Author: bridgetlockyer

Dame Emma Raughton: Holy Woman, Visionary and Prisoner

In this post Jessica Knowles, one of our post-grad workshop facilitators, describes the unusual life of a medieval York woman, Emma Raughton.

In around 1420 a ceremony took place at the church of All Saints North Street in York. The Archbishop of York came to this small and insignificant parish church to brick up a woman in a cell. She was to suffer a living death. She was to spend the rest of her life living and praying in this tiny room. First she had to lie down in the church as if she were dead. She would then be picked up and carried into a small building attached to the side of the church. The archbishop said that the Office for the Dead, the entrance to this house, would be blocked up so that she could never leave. From then onwards she was reliant upon donations for food, clothes and anything else she needed. Yet she had not committed any great crime or sin.

Instead this woman, Emma Raughton, had chosen to undergo this treatment and wished never to leave the cell again. She probably came from a relatively wealthy family and may have previously been married. However, she decided that to become closer to God she wanted to spend the rest of her life in prayer and serving God within the confines of a building less than two meters squared.

And this dedication to God was rewarded. In 1421 she received seven visions from the Virgin Mary. These visions instructed the Earl of Warwick, one of the most powerful men in England, to build a church in Warwickshire. If he did this his wife would give birth to a son. He did do it and his wife did have a son. Emma’s visions also said that if he built the church the Earl would get custody of the infant King of England and France. Which he did. By choosing to be bricked up in a tiny cell, Emma Raughton had influence over events of international importance.

One of Emma's prophecies comes true as King Henry VI is crowned king of France in Paris on 16th December 1430

One of Emma’s prophecies comes true as King Henry VI is crowned king of France in Paris on 16th December 1430

Yet Emma Raughton would not have appeared strange or unusual to the people living in fifteenth-century York. Indeed, there were at least three other anchoress in York at the same time. Since before the Norman Conquest, women (and sometimes men) had chosen to be walled up for the rest of their lives. And this gave them considerable power. Whilst few had the level of international influence that Emma Raughton enjoyed, they were free from the supervision of husbands, brothers and fathers. No one could force them to get married for someone else’s benefit and they were respected by the community. Although there were a few downsides: when you’re walled up in a cell you can’t run away from bubonic plague, or marauding armies, or really irritating neighbours.

Jessica Knowles


Jessica is in the third year of her PhD in the Centre for Medieval Studies. Her research examines the role of the family in the parish church, with a focus on family imagery. She did her BA and MA in the History Department of University of York.


Medieval Women and the College of St Stephen’s

In this first post Elizabeth Biggs, one of our post-grad workshop facilitators, discusses the presence of women in ‘all-male’ medieval colleges.

A Medieval college was a hybrid beast; neither a fully secular institution nor a religious one. Like monasteries, they mimicked familial structures and households: a group of men, usually but not always priests, who lived and celebrated the Mass together. Sometimes, and in addition to being concerned what was called the opus dei, the round of Masses and other religious services, they also provided education.  Oxbridge colleges were of that type, having both teaching responsibilities along with religious ones. The college I’m concerned with, based around the chapel of the same name in the palace of Westminster, had a staff of about forty, including boy choristers who received an education.

So in an all-male institution why am I talking about women? Women are easily written out of the story of late-Medieval English politics. You just need to look at the uncomfortable reaction of contemporaries and historians alike when Queen Margaret of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth Woodville are discussed, predominantly because they dared to wield ‘male’ forms of power. St Stephen’s was a political institution, the senior staff of St Stephen’s usually held political or civil-servant roles. They are the kinds of people talked about when historians write about politics in this period. By looking at the women involved in this college we can start to revise our understandings of women in politics during the medieval period. 


A dramatic case study at St Stephen’s in the early 1440s involves Eleanor Cobham, duchess of Gloucester. She was the wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the young king Henry VI’s uncle and head of the council that was ruling England at the time. Henry VI was not yet an adult, so his uncle and aunt were important figures at court. She was accused of witchcraft, for conspiring with a canon of St Stephen’s to produce a horoscope for Henry VI which said that he would be seriously ill in 1441. Her trial was held at St Stephen’s itself, in the grand chapel decorated with pictures of Edward III’s family, including his daughters and wife. Condemned to imprisonment for the rest of her life and divorced against her will from Humphrey, Eleanor was to spend the rest of her life in castles far from London.  Her ultimate downfall was to help her husband’s enemies have him executed six years later. Yet we can see that as Humphrey’s wife, Eleanor was involved with politics and her choices did have impact, even if it was not the impact she intended. In St Stephen’s she would have seen the images of Queen Philippa and her daughters. As royal women, with access to the king and lands of their own, they too played political roles, and they too would have known and been respected by the canons of St Stephen’s.

Less exalted women also interacted with St Stephen’s and its staff. For example, women could own land and property in their own right. John Gunthorpe, a canon in the 1470s, left land and money in his will to his sister, Helen. She was married, and her husband was probably still alive, but the land went to her specifically and gave her some economic independence from him.  Land and money could also be given by women acting on their own. For example, Margaret Swyffte, who was from Westminster, then a relatively prosperous town next door to London, gave money to the college so that every year on the anniversary of her death, they would say a mass for her. This obit (remembrance mass) was a customary thing to do, and you generally asked for an obit in a church that you had some connection to.  I don’t yet know why Margaret was attached to St Stephen’s, but her presence in their records is a reminder that women could have active roles in managing land and money, roles which we think of as the preserve of men in this period. It is so easy to look at the vast numbers of male names linked to the college. What is perhaps more interesting  is to look very carefully at the women who turn up in the records and think about their own activities and the possibilities open to them.

Elizabeth Biggs


Elizabeth is a first-year PhD student at the University of York working on a whole variety of topics from diplomacy to building logistics and careers in the church, trying to understand a particular institution, the College of St Stephen’s in Westminster during its late Medieval existence.


Welcome to the Moving Beyond Boundaries blog! ‘Moving Beyond Boundaries: Gender, Knowledge, History’ is an AHRC funded  student-led skills development programme run by Abigail Tazzyman and Bridget Lockyer from the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York in collaboration with the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (FWSA).

With continued debate over the proposed changes to the history curriculum and in light of the recent and successful campaign to have historical women represented on British bank notes, this project will focus on how women’s and gender history is taught in secondary schools.file0001958021386

Working with Huntington school in York, the project will gauge sixth-form pupil’s perceptions of women’s history. We will train eight postgraduate students, who will use their research expertise to develop interactive workshops on elements of women’s history not usually explored in schools e.g. the experiences of working class female reformers in the 19th century. We hope that the workshops will give students a greater and more diverse knowledge of women’s history, and will encourage independent thought and critical engagement with their own curriculum.

This project aims to open a dialogue on issues of gender representation and inequality in the school curriculum with researchers who work in this general field. To do this, we will work with the Historical Association (HA), a national organisation of 6000 members who advise on curriculum issues at all levels, and the FWSA. We will also use this blog to record and disseminate our findings.

If you have any ideas or suggestions about this project or future projects please get in touch at