Researching a New Persona, Part 2

Okay, I lied. I still don’t know who Katherine is amidst the backdrop of early 14th century England. But I’ve been doing some reading, and it was interesting enough to me that I figured I’d write down what I’ve found out so far so that I have a record of it somewhere.

Since last I wrote, I have:
– Read The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. This was an absolutely fascinating read; I think I finished it in three days. (I have both a hard-copy and an epub digital version, if anyone would like me to send it their way.) In short, Mortimer takes his readers on a guided tour of 14th century England as though it were a modern but foreign country, not a centuries-dead historical artifact. He describes things like what people wore, how they lived, how justice was meted out, what sorts of games people played, and so on. He makes sure to point out the huge differences between rich and poor, and on the flip side how the “three estates” were starting to blend together (rich merchants marrying their daughters to sons of esquires, for example). He even gives a “top ten sights to see in 14th century London,” which is pretty amazing. I loved it from cover to cover.

– Read the opening chapters of London: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd. Also very well researched, though only a few chapters cover the time period I’m investigating. My favorite parts were the excerpts of William Fitz-Stephen’s 12th century account of the city, which is slightly before my time but I think gives a very good sense of what it must have been like to live in London in the high middle ages. It was kind of slow going as I was reading, though, because I was constantly looking up street names on Google Maps. At least now I have a better imagine of the size and important places of Medieval London and how they all fit together.

– Researched in more depths the conflicts between the barons and Piers Gaveston, particularly after stumbling across the Wikipedia article for The Ordinances of 1311. I’ve had a great time researching some of the more prominent tenants -in-chief of England and their families, among them:

  • Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster: The third-richest man in England after the King and Queen, Thomas of Lancaster was one of the Lords Ordainers and led the barons against Edward II. He was responsible for Piers Gaveston being stolen away from the safekeeping of the Earl of Pembroke and executed. He becomes even more important later, in the early 1320s, when he leads the rebels again and is ultimately beheaded.
  • Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke: Also a Lord Ordainer and very rich, Pembroke took Piers Gaveston into custody on May 19, 1312 (“last year” for Katherine, the day after her birthday), except that the Earls of Lancaster, Warwick, Hereford, and Arundel seized him and executed him a month later. This led Pembroke to turn against Lancaster and side firmly with the king. Oops.
  • Guy de Beauchamp, 10th Earl of Warwick: One of the barons who opposed Edward II and Gaveston and who stole him away from the Earl of Pembroke and arranged for his (Gaveston’s) execution. Despite his role in all this, he was apparently considered a man of exceptionally good judgement and learning and owned a large collection of books. Like most of the other big-wigs I’ve been researching, he was very rich.
  • John of Brittany, 3rd Earl of Richmond: Even though he was a Lord Ordainer, he wasn’t really involved in the brouhaha over Piers Gaveston, spending more of his time as a soldier (he was named Guardian of Scotland) and a diplomat. At this point, he’s still considered generally loyal to Edward II.
  • John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey: Like Pembroke, he was instrumental in capturing Gaveston, but when Lancaster stole him away, Surrey became his bitter enemy. There were private wars between the two of them for years.
  • Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Hertford: Oh, my God, I love the de Clare family. So much that I’m considering having Katherine be in service to their house. I love the whole family, which reads kind of like a soap opera. The highlights: Gilbert’s mother was Joan of Acre, daughter of Edward I. She did things like marry a squire (Unheard of! Scandal!) after her much-older first husband, another Gilbert, died. The current Gilbert – who became Earl of Gloucester and Hertfort in 1308 at the age of 16 – helped negotiate the settlement between the barons and the king after Gaveston was killed. I don’t think Gilbert actually cared as much about Gaveston because his sister Margaret was married to him, but he did care about the king’s lack of progress in Scotland. Right now, in the summer of 1313, Gilbert is Guardian of the Realm, while the king is off in France. I imagine he’s getting pretty pissed that the King is south in France instead of north in Scotland, where he should be fighting Robert the Bruce. Sadly for Gilbert, he will be the most prominent death at the Battle of Bannockburn in Scotland, almost exactly a year from now.But wait! It gets better! Gilbert’s death causes a power vacuum in Ireland where he held lands, leading to an invasion by Robert the Bruce’s brother. Even more than that, though, his estates (worth 6,000 pounds, a huge amount) were first taken into royal possession and then distributed to his sisters in 1317. And, oh, his sisters. The middle sister, Margaret, had been married to Piers Gaveston until last year, and we all saw how well that worked out for her. She now has a small child (Amie Gaveston, born Jan. 6, 1311), and has lost her lands. After Gilbert dies, she gains part of his inheritance and the king (her uncle) arranges for a match between her and another favorite, Hugh de Audley, in 1317. The oldest of the three sisters (though still younger than Gilbert) is Eleanor, is currently married to Hugh le Despenser the Younger, which is gonna be a really big deal in the near future. Really, really big. She’s already got five kids and will have another four before Hugh is hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1326. (I told you it was big.) The youngest sister, Elizabeth, was born in Acre, married in 1308 and had a son in 1312, and the year later (i.e. “this year”) her husband was killed in a minor skirmish. She winds up having two more short-lived marriages, is imprisoned several times, and ultimately takes a vow of chastity and founds Clare College, Cambridge.

    I love this family so much. Joan of Acre would have been about ten years older than Katherine; she’s dead now (died in 1307). Her children are about ten years younger than Katherine, being born in the early 1290s. Not sure where that leaves me in terms of how Katherine might have been associated with the household, but it bears thinking about.

Speaking of being associated with households, I’ve encountered a small problem. See, it turns out that women were a lot less prominent than even I’d anticipated. Ian Mortimer notes that even in noble households headed by a woman, there are very few women “on staff.” He provides the example of the Earl of Devon, who had 135 people in his household, of which only three were women (probably washerwomen). He notes that the only resident females would be the lord’s wife and daughters and their personal companions. Now, that said, Katherine may well have been one of these “personal companions.” I can imagine her as a baron’s daughter, maybe, serving with one of Gilbert de Clare’s sisters or maybe even (formerly) Joan of Acre. Not sure if that’s too up-jumpy for my liking; I’ll have to think on it.

I still haven’t given up on the idea of London, though. The more I read, the more I find it a really fascinating place. Admittedly, it’s been a bit tricky finding accounts from the early 14th century; most accounts I’ve found so far are either from the 12th century or the late 14th, after the Great Plague decimated the city in the mid-century. Honestly, I think the 13th or even 12th century accounts are probably closer to what Katherine would have experienced than the late 14th-century ones. Imagine a city losing 40% of its population – you don’t just bounce back from that very quickly. Things change.

Again, I don’t know where I envision Katherine if she’s from London. I haven’t gotten quite that far along yet. Still, for two weeks of work, it’s not a bad bit of progress. Onwards!

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