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Mothers and daughters: a snapshot from early Tudor England

The relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter is often represented as inherently volatile. It has a long history as a trope in drama and fiction and in spite of a heightened awareness of, and suspicion towards facile stereotype it still surfaces today.

For the historian of more-or-less any time period and place before the past century, of course it is very difficult to cut through these representations to discover the lived experience of women, of their personal ties, to family members or to anyone else on their horizons.

A fifteenth-century mother and her daughters and sons: an unidentified fragment from St Bartholomew’s church, Orford (Suffolk)

Beyond the exemplary stories of preachers and guides to social behaviour and values also generated by the clerical establishment, medievalists often confront a complete void. Direct accounts of women acting in their family context are scarce. Rarer still is any record of their personal relationships expressed in their own words.

A letter from Margaret Paston to her husband, 1453 BL, MS 33597, fo. 2r

In an English context, really the only resource is the handful of letters found in the collections of a select group of elite families dating from the century before the Tudor Reformation. The correspondence of the family groups of Pastons, Plumptons and Lisles preserves brief but valuable glimpses of women acting and reacting as parents (and grandparents), children, siblings and spouses.

Here there are scarcely any sole exchanges between women – mother, grandmother, daughter, daughter-in-law – and most – as might be expected given what is known of changing patterns of language use, literacy and household administration – come at the end of the period.

Powderham Castle

A letter discovered in the Courtenay archive at Powderham Castle now casts some fresh light on this still elusive aspect of womens’ lives.

The letter, written in a clerical hand on a small, folded sheet of paper, has the appearance of an original not a fair-copy. It was sent by Margaret Courtenay to her ‘moste entirely biloved lady and moder’, Katharine, dowager countess of Devon. It carries a date of 5 January but gives no year. It can probably be placed between 1512 and 1514, since Margaret refers to the death of her grandfather, Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon, which occurred in 1512, and she signs herself with the family name she retained until her marriage in 1514.

Margaret Courtenay’s letter to her mother, Katherine, now in the Powderham Castle archive

When she composed the letter, Margaret was about the age of fourteen or fifteen. Her year of birth is not recorded but she was the youngest of her mother’s three children, her two elder brothers having been born in about 1496 and 1497 respectively.

At the time of writing already Margaret had left her mother’s household. Her letter is placed ‘at Greenwich’, surely an indication that she was at court, among the throng of acknowledged favourites and hopefuls attendant on the young (twenty-three year old) Henry VIII) at the riverside palace that was the mainstay of the royal household.

Greenwich Palace, seen from the River Thames in a panorama by Anthony van den Wyngaerde, c. 1560, now in the Ashmolean Museum

Like (m)any teenagers, in her short letter to her mother Margaret passes through a spectrum of rhetorical – and, it might be said, emotional – positions, rebuke, request, plea for sympathy and at the last a play on parental pride and reputation.

Firstly, she complains that the terms of her grandfather’s will have not been honoured, a fault for which she holds her mother directly responsible. ‘Be so good lady and moder unto me that I may have my money of my lord my grandfaders bequest which is L [i.e. 50] marks by yere whereof sithens [i.e. since] his decesse I had never but £20’.

Then, she begs her to pay her the money which is her due. ‘Ye and your counsel wol calle upon thexcecutors to see that I may content of the hole’.

Next, she gives a glimpse of a most pathetic plight, trading clothes and jewels with fine ladies of the court who pity her. ‘I have made a bargain…for certen stuffe and jewels which lately were Lady Lisles whiche will drawe nigh C marks…I doubte not if your grace saw the penyworthes therof ye wold help me therunto’.

The closing lines of Margaret Courtenay’s letter to her mother Powderham Castle archives

Finally, she needles her with the threat of public embarassment: ‘ther be diverse aboute the quene [i.e. Katharine of Aragon] that love your grace right wel councelled me to write unto you herin’.

Margaret’s desperation was surely shaped by the formidable figure of her mother, Katherine. She was the dowager countess, who at the time of her daughter’s letter still held the lion’s share of her husband’s remaining property as her eldest son had not yet come of age. Also, she was of royal blood, albeit that of the displaced Yorkist dynasty. Daughter of Edward IV, she identified herself as the daughter, sister and aunt of kings.

Katherine Courtenay, pictured among her royal family in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral

Katherine’s own early life had been far from secure: the security of her royal lineage became a liability when Henry Tudor took the throne in August 1485. Ten years later, at the age of sixteen King Henry had married her to a hero of the Bosworth battlefield, William Courtenay, son of Earl Edward. But in 1502 Courtenay was implicated in the conspiracy to challenge the Tudor succession with the last Yorkist claimant Edmund de la Pole. William was imprisoned in the Tower of London and his lands placed under attainder (the suspension of any claim on property which was taken into the custody of the crown). When Katherine’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of York, died in 1503, her remaining security in the Tudor regime was lost, and she was no longer accepted at court. William was not released until Henry VIII’s accession in April 1509 and even then, his position and prospect of the restoration of his property remained uncertain. He lived only another two years, and months later his father also died.

