14 April 2023
How much did a medieval noblewoman pay to feed her staff and the members of her inner circle? What was the price of honouring the memory of a deceased member of the family? And how much did a queen spend on buying spices every year? You can find the answers to all these questions in a set of household rolls digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, thanks to generous funding by Joanna and Graham Barker.
Household rolls are a particular type of financial account that record the expenses, income, and other elements relating to the management of a household or medieval domestic establishment. Here is a list of all the household rolls that have been recently digitised and are now available to view online:
Roll of expenses in wax and spices by the royal households, 1300-1301
The household roll of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and Pembroke, 1265
The household roll of Katherine de Norwich, September 1336 to September 1337
Fragmentary roll of household expenses of Queen Philippa of Hainault
Expenses of Princess Mary’s Household, from 1 July 1525 to 31 December 1526
Expenses of Princess Mary’s household in her household departments, comparing the expenditure from 1525 and 1526
The newly digitised household rolls: Add MS 8877, Add Roll 63207, Add Roll 75855, Add MS 7966 B, Royal MS 14 B XXVI
One of the most common types of household roll was the ‘diet account’, which recorded the day-to-day location of the household and its expenses on food and provisions. A fascinating example is the household roll of Eleanor de Montfort (b. 1215, d. 1275), Countess of Leicester and Pembroke (now Add MS 8877). Eleanor was one of the most influential women in 13th-century England, the sister of King Henry III (r. 1216-1272) and wife to Simon de Montfort (b. c. 1208, d. 1265), one of the leaders of the rebellion in the Second Barons’ War. Eleanor’s household roll covers a particularly turbulent period in her life, immediately before and after the Battle of Evesham (4 August 1265), one of two major battles that took place during the war, in which both Eleanor’s husband and her son, Henry, were killed.
Portrait of Eleanor de Montfort from a Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England: Royal MS 14 B VI, Membrane 6
Entries in Eleanor’s household roll record the location of her household, the presence of the Countess, her close kin and the names of prominent visitors she hosted, as well as details of her various household departments, and the types and quantities of food and drink that were consumed. This entry, for example, shows that on an average day Eleanor paid a total of 10s. 10 ½d. on feeding herself and her staff, with purchases including grain, wine, and fish, among other items:
Die Veneris sequenti, pro comitissa et predictis; panis, ij. Quarteria, ij. Busseli, de Abindon’, Panis, ex emptione, vj.d. Vinum, iiij. Sixtaria; missis Domingo W. de Bathon’, dimidium sextarium; missis Domine Agnete, j. sextarium et domidium. [Coquina.] Alleces, vij., de instaro. Piscis (de mari), ix.s. vj d. [Mareschalcia.] Fenum, ad lviij. Equos. Avena, iij. Quareria, v. busselli. Pro busca, iij.d. Proo gagiis B. Juvenis, vij.d.ob. Summa, x.s. x.d. ob.
‘On Friday following, for the countess and the above-mentioned; grain, 2 quarters, 2 bushels, from Abingdon. Grain, by purchase, 6d. Wine, 4 sesters; half a sester having been sent to Sir Walter of Bath; 1 ½ sesters having been sent to Lady Agnes. [Kitchen] Herrings, 700, from the stock. Fish from the sea, 9s 6d. [Marshalesea] Hay, for 68 horses. Oats, 3 quarters, 5 bushels. For brushwood, 3d. For the wages of B. Juvenis,7 ½ d. Sum, 10 s. 10 ½ d.’
(see ed. and trans. L. J. Wilkinson, The Household Roll (2020), pp. 1-2).
An entry from the household roll of Eleanor de Montfort: Add MS 8877, Membrane 1
As well as the more everyday entries in household rolls, it is also possible to find records of extravagant expenditures, made for important occasions. That is the case for one entry in the household roll of the noblewoman Dame Katherine de Norwich (Add Roll 63207). Katherine de Norwich was the daughter of Sir John de Hethersett, and the widow of Piers Braunche (d. 1296) and later Walter de Norwich (d. 1329) and owned a number of manorial estates and residences throughout England. On 20 January 1337, Katherine spent a total of £10 18s 8d, a sixth of her annual expenditure on an anniversary feast held to commemorate the death of her second husband. Katherine hosted over ninety people for the event. Among the items bought for the feast, we find beer, hogs, mallards, a heron, chicken, partridge and wine.
