Monday, 26 September 2016

Women at the Time of Conquest

The Battle of Hastings 1066

This year is a special 1066 anniversary. Recently I was the co-ordinator for The Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford. I also spoke on two panels, one of which was about medieval women. My angle was how life changed for women after the Norman Conquest as well as what happened to the noble Godwin women and other female survivors.

A possible image for medieval woman

A major difference post Conquest was that women's legal rights changed. We discover the earliest written law codes of the Germanic kingdoms (post Roman Empire) in the Anglo- Saxon law codes, found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, and made by Athelbert of Kent in the seventh century. They were written in the vernacular. In these we find that women may be abducted but cash payments settled the outcome. Sexual encounters were not condemned. They were priced.

An early medieval woman's will

Many marriages of Anglo-Saxon women were political arrangements designed to establish connections. Interestingly, Anglo-Saxon women held land in their own right and wrote wills. My first medieval heroine, Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold's handfasted wife was an heiress who owned land in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex and Kent. After Conquest, these lands reverted to the crown and most found their way into the possession of the Breton knight Alan of Richmond who abducted Gunnhild, Edith's and Harold's daughter, from Wilton Abbey- or did Gunnhild elope willingly with him? The abduction happened some years post Conquest. And, Count Alan was, after all an important personage, William the Conqueror's second cousin. These lands made him very wealthy.

From a Church capital

Women were a commodity before and after Conquest. In truth, pressure was always put on them to marry as their fathers and brothers wished but, at least, before Conquest they could own title to their own land. After 1066 women could be heiresses, but during the later twelfth century it became common to divide estates among heiresses from a family in equal shares. A price was fixed for an heiress and they became wards. Ward-ships were bought from the crown by rich and powerful barons. The girls married whom the guardian chose and he chose according to the best price and alliance offered. Women were passed on as property rather than owning it.


Primogeniture and a new attitude to illegitimacy are part of changes in inheritance that swept through Europe during the eleventh century. Children had not been barred from inheritance if they were illegitimate in Anglo- Saxon England. Illegitimacy was not even a bar to Kingship. After Conquest this changed.  Being a woman was a bar to ruling in her own right. Henry I tested this. He chose his daughter Matilda to follow him as Queen but according to the deep seated notion of primogeniture and attitudes towards a queen in sole command, this was unacceptable and civil war followed. Matilda was never accepted as Queen. For a time her cousin, Stephen ruled, followed by her son, Henry II. Primogeniture dictated that the nearest eldest male son inherited, usually the eldest son, and he got all. He was responsible for his sisters' dowries and his mother's third portion. That left many second and third sons without inheritance. They became fighting knights or churchmen. Girls were given a dowry and a portion and forthwith married off.

The Church, which was the whole circumference of one's whole world, personal and universal,  during the Middle Ages, had a terrible attitude towards women. Either they were Eves dragging men into sin or they were Madonnas to be respected as nuns or mothers of children (born into wedlock of course). 

Younger sons often became mercenary knights

There was still a possible future for women, however, in the new Europe and in England during the medieval period. They did as widows inherit a third portion but they were soon married off again and lost that. If they were married to a tradesman in the increasingly growing towns during medieval times, they could follow his trade. Most wives of tradesmen were involved in their husbands' businesses in any case. Some guilds accepted them but it was still hard to survive as a trader in a man's world.

The Church dominated the lives of all people

It was not until the sixteenth century that a queen ruled England and the second Tudor queen ( not counting Lady Jane) was one of the greatest monarchs who has ever ruled England.

The last novel in the Trilogy 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Ill-fated Marriages in Literature

I often think that my favourite novels do not depict marriages in a happy light. This, of course, allows the writer to explore tensions and create jeopardy in the story. It permits the writer to be forgiving. I have selected a few of those ill-fated marriages where I think the author does this well- all rate highly amongst my favourite books.


The marriage between Thea and Vladimir of Kiev in The Betrothed Sister was not easy but this couple come through difficulties and threats together to discover happiness in their lives. The marriage between Gunnhild and Alan of Richmond in The Swan-Daughter does not work out as she might have foreseen as she falls in love with another and he already loved another. That between Edith Swan-Neck and King Harold in The Handfasted Wife, whilst a love match was handfasted and he set her aside for another when he was crowned King of England. However somehow before his death on Senlac Hill they do find peace together and after his death she remembers him as her only true love.

