You are the 1000th person to read this blogpost
Hear the ballad here and Margery music here
This is probably your first blog-port of call for my new play about Margery Kempe of Lynn. As explained below the 2014 play never happened but the virtue of patience has been rewarded with a premiere in St Margaret's Lynn Minster itself, Margery's own beloved parish church of six hundred years ago. It has now been rewritten for the 2015 King's Lynn Festival Fringe as 'Margery Kempe, The Wife of Lynn's Tale' for one woman to perform with Prologues by her Scribe and her Merchant Father. 2015 performance details, pictures and routes to the scripts here
The wonderful outdoor Lynn waterfront staging of the Hanse House courtyard (England's only surviving Hanseatic building) has been retained for the performance of a companion Morality Play about Margery's heretic parish priest, William Sawtrey, a Lynn native and the first heretic burned for his beliefs in England. The script and performance details of A Nice Guy: The Burning of William Sawtrey may be found here
With apologies to those who planned to attend the premiere of this particular 'Margery' on August 2 and 3 in the Hanse Courtyard in King's Lynn, a production I had to cancel due to a family illness. This is what we were going to perform. You can hear one of the songs written by Tom Conway and myself and sung by Joanna Swan as Margery in Scene 4 here and you can hear Death's Act 2 appearance to John Kempe here
Joanna Swan in role as Margery Kempe (pic by Al Pulford). She asked that the Holy Ghost speak to her in the voice of a robin redbreast rather than the bellows she endured previously.
Would Margery have made a good bishop? Lynn News article here
Margery Kempe of Lynn The Visionary’s Tale
by Gareth Calway
Characters in this play
Young Margery aged 15
Chorus of Worthies and Worldlies
Fr Robert Spryngolde
A bed. In it, John Kempe. Above it, an angel. Near it, a crucifix and Margery. Drums and recorder. A priest enters with a Book. He opens it.
Margery and Angel (sing to each other, like lovebirds):
And when you gave, then turned away, your ocean eyes, I knew
My heart would break in waves there on the rocks of losing you.
I didn’t ask for this; I only breathed without belief
Unconscious idle prayers: I never dreamed you’d make them true.
My life’s in ruins now; I can’t go home, nor to your door:
In port and inn and chancel, all I taste is missing you.
I talk about you all the time and think I’ve made some sense
But if my words can’t bring you near....what good can they do?
My days were full of waiting for your Christ feet at my door.
They’re empty now the dove in hand is just the bird that flew.
You touched me once; I closed my eyes; your warmth was like a fire;
I let it smoulder gently: now it blasts my heart in two.
O lover, don’t complain, “What can’t be lost is never found.”
He answers only shipwrecked cries, this angel from the blue.
Priest: (to audience as to a formal Book Launch) Welcome to the Launch of Margery Kempe, the Mother of English Autobiography! The biggest Success Story by a Lynn author since The Castle of Perseverance wrote Anonymous and Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Works! Now I have many people to thank, not least Margery herself, a real character, one of the best things in the Book actually, and without whom-
Margery: There would be no Book.
Priest: Well I wouldn’t go that far. There’s a bit more to theology than unlettered weeping. Ask an Authorised visionary like Julian of Norwich.
Margery: (hurt) Mother Julian called me sister. She is a great and holy woman who told me during our many days together that the Holy Ghost lives in my soul and that there is no deception in my revelations-
Priest: (reading the small print) If they be not against the worship of God and the profit of your fellow Christians.
Margery: Mother Julian… (she stops)
Priest: got God in writing. The church behind her. Named after and wedded to. Anchored and composed by. Buried alive against the regulation wall of. You’re illiterate, flighty. You couldn’t even scratch Margaret of Lynn on a ship’s hull let alone write a book of Revelations!
Margery: I… (she stops)
Priest: Will you please be as you’re told! Town Crier?
Town Crier: Margery Brunham was born in the prosperous parish of St Margaret’s in the Hanseatic port of Lynn Episcopi - literally Bishop’s Pool- in 1373. She was 8 when Richard II sold those revolting, Bible-charged peasants down the river; six years married when the self-pitying shadow of that majesty was deposited on its backside by Henry IV Part I; and a mother of fourteen by the time he was Henry IV Part II. She grew up amid the world traffic of Hanse-heyday Lynn, through the wool downturn of the 1390s, watching licensed pilgrims flood in under a giant harbourside Cross to the skyline’s five friaries, drawn - as Celts had been since pagan times - and Catholics since Richeldis de Faverches received an Authorised Vision of the Virgin Mother at Walsingham in 1061 - to Lynn’s magical confluence of water, sky and lowland. Imagine a mediaeval Liverpool on a Wash-sized marina with five holy motorway service Hiltons and an airport for angels. On this fine mediaeval waterfront-
Margery: It’s changed a bit.
Town Crier: You should see the rest of the town! - in the Good Old Age of Faith, when everyone sang from the same hymn sheet. Give or take a few heretics trying to help others read about God in their own language and getting burned for it at Smithfield.
Priest: (to Margery) Oi! Language! (to Launch) Many recanted out of fear.
Margery: God overcame my fear, come lusty bandits or Hanse high water.
Priest: But you couldn’t look at a painted Passion or hear a hard word without weeping like a girl. One whiff of the heretic’s bonfire and you’d be gone in a rush of wind.
Margery: (asserting her courage) I never denied my visions, though the world was against them.
Priest: Perhaps you should have done.
Margery: They weren’t Lollardy.
Priest: Perhaps not. (to Launch) Lollards were literate for a start, quoting the Bible in support of their heresies; her ecstasies were the stained glass windows of Faith. She didn’t read scripture, she worshipped it.
Margery: (simply, relaxes) So I’m not a Lollard.
Priest: On the other hand, she does talk to God without a priest present and that was enough to get you flambéed in the fifteenth century. And she didn’t do it quietly either. She didn’t do anything quietly. Not even her wifely duty -
Margery: (on bed, howls, ante-, mid- and post-natal) Oh Jesus! (living this) Devils opening their mouths all alight with burning flames of fire, pawing at me, hauling me about both night and day, menacing me to deny God, family, virtue and the Christian faith.
She self-harms violently, bites her hand ‘scarring it for life’, tears ‘the skin of her body near her heart with her nails pitilessly.’
Priest: (academically) A ‘difficult’ first pregnancy and labour; a post-natal depression…
Margery: Eight months straddling the eternal pit, between the devil and the unshriven dread of my confessor, I desired all wickedness (strait-jacket arms) and had to be tied up in case I killed myself. (a vision) Until our merciful Lord Christ Jesus appeared to his creature who had forsaken him, in the likeness of a gorgeous loving man clad in a mantle of purple silk and said:
Angel: (sings) ‘Daughter why have you forsaken me, and I never forsook you.’
Margery: and then the air opened bright as any lightning, and he ascended beautifully and gradually into the air. (rapt)
Priest: Who does the fishwife think she is? The Virgin Julian?
Margery and Julian (sing)
Could I weep like your hot blood that rolls?
Could I dance like a maiden in my soul for You?
Would my drop were an Ocean pouring?
Would my life were an answer to your calling for You?
In Your Presence words fail and are nothing.
Beloved, these questions I ask of You,
Yet Love asks no questions, and answers none.
I am lost but in love I am lost in You.
And all shall be well and all manner of things.
In Your Presence my failings mean nothing… (exit Julian)
Priest: (killing this with a diagnosis) A Primadonna-and-child-post-partum psychosis. What she called visions and the church called deceptions we might call hallucinations…
Margery: (a cri de coeur) Oh Jesus!
Priest: And a poet might call the Aspergic Cry in all our wildernesses. (he subjects her to a searching look, to Launch). She was no Saint. And certainly no virgin. A no canon-do as far as church canonisation was concerned. And a self-confessed unconfessed Sinner. Today, that might take her to a homoeopath. In the fifteenth century it would take her to Hell….
