The Chaucer connection: bawdy trouble at the mill

“At Trumpyngtoun, nat fer fro Cantebrigge [Cambridge],/ There goth a brook, and over that a brigge [bridge],/ Upon the whiche brook there stant [stands] a melle [mill]….”

So begins one of the bawdiest of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, told by the Reeve, in which two students from Soler Hall – the future Trinity College, Cambridge to which so many Cayleys went – get the best of the greedy thieving miller, and one of them has sex with the miller’s daughter, the other with his wife. The plot is derived from a medieval French fabliau, which was also used for one of the tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

What connection could there be between this scurrilous and ribald tale and the Cayleys?

Trumpington is now on the outskirts of Cambridge; in medieval times it was a separate village. From the time of William the Conqueror until 1346 – less than 50 years before Chaucer wrote the Tales – it was held by members of the de Cailly family. In 1086 the manor of Trumpington was held by William de Cailly, one of the sons of Guillaume de Cailly who probably fought at the Battle of Hastings and who was rewarded with lands in East Anglia. One of his descendants, John de Cailly, who inherited the manor, died in 1314, leaving a six-year son, another John, who almost certainly died a minor. John de Cailly’s widow remarried – her second husband being John Barrington of Essex, who died soon after 1346: but before then – probably on John de Cailly’s death – Trumpington had passed into the hands of John de Cailly’s sisters Margaret and Agnes and their respective husbands John Ware and John Stanes.

Trumpington Mill dates back to before the Domesday Book, which records its existence as part of William de Cailly’s holding. The full Domesday Book entry reads, in modern English,

“In TRUMPINGTON William de Cailly holds 4 1/2 hides. Land for 5 ploughs. In lordship 2; 9 villagers with 4 smallholders have 3 ploughs. 1 mill at 20s; meadow for 5 ploughs; pasture for the village livestock; 4 ploughshares. The value is and was £6; before 1066 £7. Toki of Walton held this land from the Church of Ely in 1066; he could not grant, sell or separate it from the Church. Afterwards, Frederic, William’s brother, had this land.”

This is, incidentally, the only reference I have found to William de Cailly having a brother called Frederic. (The original Domesday Book wording is “Frederi fr[ater] Willi.’)

The mill no longer exists. In 1375, after Trumpington passed out of de Cailly hands, and shortly before The Reeve’s Tale was composed, one miller was killed. The last recorded mention of the mill as a working entity is in 1467; its ruins were said to be still visible in 1753.

[Sources: Domesday Book entry for Trumpington; Early Yorkshire Charters, Vol 7, ed. William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Victoria County History – County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely vol.8; A Literary History of Cambridge by Graham Chainey, CUP 1985, revised ed. 1995.]

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The Runaway Nun

The baronets’ branch of the Cayleys descended from members of the family who made their main base in Yorkshire in later medieval times. But some Cayleys stayed in East Anglia, where the family had its original landholdings after the Norman Conquest.

In 1389 a nun called Margaret Cailly eloped from St Radegund’s Priory, Cambridge, whose site was taken over by Jesus College when it was founded in 1496. William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury, found her and her partner living in the the Diocese of Lincoln during a visitation he made of the diocese. She had naturally cast off her nun’s habit and was in ordinary secular dress. William Courtenay apprehended her and parcelled off unceremoniously to the custody of John Fordham, Bishop of Ely, who in turn sent her back to St Radegund’s, with strict orders that the prioress was to keep the poor woman in close confinement and impose harsh penances on her.

It is perhaps ironic that St Radegund, after whom the priory was named, was forcibly married in the 6th century to a brutal Frankish ruler who had her brother murdered: she ran away and successfully sought the protection of the Church, founding a double monastery (one which had both male and female members – quite a common practice at the time). For Margaret Cailly the Church was hard and uncompassionate.

Margaret was almost certainly descended from members of the Cailly family who stayed in East Anglia.