Feature published in Norfolk Suffolk Life July 2015
John Brunham, William Sawtrey and Alan of Lynn - Margery Kempe's merchant father, her parish priest and her scribe - will all make their returns as part of the Doin different tour 2016.
Four Norfolk notables – a mystic, a merchant (her father), a monk (her scribe) and a martyr (her priest)– will live again in historic settings along Lynn’s mediaeval waterfront this summer, thanks to Lynn theatre company ‘Room at the Hanse’. Gareth Calway, director of the company, writes…
‘Hanse’ - from the mediaeval Hanseatic League - means a convoy of ships or people travelling together for safety against pirates and bandits. Lynn has pioneered English participation in the New Hanse since 2005. 2015 is the Year of the Hanse and Hanse the theme of this July’s King’s Lynn Arts Festival. Room at the Hanse - based in rooms at Hanse House and Marriott’s Warehouse - jumped at the chance to mount two Hanse-themed productions at the 2015 Festival fringe.
The Wife of Lynn’s Tale - prefaced by The Scribe’s Prologue and The Merchant’s Prologue - is about Lynn’s visionary Margery Kempe (c1373-1438) writer of the first autobiography in English. It will be staged in the magnificent Lynn Minster, her own church. A Nice Guy: The Burning of William Sawtrey, the first heretic burned for his beliefs in England, plays outdoors in the courtyard of Hanse House, the last remaining Hanseatic building in England.
The Scribe’s Prologue mines the comic possibilities of the mismatch in Margery’s Book of cartoonish autobiography – an illiterate visionary Word with too much Flesh on it for the clerics– with the clerical spin of her amanuensis: “a woman’s story filtered through a male religious lens.” The amazing discovery in Gdansk this May (2015) of a letter by her son John – which has shown Margery as no fantasist but a reliable narrator of real events – happily supports her over my Scribe’s comic claims to be the real author (and also incidentally consolidates Margery’s status as the main documentary witness of Julian of Norwich’s lifer and character.)
The Merchant (Margery’s father) introduces his Prologue thus-
‘John Brunham of Bishop’s Lynn, deal-broker. Navigating treaties, steering rivals, roping in partners. Exporting and importing whatever the Warehouse of the Wash needs. Five times Mayor, twice MP, alderman, coroner, justice of the peace, chamberlain, royal agent, merchant-statesman, benefactor…’
Brunham’s monologue evokes the hustle and bustle - ‘the dance - of the Hanse’ and a glimpse of the man behind the merchant. It reminds us that, beneath the courtiers and kings, knights and wars of our long island story, merchants and mayors made history as they made the nation’s wealth – on a daily basis. Brunham brokered a vital and uneasy peace with Prussia on behalf of Richard II during the Hanseatic trade wars of the 14th century- the politics of port rather than court.
Though ruled by the Bishop of Norwich from his palace at Gaywood, Bishop’s Lynn had enjoyed a degree of borough freedom since Lynn-friendly King John gave the town its own ‘Magna Carta’ in 1204 and would eventually gain the rest thanks to Henry VIII, who made it King’s Lynn in 1537. In Brunham’s time - and Lynn historian Paul Richards’ words - it was “in the premier league of English medieval ports.”
This was the age before exploration and trade opened up the Atlantic West. Norfolk was the heart of England: advanced, densely populated, bristling with impressive churches. The Hanseatic League linked this heart with Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltic.
Margery lived on Lynn’s teeming international waterfront, in St Margaret’s parish, a true wife and daughter of the town, her family later tied to Hanseatic Germany by marriage. A mayor’s daughter and a burgess’s wife, Margery was pregnant for pretty much two decades, raising 14 children. She brewed beer (not very successfully) as Lynn wives did and managed a horse-drawn grain mill at Lynn’s hub of Wash waterways and busy sea routes. All this was forty five Norfolk miles from Mother Julian, whom she met and consulted, and who like her followed a visionary path. But Margery was a world apart from the mystic who called her ‘sister.’ She was not supposed to have visions!
She broke all the rules, caught between two church-approved states of womanhood - neither devotedly serving her husband indoors nor following a religious vocation in a convent or cell like Julian. She undertook Hanseatic journeys, and pilgrimages in self-appointed white robes, without the sanction of her confessor, asserting she was ‘directed to do so by God.’ God gave her a freedom wives rarely had.
