Medieval English Queens as Landowners

By Katia Wright

An important aspect of a queen’s power derived from her financial revenue. Throughout the medieval period English queens received income from numerous sources, however the largest of the queen’s revenues were drawn from her vast estates. These properties were granted to the queen by the crown to provide for her household and granted more than just income. As the owner of a large estate the queen’s financial position and political influence were interdependent and enabled the queen to gain substantial economic and political power. As such, these estates were vital for the queen to maintain her own position and status, both as the wife of the king and as the symbolic extension of the king’s royal authority.

By the late medieval period, property was granted to English queens in three distinct ways:

  • for life which referred to a lifetime grant
  • during pleasure, which was a temporary grant of undetermined length
  • and in dower, a grant of property that was traditionally intended for the widow, but during certain periods was also accessed by consort queens.

Queenly dower did not follow the customs of the English nobility, in which dower was intended solely for the widow. Rather, its customs fluctuated across the medieval period. Queens of the early middle ages had access to lands specifically identified as dower as both consorts and dowagers, however by the thirteenth century, the dower lands assigned to queens were explicitly reserved for their widowhood, with other lands and grants providing the necessary income. Yet, by the fifteenth century, dower was clearly provided as a lifetime grant for both the consort and the dowager, highlighting that the custom of queenly dower had changed again. Despite these changes to queenly dower, queens continuously held crown property as a major source of revenue throughout their lives as both consorts and dowagers, across the medieval period.

As both a queen and a landowner of vast estates, the queen was in an incredibly unique position. The queen was a married woman who held her lands outright, unlike any other married aristocratic woman. As the wife of the king, the queen’s legal status was enhanced, granting her a position of power normally only experienced by independent noble women such as an unmarried heiress or a dowager peeress. As such, the queen was unlike her noble counterparts: as a married woman she maintained large estates like any male magnate whilst simultaneously, as the king’s wife, embodied an office and position greater than any other landowner in the country.

Yet, though the queen held these lands outright in truth they were crown property, granted to her by her husband. The queen’s entire position, her financial and political power, was connected to her status as the wife or mother of the king. Therefore, though she fulfilled a uniquely powerful position as a married woman and independent landowner of her estates, she was equally uniquely vulnerable and financially dependent on the generosity of the king. This can be seen clearly in the limitations to the administration of her properties. Unlike other landowners, the queen’s lands could be surrendered at the king’s will, were held solely for her lifetime and were subsumed back into the crown’s larger estates upon her death, as with any dowager peeress. As such, the queen’s properties were inalienable: she could grant property, offices, and keeperships on her estates, but these grants could only be held for the duration of her life and had to be confirmed by the king.

Through the extended study of queen’s lands, it is evident that a queen’s properties frequently fluctuated, and changes to a queen’s estates were common: small groups of her properties were often redistributed, and though intrusive, the queen was generally compensated either through property or a temporary grant of revenue until property could be provided. However, the reasoning behind these changes were rarely noted in the records. They could easily be connected to a need to increase the queen’s income, fulfilling grants to specific magnates, or the need for the king to assert his dominance. Additionally, the political events of the time could equally impact the changes within the queen’s estates. These fluctuations highlight the queen’s potentially precarious financial situation in her reliance on the king’s generosity, and how external influences could impact the estates of each queen across the fourteenth century.

Studying the lands of medieval queens reveals the intricacies in both the queen’s role and position as a landowner, and within her own estates. Though the queen was in a unique position as a married woman and landlord, there were both advantages and limitations to her role as a landowner that could simultaneously benefit her political position or cause extreme financial limitations. The queen’s vulnerability within her lands was unparalleled across the country, and though the king frequently sought to maintain the balance between provisions for the queen and his own political strategy, personal relations and extreme political events could easily result in the loss and seizure of the queen’s property, potentially limiting both the queen’s power and influence. it is evident that though queens held lands as a vital source of income, the detailed study of their estates reveals both the complexities and significance of a queen’s property and her position and status as the wife or mother of the king.

Odiham Castle.

Suggested for further reading

Benz St John, L., Three Medieval Queens: Queenship and the Crown in Fourteenth Century England (New York, 2012).

Crawford, A., ‘The Queen’s Council in the Middle Ages’, English Historical Review, 116.469 (2001), 1193-1211.

Laynesmith, J. L., The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1503 (Oxford, 2004).

Seah, M., “The Material Foundations of Queenship in Late-Medieval England, 1445-1503”, PhD Thesis, University of Newcastle, Australia, 2019. 

Seah, M. and Wright, K., ‘The Medieval English Queen as Landholder: Some Reflections on Sources and Methodology’, in Sarti, C., (ed.)., Women and Economic Power in Premodern Royal Courts (Leeds, 2020), 9-34.

Wright, K., ‘The Queen’s Lands: Understanding the Sources for Fourteenth Century English Queens’, conference paper presented at Kings and Queens 6, Madrid, 2017.

Wright, K., ‘The Transformation of Lands and the Transformation of Power: Isabella of France and the Fluctuations of her Property’, conference paper presented at Kings and Queens 9 E-Conference, 2020.

One thought on “Medieval English Queens as Landowners

  1. A very interesting introduction into the intricacies of land ownership for a queen during the medieval period. It must have been quite difficult for them to maintain a clear understanding of the properties that they owned, if a king could take them back when they wished to.

    Like

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