Margery: (meek) When this creature started to confess that sin she had so long concealed, her confessor was a little too hasty and began sharply to reprove her before she had fully said what she meant-
Priest: (to Launch) Was it Lollardy? (shows Launch Book.) Is this Book of Unauthorised English visions by this WannaBede, this monk manqué out of her person, out of her gender, out of her class and out of her mind - as much a preface to English Protestantism as Wycliffe’s English Bible?
Margery: (looks at him) ‘Protestantism’?
Priest: Something you helped to start, if you were a Lollard.
Margery: My visions were of another world.
Priest: And they changed this one. Every text has a context. Town Crier?
Town Crier: Bishop’s Lynn- meaning Holy Norwich in his Gaywood palace - was one of the country’s foremost ports, ideally placed on the Wash and an inland waterway system for trade with the Baltic and English coastal harbours. The town attracted traders from the Hanseatic League, a ‘Hanse’ of German cities whose ships travelled together in convoys for safety, especially against pirates. They sailed into Lynn with fish, furs, timber, wax and pitch and out again with English wool, cloth and salt. It also attracted Chaucer’s father who paid nativity dues to a Lynn church the year his son the Father of English Poetry was born. Can you confirm that Sir?
Chaucer: (from audience) Yes, I was born here. London has no birth evidence at all.
Town Crier: Thank you. Margery’s father like Chaucer’s, was ‘trade.’ Five times Mayor of Lynn, twice MP, an alderman, coroner, justice of the peace, chamberlain, merchant-statesman and benefactor. In the morality play of her life, beavering away on his busy waterfront beneath the castle of her landed lord-in-the-clouds (indicates St Margaret’s church twin towers), he was the World.
Enter John Brunham taking his place overlooking the river, attended by a Chorus of Worldlies and Worthies, and Y Margery, in a pageant of mediaeval Lynn.
John Brunham: (fatherly) Margery!
Chorus: (to Y Margery) Conform to your bourgeois station, young Margery!
Scene 2. 1388 Young Margery (aged 15) and her father, on the quay. Margery walks over and watches them. Brunham’s opening lines are those of World in The Castle of Perseverance.
Brunham: Now I sit in my seemly sale,
I trot and tremle in my true throne;
As a hawk I hop in my hende hale;
King, knight and kaiser to me maken moan.
Oh God ne of good man give I never tale.
As a liking lord I leyke here alone.
Whoso brawl any boast, by down or by dale,
Those gadlings shall be ghasted and grisly groan iwis.
Whoso to the World will draw
Of God ne of good man giveth he not a hawe
Such a man by lands law
Shall sitten on my dais.
Isn’t this a wonderful sight, young Margery? A Lynn ship sailing out on the tide on the King’s service? Important men aboard, stirring deeds to be done?
Chorus: (to Brunham) See you in three weeks, my lord Mayor. God save the King!
John Brunham: Just make sure you do save him! Gute Reise! (to Y. Margery) Know who that was?
Y. Margery: The merchants from York and London who stayed with us and spoke such funny English. And Stockett the clerk and that other man, John Bevys, who could speak German. Where are they going, father?
John Brunham: Prussia! They attacked English ships over there, so we arrested theirs here. I hold the king’s writ to do so! And now I send his royal ambassadors to harangue the King of Prussia. And a pretty penny it’s costing! Three hundred and forty pounds, raised in Lynn on those arrested Prussian ships-
Y. Margery: (tomboy whistle) They’re saying in church that not all mayors use the office so skilfully for the public good.
Brunham preens himself, enjoys this ‘top of the world’ feeling, while it lasts.
Y.Margery: But wouldn’t you rather sail away and see the world you’re shaping? I would.
John Brunham: (amused though indulgent) Girls don’t sail away into the world of men like that, my darling, much less join a royal embassy. My place is here, leading the merchants of Lynn.
Y. Margery: It doesn’t stop them grumbling about you in church, father (a hint of later piety) when they should be praying.
John Brunham: Oh yes? And what are they saying?
Y. Margery: That you’ve stopped them sending their cloth to Prussia.
John Brunham: Not just their cloth! Everything! And not just Lynn, every port in England, until the embassy succeeds. King’s orders! And when the merchants are charged for the mission, they’ll argue the toss as usual about how they’ve been assessed on their assets! Better than having their ships attacked in Prussia. King Richard’s made his position on that quite clear: the merchants must pay. And they’ll benefit it from it in the end. Money makes the world go round, Margery.
Enter Death, unseen except, with teenage intimations of mortality, by Y.Margery.
Death: And mankind will never the World forsake.
‘Till he be dead and under mould.
Y. Margery: And what will Mankind do then?
Death: A new lesson I will him teach. (exit)
Y. Margery: (to her Father) Will the King come to our house?
John Brunham: (laughs) No.
Y. Margery: But you’re the most powerful man in the world!
John Brunham: (laughs) In Lynn, perhaps.
Y. Margery: (lost again in her thoughts of mortality) Body, thou didst brew a bitter bale
Ever thou hast been covetous…
To me thou hast brewn a bitter juice.
I hope that God will helpen and be mine hed… (comes back to the world and her father speaking to her)
John Brunham: It’s the way of the world. By collecting merchants’ money for the king, your poor old father collects royal favour for Lynn.
Y. Margery: (proudly) You’re not old, father!
John Brunham: I’m not poor either. But I didn’t get to be mayor and alderman and very rich indeed by talking about it, as I’m always telling that lazy ‘merchant’ brother of yours.
Y.Margery: Shall I run and tell Mother the royal ship has gone.
John Brunham: Yes (trying to do the right thing) and then you’d better stay with her.
Y. Margery: Mother just trains me to keep house. I want to be a man of the world with you.
John Brunham: She knows you’ll be a wife soon. (amused) Unless you want to be a nun and from what your mother tells me, you like men too much for that! (affecting lightness) Just make sure you marry a good one (seriously) who loves you.
Y. Margery: You’re the World to me, father. Who will love me as you do?
John Brunham: Plenty more fish in the sea, daughter.
They look out to sea, one seeing a wide world of trade and mercantile power, the other an Ocean of Love. Tableau. Margery studies them.
Margery: (of her father, older, wiser and more life-bruised than her young self)
‘For I, the World, am of this entail:
In your most need I shall you fail’
Priest: She married John Kempe, a burgess of Lynn: a little fish in a big pool. What on earth did she see in him?
Margery: Flesh: and with him Gluttony, Lechery and Sloth
John Kempe: (pats bed, to Margery) Time for bed, Margery…
Margery: (gets into bed as if into hell)
John: (sings with drum)
I bide as a broad bursten-gut aboven on these towers,
Everybody is the better that to mine bidding is bent.
I am Mankind’s fair Flesch, flourished in flowers.
My life is with lusts and liking i-lent.
With tapets of taffeta I timber my towers.
In mirth and in melody my mende is i-ment.
Though I be clay and clod, clapped under clowrys,
Yet would I that my will the world went,
Full true I you behight
I love well my ease
In lusts me to please:
Though sin my soul seize,
I give not a mite. (hic)
Priest: Twenty years of forced labour - serving his lusts, managing his books and underachievements, keeping his house: just another disappointed burgess’s wife kept going by dreams. But what dreams!
Your face that burns upon my Eye in searing fiery gale:
More clear than any seen on earth or heavenward trail.
Sir Lancelot has failed at last, by love’s Cup undone.
His thought and self are shrivelled lifting Guinevere’s veil.
I see your face in everything, but cannot leap the gulf
Between belief in what I see and being what I fail.
She feels his wreck in her, a bliss that pierces his heart
And bleeds from hers like wounds of Passion’s holiest nail.
The agony of longing long, the ecstasy of pain
In love-struck hearts the Sun uplifts through bars of a gaol!
The Sun is Everything and nothing isn’t the Sun:
A black hole All-consumed in one whole - yet shadows prevail.
