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 

Joan Beaufort: a Medieval Matriarch

Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland, Raby Castle

Joan Beaufort was the youngest child and only daughter of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swynford. Her father, Gaunt, was the third surviving son of Edward III and his queen, Philippa of Hainault. He had married Blanche of Lancaster in 1359 – a marriage which eventually brought him the title of Duke of Lancaster. With Blanche he had 3 surviving legitimate children: Elizabeth, Philippa and Henry – the future king, Henry IV.

Joan’s mother, Katherine Swynford, was a member of Blanche’s household and had been married to a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford, in 1367. They had 3 children together; Blanche, Thomas and Margaret. Sir Hugh was a tenant of John of Gaunt and served on the continent with him in 1366 and 1370. John of Gaunt was widowed in 1368, when Blanche died in childbirth. Katherine had been governess to the Lancaster children for a number of years when Hugh died in November 1371, leaving her a young widow with 3 children to feed.

John and Katherine may have begun their relationship shortly after Hugh’s death, despite John having married again, to Constance of Castile, in September 1371. John and Katherine’s first child, John, was probably born in 1372, with 3 more children, Henry, Thomas and Joan, born before 1379. They would be given the surname of Beaufort, though no one seems to know quite where the name came from. Although the children were illegitimate, the boys enjoyed successful careers during the reign of their half-brother, Henry IV; with John in politics, Henry rising to the rank of cardinal in the church and Thomas pursuing a military career.

Joan was the youngest of the Beaufort children, born sometime between 1377 and 1379. She was close to her family. She joined the household of her sister-in-law, Mary de Bohun, wife of her half-brother, the future Henry IV, in 1386. It seems that she was accompanied by her mum, Katherine Swynford, possibly because Katherine and John of Gaunt had separated and John was reconciled with his second wife, Constance of Castile. Joan was about 7-years-old and was continuing her education and being prepared for her first marriage – she had just been betrothed to 10-year-old Robert Ferrers of Oversley, Warwickshire. Robert would become one of her father’s retainers and, through his mother, heir to the estates of the Botelers of Wem, Shropshire. They were married in 1392, when Joan was 13 or 14 and 2 daughters were born in quick succession; Elizabeth in 1393 and Mary the following year. The marriage was cut short, however, when Robert died in 1395 or 1396, leaving Joan – still only in her mid-teens – a widow with young children.

John of Gaunt, Joan’s father

As the granddaughter of a king, Joan was bound not to remain a widow for long. And her marriage prospects improved drastically in February 1396, when her parents were married in Lincoln Cathedral. Shortly after he married Katherine, John of Gaunt applied to the pope to have their children declared legitimate; the papal bull declaring the legitimacy of Joan and her brothers arrived in September of the same year. As the legitimate granddaughter of a king, Joan’s status was improved immensely and she was soon married to the recently widowed 6th baron of Raby and later earl of Westmorland, Ralph Neville.

Unlike many medieval women, we have some idea of what Joan may have looked like, thanks to a miniature by Pol de Limbourg. Taken from the Neville Book of Hours, it shows Joan dressed piously in black and white, though her cloak and cuffs are lined with ermine and she wears the Lancastrian S-collar around her neck. Her features are delicate. Her hands, with rings on the fingers, are clasped in prayer.

Joan was a learned woman, she was educated to the same standard as her legitimate half-sisters, Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster. She seems to have possessed a considerable library, the texts being largely devotional. She owned a copy of ‘Les Cronikels de Jerusalem et de Viage de Godfray de Boylion’ (Chronicles of Jerusalem and the Voyages of Godfrey de Bouillon) which she lent to her nephew, Henry V, but had to petition the Council for its return after Henry’s death. Her brother, Thomas, had left her a book, titled ‘Tristram’.

Thomas Hoccleve dedicated a volume of poems, ‘Hoccleve’s Works’ to her sending it to her around 1422, saying:

Go, smal book to the noble excellence

Of my lady of Westmerland and seye,

Her humble seruant with al reuerence

Him recommandith vn-to hir nobleye.

