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Medieval Lynn was an important port and market town, led by a vigorous community of merchants, under the overlordship of the Bishop of Norwich. In the last quarter of the fourteenth century there was a population of about 5,500. The mayor and the aldermen of the Holy Trinity Guild of Merchants were the most powerful laymen in the town. The Prior of the Benedictine Priory was influential in civic as well as in ecclesiastical affairs. There is evidence of a keen competitive spirit in trade, religion and social class, sometimes leading to forthright disagreement among the townspeople, and between the men of Lynn and representatives of the Bishop of Norwich, the King’s Council, and competing traders, particularly those from the Baltic.

The population of Lynn was divided into three classes, the potentiores, the mediocres and the minores. A royal charter granted by King John in 1205 decreed that it was from the group of potentiores that jurats were to be selected, who in turn elected mayor and communitas, two members of parliament, and other officials. The electoral procedures, which denied a voice to the majority of townsmen, were contested on several occasions. An early fifteenth-century account of these troubles is given in the memorandum book and formulary of William Asshebourne, common clerk of Lynn.6  Robert Brunham, probably a cousin of Margery Kempe, was mayor when the attempts to widen electoral choice and increase the number of burgesses reached their peak in 1415. But in 1416 the old ways were restored following the intervention of King Henry V, the Bishop of Norwich, and the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Beaufort, Earl of Dorset, who had property near Lynn.7

The men of Lynn acted with self-assurance in civic and trade negotiations, and in dealings with Church and Crown. England was at war with Scotland or France, or both, for most of Margery Kempe’s lifetime. The fundamental loyalty of the Lynn burgesses to the Crown, and the fact that the town did not fall far behind Norwich in its ability to contribute to war expenses, are demonstrated by Henry V’s success in raising 400 marks (£133 6s 8d) from Lynn, as compared with 500 marks from Norwich, towards his expedition to France in 1415. In the early fifteenth century Lynn merchants sometimes had unofficial representation on diplomatic missions to Prussia, and were in a position to negotiate independently with King Eric of the Nordic Union and with the corporations of Stralsund, Wismar and Rostock.8 

There were royal properties not far from Lynn. Edward Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, inherited Castle Rising, four-and-a-half miles north-east of Lynn, from his grandmother, widow of Edward II. The Prince and his parents, Edward III and Queen Philippa, are commemorated in misericords in the parish church of St Margaret, Lynn. Henry IV’s daughter Philippa embarked at Lynn on her journey as child bride to the future King Eric of the Nordic Union in 1406, and this was the occasion of a royal visit to Lynn by Henry IV.

The medieval memorials in the church confirm the impression of a thriving merchant community, independent in spirit and yet loyal to Crown and Church. While many of the misericords, and other faces and figures carved in stone or wood, portray royalty and church dignitaries, others depict men and women in the everyday life of the town and the market. There is a well-known woman’s head with scold’s bridle, beneath the abacus of a column close to the altar. There are some strongly individual pagan motifs in the church memorials and ornamentation.
Lynn was a major port for inland, coastal and overseas trade and travel, providing links especially with the City of London, with Scandinavia, the Baltic and Flanders, and with Norwich and the pilgrim shrine at Walsingham. When Brigittine monks were sent to Cambridgeshire in 1408 in preparation for the founding of a Brigittine abbey in England, and when Syon Abbey was eventually founded by Henry V in 1415,9  it was at Lynn that the Brigittine religious appointed to the new foundation came ashore, on their journey from the mother house in Sweden. The river Great Ouse brought ships to quays stretching the whole western length of the medieval town, in close proximity to civic buildings, merchants’ houses and the parish church of St Margaret, always under threat from high tides and flooding. There were numerous waterways, or fleets, within Lynn, giving merchants’ premises direct access to the water.

Inland journeys were undertaken on foot, on horseback, in cart or carriage, and by water. Lynn was some forty miles west-north-west of Norwich and forty miles east of the main south–north axis from London to York. A fast rider could cover the 192 miles between London and York in less than five days.10  The use of the inland waterway from Lynn towards Cambridge is mentioned in Margery Kempe’s book (203/1–2), and was a slower means of travel. On her late travels to and from the Baltic, when travelling had become a trial to her, she mentions the various hardships of travelling by water, on foot, on horseback, and in carts or wains.