The household roll of Katherine de Norwich: Add Roll 63207, Membrane 1
Some household rolls were also made to record the expenditure from purchases of a particular type of item. For example, one surviving roll made between 1300-1301 (now Add MS 7966 B) details expenses for wax and spices, bought for members of the English royal family, including King Edward I (r. 1272-1307), Queen Margaret of France (b. c. 1279, d. 1318), the future Edward II (r. 1307-1327),and Thomas (b. 1300, d. 1338), eldest son of King Edward I and Margaret. The roll records over twenty different spices, which would have been used to enrich the flavour of meals prepared for the royal household, from ginger and pepper, to galangal, cumin, cinnamon and saffron, among others.
Records of expenditure on cinnamon, pepper, and other spices, from a household roll made for the English royal family: Add MS 7966 B, Membrane 2
Household rolls provide a window into the day-to-day lives of medieval women, their expenses and income, the food they ate and the visitors they hosted, as well as the ways in which they managed their estates and resources. We hope you enjoy exploring these fascinating items!
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12 April 2023
Who was the first king to be crowned at Westminster Abbey? How old is the English coronation ritual? Which king waded through the mud at their own coronation?
With the coronation of King Charles III fast approaching, on 6 May 2023, let's take a look at crowning ceremonies in previous times, described and illustrated in medieval manuscripts held at the British Library.
King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272) is shown sitting on the throne and holding a model of Westminster Abbey, as drawn by Matthew Paris, chronicler and monk of St Albans, in the 1250s: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r (detail)
So where is the ceremony taking place this year, indeed for the first time in seventy years, since the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II in 1953? Westminster Abbey has been the location of the coronations of the kings and queens of England, and subsequently of the monarchs of Great Britain, since the 11th century. This abbey had been founded by King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066) at the very end of his reign, before being re-founded by Henry III in the 13th century. Much of the existing structure of the building dates from Henry's time, such as the famous Cosmati Pavement in front of the high altar.
The first English monarch to have been crowned at Westminster may have been the short-reigned Harold II Godwinson, in 1066, although there is no contemporary evidence to confirm this. The first coronation we know for certain to have been held at Westminster is that of Harold's successor, William I (r. 1066–1087), known to posterity as the Conqueror and in his own times as the Bastard. William's crowning took place on Christmas Day, 1066, and it is illustrated in this copy of Jean de Wavrin's Recueil des croniques et anciennes istoires de la Grant Bretaigne, made in Bruges towards the end of the 15th century, and once owned by another king of England, Edward IV (r. 1461–1470, 1471–1483). Unusually, it was Archbishop Ealdred of York who placed the crown on William's head, in place of the absent Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury.
William I is crowned by two bishops at Westminster Abbey (they are not named in the text), in Wavrin's Chronicle: Royal MS 15 E IV/2, f. 236r
There is one footnote to these events. There is a story told by the Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis, who was born soon afterwards, in 1075, and is usually regarded as a faithful chronicler. According to Orderic, when William received the acclamation of his noblemen and prelates, at the moment when the crown was placed upon his head, the soldiers standing guard outside the church feared that the king was being attacked. They immediately set fire to the buildings outside, and in the ensuing panic the clergy struggled to complete the consecration rites. This was an inauspicious start to the Bastard's reign.
William the Conqueror on his throne, as depicted in the 'Long Chronicle' of Battle Abbey, made in the 12th century: Cotton MS Domitian A II, f. 22r
What else connects modern coronations and those of earlier times? A manuscript known as the Anderson Pontifical, that was found in the stables at Brodie Castle in Scotland in 1970, contains the text of an Anglo-Saxon coronation order. This text prescribes that the king was to make a three-fold promise; he would then be consecrated and the antiphon 'Zadok the priest' was to be sung; he would then be given a ring and a sword; next he would be crowned, before receiving a sceptre and rod; and the ceremony would conclude with further prayers, before the consecration of the queen was to take place. The pontifical itself would have been used by a bishop or archbishop for conducting services, including the coronation.
