A man named Richard of Caister was the vicar of the church of St. Stephens in Norwich, England, from 1402 until 1420. In addition to his occupation as a clergyman, he was an author, a poet, and a man generally known for piety and good character. On a Thursday in 1413 or earlier, Vicar Richard was conversing with an acquaintance in St. Stephens around noon when the doors of the church suddenly opened and a quirky woman walked inside. The new arrival, dressed totally in black, was physically weak and feeling faint (from a recent childbirth, the Vicar would soon learn), but despite her sickly state, she was driven on by a strong sense of determination. She demanded to see Vicar Richard, claiming to have an important message for him from the highest authority.
Richard of Caister invited the woman to sit down and talk, and when she accepted the invitation, the proverbial flood gates were opened and she began to tell the clergyman not just the message she was meant to deliver, but her whole life story. The woman’s name was Margery, originally of the Brunham clan, but married into the Kempe family. Born and raised in King’s Lynn within an influential and wealthy family, Margery confessed to the Vicar that she had been an overly proud and greedy woman in her youth. She went on to tell of her marriage, and subsequent childbirths (she would have fourteen children in her lifetime), of which several births were troubled and life-threatening for her. During those feverish near-death experiences, Margery Kempe began seeing and hearing all sorts of spiritual beings, ranging from demons, to saints, and even the Trinity personas of God. Jesus, so Margery claimed, eventually forced the demons to stop appearing before her, and forgave her sins, but there was a catch to the deal—he told her to become a vegetarian, which she did in 1409. She soon found that there was no off-switch for her new attunement to the spiritual realm, and she continued to have regular visions or visitations from God, as well as other miscellaneous mystical experiences that would hit her without warning, often leaving her weeping. In the latest of her divine conversations, she claimed, God had told her to come to St. Stephen’s to deliver a personal message to the Vicar.
Margery Kempe, in a narrated autobiography she later produced, recorded the message that God reportedly had her deliver to the Vicar: “say that I greet him warmly, and that he is a high, chosen soul of mine, and tell him he greatly pleases me with his preaching, and tell him the secrets of your soul, and my counsels that I reveal to you” (The Book of Margery Kempe, I.17). After telling the Vicar about her life, Margery began talking about her goals, including her desire to form a pact of chastity with her husband (which she would do by the end of 1413) and her wish to wear a special white wardrobe, as well as her other religious ambitions, such as taking communion every Sunday and being able to confess to anyone she might choose.
Eventually, Margery and the Vicar began discussing theology, including conversations on what she had been learning during her otherworldly visions. During these conversations, one of Margery Kempe’s mystical experiences came on in full force. She (referring to herself as “this creature”) described the experience to her scribe for the autobiography about her life:
“While she conversed on the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, she heard so terrible a melody that she could not bear it. Then this creature fell down, as if she had lost her bodily strength, and lay still for a long while, desiring to put it aside, and she could not. Then she knew indeed by her faith that there was great joy in heaven, where the least point of bliss surpasses without any comparison all the joy that ever might be thought or felt in this life” (The Book of Margery Kempe, I.17).
While Vicar Richard was understandably surprised and amazed by the antics of the eccentric woman who had barged into his church that day, he did not judge her unfavorably. Whereas many of Margery’s peers in the 15th century would call her a fake or a heretic, Richard of Caister encouraged her spiritual journey. In fact, he became a defender of the burgeoning mystic, eventually advocating on her behalf when the Bishop of Norwich ordered for Margery to be interrogated in 1413.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Beata Beatrix painted by the 19th-century artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown, [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.