Women and Property Conflicts in Late Medieval England

Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Historical analyses of women, wealth, and power in the Middle Ages frequently address the concrete realities of one or a few elite women’s access to and use of wealth, focusing on how the power that wealth bestowed intersected with the other legal and cultural limitations that medieval women faced. Especially prominent in such discussions are queens and abbesses, women who possessed significant access to wealth and other bases of power, and who left behind the most detailed records for historians to mine. This volume includes a number of nuanced examples of this approach: Theresa Earenfight’s examination of how María of Castile, Queen-Lieutenant of the Crown of Aragon, grappled with her husband’s encroachments on the queen’s traditional sources of income; Núria Silleras-Fernández’s account of the rise and fall of another queen of Aragon, the former concubine Sibil·la de Fortià; Helen Gaudette’s reconstruction of the building projects of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem; and Ana Maria S. A. Rodrigues and Manuela Santos Silva’s scrutiny of how the medieval queens of Portugal used their income to extend royal power generally, rather than strengthen their own.


National Archive Fifteenth Century Family Identity Property Claim Property Conflict 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Significant discussions of women, property, and agency include Theodore Evergates, ed., Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) (although Evergates’s collection is not exclusively devoted to women and property per se, all of its articles discuss women and property at some length);Google Scholar
  2. Barbara Hanawalt, “The Dilemma of the Widow of Property for Late Medieval London,” in The Medieval Marriage Scene: Prudence, Passion, Policy, ed. Sherry Roush and Cristelle L. Baskins (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005), pp. 165–80;Google Scholar
  3. Barbara J. Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 1450–1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002);Google Scholar
  4. Martha C. Howell, The Marriage Exchange: Property, Social Place, and Gender in Cities of the Low Countries, 1300–1550 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Shennan Hutton, “‘On herself and all her property’: Women’s Economic Activities in Late Medieval Ghent,” Continuity and Change 20 (2005): 325–49;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Anu Lahtinen, “‘So the respectable widow sold her land to him’: Gender, Marriage and Property Transactions in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Finland,” in Family, Marriage, and Property Devolution in the Middle Ages, ed. Lars Ivar Hansen (Tromsø, Norway: Dept. of History, University of Tromsø, 2000);Google Scholar
  7. Lahtinen, “Gender and Continuity: Women, Men and Landed Property in Medieval Finland,” in History and Change, ed. Anu Lahtinen and Kirsi Vainio-Korhonen (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2004);Google Scholar
  8. Amy Livingstone, “Noblewomen’s Control of Property in Early Twelfth-Century Blois-Chartres,” Medieval Prosopography 18 (1995): 55–72;Google Scholar
  9. Linda McMillin, “The House on Saint Pere Street: Four Generations of Women’s Land Holding in Thirteenth-Century Barcelona,” Medieval Encounters 12:1 (2006): 62–73; Cynthia Neville, “Women, Charters, and Land Ownership in Scotland, 1150–1350,” in Journal of Legal History 26:1 (2005): 25–54;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Frederik Pederson, “‘Maritalis affectio’: Marital Affection and Property in Fourteenth-Century York Cause Papers,” in Women, Marriage, and Family in Medieval Christendom: Essays in Memory of Michael M. Sheehan, C.S.B., ed. Constance Rousseau and Joel Rosenthal (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998), pp. 175–209;Google Scholar
  11. Jane Whittle, “Inheritance, Marriage, Widowhood and Remarriage: A Comparative Perspective on Landholding in North-east Norfolk, 1440–1580,” Continuity and Change 13:1 (1998): 33–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. For an excellent exploration of the topic in a slightly later period, see Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).Google Scholar
  13. 2.
    David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England, The New Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 15. Shaw is explicit about his debt to Hume’s definition of the self as “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity.”Google Scholar
  14. Davd Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 300 (bk. I, sect. 6), cited in Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions, p. 12.Google Scholar
  15. 5.
    The best introduction to the medieval court of Chancery is Timothy Haskett, “The Medieval English Court of Chancery,” Law and History Review XIV:2 (Fall 1996): 245–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. See also J. H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 3rd ed. (London: Butterworths, 1990), pp. 113–15.Google Scholar
  17. 7.
    Margaret Avery, “The History of the Equitable Jurisdiction of Chancery before 1460,” The Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 42 (1969): 129–44. Avery attributes this to the increasing employment of the use (to be discussed below), although Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, p. 120, argues that the dominance of property cases in Chancery was not solely attributable to the rise of uses.Google Scholar
  18. J. L. Barton, “The Medieval Use,” Law Quarterly Review 81 (1965): 562–77, suggests that the chancellor assumed jurisdiction over such cases by the reign of Richard II.Google Scholar