In sainted flames of love, with nothing else it can see
It burns away in grief, this Eye that can’t have the Grail.
O Lancelot, her Absent Heart is All to you now.
She’s in the Seventh Sun, where Lovers leap and visions...fail.
Margery: (to Angel) Don’t stop!
John: (vexed, sighs) We were never going to be Lancelot and Guinevere like the courtly folk, Marge – our class marry money and trade.
He passes her a chamber pot. Margery comes back down to earth with a bump.
Margery: (indicating him) ‘In gluttony gracious now am I grow.
In Lechery and Liking lent am I low.’
John: In no small part. As the anchoress said to the Bishop! Ha ha!
Margery: (not laughing with him) You great lump. As the Soul said to the Body.
John: I may not run off at every opportunity to the hoodies and prayer-merchants (indicates Priest) like you do… (not used to philosophising) But it seems to me, I stand on the beach amid the stinking waste heaps and look over the river to West Lynn and it looks like Eden. I take the ferry and look back and Lynn beach looks like the Promised Shore. You go to Walsingham or Rome or the Holy Land and it’s just yourself in another street. The grass is always greener.
Margery: (sighs) The grass of Paradise is greener.
Divine birdsong: (begins on a visionary note but will develop into the ‘rushing sound’ then the dove and finally into her robin motif.) Margery reacts.
Priest: (to Margery) Another vision, daughter? Remember, ‘Appearances’ may deceive. (addresses the vision, with all the authority of the church) Are you the First, Second or Third Person of the Trinity?
Margery falls in agony, cupping her right ear, crying out. A sound of rushing wind.
Margery: This creature has various tokens in her hearing. One is a kind of rushing sound as if it were a pair of bellows blowing in her ear. She – being dismayed– was warned in her soul to have no fear, for it was the sound of the Holy Ghost.
Priest: (crosses himself, afraid)
Margery: And then our Lord turned that sound into the voice of a dove. And afterwards into the voice of a little bird which is called a redbreast, that often sang merrily in her right ear.
Robin motif. (on a recorder?)
Priest: The dove’s orthodox enough – as is a rushing wind - but a common-or-garden familiar of the god Thor!
Margery: My robin is not of this world.
Priest: Well it’s definitely not of Palestine. They don’t have any.
Margery: An old folk tale has it that when Jesus was on His way to Calvary, a robin picked a thorn out of His crown, and the blood which issued from the wound falling on the bird dyed its breast red. It sang to Him in His agony on the Cross, to comfort Him.
Priest: (like a mildly thrilled Anglican) Can we agree on a Maundy Thor’s day thrush?
Margery: It was a heavenly robin.
Almighty ‘God’ Music (Gregorian chant)
God: (sung with Angel) Ego occidam et vivificabo, percuiam et sanabo, et nemo est qui de manu mea possit eruere.
Margery: (as if speaking to a fellow pilgrim of foreign tongue abroad) My Lord, may you turn your voice into a common sign I can understand?
God: ‘King, kaiser, knight and champion,
Pope, patriarch, priest and prelate in peace,
Duke doughtiest in deed, by dale and by down,
Little and mickle. The more and the less,
All the states of the world is at my renown;
To me shall they give accompt at my dyne dais.
When Michael his horn bloweth at my dread doom
The count of their conscience shall putten them in press
And yield a reckoning
Of their space how they have spent,
And of their true talent
At my great judgement
An answer shall me bring.’
Margery: (rapt) God in the Second Person!
She gets into bed.
Priest: (outraged) What are you doing?
Margery: God said to me: ‘You may boldly, when you are in bed, take me to you as your wedded husband. You can boldly take me in the arms of your soul and kiss my mouth, my head, and my feet as sweetly as you want.’ And when I spoke to Jesus in heaven, He said-
Priest: (drowns this out) No he didn’t. NO! He didn’t!
Margery: And I wept for joy. But then I was brought back to earth and wept for his sufferings here-
Priest: (sternly) First, you talk about the joy of heaven when you haven’t been there any more than I have. Then you shriek for Jesus like He died yesterday. It was fifteen hundred years ago. We have liturgical detergents for all this now.
Margery: Sir, his death is as fresh to me as if he had died this same day, and so it ought to be to you and to all Christian people.
Margery and Angel (sing)
Joanna Swan and Tom Conway in role as Margery and her Angel perform this song here
OR if that link misbehaves, try here
I bend my will to holy men
Confessors, clerks and seers
Yet drown their prayers and sermons in
A Noah’s Flood of tears-
I take Christ to my marriage bed
As chaste as any maiden
A love-struck Mary Magdalene
Face to face with heaven
And kiss him sweetly on the mouth
His head and darling feet,
And wash away my sins with tears
That heaven and earth should meet.
This Book I weep in blood
Up from the heart’s deep well
Would drown the earth in heaven tears
And church the tongues of hell.
The Prick of Love is in my heart,
A bellows in my ear
And love enflames another part
They cannot see or hear.
Priest: (highly literate but blindly literal) The womb by the sound of it. Our Latin fathers didn’t call it the hystericus for nothing.
Margery: Not in my Book.
Priest: Your Book is an Apocrypha, or I’m no Judge, Job and Jeremiah.
Margery: (illiterate but visionary) An apocrypha?
Priest: An unauthorised scripture. You’re not the story. Get yourself in the canon or shut up.
Margery: It was a different story during the Great Fire of Lynn in 1421. Fire! FIRE!
Scene 5. The Great Fire of Lynn, 1421.
Chorus: (panic) Fire! The Guildhall of the Trinity is burned down! (points; Margery points to 3 places) And all St Margaret’s stately honours and riches are like to be gorged in Hell’s mouth! (exit)
Priest: (deferring to her) Margery, shall we carry the Sacrament towards the fire – or not?
Margery: Sir, yes! For our Lord Jesus Christ told me it will be well.’ (narrates) So he went before the fire with the precious Sacrament as devoutly as he could and afterwards brought it back – and the sparks of the fire flew about the church. I wanted to follow the precious sacrament to the fire. So I went to the church door and saw the terrible flames and cried with a loud voice and much weeping: Good Lord, make everything all right!’ (giving God a practical suggestion) and send down some rain or storm that may through your mercy quench this fire and ease my heart. (weeps)
Re-enter Chorus, with snow on their clothes, saying,
Chorus: ‘Look, Margery, God has shown us great grace and sent us a fair snowstorm to quench the fire with.
Angel (sings, with occasional Margery harmonies) ‘A crown of thorns to freeze your breath
The berried holly brings;
Through sun-bright snow as chaste as death
The silent barn-owl wings
But now the ghostly holy dove
That bellows in your ear
Is tuned to robin-song by love
And cheerfully made clear.’
The only gift left on the shelf
That nothing else can rise above
Includes all treasure, lasts forever,
And grows when shared with others – love.
Priest: (acquiring the miracle with a Judgement) I believe… because of Margery’s devout prayers, God has delivered us from the Great Fire of Lynn.
Chorus: Special grace for Margery! A miracle!
She weeps before a crucifix. It goes on a while.
Chorus: (getting slightly tired of the noise now) Be now of good cheer and thank God for it.’
Margery: (a great cry of praise) Thanks be to God! (weeps, rapturously, violently, again for some time.)
Chorus: Our Lady never cried. Why do you?
Margery: (wounded) Thinking of Christ’s precious wounds, I cannot do otherwise. I’ll take my weeping off into the Prior’s chapel, to give you no further occasion. (moves there)
Chorus: (as she goes, fickle, now the danger is past) Hob-nobbin’ behind the screen with all the fat monks. Hogging the posh half of the build! Lynn hates you!
Margery: The whole of St Margaret’s cheered me off on my last pilgrimage!
Chorus: I wonder why!
Margery: There’s a joy in weeping on Jesu’s abused passion that brooding on our own woes does not bring. (weeps.)
