Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Medieval Perils of Marriage Without Parental Permission

by Anne O'Brien

This interesting petition is from Joan, Countess of Westmorland, to King Henry IV, written in 1406.  Joan was Henry's Beaufort half sister, born illegitimately of the union of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, and afterwards legitimised.  Joan and Henry would not have been strangers to each other.

Here is Countess Joan, accompanied by some of her daughters and ladies-in-waiting.

Joan begins: 
Most high and puissant prince and most excellent sovereign lord, I recommend myself to your royal and high lordship in the most obedient manner, which, with my whole entire and simple heart, I can most humbly do as she who desires to know of you and your most noble estate and most perfect health, such prosperity as your royal and honourable heart can desire. 

What a fulsome start to a letter between sister and brother.  It makes it impossible to assess Joan's relationship with her brother, although she obviously felt a concern for his happiness and health as well as a certain assurance that he would listen sympathetically to her.  We know that by 1406 Henry had health issues that only grew worse.  But did they have a friendly relationship?  It is so difficult to dig beneath the formal wording, although we know that Joan's husband, Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, had been prominent in supporting Henry in the usurpation of the crown from Richard II in 1399.    

She continues:  
I write to you now ... on behalf of your loyal liege and esquire Christopher Standish who ... has been in your service in Wales ... and in all  your most honourable journeys since your coronation, in which he has expended the substance that he could acquire of his own, in such wise that his wife Margaret (who)kept house and establishment, has left it and is lodged very uncomfortably with her children, of whom she had many having one or two ever year; and all this on account of the great charge which her husband has incurred and still incurs in your service.

So here is a sorry tale of woe, Christopher and Margaret, a young couple with a growing family in dire straits because of the cost of Christopher's service to the King in the Welsh campaigns, as well as the problem of limiting the number of children being born within wedlock.  Methods of contraception were practiced by careful women, but not always effectively.  Perhaps Joan had some sympathy for this situation that Margaret found herself in.  Joan gave birth to 14 children with her second husband Ralph, Earl of Westmorland.  

But the sad story for Margaret and Christopher Standish does not end there, as Joan explains to Henry:
He (Christopher) is the youngest and his father has dismissed him from his service, and that merely because he and his wife married each other for downright love without thinking what they should have to live on. 
Ah, the perils of embarking on wedded bliss, without due practical consideration.  And it appears, without parental approval.  Joan, subject to two arranged marriages, where love would never have been a consideration, continues:  
I entreat your most high and puissant lordship to consider that this same Margaret should dwell (in some suitable place or with the Queen) your wife, whom God protect.  May it please you to be gracious to her and her husband ... to support their persons in poor gentility that their affiance may turn to good effect for them, and to my honour ...

So here is the plea.  That Henry find a situation for the suffering Margaret and her family in the Queen's household where she will be more comfortable.  Clearly Joan considers that Henry owes it to Christopher for the young man's past service.  

Joan completes her plea.
I pray God to grant you a most honourable and long life and preserve you in his most excellent keeping and give you entire joy and gladness as much as your gentle and most noble heart would choose or desire.
Written at the castle of Raby. 
Your most humble and obedient subject, if it please you, J de W

It is an interesting letter as it shows us the depth of responsibility felt by Joan for this unfortunate couple who had served the King well but had fallen on hard times. She considers that Henry has some responsibility to offset their difficulties.  The relationship between the aristocracy and those who served them was complex, with duties and loyalties on both sides.  It also, of course, reveals the price a couple could pay for failing to fulfil family expectations and marrying for love.  

So was Joan's request successful?  Did Margaret Standish find a place in the household of the Queen, Joanna of Navarre?  Sadly we do not know the outcome, but we might guess from other circumstances.  Queen Joanna was forced by the Royal Council to dispense with most of her large Breton entourage.  Which would of course leave room for English ladies to step in. I like to think that the Queen was sufficiently compassionate to this young woman with a large family to offer her a position in the royal household.

#medieval #Beaufort #Lancaster

My novel of Joanna of Navarre, wife of Henry IV, will be published on 14th January 2016.

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Anne. The flowery language of medieval letters is fascinating. Imagine having to write to family members that way. Thank goodness our manner of communication has streamlined.
    Your post brings home how terrifying it would be to be a parent to many, and have little money, and no government assistance (in those days). Yikes.


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