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Medieval monks often lacked all trace of holiness….

It is a fact that the medieval Church was ruthless in its acts and ambitions. We all know of particular popes, cardinals and archbishops who would stop at nothing to achieve their own personal and political ends, but it came as a surprise to me to discover just how brutal the Church could be on a purely local level.

Bury St Edmunds Abbey Church

Here are two anecdotes about the ‘holiness’ of medieval monks. Firstly, the Benedictines:-

“….On Sunday, 18th October, 1327, the monks of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds ended their prayers, filed out through the abbey’s crenelated gate and proceeded to the parish church, which was full of men, women and children. The monks then threw off their habits—revealing that some of them wore armour under their robes—and burst into the church. They seized a number of citizens by force and dragged them back to the abbey as prisoners….

“….Sometime later the townsfolk assembled at the abbey to demand the prisoners’ release. The monks replied with a hail of missiles, killing a large number of people. Later in the day the town bells summoned a larger party of armed men including aldermen, burgesses, a parson and 28 chaplains, who all took a solemn oath to live or die together. They then set fire to the gates and stormed the abbey….”

Why the monks wanted prisoners is not explained

Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire

Next, the Cistercians:-

“….Walter [Map] was an itinerant justice, and he always exempted Cistercians from his oath to do justice to all men since, he said, ‘It was absurd to do justice to those who are just to none’. This was not a joke; Map’s reports of Cistercian atrocities are extraordinary. For example, he says that the monks of Byland once wanted land belonging to a knight who would not give it up to them. One night they entered his house, ‘muffled up and armed with swords and spears’, and murdered him and his family. A relative, hearing of the death, arrived three days later to find that all the buildings and enclosures had disappeared and in their place was a well-ploughed field.*”

* From Edward Coleman, ‘Nasty Habits – Satire and the Medieval Monk’, History Today, volume 43, issue 6, June 1993, pp 36-42.

These shocking incidents are hardly compatible with a devout life of worship, contemplation and doing good, and certainly cast the entire Church in a shabby light. If there is a problem at the top, there is usually a problem at the bottom as well.

I think we can largely forget the fat, jovial monk of popular belief!

 

The abduction of Jane Sacherverell in November 1485….

markyate-cell-gen-mag-1846large

Markyate Priory

Stealing women (and also male wards) was a shamefully common event, especially in the 14th century, as I wrote yesterday. But it was still going on in the 15th century. Richard legislated on behalf of women, but so did Henry VII, with a 1487 “Acte against taking awaye of Women against theire Willes”.

The following account, particularly of Jane Sacherverell’s case, has been paraphrased from the book Stolen Women in Medieval England by Caroline, of which the above link is an appreciative review.

According to one historian and writer, A. Cameron in Complaint and Reform in Henry VII’s Reign: The Origins of the Statute of 3 Henry VII, Henry was prompted by the case of the widow Jane Sacherverell. With Henry and his council acknowledged the inadequacies of the existing law in its failure to prevent Jane Sacherverell’s abduction. But E.W. Ives, in Agaynst Taking Away of Women, argued that Henry’s motivation was furious because he learned that some of his own servants were involved in another abduction, that of Margery Ruyton in 1487. So Henry’s legislation was actually directed at those who were accessories to the crime.

Earlier legislation was not robust enough, and failed to prevent Margery’s abduction, but Henry’s new legislation was no better, for in 1502 it signally failed to prevent of resolve abduction of Margaret Kebell.

Whatever the reason for the 1487 legislation, and the persistence of kidnapping as an issue before Parliament, the suggestion is that there was an underlying disquiet about the problem. Hmm. Easy to tell it was men doing the dithering. Men in power. I’ll bet the abduction and forcible marriage of a young male ward created far more squawking and flurrying of male feathers!

I have not been able to find any details about the case of Margery Ruyton, but for those who wonder about the unfortunate Jane Sacherverell, I will explain a little. The pope alluded to the wealth of forced marriage victims, their abductors being “more desirous of patrimony than matrimony”. Thus most captured women were wealthy in both property and goods. The widowed Jane Sacherverell had married into a family of Derbyshire gentry that had been prominent since the late 13th century. They became knights and had served as Justices of the Peace since at least the 1430s. Jane was obviously a likely target for some man on the make, because widows possessed the property and goods of their late husbands. The man in question this time was William Willoughby of Wollaton. Anyone who married Jane would have immediate control of everything, at least until the majority of her son by her late husband. And we all know how often young heirs failed to reach their majority. William’s eye was on the main chance—that death might present him with the lot. Nice one, if it worked.

The following passage is from https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/learning/medievalwomen/theme6/documents.aspx

“Mi 5/168/23/1: Extract from bill of complaint relating to the abduction and forced marriage of Jane Sacheverell (1485, English) – this above document can be viewed at the site.

