Mary of Woodstock, Royal Nun

Mary of Woodstock

To many noble women, the religious life was a career that had been decided for them by their parents when they were still children, as with Mary of Blois. However, for some, this did not necessarily mean they spent their entire lives in the seclusion of the convent. This was the certainly case with Princess Mary, daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.

Mary of Woodstock was born in March 1279, the 6th daughter of King Edward and Queen Eleanor. Edward and Eleanor were quite a nomadic couple, travelling among their domains, so their children were raised in the royal nursery, based largely at the royal palaces of Woodstock and Windsor; visits from their parents were quite infrequent and from Edward, their father, even less so.

Eleanor of Castile endured a remarkable number of pregnancies, the first was when she was about 13 or 14, resulting in a child who was stillborn or died shortly after birth. The fact that several children died before they reached adulthood has been suggested as a reason for her keeping her distance from her children when they were young; however, it is just as likely that the simple fact Edward and Eleanor ruled a vast kingdom, including their lands in France, meant their responsibilities necessitated long absences.

Eleanor’s almost-constant pregnancies, resulting in a total of sixteen children, meant there were regular additions to the nursery, which also housed a number of children from noble families, sent to be raised alongside the king’s children. Mary would have had many companions, including her brother Alphonso, who was heir to the throne and 5 years her senior, and her sister Margaret, who was 4 years older than Mary. She would be joined by another sister, Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, 3 years later.

Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln Cathedral

In 1285, a year after the death of Prince Alphonso, the king took his family on a progress into Kent. Edward went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket, at Canterbury, before spending a week at Leeds Castle with his family, followed by some hunting in Hampshire. It was at the end of this family holiday that they arrived at Amesbury priory in Wiltshire, where little Mary, still only 6 years old, was veiled as a nun; much to the delight of her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, but to the consternation of her mother, the queen. Indeed, the Chronicle of Nicholas Trivet emphasises that Mary’s veiling was done by her father, at the request of her grandmother, but only with the ‘assent’ of her mother.1

It may well be that Eleanor had reservations about her daughter’s vocation being decided at such a young age, or that she feared it was only being done so Mary’s grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, would have a companion in the abbey. After a long and eventful life, and with her health failing, the dowager queen took her own vows at around the same time and retired to Amesbury Priory for her final years, dying there in June 1291. Mary’s veiling had been in the planning for some years; Edward I had been in correspondence with the abbey at Fontevrault, the mother house of Amesbury, since 1282, when the little princess was barely 3 years old.

Eleanor’s reluctance, therefore, was probably more to do with when Mary was to become a nun, rather than the vocation itself; after all, the conventual life was considered a good career for a noble lady. The timing of her veiling may have been advanced not only by the failing health of Eleanor of Provence, but also by the imminent departure of Mary’s parents. Edward and Eleanor were about to embark for the Continent and were expecting to be in France for a considerable time, years rather than months.

The Priory Church, now the parish church, Amesbury

The actual veiling ceremony must have been very moving. It took place at Amesbury Abbey on 15 August 1285, where Mary was one of 14 high-born girls who took their vows together. It may well be that her cousin, Eleanor of Brittany – another granddaughter of Eleanor of Provence – took her vows at the same time; Eleanor would later demonstrate a great dedication to the religious life and, eventually, become Abbess of Fontevrault.

Mary’s life at the abbey was probably a very comfortable existence; in the year she was veiled, Mary was awarded an annual income of £100, rising to £200 a year in 1292, following the death of Eleanor of Provence. As she was still only a child, the nuns at Amesbury would have been responsible not only for Mary’s spiritual life, but also for her education. However, the cloistered life by no means meant that Mary was confined and separated from her family for any length of time. She made frequent visits to court throughout her life, and was present for most family occasions.

Having taken the veil in August 1285, Mary returned to be with her family in the autumn, to see the unveiling of the newly created Winchester Round Table and the creation of 44 new knights by her father, the king. She visited her family again in March and May of 1286, each visit lasting about a month. These visits also meant Mary had the chance to bid farewell to her parents, who departed for an extended stay in France in 1286. On 13 August
1289, Mary, her 4 sisters and little brother Edward were at Dover to welcome their parents home, after a 3-year absence.

