The Littlemore Priory scandals took place between 1517 and 1518 and involved accusations of sexual immorality and sometimes brutal violence among the nuns and the prioress of Littlemore Priory. The Oxfordshire Benedictine priory—which was very small and poor—had a history of troubled relations with its bishop, but the scandal that came to light in 1517 became enough of a cause célèbre to contribute to the priory's eventual suppression in 1525. The prioress of Littlemore at that time, Katherine Wells, ran the priory with strict—and often violent—discipline. She was accused of regularly putting nuns in the stocks for extended periods, as well as physically assaulting them. She also had a baby by the priory's chaplain, and as a result, had pawned the priory's jewels to pay for the child's upbringing. She entertained men in her parlour—even after the bishop had been made aware of the accusations—which involved heavy drinking. At least one other nun also had a child, and on one occasion a number of them broke out of the priory through a window and escaped into the surrounding villages for some weeks.[note 1]
The priory, although in Oxfordshire, came under the aegis of William Atwater, Bishop of Lincoln.[note 2] Probably having heard the well-publicised rumours of the nuns' irregular lifestyle, he launched an investigation. Trouble continued, however, and in a subsequent enquiry, the bishop heard complaints from both the prioress and the nuns, who made accusations against each other. Wells was summoned to the bishop's court in Lincoln to face charges of corruption and incontinence which eventually led to her being dismissed from office. The end of the affair is unknown, as records have not survived, but historians consider it likely that it was behaviour such as was found at Littlemore that encouraged Cardinal Wolsey's suppression of a number of houses—including Littlemore—in an attempt to improve the image of the church in England during the early 1520s. Wells—still acting prioress at its closure—received a life pension; the house became a farmstead and was gradually pulled down. One original building remained in the 21st century.
William Alnwick's Records of Visitation, 1436–49
The Benedictine priory at Littlemore was founded in the 12th century in the latter years of the reign of King Stephen by Robert de Sandford. Always a small house, from around 1245[note 3] the priory's history is obscure, going unmentioned in both episcopal and government records. By the later Middle Ages the nuns of Littlemore—by now seven in number—were reported as not living according to their rule. In 1445 the priory was visited by agents of the then Bishop of Lincoln William Alnwick. Following their inspection, they reported that the nuns failed to fast and ate meat every day. Furthermore, the prioress, Alice Wakeley, regularly received a Cistercian monk and a lay clerk in her rooms to indulge in drinking sessions. There was much local gossip, and it appears to have been common knowledge that the nuns shared beds, apparently because the main dormer was structurally unsafe. The bishop instructed that the nuns were to use separate beds,[note 4] and that no lay persons—"especially scholars of Oxford"—were to be allowed admittance to the priory.[note 5] By the early years of the 16th century, the congregation had been reduced to a prioress and five nuns; three of these—Elizabeth, Joan and Juliana were sisters surnamed Wynter.
On 17 June 1517 Littlemore Priory was visited by Dr Edmund Horde, a commissary of bishop William Atwater of Lincoln,[note 6] accompanied by the episcopal chancellor, Richard Roston. The reasons for his visit are unknown, although Eileen Power suggests that around this time, Atwater "had awakened to the moral condition of Littlemore". Horde's subsequent comperta—which were presented as findings of fact, and were effectively accusations—were comprehensive. Firstly, he suggested that the nuns had lied to him, on their prioress's orders, from the moment he arrived. They had told him all was well—"omnia bene"—within Littlemore; this was not, he discovered, the case. Investigators such as Horde were expected to be thorough, "examining each member of the house, going into the minutest details, and taking great pains to arrive at the truth".[note 7]
Horde reported that the prioress, Katherine Wells,[note 8] had had an illegitimate daughter by a chaplain from Kent, one Richard Hewes, who was probably responsible for the priory's sacraments. Thomson suggests that this had clearly happened some years ago, but had been either "concealed or deliberately overlooked by the authorities". Hewes still visited two or three times a year, said the nuns, and was due again in early August. While he was there, Hewes and Wells lived as a couple, and their child dwelt among the nuns. Wells, wrote Horde, intending her daughter to make a good marriage, had stolen Littlemore's "pannes, pottes, candilsticks, basynes, shetts, pellous [and] federe bedds" and other furniture from the common store for the girl's dowry. According to the bishop's records, although the nuns pleaded with Wells to give Hewes up, "she had answered that she would not do so for anybody, for she loved him and would love him". Clandestine sexual relationships were not the sole purview of the prioress; at least one other nun—probably Juliana Wynter—had also had a child by a married Oxford scholar—one John Wikesley—two years previously. The nuns, for their part, complained to Horde that Wells was brutal in her upkeep of discipline, and that, when they tried to broach the subject with her, she would have them put in the stocks. The historian Valerie G. Spears has suggested that Wells was obsessed with discipline, but that this was, on the one hand, "self-defeating" and on the other, encouraged by the nuns' servility.
The nuns also complained that no effort had been put into maintaining the priory or its buildings, and they pointed out damaged and leaking roofs and walls. Essential outbuildings had been leased by Wells to the priory's secular neighbours, and she had kept the rents herself. They also protested their decrepit clothing, poor and insufficient food and bad ale. Horde discovered that the bulk of the priory's foundation wealth, including its jewellery, had been pawned[note 9] or spent on the prioress's "evil life". At the same time, the nuns lacked basic necessities, including food and clothing, and could not purchase anything for themselves as the prioress regularly confiscated their stipends. These, they said, were sent outside the priory by Wells to be distributed among her relatives. Her general behaviour, they said, also set a bad example: rather than spend her days in contemplation or the administration of the house, she would roam the surrounding countryside with no companion other than a young child from a nearby village. Horde heard that such a state of affairs was damaging recruitment: women who may have been thinking of taking the veil at Littlemore saw the conditions they would be expected to live under and went elsewhere instead. On at least one occasion, it was claimed, a potential recruit had not only walked out immediately but had proceeded to advertise the poor state of the priory throughout Oxford.[note 10] Potential benefactors were also being deterred. The church historian Philip Hughes suggests that nuns demanded that Horde remedy their complaints and that they requested permission to leave the house for another if he could not, possibly out of fear of Wells's expected retribution after Horde had left.
Littlemore's circumstances appear not to have changed over the next year. On 2 September 1518, Atwater visited Littlemore personally. Although he expected improvement—he had intended, he said, "to bring about some reformation" at Littlemore—the bishop was disappointed. On this visit, Wells complained to him that nuns refused to obey her. Elizabeth Wynter, she reported, "played and romped" in the cloister with men from Oxford,[note 11] and, aided by her sisters, had defied the prioress's attempts to correct her. For example, explained the prioress, she had put Elizabeth in the parlour stocks only for three of her colleagues—the two other Wynter sisters and one Anna Wilye—to break the door open and release her. Wells must have locked Wynter in, as her rescuers broke the lock as well. The four of them then set fire to the stocks and barricaded the door against Wells. She summoned aid from neighbours and servants, but before help could arrive, the nuns had broken the window and escaped into a nearby village. There they hid with a sympathetic neighbour—"one Inglyshe"—for some weeks, and were apostastised as a result. They had also been persistently disrespectful during the mass, playing games, chattering and laughing loudly throughout—"even at the elevation"—despite their supposed obedience to attentiveness and decorum,[note 12] with generally wanton behaviour. Wells complained that even though it had been two years since Juliana Wynter had given birth, she had learned nothing of the errors of her ways and still eagerly sought the company of men.
The nuns, for their part, complained that the prioress had sold off all their wood and that Hewes had been staying with the prioress for over five months.[note 13] Worse, after the previous visitation, she had ruthlessly punished those of them that had spoken the truth about Littlemore to Edmund Horde. Anne Wilye had spent a month in the stocks, and Elizabeth Wynter had been physically beaten in the chapter house and the cloister. The bishop was told how Wells had hit Elizabeth "on the head with fists and feet, correcting her in an immoderate way", and repeatedly stamped on her, when Wynter eventually returned from the village with her absconding colleagues. The nuns also claimed that, despite Wells's promises to Atwell, the chaplain Hewes had continued to visit the prioress since the Horde's visitation. Logan suggests that it may have been Elizabeth who had reported Wells to Horde on the 1517 visit and that this was the prioress's revenge. One nun, Juliana Bechamp—who seems to have remained uninvolved in the various troubles—told the bishop that she was "ashamed to [be] here [under] the evil ruele [of] my ladye". The scandals besetting Littlemore Priory were by then very much public knowledge, and both prioress and nuns had their supporters in the City of Oxford. The historian Peter Marshall has described them as "eye-catching", and Spears suggests that they provided "the sensationalist media of the day with profitable copy".
A few months following his visit, Bishop Atwater summoned Katherine Wells to his court in Lincoln. She faced numerous charges which included incontinence and deliberate immorality.[note 14] The proceedings lasted several days, says Bowker, during which she was interrogated by both the bishop and his officials, including the episcopal canonist at counsel, Dr Peter Potkyn.
