The Death of Edward II, Investigating The Red Hot Poker Myth


British Library MS 20 A ii The Chronicle of England


There are no primary sources records of the events surrounding Edward II’s death at Berkeley Castle on 21st September 1327[1]. Historians utilise the evidence in official records and chronicles to construct narratives exploring possible scenarios. The information in the records reflects the tubulent shifts in political power in England from 1327 to 1330, and beyond. Edward II was deposed by an army lead by his wife and son in 1326. He abdicated in January 1327, in favour of his fourteen year old son, Edward III. He was entitled Sir Edward of Caernarfon and incarcerated[2]. A regency council headed by Isabella, the king’s mother and her right hand man, Roger Mortimer was established.

Edward was moved from Kenilworth castle to Berkeley castle, where he later died, in spring 1327[3]. Originally parliament was informed that he had died of natural causes[4]. The majority of chroniclers also accepted this. The Annales Paulini[5], records that he died. The French Brut attributed his demise to an illness brought on by sorrow[6]. The Peterborough Chronicler writes that “He was well in the evening but dead by the morning.” The earliest indications of foul play appear in Lanercost, which states Edward died “by natural causes or by violent means”, whilst Scalachronica says the truth is known only to God. With the exception of the long Brut, the poker story doesn’t appear until the 1350’s.

At Easter 1330, Mortimer finally over stretched himself, orchestrating the judicial murder of Edmund, Earl of Kent. He and Queen Isabella were as cruel and avaricious as the regime they replaced. Edward III had little power and came to believe his own life was endangered. Rumours began circulating that Mortimer had ordered Edward II’s murder, providing his son with just reason to arrest Mortimer, his sons, and close allies, plus Edward II’s keepers.

Adam Murimuth’s chronicle captures the changes in opinion. His chronicle is unique as it is based on his personal diary[7]. In 1327, he recorded that Edward had died. Following Mortimer’s 1330 trial[8], Murimuth claims Edward was suffocated, with Mortimer’s agreement[9]. It is likely that the poker story, which appears in the long version of the Brut, was written around this time[10]. This chronicle records the first version of the poker myth. This was not universally accepted, the Bridlington Chronicler, writing circa 1340 notes that “Since this king died, diverse vulgar opinions on the manner of his death have been discussed, they are not worth writing down”[11].

The information proved valuable to two chroniclers, Ralph Higden and Geoffrey le Baker, writing circa 1350. Higden, a monk and respected historian of St Werburg’s Abbey, Chester, wrote the Polychronicon, which contains little concurrent material, he rarely left the cloister[12]. He summarises the long Brut and comments on the outlandish stories circulating. Le Baker claimed his record was informed by a man involved in Edward’s move to Berkeley, adding a sense of veracity to his work. Higden’s work was thought to be true because the life story of his Polychronicon’s translator was misinformed. John Trevisa, a Cornish scholar translated the manuscripts circa 1388. He was chaplain to Thomas, Lord Berkeley V, the grandson of Edward’s keeper Thomas Lord Berkley III. Some historians believed Trevisa translated Polychronicon verbatim as he had inside knowledge[13]. This post will use the available records to evaluate the chronicles, as to their accuracy.

January to August 1327 – Imprisonments and Plots

Edward II’s first keeper, his cousin, Henry, Earl of Lancaster housed him at Kenilworth Castle. Lancaster resented Mortimer, making it imperative that Mortimer controlled both Edward II and Edward III. Enhancing his power, and providing him with leverage over the royal earls[14]. An attempt to free Edward was foiled in late March 1327. Arriving at Kenilworth with an armed force[15], Mortimer secretly moved Edward to Berkeley Castle, without informing the king[16]. Mortimer’s son-in-law, Thomas, Lord Berkeley and Sir John Maltravers, were appointed Edward’s keepers on 3rd April 1327[17]. Berkeley later added an assistant keeper, his cousin Sir Thomas Gurney[18].

Le Baker’s source, William Bishop, a Mortimer man at arms, was allegedly part of Edward’s escort party. Bishop related a tale of a circuitous and humiliating journey, via Corfe Castle and Bristol to Berkeley Castle, to le Baker in 1347[19]. He claimed he led Edward’s horse from Bristol, Edward forced to sit backwards, wearing a straw crown. This is the only contact Bishop had with Edward[20]. Considering Mortimer required the journey to be swift and secret, Bishop’s account seems bizarre.

Berkeley, like Mortimer had cause to hate Edward. Following the contrariant uprising in 1322, his wife Margaret, was incarcerated in a nunnery. Edward attempted to dissolve their marriage[21].  Maltravers also fared badly, and was in exile in France with Mortimer[22]. Gurney also a contrariant, had his lands restored on payment of a fine[23]. Mortimer knew these men and trusted their loyalty[24]. In return they were rewarded, with political and judicial appointments[25] and granted 100s per day for the expenses of “the late king and his household” [26], between 3rd April to 20th October.

The history between Edward and his keepers supports the claims of harsh conditions reported by Murimuth, the long Brut and le Baker[27]. However the official records show Edward was well cared for at the insistence of Isabella and Edward III. She sent him letters and luxurious gifts. He had meat, wax candles and access to a private chapel[28].  Le Baker blamed Isabella for Edward’s suffering, claiming Edward’s rooms were above a pit of rotting carcasses. The intention being that the stench and corruption would cause mortal illness[29], and endanger the entire castle! Rumours of ill treatment would have reached the royal court, something Mortimer, Berkeley and Maltravers knew to avoid. Had they abused his father Edward III would not have bestowed some of Mortimer’s vacant manors on Berkeley’s infant son in 1331[30]. Or allowed Maltravers to have a political career.

Edward was deprived of contact with his wife and children. The long Brut relates a conversation between Edward and a guard, who informs Edward that he “wolde her strangle… and al so that ye would do to my Lord your Sone”[31], should they visit. This reflects Edward’s reputation for vengeance[32]. Mortimer and Isabella had usurped his throne and cruelly executed his favourites. Edward would not overlook this, should he be restored. However Edward is distraught that the guard thinks he is capable of this. Warner believes Isabella and their children stayed away to spare his feelings and theirs[33].

Edward’s move to Berkeley did not dissuade the plotters. Two significant conspiracies to free Edward were discovered. The first, the Dunhevid plot, involved the same men who failed to free Edward from Kenilworth, possibly working with the Earl of Mar[34]. In late July 1327, Berkeley informed a friend that Berkeley Castle had been looted and Edward seized. It appears he remained within the castle and the plot was foiled by Berkeley’s men[35]. To ensure secrecy Berkeley and Maltravers were granted powers of arrest[36]. The majority of the plotters were accused of other crimes[37], including refusing to fight the Scots[38]. The raid is mentioned in the Close Rolls, William de Aylmere, requested bail whilst awaiting trial for “…consenting to and abetting in the robbery of Berkele and the taking of Edward de Carnarvan, the late king and the levying the king’s people in war against him…[39]”.

The long Brut claims Gurney was appointed Edward’s keeper and moved him to Corfe Castle. There are no records supporting this, and payments to Berkeley for Edward’s upkeep continued. Berkeley appointed Gurney as assistant keeper because he and Maltravers were often absent. Both had distant estates, and were regularly appointed Commissioners of the Peace[40]. In July, Berkeley was excused from Edward III’s Scottish campaign, as he was “charged with special business by the king[41]. Capturing the Dunhevid plotters who remained at large.[42]


1st to 21st September 1327 – A New Plot and a Sudden Death

Edward III sent Mortimer to Wales, as Justiciar, on 4th September to deal with “certain malefactors … wandering around… making confederacies and alliances…”.[43] On 7th September, his deputy, William de Shalford informed him that Sir Rhys ap Gruffydd[44] and others intended to free Edward and bring down the government[45]. Mortimer, remained in Wales, eschewing the Lincoln parliament[46]. On September 14th, Shalford wrote again with more details. Mortimer sent William Ockley, and William Beaukaire to Berkeley with Shalford’s letter[47] and orders for, Edward’s custodians to remedy the situation quickly[48]. Ockley, a servant of Mortimer’s wife, Joan was undoubtedly loyal. Beaukaire, a royal man at arms and pardoned Despenser loyalist, was an unusual choice[49]. They arrived at Berkeley somewhere between 14th and 21st September.  We have no idea of Mortimer’s intent. Did the frequency of plots convince him Edward must die? Were his instructions were misinterpreted by Edward’s panicked keepers.

The Brut, claims that Mortimer ordered Edward’s murder for St Matthew’s Day, 21st September. Maltravers and Gurney were instructed on the method to be used[50]. Le Baker creates a total fiction, claiming Isabella commanded the Bishop of Hereford, Adam Orelton to order Edward’s death[51]. Orleton’s alleged letter, like Mortimer’s order was intentionally ambiguous. Orleton was in Avignon representing the king in discussions with the Pope, at the time, making his involvement impossible.

Edward conveniently died, overnight on 21st September. There are no physician’s records, or letters implying he was unwell, meaning the cause of his death is unknown. The Brut mentions that Edward said “that he would rather be dead than imprisoned[52]. Other reports suggest that he was depressed and unhappy[53]. Closely guarded, he was unlikely to have been able to take his own life. Suicide was a mortal sin, the Church would refuse him burial and he risked eternity in hell.

If he wasn’t murdered, sudden death from an unknown medical condition is possible. Even today, fit, men in their forties have unexpected cardiac arrests. Parliament was informed on 28th September Edward died of natural causes. The lack of medical or coroner’s report, leaves room for conjecture, as demonstrated by the Chroniclers:

The long Brut:

“And as the Kyng lay and slepte, the traitoures, false forsuorne against her homage and her feaute, com priueliche into ye Kyngus chaumbre and her company with Ham and Laiden an Huge table oppon his Wombe and with men pressede and held fast adoune the iiij corners of the table oppon his body: wherewith the gode man awoke and was sore adrade to bene dede there, and slayn, and turned his body opsadoun. The tok the false tiranunts, and as wode traitoures, an horne and put hit into his fundament as depe and thai might and toke a spete of Copur brennyng & put hit through the horne into his body and oftentimes rolled therewith his bowailes; and so thai quelled here Lorde that nothing was perceyuede; and after he was entered at Gloucestr”[54].

Higden’s account is similar, but succinct: “… a hot broche put thro the secrete place posterialle.”[55] Whilst le Baker, composed a dramatic narrative:

“These cruel bullies, seeing that death by such a foetid odour would not overcome so vigorous a man, during the night of 22 September suddenly seized hold of him as he lay on his bed. With the aid of enormous pillows and a weight heavier than that of fifteen substantial men they pressed down upon him until he was suffocated. With a plumber’s red hot iron inserted through a horn, leading to the in most parts of the bowel they burned out the respiratory organs beyond the intestines, taking care that no wound should be discernible on the royal body…” The Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker

These accounts may arise from the Church’s disapproval of Edward’s alleged relationships with other men. Le Baker’s account, is beyond belief. It seems unlikely Edward survived after being restrained, pressed and smothered. Making him unable to scream loudly when the poker was inserted. The Brut and Higden also overlook the intense pain, and burns to his body from his struggles. If he was murdered his keepers were committing regicide. His death would have been swift, silent and secret. Mortimer, used sedatives to stupefy the guards when he escaped the Tower in 1323. He could have sent his daughter, Margaret suitable drugs or poison to incapacitate Edward. She could easily mix a draught for Edward, in her still room. Mortimer, an experienced soldier would have known that injuring the bowel could result in a slow, agonising death. Leading to questions from the physicians, priests, and Edward’s wife and son. Plus, an experienced embalmer would have noticed internal injuries.