King Edward I

Mary visited court again in 1290 and stayed for the wedding of her older sister, Joan of Acre, to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford; Joan and Gilbert were married in a private ceremony at Westminster on 30 April. It is likely that she was back at court later in the year for another wedding, this one at Westminster Abbey in July when her sister, Margaret, married John, the future Duke of Brabant.

Mary would have seen quite a lot of her parents in the spring of 1290 as her father chose Amesbury as the location for a special meeting, convened to settle the arrangements for the English succession. Edward may have chosen the abbey so that his ailing mother could be present for the discussions. The Archbishop of Canterbury and 5 other bishops, in addition to Edward, Eleanor of Castile and Eleanor of Provence, were all present to formalise the settling of the succession on Edward’s only surviving son, 6-year-old Edward of Caernarvon. Should Edward of Caernarvon die without heirs, it was decided that the succession would then pass to Edward I’s eldest daughter, the newly married Countess of Gloucester and Hereford, Joan of Acre.

Eleanor of Castile was a distant mother when her children were young, but she seems to have developed closer relationships as they grew older, so it is not hard to imagine her taking the opportunity to spend time with 12-year-old Mary while they were staying at the abbey. It was probably one of the last times that Mary spent any real time with her mother, who died at Harby, near Lincoln, on 28 November 1290.

The viscera tomb of Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln cathedral

Indeed, it may well have been one of the last times they saw each other; Eleanor was at the king’s palace of Clipstone in Nottinghamshire when it was realised that her illness was probably fatal. Some of her children, Joan, Edward and Elizabeth, were summoned to the queen’s bedside; although Mary is not mentioned, it does not mean that she did not visit her mother one last time.2 Mary’s deep affection for her mother was demonstrated in 1297 when she and her younger sister, Elizabeth, jointly paid for a special Mass in their mother’s honour.

Mary’s career in the Church was far from spectacular; although her high birth gave her some influence, she never made high office and was never given a priory or abbey of her own. However, she was given custody of several aristocratic nuns at Amesbury, trusted to oversee their education and spiritual training. Convent life seems to have held few restrictions for her. Mary was regularly away from the cloister. She was frequently at court, or with various members of her family. In 1293 Mary spent time with her brother, Edward, and in 1297 she spent 5 weeks at court, taking the opportunity to spend some time with her sister, Elizabeth, who had been recently married to John, Count of Holland, and was preparing to join him there. In the event, news of John’s death arrived before her departure and Elizabeth never left England.

Nicholas Trivet

Mary had many cultural interests and was a patron of Nicholas Trivet, who dedicated his chronicle, Annales Sex Regum Angliae, to her. Mary was probably Trivet’s source for many of the details of Edward I’s family and the inclusion of several anecdotes that demonstrated Edward’s luck, such as the story of the king’s miraculous escape from a falling stone while sitting and playing chess. He had stood up to stretch his legs when the stone from the vaulted ceiling landed on the chair he had just vacated.3 The stories that Mary passed on to Trivet also serve to demonstrate that she was at court on a regular basis. The financial provisions settled on her by Edward I meant that Mary did not have to suffer from her vows of poverty.

In addition to the £200 a year she received from 1292, Mary was also granted 40 cocks a year from the royal forests and 20 tuns of wine from Southampton. In 1302, the provision was changed and she was given a number of manors and the borough of Wilton in lieu of the £200, but only for as long as she remained in England. Given that a proposed move to Fontevrault had been dropped shortly after the death of Eleanor of Provence, the likelihood of Mary leaving England seems to have been only a remote possibility.

Mary had a penchant for high living; she travelled to court with an entourage big enough to require 24 horses. By 1305, despite her income, she was substantially in debt, with the escheator south of the Trent being ordered to provide her with £200 in order to satisfy her creditors. Mary also had a taste for gambling, mainly at dice, and her father is known to have paid off at least one gambling debt.4 Following her father’s death in 1307, her younger brother, now King Edward II, continued to support Mary financially and she continued to make regular visits to court.

