To us the curious intricacies of medieval marriage seem endlessly complicated…and often cost a lot to those who disagreed with a certain situation. Contexts of Marriage in Medieval England: Evidence from the King’s Court circa 1300 by Robert C Palmer contains a fascinating instance with a twist. After all, we usually hear of women entering convents for various reasons, avoiding marriage being but one. How often do we hear of men doing the same? Including one who was already married?
Ricardians know all about Edward IV’s clandestine marriage ceremony with Elizabeth Woodville. Making vows to each other and then hopping into bed, as Edward and Elizabeth did, was tantamount to full marriage by medieval rules…except for a lady named Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, having preceded Elizabeth along Edward’s seductive primrose path. Because of Eleanor, on Edward’s death the crown went to his youngest brother, Richard III, not to any child of Edward’s by Elizabeth Woodville.
We don’t actually know what form Edward’s marriage to Lady Eleanor Talbot took, but apparently he’d discovered that a surefire of getting some women into bed was to offer marriage, so perhaps Eleanor wasn’t the first to be fooled by a handsome young king whose hormones were akin to the Big Bang! Who knows how many “brides” Randy Eddie had lured in the same way? Except that the very first one would actually become his true queen. As far as we’re aware, Eleanor was the first. But hey, she’s the only one we know about.
Anyway, that’s an aside, because the case I have come upon concerns lesser folk than royalty, a wife’s struggles through the ecclesiastical courts to get her husband back when he was a professed Cistercian.
The story appears in a footnote on the opening page of the above-mentioned work by Robert C Palmer, as follows:-
“….The seriousness of the ecclesiastical courts is best illustrated by Barbedor v. Prior of Barnewell P.R.O. (henceforward omitted from document citations JUST 1/86.m. 11 (1286). The case is an assize of mort d’ancestor for five and a half acres of land in Cambridgeshire, in the course of which the following story is told. The plaintiff’s older brother entered the order of Brothers of Mt. Carmel at Cambridge, then, opting for a more arduous life, became a Cistercian of Vaudey, fully professed. Thereafter a woman claimed that he had contracted marriage with her before entering the Carmelites, proved that pre-contract before her ordinary, and secured him as her husband from the Cistercians….”
I can imagine how happy that particular marriage wasn’t after that!
PS: Since first writing this article, and while reading Thomas Arundel by Margaret Aston, I came upon another mention of ths above case of the married monk:-
“….while he [Thomas Arundel, Bishop of Ely] was staying on his country estates in the summer and autumn of 1380, the bishop himself heard, and gave judgement on, several such matters. One of them involved William Potton, a professed Austin of the hospital of St John in Cambridge. He was said to have made a clandestine marriage, afterwards consummated, with Agnes Knotte, widow of Ralph Clerk. She claimed that on account of this his profession should be considered invalid, and his matrimony established. William admitted he had entered the house at Christmas a year earlier, having before this contracted marriage with Agnes. She was able to produce witnesses and their written attestations were published in Arundel’s presence in Downham chapel on 18 May. The sentence given on 8 June at Chatteris was pronounced by the official, but must have been decided by the bishop. It declared that Agnes had proved her case; John’s entry into the order was invalid, since he was in fact her legitimate husband*….
* Reg. C.C.., f.139r-v The parties were first cited to appear before the official on 17 May. Cf. V.C.H.,Cambs, ii, page 306….”
Well, I suppose that with the proof there for all to see and hear, William couldn’t do anything but admit it! Wrong century I know, but perhaps he hoped Agnes would do an Eleanor Talbot and say nothing!