Between Death and Burial

Gurney took a letter from Lord Berkeley to Edward III, informing him of his father’s death, on the night of 23rd September. He wrote to his cousin, the Earl of Hereford immediately. Parliament was notified four days later. Berkeley was ordered to suppress the news locally, Edward would not lay in state until he reached St Peter’s Abbey Gloucester on 20th October. Other anomalies in the treatment of Edward’s body after death, potentially support allegations of foul play. The embalmer, unusually for a man of Edward’s rank, was a local woman, watched by William Beaukaire. He then stood vigil until 20th October[56]. Only he and the embalming woman knew if Edward had any suspicious injuries.

The Plantagenets had been buried at Westminster Abbey since the reign of Henry III. Edward was refused burial there. Possibly because his abdication meant he lost royal prerogative[57]. London had recently risen against Isabella and Mortimer, and remained volatile[58]. Westminster was possibly been too close for comfort. Gloucester, near Berkeley, had previous royal burials, making it a suitable location for Edward’s tomb[59].

Edward’s body was honoured with a vigil, led by the Bishop of Llandaff at Gloucester. Murimuth reports that “the abbots, priors, knights and burgesses of Bristol and Gloucester, viewed Edward superficially”. He specifies no date or location but it is sensible to assume he means Gloucester[60] Edward’s body was viewed superficially, because he was prepared for burial, embalmed, wrapped, head to toe in cere cloth and dressed in his finery. His grand funeral took place on 20th December[61].


Growth of Avarice and Tyranny

Edward’s death, increased Mortimer and Isabella’s avarice and tyranny. They narrowly avoided civil war with the royal earls in 1329, in a fight over who controlled the king. At the Winchester parliament, Easter 1330, Mortimer accused Edmund, Earl of Kent, of treason. Allegedly convinced of Edward’s survival, he conspired with other nobles, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor of London to free Edward from Corfe Castle, Dorset. Following a show trial, Kent’s nephew Edward III, had no option, and ordered his execution.

Edward III knew Mortimer was becoming increasingly dangerous. But he could move openly against him. His friends, led by William Montacute, began a whispering campaign, implicating Mortimer in Edward’s murder. These rumours appear in the chronicles, for example The French Chronicle of London states: “… by the abetting of certain persons, and with the assent of his false keepers, he was traitorously and vilely murdered by night…”

Mortimer investigated the rumours, questioning Montacute and his friends in mid-October 1330, but obtained no information. He ordered them to leave the Court at Nottingham immediately. Returning three days later, on the evening 19th October. Helped by William Eland, who knew secret ways into the castle, they captured and arrested Mortimer, his sons Edmund and Geoffrey, and his chief adherents. Edward III, knew of the plan and escorted Mortimer and his allies to the Tower of London. They were all imprisoned, Mortimer bricked up in his cell[62].

Murder Trials

Edward III called parliament at Westminster in late November 1330. The accused, being nobles were entitled to trial in parliament by their peers. The opportunity to present a defence at the king’s discretion. The majority loathed Mortimer and his escheator, Simon de Bereford. Edward III’s enmity towards them was no secret either.

Mortimer, was tried on 26th November 1330. Brought into parliament bound and gagged, the outcome was a foregone conclusion[63]. The fourteen charges against him included usurping royal power, secretly moving Edward II to Berkeley castle to murder him, and the murders of Edward II and Edmund, Earl of Kent. On 29th November he was drawn to Tyburn and hanged naked, as a common traitor. Speaking at his execution Mortimer admitted procuring Kent’s death by luring him into a treasonable plot. He never admitted conspiracy to murder Edward. He understood that if this were a lie, it condemned him to eternity in hell. Bereford was also executed in November 1330, for his part in all of Mortimer’s crimes.

Edward’s keepers, had mixed fates. Berkeley was acquitted, having absent from the castle when Edward died. Gurney and Ockley were found guilty, despite Berkeley providing Gurney with an alibi. Ockley fled overseas before trial, and Berkeley aided Gurney to flee to Spain once sentence was passed. Both had a price on their head but neither was executed. Ockley disappeared whilst Gurney captured twice, in 1331 and 1333, died at Bayonne, enroute to England, despite the efforts of two physicians[64].  Maltravers was accused only of plotting to kill Kent. Given time to flee, he was tried in absentia, and condemned to death. Despite having a price on his head, he was serving Edward III in Flanders by 1339. On his return to England in 1352, parliament quashed his conviction[65].

Murimuth writes a fresh account of Edward’s death after 1330. He accuses Mortimer, Gurney, Maltravers and Bereford of plotting to suffocate Edward. Maltravers was never charged with Edward’s murder, and no evidence of the manner of Edward’s death survives[66], suggesting that Murimuth recorded rumours circulating at the time. Additionally no one was charged with the torture, deprivation and ill treatment of Edward II, as described by le Baker and the long Brut.

Sainthood, Scandal and Mistaken Identities

Yet some of these erroneous chronicles had purpose. Higden reveals that le Baker’s narrative was hagiography, following claims of miracles at Edward’s tomb. The more a person suffered, the holier they became. Higden was dismissive of the short-lived attempt to canonise Edward remarking that a difficult ending to life, did not make one holy[67]:

“…whether he schulde be accounted among seyntes other no. For nother prisonement ne persecucioun and greves preveth a man a seynt …for evel doer suffren suche peynes; neyther offrynges ne liknes of miracles proveth a man a seynt but the holynes of the rather lyf accorde perto, for suche beeth indifferent to gode and to yvel… ”

The Church agreed, the movement died away, leaving le Baker’s highly dramatic account of Edward’s final months. However Higden himself is implicated in the continued belief in the poker myth. Trevisa briefly continued and then translated Higden’s Polychronicon into Middle English circa 1387[68] [69]. It was common in medieval families for a son to be named after his father or grandfather. This can cause confusion, which happened here. Trevisa became chaplain to Thomas, 5th Baron Berkeley circa 1388. His grandfather, Thomas 3rd Baron Berkeley, was Edward’s keeper and died in 1361, twenty seven years before Trevisa arrived there. Some historians mistakenly believed Trevisa heard Thomas III’s last confession, giving him additional knowledge[70]. Trevisa as Higden’s translator and a respected Oxford scholar, was honour bound not to alter Higden’s work. This was overlooked, and the verbatim translation taken to mean Trevisa knew Higden to be correct.


The primary and secondary sources regarding Edward II’s death, make it difficult to draw conclusions as to his fate. Some record rumours and conjecture, others hagiography. Edward was guarded by men with ample motive for murder, but the wishes of Queen Isabella and Edward III probably stayed their hands. Had Mortimer confessed to killing Edward II, at his execution, the accusation against himself, Bereford and Edward’s keepers would be more credible. Mortimer and Bereford posed a significant threat to Edward III’s sovereignty, their executions were politically expedient.

There is evidence that his keepers treated him well and were never accused of torture, deprivation or ill treatment. Berkeley was acquitted and Maltravers conviction for procuring Kent’s death eventually quashed. There is evidence that Maltravers and Berkeley were rewarded by Edward III and trusted. Had Gurney or Ockley returned to England, they may have received similar clemency.

The chronicler’s motives in repeating the poker myth are complex. Partly it reflects the Church’s condemnation of the homosexual relationships Edward may have had. The authors were religious men, monks and clerks, and often relied on gossip from visitors. They also accessed the work of other chroniclers, allowing the story of the poker to be embellished over time and according to purpose. The most lurid account, le Baker’s was specifically written to emphasise Edward’s suffering and holiness.

The original statement that Edward had died of natural causes could be true. Having sifted the evidence all we can say is that Edward II was said to have died overnight on 21st September 1327. The Peterborough chronicler sums the mystery of Edward II’s death up thus[71]:

He was well in the evening, and dead by the morning.”


There are scholars who believe Edward II survived his “death” in 1327. Personally, I find their arguments plausible but chose to focus this article on the events surrounding his death. As I am very interested in the execution of Edward’s brother, Edmund Earl of Kent, I may well return to the possibility of Edward II’s survival at a later date, when I’ve had the opportunity to do more research.

References and Bibliography

[1] Warner K (2015) Edward II, The Unconventional King. Amberley. Stroud p242. Maunde Thompson E (1889) (trans) Adæ Murimuth Continuatio Chronicarum Robertus de Avesbury de Gestis Mirabilibus Regis Edwardi Tertii. HMSO London p53,

[2] Warner p227-230

[3] Warner p 233

[4] Warner p242

[5] Stubbs W (1882) Annales Paulini in The Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II vol I HMSO London. P337

[6] French Brut in Warner, p243

[7] Gransden A (1982) Historical Writing in the Fourteenth Century. Routledge. London p 43-44

[8] Murimuth p 63

[9] Murimuth p 64

[10] Mortimer I (2003) The Greatest Traitor, The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327 – 1330. Pimlico. London. p189 -190

[11] Auctore Bridlingtoniensi in The Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II vol I HMSO London. p97

[12] Gransden p43

[13] Warner p 243-244. Mortimer p263.

[14] Edward II’s brothers, Edmund, Earl of Kent and Thomas, Earl of Norfolk and his cousin, Henry, Earl of Lancaster

[15] Warner p233, Spinks S (2017) Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance. Amberley, Stroud.

[16] Mortimer p239

[17] Calendar of the Close Rolls of Edward III 1327-1330, HMSO London (1896) p77.

[18] Warner p235

[19] Mortimer p192

[20] Mortimer p192

[21] Mortimer p136, Warner p176

[22] Mortimer p73-4

[23] Calendar of Fine Rolls 1319-27 HMSO London (1913) p154 -71

[24] Mortimer p 95

[25] CCR Edward III vol 1 p297

[26] CCR Edward III vol 1 p77, 284

[27] Le Baker p 30-31

[28] Warner p234

[29] Maunde Thompson E (1889) Chronicon Galfridi le Baker de Swynebroke, Oxford University Press. Clarendon p 30-31

[30] Calendar of the Patent Rolls of Edward III 1330 – 1334, HMSO London (1891) p123

[31] Brie F.W.D (1906) The Brut of England. Early English Text Society. London. p 253

[32] CFR 1319-27 p 154-71, Warner 156-159

[33] Warner p235

[34] Warner p 237 -240

[35] Warner p239

[36] CCR Edward III vol 1 p131

[37] Warner p 238

[38] CPR vol 1 p 156-157

[39] CCR Edward III vol 1 p158

[40] CCR Edward III vol 1 p297, 351, 429

[41] CCR Edward III vol 1 p130

[42] CCR Edward III vol 1 p156-7

[43] CCR Edward III vol 1 p217-8

[44] Tout p165

[45] Warner p241 – 242

[46] Mortimer p187

[47] Mortimer p186-7

[48] Mortimer p187

[49] CCR Edward III vol 1, 1327 – 1330. p37, where his is named as Giles (Gills) Beaucair

[50] The Brut p253

[51] Le Baker p41

[52] The Brut p 252

[53] Warner p237

[54] The Brut p 253

[55] Lumby J.R. (1882) Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden together with the English Translation of John Trevisa and an unknown writer of the 15th century. Vol VII. Longman & Co. London. p 325

[56] Mortimer p186

[57] Spinks  p206

[58] Spinks p208

[59] Spinks p208

[60] Murimuth p54

[61] Warner p 246

[62] Mortimer p 236-7

[63] Mortimer p239

[64] Murimuth p54

[65] Mortimer p249 – 250

[66] Murimuth p63-4

[67] Higden p325 – 327

[68] Warner p243-244

[69] Gransden p48

[70] Warner p243-4

[71] Phillips S (2012) Edward II Yale University Press p 561-2


Lost Medieval Manuscripts – Introduction

This post is my contribution to the  Facebook Group “The History Geeks Community” Myth Busters Month.