Also, an early copy of Hoccleve’s ‘Regiment of Princes’ was made for Joan’s son-in-law, John Mowbray.

Raby Castle, Count Durham

Known for her piety, Joan left many bequests to religious institutions in her will, especially monasteries in the north. Admitted to the sisterhood at St Albans, she was also licensed to appropriate for the support of the chantry the advowson of the church of Welton, in the Howden area; and it was Joan who saw the completion of the college at Staindrop, founded by her husband in 1408. According to antiquarian, John Leland, Joan ‘erectid the very house self of the college’ in the form of a medieval hospital. Her piety, however, was not always conventional. Her father had been a defender of the Lollards – he employed John Wycliffe, the first person to translate the Bible into English, as a tutor to his children. And Joan seems to have had a similar religious curiosity – hence her association with Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe was a mystic from Lyn, Norfolk; she claimed to have visions of Christ and travelled throughout England and on the Continent. She wrote the Book of Margery Kempe which recounted the story of her life and her visions and considered to be the first ever autobiography in English. Joan invited Margery Kempe to visit her at Raby. She also wrote a letter to exonerate Margery from accusations of corruption. Margery’s own testimony says they knew each other for ‘this two years and more’. In 1417 Margery was brought before the Archbishop of York, accused of advising Joan’s daughter, Elizabeth Greystoke, to leave her husband. Margery was found ‘not guilty’ of the offence and under questioning, admitted she had told Countess Joan and her daughter a ‘good tale of a lady who was damned because she would not love her enemies’. Margery even suggested her questioners ask Joan for corroboration of her testimony, demonstrating her trust that the Countess would back her.

Joan enjoyed influence at court – as the sister of one king, Henry IV, and aunt to his successor, Henry V. She was named in royal grants as ‘the king’s sister’ and made a Lady of the Garter in the reign of her cousin, Richard II. She was compassionate and used her influence to petition the king to aid those less fortunate, such as Christopher and Margaret Standith, who had fallen on hard times after Christopher had been dismissed from his father’s service for marrying for love. Joan wrote the king, asking him to give Margaret a position in the household of his queen, Joan of Navarre.

It can be argued that Joan had a strong bond of affection and purpose with her husband. They both wanted to see their family’s prospects improved even further, arranging advantageous marriages for their large brood of children. Although, it is unclear how much influence Joan had when her husband, the Earl of Westmorland, manage to entail the bulk of his estates onto his children by Joan, rather than the children by his first marriage to Margaret Stafford. This seems to have been a sensible strategy, given that his children by Joan were closely related to the royal family – Joan being the half sister of King Henry IV. The strategy, however, caused Joan problems after her husband’s death and led to a family feud – which sometimes turned violent – which wasn’t resolved until after Joan died.

Tomb of Ralph Neville, St Mary’s Church, Staindrop

Joan was a strong influence on her daughters and daughters-in-law. She concerned herself with matters of family – such as her children’s marriages – rather than business. Ralph’s son, also Ralph, by his first marriage, was married to Mary, Joan’s younger daughter from her first marriage. Ralph and Joan’s children were married into many of the leading noble dynasties of the time and served to strengthen the position of the Beauforts as a whole. Such significant marriages saw their eldest daughter, Katherine, married to John Mowbray, 2nd Duke of Norfolk – it was Katherine who later married John Woodville, brother-in-law of her nephew Edward IV; Katherine was around 65 years old and John just 20. Of other daughters, Eleanor married Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, while Anne married Humphrey Stafford, a descendant of Edward III and 1st Duke of Buckingham. Of their sons, Richard Neville married Alice Montagu, heiress to the earldom of Salisbury, and became Earl of Salisbury by right of his wife; their son, Richard Neville, was the Earl of Warwick known as the Kingmaker. Robert Neville became Bishop of Durham and other sons married rich heiresses to claim titles and positions for themselves.

Ralph died in 1425 and was buried at Staindrop, close to Raby Castle. His tomb includes effigies of both Joan and his first wife, although neither woman is buried beside him. Joan was herself responsible for the negotiations after her husband’s death, which saw their youngest daughter, Cecily, married to Richard, Duke of York. Two of Cecily’s sons would become Kings of England; Edward IV and Richard III.