Chorus: You’re not in Norwich now, with 52 churches to choose from. The whole parish is Mass en masse, cheek-by-blessed howl with you. St Nick’s is agitating for separate parish status! The Bishop is at his wits’ end!
Priest: Your bleeding heart commends you, daughter of Eve. But your church is not the church and one woman’s weep is a congregation’s Pandemonium. I have sent to Gaywood Palace for guidance about this self-centredness.
Margery: The Vicar of Sedgeford will defend me.
Priest: Another of your small Friars, like Alan of Lynn, yes. And a secret admirer of Lollards! You should choose your friends more carefully. Julian has Adam of Easton, a monk with Rome in his sights. Your Vicar of Sedgeford’s going to the Devil!
Margery: (pushed to this) Father Sawtre told me the Church was the Devil!
Shock. Enter Father Sawtre, in otherworldly sackcloth and ashes.
Margery: Father Sawtre of Lynn! My old parish priest, in 1399.
Sawtrey: (a Lynn boy) And the first Lollard ever burned for his beliefs. ‘The Morning Star of the English Reformation.’ And for spreading such views in this parish, I was taken to Bishop Le Despenser in North Elmham and tortured by a panel of experts for two days. They confirmed I did not believe in worshipping Bread, Images, St Peter’s pig-knuckle or Our Lady’s bottled breastmilk on Pilgrimages to Falsingham – and was therefore a heretic. I came back to Lynn, publicly recanted, swore on the Gospels I would never again preach Lollardy and got my licence to hear confessions back.
Margery: Including mine. You were very good at it.
Sawtre: Thank you. You were one of my more ‘interesting’ clients. A year later, they passed The Statute of Heresies, calling for the burning of any heretic who rejected Catholicism.
Margery: So you high-tailed to the big city.
Sawtre: Parish-priest at St Osyth’s, London. But I couldn’t escape. Them or myself. I started preaching Lollardy again. I was summoned to appear at St. Paul’s. (pause) I told Archbishop Arundel I believed a priest’s hourly prayers were better spent evangelising; said the church spent far too much time making money; that I adored mankind more than angels, and knew which side of the Eucharist I was on.
Priest: ‘Consubstantiation as opposed to Transubstantiation: the Priest as middleman, rather than magician.
Sawtre: That did it. I was toast. I defended my ‘heresies’ quoting St. John, St. Paul, and St. Augustine. Arundel spent three hours on the Eucharist alone, but couldn’t Credo-bash me back to orthodoxy. They degraded me from priest to doorkeeper, then stripped of every clerical function, attribute, and cloth. I was sentenced to death, taken to Smithfield
Margery: (with empathy) And publicly burned at the stake.
Priest: (to Margery) Is that what you want?
Sawtre: I tell you, Margery - with all the authority of my office – No, damn my office.
Priest: You no longer have an office.
Priest begins piling faggots around Sawtre.
Sawtre: With the authority of my conscience - that you must give up -
Margery: Signs, Mysteries, Statues, Sacraments, Priestly Guidance, Holy Places. All the things I love because they prick my heart with a reminder of His Suffering!
Sawtre: (shaking head) You may as well worship the devil, Margery.
Margery: (worried) The devil?
Priest brings a torch towards the faggots.
Sawtre: (sings) Word…word… word….Word…word…word. Word…word… word. A good shepherd doesn’t need a golden crook.
There’s no pope or Latin credo in the Book.
The church was made by man and man is fallen and deceived.
There’s nothing you can know but what’s in here.
God’s chosen twelve, they heard it loud and clear.
Hear the gospel in your heart, the rest is devils in your ear.
All you need’s the Word
All you need’s the Word,
All you need’s the Bible.
The Bible’s is all you need.
Margery: (rapt) Ah! You bring Jesus alive with your words.
Sawtre: Bless you.
Margery: (heart pierced) Like a garden robin piercing the winter dawn with his sweet song –
Robin song motif, chiming with ‘Word, word, word’ …
Sawtre: (entranced) Yes.
Margery: But what about when you leave me? (clutching his sleeve, and pulling away his sackcloth – under this he wears pure white.)
Priest lights the faggots and the sackcloth. Sawtrey is serene, a spirit: his bodily suffering is convveyed in Margery’s horror.
Margery: (abandoned) Who will bring Jesus to me then?
Sawtre: Then you have the Bible.
Margery: (because she is illiterate and in any case the Bible is forbidden) I can’t read it! …
Margery: (acute empathy) Ah!
Flames lap across her face as she watches ‘him’ burn, weeping. He exits, leaving his body, the sackcloth, to burn. She stares at the burnt sackcloth, ‘feels’ his agony.
Priest: Right, perhaps we can get this Story of ours straight now?
Margery: (badly scared, the ‘this creature’ marking a kind of alienation) When Philip Repingdon, Bishop of Lincoln, granted this creature an audience 14 years later she saw him against those same flames. His Grace had been a Lollard firebrand until it threatened to torch his career prospects. He granted this creature the freedom to tell her religious feelings and meditations and told her they were inspired by the Holy Spirit and urged her very seriously to have them written down.
Priest: (sooty-handed) And what did you answer?
Margery: (studying the flames) ‘All in God time.’
Priest: (irritated by the delay)
Margery: My body and soul are at stake here. If God can wait twenty years, I’m sure you can. (exit)
Priest: (to audience) Sorry about this. (improvise something like Nothing worse than a burnt stake – should have gone for the German sausage. Boom boom, chhh. We’re here all weekend. Tip the waitress. Try the herring… See you in 20 minutes) – Margery! (exit)
Scene 7. 20 years later. Margery enters supporting John. She puts him into the bed with wifely care, though she would rather be in church. A feverish John, head broken in five places and squinting at the angel, shouts.
Margery: (soothing his brow) Shh, shh. (to audience, excited) I was free at last of Flesh. I’d paid off his debts in return for a vow of celibacy licenced by the Archbishop; signed, sealed and delivered from the Purgatory of his lusts; in perpetuus pilgriminus to Walsingham, Santiago de Compostela, The Holy Land and Rome-
John: And then I tumbled down the stairs and broke my head like a vow of celibacy in five places.
Chorus: (of gossips) She’s not fulfilling her wifely role. No wonder he Falls.
Priest: So once again she gives up the Deus Vita petitioning the landed nobs of the church to serve her husband, driven back by a tender skin, the Sacrament of Marriage and the solidified might of mediaeval society.
He and the angel watch her in wonder.
Priest: And yet, dragged from the saint’s bones she worshipped to wife-nurse the old Flesh she loathed, was this sweet Soul ever nearer the Sainthood she craved? Deathless angels – and unmarried priests - can only look on in wonder.
Enter Death, who knocks at John’s door.
Hear this speech here.
Death: ‘Oh, now it is time high
To casten John Kemp to death’s dint.
In all his works he is unsly;
Mickle of his life he hath misspent.
To John Kemp I ney high,
With rewly raps he shall be rent.
When I come, each man dread forthi,
But yet is there no gain-went,
High hill, holt, ne heath.
Ye shall me dread everyone;
When I come ye shall groan;
My name in land is left alone:
I (am) dreary Death!
John: (appalled) Is this the end of me?
Death: Make your peace with the Soul you’ve been married to.
Those who say that marriage is safe, they ought to marry you:
Near forty years of roses’ thorns, and still no getting through.
I talk as if I know the score, can sing the words, but still
I love you far too much for me, not near enough for you.
I flirted with your daring once, and called your beauty mine,
Unwarned then of a cry so wild, a heart so high and true.
It takes so long to cleave together, marry all to one,
And if I kiss-you-quick goodbye, I cleave myself in two.
Since love is war, a heart attack, between the good and bad,
I’d offer to surrender: but I’m fighting me not you.
O head and heart if you should wed, don’t boast your Crown of Thorns:
The Rose’ll think you’re ready - that’ll be the end of you.
