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Land, Family, and Marriage

Land, Family, and Marriage

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Land, Family, and Marriage


the next.¹ It is not the aim of the present chapter to summarize this vast and

technical body of historiographical comment except in so far as a brief review,

accompanied by some selected examples, can help us to identify the approach of

the aristocracy to issues of land and family. It is precisely in that area that we

become aware of the limitations of the evidence. Abundant it may be, but it is

also deliberately technical and formulaic. It is very rare indeed—at least until

we enter the much better-documented world of private correspondence in the

fifteenth century—that we are given a glimpse of the personal considerations

and passions which shaped the decisions which underlie the bloodless language

of the legal documents. Nor is it always easy to separate social reality from legal

fiction in many of these documents.

But even when we have conceded as much, it is abundantly clear that land and

family lay at the heart of the aristocracy’s ambitions. In England at least—less

so arguably in Scotland and Ireland—land and aristocracy went hand in hand,

especially at the higher echelons of the titled nobility. An adequate ‘competence’

(as it was called) in land was as essential for a great magnate, as were jewels

for a lady or the tools of agriculture (wainage) for the peasant. This is vividly

demonstrated in the territorial provision that Edward III made when he created

six new earls in 1337. Thus in elevating William Clinton to be earl of Huntingdon

in that year, the king gave him land and rent worth one thousand marks annually

so that ‘he could more properly continue and better sustain the status and honour

of earl’.² Honours and titles were all very well, but the medieval period took

a down-to-earth view of both. Only the possession of land and rents and the

control of people gave a meaningful content to aristocratic lordship.

Land, therefore, was the source of wealth and power; it was also the focus of

family tradition and family ambition. It is true that a common distinction was

drawn between inherited land (an estate which had descended to an individual

through his/her place in the family tree and whose transmission to the next

generation was largely determined by convention and custom) and acquired land

(an estate which an individual had secured—or ‘purchased’ in the contemporary

phrase—by purchase, marriage, or exchange and was his, therefore, theoretically

to dispose of as he wished). But even this distinction, in so far as it was applied

in practice, could only last for one generation, since the ‘acquired’ land of one

generation became the ‘inherited’ land of the next. Land was in effect held in

trust by an individual on behalf of his/her family, past, present, and future. Just

¹ A full bibliography is not called for here, but the following (cited in order of publication)

have been particularly useful: Holmes, Estates, ch. 2; J. M. W. Bean, The Decline of English

Feudalism, 1215–1540 (Manchester, 1968); McFarlane, Nobility, esp. chs. 3–4; Given-Wilson,

English Nobility, esp. chs. 5–6; Bean, ‘Landlords’, 526–86; Carpenter, Locality and Polity; Payling,

‘Social Mobility, Demographic Change and Landed Society’, 51–73; idem, ‘The Politics of Families:

Late Medieval Marriage Contracts’, in The McFarlane Legacy: Studies in Late Medieval Politics and

Society, ed. R. H. Britnell and A. J. Pollard (Stroud, 1995), 21–49; idem, ‘The Economics of

Marriage in Late Medieval England. The Marriage of Heiresses’, Econ. HR, 54 (2001), 413–29.

² Holmes, Estates, 4 n.1.


Lords and Lordship

as the family’s coat of arms and its profound attachment to its ‘name’ and lineage

expressed its anxiety to display, confirm and, if necessary, invent and embellish its

continuity through time,³ so the descent of the family’s estates in the (preferably)

main family line helped to assert and display the family’s antiquity and standing.

So it was, for example, that the Mortimer family was inordinately proud of the

brass horn which, so it was claimed, was their charter for the land of Wigmore.

Whether the horn was authentic or not, the Mortimers had good reason for their

pride since they can be shown, from independent historical evidence, to have

been lords of Wigmore since the days of William the Conqueror. Titular horns,

family legends (again amply provided in the case of the Mortimers by a full

family chronicle), genealogies, and carefully assembled collections of title deeds

all of them proclaimed the emphasis on the continuity of great families.⁴

In fact few of the really great aristocratic families showed a somnolent

continuity over time. Some families—the Courtenay earls of Devon are a wellknown example—showed a remarkable stability over several generations; but

that was more a comment on their lack of enterprise, character, and success.

