The Sex Crazy Nuns Who Shocked Medieval England
The Littlemore Priory scandals that took place between 1517 and 1518, involved accusations of sexual immorality among the Benedictine nuns and their prioress that shocked Medieval England.
Even after more than 800 years, it was an unsettling sight.
In 2012, archaeologists excavating a church site in Oxford had found skeletons of nuns who died in disgrace after being accused of 'sexually immoral behaviour.
Some of the bodies found were buried ‘upside down’, a mark of shame’ to punish the decreased for their lewd behaviour. Such burials called ‘prone’ burials were reserved for ‘witches’, sinners, and outcasts whose behaviour marked them out as odd or threatening within a community.
Most of the buried were females, at 35, with males and children, accounting for the others. One of the women even had an infant interred between her legs while being buried face down. According to Paul Murray, an archaeologist from John Moore Heritage Services, this was significantly symbolic as he said.
“This was perhaps a penitential act to atone for their sins or the sins of their families. Her lower legs had been truncated by the later internment of an infant. It is unusual for someone so young to be buried within the church. And sometimes women found in prone positions are considered to be witches.”
What crimes did these nuns commit to deserve such a punishment? Why was the Littlemore priory deemed as one of the worst nunneries of Medieval England? Was its prioress executed and buried with her baby?
The sex-crazy nuns of Littlemore Priory
In the early days of Henry III, the priory received several benefits of the royal favour. The priory was paid handsomely by the king for its maintenance and in 1232.
The king also granted it permission to send a sumpter horse twice a day into Shotover Forest to collect dead wood, and in the same year granted to it a piece of land in Hendred, Berkshire. However, strangely from 1291 onwards, it lost its royal patronage as it gradually sunk into poverty.
On 17 June 1517, Littlemore Priory was visited by Dr. Edmund Horde, a commissary of Bishop William Atwater of Lincoln, accompanied by the episcopal chancellor, Richard Roston. While what triggered the impromptu visit is unknown but what they saw, happening at the nunnery under its prioress Katherine Wells scandalized them to the bones.
The prioress herself was a bad egg, to begin with. She herself had an illegitimate daughter and was still visited by the father of the child, Richard Hewes, a priest in Kent with whom she drank and romped occasionally within the nunnery.
She was heavily appropriating the nunnery’s meagre funds and had pawned all the nunnery’s ornaments to support her extravagant lifestyle. She was brutal in punishments and any nun opposing her would be banished to a closed room without food and drink for several days.
As the nuns complained against the prioress, accusations and counteraccusations started to fly with Katherine blaming the other nuns of immoral behaviour themselves.
The prioress complained that one of the nuns 'played and romped' with boys in the cloister and refused to be corrected. When she punished her, the other nuns broke the punishment room and rescued her. Some nuns even ‘remained out’ for two-three weeks at a stretch to have fun with the men in the neighbourhood.
Things were as scandalous as ever as the Bishop’s team were at a loss to understand what to believe and what not to. The Priory was in any case in a bad shape with leaking roofs, an increasingly worsening reputation, and an embarrassing scandal threatening to blow up the carefully cultivated image of the English Church.
The aftermath of the scandal
A few months later, Bishop Atwater summoned Katherine Wells to his court in Lincoln. She faced numerous charges including embezzlement and deliberate immorality.
As a punishment, she was dismissed from the post of the prioress, but she was allowed to continue her day-to-day duties until a suitable replacement is found. However, this was on the strict condition that she would do nothing apart from this without Horde's personal authorisation.
The end of the affair is unknown, as historical records have not survived. We really do not know what happened to Katherine and the other nuns after the scandal. It is believed that they were absolved later of their sins though their whereabouts remained a mystery until 2012 when their remains were found buried upside down.
The sins committed were so grave by medieval standards that the nunnery was permanently closed down in 1542 by Thomas Wolsey, an adviser to King Henry VIII, who made the final call. The priory was gradually pulled down and became a farmstead with only one original building left standing surviving to date.
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