Family and land were two of the central features around which concepts of standing, status, and power were built in medieval rural societies. This was arguably true of all orders of society above the ranks of the landless, labourers, and vagrants. Peasant society, it is now widely acknowledged, was in many respects an assemblage of family units. It was the family which was often the primary social and economic organism. It was the unit of production, consumption, and seigniorial obligation. Its customs of inheritance, and the conventions which determined claims to its land and chattels between widows and children, formed the framework for the distribution and inheritance of property, especially at death. Land was also the means to, and the guarantor of, status. It was in terms of the amount of land that he held that the medieval peasant was often identified—virgater, half-yardlander, bovate-holder, and so forth. Ownership of land also made him a fully fledged member of the village community with all the rights and duties—including a share in communal agriculture, use of common meadow and pasture, access to woods, forest, and turbary—that this could entail. The hierarchies of landed wealth and the accumulation, transmission, and inheritance of land were paramount features of peasant status and life cycles.
What was true of peasant society applied equally, if not more so, to the other orders of society. Particularly did it apply to the greater aristocracy. We will misunderstand their priorities and concerns if we overlook the degree to which their policies were regularly preoccupied by the issues of land and family. Furthermore many of the documents which they carefully preserved in their archives, copied into their cartularies, and bequeathed to their descendants were concerned with these very issues. For the historian this is both a strength and a weakness. From these documents it is often possible to glimpse the strategies which families deployed to protect and enhance their landed fortunes and family interests. Most of these documents were carefully drafted by lawyers. They are precise and technical, and grow steadily more so across the period studied in this book. They have been the subject of excellent detailed studies, notably on issues such as entails, jointures, marriage contracts, settlements in tail male, and enfeoffments to use—all of them devices developed to extend the family’s control over its lands and its transmission from one generation to
the next.1 It is not the aim of the present chapter to summarize this vast and technical body of historiographical comment except in so far as a brief review, accompanied by some selected examples, can help us to identify the approach of the aristocracy to issues of land and family. It is precisely in that area that we become aware of the limitations of the evidence. Abundant it may be, but it is also deliberately technical and formulaic. It is very rare indeed—at least until we enter the much better-documented world of private correspondence in the fifteenth century—that we are given a glimpse of the personal considerations and passions which shaped the decisions which underlie the bloodless language of the legal documents. Nor is it always easy to separate social reality from legal fiction in many of these documents.
But even when we have conceded as much, it is abundantly clear that land and family lay at the heart of the aristocracy’s ambitions. In England at least—less so arguably in Scotland and Ireland—land and aristocracy went hand in hand, especially at the higher echelons of the titled nobility. An adequate ‘competence’ (as it was called) in land was as essential for a great magnate, as were jewels for a lady or the tools of agriculture (wainage) for the peasant. This is vividly demonstrated in the territorial provision that Edward III made when he created six new earls in 1337. Thus in elevating William Clinton to be earl of Huntingdon in that year, the king gave him land and rent worth one thousand marks annually so that ‘he could more properly continue and better sustain the status and honour of earl’.2 Honours and titles were all very well, but the medieval period took a down-to-earth view of both. Only the possession of land and rents and the control of people gave a meaningful content to aristocratic lordship.
Land, therefore, was the source of wealth and power; it was also the focus of family tradition and family ambition. It is true that a common distinction was drawn between inherited land (an estate which had descended to an individual through his/her place in the family tree and whose transmission to the next generation was largely determined by convention and custom) and acquired land (an estate which an individual had secured—or ‘purchased’ in the contemporary phrase—by purchase, marriage, or exchange and was his, therefore, theoretically to dispose of as he wished). But even this distinction, in so far as it was applied in practice, could only last for one generation, since the ‘acquired’ land of one generation became the ‘inherited’ land of the next. Land was in effect held in trust by an individual on behalf of his/her family, past, present, and future. Just
1 A full bibliography is not called for here, but the following (cited in order of publication) have been particularly useful: Holmes, Estates, ch. 2; J. M. W. Bean, The Decline of English Feudalism, 1215—1540 (Manchester, 1968); McFarlane, Nobility, esp. chs. 3—4; Given-Wilson, English Nobility, esp. chs. 5—6; Bean, ‘Landlords’, 526—86; Carpenter, Locality and Polity'; Payling, ‘Social Mobility, Demographic Change and Landed Society’, 51 —73; idem, ‘The Politics of Families: Late Medieval Marriage Contracts’, in The McFarlane Legacy: Studies in Late Medieval Politics and Society, ed. R. H. Britnell and A. J. Pollard (Stroud, 1995), 21—49; idem, ‘The Economics of Marriage in Late Medieval England. The Marriage of Heiresses’, Econ. HR, 54 (2001), 413—29.
2 Holmes, Estates, 4 n.1.
as the family’s coat of arms and its profound attachment to its ‘name’ and lineage expressed its anxiety to display, confirm and, if necessary, invent and embellish its continuity through time,3 so the descent of the family’s estates in the (preferably) main family line helped to assert and display the family’s antiquity and standing. So it was, for example, that the Mortimer family was inordinately proud of the brass horn which, so it was claimed, was their charter for the land of Wigmore. Whether the horn was authentic or not, the Mortimers had good reason for their pride since they can be shown, from independent historical evidence, to have been lords of Wigmore since the days of William the Conqueror. Titular horns, family legends (again amply provided in the case of the Mortimers by a full family chronicle), genealogies, and carefully assembled collections of title deeds all of them proclaimed the emphasis on the continuity of great families.4
In fact few of the really great aristocratic families showed a somnolent continuity over time. Some families—the Courtenay earls of Devon are a well- known example—showed a remarkable stability over several generations; but that was more a comment on their lack of enterprise, character, and success. More commonly—and much more so among great magnate families rather than county gentry—the territorial fortunes of families fluctuated, sometimes wildly, from one generation or even one decade to the next. A fortunate marriage or a handsome royal gift or the windfalls of an unexpected failure of heirs in a family or even the investment of the gains of war could all transform a family’s chances dramatically and unexpectedly. But so, in reverse, could a major political blunder or the sudden extinction of direct male heirs of the male line. In this, as in other respects, the swings of fortune and misfortune were more dramatic in their impact for the greater aristocracy than for other orders of society.