Having married young herself, and having become a mother before she was 15 years old, Joan was sensible to the dangers of girls marrying too young and ensured that none of her daughters or daughters-in-law, faced the dangers of childbirth before they were 17 or 18 years of age. She even kept married couples apart – such as Cecily and the Duke of York – when necessary, in order to protect the girls.

Joan’s tomb, beside that of her her mother, in Lincoln Cathedral

On 28 November 1437, Joan was granted licence for the foundation of a chantry with two chaplains at Lincoln Cathedral, to pray daily for the soul of her mother, Katherine Swynford, as well as for herself, her husband, brother (Cardinal Henry Beaufort) and father. On the same day, she secured a grant for daily prayers to be said at Staindrop Church – where her husband Ralph, Earl of Westmorland, was buried – for the souls of her husband, brother and father.

Joan died at Howden, a manor near Beverley in her son Robert’s possession as Bishop of Durham, on 13 November 1440. In her will, she requested to be buried with her mother, with whom she had a strong bond in life, but also for her mother’s burial site to be enlarged and enclosed. It seems likely that the now-lost wrought iron screens which surrounded her mother’s tomb, were added at this time, rather than when Katherine died in 1403. Joan’s epitaph claimed that the whole nation grieved at her death.

There is, however, no clear indication why Joan chose to be buried with her mother, rather than at Staindrop with her husband. It may be that as the granddaughter of a king (Edward III), she thought Lincoln Cathedral a more appropriate resting place, or that she wanted to be close to her mother.

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Pictures: John of Gaunt courtesy of Wikipedia. All other photos ©SharonBennettConnolly

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Sources: katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk; Red Roses: Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort by Amy Licence; The Nevills of Middleham by K.L. Clark; The House of Beaufort: the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown by Nathen Amin; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Life and Times of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Oxforddnb.com; womenshistory.about.com/od/medrenqueens/a/Katherine-Swynford.

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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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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.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Sad Story of Little St Hugh of Lincoln

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Lincoln Cathedral viewed from Lincoln Castle

While researching Lincoln this week I came across the unhappy story of Little St Hugh, a young boy whose death caused a lethal backlash of blame and recrimination which attracted the attention of the king, Henry III, himself.

The story revolves around a young boy called Hugh. Born around 1246 he  was probably 9 years old when he disappeared on 31st July 1255. No one seems to know who Hugh’s father was, or even if he had one – some sources suggest he was illegitimate – but his mother was a Lincoln lady called Beatrice.

According to reports young Hugh had been doing what all boys do at that age – he’d been out playing with friends. But when it got late the lad could not be found. His mother spent days looking for him and apparently was eventually told by some neighbours that he had last been seen ‘playing with some Jewish boys of his own age, and going into the house of a Jew.’¹

According to Matthew Paris it was Beatrice, herself, who had discovered Hugh’s body sometime around 27th August 1255, after marching into the house Hugh had been seen going into. Little Hugh’s body was supposedly found in a well at the property of a Lincoln Jew, named Copin (or Jopin, Joscefin or Koppin).

Poor Copin was immediately seized by those present when the body was found; Beatrice and her neighbours and the city’s bailiffs all appear to have been in attendance. In no time at all a dreadful tale of ritual murder and the ‘blood libel’ (where it was believed Christian children were tortured and killed in Jewish rituals, supposedly mimicking the crucifixion of Christ) was woven around the tragedy of the little boy’s death.

