Running a medieval baronial household

Bishop Grosseteste, window on the South transept Westernmost. St Paul’s Parish Church, Morton, Near Gainsborough.

In 1240 Bishop Robert Grosseteste wrote a set of rules to help his recently widowed friend Margaret, Countess of Lincoln to run her household efficiently. Her dower rights included four manors from her husband John de Lacy of Pontefract who became Earl of Lincoln by right of his wife, the earldom of Lincoln and the honour of Bolingbroke both of which she inherited from her mother Hawise of Chester. She would acquire further dower rights after the death her second husband.

Grosseteste began by explaining that it was essential for a widowed lady to know everything about the manors they held from the land and rent to customs, usages and fees. The lady did not need to tramp around all the fields notebook in hand but she should request a survey from a trusted freeholder or villein – and the information was to be written down for future reference. Not only should the steward have a copy of the final record but the lady should have one as well because in cases where justice needed to be served it was important that the lady could check the facts before reaching a decision. For manors to be run effectively a woman should make sure she employed trustworthy and reliable representatives. The sale of excess crops, the value of rents and fines as well as the sale of stock animals should cover the cost of purchases from wine to clothing to jewellery. As if that wasn’t enough the lady was also required to audit the accounts to make sure she wasn’t being cheated; oversee the religious devotion of the household leading by good example; ensure honesty and loyalty; punish those who deserve it; be a good hostess; make sure that liveries are kept in good condition; keep a good table; each Michaelmas plan the next year’s sojourn; buy things at the best time of year.

All of which makes me wonder how exactly the medieval legal system and the Church could suggest that a woman was legally, morally and intellectually inferior to a man? Margaret was regarded as one of two very important women of the period given that she was a close personal friend of Henry III’s queen Eleanor of Provence as well as being incredibly wealthy.

 Walter of Henley’s Husbandry, together with an Anonymous Husbandy, Seneschaucie, and Robert Grosseteste’s Rules, ed. and trans. Elizabeth Lamond, with an Introduction by W. Cunningham (London: Longmans, 1890), pp. 121-145 (English translation only). The modern scholarly edition of these texts is that of Dorothea Oschinsky, Walter of Henley and Other Treatises on Estate Management and Accounting (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

Mitchell (2003), Linda Elizabeth, Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England 1225-1350, Palgrave Macmillan

4 thoughts on “Running a medieval baronial household

  1. Interesting read thank you. Wonder if a woman with so much power was so unusual in C13? I like Nicola de la Haye of Lincoln. Not a period I know much about, but wonder about the origins of treating women as “inferior” in so many ways.

    • There are more than you might think. Maud Marshal Countess of Norfolk and Surrey was another one. And as for the inferior bit, I’m afraid that the Church has a lot to answer for.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.