The deaths of her husband and father-in-law opened a narrow window of opportunity for Katherine, providing her with substantial property and income until the succession of her son. The old Earl Edward had been generous in his will to his grandchildren, but so early in the reign of Henry VIII, there can be little doubt Katherine’s first instinct was to hold his inheritance jealously to herself. There is no other record of Margaret’s early life but this letter suggests her mother had dispatched her to find her fortune at court.

How the good wife taught her daughter: Trinity College, Cambridge MS R. 3. 19, fos. 212v-213r

As advised in the fifteenth-century poem, How the good wife taught her daughter, Katherine knew well that ‘meydens thei be lonely / and no thingew syker therby’ and needs must ‘be…agode stowerde [that] wantys seldom any ryches’. But her daughter was yet to learn another lesson of the same poem, ‘Make thee not ryche of other mens thing / the bolder to spend be on ferthyng / Borowyd thing must nedys go home / if that thou wyll to heven gone’.

Henry Courtenay, elder brother of Margaret, shown as marquess of Exeter, in the Black Book of the Garter kept at St George’s Chapel, Windsor

The circumstances of mother and daughter changed dramatically soon after Margaret’s letter was sent. In December 1512, Katherine’s son, Margaret’s brother, Henry, received the king’s letters patent to take the title and inheritance of his grandfather as earl of Devon. Katherine’s custody of the Courtenay claim was at an end. In 1514 Margaret’s time at court brought her mother’s hope-for result and she was married to Henry Somerset, the eighteen-year old heir to the earldom of Worcester. The marriage lasted about twelve years. The date of Margaret’s death is not recorded but probably it was before her husband inherited his title in 1526. She did not survive to live in the style of a countess like her mother, Katherine.


James Clark, with thanks to Katie Edwards, Collections Manager, Powderham Castle

An Afternoon Talking about Medieval and Reformation Parishes

Recently, on 24 June, I went to the annual mini-conference of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society, held at the Guildhall in Exeter.  This year’s theme was Late Medieval and Reformation Parishes, to reflect the theme of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s next forthcoming volume, Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, edited by Dr Joanna Mattingly.

North side of Stratton church with 19th-century vestry. Photograph by Alexis Jordan.

There were two papers, by Joanna Mattingly and Clive Burgess, a historian of medieval parishes based at Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr Mattingly talked about the churchwardens’ accounts from Stratton, in north Cornwall, and gave a taster of what will be in the book. The Stratton accounts are comparatively unusual in that they span the Reformation without a break.  Stratton is also unusual because several different types of documentation survive from the parish. There are two different sets of accounts relating to different parts of the parish’s activity – the High Cross, or churchwardens’ accounts, and the General Receivers’ accounts which give an overview of the parish finances as a whole. There are also documents and maps relating to a court case in 1583.  This allows us to see information which is normally missing from conventional churchwardens’ accounts.  Talking about this rich material, Dr Mattingly described the progress of the Reformation in Stratton, as the parishioners bought new Protestant service books and resisted having their carved wooden rood loft demolished (ultimately unsuccessfully). Alongside this activity, the everyday maintenance of the parish church continued, as churchwardens collected rents and paid for equipment, repairs and cleaning.

In his paper, Clive Burgess also highlighted the importance of the Stratton accounts. He emphasized that most work on medieval and Reformation parish records so far has examined either large urban areas such as Bristol and London (the focus of his own research), or small rural villages, such as Morebath in north Devon, which is the focus of Eamon Duffy’s 2001 book, The Voices of Morebath. Small towns, such as Stratton, are comparatively under-studied. Dr Burgess also gave an overview of the late medieval church to set the Stratton accounts in a larger context.  Here he stressed in particular the amount of money which medieval laypeople spent on their parish churches.  They paid for building works, altars, chantries and equipment, in exchange for being commemorated and prayed for.  There were many reasons for this, including the doctrine of Purgatory (which held that prayers could help the souls of the dead), and the fact that after the Black Death a combination of circumstances meant that many parishioners had some disposable income to spend.  He argued that medieval religion was essentially communal, and that late medieval parishes were one expression of this. Wealthy parishioners gave generously and in exchange, the less wealthy were expected to pray for them.  One of the changes which took place in the Reformation, according to this view, was a shift to a more individualistic view of religion.

Overall, these two fascinating talks helped to bring the complex religious changes in this period to life, as well as highlighting the amount of unpublished source material waiting for studies and critical editions.

The Devon and Cornwall Record Society was founded in 1904 to transcribe and publish local records, and to promote local historical studies and genealogical research. Its publications cover many aspects of the West Country’s political, social, religious, economic and maritime history. For more information and details of how to join, please see their website.

