From Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, Their Legendary Lore and Popular History, by John Timbs, Volume II, re-edited, revised, and enlarged by Alexander Gunn; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; pp. 15-16.
At Amesbury, seven miles north of Salisbury, says Bishop Tanner, “there is said to have been an ancient British monastery for 300 monkes, founded, as some say, by the famous Prince Ambrosius, who lived at the time of the Saxon invasion, and who was therein buried, destroyed by that cruel Pagan, Gurmemdus, who overran all this country in the sixth century. (Geoffrey of Monmouth, lib. iv. c. 4.) The foundation is also attributed to one Ambri, a monk. This Abbey appears to have been destroyed by the Danes, about the time of Alfred. About the year 980, Alfrida, or Ethelfrida, the Queen Dowager of the Saxon King Edgar, erected here a monastery for nuns, and commended it to the patronage of St. Mary, and St. Melarius a Cornish saint whose relics were preserved here. Alfrida is said to have erected both this and Wherwell 16 monastery, in atonement for the murder of her son-in-law, King Edward. The house was of the Benedictine order, and continued an independent monastery until the time of Henry II., in 1177. The evil lives of the Abbess and nuns drew upon them the royal displeasure.
The Abbess was more particularly charged with immoral conduct, insomuch that it was thought proper to dissolve the community; the nuns, about 30 in number, were dispersed in other monasteries. The Abbess was allowed to go where she chose, with a pension of ten marks, and the house was made a cell to the Abbey of Fontevrault, in Anjou; whence a Prioress and 24 nuns were brought and established at Amesbury. Elfrida’s nunnery, notwithstanding some changes, lasted till the general Dissolution of the religious houses. Eleanor, commonly called the Damsel of Bretagne, sole daughter of Geoffrey, Earl of Bretagne, and sister or Earl Arthur, who was imprisoned in Bristol Castle, first by King John, and afterwards by King Henry III., on account of her title to the Crown, was buried, according to her own request, at Amesbury, in 1241. From this time the nunnery of Amesbury appears to have been one of the select retreats for females in the higher ranks of life. Mary, the sixth daughter of King Edward I., took the religious habit in the monastery of Amesbury in 1285, together with thirteen young ladies of noble families. Two years after this, Eleanor, the Queen of Henry III. and the mother of Edward I., herself took the veil at Amesbury, where she died, and was buried in 1292. She had previously given to the monastery the estate of Chadelsworth, in Berkshire, to support the state of Eleanor, daughter of the Duke of Bretagne, who had also become a nun there. Amesbury finally became one of the richest nunneries in England: how long it remained subject to the monastery of Fontevrault we are not told. Bishop Tanner says, it was at length made denizen, and again became an Abbey. Isabella of Lancaster, fourth daughter of Henry, Earl of Lancaster, granddaughter to E. Crouchback, son of Henry II. was Prioress in 1292. (Communication to Notes and Queries, 2nd S., No. 213.) Aubrey tells us that the last Lady Abbess of Amesbury “was 140 years old when she dyed.”