Category Archives: Nuns

A place of safety? Unconventional use of a convent in medieval Lincolnshire

I am supposed to be checking proofs and engaging with the horrors of the online proof-reading tool, but somehow am not, because I found something maddeningly fabulous and tantalising in a plea roll, which just needs a quick comment. I don’t think I can sneak it into the book (Women & Medieval Common Law – out scarily soon – dread, dread) at this stage – definitely no more than a surreptitious additional reference, if it doesn’t mess up the page layout – though it could be relevant in a couple of ways (and indeed also links up with both my last book and also a couple of blog posts for more respectable places which I have ‘on the go’ at the moment).

The entry is on the Rex roll of the KB for Trinity term 1331,[i] and it relates to the case of a woman called Agatha, who was indicted for the homicide of her husband, William del Cote. So it looked as if it might have been going in the direction of several ‘petty treason’ cases which I have found, and would end with a laconic little ‘comburr’ in the margin, indicating that the woman had been sent off for burning, but no! There may well be an entry which says just that – I have not tracked down the relevant gaol delivery roll entry, if it exists – but this King’s Bench roll is at one remove from the homicide case itself, and is a presentment by jurors from Kesteven in Lincolnshire of an alleged conspiracy to stop ‘justice’ being done.

The Kesteven jurors stated that John de Camelton, until recently prior of Sempringham, John de Irnham and Hugh de Swafham, fellow canons of the said prior, and John de Nevill of Stoke, had conspired together in relation to Agatha. She had been indicted, arrested and held in Lincoln prison, until she was brought before the justices of gaol delivery at Lincoln castle. (There are no dates for any of this – helpful!) At the gaol delivery session, she remained ‘mute’ – i.e. did not plead. She was remitted to prison by order of the justices, presumably to be ‘encouraged’ to speak via the harsh regime imposed upon such accused as ‘stood mute of malice’. It was at this point that the conspiracy allegedly sprang into action. John de Camelton and the others brought a writ to have the indictment and Agatha brought before the king’s court, and, in the meantime, she was taken to Sempringham, amongst the nuns, and the jurors reported that she was still living there, and the crime remained unpunished. They had some thoughts on why the intervention had occurred: John de Camelton had been paid 200 marks and two bottles of wine.

The sheriff was ordered to summon the alleged conspirators. John de  Irham and Hugh de Swaffham came and pleaded ‘not guilty’, and put themselves on the country. The jury of knights and others said that Hugh was not guilty, so he was acquitted, but they said that John de Irnham was guilty, so should be committed to prison. (Logically, this meant that one of the others had to be guilty as well, as John de irnham could hardly conspire with himself). The new prior of Sempringham came and made a fine for John de Irnham.

Still pretty much locked down, and supposed to be doing other things, there is a limit to how far I can take this at the moment, but it does seem interesting, in at least two respects. First, there is the possibility of it representing a show of sympathy with a woman facing the awful prospect of being burnt for the killing of her husband, and who had not managed to speak for herself at her trial. Assuming that the Kesteven presentment is not a complete lie, it may be interpreted as an instance in which the accused decided, for noble, family-saving reasons – not to co-operate with the trial, in the knowledge that she might die a mistreated prisoner, or else as a situation of such trauma that it left her unable to speak up or make a defence. Alternatively, if they are right about the money and wine, it might just have been a case of corruption (albeit one with an outcome which modern readers are likely to prefer).

The second reason for my particular interest in this is that the action allegedly concerned the priory of Sempringham, a Gilbertine house in Lincolnshire, which, at this very time, was the place of effective incarceration of a figure of my obsession –Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, ‘banged up’ in this flat-land, English, convent, at a distance from her father’s power-base in Gwynedd. I delved into her history in my last book, Imprisoning Medieval Women, and have always hoped to find out more. (I also have a ‘very back-burner project’ about the many and various ways in which clerks writing records for the English crown managed to mangle ‘Gwenllian’ – the inability to handle the magnificent Welsh LL has a long history).[ii] This entry, of course, does not touch her directly, and yet it is an interesting hint both at the possibility of dubious security at Sempringham (in the sense of the crown, or royal justice, not being entirely in charge), and also at the sort of company she might have been keeping in the small community there.

The limited poking about that I have been able to do suggests that John de Camelton was an interesting fellow. He comes up in complaints and petitions suggesting further undutiful behaviour.[iii] And there seem to have been various disputes involving the priory and its (male) officials, at this point, and earlier in the century.[iv] By the time the 1331 entry was made, however, ex-prior John was described as debilis, so perhaps his rebellious days were over.[v] As for the silent centre of the story, I wonder whether I will ever find out what happened to the unfortunate (or fortunate?) Agatha. Proofreading has to come first for now, then marking, and writing other things on the January ‘to do’ list, but I will definitely be making further efforts to flesh out this story.




[i] KB 27/285 Rex m. 14 (IMG 461).

[ii] The account of Sempringham in the in VCH calls her ‘Wencilian’.

[iii] TNA SC 8/34/1671; CPR 1330-34, p. 60.

[iv] See, e.g., Joyce Coleman, ‘New Evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s Raid on Sempringham Priory 1312’ (1999) The British Library Journal; KB 27/278 Rex m. 27 (IMG 403); KB 27/285 Rex mm. 6, 14 (IMG 444, 462).

[v] KB 27/285 m. 12 (IMG 456-7).

Mysterious goings-on in Clerkenwell

The revival of mystery plays, and a more visual form of religious practice, is in the news today: .

