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Women and the Legitimisation of Succession at the Norman Conquest

Women and the Legitimisation of Succession at the Norman Conquest

By Eleanor Searle

Working Papers from California Institute of Technology, Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, No.328 (1980)

Also published in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol.3 (1981)

Abstract: Marriage in the European military classes of the eleventh century entailed a transfer of property and the commencement of a new family that had claims to inheritance. This being so, it is argued that the arrangement of woman’s marriages within vassal-groups would have been subject to the same ‘public’ scrutiny as was male inheritance. Evidence is presented that suggests that this was the case, and that at the arrangement of a woman’s marriage the inheritance of her family might be channeled through her to her husband, if he were preferable to lord and vassal-group to the males in the family. This model of marriage and inheritance is then applied to the evidence of the Norman conquest of England. Two marriage patterns emerge. First, lesser lords and knights legitimised their occupation of Anglo-Saxon manors assigned them by their lords, through the means of marriage to Anglo-Saxon women, declared to be heiresses. Secondly, among the magnates, legitimisation of membership in their group remained the point, and pattern, of marriage. Norman magnates who employed the first pattern of legitimisation did not marry the daughters of Angl0-Saxon magnates, but lived with them, in unions accepted by the natives, but not presented to their own group for approval. The few Anglo-Saxon magnates who survived were denied marriage with Norman women, for, it is argued, such marriages would have involved acceptance in the magnate-group of Normans. William the Conqueror attempted to secure such legitimisation for the English, but failed to convince his vassals. The interests of the king/duke and his great Norman vassals are thus shown to have been in opposition: he appears to have wished the English earls to remain in possesion, while his vassals wished to displace them. His acquiescence suggests that the power of a vassal-group over its lord – the ‘constitutional’ power to advise, consent and deny consent – was highly developed at an earlier time than is usually assigned to it.

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