Mary died sometime around 1322 and was buried where she had lived, at Amesbury Priory. She was a princess whose future was decided for her at a very young age. She doesn’t seem to have excelled at the religious life, in that she never achieved significant office, but she did make the most of the life chosen for her, making frequent pilgrimages and taking charge of the young, aristocratic ladies who joined the convent. Despite her dedication to the Church, she found her own path within it and seems to have achieved a healthy (for her) balance between the cloister and the court.

The Warenne coat of arms

There was, however, one moment of scandal; although it did not arise until more than 20 years after Mary’s death. In 1345, in a final, desperate attempt to escape an unhappy marriage John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, claimed that he had had an affair with Mary and that, therefore, his marriage to her niece, Joan of Bar, was invalid due to the close blood relationship of the 2 women. Although it is highly unlikely that the claim was anything more than Surrey’s desperate attempt to find a way out of his marriage, it cannot be ignored that Mary was frequently at court and such an opportunity may have arisen; Mary was only a few years older than John de Warenne. The ecclesiastical court, however, refused to believe the earl’s claims and Mary’s reputation remains – largely – intact.

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Footnotes:

1 Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill; 2 A Palace for Our Kings by James Wright; 3 Annales Sex Regum Angliae by Nicholas Trivet; 4 Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill

Images

Courtesy of Wikipedia except the statues of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile and Eleanor’s viscera tomb at Lincoln Cathedral, which are ©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Sources:

Edward I A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, The Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; OxfordDNB.com; findagrave.com; susanhigginbotham.com; womenshistory.about.com; Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee; Nobility and Kingship in Medieval England by Andrew M. Spencer; Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volumes I and II by Rev. John Watson; Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill; A Palace for Our Kings: The History and Archaeology of a Medieval Royal Palace in the Heart of Sherwood Forest by James Wright

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Mother’s Day Treat

Sunday 11th March 2018 is Mother’s Day in the UK this year

Mum is everyone’s favourite Heroine, in whatever era, and I could not think of a better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than with a giveaway of a hardback copy of Heroines of the Medieval World.

About Heroines of the Medieval World

Heroines come in many different forms, and it is no less true for medieval heroines. They can be found in all areas of medieval life; from the dutiful wife and daughter to religious devotees, warriors and rulers. What makes them different compared to those of today are the limitations placed on them by those who directed their lives – their fathers, husbands, priests and kings. Women have always been an integral part of history, although when reading through the chronicles of the medieval world, you would be forgiven if you did not know it. We find that the vast majority of written references are focussed on men. The chronicles were written by men and, more often than not, written for men. It was men who ruled countries, fought wars, made laws and treaties, dominated religion and guaranteed – or tried to guarantee – the continued survival of their world. It was usually the men, but not all of them, who could read, who were trained to rule and who were expected to fight, to defend their people and their country…

 

If you would like to win a signed copy of Heroines of the Medieval World to give to your mum on Mother’s Day, or someone else’s mum – or even as a gift to yourself, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Wednesday 7th March, so you should get the book in time for the day.

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The winner is ….. Janet Carter.

The draw is now closed and I would like to thank everyone for taking part.

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Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Joan of Bar: Abandoned Wife

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Arms of the House of Bar

You would think that a man who was given a king’s granddaughter as a wife would relish the glamour and connections such a bride brought. However, this was not always the case and nowhere is it more obvious than in the life and marriage of Joan of Bar.

Joan was the granddaughter of the mighty Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile. Her mother was Eleanor, Edward and Eleanor’s eldest surviving child. Eleanor of England had been born in 1264 and was first married to Alfonso III, King of Aragon, by proxy on 15th August 1290 at Westminster Abbey.

However the groom died before the marriage could be consummated and Eleanor married again at Bristol on 20th September 1293, to Henry III, Count of Bar. Henry and Eleanor had at least 2 children together. Their son, Edward, and daughter, Joan, were born in successive years, in 1294 and 1295. Although there seems to be some confusion of who was the oldest. A possible 3rd child, Eleanor, is said to have married Llywelyn ap Owen of Deheubarth; but her actual existence seems to be in question.