Scribe at work from the Roman de la Rose f28r


This is the first of a series of 5 or 6 posts exploring both the loss of medieval documents and some of the historical myths they contain. Surviving medieval manuscripts are six hundred to fourteen hundred years old. Some are illegible, torn or possess holes of various sizes, making some of the text illegible. Those we can read may be copies of lost originals, and potentially contain scribal errors. Letters and chronicles record second hand accounts and the author’s opinions. Even if they provide the only account of an event, they should be read with an eye to bias. Many scribes were part of the Church and if the individual being discussed had a lifestyle the Church saw as sinful, they’re reputation could be traduced by the chroniclers or a particularly grisly end dreamed up.

Cotton MS Tiberius E
Cotton MS Tiberius E VI

Whilst some documents were deliberately destroyed by those in power, the majority were not.  Fires were not uncommon, documents thought to be “irrelevant or rubbish” may have been burned by families looking to make space. Others were recycled in the printing industry. Some losses occurred because no one understood their importance. Being discovered and placed in a collection was no guarantee of safety. The Cotton Library fire in 1731 saw multiple documents destroyed, although many were saved. Other documents such as the Paston letters, were rediscovered, published, lost again and then rediscovered for a second time during the 18th and 19th centuries. Others were recycled within the publishing industry, hidden within the bindings as a stiffener.

Kwakkel estimates that this activity lead to thousands of medieval books being deliberately destroyed between the 16th and 19th centuries[1].  The printing press made access to books both easier and cheaper, reducing the demand for handwritten manuscripts. The advances in academia and science beginning in the Tudor era. The advances in knowledge beginning in the Tudor era, which accelerated during the Enlightenment lead to the destruction or recycling of obsolete documents.

Medieval scribes also recycled older manuscripts, scraping and cleaning the page, removing the layer of text. These documents are referred to as palimpsests.  Parchment was expensive, to produce a copy of the bible 200 sheepskins were required. Hence if a text was obsolete, creating a palimpsest saved money.

Add. 17211
Syriac Texts Add MS17211 f49v

Not all scribes were skilled in removing the earlier writing, so sometimes it is possible to read the older text. For more thoroughly scraped and cleaned texts, specialist lighting techniques allow researchers to identify fragments of the original text. Blank sheets on the reverse of discarded texts, were used in Chancery to record tax records, for example. This preserved the original texts which recorded anything from government business to poetry[2].

Other documents remain hidden and uncatalogued in private collections, muniments rooms and foreign archives. Some of those in stored and catalogued in local or National Archives, have yet to be transcribed and translated. When scholars discover these documents, their work uncovers additional layers of medieval history.

Having researched the baseline information for this series of posts, the data was organised into six broad categories:

  1. Church, Crown and Parliamentary Activities
  2. Storage and Accidental Damage
  3. Recycling
  4. Theft and Fraud
  5. Unsubstantiated Claims,
  6. Archives, Libraries and Scattered Collections.

Some of these categories can be further broken down into subcategories. For example Church, Crown and Parliamentary Activities includes deliberate omissions, delayed reporting, ordered destruction, and a grey area, Here the missing manuscripts are linked to government or royal activities, but the reasons they are missing is unclear.

The medieval Church was involved with society at all levels. As a result the actions of the Church at national level will be included in the first category. There is ample evidence however of questionable documents and actions at a local level that also places the Church in the theft and fraud category. Likewise, the actions of some chroniclers will see individual monks and monasteries identified with unsubstantiated claims.

The next post will explore the records for the death of Henry VI,  missing parliamentary records of Edward II. and the destruction of Titulus Regis.



[1] Kwakkel E (2014) Destroying Medieval Books and Why That’s Useful [online] accessed 14.1.2018

[2] Toth P (2016) The Art of Medieval Recycling. The British Library – Medieval Manuscripts blog accessed 5/11/18

Plantagenet Textiles 3 – The Royal Bedding, Queen Isabella’s Trousseau.


Harley 616 f190

 In previous posts we have discussed the importance of dress in denoting status. Another demonstration of status was through the textiles used to decorate the royal household.  The public areas of medieval castles and palaces were adorned with sumptuous soft furnishings, often displaying heraldic devices and personal badges. Colours were rich, reflecting a noble household’s colours, as per their arms. In royal settings metallic threads, reds and purples were used to good effect.

The pipe and liberate rolls, and wardrobe accounts are part of a wide range of primary sources which allow us to peep inside the Royal bedchamber and discover the textiles used within. Additional records include details of the trousseau of Queen Isabella of France, who married Edward II. Due to periods of civil unrest, we also have records of goods seized from traitors and the odd deposed King. The reigns of Edward II and Richard II in particular provide lists of goods seized by the Crown from the King and the nobility. The death and attainder of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, son of Edward III are a fascinating insight into the opulent lifestyle of a late 14th century prince. There are also fragments of extant medieval textiles which help build a picture of the colours, patterns and decoration they preferred.

It should be noted that whilst we view bedchambers as private spaces, this was not so in the medieval period. High status retainers, bedfellows, the Queen’s damsels and servants would all move freely within these personal spaces. They were therefore designed to make a statement, with personal and ancestral heraldry and badges on display. These could be hung on the walls, or embroidered onto bedlinen, curtains and hangings. These were made from expensive, richly decorated textiles, with bed covers often lined with costly furs. We are fortunate that research by the Historic Royal Palaces team has allowed Edward I’s bedchamber at the Tower of London to be recreated, giving us an idea of the riot of colours and patterns medieval people preferred.

As medieval buildings were a challenge to keep warm, high status bedding sets included a lot of layers. Linen or silk sheets, covers of wool often fur lined, counterpanes of silk, quilts of various textiles, bed curtains, a canopy and a dosser. Matching wall hangings and tapestries, also helped conserve heat, as well as decorating the room. Furs and fur lined covers used high status pelts such as miniver, sable and bys. Henry II issued a writ to an Edward Blundo to obtain for him skins of sable, plus cloth of scarlet, a high status woollen cloth[1].

A bedchamber also served as an entertaining space for honoured guests so linen and silk table cloths were required. Baths were taken in your chamber in wooden tubs lined with linen sheets. Towels were required for personal hygiene. An entry in the Liberate Rolls of Henry III, gives an idea of the vast amount of cloth required to fit out a bedchamber and garderobe. He ordered the Sheriff of London to issue sufficient additional linen to Geoffrey de Sancto Dionisio, who had already used 260 ells, so that he might prepare the King’s chamber and garderobe in 1227[2].

Whilst some rooms would remain decorated and furnished in principle palaces, medieval monarchs had a peripatetic lifestyle. Their bed, bedding and other furnishings would be transported from place to place. Packed into trunks and loaded onto carts, which set out ahead of the royal party, they were usually unpacked and the bedchamber set up ready on the King’s arrival. It was also not unusual for a monarch to forget to bring or require an item unexpectedly. They also required both textiles and the people to care for them and work with them to move around the country with them. Henry III issued a writ in 1236 to allow William de Haverhulle and William the King’s tailor to have carriage to carry the King’s cloth from London to Winchester[3]

Tailors were not the only people who worked with royal textiles. Hidden within the records are also details of the people who were responsible for looking after the bedlinen. Laundry women, such as “Alicie”, laundress to Lady Margaret, the King’s daughter was paid 4 ½ per day for 365 days service in 1294 -5, for a total of £6 16s 10½d[4]. In 1311 Queen Isabella bought robes for her laundresses, Joan and Matilda at 2 marks each, for the year[5]. Joan had responsibility for the Queen’s napery and Matilda for her chamber linen[6]. They were also granted monies for the cost of wood and ashes to carry out their respective roles and were also paid 4½d per day[7]. Their wages were equal to those of the male naperers who looked after the King’s linen[8], but would have not been responsible for his washing. That was specifically women’s work.


Queen Isabella’s Trousseau

Add_ms_10293_f107r guinivere and lancelot 1316 cropQueen Isabella’s trousseau gives a good indication of the contents of an early 14th century Royal bedchamber. This included:

  1. A counterpane, trappings for the bedhead, eight square cushions of cloth of gold with diamond shaped charges embroidered the arms of France, England and Brabant, and eight pieces of tapestry.


  1. Another chamber was similarly dressed but the embroidered lozenges contained only the arms of France.


  1. Bedding for a further small chamber was embellished with sparrow-hawks. The textiles included curtains, a counterpane and four small tapestries, a red blanket for the Queen’s bed, a mattress, a cushion, and a bolster with a sparrow-hawk embroidered in gold.


  1. Also included in the trousseau were four cushions of sendal and two of toile, ten lengths of serge for hanging and use as a tablecloth. Four folding chairs and one dressing cabinet and leather bags for the Master of the Household.
  2. A further seven counterpanes of sendal. Five serge hangings, twelve tapestries for the garderobe and four other tapestries.
  3. For her wagon she had two counterpanes, one for sleeping, six tapestries, one piece of serge, a seat, four square or diamond shaped cushions, and a carpet.


The total of all these soft furnishings came to £2186 13s. The wagon, horses and their accoutrements cost £2119 10s


The bedding embroidered with their joint arms suggest that this bed set would have been used in Edward and Isabella’s chamber. These would signify their status, remind them of the legacy they carried and their responsibility to bear children, continuing the family line. Isabella was twelve when she married Edward, so consummation was delayed. She did not become pregnant with her first child, the future Edward III until she was sixteen.

References and Footnotes

[1] Pipe Rolls  23 Henry II, p201 – the intended use of these textiles is not stated. They may have been used to make a lined cloak or bedcover.

[2] Liberate Rolls of Henry III vol 1 p15

[3] Liberate Rolls of Henry III vol 1 p247

[4] Fryde E.B. (ed) (1962) Book of Prests of the King’s Wardrobe for 1294-5 Clarendon Press Oxford p36

[5] Blackley F.D., Hermansen G. (1971) The Household Accounts of Queen Isabella of England for 5th Regnal Year of Edward II, 8th July 1311 to 7th July 1312. University of Alberta Press Alberta Canada p165

[6] Blackley and Hermansen op cit p79

[7] Blackley and Hermansen op cit p109

[8] Fryde op cit p50

Death of John de Bohun, 5th Earl of Hereford, 20th Jan 1336

200px-Arms_of_the_House_of_de_Bohun.svg for John

John de Bohun, 5th Earl of Hereford is a shadowy figure on the pages of history. In theory as a grandson of Edward I and Constable of England the records of the early years of Edward III’s reign should be peppered with his name but they are not. Instead it is his better known younger brothers, Edward and William (later Earl of Northampton) who are in the ascendency. We know little of John’s life, and still less about his death, or his decision to reject burial at the family mausoleum of Walden Abbey. He died without heirs and the Earldom passed to his younger brother Humphrey, who never married, and also died without heirs. William’s son, another Humphrey inherited both his father’s and uncle’s titles. His daughters Eleanor and Mary were his co-heiresses and would marry sons of Edward III. Mary’s eldest son would become the future Henry V.

John was the second son of Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford and his wife, Elizabeth of Rhuddland, his elder brother died as an infant. He was born at St Clements, Oxford on 23rd November 1306. A manor belonging to St Frideswide’s Priory, Oxford (1). His early life was privileged, his uncle Edward II was King and his father initially loyal. His mother died in childbirth in 1316, giving birth to possibly her tenth child, a daughter, Isabel, who did not survive. They were buried together at the de Bohun mausoleum at Walden Abbey (2).

The reign of Edward II was turbulent and by 1311 Humphrey firmly committed to political reform, had joined the Ordainers. As the political situation deteriorated in the early 1320’s he became a staunch ally of Edward II’s enemy, the Earl of Lancaster and a leading contrariant. Having been part of the failed Marcher rebellion in late 1321 – early 1322, Humphrey fled North to join Lancaster. His failure to support his southern allies, lead to their defeat at Boroughbridge by the forces of Andrew Harclay. Humphrey met an unpleasant death, being stabbed from beneath a bridge with a spear in his “tender parts”.

