Joan of Leeds: Her Own Story

Exciting news!

We have discovered a new, and previously unknown, record about Joan of Leeds. The record is found in the register of Archbishop William Melton, Reg. 9B fo. 690v. Most remarkably it purports to tell her own version of her story …

Joan of Leeds was a runaway nun, who faked her own death and burial in 1318 to escape from her convent at Clementhorpe outside York, allegedly to live a life of ‘carnal lust’ near Beverley over 30 miles away. Joan’s tale has been much in the news. We used it to launch our project ‘The Northern Way’ at the University of York in 2019 and it has also inspired a novel by Candace Robb, while in December 2019, ‘Joan of Leeds, a Christmas burlesque’, was performed to packed houses and glowing reviews by Breach Theatre at the New Diorama Theatre in London.

Although the church powers in Beverley were ordered to send Joan back to York, nothing more was known of her. Until now, that is!

Helen Watt, research fellow on the project, was searching through an unpublished section of Melton’s register when she discovered the new entry about the rebellious nun. The new record was a letter sent by the archbishop to the official of York, one of his main administrative and legal officers, on 29 August 1318, with more information about Joan’s story.

According to this letter, Joan claimed that, fearing for her soul, she had approached a priest called Brother John, to confess and explain her actions. This individual, who was acting as a penitentiary to a papal legate working in England, then wrote to the archbishop of York on 26 August. Joan, he reported, had confessed to him that she had been forced to enter the nunnery by her father and mother and that, always complaining of her fate, she claimed never to have taken her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to become a fully-professed nun. John added that, if this were so, he would prefer to see her married, rather than wandering about the countryside on her own, or as he put it ‘dangerously in the secular world’.

Besides providing this fascinating insight into Joan’s life, this entry also perhaps begs more questions than it answers. She claims to have been coerced into entering the nunnery under age and without having been fully professed. This claim might be true, but these were also one of the very few grounds, at the time, on which she might hope that her vocation could be ended. The Church insisted that nuns should be of age and only enter a religious house of their own free will and that they were previously unmarried. If Joan could prove that any of her claims were true she would be free. So whether she had been forced or not remains an open question, but at the very least the record shows that Joan was savvy enough to understand the law of the Church and how it might be used to her advantage.

The letter also provides some extra details about her escape: the materials out of which the dummy of her body was made and her organisation of the giving of alms (charity) associated with funerals. Above all the letter is written from a tone of concern about Joan, quite unlike the Archbishop’s letter written to the dean of Beverley earlier the same month (11 August).

There are other questions: had Joan been spotted in Beverley and how had she made contact with the priest? The archbishop ordered an inquiry into the truth of the matter, but what happened next? We still don’t know how things turned out for her in the end. But our cataloguing of the registers of Melton and of his successors Zouche and Thoresby is still ongoing.

Will we find more … ?

So far as we can tell, this new letter about her in the registers has not previously been known to earlier scholars. The fact that more of her back-story has unexpectedly been revealed to us, shows the riches of the registers and the value of interrogating them more fully for fascinating details of the life of the times, both lay, ecclesiastical and religious. As with so many projects indexing previously uncatalogued material, who knows what else we might find, so watch this space!

Translation (by Paul Dryburgh)

(This is a preliminary translation, a work in progress).

Executory letters against Lady Joan of Leeds, nun of the house of St Clement.