Eleanor,_Countess_of_Bar
Eleanor of England, Countess of Bar

As usual with Medieval women – even royal ones – we  know very little of Joan’s childhood. Her mother died in Ghent in 1298 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, London. Joan’s father, the Count of Bar, died in 1302, sources say as a result of injuries received in battle while fighting in Sicily.

The count was succeeded by his only son, Edward, who was then only 6 or 7 years old. The county of Bar was run by his grandfather, Edward I, during young Edward’s minority, with the child’s uncle John of Puisaye and the bishops of Liege and Metz acting as governors. It’s possible the children came to live at the English court, or at least spent some time there.

By 1310 Edward’s majority was declared. He married Mary, daughter of Robert II, Duke of Burgundy, in the same year. By this time, young Joan had already been married 4 years. In 1306 Joan had returned to England, arriving on 13th April. Barely 10 years old, she was escorted to the palace at Westminster with great pomp.

During the parliament of 1306 Edward I had settled Joan’s future. On 15th May of that year Edward offered Joan’s hand in marriage to 20-year-old John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, who had recently been granted his grandfather’s lands, despite the fact he wasn’t yet 21.

Henry_III,_Count_of_Bar
Henry III Count of Bar

John was not without royal connections himself. His aunt, Isabella had been married to Scots King John Balliol, and their son, John’s cousin, was Edward Balliol, sometime King of Scots and John’s ward. John was the grandson of Edward’s good friend, also named John de Warenne, the 6th Earl of Surrey and former Warden of Scotland. Young John’s father, William de Warenne, had died in a tournament within a year of John’s birth and so he was raised by his grandfather, until John Senior’s death in 1304.

In the week following the betrothal of John and Joan, Edward I held a magnificent ceremony for the knighting of his eldest son, Edward. The ceremony was also to include the knighting of almost 300 men, John de Warenne included. As the celebrations continued a number of weddings also took place, involving several barons and nobles.

John de Warenne and Joan of Bar were married on 25th May, with John’s sister, Alice, marrying Edmund Fitzalan, 9th Earl of Arundel, at about the same time. Edmund had been a ward of John’s grandfather. The 2 young men were very close in age and were political allies and friends.

Following the wedding the couple lived on the Warenne Yorkshire estates, sharing their time between their castles at Conisbrough and Sandal.

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Sandal Castle

In the wider world, Edward I died in the summer of 1307 and was succeeded by his son, Edward II. Initially John de Warenne was a supporter of Edward; witnessing the charter which made Edward’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall and accompanying the king to France to claim his bride, Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France.

However, John was not immune to the turbulence and distrust of Edward’s reign and changed sides several times in the arguments between the king and his barons. The uncertainty of Edward’s reign cannot have helped the marriage of John and Joan, but neither, it seems, did John.

The couple was soon estranged – Joan was half John’s age when they married, which must have put an incredible strain on the relationship. There had been indications of problems as early as 1309, when the king had given John permission to name whoever he wished as his heir, as long as any children he may have by Joan were not disinherited.

By 1313 the marriage was still childless, and blatantly unhappy. In the spring of that year, Edward sent his yeoman, William Aune, to bring Joan to the king. She was taken from Warenne’s castle at Conisbrough and lodged in the Tower of London, at the king’s expense.

John, on the other hand, was living openly with his mistress, Maud Nereford, for which he was threatened with excommunication in May; a sentence which was finally carried out by the bishop of Chichester when Edward’s attempts to prevent it failed.

ConisbroughCastle
Conisbrough Castle

A long legal battle followed, eager to marry Maud and legitimise his 2 sons by her, John attempted to dissolve his marriage to Joan on the grounds of consanguinity – they were related in the 3rd and 4th degrees. He also claimed that he was pressured into marrying Joan against his will. Maud added her own suit to the legal proceeding by claiming that John had contracted to marry her before his marriage to Joan.

The church council registered disapproval of John and Maud’s relationship; as did a council of nobles which included the king’s cousin and most powerful nobleman in the land, Thomas of Lancaster. John had even been Thomas’s retainer in the early years of the king’s reign, but relations had soured following the murder of Gaveston in 1312.