Margery: (touched) I never knew you felt like that, John. You never said.
John: I needed an angel to say it for me. We had our share of the Earthly Paradise didn’t we? Whatever you called it.
Margery: I called it Sin. I wanted more than Sin.
John: I wanted the girl you were. The Lord Mayor’s daughter; the catch of my life!
Margery: A fish out of water all of mine!
John: Weeping hot tears through every Passion. I knew you better than any monk! Come on! A part of you still burns for a bit of heaven on earth. Eh?
Margery: There’s hell fire and there’s holy fire, John, so hot in my heart I feared it would consume my whole chest.
John: That’s just hot air!
Margery: Better than sulphur! (gesture of being crushed) My first labour was a snake pit of fang and fire. And you gave me twenty more!
John: (ashamed) Flesh was weak. …But you made a vow too.
Margery (this counts with her) I made my marriage bed. And I layed in it for twenty years. Fourteen children to rear, not counting the infant mortalities... A son so pimpled and pustuled with lechery, he looked like a leper. (pause) But I wanted a restful death-bed like Mother Julian, with blood and fire and smoke - and a crucifix hovering in my vision.
John: Be careful what you pray for. (seeing it, terrified) Burning!-
Margery: (soothes his brow) Look up, John.
Angel and Margery (sing)
You chambered me, then ceased, and now
You fall and break your head
Where gossips say my separate life
Is leaving you for dead.
How fallen is the flesh I wed
And bred with, kissed and urged
That now discharges old man waste
So flesh by flesh is purged
Yet flesh of flesh, I wife and nurse
The once-young parts I craved
With hands more faithful than my youth’s
Temptations had depraved.
(song becomes more heavenly)
John, every pilgrim step I trudged
From wedlock’s grave mundane
And churchman’s plot, was heaven-winged
By doves that sang God’s name...
Margery: (indicates Angel). Heaven’s Gate!
John; (feverish, with splintered vision) Broken in five places. I want the world!
Margery: (wryly) Well, you were never much at good at getting it. Pray for the treasure God gave you gratis. Your soul.
John: (faithless, burning) Ale! (raving) That ale you brewed once, that Lynn women were always brewing.
Margery: Which went sour, like all my worldly works. I have something sweeter. (holds crucifix before him)
Julian: (sings with Angel)
God’s second person is our mother.
And thus is Jesus our very mother
Laying her child to her breast so tender,
Leading us to his meet open side
As our mother, brother and saviour,
Bearing and giving birth to his bride,
The soul, our Father truly our Mother,
Our Holy Spirit truly our Mother…
Margery: You must pray with me, John.
John: Burning! A drop of ale on my tongue! To pray with!
She wets his tongue to pray. He doesn’t pray.
Margery: (imploring him to do so) John!
A sudden calm as Death descends.
John: We had our moments. Didn’t we?
Margery: (takes his hand) Let’s call it a labour of love.
Margery: (other hand on her belly) Twenty labours of love...
She lights a candle, closes his lids, finally free of Flesh. Death takes John off. Now for the church.
Scene 8. A room at the Priory in 1438. Margery waits, as always. Priest arranges papers.
Margery: So I ‘have to weep my spirit-tears through the proper channels’?
Priest: Exactly. May I quote you on that?
Margery: I was quoting you! (desperate) No nun was ever more married to Christ yet John Kempe’s widow is less than none!
Priest: (without irony) Yes.
Margery: I consulted every bishop, priest, anchorite and hermit in the Book on my recent tour of the Holy Land and got Church clearance for everything I did!
Priest: In the self-anointed white robes of the Imaginary Order of St Wanderlust! And put the patriarchs’ backs up.
Margery: They put more obstacles between Jesu’s holy places and my weeping than the Muslim guards.
Priest: You’re not supposed to go to His bed or fancy yourself a member of His celebrity Family! It’s not a soap opera, Margery. We need a Church-approved Sainthood narrative. (checks some church regulations) Can we sex it up a bit? Any unusual youthful piety?
Priest: (pause) Spectacular youthful vice?
Margery: Isn’t there enough flotsam and jetsam on the beach outside St Margaret’s already?
Priest: Vigorously recanted vice, naturally. St Augustine give me chastity, give me strength but not yet sort of thing… (tentatively) ‘This creature grew up as the worldly Mayor of Lynn’s daughter at the end of Richard’s troubled reign and- ’
Margery: And when Jesus asked her whom she would choose to be her companion and friend in heaven, she chose her parish priest, her father and confessor, Master Robert Spryngolde. And when Jesus asked why not her natural father, she said: ‘Because I can never repay Master Robert for his goodness to me and his gracious work in hearing my confessions.’ And Jesus informed her that she will be granted her wish and that her earthly father, earthly husband and all her children will be saved because she put spirit before Flesh. That’s my story. (betrayed by her passion into heresy) And God speaking through me! -
Priest: (aghast) Remember that great cleric who quoted St Paul against you, that no woman should preach.
Margery: And I answered him that ‘I do not preach, sir. I do not go into any pulpit. I use only conversation and good words. But the priest who babbles mass without devotions so long as it is babbled to an end and then sits over his beer and gives himself up to gluttony and excess, to the lust of his body, through lechery and impurity and breaks the commandments of God through swearing, lying, detracting and backbiting gossip, is like a bear who devours all the fair flowers of a fruit tree – by which I mean the sacrament of the altar - and then turns his tail and discharges them out of his rear end in our faces!’ (makes a huge raspberry)
Priest: (at the end of his tether) You cheeky manqué. Who the hell do you think you are?
Margery: God. (She exits to empty bed.)
Almighty God music. Enter God above.
Margery: (rubbing an injured foot) When my widowed daughter in law wished to return to her own country, with only a hermit as my escort, I felt too old and afraid to face the waves again and my confessor forbade me to escort her no further than Ipswich. But in my soul you commanded me to travel to Danzig.
God: For I am above your confessor and I shall excuse you, and lead you, and bring you home again safely.
Margery: and when I feared to go you said
God: If I be with you, who shall be against you?
Margery: And seeking a blessing from the holy lady at Walsingham I heard mass nearby, and a famous friar preached
God: If I be with you, who shall be against you?
Margery: – the very word God had spoken to me. And so I went on through Norwich, where a grey friar said
God: You shall obey the will of God, for I believe the Holy Ghost is speaking in you
Margery: to the coast and to Germany, sending the hermit back with apologies to my confessor but that
God: ‘this creature must obey the will of God.’
Margery: And amid the storms that rocked the ship our merciful Lord spoke in my mind
God: Why do you fear? I am as mighty here on the sea as on the land. Do not waver in your faith. For I tell you truly. These winds and storms shall soon cease, and you shall have fair weather.
Margery: Which we did. This creature remained in Danzig for five or six weeks and was warmly welcomed by many people for our Lord’s love. I rejoiced in our Lord and intended to stay longer but our Lord commanded me in my mind to leave.
God: (some sign of this)
Margery: And I was sorrowful for fear of the waves and in the midst of my enemies for there was open war between the English and those countries, but our Lord always spoke in my mind
God: Why are you afraid? No man shall harm you or any you travel with. Daughter, I have brought you here and I shall bring you home again to England in safety.
Margery: Such holy dalliance caused me to sob (weeps.) And after many adventures in holy Wilsnack and Aachen and worldly Calais and London, this creature came to Ely, and from there home to Lynn … where she suffered
Chorus: much humiliation, much reproof, many a scorn, many a slander and many a curse
Margery: and humbled herself obediently to her confessor. He gave me some very sharp words, because I was under his obedience and had taken such a journey without his knowing. Therefore he was all the angrier with me, but our Lord helped me so that I had as good love from him and other friends afterwards as I had before-( direct to God) God be worshipped. Amen. (mind made up, exits towards Priory)
Scene 10. The Priory as before. Priest, de-cassocked to his white robe.