Stratton Churchwarden’s Accounts, 1512-1578, by Joanna Mattingly (Devon and Cornwall Record Society new series vol. 60) will be published by Boydell and Brewer in spring 2018.

Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History


Thomas Cromwell: a man for our seasons?

At the opening and closing the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall I was asked to share my thoughts on Thomas Cromwell with presenter Simon Bates on BBC Radio Devon’s ‘Good Morning Devon’ Breakfast Show. Hilary Mantel’s novels have challenged the conventional casting of the familiar Reformation drama making Chancellor More the grim-faced obstacle in the path of our new hero, ‘Mr Secretary Crumwell’.


The Wolf Hall phenomenon, of course, owes much to the general appeal of the Tudors and a fair number of the 3 million viewers that switched on to the TV adaptation were drawn purely by the promise of witnessing once more the marital melodrama of Bluff King Hal. Yet the summons to Wolf Hall has resounded far further than any other of the recent retellings of Henry’s serial monogamy. For those that profess to select their reading from the Man Booker shortlist, Philippa Gregory is generally a guilty pleasure to be left on the holiday cottage’s communal bookshelf. But Mantel’s books have returned historical fiction to the Paperwhites™ and Book Groups of these Readers of Literary Novels and to the Public Critics – the Frostrups and the Naughties – who guide them. Part of it, of course, is her painstaking authenticity. As an early reviewer trilled, you can almost scent the damp wool of Cromwell’s cloak as he steals across the outer court of old Austin Friars, and the Readers of Literary Novels need to know that their fare has been lovingly prepared through long hours in the BL reading room. But the root of Mantel’s success, I suspect, lies not in her careful recreation of an old reality but in her subtle fashioning of a new one; for what might at first appear to be simply another strain of the timeless chant, ‘divorced-beheaded-died’ – which the self-conscious literati would spurn – in fact recasts the story to fit the historical imagination de nos jours. Mantel’s Tudor England is no stock-image of that generic ‘past’ which we want served up in colour and drama but not in detail. No, these Tudors have been photo-shopped to suit our new historical aesthetic; above all, to satisfy our ultra-relativism.

So it follows that neither one nor t’other Boleyn girl is now our hero, still less Lord Chancellor More, a man whom Mantel seems on the brink of mocking for his Brownian ‘moral compass’. No, it is Thomas C. who must be the man for our seasons. Thomas of the troubled childhood, the victim of an abusive father for whom he harbours hope of formal justice into middle age; Thomas of the exemplary work-life balance, as likely to be found working-from-home and even contemplating home-schooling his clever daughter than to play the monarch’s minion. The case for home-schooling, of course, is as clear as day to the auto-didact Thomas, the University-of-Life man whose internship with Wolsey propels him further and faster than the smug graduates which surround him. Thomas is a man of new science, not old books, a champion of the communications revolution coming with the printing press, now poring over the tablet-sized page-proof of Tyndale’s dangerously Smart Testament. Thomas learns quickly the truth of our preferred clichés about politics and public life, the greasiness of the pole, the venality of those that make the climb, and that money and sex that always drive them. These each serve to make Thomas a recognisable, sympathetic figure but what brings him wholly onside is that in his progress to Wolf Hall he exposes the always narrow, often wicked world view of the old establishment. This is the view represented not only by Wolsey – the figurehead of a hierarchical church securing privilege and sustaining inequality through fear and superstition – but also by the urbane More, whose Christian Humanism is equally if not more insidious since it cloaks a creed of cultural and social elitism in the promise of Utopia. Here, curiously, as well as a Thomas Cromwell-for-our-time, Mantel would seem to want to breathe new life into the oldest Tudor myth of all, of the Reformation as a definitive step towards the rational, liberal uplands of the modern world.

Now, you might well say that it hardly matters if through the doors of Wolf Hall we glimpse a grotesque distortion of the Henrician Reformation: these days surely it is something that only animates us academic historians, and every other reader and viewer will be well satisfied as long as Anne does lose her head at the appointed time, with the right sort of weft showing in her worsted cloak. Well, maybe so. You might also be inclined to argue that bringing Thomas and his world closer to our own can only be a good thing: empathy and relevance should not be dismissed, otherwise, before long you will be in danger of questioning the spectacle of ceramic poppies outside the Tower. But if we continue in this direction, isn’t there also a danger that we will narrow our historical imagination to the point of closure? If that happens, it won’t only be our understanding of something with apparently such low stakes as the Reformation that will be in peril. We must cultivate the curiosity – and at the same time, perhaps, suppress the instinctive self-obsession – to explore a world whose views on childhood, family, education, work, technology, and the power of ideas – were far removed from our own. In looking on the past it is high time we rediscovered the virtue of difference.

James Clark

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