More commonly—and much more so among great magnate families rather than

county gentry—the territorial fortunes of families fluctuated, sometimes wildly,

from one generation or even one decade to the next. A fortunate marriage or

a handsome royal gift or the windfalls of an unexpected failure of heirs in a

family or even the investment of the gains of war could all transform a family’s

chances dramatically and unexpectedly. But so, in reverse, could a major political

blunder or the sudden extinction of direct male heirs of the male line. In this, as

in other respects, the swings of fortune and misfortune were more dramatic in

their impact for the greater aristocracy than for other orders of society.

We will, once more, choose the Mortimers of Wigmore to illustrate the truism,

largely because the scale and pace of change in the family’s fortunes across the

fourteenth century are unusually vivid and partly because the survival of a family

cartulary and chronicle and scattered family muniments help to illuminate the

story.⁵ In 1272 the Mortimers could look back on almost two centuries as lords of

Wigmore (Herefordshire) and nearby Welsh lordships. They were a rumbustious

lot and had been ruthless frontier barons but on the whole they looked as if they

would have to be content with their long-accustomed role as Herefordshire and

Marcher barons, and no more. Over the next century this situation was to be

dramatically transformed and they were catapulted into the very front rank of the

English aristocracy. The routes to success were many, but two in particular can

be selected for attention here. The first was royal patronage, in return, of course,

for service to the king. The family’s rise to pre-eminence was built on successive

³ See above, pp. 28–33.

⁴ See above, pp. 34–9.

⁵ For the Mortimers see Holmes, Estates, 10–19; Davies, Lordship and Society, 53–66. For maps

of Mortimer lands in Wales see R. R. Davies, The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063–1415 (Oxford,

1987, 2000), 396, 407.

Land, Family, and Marriage


bouts of royal munificence—first by Edward I to Roger Mortimer (d. 1282);

then by Edward II to Roger’s junior son, Roger of Chirk, and to his grandson,

Roger of Wigmore, in the years 1307–21; then in an orgy of shameless grants

to the latter Roger, now flaunting the newly invented title earl of March, in

the minority years of Edward III (1327–30); and finally by the extraordinarily

generous, if high-handed, acts of Edward III in rebuilding the Mortimer fortunes

almost completely in the 1350s for the next Earl Roger (d. 1360).

The second route to the transformation of the family’s fortunes and standing

lay through the spoils of marriage. Indeed the two routes were linked in as much

as royal consent, and even direct royal intervention, were essential pre-requisites

for success in the major marriage stakes. We may again select two examples from

the annals of the family to illustrate the point. The first was the betrothal in

1301 of the young Roger Mortimer, at the age of fourteen and during his father’s

lifetime, to Joan Geneville (or Joinville), only daughter and heir of Peter and Joan

de Geneville. Intense negotiations and calculations of possible consequences no

doubt preceded the contract. Over the next few years, the fruits of the marriage

fell into the lap of the Mortimers: they included a major accession to the family’s

standing in the Welsh March (the lordship of Ewyas Lacy and a moiety of

Ludlow) and a totally new stake in the English colony in Ireland (the lordships of

Trim and Meath). Even more spectacular in its import, and this time involving

direct royal intervention, was the marriage of Earl Edmund Mortimer (d. 1381)

in 1368 to Philippa, daughter of Lionel, duke of Clarence, and granddaughter

of Edward III. Earl Edmund’s marriage had originally been promised to the earl

of Arundel’s daughter; but when the king stepped in with his offer, the promise

to Arundel was cancelled on due payment of compensation.⁶ Few families could

resist the flattering offer of a royal marriage alliance. But flattery apart, the 1368

marriage quickly brought very tangible rewards for the Mortimers. Philippa was

the heiress of Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 1360) and so brought to her new husband

a goodly part of the vast former Clare inheritance, including great lordships

in south-east Wales, East Anglia, and Ireland. From being in 1301 a baronial

family of sound but modest regional standing the Mortimers had become within

three generations possibly the second richest aristocratic family in England, with

estates stretching from East Anglia through southern England, a predominant

position in the March of Wales, and a towering position in the ranks of English

magnates in Ireland.