This form of order was perhaps first used for the coronation of King Edward the Elder of Wessex (r. 899–924) in 900, and it continued in use into the 11th century. But we also know that it was preceded by an older form of service, dating from the middle of the 9th century, and that another coronation ritual took place even before then: the first recorded coronation of an English king was that of Ecgfrith, son of King Offa of Mercia, in 787. Elements of the Anglo-Saxon form of service were retained as recently as 1953, for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952–2022). We imagine that this may repeated to some degree this year, preserving a tradition that is more than 1,200 years old.
The so-called 'second' coronation order is found in this Anglo-Saxon pontifical, probably written at Christ Church, Canterbury, in the late 10th century or the early 11th century: Add MS 57337, f. 61r
What form did the early coronation promise take? A manuscript that was possibly created for Bishop Leofric and his cathedral at Exeter, sometime in the second half of the 11th century, holds a clue. Along with sermons and prayers is an Old English copy of the promise made by early kings of England at the beginning of their coronation services. The text is attributed to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (d. 988), but it may have originated earlier, as well as being altered by later writers. According to this manuscript, the king was to promise three things, acknowledging that it was his sacred responsibility to maintain peace, good order and the rule of law among his Christian people:
- The Church of God and all the people would hold true peace under his rule.
- He would forbid acts of robbery and iniquity.
- He would uphold justice and mercy in all judgements.
The Old English coronation oath is found in this 11th-century manuscript: Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII, f. 36r
We end with a coronation that took place just over 400 years ago, on 2 February 1626. The king in question was Charles I (r. 1625–1649) and things didn't go entirely to plan. One of his courtiers, Sir Robert Cotton, owned a house at Westminster adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, and through whose garden Charles would have to proceed when he disembarked from the royal barge on his way to the Abbey. But Cotton also possessed an incredible collection of early manuscripts (among them Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels), one of which was an early gospel-book that he believed had been used in the coronation ceremonies of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. The manuscript in question had in fact been presented to King Athelstan (r. 924–939) by either Otto I, king of Germany, or his father, Henry the Fowler, most likely on the occasion of Otto's marriage to Eadgyth, Athelstan's half-sister. Athelstan presented the manuscript in turn in the 930s to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury.
Robert Cotton signed his name at the bottom of the opening page of the Coronation Gospels (the manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731 and the parchment leaves were later placed in paper mounts): Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r
Whether the manuscript in question, which goes by the name of the 'Coronation Gospels', was actually used in the early English coronation ceremonies is a moot point. What matters is that Robert Cotton believed it did, and that he wished that Charles I would continue that tradition in 1626 by swearing his oath upon it. But Charles had other plans. He disliked Cotton (in time he even had his library closed on suspicion of containing seditious materials). When Charles saw Cotton standing on the steps by the River Thames, holding the Coronation Gospels in his hands, the king is said to have commanded that his barge be rowed further upstream. He thereby avoided Cotton with the precious manuscript, but he also ended up having to make his way through the river-mud in order to reach firmer ground. Such a snub seems typical of Charles I, who, as fate would have it, came to a sticky end in January 1649.
One thing to keep an eye (and ear on) this year. In 1521, Pope Leo X conferred the title 'Fidei Defensor' (Defender of the Faith) on King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), in recognition of the king's pamphlet Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (Declaration of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther). The original papal bull is preserved in a fire-damaged manuscript held by the British Library. Charles III has previously gone on record as saying that he would like to be known as Defender of all Faiths. It remains to be seen if this modification is incorporated in the new coronation ritual.
The bull conferring the title Defender of the Faith upon Henry VIII (who shortly afterwards broke from Rome): Cotton MS Vitellius B IV/1
We hope you have enjoyed reading this blogpost and that the coronation of the new king, Charles III, proceeds without a hitch.
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07 April 2023
This Good Friday, we have gathered a selection of illustrations of the Crucifixion from some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in our collections, dating from as early as the 11th century up to the end of the Middle Ages.
The Sherborne Missal
The Sherborne Missal is one of the masterpieces of English book production in the 15th century, a gigantic volume with nearly every page decorated with elaborate borders and historiated initials in colours and gold. The manuscript is a service book containing all the texts required for the celebration of Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year, made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, between approximately 1399 and 1407. The single full-page illustration in the manuscript is a depiction of the Crucifixion that introduces the Canon of the Mass. Christ is shown on the Cross, flanked by the two thieves, with the Virgin Mary fainting at its foot. Beside her appear the figures of St John and Mary Magdalene, while a crowd of mounted onlookers in contemporary dress gather behind the three crosses. The illustration is accompanied by portraits of the Four Evangelists writing in the corners of the frame, and a series of roundels containing depictions of related episodes from the Old Testament.