John was sixteen and it’s possible he was present, although we had have no evidence of this. His father was declared traitor, all his lands, goods and chattels were seized and John disinherited. It’s also possible that an order Edward II issued on March 11th 1322, ordering the arrest of Lancaster, his principle adherents and their followers included John, although he is not named (3). It is uncertain where the de Bohun boys were taken following their father’s downfall. An entry in the Close Rolls in late July 1326 that King Edward II had the wardship of the heir to Humphrey de Bohun”, when John was around twenty (4).

Steps were taken around this time to bind his loyalty to Edward II’s inner circle. He married Alice Fitzalan, daughter of Edmund, Earl of Arundel, at Lanthony Priory Gloucester in 1325 (5). He later made a grant of the “advowson of the church of Kyngton to the prior and convent of Lanthony by Gloucester” (6). Alice had died in childbirth, along with her infant in 1326, so it is possible this grant was in her memory. However the de Bohun’s had a long association with the Priory, which had been founded by the 2nd Earl, who was buried there. Alice was buried at Walden Abbey, Essex, another de Bohun foundation (7).

Edward III’s regency government of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer restored John’s titles on 10th January 1327, after he reached his majority. The lands had been in the King Edward II’s hands from the day of his father’s death until 1st November 1326. According to Letters Patent they were “in divers ways destroyed and wasted, of all the crops and goods that were therein at Michaelmas last, which belong to the king”. He was granted the “arrears of the farms and rents of that term and afterwards, still remaining to be levied, to be applied in aid of the relief and repair of the said castles, manors and lands.”(8)

This destruction was not unusual for the lands of Edward II’s enemies. There are numerous notes of lands being returned to spouses and heirs in the period following the contrariant uprising that were similarly diminished. Even Edward’s niece, Elizabeth de Clare, who had been married to Roger Damory, was not exempt from this treatment. It seems likely that despoiling the lands would create a poisoned chalice for any heir seeking restitution in the future. John was appointed to act with Edward III’s judges in legal proceedings involving restitution of abuses carried out by Hugh Despenser the Younger (9). There is no doubt that the ruined lands and properties left John in debt. Edward III granted him leave to pay his debts and those of his ancestors at £10 a year (10) in 1331, likely in recognition of the costs of restoration.

John would have received at least some of his parents’ goods and chattels, seized from the Treasury at Walden Abbey in 1322, as well the items Humphrey had bequeathed him. These goods show that John and his siblings enjoyed an opulent lifestyle. His parent’s bedchamber and the great hall had been festooned with tapestries and textiles proclaiming their respective lineages. Their plate and goblets were marked with the Royal and de Bohun arms. The children slept in beds piled high with silken quilts, covers of ermine and miniver. He would have been in no about that he was expected to become an important man on his father’s death (11). Humphrey left John his armour, war gear and a bed set of green decorated with swans, the emblem of the de Bohuns (12). The swan signified their purported descent from the family of the legendary swan knight and later went on to become the symbol of the Lancastrian Kings (13).

Whilst John appears to have played little part in court or political life, there is no obvious reason for this. However he did become involved in legal proceedings in March of 1330 requesting a commission of oyer and terminer into his allegation that Adam de Botheby, Prior of Peterborough Abbey, some of his brethren and many others including Peter de la Mare, kidnapped John’s ward Geoffrey de la Mare from Pleshley Castle. They stole John’s goods and assaulted his servants (14). The Prior also claimed he held Geoffrey’s wardship and marriage. The tangled web surrounding Geoffrey was still being sorted out some fifteen years later (15).

John’s lack of participation in wider affairs of state have been attributed to an ongoing infirmity, but the available evidence does not support this. The only official record of his being relieved of the Constableship of England on health grounds appear between the autumn of 1330 and sometime in 1331. On October 24th and 26th:

“Grant to John de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, that his brother, Edward might discharge the duties of his office of constable of England while he is unable to do so by reason of bodily infirmity.” (16).

That this illness was serious and prolonged is in no doubt. In December of the same year he appointed attorneys to deal with his affairs for one year as he went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (17). He was accompanied by Thomas Walmesford (17a) and John de Mereworth (17b), John Dene (17 c). In 1331 he was also granted an indult for plenary remission at the hour of death (18). This suggests that he was or had been mortally ill at some point, the pilgrimage, taking place before the grant of the indult, hints at a hope of being cured.

We know he went overseas again in 1333, as he appointed attorney (19) but there is no record as to why. Edward III also called John for military service against the Scots, in this year and he joined the King at Newcastle upon Tyne (20). This strongly suggests he was fully recovered from his affliction. He also managed the estate of his brother Edward in partnership with his younger brother William in 1334. Edward, a Royal favourite, had been richly rewarded by the King for his role in the overthrow of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March in 1330 (21). He drowned on campaign in Scotland whilst trying to rescue a man at arms who in his panic unhorsed him, yet managed to survive. John and William are noted in the Close Rolls to owe his estate £400 (22).

John was also well enough to become involved in the religious wranglings surrounding his second marriage to Margaret Bassett. Like his first wife Alice Fitzalan, they were related in the fourth degree. However second time around, John failed to obtain a papal dispensation for reasons unknown. As a result of the oversight the couple were forced to live apart. Pope John XXII first issued a decree for an inquiry into the matter on 11 March 1331:

“To the bishops of Lichfield and Coventry and London. Mandate to summon the parties to London, and hear the cause touching the marriage of John, earl of Hereford, and Margaret Bassett, who after their marriage discovered that they were related in the fourth degree, and thereupon ceased to live together. Margaret’s relations, and especially Thomas de Modoville,(Mandeville) knight, and Alice de Bellocampo,(Beauchamp) of the dioceses of London and Worcester, are to appear as witnesses.(23)

The Bishops however failed to begin their enquiries, so a second request was submitted in 1334. The result was another papal edict citing a fuller witness list: “ Bertrand de Verduyn, clerk; Ralph Basset, Henry de Grey, Roger de Grey, John de Verduyn, Robert de Lylle, William de Ruysshton, Thomas de Gobioun, Oliver de Bohun, Thomas de Mandeville, Thomas de Aledone, knights; Joan, wife of the said Ralph; Joan de Verduyn, Alice de Beauchamp, Margaret de Lylle, Elizabeth Peverel, Alice de Mungomery, Petronilla de Nevile, Sibyl de Bibbesworth, and Hawisia de Ferrers”. (24)

These people were all related to the couple in various ways. The tangled web of kinship between Marcher families meant that there was an expectation that someone with knowledge of the family trees would be consulted before a marriage took place.

Their connection dates back to the marriage of Eleanor de Bohun, daughter of Humphrey, 2nd Earl of Hereford, and John de Verdun sometime after 1256. Their daughter, Matilda or Maud, married John de Grey before 1276 and bore him six children. The fourth, Joan married Ralph Bassett in 1304 and Margaret was their daughter. Whether the second set of enquiries were started is uncertain and it appears that matters were still ongoing at his death in 1336. The state however recognised the match and granted Margaret her dower on 16 April and 23rd May 1336 (26). She never remarried, despite John de Beauchamp, younger brother of the Earl of Warwick, being awarded her marriage in 1336.

Edward III was in Berwick upon Tweed in late 1335, negotiating a peace settlement with the Scots at the insistence of the Pope and King Phillip of France. Whether John was proceeding to Scotland to join the King or returning home, the records do not say. He died at Kirkby-Thore in Westmoreland on 20th January 1336. There is no record of his death in the various rolls, except an entry for 26th January ordering seizure of his lands, goods and chattels, in in view of his debts (26). On February 7th the King ordered the Exchequer to release 150 marks from John’s estate, to William de Bohun to defray John’s funeral expenses (27).

John’s body would have been embalmed and then conveyed from religious house to religious house, along the road to London. In each abbey, priory or church along the way, an overnight vigil was held and a donation of money and cloth left in his memory. A bede roll might have been circulated, collecting the names of those who promised pray for John’s soul. He was buried at Stratford Langthorne Abbey, London, the largest Cistercian house in England instead of the family mausoleum at Walden (28). Why John chose to be buried elsewhere is unknown. His tomb does not appear to have survived the dissolution and the Abbey remains have been destroyed by two centuries of civil engineering and progress (29).

Reference List


CPR – Calendar of Patent Rolls

CCR – Calendar of Close Rolls

CFR – Calendar of Fine Rolls.

TNA – The National Archives

  1. Parishes: St. Clement’s’, in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 5, Bullingdon Hundred, ed. Mary D Lobel (London, 1957), pp. 258-266. British History Online [accessed 19 January 2018].
  2. Dugdale MonasticonIV, Walden Abbey, Essex, I, Fundationis Historia, p. 141
  3. CCR Edward II vol 3, p 552.
  4. CCR Edward II vol 4, p 591.
  5. Dugdale MonasticonVI, Lanthony Abbey, Gloucestershire, II, Fundatorum progenies, p. 135.
  6. CPR Edward III 1327-30 v1, p235
  7. Dugdale MonasticonIV, Walden Abbey, Essex, I, Fundationis Historia, p. 141
  8. CPR 1324-27. Edward II v5 p345
  9. CPR Edward III v 1 p426, p557-8
  10. CPR Edward III v2 p 152
  11. Bigelow, M. (1896). The Bohun Wills. The American Historical Review,1(3), 414-435. doi:10.2307/1833720
  12. Harris N (1826) Testamenta Vestusa Nichols and Son London pp66-67
  13. (Newman B (2018) The Origins of the de Bohun Swan [online] Accessed 19.1.2018).
  14. CPR Edward III v1, p 558
  15. TNA SC 8/193/9645.
  16. CPR Edward III, 1330-34, vol 2 p12
  17. CPR Edward III vol 2 p24, 17a p26. 17b p27. 17c p31.
  18. ‘Regesta 103: 1331-1332’, in Calendar of Papal Registers Relating To Great Britain and Ireland: Volume 2, 1305-1342, ed. W H Bliss (London, 1895), pp. 359-369. British History Online [accessed 21 January 2018].
  19. CPR Edward III v2 p471
  20. CCR Edward III vol 3 p27, p99
  21. CPR Edward III v2 p11, 21
  22. CCR Edward III vol 3 p491
  23. Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland Volume 2 1305-1342) HMSO London 1895 p346-50
  24. Calendar of Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland Volume 2 1305-1342) HMSO London 1895 p395 – 405.
  25. CFR Edward III v4 p472, CCR Edward III v3 p568
  26. CFR Edward III vol 4 p 471
  27. CCR Edward III vol 3 p 516
  28. ‘Houses of Cistercian monks: Abbey of Stratford Langthorne’, in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 2, ed. William Page and J Horace Round (London, 1907), pp. 129-133. British History Online [accessed 19 January 2018].
  29. ‘West Ham: Churches’, in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6, ed. W R Powell (London, 1973), pp. 114-123. British History Online [accessed 21 January 2018]

The Origin of the de Bohun Swan

de Bohun swans, collared at the feet of Margaret de Bohun, Countess of Devon on her tomb at Exeter Cathedral

An interesting aspect of the research into Plantagenet textiles is the study of heraldry and personal badges. Arms passed from father to eldest son, but were subject to additions in certain circumstances. These included quartering arms with those of a spouse, adding marks of difference identifying a sub branch of a family and using marks of cadence to indicate a man was a son of a noble. For example within the de Bohun family, when Sir William, a younger brother of the Earl of Hereford was created Earl of Northampton in 1337, three mullets or stars were added to the the de Bohun arms as a mark of difference[1].

