The upheavals in England in the 1260s had brought all sections of society into play: barons, knights, townsfolk, freemen and peasants. Significant roles had been taken by noble women; even peasant women were well informed about events. The growing production and survival of record sources enables English society in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to be studied in ever greater detail. The rest of Britain is less well served. This chapter concentrates on England in these centuries before considering salient features of society in Scotland and in Wales. The wider economic framework has already been discussed in chapter 2.
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The political importance of the towns, seen in the summons of burgesses to parliament, reflected their increasing wealth and the control they had achieved over their own affairs, usually by charter of the king – hence ‘chartered borough’. Henry II (1154–89) granted nearly fifty municipal charters, building on the example of Henry I. There was considerable overlap in the terms of the various concessions (sometimes explicitly so), their effect being to confirm or establish the distinctiveness and independence of the townsmen by, for example, conceding them freedom from tolls throughout the kingdom and allowing them exemption from attending courts other than the borough’s. The most important privilege and also the hardest to get was that of accounting directly to the exchequer for the town’s farm, the annual payment due to the king, for this was nearly always linked to the right to choose the official who would do the accounting. In effect this emancipated the town from the authority of the sheriff and secured self-government under the king. Eight towns had this right by 1199, twenty-four by 1216 and forty-eight by the 1300s. To take one example: in 1200 the burgesses of North ampton were allowed to choose ‘by common counsel of their vill’ two ‘provosts’ to answer for the farm and four other men to keep the pleas of the crown and check that the provosts treated both rich and poor justly. Elections by common counsel, one group of officials monitoring another, justice to rich and poor, all these were pervasive themes between 1258 and 1265, and all long familiar at Northampton. That burgesses positively wished to elect representatives to parliament is clear at St Albans, where ‘the community of the town’ insisted that the abbot should allow them to do just that.
‘Treat justly poor as well as rich.’ Within town society the variations in wealth increasingly generated tension. The privileges of self-government did not come cheap and townsmen had banded together to buy them. Such associations had various names, and the great law book Glanvill (c. 1189) treated the two most usual, ‘commune’ and ‘gild merchant’, as virtually interchangeable. Some of the town charters were actually granted to the ‘gild merchant’, or gave the townsmen the right to form one. It was only the members of these associations, however described, who enjoyed the privileges conferred in the charters, and were technically burgesses. Their position was exclusive. ‘Nobody not a member of the gild shall carry out their trade in the town,’ ran Henry II’s charter to Oxford. There was no room here for labourers, artisans (including in some towns weavers), and women. Moreover, although all householders probably qualified as burgesses, when it came to government a series of complex checks and balances usually kept control in the hands of a wealthy elite, something that becomes very clear from a study of the rulers of York and Newcastle upon Tyne in the thirteenth century. Not surprisingly this could create conflict. At Oxford in the 1250s, the ‘burgesses of the lesser commune’, as they called themselves, drew up a series of complaints against the thirty-two ‘burgess magnates’ who effectively monopolized the mayoral office and the advisory council of fifteen ‘jurats’.
The chronicler Wykes averred that in 1263 ‘conjurations of ribalds’ rose up against the great men of nearly all the towns, although only for London is there hard evidence. There, citizens and their families made up perhaps a third of the population, the rest being artisans, servants, labourers and paupers. Within the citizen body there was again a dominant elite who controlled the government in its own interests. London had always had its own sheriffs who were responsible for financial payments to the king, and under Henry I the citizens secured the right to choose them. Later in 1215 they also gained the right to choose their mayor, a man ‘suitable for rule of the city’, an office which had first appeared in the 1190s. The popular view was that the mayor should be elected in the traditional gathering of all the citizens, the folkmoot, but this was vigorously contested by the aldermen, who claimed the right belonged to them ‘since they are as though the heads and the people are the limbs’. It was the aldermen for the most part who got their way.
The city was divided up into twenty-four wards each with an alderman as its executive and legal officer (he gave judgement in the ward courts), an arrangement which probably went back to long before 1100. Since the aldermen were elected for life, and in practice by the leading citizens of each ward, they naturally formed an elite. It was essentially to them, ‘the barons of London’, that John had conceded the right to elect the mayor in 1215. Seventy per cent of the aldermen who held office before 1263 belonged to sixteen interrelated families, most of them established in London since the early twelfth century. This was not, however, a closed oligarchy for new families if they had sufficient wealth were able to join its ranks, often gaining integration through marriage. The grandfather of the alderman Arnold fitz Thedmar, who wrote a detailed history of the city during the reign of Henry III, had come from Cologne.
The wealth of London’s elite, like that of York and Newcastle upon Tyne, came from property, from trade, and from luxury crafts, notably goldsmithing. Fitz Thedmar himself had a great hall, shops, houses, rents, and a wharf all within All Hallows Haywharf parish. In York early in the thirteenth century the mayor, Hugh of Selby, exported wool to Flanders, and imported wine from France, sending some of it to the king. In London exporting wool and importing wine were likewise fundamental activities, together with supplying wine and luxury goods, cloth, gold and jewels to the court. The mayor, John de Gisors, who married fitz Thedmar’s sister, provided the king in the 1250s with wine worth some £250 a year. This connection with the court was strengthened by London citizens holding both the chamberlainship of London, which gave them responsibility for buying the king’s wine, and the keepership of the London mint and exchange.
Fitz Thedmar’s chronicle of the city breathes the whole spirit of London’s rulers, jealous of their privileges and hostile to the lower orders. The aldermen used and protected their position by preventing other ‘mysteries’ from organizing, arguing that the latter were only seeking their own benefit to the disadvantage of everyone else, both customers and workforce. Fitz Thedmar portrayed the uprising of the 1260s as one of the ‘people’, and many non-citizens may well have flooded into the meetings of the folkmoot. But the leaders headed the ‘mysteries’ which had been held down by the aldermen, and now briefly got their trade ordinances ratified. Of these, far and away the most important were the fishmongers and the cordwainers. The former bought from the ships at the wharves (trade with the Baltic in particular was expanding), while the latter made high-quality goods from leather imported from Cordoba in Spain. A master cordwainer might well have eight men working for him in his shed. These and other ‘mysteries’ saw their new charters nullified in 1274, but they could not be held down indefinitely and by the end of the century fishmongers were becoming aldermen.
The rulers of London, York and Newcastle upon Tyne were typical among urban elites in acquiring property in the country as well as the town. It was often from the country that they or their forebears had come. Around 1300 the rulers of Newcastle included both the younger son and the heir of local gentry families, the latter, Peter Graper, using his success in the town to re-establish his position in the country. Around this time leading citizens of York and Newcastle were being knighted by the king. In terms of outlook and way of life there was much which held the urban and rural elites together. All this helps to explain how town and country could co-operate politically, with the mayor of London being one of the twenty-five barons appointed to enforce Magna Carta in 1215, and later, of course, knights and burgesses joining together in parliament.
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The political role of the country gentry in the 1260s, and especially of the knights who were its leaders, was as striking as that of London. Knights fought in the armies, held local office as sheriffs, and at the national level appeared as representatives of the shires in parliament. The records of the lawcourts and the chancery which appear from the start of the thirteenth century make it possible for the first time to trace the careers of such men in detail and to sense their importance. Take the example of William fitz Ellis, who flourished in the decades after 1190. His chief seat was the substantial manor of Waterperry in south Oxfordshire. He was also lord of nearby Oakley in Buckinghamshire, and held other property in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. If his income was around £50 a year, it was less than the median income of the couple of hundred barons, which was around £115 a year according to one sample, and was dwarfed by that of the dozen or so earls, some of whom in the thirteenth century had annual revenues of several thousand pounds. None the less his income, if we are right in our estimate, was well above the minimum required to qualify for knighthood, which the government set from the 1220s at £15 or £20 a year. It made him a very substantial member of the knightly class. Fitz Ellis was a fighting knight and went to Ireland in John’s army of 1210. The military might of the knights remained vital to their power. Equally important was their role in the administration of law and local government. Fitz Ellis attended the Oxfordshire county court and gave judgements there with his fellow knights. He also sat on numerous common law juries, and served the king on various local commissions: in Oxfordshire he assessed and collected the great tax of 1225 in return for which the final definitive version of Magna Carta was issued. In the Charter fitz Ellis had indeed a personal interest. Under its terms he had in 1215 secured the return of Oakley, which King John had taken from him ‘by will, unjustly and without judgement’. Lordship or the lack of it was also important to fitz Ellis’s career. The family’s chief seat at Waterperry had originally been held from the d’Oillys, Oxfordshire’s greatest baronial family, and in other circumstances this feudal link might have been highly significant. In fact, however, the bond had been weakened by a settlement in the 1180s which placed a tenant between the fitz Ellises and the d’Oillys, a tenant from whom Waterperry was thenceforth held. In any case Henry d’Oilly (c. 1180–1232), the last of the male line, was an incompetent nonentity. Fitz Ellis himself seems to have acted independently of any lord. Other d’Oilly tenants entered the service of a rival local magnate, Thomas Basset of Headington, who was Oxfordshire’s sheriff in the 1200s.
The power of men like fitz Ellis, therefore, derived in varying degrees from their property, military prowess, and tenure of local office. They might be independent of great lords or profit from their service. Many such families sustained their power over generations. A hundred years after William fitz Ellis, his descendant, Robert fitz Ellis, was still lord of Waterperry and Oakley. He also acquired property through marriage, raised troops for the Scottish wars, served the great magnates Roger Mortimer and Hugh Despencer, worked for the king as Oxfordshire sheriff and escheator, and left a magnificent knightly effigy in Waterperry church by the same sculptor as that of the earl of Cornwall in Westminster Abbey. By this time family pride was displayed in a coat of arms which in its fleur de lys made punning reference to the fitz Ellis name.
