12th February 2019
The naughty nuns of Clementhorpe
One of our members, Simon Batchelor, writes about the medieval nunnery at Clementhorpe:
Section from Scaife's map of York, 1864 (YAYAS Evelyn Collection)
Clementhorpe Nunnery is making headline news. As some of you may have read in The Press and The Guardian, new work is being carried out to make the medieval Registers of the Archbishops of York more accessible to both researchers and the general public. These registers record both the financial and legal business of the Archbishops, and these include dealing with runaway nuns.
Clementhorpe Priory was founded by Archbishop Thurstan in the mid 12th Century and probably never housed more than seven or eight nuns at any given time. It wasn’t a rich priory and for the most part seems to have been a fairly quiet place. However there do seem to have been a number of scandals within its 400 year history.
In 1300 a case was recorded in the Assize Rolls in which at late evening a nun, Cecily, met certain men at the priory gate. She threw off her habit, rode off with them to Darlington, where she proceeded to live with Gregory de Thornton for more than three years. (Page, W. ed. 1974. “Victoria County History of the County of York, v3, p129.
Archbishops Greenfield and Melton seem to have had more problems than most. In 1310, the former was forced to confine Joan Saxton to the priory. She was not permitted to hold any offices. She was permitted to walk in the orchards and gardens of the priory, but only in the company of other nuns. She was permitted to receive friends and relations twice per year, but only in the presence of the Prioress or other discreet nuns and she was to have no further contact with Dame Alice Waleys, who if she was still living at the priory was to be expelled. (Brown, W. & Hamilton Thompson, A. eds. 1934. Register of William Greenfield Archbishop of York, part 2, pp 80-1. Surtees Society Vol. 149)
Three years later Greenfield had to deal with John, son of Ralph the Hosier of York. John was a priest accused of “Incontinence [sexual intimacy] and incest with Alice of Leeds". [This was spiritual incest, John and Alice being “brother” and “sister” in the service of Christ]. (Brown, W. & Hamilton Thompson, A. eds. 1931. Register of William Greenfield Archbishop of York, part 1,p 148. Surtees Society Vol 145.)
Isobel Studley was admitted into the Priory by Archbishop Greenfield in 1315, but by 1331 she had been found guilty of “sins of the flesh, apostasy and other excesses”. Archbishop Melton sent her to the priory at Yedingham to undergo penance. She was allowed to return to Clementhorpe, provided that she commit no further offence, and was not blasphemous, insolent, disobedient, quarrelsome or aggressive toward the prioress or other nuns. (Borthwick Institute for Archives : Melton Register 9, pt.1, fo230v; cf. Power, E. 1922. Medieval English Nunneries, pp600-1).
Finally we come to the remarkable Joanna of Leeds, whose exploits have so recently been reported. Having fled the priory, Joanna fled to Beverley and it is there that she faked her death and funeral. Oddly Archbishop Melton seems to have been fairly lenient with her, directing the Dean of Beverley to warn her about the nature of her sins and provided she recanted within eight days he would allow her to return to Clementhorpe, to serve her penance. He did however direct the Dean to conduct a thorough investigation and attempt to uncover the names of Joanna’s accomplices. (Borthwick Institute for Archives: Melton Register 9, pt.1, fo326v)
That these offences are recorded in detail is not a coincidence. In 1298 Pope Boniface VIII promulgated a new decree on the conduct of nuns and their position under ecclesiastic law. Both Greenfield and Melton, who are considered to be strict conformist bishops, would want to be seen to be enforcing this new doctrine.
These are stand out cases, most misdemeanors among the nuns would not go before the Archbishop, having been dealt with by the prioress. Unfortunately these records have not survived, so we do not really know if St. Clement's was an unruly house. The handful of cases outlined above occur soon after the creation of new corporate policy, and may simply reflect its pedantic implementation, no matter how impractical, by the middle management of the medieval church - something I am sure we are familiar with today.
The story of Joanna of Leeds forms the basis of Candace Robb’s 1993 novel “The Nun’s Tale”.