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.
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.
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
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. In 1311 Queen Isabella bought robes for her laundresses, Joan and Matilda at 2 marks each, for the year. Joan had responsibility for the Queen’s napery and Matilda for her chamber linen. 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. Their wages were equal to those of the male naperers who looked after the King’s linen, but would have not been responsible for his washing. That was specifically women’s work.
Queen Isabella’s Trousseau
Queen Isabella’s trousseau gives a good indication of the contents of an early 14th century Royal bedchamber. This included:
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.
Another chamber was similarly dressed but the embroidered lozenges contained only the arms of France.
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.
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.
A further seven counterpanes of sendal. Five serge hangings, twelve tapestries for the garderobe and four other tapestries.
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
 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.
 Fryde E.B. (ed) (1962) Book of Prests of the King’s Wardrobe for 1294-5 Clarendon Press Oxford p36
 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
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).
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.
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. 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.
The Swan Knight first appears in the Chansons de Geste known as the Crusade Cycle 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. 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.
There was a real Ida, although her father is said to have been Duke Godfrey II of Lower Lorraine. 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, 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.
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 was “One habergeon which is called Bolioun”. 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. 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”
These items signified both rank and heritage. Eleanor’s will allowed the swan badge to pass into the Stafford family.
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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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
 Wagner, A. R.”The Swan Badge and the Swan Knight”, Archaeologia, 97, 1959
 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Sources and Resources
An overview of medieval fabrics
Preparing fibres and weaving
Sewing, embroidery and fastenings
Part II – The Fashionistas!
Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, 12th Century Glamour!
Edward I & Eleanor of Castile, 13th Century Style
Edward III & Phillipa of Hainault
Henry VI & Marguerite d’Anjou
Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
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”.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
A heavy, diapered linen with a wax lining on the underside
This is a summary of my translation and may contain errors.
Yellow or white candled weighing up to 20lb each (Nicholas 1836)
Candles that were broad and flat like lamps weighing 10lb each (Nicholas 1836)
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
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.
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!
Dame Julian of Norwich, (1342 -1416) , was female mystic and anchoress, now revered by both the Anglican and Catholic Churches. Her life is shrouded in mystery, she was a likely a woman from a wealthy background, and may either have been a nun at Carrow Priory, or educated there as a girl. Her writing shows a good understanding of the mother – child relationship but we do not know if she had children. Nor do we know her name, instead adopting for her, the name of the church where she spent the last thirty three years of life, walled up by choice, as an anchoress.
Prior to her religious experience she had prayed for three things to help her deepen her love for God and Christ: a stronger understanding of His Passion; a mortal illness, that she would survive, enabling her to experience the spiritual attacks on the soul at the point of death; and three “wounds”, absolute contrition, kind compassion and steadfast longing towards God. She did become gravely ill, at the age of “thirty and a half” on 8th May 1373, and her books, describe the visions she had once she had received the last rites 6 days later on 14th May. This sacrement gave the person sanctifying grace, strengthening body and soul at the point of death, to withstand spiritual attack by demons. The visions she described occurred when she was critically ill and expected to die, her first vision of seeing Christ bleeding on the cross, the priest held in front of her, to focus on as she died, came as her sight failed. She then experienced fifteen further visions of Heaven opening to reveal Christ to her. Fourteenth century people would have seen her as blessed and holy following this encounter Christ, and turned to her for spiritual guidance and comfort.
Dame Julian shared her visions and their message in two ways, publishing the short version of her “The Revelations of Divine Love” soon after her illness, and by becoming anchoress. This was a woman’s way of withdrawing from the world into solitary spiritual contemplation and prayer, whilst still being able to offer counsel to those who sought her out. She was walled up into a cell inside a church, following a Requiem Mass, comfirming her “death from the world” She would follow the Ancrene Wise, a 13th C Rule of Life for anchoresses, which decreed that she would have 3 windows, one onto the church allowing her to observe the Mass and receive Communion; one betweeen her cell and her maid’s room, for meeting bodily needs and one onto the world, allowing her to pray for or counsel those who sought her help. The citizens of late 14th and early 15th Norwich lived through a time of great fear, due to plague, poverty and famine, and onogoing wars with France and civil unrest after Henry V usurped the throne and were in great need of her counsel, a joyful message of God’s love and grace.
The longer version of “The Revelations of Divine Love”, was written circa 1395, some “nineteen years and 9 months” after her visions, as she required that time to meditate and pray and understand them. Dame Julian’s writing’s recount her experiences of discussing sin with Christ and describing both He and God as mothers whos’ relationships with their children are founded in unconditional love. Although Bernard of Clairvaux had described God as mother and father in 12th century, it was commonly accepted that his meaning was allegorical, where as Dame Julian’s meaning was literal, and opposed Church doctrine, which focused God’s wrath, sin and punishment, as consequences of original and continual sin. People believed that they would spend a period of the after life in the refining fires of Purgatory, atoning for unforgiven sin. Dame Julian describes how she grappled with the feeling that sin was a burden worse than Hell, could not understand why God, with His great wisdom and foresight would allow the first sin to be committed and thus enter the world, believing that the world would be a better place without sin and its consequences, a perfect world, the absence of which she mourned. Her answer came from Christ, “All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”. His explaination that sin is necessary but does not attach blame to her or to anyone else who will be saved. Witnessing His compassion then enabled her to become joyful, and understand sin, as a way for man to come to know himself and accept the need for God in his life. However, despite her theology, the Church did not silence her, perhaps viewing her as an obscure woman, although her texts may have been supressed.
However they had some spiritual value and this has allowed copies of both the short and long texts to survive, initially in monastic libraries and later in private collections. The short text was copied into the 15th century Amherst Manuscript, a Carthusian anthology of theological works in English, which can be viewed at the British Library. The long version was translated during the 17th century and these works have been used for modern translations.
Dame Julian’s books were the first to be written by a woman in English, and a recent discovered by Dr Janina Ramirez has discovered a manuscript, copied from the original long version, which survived two periods of religious turmoil, thanks to the actions of other religious women. The Brigittine nuns of Syon Abbey, took it when they moved to France following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, from them it passed into the hands of the Parisian daughter house of the Benedictine House of Cambrai. When the nuns there fled the French Revolution and came back to England, the manuscript came with them, finding a permanent home at Colwich Abbey, Staffordshire. Her books became increasingly popular in the early 20th century via the suffrage movement, after they adopted Grace Warrack’s 1901 translation. For those who wish to study if further, The Julian Centre in Norwich has a useful bibliography of commentaries on its theology and context: http://juliancentre.org/about/popular-resources.html.