Central to the survival and success of the fitz Ellises was the way their principal properties were kept intact down the generations. The structure of the family and the way it handled property were fundamental to the workings of society. We have already discussed the view that the Norman Conquest accelerated the transition from clan to lineage, from the extended to the dynastic family, so that property, instead of being divided widely on death, descended through primogeniture, that is to the eldest son (see above, p. 87). Certainly such was the case with the chief properties of large numbers of families in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The sense of lineage thus created was often emphasized by the use of the same selection of first names and the adoption of a surname either derived from an ancestor, as with the fitz Ellises, or from a place, usually of the family’s principal property. Throughout the thirteenth century the lords of Rycote (in Great Haseley) in south Oxfordshire were called ‘Fulk of Rycote’. When a son and heir was at last born to Fulk II on 16 November 1295, he gave a great pair of gloves to his steward and joyfully dispatched letters and messengers announcing the birth to his neighbours and relations: the line would continue.
The primacy of eldest sons did not mean that siblings were left without provision. A study of the gentry of Angevin Yorkshire by Hugh Thomas has shown how in practice a modified form of primogeniture was common, with the principal property descending to the eldest son while arrangements were made to give younger sons an endowment and daughters a marriage portion. Since by law as well as custom all property held on death descended by primogeniture, such arrangements had to be made during life. The property used could come from acquisitions but also, if necessary, from the inheritance. The amounts involved varied according to the wealth of the family. In minor gentry families, younger sons might have endowments of as little as fifty or sixty acres, which made them no more than substantial freemen. A family like the fitz Ellises could afford to be more generous. William fitz Ellis provided some hundred acres of land as a marriage portion for one daughter, and his descendants later parted with whole manors (Corton in Wiltshire and Tiddington in Oxfordshire) to set up a junior line.
In terms of the descent of property, family structure thus seems ‘nuclear’. Parents provided for their children, not for their wider kin. Likewise when King John took hostages it was sons he wanted, not kinsmen. Yet kin continued to matter, and people knew all about it because the prospect of failure of direct heirs and of an inheritance passing to a collateral branch gave every incentive for the study of genealogy. There was also an assumption that the wider family might be relied on for support. Hence those related to litigants by blood (de consanguinitate) were removed from juries; hence the promise in the Coronation Charter of 1100 that children and their lands should be placed in the custody of their widowed mother ‘or another of their relations’. At the high political level the Beaumont family, brothers, brothers-in-law and cousins, were an important faction in Stephen’s reign. As administrators the Glanvills, brothers, cousins and relations through marriage, had their hands in many branches of Henry II’s government. Great ministers like Ranulf Glanvill and Hubert de Burgh naturally sought to promote their relations, just as their relations looked to them for promotion. In such circumstances the kin could become, in the words of J. C. Holt, ‘a mutual benefit society’.
There was, however, nothing necessarily cohesive about family units, whatever their form. In both the 1215–17 and 1263–7 civil wars fathers and sons sometimes took opposite sides, mirroring the conflict between Henry II and his sons which lay at the heart of the civil war of 1173–4. Moreover, in one significant area the law of inheritance gave rise to dispute, in part because it touched upon the very claim of the royal house to the throne. After Richard’s death without children in 1199, John had become king at the expense of Arthur, the son of his elder brother, Geoffrey of Brittany, who died in 1186. In comparable circumstances, did the better claim to succeed lie with the child, like Arthur, of a deceased elder brother who had never inherited, or with the latter’s younger brother? Rather than settling the matter, John’s accession simply ensured that it was kept open. Between the Mandevilles and the Says, and within the families of Percy, Braose and Quency, there were disputes along equivalent lines, disputes whose course was determined more by politics than by law. Within the nuclear family itself the fact that all the children had some expectation of provision could also lead to friction, pitching sons, daughters and sons-in-law against each other. The closer the family relationships the more significant they were likely to be, but that might be significance as a source of conflict just as much as a source of co-operation.
The celebrations surrounding the birth of Fulk III of Rycote in 1295 reveal another aspect of local society, namely the tremendous importance of ties of neighbourhood. It was to the villages within a ten-mile radius of Rycote – Shabbington, Chalgrove, Ewelme – that the letters and messengers announcing the arrival went out. It was from men living in that area that Fulk II had drawn his steward, clerk and squire. And it was from the other gentry families in that area that Fulk had found both his wife and a husband for his daughter. In all this he was absolutely typical. Such local associations could also be carried into national politics, which accounts in part for the way rebels in the 1260s were so often concentrated in regional pockets (see above, p. 379).
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the basic structure of the family seems to have been remarkably stable. Ties of neighbourhood had always been important. But society in this period was also changing in significant ways. Families like the fitz Ellises and the Rycotes were part of what historians often call ‘the gentry’, that group of men found in each county who were lords of one or a few main properties and were active in local affairs. The thegns were the gentry of late Anglo-Saxon England and the county knights the gentry of the early thirteenth century. In the course of the thirteenth century, however, the nature of knighthood altered radically, laying the foundations for the gentry of the later Middle Ages, one stratified into knights, esquires and gentlemen. At the same time the gentry were becoming involved far more intensively than before in litigation and local government, and were also operating within changing frameworks of magnate power.
Central to the emergence of the late medieval gentry was the decline in the number of knights which took place in the thirteenth century. In the 1200s, according to the calculations of Kathryn Faulkner, there were roughly 4,500 knights throughout the counties of England, judging, that is, from the numbers of men who appeared as such on juries and in the performance of other legal and administrative tasks. A middle-sized county like Oxfordshire might have had something over a hundred knights, Lincolnshire three times as many. A hundred years later the number of knights had shrunk to as few as 1,250. The knights of the 1200s had varied greatly in their wealth. The most numerous were lords of single manors with incomes of between about £10 and £20 a year. Above this group were better-endowed families like the fitz Ellises, and below it knights who had only very small manors or parcels of land not in manorial form – some perhaps the descendants of the professional soldiers given small amounts of land after the Conquest. Essentially what happened in the course of the thirteenth century was that knighthood became confined to higher-echelon families like the fitz Ellises. Then in the following centuries the descendants and successors of the families who had given up the honour adopted status titles of their own, at the upper level that of esquire and at the lower that of gentleman.
Within the context of the thirteenth century, the decline in the number of knights was significant because it created a high-status elite of knights who acted as leaders of the gentry, considerably increasing the influence of the body as whole. The decline in numbers seems to have taken place fairly rapidly in the first half of the century. The growing number of juries, commissions and offices which (so the king said) needed to be staffed by knights made it increasingly important to define, at the local level, who exactly held the rank. Many of those who appeared as knights on juries in the 1200s were probably accepted as such because they vaguely looked the part. But increasingly that was not good enough. To be a knight it became necessary to go through a formal initiation ceremony which involved being girded with the sword of knighthood. But those conferring the honour, either the king himself or a great lord, were not prepared to admit anyone to a rank they had long considered highly honorific. They expected the candidates to have the right equipment (to take up knighthood was called ‘to take military arms’) and a fitting retinue. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was only the upper levels of the old knightly class of the 1200s who could still afford the rank. Even some of those who did have the wherewithal refused to assume the honour, hoping to avoid knighthood’s military and administrative responsibilities.
One important hypothesis also links this decline in numbers with a much wider social and economic crisis which, it is argued, engulfed descendants of the knights in the thirteenth century. Such men ran into debt and were compelled to sell property, sometimes to the point of extinction, to religious houses and royal ministers. It was these difficulties, so the argument runs, which explain both the general pressure for local reform in 1258–9 and the Montfortianism of many individual knights. In 1255, for example, Stephen de Chenduit, lord of Cuxham in Oxfordshire and Cheddington and Ibstone in Buckinghamshire, owed £55 to the Jew Abraham of Berkhampstead. During the civil war, Chenduit deserted his lord, Richard of Cornwall, and threw in his lot with Montfort who obligingly pardoned the interest on his Jewish debts. Afterwards, having survived Evesham but with his finances worsened by the penalties of rebellion, he sold up to the king’s chancellor, Walter of Merton, who used his lands to endow his new Oxford college. One cause of such crises, it is suggested, was the rising cost of knighthood. Thus the expense of assuming the honour was the stated cause of the debts of Nicholas of Whichford in 1233. Stephen de Chenduit himself may well have overspent in the flashy circle of Richard of Cornwall. Another cause was the inflation early in the century, for middling and smaller landholders, it is argued, were far less able to counter this than the great – less able, that is, to increase manorial rents, and to create large demesnes in order to sell more corn on the rising market.
There is no doubt that decaying knights like Stephen de Chenduit were familiar figures in the thirteenth century. Whether they were typical is less clear. A study of a large group of knights from the midlands involved in the 1260s rebellion has not revealed any pattern of pervasive debt. Studies of representative groups from Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire seem to show that families which began the century with at lest one manor of reasonable size usually came through (if the male line survived) with the bulk of their property intact and sometimes enlarged. Families in difficulties, like the Whichfords, often showed remarkable resilience and staying power. Around 1200 the fitz Ellises themselves lamented their great need, but the need was for money to finance litigation and this eventually considerably increased their properties. The costs of knighthood can scarcely have paralysed the whole group, because most simply declined the honour. If general economic conditions were more difficult than in the twelfth century, knightly lords were quite able to put up rents (like the Rycotes), and increase the size of their demesnes, as Stephen de Chenduit’s father did at Cuxham. Many knightly manors had demesnes quite as large as those envisaged by the great expert on husbandry, Walter of Henley. Meanwhile the class was constantly being replenished by the successful lawyers and administrators who married into old families or bought up the properties of those on the way down. In short the general political importance of the gentry in the thirteenth century should be seen against a background of underlying economic strength rather than of weakness.