Presented in this fashion the story of the Mortimers from 1272 to 1398 would

appear to be one of remorseless advance and consolidation. It was, of course,

nothing of the sort. Rather was it a series of episodic successes and disastrous

setbacks. No one could predict from one generation—or indeed one decade—to

the next what the consequences might be of a political disaster, a childless

marriage, the failure of male heirs, or the demands of successive widows—to

⁶ CCR 1354–60, 92–94; McFarlane, Nobility, 86 n. 3.


Lords and Lordship

name but some of the most obvious contingencies. Such disasters could destroy a

family irretrievably, as happened to the cadet branch of the Mortimers of Chirk

after the death of Roger in 1326.⁷ But other families—including our Mortimers

of Wigmore—recovered from their failures and disasters, partly because they

relearnt the art of climbing the greasy pole of political success in each generation

and—which is much the same thing—mastered the arts of winning the support

and patronage of the king. For the Mortimers the fourteenth century was a roller

coaster of a century, punctuated by disaster, minorities galore, and widowhoods.

But there was no doubt, if one takes the long view, that the trajectory of their

fortunes was very much upwards. As was true of most aristocratic families, wealth

and fortune seemed to attract more wealth and fortune.

The Mortimers had built up their territorial fortune through the enterprise of

individual members of the family and the luck of a series of key marriages. Their

task now was to secure the integrity of the inheritance and to prevent it being

dissipated by alienation and fragmentation. The assumptions of English land law

helped them in this respect. Its inbuilt prejudice in favour of the eldest male heir

of the body as the rightful expectant owner of his father’s lands was a powerful

force in keeping the estate integral. So, at least formally, was the absence of

means by which land (outside boroughs) could be devised by will. We will, in

fact, see that there were various ways in which these limitations could be, and

were regularly, circumvented. But in the vast majority of cases the rights of the

eldest surviving son to succeed to the family estates, or at least the greater bulk of

them, were respected. Sometimes, indeed, the integrity of the estate was formally

protected against the indigence or extravagance of the father in the interests of

the son. Thus when in May 1316 the powerful Bartholomew de Badlesmere

struck a marriage agreement with Robert Fitz Pain, he insisted that the latter

should have no power to alienate any of his land (beyond £200 worth) without

Bartholomew’s consent. Bartholomew was thereby protecting the interests of his

daughter (who was betrothed to Robert’s son) but he was also ensuring that his

future son-in-law should enter into his family inheritance more or less intact.⁸

Aristocratic families were obsessed with the fear that a family inheritance built

up over the generations might be dissipated and fragmented by often totally

unforeseen events, both natural and man-made. They had good reason to be very

apprehensive about the issue. In a famous calculation—which broadly stands in

spite of subsequent reservations and qualifications—K. B. McFarlane estimated

that a quarter of his sample baronial families became extinct in the direct male

line every twenty-five years during the period 1300–1500.⁹ It is little wonder

that the best lawyers in the land were busy preparing legal devices for coping as

⁷ For the virtual dispossession of the Mortimers of Chirk see Davies, Lordship and Society, 46–7.

⁸ GEC, sub Robert Fitz Pain. For another comparable example see Thomas de Multon as cited

in Holmes, Estates, 43.

⁹ McFarlane, Nobility, 146 and ch. 2 passim. See also Payling, ‘Social Mobility, Demographic

Change, and Landed Society’, 54.

