We’re very excited to launch the Ladies of Magna Carta blog tour with a guest post from Sharon Bennett Connolly. We hope you enjoy following the tour!

The Women Behind Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century Europe by Sharon Bennett Connolly

Throughout my research into medieval women, two ladies in particular have popped up a number of times: Nicholaa de la Haye and Matilda de Braose. Their unique stories drew me into their world, and the turbulent times of King John. They were the spark that led me to look into the story of Magna Carta; how its clauses were influenced by women and how women used it to protect their own rights. Magna Carta was, perhaps, the first step on the long road to democracy in England, and many women played key roles in its creation and development.

The Magna Carta of 1215 reflects the needs and events of the time in which it was issued; an England on the brink of civil war, disaffected barons demanding redress, the Church and cities such as London looking for protection. It was drawn up by barons looking for redress and legal protection from a king whose word could no longer be trusted, who meted out arbitrary punishments and heavy taxes. It was not a charter that was intended to form the protection and legal rights of every man, woman and child in the land; though it has come to be seen as just that in subsequent centuries. Indeed, the common man does not get a mention, and of the sixty-three clauses, only eight of them mention women as a gender.

Magna Carta, courtesy of British Library Illuminated Manuscripts

The significance of women in the Magna Carta story is not just their limited inclusion in the charter itself, but also in their experiences of the unsettled times in which they lived, in their influence on the charter itself and in their use of its clauses to exact redress for injustices they had experienced. The political crisis which saw the issuing of Magna Carta, and the civil war which followed, was not just significant to the barons involved, but to their wives and families, tenants and retainers. The conflict tore families apart as they took sides in the struggle and saw more than one baron change sides mid-crisis. Wives and daughters were caught in the middle, often torn by divided loyalties; between their birth family and the family into which they had married; between their fathers and their husbands. For instance, Matilda Marshal was the eldest daughter of William Marshal, a man known for his staunch loyalty to the crown, but she was married to Hugh Bigod, son of Roger, second Earl of Norfolk, one of the leaders of baronial opposition

Although they had very different experiences, they shared a number of similarities. Probably born within a few years of each other, they were contemporaries and both were key figures in the reign of King John, though for very different reasons. While Nicholaa was a staunch supporter of the man who is, arguably, England’s most despised king in history, Matilda de Braose was one of his most female victims. Matilda’s family were harassed to Ireland and back by John, before she and her eldest son were left in a prison cell to starve to death; they were found after 11 days, Matilda’s head resting on her son’s chest, her son’s cheeks bearing the bite marks as evidence of lengths Matilda went to in her desperation to stay alive. It was Matilda’s experiences at the hands of King John that inspired clause 39 of Magna Carta, that clause that is still the cornerstone of British justice to this day:

No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’

Nicholaa de la Haye, on the other hand, had been a long-time supporter of King John. She first successfully defended Lincoln Castle, in support of John, in the siege of 1191; the siege lasted 40 days before William Longchamp, the hated justiciar, gave up and went home. In 1216, Nicholaa successfully defended it again, this time paying off the rebel barons so that they would lift the siege. In the aftermath, John came north and ravaged the Isle of Axholme, where the barons had retreated to, with ‘fire and sword’. It was after this even that Nicholaa, now in her 60s and recently widowed, offered to relinquish custody of the castle. John refused to accept her resignation and in October, hours before his death, appointed Nicholaa Sheriff of Lincolnshire: she was the first ever female sheriff in England.

The Magna Carta of 1215 reflects the needs and events of the time in which it was issued; an England on the brink of civil war, disaffected barons demanding redress, the Church and cities such as London looking for protection. It was drawn up by barons looking for redress and legal protection from a king whose word could no longer be trusted, who meted out arbitrary punishments and heavy taxes. It was not a charter that was intended to form the protection and legal rights of every man, woman and child in the land; though it has come to be seen as just that in subsequent centuries. Indeed, the common man does not get a mention, and of the sixty-three clauses, only eight of them mention women as a gender.

