Joan of Leeds, or The Nun’s Tale

As the publication of A Conspiracy of Wolves (Owen Archer 11) approaches I have been meandering down memory lane, exploring the arc of what I think of as the first series, visiting characters confined to one or two books. One such character is Dame Joanna of Leeds, the mysterious woman at the center of my third Owen Archer mystery, The Nun’s Tale, whom I based on a woman I’d encountered in a monograph about Clementhorpe Nunnery in York. Though she was largely my creation, she challenged me–slippery, possibly mad, yet oddly compelling, she haunted me all the while I worked on the book. I still think of her whenever I see Antonello da Messina’s The Virgin Annunciate, which I stared at as I wrote. Those of you who have read the book will recognize the blue mantle, and remember its significance. I am so glad that my editor at St. Martin’s Press agreed to use it for the cover of the first US edition.

You can imagine my surprise when this past Monday I peeked at The Guardian online and discovered an article about “my” Joanna of Leeds!

As I wrote in the Author’s Note of The Nun’s Tale:

“Whence came Joanna?  In The History of Clementhorpe Nunnery (R.B. Dobson & Sara Donaghey, York Archaeological Trust 1984, p. 15) is the following item:

“ ‘In 1318 there is mention of [an] apostate, Joanna of Leeds.  Archbishop Melton ordered the dean of Beverley to return the nun to her convent…  Apparently Joanna had defected from her religious order and left the nunnery.  However, in order to make her defection credible, she had fabricated her death at Beverley and, with the aid of accomplices, even staged her own funeral there.  The archbishop was prepared to take a lenient view of these excesses.  He directed the dean of Beverley to warn Joanna of the nature of her sins and, if she recanted them within eight days, to allow her to return to Clementhorpe to undergo a penance.  Melton further urged the dean to undertake a thorough investigation of the case, and to discover the names of Joanna’s accomplices so that he might then take suitable action.’

“The story intrigued me.  Was Joanna discovered, betrayed, or did she request to return to St. Clement’s Nunnery?  If it was her choice, why make such an about face?  She had gone to great lengths to escape and make it permanent.

“I moved the incident to 1365-66, putting it in Archbishop Thoresby’s time, which provided me with a serendipitous relationship—Thoresby’s nephew, Richard de Ravenser, was a canon of Beverley at this time, as was William of Wykeham.  Nicholas de Louth is also a real person.  Because I moved Joanna’s story in time, none of the participants in the book had anything to do with the real story of Joanna of Leeds.”

Imagine my excitement when I read the article—more information!

“A marginal note written in Latin and buried deep within one of the 16 heavy registers used by to record the business of the archbishops of York between 1304 and 1405 first alerted archivists to the adventures of the runaway nun. ‘To warn Joan of Leeds, lately nun of the house of St Clement by York, that she should return to her house,’ runs the note written by archbishop William Melton and dated to 1318.

“Melton, writing to inform the Dean of Beverley about the ‘scandalous rumour’ he had heard about the arrival of the Benedictine nun Joan, claimed that Joan had ‘impudently cast aside the propriety of religion and the modesty of her sex’, and ‘out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead, not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place’.

“After faking her own death, he continued, ‘and, in a cunning, nefarious manner … having turned her back on decency and the good of religion, seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.’”

Even better, the article announces that more material from the registers of the archbishops of York is to be translated and published! I can’t wait!

2 Comments on “Joan of Leeds, or The Nun’s Tale

  1. The story of Joan of Leeds was told on BBC Radio 4 on 17th February 2019.


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