At the time in the early thirteenth century when the stratification of the gentry into ranks was beginning, it was also being transformed in another way, namely through its increasing involvement in litigation and local government. Of course, the gentry had always been involved in both. The cry ‘Act like thegns’ which went up before the thegns gave an important judgement in the Herefordshire county court in the time of King Cnut would have struck a chord with the knights who gave similar judgements in the thirteenth century. But now alongside their role in the county courts, which met much more frequently than in the Anglo-Saxon period, the gentry staffed the juries on which the new common law procedures depended, monopolized the old office of the sheriff, and filled the plethora of new offices called into being by royal government, acting as coroners, escheators, keepers of the peace, assessors and collectors of taxation, justices of assize and gaol delivery, and so on. The common law brought gentry litigation into the royal courts on an altogether novel scale: between the 1190s and the 1220s William fitz Ellis and his mother were involved in over fifteen separate actions before the justices in eyre and the common bench at Westminster. The whole framework of gentry life was being transformed.
At the centre of this activity there usually emerged a small group of knights, bearing the main burden. Nicknamed ‘bigshots’ (buzones) they appear constantly as jurors, commissioners, office-holders, and attenders at the county court. Robert Damory, Ralph fitz Robert, Gilbert of Finmere, Fulk I of Rycote, Richard Foliot of Rousham – these were some of William fitz Ellis’s colleagues in Oxfordshire in the early thirteenth century. While such men all had ties to their immediate neighbourhood, they were also very much part of what contemporaries called ‘the community of the shire’. Of course such communities could be the reverse of cohesive. When William fitz Ellis and a few colleagues gave a controversial judgement in the Oxfordshire county court in 1222, ‘nearly all the knights of the shire’ rose up as they did not wish to be involved. But the question of how the county was run and represented inevitably gave everyone in the shire a common and exclusive concern, for each county had its own local officials and its own MP; indeed the latter specifically represented ‘the community of the shire’. MPs and coroners were both elected in the county court. Its regular monthly or six-weekly meetings brought together the gentry and the stewards of the great magnates (the two were often one and the same), who gave the judgements. Nor were its meetings without significance for it retained jurisdiction over minor cases of debt and detention of chattels, while a growing number of writs enabled other litigation to be initiated there. From such county concerns grew national political programmes. Essentially the gentry wanted the holders of local office to be chosen from and by itself, thus achieving congenial government ‘by one of us’. When in the 1200s the Somerset knight Richard Revel spoke of ‘native men and gentlemen of the country’, he was precisely contrasting such men with the outsider sheriff. In calling in the gentry to staff local offices, the king was in part giving way to demand. Several counties in John’s reign bought the right to have a sheriff chosen ‘from themselves and wholly resident in the county’ and it was essentially sheriffs of that type who were appointed under the reforms of 1258. It was in response to similar pressures that Magna Carta in 1215 had laid down that the king’s judges touring the shires to hear civil assizes were to sit with four knights of the county chosen by the county court, a striking testimony to the ambition, expertise and self-confidence of the knights.
In general in the later Middle Ages the gentry achieved their ambition and largely monopolized local office. How far they had achieved ‘self-government at the king’s command’, in the words of the historian A. B. White, depended on the local power of great lords. In some regions throughout the medieval period – regions which varied according to the rise and fall of families and the changing structures of great estates – that power was limited, and the gentry could make their own political decisions and create their own local order or chaos. Yet there were equally times and places where great lords were dominant. Alongside the ties of family and neighbourhood, the power of lordship was often fundamental to the workings of local society. Here too important changes were taking place affecting the way that power was exercised, a change sometimes described by historians as the transition from ‘feudalism’ to ‘bastard feudalism’.
The feudal structures which the Normal Conquest introduced into England have already been described (see above, pp.84–7). They turned on the relationship between the baron (as a major tenant-in-chief was called) and his tenants. This relationship was initiated by the ceremony of homage in which the tenant became the ‘man’ of his lord, and swore loyalty for the land he held from him. In return for the land, the baron was owed the service of a specified number of knights by each tenant, or a money payment, scutage, in its place. He could also profit from what historians have called ‘the feudal incidents’, exacting a payment (a ‘fine’ or ‘relief’) from a tenant to enter his inheritance, taking the revenues from tenanted estates during minorities, and controlling the marriages of widows and (when in wardship) those of heirs and heiresses. Tenants were also obliged to attend the lord’s honourial court where, among other things, disputes over the possession of tenanted land and the services owed for it could be judged. The entity formed by the baron’s tenants and demesne manors (the manors he kept in hand) is variously described by modern historians, with some contemporary warrant, as his ‘fee’, ‘barony’ or ‘honour’ (hence ‘honourial court’). Since it was passed on to the baron’s heir, it had some kind of continuous life.
There has been much debate among historians about the strength of these feudal structures in the period down to 1166 and the pace of their decline thereafter. This is not surprising because from the start barons could exploit their feudal rights in different ways and with different consequences. They might see them as a source of loyal service or simply of revenue. They might retain authority over some tenants but not others. And they might deal with tenants simply as individuals or as part of some kind of honourial community. Honours also had very different histories and structures. One should think less of a set of neat feudal pyramids than of a range of hills like that around Wastwater in Cumberland, hills of all shapes and sizes, merging into one another, some solid, others with their sides slipping into the lake. Honours might have just a handful or large numbers of tenants. The proportion between land held by tenants and that kept in demesne also varied widely. In the twelfth century between 150 and 200 baronial honours were in existence but it was only with the stipulation in the 1215 Magna Carta that a baron should pay a £100 relief for his ‘barony’ that any clear distinction emerged between estates which were baronies and which were not.
Within a large honour there was also a great diversity among the tenants themselves. In the Ferrers honour of Tutbury, for example, there was a group of around ten major tenant families, including the Shirleys and the Bacquepuits (see above, pp. 79–83), most with traceable origins in Normandy, who were established soon after the Conquest, each usually receiving several properties of substantial size. Such leading tenants, found on most large honours, were sometimes described by the lord in the early twelfth century as his ‘barons’, probably as a general recognition of their status rather than as an indication of any precise position. Below such major players there was a much larger and diverse group of tenants, some with very small holdings, others middling members of the gentry. All told in 1166 the Ferrers honour had forty-five tenants owing a notional service of around seventy-nine knights, the Shirley lord at the top of the scale owing nine knights, and many of the smaller tenants at the bottom only one. The honour was scattered across fourteen counties, but had a solid core in west Leicestershire, north Staffordshire, and Derbyshire, a core watched over by the great castle of Tutbury, rising on a cliff above the river Dove. Its jagged ruins still seem to dominate the southern Derbyshire plain.
Honours from the start were neither self-contained institutions, as we shall see, nor the sole bases for baronial power. From the first, barons sought jurisdictional privileges from the king (like private hundreds and wapentakes), and coveted the office of sheriff either for themselves or for one of their men. Until earldoms became largely titular under Henry II, they too might be an important source of local authority. In Stephen’s reign the Ferrers appear as earls of both Nottingham and Derby (the latter was their title from 1199), while their steward was for a time sheriff of both counties. Their local power was also strengthened by the tenure of the Derbyshire wapentakes of Wirksworth and Appeltree, the first held initially under Henry I, the second finally acquired under King John.
When all the qualifications have been made, however, there can be little doubt that within the total mix of baronial power under both the Norman and Angevin kings feudal structures were very important. At the very least the feudal incidents provided the baron with a unique set of rights that were simply not present in any other type of relationship. There was also more to feudalism than simply making money. The ceremony of homage was solemn and significant. As Glanvill explained, it was supposed to create a ‘bond of mutual trust’ between lord and tenant, with the latter owing services and the former protecting the land from which they were due. The idea of the loyalty a tenant owed his lord and a lord his tenant was integral to the society of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Two factors helped turn theory into practice. One was that honours often mirrored that of Tutbury in having a solid geographical core. Feudal structures were always most effective when underpinned by ties of neighbourhood. The second was that honours often had a high proportion of tenants lacking substantial property held from other lords. A legal tract in the reign of Henry I, The Leges Henrici Primi, avowed that a man’s chief loyalty was owed to the ‘liege lord’ from whom he held his principal property, and for many tenants in the twelfth century it was perfectly clear who that should be.
There is abundant evidence from the twelfth century of a close relationship between lords and their tenants. Both Earl William III de Warenne (died 1148) and Robert, earl of Gloucester (died 1147), are seen in the witness lists of their charters very much in the company of their leading men. It was from their tenants in the first half of the twelfth century and beyond that barons often drew their stewards and other officials. In cementing such relations, and in making the honour a real community, an important part could be played by mutual attachment to religious houses. A charter of Earl Robert de Ferrers (1101–39) making a grant to Darley abbey was addressed ‘most especially to all the barons and men of my honour’. Darley, like the abbey at Tutbury, had been founded by the Ferrers, and together they served very much as honourial monasteries receiving benefactions from many of the tenants. Likewise, many tenants responded when their lord Gilbert fitz Richard (1090–1117) urged them to make gifts to the monastery he was founding at Clare. Evidence for the functioning of the honourial court is limited but Henry I stipulated that it should deal with land disputes between tenants of the same lord. In the first century after 1066 one should not underrate the utility of its justice and over-estimate that offered in the courts of the king. In the 1160s it was in the court of Earl Ferrers, not that of Henry II, that an important agreement was reached settling the future of the Shirley inheritance.
