Women in Medieval London

This afternoon I attended a virtual lecture by the Guildhall Library entitled Women in Medieval London. The speaker was Caroline Barron, Professor Emerita at Royal Holloway and President of the British Association For Local History.

She began by saying that it made a difference to be able to physically meet again, though she still welcomed those watching on Zoom. She showed two maps of London produced by the Historic Towns Trust – one for 1300, the other for 1520. She said that it is much more difficult to map medieval London compared to other English towns such as Norwich or York due to the extreme scale of change that has taken place over the centuries. One cannot simply work backwards from a 1970s Ordnance Survey, but must instead work from the ground up with surviving deeds and wills.

The Black Death killed half of London’s population. As in the Second World War, this resulted in a lot of women filling vacancies left by the slain men. London had over a hundred county churches in 1300, but pre-Reformation records only survive for thirty of them. Records survive from local governments and the Livery Companies. There are plenty of wills left by widows, but very few from wives or maidens. There are very few private papers, letters or diaries from which to glean intimate personal information. Women never served as sheriffs, aldermen or mayors, but exercised public authority in other ways. Barron cited the example of a 1372 dispute between dyers, leather sellers and pouch makers, the eventual agreement for which cited John & Agnes Blackthorn, John & Lucy Whiting, and Richard & Catherine Weston. Another example was Alice Holford serving as bailiff of London Bridge for over twenty years. Very little record survives of medieval attitudes towards female authority. Accounts from ward moots of Queenhithe show complaints about John of Ely, assayer of oysters, delegating his functions to women, who then allowed good and bad oysters to be mixed.

Outside of nunneries it appeared that very few women remained unmarried. City custom allowed married women to trade as femme sole, and allowed girls to be apprenticed (meaning that the husband was not involved). A proclamation in 1404 required every apprentice to be enrolled at the Guildhall, explicitly referring to both male and female.

Chattel was more important in London than elsewhere, for the rural gentry tended to have most of their wealth tied up in land. When a man of the city died, custom dictated that one third each went to his widow, his children, and a charitable cause. A London widow was also entitled to dower until death or remarriage, and could remain in her husband’s residence indefinitely unlike elsewhere. On 12th January 1465 the Court of Aldermen declared every woman married to a freeman and living with him at his death (important because divorce was very difficult prior to the reformation, so failed coupled would often resort to simply living apart) inherited his freedom to trade for as long as she lived in London and did not remarry. Barron mentioned Stephanie Hovland’s thesis on apprenticeships in medieval London, and showed the indenture of Katharine Nougle from 1392. Hovland found that only thirty such documents survived (partly because the Chamberlain of London’s records were destroyed in a fire), of which nine were for women. There are references to female apprentices in cases at the Mayor’s Court, and in provisions of men’s wills, such as the cutler Philip Waltham (d. 1426) who specified that his three apprentice girls should receive 6s8d if they behaved well towards his wife Ellen. About three quarters of men appointed their widows as executors.

A fascinating document is the original (not copied) will of Emma the Smerewyf from 1260. It was A5 in size and held four seals. It is kept in the Bodleian Library despite her living in London. She left property in the parish of St. Sepulchre to her husband, who in turn left it to a clerk, who in 1278 gifted it to Osney Abbey, which was then absorbed by Christ Church College in 1545. Emma gave a house and all her utensils to her husband with the condition that after his death they went to the poor. She distributed over £40 in alms to the poor, to various nunneries and to St Mary’s Hospital in Bishopsgate. She had a second house in St. Sepulchre, which she used to set up a chantry. Apparently childless, she named her nephew Alan as an executor and gave him five marks of silver. In the thirteenth century the custom against will-making by married women had not yet been established.

Widows were the most powerful women in medieval London. Barron found Johanna Hill particularly interesting: She was a Bell Founder, the foundry in Aldgate run by her husband Richard (d. May 1440). He had four apprentices. Johanna was his executor and took over the foundry. On 28th March 1441 she made a contract with Faversham Church to make them five new bells and repair any defective ones. Barron showed some examples of fifteenth century bell founders’ marks, including Richard Hill’s shield of arms which Joanna differenced by a lozenge. Her own will mentioned a bell maker, apprentices, servants, and a scrivener. She left everything to her namesake daughter, who passed the foundry to John Sturdy and his wife (a third Johanna), who made another contract with the same church.

