In 1318 A Cunning Nun Vanished From A Convent, And Now A Medieval Text Has Exposed Her Secret Life

She’s been stuck in this convent for too long now, and Joan of Leeds just can’t endure it anymore. So, the time’s finally come to set her elaborate plot in motion. It’s an outlandish and risky scheme, to be sure, but if she pulls it off, her life will be transformed. If she gets caught – well, the repercussions probably don’t bear thinking about.

Joan’s incredible actions took place back in 1318, and they go some way to illustrating the type of person she was. That’s important, too, because we really don’t have many details about her life before this point. We’re forced to make presumptions, but the nature of her elaborate scheme strongly suggests a cunning and determined character.

The circumstances that led Joan to live in the convent are really unclear. We don’t understand her reasons for plotting an escape, and we don’t know how old she was when she did so. But we do know something about the time and place in which she lived, both of which ultimately help us to understand her exploits more clearly.

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Joan lived during an era when her homeland of England could be a particularly difficult place for young women. At that time, it was often a struggle for girls to live well if they were unable to marry. Bearing that in mind, it’s not too difficult to see the appeal of a convent.

Society would’ve been quite religious at this time anyway, but there were undoubtedly strong economic incentives for becoming a nun. Namely, a convent could provide an unmarried young woman with shelter and food. As such, there were instances in which girls as young as 13 ended up at these institutions.

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It’s not exactly surprising, then, that some of these girls ended up becoming disillusioned with a life lived as part of a religious order. Weary of such a restrictive existence, there were instances in which nuns broke away from their convents in pursuit of freedom. But it was perhaps Joan of Leeds who went to the greatest lengths to get there.

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Joan had served as a nun in a place called Clementhorpe Priory on the outskirts of York, otherwise known as St. Clement’s. It’s fair to say that the events surrounding Joan’s escape were perhaps the most outrageous thing to happen in this place’s history. But that’s not to suggest that some other wild scandals didn’t unfold there.

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Clementhorpe was established in 1130, set up by an archbishop of the York diocese named Thurstan. Throughout the course of the institution’s history, the place is thought to have housed only a small number of inhabitants. At most, about 12 nuns would’ve lived there at once, and it was generally said to have been a calm environment.

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But Clementhorpe didn’t make it through the centuries without provoking a certain amount of scandal. The convent has a long history, after all, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn of its more unsavory episodes. It seems that the institution wasn’t always quite as serene a place as you might have expected.

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If we look back to the year 1300, for example, we’re confronted with an incident that the people running Clementhorpe would rather have avoided. It centered on a nun by the name of Cecily, who reportedly left the convent to be with a man. It might not sound like much now, but at the time this would have been a scandalous development.

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About a decade later, another misbehaving nun named Joan de Saxton was punished very harshly for an apparent indiscretion. It’s not entirely certain what de Saxton actually did, but some commentators have suggested that she embarked on a same-sex relationship. But whatever her supposed offense was, it was handled severely.

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As punishment, De Saxton was banned from ever leaving the convent on her own. And even with supervisors, she could only go as far as the orchard situated on the grounds. This woman was forced into almost total isolation for her perceived misconduct, a stark illustration of how strict life in such an institution could really be.

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A few years after that, a scandal broke out in Clementhorpe involving a priest named John, son of Ralph the Hosier of York, and a nun called Alice of Leeds. These two figures were accused of embarking on an affair with one another. And as you might expect, this was intensely frowned upon.

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In 1331 a nun named Isobel Studley was judged to have committed “sins of the flesh, apostasy and other excesses.” As a consequence of her alleged actions, she was forced to attend another religious institution to endure her punishment. She was eventually permitted to go back to Clementhorpe, but any other indiscretions would have landed her in big trouble.

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All of these stories illustrate just how tough the life of a nun could be back in the medieval era. At the same time, however, such a life did also have its benefits. It did, after all, offer young women a security that might otherwise have been difficult to find.

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Speaking to the History TV channel’s website in 2019 a professor of history with the University of York elaborated. Sarah Rees Jones explained, “I think one benefit that being in a religious house always offered was that you had bed and board… From archaeology, we can tell that people living in religious houses… had probably on average a better standard of life than the ordinary run-of-the-mill people outside of the religious life.”

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This is an interesting point, but it shouldn’t necessarily be accepted as the only possible reason. Instead, we should look at other factors that might have led to this apparent trend. For example, it’s been suggested that nuns often made it to an older age compared to other women. This might imply a better standard of living for nuns, but realistically it probably also reflects the fact that giving birth was very dangerous back in those days. Nuns, obviously, tended to have fewer babies than most ladies.

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But in any case, living in a convent could at least provide women with the basics. As Rees Jones explained, “Sometimes even wealthier families might want at least one of their daughters to become religious for the religious benefit – so she could pray for the family. But also as an alternative to finding her a husband and providing her with a dowry.”

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As we’ve already seen, though, life in the convent could be very restrictive. Some women, then, were driven to defy the rules in pursuit of their autonomy. Joan of Leeds is just one example, though her story is more incredible than most. Sadly, we don’t know terribly much about her, but we have our speculations.

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Rees Jones, for one, has her own thoughts about how old Joan was when she started to resist her life as a nun. She said, “I’ve always imagined her as being at the younger end… Just because of other similar stories where we [have] known that women abscond, even from the same religious house, in order to get married. It suggests that maybe they’re in their later teens, early 20s.”

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While the specific details related to Joan herself are quite vague, we do know quite a bit about her actions. Thanks to a letter written by the 43rd Archbishop of York William Melton, we know that Joan’s adventure started with what initially appeared to be a tragedy. To those around her, Joan had seemed to be very ill for a time. And eventually, it looked like she’d lost her life.

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Of course, there was more to this tragedy than met the eye. Joan had grown tired of her life as a nun, yet it wasn’t an easy life to give up. She couldn’t simply pack up her things and walk out of the convent, so she had to get creative.

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Archbishop Melton’s letter documenting Joan’s actions isn’t totally clear on the issue, but it does give us an outline of what happened. Basically, it seems that the people of Clementhorpe had accepted that Joan died as a result of her illness. But that changed when word starting going round that she’d turned up somewhere else.

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As it turned out, Joan had gone to the extreme lengths of actually tricking people into thinking she’d died. That’s an incredible thing to do and an operation that wouldn’t exactly have been easy to pull off. In fact, it seems that she had help from some others, but the details are a little hazy.

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According to Archbishop Melton, “She pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul. And with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful. And she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place.”

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The language of Melton’s letter is a little overwrought for those of us reading it today, but historian Rees Jones explained it in clearer terms to CBC Radio. She said, “[Joan] had crafted a dummy in the likeness of her own body. And then ‘had no shame in procuring or getting it to be buried in a sacred space’ – that must be the cemetery of the convent, I think.”

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We don’t have a clear sense of the materials actually used to put together this dummy. It’s probably safe to suggest, though, that it wouldn’t have been particularly sophisticated. Rees Jones, for her part, has hypothesized that it might simply have been a cloak loaded with residue to provide it with weight and shape.

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We don’t exactly know what was specifically driving Joan to go to these great lengths. Reading Archbishop Melton’s letter, however, it seems that she was embarking upon a physical relationship with an outsider. But we should be careful to fully subscribe to this theory, as Melton was clearly coming from a biased position.

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As Rees Jones pointed out to CBC Radio, “[The letter] simply wants to paint a picture in which [Joan] has wickedly – as a sinful nun abandoning her vocation – …run away from the religious life. Almost certainly her motivation was more complicated than that. But we don’t have her side of the story.”

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Whatever her reasons, Joan ended up settling in the town of Beverley, also in the English county of Yorkshire. But unfortunately for her, Archbishop Melton learned of this fact and sent his letter to a church authority there. In it, he called for her return to Clementhorpe. And all the while, he speculated on her motivations for leaving.

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Melton wrote that Joan had been “seduced by indecency. She involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience. And, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”

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It’s clear to see from his writing that Archbishop Melton was absolutely livid with Joan and her actions. He desperately wanted to see the runaway nun returned to Clementhorpe, where presumably she would have been subjected to a terrible punishment. Yet we have no real idea if this is actually what happened.

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Speaking to British newspaper The Guardian, Rees Jones explained, “Unfortunately – and this is really frustrating – we don’t know the outcome of the case. There are quite a lot of cases of monks and nuns who left their religious house. We don’t always get the full detail or know what the outcome was.”

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Gary Brannan is an archivist who was involved in publishing Archbishop Melton’s writings. Naturally, he’s given some thought to this story. Speaking to The Times newspaper, he said, “Perhaps [Melton] feels he did his job by telling [Joan] to ‘Get thee to a nunnery.’ It may be that she was never apprehended and disappeared into the night, taking on a new identity. It’s such an evocative story.”

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Rees Jones, meanwhile, has commented on the significance of Melton’s letter to the Church Times newspaper. She said, “There are several cases of ‘runaway’ monks and nuns from various religious houses in the registers. But we don’t always get as much detail as this, and we don’t always have the full story. Women often entered convents in adolescence, and such changes of heart about their vocation were not uncommon.”

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Speaking to The Guardian, meanwhile, Rees Jones speculated as to what might have led to these “changes of heart.” She explained, “Often it is to do with not wanting to be celibate and leaving the religious house – this applies to men as well as women – in order to have a relationship and get married.”

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Joan’s story is an extreme example of the lengths that some women went to in order to escape religious life. But despite the outlandishness of this particular tale, the basic crux of it wasn’t completely unique. And from Rees Jones’ perspective, it will hopefully draw attention to life in Joan’s time and place.

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Speaking to CBC Radio, Rees Jones reflected on Joan’s tale. She said, “You can imagine it being a comedy sketch… I even wonder if the reason for the detail being recorded in this letter – when it wasn’t strictly necessary to the legal purpose of the letter – was because people found it extraordinary and even entertaining.”

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Despite its amusing elements, however, the story does imply how tough life in religious institutions such Clementhorpe would have been. As Rees Jones pointed out, “It shows how serious the matter was for her that it wasn’t enough to run away. She had to actually try and trick people into believing that she had died. But it’s also very ingenious, isn’t it? It makes her, in some ways, a very appealing character.”

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Rees Jones hopes that she can find other stories that are similar to Joan’s. She wants to upload these tales online so that people can better understand the lives of medieval nuns. As the historian put it, “I think it’s when you put them all together that you get a kind of more rounded picture of the choices facing young women at the time.”

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