Land, Family, and Marriage


best they could with such a contingency. Indeed it was but one of a galaxy of

concerns which disturbed the sleep of any self-respecting aristocrat. How could

the consequences of a long minority and the depredations which often came

in the wake of a royal custody be mitigated, if not altogether avoided? What

about the claims of widows, cadets, and collaterals? When should the affection

one naturally felt for daughters who happened to be heirs make way for the

superior claim of maintaining the integrity of the family inheritance? How could

one do any sort of justice between children from a first and a second marriage?

There were no universal answers to these and many other similar questions.

Each family would have to work out its own, sometimes highly individual,

solutions. But those solutions drew increasingly on a body of accepted practices

and legal devices on which the whole aristocracy could, in principle draw. Much

the same sets of practices and devices also prevailed in much of lowland Scotland

and in English Ireland, in other words in areas which were, albeit at one remove

and often with their own distinctive technical vocabulary (e.g. tailzie for an estate

in tail in Scotland),¹⁰ within the orbit of the English common law tradition. The

main thrust of these various legal devices was to determine, in so far as possible,

the descent of the family inheritance at the death of the owner and to do so in a

way which both preserved the integrity of the estates and respected the owner’s

wishes in so far as they had been expressed and specified.

The entail was perhaps the most fundamental of these devices. Stated baldly,

an entail altered the legal status of the land and gave a much greater say to

the wishes of its current lord in determining its descent. It was no longer held

in fee simple with its exclusive emphasis that it was a tenancy held in fee

(and thereby subject at the death of its holder to crown rights of custody and

wardship) and that the right of the primogenitary heir determined succession.

The landholder—provided he had secured a royal licence—could use the entail

to determine the descent of his inheritance in accordance with his wishes. There

were many possibilities—including specifying a sequence of remainders (i.e.

indicating to which member of a family the land should descend in the event

of the failure of the designated heir(s) or his direct descendants), preferring

male collaterals to daughters or claimants through the female line, or excluding

collaterals as prospective heirs at the time of a marriage contract (as happened

when Thomas, earl of Lancaster (d. 1322), took the daughter and heir of the earl

of Lincoln (d. 1311) as his wife in October 1294).¹¹ Since family circumstances

and the wishes of individual magnates varied widely there is no general pattern to

these arrangements, even though they drew on the same body of legal principles.

The best we can do, therefore, is to select a few well-known instances to

illustrate how these arrangements shaped the fortunes and descent of noble

¹⁰ For Scotland see esp. H. L. MacQueen, Common Law and Feudal Society in Medieval Scotland

(Edinburgh, 1993), esp. 180–1.

¹¹ Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster, 3–4; McFarlane, Nobility, 263.


Lords and Lordship

families. Perhaps the best known and most comprehensive such settlement was

that made by Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (d. 1369) in 1344–5 when

he devised the bulk of his estates to himself and to his eldest son jointly, with

remainders to younger sons and provisions for his daughters’ dowries.¹² The

provisions had to be revised several times to take account of deaths (including

that of his eldest son) and other changes in family circumstances. Thomas

Beauchamp’s entail arrangements were even-handed as between his children,

those of other magnates less so. Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel (d. 1376) was

a shrewd and ruthless operator. Having ditched his first wife since he regarded

her now as a political embarrassment, he made three separate entails of different

portions of his estate—at the time of his second marriage in 1345 to the daughter

of the earl of Lancaster, then in 1347 when this marriage produced a son, and

finally in 1366 to lock in the Warenne inheritance (which had descended to him)

with the Arundel fortunes. Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland (d. 1425), was

to follow much the same route in his family settlements and to show the same

degree of ruthlessness.¹³

Shrewd family calculations informed all such settlements. Keeping the inheritance—or at least the main part of it—intact was a basic desideratum, and

preferably in the direct male line. The Beauchamp family once more provided

two highly instructive instances. Earl Thomas (d. 1369), as we have seen, engineered a series of arrangements to determine the descent of the family lands and

