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In December 1394 a Yorkshireman by the name of John Britby was passing through Cheapside in London when he propositioned one Eleanor Rykener. Money was exchanged, and they found a quiet spot where they thought they wouldn’t be disturbed. However, the two were quickly discovered by ‘certain officers of the city’ who arrested the pair. The two were brought separately to the mayoral court to be tried. Medieval trials took an inquisitorial form, meaning that facts of a case were established through questions and answers, all of which were dutifully recorded by the court’s clerk. It is only through these court records that we know of the unusual case of John/Eleanor Rykener.

Still wearing the dress they had been arrested in, Rykener explained to the court that they had been born John Rykener, and following an outbreak of the bubonic plague, had been apprenticed to a certain Elizabth Brouderer of Bishopsgate. Rykener said it was Brouderer who first dressed them in women’s clothing and taught them to ‘sleep with a man as a woman’ and how to make money from the act. Adopting the name Eleanor, Rykener claimed to have slept with dozens of men, including an ‘Essex rector, three Oxford scholars, four Franciscans, one Carmelite, three chaplains and several priests’ as a woman, and multiple women including ‘many nuns’ as a man. It seems that neither Rykener nor Britby were charged with any offence, as ‘fornication’ was the remit of church courts, not civil law, and so the mayor let them go free.There are no clear records of what happened to Rykener next, but their testimony gives us a fascinating insight into the lives of marginalised people who were so often demonised or simply omitted by writers of the time.

Explore more about the LGBTQ+ Community in York

Anne Lister ‘The First Modern Lesbian’
Anne Lister in York
Molly Houses
John Brown / Barbra Hill
Homosexuality in the Medieval Period
Gender Roles in Viking Culture