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Modern woman just would not kowtow as expected to in the past. . .!

Medieval Maidens

 

There are times when researching the past is, for a woman of today, a very insulting experience. This morning at the hairdresser I dipped into a book called Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540. (No Hello, Heat or OK for me!)

Yes, I knew before I started that I wouldn’t like a great deal of what went on for women back then, but I came upon some details I would rather not have known concerning the ladies who waited on queens. By ladies, I mean quite high-ranking women, like the Countesses of Oxford and Worcester, and Dame Katherine Grey.

Here is the passages that caught my eye:

“Women servants sometimes played a role at meals and feasts, but one more closely bodily and intimate than the service of food. At Elizabeth of York’s coronation feast two of her ladies, Dame Katherine Grey and Mistress Ditton, ‘went under the table where they sat on either side [of] the Queen’s feet all the dinner time’. It is difficult to see what purpose this could have served other than to convey an impression of feminine presence, but it is powerful as an expression of lowly but intimate service.

“Throughout the meal, served to the queen by Lord Fitzwalter as sewer and by knights, the Countess of Oxford and Countess of Rivers ‘kneeled either side of the Queen, and at certain times held a kerchief before her Grace’, to collect her spittle and wipe her mouth.”

“A few decades later the countesses of Oxford and Worcester stood by Anne Boleyn at her coronation feast and intermittently ‘did hold a fine cloth before the queen’s face when she list to spit or do otherwise at her pleasure’, and she too had two gentlewomen under the table at her feet.”

Ew. . .

Are we to take this at face value? They actually did kneel under the table by the queen’s feet? I looked online to see if I could find any contemporary illustrations that would confirm this, and only found one. It’s of a woman scrambling around on her knees to serve a group of men.

womanservant under table

Or did it mean they knelt before the table as in the  illustration that follows? But no again, for this woman is serving food, and Phillips specifically says that particular honour was left to men. At great royal do’s anyway. And this woman here could hardly dump the roast peacock and sprint around to attend to the queen’s spittle! So I guess that under the table meant just that. Underneath it.

serving on knees

Hey, now here’s a warming thought. If high-ranking ladies were expected to perform such tasks, wouldn’t it be nice to think of Margaret Beaufort having to kneel under Anne Neville’s coronation feast table? Ready to wipe the royal nose or whatever? Oh, joy.

Mad Margaret

Today we accept having to wipe the mouths and noses of our children, and of invalids and the very old and frail, but would we do that for healthy young women. . .???? It just goes to show how very different life was then. We like to have a romantic notion of court life, but there was so much about it that simply does not sit with our modern sensibilities. Fancy having to kneel under the table throughout a meal. Did they have to vie for space with the king’s hounds? Margaret would certainly win that scrap!

Henry VIII close stool

And then there is the close stool. I know it was regarded as an honour to be in charge of this for the king, and so the queen too, I imagine. But having to wipe their bottoms for them as well? I’m told that part of the reason for this was the awkwardness created by their rich, voluminous robes, and maybe so, but the thought revolts me. I’m a modern woman, without any real idea how very strict and inflexible etiquette and rules were for our predecessors. I wouldn’t last five minutes at a medieval court. Bow and scrape to those who consider themselves my superiors? No wonder the grandest women resented having to show deference to Katherine de Roët, the governess who made it to being Duchess of Lancaster! Catch her spittle for her? They’d rather do the spitting!

Maybe Katherine Swynford in blue, kneeling, front(Katherine may be the lady in blue and ermine kneeling at the front of this illustration. And other ladies in the scene may have considered themselves far superior!)

I’d see all these folk in Hades first. Um, well, I’d see Hades, but probably by my intractable self. The only person I’d be prepared to bow to would be the monarch herself/himself. The rest can go whistle! Right, I wouldn’t last long.

One thing I will say. If anything, this under-the-table grovelling demeaned the queen or king as much as, if not more than, the one doing the grovelling. But then again, this is my modern-day sensibility creeping in. I don’t view it in the same way they did back then, when all grovelling came from those below the monarch.

