Johanna Blencow of York aka Joan Blenkhow

The earliest wills that we have discovered are those of John and Johanna (Joan) de Blencow of York, both written and proved in 1436. However, the documents raise more questions than they answer.

Joan was the widow of John probably son, if not grandson, of Adam de Blencow. From Joan's will we know that she must have been quite wealthy.

In 1998 James Blenko searched the records of the Law Library of the University of Pennsylvania and found a number of very early references to the Blencowe name. Amongst these were some that led to proceedings of an ecclesiastical court at Ripon. The cases were so scandalous that I must mention them; perhaps someone will find time to study them more carefully! Paul Vowles has given me an approximate translation from the Latin:

'On 9 January 1469 Henry Carthop, priest, came before the council of the chapter seeks pardon for the offence of fornication with Joan Blenkow, lately servant of Robert Cooke, whereof he stands accused. The woman is not within the jurisdiction of the chapter and the man has until the 19th day of the present month to purge himself by his own hand ...'

'William Pyper, priest, is said to have fornicated with Joan Blenkhowe, unmarried, his cousin, with the result that the aforesaid Joan is pregnant, it is said. The man accused appeared on ... of January and confessed the offence with her over a period of nine years, and was asked how close in blood relationship she was to him replied on oath that she was a third cousin and that since the offence took place over nine years he claims punishment [already given?] through the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon of Richmond. And on the ... day of January he purged himself lawfully in the presence of ...'

William Fawvell, priest, is said to have fornicated with the aforesaid Joan Blenkhowe. The man accused denied the charge and has until the next day to purge himself by his own hand, on which day he did purge himself in the presence of ...

Robert Baker, clerk, is said to have fornicated with Joan Blenkhowe, unmarried. The man accused appeared on 18 January and denied the charge and has until Monday [to purge himself] by his own hand. On which day he legally purges himself in the presence of...

Paul Vowles raised the chilling possibility that purge himself by his own hand [sui manu] might refer to the practice of purging an offence by a holding a hot iron in the hand, but wondered whether Priests would have been subjected to that ordeal. The full story merits some careful research; it would certainly appear that this Joan Blencowe was a lady of easy virtue and that the priests involved paid scant attention to their vows of chastity!

Ref: page 19 The Blencowe Families: the Descendants of the Blencowe Families of Cumbria and Northamptonshire book

Purging practice challenged

I am a great admirer of the Blencowe Family book that Jack edited. I noticed a while ago that there was an interesting point on page 19 about what was meant by several priests who had been found guilty of fornication with one Joan Blenkhow 'purging themselves'.

Paul Vowles raised the possibility that the 'purging' mentioned was by holding a red-hot iron in the hand.

Professor Paul Hyams, who is a retired professor of Medieval History with a special interest in medieval law and punishment, says that the date (1469) is too late for that kind of penalty or 'trial by ordeal'. Clergy were forbidden to take part in trial by ordeal by the Fourth Lateran Council of1215, and in England that ruling was generally effective. is Professor Paul Hyams useful website where anyone interested can follow this up. I had a browse in some of the books mentioned and a further point is that (from some point in time)clergy were generally exempt from such major ordeals as holding red-hot iron, and that the medieval church, while maintaining severe penalties for adultery, was often much more lenient about fornication.

Stuart Judge,
Oxford 13 July 2018

Our records from the 1400s are unclear as to which John married which Joan. The Joan Blencow in question could well have been Joan, daughter of a John and Joan marriage. There were too many Johns and Joans around York to be certain.