Priest: (complacent) So you came back.
Margery: Just before you burned Father Sawtrey, he called himself the morning star. What did he mean?
Priest: That he was fallen, like Lucifer. We mustn’t let a whited sepulchre deceive us. (puts on his cassock) How was your walk?
Margery: The beach was filthy with mortality. The chapel-bridge watchman begged his coin and shared his nightmares: five centuries of Walsingham pilgrimage brought to a shuddering halt by a Lollard King; Bishop’s Lynn renamed King’s Lynn for him; the river paved over for a stable for horseless chariots.
Priest: (laughs) Is that his vision of the future of Lynn?
Margery: The future is also built on sand. My visions are of Eternity.
Priest: Let us hope so. (pause, grave) I see you’ve been up before the Mayor and Dean of Leicester not to mention the Archbishop of York again about this Lollard business. In your virgin manqué chic. ‘A wife in lamb’s clothing’ as the Archbishop said to the Ab-
Margery: He said ‘…The people trust and believe her.’
Priest: ‘…and she might lead the flock astray.’ Do you have to choose a Lollard stronghold to wave a white flag in their faces?
Margery: God chose it, and the habit. I told the Mayor of Leicester my father was five times Mayor of Lynn. No mean port.
Priest: And he called you ‘a dishonest lying whore, a false Lollard and a deceiver of the people.’ And threatened you with prison! Your merchant prince lineage gives you some protection. It doesn’t make you St Paul.
Margery: (exasperated) They burn my parish priest and I’m still blackened by his Lollard soot thirty years later!
Priest: Soot sticks. All over you. (getting up, a decision) Look, if the Church courts put you on trial for heresy again, I’m finding another visionary.
Margery: (desperate; she needs him) The Abbot of Leicester is no fit judge. When he put me in custody, his steward tried to ravish me.
Priest: So you said. So you’re always saying. You’re never quiet, Margery!
Margery: (exasperated that this isn’t conclusive) The year of the Lollard revolt, which no Norfolk Lollard joined, I was out of the country on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and then got married to the Apostles’ Church in Rome! The authorities just want a pretext to shut me up. (sarcastic) Bless me Father for I have not sinned!
Priest: In these troubled times they need some kindling to feed the embers of faith. A Lollard. (indicates their Book) An unholy text. You. (pause) They smell blood on you.
Margery: It’s Christ’s then.
Priest: (this is the matter but he can’t put his finger on it) It’s just that sort of …hysterical intimacy …with Our Lord. It’s unclean. It’s un... - female.
Margery: Unfemale or female?
Margery: (sighs, dredges this up) Long ago, in my youth, when, for the love of my soul I was no longer having… fleshly comownying with my husband-
Priest: And by ‘fleshly comownying’ you mean…
Margery: suffering my husband to…
Margery: ‘have the lust of the body’ with me.
Priest: Very well, when you and your husband were no longer ‘medeling’…
Margery: a handsome devil in Lynn tested my vow of celibacy.
Priest: Those were his exact words?
Margery: He asked me to ‘comown kendly’
Priest: (writing, this is more like it) And you refuted him?
Margery: I treasured the handsome devil in my heart for days. (pause, ashamed) And, in the end, I accepted him.
Priest: (the Lore) ‘If a man is tempted by a woman, the sin is hers.’
Margery: And God punished me immediately. The handsome devil laughed in my face and said he would rather mate with a monster. He would rather be chopped up into little pieces for the pot.
Priest: (chortles inappropriately.) …Sorry.
Margery: (oblivious) He had just offered himself to prove my vow was worthless. And so I was humbled beyond endurance.
Priest: (disappointed) So this was your unconfessed sin?
Priest: (excited) No? So what was it?
Margery: It was…
Margery: I cannot tell you. It will burn us both.
Priest: The church can absolve you. For a fee. And you can quote me on that.
Margery: Is it not enough that I’ve confessed it in my heart before God, on my knees?... (she’s said it now!)…
Priest: So you ARE a Lollard!
She runs to the bed. Enter God above.
Angel and Margery (sing)
For long ago I sinned a sin
That’s never been confessed
Except to God: a Lollard sin
To hold it in my breast.
But though unworldly now I seem
And lost in visions quite
I brewed, had fourteen babes, before
I dressed in virgin white.
And cut a dash through Bishop’s Lynn
Proud daughter of its Mayor,
My cloaks with modish tippets slashed,
And gold pipes in my hair
(song becomes more heavenly)
Till hearing heaven’s Song of Songs
I shunned the gutter’s ooze
‘And though you rule me, husband, priest,
A single life I choose.’
The Prick of Love is in my heart,
A bellows in my ear
And love enflames another part
They cannot see or hear-
Priest follows her to the bed with a bottle of communion wine.
Priest: What you must try to understand, Margery, is that our readers won’t see heaven like you. They’ll see a cloud of church-cold cumulonimbus Angels harping half-hearted hymns. (pours wine) It’s why, on the whole, with highly qualified qualifications, and for all its hellishness, as it were, one prefers the world. (sips wine)
Margery: I offer a heaven to die for and they want Sin!?
Priest: It worked for Dante! (aside) The follow up was Purgatory.
Margery: You will not add my unconfessed Sin to your collection. I see you at last for what you are.
Priest: I am Father Robert Spryngolde, your road to sainthood!
Margery: (pulling away his cassock) You are Covetousness, a wolf in Robert’s clothing and my Bad Angel.
Priest: (revealed) Can we agree on an amanuensis ‘playing Devil’s Advocate’?
Margery: You would burn my soul. For a Book!
Priest: Our name in eternal flames on every public shelf - at the heart of the Book of Life!
Margery: The tongue of my heart’s fire is not for you to write. I want Father Robert, a true scribe who does not flatter but loves me.
God: (points at Priest) Call Robert here.
Priest: (he has to) Yes, Lord. (calls) Robert! (to God) Now what?
God: Go to hell.
Priest exits to hell.
Delectable and sweet the sound
Above your dreaming bed,
You wake as one in paradise
And leap as from the dead.
(Margery rises from her birth/marriage/death bed)
Margery and Angel:
A joyous robin in my ear,
A rose that’s heaven scent,
A man divine to earthly eye,
All music from Him lent.
The only gift left on the shelf,
That nothing else can rise above,
Includes all treasures, lasts forever,
And grows when shared with others: love.
Enter Robert Spryngolde with Book.
Margery: (takes it) And you can quote me on that.
© Gareth Calway 2014
Appendix 1. Notes to the director and actors:
The bed represents life on earth in all its mediaeval gory – the birth, marriage and death bed where fourteen children (not to mention the probable half a dozen infant mortalities which, like maternal mortalities, were common) were conceived in twenty years. If nothing else we reverence Margery’s gynaecological and child-rearing stamina. This is the bed where Margery’s first labour and 8 month postnatal depression caused her to renounce the perceived fleshly prison of her spiritual life; the bed where John Kempe, representing Flesh, will die. The angel represents Spirit, her preferred ‘bedfellow’.
Margery is the Soul the church erects an institution to save, and loses. The play’s action takes place in the church of her real life, her earthy mortal bed an altar visited by angels and devils (and God) from which the priest’s overweening pulpit/ stake of orthodoxy stands aloof. The pulpit represents the solidified might of tradition, liturgy, law, the erudite letter of the Word. Margery wanted the Holy Spirit translated from its shock-and-awe bellows into the common or garden English robin: this echoes what the Lollards wanted an English Bible to do for the voice of God. (God’s first speech here, given in Latin, is Deuteronomy 32.39)
The Middle English text extracts are from the early 15C morality play The Castle of Perseverance: there is some internal evidence for a Norfolk author. Costume should be ‘authentic’ but synecdochetic. For instance, a mediaeval head-dress might alienate a modern audience from Margery, depriving the female face of expression and personality, as it was designed to. The ‘authentic’ costumes should also support the morality play symbolism behind the real mediaeval people.