George Eliot

Here are several ill-fated marriages in a few of the novels that I have enjoyed reading -

Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch by George Eliot

Well worth reading!

Dorothea Brooke, idealistic, young and beautiful, passionate, orphaned and intent on making something purposeful of her life accepts the offer of marriage from a fossilized, idealistic clergyman, Edward Casaubon. She plans to dedicate herself to this great man who spends his years  writing a key to all mythologies. The couple are clearly unsuited as is illustrated early in the novel on their ill-fated honeymoon. Dorothea had expected to be overcome by a food of feeling at what she saw in Italy but her husband reflects that his 'stream of affection' has turned out to be 'exceedingly shallow'. He has sensed that his new wife is not a protection against his sense of inadequacy but a perpetual threat and reproach. I like this novel's enduring subtlety and humanity. The other pairings in Eliot's novel are filled with traps as sticky as spider webs.

Lara and Yuri from Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

The Cossacks attack demonstrators in Doctor Zhivago 

Although this pair never actually married, they were an ill-fated couple. The story takes place at the time of the Russian Revolution. They are both married to others but come together briefly and subsequently are parted as political events overtake their lives. They have hidden from the world in Yuri's country retreat in the Urals. It is a poignant time as it is so short and because Tonya, Yuri's wife loves him and he has conflicted loyalties. In Doctor Zhivago the personal story is set against a sweeping political background. It is a passionate story with depth and understanding. This is one of my five favourite novels, beautifully and sympathetically written.

Tristram and Iseult told by Matthew Arnold

Image from Wikipedia

There is an emphasis in the tale of Tristram that love can be so extreme it ends up leading to death of the partners. Arnold's retelling of the story displays simple family concerns where Iseult of Brittany is an abandoned wife with two small children. Arnold suggests a retreat into the imagination and immoral love as an escape from reality. It is a classic historical romance with many twists, turns and stories within stories but it is one with an unfortunate ending. It is a most influential medieval love story and is on the surface a love triangle story between the hero, his uncle's wife and the uncle. A love potion was mistakenly given to Iseult on her wedding night and the tale's events follow consequences from this chance mistake. Tristram eventually marries another Iseult in this version but he cannot consummate the marriage because of his love for his original Iseult. He searches for her but dies of grief before she, too, searching for the love of her life reaches him. Soon after this, Iseult dies of a broken heart. The story has many different tellings, but whichever telling, it remains the classic story of an ill-fated relationship and, moreover, it illustrates very well how obstacles can inhabit a good story to thwart the successful conclusion of love between hero and heroine. 

Caroline and Faraday in The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

One of my favourite novels

In this tale, Faraday is a country doctor called to Hundred's Hall, a faded 18thC estate. He strikes up a friendship with Caroline Ayres, the unmarried daughter of the family. After a young girl is mauled by Caroline's previously gentle Labrador it seems that the house contains a malevolent energy. The relationship between Faraday and Caroline wavers between romance and friendship. They, none the less, plan to marry. On the night of their wedding disaster strikes. The haunting narrative in this novel and its constant tension plays out through the story. This story addresses insanity, poltergeists, and family secrets. The romance is haunted by a sense of developing dread and this I love! Gothic.

Claire and Henry in The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Portrait of woman with red hair.
The author dyed her hair red to say goodbye to Claire and Henry

A man and woman meet in a Chicago library and in due course they marry. However, Henry is a time traveller and is whisked away just before the ceremony. An older Henry falls back through the years to take his place. The writer uses Henry's time travel to illustrate a sense of slippage in a long term relationship, in that each partner views the relationship differently. I felt a sense that their lives were mapped out to the extent that the time of their deaths are told. It is a poignant novel exquisitely told and one can not help but feel sad for both Henry and Clare.  


Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Street in late medieval London- Trades and Noise

When did the medieval period in London begin and end? We assume that the medieval period began in England when the Romans departed circa 410 AD. However for the previous one hundred years the Romans had been withdrawing from England and they were using Saxon mercenaries to supplement the Roman army's reduced presence. The country continued to trade with the Empire. There was not a particular moment of change but the beginning of a reversion gradually to life as it had been prior to Roman occupation. This was the beginning of medieval England.

Roman London

Society did not suddenly change in 1485 when the first Tudor king, Henry VII succeeded to the throne after The Battle of Bosworth. Nothing much actually changed until the mid 1530s when the monasteries were dissolved and the English Church was reformed. These were events that did cause great social upheavals. This was the end of medieval England.