Badges were personal to a Lord and could change with each generation. They were useful as they provided a simple way to identify a man as part of a Lord’s affinity. By the 15th century some families had multiple badges, for example the Lancastrian Kings had the de Bohun swan, as well as the ss collar and the red rose of Lancaster[2]. The de Bohun’s had used the swan as a personal badge from the 13th century, claiming that it symbolized their descent from the legendary Swan Knight. He became a cult figure in England during the reign of Edward I, who held a Feast of the Swans after the ceremony of knighthood for his son, the future Edward II and 267 others at Whitsuntide 1306.[3]

Swan knightThe Swan Knight first appears in the Chansons de Geste known as the Crusade Cycle[4] in the late 11th century. The various poems that originated at this time were collected in a work known as “Le Roman du Chevalier au Cygne” circa 1268[5].  Naturally there are some variances within the stories, but the theme centres on the tale of seven children, six girls and a boy, born to a European royal family. Each child was born with a chain around their neck. When the chains were removed they turned into swans until only a sister or brother was left. The sister regained all but one chain, so five brothers turned back to men, leaving one as a swan. He chose one brother to be the “Swan Knight” and conveyed him to where he was needed.  Whilst where there was a remaining brother, one or more of his swan siblings would draw his boat. In all stories the chosen one is known as Helyas / Helias.

The second part of the story explains how Helyas becomes a de Bohun ancestor. The Duchess of Bouillon and her daughter Beatrix are faced with a challenge from The Count of Frankfort or Saxony, over the right to the Duchy. Otto, Emperor of Germany ordered the case to be settled with a trial by combat but no knight was willing to fight for the Duchess. The Swan Knight appeared in answer to her prayers and won. He then married Beatrix and in turn, became Duke of Bouillon. In some stories she is forbidden to ask his name, but when Ida, their daughter, is seven, Beatrix breaks her promise and asked his name, forcing him to depart with his swan brother. However he leaves behind an ivory horn to protect her. When the castle is later consumed by fire, a swan appears and saves the horn, flying away with it.[6]

There was a real Ida, although her father is said to have been Duke Godfrey II of Lower Lorraine[7]. She married Count Eustace II of Boulogne and the de Bohuns believed that they were descended from them. Their grandson, Geoffrey of Bouillon, is known as the Conqueror of Jerusalem.  According to Jaffray, a prophecy associating him with the legend of the swan knight appeared in 1225.  Gerbert de Montreuil[8], is thought to have continued a poem begun by Chertein de Troyes before his death in 1191. He is thought to have been inspired by the German  poet Wolfram, who included a Swan Knight, named Lohengrin in his work “Parzival”. However like the Chansons de Geste, de Troyes’ continuators name their Swan Knight Helyas[9].

Fourth_earl_of_hereford_counter_seal for swan knight
Seal of Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford. Swan is above the escutcheon, supporting the guige strap

Whilst claiming descent from legendary or mythical seems strange to modern eyes, it was common practice in the medieval period. Royal houses often traced their heritage back to King David and from him Adam and Eve. Some of the pre-christian Saxon Kings claimed descent from Woden.  The use of the swan badge was however not the only way the de Bohun’s celebrated their descent from the swan knight and the de Bouillon family. One item seized from Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford in 1321[10] was “One habergeon which is called Bolioun”[11]. An item of his jousting gear, wearing it allowed him to carry the power of his legendary ancestry onto the field.

Also seized were bench covers and tapestries for his great hall in green powdered with swans, although we don’t know which fibres were used in their construction. By decorating his main public space with symbolic textiles, not only was he declaring his ownership but also expressing the power of his lineage. He left his son and heir John a bed set, with a design similar to the bench covers[12]. This comprised curtains, canopy, cushions, a counterpane and sometimes a cover for the headboard. Decoration of bedding with personal emblems or heraldic devices was common. It reminded couples of the purpose of their union, the continuation of the family line.

The de Bohun swan is also mentioned in the will of Eleanor de Bohun, Duchess of Gloucester in 1399. She and her younger sister Mary were co-heiresses of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford, 6th Earl of Essex and 2nd Earl of Northampton. The text describes two books:

“A psalter, well and richly illuminated with clasps of gold enamelled with white swans and the arms of my Lord and Father enamelled on the clasps and other bars of gold on the tissues in the manner of mullets. Which psalter was left to me to remain to my heirs and from heir to heir.”

A “Historie de Chivalier a Cigne” – a poem relating the tale of the “Swan Knight”[13]

These items signified both rank and heritage. Eleanor’s will allowed the swan badge to pass into the Stafford family.

Stafford_flag wiki
The de Bohun Swan and Stafford Knot on the banner of Henry Stafford 2nd Duke of Buckingham. From RB Utting, English Heraldry by Charles Boutell via Wikipedia

Whilst Mary was the conduit to the Lancastrian Kings and their offspring. She married the future Henry IV but died during the birth of her youngest child, Philippa in 1394, so never became Queen. They had four sons Henry V, Thomas Duke of Clarence, John Duke of Bedford and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, who is said to have used the swan as his emblem in battle[14].  Their two daughters married well, Blanche to Louis III, Elector Palatine, and Philippa to Erik, King of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

However like many stories, there is also a more prosaic tale of the origin of the de Bohun swan.  Henry of Essex was noted to have used the swan as a personal badge in 12th century.[15] His grandfather was Sweyn of Essex and it is thought that the badge was adopted as a pun. One of his descendants, Geoffrey de Mandeville was created the Earl of Essex, the title becoming extinct with the death of the third earl in 1189. King John revived the title for a Mandeville descendent, Geoffrey Fitz Peter who had married John’s first wife Isabel of Gloucester. That line became extinct following the death of his younger son William in 1227, who had inherited the Earldom from his older brother. The title was recreated again for Humphrey de Bohun 2nd Earl of Hereford in 1239. His wife Maud was the sister of William de Mandeville. So both the title of Earl of Essex and the swan badge actually passed to the de Bohun’s through her[16].

Dunstable Swan Jewel, thought to be a Lancastrian emblem given to his supporters by the future Henry V c1400


[1] The Medieval Combat Society, William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton and 5th Earl of Essex, 1312-1360 [online] accessed 5.1.2018

[2] The Lancastrian Rose dates from the reign of Edward I. He had a gold rose badge, and his younger brother Edmund, Earl of Lancaster adopted the red rose, to demonstrate his royal birth and relationship to the crown.

Bedingfeld H and Gwynn-Jones P. (1993) Heraldry, Chartwell Books,  p 130.

[3] Coss P (2002) Knighthood, Heraldry and Social Exclusion in Edwardian England IN Coss P, Keen M (2002) Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge p60-61. CCR 34 Edward I, p 343

[4] Wagner, A. R.”The Swan Badge and the Swan Knight”, Archaeologia, 97, 1959

[5] Jaffray R (1910) The Two Knights of the Swan, Lohengrin and Helyas; a Study of the Legend of the Swan-Knight, with Special Reference to its Most Important Developments. G.P. Putnams and Sons. Knickerbocker Press p33-35

[6] Jaffray op-cit p38-9

[7] Van den Pas L (1998) Ancestor List for Godfrey of Bouillon. [online] accessed 4.1.2018

[8] Jaffray op-cit p22

[9] Jaffray op-cit p 20-22

[10] Hereford was one of the contrariants, and was killed at the Battle of Boroughbridge. His goods and chattels were seized as he had committed treason

[11] Bigelow, M. (1896). The Bohun Wills. The American Historical Review, 1(3), 414-435. doi:10.2307/1833720

[12] Bigelow op-cit

[13] Nicolas NH (1826) Testamenta Vestusa p146-9

[14] Wagner, A. (1959). IV.—The Swan Badge and the Swan Knight. Archaeologia, 97, 127-138. doi:10.1017/S0261340900009966

[15] Swanstrom J (2017) Chivalric Lore [online] Accessed 3.1.2018

[16] G.E Cokayne et al, The Complete Peerage, vol 5, “Essex”

Textiles worn by the Plantagenets, an Overview

Plantagenet Fashion 2

Textiles Worn by the Plantagents – An Overview

Silk velvet sample V &A
Silk Velvet c1450 (V&A Museum)

Over four hundred years of Plantagenet rule, fashions and the range of textiles available expanded. However they were always woven from three natural fibres, wool, linen and silk. Cotton was extant, but being cheap to produce, was a lower status textile1. Change happened through spinners, dyers, weavers and finishers developing their skills, creating new textures, patterns and designs. Innovative textiles first appeared in Royal circles, and were quickly adopted by the aristocracy and nobility. The merchant and gentry classes created demand for cheaper versions, in mixed fibres. This encouraged weavers to experiment with yarn and thread combinations. Some of these were adopted by the Royal Household as livery.

High status textiles were produced from the finest raw materials available. Woollens were woven from the highest grade fleece, mainly from English sheep as an early merino grade fleece, from Spain was not available until the late 14th century. Linen was sourced from Norfolk, Wiltshire, Ireland and Flanders. The climate allowed the flax plant to grow straight, producing long, smooth fibre. Silks and silk threads were imported from China, Constantinople, Arabia, Spain and Italy. Silk thread was woven into decorative bands, laces and hairnets by the silk-women in major English towns2.

A large number of artisans contributed to the production and maintenance of Royal clothing.

Royal 17 E.IV, f.87v
British Library Royal 17 E IV f. 87v

Linen and wool were processed before spinning by retters and fullers. Highly skilled spinsters produced fine, even threads. Dyers were skilled chemists, able to produce uniform colour throughout a yarn or cloth by mixing dyestuffs and mordants. Weavers introduced pattern, texture and colour to fabric, studying imports and working with Flemish artisans to extend their skills. Woollens were then fulled, napped and shorn. Linens were polished with hot glass hemispheres to produce sheen. Sempters, semptresses and embroiderers made and embellished the clothes. Laundresses kept them clean and fit for wear. Queen Isabella had two laundresses, Joan looked after her napery and Matilda, her chamber3.

The medieval Court was peripatetic in nature, requiring the movement of clothing and the staff who maintained it around the country. In one entry in the Accounts of the Great Wardrobe of Edward I, a total of £1. 1s. 6d., was spent moving John the Tailor around the country. He was responsible for the clothing of the King’s son. John was required to organise the carriage of robes to York, Durham and Carlisle. He was granted a hack to help him get around. One journey, to make robes for Easter and Pentecost saw him travel to London to buy silk and thread or silk thread. He then went to St Albans, donating a robe for an altar priest on behalf of the King’s son, and back to York. His journey started in April and he was evidently still with the family in July as he was paid at Applegarth in Yorkshire on the sixth4.

Help was also required to dress, an absence of buttons meaning people had to be laced, pinned or sewn into their clothing. Medieval people dressed in layers, a practice first established in the Bronze Age5. A fine linen chemise or undershirt was worn closest to the skin. It wicked away sweat and offered protection from itchy woollen fibres. Next was a dress or tunic, of fine wool, linen or silk, lined with linen or silk. These were laced to give a good fit, and sleeves were often interchangeable. A surcoat finished the ensemble, of wool, silk or line, embellished with embroidery and decorative bands. The Royal women wore gossamer thin silk or linen veils attached to head dresses of finely wrought gold and silver. Both sexes wore jewellery and had precious stones and pearls sewn onto their clothes. Winter clothing was fur lined and edged, using ermine, bys and vair. A woollen cloak, such as the sought after Pallia Fresonica could be worn on top, and was often fur lined6.

Judgement of Paris from Christine de Pizan Book of the Queen
Harley MS 4431 f.125v

The Royal court would have been dazzling to anyone unused to its opulence. An array of colour and patterns, glistening with gold and silver thread and sparkling jewels. Rich colours achieved with the most expensive dyes and dye processes. The King and Queen’s close companions clothed equally well, maintaining the air of magnificence. Their wider household were dressed in livery appropriate to status and occupation. Jousts, tournaments, pageants and feast days required particular costumes. Edward III held a number of tournaments in 1347, celebrating his victories in France. He ordered elaborate masks, plumes and crests for helms, painted cloaks and tunics7. He excelled like his great grandfather, Henry III at staging elaborate court ceremonies and pageants. Henry frequently purchased ecclesiastical vestments, mainly in silk, decorated with richly embroidered bands or orphreys.