Read our previous blogpost on the digitisation of the Sherborne Missal here!
The Sherborne Missal, c. 1399-1407: Add MS 74236, p. 380
The De Brailes Hours
Depictions of the Crucifixion commonly feature within Books of Hours, prayerbooks that were hugely popular among lay people during the Middle Ages, allowing them to develop and observe their own routines of personal devotion throughout the day. Named after its designer and painter William de Brailes (active c. 1230–c. 1260), this small, portable volume (measuring only 150 x 125 mm) is the earliest known surviving English Book of Hours, made in Oxford around 1240. Its Crucifixion scene appears at the beginning of the section called None, referring to the ‘Ninth Hour’ of the day, and is divided into three sections, showing Christ on the Cross between the two thieves, Christ before the Virgin Mary and St John, and Longinus piercing Christ’s side.
Book of Hours (‘The De Brailes Hours’), c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 47v
The Holkham Bible Picture Book
The Holkham Bible Picture Book is a unique copy of the Bible that was made in London in the early 14th century. Rather than focusing on the Scriptural text, this manuscript is composed principally of over 230 vivid illustrations depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with accompanying captions of varying length, mostly written in Anglo-Norman French. The Passion sequence is depicted over a series of folios towards the end of the manuscript. On this opening, Christ is nailed to the Cross and his garments divided among the Roman soldiers, while the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is shown writing the sign that will be displayed above Christ’s head. The Crucifixion is shown on the opposing page. Scrolls issue from the mouths of figures within the scene, indicating portions of speech. At the foot of the Cross, a cluster of bones and skulls have been painted, reflecting the name Golgotha (literally ‘Skull’ in Aramaic), the site of the Crucifixion in ancient Jerusalem.
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, ff. 31v–32r
The Biblia Pauperum
Another unique type of illuminated picture Bible is this Biblia Pauperum (or Bible of the Poor), made in the Northern Netherlands around the turn of the 15th century. It features a series of images of the life of Christ painted in colours and gold, accompanied by images of episodes from the Old Testament that were thought to prefigure it. Here, for example, the Crucifixion appears in the centre of the page, with a depiction of the Binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, from the Book of Genesis, on the left, and Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on the right, from the Book of Exodus.
Biblia Pauperum, c. 1405: Kings MS 5, f. 17r
The Tiberius Psalter
The Crucifixion often appeared as part of prefatory cycles of images at the beginnings of Psalters (Book of Psalms). The Tiberius Psalter is one of the earliest surviving English examples, made in Winchester in the 3rd quarter of the 11th century. Its sequence of drawings, outlined in blue, red and green, depicts episodes from the lives of David and Christ, with an especial focus on the Passion. In the Tiberius Psalter’s depiction of the Crucifixion, Christ is shown on the Cross, with the Roman soldier Longinus piercing his side with a spear, and another holding to his mouth a sponge soaked in vinegar.
The Tiberius Psalter, 3rd quarter of the 11th century–2nd half of the 12th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 13r
The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll
The medieval churches of Southern Italy celebrated the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday from rolls designed to be used once a year for this specific ritual. The Exultet is a lyrical prayer, named after its opening words (‘Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum’), which is chanted during the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle during the Easter vigil. The British Library’s Exultet roll (Add MS 30337) was made at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino around 1075–1080 and features numerous illustrations, including a depiction of the Crucifixion that appears at the centre of the sixth membrane. Notably, the image is displayed upside-down upon the roll. This is because the deacon given the responsibility of reading the prayer would turn the top of the roll over so that it draped in front of the church’s ambo (a raised platform for liturgical readings) and display the images to the congregation the right way up. You can read our previous blogpost on this incredible item and the special way it was used in the performance of the Exultet.
The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, c. 1075–1080: Add MS 30337, membrane 6
We wish our readers a peaceful and Happy Easter!