Medieval London was contained within a semi circular wall that was interrupted by in order west to east, Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopgate and Aldgate just north of The Tower of London. The River Thames ran from east to west completing the semi circle. 

Fourteenth Century Tower of London

My latest novel The Woman in the Shadows is set in London between 1514 and 1525. London is still a medieval city throughout the scope of this novel. London, itself, was a city of churches. It contained a greater number than any other city in Europe. There were more than a hundred churches within the walls of the old city. Sixteen of them were devoted to St Mary. The Church remained the single most disciplined and authoritative director of London's affairs until the Reformation. Church administrators were the biggest landlords and employers within and without the city walls. The city's saint was a seventh century monk who had ruled as bishop of London, Erkenwald. Even in the early sixteenth century the shrine of St Erkenwald was an object of pilgrimage to the successful lawyers of London. When they were nominated as serjeants of law they would walk in procession to St Paul's to venerate the saint.

Medieval London Bridge with shops, businesses and churches

 Daily life was marked by the ringing of bells that rang from the churches and monasteries marking the religious offices. The most important bells were the Angelus Bells. The Angelus was associated with the worship of the Virgin Mary. The bell was struck to remind busy citizens to pause their work at midday to repeat the angelus, a triple hail Mary beginning with the words 'Angelus Domini Nunavit Mariae', 'The Angel of the Lord said to Mary.' In fact, the Angelus became the best way to tell the time because it rang at Prime, six o'clock, midday which was Sext and six in the evening for Compline. It was different to other bells because it tolled nine strokes at three times keeping the space of The Lord's Prayer, the Pater, and an Ave between each tolling. So if you lived on a late medieval London Street you would constantly hear bells ringing. The bells of the church tolled the end of each trading day. There was a bell that rang at dawn so the city gates would be opened and one that rang around six in the evening in winter and ten in the summer for the curfew to begin. After curfew Londoners had to carry a lighted torch or they could be arrested and incarcerated until dawn.

Religion in Medieval London

All over the city. my characters would hear a constant din from the different crafts that were practised. The noisiest were metalworkers; the blacksmiths, farriers, pewterers, silver and goldsmiths, cutlers and bell founder all used hammers and contributed to the general clamour. I can only compare the activity to that of busy streets in an Indian city or in cities of the Far East.

Late Medieval London

In London there were two hundred fraternities in which craft regulation and religious observation were mingled. Guilds had acquired enormous economic power within the city by the end of the medieval period. The growth of craft guilds in medieval London cannot be distinguished from the parish guilds of the same neighbourhood. thus tanners who worked along the banks of The River Fleet for instance would meet at their fraternity in the Carmelite house in Fleet Street. According to Peter Ackroyd in his book London, three fraternities were recorded at in the church of St Stephen, Coleman Street during the late thirteenth century. By the early fourteenth century only citizens could belong to a trade guild. Aliens were not only foreigners but those who were not London's citizens.

Many tradesmen met for business in the church. Religious and social constraints emphasized the importance of honesty and good behaviour. The guilds had their rules. Good names must be protected and the guilds condemned those who broke public peace. It was as if the act of quarreling or being involved in disputes might be construed as sinful.

The Baker's Apprentice

Young people entered apprenticeships in late medieval London able to read and write. They were expected to be honest and to have learned manners. They were to be straight-limbed and free-born. And by the mid fifteenth century the children had to be born in England. Well-born recruits were preferred and parents of apprentices had to have properties bringing in 20s a year. The Lord's daughter, the baker's son, the children of London mercers, vintners or fishmongers were not raised at home for long. All of them were either apprenticed or they became attendants or servants in someone else's household. The best upbringing for a child was to send him out of the family to learn the ways  of the world and to be educated elsewhere. Young women were usually apprenticed to silkwomen, dressmakers or embroiderers. There are instances too of girls being apprenticed to butchers, bakers, cordwainers, drapers, grocers, apothecaries and surgeons. They could either remain single and practise as femme soles under London law after they married  and actually having a skill was an advantage in the marriage market. The apprentice term would end if marriage were offered and often the apprenticeship was only for four years, not seven, in practise although it was not legal. What a woman's apprenticeship was not, was as a stepping stone to an independent life as a citizen of London.