to give a good start in life to all his children. But he had not bargained for

the ruses of the Great Reaper. Three of his five sons predeceased him. But Earl

Thomas was not to be thwarted. A fourth son, William (d. 1411), was already

marked out for an ecclesiastical career, no doubt eventually a bishopric; he was

already canon of Salisbury. But the continuity of the family took precedence over

ecclesiastical convictions and scruples. He was retrained as a soldier and a valuable

portion of the Beauchamp inheritance was given to him and his heirs male. It

was a calculated insurance policy—that of establishing a credible cadet branch

of the family against the possibility that the remaining Beauchamp heir Thomas

(d. 1401) might, like his three other brothers, die prematurely and without a male

heir of the body. In the event, the reverse happened: it was Richard Beauchamp

son of William Beauchamp (recently created earl of Worcester) who died in 1422

without a son. The Beauchamp instinct for reintegrating the family inheritance

now swung remorselessly, and probably uncanonically, into action. The widow

of Richard Beauchamp (d. 1422) was married to his namesake and cousin,

Richard Beauchamp earl of Warwick (d. 1439) in November 1423. What for

us is instructive is the shaft of light that a whole series of marriages, deaths, and

settlements casts on the shaping and reshaping of aristocratic fortunes. Entails

¹² CPR 1343–5, 251–2; Holmes, Estates, 48–9.

¹³ CPR 1343–5, 487–8; CPR 1345–8, 328–9; CPR 1364–7, 198, 237–9; GEC sub


Land, Family, and Marriage


and settlements could have totally unforeseen long-term consequences; families

worked out strategies which maximized the opportunities of all its members but

never lost sight of the overriding priority of family solidarity (where it could be

achieved) and the continuity of the family inheritance; the cadet branch could

easily become the senior residuary legatee of family plans in one generation only

to find the boot on the other foot in the next.

The bias of these settlements—and increasingly so as our period progresses—was in favour of male heirs, preferably of the body. Medieval aristocratic

England was not an agnatic society, in the sense that medieval Wales was, excluding formally all claims to landed property by females or through the female line.

The prominent role played by widows, dowagers, daughters, and other female

heiresses makes that evident enough.¹⁴ Nevertheless the advantages of unilineal

male descent were obvious in a society anxious to preserve the family name

and the integrity of the inheritance. Interestingly, perhaps some of the most

forthright statements of this credo come from Scotland and Ireland. These were

societies where clan or family leadership in peace and war-captaincy in regions

of frequent warfare reinforced the preference for male inheritance. The charter

of entail for the barony and castle of Dalkeith did not mince its words on this

score. The barony was to be entailed to male heirs; failing such heirs it was

to pass to the next male heirs bearing the surname Dalkeith. And in case the

point was not sufficiently explicit it was decreed that no descent to a female

heir was to be permitted unless male heirs were totally lacking.¹⁵ It was an

attitude that would have been fully understood in English Ireland. In 1299 the

barony of Skeathy (Co. Kildare) was to pass, in the absence of male heirs, to

‘the most noble, worthy, strong and praiseworthy of the pure blood and name of

Rochfordeyn . . . to whom the whole barony . . . shall remain indivisible, so that

the inheritance shall never pass to daughters’. That statement enunciated a set

of principles in an uncompromising form which any English or indeed Scottish

magnate family would have understood.¹⁶

Another device which greatly extended a landowner’s control of the descent

of his lands—and helped him avoid feudal inheritance law—lay in the trust or

enfeoffment to use. It may well have been developed among gentry landowners

in the late thirteenth century, but it was in the period after 1350 that it seems to

have been widely practised among leading aristocratic landowners. It is possibly

best illustrated by a concrete example rather than by a theoretical exposition of

its legal possibilities. The history of the Mortimer estates serves us well once

more. In 1359, on the eve of his departure for a campaign in France, Earl Roger

¹⁴ R. Archer, ‘Rich Old Ladies: The Problem of Later Medieval Dowagers’, in Property and

Politics: Essays in Later Medieval English History, ed. A. Pollard (Stroud, 1984), 15–35.

