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The medieval nun who faked her own death

The launch this month of ‘The Northern Way’ research project, which looks at the Archbishops of York from 1304 to 1405, is revealing some fascinating stories, including that of a nun who made an elaborate plan to escape her own convent.

The University of York, along with partners from the National Archives, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and York Minster, have created a digital archive of the registers of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405. It allows historians to better understand the political and spiritual affairs that the Archbishops of York had to deal with in northern England.

Among the more interesting accounts in the registers is the story of Joan of Leeds, who in 1318 fled her her nunnery at St Clement by York. A letter from William Melton, then archbishop, explains how she escaped:

…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.

He goes on to complain:

Having faked her death and, in a cunning, nefarious manner, turning her back on the observance of religion that she previously professed, and having turned her back on decency and the good of religion, 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.

The archbishop orders that Joan be returned, although no other evidence exists that any authorities were able to catch her. The registers contain other instances of monks and nuns trying to leave their monastic homes, as well as various other events. For example, a year later in 1319 Archbishop Berton organized and led an army, which included priests, to help defend the city of York against a Scottish invasion.

Professor Sarah Rees Jones of the University of York and Principal Investigator on the project, explains that “Archbishops of York in the fourteenth century had incredibly varied roles. On the one hand they carried out diplomatic work in Europe and Rome and rubbed shoulders with the VIPs of the Middle Ages. However, they were also on the ground resolving disputes between ordinary people, inspecting priories and monasteries and correcting wayward monks and nuns. That’s why these Registers provide such a rich account of people from all walks of fourteenth-century life during a fascinating and extremely turbulent period.”

The project has received almost £1 million from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which will allow more records to be added and translated over the next 33 months. Many ecclesiastical records held at The National Archives will also be linked to the project. Paul Dryburgh, Principal Records Specialist at The National Archives and a co-investigator of the project, said, “throughout the fourteenth century successive archbishops of York held key roles within royal government. They worked closely alongside individual kings and were supported by their clerks, many of whom came to Westminster from across the northern diocese. In many ways they can be described as a true northern powerhouse.”

Click here to visit the project website

Top Image: Joan of Leeds, a nun of St Clement’s priory in York, ordered to return to that house, having left the convent by pretending to be dead and a model of herself buried in her place. Entry 2, Register 9A f.326 (verso) – University of York



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