Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sibling Relations in the Medieval World

by Helena P. Schrader

Throughout the Middle Ages family ties were imprisoning. Everything revolved around family. Families stuck together through thick and thin. They paid each other's ransoms. They stood as hostages for one another. They were witnesses for one another’s contracts. They were each other’s clients and lords. They fought together and were buried in the same crypt.

Henry II and Richard I, enemies in life, lie side-by-side in Frontevauld Abbey.

This does not, of course, mean that all family members got along with one another all the time. On the contrary, the tensions within medieval families could be brutal and bitter. (The best example is, of course, Henry II, who had to fight wars with his sons, and whose sons fought each other in a series of shifting alliances.) But where there was less at stake or where personalities (and egos) less grandiose, families usually worked together and presented a common front to the outside world regardless of how many rivalries and tensions they had among themselves.

This record is astonishing when one remembers how fluid medieval families were, with high mortality removing siblings and parents, and when one considers how short childhood was.  Princes were often set up in their own household at a very early age; Edward of Woodstock, for example, had his own household physically separated from his parents and siblings from the age of three. Even younger sons were expected to leave the parental home at the age of seven to serve first as pages and then squires in the households of other lords, not returning until they were knighted at 16 or 17. Admittedly, in some cases this may have helped forge the bonds between brothers, if they were close enough in age to serve together somewhere else, becoming natural allies, or where they were sent to the households of much older brothers as was the case of John of Gaunt, who was raised for a time in the Black Prince’s household. But for the majority of boys, the years of training would have been years of separation from their family.

Yet the history of the Middle Ages is littered with examples of brothers who had very close ties. With the notable exception of Henry II’s sons, most Plantagenet brothers were astonishingly close. Henry III and Richard of Cornwall, Edward II and the unfortunate Edmund of Kent, the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, Edward IV and Richard III are all examples of princes who supported one another even at the risk of their lives or beyond the grave as John of Gaunt did by supporting his brother’s son. Nor were such ties between brothers unique to princes. William Marshal tried to help his elder brother, even when the latter was on the wrong side of politics. The Lusignan brothers together tried to capture Eleanor of Aquitaine and, after that failed, all three younger brothers sought their fortune in the Holy Land with astonishing success. The Montfort brothers fought together to conquer their father’s intransigent Viscounty, and it was the death of one that discouraged the others and induced them to give up the struggle. In the following generation, Simon de Montfort the Younger’s sons fought together unfailingly. The “Ibelin brothers” are named together as if they were a single unit in many accounts of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Robert the Bruce was at times abandoned by practically everybody except his brothers. Indeed, Medieval society expected brothers to stand together in right and wrong, and any other kind of behavior was considered unsavory or an indication of an individual’s exceptional unworthiness.

Sisters too were close, but this is more understandable as they were generally raised together — until they married. Marriage could, of course, occur at a very early age. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Marguerite Capet was betrothed at 8 months (yes, months) and married at age three, the age at which she moved in with her in-laws. But whether sisters by blood or marriage, young girls generally stayed together under the tutelage of their mother, mother-in-law or step-mother until they were sexually mature and old enough to run their own household as the wives of mature men. (By mature men, I don’t necessarily mean emotionally mature men, only legally mature, which was roughly 15 years of age in the medieval world, although it varied from kingdom to kingdom and across the centuries.) Notably, regardless of the age a girl was at her wedding, consummation of the marriage and co-habitation with a husband did not generally occur until after a girl had reached sexual maturity, which could be as young as 12 but was more often 14 or 15. As a result, it is hardly surprising that we have many examples of women retaining close ties to their sisters throughout their lives. One of my favorite examples is the enduring affection of Queen Eleanor, Henry III’s Queen, for her sister Marguerite, Queen of Louis IX of France, although their husbands were sometimes at war with one another.

More touching, given how often they were separated, are examples of brothers and sisters with strong ties. Richard I was so outraged by his sister Joanna’s treatment at the hands of her husband’s successor that he threatened to use his crusading army to obtain her rights and forced a very favorable settlement upon the King of Sicily. Henry III was so fond of his sister Eleanor that he let her marry far below her station, the third son of a French parvenu, Simon de Montfort, a decision he surely came to regret. Richard I, of course, might have been more concerned about a perceived affront to the English crown and his own honor than his sister’s welfare, but he did take her with him on crusade and there are other indications that they were close. Among the nobility there are many similar examples.

All of which goes to show that family ties, even when under stress — or perhaps particularly under stress — are amazingly resilient. Shared identity and shared nurseries appears to have forged remarkable bonds between siblings which could transcend political fronts (as in the case of the Marshal brothers or the Provence sisters) and certainly bridged long distances and long absences.


Helena P. Schrader is the author of numerous works of history and historical fiction.  She holds a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg.  The first book of a three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 and was later one of Richard I’s envoys to Saladin, is now available for sale.  Read more at: or follow Helena’s blogs:Schrader’s Historical Fiction and Defending the Crusader Kingdoms.

A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin
Book I

A landless knight,
                A leper King
                                And the struggle for Jerusalem.

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!


  1. Regrettable that it hasn't remained so through the centuries.

  2. Actually I always felt the other way. To me it seemed that the love between medieval siblings of high birth was very calculated given what was at stake (a throne or inheritance). You have mentioned Simon de Monfort. He had brother too but they didn't seem to be close at all. Simon as the youngest had to find his own fortunes and his brother didn't help him. Also lineage and the importance of ancestors played great role in forging and breaking ties between family members. If the family stuck together it was to keep the lineage going, to keep the lands in their hands and increase their power-base. As you've indicated yourself when stakes were high, son would go against father, brother would blind brother, uncle would kill a nephew. The significance of ancestors in todays mixed world, and shifted values is sadly no longer relevant and our relationships are not as dramatic for that reason.

  3. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine's sons fighting each other were not the isolated case. In medieval Poland we had our share of intrafamilial conflicts, usually between brothers hungry for power and lands, but also between fathers and sons. The father-son clashes occured also in Germany, so Henry II and his Devil's Brood were not the only ones :-)