Lynn’s prosperity was built on trade by land and water, including exports of cloth, wool, grain, and salt, and imports of wine, herring, timber, pitch, tar, and fur. By the late fourteenth century this prosperity was being threatened by taxation and by competition, in particular from Hanseatic merchants. Competition could lead to serious damage being inflicted by each side on the other. In 1385 Lynn men submitted claims for a total of £1,913 3s 4d for damages inflicted by their Hanseatic rivals.11  Neither side was deterred from trade by their on-going rivalry. The men of Lynn were able to hold their own and often succeeded in gaining the upper hand, and in making the larger profit.12 

The Hanseatic merchants had their own premises in Lynn, close to the waterfront.13  The men of Lynn also had their own premises in Danzig, and there was an English church in Danzig. Periodically it is recorded that, in the course of reprisals for damage inflicted, the Englishmen in Danzig were ordered to live with host families rather than together in their own expatriate community, and on occasion it is also noted that English traders were ordered to leave Danzig unless married to local women. These measures were of immediate importance to Lynn families such as the Kempes, who had a son living in the Baltic, married to a local woman.

Competition between English and Hanseatic merchants was a national issue, necessitating frequent and protracted negotiations at the highest level. It was from Lynn that a king’s clerk, accompanied by London merchants, set sail in 1388 in order to submit proposals to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order in Marienburg for a peaceful settlement of differences. 14  There was an Anglo-Prussian treaty in 1409, but the treaty was the cause of further disputes. When negotiations took place in 1435 between envoys of the King’s Council and the Hanse in the Carmelite church at Bruges, the English were represented by the Lynn merchant, Thomas Borowe, and two lawyers. It was not until 1437 that a treaty was achieved between England and Prussia which settled the differences that had been a source of antagonism for most of Margery Kempe’s lifetime, and even then the Lynn authorities held back Prussian ships so that Lynn merchants could sail first with their cargo of cloth, and profit from the lull in trade.15  This phase of bad relations began shortly after Margery Kempe’s visit to Danzig.

In spite of fluctuations in trade, a programme of building continued in Lynn through the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The Holy Trinity Guildhall was rebuilt after the fire of 1421 described in Margery Kempe’s book (pp. 162–164). St George’s Guildhall, the largest fifteenth-century guildhall still standing in Britain (in what is now King Street) was built around 1410. The Chapel of St Nicholas in Lynn was re-built during the period 1371–1419, and there was recurring strife in the town regarding attempts to secure privileges for the administration of the sacraments of baptism and purification on behalf of this chapel-of-ease. Such privileges, temporarily gained in the late 1370s, would have diminished the privileges of the parish church and the priory and were opposed by members of the Brunham  and Kempe families, and, on a later occasion, by Margery Kempe herself (pp. 58–60). The controversy does not seem to have caused serious discontinuity in the close links between priory, parish church and chapel. The prior continued to appoint and pay chaplains for church and chapel, and each seems to have flourished. A petition for privileges sent to Pope Martin V in 1426 records that at Easter communion there were 1600 persons in attendance at St Margaret’s Church, 1400 at the Chapel of St Nicholas and 900 at the Chapel of St James.

Priory and church were dedicated to St Mary Magdalen, St Margaret and all virgin saints. The priory was a cell of the Benedictine priory at Norwich. Founded by Bishop Herbert Losinga around 1100, it was richly endowed, and was granted the privileges of Saturday market and St Margaret’s Fair, one of the town’s two great annual fairs, each of which lasted two weeks. St Margaret’s Fair ran for one week before and one week after the saint’s day, 20 July. St Nicholas’ Fair ran for two weeks from the feast of St Nicholas, 6 December. The priory remained subject to the diocesan priory of Norwich and there was a bishop’s palace at Gaywood, very close to Lynn. The prior was appointed by the bishop. A well-disposed prior referred to by name in Margery Kempe’s book is Thomas Hevyngham. He held office circa 1408–1422 (App.III.V, pp. 369–371). His activites extended to a conciliatory rôle in the civic troubles of 1416 caused by the wish of the mediocres and inferiores to extend the franchise.16 

The prior appointed the parish priest, who for several decades in the early fifteenth century was the stalwart, though not uncritical, supporter of  Margery Kempe: Robert Spryngolde. Himself at times a controversial figure, he was given assistance by the Lynn mayor and communitas on several occasions when he was in trouble with the diocesan authorities (App.III.IV, pp. 368–369).17  He was Margery Kempe’s parish priest at the time when she was first drawn to the religious life, and probably for the rest of her life. He was her “sharp” confessor during the absence of the Dominican anchorite to whom her early revelations had directed her as confessor (44/20), and her principal confessor after the death of the Dominican anchorite. The anchorite strengthened Margery Kempe’s belief in the divine origin of her revelations.18  He himself was reported to have mystical and prophetic powers (43/35–44/18 and notes).

