Naughty Nuns and Provocative Priests

Exeter Cathedral looking over the city.

I confess, there are few topic that are more likely to upset a certain group, than allegations of misbehaviour in Holy Orders.

OK, I know it’s a cliche nowadays. I accept that. Since it appears that scarcely a month goes past without a story about another bad boy in the vicarage in Ireland, or America, usually involving little boys, and almost invariably committed by Catholic priests. Conversely, if you speak to a woman who went to school in a convent, it is hard not to conclude that nuns seriously needed to work off their inner frustrations by punishing their charges unmercifully.

Yup, it’s a cliche. and the sad truth is, all too often cliches are proved to be valid Which is why, perhaps, they endure.

I’ve had a fair few people complain very bitterly about my depiction of monks and nuns. There was one lady who wrote: “…garbage about the nuns and monks carrying on various affairs…”

Sorry – they did carry on in this manner.

The main research material for Devon is from the records left by those two excellent priests, Bishop Walter II, Walter Stapledon, and Bishop Grandisson. Both were tireless workers, and both did visit all the parishes they could – although Walter II was often away, involved in his political efforts.

Bishop Walter was a splendid fellow, as I have written many times. He was a hard-working man, who was noted for his abilities, and became Lord High Treasurer of the kingdom. It seems he was dedicated to Devon and Cornwall, and also to his charges. Many were concerned about the quality of the average priest. Too many knew their work by rote, not my commitment. To try to improve the quality of his parish priests, Walter became devoted to selecting the best and brightest children and educating them.

To this end, he created a school at Ashburton, amongst others, and also endowed a college at Oxford (originally called Stapledon College, it later became Exeter College). Young boys would be chosen, brought to school and taught up so that in the future they would become exponents of their faith in the parishes.

Did Stapledon have a fault? Well, er, yes. When he died, he left a lot of money. From a quick read of Mark Buck’s biography (Cambridge University Press), it’s clear how. He was quite heavily involved or implicated in some of the more productive criminal activities by Sir Hugh le Despenser. Corruption was endemic in those far-off days. Walter made as much as he could from it.

To be fair, he spent it pretty wisely, too. He threw a huge sum at the cathedral, which was at the time being rebuilt. That chewed through money, but he didn’t stint.

But when you look back into the past, you also learn that he had a slightly chequered career.

There was the little incident that nearly cost him his promotion to Bishop, for example.

Exeter Cathedral had a complete monopoly on burials. And they defended it to the death. Why? Burials were valuable. People had to pay for the prayers, for the candles, for the decorations and so on. In those days, a substantial sum could be anticipated.

A Sir Henry de Ralegh died in 1301. Presumably he was a devout character (whether or not to pay for past misdemeanours, I’ll leave to your imagination) because he had lived some while with the Dominicans. And he wanted to be buried with them.

The Cathedral didn’t agree. So one day, while his corpse was in the Dominican’s chapel, two canons with a mob went to it, beat up some of the friars, took the body, the candles and various other items, and did some damage to the church’s fabric. Naughty. And the names of the canons? One was Walter de Stapledon.

They held a service for Sir Henry and later told the friars that their corpse was ready. The friars didn’t deign to reply. So later, the canons had men take the body to them. But they heard of the imminent arrival, and locked their doors. So, in a spirit of helpfulness, and full of Christian piety and charity, the cathedral goons dumped the body outside the gates.

A few days later the city complained about the smell and the cathedral finally agreed to take the body back. It may still be beneath the cathedral now – some reckon by the font.

Surely the Bishop was a unique character?

A view of the cathedral as Bishop Walter II paid for it!

No. In the first few years of his Register, we find clergymen who were imprisoned for murders, robberies and other felonies. Amongst my favourites are the famous murder of Precentor Walter de Lecchelade, who was set upon by a gang of twenty and clubbed and stabbed to death – all in the middle of the night, immediately after Matins.

