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Story of 14th century nun who faked her own death to escape from a convent in York is unearthed

08 February 2019

Joan of Leeds enjoyed a more racy lifestyle 30 miles away, in Beverley


Gary Brannan, an archivist at Borthwick Institute, and Professor Sarah Rees Jones examine one of the Archbishop of York’s registers

Gary Brannan, an archivist at Borthwick Institute, and Professor Sarah Rees Jones examine one of the Archbishop of York’s registers

JOAN OF LEEDS thought that her nun’s life of piety and poverty was boring; so she faked her own death and escaped from her convent in York, leaving a dummy to be buried in her place.

She was enjoying a more racy lifestyle 30 miles away, in Beverley, when a scandalised Archbishop of York heard of her flight and ordered her immediate return.

Her story has been unearthed by researchers at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, who are part of a £1-million project to put the 14th-century registers of the Archbishops of York on line.

In the volume for 1318, a marginal note reads: “To warn Joan of Leeds, lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house.”

The page records how Archbishop William Melton informed the Dean of Beverley that “a scandalous rumour” had reached him that the Benedictine nun Joan had arrived there, “having impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex; out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, 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”.

The Archbishop went on: “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.”

Professor Sarah Rees Jones, a medieval historian at the University of York and principal investigator on the project, 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.”

Other sources suggest that St Clement’s had a less than blemish-free history in the four centuries from its foundation in 1130 to its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1536. In 1192, the nuns were excommunicated for opposing a switch to control by another abbey. Only a direct appeal to the Pope saved them.

Less than 20 years before Joan’s escapade, a nun, Cecily, fled by night on a waiting horse to meet her lover, Gregory de Thornton, 55 miles away in Darlington, where they set up home together. And, at about the time of Joan’s escape, the nun Isabella de Stodley was banished to another house after she was found guilty of apostasy, “super lapsu carnis”, and other “excesses”.

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