John Minse, an imager, died in the plague of 1348-9 leaving his tenements in St Mildred, Poultry to his widow Matilda with remainder to his daughters Alice and Isabella, and then in default of the heirs of their bodies to a chantry in the parish. Matilda was to be Isabella’s guardian and co-executor with two men: Gilbert de Wendover (ironmonger) and Roger Oathkin (grocer). All three met their own death the next year. Matilda’s will gave her best instruments and a chest to William her apprentice. She transferred him to the service of Br Thomas Hailsham of Bermondsey Priory for the rest of his training. Her house was sold to buy a chantry for herself, her husband and – unusually – her siblings. Her daughters are not mentioned, but in June 1353 there is a mention of Isabella’s guardianship. The orphans of citizens were in those days assigned guardians by the aldermen. She was committed to Thomas de Straundon, a cofferer, with four sureties. In 1355 he rendered account for her inheritance and in April 1362 she came of age, acknowledging her inheritance with satisfaction. It is hard to track her after that, as if she married she would have changed her name.

Barron concluded that women in medieval London were not valued solely for breeding as in the aristocracy, and though lacking governing power could still exercise considerable economic power, especially as the Black Death increased their necessity. The population of England as a whole declined until 1400 and did not pick up again until 1500. One result was a high rate of immigration Flanders to find work.

There followed a question session, the first queries coming from the room:

I thought the husband took all his wife’s property.

Mostly true, but some husbands gave permission for the wife to will separately. Many of the examples were from before that custom solidified.

If women remarried override their wills?

The old husband’s will would not be overridden, but the new husband took take the widow’s inheritance. Wealthy widows were highly sought for this reason, but often they were reluctant to give up their autonomy. Many became vowesses to escape the pressure, and sometimes husbands made this a condition of a larger inheritance.

Why did these female economic freedoms later fall away. Was it simply a matter of there being more men around?

Once the population rose again there was a lot of poverty in England due to unemployment, inflation and pasteurisation of arable land. There was a feeling that women shouldn’t take jobs from men, as in the twentieth century.

What proportion of the later population was middle class (the one for whom we have records)?

Strictly speaking everyone was supposed to draw up a will. We have some from very poor people. Among merchants in the late fourteenth century the wills are full of bequests to the poor.

How literate were the women of this time?

They had a lot of “pragmatic literacy”. There were opportunities to be educated by chantry priests. Women signed their names in documents. Common profit books were passed to both men and women.

The next few questions were through Zoom.

Liz Duchovni: Do indentures survive in other cities so we can compare the gender balance to London?

Some freedom registers survive in York, not necessarily apprenticeship registers. In general the opportunities in London were greater than in other towns. London was exceptional, but then as a London historian I would say that.

Jonathan Wober: To what extent were the privileges for women in London different to other cities?

Legitim was only practised in London and York, where it was abolished in the eighteenth century. My colleague Dr Clive Burgess has not found the same in Bristol. London was the best place for an ambitious woman. That may still be true.

Deborah Stock: What did lower class women do? Were they home based, or doing other work? Within a city context they couldn’t have been agricultural labourers.

There are a lot of bequests in wills to female domestic servants, including dowries so they could marry.

Liz Galaxy: Did women need their husbands’ permission to work?

There were no regulations. I think it would be a strategic decision. It would be in a man’s interest to let his wife trade as a femme sole, since then he was not liable for her debts.

Gillian: What was the average marriage age for women?

Aristocratic girls married as soon as they could physically have children. Apprenticed girls did not marry until course was finished. This could explain why the London population rose at a slower pace than elsewhere.

Gillian: Statue of Licoricia, Jewish moneylender, at Winchester?

I wonder if Emma the Smerewyf was also a moneylender, though if she was setting up chantries she clearly wasn’t Jewish.

Alison Parry: Endowments to poor widows are still going in St Bartholemew’s. Now paid as 20p, only one claims per year. Are there any others?

A lot of charities are still going, mostly those which set up schools. Dick Whittington set up almshouses to be run by the Mercers’ Company. These charities have survived better than chantries, which were often lost in the reformation.

Rachael Holter: Would widows automatically lose their freedoms if they remarried?

Widows were known to be very wealthy. When the Guildhall was rebuilt in the late fifteenth century they kept a register of widows from whom to find funds. Not all women wanted to be independent.

Alison Turner: Did male apprentices also need permission to marry?

On the whole male apprentices were not supposed to marry until they completed their courses, whereas it was anticipated that females might do so.


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