We will, once more, choose the Mortimers of Wigmore to illustrate the truism, largely because the scale and pace of change in the family’s fortunes across the fourteenth century are unusually vivid and partly because the survival of a family cartulary and chronicle and scattered family muniments help to illuminate the story.5 In 1272 the Mortimers could look back on almost two centuries as lords of Wigmore (Herefordshire) and nearby Welsh lordships. They were a rumbustious lot and had been ruthless frontier barons but on the whole they looked as if they would have to be content with their long-accustomed role as Herefordshire and Marcher barons, and no more. Over the next century this situation was to be dramatically transformed and they were catapulted into the very front rank of the English aristocracy. The routes to success were many, but two in particular can be selected for attention here. The first was royal patronage, in return, of course, for service to the king. The family’s rise to pre-eminence was built on successive
3 See above, pp. 28 — 33.
4 See above, pp. 34 — 9.
5 For the Mortimers see Holmes, Estates, 10—19; Davies, Lordship and Society, 53—66. For maps of Mortimer lands in Wales see R. R. Davies, The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063—1415 (Oxford, 1987,2000), 396,407.
bouts of royal munificence—first by Edward I to Roger Mortimer (d. 1282); then by Edward II to Roger’s junior son, Roger of Chirk, and to his grandson, Roger of Wigmore, in the years 1307—21; then in an orgy of shameless grants to the latter Roger, now flaunting the newly invented title earl of March, in the minority years of Edward III (1327—30); and finally by the extraordinarily generous, if high-handed, acts of Edward III in rebuilding the Mortimer fortunes almost completely in the 1350s for the next Earl Roger (d. 1360).
The second route to the transformation of the family’s fortunes and standing lay through the spoils of marriage. Indeed the two routes were linked in as much as royal consent, and even direct royal intervention, were essential pre-requisites for success in the major marriage stakes. We may again select two examples from the annals of the family to illustrate the point. The first was the betrothal in 1301 of the young Roger Mortimer, at the age of fourteen and during his father’s lifetime, to Joan Geneville (or Joinville), only daughter and heir of Peter and Joan de Geneville. Intense negotiations and calculations of possible consequences no doubt preceded the contract. Over the next few years, the fruits of the marriage fell into the lap of the Mortimers: they included a major accession to the family’s standing in the Welsh March (the lordship of Ewyas Lacy and a moiety of Ludlow) and a totally new stake in the English colony in Ireland (the lordships of Trim and Meath). Even more spectacular in its import, and this time involving direct royal intervention, was the marriage of Earl Edmund Mortimer (d. 1381) in 1368 to Philippa, daughter of Lionel, duke of Clarence, and granddaughter of Edward III. Earl Edmund’s marriage had originally been promised to the earl of Arundel’s daughter; but when the king stepped in with his offer, the promise to Arundel was cancelled on due payment of compensation.6 Few families could resist the flattering offer of a royal marriage alliance. But flattery apart, the 1368 marriage quickly brought very tangible rewards for the Mortimers. Philippa was the heiress of Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 1360) and so brought to her new husband a goodly part of the vast former Clare inheritance, including great lordships in south-east Wales, East Anglia, and Ireland. From being in 1301 a baronial family of sound but modest regional standing the Mortimers had become within three generations possibly the second richest aristocratic family in England, with estates stretching from East Anglia through southern England, a predominant position in the March of Wales, and a towering position in the ranks of English magnates in Ireland.
Presented in this fashion the story of the Mortimers from 1272 to 1398 would appear to be one of remorseless advance and consolidation. It was, of course, nothing of the sort. Rather was it a series of episodic successes and disastrous setbacks. No one could predict from one generation—or indeed one decade—to the next what the consequences might be of a political disaster, a childless marriage, the failure of male heirs, or the demands of successive widows—to
6 CCR 1354—60, 92 — 94; McFarlane, Nobility, 86 n. 3.
name but some of the most obvious contingencies. Such disasters could destroy a family irretrievably, as happened to the cadet branch of the Mortimers of Chirk after the death of Roger in 1326.7 But other families—including our Mortimers of Wigmore—recovered from their failures and disasters, partly because they relearnt the art of climbing the greasy pole of political success in each generation and—which is much the same thing—mastered the arts of winning the support and patronage of the king. For the Mortimers the fourteenth century was a roller coaster of a century, punctuated by disaster, minorities galore, and widowhoods. But there was no doubt, if one takes the long view, that the trajectory of their fortunes was very much upwards. As was true of most aristocratic families, wealth and fortune seemed to attract more wealth and fortune.
The Mortimers had built up their territorial fortune through the enterprise of individual members of the family and the luck of a series of key marriages. Their task now was to secure the integrity of the inheritance and to prevent it being dissipated by alienation and fragmentation. The assumptions of English land law helped them in this respect. Its inbuilt prejudice in favour of the eldest male heir of the body as the rightful expectant owner of his father’s lands was a powerful force in keeping the estate integral. So, at least formally, was the absence of means by which land (outside boroughs) could be devised by will. We will, in fact, see that there were various ways in which these limitations could be, and were regularly, circumvented. But in the vast majority of cases the rights of the eldest surviving son to succeed to the family estates, or at least the greater bulk of them, were respected. Sometimes, indeed, the integrity of the estate was formally protected against the indigence or extravagance of the father in the interests of the son. Thus when in May 1316 the powerful Bartholomew de Badlesmere struck a marriage agreement with Robert Fitz Pain, he insisted that the latter should have no power to alienate any of his land (beyond £200 worth) without Bartholomew’s consent. Bartholomew was thereby protecting the interests of his daughter (who was betrothed to Robert’s son) but he was also ensuring that his future son-in-law should enter into his family inheritance more or less intact.8
Aristocratic families were obsessed with the fear that a family inheritance built up over the generations might be dissipated and fragmented by often totally unforeseen events, both natural and man-made. They had good reason to be very apprehensive about the issue. In a famous calculation—which broadly stands in spite of subsequent reservations and qualifications—K. B. McFarlane estimated that a quarter of his sample baronial families became extinct in the direct male line every twenty-five years during the period 1300-1500.9 It is little wonder that the best lawyers in the land were busy preparing legal devices for coping as
7 For the virtual dispossession of the Mortimers of Chirk see Davies, Lordship and Society, 46-7.
8 GEC, sub Robert Fitz Pain. For another comparable example see Thomas de Multon as cited in Holmes, Estates, 43.
9 McFarlane, Nobility, 146 and ch. 2 passim. See also Payling, ‘Social Mobility, Demographic Change, and Landed Society’, 54.
best they could with such a contingency. Indeed it was but one of a galaxy of concerns which disturbed the sleep of any self-respecting aristocrat. How could the consequences of a long minority and the depredations which often came in the wake of a royal custody be mitigated, if not altogether avoided? What about the claims of widows, cadets, and collaterals? When should the affection one naturally felt for daughters who happened to be heirs make way for the superior claim of maintaining the integrity of the family inheritance? How could one do any sort of justice between children from a first and a second marriage?
There were no universal answers to these and many other similar questions. Each family would have to work out its own, sometimes highly individual, solutions. But those solutions drew increasingly on a body of accepted practices and legal devices on which the whole aristocracy could, in principle draw. Much the same sets of practices and devices also prevailed in much of lowland Scotland and in English Ireland, in other words in areas which were, albeit at one remove and often with their own distinctive technical vocabulary (e.g. tailzie for an estate in tail in Scotland),10within the orbit of the English common law tradition. The main thrust of these various legal devices was to determine, in so far as possible, the descent of the family inheritance at the death of the owner and to do so in a way which both preserved the integrity of the estates and respected the owner’s wishes in so far as they had been expressed and specified.
The entail was perhaps the most fundamental of these devices. Stated baldly, an entail altered the legal status of the land and gave a much greater say to the wishes of its current lord in determining its descent. It was no longer held in fee simple with its exclusive emphasis that it was a tenancy held in fee (and thereby subject at the death of its holder to crown rights of custody and wardship) and that the right of the primogenitary heir determined succession. The landholder—provided he had secured a royal licence—could use the entail to determine the descent of his inheritance in accordance with his wishes. There were many possibilities—including specifying a sequence of remainders (i.e. indicating to which member of a family the land should descend in the event of the failure of the designated heir(s) or his direct descendants), preferring male collaterals to daughters or claimants through the female line, or excluding collaterals as prospective heirs at the time of a marriage contract (as happened when Thomas, earl of Lancaster (d. 1322), took the daughter and heir of the earl of Lincoln (d. 1311) as his wife in October 1294).11 Since family circumstances and the wishes ofindividual magnates varied widely there is no general pattern to these arrangements, even though they drew on the same body of legal principles.
The best we can do, therefore, is to select a few well-known instances to illustrate how these arrangements shaped the fortunes and descent of noble
10 For Scotland see esp. H. L. MacQueen, Common Law and Feudal Society in Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh, 1993), esp. 180—1.
11 Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster, 3—4; McFarlane, Nobility, 263.
families. Perhaps the best known and most comprehensive such settlement was that made by Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (d. 1369) in 1344—5 when he devised the bulk of his estates to himself and to his eldest son jointly, with remainders to younger sons and provisions for his daughters’ dowries.12 The provisions had to be revised several times to take account of deaths (including that of his eldest son) and other changes in family circumstances. Thomas Beauchamp’s entail arrangements were even-handed as between his children, those of other magnates less so. Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel (d. 1376) was a shrewd and ruthless operator. Having ditched his first wife since he regarded her now as a political embarrassment, he made three separate entails of different portions of his estate—at the time of his second marriage in 1345 to the daughter of the earl of Lancaster, then in 1347 when this marriage produced a son, and finally in 1366 to lock in the Warenne inheritance (which had descended to him) with the Arundel fortunes. Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland (d. 1425), was to follow much the same route in his family settlements and to show the same degree of ruthlessness. 13
Shrewd family calculations informed all such settlements. Keeping the inheritance—or at least the main part of it—intact was a basic desideratum, and preferably in the direct male line. The Beauchamp family once more provided two highly instructive instances. Earl Thomas (d. 1369), as we have seen, engineered a series of arrangements to determine the descent of the family lands and to give a good start in life to all his children. But he had not bargained for the ruses of the Great Reaper. Three of his five sons predeceased him. But Earl Thomas was not to be thwarted. A fourth son, William (d. 1411), was already marked out for an ecclesiastical career, no doubt eventually a bishopric; he was already canon of Salisbury. But the continuity of the family took precedence over ecclesiastical convictions and scruples. He was retrained as a soldier and a valuable portion of the Beauchamp inheritance was given to him and his heirs male. It was a calculated insurance policy—that of establishing a credible cadet branch of the family against the possibility that the remaining Beauchamp heir Thomas (d. 1401) might, like his three other brothers, die prematurely and without a male heir of the body. In the event, the reverse happened: it was Richard Beauchamp son of William Beauchamp (recently created earl of Worcester) who died in 1422 without a son. The Beauchamp instinct for reintegrating the family inheritance now swung remorselessly, and probably uncanonically, into action. The widow of Richard Beauchamp (d. 1422) was married to his namesake and cousin, Richard Beauchamp earl of Warwick (d. 1439) in November 1423. What for us is instructive is the shaft of light that a whole series of marriages, deaths, and settlements casts on the shaping and reshaping of aristocratic fortunes. Entails
12 CPR 1343—5, 251—2; Holmes, Estates, 48—9.
13 CPR 1343-5, 487-8; CPR 1345-8, 328-9; CPR 1364-7, 198, 237-9; GEC sub Westmorland.
and settlements could have totally unforeseen long-term consequences; families worked out strategies which maximized the opportunities of all its members but never lost sight of the overriding priority of family solidarity (where it could be achieved) and the continuity of the family inheritance; the cadet branch could easily become the senior residuary legatee of family plans in one generation only to find the boot on the other foot in the next.
The bias of these settlements—and increasingly so as our period progresses—was in favour of male heirs, preferably of the body. Medieval aristocratic England was not an agnatic society, in the sense that medieval Wales was, excluding formally all claims to landed property by females or through the female line. The prominent role played by widows, dowagers, daughters, and other female heiresses makes that evident enough.14 Nevertheless the advantages of unilineal male descent were obvious in a society anxious to preserve the family name and the integrity of the inheritance. Interestingly, perhaps some of the most forthright statements of this credo come from Scotland and Ireland. These were societies where clan or family leadership in peace and war-captaincy in regions of frequent warfare reinforced the preference for male inheritance. The charter of entail for the barony and castle of Dalkeith did not mince its words on this score. The barony was to be entailed to male heirs; failing such heirs it was to pass to the next male heirs bearing the surname Dalkeith. And in case the point was not sufficiently explicit it was decreed that no descent to a female heir was to be permitted unless male heirs were totally lacking. 15 It was an attitude that would have been fully understood in English Ireland. In 1299 the barony of Skeathy (Co. Kildare) was to pass, in the absence of male heirs, to ‘the most noble, worthy, strong and praiseworthy of the pure blood and name of Rochfordeyn ... to whom the whole barony. . . shall remain indivisible, so that the inheritance shall never pass to daughters’. That statement enunciated a set of principles in an uncompromising form which any English or indeed Scottish magnate family would have understood.16
Another device which greatly extended a landowner’s control of the descent of his lands—and helped him avoid feudal inheritance law—lay in the trust or enfeoffment to use. It may well have been developed among gentry landowners in the late thirteenth century, but it was in the period after 1350 that it seems to have been widely practised among leading aristocratic landowners. It is possibly best illustrated by a concrete example rather than by a theoretical exposition of its legal possibilities. The history of the Mortimer estates serves us well once more. In 1359, on the eve of his departure for a campaign in France, Earl Roger
14 R. Archer, ‘Rich Old Ladies: The Problem of Later Medieval Dowagers’, in Property and Politics: Essays in Later Medieval English History, ed. A. Pollard (Stroud, 1984), 15—35.
15 Mort. Reg., I, no. 97.
16 Calendar of the Justiciary Rolls. . . of Ireland, ed. J. Mills et al. 3 vols. (Dublin, 1905 — 56), I, 326, quoted in A. J. Otway-Ruthven, A History of Medieval Ireland (London, 1968), 106—7. Other examples are cited in Frame, English Lordship in Ireland, 23—4.
(d. 1360) demised a goodly proportion of his estates to a group of friends and councillors headed by the bishop of Winchester, William Wykeham.17 The grant meant that the title to the estates was now vested formally not in the earl but in the feoffees as they were called, provided they observed the conditions on which the grant was made—often involving paying an annual fee farm to the feoffor. On his death—and in the case of Earl Roger death followed within one year of the enfeoffment—the feoffees would run the estate in accordance with the feoffor’s (or late magnate’s) wishes as expressed in the enfeoffment and/or his will. Side by side with the entail, the enfeoffment to use was a crucial device in shaping the descent and status of a magnate’s estate after his death. There were doubtless a variety of complex motives behind the adoption of uses, both negative (to avoid the consequences of a prolonged period of royal custody) and positive (to ensure that the owner’s wishes were indeed observed after his death). Perhaps one of the most explicit statements of what those wishes might involve are those specified in the will of Hugh, earl of Stafford who died on pilgrimage to Rhodes in 1386: to guarantee the lands and rents given to his servants for their lives; to provide a dowry for his daughter; and to provide an annuity for each of his younger sons.18 In short it was as much a means of upholding a family settlement as it was a way of avoiding the ‘death duties’ of feudal tenure.
Entails and enfeoffments to use were parts of the legal paraphernalia that were developed, especially in the fourteenth century, to cope with the wish of aristocratic landowners to exercise as much control as possible over the descent and transmission of the family inheritance. Preserving the name of the family, retaining the integrity of the inheritance, preferring generally the established claims of the eldest surviving male heir and ensuring, in so far as possible, that the wishes of the owner continued to shape decisions after his death were certainly among the primary considerations. But they were by no means the only ones, since the magnate was the head of a family as well as the heir of an estate, and he needed to balance these considerations against one another. Working out that equation amicably and effectively was a major challenge to his talent and ingenuity.
Top of the list of claims on the magnate’s generosity was the need to make provision for his wife, especially in anticipation that he would predecease her and she would survive him as a widow for years. Conventional practice stipulated that a widow had a claim to a third of her husband’s property at his death. This had been supplemented by the practice of his nominating specified lands to her on the marriage as a maritagium, further consolidating her claim; but this practice had largely been replaced by the grant of a marriage portion to the bride’s father, a practice to which we will return. The really important development was the growing fashion in the fourteenth century of creating a joint tenancy
17 CPR 1358—61, 266; Holmes, Estates, 45.
18 CPR 1377-81,219; CPR 1385-9, 344.
in survivorship for a landholder and his wife, stipulating which lands should be held by joint title and which therefore would be held by whichever party lived the longer. Sometimes only a few manors were included in a jointure arrangement but occasionally the terms were extended to the greater part of an inheritance. The impact of dower portions and jointure settlements could have a major impact on the land available to the heir and thereby on his standing, wealth, and political prospects. Particularly so was this the case when multiple dowager ladies put in their claims more or less simultaneously. Earl Roger of March (d. 1360) had his work cut out to salvage as much as he could of the Mortimer lands forfeited by his grandfather and namesake (d. 1330); but his task was made all the more frustrating by the fact that three Mortimer widows—his great-grandmother, his grandmother, and his mother—all had legitimate claims to dower.19 It was not until 1358—two years before his own death—that he was able to reassemble the whole of his fragmented inheritance. Jointure settlements further complicated these contingencies. The example par excellence is of course that of Margaret, countess (and briefly at the end of her life duchess) of Norfolk (d. 1399). Granted jointure rights in most of the lands of her first husband, John, Lord Segrave (d. 1353), she survived him for forty-six years, keeping her male descendants out of the inheritance for the better part of sixty years. The vagaries of the law of dower and the practice of jointure were not merely matters of antiquarian legal interest; they profoundly affected the map of the distribution of landed wealth, and with it power, in medieval society. Nor was this a retiring group of ladies. On the contrary, what we know of them—of Joan of Bar, the estranged wife of the earl of Surrey, the thrice-widowed and immensely rich and shrewd Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 1360), or Mary of St Pol countess of Pembroke (d. 1377) or the formidable Joan countess of Hereford (d. 1419) and the even more formidable Joan Beauchamp lady of Abergavenny (d. 1435)—proves the reverse to be the truth.20 They managed their affairs and presided over their families with authority. They were hard-headed if not necessarily hard-hearted: when another Mortimer dowager, Philippa (d. 1378) left her son £500 in her will it was on the firm condition that he disclaimed any right to her property, goods, and outstanding debts and on the understanding that he would not impede the activities of her executors.21 Maternal affection was not to cloud her insistence on her rights in these matters.
Family responsibility did not, of course, end with the claims of the wife or the widow. Other members also had strong claims on the family’s affections and thereby on its fortunes. Younger brothers might be well provided for. Roger
19 Davies, Lordship and Society, 42.
20 See generally Ward, English Noblewomen. Among older studies Jenkinson, ‘Mary de Sancto Paulo’ is rewarding. The latest attempt to provide an account of the life of Elizabeth de Burgh (far and away the best documented heiress of the fourteenth century) is F. A. Underhill, For Her Good Estate: The Life of Elizabeth de Burgh (New York, 1999).
21 Nicholls, Wills, 98.
Mortimer, earl of March (d. 1398), was notably generous in this respect. During the years 1394—8—that is on reaching his majority—he granted manors worth at least £160 to his young brother, Edmund, to which he later added the lordship of Narberth. He also awarded his brother-in-law, Henry Hotspur, land worth 100 marks.22 This was largesse indeed but not out of line with the practice of the Mortimers, and many other families, of looking after the interests of the family in general. This could be achieved by grants—often in tail male—of lands and rents; but other members of the family had to be content with a rich ecclesiastical plum in the lord’s gift. Edmund Mortimer (d. 1304) did not have the wherewithal to provide land for his large family. Instead he nominated three of them to Mortimer family livings and placed a daughter in a nunnery.23
Daughters were indeed both a problem and an opportunity. Even if they were consigned to nunneries as was Joanna Mortimer they were no doubt expected to bring an endowment with them. If they were to be placed on the marriage market, the costs would be much higher and the negotiations often complex. But no self-respecting magnate could afford to opt out of his responsibilities in this respect. We will return in a moment to the question of marriage settlements and marriage strategies. Here we will be content to give a couple of examples of how great aristocrats discharged their responsibilities in this respect. Humphrey Bohun, earl of Hereford (d. 1361), was hardly a representative example of the English higher aristocracy. He was a retiring, sickly bachelor; but he also felt his responsibilities to his female kin, leaving bequests to his sisters and nieces in his will. His near contemporary Richard earl of Arundel (d. 1376) was easily the richest magnate in England and could afford to shower his largesse liberally among family members—including bequests totalling 14,000 marks in cash to his sons and daughters; a further 2,500 marks to four grandchildren; and 1,400 marks to his nephews and nieces. Earl Richard could well afford to be hugely magnanimous; but the circle of his family beneficiaries indicated the orbit of family affection and obligation among the aristocracy generally.24 It is not only their complicated legal landed agreements which open a window on to their world of obligation and duty; so do their bequests and gift-giving. They were family patriarchs as well as the heads of landed inheritances.
Given the close intertwining of land and family in all sorts of directions, the successful arrangement of the marriage of offspring, male and female, constituted one of the most delicate and critical acts of lordship. It was an opportunity to forge alliances with other families, to use such alliances as a bargaining counter, and to arrange the future descent of the family estates. Magnates must have kept an eye on the prospects of the marriage market as any stockbroker does on the