If Henry II’s new legal procedures served to weaken baronial authority, the increasing incidence of scutage under Henry and his successors had the opposite effect, since barons had to control their tenants in order to collect it. The result was almost certainly to invigorate honourial administration. Viewed from many angles, England in the 1200s still seems very feudal. Magna Carta regulated the exploitation of the feudal incidents, and took for granted the existence of the honour and the loyalty of tenants to their lords. During the 1215–17 civil war, if there were many independent knights like William fitz Ellis, there were equally many barons who were followed by their tenants either in rebellion or, as in the case of William de Ferrers, earl of Derby, in loyalty to King John (see above, p. 288). The honour as a community can still be sensed in several agreements in the 1200s: the tenants of the Worcestershire Beauchamp honour, for example, offered King John £1,333 (2,000 marks) to have control of their lord and his lands during his minority.
This feudal theme can be pursued deep into the thirteenth century. Lords collected a scutage from their tenants with reasonable success in 1235, continued to exploit reliefs, marriages and wardships, protected such rights by striving to prevent the creation of intermediate or ‘mesne’ tenancies (like that at Waterperry), and insisted on the obligation to attend their private courts (hence the need for legislation on the subject in 1259). Before he finally forfeited everything for rebellion in 1266, Earl Robert de Ferrers, last of the line, is seen in his charters surrounded by tenants, many of whom now bore coats of arms which were derived from the Ferrers’ own. It was entirely in feudal terms that the Ferrers knight Richard de Vernon justified his conduct between 1263 and 1266: ‘In the time of the war he stood with his lord, Robert de Ferrers, earl of Derby, from whom he held his land and to whom he had done homage.’
By this time, however, such ideas of feudal loyalty were increasingly losing touch with reality. Vernon himself seems in fact to have left the service of Earl Ferrers for that of the Montforts. Although impossible to measure in any detail, the civil war of 1263–7 wears a distinctly less feudal aspect than that of 1215–17. While, moreover, great barons continued to exploit the feudal incidents, the number who exercised such rights over an extensive body of tenants was almost certainly diminishing. Honours like that of the Ferrers which continued to have some kind of communal life were probably exceptional. That was partly because the life of an honour had always been liable to disruption or termination. They could be forfeited for treason and then granted out again, in whole or in part, to entirely new lords. An honour might equally pass to a new family through the marriage of an heiress. If there were heiresses, then it was divided between them and ceased to exist as a single entity. No less than fifty-four of the 189 baronial honours existing in 1166 had passed into the female line at least once since 1086. The Ferrers were lucky indeed in continuing the male line all the way down to their forfeiture in 1266. Alongside barons from ancient families, there were always new men, often royal servants (like William Brewer), who were building up large estates, composed of demesne manors and a hotchpotch of feudal tenants, which were not baronies at all. As the number of such estates increased while that of undivided honours declined it became impossible to regard the great men of the realm simply as those who were baronial tenants-in-chief. Under the terms of Magna Carta in 1215 it had still been the latter who were to receive a personal summons to parliament, but in practice in the thirteenth century the king came to summon whoever was wealthy and important, irrespective of whether they enjoyed baronial status.
Even where honours remained intact, there were factors which helped tenants escape the control of disagreeable or ineffective lords. The greater tenancies seem to have been hereditary from an early stage. Lower down the scale, lords retained some power to chop and change (certainly this seems the case in the honour of Clare), but gradually in the twelfth century the lesser tenancies too became heritable. That tendency was reinforced by the new legal procedures of Henry II, which also diminished a baron’s ability to discipline his men through seizing their lands. There were other ways too in which tenants might gain independence. Many lords were as ineffective as Henry d’Oilly in preventing the creation of mesne tenancies. The Leges Henrici Primi already considered the problems which could arise if tenants lived far from the baronial centre or held significant lands outside the honour from other lords. While such conflicts of loyalty often affected a minority of tenants, as we have said, that minority often included the wealthiest members of the honour. The honourial court itself was certainly no self-contained institution. Under Henry I cases were almost certainly transferred from it for default of justice to be heard by the county court or by the king himself. Under Henry II it no longer required default of justice to effect such transfers, for the new common law legal procedures opened up a range of ways in which tenants could litigate directly before royal judges. Likewise it was the under-tenants who staffed the juries required by the new procedures and came to hold the array of new local offices called into being by Angevin kingship.
As the structures of feudalism weakened, so in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries new forms of magnate power developed, forms of what historians have called bastard feudalism. Driving on this development, as Peter Coss has argued, was the threat posed to magnates by the direct relationship the king was forging with under-tenants. The relationship had always existed, but the Angevins, as we have seen, strengthened it many times over. In effect, bastard feudalism was the response. Here there were three interrelated strands. The first was that lords retained whoever they liked in their service, whether or not they were tenants. Clearly this was an absolutely necessary response to the king’s own claim, enunciated in The Dialogue of the Exchequer in 1178, that he himself could employ any man in his service, no matter from whom that man held his land. Lords had to be able to do the same if they were not to be left behind. It was the competition for good service as well as good lordship which weakened the honour, breaking it up from above as well as from below. No ambitious lord could afford to be stuck with a circle of dud tenants, just as no ambitious tenant could afford to be stuck with a dud lord. In the second half of the twelfth century, therefore, retinues which owed little to tenurial connections begin to appear, as David Crouch has shown: William Marshal, earl of Chepstow and Pembroke (1190–1219), had no tenurial links with twelve of the eighteen knights closest to him. The second feature of bastard feudalism was the way in which great lords sought particularly to retain men whom the king appointed to local office, thus nullifying the threat to themselves implicit in such employment. In the 1220s the earl of Warwick seems to have been constructing a following very much of this kind. If great lords had long sought to control the office of sheriff, they now strove to bring a much wider range of officials within their orbit. In spinning such webs of local control, magnates were helped by changes in the structures of local government in the thirteenth century which arguably gave the king a less powerful presence in the shires (see below, p. 492). In the 1260s the complaint was that the sheriffs and bailiffs were the creatures of the magnates and the king’s judges their ‘tributaries’, implying that they were retained with annual money payments or ‘fees’.
Reference to such fees reflects the third feature of bastard feudalism, that rewards took the form of money rather than of land. ‘Its quintessence was payment for service,’ wrote K. B. McFarlane of bastard feudalism. The fact was that after the initial bonanza following the Norman Conquest, land was in increasingly short supply. The great majority of the tenancies revealed by the great survey of 1166 had been created before 1135, while those of later date were often small in size. Clearly lords were becoming cagey about parting with land, the most valuable of all commodities. Most of William Marshal’s followers seem to have been rewarded not with land but with offices and other favours. They may also have received money ‘fees’, for whereas land was scarce, cash – with the huge expansion of the money supply (see above, p. 40) –was abundant. Scott Waugh has demonstrated how lords in the thirteenth century increasingly rewarded their servants with such fees, beginning with their legal advisers and estate stewards, and then moving on to their knights as well. In this they were imitating the king. He had always used money to recruit mercenaries to fight in his armies. Now in the thirteenth century he began to use money fees on a regular basis as a reward for household knights, judges and other senior officials. That retention through money was becoming the norm was revealed in 1270 when the Lord Edward, at a cost of 22,500 marks, entered into formal contracts with eighteen English lords who were to supply him with 225 knights for his crusade. The implication was that the lords would use the cash to recruit their own retinues.
During the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, at a pace uneven both chronologically and geographically, the structures of feudalism had waned and those of bastard feudalism had waxed. In managing the transition, great lords certainly preserved the essentials of their power but the new structures were more fluid and kaleidoscopic than the old, leaving the gentry correspondingly more independent. That after all was the view of the government. Under the terms of Magna Carta it was the barons and other lesser tenants-in-chief who were still to answer for the kingdom in matters of taxation. Taxes were indeed granted by such feudal assemblies in 1225, 1232 and 1237. But from the 1250s the crown felt it necessary to summon knights representing the counties to give their own assent. This surely reflected a major shift in how society was perceived. In 1215 the barons could still answer for the realm because it could still be seen, in certain lights, as composed of a series of honours in which each baron commanded the allegiance of a defined body of knightly tenants. Fifty years later this no longer seemed to be the case. The knights and through them the men of the shires must answer for themselves. The appearance of the knights in parliament is the best measure of the new society which was emerging in the thirteenth century.
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Beneath the lords of the manors, but above the peasantry (because they did not labour themselves), were large numbers of freemen holding, at a rough estimate, between forty and a hundred or so acres of land. This group has been little studied by historians, yet it was immensely important for the functioning of local society. The group was fed from below by men rising from the ranks of the peasantry and from above, as we have seen, by the establishment of junior branches of minor gentry families. Some members were descendants of the soldiers established on small parcels of land after the Conquest, others of the kind of English families found on the hundred juries which had given evidence for the making of Domesday Book. These freeholders were essential to the running of the hundred, indeed were formed inevitably into a kind of community by so doing. At the three-weekly sessions of the hundred courts they gave judgements in cases of minor debt and disorder, and reviewed the more serious crimes which were passed up to the king’s justices on their eyre visitations. At the eyres, they usually outnumbered lords of manors on the hundred juries which gave evidence to the judges. Of the jurors at the 1263 Surrey eyre, 70 per cent appeared again as jurors at other eyres. When such men litigated they generally did so for property within their hundred. These groups were therefore experienced, tightly-knit and local. They acted as a hinge between the peasantry and the gentry. In so far as there was a genuine community of the realm, they did much to forge it.
