The marriage alliances of noble women 1180-1250: Part One

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The photo is of the effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the greatest heiresses of the time. She will be featured in greater detail in later posts.

This is the first in a series I am intending to write on marriage alliances . I am looking specifically at the 12th and 13th century and focusing on England. Part One will be an overall look at marriage alliances and what they meant to the society and how they shaped the political future of 12th and 13th century England. I will then move on to look at individual noble women, both heiresses and daughters of the nobility.

To begin with it is worth noting that 1180-1250 was a time of codification of secular and ecclesiastical law, both of which impact strongly on the marriage customs of the time. In a secular sense the law was primarily concerned with inheritance and transmission of property. The primary focus of ecclesiastical law, canon law, was remarriage and consent.

Consent is an interesting aspect of medieval marriage as free consent was something that the Church was adamant about. In some cases in ecclesiastical courts a marriage could be overturned if free consent had not been given.[1] This is not to say that all marriages of heiresses were undertaken with free consent because there were varying degrees of pressure placed on the women for their ‘free’ consent to be given. The age of consent under cannon law for boys was 14 and for girls 12 so it would have been incredibly difficult for a child to defy their family.[2] Even if a woman was older and politically powerful they were often given very little choice in their marriage and making a stand could be almost impossible.

When I say women I am using the term liberally as many of the heiresses and noble daughters were little more than girls. Some were even infants when they were sent off to the family they were to be married into. Though this was more common in royal marriages. I will discuss some of these women in later posts

There were really two types of noble women involved in marriage alliances. Noble daughters who brought an alliance and a dowry to the marriage and heiresses who brought sometimes significant property and titles.

I will begin with a brief discussion of the more common marriage alliance. That is the alliance between two families primarily for economic gain, sometimes achieved through a contract.

Marriage contracts could be very complex and quite often the actual couple involved was irrelevant. Such was the case in the contract between Humphrey, Earl of Warwick and Sir Ralph Thosney in 1236. This particular contract was between the fathers and not the children to be married. The children themselves were “Roger, eldest and first born of Sir Ralph of Thosney” and “Alice” the daughter of Humphrey.[3] The contract stated, “Earl Humphrey has given in free marriage 40 pounds worth of land in the village of Newenton, in Wiltshire, to Roger, eldest and first born son of Sir Ralph of Thosney, with Alice his daughter.”[4] The gift of the daughter was more an afterthought to the economic transaction. Here a daughter was being used as political currency in an agreement between two nobles who both wanted something from the other. It is true that Ralph’s son Roger also seemed to have little input into the marriage, but it was Alice who was being gifted to Roger and not the other way around.

In the case of this contract Alice herself was irrelevant. A later clause said, “if said Alice shall die before the contracting of marriage, the younger daughter of the said Earl Humphrey born in legitimate marriage shall succeed in place of the aforesaid Alice in marriage together with the aforesaid land.”[5] This contract had no connection with emotion because it was entirely mercenary and economic. Earl Humphrey also received land because Sir Ralph gave his son and heir “40 pounds worth of land in Carleton and Helland in Cornwell to endow the said Alice.”[6] The remainder of the précis of the contract, which is all that is available, went into great detail about exactly what would happen if either party died and who would get what of the land.[7]

These marriage alliances could also be primarily political in focus as well as economic. An example from a little earlier in the period was the marriage of Matilda the eldest daughter of William Marshal Earl of Pembroke and Hugh the eldest son of Roger Bigot Earl of Norfolk. Matilda married Hugh c. 1206 when she would have been about 13.[8] This marriage joined two of the most prominent noble families of the time. History of William Marshal, which was a biography of Earl William commissioned by his son and written in the vernacular and in verse in the 1220s, made the situation clear. It described the marriage as

“Marshal spoke with earl Robert Bigot a man who was never very slow in doing what was to his advantage and honour when it was appropriate for him to do so. He asked graciously, being the wise man that he was, to arrange a handsome marriage between his own daughter and his son Hugh. The boy was worthy, mild-mannered and noble hearted, and the young lady, for her part was a very young thing and both noble and beautiful. The marriage was a most suitable one and pleased both families involved.”[9]

There were obvious similarities between this alliance and the contract that has been previously discussed. The emphasis in this case was on the alliance between the two families rather than the economic advantages. Hugh and Matilda had three sons and one daughter and they also all married into noble families forming new alliances. Hugh died in 1225 and Matilda remarried William of Warrenne Earl of Surrey. [10] I will discuss Matilda in more detail in a later post.

Wards and heiresses, not just noble daughters, also played a crucial role in changing the face of English politics. They perhaps more than any other marital situation were used as political and dynastic currency. A ward was an underage heiress whose father was not alive so her marriage and property were in the hands of her father’s lord. Wards and heiresses were the prizes on the marriage market because they brought more substantial land and titles with them than would be received if a man married a noble daughter who was not an heiress. The marriage laws meant that whatever the heiress held became the property of her husband upon their marriage.

