Exhibit of the Week: Harsh reality of life for medieval women

Pickering Castle
Pickering Castle
Share this article

During the medieval period, a fascinating cast of characters inhabited the castles English Heritage cares for and preserves in the modern day. The stories of their lives and the marital and political drama that entwined day to day life give us an incredible insight into the period. A particularly interesting woman is Alice de Lacy, who, for a time, lived in Pickering Castle. During her life, she was abducted as a political pawn and endured no less than three marriages. Her life, and that of her first husband, Thomas of Lancaster, makes for a thrilling glimpse of the stories that lay behind the history of Pickering Castle.

Alice de Lacy was born with an inheritance most at the time could only dream of. Born to the Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, and the Countess of Salisbury Margaret Longespée, her status as an only surviving heiress, enabled her to inherit both of these earldoms as her birth-right. Therefore, she was a wealthy heir in both financial terms and also in terms of her titles, making her a sought after bride. She was soon betrothed to Thomas of Lancaster, heir to the earldoms of Lancaster, Leicester and Derby. Thomas also had royal blood, as he was the nephew of Edward I and the grandson of Henry III. At the age of 13, Alice married Thomas, who himself was only 16. Upon the marriage, Thomas took Alice’s rights to Lincoln and Salisbury as per the conditions of a contract drawn up prior to the wedding, meaning that these earldoms would remain his in his own right, something which would later prove extremely poignant- and devastating for Alice.

History appears to suggest that the marriage between Thomas and Alice was unhappy, as the two lived apart. Thomas had renovated Pickering Castle, spending £341,15s 8d (around £35,000 in modern day terms) on the construction of a brand new hall, using four hundred cartloads of stone. He also provided an extravagant plastered chamber for Alice to use privately. He had also constructed another site, Dunstanburgh Castle on the North East coastline now cared for by English Heritage. However, despite working to make Pickering castle a more inviting place to live, Thomas did not reside there himself, leaving Alice alone as he had affairs and fathered children out of wedlock. She was far from her original home of Pontefract Castle, where she had socialised as part of court life, and must have felt isolated. After gaining her titles, Thomas had little further use for his wife; the two did not even go on to produce any offspring.

Thomas’ lineage and political influence translated to heated conflict in 1317: alongside alienating his cousin, King Edward II, by joining a group of nobles who ousted their ruler’s favourite and alleged lover, Piers Gaveston, he had also intervened in John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey’s divorce from his wife Joan de Bar, managing to prevent it. De Warenne wished to marry his mistress, Maud de Nerford, with whom he had fathered sons. The king had given consent for the divorce to go ahead, but during this period, papal dispensation took precedence over the king’s rulings. Thomas intervened and revealed that papal dispensation had been granted for the original marriage, meaning that divorce was entirely out of the question. De Warenne retaliated with anger. In May 1317, he abducted Alice from her hunting lodge in Dorset, and took her to one of his castles, Reigate Castle. Although there was clearly little love lost between Alice and her husband, the abduction was a humiliating blow to Thomas’ pride, triggering further violence. Thomas besieged de Warenne’s castles, including another English Heritage site, Conisbrough Castle, and turned Maud de Nerford, the mistress, out of her home.

Historians wonder as to Alice’s feelings regarding her abduction. As she had been living apart from Thomas, and could see that he was going against the king, it may have been convenient to be taken into the care of another man, out of her husband’s remit. She married again not long after, to a baron of the Welsh Marches, named Eble le Strange. Judging by the evidence left behind, this was a happier marriage, but Alice’s troubles were not yet over. Following Eble’s death, Edward III demanded Alice’s lands. Terrified that another man may seek her out as a wife, Alice made a vow of chastity before the bishop of Lincoln, possibly signifying that she was still devoted to her late husband. However, this didn’t stop her third marriage from taking place. Using bribery and force, Sir Hugh de Freyne abducted Alice and took her to Somerton Castle, where he kidnapped her as a way to claim her lands and estates. It is thought she may have been raped, and contemporary law stipulated in some cases that the rapist had to marry his victim, and in this case, that is what may have happened.

There is even some evidence that the Pope sent her a letter of disapproval at the breaking of her vow of chastity, with little regard to the circumstance involved. A petition surviving from 1335 noted that “Lacy requests that a speedy remedy be ordained for her that she may be at her own will and amongst her friends as she has been ravished by Frene, who has taken her from her castle of Bolingbroke and is detained by him in the Tower of London.”

Alice’s vulnerability when unmarried, despite her wealth and protection, is a saddening reminder of the harsh reality of life for medieval women during this period.

Pickering Castle is looked after by English Heritage, who care for more than 400 properties in England. To find out more about visiting Pickering Castle, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/pickering-castle Pickering Castle is closed in winter, but reopens for the season on 30 March. See the website for castles in Yorkshire open at weekends over the winter season.