Margery Brunham was born in 1373 to a prominent and wealthy merchant family from King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Her father, John Brunham, was one of the most influential men of the Lynn community, serving in such roles as Member of Parliament, Mayor of Lynn, Justice of the Peace, chamberlain, and alderman of the local guild. He even held the office of coroner. John Brunham was an undoubtedly successful man in both finances and politics, and his daughter, Margery, consequently lived like an heiress, wearing the latest fashion trends and soaking up the local limelight. Margery Brunham described her early wardrobe to a scribe, who wrote “She wore gold piping on her headdress, and her hoods with the tippets were fashionably slashed. Her cloaks were also modishly slashed and underlaid with various colours between the slashes, so that she would be all the more stared at, and all the more esteemed” (The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 2). Her philosophy in wearing such garb, she claimed, was simply that wearing anything less than the best would be a dishonor to the Brunham family’s lofty prestige.
Margery’s expensive lifestyle would change, however, when she was about twenty years of age. The change came because of her marriage to John Kempe around 1393—he was described by his wife as a tender and compassionate man, but Mr. Kempe was far less successful than Margery’s father in business and politics. This was a problem for the new Mrs. Kempe, as she was loath to decrease her wardrobe expenses, regardless of who she married. The newlywed couple soon began to clash over their finances. Margery Kemp apparently scoffed at her husband’s attempts to curtail her spending, and admitted in her autobiography that she “answered [him] sharply and shortly,” arguing that if he did not have the means to satisfy her wardrobe demands, then he should not have married a proud woman from the Brunham family. Margery did, however, eventually relent somewhat to her husband’s concerns, and she ultimately tried to start her own businesses so that she could pay for her lifestyle out of her own pocket.
In her first entrepreneurial endeavor, Margery Kempe launched an ale brewery operation. According to her autobiography, she became “one of the greatest brewers in the town of N. [Lynn] for three or four years” (The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 2). Her self-proclaimed ‘greatness,’ unfortunately, was measured by quantity, not quality. Although she apparently had one of the largest brewing operations at the time, the beverages she produced must have been terrible. Her autobiography recounted how “all the ale was lost in one brewing after another, so that her servants were ashamed and would not stay with her” (The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 2). Faced with no sellable product and abandoned by her workers, Margery gave up her brewery ambitions. Yet, her entrepreneurial endeavors were not yet exhausted.
Not long after she abandoned her brewery, Margery Kempe soon bought herself a milling business. She obtained a horse-mill, and brought in two horses, plus a handler to work the animals and the contraption. Her business plan was to grind peoples’ grain for a fee, and looked forward to raking in cash while the horses did their simple job. Yet, Margery Kempe made a horrible mistake—she seemed to have bought the single worst pair of horses in all of Lynn. The horses refused to work with the mill or the miller, grinding the enterprise’s productivity to a halt. Both horses put up such a stubborn fight that Margery’s single employee at the mill quit his job in frustration, and the reputation that the mill gained in its short lifespan made it impossible for Margery to hire another mill operator. In Lynn, Margery’s back-to-back business failures apparently became a favorite subject of local gossip. The aforementioned autobiography claimed, “it was noised about in the town of N. [Lynn] that neither man nor beast would serve the said creature [Margery], and some said she was accursed” (The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 2). After the failure of her mill, Margery gave up her private business endeavors. Her passion, however, simply shifted from entrepreneurship to spiritual pursuit. To the dismay of John Kempe, his wife’s new phase was quite expensive, as Margery’s spiritual drive led her to go on pilgrimages to lands such as Germany, Spain, Rome and Jerusalem.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Young woman drawing, painted by Marie-Denise Villers (1774–1821), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Book of Margery Kempe, dictated by Margery Kempe, and translated to modern English by B. A. Windeatt. New York, Penguin Classics, 2000.