Fine textiles were also given as gifts within Royal circles. Henry III gave a gift of linen and scarlet, a woollen fabric, to the Sultan of Damascus8. Queen Isabella, generously gave one cloth of gold to her damsel, Joan de Villiers9. Cloth was also given charitably, Queen Isabella took responsibility for a Scottish orphan boy, Thomelinus. She gave 4 ells of blanket cloth and hangings for his bed at 6s 6d10. Offerings of cloth to the church were also common. Edward I gave cloth of gold plus wax to the Rector of St George’s Church, Oveston, Wiltshire as an offering, worth 7s11. Those in Royal service were also given clothing, Robert of Evesham received a coat and armour from King Edward I for his role guarding the Royal Wardrobe at night12. The Wardrobe was not simply a repository for clothing, it dealt with the affairs and payments of state.

1Dickinson B (2004) Cotton is Period? Really? [online]

2Mate M.E. (1999) Women in Medieval English Society . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge p52

3Blackley F.D. & Hermansen G (1971) The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England, for the Fifth Regnal Year of King Edward II, 8th July 1311 to 7th July 1312. The University of Alberta Press, Edmondton. p165

4Society of Antiquaries (1787) Liber Quotidianus Contratotularis Garderobae Anno Regne Regis Edwardi Primi. J Nichols London p63

5Wayland Barber E (1994) Women’s Work, The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. Norton London p133

6Pierenne H (translated by I.E. Glegg) (1936) Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe Routledge London p37.

8Calendar of Liberate Rolls 12 Henry III memb 8, 25th February 1228

9Blackley F.D. & Hermansen G (1971) The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England, for the Fifth Regnal Year of King Edward II, 8th July 1311 to 7th July 1312. The University of Alberta Press, Edmondton. p237

10Blackley F.D. & Hermansen G (1971) The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England, for the Fifth Regnal Year of King Edward II, 8th July 1311 to 7th July 1312. The University of Alberta Press, Edmondton. p103

11 Society of Antiquaries (1787) Liber Quotidianus Contratotularis Garderobae Anno Regne Regis Edwardi Primi. J Nichols London p34

12Society of Antiquaries (1787) Liber Quotidianus Contratotularis Garderobae Anno Regne Regis Edwardi Primi. J Nichols London p29

Plantagenet Fashion Sources and Resources

Plantagenet Fashion

This is the first in a series of posts charting the changing fashions of medieval England, through the clothing of its Royal Family. This will be followed by a series of “catwalk” debuts for our medieval monarchs, from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine to Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Not all reigns will be covered, especially if they were short or fashions only changed minimally.

Plan for the Series

Part I – Overview of Medieval Textiles

  1. Sources and Resources

  2. An overview of medieval fabrics

  3. Preparing fibres and weaving

  4. Dyeing

  5. Sewing, embroidery and fastenings

Part II – The Fashionistas!

  1. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, 12th Century Glamour!

  2. Edward I & Eleanor of Castile, 13th Century Style

  3. Edward III & Phillipa of Hainault

  4. Henry VI & Marguerite d’Anjou

  5. Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

John Talbot Marg Anjou Henry VI Talbot Shrewsbury book Royal 15 E vi f 2v
King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjous being presented with Talbot Shrewsbury Book BL MS Royal 15 E VI f 2v

Sources and Resources

Whilst styles changed and new fabrics, weaves and colours appeared, this took decades not seasons. English fashions originated from London, the Plantagenets leading the way, especially for the nobility1. Although some of our warrior Kings eschewed the styles preferred by their courtiers and sons! The merchant class and wealthier peasantry then copied the styles to the best of their ability. Even low status peasants would use accessories to embellish clothing that for them, changed little.

Male fashion changed most radically. From the flowing and enveloping bliaut of the 12th century to the short tunics, figure hugging hose and extraordinary shoes of the young prince about town in the late 14th to 15th. Women’s clothing, was influenced by Church teachings about Eve and temptation. And although it became more figure hugging in 14th century but hemlines remained long, as did sleeves and hair was still hidden under wimples, elaborate hats, and hoods.

Both primary and secondary sources including extant garments and archaeological textile deposits are used to further our knowledge of medieval clothing. We can document changes in fashion and their inspiration. Explore the processes used to create cloth and turn it into clothing, and identify the how, why and when of change. Composition, colours, fit and form of garments further amplify this. Whilst the reactions of chroniclers give information about the concurrent social mores. Carefully preserved ecclesiastical garments, rich with decorative embroidery known as Opus Anglicanum, provide opportunities to study and recreate the techniques used in their production. Illuminated manuscripts, statues, effigies and memorial brasses give an insight into how clothing was worn, and it’s drape and fit.

All sources, whether written or otherwise have their limitations. Archaeological deposits are affected by soil conditions, especially mineral content, pH and the bacteria present. Cellulose from plant fibres, furs and metals, can be broken down, leaving only scant traces on excavated cloth. Garment construction, sewing techniques and decorative embroidery are often difficult to determine. The life of the textile, prior to being deposited, also causes damage to fibres. Mordants used to fix dyes, lye soap, sweat, skin oils, and sunlight all have an impact. Soil minerals over dye woollen textiles, altering their original colouring, often to a dull brown2.

Contemporary writing and illustrations of the technology used to produce cloth are useful. They provide details of the increasing complexity of wheels and looms. However unless written by an artisan experienced in their use, the difficulties their use posed is often omitted. The records of Artisan and Merchant Guilds associated with the wool and textile trades give an overview of the sale and distribution of raw materials, production methods and the value of finished cloth. State papers and taxation records identify the immigration of Flemish weavers and foreign merchants. Their presence often drove advances in weaving, saw exotic dyestuffs introduced, along with fabrics, blends and threads. Legal, tax and customs records, describe methods employed to maintain or inflate the value of English wool or finished cloth3.

Chroniclers and contemporary authors recorded medieval attitudes to changing trends and provide useful information about wider society. But these men were often biased and their accounts can lack veracity. A monk living distant from the Royal court received the “news” he recorded second hand at best. His comments were likely overlaid with personal reaction and his illustrations made from imagination. Hence the work of secular writers, especially those involved with the Royal Court is more valuable, as their accounts are first hand.

The Royal Wardrobe Accounts are an excellent resource in view of this. They record information about the clothing of the entire court, from the threads used to embellish or construct clothing to the cost of the fabrics. Matching textile deposits from areas of medieval London, close to the Royal Wardrobe, is possible due to the high level of detail4. Orders to sempters and embroiderers include fabric types, colours, form, construction and embellishments. Information about these people and their pay is recorded.

When interpreting these records, understanding the differences between high and lower status textiles is essential. Livery would be provided for the various ranks of Royal servant. And whilst those who were in the public eye were well dressed, it was often in mixed fibre textiles, finished to give the impression of a better quality piece. The introduction of sumptuary laws in the fourteenth century specified textiles, furs, embellishments and accessories, according to rank. However samples originating elsewhere should be approached with caution. It was not unknown for the gentry and middle classes to flount these rules!5

Medieval clothing was also recycled, so a gown from 1360 could have been cut from a gown from 1310. Overdying and remodelling to reflect new trends, reduced waste. Scraps were often refashioned into bags, belts or headgear. Old silk dresses and tunics could be used to create facings or linings for new clothing.6 Clothing was left to relatives and servants in wills7. High status fabrics were donated to religious institutions as tithes, offerings and memorials8. Fripperers stripped fur linings from cloaks in order to clean and repurpose them. They also removed cuffs, sleeves, hems and other worn parts and remade them9. New braids were woven and attached, embroidery unpicked and reworked. Whilst this was more common in lower status settings, it is possible that garments made from costly, sumptuous fabrics would also receive “make overs”.

13th C Lady , Effigy at St Mary’s, Silchester, Hants. (image author’s own)


1Mortimer I (2008) A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

2Crowfort E, Pritchard F, Staniland K (2006) Museum of London: Textiles and Clothing, 1150 – 1450. Museum of London, London. pp2-3

3Harvey S (2016) Smuggling, Seven Centuries of Contraband. Reaktion Books London.

4Crowfort E, Pritchard F, Staniland K (2006) Museum of London: Textiles and Clothing, 1150 – 1450. Museum of London, London. p150-1

5Mortimer I (2008) A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

6Crowfort E, Pritchard F, Staniland K (2006) Museum of London: Textiles and Clothing, 1150 – 1450. Museum of London, London. pp177

7Burkholder K (2005) Threads Bared, Dress and Textiles in Late Medieval Wills IN Netherton N and Owen-Crocker G.R. (eds) Medieval Clothing and Textiles Volume 1. Boydell Press . Woodbridge pp139

8Barron C.M. Sutton A.F (1994) Medieval London Widows. Hambledon Press. London p61

9ICrowfort E, Pritchard F, Staniland K (2006) Museum of London: Textiles and Clothing, 1150 – 1450. Museum of London, London. pp2-3

Hampshire Churches – Woodmancote

One of the things I enjoy is wandering around the Hampshire countryside looking at churches, preferably medieval. I’ve got lots of photos and a ton of blogs to write up about some I’ve visited, starting with the most recent. 

Unfortunately the church was locked, but the exterior was worth an explore. It looked like many a squat, ancient, flint church but something felt off. The stonework around the Lancet windows looked too crisp, likewise that on the corners of the building. 

Yet here and there were strange pieces of masonry that were tucked into odd angles of the building. They seemed to be of greater age but weren’t where you’d expect. 

Closer examination of the porch door arch which was decorated with carvings and the obligatory heads of a King and Queen deepened the mystery. The sculpted faces again seemed to lack age and are different from those I’ve seen elsewhere. 

When I got home I had a look at the Victoria County History of Hampshire, a useful resource for Church history. It appears I was right to be cautious, a medieval church had indeed stood there, until it burned down in 1845. This church was a replacement, funded by the Lords Ashburton, who hold huge estates in the area. 

So it appears that they tried to remodel what went before and perhaps used odd bits of masonry salvaged from the earlier building. 

All photos my own (c) Bev Newman 2017 

The Funeral of Edmund, Earl of Lancaster. 594 candles and a 5 year delay

EdmundEarlofLancaster.SideViewTomb c1774 1779 Bodleian Library Oxford Basires Sepulchral Monuments
Tomb of Edmund, Earl of Lancaster, drawn c 1774-79 Basire’s Sepulchral Monuments

The aim of this post is to use the accounts of Edmund’s funeral preparations, the journey of Edward I’s body from Lanercost to London and research on medieval funerary rights, to explore the procedures for managing the death and burial of a Prince of England in the late 13th to early 14th century.

A 19th century text by Canon Rock, examining St Osmund’s Rite for the Cathedral of Salisbury, includes a description of the preparations for the funerary procession for Edmund, Earl of Lancaster and Leicester, nominal King of Sicily, younger brother of Edward I. He died during an unsuccessful campaign against the French in Bordeaux on 5th June 1296, having retreated to Bayonne. The French had had the time to become well entrenched in the area as the English army’s departure was delayed until 5th January 1296 due to Edmund’s ill health over Christmas 1295, and the problems he faced were further compounded by desertion as the army ran out of funds (Morris 2008).

He was buried on 24th March 1301, a delay of almost five years, in part because the war with France over Gascony prevented the return of his body; Edmund had also requested his burial should be delayed until his debts were settled (Baines 1836). The Friars Minor at Bayonne, embalmed his body, keeping it at their Church for the six months it took to negotiate a peace. Then he was transported to the convent of the Minoresses without Aldgate in London, a nunnery Edmund and his wife, Blanche d’Artois founded in 1293; and where his heart was buried.