Who were these evil criminals? Well, one was the vicar of Ottery St Mary, one the vicar of Heavitree. The instigator was the Dean of the Chapter – because it was a murder for reason of company politics. The Dean and the Bishop hated each other, and the Precentor was an ally of the Bishop’s.

There were eleven clergy who broke into St Buryan Church and beat up the Dean and his attendants so badly, their lives were feared for. There was John Dyrewyn, who broke into a painter’s house and stole £5 worth of goods. The Rector of St Ive kidnapped the wife of John de Thornetone and robbed him. Three priest vicars at Crediton were found guilty of gross immorality, two rectors trespassed after Sir Hugh de Courtenay’s game and severely wounded Sir Hugh’s keepers.

No, these men weren’t unique. They were all too standard for their times. But come on, if you think that they were naughty, and surely such fellows wouldn’t make the grade generally and I’m being unfair to write about misbehaving men – bear in mind that these guys were raised at a time when weapons were always to hand. And feuds were normal. Until a reasonable age, they would have been trained in weaponry in case their older brothers died, and they themselves might have to return to the family estates.

You also have to bear in mind that in those days, outlawry was rife. There was one knightly family of felons who had a priest among their number. He ended his life when the local lawmen finally laid siege to him in his church until they could kill him. Another family of outlaws was so vicious, brutal and successful at robbing and all forms of felony, that the local monastery hired them as their tax-collectors. Makes sense, in a way, doesn’t it?

And it wasn’t only the men. In Belladonna at Belstone, I write about a whole bunch of misdemeanours. One reader slated it (and me) calling it a dreadful book because there could never have been a convent so badly led and behaved.


It was based upon the nuns at two convents: Polsloe and Canonsleigh. And I am afraid that all the events I list in there, the dilapidated buildings, the – ahem – misbehaviours, all came from the records.

But the nuns did suffer from a great problem. You see, people gave money to religious foundations in order to protect themselves. By and large, it was a form of insurance, because whatever you did on earth, after your death, you could count on the fact that there were a number of priests holding services and remembering you in their prayers. And that meant, hopefully, the afterlife would be a little easier.

The problem was the usual one: women couldn’t hold services. So even the nuns in the convents had to depend upon services held by priests. They had their own chaplains who would hold their masses.

So a lot of those who would have considered giving money to the nuns, actually held back and sent the money to Friaries or Monasteries. At least there they knew that they’d get dedicated services to remember them.

But what the heck. If people want to assume that I haven’t researched the stories and been fairly careful about the sort of crimes I attribute to priests and nuns – well, what can I say?

I’m a fiction writer.

6 Responses to “Naughty Nuns and Provocative Priests”
  1. RichieP says:

    Excellent stuff Michael – anyone who has a rose-tinted view of medieval churchmen (and churchwomen) really needs to read the topic up a bit.


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Don’t you just love it when the so-called pillars of society turn out to be fallible just like the rest of us?


  3. Avril says:

    I’m grinning as I read this. To those who say monks and nuns were pure, all I can say is they have never read history. As someone who spent the first 50 years of her life being a regular churchgoer, I can confirm that the clergy and those who work for the church are, today, some of the most rapacious, hard-nosed, unchristian souls it has ever been my misfortune to meet. Vicars who can’t stand the organist and employ bullyboy tactics to make him resign. Sidesmen who in secular life would skin their mother if it made them a penny. One vicar who refused to bury a parishioner who had been born and lived all his life in the village apart from his last three weeks when he was taken to a hospice to die. The reason for the refusal – he was no longer living in the village and was, therefore, not a parishioner. Cathedral clergy are even worse. Power games that would make Alan Sugar tremble. But above all, the hypocrisy of celibate priests telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies, whilst fiddling with little boys behind the choir screen. As Tony Benn once said, “There are some socialists in the Labour party, just as there are some christians in the church.”


  4. Many thanks, Avril. You’ve reminded me of a few other cases I may have to write about!


  5. Freddy says:

    Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up and the rest of the site is really good.


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