¹⁵ Mort. Reg., I, no. 97.

¹⁶ Calendar of the Justiciary Rolls . . . of Ireland, ed. J. Mills et al. 3 vols. (Dublin, 1905–56), I,

326, quoted in A. J. Otway-Ruthven, A History of Medieval Ireland (London, 1968), 106–7. Other

examples are cited in Frame, English Lordship in Ireland, 23–4.


Lords and Lordship

(d. 1360) demised a goodly proportion of his estates to a group of friends and

councillors headed by the bishop of Winchester, William Wykeham.¹⁷ The grant

meant that the title to the estates was now vested formally not in the earl but

in the feoffees as they were called, provided they observed the conditions on

which the grant was made—often involving paying an annual fee farm to the

feoffor. On his death—and in the case of Earl Roger death followed within one

year of the enfeoffment—the feoffees would run the estate in accordance with

the feoffor’s (or late magnate’s) wishes as expressed in the enfeoffment and/or

his will. Side by side with the entail, the enfeoffment to use was a crucial device

in shaping the descent and status of a magnate’s estate after his death. There

were doubtless a variety of complex motives behind the adoption of uses, both

negative (to avoid the consequences of a prolonged period of royal custody) and

positive (to ensure that the owner’s wishes were indeed observed after his death).

Perhaps one of the most explicit statements of what those wishes might involve

are those specified in the will of Hugh, earl of Stafford who died on pilgrimage to

Rhodes in 1386: to guarantee the lands and rents given to his servants for their

lives; to provide a dowry for his daughter; and to provide an annuity for each

of his younger sons.¹⁸ In short it was as much a means of upholding a family

settlement as it was a way of avoiding the ‘death duties’ of feudal tenure.

Entails and enfeoffments to use were parts of the legal paraphernalia that

were developed, especially in the fourteenth century, to cope with the wish of

aristocratic landowners to exercise as much control as possible over the descent

and transmission of the family inheritance. Preserving the name of the family,

retaining the integrity of the inheritance, preferring generally the established

claims of the eldest surviving male heir and ensuring, in so far as possible, that the

wishes of the owner continued to shape decisions after his death were certainly

among the primary considerations. But they were by no means the only ones,

since the magnate was the head of a family as well as the heir of an estate, and

he needed to balance these considerations against one another. Working out

that equation amicably and effectively was a major challenge to his talent and


Top of the list of claims on the magnate’s generosity was the need to make

provision for his wife, especially in anticipation that he would predecease her and

she would survive him as a widow for years. Conventional practice stipulated

that a widow had a claim to a third of her husband’s property at his death.

This had been supplemented by the practice of his nominating specified lands

to her on the marriage as a maritagium, further consolidating her claim; but this

practice had largely been replaced by the grant of a marriage portion to the bride’s

father, a practice to which we will return. The really important development

was the growing fashion in the fourteenth century of creating a joint tenancy

¹⁷ CPR 1358–61, 266; Holmes, Estates, 45.

¹⁸ CPR 1377–81, 219; CPR 1385–9, 344.

Land, Family, and Marriage


in survivorship for a landholder and his wife, stipulating which lands should

be held by joint title and which therefore would be held by whichever party

lived the longer. Sometimes only a few manors were included in a jointure

arrangement but occasionally the terms were extended to the greater part of an

inheritance. The impact of dower portions and jointure settlements could have

a major impact on the land available to the heir and thereby on his standing,

wealth, and political prospects. Particularly so was this the case when multiple

dowager ladies put in their claims more or less simultaneously. Earl Roger of

March (d. 1360) had his work cut out to salvage as much as he could of the

Mortimer lands forfeited by his grandfather and namesake (d. 1330); but his task

was made all the more frustrating by the fact that three Mortimer widows—his

great-grandmother, his grandmother, and his mother—all had legitimate claims

to dower.¹⁹ It was not until 1358—two years before his own death—that he was

able to reassemble the whole of his fragmented inheritance. Jointure settlements

further complicated these contingencies. The example par excellence is of course

that of Margaret, countess (and briefly at the end of her life duchess) of Norfolk