“Jane Sacheverell was an heiress, the only daughter of Henry Stathum of Hopwell and Morley in Derbyshire. Her husband Sir John Sacheverell died either in 1483 or at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. In order to protect her young son Henry’s inheritance, the Sacheverell family arranged a marriage contract for Jane with their friend and neighbour, William Zouche. Their plans were scuppered when another family, the Willoughbys, abducted Jane and forced her to marry Richard Willoughby of Wollaton. This extract from a bill of complaint brought in Jane’s name describes the abduction on 11 November 1485. At the time of the abduction, the offence was a mere trespass under the law, but two years later King Henry VII made it a felony, in the Act ‘agaynst taking awaye of Women agaynst theire Wills’ (3 Henry VII, c.2).

“A settlement was made between the families in May 1486. Jane obtained a divorce from Richard Willoughby on the grounds of her precontract with William Zouche, whom she went on to marry. A ‘precontract’ was a formal trothplight (agreement to marry, in front of witnesses), which had the legal force of a marriage solemnized in church.

“After William’s death nearly 50 years later, Jane became a nun at Markyate Priory in Bedfordshire. She was Prioress there from 1508 until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, when she received a Crown pension. . .”

One wonders if even then, at that late stage, she was taking no chances of being snatched again! No, that was a flippant remark, but someone in her situation must surely have always glanced over her shoulder, or woken with a start in the night on hearing some odd noise or other.

Information about Markyate Priory: http://www.hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk/data/places/places-m/markyate/markyate-cell.htm

 

Women were abducted in medieval England….

Stolen women

The above book, Stolen Women in Medieval England, by Caroline Dunn, is subtitled Rape, Abduction and Adultery 1100-1500. This subtitle is well earned, because all three activities become very tangled indeed in those records that survive of cases that reached courts.

The general impression the modern world has of medieval women is that they were “victims” of men who controlled everything in their lives. Whether it was their father, brother, husband, whatever, they were bullied into submission. Hmm, not quite. Many women back then knew exactly how to work the system. So that when we read of raids by armed men to abduct and force into marriage any woman who would bring wealth and property into the “bridegroom’s” clutches, things might not have been as simple and clear-cut as might seem.

Well, yes. A lot of this did go on, especially in the 14th century, when it was all too prevalent, but although there were many genuine attacks of this nature, there were also situations when woman, especially married ones, would connive with her abductor in order to escape from a husband she no longer wanted. Or for love of the supposed abductor, of course. And there were young lovers embroiled in elopements. But if it was a case of getting away from an unwanted husband, the deserted husband’s only course was to make legal complaint against the abductor, since he could not charge his wife with leaving him. Thus the charges had to be fairly stiff, leading to all these supposed instances of abduction and rape. A consequence of the husband’s legal move would be for the wife and abductor to claim to have been previously married, so the abduction was merely a case of the first husband claiming back his wife. Not easy to prove or disprove.

Once a marriage had taken place, and it had been consummated, it could not be undone. The Church frowned on such things, but did not annul the match, provided the exact words/vows had been uttered. These indicated what was called present consent. So, by publicly saying, e.g. “I marry you,” or “I take you” they contracted a valid marriage. Or, if in front of witnesses they said, e.g. “I will marry you” or “I will take you”, this constituted future consent, a form of betrothal, which, if subsequently consummated, became a validly contracted marriage. (Step forward Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Talbot/Butler!)

Another point I did not know before, was that when the word rape (usually variations of raptus) appears in records and rolls, it does not necessarily mean sexual rape as understood in the modern world. These rapists could also be mere abductors, whether with ill intent or if they were illicit lovers. So taking a woman and carrying her off would be termed rape in medieval records, even when sexual assault of any kind was not involved.

Those women probably most at risk of kidnapping were the widows, especially the wealthy ones. The taking by force of virgins was frowned upon, and outraged fathers/families could always disinherit the victim. Widows, on the other hand, possessed land and property of which a new husband would immediately gain control. For good if she had no heirs lingering from her late husband’s family, or just for her lifetime if there were step-children lining up to thwart him of hanging on to it. As you can imagine, these possible heirs would soon kick up if he tried! It didn’t stop the abductions, often by impoverished men, including knights, who wanted to improve their situation and fill their purses.

The above is just a brief summary and sample of the interesting facts to be found in Caroline Dunn’s fascinating book. The chapters have been well laid out and are easy to sort mentally, but there are so many footnotes that I for one began to boggle. Not because of their volume, but because their font was small. The author’s sources and references are amazing. Everything is accounted for.

This book is part of the fourth series of Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, and I do not hesitate to recommend it.

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