The book I mentioned at the beginning of this article is very interesting and full of details, with many actual cases. That women were second-class citizens I had always known, but it didn’t occur to me that such high-class women would be expected to perform such disagreeably menial tasks. Yes, we’ve come a long, long way since then, but, ladies, we’re still second class citizens in many ways! I do trust that in another 500 years our future selves will look back on the 21st century and marvel that women now are still paid less than men for the same work, and so on.

Wanna bet?

 

 

 

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The abduction of Jane Sacherverell in November 1485….

markyate-cell-gen-mag-1846large

Markyate Priory

Stealing women (and also male wards) was a shamefully common event, especially in the 14th century, as I wrote yesterday. But it was still going on in the 15th century. Richard legislated on behalf of women, but so did Henry VII, with a 1487 “Acte against taking awaye of Women against theire Willes”.

The following account, particularly of Jane Sacherverell’s case, has been paraphrased from the book Stolen Women in Medieval England by Caroline, of which the above link is an appreciative review.

According to one historian and writer, A. Cameron in Complaint and Reform in Henry VII’s Reign: The Origins of the Statute of 3 Henry VII, Henry was prompted by the case of the widow Jane Sacherverell. With Henry and his council acknowledged the inadequacies of the existing law in its failure to prevent Jane Sacherverell’s abduction. But E.W. Ives, in Agaynst Taking Away of Women, argued that Henry’s motivation was furious because he learned that some of his own servants were involved in another abduction, that of Margery Ruyton in 1487. So Henry’s legislation was actually directed at those who were accessories to the crime.

Earlier legislation was not robust enough, and failed to prevent Margery’s abduction, but Henry’s new legislation was no better, for in 1502 it signally failed to prevent of resolve abduction of Margaret Kebell.

Whatever the reason for the 1487 legislation, and the persistence of kidnapping as an issue before Parliament, the suggestion is that there was an underlying disquiet about the problem. Hmm. Easy to tell it was men doing the dithering. Men in power. I’ll bet the abduction and forcible marriage of a young male ward created far more squawking and flurrying of male feathers!

I have not been able to find any details about the case of Margery Ruyton, but for those who wonder about the unfortunate Jane Sacherverell, I will explain a little. The pope alluded to the wealth of forced marriage victims, their abductors being “more desirous of patrimony than matrimony”. Thus most captured women were wealthy in both property and goods. The widowed Jane Sacherverell had married into a family of Derbyshire gentry that had been prominent since the late 13th century. They became knights and had served as Justices of the Peace since at least the 1430s. Jane was obviously a likely target for some man on the make, because widows possessed the property and goods of their late husbands. The man in question this time was William Willoughby of Wollaton. Anyone who married Jane would have immediate control of everything, at least until the majority of her son by her late husband. And we all know how often young heirs failed to reach their majority. William’s eye was on the main chance—that death might present him with the lot. Nice one, if it worked.

The following passage is from https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/learning/medievalwomen/theme6/documents.aspx

“Mi 5/168/23/1: Extract from bill of complaint relating to the abduction and forced marriage of Jane Sacheverell (1485, English) – this above document can be viewed at the site.

“Jane Sacheverell was an heiress, the only daughter of Henry Stathum of Hopwell and Morley in Derbyshire. Her husband Sir John Sacheverell died either in 1483 or at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. In order to protect her young son Henry’s inheritance, the Sacheverell family arranged a marriage contract for Jane with their friend and neighbour, William Zouche. Their plans were scuppered when another family, the Willoughbys, abducted Jane and forced her to marry Richard Willoughby of Wollaton. This extract from a bill of complaint brought in Jane’s name describes the abduction on 11 November 1485. At the time of the abduction, the offence was a mere trespass under the law, but two years later King Henry VII made it a felony, in the Act ‘agaynst taking awaye of Women agaynst theire Wills’ (3 Henry VII, c.2).

“A settlement was made between the families in May 1486. Jane obtained a divorce from Richard Willoughby on the grounds of her precontract with William Zouche, whom she went on to marry. A ‘precontract’ was a formal trothplight (agreement to marry, in front of witnesses), which had the legal force of a marriage solemnized in church.

“After William’s death nearly 50 years later, Jane became a nun at Markyate Priory in Bedfordshire. She was Prioress there from 1508 until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, when she received a Crown pension. . .”

