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A Dorset life for me: Dorset’s female Pope

Roger Guttridge tells of Dorset's link with Pope Joan. The illustration is by Becky Unwin.

‘So. Is this Dorset you speak of a beautiful county?’ asked a northern friend, who had never ventured beyond the pillars of Ringwood or the gates of East Knoyle.
‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ I replied.
‘I believe he is,’ said my friend. ‘And a South American Catholic to boot. Argentineans must be very proud.’
‘I’m sure they are,’ said I. ‘Just as we Dorset folk are proud of our Pope. Dorset is not just a unique and beautiful county, you know. We can also boast that we provided Rome with the only female Pope in history.’
My friend’s eyebrows rose almost as high as Golden Cap.
‘A woman Pope? From Dorset?’
‘Pope John VIII,’ I said. ‘Better known to frock followers as Johannes VIII, Femina ex Anglia, or just Pope Joan.’
‘When are we talking about? And what’s the Dorset connection?’ asked my friend.
‘Allow me to explain,’ I explained. ‘Back in Anglo-Saxon times, the Dorset town of Wimborne had a huge “double convent” – a nunnery and a monastery, founded by St Cuthberga. There were literally hundreds of nuns and monks and in the AD 740s St Boniface, who is now one of the patron saints of Europe, wrote to Wimborne to ask for help in his work to convert the pagan tribes of Germany to Christianity. Wimborne duly sent thirty nuns, including St Thekla, who went on to found the Abbey at Ochsenfurt before becoming Abbess of Kitzingen, where she died in 790. She is remembered to this day in Ochsenfurt, where her statue stands in the church alongside those of St Lioba and St Boniface. St Lioba also came from Wimborne and probably led the mission.
‘The spiritual link between these two historic towns was re-established in the 1980s after the Roman Catholic priest in Ochsenfurt discovered some eighth century documents that revealed the connection. He wrote to his opposite number in Wimborne and later visited. This led to the formation of the Wimborne-Ochsenfurt Twinning Association in 1989.’
‘That’s an amazing background to a town twinning,’ said my friend. ‘Do go on.’
‘Ochsenfurt is a beautiful Bavarian town that produces some very fine wine,’ I said. ‘There’s a centuries-old tradition that challenges people to down three litres of wine in one go. Those who have succeeded are recorded in a book – and they include some women.
‘But I digress. The story goes that Pope Joan, though born in Germany, was the daughter of two Wimborne missionaries. She was a bright girl and was apparently disguised as a boy at a young age in order to extend her education beyond the age of twelve, which was not an option for a girl.
‘Once begun, this charade had to continue as Joan travelled first to Athens, then to Rome, where her fluent Greek took her into the Vatican’s inner circle. She became Pope in AD 853.’
My friend was aghast. He wondered why the tale was not better known.
‘It’s not completely unknown,’ I continued. ‘Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, investigated the story in his book The She-Pope, published in 1998. There is also a film called Pope Joan.
‘But you won’t find Joan in the Catholic Church’s list of past Popes. And although the story appears in hundreds of medieval manuscripts and was commonly accepted up to the Reformation, at that point the Vatican decided it was too embarrassing and tried to write Joan out of the record. You’ll also find that her predecessor, St Leo IV, has had his tenure of the papacy (not to mention his life) extended by two years in official records while a later Pope, who acceded in 872, took on the title John VIII. By my reckoning Pope Francis I is actually the 268th rather than the 267th Pope. But only if you include Pope Joan.’
‘What happened in the end? I presume she was eventually defrocked?’ chuckled my friend.
‘Unfortunately so. In 855. Although there is more than one version of how that came about. Some documents tell an unseemly story about a cardinal crawling under a throne with a hole in it to carry out a gender inspection. One popular account is that Joan’s downfall came when she gave birth to a baby in the street. You may think that would be difficult to explain but one early source claims the cardinals saw this as a miracle – God allowing a man to have a baby!
‘Some versions tell of Joan being publicly humiliated – literally de-frocked, I suppose. Others have her meeting a tragic end on the gallows or being drowned in the Tiber. In contrast, one story finds her repenting at leisure at the seaside and bringing up her child, who grew up to become the Bishop of Ostia.’
‘Which version do you believe?’ asked my friend.
‘I prefer the surreptitious gender inspection and the birth in the street. But then I’m a journalist. I love a good story. Although I also like to imagine Joan living out her life at the seaside and her child becoming a bishop. Preferably a female bishop. LOL, as the outgoing Pope Benedict XVI would no doubt have tweeted.’

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