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29 March 2023
How do you bring a soon-to-be queen to her new kingdom?
In November 1444, an expedition of over 300 people was sent to France with a specific mission: to bring Margaret of Anjou (b. 1430, d. 1482) to England for her marriage to King Henry VI (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471). The receipts and expenses of the journey and of the preparations made for it were recorded in an account-book (Add MS 23938) which has been digitised for the British Library's Medieval and Renaissance Women project. The volume in question, covering the period from 17 July 1444 to 16 October 1445, was compiled by two royal clerks, John Breknoke and John Everdon.
The first page of the account-book containing the receipts and expenses of the expedition to bring Margaret of Anjou to England: Add MS 23938. f. 1r
Margaret of Anjou was the daughter of René (r. 1435–1442), Duke of Anjou and King of Naples, and Isabella (b. 1400, d. 1453), Duchess of Lorraine. Her marriage to Henry VI had been negotiated by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, as part of a truce in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Margaret was betrothed (that is, promised in marriage) to Henry when she was 15 years old, and her future husband was 23. She was originally married to Henry by proxy, before she left for England, with William de la Pole standing in for Henry. The accounts describe her from that point onwards as Queen of England, being titled in Latin, ‘Compotus Johannis Breknoke et Johannis Euerdon de expensis domine Margarete regine veniente in Angliam’.
Queen Margaret of Anjou and King Henry VI in the ‘Talbot Shrewsbury Book': Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v
For the fifteen months covered by this account, a temporary household was created with the sole purpose of organising Margaret’s journey to England and accompanying her until she could be provided with a new permanent establishment upon her arrival. The expedition was led by William de la Pole himself. It was expected that the journey would only last three months, but in fact it lasted from November 1444 until April 1445. The cost of this enterprise was £5,563 17s. 5d., exceeding the funds that had been assigned to it by over £400.
The total expenditure covered by the accounts: Add MS 23938, f. 21r
The accounts contain an extraordinary list of people who accompanied the queen during the journey. As well as the Duke of Suffolk, it included the Marchioness of Suffolk and her ladies, 5 barons and 5 baronesses, 17 knights, 65 esquires and 204 valets. The queen’s own Angevin servants and entourage joined them on the way back to England, multiplying the number of people onboard. The journey also required the expertise of multiple sailors, who brought Margaret from France to England via the Cinque Ports (the five major ports in South-East England: Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings).
A list of wages and people in the expedition: Add MS 23938, f. 13r
These accounts provide a fascinating insight into one of the most solemn and expensive such expeditions in medieval English history. Margaret remained married to Henry until he was murdered at the Tower of London in May 1471. She was subsequently placed into the custody of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk (Geoffrey Chaucer's grand-daughter), her former lady-in-waiting, before being ransomed by King Louis XI in 1475 and returning to France, where she lived the remainder of her life. Those events are reflected by another document digitised for our project (Add Ch 13293); but that's another story!
A certificate for the safe delivery of Margaret of Anjou to Louis XI in 1476, photographed under ultraviolet light (Add Ch 13293)
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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25 March 2023
Rejoice! Over the past year, we've been hard at work digitising and cataloguing manuscripts connected with Medieval and Renaissance Women. We can now announce that all the manuscript volumes are online, no fewer than 93 (NINETY-THREE) of them. Many of these items were nominated by the readers of this Blog. We know that these manuscripts will support research into a wide variety of subjects that are close to our heart — women authors, female patronage and book ownership, women's health, education and business dealings, female spirituality, to name a few.
St Birgitta of Sweden, sitting and writing in a book, from a copy of her Revelations (Cotton MS Claudius B I, f. 117r)
You can download the full list here, with links to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. There, you'll be able to peruse these manuscripts in full and for free from the comfort of your own living room, office or jacuzzi (perhaps don't try this at home).
Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_vols_mar_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers)
An indenture between Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, and John Islip, Abbot of Westminster Abbey (Lansdowne MS 441, f. 3r)
We've also been digitising a significant number of our charters and rolls relating to Medieval and Renaissance Women (218 charters at the last count and 25 rolls). We will make a separate announcement when all of these are online — many of them already are, if you have been following this Blog carefully (most recently Claim of thrones and Mary had a little lamb).
