The Keldholme Priory election dispute occurred in Yorkshire, England, in 1308. After a series of resignations by its prioresses, the establishment was in a state of turmoil, and the Archbishop of York, William Greenfield, appointed one of the nuns to lead the house. His candidate, Emma de Ebor' (Emma of York), was deemed unacceptable by many nuns, and they undermined her from the start, to the extent that she resigned three months later. The Archbishop, forced to find another candidate, claimed he was unable to do so from within the priory, and appointed Joan de Pykering from nearby Rosedale Priory. It is likely that Keldholme's nuns saw Pykering as an intruder, and they seem to have reacted against her in much the same way as they had her predecessor.
In response, the Archbishop attempted to quash the nuns' rebelliousness. Individuals identified by him and his officials were exiled to surrounding priories, while at one point Keldholme itself was placed under interdict and the nuns threatened with excommunication. The convent was not deterred: the campaign against Pykering continued until eventually Greenfield allowed the prioress to resign and the nuns to elect one of their number again. They re-elected Emma de Stapleton—who had previously resigned the position in 1301—but she also seems to have become unpopular with the nuns. Archbishop Greenfield died in 1315, and within two months Stapleton had also resigned, supposedly because of ill-health and age. The nuns of Keldholme re-elected Emma de Ebor', the election dispute evaporated, and little more was heard of the priory until its dissolution in 1536.
St Mary of Keldholme Priory, founded during the reign of King Henry I (1100–1135), was a small Cistercian nunnery situated a couple of miles east of Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshire. Few of the prioresses names have been recorded, and the Victoria County History (VCH) comments that "there is remarkably little known of the history of the house" until the 14th century, when a disputed election for a prioress led to several years of turmoil.
Religious houses in Yorkshire were prone to internal disorder in the early 14th century.[note 1] This was the second disputed election for a Yorkshire prioress in 15 years; in 1290, John le Romeyn, Greenfield's predecessor, had appointed Josiana de Anlaby prioress of Swine Priory and a crisis of leadership had occurred. Keldholme itself had suffered two recent resignations of its prioresses in 1294 and 1301, by Beatrice of Grendale and Emma de Stapleton respectively.[note 2] The priory's reputation was further damaged by suspicions that the sheriff of Cleveland, Geoffrey of Eston, was engaging in sexual activities with nuns in both Keldholme and Arden priories.
Stapleton's 1301 resignation was probably directly related to Archbishop Melton's episcopal visitation of the same year, in the course of which he discovered malpractice. As a result, the priory was without a prioress for the following seven years. On 17 April 1308, the archbishop of York, William Greenfield, issued an official inquiry regarding the current vacancy.[note 3] This commission was required to establish three things: when the vacancy had begun; how long Keldholme had lacked the necessary leadership; and whether this had lasted more than six months. The latter criterion was significant because a vacancy of over six months allowed the Archbishop to bypass the nuns' right to appoint their own prioress and to install a candidate of his choosing. The commission was headed by two local rectors, who were instructed that, if it was discovered that the nuns' right to elect a prioress had not lapsed they were to do so within one month. The rectors' task did not take long, and although they were equivocal regarding the precise length of the vacancy, they reported that the appointment was now the Archbishop's responsibility on account of the lapse of time. Three days later, the Archbishop—probably on the recommendation of his commission—appointed Emma de Ebor'[note 4] as prioress, believing her the best-qualified candidate from among the nuns.
Much of what is known of subsequent events at Keldholme comes from a letter written by the Archbishop to the Archdeacon of Cleveland, now extant in the Archiepiscopal Registers. Emma de Ebor' seems to have been unpopular with the convent from the moment of her election, and the Archdeacon was instructed to investigate certain Keldholme nuns. These were Beatrix de Roston, Mary de Holm, Isabella de Langetoft, Anabilla de Lokton, Orphania de Nueton, and Joan de Roseles, who, among others—including lay people—refused obedience to Emma and were accused of undermining her. All were subsequently adjudged guilty of insubordination to their prioress. Because this represented at least half the convent, Emma de Ebor' resigned[note 5] on 30 July the same year. Greenfield was forced to accept her resignation as prioress and on 5 August announced that, finding no suitable candidate from within Keldholme itself, he had chosen Joan de Pykering from the nearby[note 6] Benedictine Rosedale Priory. She, says the VCH, "from the testimony of trustworthy persons, was deemed competent" and of "good reputation"; it is probable that she had indicated willingness to put Keldholme in order at Greenfield's command. The historian Janet Burton emphasises that this was an appointment rather than an election, and notes that the imposition of an outsider meant that the Archbishop had revoked their privilege to elect their own head. The same nuns who had opposed Stapleton's regime were "equally resistant" to that of Pykering's. It is likely, Burton suggests, that a lack of calibre among Keldholme's nuns accounted for the long interregnum between prioresses in 1308 and 1309.
The Archdeacon placed Pykering in corporal possession of the priory, and rebuked those nuns who had opposed her predecessor.[note 7] They were to accept the new prioress without question immediately, he said, as were "certain laymen who had prevented her from exercising her office". The latter numbered nine in all, five of whom were from Kirkbymoorside.
