbey was plundered for building projects in the town.
In 1985 the grounds were purchased by the Shaftesbury Abbey and Museum Preservation Trust Company Limited with the aim of preserving what remained and to create a permanent display of finds from the site. Visit their website on www.shaftesburyheritage.org.uk
Images - Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII
The page from the Beaufort/Beauchamp Book of Hours is published courtesy of The British Library and can be viewed on http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMINBig.ASP?size=big&IllID=30486
The Consecration of Shaftesbury Abbey by Phyllis Wolff 1979 visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-consecration-of-shaftesbury-abbey-888-60323
The gardens at Shaftesbury Abbey