The opening of a chapter on skin care from Le Regime du Corps (Sloane MS 2401, f. 47r)
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women, and essentially for making this all possible. We'd also like to thank our colleagues — the project co-ordinators, cataloguers, conservators, imaging technicians, digital specialists and fundraisers — who have been beavering away behind the scenes to bring this project to fruition.
The proceedings of the trial of Joan of Arc (Egerton MS 984, f. 3r)
From the works of Christine de Pisan, the first European woman to make her living from writing books, to treatises dealing with pregnancy, from cartularies and obituary calendars to the writings of Hildegard of Bingen and Birgitta of Sweden, not to mention the trial proceedings of Joan of Arc, we invite you to explore this wonderful and eye-opening collection.
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16 March 2023
Who was the first Queen of England in her own right? Matilda? Lady Jane Grey? Mary? Does Isabel of Portugal spring to mind?
To set the scene. On 21 May 1471, King Henry VI of England (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471) died at the Tower of London, the prisoner of his rival Edward IV (r. 1461–1470, 1471–1483), the first Yorkist king. Henry had no surviving heirs, and his death took place during the Wars of the Roses, a time of political turmoil in England. For over a century, the English throne had been disputed by two rival families: Lancaster and York.
Amidst this conflict, and only a month after Henry VI’s death, Isabel of Portugal (b. 1397, d. 1471), dowager Duchess of Burgundy, laid a claim to the English throne. In a solemn document issued on 17 June 1471, Isabel declared herself universal heiress of the late king. The charter in which Isabel claimed her rights to the crown of England (Add Ch 8043) has been digitised for our Medieval and Renaissance Women Project.
Isabel of Portugal claims her rights to the crown of England and declares herself universal heiress of Henry VI, the late king: Add Ch 8043
Isabel of Portugal, dowager Duchess of Burgundy, was the daughter of João I, King of Portugal (r. 1385–1433), and Queen Philippa of Lancaster (b. 1360, d. 1415). Through her maternal lineage, Isabel shared a common ancestor with King Henry VI of England: John of Gaunt (b. 1340, d. 1399), Duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt was Isabel’s grandfather and Henry VI’s great-grandfather. It was on the grounds of this consanguinity (the kinship of two individuals characterized by the sharing of common ancestors) that Isabel made claim to the English throne.
John of Gaunt and his relationships with the ruling houses of Portugal and Europe, including Isabel of Portugal (in red, right-hand margin), from the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 10r
The charter was signed by Isabel herself, and it was validated by two notaries, Hugo de le Val and Matheus de Hamello, clergymen of the city of Arras in France (‘presbiter canonicus Atrebatensibus’). These notarial marks, together with Isabel’s signature, conferred legal validity upon this document.
Close-up of Isabel’s signature and two notarial marks: Add Ch 8043
However, Isabel did not hold on to her claim to the English throne for long. Only a few months later, on 3 November 1471, she ceded her rights to her son, Charles the Bold (b. 1433, d. 1477), Duke of Burgundy. At this time Isabel was 74 years old, and she died soon afterwards, on 17 December 1471, in the town of Aire-sur-la-Lys in France. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, ruled over England until 1483, surviving both Isabel and Charles the Bold, mother and son.
Charles the Bold, son of Isabel of Portugal, and his court: Yates Thompson MS 32, f. 14r
Although her claim never succeeded, this document demonstrates that Isabel of Portugal tried actively to take advantage of a time of political instability and unrest in England, in order to advance her own position and, more hopefully, that of her son. Isabel was well aware of her lineage to the late Henry VI, and at a time of turbulence and doubt during the Wars of the Roses, she did not hesitate to assert herself as universal heir.
We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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14 March 2023
One of the more unusual documents digitised as part of the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is Add Ch 67394, a sworn testimony by four men that they had been told the deathbed confession of a woman called Alice of Hulton. It is the missing piece in a 600-year-old case involving an affair, a divorce, and a lovechild.
Declaration by Brother John Bradfield, Robert of Hebton, William Brechton of Ekygan and John Fogg of Bradshaw, regarding the deathbed confession of Alice of Hulton, 20 December 1447: Add Ch 67394
Alice of Hulton had been the lover of Robert of Pilkington, lord of Rivington in Lancashire. A soldier who fought in France in the Hundred Years War, Robert had testified in the famous Scrope v Grosvenor case in the Court of Chivalry in 1386. But he had his own legal problems to worry about.