Medieval Silk women

Friday, 4 December 2015

Women's Rights in Early Medieval Rus

The Ruirikid Dynasty ruled Rus lands during the eleventh century. This marks the early part of a Golden Age for the ruling cities Kyiv/ Kiev and Novgorod. These princes replaced many diverse local customs and created a Rus State that stretched from the Black Sea north of  Moscow and St Petersburg, which, if they existed at all then, were tiny hamlets. The ruling Ruirikid princes over the period of two centuries established a series of law codes known collectively as The Russkaia Pravda. These laws united various clans under the cultural and religious umbrella of the Byzantine influenced Russian Orthodox Church and established a common written language, Old Church Slavonic.
The Golden Gates of Kiev

The Princes controlled the judicial system to their own financial advantage. For instance, although vengeance was recognized as a legal response to crimes such as rape and murder, if the victim was a member of a prince's household the prescribed punishment was a fine, levied on the offender and paid to the prince. A portion of the fine went to the Church as well. Of course, for a woman's life the fine was half of that for the murder of a man.
Later Medieval Rus Princess

Women's property rights differed also. Women, like Anglo-Saxon women, could own property which they had received as gifts or as a dowry. If a woman's husband died and her sons inherited the estate, her sons had to arrange their sisters' marriages and provide their dowries. Noble daughters could inherit their fathers' estates and property if there were no surviving sons.
Later Medieval Rus Woman

 All women found protection in the law. At the end of the tenth century, relations and questions relating to family, and importantly women, came under church jurisdiction. Church literature divided women into 'good' women and 'bad' women. There were more of the latter, needless to say. Descriptions of the immorality of women were used as an excuse for setting forth an entire set of instructions on how men should avoid 'lustful' women. Women were admonished to be silent, to submit to God and to their husbands.
Map showing Kievan Rus Lands

Yet, feudal law gave women from the underprivileged social strata a modest role in society. If they were slaves and married a free man, they were set free; not so for the male slave who married a free woman. The honour of female slaves was protected. If they were raped, they were compensated, and if a slave was raped by a foreigner, she was freed. If a woman accused a man of rape, she would be protected by the law.

'If anyone kills a woman, he will be tried and if guilty pay a half-wergild, twenty grivney.' 
 But only half- is that fair?

The rights of women from all classes of society were severely limited. Women were less likely to serve as witnesses in legal disputes or in the drawing up of documents. Only ten per cent of land documents testify to women's rights. Even so, all women could defend their honour and property they owned independent of their husbands. Moreover, Medieval Rus possessed the institute of female guardianship at this time.
Nizhniy Novgorod- Did this Kremlin have a Terem?

Terem culture, that of the seclusion of noble women in their own part of a palace, is often dated from the sixteenth century. In fact, it most likely had its roots in much earlier traditions. Terem culture is being reassessed by historians. Separate living quarters for noble men and women were not unusual during the Rus medieval period, that dated from the tenth century. Elite women in Frankish culture also lived in separate quarters from their men. It is certainly now considered that the practice predated the Mongol invasions. The Mongols never segregated women. It is possible the concept and word Terem (not to be confused at all with harem) came from Byzantium to Rus lands long before the Mongol invasions. It is likely however that later Muscovite royal families strengthened this control condiderably over female members, maybe for marriage purposes which explains the highly developed Terem culture of the seventeenth century and the Muscovite era in Russian history. 

I have integrated some aspects of this research into the narrative of The Betrothed Sister. However, if you read it, do remember that my novel is fiction albeit researched as far it is possible with limited sources. Women's lives were hidden and largely went unrecorded during the Medieval period. All I could do was make a few, hopefully informed, guesses as to what Gita Godwinsdatter, the Anglo-Saxon princess encountered in the lands of the Kievan Rus. If anyone who reads this knows more about Terem culture in medieval Russia I would love you to comment here.

I am the co-ordinator for HNS Conference 2016  2nd-4th September in Oxford. Do look at:

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Medieval Russia, Fairytales and History

Most of The Betrothed Sister is set in medieval Russia where King Harold II's daughter Gita (Thea in the novel) is married off by her father's cousin, King Sweyn of Denmark, to a prince of the Rus ruling family, The Riurikid Dynasty, founded in the tenth century. What sort of land did Thea discover, circa 1070?