330px-Hugh_of_Lincoln_body
Body of Hugh of Lincoln

According to Paris:

… having shut him up in a room quite out of the way, where they fed him on milk and other childish nourishment, they sent to almost all the cities of England where the Jews lived, and summoned some of their sect from each city to be present at a sacrifice to take place at Lincoln; for they had, as they stated, a boy hidden for the purpose of being crucified. In accordance with the summons, a great many of them came to Lincoln, and on assembling, they at once appointed a Jew of Lincoln as judge to take the place of Pilate, by whose sentence, and with the concurrence of all, the boy was subjected to divers tortures They beat him till blood flowed and he was quite livid, they crowned him with thorns, derided him and spat upon him. Moreover, he was pierced by each of them with a wood knife, was made to drink gall, was overwhelmed with approaches and blasphemies, and was repeatedly called Jesus the false prophet by his tormentors, who surrounded him, grinding and gnashing their teeth. After tormenting him in divers ways, they crucified him, and pierced him to the heart with a lance.²

It is still unclear whether or not Little Hugh was murdered; some sources suggest that it could have been a terrible accident or the boy lost his footing and fell down the well (although the well in question was apparently only dug in 1910)3. And even if the boy was murdered, it is far from clear that Copin was the culprit. However, one man took the initiative and played on the prejudices of the time to, not only, create a scapegoat but use the anti-Semitism prevalent at the time in order to blame the Jewish population of England as a whole.

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Gateway to Lincoln Cathedral precincts

John of Lexington was one of the witnesses at the discovery of the body and appears to have been the one to investigate the accusation of ritual murder levelled at Copin, probably by the distraught Beatrice. He may have been familiar with the case, just over a century earlier, of William of Norwich, who died in 1144 and whose death was said to involve a mock execution at the hands of a converted Jew named Theobald.

Lexington, described as ‘a man of learning, prudent and discreet‘² by Matthew Paris, managed to persuade Copin to confess and describe the murder in return for a promise of protection from torture and execution. Copin is said to have confessed to his involvement, and described the scourging, disembowelling, crowning with thorns and crucifixion of the young boy. He went on, it seems, to implicate the rest of his people, saying ‘nearly all the Jews of England agreed to the death of this boy.’4

At the time of the death many prominent Jewish families had congregated in Lincoln; not to  commit murder, but to celebrate the marriage of Bellaset, the daughter of Berechiah de Nicole. These were suddenly caught up in the tragedy and more than 90 of them were arrested and charged with practicing ritual murder. They were sent to London and imprisoned in the Tower to await trial.

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Sign in Lincoln Cathedral explaining Hugh’s story

In the mean time rumours of miracles started circulating  and being attributed to Little Hugh. It was said his body had been thrown down the well because when Copin had tried to bury him the earth had thrown the corpse back out. In another miracle attributed to him a blind woman regained her sight by bathing her eyes in water from the well in which Hugh’s remains had been found. Having heard of the miracles associated with Little Hugh, the canons of Lincoln Cathedral requested the body and Little Hugh ‘was honourably buried in the church of Lincoln as if it had been the corpse of a precious martyr,’² with the Cathedral even raising a shrine to the memory of Little Saint Hugh.

As for Copin; the story of a boy’s murder by England’s Jews had attracted the attention of England’s king, Henry III. According to Paris the king himself reproached John of Lexington for having promised life to such a ‘wicked being’ and the poor man was condemned to death. He was tied to the tail of a horse and dragged through the streets to the gallows, and hung.

Just 6 months before Hugh’s death the king had sold his rights to tax the Jews to his younger brother Richard, earl of Cornwall. However, he retained the right to receive the goods and property of any Jew implicated in a crime. This made the 90 Jews arrested alongside Copin extremely valuable to the king if they were guilty – and to his brother if they were innocent. Of these 90 or so Jews caught up in the aftermath of the tragedy, 18 ‘of the richer and higher order of Jews of the city of Lincoln’² were condemned to death and dragged to gibbets erected especially and hung; their property confiscated by the king.

The remaining prisoners were eventually released, following payment of their ransom by the Earl of Cornwall; his personal Jew had probably been caught up in the arrests and so it was in Cornwall’s interests to get the Jews released. Among those freed was Berechiah de Nicole, the father of the bride for whose wedding the Jews had been gathered in Lincoln.

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The shrine of Little Hugh in Lincoln Cathedral

The tragedy of Little Hugh’s death was only worsened by the judicial murders of so many innocent Jews in revenge. Little St Hugh is the best known of the ‘blood libel’ saints and although a shrine was erected in Lincoln Cathedral, with a feast day of 27th August, Little Hugh was never canonised by the Vatican and has never been included in the official roll of Catholic martyrs. The shrine inside the cathedral, although still there, has lost its canopy and now has a sign at the side, explaining the legend and telling the sad tale of the boy’s death and its dreadful aftermath.

Little Hugh’s story would continue to be told in the succeeding centuries. It has been the subject of ballads in both English, Scottish and French poetry and is referred to by Chaucer in The Prioress’s Tale and by Marlowe in the Jew of Malta.

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Footnotes:

¹Matthew Paris, quoted by Haidee J Lorrey from oxforddnb.com; ²Matthew Paris, Of the cruel treatment of the Jews for having crucified a boy from arts.cornell.edu; ³It’s About Lincolnshire via Twitter; 4Matthew Paris, quoted by Haidee J Lorrey from oxforddnb.com.

And thanks to Dean Irwin for clarifying some points for me.

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Article and photos of Lincoln Cathedral and precincts ©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly; Picture of the Body of Little Hugh courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sources:

arts.cornell.edu; oxforddnb.com; pillingswritingcorner.blogspot.co.uk; britannica.com; Who’s Buried Where in England by Douglas Greenwood;  Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett; jewishencyclopedia.com.

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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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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

The Eternal Legacy of Magna Carta

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Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta

June 15th 2015 was the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.

On 1 April 2015 Lincoln Castle reopened its doors after an extensive refurbishment. The renovations included a new purpose-built, state-of-the-art, underground vault for its most prized possession: one of only four surviving copies of the original 1215 Great Charter – the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta’s new home cannot fail to emphasise the importance of this charter in the history of not only England, but also the rest of the world. Two films – Magna Carta: Challenging the Power of the King and Magna Carta: Meaning and Myth – reconstruct the events leading up to Magna Carta and chart its significance through the centuries, respectively.

But what is Magna Carta? And what makes it so important?

n many ways, the reign of King John had been a continuation of that of his father, Henry II, and of his brother, Richard I, with one significant difference. Early in his reign John had lost the French part of the great Angevin empire: Normandy and Aquitaine were now held by France. In 1214 King John returned to England following his defeat by the French at the Battle of Bouvines. The battle ended the king’s hopes of regaining the lost empire.

Added to this catastrophe was the character and personality of John himself. By nature John was paranoid, secretive and distrustful. John’s cruelty is widely known. He is accused of killing his nephew and rival claimant to the English throne, Arthur of Brittany; he hanged 28 Welsh hostages (sons of rebel chieftains) and he hounded William de Braose and his family all the way to Ireland and back. De Braose’s wife and son died in one of John’s prisons, probably from starvation.

The History of William Marshal, a biography of the great knight and statesman, states of John: ‘He kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner, and in such abject confinement that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed such cruelty’.

Although John faced the fallout of Magna Carta, many of the injustices targeted by the barons can be seen in the reigns of his predecessors. Heavy taxes, arbitrary fines and the exploitation of wardships were long-established royal revenue earners. However, where Henry and Richard had a whole empire to exploit, John’s need for money had to be met by England alone.

Even John’s disagreement with the Church can see parallels in the reign of Henry II and his clashes with Thomas Becket. John opposed the election of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, and refused to allow his consecration. Pope Innocent III went so far as to excommunicate John and place England under interdict; in 1213 Philip II of France was even invited to depose him.

John finally came to an agreement with the Church in May 1213, swearing that the liberties established under Henry I would be strictly observed and allowing Langton to take up his post as archbishop. However, John broke his oath almost immediately and Langton became one of the leaders of the opposition to the king.

The barons’ objections to John were almost beyond number. He had failed to face the French and had lost not only his family’s Continental possessions, but also those of his barons. Few had forgotten his treachery against his brother – his attempt on the throne whilst Richard was away on Crusade. His barons even complained that he forced himself on their wives and daughters.

The barons had had enough.

Lincoln Cathedral Sharon's pic
Lincoln Cathedral

The rebels were ready to fight. After occupying London they made one final attempt to prevent war, presenting the king with a list of their demands.

