The legend of the Feral Nuns of the fens goes back over 480 years: it was first rumoured during the dissolution of the monasteries and has been confirmed by many sightings, alleged abductions and other encounters over the intervening centuries.
It was in December 1536 when the King’s Commissioners for Huntingdonshire dissolved Sawtry Abbey but they were perplexed that the nearby Convent of the Premonostratensian Peripatetic Nuns (the PMS Sisters) at Woodwalton already seemed to be deserted. Not only that, but the reputed treasury and golden reliquary of St Walburga was missing. William Angel, the Abbot of Sawtry was closely questioned about the fate of the missing sisters and, more importantly to the Commissioners, the missing money, gold and precious stones; but he knew nothing. (1).
The legend of the Feral Nuns who had taken to the fens to keep their extreme version of the old faith alive and the hidden treasure of the Feral Nunnery was born.
Over the years came many stories of these mysterious denizens of the marshes and meres and how they abducted young girls to join their occult order or even nominated one or another of the prettier sisters to seduce lonely travellers and goat tossers to increase their numbers. Of how they might ply such (un)fortunates with wonderfully smooth dark ale which the victims would always remember fondly along with other things. A fellow found helpless from overdoing the drink might be said to have been, “led to the Feral Nunnery” or “meeting the Sisters”. One notorious individual spent many years trying to recreate their dark charms and indeed the ale. He finally succeeded and now all can enjoy a little bit East Anglian mythology – the smooth, subtle taste of the dark, mysterious charms of our Feral Nun Ale. The driven fellow is, of course, the Head Brewer here at Angles Ales.
On an interesting side note; the original St Walburga’s Convent at Woodwalton was founded in 989 and passed to the Premonostratensian Peripatetic Nuns of the Order of the Poor Sisters of Racheldis (abbreviated to PMS) in about 1090.(2). The Feral Nunnery was reputedly somewhere in the deep fenland and eluded the efforts of both the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford’s men and Fen Tigers alike to find it and its fabulous treasure.
The PMS sisters were also known as Wandering Nuns as some of their daily office would be said and meditated upon while walking the paths or resting in the countryside hedgerows surrounding the convent. The order was later best represented by their former convent near Borley in Essex. This was founded, in secret, to avoid local anti-Catholic feeling, by Ignatius Davis a Roman Catholic landowner. The stealthy pedestrian activities of the nuns next to the neighbouring Rectory garden led to misunderstandings of supernatural activity during the incumbencies of the Revs Henry and Harry Bull during the 19th century and later to Borley Rectory’s lasting notoriety as the most haunted house in England.(3).
A History of the Reformation in East Anglia, P. U. Ritan (Cambridge 1935).
The Wandering Nuns of the PMS, Fr. Perse P. Cassidy (New York 1951).
Ghostly Nuns and Ghost Hunters-the Truth About Borley Rectory, Cy Q. Fauncy (London 1986).