Julian and Margery (EDP weekend feature April 5 2014)
The mediaeval mystics Margery Kempe of Lynn (c1373-1438) and Mother Julian of Norwich (1342-c1416) lived within forty Norfolk miles of each other and were twin pioneers of female self-determination in a patriarchal age,
And they are as different as oil and water.
Julian was an anchoress, a religious recluse voluntarily walled up in an enclosure she’d vowed never to leave. Margery chafed at bounds all her life. After fourteen pregnancies, she bought a vow of celibacy from her husband. Against female custom, and church orders, she undertook independent pilgrimages.
Julian’s spiritual status is secure; Margery’s still agitated for. The episcopal precedence of Norwich over Bishop’s Lynn may have been a factor. For ‘Bishop’s Lynn’ read Bishop of Norwich, ruling Lynn from his palace at Gaywood. Claiming a Saint or a genuine vision was a huge coup (it was the making of Walsingham for instance.) It is interesting to speculate whether a Margery of Norwich supported by the leading monk and future cardinal Adam of Easton, as Julian was, might have received more official support.
Mother Julian lived in the chief market town of the most thickly populated district of mediaeval England, with an unusual number of merchants and ‘strangers’ (Europeans) in its midst. Its living legacy is a mediaeval wall as long as London’s and a greater density of mediaeval buildings than any other English city. This includes Julian’s extraordinary cell, in St Julian’s Church, off King St, rebuilt after WW2 bombing.
Think a mediaeval version of matchday crowds, with the Canaries contending for the Premiership, in a Norwich well on its way to becoming the second city of England. In the midst of this but behind a wall, Mother Julian lived quietly, writing up her ‘showings,’ giving spiritual succour through an aperture to the worldly, loved by her community and a notable feather in her bishop’s mitre. In the hearts of her supplicants, and the official eye of the church, her peaceful presence was a blessing.
Margery lived as a burgess’s wife, pregnant for two decades, brewing and managing a horse-drawn grain mill (not very successfully) in England’s leading Hanseatic English port, at the hub of Wash waterways and busy sea routes.
This was the age before Atlantic exploration and trade opened up the West. Norfolk was the heart of England: advanced, bristling with impressive churches, densely populated and close to Europe. The Hanseatic League linked this heart with Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic.
Margery lived on this teeming international waterfront, close to her beloved St Margaret’s Church, daughter of the leading merchant and five times mayor of Bishop’s Lynn. But with eyes only for Jesus.
A giant harbourside cross welcomed pilgrims to the port, the pilgrim goldrush and a skyline dominated by five imposing friaries which were ‘the motorway service stations of the age.’ From here pilgrims would walk the marathon to Walsingham. Margery did so herself.
Mediaeval women knew their place was serving husbands at home or following a religious vocation in a convent or cell like Julian. Margery broke all the rules, mixing two church-approved states of womanhood. 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.’
A loving wife, she bought a vow of celibacy from her husband, along with his conjugal rights. And, ahead of her time as always, she wrote the first autobiography in English, not letting a little thing like illiteracy get in her way. She narrated it in the third person as ‘this creature’ - ‘a being created by God.’
It all started with the traumatic delivery of her first child and the harsh interruption of her ‘death-bed’ confession by a censorious priest. This gave her a mental breakdown and precipitated her first vision - of a beautiful gentle Jesus.
Unlike Julian’s ‘showings’ Margery’s mystical visions were judged as ‘deceptions.’ Her by-passing the all-powerful priests in a direct personal relationship with The Trinity might have been acceptable if like Julian she had been literate, learned and officially dead to the world (walled up and with the burial service read over her.)
But Margery’s visions were eccentric, illiterate, ‘common.’ Her holy spirit is a robin. Her Jesus is dishy, clad in purple silk and every handsome Italian she saw in Rome later evoked him. She’s too literal. Her saintly love-metaphors have too much of the living world about them.
She was active, noisy, allegedly unorthodox, even heretical, and certainly at odds with the authorities of a church she fervently loved. Despite impressed support from local churchmen who believed her visions and helped her record them, and who credited her with miraculously saving St Margaret’s from the Great Fire of Lynn in 1421, she continually disturbed fellow parishioners with loud weeping and crying out at mass, any mention of Christ’s suffering likely to set her off.
Julian and Margery, whom she called ‘sister,’ spent several days together as Kempe checked whether there might be any deception in Kempe’s own visions, ‘for the anchoress,’ she says,’ was expert in such things.’
The most important documentary source for Julian’s life is actually Margery, whose description of Julian’s conversation accords with the doctrines and personality that emerge from Julian’s own Book of Showings, later called Revelations of Divine Love.
In return, Julian endorses Kempe’s way of life. ‘When God visiteth a creature with tears of contrition, devotion or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost dwelleth in his soul…. There (is) no evil spirit in these tokens, for tears torment the Devil more than the pains of hell.’
Julian is extraordinarily precise about the sixteen visions she had at the age of thirty and a half on May 13 1373. These mystical experiences never returned. Margery’s are lifelong. Julian’s Book of Showings represents fifteen years of profound meditation in her cell about what they meant.
A short version of Julian’s Showings grows into a longer one distinguished by greater clarity and richness as her gifted mind ponders the ‘revelations’ in the light of her extensive knowledge of the Bible and of mediaeval theology in both English and Latin.
Julian is the anchoress as mediaeval metaphysician. She expresses profundities in homely English images: the sinner as a frightened child running to its mother for comfort and help; the blood of Christ like rainwater dripping from the eaves of a house. Sophisticated theology is distilled in such nutshells as ‘love was his meaning’ and the famous ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’ stolen like a thread of gold by TS Eliot for his Four Quartets.
In an age where priests were all-powerful and all male and where ‘no women should preach’ Julian, despite her adopted masculine name, emphasises God’s female side. ‘The second person of the Trinity is our mother. And thus is Jesu our very mother…he may (directly) lead us into his blessed breast by his meet open side…bearing us in his body, giving birth to us as the Christ.’ And, again- ‘The Father is truly our Mother. The holy Spirit is truly our mother.’
Julian finds authority for these meditations in Biblical precedent; a tradition of English devotional prose that goes back to Old English and complex scholarship. Margery, an illiterate, itinerant mediaeval laywoman, has only oral religion; role models of married celibacy like the Blessed Dorothea of Prussia (1347-94) whose cult status reached Lynn via its strong links with Germany, and her personal visions.
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. Yet, ordered by the archbishop of York to swear not to teach in his diocese, she defended her right to speak her conscience. This brave stand is made a century before Luther – and by a woman.
Her alleged disregard for the role of the church as intermediary between God and human soul laid her open to charges of Lollardy. This heresy, rife in in Norfolk, condemned her parish priest William Sawtrey to burning. He was the first heretic burned in England. Without her status as a former mayor’s daughter and her Book’s much-tested acknowledgement of church authority, she may well have joined him.
(Margery’s Book has just been digitalised by the British Library)
Lynn News Feature on William Sawtrey (April 2014)
(pics here) http://www.lynnnews.co.uk/what-s-on/lifestyle-leisure/new-play-on-the-life-and-times-of-margery-kempe-at-king-s-lynn-1-6004522
‘To die for’ has a different meaning today than for William Sawtrey, parish priest of Lynn’s St Margaret’s in 1399.
Sawtrey was burned in 1401 (at Smithfield) for the ‘Lollard’ heresy, the first heretic burned in England for his beliefs. Lynn, at the hub of the Hanseatic League, made his martyrdom highly visible.
It was the dawn of nationalism and Lollardy, based on the Oxford teachings of John Wycliffe, is the only mediaeval English heresy. A key demand, centuries ahead of the Reformation, was for an English Bible.
‘Lollard’ means ‘lullabying’. But it wasn’t his ‘singing-low’ they burned Sawtrey for.
