Nun of Watton

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The Nun of Watton (born in the 1140s) was the protagonist of a drama at Watton Priory in Yorkshire, recorded by St Aelred of Rievaulx in De Sanctimoniali de Wattun. In this story of twelfth-century life, the nun in question was admitted to the Gilbertine monastery in at Watton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, one of the most successful monasteries of those founded by Gilbert of Sempringham. The girl was admitted at approximately four years of age, at the request of Archbishop Henry of York. Nothing is known about her family, however, the fact that Henry took an interest in her, as well as her stature as a nun at an early age (as opposed to a lay sister) suggests that she was not from the lowest ranks of society. During this time period, the policy of the Gilbertines with respect to accepting children into religious order was less strict than in many contemporary religious orders, including the Gilbertines themselves as a later date.

Aelred himself was a Cistercian, and his order took a paternalistic interest in the newly founded Gilbertine monasteries after refusing to assimilate with them because the Gilbertines allowed women in their houses. The Gilbertine Watton Priory was a double monastery with both male and female members, and was the only such house in the diocese of York in the twelfth century.

According to Aelred, (1110–1167) the young girl adopted into the monastery grew into a rebellious young woman, who showed little interest in a life of celibacy. She soon made the acquaintance of a lay brother in the attached male community, meeting him when some of the brothers "to whom the care of external affairs was entrusted"[1] entered the nunnery to do some work. One of these brothers, described by Aelred as "more comely than the others in features and more flourishing in age,"[2] captured her attraction, and after a series of discreet exchanges, they arranged to meet at night "at the sound of a stone" which the brother promised to throw onto the roof or wall of the building where she was waiting.

After two unsuccessful attempts, the two finally managed to meet. According to Aelred, "She went out a virgin of Christ, and she soon returned an adulteress,"[3] clearly indicating that their furtive relationship had been consummated following their encounter. The lovers continued to meet secretly, until eventually the other nuns became suspicious of the repeated noise of the stones thrown by the man. The senior sisters challenged the young nun, who confessed to her sins.

Aelred then goes on to describe the fury of the nuns who seized and beat the young woman in punishment for her crime. They tore her veil from her head, and were prevented only by the senior sisters from burning, flaying, and branding the young nun. She was then chained by fetters on each leg, placed in a cell, and fed with only bread and water. She was saved from harsher punishments merely by virtue of the fact that she was now pregnant, and perhaps due to apparent remorse for her actions.

The male culprit fled from Watton in hopes of returning to secular life, however, his subsequent whereabouts were revealed by the nun. He was then tracked down by several brothers from Watton, who captured him by having one brother impersonate the culprit's lover and lure him in, while the other brothers lay in wait to attack.

After the young man was captured, the nuns, filled with religious zeal and with a desire to avenge their injured virginity, engaged in a brutal attack of the offending brother. He was taken by them, thrown down and held while his lover stood by. She was handed an instrument, presumably a knife of some sort, and she was forced to castrate him. At this point, one of the senior sisters snatched the newly severed genitalia and thrust them into the disgraced nun's mouth.

Following the castration, the young man was returned to the brothers, and the nun was put back into her prison. Henry Murdac, Archbishop of York, who had brought her to the priory, then appeared to the nun in her sleep, instructing her to confess her sins and recite psalms. He returned to her again following night, just when the nun was about to give birth. He was accompanied by two heavenly women, who took away the baby, and cleansed the young nun's body of sin and pregnancy. This caused her chains and fetters to fall off.

The next morning, her caretakers found her healthy, girlish, and distinctly not pregnant. After thorough inspection of her cell, they found no evidence of a birth at all. Additionally, the chains and fetters that had previously held her had fallen off.. After Gilbert was informed of these miraculous events, he consulted Aelred before proceeding. Aelred investigated and declared the event to be a miracle after deciding that she could have been freed "neither by others nor by herself without the strength of God"[4] and therefore it would be sacrilegious to imprison her again. Aelred fully accepted the authenticity of the events he described, and deemed the miraculous delivery of the child and the freeing of the nun from her fetters to be more important than the preceding acts of adultery and punishment. However, he was also intensely critical of the nun's fellow sisters and of Gilbert of Sempringham himself for their lack of pastoral care.

The miracle described in this story introduces both a socially and religiously acceptable method for disposing of an unwanted child, as well as providing a precedent for reconciliation in religious communities after one of its most cherished norms had been shattered. Although at the time, death and other punishments were recognized as just penalties for adultery and fornication, modern chroniclers such as John Boswell and Sarah Salih, have focused 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 Aelred's original account, and Aelred 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.

It has been suggested that the most remarkable feature of the punishment at Watton was not the beating or the imprisonments, but the castration performance by the woman herself, and the subsequent insertion into her mouth of the severed genitalia. The Freudian interpretation of the story of the nun of Watton describes the castration event as a sign of suppressed desire of the nuns to identify with the culprit, and in particular, an expression of their wish to possess what they all secretly wanted. He called the "sadistic and erotico-anal actions" of the nuns to be the result of guilt generated by their unconscious temptations.

A more conservative interpretation of the punishments describes the reactions of the nuns and canons as being fuelled by a passionate desire to defend the honour of Christ and their monastery. This communal desire arose from the fear that the sin of one of their members would be associated with the entire monastery, and they would all suffer as a result.


  • 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


  1. ^ Constable, Giles (1981). Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order. Oxford : Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-12539-6.
  2. ^ Constable, Giles (1981). Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-12539-6.
  3. ^ Constable, Giles (1981). Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-12539-6.
  4. ^ Constable, Giles (209). Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton.

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