(d. 1399). Granted jointure rights in most of the lands of her first husband,

John, Lord Segrave (d. 1353), she survived him for forty-six years, keeping her

male descendants out of the inheritance for the better part of sixty years. The

vagaries of the law of dower and the practice of jointure were not merely matters

of antiquarian legal interest; they profoundly affected the map of the distribution

of landed wealth, and with it power, in medieval society. Nor was this a retiring

group of ladies. On the contrary, what we know of them—of Joan of Bar, the

estranged wife of the earl of Surrey, the thrice-widowed and immensely rich and

shrewd Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 1360), or Mary of St Pol countess of Pembroke

(d. 1377) or the formidable Joan countess of Hereford (d. 1419) and the even

more formidable Joan Beauchamp lady of Abergavenny (d. 1435)—proves the

reverse to be the truth.²⁰ They managed their affairs and presided over their

families with authority. They were hard-headed if not necessarily hard-hearted:

when another Mortimer dowager, Philippa (d. 1378) left her son £500 in her will

it was on the firm condition that he disclaimed any right to her property, goods,

and outstanding debts and on the understanding that he would not impede the

activities of her executors.²¹ Maternal affection was not to cloud her insistence

on her rights in these matters.

Family responsibility did not, of course, end with the claims of the wife or

the widow. Other members also had strong claims on the family’s affections and

thereby on its fortunes. Younger brothers might be well provided for. Roger

¹⁹ Davies, Lordship and Society, 42.

²⁰ See generally Ward, English Noblewomen. Among older studies Jenkinson, ‘Mary de Sancto

Paulo’ is rewarding. The latest attempt to provide an account of the life of Elizabeth de Burgh (far

and away the best documented heiress of the fourteenth century) is F. A. Underhill, For Her Good

Estate: The Life of Elizabeth de Burgh (New York, 1999).

²¹ Nicholls, Wills, 98.


Lords and Lordship

Mortimer, earl of March (d. 1398), was notably generous in this respect. During

the years 1394–8—that is on reaching his majority—he granted manors worth

at least £160 to his young brother, Edmund, to which he later added the lordship

of Narberth. He also awarded his brother-in-law, Henry Hotspur, land worth

100 marks.²² This was largesse indeed but not out of line with the practice of

the Mortimers, and many other families, of looking after the interests of the

family in general. This could be achieved by grants—often in tail male—of

lands and rents; but other members of the family had to be content with a rich

ecclesiastical plum in the lord’s gift. Edmund Mortimer (d. 1304) did not have

the wherewithal to provide land for his large family. Instead he nominated three

of them to Mortimer family livings and placed a daughter in a nunnery.²³

Daughters were indeed both a problem and an opportunity. Even if they were

consigned to nunneries as was Joanna Mortimer they were no doubt expected

to bring an endowment with them. If they were to be placed on the marriage

market, the costs would be much higher and the negotiations often complex.

But no self-respecting magnate could afford to opt out of his responsibilities in

this respect. We will return in a moment to the question of marriage settlements

and marriage strategies. Here we will be content to give a couple of examples of

how great aristocrats discharged their responsibilities in this respect. Humphrey

Bohun, earl of Hereford (d. 1361), was hardly a representative example of the

English higher aristocracy. He was a retiring, sickly bachelor; but he also felt

his responsibilities to his female kin, leaving bequests to his sisters and nieces

in his will. His near contemporary Richard earl of Arundel (d. 1376) was easily

the richest magnate in England and could afford to shower his largesse liberally

among family members—including bequests totalling 14,000 marks in cash to

his sons and daughters; a further 2,500 marks to four grandchildren; and 1,400

marks to his nephews and nieces. Earl Richard could well afford to be hugely

magnanimous; but the circle of his family beneficiaries indicated the orbit of

family affection and obligation among the aristocracy generally.²⁴ It is not only

their complicated legal landed agreements which open a window on to their

world of obligation and duty; so do their bequests and gift-giving. They were

family patriarchs as well as the heads of landed inheritances.