1217 Battle of Lincoln by Matthew Paris, courtesy of British Library Illuminated Manuscripts

The significance of women in the Magna Carta story is not just their limited inclusion in the charter itself, but also in their experiences of the unsettled times in which they lived, in their influence on the charter itself and in their use of its clauses to exact redress for injustices they had experienced. The political crisis which saw the issuing of Magna Carta, and the civil war which followed, was not just significant to the barons involved, but to their wives and families, tenants and retainers. The conflict tore families apart as they took sides in the struggle and saw more than one baron change sides mid-crisis. Wives and daughters were caught in the middle, often torn by divided loyalties; between their birth family and the family into which they had married; between their fathers and their husbands. For instance, Matilda Marshal was the eldest daughter of William Marshal, a man known for his staunch loyalty to the crown, but she was married to Hugh Bigod, son of Roger, second Earl of Norfolk, one of the leaders of baronial opposition

Although Nicholaa de la Haye and Matilda de Braose were the major influences behind my book, Ladies of Magna Carta, they were not the only women to make an impression on the Magna Carta story. The deeper I dug, the more stories I uncovered that deserved to be told. Matilda’s own daughter, Loretta de Braose, was one such. Recently widowed following the death of her husband, Robert de Breteuil, Earl of Leicester, Loretta had been forced by John to relinquish her dower rights; Magna Carta clauses 7 and 8 of Magna Carta, protecting widows’ rights:

Clause 7

After her husband’s death, a widow shall have her marriage portion and her inheritance at once and without any hindrance; nor shall she pay anything for her dower, her marriage portion, or her inheritance which she and her husband held on the day of her husband’s death; and she may stay in her husband’s house for 40 days after his death, within which period her dower shall be assigned to her.

Clause 8

No widow shall be compelled to marry so long as she wishes to live without a husband, provided that she gives security that she will not marry without our consent if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another.

Furthermore, there are two women who can be clearly identified in Magna Carta itself, though they are not named, they are two Scottish princesses. The sisters of King Alexander II had been held hostage in England since 1209, when John forced the humiliating Treaty of Norham on their ailing father, King William the Lion. Clause 59 promised:

We will treat Alexander, king of Scots, concerning the return of his sisters and hostages and his liberties and rights in the same manner in which we will act towards our other barons of England, unless it ought to be otherwise because of the charters which we have from William his father, formerly king of Scots; and this shall be determined by the judgement of his peers in our court.

Women not only influenced the clauses of Magna Carta, however, they also used Magna Carta to assert and protect their own rights. Women such as Ela of Salisbury, who used the promises of Magna Carta to avoid an unwelcome marriage proposal when her husband, William Longspée was missing and feared dead. Or Isabel d’Aubigny, Countess of Arundel, who proclaimed ‘Where are the liberties of England, so often recorded, so often granted and so often ransomed’, when King Henry III foolishly attempted to steal land that was rightfully hers. She must have been a fearsome opponent, as Henry responded to one of her petitions, saying that he would grant her leniency ‘so long as she says nothing opprobrious to us as she did when we were at Westminster’!

A tree stump carving of Nicholaa de la Haye in Lincoln Castle, photo by the author.

And then there were the women for whom Magna Carta offered no protection or respite. Women such as Eleanor of Brittany, for whom even clause 39 could be of no help. Their royal blood and ability to be a focus for opposition to the crown meant that successive kings would keep them imprisoned, either in castles, as with Eleanor, or in a rural convent, as with Gwenllian of Wales, orphan daughter of Llywelyn, Prince of Wales and his wife, Eleanor de Montfort, who was herself a granddaughter of King John.

It was Eleanor’s mother, also Eleanor, the youngest daughter of King John and not a year old at her father’s death, who, as the wife of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, would continue the struggle to curb the powers of the crown in the Second Barons’ War. She herself was defending Dover Castle when her husband was killed at the Battle of Evesham. She spent her final years in French exile. Her struggles to obtain her dower lands from the powerful Marshal family, guaranteed in Magna Carta, were a major component of Eleanor’s own dissatisfaction with her brother, Henry III.

It is through the stories of these remarkable women and the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, that I wanted to examine how they were affected by the First Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath. It is a study of the bonds that were formed and those that were broken among the women of the great families of 13th century England, including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Bigods, the Salisburys, Braoses and Warennes.

Their stories are inspirational, if heartbreaking at times.

About the Author:

Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?

Links:

Blog: https://historytheinterestingbits.com/

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Twitter: @Thehistorybits

Pen & Sword: https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Ladies-of-Magna-Carta-Hardback/p/17766

Amazon: mybook.to/LadiesofMagnaCarta

Ladies of Magna Carta is available here.