Like all medieval people, Edmund would have wanted to have a good death, and as reports suggest he was ill for some days, this would have given him the opportunity to “die well”. He would have been expected to make a final confession, dictate his will and leave instructions for settling his debts. From entries in the Letters Patent of Edward I, it’s clear that Edmund had previously taken settling his debts seriously, should he die on campaign:

Letters Patent promising that if the King’s brother Edmund should die before he have completed payment of 4000 marks wherein he acknowledged to before the King to be indebted to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, the King will cause the money or all that will be in arrear, to be levied out of the said Edmund’s lands and chattels, in the counties of Lancaster and Stafford, if the same should come into the King’s hands after his said brother’s decease by reason of his heir or heirs being underage, and the same to be paid to the said Earl’s behoof. Westminster 1294 28th October”

Once Edmund had completed the required tasks, and entered his final hours, religious ceremonies would have been conducted at his bedside. Rock indicates that a solemn procession of the friars, led by the Abbot, would have been made to his room; masses and prayers for the dying would have been recited, and as he took his final breaths, either the Host or the Cross would have been held up for him to focus on. All these steps were designed to reduce his soul’s time in Purgatory, and would be followed by solemn masses in the Friary Church, once Edmund’s body had been prepared.

His body was embalmed, a procedure which began with evisceration, his heart was preserved separately for internment at the Minoresses in London. The cavity was washed with water, wine and vinegar, and the body then submerged in the same solution. The cavity was then filled with cloths or straw soaked in the vinegar solution and aromatic herbs; the embalmer could also have incised the fleshy areas of the body, packing the cuts in the same way. Edward I’s coffin was opened in 18th century, and provides evidence to suggest the next stage, dressing Edmund’s body. He would have been wrapped in fine linen, so that it conformed closely to the body, then dressed in clothing equal to his rank, his lower body covered by cloth of gold, before finally being wrapped in cerecloth1

Edward’s face was left unwrapped, covered by crimson sarcenet, but Edmund was unlikely to be viewed posthumously, so its likely his face was wrapped. Finally he was encased in a lead coffin with a plate engraved with his name, titles and date of death, before being placed in a wooden one. As his coffin was to be displayed it may have be topped with an effigy of him in his finery and full harness, covered with an heraldic surcoat. As Edmund’s body would remain at Bayonne for six months its likely that after a night vigil, followed by masses for the dead, his coffin would have been stored but we have no evidence of this. However there is equally no evidence of payments to poor people or the religious houses for keeping vigil over his body within the church for the five-year period prior to his funeral.

Despite this delay, another important aspect of medieval life was not overlooked, prayers for Edmund’s soul. These gave the living the opportunity to reduce the time the deceased spent in purgatory. Edward, had letters sent from Aberdeen on 15th July 1296 to the Archbishop of Canterbury, expressing his sorrow at his brother’s loss and ordering masses and prayers to be said for his soul until peace was restored and his body could be returned from France.

At the foot of this letter is an order that the news is to be conveyed to all the Lords and Abbots, requesting them to pray for Edmund and ensure prayers were said for him in the churches1 (Rhymer 1711). This suggests a mortuary roll was circulated, which would be signed by senior religious figures, and men and women of rank. Its key purposes were to indicate they knew Edmund had died, and that they, their families and subordinates would pray for his soul. This was a quid pro quo as when the roll was read out, prayers were said for the signatories (Bovey 2015). A further proclamation would have been sent out in advance of his funeral calling the various Lords and Knights who would be expected to attend.

Once peace was restored the task of transporting his body back to England could begin.

Prayers around a coffin from the Hours of the Earls of Ormond mid 14th century

Edward’s post humous journey indicates that Edmund’s body would have been moved through a series of religious houses from Bayonne to the coast, escorted by his household knights and a senior cleric, the coffin carried on a suitable cart (Harris 1836) . His escort would be met within a mile of an Abbey by a solemn procession of monks headed by the Abbot, who would then lead the coffin into the church, for a mass to be said. An overnight vigil would be kept and the party would not leave until Matins has been said the following morning. A suitable offering would be made in Edmund’s memory. This was often financial, but some nobles donated cloth to be made into habits or vestments. The gift paid for masses, ensuring the monks would continue to pray for him (Maskell 1847).

When they reached the coast the coffin was transferred to a ship for the journey to England, his knights keeping vigil. Once the ship had landed, the journey from Abbey to Abbey continued, until the party arrived at the Church of the Minoresses outside Aldgate. A series of masses would be said followed by a night vigil and a mass for the dead. His coffin was then moved to a vault remaining there until his funeral which took place between 20th March and 24th March 1301. Whether his heart was buried when his body arrived there or during the masses said at the start of his funerary procession is uncertain.

The process of settling his estate began before his body returned from France, although his will does not appear to have survived. However letters patent state that Blanche was granted the right to his lands and tenements on 3rd July 1297, until their son Thomas was of age, so she could fulfill her role as executrix. Her task would have been complex. Edmund’s Inquisition Post Mortem shows vast landholdings across England, but lacks details of his debts (Deputy Keeper of the Public Records 1912). The prolonged delay of his funeral and his position at the head of an almost penniless army, suggests they were likely substantial (Morris). Although his estate appears capable of bearing the loss.

Blanche was granted the right to her dower lands in April and June 1298, when she departed for France, having been granted safe conduct. Edward approved the attorneys to act for her in her absence and renewed her safe conduct on a number of occasions; she did not return to England before her death in 1302 (Letters Patent Edward I, vol. 3, p. 52 ). Perhaps this was the reason for Edward chose to order that the knights and tenants did homage to their new Earl, Thomas, even though he was underage and Edward’s ward on 12th July 1297 (Deputy Keeper of the Public Records 1870).

Once the estate was settled, preparations for Edmund’s burial began and are in part, detailed in the Wardrobe Account of Edward I. The production of candles, was an essential part of a medieval noble’s funeral, as they symbolised the light of heaven, and by their size and quantity indicated the status of the deceased. They also needed to be of a substantial size as they were required to burn all night. Edmund’s hearse would have been very brightly illuminated in each of the three churches where he lay in the days preceding his funeral:

To John de Langford, door-keeper of the King’s Wardrobe, for diverse articles for the exequies of the King’s brother, Edmund, celebrated in March before the King: viz money paid to sundry chandlers in London for making 986 wax tapers1 (cerei), and eight mortars2 of B200½. 20lb of wax out of the store of the Great Wardrobe at a penny (obulus) a lb. For 986 pegon (sockets) bought to set the wax lights in each a penny; for the carriage of wax to the chandlers for wicks (luminio) for the wax; small nails to fasten the wax lights and thread to tie them to the hearses3; for repair of a bearse (?hearse) borrowed of the friars preacher in London; carriage of it from their house to St Paul’s and back; carriage of 200 wax lights from Candlewicke-street to the Minoresses without Aldgate; 217 thence to St Paul’s; and 559 to Westminster Abbey; to the hearses there, for the exequies, boards and forms hired to tie the lights to; and the said John’s boat hire between London and Westminster. (Society of Antiquaries 1787)

The ceremonies commenced on 20th / 21st March 1301, when two masses were said for him in the black cloth draped, church of the convent of the Minoresses. His effigy, in full regalia, with his achievements was placed on top of the coffin, which was laid on a board covered in cloth of gold, then set inside a hearse, which would be covered with a hearse cloth, possibly decorated with his heraldry, a night vigil would be kept.

The following morning, after Matins, the procession to St Paul’s began, his coffin on a cart preceded by a herald and two knights, followed by the Lords and his household knights, their horses decked in black trappers (Rock). When they reached the cathedral the coffin was carried into the church by pallbearers, 24 paupers paid for the purpose, and placed in another hearse. Further masses and dirges would be said throughout the day, and overnight. Before setting out on the final leg of the procession to Westminster, Matins and the offices for the dead were chanted.

Wood engraving Marmion Tomb Yorks 1894
1894 Engraving The Marmion Tomb with hearse, Tansfield, Yorks

The journey to and arrival at Westminster would have mirrored that of St Paul’s, and was again followed by a night vigil, the abbey brightly illuminated with 559 candles, the majority on the hearse. On 24th March, the full funerary rites were carried out, starting with the singing of the Placebo and the Dirge overnight. Towards morning the masses of the Trinity and Mary were said, then the mourners departed for a feast. Afterwards they returned for the full funeral mass, with other priests simultaneously chanting masses at the side altars and chapels, theoretically in harmony with each other. Mass pennies collected over the preceding days would then be presented to the priest.

An additional offering, of a war horse, ridden into church by a knight, Edmund’s armour and achievements, might also be made. Next the priest blessed the tomb and crypt with holy water before the coffin was placed within, whilst the choir chanted “The Commendation of Souls”. Finally Holy Communion was taken and the service concluded. Edward I was present.

Edmund’s tomb is like that of his first wife Aveline de Forz, elaborate. Although she died in 1272, Palliser states they are of a very similar period and design. Lewes Gee suggests Blanche commission the tomb from the Royal Carpenters at the Minoresses but Palliser believes it was Edward. Westminster Abbey disagrees with both, and describes the tomb as follows:

“…a large monument with his effigy in mail armour with crossed legs. His long surcoat has traces of the arms of the earldom, the head is supported by two angels and his feet resting on a lion. On the edge of the slab on which the effigy lies is the remains of an inscription which can be translated “Here lies Edmund…”. The monument has been attributed to Alexander of Abingdon or Michael of Canterbury and was probably constructed between 1296 and 1301. A series of male and female weepers (or statuettes) with shields of arms are shown around the base and on the northern base are the remains of paintings of knights … The tomb originally had a tester above the elaborate canopy … this probably disappeared in the 18th century…. In the canopy gables on both sides Edmund is depicted as a praying knight on horseback. There are considerable remains of original colour and decoration, possibly by Master Walter of Durham, the King’s painter, to show that it was once a magnificent structure. The top pinnacles had sustained damage by 1820 but were restored by 1835.”


  1. A heavy, diapered linen with a wax lining on the underside
  2. This is a summary of my translation and may contain errors.
  3. Yellow or white candled weighing up to 20lb each (Nicholas 1836)
  4. Candles that were broad and flat like lamps weighing 10lb each (Nicholas 1836)
  5. An elaborate immovable structure that remained in a church, designed to hold a coffin, a little like a tomb.

References and Bibliography

Baines E (1836) The History of the County Palantine and Duchy of Lancaster Vol 1. Fisher, son and co, London, Paris, New York

Bovey A (2015) The Middle Ages, Death and the Afterlife, How Dying Effected the Living [online] Accessed 4.3.2017

Dean and Chapter of Westminster (2017) Edmund Earl of Lancaster and Aveline de Forz [online],-earl-of-lancaster Accessed 16/7/2017

Deputy Keeper of the Public Records (1870) The Thirty-First Annual Report. HMSO London

Deputy Keeper of the Public Records (1912) The Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analagous Documents, Vol III, Edward I. HMSO London. No 423, pp288-321

Gee LL (2002) Women, Art and Patronage from Henry III to Edward III Boydell Press, Woodbridge Ch 7.

Halfwayoak” (2016) Heart of Kings: Embalming of Noblemen in Medieval Europe [online] accessed 18/7/2017

Nicolas NH, Sir (1836) Testamenta Vetusta: Being Illustrations from Wills, of Manners and Customs &c as well as tracing the descents and possessions of many distinguished families from the Reigns of Henry II to Elizabeth Volume 1. Nichols and Son, Parliament Street, London

Maskell W (1847) Monumenta Ritualia Ecclesiae Anglicanae vol II. William Pickering, London. Ch 4.