The Archdeacon's efforts to impose an episcopal peace came to nothing. In the words of the medievalist Eileen Power, "pandemonium reigned" at Keldholme, and the Archbishop was forced to visit officially. Writing to the Sheriff of Cleveland on 3 September, Greenfield wrote that Sisters de Holm, de Langetoft, de Lokton and de Roseles were irredeemable troublemakers and that they were to be separated and transferred to disparate abbeys for penance.[note 8] Three others—including the ex-prioress, Emma de Stapleton—appear to have also left Keldholme, but without permission; they were summoned before the Archbishop.[note 9]
Relations between the priory and the Archbishop were by now, says the historian Martin Heale, "acrimonious", and the removal of individual nuns from the arena had done nothing to improve them. On February 1309, Greenfield wrote to Keldholme's sub-prioress and the convent. He insisted that they immediately write to Lady Joan Wake, Lady of Liddell—the priory's patron—informing her that they willingly accepted Pykering to head their house. They were also to emphasise their obedience and support for Joan, and request Wake to restore Pykering to possession of the temporalities of the priory as soon as possible. Seen by the nuns as an "imported ... interloper", Power described Joan at this time as, "a luckless exile in the tents of Kedar".[note 10] Four days later the Archbishop instigated a commission to investigate the offences he had uncovered, and placed the priory under interdict until Pykering was accepted as prioress.
The Archbishop's efforts came to nothing, says Burton, and Greenfield was forced to concede that Pykering was not the best choice for the priory. On the 14th, Greenfield instructed the commission to discuss Pykering's future with her. They were to establish whether she wished to resign; if she did, the sub-prioress and convent were instructed to hold an election to choose a new superior. Pykering resigned as prioress of Keldholme the same month and returned to Rosedale;[note 11] her opponents in Keldholme, says Power, "were triumphant". On 7 March 1309 they elected one of their own, Emma de Stapleton, back into the position she had held eight years' previously; Stapleton may have also been an acceptable choice for Greenfield, as he subsequently granted permission for her niece to board within the priory. Greenfield was able to get some revenge on those who had obstructed his plans. A laymen of the priory, Nicholas de Rippinghall—one of those responsible for previously fomenting opposition to Emma de Ebor'—received a heavy penance from Greenfield; for the disruption he had caused at Keldholme, declared Greenfield—
On the second Sunday in Lent he was to go bareheaded to the cathedral church of York, clad in a tunic only, holding a taper of a pound weight and after the procession was to go before the high altar, and humbly offer the lighted taper and receive a discipline there from the archbishop's penitentiary. The following Sunday he was to do the same in Kirkby Moorside Church and, after the Gospel, offer the taper and receive a discipline there from the vicar or parish clerk, and on the next two Sundays he was to do much the same in the conventual church of Keldholme.— The Victoria County History
Other nuns were removed by Greenfield to Esholt and Nunkeeling priories at around the time of Stapleton's election, but this was probably for reasons of immorality rather than any connection to the political dispute.
The election of Stapleton did not bring the affair to a close. She was continually insulted and disobeyed, particularly by Emma de Ebor' and Mary de Holme. The former, says Power, "could not forget that she had once been prioress" at Keldholme, and the latter[note 12]—who had either returned from Swine or, perhaps, had disobeyed the Archbishop and never left Keldholme—forced Greenfield to take further action. He instructed the priory's custos, Richard del Clay, vicar of Lastingham, to make his way to Keldholme and there summon both de Holme and de Ebor' on the charge of being—in the Archbishop's words—"daughters of perdition". Del Clay was to denounce the two nuns—"in the mother tongue"—for their disobedience before the assembled convent. Further, instructed Greenfield, "they were not to meddle with any internal or external business of the house in any way, or to go outside of the enclosure of the monastery, or to say anything against the prioress, on pain of expulsion and of the greater excommunication".
Archbishop Greenfield died in December 1315. This presented the discontented nuns with an opportunity to change prioresses again. Accordingly, Emma de Stapleton resigned in February the next year—in her words, "oppressed by age" and sickness—and Emma de Ebor' was re-elected in her place. For the second time in Keldhome's recent history de Ebor' succeeded Stapleton as prioress, in what amounted, says Burton, to a posthumous victory over Greenfield. Power has speculated that Stapleton's reason for resigning was not so much her age as the fact that she was intimidated into doing so: age may well have been "something of a euphemism; her reason doubtless took a concrete and menacing shape and wore a veil upon its undiminished head".[note 13]
The historian Martin Heale has described the situation at Keldholme between 1308 and 1309 as an example of the "considerable friction" the imposition of a perceived outsider could cause within an enclosed community. Power has suggested that it illustrates the dangers of internal strife spreading beyond the priory's walls and impacting on neighbouring society. Janet Burton concurs, noting that it demonstrates that both the person of the prioress and her election were clearly of great interest to the wider community as well as the priory, between which there was clearly a "close interaction". Valerie Spear suggests this is most likely because the position of prioress was a coveted one for local women. Also influential, says Spear, was the fact that, as small priories were generally extremely poor, they often had to rely on charitable donations from the community to clothe and feed the nuns; this in turn doubtlessly "emboldened" locals to interest themselves in the nuns' business "to the point of downright interference".
Burton has called it "one of the most spectacular" disputes to affect early medieval religious houses. She also questions Archbishop Greenfield's supposition that there was no nun at Keldholme willing or able to be prioress; perhaps, she suggests, there were too many candidates, and the election dispute was a power struggle between them. It also suggests, she wrote, that female resistance to male authority was not as unknown as might have been presumed: "the Archbishop had stated that there were no nuns at Keldholme capable of holding office. The nuns clearly disagreed".