Medieval Russian Countryside

I always think of medieval Russia as a land of fairy tales, snow, castles, and sleighs. In fact over the years I have been so entranced by Russian fairy tales, that I constructed Thea, the heroine of The Betrothed Sister, as a teller of stories. Appropriately at the maiden's party just before her wedding to Vladimir Monomarkh, I introduce a competition for the telling of fairy tales since, with this story, I aimed for a 'fairy-tale' atmosphere. These events happened so long ago that finding out what happened to Thea was difficult. However, with imagination and a thorough investigation of the times, I constructed a possible history for her.

Rus Fairy Tales

Medieval Rus was very different to Anglo-Saxon England, another extremely cultured society. This said, many exiles from the Anglo-Saxon world wound up in Kiev and Novgorod after the Norman Conquest. If Moscow existed at all, it was a simple village, totally insignificant. Kiev, the centre of the Rus Kingdom, was cosmopolitan and wealthy from trade along the River Dnieper from Byzantium. Novgorod, too, was equally wealthy and the discovery of birch wood tablets with shopping lists and love letters in Novgorod dating from this period, suggests a high level of literacy that is often found in established rich societies.

Church of the Holy Wisdom, Kiev.

Thea sailed to a land where the Church had already become a second institution. As the ruling  Riurikid Dynasty gave shape to the emerging Rus State, rulers looked towards Byzantium for a range of cultural influences associated with Christianity. A perfect example is, therefore, the development of the Russian Orthodox creed and a literature very influenced by Byzantine styles.

A simple note from 11thC Novgorod

Writing and literacy existed within Rus lands during the tenth century. East Slavonic was used for practical, administrative and personal written application-type correspondence. With a Greek Orthodox influence, Church Slavonic drew on Slavic words and grammar and used them in Byzantine style, becoming the liturgical and formal literary language of the Kievan Rus. From the middle of eleventh century literacy and texts became more widespread. Clerics used Greek forms as models for their own compositions. Chronicles, recording the first written history of the Rus, were written in Church Slavonic. This gave the tribes that made up the Rus state a common cultural background. It also gave the Riurikid Dynasty an ideological foundation for exclusive rule over the Kievan Rus. Much of this literature is admired today. The Lay of Igor's Campaign is an epic poem, written in old Slavonic, describing Prince Igor's campaign against the Kumans in the twelfth century. It is unanimously acclaimed as the highest achievement in Russian literature of this Kievan era. Consequently, not to be kept in ignorance in her new land, Thea learned to read and write the literary language of her adopted country.

Imagined Medieval Novgorod

 According to the Russian Primary Chronicle, in part written down in Kiev during the years encompassed by my story, years of fratricide dominated the eleventh century, often linked with Rus battles fought against the Kumans, the collective name for Steppe tribes dwelling on Rus borders. Warring princely Rus brothers would seek support from these organised, sophisticated and militaristic border tribes. Thea's first decade in Rus lands was haunted by such rivalry between members of her husband's family. It was all about succession to the important throne in Kiev. The family member who was crowned Grand Prince of Kiev ruled the kingdom of the Rus.

The principal of succession to the Kiev throne was that the senior member of the Riurikid princes of their generation would inherit the throne. Thus, it could pass to an uncle rather than to the eldest son of the eldest son. Brothers and nephews soon disputed this order of seniority established by Prince Vladimir's great grandfather, another Vladimir. For instance, was seniority defined as chronological age or by the status of a wife? The Rus princes were monogamous, but despite warfare, it seemed that many of the Rus princes became widowers early in life and remarried, sometimes to Kuman princesses, never mind dynastic marriages into great European families.  Thea married into such a situation. In 1068 the senior prince, Iziaslav, her betrothed Vladimir's uncle was challenged by his cousin, Vseslav. This had a warlike outcome that lasted for a number of years. 
Women wrote love letters and even shopping lists

For the early part of Thea's marriage to Prince Vladimir, the son of a younger brother, there was a period of intense dispute over succession to the Kievan throne. Eventually, in 1078, Vladimir's father gained the throne but became embroiled in battles with his nephews who felt they should inherit the throne from their father, Vladimir's second uncle.

Prince Vladimir Monomarkh

Thea sadly died before her husband inherited the Kiev throne from his father in 1113. Thea's husband had become a pivotal figure in dynastic politics, greatly admired as a leader because he led a series of successful campaigns against the Steppe tribes, securing Rus southern borders. Thea's sons followed their father as Grand Prince, one by one, and became in their turn rulers of the Rus. Thea is, in fact, the great grandmother many times removed of the Romanovs, the Russian royal family that ruled Russia in the first years of the twentieth century. It could be said too that, although, the Godwin dynasty did not hold on to England in 1066, King Harold's elder daughter, Gytha/Gita/ Thea, gave them a long regal legacy.