One wonders if even then, at that late stage, she was taking no chances of being snatched again! No, that was a flippant remark, but someone in her situation must surely have always glanced over her shoulder, or woken with a start in the night on hearing some odd noise or other.

Information about Markyate Priory: http://www.hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk/data/places/places-m/markyate/markyate-cell.htm

 

Women were abducted in medieval England….

Stolen women

The above book, Stolen Women in Medieval England, by Caroline Dunn, is subtitled Rape, Abduction and Adultery 1100-1500. This subtitle is well earned, because all three activities become very tangled indeed in those records that survive of cases that reached courts.

The general impression the modern world has of medieval women is that they were “victims” of men who controlled everything in their lives. Whether it was their father, brother, husband, whatever, they were bullied into submission. Hmm, not quite. Many women back then knew exactly how to work the system. So that when we read of raids by armed men to abduct and force into marriage any woman who would bring wealth and property into the “bridegroom’s” clutches, things might not have been as simple and clear-cut as might seem.

Well, yes. A lot of this did go on, especially in the 14th century, when it was all too prevalent, but although there were many genuine attacks of this nature, there were also situations when woman, especially married ones, would connive with her abductor in order to escape from a husband she no longer wanted. Or for love of the supposed abductor, of course. And there were young lovers embroiled in elopements. But if it was a case of getting away from an unwanted husband, the deserted husband’s only course was to make legal complaint against the abductor, since he could not charge his wife with leaving him. Thus the charges had to be fairly stiff, leading to all these supposed instances of abduction and rape. A consequence of the husband’s legal move would be for the wife and abductor to claim to have been previously married, so the abduction was merely a case of the first husband claiming back his wife. Not easy to prove or disprove.

Once a marriage had taken place, and it had been consummated, it could not be undone. The Church frowned on such things, but did not annul the match, provided the exact words/vows had been uttered. These indicated what was called present consent. So, by publicly saying, e.g. “I marry you,” or “I take you” they contracted a valid marriage. Or, if in front of witnesses they said, e.g. “I will marry you” or “I will take you”, this constituted future consent, a form of betrothal, which, if subsequently consummated, became a validly contracted marriage. (Step forward Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Talbot/Butler!)

Another point I did not know before, was that when the word rape (usually variations of raptus) appears in records and rolls, it does not necessarily mean sexual rape as understood in the modern world. These rapists could also be mere abductors, whether with ill intent or if they were illicit lovers. So taking a woman and carrying her off would be termed rape in medieval records, even when sexual assault of any kind was not involved.

Those women probably most at risk of kidnapping were the widows, especially the wealthy ones. The taking by force of virgins was frowned upon, and outraged fathers/families could always disinherit the victim. Widows, on the other hand, possessed land and property of which a new husband would immediately gain control. For good if she had no heirs lingering from her late husband’s family, or just for her lifetime if there were step-children lining up to thwart him of hanging on to it. As you can imagine, these possible heirs would soon kick up if he tried! It didn’t stop the abductions, often by impoverished men, including knights, who wanted to improve their situation and fill their purses.

The above is just a brief summary and sample of the interesting facts to be found in Caroline Dunn’s fascinating book. The chapters have been well laid out and are easy to sort mentally, but there are so many footnotes that I for one began to boggle. Not because of their volume, but because their font was small. The author’s sources and references are amazing. Everything is accounted for.

This book is part of the fourth series of Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, and I do not hesitate to recommend it.

The female of the species was as deadly as the male. Well, almost….

ladies watching jousting

When we think of medieval women, in particular the ladies, we are inclined to label them a little as is the following two illustrations. Simpering, sighing and generally being soppy over their menfolk. As above. There they are at a tournament, looking star-struck, and only good for making cow-eyes at the men and presenting the prizes. Or perhaps being fawned over by one of said menfolk. I wonder, is that a real bird she’s holding?

Or is it more likely she’d be petting a dear little squirrel, while her chap brandishes a ring and a fearsome hawk. Hmm, on reflection. The ring’s acceptable, I suppose, but I think I’d rather have the hawk than a squirrel. The latter are nasty little varmints. I think the lady’s hound knows who’s better off.

