Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Sweet Clemence

Medieval women, especially noblewomen, are often depicted as pliant and oppressed, very much in the shadow of their menfolk. There were some notable exceptions, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc, but in general women in this era tend to be viewed as pawns - useful chattels, brood mares and bargaining counters, to be wedded, bedded and replaced once the inevitable pregnancies killed them off.

Shy and retiring? Moi?
One startling exception to the rule was Clemence de Lungvilers, a minor noblewoman whose family held lands at Egmanton in Nottinghamshire and Barnburgh in South Yorkshire. Unusually for a woman of her class and time, Clemence doesn't seem to have married, or perhaps her husband died young. She was scarcely in need of a husband to act as protector, for Clemence was as capable of violence as any man, especially when it came to defending her rights. The York Assize of 1273 records one particularly vicious assault she and her followers committed against a certain Richard de Boulton:

"Richard de Boulton appeared against Clemence de Lungvilers, William le Noble, John de Pengiston, William le Keu, Roger Cony, Hugh le Messager and William son of Maud de Egmanton, accusing them of having assaulted him lately at Egmanton, and beat, wounded and mistreated him, in such a way that he was completely in despair of his life, and took and carried away his money and other goods and chattels, and inflicted other serious damages on him against the peace of the lord king..."

The reason for this attack is not given, but we know from a later entry in the Patent Rolls that Richard was a forest official in the service of Richard de Clifford, a royal justice. Possibly Richard had overstepped the mark and tried to impose his authority on Clemence, If so, he soon had cause to regret it.

Clemence avoided prosecution thanks to two of her kinsmen, Robert Deyvill and William Deyvill, who stood surety for her behaviour in court. These local knights were her relatives by marriage, since her father, Sir John de Longvilers, had married into the Deyvill clan. The Deyvills were themselves a dangerous family, one of the lawless Mafia-style gangs of rural gentry that plagued England, and involved in a staggering level of crime. Between 1263 and 1281, they were indicted in over three hundred separate cases of robbery, homicide, arson and other crimes, as well as being active in the civil wars between Henry III and Simon de Montfort. One of the clan, Sir John Deyvill, described as a 'canny and hardy warrior', plundered almost every major town between York and London. Another, Jocelin, led a band of two hundred armed robbers who rode about the country disguised as monks, and was eventually drawn and hanged for his crimes.

A family wedding, medieval-style
With such people for in-laws, Clemence needed to tread carefully.  However, shortly after the assault on Richard de Boulton, family relations broke down:

"Clemence de Lungvilers claims that John de Eyvill, Adam his brother, Thomas de Eyvill, John de Eyvill the nephew of John, William, John de Eyvill's clerk, John de Husthayt, William de Eyvill of Egmanton and Robert de Eyvill of Egmanton came with force of arms to her manors of Egmanton and Barnburgh, seized and carried away her goods and belongings, and inflicted other outrages upon her. She demands justice."

The dispute between Clemence and the Deyvills rumbled on in the courts for almost a decade, until a final judgement was reached in 1278 whereby both parties were ordered to keep the peace. By now Edward I was on the throne, and he wasn't going to tolerate the sort of low-level crime and disorder that marred his father's reign. The violent energy of the Deyvills was channelled against the enemies of the realm: John and his kinsmen were summoned to do military service in Wales, where their taste for guerilla warfare could be put to good use. One of them, Adam, was killed during the final war of 1282 against Llewellyn ap Gruffydd.

Clemence, meanwhile, appears to have been left to enjoy her lands in peace. No shrinking violet, she wasn't afraid to use the tools of the men around her - casual violence, family connections, shameless recourse to law - to survive and prosper in an unimaginably bleak and bloody world.


  1. Both fascinating and enternating read! Thank you, David :)

  2. Sorry for the typos. I'm in a hurry ;)