Following further negotiations a long detailed document was produced, dealing with particular grievances of the time and with injustices in general. It touched on the whole system of royal government. And it was granted to ‘all free men of the realm and their heirs forever’.

Magna Carta

Of its 63 clauses, some terms were asking for immediate remedies, such as the removal of corrupt administrators and the sending home of foreign mercenaries. The clause stating that fighting outside of the kingdom could not be imposed by the king was a reaction to John’s recent attempts to force his English barons to help him recover his Continental domains.

Others had long-term aims. The document sought to guarantee the privileges of the Church and the City of London. Restrictions were placed on the powers of regional officials, such as sheriffs, to prevent abuses. The royal court was fixed at Westminster, for justice to be obtainable by all, and royal judges were to visit each county regularly. Taxes could no longer be levied without the consent of the Church and the barons.

Clauses included the fixing of inheritance charges and protection from exploitation for under-age heirs; the king was to take only what was reasonable from an estate (although ‘reasonable’ remained undefined). From henceforth a widow was to be free to choose whether or not to remarry and her marriage portion (dowry) would be made available to her immediately on her husband’s death. Another clause sought to prevent the seizure of land from Jews and the king’s debtors.

Magna Carta even went so far as to regulate weights and measures. It also reduced the size of the king’s forests and limited the powers of forest justices.

Although most of the 63 clauses of Magna Carta are now defunct, three still remain as major tenets of British law, including ‘to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice’. That no person could be imprisoned, outlawed or deprived of his lands except by judgement of his peers and the law of the land has remained the cornerstone of the English legal system ever since.

Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede, Berkshire, on 15 June 1215. John ordered that the charter be circulated around the towns and villages.

As a peace agreement between King John and his rebellious barons, however, it failed miserably. By July John was appealing to the Pope for help. Pope Innocent III’s response arrived in England in September. The treaty was declared null and void; it was ‘not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust’. By the time the letter arrived in England, the dispute had already erupted into the Barons’ War.

Deciding they could no longer deal with John’s perfidy, the rebel barons invited the King of France, Philip II, to claim the throne. Philip’s son and heir, the future Louis VIII, accepted the offer. Having landed on the south coast, he marched for London, where he was proclaimed King of England on 2 June 1216.

John’s fortuitous death at Newark in October 1216 turned the tide against Louis and the rebels. The highly respected knight and statesman, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, was appointed regent for John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III. Marshal’s staunch loyalty was renowned throughout Europe; he was the embodiment of the chivalric code. Many barons who had previously sided with Louis saw the opportunity to come back from the brink, and rally around the young king. Marshal reissued Magna Carta and faced and defeated the joint French and rebel army at Lincoln on 20 May 1217.

Afterwards, the English were able to dictate peace terms to Louis, and the French went home. Magna Carta was issued a third time, along with a new Forest Charter (also on display at Lincoln Castle). Its reissue in 1225, on Henry III attaining his majority, is the one that made it onto the statute books.

The Legacy of Magna Carta

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Lincoln Castle

It is hard to overstate the enduring significance of Magna Carta. Although it was initially a document conceived by rebel barons, the regents of Henry III exploited Magna Carta as a royalist device to recover the loyalty of the rebel barons. However, once it was issued it was used as a curb to all regal excesses. In 1265 it was invoked to create the first parliament.

By the late 1200s Magna Carta was regarded as a fundamental statement of English liberties.

Magna Carta set the precedent for future reform programmes, such as the Provisions of Oxford of 1258, the Ordinances of 1311, the Petition of Right of 1628 and the Grand Remonstrance of 1641.

The influence of Magna Carta has spread far beyond England’s shores. It can be seen in the United States’ 1791 Bill of Rights, in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

Although a failure in the short term, in the long term, Magna Carta established defined limitations to royal rights, laying down that standard to be observed by the crown and its agents.

It is the closest thing England has to a Constitution.

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Article and Photos © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015

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Article originally published on The Review in June 2015.

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Sources: Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; The Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty.

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My Books

Out Now!

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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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.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Lincoln Castle, a Journey Through History

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The Observatory Tower

I love the school holidays. My son and I always find something historical to explore. Today, it was Lincoln Castle.

