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The Deviant Nuns of Littlemore Priory

Lenora & Miss Jessel of https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

Frolicking nuns c1600. Malcolm Jones Pinterest

Between 27 March 2014 and 20 December 2015, an archaeological dig led by Paul Murray of John Moore Heritage Services took place at a site to the south-east of Oxford, near the Kassam Stadium. The land on which developers had gained building permission to erect a three-storey hotel had originally been the site of a priory which had been dismantled during the reign of Henry VIII, as part of the English Reformation.

During the excavations, 92 bodies were discovered. Some would have been buried in the church itself and others just outside, east of the choir. This discovery led many people to suspect that they were deviant burials and somehow connected to the infamous nuns residing in what became known as “one of the worst nunneries of which record has survived”[1].

A Fall from Grace

The Priory of Benedictine nuns at Sandford was founded in 1110 BC, during the reign of King Stephen by Sir Robert de Sandford and initially dedicated to Saints Mary, Nicholas and Edmund. Eventually its association with Mary and Edmund was dropped and the religious house became solely devoted to Saint Nicholas[2]. The Sandford family remained beneficiaries of the religious establishment until around 1239, when it was gifted to the Knights Templars who held the preceptory at Sandford Manor[3]. Sometime during the thirteenth century, the priory became known permanently as Littlemore and its fortunes waxed and waned. The priory like other small and obscure houses on a limited income struggled to survive. The slide into poverty was probably the reason behind the nunnery’s dissolute and wayward behaviour. Despite its long-standing reputation as a place of ill-repute, it only had its first visitation in 1445, when Prioress Alice Wakeley (or Wakelyn) was in charge[4].

Tenth century illustration of nuns singing in a chorus. Universal History Archive

Beware Oxford Students!

At the time of the visit of Dr John Derby on behalf of William Alnwick, Bishop of Lincoln, there were only seven nuns living at the priory. These included Agnes Marcham and Joan Maynard and to our knowledge, four laywomen; Agnes, a serving woman of Robert Fitz Elys; the daughter of John Fitz and; Ingram Warlands’ daughters[5]. Derby discovered to his horror that the nuns were eating meat every day[6] and that the dormitory was in such a dilapidated state that the nuns were afraid to sleep in the room[7]. The financial state of the priory was so dire that the nuns were sleeping two to a bed as the prioress had been forced to sell most of the furniture.

Agnes Marcham spoke vehemently about the salacious behaviour of the prioress and the other nuns, decrying “the ill-fame which is current there-abouts concerning the place”[8]. On questioning it was revealed that the nuns often entertained male visitors and that men regularly dined with the prioress, on some occasions even spending a couple of nights at the priory. Among these ‘visitors’ were a monk from Rievalulx who was studying at Oxford; John Herars, a kinsman of the prioress and masters of arts and Oxford scholar and; Sir John Somerset, a parish chaplain of Sandford Boards (who was suspected of being rather closer to Joan Maynard than was acceptable)[9]. The other nuns in turn argued that Agnes was lazy and rebellious, refusing to do her share of the work[10]. With all this bad feeling, the atmosphere at the priory must have surely been an unpleasant one.

On the close of the visitation it was decided to issue an injunction against secular persons (especially Oxford scholars) from consorting and speaking with the nuns. The nuns were also warned against sleeping together, each nun had to have their own bed and stay there – alone! The nuns were charged under “pain of cursing and command of fasting”[11]. It is interesting that despite Agnes Marcham’s repulsion at the behaviour of the sisters, her refusal even after thirteen years (she had spent half her life at the priory) to make her public profession and her deep fear that the priory would sink even further into poverty, she stayed! Unfortunately, Agnes prediction on the fortunes of Littlemore turned out to be correct.

Naughty nun and friar. Malcolm Jones Pinterest.

The Worst Prioress in England

In 1517, scandalous reports of lewd behaviour reached the ears of the higher ecclesiastical authorities leading to Atwater, Bishop of Lincoln charging his commissary Edmund Horde with the task of finding out what exactly was going on[12]. Horde found a priory going to ruin under the mismanagement of the scheming, licentious and deceitful prioress, Katherine Wells (who had been appointed to the role in 1507). Only five nuns were in-resident. These were Anne Willye, Juliana Bechaump and the sisters Juliana, Johanna and Elizabeth Wynter. Despite Katherine threatening her nuns to remain silent[13], the nuns under questioning revealed a number of crimes committed by their prioress spanning the last eight years. Financial mismanagement had left the priory destitute with no food, drink or pay for the nuns. She had also pawned off the priory’s silver as well as “pannes, pottes, candilsticks, basynes, shetts, pelous, federe beds etc”[14] in order to raise a dowry for her now deceased daughter whom she had had with Richard Hewes, a priest from Kent[15]. In addition, she had leased tenements under the common seal and pocketed the money[16]. As punishment Katherine lost her title of prioress but was allowed to carry on with her duties, presumably until a suitable replacement was found, as long as she took advice and direction from Horde. Things did not improve and nine months later on the 2 September 1518, Bishop Atwater arrived in person.