Robert had married a different Alice, Alice of Astley, in 1379, but this was annulled in July that same year, as Alice of Astley was distantly related to Alice of Hulton, with whom he had had a relationship in 1367. He then married Katherine de Aynesworth in 1383 and they had seven children together. Despite this seemingly stable marriage, Robert spent the 1390s transferring his estates to various trustees, both within and without his family, seemingly to protect them from an unknown rival claimant. The reason for this takes us back to Alice of Hulton.
As it turned out, Robert’s second wife, Katherine, was also a cousin of Alice of Hulton, requiring him to secure a dispensation from the Pope in 1403 to confirm the validity of his marriage. On top of this, Alice of Hulton and Robert of Pilkington had a daughter, Imania, born out of wedlock in the late 1360s. Robert married Imania off to Roger of Bolton in 1385, seemingly forgetting about her until she and Roger had a son in the 1390s, also named Robert. Pilkington’s legal manoeuvres in the 1390s were his attempts to stop Imania’s son, his grandson, from having any claim on his lands. With the papal dispensation confirming his marriage in 1403, Pilkington died that year probably safe in the knowledge that his family’s estates were now secure.
Family tree of Alice of Hulton and Alice of Astley, from John Pilkington, The History of the Pilkington Family and its Branches from 1066 to 1600 (Liverpool, 1912), p. 221
So why was Alice of Hulton's testimony important in 1447, 44 years after Pilkington's death? That's because two years previously, in 1445, Imania's son, Robert son of Roger of Bolton, appeared in court to try and claim Rivington as the son and heir of Imania, over Pilkington's children by Katherine.
The case must still have been live in 1447, when these four men put their seals to this certificate. In it, they say that, while Alice of Hulton lay dying, William of Lener had heard a Richard French of Bolton proclaim that the divorce between Pilkington and Alice of Astley had been done under a false pretext, implying that Richard believed Pilkington and Alice of Hulton had not slept together. Lener said that Alice of Hulton swore that this was a lie, and that 'she would swear before almighty God at the day of doom that she had known part of the body of the said Robert in fleshly deed of sin'.
Despite Alice’s deathbed confession recorded in this document, her grandson Robert was unsuccessful in securing part of the estates of his grandfather, Robert of Pilkington. Rivington remained in the Pilkington family until it was sold in 1605. This small document is part of a fascinating story of the complexities of medieval marriage and inheritance, and preserves one woman’s attempt to tell her own story about her relationship with a powerful local lord.
We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for funding our Medieval and Renaissance Women project.
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06 March 2023
One of the benefits of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project is that we have been able to focus on groups of documents that have features in common. Individually, these documents provide insight into the lives (and after-lives) of particular named women; collectively, this evidence is all the richer for revealing social trends and patterns of behaviour. Into this category falls a number of wills of women from the 13th to the 16th centuries, from England, Flanders and Germany.
The cover of the will of Elizabeth Ayrer of Nuremberg, 1534: Add Ch 74114
A full list of the women's wills digitised as part of this project is given at the end of this blogpost. They number 22 individual wills, some with probate certificates, and a commission by the archbishop of Canterbury to administer a will. It's more than likely that many of the women in whose names these wills were issued would have been obliterated from the historical record if these documents had not survived.
The women named in these wills came from different walks of life but they had shared experiences. In each case, they wished to make provision for their possessions and property after they had died, and to make arrangements for the salvation of their souls. Many of them are described as widows. Does this mean that, as they had no husbands to inherit their goods, it was more incumbent upon them to set out who should be the beneficiaries?
Several women were keen to stipulate where they should be buried. In 1318, Gunnilda atte Denne requested that her body be buried in the churchyard of St Peter Newdigate, and she made a bequest to that church for her obit mass (Add Ch 17295). In 1504, Katherine Cooke prescribed that her body be buried in the chapel of St Mary at St Michael the Archangel’s church, Lewes, next to the tomb of John Cooke, her husband (Add Ch 18791). She also left money for the maintenance of her tomb, for masses for her soul, and to Agnes Chamber, her daughter. In 1411, Margery, the widow of John Todenham, knight, left her body to be buried in the chancel of the Austin Friars, Thetford, next to the tomb of Elizabeth Homgrave, her daughter (Add Ch 24243).
