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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe: c1373 - 1440

Margery Kempe (nee Brunham) was born around the year 1373 in Kings Lynn (it was known at that time as Bishops Lynn).  Her father was a burgess of Lynn, who held a number of important positions in the town.  Towards the end of her life Margery herself was admitted to the Trinity Guild in Lynn. 

At the age of 20 she married John Kempe.  His family appears in the records of Lynn, but they do not appear to have been as prominent in the town as Margery's.  Margery suffered from some form of madness following the birth of her first child, from which she recovered following a vision of Christ.  However, her life continued much as before, and she attempted a number of business ventures, all of which failed.  She had a total of 14 children, although only one son is ever mentioned.  Perhaps the others died young.  After twenty years of marriage, she opted for a life of chastity and pilgrimage, not always with the agreement or co-operation of her husband: she went on a series of pilgrimages, to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany and Spain. 

During her travels she insisted on private audiences with bishops, archbishops, and a number of other influential priests and mystics.  She spent time with Julian of Norwich, but we learn little about the encounter. She dictated her autobiography to sympathetic priests during the 1430s; it is probable that she herself was unable to write.  It tells of her mystical experiences in graphic detail. 

Margery was an uncomfortable person to have around.  She was continually having loud crying fits whenever she thought of Christ's Passion, continually drawing attention to herself in this way.  More than once her fellow-pilgrims refused to travel with her because of this.  On a number of occasions she was arrested on suspicion of being a Lollard, and seems to have taken great pains to prove that she was no such thing, and that her doctrine is entirely orthodox.  Indeed, it appears to be so, although her behaviour certainly was not!

The Book of Margery Kempe is still in print today, and is well worth reading.  Apart from her religious experiences, she talks of her early pleasure in sex (and her later disgust and rejection of the sexual act), her business life, her care for her husband in his old age, her relationship with her son, and gives insights into the difficulties of foreign travel for a woman on her own. 

Source/Further information:

Penny Doe

November 2007