The Bishop found the priory in an even worse state of disarray and the feud between Katherine and the sisters even more acrimonious. Katherine had continued to allow Hewes to visit and had been selling off the wood from the lands belonging to the priory without permission[17], Juliana had fallen into sin with a male commissary, Elizabeth was romping and wrestling with the boys in the cloister and one of the Wynter nuns (it is not clear which one) had had a child with a married man from Oxford[18]. Katherine complained to the Bishop that Elizabeth refused to correct her behaviour and so had been put in the stocks (it must have been a regular punishment for the unruly nuns). It seems that three of the other nuns released Elizabeth and burnt down the hated stocks. In the chaos, Katherine sought help from neighbours and servants but while she was away the nuns escaped by breaking a window and fleeing to friends for safety[19]. When they returned Katherine apparently beat Elizabeth around the head and kicked her[20]. The nuns for their part complained of Katherine’s violent temper and accused her of punishing them for no reason (maybe as retribution for them speaking out against her).

The Monk and the Nun in their Cell. Malcolm Jones Pinterest

The End of the Road

No replacement prioress was ever found for Littlemore, perhaps no-one wanted to take on such a burden! Maybe Littlemore was seen as a lost cause. Somehow the priory continued to exist for the new few years. It wasn’t until 1525, that Cardinal Wolsey, in need of money for his new school, Cardinal College, Oxford was given the authorisation to dissolve some of the decaying monasteries and religious houses. One of the those he chose was Littlemore. Probably, it was seen as a way to stop the contagion of immorality from spreading to other houses. Katherine was pensioned off and the nuns were released from a vocation that they were obviously not suited to. As former nuns, according to a decree issued by the hypocritical Henry VIII, they were forbidden from marrying. It is possible that some of the women may have returned to their families but it is equally as likely that a far worse fate then being a nun lay in store for them.

The Littlemore Burials

As mentioned in the introduction, 92 bodies were found during excavations. Of the 92 remains, 75 were adults, three adolescents and 13 children of which 35 were females and 28 were male, with the others unidentifiable. The majority of the females were over 45 years old, although their actual age when they died would be difficult to gauge from the remains (the older age at which these women would have died would correlate to the nuns’ circumstances which meant that they would have had access to better quality food than the general female population)[21].

It is more than likely that the burials included nuns, lay-sisters, servants, patrons, children attending school at the nunnery and relatives. Archaeologists stressed in the site report the importance of the find as one of only four out of a 152 nunneries known to produce a large enough sample for scientific conclusions to be drawn and is “one of the few collections of remains from a small English nunnery”[22].

The burials included that of a woman, probably a prioress, interred in a limestone coffin; a still born baby buried in a casket; a man who had died from trauma to the back of the head; two children aged six and ten (probably female) with congenital hip dysplasia (which would have left them with walking difficulties) and; an individual who had probably suffered from leprosy when he was alive. Two other high-status males were discovered buried in the church – possibly beneficiaries of the priory, clergy or close kin to the prioress[23]. None of these burials are unusual in themselves with the exception of one!

East door of the dormitory range of the former Littlemore priory. By Motacilla – Own work, Wikimedia Commons

A Deviant Burial

At the time of the excavation, a number of sensationalist headlines hit the newspapers about the finds such as the Daily Mail’s headline “Sex-crazed nun in a bizarre position among 90 skeletons dug up near priory”[24]. The Daily Mail and other papers were referring specifically to one burial that of a female, aged between 19 and 25, buried in a prone position along with a 6-month old infant.

Prone burials where the body is placed face down are not uncommon in the United Kingdom where over 200 cases are known (these burials are usually found on the edges of a cemetery to indicate that they have been cast out; in shallow graves or buried without a coffin)[25]. Often this type of burial was an after-death punishment reserved for sinners or ‘witches’ but it could have equally been the wishes of the deceased. Such a request could have been seen as a desire to atone for sins (either theirs or a close relative or friend’s) or to show humility.

So, was the woman a penitent nun who had been interred with her illegitimate child or had the baby just been added to the burial as occasionally happened or was the woman a wealthy and noble lady who had been buried with her infant[26]? We are unlikely to ever find out but for some it is irrefutable physical proof of the debauchery and immorality that went on behind the priory’s walls.

Nuns Behaving Badly

The question that is raised from all the accounts of the priory is how unusual was the lewd behaviour of the nuns and prioress at Littlemore?

Examples of nuns acting against their vows are plentiful. Many of these women had entered the nunneries and convents at a young age and not through choice. Parents would send their girls to become nuns for financial or moral reasons (maybe the girl was bringing shame on their family) or even as a pawn in a game of power, abbesses were influential figures in medieval England and so having an abbess in the family was definitely a bonus. So, it is not surprising that as these girls grew up, some of them rebelled against the constrictive and stifling life they had be condemned to.