22 CPR 1396-9, 428, 457; BL Egerton Charters 8783.
23 Dugdale, Monasticon, VI, part 1, 351.
24 Test. Vet., I, 94—6 and more fully in Lambeth Palace Library, Archbishop Sudbury’s Register, f.92v-f.94v.
fortunes of the stock exchange, and since both activities had a strong risk, both of spectacular profit or devastating loss, attached to them, they inevitably dabbled in futures. John of Gaunt was, of course, in a particularly strong position in the bidding stakes. Like many other magnates he had calculated that the wardship and marriage of young John Mowbray could be a very rich picking indeed, since he had an ultimate claim to the Mowbray and Brotherton inheritances, frustrated only by the exceptional longevity of Mowbray’s grandmother, Margaret countess of Norfolk. It was a long-term prospect but a very enticing one. So Gaunt purchased young John’s marriage from his grandmother in 1379 and simultaneously the wardship from the earl of Northumberland. The young John was now brought up in the duke’s household and there was every prospect that he might be married to one of Gaunt’s daughters, relatives, or retainers.25 It must have been judged a shrewd move by Gaunt’s contemporaries; but the gamble did not pay off this time, since young John died early in 1383 still a minor. But for gambling men, occasional failures of this kind were not a deterrent. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
On the contrary, the competition for eligible partners for sons and daughters was a consuming passion of most aristocratic families. Catching them young was one way of settling the issue, even though betrothal between children was not canonically secure until the parties were of an age to consummate the marriage. Two examples from the annals of the de Burgh earldom of Ulster may illustrate the point. Elizabeth, suo jure countess of Ulster (d. 1363), was betrothed to the four-year-old Lionel of Clarence at the Tower of London on 9 September 1342 when she was ten; their daughter Philippa (d. 1378) was betrothed at the age of thirteen to Edmund Mortimer, then aged eight, in 1368. These were, as it were, pre-emptive acts to settle the minds of the young parties and to warn off alternative bidders. The king was, of course, particularly well placed to control such marriages to suit his tastes and policies. Edmund Mortimer was indeed the victim of such a royal intervention. His hand had been intended, and indeed pledged, to the daughter of the earl of Arundel until Edward III stepped into the process. Short of taking over an heir, a royal nod and a wink could accelerate the completion of a marriage contract, so valuable was royal consent. So it was that the king ‘ordained’ the marriage pact between the daughter of the earl of Ormond and the son of the earl of Desmond in 1359.26 The problem with child marriages is that they could be challenged until the parties were fully of contractual age in the eyes of the church. The Cliffords had good cause to know that. They thought that they had secured the hand of the rich heiress of Multon of Gilsland; but they were to be gazumped when Ralph Dacre came along citing a pre-existing contract between Thomas Multon and William Dacre.27
25 Reg JG, II, no. 88; S. Walker, Lancastrian Affinity, 17—8; Goodman, John of Gaunt, 280.
26 CCR 1354—60, 576. 27 GEC, sub Dacre, quoting the chronicle of Lanercost priory.
As the word ‘contract’ suggests, marriages or betrothals were only concluded after long and detailed negotiations between the two families in question. They were no doubt drawn up after careful legal scrutiny and hard-headed business discussions. Thus the proposed marriage of the sister of the earl of Stafford in 1391—2 involved the earl’s council in frequent journeys—including to Nottingham, the New Forest, Bristol, and Newport in Wales—to discuss the matter among themselves and then with the council of the prospective husband, the earl of Kent.28 One can imagine that great family conclaves would be assembled, sometimes fraught with tension. In 1435/6 the earl of Warwick, his countess, and his household rode to Abergavenny (the home of Aunt Joan Beauchamp) to conclude the marriage of Anne, the earl’s sister, with Lord Despenser.29 It was the formidable and hugely experienced Margaret, countess of Norfolk, who led the negotiations for the marriage of her grandson, John Hastings, heir to the earldom of Pembroke, to Philippa, daughter of the late earl of March (who was represented by the earl’s executors).30
We sometimes catch a glimpse of the complicated issues which called for discussion and see the way in which a marriage alliance might be deployed to defuse an old problem. The Mortimer family provides us once again with a telling example. In 1354 it was, with active royal support, reassembling the great territorial fortune assembled by the first earl of March but lost in the debacle of his downfall in 1330. Many of the families who had benefited from that debacle were now peremptorily deprived of their gains by royal fiat;31 but Richard Fitzalan, the great earl of Arundel (d. 1376), was too powerful—if only in respect of his credit operations—to be treated in such a way. He bargained to hang on to what he held and used marriage as a tool. He was allowed to retain the lordship of Chirk, which lay conveniently next to two existing Fitzalan Marcher lordships of Oswestry and Bromfield and Yale, even though Chirk had been of the inheritance of a cadet branch and subsequently of the senior branch of the Mortimers. An inter-family deal was struck whereby Edmund, the two-year-old Mortimer heir, was betrothed to Alice, the daughter of the earl of Arundel.32 In the event the marriage did not take place; but this in no way reduces the interest of the case in demonstrating the way marriages were deployed to bury family feuds. Occasionally the bond of marriage was extended to include a life retainership. When Hugh Despenser married his daughter to Sir Peter Ovedale, Sir Peter agreed to be retained simultaneously in peace and war.33
Marriage was, as we shall see, an expensive business for both parties. K. B. McFarlane’s illustration of the costs of marrying three of the daughters of the
28 *Marquess of Bath MS. Longleat House Misc. VIII f.21v—f.22.
29 BL Egerton Charters 8775.
31 Holmes, Estates, 15-17.
32 CCR1354—60, 93; A Descriptive Catalogue of Ancient Deeds in the Public Record Office (6 vols., London, 1890-1915), III, no. 4882.