  19. R. H. Helmholz, “The Early Enforcement of Uses,” Columbia Law Review 79 (1979): 1503–13, suggests that the enforcement of uses originally fell under ecclesiastical jurisdiction.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. See also Margaret Avery, “Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Court of Chancery under the Lancastrian Kings,” Law and Quarterly Review 86 (1970): 84–97.Google Scholar
  21. 8.
    Nicholas Pronay, “The Chancellor, the Chancery and the Council at the End of the Fifteenth Century,” in British Government and Administration: Studies Presented to H. B. Chrimes, ed. H. Hearder and H. R. Loyn (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1974), pp. 87–103;Google Scholar
  22. Mark Beilby, “The Profits of Expertise: The Rise of the Civil Lawyers and Chancery Equity,” in Profit, Piety and the Professions in hater Medieval England, ed. Michael Hicks (Gloucester: Sutton Publishing, 1990), pp. 72–90;Google Scholar
  23. Penny Tucker, “The Early History of the Court of Chancery: A Comparative Study,” The English Historical Review 115: 463 (Sept. 2000): 791–811.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 9.
    The most comprehensive examination of the entail is Joseph Biancalana, The Fee Tail and the Common Recovery in Medieval England, 1176–1502 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 10.
    K. B. McFarlane, The Nobility of Later Medieval England: The Ford Lectures for 1953 and Related Studies (1973; rpt., Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 69 (emphasis in the original).Google Scholar
  26. 12.
    McFarlane, The Nobility of Later Medieval England, pp. 71–72 (quote from p. 72). S. H. Rigby discusses this phenomenon briefly in his English Society in the Later Middle Ages (London: Macmillan Press, 1995), pp. 264–66, although he emphasizes more strongly than McFarlane the degree to which women were disinherited, and does not address the other elements of the entail and use that made them attractive to late medieval landowners (in particular, the fact that they rendered land immune to wardship and to forfeiture for treason).Google Scholar
  27. 14.
    Haskett, “The Medieval English Court of Chancery,” 287. Emma Hawkes, “‘[S]he will… protect and defend her rights boldly by law and reason….’: Women’s Knowledge of Common Law and Equity Courts in Late-Medieval England,” in Medieval Women and the Law, ed. Noël James Menuge (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2000), pp. 145–62, argues for women’s greater familiarity with late medieval English law and willingness to take cases to court than has been previously realized, but her conclusions are more informed by literary analysis than knowledge of the legal technicalities of Chancery, and it is difficult to integrate them with Haskett’s and my own calculations.Google Scholar
  28. 21.
    For an interesting consideration of the way that ordinary English people understood their legal system, see Anthony Musson, Medieval haw in Context: The Growth of Legal Consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  29. 22.
    Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  30. 25.
    Timothy S. Haskett, “Country Lawyers? The Composers of English Chancery Bills,” in The Life of the Law, Proceedings of the Tenth British Legal History Conference, ed. P. Birks (London: 1993), pp. 9–23, argues that Chancery petitions were composed almost wholly by lawyers.Google Scholar
  31. In contrast, Barbara A. Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 15;Google Scholar
  32. Marjorie McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior in England: 1370–1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 119; and Tucker, “The Early History of the Court of Chancery,” p. 790, argue that plaintiffs played a significant role in the composition of petitions.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Cordelia Beattie, “Meanings of Singleness: The Single Woman in Late Medieval England,” Ph.D. thesis, University of York [UK], 2001, pp. 162–63, helpfully reviews these perspectives and concludes, reasonably, that “Thus, while a petition cannot be read simply as evidence of what a petitioner said, it should not be understood as merely a product of a lawyer. The writing of a petition would have involved both the telling of a story, not necessarily unprompted, by the petitioner, and the composition of the written bill by someone knowledgeable of the correct form and language.” In support of Hanawalt, McIntosh, Tucker, and Beattie, it is worth noting that a number of petitions, when naming the respondents in the closing formulae (in which the petition asked the chancellor for a particular writ or action directed at a particular person), refer to the respondent as being at that time present in court (e.g., TNA: PRO C 1/27/135, which states, “Wherfor please your gracioux lordship in als meche as the seid John Asshefeld is at this day present in the Chauncerie by fore your lordship … to examyne the premysses and after your noble discrecion to rule & comaunde the John Asshefeld & Anne his wyff to make astat un to your seid besecher as lawe & concyence requyren”). It is possible, of course, that such language was added to a previously composed text at the time that the petition was presented, as a kind of rhetorical flourish, incorporated seamlessly by the scribe into the copy entered into the official record, and therefore does not counter the argument that these documents were shaped most influentially by lawyers. Such additions (if they are additions), however, do suggest the possibility for improvisation in the final presentation of the petition, and hence a degree of flexibility in their composition.Google Scholar
  34. 35.
    Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Theresa Earenfight 2010

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations