Margery Kempe

MARGERY KEMPE - HER LIFE AND TIMES

St Margaret’s is the church of the medieval pilgrim and visionary Margery Kempe.

Margery was born around 1373 in King’s Lynn, which was then called Bishop’s Lynn. This was also the year of Julian of Norwich's Revelations and a period when Chaucer was writing his major works.

Margery was born into one of the most turbulent periods in the history of England. It has been called the age of adversity and anxiety; ominously the century had begun with wide-spread famine throughout Europe, including England. It was a century marked by long wars, plague, taxes, insurrection bad government, religious persecution and martyrdom.

St Margaret’s was also the church of William Sawtre, (Sawtry) who was a priest of St Margaret’s Church. He is considered the first Lollard Martyr, condemned to death by burning in London.

The Continent had seen a golden age of spirituality, particularly female spirituality and mysticism. For a while England seemed untouched by this. Then two women appeared, different from each other, and both remarkable in their own way. One was Julian of Norwich, England's first woman theologian. The other woman, Margery Kempe, almost bursts into the world of Bishop's Lynn. 

Margery Kempe: ‘The Gospel gives me leave to speak of God’.

Margery was no ‘ordinary’ medieval woman. She came from one of the most prosperous and influential families in Lynn. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant and five-times Mayor of Lynn. She married a local merchant, John Kempe and became a mother to 14 children. She was a laywoman, who felt she was called by God to live a life of prayer and contemplation.

She lived out this call to holiness as a pilgrim. Travelling the length and breadth of England and abroad, Margery prayed at famous Christian shrines. She experienced visions of Christ and Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene and St Anne, and she had intensely passionate conversations with God and Christ.

For all this Margery was no quietly pious woman. She was a woman who liked good food, and fine dresses and hats, and to be seen by her neighbours. She set up her own businesses, both of which eventually failed. She was independent, proud, outspoken and boisterous, and spoke candidly of her sexual desire and temptations. She wore a hair shirt, fasted, and persuaded her husband to join her in taking a vow of Chastity. She suffered for most of her life with feeling a failure, uncertain and afraid, unsure of the path she was following.

Whilst she was generally welcomed on her travels abroad, in England she found many were against her. But it was in her home town of Lynn that Margery found the most opposition and hatred towards her. During her travels across the country, she was accused of Lollardy on a number of occasions and threatened with death. All the evidence suggests that she was in fact faithful to the belief of the Church. Her prosecution, however, could have been a hook on which to hang other fears and objections to Margery. Whilst Margery challenges Bishops, and ecclesiastical authorities, they supported and encouraged her more than the ordinary people.