Anyone with an interest in things medieval will probably have had to deal with the various surviving mystery plays at one point or another – they have something to contribute to many fields beyond medieval literature/drama/popular theology, even to my rather technical work on legal history. They crop up so regularly that it is easy to assume that everyone in the middle ages thought mystery plays were great. Recently, though, I came across a case which suggests otherwise. I had filed it under the rather un-academic title ‘PrioressGrumpyPants’, I am afraid. Time to share it.

The scene:

Clerkenwell, Middlesex, somewhere in the (Augustinian) priory of St Mary

The cast:

The prioress

The king (probably Edward I, but dating is not certain)

The people of London (various, noisy and unruly, according to the prioress, who calls them sauvage gent)

The modern reader

The plot:

The prioress of Clerkenwell is not happy. She is in charge of the priory’s finances, and, like virtually all medieval nunneries, Clerkenwell’s finances are always a bit insecure. A particular annoyance is that she is not getting as much in the way of crops from her fields as she ought to – mainly because of the habit of people of London of coming onto the land and trampling the crops, with their fights or wrestling matches – and their mystery plays (lur miracles & lutes). She petitions the king to ask him to do something about it, saying that the common law has been no help. The response is a bit mealy-mouthed, suggesting that there has been some sort of instruction to a local official, the constable.

The modern reader is not convinced that one constable would be able to do much against the weight of Londoners wanting to use this land for their terrible unruly dramas. She understands the prioress’s financial worries, and is, of course, interested in her as a medieval woman with exceptional power and influence, testing the boundaries of medieval gender constructions, but does feel that grumbling about the unwashed hordes engaging in religious drama might be a little at odds with the idea of religious people as, you know, interested in promoting religion and suchlike. She also wonders if the Londoners might have made a good case for the religious orthodoxy of wrestling matches, based on Jacob’s bout noted in Genesis 32:24-32.




References and reading

The record is SC8/98/4858 and you can see a summary (and even a scan of the document) on the National Archives website:

If you want to read more on medieval nuns (and who wouldn’t?), the best place to start is still E. Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275-1535 (Cambridge, 1922)  (and see her point at p. 36, that ‘[T]he dry-as-dust pages of the medieval law-books hide many jewels for whoever has patience to seek them …’ I would have disputed the dry as dust dig, but it’s broadly pro-legal history, so she is all right by me.)

A good entry into medieval mystery plays is: P. Happé, English mystery plays: a selection (Harmondsworth, 1975). Or go and see them – seeing the York cycle long ago was one of the things that started me off on this whole medieval thing …



Land, fraud and vulnerability in medieval Yorkshire

Just in case anyone is not convinced that medieval land cases are worth the bother, here’s a tale of fairly outrageous behaviour from Yorkshire, found in a plea roll of the eyre of 1293-4 (JUST 1/1084 m. 48; AALT image 4715; ), which might have something of interest for those looking at several different aspects of medieval history.

The record tells us that the Prioress of Yedingham (a Benedictine house) had previously appeared before the royal justices by attorney and claimed some land on behalf of her foundation, from Agnes daughter of Raph Bertram. Agnes had defaulted and the Prioress had been awarded seisin (more or less possession in this context) of the land. This was thought to be a little fishy, and possibly a collusive transfer, done in this way to get around Edward I’s legislation against transfers into ‘mortmain’. The mischief being fought in this legislation was the sort of transfer which meant that lords would lose the windfalls they usually received in connection with the normal human lifecycle (death, marriage, wardship): i.e. transfers to the ‘dead hand’ of an ecclesiastical institution. One way of trying to do this without being obvious about it would be by pretending to have lost the land to the transferee in a legal case, rather than making a straightforward transfer. To find out what had happened in this case, an inquiry was to be held, and 12 jurors were sworn to tell the truth of the matter.

They said that the land had indeed been lost by agreement and collusion, then went on to tell a rather strange tale. Agnes had been unwell (infirmabatur) for six months before the enactment of ‘the statute’ (this might refer to the Statute of Mortmain 1279, but more likely to mean the statute Quia Emptores 1290, which also dealt with mortmain). The description of the illness is no more specific than that, but the effect of it is stated to be that she was not in good mental health: quasi non compos mentis sue. During this period, a clerk with whom (they said) she used to sleep came and found her in that state, and at once had her taken away from her own land to another house. Once there, he made a charter in Agnes’s name, then used that to transfer Agnes’s land to the predecessor of the current Prioress.  Afterwards, Agnes returned to full mental health (revenit ad statum suum). A servant (ancilla) who was living with her told her what had happened. As soon as Agnes heard and understood this, she had herself put in what seems to be a basket (in quodam corbello; I assume this is a slightly unusual twist on corbis, and it certainly makes more sense than my initial guess of ‘crow’…] and had herself taken to the manor of one Richard de Breaus, chief lord of the tenement. Richard reseised her of the land, which she held for three years before the collusive action with the new Prioress.

There seem to be some annoying gaps in the narrative here. What was the naughty clerk’s game? Was the business with a basket a way of concealing herself and escaping from the house to which she had been taken (in the manner of St Paul in Acts 9) or was she physically incapacitated and unable to move without being carried?  And why, after making heroic efforts to get the land back, would Agnes arrange to transfer it to the priory in any case? I hope she was being well paid, either in temporal or spiritual currency, not being bullied out of it. Still – despite the usual holes, there is some good material in this case on mental health and ideas about it, on the vulnerability of those in ill-health, but also on the possibility of recovery of mind and determination to get back control of land out of which one had been cheated.