Given the close intertwining of land and family in all sorts of directions, the

successful arrangement of the marriage of offspring, male and female, constituted

one of the most delicate and critical acts of lordship. It was an opportunity to

forge alliances with other families, to use such alliances as a bargaining counter,

and to arrange the future descent of the family estates. Magnates must have kept

an eye on the prospects of the marriage market as any stockbroker does on the

²² CPR 1396–9, 428, 457; BL Egerton Charters 8783.

²³ Dugdale, Monasticon, VI, part 1, 351.

²⁴ Test. Vet., I, 94–6 and more fully in Lambeth Palace Library, Archbishop Sudbury’s Register,


Land, Family, and Marriage


fortunes of the stock exchange, and since both activities had a strong risk, both of

spectacular profit or devastating loss, attached to them, they inevitably dabbled

in futures. John of Gaunt was, of course, in a particularly strong position in the

bidding stakes. Like many other magnates he had calculated that the wardship

and marriage of young John Mowbray could be a very rich picking indeed,

since he had an ultimate claim to the Mowbray and Brotherton inheritances,

frustrated only by the exceptional longevity of Mowbray’s grandmother, Margaret

countess of Norfolk. It was a long-term prospect but a very enticing one. So

Gaunt purchased young John’s marriage from his grandmother in 1379 and

simultaneously the wardship from the earl of Northumberland. The young John

was now brought up in the duke’s household and there was every prospect that

he might be married to one of Gaunt’s daughters, relatives, or retainers.²⁵ It must

have been judged a shrewd move by Gaunt’s contemporaries; but the gamble

did not pay off this time, since young John died early in 1383 still a minor. But

for gambling men, occasional failures of this kind were not a deterrent. Nothing

ventured, nothing gained.

On the contrary, the competition for eligible partners for sons and daughters

was a consuming passion of most aristocratic families. Catching them young was

one way of settling the issue, even though betrothal between children was not

canonically secure until the parties were of an age to consummate the marriage.

Two examples from the annals of the de Burgh earldom of Ulster may illustrate

the point. Elizabeth, suo jure countess of Ulster (d. 1363), was betrothed to

the four-year-old Lionel of Clarence at the Tower of London on 9 September

1342 when she was ten; their daughter Philippa (d. 1378) was betrothed at the

age of thirteen to Edmund Mortimer, then aged eight, in 1368. These were,

as it were, pre-emptive acts to settle the minds of the young parties and to

warn off alternative bidders. The king was, of course, particularly well placed

to control such marriages to suit his tastes and policies. Edmund Mortimer was

indeed the victim of such a royal intervention. His hand had been intended,

and indeed pledged, to the daughter of the earl of Arundel until Edward III

stepped into the process. Short of taking over an heir, a royal nod and a wink

could accelerate the completion of a marriage contract, so valuable was royal

consent. So it was that the king ‘ordained’ the marriage pact between the

daughter of the earl of Ormond and the son of the earl of Desmond in 1359.²⁶

The problem with child marriages is that they could be challenged until the

parties were fully of contractual age in the eyes of the church. The Cliffords had

good cause to know that. They thought that they had secured the hand of the

rich heiress of Multon of Gilsland; but they were to be gazumped when Ralph

Dacre came along citing a pre-existing contract between Thomas Multon and

William Dacre.²⁷

²⁵ Reg. JG, II, no. 88; S. Walker, Lancastrian Affinity, 17–8; Goodman, John of Gaunt, 280.

²⁶ CCR 1354–60, 576.

²⁷ GEC, sub Dacre, quoting the chronicle of Lanercost priory.

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