In the final post of our Women's History Month series, Harriet Kersey examines the way that women used the law to claim their inheritance and protect their property rights - even if this meant litigating against other family members.
As the work of Scott Waugh shows, female inheritance was a regular occurrence in the thirteenth-century England. J. C. Holt explains that the early to mid-twelfth century brought about a 'formal' and 'deliberate' change in English law, enabling women to inherit jointly as co-heiresses in the absence of male heirs for the first time. The thirteenth century saw the division of numerous English earldoms between female coparceners including Chester, Leicester and Winchester. Partitions of earldoms or other large tracts of land amongst female co-heirs not only had a massive impact on landholding and political society, but also transformed the lives of the women who stood to inherit.
Such lands were seldom partitioned smoothly. A fantastic example of this is the division of the vast agglomeration of estates held by William Marshal, earl of Pembroke (d. 1219). Following the death of William's last surviving son Anselm in 1245, the Marshal estates were divided between his five daughters, and their heirs. By the time the final settlement was made in 1247, only one of the Marshal daughters, Matilda, was still living. As a result of this, there were thirteen different female coheirs. Seven of these heiresses were the daughters of Sybil Marshal (d. c. 1238) and William de Ferrers, earl of Derby (d. 1254), namely Agnes, Isabel, Matilda, Sibyl, Joan, Eleanor and Agatha. The fact that it took two years to make a settlement could perhaps be seen as indicative of the troubles to come.
The Ferrers daughters
For the Ferrers daughters, becoming heiresses to the Marshal estate was the beginning of a life of conflict. Disputes were rife between all of the coheirs and these can be traced well throughout the records kept within the king's chancery. It is clear that these women were not afraid to bring forward pleas of land, with or without their husbands, and often came to blows with each other and their fellow Marshal coheirs. It is apparent that the Ferrers sisters were heavily active, both as wives and widows, in the legal processes necessary to maintain and defend their inherited rights to land and property. Perhaps some of the most interesting lawsuits we see, are the disputes between the sisters themselves.
It has been estimated that the Marshals' lands in England and Wales were worth 1,333 p.a and the fief of Leinster (Ireland), 1715 p.a. The Ferrers daughters received as their portion of the Marshal inheritance the whole county of Kildare (Ireland) amongst other lands and fees of the Marshal in both England and Ireland. Despite this, the king's decision to acknowledge the dower rights of Margaret de Lacy, widow of Anselm Marshal in 1248 meant that the Ferrers daughters came to be disinherited of the county. The king ordered that the seven heiresses should receive lands from the shares of the other coheirs as compensation. This decision meant that the fortunes of the Ferrers sisters were even more closely tied to those of their fellow coheirs, as is demonstrated by the lawsuits that evolved as a result.
Ferrers lands in Kildare, Ireland
The most litigious of the Ferrers sisters seems to be Agnes. Agnes was widowed in 1253, following the death of her husband, William, whilst on expedition in Gascony. Agnes never remarried and thereby retained her legal independence until her death in 1290 - an incredible period of 37 years. Agnes frequently came into conflict with her sisters, either as a group or individually, following their inheritance. In late 1272, following Margaret de Lacy's death in 1266, Agnes' three surviving sisters, Matilda, Eleanor and Agatha brought a plea before the king's court against their eldest sister. Perhaps it is significant to note that Matilda was still a married woman at this point. Agatha had been widowed at the beginning of this year, and Eleanor had just become a widow for the third time following the death of her husband, Roger de Leybourne, the previous year. This initial plea turned into a bitter, three year battle.
The three sisters stated that Agnes had taken possession of the county of Kildare and numerous liberties following Margaret's death including the profits of pleas, and of the seal and the appointment of bailiffs. Matilda, Eleanor and Agatha complained that these belonged to all four of them as coheiresses and asked that they receive justice and their rights be restored. Agnes herself complained that she had been ejected of her seisin without being summoned and demanded that the king's justiciar and escheator in Ireland return this to her. The case was then adjourned until the Hilary term because Agnes stated that she could not answer the plea without Matilda, who was absent from the proceedings and was summoned for the next meeting. It may seem that Agnes was trying to delay the proceedings but it was actually a legal requirement for all coparceners to be present in any plea concerning their inheritance. Together they were one heir.
Following this adjournment Matilda dutifully presented herself along with her sisters Eleanor and Agatha in early January 1273 only to find that Agnes herself was not present. She had excused herself and was sent a further writ of summons by the Irish justiciar but could apparently not appear 'by consequence of the Irish sea'. This was, indeed, just one of the many problems faced by both men and women who held lands overseas. Eventually, the sheriff of Dorset was ordered to summon her for July that year and to carry out the partition of lands and profits between the four sisters. Despite the order for partition to be made, the case rumbled on throughout 1273 and into 1274. In November 1274, Agnes' attorney represented her in a plea against Matilda, her husband Emery, Eleanor and Agatha as to why she had deforced them of their rightful portions of Kildare. The case was finally resolved in February 1275. Agnes had attempted to bring forward a plea of abatement in the case owing to Eleanor's death in 1274. The plea was overruled and as a result of Eleanor's death without issue, her portion of the Kildare inheritance was divided between her three sisters Agnes, Matilda and Agatha.
To ensure that the suit was settled once and for all, the court ruled that Agnes and her heirs appoint a number of officers to the county: a seneschal for its custody, a chancellor to keep its seal and a treasurer, if required, to receive its issues. These officers were to meet twice yearly at Easter and Michaelmas to discuss all issues concerning the county. The amounts due to each sister (and their heirs) were outlined according to the extent made by the king in 1271, Agnes' being the largest at 27. 12s. 8 p., Agatha's at 19. 5s. 10p., and finally Matilda and her husband Emery's was 12. 7s. 3 p. Any remaining sum was to be divided equally between the three sisters. If the profits of the county and seal were worth less than the amounts laid out in the extent, the sisters' allotments were to be reduced in equal measures. It would seem from this point that the case was settled. The documents do not provide any further evidence of the case continuing at least.
The dispute outlined here is just one of those that occurred between the Ferrers daughters following their inheritance of the Marshal estates. This lawsuit makes it plain that the Ferrers women, both in marriage and widowhood, were capable political and legal agents and were not shy in asserting and defending their claims, even if it meant coming into conflict with their sisters. There are dozens of entries within the legal records indicating their appointment of attorneys to act on their behalves in varying lawsuits. During the dispute with her sister Agnes, Matilda is found appointing her own attorney, William de Esse, in addition to her husband Emery's. She is also found a little later appointing an attorney, against Agnes once more, entirely independently. This raises some important questions regarding the level of engagement and access that women, of varying marital status, had to law in this period.
There is no denying that the Ferrers sisters were fiercely determined to safeguard their personal shares of the family lands. It is also clear that the sisters were happy to work both with and against each other in order to protect their respective landed rights. This leads to questions regarding the nature of their sisterly relationship and how, if at all, it was affected by such disputes. Sisters working together to secure and protect their inherited rights suggests that a close sisterly bond did exist between them. There must have been a mutual recognition and respect that they needed to protect what was rightfully theirs. Co-operation would certainly make the defence of their landed rights a much easier task, but how did this translate into everyday life? It cannot ever be known for sure but this is something that requires further consideration.
Harriet Kersey is a final year PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University under the supervision of Professor Louise Wilkinson and Dr Leonie Hicks. Her thesis is entitled 'Aristocratic Female Inheritance and Property Holding in Thirteenth-Century England'.
She is on Twitter @HarrietKersey1