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.
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 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.