33 Descriptive Catalogue of Ancient Deeds, IV, no. 8019.
earl of Stafford 1343 — 50 is particularly telling: the father was required to find £466 13s. 4d. in portions and annual rents and lands totalling at least £2,800.34 It was a sum which would make a huge dent in any family’s income, and remains so even if we make allowances for the jointures the daughters received from their husbands or in-laws. One way of limiting the costs and of solidifying the alliances formed by marriage was to arrange a bilateral agreement, whereby the son of one family married the daughter of another family and vice versa. A striking example was the Clare—de Burgh marriage axis in the early fourteenth century, with its possibly wide-ranging implications for aristocratic territorial fortunes in England, Wales, and Ireland. On 29 September 1308 Maud, one of the daughters of Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster (d. 1326), was betrothed to Gilbert de Clare, the young and powerful earl of Gloucester (d. 1314); on the next day at Waltham abbey and in the king’s presence John, at that date the surviving eldest son of the earl of Ulster, was married in the king’s presence to Elizabeth, young Gilbert de Clare’s youngest sister and, eventually, heiress of much of both the de Burgh and de Clare inheritances. It is but one of several examples that could be cited. In 1343 John lord Mowbray married his eldest son to the daughter of the earl of Salisbury and, as part of the arrangement, Salisbury’s eldest son took Mowbray’s daughter to be his wife. The earls of Arundel and Northampton made a similar contract for their respective children in 1359.35
In this latter case no portion was paid. We touch here on what was for the family and its fortunes a central aspect of all marriages—the size of portions and jointure settlements. Stated baldly, the portion was the sum, normally in cash and often payable in instalments, paid by the groom’s father or kinsman to the bride’s father or guardian. Parallel with the grant of the portion, a jointure in rent income or land would be settled on the wife by the husband with reversion to him and his heirs, or on the new husband and wife jointly by the husband’s father with similar reversion. Such complicated bilateral contracts were preceded by extensive and no doubt occasionally very tense negotiations. The size of the portion does not seem to have been determined by any rigid formula but rather by the relative power of the two families and by their anxiety to conclude an agreement. A very rich earl could display his wealth in the size of the portion he gave with his daughter: Richard Fitzalan (d. 1376) offered a portion of 4,000 marks (£2,667) to his daughter Alice on her marriage to Thomas Holland in 1364.36 In English Ireland, portions might be paid in cattle: so it was that when Theobald, the son of Walter de Burgh, took the daughter of the earl of Ormond as his wife the portion was calculated as 240 cows and 20 stud horses.37 It is
34 McFarlane, Nobility, 86 n. 2.
35 Descriptive Catalogue of the Charters and Muniments in the Possession of the R. Hon. Lord FitzHardinge at Berkeley Castle, ed. I. H. Jeayes (Bristol, 1892), no. 511; McFarlane, Nobility, 86 n. 2.
36 Reg. BP, III, 480.
37 CalendarofOrmondDeeds, 1172—1350, ed. E. Curtis, 6 vols. (Dublin, 1932—43), II, no. 353.
a reminder that a marriage contract was an occasion for the redistribution of wealth, be it in cash, landed resources, or moveable goods.
Marriage was also an occasion for momentous decisions with regard to a whole dynasty’s wealth. Family conclaves were no doubt assembled and bargains struck. The affairs of the Mortimer family of Wigmore once again provide illustrative material. Towards midsummer 1316 Roger Mortimer (d. 1330) took time out from a busy military and political career to arrange the marriage of Edmund, his eldest son, and to arrange the descent of his estates. On 9 May at his manor of Earnwood in Shropshire he struck an accord with Bartholomew Badlesmere, another powerful and rich baron and a key figure in the turbulent politics of Edward Il’s reign. It was a contract for the marriage of young Edmund to Elizabeth, Badlesmere’s daughter. Badlesmere paid the handsome sum of £2,000 for the marriage, which is a measure of his assessment of Mortimer’s standing and prospects. In return, Mortimer endowed the young bride with five valuable manors for life and the reversion of other lands. Such was the marriage deal. More or less simultaneously Mortimer agreed to re-enfeoff nearly all of his possessions in fee and reversion, with remainder to his right heirs—who would be Edmund, Elizabeth, and their descendants, if they survived. Roger Mortimer and Bartholomew Badlesmere had taken the best legal advice possible and were doing all in their power to ensure the future descent and integrity of the estate.38
Mortimer and Badlesmere were more or less a match for each other in wealth and standing, but this was by no means always the case. In that event the contract showed the disparity of power. A week before concluding the Mortimer marriage agreement Bartholomew Badlesmere extracted much tougher conditions when he married another daughter, Maud, to Robert the son of Robert Fitz Pain. Badlesmere—‘dominus dives’, as he was appropriately described in the Mortimer family chronicle—gave the groom’s father a grant of 1,200 marks (£800) and ensured that the daughter would have independent means by giving her land worth 200 marks (£167) per annum. He also arranged that after his death 200 marks’ worth of her land should be bestowed on his son-in-law. Badlesmere was clearly wielding his wealth to ensure a sound future for his daughter and son-in-law. But what perhaps showed best that he was in the driving seat was that Robert Fitz Pain the father was now debarred from alienating any of his own land without Badlesmere’s permission and was required to convey three named manors and the revenue thereof to Maud Badlesmere and her new husband. This was more a calculated takeover than a contract of equals.39
Bartholomew Badlesmere had concluded the marriage contracts for his daughters within a week of each other. It is a reminder to us that marriage policy was often dynastic and coordinated, not least because it involved a huge outlay
38 The contract is published in Holmes, Estates, 121—2 and the other aspects of the agreement are discussed therein at 43—4.
39 GEC, sub Fitz Pain.
of liquid wealth and landed assets and, often, a carefully considered plan for the future of the family estates. Sometimes—as in the Badlesmere case—the plan was coordinated at a single point in time; more often, and of necessity, it was put into operation piecemeal, as opportunities arose and children reached marriageable age. But whatever the tempo, marriage was a critical occasion in all aristocratic families for working out the relationships between land, family obligation, political and personal alliances, and calculations of the family’s future direction. In this respect daughters could occupy an important role in a family’s marital strategy. Too often details of the marriage of daughters is difficult to uncover. Here again the Mortimer family chronicle in its amplitude enables us to see how the tentacles of a family spread through marriage. The first earl of March (d. 1330) had eleven recorded children, an unusually large brood. Of the four boys, one was killed in a tournament, two seem to have been established in Ireland where a good part of the family’s fortunes were now based, and the eldest, Edmund, was, as we have seen, married in 1316 to Elizabeth Badlesmere. Four of the daughters married into the ranks of the higher English aristocracy—choosing the future earl of Pembroke, the earl of Warwick, Lord Audley, and the son of Thomas of Brotherton earl of Norfolk as their husbands. The remaining three girls were deployed to consolidate Mortimer alliances and relationships in western England and the Welsh March, the base of Mortimer power. One was married to Thomas Berkeley, another to Sir Piers Grandison of Ashperton (Herefordshire), and the third to John Charlton of Powys.40 There is every reason to believe that these marriages were carefully assessed for their dynastic and, possibly, political impact. Aristocratic history is the story of great noble dynasties. To do any kind of justice to a family’s ambitions we need to bear in mind not only the descent of the main and the cadet branches but also the web of links forged by marriage contact both by and into the family.