While honouring the Sacrament of Marriage for twenty years, with saintly impatience, she eventually bought a vow of celibacy from John Kempe, along with his conjugal rights. And, ahead of her time as always, she dictated the first autobiography in English, not letting a little thing like illiteracy get in her way.
Maternal mortality in childbirth was common: her first labour was nearly her last. An unsympathetic priest refused to hear what she thought was a ‘death-bed’ confession and this precipitated visions of flame-mouthed devils - and of a beautiful gentle Jesus.
Unlike Julian’s church-approved ‘showings’ Margery’s visions were rejected by the authorities as ‘deceptions.’ Her direct personal relationship with the Trinity (without a priest present) might have been acceptable if like Julian she had been literate, learned and officially dead to the world (walled up alive and the burial service read over her.)
Instead, she was active, noisy, unorthodox and at odds with the authorities of a church she fervently loved. Despite support from ‘small friars’ like Robert of Caister the Vicar of Sedgeford and Alan of Lynn, who believed her visions and helped her record them, not to mention the parish priest who credited her with miraculously saving her beloved St Margaret’s from the Great Fire of Lynn in 1421, she continually upset fellow parishioners with loud weeping at mass, any mention of Christ’s suffering likely to set her off.
As her scribe whinges - “The whole parish is Mass en masse, cheek-by-blessed howl with you. The Bishop’s at his wits’ end!”
For a married woman and mother of fourteen children to claim the Son and Mother of God had given her a mission and instructions for a holy life was controversial enough. Margery added to it a new Franciscan emphasis on love experienced in a direct relationship with Christ and a highly emotional style of religious expression that riled church, citizens and pilgrims alike.
I suspect Margery’s visions and metaphors were too Earthy for the theological literati, the aristocrats who ran the church. Her Jesus is dishy, purple silk-clad. Her ‘female gaze’ would later see him in every handsome Italian she saw in Rome.
Her prayer for a robin in place of the inscrutable ‘rushing wind’ of God’s third person - which she complained was like a ‘bellows – parallels the heretical wish of contemporary rebels like John Wycliffe for simpler faith and a homely Bible in English.
Wycliffe’s ‘Lollard’ heresy, rife in Norfolk – did for our fourth Norfolk notable, Margery’s parish priest William Sawtrey, burned as a heretic in 1401.
Sawtrey was England’s first Lollard martyr or the morning star (Lucifer) of the Reformation, depending on your religious politics. He was ‘examined’ for preaching Lollardy by the Bishop Dispenser of the Norwich diocese. After two days, William, recanted only to relapse into the same heresies in London a year later. This time he didn’t recant and was burned at Smithfield.
It’s difficult for us to grasp how terrifying Lollardy was to the English church and king at the time. The Lollard heresy would shape the Protestant one: centuries of blood, fire, inquisition, execution, gunpowder and plot as the Reformation replaced the established Catholic church in England and much of Northern Europe. Europe would wage a 47 year war (the dreadful and misnamed 30 years war) over ‘Lollard’ issues. A Nice Guy, using the delightful Morality play format of the 15th century – borrowing a verse form and some speeches from the contemporary (Norfolk-written?) play the ‘Castle of Perseverance’ – takes a moral perspective. The company’s feelgood trademarks are all here - Norfolk-based musicians and actors; heritage and humour; catchy songs; poetic theatre, proper history. God, Soul, Mind, Flesh, World and the Devil all appear!
Margery – perhaps tainted by association with William - protested her orthodoxy. The point was even such protestation was ‘unwomanly’ by the repressive standards of the time. Ordered by the archbishop of York to swear not to teach in his diocese, she defended her right to speak her conscience. A brave stand to make a century before Luther – and by a woman.
Mother of English autobiography, pre-feminist, rebel, Lynn has every right to be proud of its under-sung visionary. Six centuries after the fact, we celebrate her life in her beloved St Margaret’s.
for 2016 tour go to Doin different tour 2016.
(2015 tour was:
for 2016 tour go to Doin different tour 2016.
(2015 tour was:
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 by Gareth Calway 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)