Nun of Watton

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The Nun of Watton (born in the 1140s) was the protagonist of a drama at the Gilbertine Watton Priory in Yorkshire, recorded by St Ailred of Rievaulx in De Sanctimoniali de Wattun. In this story of twelfth-century life, the nun in question was admitted to the holy life as a toddler. Unfortunately, the young woman was unsuited to the enforced celibacy of the life of a nun.

According to Ailred (1110–1167) the rebellious teenager made the acquaintance of a lay brother in the attached male community common to monasteries of that order, had sex and became pregnant. After her sisters at the abbey discovered that their wayward fellow member was less than celibate, they proceeded to strip, whip and imprison her, but not before testing the guilt of the lay brother through sending out a monk dressed in her habit, whereupon the offending lay brother tried to consummate their prior relationship with him as well. After hatching a plan, the nuns debated what to do with their errant member.

Some of the younger nuns wanted her burnt, roasted, branded or skinned alive, but the older sisters decided differently. One version of the tale is that the imprisoned pregnant sister lured the miscreant lay brother into a trap, the other is that he was tracked down by other monks of the community. Either way, upon return to the abbey, he was castrated at the hands of his former lover. Repentant, the Nun of Watton was 'miraculously' deprived of her pregnancy and apparently resumed the life of a celibate nun in her monastery. The fate of the monk was left unstated.

According to one account Henry Murdac, Archbishop of York, the man who had brought her to the priory, appeared with two heavenly women who cleansed the girl's body of her sin and of her pregnancy, and her chains fell off. Aelred was called in to investigate and declared the event to be a miracle. However, he was also intensely critical of the nun's fellow sisters and of Gilbert of Sempringham himself for their lack of pastoral care.

Modern chroniclers, such as John Boswell and Sarah Salih, have focussed on the degree of brutality that these nuns perpetrated on their hapless charge and her unfortunate lover. Boswell's The Kindness of Strangers (1989) provided a Modern English translation of Ailred's original account, and Ailred similarly professed ambivalence about the propriety of the nuns' behaviour toward their charge and her lover, and the apparent absence of pastoral care available to the hapless young woman at the centre of this case. Brian Golding's history of the Gilbertines places the incident in its historical context.


  • John Boswell: The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance: London: Penguin: 1989: ISBN 0-7139-9019-8
  • Brian Golding: Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertine Order: Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1995: ISBN 0-19-820060-9
  • Sarah Salih: Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval Europe: Woodbridge: DS Brewer: 2001: ISBN 0-85991-622-7
  • Giles Constable, "Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order," in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981: ISBN 0-631-12539-6

External links[edit]

  • Forbidden Love in Watton (BBC): [1]