Margery Kempe

c.1373 – in or after 1438

Margery Kempe [née Brunham], a visionary and author of the earliest surviving autobiography in English, was born at Bishop’s Lynn (King’s Lynn), the daughter of John Brunham, merchant, five times mayor and six times MP for Lynn. Her mother is unknown.

When she was about 20 years of age, she married John Kempe, the younger son of a Lynn skinner.  Margery became pregnant soon after their marriage. Following the birth of the child, she experienced what is thought to have been post-natal depression, but was cured when she experienced a vision of Christ speaking words of comfort. This experience marked the beginning of her conversion, though Margery continued to run a brewing business for several years, which collapsed, and then a short-lived horse-mill. The failure of these businesses convinced her that she was being punished for her sinfulness, and she embarked on a life of penance.

There is no known evidence that Margery could write, she set about recording her spiritual life in the early 1430s using a priest-amanuensis, a common arrangement for women mystics, to guard agains accusations of heresy but possibly due to incapacity. She firstly employed a scribe but he died before the work was finished, and his writing was illegible. Then she persuaded a local priest to begin rewriting on 23 July 1436, and on 28 April 1438 he started work on an additional section covering the years 1431–4. Only one manuscript survives, now in the British Library (MS 61823), which was identified in 1934 by medieval scholar Hope Emily Allen (a friend of Marietta Pallis) – before this, only excerpts printed by Wynkyn de Worde c.1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521 were known. The Book was first published complete in 1936.

Almost everything that is known about Margery Kempe derives from her Book, though the chronology of her life is unclear, and few events, can be verified from other sources. She had 14 children with her husband and then, from 1413, lived chastely. She then sought permission from Philip Repyndon, bishop of Lincoln, to become a vowess (a woman who has vowed chastity or devotion to religious life) and to wear the characteristic mantle and ring, to which she proposed adding white clothes symbolizing her spiritual purity. Repyndon sent her to Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, but it is not certain that she took a formal vow. It is thought that in 1413, Margery visited Julian of Norwich to seek reassurance about the authenticity of her visions. Later that year, she left Yarmouth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land living on alms. After reaching Jerusalem, she visited Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre, where she first manifested the uncontrollable crying which for many years was to be the hallmark of her devotion.  On her return from her travels in the Holy Land she visited Venice, Assisi and Rome, where her crying in church caused much hostility. Kempe’s visions throughout this period included a marriage to the Godhead.

She returned to Lynn after Easter 1415, where her white habit and noisy weeping was a source of affront.  In 1417 she set off on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. On route she was welcomed into the household of Thomas Peverel, bishop of Worcester, who had known her father and treated her as a holy woman. On her return from Spain she visited places of pilgrimage in England.

In Canterbury, Margery was accused of being a Lollard and was threatened with burning. She was brought before the mayor, charged with Lollardy, and imprisoned. She was examined on the eucharist in the mayor’s presence by the abbot of the town’s Augustinian house, and by the dean of Leicester. She was pronounced orthodox. 

In York, her white clothing and sobbing during communion aroused suspicion. She was examined and brought before the archbishop of York, Henry Bowet, at Cawood, where she was again accused of heresy and again found to be orthodox, though Bowet had her escorted out of the area.  She was then rearrested by royal authorities and taken to Beverley in East Yorkshire. Bowet released her again and gave her a letter certifying her orthodoxy. Once across the Humber, she was arrested yet again and released, before going to London to secure a letter from Henry Chichele, archbishop of Canterbury, allowing her frequent access to confession and communion. She returned to Lynn some time in 1418.

Several years of painful illnesses followed, which made Margery less mobile than before. The intense spiritual life recorded in her Book includes extended visions, conversations with Jesus, and bouts of noisy crying.

In the 1420s, Margery lived apart from her husband. When he was injured, and later became senile, she nursed him until his death about 1431, in penance for their married life.  In 1433-4, she visited various sites of pilgrimage in Europe whilst accompanying her widowed daughter-in-law back to Danzig.

In 1438, when the Book was completed, a Margeria Kempe, who may be its author, was admitted to the prestigious Trinity Guild of Lynn. The date of Kempe’s death is unknown.

The Book of  Margery Kempe which has been produced as a beautiful digital copy and transcription  by the Department of  English at the Southeastern Louisiana University which you can view here.

The Book of Margery Kempe: autobiography; circa 1440 . Middle English. Written in East Anglia, probably King’s Lynn.
© The British Library Board Additional MS 61823