Medieval Oxford Nunnery: Lepers, And Witches, And Sex-Crazed Nuns, Oh My!

During a planned construction near the Oxford United football stadium in England, workers uncovered a medieval Oxford nunnery and grave site.

Archaeologists called to excavate the medieval nunnery began work by digging out a burial ground over the remains of what used to an infamous nunnery, called Littlemore Priory, founded in 1110.

Paul Murray, of John Moore Heritage Services, and his team have unearthed a total of 92 skeletons from the medieval nunnery burial ground -- men, women, and children included. Thirty-five of the unearthed skeletons are female, 28 are male, and the remaining 29 are reportedly too degraded to determine gender.

Among the 92 skeletons were many that were given "very unusual burials," including one that was buried face down, a practice usually reserved for witches, Murray said.

"This was perhaps a penitential act to atone for their sins or the sins of their families. Her lower legs had been truncated by the later internment of an infant. It's unusual for someone so young to be buried within the church. And sometimes women found in prone positions are considered to be witches."
Other skeletons excavated at the medieval Oxford nunnery showed signed of disfigurement, such as two children suffering from severe limps, a leper, a victim of blunt-force trauma, and a stillborn baby.
"Burials within the church are likely to represent wealthy or eminent individuals, nuns and prioresses," Murray said, "Those buried outside most likely represent the laity and a general desire to be buried as close to the religious heart of the church as possible."
The nunnery was rocked by scandal in its later years, before it was eventually shut down for good by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525.

In the book Medieval English Nunneries, by Eileen Power, she states that Littlemore nunnery was "in such grave disorder that it might justly be described as one of the worst nunneries of which records survived. This was largely due to a particularly bad prioress, Katherine Wells." Prioress Wells was described as an immoral, sex-crazed nun who had an affair with a priest, with whom she bore an illegitimate daughter, who then forced the nuns of the priory to lie on her behalf regarding the affair. Prioress Wells was also accused of stealing from the nunnery to provide a dowry for her daughter, as well as "playing and romping" with the young boys in the cloister.

Before the medieval Oxford nunnery was dissolved for good, another nun was believed to have borne an illegitimate child, this time with a married man in Oxford.

No solid plans for the medieval nunnery have been made yet, though once excavation is done, it may become the restaurant portion of a new hotel being built at the medieval site.

[Image Credit: John Moore Heritage Services]