Morris M (2009) A Great and Terrible King, Edward I and the Forging of Britain. Windmill Books, London pp 272, 276, 291, 363-4, 378.

Palliser D.M. (2004) Royal Mausalea in the Long 14th Century 1272 – 1424 IN Ormond WM (Ed) (2004) The Fourteenth Century Vol III Boydell Press pp 1-15

Rhorkasten J (2004) The Mendicant Houses of Medieval London 1221 -1539. Transaction Publishers London pp 66, 358.

Rock D (1849) The Church of Our Fathers as Seen in St Osmunds Rite for the Cathedral of Salisbury with Dissertations on the Belief and Ritual in England Before and After the Coming of the Normans Vol II Dolman London

Rymer T (1711) Foedera – Acta Publica Reges Angliae Vol 1

Society of Antiquaries (1787) Liber Quotidianus Contratotularis Garderobae Anno Regne Regis Edwardi Primi. J Nichols London p31.

Gossip, Defamation and the Law in Medieval England

I’m currently doing heavy duty research, so as light relief I’m reading Henrietta Leyer’s “Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England, 450 – 1500”. Chapter seven discusses women and work, and explores the power this gives them at home and in the community. Although she recognises the fate of very poor peasants and women who moved to towns with no protection or plans for earning a living, her focus is on the wives of wealthier peasants, merchants and artisans. Expanding the stereotype of “the medieval women who has little agency” using primary and secondary sources, she recreates the lives of peasant, towns and noble women and explore their roles in the workforce.She discusses the similarities between the wives of wealthier peasants and townsmen, they often held their own lands ran small businesses as brewsters or bakers, sold surplus produce at market. Artisan’s wives worked with their husbands, often taking over his trade or establishing her own in widowhood. These women ran the home from the central position of the hearth, trained girls of similar rank as servants, preparing them for married life and helped to create the story and identity of their communities, especially when their husbands were absent all day at work.

What particularly piqued my interest was the power of women of all ranks to shape society by the use of their tongue, whether for good or ill. Leyer used a task she states was wholly female, the laundry, as the basis for her commentary. Women either did their own laundry or employed another woman or women. She notes that men did not approach the women whilst they worked, creating the perfect opportunity for talk. Rural communities in particular had a set washday so all the women would be present. It had to fit around the demands of land, livestock, church and their overlords, as village life was communal (Ponstan 1973), and market days, in nearby towns were set by Royal licence. Women were therefore often needed outside the home, to buy and sell at market, work on the land, and meet their religious obligations. The washing place, could be purpose built, or a spot where the river or stream was accessible, women’s domestic roles made them responsible for the household water supply and the hearth, hence they collectively supplied hot water for laundry. The work involved in washing was repetitive, wetting, soaping with harsh lye or gentle soapwort, scrubbing, rinsing, soaping and rinsing again, until their linen was clean, against a background of conversation. They would give advice, dispense feminine justice, and gossip about the community and each other. Berger (1979) states that this gossip creates the story of the community, the women’s words are feared and reviled, they hold the power to either build or destroy reputations, their image of village life constantly changing and evolving.

Gossip was not simply a pastime or tool of the lower classes, noble women held little power in the public sphere but had considerable influence in the domestic setting. However they were often called upon to help their husbands improve the family’s status. Cooper (undated) states she did this through her ability to run his household and estates, which allowed her husband to go to Court or war, currying favour with the King. She could also use her sexuality to attract and influence her husband’s behaviour or to ensnare other men to support his cause. She would gossip with her peers, either enhancing his reputation or spreading disinformation to disadvantage a rival. However she needed to guard against being the subject of gossip, which would disadvantage her husband. We can examine the conduct of two Queens, Phillipa of Hainault and Marguerite of Anjou to illustrate the pitfalls of gossip. Queen Phillipa was known for her humility and piety, she was charitable, loyal to her husband and aware of her reputation. By contrast Queen Marguerite had favourites, creating disharmony and factions to develop within the nobility. She voiced her suspicions of the Duke of York, and attracted negative comments about her chastity and the paternity of her son in return. And as Norton points out her close relationships with both the Dukes of Suffolk and Somerset did nothing to help her cause. Hence unrestrained rumour mongering from the upper echelons of society could have a destabilising effect on the realm, although it is worth noting that much of the innuendo aimed at Marguerite of Anjou, arose from the Yorkist men.

The religious communities of medieval England were another hotbed of gossip, supported by secular servants, who shared their secrets beyond the walls. The notes from multiple Bishop’s visitations and chronicles are full of accusations and counter-accusations, and the bishop’s officers would play on the divisions in order to dig beneath the surface of monastic life. Power (1922) cites many such examples which impacted on the reputation of the House; Romsey Abbey in 1302 employed “a useless, superfluous, quarrelsome and incontinent servant and one using insolent language to the ladies”, incontinence here implying gossip. In 1441, a nun at Grace Dieu Abbey complained “that the secular serving folk hold the nuns in despite… and chiefly they are rebellious in their words against the kitchener”; whilst in 1511 the nuns at Sheppy complained that “the men servants of the prioress, do not behave properly to the prioress, but speak of the convent contemptuously and dishonestly, thus ruining the convent.” Often the religious had little choice but to follow the conditions imposed by the bishop, and were required to modify their behaviours, on pain of excommunication or dissolutio”n. Ineffective Abbots, Abbesses, Priors and Prioresses were removed from office, their replacement imposed by the bishop. Those found guilty of gossip could also expect some form of public shame or penance within the cloister, for example in 1527, Lady Alice Gorsyn, a nun at Romsey, was absolved following her confession but was warned that further transgressions would require her to wear a red, cloth tongue on the barbe under her chin for a month.

Medieval law defined gossip as slander when a person was unjustly spoken ill of, in a malicious act of public defamation. Reputation or fama was guarded carefully and a bad reputation spread quickly, potentially creating serious problems, including reduced marriage prospects, limited opportunities for employment, and loss of income. Alfred the Great passed the first law against slander, decreeing that “the slanderer should have their tongue cut out“ as punishment, unless they could pay their “head price”, a preset financial value of their life, decided by their sex and status (Lovell 1966). However by the reign of Henry II, defamation had become a spiritual offence, the Constitution of Clarendon placing responsibility for cases with the Ecclesiastical Courts, which were expected to investigate and impose the punishment of excommunication on the guilty party. This excluded the person from Christian society, even his family were banned from aiding, feeding, clothing or housing him, until the sentence was lifted after a period of atonement. If they died before this period was up, they were outside the protection of the Church, the guilty party dying unshriven and believing they would go to hell. At the village level most cases were tried at the manorial courts, where punishments typically involved public shaming, through the stocks or pillory. The Church also grew more lenient over time and commuted excommunication to public penance, often involving an apology and kneeling to beg the forgiveness of the plaintiff in Church on a Sunday (Helmholz 1971).

Christine de Pizan in “The Book of Three Virtues”, identifies a high level of litigation amongst villagers and specifically counsels their wives, who she claims have little opportunity to go to Church and learn of salvation, to serve God by doing unto their neighbours, as they would wish them to do unto her family and admonish her husband to behave likewise. They should live in peace with their neighbours without conducting the perpetual lawsuits over trifles, which has become the case of many villagers who only seem happy when in court. Hyams (1996), describes male villagers collectively approaching their local Dean to take matters concerning their manorial overseers and Lords to the Ecclesiastical Courts, anonymously. The key reason for this agreement is not simply financial, but ensures that all are aware of the risk of comeback from the defendant(s), against all the villagers, which would make life difficult for a time. In towns Artisans and Merchants were in a difficult position, if accused of shoddy work, as they had no recourse to law but had to hope that the guild would support them, if not, they faced expulsion, financial and social ruin. However they could defend allegations about working practices, such as Sunday trading or their personal lives, meaning the townsman was as likely as the villager to bring a suit against their peers.

The Courts took these defamation cases seriously for two reasons, firstly the prevention of further crime, as the aggrieved might resort to violence; and secondly, defamation usurped the role of the courts, as the person was tried and found guilty by the community before an inquisition had taken place. For cases to be heard and have a successful outcome depended on the words used to frame the allegation and their context, as there needed to be a direct or indirect accusation of criminal activity. Helmholtz (1971) explains that simply calling a man a “peasant” or a woman a “scald” when they are not, would not be slanderous or defamatory, but calling a woman a “strong harlot” when she wasn’t, was. False accusations of adultery were of great concern, especially for the woman, who was shunned by her community. In one case cited by Helmholtz, the claim that a woman had “laid down in a barn with a man, with the doors closed” was construed as an allegation of adultery, she had the right to clear her name and did so. However not all cases were settled in court, some being dropped when the defendant recanted, wary of the damage to their reputation if found guilty.

Caution was also needed, as noted above, if bringing a case against a noble, as the person of lower rank needed to avoid committing the crime of “Slandorum Magnatum”, enacted in 1272 by Edward I and again in 1388 by Richard II, to stop the slander of “Great Men of the Realm”. If a case was found to be vexatious, the plaintiff would face imprisonment, a trial in the King’s Court and an unspecified punishment. The purposes of this law were to shore up the concept of aristocratic honour and reduce the potential for uprising by the common people, and armed conflict between nobles and their retinues; although by the late medieval period it became a means for the nobility to sue each other (Macnamara 2007). Had this law been used to deal with the ongoing conflict between Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, when Aldermen loyal to Humphrey closed the gates of London on the Bishop’s soldiery in1426, then history might have played out differently (Vickers 1907). The King’s Courts also reserved the right to prohibit defamation cases that impinged on or arose from criminal cases, a privilege strengthened by law in 1327. Helmholtz cites examples where the accused tries to sue witnesses, or the jurors for defamation, especially if found guilty. Although in this context he would be unlikely to succeed as their words were not malicious.

Hence gossip in the medieval period was far from a safe pastime, often resulting in litigation, public humiliation and religious sanctions. Yet despite the legal position it still continued and it is perhaps unsurprising when we look at the Old Testament of the Bible, which records communal life during pre-history. There are several passages referring to the harm gossip does and describing strategies to tackle those who indulge in it. And whilst I first came across the role of gossip when reading about the lives of Medieval women, the evidence strongly suggests that the men were equally culpable. Gossip was also an activity carried out across the whole of society, those involved could be noble or pauper, cloistered nun or common harlot. I’m left with the realisation that society hasn’t changed that much!

References and Bibliography

Berger J (1979) Pig-Earth. Bloomsbury, London p9

Cooper T (undated) The Use of Power and Influence by a Medieval Woman [online] (accessed 12/6/2017)

Helmholz R.H (1971) Canonical Defamation in Medieval England. University of Chigago Law School, Chicago Unbound. [online] accessed 11.6.2017

Leyer H (1995) Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England 450 – 1500. Phoenix Press, London

Fossier R (1988) Peasant Life in the Medieval West IN Leyser H, (2002) Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England and Wales 450 – 1500, Phoenix Press, London pp 150

Lovell C.R., The “Reception” of Defamation by the Common Law, 15 VAND. L. REV. 1051, 1053 (1962) (quoting from the Laws of Alfred the Great)

McAndrew FT (2015) How Did The Gossip Become a Woman? Psychology Today [Online] Accessed 11/6/2017

McNamara L (2007) Reputation and Defamation, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Mortimer I (2008) The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England, A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century Simon and Schuster London

Norton E She Wolves, The Notorious Kings of England 2008, The History Press, Gloucestershire

Ponstan M (1973) Essays on Medieval Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Power E (1922) Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535. Cambridge University Press, London

Veeder, V. (1903) “The History and Theory of the Law of Defamation. I.” Columbia Law Review, vol. 3, no. 8, pp. 546–573 JSTOR,

Vickers KH (1907) Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, A Biography BookRix GmbH &Co, KG 81675 Munich