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Pole, Katherine de la (1410/11–1473), abbess of Barking, was one of possibly twelve children, of whom five sons and five daughters survived infancy, of and his wife, Katherine, daughter of Hugh Stafford, second earl of Stafford. She was four at the time of her father's death from dysentery at Harfleur.

It is not known exactly when Katherine joined the Benedictine community at Barking in Essex, but given the abbey's rule that a nun had to be professed for at least seven years before she could be appointed to any office, she must have done so by 1426, for in January 1433 she was elected abbess, the royal assent being granted on the 28th. Her family connections were doubtless an important factor in her election (her brother , successively fourth earl, then marquess, and finally duke, of Suffolk, became steward of the royal household in the same year), along with the nunnery's penchant for electing aristocratic abbesses.

A Benedictine abbey founded in the seventh century, Barking was one of the most important nunneries in England. In order of wealth it came third, possessing roughly 7800 acres in several counties, thirteen manors, and fifteen churches. Not only did its location, approximately 10 miles from London, ensure that it had royalty, wealthy landowners, and merchants as its patrons, but it was also one of four barony abbeys (the others were Wilton, Shaftesbury, and St Mary's, Winchester), holding its estates by military service. As a woman, Katherine could not hold a seat in parliament or herself attend the king when he went on campaign, but she was legally required to provide the king with soldiers in wartime, and also to hold manorial courts and maintain a prison.

Katherine's accomplishments during the next forty years (the longest tenure of any Barking abbess) were primarily as the legal and financial custodian of the abbey estates, and demonstrate the independence and power of an abbess's position. She administered the general funds, which were derived from leases of the demesne lands on the abbey's manors and of Barking's mill, and rents from tenements in London. During the later fourteenth century, floods in the Thames estuary had devastated much of the abbey's grazing and arable land. Katherine achieved some success in the task of reclamation, so that by 1456 marshland was again being leased to tenants, increasing the abbey's revenues. But progress was slow, and a grant of royal revenues in Becontree hundred, Essex, in December 1462 was justified by reference to the damage caused by flooding. Some ten years earlier, around the end of 1451, when she was still trying to put the nunnery's finances on a secure footing, Katherine had resisted an attempt by the crown to impose a corrodian—effectively a boarder—on the house. By then her brother William was no longer available to provide protection, indeed, she had herself been denounced as one of his associates in a satirical poem circulated in 1450, the year of Suffolk's fall and murder. None the less, she clearly felt that the new inmate would be more likely to constitute a financial burden than an asset, and boldly cited the regulation that such a corrodian could only be sent when a new abbess was elected, and barred the king's nominee from the abbey grounds. She may have showed a similar forcefulness around this time when a dispute with one of the abbey's tenants over access to the churchyard of Barking parish church resulted in an affray in which Katherine was allegedly knocked to the ground.

Katherine's noble birth doubtless helped her to secure favours from the crown—the annual gift of a tun of red wine in 1445, the grant of revenues from Becontree in 1462, and a comprehensive confirmation charter in 1464. But she was herself both shrewd and determined. In 1462 one John Rigby, who had married into the family of the lords of Cranbrook Manor, just outside Ilford, broke the conduit which carried water from Cranbrook to the abbey. He then forced the nuns to pay him an annual rent for the restoration of their water supply. In response Katherine successfully oversaw a search for a new spring, and set up a conduit within the nunnery's lands, so preventing further attempts at extortion. On another occasion, the parishioners of Barking requested permission first to install a new bell over a chapel which housed a cross popular with pilgrims, and then to repair its roof at their own expense. Katherine allowed the bell to be replaced with another one like it, but refused to permit further repairs, for fear of jeopardizing the abbey's rights in the structure and thus in the offerings which visitors brought.

For lack of evidence little can be said of Barking's religious life during Katherine's abbacy, but it was probably thoroughly conventional—it was alleged in 1453 that she had paid the rascally priest Robert Colynson £5 to go to Rome to say masses there on the nunnery's behalf (inevitably he took the money and did not go). More certainly, under her leadership Barking maintained a tradition of important scholarly activity. Books and documents from the Barking library show that while the nuns had continued to use Latin into the fourteenth century, far longer than the inmates of other abbeys, by the fifteenth century they had made the linguistic transition to French and English. Barking was known for its library, including books in French, English, and Latin, and for its adherence to the Benedictine tradition of each nun reading a book annually from cover to cover. Katherine's brother the earl of Suffolk is believed to have given a copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales while she was abbess. In this context it is understandable that Katherine should have followed the tradition, started in the thirteenth century, of boarding patrons' children for their care and education. But it must also be a further reflection of her aristocratic connections that among those resident under her guardianship were the two sons of the dowager queen Catherine's marriage to Owen Tudor—Edmund, later first earl of Richmond, and his brother Jasper, later earl of Pembroke and duke of Bedford. They probably came to Barking after the death of their mother on 3 January 1437, and were certainly there by 27 July, since in a later petition Katherine acknowledged receiving £50 for their maintenance from the latter date until 28 February 1439, but complained that she had received nothing further between then and 1 November 1440, probably the date of their departure to continue their education with a priest. Consequently she had had to spend £52 12s. from her own resources on the boys' upbringing (order was given that she be reimbursed).

Katherine de la Pole died at Barking Abbey in 1473, shortly before 10 April, when the community of twenty nuns she left behind her was licensed to choose her successor. Following the known custom of her predecessors, it is believed that she was interred at Barking.

Ruth Bush


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