It was a noble foundation for Augustine Canons, and lay near the sea-coast opposite to Mersey Island, the parish being anciently part of the royal domains. Canute granted it to Godwin, Earl of Kent, and the great earl gave it to Christ Church, in Canterbury, by permission of Edward the Confessor.
But the first nunnery was founded for Osyth, daughter of Redwald, the first Christian king of East Anglia and of Wilburga, his wife, daughter of Penda, king of the Mercians.
She was, when very young, entrusted to the care of St. Modwen, at Pollesworth, in Warwickshire. While there she was sent with a book from St. Edith, Alfred's sister, to Modwen, fell off a bridge into a river, and was said to be drowned. Happily she was restored to life by the prayers of St. Modwen.
Osyth's parents, as soon as she returned to them, betrothed her to Sighere, king of Essex; but as soon as she was wedded to, him she told him that she had vowed herself to Christ, and could not be his wife. Sighere was generous and religious; he accepted her decision, and let her take religious vows. Then he gave her his village of Chich, and built a nunnery for her, of which she became the abbess. The house was of the order of the Maturines. But in October, 653, a band of Danes under Inguar and Hubba landed in the neighbourhood of Chich, and ravaged the country. They came to Osyth's nunnery, and, bringing forth the young abbess into the Nun's Wood, commanded her to worship their gods; she steadily refused; they threatened her with scourging and worse torments, but she continued faithful to her own creed: "she would worship only Christ." Then, infuriated, Hubba bade her lay down her head to be cut off. She meekly obeyed. Her head was severed from her body close by the fountain that still flows, and that is called by her name.
The monkish legend adds, that after her head was cut off the saint took it in her hands, and walked with it to the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, about one-third of a mile; stopping at the church door that was closed, she struck it, and fell dead on the threshold.
There is no reason to doubt that Osyth was martyred, and that the scene of her martyrdom was the Nun's Wood, but the legendary ending is, of course, an addition. Or is it possible her head was not taken off, but her throat cut, and that she had yet strength to reach the church ? We recollect, years ago, that a woman walked quite as far from Dulwich Wood to the turnpike with her throat cut; in St. Osyth's case this would appear a miracle.
The martyred princess was first buried in the church of Chich, which had been founded by her, but her father and mother soon removed her to Aylesbury. Many miracles were performed at her shrine, and after fully six years the body was taken to Chich, and deposited, with much solemnity, in Christ Church.
The nunnery was destroyed by the Danes at the time of the martyrdom; the church of St. Peter and St. Paul that she founded was on the site of the church now standing.
"Matthew Paris," says Timbs, "has a story how a certain husbandman named Thurcillus, who lived at Tidstude, a village in Essex, was taken into purgatory, hell, and paradise by St. James and other saints, and when he had come to the most holy and pleasant place in paradise, he saw St Catherine, St. Margaret, and St. Osyth. This vision occurred in the reign of John."
"In those days," says Aubrey, "when they went to bed they did rake up the fire, and make a X on the ashes, and pray to God and St. Sythe (that is St. Osyth) to deliver them from fire, and from water, and from all misadventure."
According to local tradition, St. Osyth on one night "in every year revisits the scene of her martyrdom, walking with her head in her hand!"
In the reign of Henry 1. the Bishop of London, Richard de Beauvays, built a religious house of regular canons of St Augustine at Chich, in honour of the great apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, and St. Osyth, virgin and martyr; and in the year 1120 obtained the manor of Chich, which, then belonged to the See of London, giving in exchange fourteen pounds of land at Lodeswoode, and six pounds of land in Southminster.
Bishop Belmeis, or De Beauvays, had the arm of St. Osyth translated to the church in the presence of William de Corbill, the first prior of the house, who was afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, and other bishops, remitting twenty days' penance to all that came to worship it, and relaxing every year seven days' penance to those who should devoutly come thither to celebrate her festival on August 7th.
The Priory was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1539 by Prior Colchester and sixteen monks. It was given by the king to Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex; on his attainder, however, it reverted to the Crown.
A canon of St. Osyth, William Barlow, was very active in helping forward the scheme for the dissolution of the monasteries. He v. as obliged, therefore, on Mary's accession to the throne, to fly from England, hut he returned when Elizabeth succeeded her sister, and was made Bishop of Chichester.
Sir Thomas Darcy bought the Priory and other estates from Edward VI. for £3,974 9s. 4 1/2d. the same year he was created Lord Darcy of Chich.
John, this Lord Darcy's son and successor, entertained Queen Elizabeth here, when the festivities were interrupted by a terrific thunderstorm and great rain; so severe was the weather that the people believed the day of judgment had come.
The Priory estates passed, at Darcy, Earl River's death, into the Savage family, hut it was not inhabited by them, and probably began then to fall into decay.
The Earl of Rochford at length inhabited it, and in 1768 he brought some poplar trees from Lombardy, of which four or five still stand in the park. They are supposed to have been the first planted in England.
On two occasions St. Osyth received royal visitors. George III., when he went to inspect the camp at Colchester, stayed at St. Osyth, the guest of the fourth earl, and the king expressed his gratitude for the nobleman's hospitality by giving him two fine portraits of himself and Queen Charlotte in their coronation robes. Lord Rochford was a personal friend of two kings George II. and III. At George II.'s death he was Groom of the Stole, and as such was entitled to the furniture of the room in which the king died.
The ancient buildings of St. Osyth cover a large area. They are scattered in all directions round the modern dwelling-house. The greater part of these remains were built by Abbot John Vyntoner, the last abbot but one. At the time of the Dissolution it must have been a magnificent building. There are few remains of any earlier date. The Norman archway on the Bury, part of another Norman arch at the back of the present house, some old walls, and the crypt, or chapel, alone belong to the earlier foundation.
The gatehouse, the abbot's terrace, the clock tower, and the beautiful oriel window in the front of the house, date from the sixteenth century.
The tower gateway, which is the principal entrance to the Priory, is a noble structure covered with rich tracery, niches and ornaments. To the east of the gate. way are three lofty towers, which can be seen out at sea. The gateway opens on a quadrangle, in the centre of which stands a figure of Time supporting a sundial. The quadrangle is almost entire, but some of the buildings are of modern date. On one side of it is a range of old buildings in the Tudor style, with sharp, pointed gables, and an octagonal observatory rising from the centre. In the grounds, about sixty yards from the house, is a square brick pillar, surmounted by an urn, with the following inscription in Latin to mark the boundary:-
"This ancient wall, which you see, is preserved to declare the bounds of this reverend monastery; and you may rejoice at the happiness of your time between the mirth and pleasantry of this place, now that superstition has been banished from this stately mansion, which was consecrated to barrenness and sloth. 1760."