The well-known Carmelite doctor of divinity, Alan of Lynn, another of Margery Kempe’s supporters in Lynn for some twenty years up to the time of his death, circa 1428, was a prolific writer. Among the works ascribed to him are indexes for the Revelationes Brigittae and Prophetiae Brigittae (22/11–12 and note, p. 268) and for the Stimulus Amoris (39/24 and note, p. 277). Margery Kempe’s book demonstrates familiarity with these writings.

There were no nunneries in Lynn, but there were Benedictine nuns at Blackborough, Austin nuns at Crabhouse, and Cistercian nuns at Marham, all within a six-mile radius to the south and south-east of the town. There are no references to these houses in the book. It is recorded that the Franciscan nuns of Denny Abbey at Waterbeach, forty miles to the south, asked Margery Kempe to visit them, and that she complied with their wish (pp. 202–203). This connection may have some significance regarding the transmission of her book. There were two hospitals in Lynn, the Hospital of St John Baptist in Damgate and the Hospital of St Mary Magdalen on the causeway leading to Gaywood. It was laid down that in addition to the prior there were to be twelve brethren and sisters at the Hospital of Mary Magdalen, of whom three were to be lepers.19  There were four further lazar houses close to Lynn, at Cowgate, West Lynn, Setchey, and Gaywood. When Margery Kempe was given permission to embrace female lepers (pp. 176-177), she may have gone to any of these houses.

The nearest place of pilgrimage was Walsingham, twenty-two miles north-east of Lynn, which was said to have a relic of milk from the Virgin’s breast. The flow of pilgrims through Lynn to the shrine and relics of the Blessed Virgin at Walsingham was such that in the late fifteenth century the Red Mount Chapel was built on the outskirts of Lynn to accommodate them, with two staircases to an upper storey and peepholes down to the altar. It is recorded in her book that Margery Kempe visited the shrine at Walsingham on her way to Ipswich, at the start of her journey to the Baltic in 1433 (227/18–29).

There are records of religious drama in Lynn from the fourteenth century. In 1385, when Margery Kempe was about twelve years old, the Lynn chamberlains paid 3s 4d to players for an interlude played on Corpus Christi day. On this day the Blessed Sacrament was also carried in solemn procession through the town, as through other major towns.20  The Lynn Corpus Christi Guild founded in response to the plague outbreak of 1349 included both Brunhams and Kempes in its membership (App.I.III.5, pp. 365–366). The Lynn Candlemas Guild probably presented an annual re-enactment of the Presentation and Purification of the Blessed Virgin, in addition to a para-liturgical Candlemas procession.21  At least twelve plays were regularly performed in Norwich by the end of the fourteenth century.22 

There is no evidence of widespread religious dissent in Lynn, although William Sawtry, the first Lollard to be burnt for heresy, in 1401, had been a priest in Lynn when he first aroused the wrath of the ecclesiastical authorities. After examination by Bishop Spenser of Norwich he publicly recanted in the graveyard of the Chapel of St James in Lynn on 25 May 1399, and on the following day in the chapel of the Hospital of St John. After this he moved to London, only to be charged again and brought before Archbishop Arundel for renewed heretical preaching (note on 149/1–2, pp. 321–322).23  By this time Margery Kempe was in her late twenties; her visionary and penitential life had already started. The possibility that a long unconfessed sin of her youth was associated with Lollard heresy cannot be discounted.

Little is known of education in Lynn outside the religious houses. There are no records regarding the education of girls and women. An affluent London merchant’s daughter would have been likely to receive at least elementary education in the late fourteenth century, and there is evidence of schooling in literacy for girls in the home as well as practical training.24  There was a guild of scholars in Lynn, the Guild of St William, founded in 1388 to maintain and keep an image of the child St William in a tabernacle in St Margaret’s Church, and it may have included girls,25  but there is no evidence to confirm this. In London there are records of female apprentices to mistresses in the clothing trades, in silk, embroidery and haberdashery.26  There is no evidence of such apprenticeships in late medieval Lynn.

Records of the Norwich Lollard heresy trials of 1428–1431 suggest that literacy levels among the Norfolk laity, at least among the suspected Lollards, were low. Of the sixty defendants in the Norwich trials only one, the priest Robert Cavell, read his own abjuration: “...the other abjurations are preceded by statements to the effect that the defendant, unable to read because he was a layman or because his sight was poor, appointed a cleric to read it for him. While Cavell’s abjuration appears in Latin, the others are in English...”27  While it may have been expedient for the defendants to plead inability to read, since one of the charges brought against them was that of reading scriptural texts in English, the fact that the court accepted their statements suggests that a plea of illiteracy was entirely credible. In the mercantile class it seems that the absence of writing skills was socially normal, scribes being available in the towns to write when necessary. Even the letter-writing Paston women, with their large Norfolk estates, employed amanuenses for the most part, and “were not, or not completely, literate”.28