Historian Emma J Wells reveals why some men of the cloth simply couldn't resist the pleasures of the flesh...


In July 1531, John Longland, bishop of Lincoln, made his way to the Augustinian abbey of Missenden in Buckinghamshire. He was tasked with convening a special tribunal to investigate rumours of monastic bad behaviour that had been circulating around the parish. Yet little could he have known the pandemonium that he would uncover.

Shortly after Longland’s arrival, the revelations came thick and fast. A local canon, Robert Palmer, was accused of carnal relations with a married woman, Margaret Bishop. Once accosted, Palmer admitted socialising with Margaret, but insisted that the moment he learned of her true intentions, rather than pursue a carnal relationship, he bolted out the door.

In an attempt to escape censure, Palmer claimed that it was the abbot, John Fox, who had shared Margaret’s bed. The abbot staunchly denied the countercharge but now found himself under the spotlight. He stood accused of numerous offences, including nepotism, financial misconduct, and of turning a blind eye to Palmer’s affair with the married woman. The canons also alleged that he appointed his sister as their brewer, discounting whispers of her “immoral character”. Shortly after the sister’s arrival, reports predictably circulated of her pregnancy, no doubt the consequence of a dalliance with one of the men.

After investigations, Longland passed judgment on both men, and neither fared well. Palmer was imprisoned indefinitely and Abbot Fox was suspended from office.

Bad habits

This monastic morality tale is representative of a familiar cultural stereotype: the promiscuous and corrupt man of the cloth. From Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio’s philandering Masetto to the absurd and useless Sir Oliver Martext in Shakespeare’s As You Like it, literature from the 14th century through to Henry VIII’s reign and beyond is littered with clergymen behaving badly.

And the stereotype has stuck. Medieval bishops, monks, vicars, even nuns, continue to get a bad press in film, TV, theatre and literature. They are most notable not for their unflinching dedication to spreading the word of God but for their proclivity for lasciviousness, greed, alcoholism and apathy.

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Medieval monks
Two monks marvel at the beauty of nature, c1400. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The problem wasn’t a product of the authorities’ complacency or indifference. On the contrary, ensuring that the clergy remained on their metaphorical pedestal was paramount to the medieval church. In fact, so eager were the ecclesiastical authorities to uphold the highest of standards, and protect themselves from the wrath of God, that they established a mechanism for disciplinary action in the case of failure. Across Christendom, monasteries, parishes and colleges were subject to so-called visitations. These were assessments conducted by their own superiors or diocesan bishops.

They were accused of “walking abroad in secular dress”, “public playing of dice”, and sexual misbehaviour

In England, these records first appeared towards the end of the 13th century, and became increasingly common leading up to the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. Investigators exposed the entire gamut of indiscretions, leaving no stone unturned. They uncovered acts of serious misconduct, such as sexual misbehaviour; they investigated lesser crimes, like building negligence, “walking abroad in secular dress” and “public playing of dice”; and they upbraided clergymen for banal indiscretions, such as inappropriate tonsures (the part of the head left bare) and snoozing mid-service.

The authorities investigated prosaic gossip, documented indiscretions – and swiftly punished those found guilty. Miscreants could expect shaming sentences, ranging from enforced silence and ritual fasting to spells in prison.

And you didn’t necessarily have to be a member of the clergy to be punished. In 1442, one Richard Gray got into hot water for impregnating Elizabeth Wylugby, a Benedictine nun at St Michael’s Priory in Stamford. Worse still, Gray had apparently consorted with Wylugby while lodging in the convent with his wife. The disgraced man was called before Bishop William Alnwick to answer charges of “sacrilege and spiritual incest”, to which he confessed. His penance, recorded in unusual detail, included a flogging while walking around Stamford church, carrying a candle and dressed only in linen garments, on four Sundays. This was to be followed by a barefoot pilgrimage to Lincoln Cathedral. After falling ill, Gray was unable to carry out his penance and was excommunicated.

Gray and Wylugby weren’t the only ones accused of sexual immorality. In 1500, William Bell, warden of Grey Friars in Nottingham, was accused of “incontinence against another man” (ie homosexuality). John Shrewesbury, a monk from Dorchester Abbey, was said to have abducted a woman in 1441 and smuggled her into the bell tower of the monastery in a trunk, where he had carnal relations with her.

Medieval clergymen also had a bad record of frequenting brothels. The most notorious were situated in Bankside, south London, on land owned and controlled by the bishop of Winchester. These establishments were dubbed ‘stews’, and the women who worked in them ‘Winchester Geese’. Some of their clients were, no doubt, men of the church.