Wells at first denied the accusations, but the weight of Horde's evidence forced a confession. She revealed that her daughter had died in 1513, but also that she had still given Richard Hewes some of the priory's silver plate since then, including a silver goblet worth five marks.[note 15] She claimed to have had maintained the same lifestyle for the previous eight years, but that no one had ever enquired into Littlemore's affairs in all that time. Rather, she said, the priory had had no contact with officialdom except for one occasion when she had received some ecclesiastical injunctions a few years previously. On the final day of the hearing, Atwater gathered the evidence and pronounced his judgment.
As punishment, Wells was dismissed from her office, although she was permitted to carry out the day-to-day duties the house required until a replacement had been organised. This was on the strict condition that she would do nothing apart from this without the personal authorisation of Horde,[note 16] especially in regard to matters of internal discipline. The historian J. A. F. Thomson has described the situation—specifically the bishop's dismissal of Wells in the knowledge that she would have to be allowed to continue—as demonstrating the "inadequacy of visitations as a means of enforcing discipline". The medievalist Eileen Power agrees that "it shows how inadequate, in some cases, was the episcopal machinery for control and reform" of such institutions as Littlemore. She places the blame for Littlemore's condition squarely on the shoulders of Wells personally—with her "habitual incontinence [and] persecution of her nuns"—whom she describes as "a particularly bad prioress". Power notes that such a situation was far more likely to arise in small, poor houses—which were often "struggling for survival" already, suggests the medievalist F. D. Logan—than in houses with independent wealth. Spears agrees with Power on the irresponsibility of the prioress, suggesting that if her nuns subsequently behaved poorly, "it would be surprising" if this was not the result of observing, learning and copying from Wells's behaviour and approach. Spears notes that, as Wells utilised "erratic and aggressive" discipline, so the nuns seem to have behaved reciprocally towards her.
Historians do not know what, if any, action Atwater took regarding Littlemore following his visit, as subsequent records no longer exist and neither Littlemore or its inhabitants receives further mention in the bishop's Registrum. Nor do we know what, if any, measures Horde took while the priory was in his care. By 1525, the King's chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, was in the process of founding his new school of humanist education—Cardinal College, Oxford—for the building of which he needed funds. To raise what he needed he requested and acquired a papal bull authorising him to suppress several decayed monasteries of his choice. In Wolsey's eyes, this also had the benefit of helping repair the church's reputation in England, which decadent houses and their inhabitants had helped give it. Littlemore was one of the priories he chose for dissolution.[note 17] The condition of the house and its reputation for scandal—on top of Wolsey's wish to expand the University—justified this decision, argued Power. That Littlemore had proved itself intractable—unable to reform itself or to allow itself to be reformed—probably made it a likely candidate for dissolution, which was, says Margaret Bowker, "the only way to prevent its disobedience spreading". Hughes has described Littlemore as being, to Wolsey, simply a house "that would never be missed".
At the time of its closure, Littlemore Priory was worth around £32 per annum.[note 18][note 21] Over the next few years, its lands and revenues were given over to Wolsey's new college. The inhabitants received no further punishment. Indeed, as the last prioress, Katherine Wells was given an annual pension of £6 13s 4d,[note 22] and those nuns who had been apostatised on account of their misbehaviour were absolved. When Wolsey fell from power in 1529, Littlemore Priory—along with the rest of his wealth and estates—escheated to the crown.
Eileen Power has described Littlemore's conditions in the early 16th century as making it "one of the worst nunneries for which records survive". It illustrates, she suggests, that although Thomas Cromwell exaggerated the case, there was clearly some basis in recent history for the allegations of decadent institutions and scurrilous behaviour that he used as justification for the wholesale dissolution of the monasteries of 1536–39. As for Bishop Atwater, Bowker has suggested that, although he made conscientious efforts to reform recalcitrant houses within his jurisdiction, Littlemore Priory is merely one example of his failure to come to grips with the problem throughout his career. She does, though, argue that Atwater's efforts in this direction anticipated, in a small way, Martin Luther's attempted reforms of the church.
The few buildings that made up the priory were soon turned into farmsteads, but only the east grange of Littlemore's cloister survived into the 21st century. Described by Pevsner's Buildings of England as "a rectangular building with a small gabled block", this had originally housed the nuns' dormitory on the first floor and the chapter house and prioress's parlour on the ground. It was converted into a pub in the late 20th century, although this was closed by 2015. The pub's closure presented the opportunity for an archaeological survey of the site; a number of "very unusual burials" were discovered within the priory's precincts, including one who had likely been a prioress, a body which had received a blunt-force trauma to its head, and a woman who was buried with a baby.