The case would drag on for 2 years, with John unable to find a friendly ecclesiastical court who would pronounce in his favour.  In 1316 he agreed to pay Joan a sum of £200 annually while the suit was ongoing, and to provide Joan with lands worth 740 marks once the marriage was dissolved.

As the hopes of an annulment faded, John enlisted the help of the earl of Pembroke in presenting a petition to the pope seeking an annulment. John also rearranged his estates, surrendering them to the  king to have them re-granted with specifications that some of the lands could pass to his sons be Maud Nereford on his death. In the mean time, in August 1316, Joan had left England for France.

Coa_England_Family_Warren_of_Surrey.svg
Arms of the de Warenne Earls of Surrey

While the troubles in England intensified, John’s marriage troubles seem to have abated somewhat. The rebellion of Thomas of Lancaster was crushed at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, but war simmered on with France adding to the king’s troubles by demanding he personally pay homage for his French lands. In 1325 John de Warenne was appointed captain of an English expedition to Aquitaine and was away from home for the next year.

Joan had been in France at the same time, spending some of her time with Edward II’s queen, Isabella, and eldest son Prince Edward. Some sources say that when Warenne returned to England in 1326, Joan accompanied him and they even received permission to go abroad in February 1327 – as a couple.

Following the downfall of Edward II, his son and the new king, Edward III, in gratitude for her service to his mother, Queen Isabella, settled lands on Joan for life, and granted her some of the goods forfeited by Edmund Fitzalan. John’s erstwhile brother-in-law had been caught up in the turbulence of Edward II’s downfall and executed.

John de Warenne proved a faithful servant to Edward III, acting as keeper of the realm, jointly with young prince Edward, during the king’s absences in 1338 and 1340. However, his domestic life was as unsettled as ever in the last years of his life. Joan was in his company and treated as his wife in the years between 1331 and 1337, but went abroad with her entire household in 1337 shortly after her brother’s death; Edward, Count of Bar, had died in a shipwreck on his way to the Crusades and its possible Joan was acting as regent for her nephew, Henry IV, Count of Bar.

By the 1340s Maud Nereford and her sons had predeceased him, but John had a new lover in Isabella Holland, daughter of Sir Robert Holland, a leading retainer of Thomas of Lancaster. And it seems he was again contemplating divorce. In a 1344 letter from the Bishop of Winchester charges him to hold Joan in marital affection and honour the dispensation that had been granted for his marriage.

Tour_de_l'Horloge21
Clock Tower, Bar

Joan was abroad again, possibly acting as regent for her great-nephew, Edward II Count of Bar. Amid fears that John de Warenne would try to take Joan’s lands Edward III acted to guarantee them in her absence. By 1345, in one final attempt to dissolve his marriage John was claiming that he had had an affair before marrying Joan, with his wife’s maternal aunt Mary of Woodstock. This was indeed a drastic claim, as Mary had been a nun since she was about 7 years old, and was probably born out of desperation; John was getting increasingly infirm and still had no heir to succeed him. It was a last-ditch attempt to marry Isabella and have legitimate children.

It failed, however, and John died at Conisbrough Castle between 28th and 30th June 1347, aged 61. His will, written just before his death and dated 24th June 1347, left various gifts to Isabella and his illegitimate children – but nothing to Joan, his wife. Warenne left several illegitimate children, including at least 3 boys and 3 girls.

Joan de Bar was abroad when her husband died. She lived for another 14 years, retaining the title of Countess of Surrey until her death; Richard Fitzalan, John’s heir, took possession of the Warenne estates on John’s death, but didn’t use the title earl of Surrey until after Joan died. In the 1350s Joan is said to have often visited the French king, Jean II, who was a prisoner of Edward III  in London.

After a long and turbulent life, and at around 66 years of age, Joan died in London in 1361. Her body was conducted to France by her valet. She was buried at Sainte-Maxe Collegiate Church in Bar-le-Duc in October 1361.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; oxforddnb.com; royaldescent.net.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly