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The Court of Requests and Thomas Seckford

In 1484, King Richard III created a minor equity court to deal with minor disputes in equity; these are disputes where the harshness of common law would be acknowledged by those appointed by the Crown. Equity courts were mostly seen as the Lord Chancellor’s remit, and the split of the Chancery Courts from the Curia Regis happened in the mid-fourteenth century. By the time of King Richard III, the Chancery Court had become backlogged from cases pleading the harshness of the common law, and the Court of Requests was no doubt and attempt to remove minor equity cases from the backlog and free up court time – Richard’s attempt at reducing bureaucracy and better administration.

So successful was the Court of Requests that it survived Richard’s reign, and was formalised by the Privy Council of Henry “Tudor”, the usurper. It was a popular court, because the cost of cases was relatively low and justice was swifter than the common law courts, which would ultimately prove its undoing.

Two Masters of Requests Ordinary were appointed by Henry VIII, and another two Masters of Requests Extraordinary were appointed by Elizabeth I. One of these was Thomas Seckford, of Woodbridge in Suffolk.

Thomas was an influential man, even before Elizabeth appointed him to the Court of Requests in 1558. He was MP for Ripon in November 1554, just months after his Grey cousins were executed, and was then elected MP for Orford (a fishing village on the Suffolk Coast which had two MPs despite only having a handful of residents) in 1555 and again in 1558. He was MP for Ipswich in 1559 and for Suffolk in 1571. Seckford Hall, (right) near Woodbridge, is known to have hosted Elizabeth’s court as she progressed, and was built in 1530 as the Seckford Family home; it is now a hotel, while a golf club sits within what was once its grounds. The A12 Martlesham bypass sweeps across the Finn Valley in front of the hall, giving wonderful views to motorists but somewhat destroying the character and appearance of the building and grounds. As an interesting side note, the hotel contains furniture from Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, including (allegedly) the chair Henry the Usurper died on.

Thomas Seckford commissioned Christophe Saxton to create the first surveyed atlas of the realm, which Elizabeth granted him a patent for its sole publication for ten years. This made him an even wealthier man and he added to his estates Clerkenwell, endowing the Seckford Almshouses with income from Clerkenwell. His wealth also led to the establishment of a free school, Woodbridge School, which is a minor public school. His wealth still helps young and old in Woodbridge today.

The Court of Requests fell foul of the common law courts at the end of the 16th century. Angry that business deserted them in favour of the more efficient Court of Requests, the common law courts overturned a number of decisions of the Requests Court, and banned them from imprisoning people; ultimately this was to prove their undoing, and the English Civil War, which led to the invalidation of the Privy Seal, was the final death of the Court, set up all those years before by King Richard for the better delivery of justice.

Thomas Seckford (left) died in January 1587, although we are not sure exactly when, whilst in his early seventies. His mother was Margaret Wingfield, relating him to both the de la Pole and Brandon families, and her mother was an Audley. In fact, Thomas could claim double descent from Edward I, through Joan of Acre, as well as many other great mediaeval magnates, including Edmund “Crouchback”. At his death, Thomas Seckford remained without issue, just like his fellow long-term royal servant Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon. I need hardly add that Huntingdon was his cousin.

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Mediaeval women who got the man they wanted . . . .

 ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

There was an interesting Facebook post on 2nd May, by Lyndel Grover, drawing attention to a blog about Joan of Acre, who lived in the 13th century. http://historytheinterestingbits.com/2015/04/30/rebel-princess/. It made me think about other mediaeval women who had done what Joan did. By that I mean, marry the man they wanted, not the choice of their families.

Joan was the daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, and took as her second husband Ralph de Monthermer, who eventually became 1st Baron Monthermer. But he was a commoner who had been in the household of her first husband, Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Gloucester, so King Edward was furious that Joan had made such a misalliance. He eventually relented, however, and Joan kept her chosen husband. She might be said to have got away with it. And so did Ralph, who could have paid a very high price for crossing Edward Longshanks.

In the 14th century, another princess, Joan of Kent, known as ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’, was also determined to have the husband of her choice. And she decided this at the age of only twelve, when she secretly married Thomas Holland of Upholland in Lancashire, who was seneschal in the household of William Montacute, 2nd Earl of Salisbury. It was a love match, as was proved when Thomas went off to the Crusades and her family immediately forced her to married Montacute instead. He apparently had no idea she was already married to his seneschal. She fought against this marriage, and on Thomas Holland’s return, she went back to him. She was allowed to keep him, too. Well, this is all a potted version, of course, but the result was the same, Joan retained the husband she wanted. On Thomas’s death, she married the Black Prince and became the mother of Richard II.

Moving to the 15th century, another very highborn lady who got away with a commoner ‘husband’ was the French princess, Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V. A very warm lady from all accounts, she was not content to remain the widowed Queen Mother, and if contemporary rumours are true, she took as her lover her late husband’s cousin, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. But legislation was passed, preventing a widowed Queen Consort from remarrying.

The next we hear—and rather quickly at that—she had a new lover a handsome Welshman named Owen Tudor, whom we are told she married, and by whom she certainly had a very prompt baby boy, Edmund Tudor. But there is no proof of an actual marriage. Yet again, Owen was a commoner who might have paid a very high price, but got away with it by the skin of his teeth. He was eventually beheaded, not for Catherine, but for being on the wrong side at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross.

It was from Catherine and Owen that the Tudor dynasty descended . . . although there is a persistent whisper that Edmund Tudor, their firstborn, was actually the son of the Duke of Somerset. So Edmund Tudor might well have actually been another Edmund Beaufort, and as he was also the father of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, it might well be that we should have had a House of Beaufort. But it’s a question of conflicting evidence, of course.

Another 15th century princess who rebelled and married a commoner was Cicely Plantagenet, daughter of Edward IV. She was the sister of Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth of York, and also Henry’s aunt because she was married to his half-uncle, John, Viscount Welles. When the viscount died, Cicely upped and married a true commoner, one Thomas Kymbe, a gentleman of Lincolnshire. I can only imagine it was a love match, because she must have known what would happen when Henry found out. He went ballistic, and was so beside himself that he snatched her lands and did just about everything else except imprison her and her new husband. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who was John Welles’s half-sister, protected the newlyweds and interceded on their behalf, she and Cicely being on close terms. Margaret managed to calm Henry down sufficiently to persuade him to restore Cicely’s property. They were left alone after that, to live in obscurity, and Cicely never resumed her former high status. When she died, Thomas remained in obscurity. But at least she died married to the man she chose.

Interestingly, Margaret Beaufort, who was surely the most important woman of Henry VII’s reign, did not get her way at the end. Her first husband was the Edmund Tudor mentioned above as the apparent firstborn of Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor, and by him Margaret had Henry when she was in her very early teens. She was very small, and the birth was so difficult that she never had another child, so you might expect her to abhor Edmund for what he had done to her. He was in the wrong, even by 15th-century standards, and should not have consummated the marriage until she was at least fourteen. However, even though she had a further three husbands after him, it was with Edmund that she wished to be laid to rest. Was it simply because he was Henry’s father? Or had she loved him? We will never know. But when she passed away, she was denied her desire, and was buried close to her son and daughter-in-law in Westminster Abbey. So Margaret, the most powerful woman in England, did not have her wish honoured.

We are all so used to hearing of aristocratic mediaeval women having little choice in the matter of husband, but a few pioneering spirits went after and got what they wanted.

Why lineage still matters in battle

The crown of England, among others, has often been claimed in battle or by other forceful means. However, to exercise such a claim, it is necessary to persuade a challenger’s military followers that he has a dynastic claim of sorts, even when this is greatly exaggerated or totally spurious.

Thus William I, the Conqueror or Bastard, was the great-nephew of Emma of Normandy, wife of two earlier English kings ( Ethelred II and Cnut) and there was arguably no suitable adult male from the House of Wessex. Stephen (of Blois) was Henry I’s cousin when the latter had died without a legitimate male heir. Henry IV wrested the crown from Richard II when the latter was childless with a pre-pubescent second wife, whilst the Mortimer who was Richard’s heir had died the previous year allowing his young son to be leapfrogged. Edward IV was the senior Mortimer descendant and thus Richard II’s heir, whilst Henry VII’s claim is far more difficult. Jane (Grey), supported by her father and father-in-law, was nominated in Edward VI’s will, even though Henry VIII’s legislation trumped this, preferring Mary I. William III was both nephew and son-in-law to James VII/II before he caused the latter to lose his nerve completely and flee.

Two of these cases deserve further scrutiny. At his 1413 death, Henry IV must have thought he had accomplished his mission. He left four healthy sons and he could reasonably have expected them to have families of their own but two of these lines failed completely, a third possibly had two children legitimised and the fourth left a baby to reign as Henry VI. The mental instability and total unsuitability of the latter to his royal duties would not have been a problem in a larger legitimate family but it was. By the time that he and his son died in 1471, the House of Lancaster proper (descended from Blanche, Duchess in suo jure and Henry IV’s mother) was extinct save for the mainly foreign offspring of its heiresses.
So, in the absence of any true Lancastrian heirs in England, the claim somehow devolved upon the great-grandson of the first Earl of Somerset, conventionially recorded as Henry IV’s half-brother, who was also the grandson of Henry V’s widow. The future Henry VII’s royal descent has been open to question on two counts recently. It was certainly inferior to that of the House of (Mortimer) York and to the Portuguese royal house of the time. There is no doubt, however, that he, his father and uncle were Lancastrian-inclined in a political sense whatever their lineage and that this thin or non-existent lineage was spun continually, representing him as a son of Henry VI at one stage.
Ironically, the 13th Earl of Oxford, the commander to whom Henry owes his victory, was of unquestionable royal ancestry – through Joan of Acre, daughter of Edward I.

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