The authorities came down hard on the crimes they discovered. But no matter how many offenders they punished, it wasn’t long before they unearthed another one. Errant clergy were a feature of medieval life, and part of the reason for that may lie in the nature of their profession.

Most of the secular clergy (deacons and priests who were not monks or members of a religious institution) were poorly educated, and many lived lives indistinguishable from their flocks. They essentially survived as laymen, tilling the earth and minding livestock. They often travelled to other parishes, where not only did they administer to the spiritual, social and medical needs of the poorest in society, but also lodged in local alehouses, mingled with locals and frequented public dances. By many accounts, some lived comfortably and ate well – just as the portly Friar Tuck did in the tales of Robin Hood. Is it any wonder that many couldn’t resist the temptations of secular life?

But it wasn’t just deacons and parish priests who succumbed to worldly pleasures. Although monks and nuns technically led cloistered lives, they were still part of wider society, and prominent members to boot. They regularly left cloisters to visit family, conduct business, teach children and enter politics – and, if reports are to be believed, they committed a litany of indiscretions as they did so.

Of all the accusations levelled against monks, perhaps the most damaging was that they’d abandoned their calling, spending far more time fussing over their appearance and living the high life than praying for their flocks’ souls.

Stranger than fiction

The stereotype of the immoral monk – irredeemably self-indulgent and narcissistic – is perhaps best captured in the fictional figure of Chaucer’s monk, one of the protagonists of The Canterbury Tales. This “fair prelat”, we’re told, preferred the “pricking and hunting of the hare” to poring over a book in the cloister, his rotund figure garbed with sleeves and a cope of grey fur rather than a plain woollen habit and cowl.

The disgraced man was summoned before a bishop to answer charges of “sacrilege and spiritual incest”

But such antics weren’t restricted to fiction. In the 1430s, in a visitation of Canons Ashby Priory in Northamptonshire, the Bishop’s Commissary found that the monks were indulging in private feasting and games, frequenting the village inn, skipping services in the choir and wearing “short aild tight doublets with several ties to their hose” instead of their monastic habit.

To some people today, the image of the corrupt clergyman – more at home drinking ale and consorting with prostitutes than genuflecting at an altar – may be highly amusing. But in the Middle Ages, the results were deadly serious: neglected parishioners, damage to the Catholic church’s reputation and, in some cases, outbreaks of extreme violence.

Chaucer's Monk in 'The Canterbury Tales'
Geoffrey Chaucer's Monk and his dogs in 'The Canterbury Tales'. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

One of the worst examples of the latter occurred in 1263 when an Italian called Bartholomew de Agnani was appointed rector of St George’s church in the Nottinghamshire village of Barton in Fabis. Unfortunately for Bartholomew, the prior of the Nottinghamshire convent of Lenton had other ideas. He wanted a man called Thomas de Raley to be given the post – and, in an attempt to secure this outcome, told his parishioners that Bartholomew had died.

But Bartholomew was very much alive, and sent his proctor, Bonushomo, to the church to claim the office. Poor Bonushomo was met with an angry crowd – containing the prior and Thomas de Raley’s servants – which robbed him of papal letters that he was carrying, and then murdered him in the churchyard. The prior was then called to appear before Pope Urban IV to answer charges on his part in the crime. When he failed to turn up, he was excommunicated.

By the 16th century, anti-monastic pamphlets groaned with vivid descriptions of clerical misdemeanours. But does this mean that late medieval clergymen were more prone to outbreaks of bad behaviour than their predecessors? Was there something irretrievably rotten about England’s churches and monasteries, and the people who worked in them?

Before casting judgment, it’s worth noting that when the authorities carried out visitations on churches and monasteries, they weren’t there to highlight examples of monastic excellence. Their job was to unearth clerical failings, and they were absolutely determined to do so.

We should also remember that, by the 1530s, Henry VIII was agitating for the dissolution of the monasteries, and his supporters were looking for excuses to paint the clergy in an unflattering light. Throughout the late Middle Ages and beyond, men and women of the cloth were held to the highest of standards – you could argue that they were unrealistically high.

But for all that, as the examples on these pages prove, some clergymen did drink too much, they did fornicate with prostitutes, and they did gamble with dice when they should have been attending to their flock’s spiritual needs. By the time Henry VIII wielded the axe in 1536, it’s hard to argue that they weren’t a pale imitation of their more distinguished and pious forebears.

Emma J Wells is associate lecturer in ecclesiastical history at the University of York. Her most recent book is Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles (Robert Hale, 2016)


This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine