Women’s rights…medieval style….

The Wife of Bath – possibly based on Alice Perrers – mistress to Edward III

As you might expect this is a money based post. A bride’s family were required to provide a dowry but as part of the agreement the groom was expected to provide for his new wife in the event that she became a widow. This was the dower and it was the evolution of the bride price and the groom turning up with a stack of gold on a shield on the morning of the wedding. The dower is one of the things required to legitimise the wedding…and wedding rings are symbolic of the gift or endowment. Conventionally a widow received a dower which was a life interest in one third of her late spouse’s estate. Obviously the husband had to hold the land outright, if it was entailed then it couldn’t be counted to the third. It didn’t even need to be set down in writing – it was a legal requirement and one of the reasons why the process of Inquest Post Mortem was so important in that it looked at an estate and decided who owned what and where any claims needed to be met.

There might also be a jointure. A jointure was the estate settled on the bride for the period of her widowhood – sometimes instead of the dower. The jointure in dictionary terms is a kind of joining in ownership that’s settled on the bride before the wedding to provide for her widowhood. A jointure came to equal one tenth of the bride’s dowry and was based on an income from the land. Failure of the bride’s family not to pay the dowry in its entirety could result in a woman not receiving her jointure (Think of Henry VII arguing with Ferdinand of Aragon about Katherine of Aragon’s jointure – resulting in the princess living in straitened circumstances after the death of Prince Arthur.)

Dowers and jointures made widows very marriageable because they kept the jointure even if they remarried.. They could also live independently and had more freedoms – think of the evolution of the femme sole status within the merchant and guild hierarchies. The concept of the “bride gift” and the dower were intertwined.

Widows had more choices about who they married next. Magna Carta forced the king to renounce his previous right to arrange the marriage of his barony as he saw fit. There were other laws that gradually removed feudal impediments from choice although in many instances a fine was required first. All of which sounds very Wife of Bath with her five husbands, steadily increasing wealth and Chaucerian smut. None the less there was an option for marrying for love rather than being bartered for the benefit of the whole family. Friedrichs points out the number of wealthy widows who married beneath them – suggesting love on the woman’s part at least.

However, and this won’t come as any great surprise, it didn’t always work out like that. Sir William Lucy managed to get himself killed during the Battle of Northampton in 1460. His widow, Margaret, was in her twenties and childless. There was a delay with the provision of her dower rights and because her jointure had been made without royal licence it was held not to be valid. Margaret was not sufficiently wealthy to make an independent choice about who she married and she was part of Warwick’s household. Her story is complicated by the fact that Edward IV took a shine to her.

Friedrichs, Rhoda L. ,”The remarriage of Elite Widows in the Later Middle Ages” Florilegium, vol 23, 1 (2006): 69-83

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