Exits, Entries and the Allure of the Runaway Nun

Guest post by Gwen Seabourne, 17 February 2021.

Entries on the rolls of judicial sessions in Yorkshire in 1304 and 1306 tell tales of disturbing events at two of the county’s convents. Representatives of Barkston Ash and the Ainsty informed the king’s justices that a man called Gregory de Thornton, and other ‘persons unknown’, had come to the Benedictine Priory of St Clement (Clementhorpe) in York on an unspecified date, at night, and taken away a nun called Cecilia.[1] The men of Morley reported a second incident, saying that one Robert Illewyk of Wakefield had come to the Cistercian convent of Kirklees, on 11th June, 1298, and taken away Elizabeth de Hopton, one of the nuns. Both sets of accusations also alleged the removal of some of the convents’ goods, as well as the women.[2]

In the Clementhorpe case, Gregory denied having taken either Cecilia or any goods from the priory. The jury at the session said that ‘persons unknown’ had come to the convent one twilight, three years previously, with a horse, saddle and reins, and had met Cecilia outside the gate. She was, at that point, wearing a nun’s habit, but took this off and was then dressed in other (presumably ‘civilian’) clothing. She was put on the horse which the ‘persons unknown’ had brought with them, and taken to Darlington (more than 40 miles away and in the less accessible jurisdiction of the bishop of Durham) where Gregory was awaiting her. They confirmed that the ‘persons unknown’ had been sent by Gregory, with one of his horses, to bring her away and take her to him in Darlington, and that he kept her there with him for three years. They stressed that Gregory was not present at Clementhorpe at the time of the abduction.

In the Kirklees case, Robert, similarly, denied having abducted Elizabeth and removing goods belonging to the convent. The story which came out was that it was his groom, Adam, who had taken her, with cloth belonging to Elizabeth herself, to the house of a third man at Woodkirk (around 12 miles away), but that this was on Robert’s orders and on a horse belonging to Robert. The jurors found that all of this had been with Elizabeth’s full consent, and, that, rather than Adam having removed goods belonging to the convent, what she brought with her was her own cloth.

‘The Prospect of Kirklees Abbey’ (1669)

As is frequently the way with common law cases, we are lacking the end to these stories. There is a space under one of the entries about Cecilia, left to be filled in when there was an outcome, but it remains a blank. Gregory was bailed to appear in Parliament, and other court dates were set, but apparently he did not turn up.[3] Both Adam and Robert were ordered to be brought to court to face the charge of abducting Elizabeth, but no further process has yet been found. Nevertheless, quite a lot of interesting material can be wrung from the entries themselves.

They show the involvement of secular government, and the king’s courts, in what might seem to have been the business of convents and the Church. There was certainly concern amongst contemporary churchmen to keep nuns enclosed, and ecclesiastical records include many cases of ‘apostate’ nuns who had absented themselves without leave from their houses.[4] An example which has received a great deal of attention in the last couple of years, because of new archival discoveries, has been that of ‘runaway Yorkshire nun’, Joan of Leeds. Joan left Clementhorpe, the same priory which featured in the Case of Gregory and Cecilia, though some years afterwards. Documents from 1318, in the register of Archbishop Melton, set out a story, apparently from Joan herself, of how she had got away, by a cunning ruse involving a faked death and the funeral of a dummy, and then lived ‘in carnal lust’ in the secular world for some time.[5] As the entries relating to Cecilia and Elizabeth show, however, it was not only the authorities of the church which were concerned with unauthorised departures from convents. The gates of the convent allowed movement in both directions, and both church and secular authorities had an interest in keeping them under surveillance.

Royal concern was with disorderly conduct and security of convents at a time when they might be used both to house royal or noble women and also to confine the daughters of dangerous opponents. A statute of 1285 made removal of nuns from their convents an offence which might result in a prison sentence, compensation to the convent and a payment to the king.[6] The offence was that of the person removing the nun, rather than the nun herself, so liability was incurred whether or not the nun consented to her removal. This is why the initial focus in our plea roll entries was on the men, and probably explains why  Cecilia’s name was added as an afterthought in one of the entries, squeezed in between the lines, and in the other, her name was not given at all.

Even though the statute seems to mean that the nuns’ state of mind and co-operation would be irrelevant, these things came up in both cases. In Elizabeth’s case, the jury explicitly stated that the exit had been with her full consent. The record of Cecilia’s case is more finely balanced: there is a suggestion of compliance, in that it is Cecilia who is said to have taken off and left her habit, but there is also a sense of things being done to her, rather than her doing them – the ‘persons unknown’ dress her in other clothes, take her away, put her on a horse, and Gregory keeps her with him for about three years. The entries, and the way they describe events, raise many questions. I will concentrate on two of them here: why material on the nun’s consent was included at all, and how it may lead us astray.

