By Judith A. Green
Prosopon: Newsletter of the Unit of Prosopographical Research, Issue 12 (2001)
Introduction: A few years ago I wrote of aristocratic women in early twelfth-century England that we must be sure not to make the surviving evidence fit into a framework of what we know to have been custom later, by assuming that a son passed over in favour of a daughter must have been illegitimate, or that there may have been two marriages, or that daughters inherited all their mothers’ lands. In other words, how flexible were norms of inheritance – I use ‘norms’ rather than ‘customs’ here deliberately – where women were concerned in early twelfth-century England? I suggested that, although we probably only hear part of the story from the written evidence, we need to place women in the context of their families to understand the decisions that were made about inheritance and marriage. Further problems arise when we remember that the written records usually relate to aristocratic women and (often) to special cases: the marriage settlement of Miles of Gloucester and Sybil of Neufmarché, for instance. Yet some of the greatest honours of England, such as Belvoir, Huntingdon, and Wallingford, to name but three, descended through women. The claims of women, whether as heiresses or as wives, thus presented opportunities for their overlord, the king, and they were also sensitive political issues. Marriage was, as Sir Richard Southern wrote, ‘the easiest road to ready-made wealth’ in Norman England, and if some became (by modern standards) millionaires on marriage, others must have been disappointed or angry when decisions about important marriages were announced.