Peasant society itself has been studied far more intensively than that of the freemen just above it, though such studies mostly begin at the end of our period, being facilitated by the advent of manorial court rolls. At the peasant level the nuclear family of parents and children remained the central social institution. Indeed, if life expectancy was lower among the peasantry, then three-generational families were correspondingly less common than higher up the social scale. Zvi Razi’s work on the manor of Halesowen in Shropshire suggested that tenants aged twenty could expect to live another twenty-five to twenty-eight years. Given that their normal age of marriage was around twenty, there was little time to enjoy grandchildren. On the other hand, some parents did live long enough to surrender their property to their sons. Formal maintenance agreements were exceptional. Children had an obligation to look after their aged parents.
Inheritance customs among the peasantry varied. In the south and east, especially in Kent and East Anglia, partible inheritance was prevalent with equal division among all the sons. Elsewhere the heir was more usually either the eldest son (primogeniture) or the youngest son (ultimogeniture). Under both systems daughters only inherited in default of sons. Even where inheritance was impartible, however, nuclear families felt a very strong obligation to provide for the non-inheriting children, thus enabling them to marry. Sometimes that might amount, as with one couple at Houghton-cum-Wyton (Hunting-donshire), to no more than a room in the house or a dwelling in the courtyard together with ‘all the necessities of life’. But more often the aim was to endow younger sons and daughters with land in order to help them set up separate households. If necessary that land came from the inheritance, but it was clearly better if it could be acquired. The acquisition of small parcels of land in order to provide for younger sons and daughters was one of the main engines driving the village land market. How far the establishment of non-inheriting children created extended families as a significant force in village life depended very much on local economic conditions. At Brigstock in Northamptonshire, where the resources of the neighbouring forest relaxed pressure on the land, conjugal households appear (in Judith Bennett’s study) as comparatively distinct and autonomous. At Halesowen, on the other hand, where land was at more of a premium, and a family’s main house and holding might be surrounded by the cottages and smallholdings of its junior members, the extended family was a working unit. At the village level, of course, families quarrelled over the allotment of property just as they did higher up the social scale, but the imperative to co-operate was also much stronger – indeed co-operation could quite literally be a condition of survival.
Peasant society was stratified between smallholders with tenements of a few acres at the bottom of the scale and substantial families with thirty-acre holdings at the top. There were also individual peasants, often officials such as the reeve, who through the workings of the village land market succeeded in building up more substantial estates. If these were then broken up to provide for younger children, occasionally a family (like the Knivetons in Derbyshire) ascended over several generations into the knightly class. It was the poor smallholders who were most at risk from the economic conditions of the thirteenth century. At Halesowen, while the top and middling families seem to have kept their lands relatively intact from the 1270s down to 1348, only 35 per cent of the smaller families did so, sometimes selling out to their wealthier neighbours.
Within each manorial complex the peasant condition depended very much, of course, on the level of the lord’s exactions. It depended too, if the peasants were villeins (that is, unfree), on how far the lord exploited his consequent rights, a much debated subject (see above, pp. 53–4). Even the half of the peasant population which was unfree, however, had a direct relationship with royal government, and was thus very much part of the wider realm. For a start, the king drew on all his subjects for defence of the realm; hence the ‘Assize of Arms’, which laid down the arms required by everyone according to their wealth, made no distinction according to status, and insisted that all who were able-bodied should at least have bows and arrows. Peasants were therefore armed by government decree. They were also very much embraced by the king’s maintenance of the peace because serious crime was always the concern of the crown, even if committed by the most lowly peasant. At the most basic level of law enforcement the peasants were organized into ‘tithings’, groups of ten men who provided collective security for each other’s good behaviour. It was on entering such groups at the age of twelve that peasants took their oath of fealty to the king. Some lords obtained or usurped the right to carry out themselves the annual check on whether the peasants were all arrayed in their tithings (‘the view of frankpledge’), but if not this was done by the sheriff at the hundred court. If a tithing failed to arrest a delinquent member, then it was punishable by the king’s judges. It was the village communities too which had to pay the murdrum fine to the king when they could not prove a dead body was that of an Englishman – in practice, this meant a peasant. The reeve and men from each village nearest to which bodies were found also had to attend coroners’ inquests. It is striking testimony to the way local concerns reached the national level that both Magna Carta in 1217 and the Provisions of Westminster in 1259 alleviated peasant burdens in these areas, the former by limiting exactions by the sheriff at the checking of the tithing groups, and the latter by abolishing the murdrum fine in cases of misadventure, and preventing a judge amercing a village because all adult males had not attended an inquest. A combination of lordly self-interest and idealism contributed to such reforms; but peasants were also quite able to protest for themselves.
Manorial court rolls are full of fines for bad ploughing and default of reaping. At Little Ogborne (Wiltshire) the whole village was punished for not coming to wash the lord’s sheep. Resistance could also be violent. The villeins of Brampton in 1242 chased the lord’s bailiffs back to Huntingdon and rescued ‘with axes and staves’ the animals they had taken. The culprits could not be named individually since ‘the greater part of the village’ was there. There were also numerous lawsuits in which the peasants complained of increased burdens imposed on them by their lords. Unfree peasants, of course, were denied access to the king’s courts in any matters concerned with their lands and rents, but such cases proceeded when the peasants claimed either to be free sokemen or the specially privileged class of peasants who lived on ‘ancient demesne’ manors, that is manors anciently in the king’s hands. In the latter case the plaintiffs were perhaps imagining a mythical time when everyone had been directly subject to the king and had access to his courts. Since lords always responded to these claims by saying the peasants were actually villeins, the cases turned on the question of status. In one suit the peasants of Mears Ashby (Northamptonshire) litigated from 1249 to 1261 until at last they secured victory, appearing before the justices of the common bench, king’s bench (this during the great revolutionary parliaments at Oxford and Winchester in 1258), and then before the justiciars of the reforming regime, Hugh Bigod and Hugh Despencer.
This movement at Ashby was led by substantial peasants, each with around thirty acres of land, who fought the case ‘for themselves and the other men of Ashby in common’. The community of the village was the lowest rung of the communities in England created by the needs of government, in this case the need to govern the workings of the manor. Up to a point the peasants were forced to do that in the lords’ interests, but they could also do it in their own, especially as they gave the judgements at the manorial court and assessed the amercements imposed by it. At Brightwalton (Berkshire) the villeins gave verdicts ‘according to the custom of the manor’ on complex disputes over inheritance, put up candidates to act as reeve and, as the ‘whole community of the villeins of Brightwalton’, reached an agreement with their lord (the abbot of Battle) over rights of common. Village society was stratified and competitive yet could co-operate for the common good. It also had wide horizons and plenty of political training, hence the role of the peasantry in the revolutionary period between 1258 and 1267. In 1265 ‘the community of the village’ of Peatling Magna (Leicestershire) was able to see itself as very much part of the wider ‘community of the realm’.
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‘Women differ from men in many respects for their position is inferior to that of man,’ opined the great law book Bracton, put together in the 1220s. The reason, of course, was partly biblical, going back to Eve’s role as Adam’s serpentine temptress. Other female failings (in the view of the mid-thirteenth-century Oxford friar, John of Wales) were garrulity, sloth and ostentation, notably in dress and make-up. Walter Map, writing in the 1180s, declared that women led to only one thing: ‘mischief’. How necessary then the injunction in Ephesians 5:22–23: ‘Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.’ Women also needed protection because they were frail. When Ughtred Smith of Botland pulled an arrow out of his head before going home it was ‘so that my wife may not see it, for she would perhaps grieve over much.’ Strong man. Weak woman.
In fact it was not always as simple as that. Women were not all weak. In May 1267 when the widow Desiderata met her friend William de Stangate coming along with a crossbow over his shoulder, she asked him in jest (clearly well informed about national events) whether he was one of those sent by the king to apprehend evildoers. Then, declaring she could overcome two or three like him, she grabbed his neck, crooked her leg and threw him to the ground. While it may be true that the status of women declined markedly in theological writings in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, many ecclesiastics remained remarkably free of such prejudices, especially when confronted with real women. St Anselm corresponded extensively with noblewomen, treating them as equals and individuals, respecting their abilities and stressing their influence as civilizers of their husbands and teachers of their children. Orderic Vitalis, in the first half of the twelfth century, portrayed noblewomen as co-operators with their husbands, and discriminated between their different personalities. He certainly criticized individual women, but never the sex as a whole. A hundred or so years later another great chronicler, Matthew Paris, viewed the many noblewomen of his acquaintance in a similarly balanced light.
It is true, of course, that the positive view of a wife’s role in marriage found in writers like Anselm and later Thomas of Chobham reflected their subordination. If they exercised power it was through influencing their husbands. It is equally true that where women acted strongly on their own account they were often said to act like men, just as when men acted weakly they were said to act like women. Yet this too did not alter the admiration for women who did act manfully and on their own. Matthew Paris gave a long account of the way the widowed countess of Arundel, ‘a woman but not acting in women’s fashion’, upbraided Henry III for his injustices. In the same way Orderic Vitalis wrote enthusiastically of Isabella de Conches, ‘generous, daring and light-hearted… who rode armed as a knight among the knights’. Indeed, women who fought were widely esteemed. In the mid thirteenth century the gentry family of Hotot still remembered their ancestress, Dionisia, who in the troubles of Stephen’s reign, had charged a knight and unhorsed him with one blow from her lance.
The position of women, therefore, as Judith Bennett has remarked, was full of ambivalence and contradictions. In many ways they were subordinate, yet they could be real partners within marriage, and independent agents outside it, especially as widows. Moreover both the restraints and the opportunities were remarkably similar, with certain exceptions, at all levels of society.
