July 19, 2015
My EDP Feature on Margery Kempe and the Lollards June 14
100+ views for this post in first two weeks!
Watch a trailer of The Wife of Lynn's Tale here
BBC Eastern Counties radio feature - starts 75 minutes into this programme - here
Sound promo for July 2015 Festival fringe shows here
see also Feature in July 2015 edition of Suffolk Norfolk Life p.106-107 and in Lynn News July 3
Lynn news review of the production here
‘Lollardy’ began in the 14th century with the teachings of John Wycliffe. It made Scripture the sole authority in religion, asserting the right of every man to read and interpret an English Bible for himself. Lollardy attacked all other church authority – pope, bishops, pilgrimages, Sacraments, Eucharist etc – as unscriptural.
A recent BBC programme, ‘The Medieval Mind’ made much of the Lollard challenge to the established might of church and state. It even mentioned the first Lollard martyr, a parish priest burned in 1401 under the new Statute of Heresies. It neglected to mention his name and parish. William Sawtrey, accused while priest of St Margaret’s in Bishop’s Lynn in 1399.
Norfolk was a hotbed of Lollardy in the 14th century. Margery, Sawtrey’s parishioner, was accused of it all her life. And yet when the movement rose in armed revolt in 1414 not one Norfolk Lollard joined.
Perhaps William’s fate silenced them early, though not forever. Lollard women like Hawisia Mone (recanting, at least superficially) and Margery Baxter ( four Sunday floggings walking barefoot around the church) faced the Norwich Heresy Trials of 1428-1431. Others were burned in Lollard’s Pit, at the bottom of Gas Hill. The much less heretical ‘Little Bilney’ was also burned there a century later (as mentioned in TV’s Wolf Hall recently.)
Our morality play ‘A Nice Guy’ dramatizes the bonfire fate of the first Lollard martyr and his dissenting anti-credo:
“I don’t believe in Signs, Rites, Blessings;
In Prayers by the Hour, Priests, Pilgrims, Grails;
Saint-Adoration; Idolatrous bread; leprous blind Latin;
Adoring the Angels; Fat church Patriarchs piling on the shillings;
Confession, Crusades: that ‘what Christ was the Cross is.’ “
Lynn’s Hanseatic past is full of characters. At next month’s Festival fringe ‘Room at the Hanse’ theatre company presents four of the most fascinating.
Margery Kempe (c 1373 – after 1433) a burgess’s wife and mother of fourteen, had visions of God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Fellow-visionary Mother Julian of Norwich endorsed her holy tears.
For a historical writer this is troubling. We try to place our characters in their time. These two contemporary Norfolk women gaze beyond it into eternity
Whether Margery was weeping through a mass at St Margaret’s at the slightest mention of Christ’s suffering or waiting to embark from Lynn’s teeming Hanseatic waterfront on pilgrimage to the Holy Land or Rome – or to Holy Prussia (via Walsingham and Norwich) - she had only eyes for God.
In Rome, she saw Jesus (in every handsome man and babe in arms.) On the North Sea in a storm she heard God calming her terror; in the Holy Land she saw the Holy Family, then 13 centuries dead. She helped Martha about the Holy House and held baby Jesus in her arms, discussing the joy of suckling him with a splendidly earthy - Virgin - Mother.
Was she mad? modern reason asks. Was it post-natal depression, post-partum psychosis, something in the granary bread? Or a clever ploy? Her self-appointed visionary status empowered her to hold forth on holy matters regarded by the priests as their patriarchal preserve and to tour a world which even men travelled in companies (or Hansa) to avoid bandits and pirates
‘God’ was a mystery concealed within a Latin credo hidden inside a Sacrament: a not so holy alliance of church and king against everyday Christian understanding. In this context Margery not only spoke to God and Jesus like a lover (or a Lollard), she successfully petitioned the Holy Spirit to turn its orthodox rushing wind ‘like a bellows’ in her right ear to a robin redbreast singing. She also dictated the first autobiography in English, its accuracy – for all her otherworldliness - recently corroborated by an exciting discovery in Gdansk of one of her son’s letters.