But it is here that in general we are frustrated by the evidence, or rather lack of it, for the fourteenth century. What we have for the most part are the facts of marriage and, much less frequently, the formal legal contract. What we do not have, as we have for the age of the Pastons and the Stonors, are the letters which reveal the negotiations, pressure, and cross currents which must have been a recurrent feature of marriage diplomacy in all ages. Legal documents maximize the assumption that marriages were carefully calculated business arrangements in which the views of the couple to be married are subsidiary to family policy and ambition. That may have been true in many cases; and in other cases the two considerations were brought into some sort of rough alignment, whether under duress or persuasion. But not always. Personality and will were also elements in the equation. The awesome Edward I learnt that to his cost when his headstrong daughter, Joan of Acre, in effect eloped with a landless young courtier, Ralph Monthermer. Joan’s first marriage in 1290 to the earl of Gloucester (almost
40 Dugdale, Monasticon, VI, I, 352.
thirty years her senior) had been a classic example of using a young daughter as a bargaining chip in Edward I’s dynastic schemes.41 She was not to be fobbed off with a greybeard the second time and so confronted her father with a fait accompli by marrying Ralph Monthermer. It must have been the talk of the town, indeed of the kingdom. Edward was beside himself with fury; but there was little he could do except explode. He had been trumped. He was not the only father to be trumped by a determined child. Almost a century later the great John of Gaunt was taught a similar lesson. He and his close confidant, Sir Richard Burley, had secured custody of the lands of the widow of the earl of Pembroke (d. 1375). More important, the son of the heir to the earldom was pledged to marry Gaunt’s daughter, Elizabeth. It was a neat arrangement: Gaunt could claim that he was ‘next friend’ to the young heir and had ‘great tenderness for the inheritance’. But fair words are no match for a lady’s will. As the record puts it, ‘Elizabeth has now disagreed to the marriage and is married elsewhere, so that the alliance is terminated.’ And that was that.42
Daughters could be awkward; so no doubt could fathers and other members of the family. Their awkwardness sometimes exploded into the records and reminds us that passion as well as calculation were elements in the marital equation. Let us return briefly to the family of the earl of Pembroke (d. 1375). When John Hastings left on a continental venture in 1372 he had no heir of his body. What personal bitterness and/or affection at that time persuaded him to disinherit his heir general (Reginald Grey of Ruthin) and to divert his landed fortunes to Sir William Beauchamp, his cousin on the distaff side (their mothers were sisters)?43 And there are other examples where the right heirs by law were done out of an estate by the whims of a family patriarch. Indeed the Greys of Ruthin were the beneficiaries of such a family quarrel. On the death of Sir John Grey in 1323 the extensive Grey inheritance would normally have devolved to his elder son Henry. But there seems to have been a mighty falling-out between father and son because in 1311 the father granted a large part of the estates (including the lordship of Ruthin and thirty-one manors) to the younger son Roger, thereby inaugurating the line of the Greys of Ruthin. The elder brother did not take this brutal disinheritance lying down; he harassed his brother, and laid siege to Ruthin castle. But by 1328 he decided that he had better accept his father’s decision.
Henry Grey was by no means the only victim of paternal spleen. Equally striking was the disinheritance of Sir William Cantelou of Ravensthorpe (Yorkshire). Sir William’s father, Nicholas, married twice and it may well be that it was the ambitious nature of the second wife which prompted the explosive family settlement in 1354. Nicholas in effect settled his estate on himself and on his second wife with remainders not to William (his heir by his first wife) but to the heirs of the body of the second marriage and, failing that, to Nicholas’s two
41 M. Prestwich, Edward I (London,1988), 128.
42 Cal. Anc. Pets., no. 11176, p. 375.
43 Jack, ‘Entail and Descent: The Hastings Inheritance’, 1 — 19.
grandsons. In short it was a set of arrangements which deliberately disinherited the eldest son, short at least of the failure of all other claimants. In the event William had the last laugh. The second marriage did not produce an heir; both grandsons predeceased their father and left no heirs. But what is of interest to us here is the shaft of light which cases such as these—and a similar family storm among the Brians of Tor Brian (Co. Devon)—shed on the highly personal sentiments which often lie beneath the bloodless veneer of the legal documents.44
For the acquisition of land by Roger Mortimer, first earl of March, I. Mortimer, The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England, 1327—30 (London, 2003); P. Dryburgh, ‘Roger Mortimer and the Governance of Ireland, 1317—20’, in Ireland and the English World in the Late Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of Robin Frame, ed. B. Smith (Basingstoke, 2009). For entails, J. Biancalana, The Fee Tail and the Common Recovery in Medieval England (Cambridge, 2001); M. Prestwich, Plantagenet England, 1225—1360 (Oxford, 2005), ch. 15.
For female inheritance in Ireland, G. Kenny, Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Women in Ireland c.1170—1540 (Dublin, 2007), ch. 2. For revealing case studies of, respectively, Margaret de Lacy (d. 1266), and Isabel de Mortimer, widow of John Fitzalan III (d. 1272), including their role as estate managers, L. Wilkinson, Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire (Woodbridge, 2007), ch. 1, and E. Cavell, ‘Aristocratic Widows and the Medieval Welsh Frontier: The Shropshire Evidence’, TRHS 6th ser., 17 (2007). For more general treatment, P. Fleming, Family and Household in Medieval England (Basingstoke, 2001) and for a slightly later period, B. J. Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 1450—1550: Marriage, Family, Property, and Careers (Oxford, 2002).
44 See entries sub the respective families in GEC.