It is not possible to draw firm conclusions about the real state of mind of nuns from material like this, though some older commentary does tend towards fitting the evidence to a pre-existing pattern of ideas about ‘naughty nuns’. For example, looking at Cecilia’s case, an early twentieth century commentator chose to change the grammar of the entry and attribute all of the action, and much of the impetus, to Cecilia – she met the men at the gate, she ‘threw off’ her habit, ‘put on another robe and rode off with them to Darlington, where Gregory de Thornton was waiting for her, and with him she lived for three years or more’.[8]  As mentioned above, though, the entry itself locates much of the action either with the ‘persons unknown’ or with Gregory, and describes Cecilia’s undressing in a less burlesque way. The effect of the change is to make Cecilia sound significantly more of a moving force in her departure from the priory than the plea roll entries do.

Was mentioning the women’s consent or co-operation just general misogynist mud-slinging, going along with literary tropes and churchmen’s fears of ‘naughty nuns’[7] Or was there something of a legal justification after all? Perhaps it was used in an attempt to cast doubt on whether what would now be called the actus reus — the guilty act — had been committed: if a nun had walked out of the convent of her own volition, and had only then been taken elsewhere, was that quite ‘abduction from a convent’?

I am not suggesting that nuns might not sometimes have wanted to leave their convents, and taken steps to arrange this. Life as a nun did not suit everyone, and some girls and women were placed in convents without their agreement. There is some evidence that Elizabeth de Hopton at least was not ideally suited to the cloistered life: after a lengthy absence, she returned, but complaints about her in church records suggest she was regarded as ‘not an asset to the abbey’, causing scandal by meeting men in ‘secret places of the convent’, giving rise to a suspicion of sinful behaviour.[9]  (Even here, though, I am not sure that what Elizabeth may have done after a humiliating and penance-filled return to the convent is necessarily more probative than prejudicial in relation to whether or not she really chose to go off with Adam years earlier.) Joy-killing as it may seem, I would like to sound a quiet warning against the allure of the ‘naughty nun’ story. Even when there are statements of consent, or suggestions that there is a man involved in the case, there is a need for caution. We cannot really be sure what degree of enthusiasm or acquiescence is to be understood in expressions like ‘freely’ or ‘by her own free will’, and should not be quick to identify them with the level of agreement and  choice implied by ‘consent’ in modern law or general understanding.

The entries in common law rolls are almost always brief, and frequently leave us without knowledge of ‘the end of the story’. This is mostly frustrating, but it may just have a positive aspect too. While they are certainly inspiring people beyond academia, fuller documents, such as those concerning Joan of Leeds, draw us into what may be a mistaken impression of being close to the thoughts and motivations of women of far-distant periods. Common law plea roll entries do not provide the same narrative satisfaction, but perhaps do a useful job in bringing home to us the real distance between ourselves and the people we are considering. Both inspiration and acceptance of our imperfect understanding are important, as any good medieval nun would know.

Gwen Seabourne is Professor of Legal History in the School of Law, University of Bristol, UK. She specialises in medieval legal history, and has written on medieval crime, economic regulation and medieval women. Her newest book, Women in the Medieval Common Law, c. 1200-1500, is forthcoming in April and now available for pre-order.

Feature image: detail from the Henry H. Huntington Library’s Ellesmere MS of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, via Wikimedia Commons.

Image of ‘The Prospect of Kirklees Abbey’ comes from a 1669 drawing, reproduced in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal (1901).


[1] JUST 1/1108 m. 2 (AALT IMG 8624); JUST 1/1107 m. 21d (AALT IMG 8559). The rolls are ‘trailbaston’ rolls from occasional sessions before royal justices. The originals are in the National Archives, Kew, UK; scans are at the Anglo-American Legal Tradition site.

[2] JUST 1/1108 m. 8d (AALT IMG 8696).

[3] JUST 1/1107 mm. 28, 30, 24 d (IMG 8552, 8555, 8605).

[4] John Tillotson, ‘Visitation and Reform of the Yorkshire Nunneries in the Fourteenth Century’, Northern History 30 (1994); Elizabeth Makowski, Apostate Nuns in the Later Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2019). F. Donald Logan, Runaway Religious in Medieval England, c. 1240–1540 (Cambridge, 1996).

[5] The case and the documents can be seen at: https://thenorthernway151149306.wordpress.com/blog-2/joan-of-leeds-a-runaway-nun-who-faked-her-own-death/  and Joan of Leeds: Her Own Story – The Northern Way (wordpress.com)

[6] Statute of Westminster (1285) c. 34: Statutes of the Realm I, p. 87.

[7] Elizabeth Makowski, Canon Law and Cloistered Women: ‘Periculoso’ and its Commentators, 1298–1545 (Washington DC, 1997).

[8] William Page, Victoria History of the County of Yorkshire III (London, 1907), 129.

[9] W. Brown and A. Hamilton Thompson (eds), The Register of William Greenfield, Lord Archbishop of York, 1306-1315 vol. II, Surtees Society vol. 149 (1934), no. 1008; S. J. Chadwick, ‘Kirklees Priory’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 16 (1902), 319-68, 359.

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