A woman being a ward was a relatively common situation because men often married when they were older so they died while their children were still young. The processes of wardship were often complicated and there were substantial amounts of writing on the legal procedures. Bracton said “sometimes the chief lord is entitled only to the wardship of the land that belongs to his fee and not to the wardship of the heir or his marriage.”[11] As can be seen here Bracton is talking about male wards as both underage males and females could be wards. There were all sorts of conditions and complications but the basic premise behind the wardships was that underage wards could not perform their obligations and therefore they needed a guardian to undertake them.[12] The process of wardships was that when a father died with an underage heir, be they male of female, their guardianship could go to their father’s lord and only in some cases to their mother. It was not automatic that their father’s lord gained hold of everything. As Bracton alluded to above the guardianship of the land, the marriage and ward themselves could go to entirely different people. In some cases even the lands could have multiple lords if they were geographically under different jurisdictions. The basic three way split that occurred most commonly was one guardian for the lands, one guardian for the right of marriage of the ward and one guardian for the ward themselves. When a mother was allowed to be part of the process it was usually as guardian of the physical ward themselves.[13] A ward could be literally bought and sold as political currency. A guardian could sell the right to choose the marriage of the ward, the right to govern the lands of the ward and they could also in some cases marry the ward themselves.[14]

The issue of marriage of female wards was a difficult one because consent became a real problem. There were several cases where a guardian forced his ward to marry into his family so he could retain the land. One such guardian was Adam de Hopeton. He was the guardian of Constance de Skelmanthorpe and he abducted her from her contracted marriage to a John de Rotherfield and forced her to marry his infant son William specifically so he could keep control of her lands. He was her guardian and refused to recognise her marriage to John de Rotherfield and threatened physical force to make her agree to marry his son William. Once of legal majority she disavowed her marriage to William, remarried and successfully took de Hopeton to court to regain control of her lands. Not all cases of a guardian taking control of a ward’s land by forced marriage ended so well for the ward.[15]

A guardian could not only be grossly unfair to a ward in relation to their marriage, but also in the way he dealt with their property. Ranulf de Glanville was a legal writer and a powerful man very early in the time period. He said that a lord who had control of a ward’s lands must look after them with “moderation” and cause no loss to the heir.[16] Unfortunately this did not always happen as evidenced by the many court cases involving a guardian who had misused the land and entitlements. [17]

As Bracton said a female ward could not be married off without her consent but as discussed earlier there was differing degrees of consent.[18] Marrying a favourite retainer or a landless son, illegitimate or not, to a ward was one of the easiest ways for a lord to reward or establish these people. It occurred from the lower levels of the nobility all the way to the king himself on numerous occasions. For example in the late 1100’s Richard de Clare Earl of Hereford gave his ward Belesent, daughter and heiress of Roger son of Odo, to Hugh the brother of Master Robert de Kent in marriage “in return for his service.”[19] Marriage to wards could be used as a reward to a loyal follower.

These women were used to cement alliances to form political affinities, for economic gain and to reward followers. This is just the background to the complex effects of the marriage alliances of noble women in this period. In following posts I will look at specific instances and specific women. I will also discuss how royal alliances changed the face of countries and how kings used wards and heiresses to not only reward their loyal followers but to give their illegitimate children a place in life.

Later posts will also have more photos.

 

[1] “Earl of Warwick and Ralph Thosney (1236)”, in Helmholz, “Marriage Contracts in Medieval England”, in Reynolds & White Jr., (eds) To Have and to Hold, pp. 277-278.

[2] “Earl of Warwick and Ralph Thosney (1236)”, in Helmholz, “Marriage Contracts in Medieval England”, in Reynolds & White Jr., (eds) To Have and to Hold, p. 278.

[3] “Earl of Warwick and Ralph Thosney (1236)”, in Helmholz, “Marriage Contracts in Medieval England”, in Reynolds & White Jr., (eds) To Have and to Hold, pp. 277-278.

[4] “Marriage Contract between Humphrey, Earl of Warwick and Ralph Thosney (1236)”, in R.H Helmholz, “Marriage Contracts in Medieval England”, in Phillip L. Reynolds & John White Jr. (eds) To Have and to Hold, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 277.

[5] “Earl of Warwick and Ralph Thosney (1236)”, in Helmholz, “Marriage Contracts in Medieval England”, in Reynolds & White Jr., (eds.) To Have and to Hold, p. 277.

[6] Nöel James Menuge, Medieval English Wardship in Romance and Law, Cambridge: D.S Brewer, 2001, pp. 84-85.

[7] Jeremy Goldberg, “The right to choose: women, consent and marriage in late medieval England”, in History Today, Vol. 59, (2008), pp. 16-21, pp. 16-18.

[8] Catherine Armstrong, William Marshal Earl of Pembroke, Kennesaw, Seneschal Press, 2006, pp. 288-289.

[9] Anonymous, History of William Marshal, (ed.) AJ. Holden, (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volume II, London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 2002, pp. 166-169.

[10] Armstrong, Earl of Pembroke, pp. 288-289.

11] , On the Laws and Customs of England, (trans.) & (rev.) Samuel E. Thorne, Volume II, London: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 250.

[12] Menuge, Wardships, p. 1

[13] Sue Sheridan Walker, “Widow And Ward: The Feudal Law of Child Custody in Medieval England” in Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, (1976), pp. 104-116, pp. 104-105.

[14] Sue Sheridan Walker, “Free Consent and Marriage of Feudal Wards in Medieval England”, Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 8 (1982), pp. 123-134, pp. 123-124.

[15] Menuge, Wardships, pp. 87-91.

[16] Ranulf de Glanville, Glanville, (trans.) John Beames, Volume I, Washington: John Byrne & Co, 1900, pp. 138-139.

[17] Menuge, Wardships, p. 2.

[18] Bracton, Laws and Customs, Volume II, p. 255.

[19] “Grant of marriage of Belesent, daughter and heiress of Roger son of Odo, by her lord, Richard de Clare, earl of Hereford, 1173-1190”, in Jennifer Ward, (ed.) & trans. Women of the English Nobility and Gentry 1066-1500, New York: Manchester University Press, 1995, pp. 24-25.

9 thoughts on “The marriage alliances of noble women 1180-1250: Part One

    1. Hello Margaret.
      Thanks for the vote of confidence. Unfortunately I don’t currently have a book coming out. I have finished a book of medieval fiction which I am hoping to get published. Hopefully in the future I’ll have something published in non fiction that you will be able to read.
      Thanks again.

      Like

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