Luttrell Psalter - my lady has a squirrel

So, the above is generally how we view these well-born ladies. Decorative, dim and dull. It’s the men who were brave and courageous, shielding their womenfolk and generally being Knights in Shining White Armour. However, a quick trip around Google Images soon reveals that there was another side to the medieval female of the species. They went hunting with the men, not to watch and sigh prettily over their heroes, but to take part alongside them. Sometimes they went out in all-female groups, and bagged quarry of their own. They handled bows and arrows, crossbows, spears, swords and whatever else, and sometimes even wore armour and fought alongside the men!

By the way, why are the two ladies at the back wearing those odd hooded masks?

Medieval_women_as_warriors-287x450

There is even an illustration of a queen indulging in a little bricklaying! OK, maybe that’s be to be taken with a grain of salt, but even so, it is clear that in general, these fine ladies were not so decorative, dim and dull after all. 

bricklaying queen

Perhaps it just suits our romantic present-day selves to view the past with a rosy glow; to see the noble ladies of the medieval period as if they all stepped from a Mills & Boon novel. They didn’t, they were as courageous and capable as the men . . . but with hardly any of the rights and freedom.

 

 

 

Was Richard II a fourteenth-century Peter Pan….?

Richard II and Anne of Bohemia

Richard II is my second favourite king (you all know who’s first!) and both are controversial, albeit for very different reasons. One of the charges against Richard II is that he was something of a Peter Pan, and did not want to grow up. He had portraits painted depicting him as a boy, when he was a mature man. He did not grow a beard until well after the customary time, and he was criticised for his devotion to clothes, luxury…the very things in which we’d all like to indulge.

Whether he was a Peter Pan, though, is open to question. There has been much speculation about his marriage to Anne of Bohemia, with a frequent remark being that they were more like brother and sister than husband and wife. Historians have hinted that his desire to stay young meant that he had to preserve his virginity. The fact that there was, apparently, no sign of Anne being pregnant, seemed to uphold this view. He was broken-hearted when she died, but then, they said, a devoted brother would weep for his sister.

But…there is a letter from Anne to her half-brother, Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, which is referred to by Kristen Geaman, (Engl Hist Rev (2013) 128 (534): 1086-1094, 04 September 2013): “…Anne of Bohemia, first wife of Richard II, is a rather enigmatic queen but a letter (from British Library Additional 6159) sheds new light on her Bohemian connections and personal life. In a letter written by Anne to her half-brother Wenceslas IV, the queen informs Wenceslas of the successes of mutual acquaintances and requests that further Bohemian ladies be sent to Richard’s court. Anne’s comments offer increased evidence of the connections between the English and Bohemian courts, as well as shedding further light on the activities of the queen. Furthermore, at the end of the letter, Anne also reveals her sorrow over a miscarriage, proving that the couple did not have a chaste marriage…”

Another reference to this letter is in ‘Medieval Women and Their Objects’ by Nancy Bradbury and Jennifer Adams “…She [Anne of Bohemia] closes by saying that the one point of sorrow is that they [she and Richard II] are not rejoicing in childbirth, but have hopes for the future with good health, God permitting….”

So it would seem that the marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia was perfectly normal. What’s more, they loved each other. Their heartbreak was that they did not/could not have children. Not that they would not. What a difference such a child might have made to history. No Lancastrian or Yorkist kings…no Tudors!

 

‘Blood Sisters’: A Review of Seven Royal lives

Giaconda's Blog

Sarah Gristwood’s book, ‘Blood Sisters’ looks at the lives and reputations of seven key women who lived through the tumultuous and deadly years of the ‘Cousins War’ in C15th England and who changed the course of our national story by their actions.

I particularly wanted to read this book because women are so often side-lined or underestimated when it comes to the re-telling of events, yet were as much the ‘glue’ that held society together then as they are now. Their efforts, devotion, ambition, desires and fears had as much impact on the lives of their family members and the wider course of events as their male counterparts yet many historians continue to portray these women as ciphers or subsidiary characters in events.

Historians can also continue to be unduly influenced by the contemporary accounts of infamy or notoriety which have become attached to these women and which have slewed…

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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.

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