Numerous skeletons of sexually perverse Nuns discovered in Oxford
Archaeologists have discovered the skeletons of a number of ‘sex-obsessed’ nuns who were eventually punished for their sins by having their priory dissolved and their prioress pensioned off.
The team of archaeologists from John Moore Heritage Services discovered the skeletons of a total of 92 nuns at Littlemore Priory in Oxfordshire, dating from the time the priory was founded in 1110 to its dissolution by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525. The skeletons were found in a burial ground surrounding the site of the priory which is now being used for the construction of a new hotel. “Burials within the church are likely to represent wealthy or eminent individuals, nuns and prioresses”, said Paul Murray, currently leading the team. “Those buried outside most likely represent the laity with a general desire to be buried as close to the religious heart of the church as possible.”
Most of the burials were female, 35 individuals in total. Another 28 were male with a final 29 remaining unidentifiable. A 45 year old female, who had been buried in a stone coffin at the center of the cross of the transepts in the old priory, was probably the prioress. Some of the skeletons displayed signs of disease, including leprosy, while two children suffered from developmental dysplasia of the hip. The archaeologists also found a stillborn baby in a casket and a woman buried face-down. Mr. Murray said that the face-down position was probably a penitential act to atone for her sins. She may therefore have been one of the sinful nuns who had, according to surviving records, provoked Cardinal Wolsey into dissolving the priory and pensioning off the prioress. Eileen Power mentions the priory in her book Medieval English Nunneries as one of the worst establishments in the country at the time.
According to W. H. Page’s A History of the County of Oxford, Littlemore Priory was a Benedictine house founded by Robert de Sandford, a knight in the service of the Abbot of Abingdon. The priory was constructed on pasture land in the village of Sandford during the reign of King Stephen and was initially named Sandford Priory, acquiring the name Littlemore from the mid-13th century. It received royal favor from Henry III during the early years of his reign but was dissolved in 1525 by Henry VIII.
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Portrait of King Henry VIII of England. Dissolved the Sandford Priory. Painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1537. Currently on display at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Wikimedia Commons)
Today known by the name Minchery farmhouse, previously known as Sandford Priory, Littlemore, Oxford. It was the dormitory of the Benedictine nuns of the Priory of St. Nicholas. Photo by Nigel Cox (en.wikipedia.org)
By 1245 the priory appears to have fallen into disrepair, since a papal bull was issued by Pope Innocent in that year awarding, for a period of three years, an indulgence of ten days to anyone who helped the nuns complete the rebuilding of the priory, as they were not able to complete the work themselves.
At the time of the visit in 1445 of Dr John Derby, commissary of the Bishop of Lincoln, the priory housed seven nuns, all of whom refused to sleep in the nunnery for fear it would collapse in on them. They also broke their rule by eating meat every day in the refectory. Three lay women were also accommodated at the priory, and they did sleep in the nunnery, one of them paying 8 pence a week and the other two 4 pence a week.
In 1517, the reputation of the nuns caused Edmund Horde to visit the priory on behalf of the Bishop of Lincoln, the post by then being occupied by William Atwater. Horde discovered that the prioress had an illegitimate daughter by a priest from Kent by the name of Richard Hewes. He continued to visit her following the birth of the child. Katherine Wells, the last prioress, was deposed of the position as punishment for committing a number of misdeeds, had also stolen the priory’s valuables, including most of the jewels, which she pawned in order to raise money for a dowry. The nuns were left without any money for food, clothing or general costs. Horde also discovered that within the previous year another of the nuns had had an illegitimate child, the father this time being a married man from Oxford.
Things that may have taken place in the Priory. A medieval monk seduces a nun, who becomes pregnant and has an illegitimate baby. She sinfully disposes of the baby in the privy. From the Miracles de Notre Dame, The Hague Kb. 71 a 24 (from the year 1327). (pastisaforegincountry.blogspot.com)
Horde reported that Wells used excessive punishments against the other nuns, particularly when they criticized her misbehavior. Wells had responded to this by putting them in the stocks. Horde heard that at least one woman seeking to become a nun had been so appalled at the prioress’s behavior that she had turned away from the priory and gone somewhere else.
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Wells had sought to cover up her misdeeds by ordering the nuns to tell Horde that everything was in order, however when she was summoned to appear before Bishop Atwater, she confessed that her misbehavior had been going on for the past eight years. Her daughter had died by then but she had given some of the stolen plate to the priest from Kent. Atwater deposed her, but allowed her to remain as prioress for a certain amount of time on condition that she report to Horde before making any firm decisions on behalf of the priory.
Atwater later visited the priory himself and discovered that Wells had not ceased her errant behavior. Not only had she put one of the nuns in the stocks but she had also assaulted another by kicking her and punching her in the head. Wells attempted to defend herself by stating that another nun had been romping with boys in the cloister forcing Wells to put her in the stocks. However, the three other nuns had released her, burning the stocks after they had done so and jumping out of a window. They had run off to friends nearby where they had remained for around three weeks.
Depiction of St Anne with a baby and her midwife, by Ranworth Antiphoner, fifteenth Century. (manysnoweballes.blogspot.com)
The records of the priory cease after 1518 but according to Page’s history Cardinal Wolsey recommended that the priory be dissolved. This recommendation was granted the year after with the prioress being given a pension of £6 13 shillings and 4 pence. The only surviving part of the building is the derelict Priory pub which was vandalized by football fans in 2013.
Researchers at Reading University are now analyzing the remains to learn more about the burials, after which they will be reinterred on consecrated ground.
Featured Image: Archaeologists came across a number of skeletons, thought to be of the nuns at the Priory of Sandford, believed to have behaved out of order and then died in disgrace following accusations made of their odd sexual behavior. The nunnery was shut down in 1524 (news.discovery.com)