The Rebel Nuns of Medieval Yorkshire

Medieval nuns were pious, devoted to Christ and obedient - weren't they? Not always. Using the records from Yorkshire abbeys as an example, I look at how nunneries weren't always the shining example of piety that we think they were... 

It's been estimated that by the 1530s in England, there were 142 nunneries in England, housing 2,000 nuns. (1) And, during the Medieval period, some serious Abbey building was going on in the county of Yorkshire, with many priories and abbeys built in the 1100s, including Hampole Priory, Rievaulx Abbey and the Priory of St Clement. In addition, Yorkshire church effigies depict piety, Medieval women lying recumbent, hands joined in stone perpetually in prayer. Nuns opted to live (or were sent) to nunneries to swear their oath to Christ and take vows of celibacy, devoutness and obedience. They would have to promise not to get on, be obedient and not argue and quarrel. 

The whole idea of living in seclusion in an abbey or monastery was to remove the temptations of the outside world and promote a devout, obedient way of life. 

Photo: The British Library, Public Domain

But this didn't always go to plan.

One, a nun called Cecily, dramatically ran away with her lover, 'throwing off her nun's habit', from the gates of Clementhorpe in 1300. (2) In 1346 at Nunappleton Priory in Yorkshire one of the nuns, Katherine de Hugate, was found to be pregnant, with another lay sister there 'said to have been several times in the same condition.' Other pregnancies were recorded at Sinningthwaite Priory near Harrogate and at Wilberfoss in the East Riding. In 1444 the Prioress of Nun Monkton, near Harrogate, was swiftly removed from her post for 'serious immorality'. (3) There are more examples, and these are not specific to Yorkshire - other offences can be found in towns including Lincoln, Winchester and Norwich, the records of the whole of England scattered with surprise pregnancies and secret lovers' trysts within religious devotional houses.

There were two factors which probably didn't help. 

The first was the mixed sex establishments, called the 'double monasteries' - that men and women were expected to live together in the same establishment, but in complete celibacy. They might have had separate living quarters, but these clearly made it all the more tempting for them to mix. 

We can see this in the twelfth-century case of Watton, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where monks and nuns lived together, but had their own separate quarters that they were supposed to stick to. Eventually, a young, rebellious nun became attracted to an older monk and they decided to meet at night, 'at the sound of a stone'. Aelred, a monk residing at Rievaulx, and writing almost certainly from reports of gossip, states that 'she went out a Virgin of Christ, and she soon returned an adulteress.' The other nuns became suspicious at the stone being thrown night after night, and the lovers were discovered. Their affair ended in a pregnancy for the nun and a violent castration for the monk. (4)

The second factor that probably influenced the development of these 'unchaste' thoughts was the erotic nature of the nuns' religious instruction. 

Have a read of this extract from the Ancrene Riwle, an instruction for devout nuns and anchoresses:
(On the crucifixion): 'With these two pieces of wood you should kindle the fire of love in your heart... think how gladly you should love the king of glory who extends his arms towards you and bows down his head as if to ask for a kiss.' 
'Stretch out your love to Jesus Christ... you have won him. Touch him with as much love as you sometimes feel for a man. He is yours to do with all that you will.' (5)
Perhaps the temptation of males living close by (whether they were monks or administrators), the passionate iconography in their religious teachings and the natural human impulse to do the thing you really shouldn't all came together and proved too much for some nuns. Some of this was also blamed on Abbesses who just weren't up to the job, being lax in their punishment and strictness in maintaining the women under their care.  

Before we get carried away though, we should consider that the majority of nuns seemed to take their oaths seriously, and the violent punishment taken out on rebel nuns like the one at Watton, by the other resident nuns' own hands, would indicate this. The instinct to run away after committing an offence makes it clear that the rest of the religious community came down hard on offenders and it wasn't generally encouraged or widely tolerated. The monk implicated in the Watton case ran away before being captured, Cecily fled with her secret lover and Joanna of Leeds even went so far as to fake her own death using a dummy in 1318 at St Clement's in York. (7) 

Waywardness and temptation may have been a part of life for those supposed to have been religiously celibate in Medieval Yorkshire and beyond, but there were a great many who did observe the rules. Misconduct was reported in the Midlands, Norwich and Lincoln for example, too  - and some writers downplay the extent of it, including Christian Knudsen, who argues that it comprised 'tiny yet predictable human elements within medieval monastic life.' (8)

What do you think? Cane you link me up to more tales of rebel nuns during the Medieval era? Do you think it was more widespread, or less? Let me know in the comments below.

Women who followed a religious life found themselves tangled up in the Wars of the Roses conflict in the fifteenth century. At least one paused her prayers when she heard fighting outside her abbey, while others prayed for peace and fought for their future. One house was also involved in the political slander of a Yorkist figure. Find out about these, and other women affected by the Wars of the Roses in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword.  Order your copy here. 

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1. BERNARD, G. W. "The Dissolution of the Monasteries.History 96, no. 4 (324) (2011): 390-409. Accessed April 12, 2020. 
2. Victoria County History, The Priory of St Clement, York, Accessed 12 Apr. 2020
3. Power, Eileen, Medieval English Nunneries 1275-1535, 1922. 
4. The Nun of Watton, accessed Apr. 12 2020
5. Leyser, H: Medieval Women, 450-1500, Phoenix Giant, London, 1996 pp 213-14
6. Joan of Leeds, accessed Apr. 12 2020
7. Knudsen, Christian D: Naughty nuns and Promiscuous Monks: Monastic Sexual Misconduct in Late Medieval England. 2012. p229.