The secret afterlives of medieval widows

Widows in the Middle Ages weren’t always the penniless, powerless figures we’ve made them out to be—they’re the reason why Britain has its beautiful monuments and churches

June 18, 2021
Image: Pixnio
Image: Pixnio

When Margaret Holland, a medieval English noblewoman, was preparing for her death in 1439, she had her first and second husbands’ bodies exhumed.

It didn’t matter to her that both husbands had been buried, at their own request, next to the tomb of Henry IV and the shrine of the saint of martyr Thomas Becket, one of the holiest places in Christendom.

Margaret commissioned a lavish tomb with her effigy in the centre and her deceased husbands on either side—a post-mortem ménage à trois designed to emphasise her importance.

Margaret’s monument, with its startlingly bright heraldry and emblems encrusted with jewels, can still be seen today in Canterbury Cathedral and is a far cry from the image we have come to associate with widows of the Middle Ages.

The erasure from our history books of powerful widows like Margaret, and later somewhat pathetic portrayals of widowhood, such as Mrs Sparsit from Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, have given us the false impression that these women were always penniless and vulnerable, forced to rely on the goodwill of their husbands’ families and leaving behind little more than a prayer book and beads.

But by tracing the lives of some of these women and closely examining monuments of the time, we can see an altogether different story. Some of the widows of the Middle Ages were not only agents of creativity, but are also our unknown patrons of the arts.

Widows who moved in well-connected circles and were financially savvy could amass unprecedented wealth after their husbands died. This brought with it opportunities to lavish money on the arts and commission the building of some of our most loved cathedrals, monuments and churches. It also gave them the power to express their former marital ties in ways that transgressed the norms and expectations of their sex, as Margaret Holland did with her ménage à trois monument in Canterbury Cathedral.

The turning point appears to have been the increasing use of “jointures” in the 14th and 15th centuries. Lands that were part of a jointure were owned jointly by a husband and woman, but became the sole property of the surviving partner if the other died.

This opened up an important new way for widows to accumulate wealth. It wasn’t uncommon for women in the Middle Ages to marry two, three or even four times. And rather than have to give up land from her previous marriage when she re-married, a widow could now retain her shares in all her ex-husbands’ estates and accumulate further wealth with each new man.

Alice Chaucer, the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, is another widow who has vanished into obscurity, despite having been a considerable benefactor of the arts. Alice was born a “commoner” and rose to the highest echelons of aristocracy through three marriages, outliving her husbands. She rejected her first and second husbands’ requests to have her buried with them and instead had a mausoleum built entirely for herself in Oxfordshire. Among Alice’s legacy is Ewelme, an Oxfordshire manor that includes an alms house, school and chapel.

Her tomb is one of the most innovative and transgressive memorials to survive from the Middle Ages, depicting her dressed in the robes of a duchess and surrounded by a host of angels. Hidden inside the tomb’s chest is a sculpture showing her naked body, breasts exposed, gazing upwards at painted images of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.

Katherine Clifton was the richest person in Norwich, one of the wealthiest cities in England at the time. Her first husband, Ralph Green, left her most of his property at the expense of his younger brother, who sued for what he believed to be his rightful inheritance. After successfully defending her rights, she donated money for a tower for Blackfriars Church in Norwich as well as a new porch for St Ethelreda’s church in the city.

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Katherine Clifton: Courtesy of Jessica Barker

These widows, and the roles they’ve played in shaping our artistic heritage, have slipped into obscurity in part because it has been so difficult to trace their lives. While a man’s legal identity remained largely the same over the course of his life, each new marriage meant an entirely new identity for a woman as she was subsumed into the family of her new husband.

As with so many other examples of women in history, the role of the medieval widow has been overlooked. Even scholars of the Middle Ages have often assumed that unless a building or monument is distinctively “feminine,” it would have been commissioned by a man. But when we start to dig into these widows’ lives, it’s striking how much our public monuments and buildings owe to the patronage and creativity of medieval widows.

Recent debates over public monuments have highlighted how poorly represented women are. Only 42 sculptures out of more than 800 in the whole of the UK represented a named non-royal woman. One answer to this problem is to erect new monuments. Another is to recognise the centuries-long contribution of women, and in particular widows of the Middle Ages, to our public monuments and urban fabric.