Littlemore Priory scandals

The Littlemore Priory scandals took place between 1517 and 1518. They involved accusations of sexual immorality and sometimes brutal violence among the nuns and the prioress of Littlemore Priory in Oxfordshire. The Benedictine priory, which was very small and poor, had a history of troubled relations with its bishop. The scandal that came to light in 1517, however, became enough of a cause célèbre to contribute to the priory's eventual suppression in 1525. Katherine Wells, the prioress of Littlemore at that time, ran the priory with strict and often violent discipline. She was accused of regularly putting nuns in the stocks for extended periods, as well as physically assaulting them. She also had a baby by the priory's chaplain and had pawned the priory's jewels to pay for the child's upbringing. She entertained men in her parlour, even after the bishop had been made aware of the accusations, which involved heavy drinking. At least one other nun also had a child. On one occasion four nuns broke out of the priory through a window and escaped into the surrounding villages for some weeks.
Oxfordshire was then part of the Diocese of Lincoln and the priory came under the aegis of William Atwater, Bishop of Lincoln. Probably having heard the well-publicised rumours of the nuns' irregular lifestyle, he launched an investigation. Trouble continued, however, and in a subsequent inquiry the bishop heard complaints from both the prioress and the nuns, who made accusations against each other. Wells was summoned to the bishop's court in Lincoln to face charges of corruption and lack of self-control which eventually led to her being dismissed from office. The end of the affair is unknown, as records have not survived. Historians consider it likely it was behaviour such as was found at Littlemore that encouraged Cardinal Wolsey's suppression of it, and a number of houses, in an attempt to improve the image of the church in England during the early 1520s. Wells, still acting prioress at its closure, received a life pension; the house became a farmstead and was gradually pulled down. One original building remained in the 21st century.