 The Betrothed Sister is published by Accent Press for all e devices, and as a paperback. It is available from all good bookshops.


Thursday, 10 September 2015

Medieval Women and the Merchant Class

I have a new novel that has just this past month been published in paperback.  The Betrothed Sister is about the marriage between Gita, King Harold of England's daughter and a Prince of Kiev during the latter half of the eleventh century. I am writing a new book. My work in progress will be concerned with a woman from the early Tudor merchant class. The heroine is a widow. She has a wonderful story.
Gita, Daughter of King Harold

There is a question over when the medieval period ends. Some historians, myself amongst these, believe that the medieval period really ends in England with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. I actually believe it ends even later, around the mid sixteenth century, certainly not with The Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

A story set circa 1512 is, to my mind, a late medieval story. England was still Catholic. The monasteries basked contentedly for the most part amongst England's rivers and in towns and the countryside. Cathedrals with beautiful carvings, stained glass and great spires reached heaven-wards. The landscape of London looked much as it did in the previous century with a busy River Thames, medieval buildings, wood with tiled roofs and overhangs and many monasteries and churches. It is a delightful world to set a novel in, though, of course it has its underbelly. Life could be short, life could be hard and women struggled to find a voice, never mind any degree of independence.

Image result for English medieval town landscapes free pictures
Medieval towns where the Church dominated the landscape

There were strong women in trade throughout the medieval and Tudor period. There were some women who achieved independence by amassing fortunes. These female merchants were, for the most part, widows. The Wife of Bath was one such lady.

In the late medieval era the term merchant sometimes meant a man or woman of mixed enterprise. Although he or she might have a dominant particular trade, the merchant often combined this with a number of other interests. Mercers, for example, traded in fine textiles. Grocers traded in spices. My lady trades in cloth, gorgeous cloths. Whilst a merchant might trade in wool and cloth they were often ready to deal in any other merchandise that came their way. Mercers often derived a considerable profit from a retail business in luxury fabrics. My protagonist, for example, is anxious to get her hands on a variety of what was known in 1512 as New Draperies, fabrics that consisted of long combed out woollen threads mixed with silk or linen so that they were light textured. Cyprus gold thread might be sold alongside lace from Venice even though the merchant's stock also included good English products such as Cornish blanket cloth, London silk, Bury napery, stained or painted cloths and fine linen towels.

When cloth was king

Merchant companies did have a few associated female members. They also divided their membership into those who were entitled to wear official clothing or livery in company colours and those who were not. The group excluded from livery were mixed. Some never succeeded in launching themselves into wholesale trade. This group depended on retail shopkeeping for their living. In all merchant companies there would be a group of young men, called yeomen, with capital and influence who were prepared to enter the livery. First they must serve under an older merchant to gain experience. Hopefully, later they could set up in business independently. Around the age of thirty they might be accepted into the livery.

A busy merchant's workshop

Livery men discussed company affairs in quarterly meetings. The yeomanry or rather these young trainees did not attend. Young merchants in service were similar to poorer shopkeepers. The companies were well established by 1512. By the fifteenth century they had acquired pleasant halls that served as club premises as well as administrative headquarters. Members dined apart from the yeomen at quarterly dinners. They threw lavish entertainments for friends and patrons such as lawyers and noblemen and government officials.

As well as companies there were also the fraternities. Fraternities were Parish based. They looked after the church and the poor. They collected alms to help members in trouble and elected wardens to run the show. They had annual banquets and processions. For example the skinners liverymen organised a solemn procession on the feast of Corpus Christi to which their fraternity was dedicated. The fraternities could have members from outside the company. I think they were more diverse and colourful and more inclusive. Often the trades belonged to both, their company and a fraternity. The fraternity might include shear men, pewterers, bakers and so on. To give an example, the Fraternity of St Katherine at St Mary Colechurch in Cheap was supported by ironmongers, drapers and armourers amongst others.
The busy medieval street

The Gild was a third kind of organisation. Gild regulations expressly excluded women from participation in a trade but they made exceptions for wives and daughters. Wives assisted their husbands in his trade, and, as pointed out already, a large number of widows carried on their dead husband's trade. Sometimes gild regulations allowed them to do so. There is strong evidence for this because men often stated in their will that their apprentices should serve out their term with the widow. They often left widows implements belonging to their trade. Trades carried out by women ranged from that of merchants on a large scale trafficking in ships and dealing with the crown to that of small craftsmen/women. Even as far back as The Hundred Rolls of 1274 there is mention of the great wool merchants of London widows who make a great trade in wool and other things. At least one woman is referred to in lists as a Merchant of the Staple, an exporter of wool to Calais.