William etc. to the beloved son, our Official of York, greetings, grace and benediction. We have received the letters of the discreet man Brother John, penitentiary of the reverend father in Christ Lord Gaucelin [de Jean], by the grace of God cardinal-priest of SS Marcellino and Pietro and vice-chancellor of the holy Roman Curia, containing that which follows below: To the reverend and venerable father William, by divine providence archbishop of York, his brother John, penitentiary of the reverend father in Christ Lord Gaucelin, by the grace of God cardinal-priest of SS Marcellino and Pietro and vice-chancellor of the holy Roman Church, [presents] himself with humble greetings and due reverence and honour. Know your reverent father that it is prudent not to deny those in peril who implore him with prayers in pious manner but to be indulgent, and that he ought to provide aid in those moments of peril, particularly to those who have sinned not out of malice but out of ignorance, it is so that Joan of Leeds, of the diocese of York, showed to me with great sorrow in her heart, as it appeared, that as a girl and being under the age of personal discretion she was forced to enter the order of nuns of St Benedict in the monastery of St Clement outside the walls of York by her father and mother, in which order, indeed, she remained with other nuns for several years, though she both never consented to this and continually protested and also never uttered any vow of profession; afterwards, not wishing to endure the statutes of the aforesaid monastery but returning to the secular world, faked her own death, and caused obsequies to be made and masses to be celebrated over the false burial of ?straw/chaff/dust, and alms to be distributed, as if she had died, on account of which, trembling and anxious and coming to me in great fear, she prayed humbly that she might be given the benefit of absolution for this trespass and fakery and that penances be imposed upon her. Considering and taking notice of the many signs of her contrition and assenting to her humble prayers, by the authority of the lord pope granted to the said lord Cardinal and granted by him to me, I have absolved her from these trespasses and her other sins that she revealed by her confession, and I have imposed a penance upon her that is beneficial to her salvation, most of all because by this she is not in any way bound to the said [profession of] religion as she has always protested, and as she did not utter the vow of profession. Wherefore, I have humbly to pray to you, reverend father, that whereas there were those who were envious enough to attack the said Joan with a jealous mind, therefore, as a good shepherd who should protect a sheep fleeing to us, and as a pious father moved by benign piety, I have judged it more useful, your reverence, for her safety to allow her to contract marriage rather than wander in the secular world dangerously when she has no wish henceforth to submit to any religious observance. Therefore, compelled by God and accepting the obligation to mercy, may your reverend father see what should be done, and may you wish to provide for the said women in such a way lest there be any further reason for her to slip into dangerous error, and that by your providence the sheep which has come back into the fold of the Lord should have everything restored to it, considering, if it is pleasing, not the rod bringing the rigour of justice but the benign hand of your clemency, for, as you know better, the human heart leads things to be contracted faithfully. May Jesus Christ keep your reverend father safe for a long time and prosper and for the honour of his holy Church that you will wish to accept with great faith that I have caused these present letters to be sealed with my seal. Given at the abbey of Garendon [Leicestershire] on the sixth day from the end of the month of August, A.D. 1318 [26 August 1318]. Having full faith, therefore, in your [i.e. the Official of York] spirit, purity, industry and skill, we commit to you and command, at a suitable day and place previously to be assigned by you at the said monastery for this, and having made a declaration to the abovesaid Joan personally if she shall be found, or thus otherwise publicly and solemnly in those places which will seem best to him, that she shall not plausibly pretend to have no knowledge of the same declaration in this business and will be present at the said day and place to be assigned by you for the inquisition to be made into certain articles pertaining to her estate, attending in person, if it shall seem best to you, and summoning by the prioress of the same place the nuns and other trustworthy people sworn to this in accustomed manner, by whom the truth of the matter might be better known and had, that you are to inquire with all the diligence you can muster, whether the abovesaid Joan had entered the said monastery willingly or had been forced, as to her age at the time she entered, and whether at any time after her entry, were this at a time when she was of legal age, she approved the said entry either by tacit or express consent, and whether she had ever professed the order or rule of the said monastery either tacitly or expressly, and for what period of time she lived in the said monastery, and whether she bore the habit of the professed or not, and for how many visitations she was present, as well as into each and every article contained in the aforesaid letters, doing all you can to establish the truth as exactly as is possible. That which you shall find in the foregoing, you are to cause us to know as quickly, clearly and openly as possible by your letters close containing the names of those by whom you shall have inquired. Farewell. Given at Laneham on 4th kalends of September in the year of grace 1318 and in the first year of our pontificate [29 August 1318].

York, Borthwick Institute for Archives, ABP REG 9B, f. 690v

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