The general inferiority of the female sex in male thinking and the more particular subordination of wives in marriage were certainly reflected in and reinforced by the exclusion of women from many areas of public life: private women, public men. Women did not serve on juries and did not act as judges, sheriffs and castellans save in the rare cases where they inherited a family position, like Nicola de la Haye (see above, pp. 252, 299). Within towns they could be members of gilds but they never held office. Within the village they never acted as reeves or ale-tasters and were not in tithings. A limited public role is also reflected in the way women were rarely either the victims or the perpetrators of crime. In a Lincolnshire sample of 322 people accused of homicide in 1202 and between 1281 and 1284, only 5.6 per cent were women, and many of these were acting with male accomplices. Only 13.6 per cent of the 286 victims were women, mostly as a result of domestic violence. As for other crimes, women were most likely to be involved in the non-violent activities of larceny and receiving, although even here the numbers were low: of 341 people accused of larceny between 1281 and 1284 only twenty-five were women.
Women were also more restricted than men when it came to bringing ‘appeals’ (that is, accusations) for personal injury. In law, as stated in Glanvill, they could only do this for rape and for the murder of their husbands provided they had witnessed the crime. Although in practice appeals for robbery, wounding and the death of sons and fathers were also allowed, increasingly in the thirteenth century the judges became more restrictive and applied the letter of the law. Success in rape actions was low. Not one of twenty-seven cases from Lincolnshire in 1202 resulted in a conviction. In twenty-two of them the victim failed to prosecute, perhaps forcing an out-of-court settlement, perhaps intimidated by having to detail the events. Not surprisingly, the number of actions fell markedly in the course of the century. It should be remembered, however, that nine out of ten men accused of rape are still acquitted today.
Women, especially once married, were also second-class citizens when it came to rights over property. Under feudal custom and the common law to which the law and custom in towns and manors often approximated, a daughter could inherit but only in default of sons (see above, p. 89). Within marriage the husband gained total control of both his wife’s inheritance and her marriage portion (maritagium), the endowment given by her natal family. He could alienate them on his sole authority, as he could also alienate land to which his wife would be entitled after his death as dower. (Dower was supposed to amount to a third of the land the husband held on marriage, together with a third of any subsequent acquisitions unless another amount was stipulated.) ‘Legally a woman is completely in the power of her husband,’ wrote the law book Glanvill.
In some ways, however, the law also encouraged co-operation between husbands and wives. If wives could not prevent husbands alienating their possessions, they could as widows challenge such alienations. A wise husband secured the consent of his wife. Many of the grants made by twelfth-century earls of Chester were said to have been agreed by their countesses. The latter were also permitted to pursue policies of their own, notably in making endowments to favoured religious houses. In fact there were many areas in which wives worked closely with their husbands and not always as their civilizers. Early in the twelfth century within the town of Huntingdon, the parents of the future recluse Christina of Markyate were absolutely at one in trying to force her into marriage, and it was her mother who resorted to physical violence. Among the baronage, one can sense real political partnerships between couples like Matilda and William de Braose, Matilda and Roger de Mortimer and Simon and Eleanor de Montfort. These were very much the types of women admired by Orderic Vitalis and Matthew Paris. The household roll of Eleanor de Montfort in 1265 shows her moving around with her large establishment as it suited the needs of the Montfortian government, for a time taking command at Dover castle. In May and June 1265, she sent letters and messengers to the sheriff of Hampshire, the constables of Wallingford and Kenilworth, the prioress of Amesbury and the countesses of Devon and Lincoln, as well as to her husband and her son who was besieging Pevensey castle.
Within the home itself, a wife’s role could be of central importance. Matilda de Braose was praised by Gerald of Wales for the economical way she ran her household. The association of women with household supervision is shown in the law book Bractonwhich opined that a woman, in some forms of tenure, would come of age (and thus be marriageable) when ‘she knows how to order her house and do the things which belong to the arrangement and management of a house’. A wife might also be involved in educating her children, as Anselm envisaged: the baroness Denise de Montchensy, in the mid thirteenth century, taught her offspring French, the language of ‘husbandry and management’. In this way wives forged close relationships with their children and naturally became involved in the politics of how they should be endowed and whom they should marry.
At the level of the village, the impression from coroners’ reports on accidental death is that women were at home (or fetching water) and men were out at work. But that may simply reflect women’s non-domestic work being less dangerous than men’s – for example weeding, reaping and spinning, rather than ploughing. One striking fact to emerge from licensing fines is the number of women brewers. The capital involved in brewing meant such women were usually married (hence ‘ale wives’), often to village officials and craftsmen like reeves and smiths. In villages like Brigstock and Langtoft (Lincolnshire) women dominated brewing, a core of professionals working on a regular basis and other women moving in and out of the business from year to year. Women were also active as brewers in towns. In Lincoln at different times in 1292–3 between twenty-nine and fifty-two women were involved, respectively 22 per cent and 44 per cent of the total number of brewers. Other female trades at this time included those of seamster, huckster, mustard-maker, midwife, salter, girdler, furmager (cheese-maker), ironmonger and taverner.
The marital status of these Lincoln women is often unclear. Many were wives but others were probably spinsters and widows, which brings us to the position of women outside marriage. As we have seen, the public invisibility of women was partly due to their supposed subordination to their husbands within the conjugal household. Yet there were also women, spinsters and widows, who had no husbands at all, and were sometimes heads of their own households. They did not thereby gain equality with men in the public arena – gender stereo-types were far too strong for that – but they did have more independence for good or ill than in the married state.
Spinsters with their own land were far more prevalent at the lower than the higher levels of society. Indeed among the nobility it is difficult to find examples of spinsters holding substantial acreages of land. The church certainly stressed that the free consent of both parties was necessary for valid marriage, but since women were allowed to give that consent at the age of twelve it did not amount to very much. Any woman who could expect a significant inheritance or endowment was likely to be married in her teens, as decided by king, lord or family, so the question of a period of independence as a landed spinster simply did not arise. Within the parental home an unmarried daughter might be given considerable responsibility. In Huntingdon, Christina of Markyate was not merely dressed finely, she was also given custody of her father’s substantial treasure. But there was no question of her setting up on her own outside marriage, and it was only flight which enabled her to do so. On the other hand, the smaller the expectation of land and the less the local shortage of it, the more likely it was that a woman would marry late or not at all. In that case, if she had at least some property, she might well have her own household. On the 1240 Suffolk eyre a striking number of single women, apparently spinsters, are found fending for themselves, bringing actions of mort d’ancestor, novel disseisin and entry, often over just a few acres. Within the manor of Brigstock there is likewise evidence of landed spinsters, fathers endowing daughters with small amounts of land sometimes years before they married, land for which they answered themselves in the manorial court, and on which perhaps they lived. How far such women were truly autonomous, and how far, if they were, they enjoyed their autonomy, must have depended in part on the size of the provision. For some, without help from their families, independence was perhaps no more than independence to starve. Marriage, on the other hand, might bring security. The irony was that while a lack of resources made a husband necessary, it also diminished the prospect of finding one.
If spinsters, for good or ill, could have an independent role as landholders and litigators, it disappeared on marriage, only to reappear in widowhood. Under manorial custom widows recovered control of their inheritances and endowments and were also entitled to a dower, sometimes amounting to half of their late husband’s lands. It was also common for women to have custody of the paternal inheritance when heirs were under age. All this explains why in many villages between 10 and 15 per cent of the holdings were in the hands of women. Widowhood could transform the lives of peasant women, replacing, in the words of Judith Bennett, ‘public reticence with public assertion’. At Brigstock, for example, Alice Avice litigated in the manorial court far more frequently as a widow than as a married woman, and generally played a much fuller part in village life.
Higher up the social scale widows were in a similar position with respect to land. Feudal custom and the common law entitled them, on the death of their husbands, to control their inheritances, marriage portions and dowers. Magna Carta in 1215 tried to ensure that they entered into control of all three without difficulty. The growth of the common law too had helped widows, notably by providing them with two standard form legal actions. One of these enabled a widow to recover land which her husband, ‘whom she could not contradict while living’, had alienated from her inheritance or marriage portion; the other enabled her to recover her dower. There were parallel procedures in the towns. In fact, most widows gained their dowers without trouble, especially if the heir (from whose land it came) was a son. But problems arose when the husband had alienated the dower (often actions had to be brought against large numbers of his grantees) or where the inheritance had passed into other hands or into wardship. On the Surrey eyre of 1263 seventeen widows brought dower actions, the majority with success.
The wealthier the widow, of course, the greater the pressure to re-marry since the more valuable was the prize for a second husband (see above, pp. 89–90). In the case of widows of tenants-in-chief that pressure could come from the king, as it could come from a baron in the case of widows of under-tenants. Despite promises to the contrary in the Coronation Charter of 1100, the twelfth-century kings all forced widows into re-marriage or took large sums of money from them not to do so. In 1130 Lucy, countess of Chester, owed Henry I £333 for permission to stay single for just five years. The pressure on widows became particularly acute from the 1190s as the king’s financial difficulties multiplied; Magna Carta therefore reiterated the Charter promise of 1100. This time it had real effect. While in John’s sixteen-year reign 149 widows offered an average of 278 marks apiece to avoid compulsory re-marriage, the equivalent figures for the fifty-six-year reign of Henry III were forty-four widows and eighty-seven marks. Widows were freer to marry whom they wished and many perhaps were keen to do so. ‘I re-married because as a weak and feeble woman I was not able and did not know how to control my dower, and my inheritance from my father, and my other rights and properties’: this was how the friar Ralph Bocking imagined female thinking. After 1215, however, it was easier to take the option to remain single. Some noblewomen certainly had long widowhoods in the twelfth century, including several countesses of Chester, but the list is much longer in the thirteenth: Isabel de Forz, countess of Aumale and Devon (1260–93), Isabella, countess of Arundel (1243–82), Matilda, countess of Gloucester (1262–89), Alice, countess of Lincoln (1258–1311), Matilda de Mortimer (1282–1301) and Margaret de Lacy, countess of Lincoln and Pembroke (1245–66) are just a selection of its formidable widows.