Norwich was a town involved with the Staple

Here is an interesting fact to finish on before I go back to working on my new novel. Girls were often apprenticed to trades the same way as boys. A father in an urban occupation will leave a daughter money in his will to wed her or he will leave the money to put her in trade!
Women in the cloth trade

Women may have been the footnotes of history. It was often the aristocratic women who might just get a line or two. However, just like Gita from The Betrothed Sister and my merchant widow in my WIP, women had more power than we often realise back in the Medieval period. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The River Thames in Medieval Times

The River Thames features in The Handfasted Wife and briefly in The Swan-Daughter. What do we know about the Thames from the eleventh century? It rose then as it rises today in Trewsbury Meade beside a Roman Camp and a mound known as Trewsbury Castle. The name of the neighboring village derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word for spring or source. It is called Ewen. The path of the early river is marked by a line of straggling ancient thorns. The Lydwell along the birth course is known as Lyd Well, meaning loud spring.
At the Source or Close to it!

The river has many many tributaries. Close to where I live in Oxfordshire there are two interesting tributaries, the Cherwell and the Windrush. By the time the river reaches London there are buried tributaries such as the Fleet, a river that would have been navigable in the Anglo-Saxon era.

Abingdon , a location on the river in The Handfasted Wife
The Fleet is the greatest of all forgotten tributaries. It flows into the Thames under Blackfrairs Bridge. Its name may have derived from the Anglo-Saxon term for a tidal estuary or from the fleetness of water that gathered from it into the wells north of the city. Tributaries came together near Clerkenwell and Turnmill Street widening at Holborn where a bridge once crossed the Fleet. According to John Snow's Elizabethan survey of London the waters of The Fleet were so wide that ten ships with merchandise could use it at one time. It had also by the sixteenth century become in parts an open sewer that frequently needed cleansing.
Along the Thames in London

The river Thames acted as a boundary in Anglo-Saxon times between Wessex and Mercia. At Cookham on the border between the two kingdoms there was a monastery that kept changing hands between the two. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Wessex is written as The Kingdom South of the River, a poetic concept but one reinforcing the notion of the river as a boundary. In the seventh century London was known as Lundenwic. London quickly became an important port with trade links to continental Europe. When it was an Anglo-Saxon settlement, the early Saxons preserved commercial links with the Rhine. Imports of timber and resin came to Lundonwic by river and corn and wool were exported. Tolls were charged at Billingsgate and vessels were also charged fourpence to rest in the wharf.
Lambeth Bridge over the Thames

During the early medieval period Hiths and Quays were constructed along the riverbank within the protection of a wall built to shield London from invaders. In fact, the invasion of the Thames did happen in 893 AD. A Danish army landed in the Thames Estuary because if they had control of the river this would result in control of the country nearby and then they could attack both Mercia and Wessex from this river sanctuary. They were counter-attacked in 895. The attacks continued throughout this period until Canute gained control of the Thames and took the throne of England from 1016-1035.

The Danes are Coming

Peter Ackroyd writes that, according to the monastic chronicler Gildas, the Thames was always the river of boundaries, the guardian river. The Thames enters ancient charters from the seventh century on.  From it we discover the existence of dene holes by the river which were vast underground tunnels that were likened to vase-shaped structures with narrow necks. Ackroyd describes these as having a vertical shaft with a bell like chamber below that led to other chambers. Some historians suggest that these were grain pits or refuges from invaders. They may have been constructed by the Anglo-Saxons for chalk mining although no one knows. I wonder if there could be treasure hidden in undiscovered dene holes on the banks of the Thames. It is an interesting thought. Perhaps I  need to go looking.
Cheapside and the Fleet

You can find out more about the significance of the river in Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River. The river Thames and its tributaries features strongly in The Handfasted Wife and during a visit to London in The Swan-Daughter when a group of characters have difficulty crossing the crowded London Bridge on their way south to Canterbury.