A religious eccentric or a feminist icon? The medieval mystic Margery Kempe remains a controversial figure – and her life and times will feature in a special King’s Lynn Festival fringe event.
The Wife of Lynn’s Tale, written by Gareth Calway and starring Joanna Swan as Margery Kempe, will be staged at Lynn Minster on Friday, July 24.
It will also include prologues by Margery’s father, John Brunham, MP and Mayor Lynn, and “the Scribe”, a Carmelite friar. In this special feature for the Lynn News, Calway discusses the three characters.
Margery Kempe: She remains a controversial figure. A burgess’s wife and mother of 14 living the life of a nun in self-appointed white robes and accused all her life of heresy, not to mention thoroughly unorthodox visions of God, The Holy Ghost, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, she was notorious for her floods of holy tears at any mention of Christ’s suffering.
Archbishops, bishops and city mayors called her visions deceptions. Small-fry friars like Aleyn of Lynn and the Vicar of Sedgeford supported her and helped her record her visions. Mother Julian of Norwich endorsed her and called her ‘sister’.
Illiterate, from the ‘wrong’ class, gender and town, a wife and mother rather than a nun or an anchoress, Margery’s Lynn port worldliness – travelling all over Christendom and the Holy Land unescorted and unlicensed – undermined her otherworldly aspirations.
Unlike, Julian, she is no theologian. She famously asked God if the Holy Spirit – traditionally appearing as a rushing wind - could be turned into a robin redbreast singing. The choice of our now national bird is significant: a homespun religious sensibility rather than a canonical one. This puts her with the heretical Lollards who wanted an English Bible and an accessible simple faith.
The Scribe: Who wrote the first autobiography in English? Congratulations if you answered Margery Kempe of Bishop’s Lynn. Even if she dictated it all to a Scribe.
His clerical presence can be felt throughout Margery’s Book, her visionary flights continuously tempered by an attempt (not always successful) to give an orthodox spin to anything that might get Margery into trouble with the authorities.
But she is the story, not him. She fired her first scribe: a bold act when (male) clerics called the shots. And the amazing discovery of her son John’s letter in Gdansk/Danzig last May – John lived there and had married a Danzig woman – corroborates Margery’s account of similar events. For all the weird and wonderful visions, the material context she gives for her visionary life is solid and clear.
She would have made a lucid reporter and travel writer. Her uncomplicated account of the Great Fire of Lynn in1421 and of her troubled sea voyage to Danzig aged 60 could make the papers now. It’s easy to make vivid drama simply using her own words.
The clerical spin around disagreements with her confessor (and her heartfelt protests at accusations from bishops and archbishops) was negotiated with a scribe who cared for her soul but also wanted to keep her body out of the flames. He also made available to her the benefits of reading and writing.
Who was he? Aleyn of Lynn, a scholarly Carmelite friar based at Gaywood? Her parish priest/confessor Robert Spryngolde? In my Scribe’s Prologue I speculate on an altogether more fiendish possibility.
John Brunham: He was MP and Mayor of Lynn in its Hanseatic heyday (14/early15th century).
Brunham left some of his fortune to Lynn in his will. He also organised the royal embassy on Richard II’s behalf which sailed from Lynn to the Grand master of the Teutonic Knights at Marienburg to complain about Prussian arrests of English ships. He also oversaw the arrest and confiscation of German ships, and possessions still locked up in the Holy Trinity Guildhall a year later.
He was a big fish in a big pool (when there was a lot more water around Lynn than there is now!). In our play, Brunham represents the world and Margery Kempe his daughter, the next world. But his status may well have saved her from the fate of her parish priest the Lollard William Sawtrey, burned under the Statute of Heresies 1401. Margery was accused of Lollardy all her life and by some pretty powerful people. It was probably handy having a rich royal agent, MP of a premier league port, as her dad.
What did Brunham make of his wayward daughter? It is fun to speculate. Margery’s famous ‘Book’ gives few indications beyond a hint that her burgess husband John was a little fish compared to her dad.
As different as World and Soul our production examines how father and daughter, this world and next interact.
Lynn’s position as a hub of the Hanse meant Margery had unusual access to the wide world, even if she spent it looking for the next.
n The Wife of Lynn’s Tale (with Prologues by the Scribe and John Brunham) at Lynn Minster on July 24, 7.30pm. Tickets £9 from Lynn Custom House 01553 763044.