Wholly Disorder

There was very little in the way of career opportunities for the daughter of a lord, knight, or wealthy merchant during the 15th century. For the lucky ones a husband of suitable class and position might be obtained which could occasionally lead to her acquiring much importance, as she managed not only her own household, but also sometimes much of her husband's business ventures whilst he was away dealing with important matters of state.

For others, the alternative was a life in a convent. Medieval girls of the peasant and artisan families did not, as a general rule, enter convents, for mostly their families were unable to provide the requisite admittance fee. To demand such a fee, of course, was technically forbidden by official church policy, but in practice the charging of such fees was almost universally observed. In other words the convents of the age had often become mere aristocratic boarding houses. Whilst London Merchants might pay as much as £100 to place an unmarried daughter into a suitable religious establishment, it was very rare for a girl of lesser means, unless supported by local communities, to obtain admittance as a novice. In addition it was quite a normal practice for the novice to be expected, in addition to providing the entrance fee, to bring her own bed and furnishings.

In wealthy social circles of this age it was not unknown for a father with an expensive son and several daughters to give more than a little thought to the prospect of placing a daughter or two into a convent. For financially, it might well be much cheaper to pay the convent's fee than to find a dowry for a prospective husband of class. Convents could also provide a rather quilted existence for well-to-do widows who had no desire to marry again, or those who were weary of worldly cares. They could also become the dumping-ground for the retarded, feeble-minded or deformed girls of aristocratic families.

Naturally, not all of these ladies were particularly enthusiastic about a life governed by secular rules and restrictions, and one can readily appreciate that some, brought from a more comfortable lifestyle, would have greatly resented some of the harsh treatment and degrading duties to which they were committed. Consequently Medieval bishops were always having to sort out complaints by nuns regarding shortages of food and the cutting of clothing allowances that resulted in the brethren having to go about in threadbare garments.

Some nuns expressed their discontent in more rebellious ways. One prioress complained bitterly to her bishop about the sisters' insistence on keeping pet animals, which dirtied the house and made a mockery of divine services. Others, it seems, quite enjoyed breaking the convent's rules by deliberately contravening rules of silence by gossiping through services, refused to go to bed after compline but wandered in the gardens, playing games, and even dancing to the harp.

More rebellious sisters, including some more susceptible to love making, were even known to risk immortal damnation by leaving the confines of the convent to roam the local town in search of the male companionship. A few deliberately allowed themselves to be seduced by a neighboring vicar or monk, or even by men that they had met in the town. One errant nun was actually accused of spending two consecutive nights partying with the Austin friars or Northampton, dancing and playing the lute until well after midnight.

The sin that the church most abhorred was 'apostacy', the breaking of vows, for which the maximum punishment might well be excommunication. Despite this it was not unknown for some girls, lacking in religious vocation, .to take off with a lover. Agnes Butler of St Michaels, Stamford, disappeared for a night and a day with an Austin friar and shortly after could not resist the temptation to depart with a wandering harp player, living with him for a year and a half in Newcastle before being apprehended.

Bad behavior was not just confined to the younger or unwilling members either. One bishop had the unenviable task of investigating a complaint about a prioress who would dress as she pleased, wore jewelry, misappropriated and sold Church property, gambled and even on some occasions even entertained men within her private chambers. Others were reported for defrauding the finances, resulting in one particular case in the nuns of Eastbourne complaining to their bishop that the convent was seriously in debt to the sum of £40. This debt apparently had arisen because the prioress was commonly known to ride out in a dress with fur trimmings (worth one hundred shillings) and a train of attendants, where she 'tarried long abroad' and feasted sumptuously when both at home and abroad.

Those wishing to make political mischief were soon seizing upon such scandals. A group known as the Lollards, openly critical of Church wealth and privilege felt sufficiently strong during the reign of Henry IV to petition Parliament for a general seizure of large amounts of Church land for the creation of fifteen new earldoms. These, it was proposed, would provide estates for 1,500 knights and 6,200 squires. In addition 100 almshouses would be supported and £20,000 a year made available to the Royal treasury.

Henry V, fanatically orthodox, destroyed Lollard ambitions by ruthlessly crushing a rebellion led by Sir John Oldcastle, and branding the followers as heretics. The movement simply went underground for a while.

England during the later 15th century had become increasingly wealthy, with plenty of land available for the enterprising and prosperous, and nobody could really be bothered to seriously organize challenges to church authority and privileges. However all this was to change during the Tudor age. By the time that Henry VIII had been on the throne for twenty years, land was again becoming scarce, as wealthy middle class gentry sought to obtain personal estates. The scene was set for a catastrophic split between king and Church.


Works Cited

  • Kendall, Paul Murray. The Yorkist Age. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962.