A Joan of Arc without the armour, adopting a nun’s white habit even though she was a wife (or, according to the charming mayor of Leicester, ‘a Lollard whore’) she purchased from her husband a vow of chastity; hired and fired scribes; made her own travel arrangements and, at the age of 60, went on one final unlicensed, unescorted pilgrimage.
She was afraid of men attacking her and terrified of sea storms but God, she said, over ruled both her fear and her confessor’s orders. ‘I am above your confessor’ He told her, thereby placing divinely inspired individualism above the church. This is Luther a century early; ‘Women in the church’ seven centuries ago. We celebrate her ‘Do Different’ Norfolk spirit in her beloved St Margaret’s.
Margery’s father, John Brunham, through public service to Lynn and country, made history rather than autobiography. MP twice, mayor 5 times, alderman and benefactor, he organised the arrest of three Prussian ships in Lynn on King Richard II’s orders and raised funds there for a royal embassy to the Grand Master of the Teutonic knights at Marienberg to protest about Prussians attacking English ships in German harbours.
One third of all Lynn damage claims for loss of trade were against Prussia. Prussian embezzlement, extortion, robbery, ship arrest and piracy were proverbial in Lynn.
And yet, you would meet English shoe makers and sailors in Prussian streets as often as German ones here. Brunham’s grandson, Margery’s son, married a Danzig woman and lived there. English merchants took their families to live in Hanse cities and German merchants lived at Hanse House on the South Quay in Lynn, now the only surviving Hanseatic building in England.
Lynn depended on its Hanseatic trading partners – grain out timber and fish in- but our partners were also our bitter rivals. In his Prologue, Brunham calls trade “war by another name”.
Our Wife of Lynn’s Tale brings out a contrast between merchant father and mystical daughter. Brunham’s world is every man for himself all at sea on the lawless waves; Margery’s is redeemed everywhere – even at sea - by Divine Love. Poignantly Brunham has nowhere to go when he dies; his ghost haunts the Lynn waterside, perhaps smiling on Lynn’s exciting and economically promising modern English leadership of the New Hanse.
Who was Margery’s Scribe?
We know that Margery sacked her first scribe and hired another whom she calls ‘The priest who wrote this book’. Who was he?
Perhaps Aleyn of Lynn, a Carmelite friar. Or Robert Spryngolde, a secular cleric, Margery’s parish priest. Both believed her tears were a gift of the Holy Spirit.
In her Book she asks Jesus that her companion in heaven be Spryngolde ‘because I can never repay Master Robert for his goodness to me and his gracious work on my confession’.
Aleyn of Lynn, based at St Mary Magdalen on Lynn’s Gaywood Causeway, was a Cambridge doctor of divinity and author of a number of scholarly works, Aleyn’s support of Margery’s mystical experiences had weight then and does now. Margery tells us her amenuensis was a ‘learned and well-educated man’ steeped in Scipture. Illiterate herself, she would have needed such authority for her numerous bible references. This sounds like Aleyn.
However Master Robert has the additional claim of knowing her intimately (as her confessor). He lived nearer to her and we know that much of the writing took place at her home. Also he had the healthily critical view of her shown by ‘the priest who wrote this book’.
In my Prologue I exploit the doubt over the identity of her scribe to spring a devilish surprise on the audience. Take a pew on July 24th and see!
The Wife of Lynn’s Tale (with Prologues by the Scribe and John Brunham,) written by Gareth Calway and starring Joanna Swan as Margery Kempe, plays Lynn Minster on July 24th 7.30pm. Tickets £9 from Lynn Custom House 01553 763044. Performance approx 90 minutes with interval and bar. A Nice Guy: The Burning of William Sawtrey, a Morality Play packed with good tunes and featuring Julian of Norwich, plays the Hanse House Courtyard on the South Quay, Lynn on the 17th July 4.00pm. Performance 30 minutes. Donations only. www.garethcalway.co.uk, http://www.hansehouse.co.uk, http://www.marriottswarehousetrust.co.uk
For further information read Margery Kempe of Lynn and Medieval England by Margaret Gallyon (The Canterbury Press Norwich ISBN 1-85311-111-2)