The aim of Magna Carta in 1215 had not been to create a body of independent baronial widows. Rather, the point was to safeguard the interests of male heirs who had no wish to see their mothers’ extensive lands taken away by second husbands. Yet some widows surely also enjoyed the power and freedom that came with widowhood. They administered their lands themselves and, though they often consulted their heirs, were entitled to make alienations from their inheritances and marriage portions on their own sole authority, often doing so to endow religious houses and create portions for younger children.
The career of Margaret de Lacy, studied by Louise Wilkinson, encapsulates the change between wife and widow. She was married at the age of twelve in 1221 to John de Lacy, lord of Pontefract, who was twenty-nine. The idea was for her to bring to Lacy the inheritance of her mother, Hawisia, a sister of the childless Ranulf, earl of Chester and Lincoln, an inheritance which was planned to include both the honour of Bolingbroke and the earldom of Lincoln itself. Lacy died in 1240, having indeed gained the earldom, and Margaret made a brief second marriage to Walter Marshal, earl of Pembroke, who died in 1245. After that, although holding dower thirds from two earldoms as well as her own honour of Bolingbroke, she remained unmarried until her death in 1266, when she chose to be buried not beside either of her husbands but beside her father, who had died in 1217. As a widow, with her son and heir Edmund de Lacy (born in 1230) married to one of the queen’s Savoyard relations, Margaret became very close to the court. Her chief aim was to advance the interests of her family, and to do it herself. Instead of passing the honour of Bolingbroke to her son (as some widows did with their inheritances, although not legally obliged to do so), she kept it in hand and vigorously increased its lands for his ultimate benefit. She also headed the team which negotiated the marriage of her grandson Henry to the Longespee heiress, a marriage too good to be missed, despite the fact that both were children. On her son’s early death in 1258, she and his widow Alice succeeded in buying the wardship of his lands from the king.
It is very much within such family contexts that the careers of noblewomen should be placed. As girl brides they were pawns, but as wives, and even more as widows, depending on age, personality and circumstance, they could play important roles in influencing and shaping family policies, exploiting the conventions of the day just as they had been exploited by them. The Coronation Charter of 1100 had given to widows (safeguarded against forced re-marriage) the custody of the lands and persons of their under-age children. It was not a promise which was kept, nor was it repeated in 1215. A century of royal exploitation meant that control over wardships was something no king would give up. If they were obtained by widows it was only occasionally and, as with the Lacys, at a price. Yet the aspiration of the 1100 Charter remains significant. There could be no better indication of the trust which was placed in women, trust in their competence to administer estates and their commitment to the future of the family.
In getting their way women made use of all possible contacts, male and female. But was there something distinctive – consciously so – in their contacts with fellow women, for example in those between Eleanor de Montfort, the prioress of Amesbury and the countesses of Devon and Lincoln? What is certain is that noblewomen were surrounded in their households by other women. When Margaret de Lacy was staying at court in September 1252, the queen gave brooches to four of her female attendants. The same was also true of wealthy townswomen. Both her servants and her wider female circle are reflected in the twenty women (double the number of men) to whom Avice de Crosseby, widow of a Lincoln citizen, made bequests in her will. In such ways women were able to shape a world of their own.
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Some of the major themes emerging from discussion of the English nobility and gentry in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are also relevant in Scotland. Scotland after all had comparable ‘feudal’ lordships with knightly tenants, and local government divisions (ultimately called shires) under sheriffs. When King Alexander III entered each sheriffdom on his tours of the kingdom, he was met by the sheriff and ‘the chosen knights of the shire’, according to Walter Bower, writing in the fifteenth century but perhaps using earlier evidence. It sounds very English. Within the feudal lordships inheritance practices were similar to those in England, as were the workings of both the nuclear and extended families. The position of noblewomen was also comparable with daughters inheriting jointly in default of sons and widows having the right to a dower third, with access to action by writ (‘the brieve of terce’) to obtain it. Lack of evidence, however, means there is no equivalent to the thousands of English baronial and knightly families whose histories can be worked out in detail. For that reason it is hard to chart how the relations between lords and followers changed over time. In significant ways, moreover, the framework was different from that in England. The Scottish earldoms and great provincial lordships, existing as they did outside the area of the sheriffdoms, the crown pleas and the common law, had no parallel in England. As a consequence the great Scottish lords may well have had a far tighter control of the lives of their tenants and subjects than was the case with the nobility south of the border. Equally, within the sheriffdoms there was neither the same proliferation of royal offices staffed by local men nor the same volume of common law litigation as there was in England, so the whole texture of local life was in that respect very different.
In the thirteenth century the Comyns (studied by Alan Young) provide a striking example of how an extended family group could work at the political level (see above, p. 335). The family also illustrates another important theme, one peculiar to Scotland, namely the increasing accommodation between old and new, between the old native nobility and the new nobility of Anglo-Norman descent. The Comyns originated in Normandy (though they did not come from a great noble house) and had risen in the service of the Scottish kings. In or soon after 1212 William Comyn, justiciar north of Forth, became earl of Buchan through his marriage to Marjorie, daughter of Earl Fergus. This was the first Scottish earldom to pass out of native hands, Comyn’s installation being part of the king’s policy to tie the north, home of challenges to the throne, more closely to the centre. To help establish his authority, Comyn founded a Cistercian abbey at Deer, an ancient monastic centre and very much within a Gaelic-speaking area, where he was buried. He and his descendants also built or re-built the castles (five ringed the earldom) from which their demesnes were administered. The surviving castles constructed by the Badenoch and Lochaber branch of the family at Lochindorb and Inverlochy show just how impressive these must have been.
However, in this new Comyn regime there was also substantial continuity with the past, in part because Buchan was already changing. Fergus, the last native earl, had himself made grants to his native followers in very much Anglo-Norman form, giving Fedderate and Ardendraught, for example, to John, son of Uhtred and his heirs, ‘as any earl or lord in the Scottish realm may infeft any vassal’. Relief was to be paid, and the lord’s court at Ellon to be attended three times a year – just the kind of attendance at private courts often required of knightly tenants in England. John son of Uhtred’s descendants soon began to style themselves ‘of Fedderate’ like any linearly structured English knightly family. The witnesses to his charters shows that Fergus’s entourage was composed both of native lords and knights of Anglo-Norman descent. The latter can likewise be found in the entourages of other native earls, who were certainly quite familiar with knight service and ‘feudal’ tenure. Thus King William the Lion granted Gilbert, son of the earl of Angus, land to be held in fee and heredity for the service of one knight ‘as honourably as other knights hold their lands from me in the kingdom of Scotland’. The seals of the great native lords showed them galloping along in full armour. Their charters (like those issued by Alan of Galloway) might have come from the Scottish or English royal chanceries themselves.
If the Scottish nobility was changing, Comyn himself, in taking over the earldom, came halfway to meet it. His entourage included several men from Fergus’s circle, notably the latter’s illegitimate son, as well as John son of Uhtred, and Cospatric Macmedethyn. Comyn granted Cospatric land ‘in fee and heredity’, but such native landholders still remained ‘different’ from those of Anglo-Norman descent, for example in speaking Gaelic. In associating with them, Comyn in a sense was making a conscious effort to show he was ‘Scots’, something also reflected in the way he honoured his father-in-law by naming one son ‘Fergus’. In the administration of the earldom, Comyn retained the old Celtic judicial official of the brithem. He also accorded an important role to his wife. Marjorie both witnessed his charters and issued ones of her own, sometimes styling herself ‘the daughter of Fergus once earl of Buchan’ rather than Comyn’s wife, thus stressing her independent status. It was such co-operation at the local level which underpinned the universal Scottishness emerging in the thirteenth century (discussed in chapter 1).
That Scottishness was, however, perfectly compatible with members of the nobility retaining an English identity as well, something exemplified in the history of the Comyns. At first sight they appear very much a family based in northern Scotland, but this is misleading. In 1264 the marriage of Alexander, second earl of Buchan, to one of the heiresses of the Quincy earls of Winchester and lords of Galloway brought properties throughout England to add to those in Tynedale which the family had held since the twelfth century. Alexander was reluctant to travel south, but the importance he attached to the English properties is shown by the way, long before his death, he granted some of the most valuable to his eldest son. All this was part of a wider pattern, and one very different from that in the twelfth century. Henry I had prevented cross-border landholding. Now it was extensive, and constantly renewed through intermarriage. In 1243 the Umfravilles of Prudhoe in Northumberland gained the Scottish earldom of Angus. The Bruces of Annandale likewise substantially increased their English estates. Indeed, according to one story, it was on the family manor of Writtle in Essex that the future king, Robert Bruce, was born. According to Keith Stringer’s calculations, nine of Scotland’s earldoms and half its provincial lordships were held at some time between 1200 and 1296 by lords who also held estates in England. Conversely, fourteen of the twenty-seven baronies in Northumberland and Cumberland were held in the same period by lords who held land in Scotland. In 1290, all told there were thirty lords and forty religious houses with significant holdings on either side of the border.