The Castle only reopened on the 1st April, 2015, after an extensive revamp. And it was teeming with visitors (apparently it was the quietest day since they reopened, so the last week must have been incredibly hectic for the staff).

Lincoln Castle was started by William the Conqueror in 1068 and has been in constant use ever since. You can follow its history, just by looking at the buildings that occupy the Inner Bailey. In its time, it has been a military fortification, a Victorian prison and is now home to Lincoln’s Crown Court – and the Magna Carta!

Magna_Carta_(British_Library_Cotton_MS_Augustus_II.106)
Magna Carta

Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta is one of only four surviving originals. It is now on display in an impressive purpose-built, underground vault. The Magna Carta is accompanied by an original copy of the 1217 Charter of the Forest.

There is a 20-minute video, with a very believable King John and the great William Marshal, discussing the Magna Carta and explaining its inception and significance through the centuries.

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Prison Chapel

The Magna Carta Vault is a modern addition, adjoining the imposing Victorian prison. In its day, the prison was an innovation in the harshness punishment; the prisoners were held in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day.

There was no relief from the solitude, even when attending church services; the prison chapel was constructed in a way that each prisoner could see the priest, but could have no contact with his fellow prisoners. The chapel gives me the creeps everytime I visit it. I have a thing about dummies, but it’s also the thought of all those prisoners only able to see the one person, in the pulpit; cut off from society and each other.

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Inside the male prison

The prison included some wonderful interactive displays, with the opportunity to read the diaries of the priest, the wardens and prisoners. Kids can dress-up as prisoners or wardens, explore the separate male and female prisons, and watch videos of the inmates, explaining their crimes – and pleading their innocence!

The Castle grounds give you the sense of the thousand years of history its walls have witnessed.

It was at Lincoln that King Stephen was captured by forces loyal to the Empress Matilda, during the civil war – the Anarchy – that followed the death of Henry I (when Matilda and Stephen both claimed the throne).

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From the battlements: Lincoln Cathedral

Henry VIII and Catherine Howard had visited Lincoln Castle during their northern progress of 1541, shortly before Catherine’s infidelities were uncovered.

You can now walk the whole length of the walls – a third of a mile, though it can feel longer, with all the steps. You can climb the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the Observatory Tower – and take in the whole view of Lincoln, its Cathedral and the Fens.

The Lucy Tower contains within its walls a small cemetery, where executed prisoners, and those who died of disease, were buried.

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The West Gate

The West Gate is a little piece of history in itself; opened to William Marshal’s troops during the Second Battle of Lincoln, by the castle’s castellan, Nicholaa de la Haye, whilst the castle was under siege from the army of Louis of France, who had been invited to take England by King John’s disaffected barons. The Dauphin was defeated shortly after, outside the Castle’s walls, and returned to France.

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Remnant of the Eleanor Cross

Another memento from history, within the Inner Bailey, is the remnant of Lincoln’s Eleanor Cross. Eleanor of Castile was just 7 miles from Lincoln when she died in 1290 and Lincoln’s Eleanor Cross is the first marker of her funeral procession, which ended at Westminster Abbey. Eleanor’s viscera (her intestines) were buried in Lincoln Cathedral, while her embalmed body was transported to London, an elaborate cross being erected at each stopping place along the way.

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Inside the Victorian Kitchen

The Castle has not forgotten its younger visitors, with a little treasure trail and quiz, based on King John’s loss of the Crown Jewels in the Wash.

The prize was well worth winning – chocolate coins from the Victorian Kitchen. And ‘thank you’ to the Victorian lady, who insisted all children pay a 1 coin tax to their parents out of their winnings – very tasty!

Whether you choose to explore by yourself, take the guided tour or simply bask in the sun of the Bailey, Lincoln Castle is a wonderful day out – for the young and old alike – I can highly recommend it.

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The exercise yard and facade of the Victorian prison

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My book, 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.

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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All pictures and article are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015, except the Magna Carta, which is courtesy of Wikipedia.

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For further information, visit http://www.lincolncastle.com

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The Crown Court building

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly