The Briton‘s Arms is a unique survival in England of a beguinage. This was the home of a small group of single women, who had devoted themselves to a life of prayer and charitable work within the community. Such institutions were very common on the Continent in the middle ages, particularly in the Low Countries, northern France and the Rhineland, but they were very rare in England. There are some references in medieval documents to small groups of women living together, in towns such as York and Ipswich.
However, Norwich is the only English city where there is definite evidence for informal female communities following a religious vow. One thing which links all these places is a strong trading connection with north-east Europe. This may have influenced Norwich merchants to support beguinages in their own city. There are references to three such communities in late medieval Norwich. They are called "poor women" or "sisters" who are "dedicated to chastity" or "dedicated to God". One of these groups is known to have lived in the churchyard of St Peter Hungate in the first half of the fifteenth century, and the Briton‘s Arms was almost certainly their home.
This is shown by several features of the building. The construction methods and the type of brick used are typical of the fifteenth century. The really telling factor is the door to the churchyard, and the unusual plan of the building, with a series of independent heated rooms. This provided ideal accommodation for a group of women living together, but also engaged in private prayer.
We have only a limited idea of how the women who lived in the beguinage passed their time. Unlike the nuns of Carrow Abbey, to the south of the city, they were not enclosed within a convent. Nuns tended to be the daughters of gentlemen and wealthy merchants, whereas the beguines were usually poorer women. They would have supported themselves through work such as spinning (the term ‘spinster‘ for a single women dates from the medieval period), as well as begging for alms. They also undertook charitable work in the local community, caring for the poor and sick. They would no doubt have worshipped in St Peter Hungate church, with easy access to the churchyard through the door in the rear wall.
Late medieval Norwich had a rich devotional and spiritual culture. There was the great Cathedral, the nunnery at Carrow, nearly fifty parish churches, and four large friaries. One of these, the Dominican Friary, stands opposite the Briton‘s Arms. At the Dissolution it was purchased by the City Corporation and made into a civic hall, as which it still serves.
There were also many anchoresses in Norwich - women who were enclosed in a cell attached to a church, and dedicated to a life of contemplation. The most famous of these was Julian of Norwich. Another anchoress, Katherine Manne, was attached to the Dominican Friary church - the arches of her cell can be seen through the gate opposite the Briton‘s Arms. Both the anchoresses and the beguines were supported by the ordinary people in the city, and played an active and important role in the spiritual life of the community.
Please note that St. Julian of Norwich and Katherine Manne are from quite different eras: Katherine Manne's tenure as an anchorite dates from the English Reformation period--she had a copy of Tyndale's English translation of the Holy Bible and of his Obedience of a Christian Man, according to Norman Tanner's history of the Church in Norwich in the late middle ages. Katherine Manne is also featured in Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England by Mary C. Erler from Cambridge University Press:
Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England traces networks of female book ownership and exchange which have so far been obscure, and shows how women were responsible for both owning and circulating devotional books. In seven narratives of individual women who lived between 1350 and 1550, Mary Erler illustrates the ways in which women read and the routes by which they passed books from hand to hand. These stories are prefaced by an overview of nuns' reading and their surviving books, and are followed by a survey of women who owned the first printed books in England. An appendix lists a number of books not previously attributed to religious women's ownership. Erler's narratives also provide studies of female friendship, since they situate women's reading in a network of family and social connections. The book uses bibliography to explore social and intellectual history.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Dinah's story
1. Ownership and transmission of books: women's religious communities
2. The library of a London vowess: Margery de Nerford
3. A Norwich widow and her devout society: Margaret Purdans
4. Orthodoxy: the Fettyplace sisters at Syon
5. Heterodoxy: anchoress Katherine Manne and abbess Elizabeth Throckmorton
6. Women owners or religious incunabula: the physical evidence
See, I found someway to bring us back to the subject of the English Reformation even as I discussed the Beguines and beguinages in Belgium!