Facilitated by the meshing of the economies, these links were both cause and consequence of the political peace which illuminated Anglo-Scottish relations in the thirteenth century. There was no problem about a great Anglo-Scottish baron, John de Vesci, leading Alexander III’s punitive expedition to Man in 1275 and commanding Edward I’s forces in Anglesey two years later. At Alnwick, Vesci founded a hospital on the spot where his great-great-great-great-grandfather King Malcolm of Scotland was killed in 1093. (Vesci’s grandmother was an illegitimate daughter of King William the Lion.) He also preserved at Alnwick a silver reliquary containing the foot of Simon de Montfort, with whom he had fought at Evesham. With his great bases at Alnwick and Sprouston straddling the border, Vesci was very much a northerner, but his mother had also inherited Kildare in Ireland and Caerleon in Wales. He himself died in the service of Edward I in Gascony. His body was brought back for burial at Alnwick, while his heart eventually rested beside that of Edward I’s Castilian queen at Blackfriars in London. Such nobles were genuinely Anglo-Scottish and were also part of a much wider world.
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In Wales the great marcher baronies were not unlike the earldoms and provincial lordships of Scotland. Compact in size, beyond the remit of the sheriffs, and with the common law writs running (if they ran at all) in the name of the lord and initiating actions in his courts, the tenants of such lordships were certainly subject to much tighter control than anywhere in England, hence Richard de Clare’s ability to deprive Richard Seward of his lands in Glamorgan, for all the latter’s appeal to the king. Within native Wales, the cantref and commote, were comparable to administrative divisions in England and royal Scotland, but the structures of society were very different. There was no equivalent to the English and to some extent Scottish hierarchy of barons, knights, freemen and unfree peasants. Below the ruling families, the only distinction recognized by Welsh law books was that between the free and the unfree, all the former being noble. The free gave dues and renders to the ruler, including military service, and lived off the labour and renders of the unfree. Free land, moreover, was very much family land, partible among all the sons and grandsons, and inalienable, according to the Welsh law books, without consent of the kin. The reality of that was reflected in the way native grants to Margam abbey frequently mentioned such consent. The structure of the family was thus much more extended than in England. After the Conquest, Edward I accepted the continuation of partibility, and very different customs over inheritance were one reason why the marcher baronies, for legal purposes, became divided into Englishries and Welshries.
However, changes were taking place. Within Welsh society there was pressure to reduce the role of kin, especially when it came to liability for crime. The men of Ceri ‘both great and small’ asked Henry III to grant them the ‘law of the king’s lands’ so that, in contrast to Welsh law, the kindred would no longer bear the responsibility if a member committed murder, theft or sedition. There was also a blurring of the distinction between free and unfree families as some of the former were reduced in wealth by the division of their lands between numerous heirs, and some of the latter elevated in status by the commutation into money rents of labour services. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s insistence that both ‘nobles’ and ‘rustics and ignobiles’ work together in repairing his court buildings shows he thought them much on a par, although the protests reveal how cherished noble status was. Occasionally, as in England, the unfree were able to rise in the world. One Meirionydd bondman, Heylin ap Roger, paid for permission to leave his home in Tal-y-bont, and by 1292–3 was the wealthiest taxpayer in the village of Tywyn.
Most striking of all, at least in the upper levels of society, were the changes in the area of marriage. Here reforming ecclesiastics had long expressed horror at the Welsh situation. Instead of being solemnized and overseen by the church, marriage was an entirely secular affair, as the numerous provisions concerning it in the law books demonstrate. It was common within the prohibited degrees and, under Welsh law, could be ended for a whole variety of reasons, including adultery and bad breath. Failure to produce heirs was probably another accepted ground. When it came to inheritance, the law placed both legitimate and illegitimate offspring on the same footing, which reflected widespread concubinage and also the practice (referred to by Gerald of Wales) of marriage only once a woman had proved herself to be fertile.
In the twelfth century Owain Gwynedd and the Lord Rhys both married first cousins, the former braving Becket’s resulting excommunication. The succession to Gwynedd after Owain’s death in 1165 was disputed between his sons, both legitimate and illegitimate. Around the turn of the century, however, practices were beginning to change, in part thanks to Llywelyn the Great’s desire to create and secure the future of his own dynasty. In 1203 he was careful to obtain papal sanction for a possible marriage to a daughter of the king of Man. In 1222 he got the pope to confirm his ordinance giving the succession to his legitimate son, notwithstanding the ‘detestable’ Welsh custom which put legitimate and illegitimate sons on the same footing. A growing number of high-status Anglo-Welsh marriages began to take place, which must presumably have been in ecclesiastically acceptable form. All the rulers of Gwynedd and southern Powys in the thirteenth century married royal or English baronial women. Llywelyn the Great married all four of his daughters to English barons, two of them twice over.
These developments were bound to have repercussions on the Welsh when marrying among themselves. When in 1273 Owain ap Maredudd of Ceredigion married Angharad from the ruling house of Cedewain it was the possibility of separation ‘by the church’ that he mentioned, although he then hedged his bets and added ‘or by any other event’. The Welsh law books themselves reflected a state of flux. One passage defiantly rejected ‘church law’ and asserted the equality of legitimate and illegitimate offspring; another accepted that Llywelyn’s ruling had altered the situation and that the law was now contradictory; yet another simply upheld the church view of marriage and inheritance. There were also signs of change in the position of women. Here Welsh law had allowed women to take the initiative in ‘parting’, but in contrast to the situation in England and Scotland there was no such thing as female inheritance. In default of sons, the patrimony was simply divided among the wider male kin. Therefore there were neither women heiresses nor the great widows so characteristic of thirteenth-century England. Women did not generally hold land at all. On marriage, provision both by their kin and their husbands took the form (with some exceptions) of goods, and it was a share of the goods which a woman would take away when widowed or separated. One passage in the law books, however, admittedly a solitary instance, spoke of female inheritance in default of a male heir; this was clearly influenced by English practice, and when Owain ap Maredudd married Angharad he granted her the commote of Anhuniog, effectively as dower. Such arrangements may well have been common at that level of society, although the practice of providing for wives and widows by the concession of movable goods was deep rooted, and was another reason for the division into Englishries and Welshries.
These changes in inheritance and marriage were part of a broader transformation in which the society, economy and politics of Wales were gaining more in common with those of England. In their handwriting and phraseology the charters of the minor Welsh rulers resembled those of English lesser magnates. The charters of the rulers of Gwynedd were similar to those of English earls and the king. There was also some equivalent in Wales to the English country gentry. In Meirionydd in 1292–3 there were about seventy to eighty substantial uchelwyr, that is important leaders of local society. They supplied the holders of local office and each had movable property assessed at £10 or more, being thus as wealthy as at least minor members of the English gentry. These men were not knights but then, given the decline in numbers, neither were their counterparts in England. Higher up the social scale the ethos of knighthood was important. Like the barons of England, it was as mounted knights that the Welsh rulers appeared on their seals. Indeed they had done so from the very first seal of a Welsh ruler to survive, that of King Cadell ap Gruffudd of Deheubarth of c. 1150. Within the marcher lordships of the south, the process by which some of the native ruling families, like that of Afan in Glamorgan, abandoned claims to independent status, took up knighthood, sported coats of arms and integrated themselves into the workings of the lordship had begun by the mid thirteenth century. Under the exigent rule of the Clares such transformations were probably a condition of survival, but that the native nobility enjoyed the world of chivalric culture is demonstrated by versions of Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian romances appearing in that classic collection of Welsh epics known as The Mabinogion. And perhaps not all Welshmen needed translations, for some of the business letters of the Welsh rulers in the later thirteenth century (like such letters in England) begin to appear in French. Another reflection of chivalric attitudes amongst the elite lay in the field of political conduct. Murder and mutilation as a political weapon were largely replaced in the course of the twelfth century by imprisonment. After 1216, although hopelessly fragmented, not a single member of the Deheubarth dynasty was killed or mutilated by a rival; between 1071 and 1116 no less than seven had been. In this area, the Welsh were now just as ‘civilized’ as the English.
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In October 1265 Queen Margaret of France, wife of Louis IX, wrote to King Henry III. She was, she said, hastening the arrival of her sister to England lest Henry, tired of waiting, should marry someone else, perhaps, she went on to hint, the countess of Gloucester. Margaret was, of course, joking. Her sister, Eleanor of Provence, had been married to Henry since 1236 and was now returning to England after her exile during the Montfortian war. The letter reveals the closeness of the family ties which linked the French and English courts. It also reflects the shared attitudes and values which made such ‘in’ jokes possible. Despite the loss of Normandy in 1204, despite some laughter at the way the English spoke French, a common culture bound the secular and religious elites of Britain, in varying degrees, to the rest of western Europe. The closeness of the connection with both France and Italy was epitomized in Britain’s greatest church, the new abbey constructed by Henry III at Westminster between 1245 and 1269 in honour of his patron saint, Edward the Confessor. Built partly in stone from Caen in Normandy, the radiating chapels around the sanctuary, the censing angels, smiling and humane, in the south transept, and the forms of the lancet windows, from which the ‘decorated’ style of tracery spread throughout Britain, had their exemplars at Rheims, France’s coronation cathedral. It was from there that Westminster’s architect, Master Henry de Rheims, had come. The shrine of the Confessor, the tomb of Henry III and the great pavement before the High Altar were Italian, constructed from coloured porphyry stones taken from the buildings of antiquity by the Italian Cosmati family. The stones and craftsmen to make the pavement were brought to England by the abbot of Westminster, Richard Ware, after a visit to the papal court. The spread of papal government of the church and the wider development of ecclesiastical organization, discussed in the next chapter, were themselves important factors in homogenizing the different parts of Britain and integrating them with Europe.