He was one of many laymen and priests protesting that the church had placed a screen – real and metaphorical - between chancel and nave, priest and congregation. Lollards wanted Christianity made plain, in English rather than mystifying Latin - so that ordinary people could understand its message.
An uncomfortable message for bishops and rulers. Less than twenty years earlier ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?’ became the slogan of the Peasants’ Revolt.
Sawtrey was tortured at the episcopal palace at North Elmham. He recanted and moved to a new parish in London, but ‘relapsed.’ The evidence of earlier fault given by the Bishop of Norwich meant that he was ‘deposed and degraded.’
Sawtrey declared that lazy clergy should earn the tithes supporting them; that corruption-riven pilgrimages from all over Christendom to Lynn to reach Walsingham wasted money better spent on the poor; that preaching was better than reciting prayers; that mortals were higher than angels and – most shocking of all - that the mass priest did not transform bread and wine into the blood and body of Christ.
This first assertion of science over ‘magical’ religion would lead to the Reformation, just as the fourteenth century emphasis on the humana natura of Christ revealed a widespread longing to find God in the everyday life of the Christian.
That may be why Sawtrey’s famous parishioner, the Lynn mystic Margery Kempe made the authorities so nervous when, unmediated by the all-powerful priests, she ‘wept and sobbed as plenteously as though she had seen Our Lord with her bodily eye when shown the place of His sufferings’ in Jerusalem in 1413.
She was accused all her life of being a Lollard. Norfolk was notoriously rife with them. Three Norfolk priests - William White, Hugh Pie and William Waddon - were banned for Lollardy in 1428.
Oldcastle's rebellion of 1413 gained Lollardy a seditious edge but lost it support among the wealthy and educated. 60 rebels were hanged in London on 13 January 1414. No Norfolk Lollard took part.
The senior clergy wanted Lollardy crushed by the State and in 1401 De haeretico comburendo was passed. This authorized the church to hand over unrepentant and relapsed heretics to the secular authorities for burning, starting with Sawtrey. Henry IV’s excessive zeal to please the church went against people, Parliament and the forward march of history.
Appendix 3 Hanseatic Lynn (EDP Weekend May 17 2014)
King’s Lynn celebrates its Hanseatic heritage this weekend in sumptuous style. Attractions include mediaeval markets; guided Hanseatic walks; arts and crafts stalls; street entertainment including fire breathers and minstrels; children’s activities; fireworks; music from the Paabel and Hermitage ensemble and, from 8 pm Saturday, the bewitching choral music ensemble Mediaeval Baebes.
Hanse Day has been celebrated annually in King’s Lynn since 2009 when the Borough Council organised the town’s first ever Hanse Festival. Amid mediaeval merriment and quayside sea shanties, the majestic Lisa von Lubeck, a 15th Century caravel reconstruction, cruised up the River Great Ouse from its port in Lubeck, Germany, to greet the crowds.
The original mediaeval Hanseatic League, of a group of towns around the Baltic and the North Sea, was an extremely influential trading association and an integral part of King's Lynn's development and past.
Let’s take a walk through ‘Hanseatic’ Lynn.
In the Custom House on Purfleet Quay, one of the most gracious buildings of any era, are housed models of North East Europe’s first ‘container ships.’ These 14th century ships – whose ability to carry bulk cargoes made them so successful - linked Lynn with Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck and Rostock. Later ships like the Lisa von Lubeck, a 15th Century caravel, were built bigger and with castles fore and aft for soldiers to defend against pirates.
Stockfish Row (laid out by the Norwich bishops who ruled ‘Bishop’s Lynn’ in the 1140s; renamed King St in a fit of patriotism in the Napoleonic Wars) was where Lynn’s top 15C merchants built new houses and alehouses running down to the river. The Great Ouse was deeper in this part of town enabling bigger ships to moor at private quays. The main public quay - ‘the Common Staith’ - was off Tuesday Market Place.
St George’s Guildhall is the only part of King St that survives from the mediaeval period. Hanse merchant John Brandon was a leading patron.
An archaeological excavation of The Purfleet between Baker Lane and the river revealed a timber-supported 14C quay three times its current width, a safe and impressively broad harbour for English and foreign ships. Pilgrims disembarked here from all over Christendom, including Britain (Lynn was more water-bound then) en route to Our Lady at Walsingham. German pilgrims arrived on Hanse vessels and merchant vessels commonly took passengers across North Sea and Baltic.
Clifton House was probably the first house built on the west side of Queen St after the Great Ouse was diverted from Wisbech to Lynn in the 1260s. It retains an early 14C tiled floor of the Westminster type and an impressive mid 14C brick undercroft. Germans were the only foreign merchants allowed to rent or own their own dwellings in Lynn and the late mediaeval mansion which stood here doubtless housed Hanseatic traders as house guests.
In Thoresby College a slate plaque marks the line of the late 13C quayside and a timber wharf excavated in 1964 shows by how much the river has moved west. Ships from Europe loaded and unloaded here. There is a fine wooden door dating from the reign which put the ‘king’ into King’s Lynn, Henry VIII’s in 1510.
Lynn Fair in Saturday Market Place was one of the most important in the Eastern counties and a major attraction for German and European traders seeking wool and cloth. The busy weekly market and annual summer fair shared the limited space with a charnel chapel and cemetery so must have spilled along High St.
Period brasses and chests in King’s Lynn Minster have counterparts in Lubeck. The Greyfriars tower was erected about 1400 to enhance the Church and provided an important seamark for ships sailing into the Wash until the 19C. St Margaret’s spire served the same function, before falling in a great storm in 1741.
St Margaret’s was the local church of Lynn’s mystic in residence Margery Kempe (c1373-1440), daughter of five times Mayor John Brunham. Margery’s son lived and worked in Danzig but died during a visit home. Margery’s famous Book, the first surviving autobiography in English, compellingly recounts how she took her son’s widow back to Danzig on perilous seas into war zones - against accepted female practice; the express instructions of her confessor and her own terror – in obedience to her divination of God’s will.
The Holy Trinity Guildhall was the home of Lynn’s great Guild of Merchants, including natives of Lubeck, the pioneer port of the Baltic and of the Hanseatic League until the 1350s – and then Danzig, the chief trading partner of the Wash port thereafter. This was where Lynn’s merchant rulers heard the treaty conditions following the Anglo-Hanseatic War (1468-1473) securing German traders a resident post in the town.
Hanse House, the only remaining Hanseatic trading post in England, came into German possession as a condition of the peace when in 1475 the Hanseatic ports resumed trading with Lynn after years of sea-warfare. Merchants from Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen and Danzig had their lodgings, warehouses, offices, stalls and shops here. The original mediaeval timber frontage was doubtless adorned with the imperious double-headed Hanse Eagle. German merchants occupied it until the 1560s. Today, its handsome Georgian frontage welcomes visitors to an indoor market, Rathskeller bar and the festival’s unique Hanse heritage.
From the original transcription of Margery’s English.
“It befel upon a Fryday on Mydsomyr Evyn in rygth hot wedyr, as this creatur was komyng fro Yorkeward beryng a botel wyth bere in hir hand and hir husbond a cake in hys bosom, he askyd hys wyfe this qwestyon, "Margery, if her come a man wyth a
swerd and wold smyte of myn hed les than I schulde comown kendly wyth yow as Ihave do befor, seyth me trewth of yowr consciens - for ye sey ye wyl not lye - whether wold ye suffyr myn hed to be smet of er ellys suffyr me to medele wyth yow
agen as I dede sumtyme?" "Alas, ser," sche seyd, "why meve ye this mater and have we ben chast this eight wekys?" "For I wyl wete the trewth of yowr hert." And than sche seyd wyth gret sorwe, "Forsothe I had levar se yow be slayn than we schuld turne
agen to owyr unclennesse." And he seyd agen, "Ye arn no good wyfe [...] “