The will of Gunnilda atte Denne, 1318: Add Ch 17295
We can also gain insights into the wider social circles and support networks of medieval and Renaissance women. For instance, in 1342, Elizabeth, the widow of Thomas Paytfyn of Heddingley, made bequests to her brothers' children and to her siblings (Add Ch 16789). In 1500, Joanna Lane, widow of Nicholas Lane of Snape, made bequests to her daughters, her goddaughter, and her goddaughter’s family (Add Ch 26317). In 1360, Katherine de Bassi of Tournai, wife of the late Baldwin du Bas, made payments to parish priests, hostels, hospitals, the sick, her relatives and those of her husband (Add Ch 75719). Katherine was here providing for the salvation of her soul, but one imagines that the people listed in her bequest deserved her favour in one way or another.
The will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai: Add Ch 75719
It is possible to gauge from this documentary material that particular women may have had significant accomplishments, or moved in particular circles. We know, for example, that Margery de Crek was the founder of Flixton Priory. In her will, dated the morrow of the feast of St Luke the Evangelist (19 October), 1282, she left her body to be buried in the church there, which she had founded in 1258 (LFC Ch III 1). She made other bequests to this convent, to the bishop of Norwich, and to her family. One of the most detailed wills we have digitised, comprising 3 membranes folded into bifolia and sewn together, is that of Elizabeth Ayrer, widow of Sebald Neyrer of Nuremberg, dated 1534, and which was certified by the Burgomeister and council of that city (Add Ch 74114). In her will, dated 14 July 1574, Agnes Fearne made provision to establish a free school and a bedehouse at Wirksworth (Derbyshire) (Wolley Ch XII 31). We know that her sister’s stepson and Anthony Gell, one of her executors, founded the school and bedehouse in 1576.
The will of Margery de Crek, founder of Flixton Priory, 1282: LFC Ch III 1
In one instance, a will survives of a woman who was subsequently declared intestate. On 18 March 1455, Sibylla Frances of Dunwich committed her body in her will to the Franciscans of Dunwich, besides making bequests to them, the parish church of Shaddingfield(?), and Peter Codon, the son of Robert Codon (Add Ch 10392). Other records show that by 1457 Sibylla was intestate, implying that her will had either been lost or that it had been deemed invalid. In other words, leaving a will was no guarantee that the woman's wishes be carried out to the letter.
Will of Joan Ward, widow, of St Saviour’s Parish, Southwark (1544)
Will of Sibylla Frances of Dunwich (1455)
Will and probate certificate of Elizabeth, widow of Thomas Paytfyn of Heddingley (1342)
Will and probate certificate of Gunnilda atte Denne (1318)
Will and probate certificate of Katherine Cook of St Andrew’s parish, Lewes (1504)
Will and probate certificate of Margaret, widow of John de Covert (1367)
Will and probate certificate of Margery, widow of John Todenham, knight (1411)
Will and probate certificate of Joanna Lane, widow of Nicholas Lane of Snape (1500)
Will of Isabella Russell, widow of John Churchhay of Frome (1361)
Will and probate certificate of Margaret Hervy of Ryburgh (1508)
Commission by Thomas Bourgchier, archbishop of Canterbury, to administer the will of Emota Newton, widow (1481)
Will of Margaret Canon (1424)
Will of Margery Loqmer, widow of John Loqmer of Newington-next-Hythe (1473)
Will and probate certificate of Joanna Chiltern, widow, wife of John Chiltern of Newington-next-Hythe (1481)
Will and probate certificate of Agnes Leigh, widow, of the parish of Cheriton (1516)
Will of Elizabeth Ayrer, widow of Sebald Neyrer of Nuremberg (1534)
Will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai (1360)
Will of Isabella Storke, wife of William Denton of the diocese of Ely (1496)
Will and probate certificate of Agnes Sowle (1465)
Will of Margery de Crek (1282)
Will of Agnes Fearne, widow, of Wirksworth (1574)
Probate certificate of the will of Agnes Fearne (1575)
The British Library is immensely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for the funding of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project.
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