A blocked 15th-century window of the dormitory range of the former priory, now Minchery Farmhouse. By Motacilla – Own work, Wikimedia Commons

Stories of nuns having relationships and children (usually with male priests – often they themselves had been pushed into a lifetime of celibacy against their natural instincts) abound in literature and folklore. The punishment for such immoral behaviour was severe but did not usually result in their deaths. Walled up nuns and priests became a trope in gothic literature but was hardly, if ever practised in Britain (more evidence of such a practice occurs on the continent)[27]. Nuns who took a lover were forgiven as long as they repented of their sins. More severe action was also common with women placed in strict isolation. For instance, in 1535, when a Cistercian nun at Esholt Priory in Yorkshire became pregnant she was sentenced to two years imprisonment in a room within the nuns’ dormitory[28] – for many this would have been a death sentence.

In 1442, at a convent in Catesby a prioress named Margaret Wavere had an affair with a priest named William Taylour. Furious when her indiscretion became public knowledge, she tore off the veils of her charges and dragged them about by their hair. Six of the nuns escaped and gave their account of the situation at Catesby. Apparently at a bishop’s inquiry, “she beat any nun who gave testimony against her, and bribed the bishop’s clerk to discover what had been said and by whom”[29].

Not all were isolated cases. Stories of the bad behaviour of entire nunneries can be found throughout England during the middle and later medieval periods. In 1351, the Cannington Convent in Somerset was compared to a brothel by a commissary of the Bishop of Bath and Wells[30] whilst the black nuns of Wroxall Priory in Warwickshire during the 1320s and 1330S, earned a bad reputation due to the obsession of the prioress, Agnes de Aylesbury with the priest, John de Warton. According to records, the priory “slid into serious disarray during her rule”[31] with her nuns running wild and refusing to obey her. A situation not helped by the fact that she lavished food and gifts (which the house could ill-afford) on her lover[32].

Conclusion

In conclusion, the situation at Littlemore was not an exception but it was also not the rule. Many convents were respectable institutions with nuns fulfilling their duties with dignity and devotion. At another point in time Littlemore would have survived but the era of the nunneries and monasteries in England was drawing to a close. Worsley, Thomas Cromwell and others used examples such as Littlemore to justify first the reformation of and later the dissolution of the religious houses and create, on behalf of Henry VIII, a new religious order. In the end, the closure of Littlemore was probably met with a sigh of relief rather than pangs of regret.

The sole remaining monastic building of Littlemore Priory, seen in 2009 when operating as the public house The Priory and…? By Steve Daniels, via Wikimedia.

Bibliography

Logan, F. Donald: Runaway Religious in Medieval England, C.1240-1540, Cambridge University Press, 1996

Power, Eileen: ‘Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535’ in The Complete Works of Eileen Power, Eileen Power, Shrine of Knowledge, 2020, Kindle Edition

Rosewell, Roger: The Medieval Monastery, Shire Publications, 2012

Notes:

[1] Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535 in The Complete Works of Eileen Power, Shrine of Knowledge, 2020, Kindle Edition

[2] Littlemore, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Littlemore

[3] Littlemore Priory, Grenoble Road, Littlemore, Oxford (NGR SP 5455 0231): Archaeological Excavation Report,

On behalf of The Firoka Group, John Moore Heritage Services, August 2016, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5989abd4ebbd1a409ec819ad/t/5ec69fc57cfadf2550261eb5/1590075371586/JMHS+Report+%281963%29+Littlemore+Priory.pdf

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] F. Donald Logan, Runaway Religious in Medieval England, C.1240-1540

[7] Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535

[8] Ibid

[9] Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535

[10] Ibid

[11] Littlemore Priory, Grenoble Road, Littlemore, Oxford (NGR SP 5455 0231): Archaeological Excavation Report

[12] Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535

[13] F. Donald Logan, Runaway Religious in Medieval England, C.1240-1540

[14] Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535

[15] Ibid

[16] Littlemore Priory, Grenoble Road, Littlemore, Oxford (NGR SP 5455 0231): Archaeological Excavation Report

[17] Ibid

[18] F. Donald Logan, Runaway Religious in Medieval England, C.1240-1540

[19] Ibid

[20] Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535

[21] Littlemore Priory, Grenoble Road, Littlemore, Oxford (NGR SP 5455 0231): Archaeological Excavation Report

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ellie Zolfagharifard, Oxford: ‘Sex-crazed’ nun in a bizarre position among 90 skeletons dug up near priory, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3098406/Medieval-scandal-uncovered-Oxford-Sex-crazed-nun-bizarre-position-90-skeletons-dug-near-priory.html, 2015

[25] Ibid

[26] Littlemore Priory, Grenoble Road, Littlemore, Oxford (NGR SP 5455 0231): Archaeological Excavation Report

[27] Immurement: A History of Walled in Terror and Cruelty, https://allthatsinteresting.com/immurement-history

[28] Roger Rosewell, The Medieval Monastery

[29] The Violent, Lusty, and Sad Medieval Nun, https://www.marlowkelly.com/marlows-blog/the-violent-lusty-and-sad-medieval-nun

[30] Ibid

[31] Revealed: The times when naughty nuns entertained their menfolk, https://www.worcesternews.co.uk/news/4094167.revealed-the-times-when-naughty-nuns-entertained-their-menfolk/

[32] Ibid

#women #Medieval #LIttlemore #convents #priory #english #Naughtynuns #deviantnums #nunneries #abbess #Deviantnuns #Reformation #Deviantburial

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