By Ralph Turner
Paper given at New College Medieval and Renaissance Conference, Sarasota, Florida (2008)
Introduction: Women of modest status in medieval English society are difficult to know as individuals. Most of those named in royal records appear only because they were heirs, wives or widows of men involved in matters of property, while those of the lowest social level appear only in criminal cases. Most studies of working women concentrate on the better documented late Middle Ages. By the mid-twelfth century, however, women working in the English royal household can be glimpsed in royal records. Among the royal household’s expenses recorded on the pipe rolls of Henry II and his sons are payments to nurses (Latin nutrix, nutrices), who served as wet nurses to royal children. These nurses’ names appear usually without patronymic or toponymic to identify them further. Such a woman is Agatha, employed as wet nurse in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s domestic household, who first appears in the charter rolls from 1198-99, the first year of King John’s reign. His charter confirms an earlier one issued by Eleanor granting Agatha a rich manor from her dower lands. Her action rewarding Agatha’s service three decades after her child- bearing years indicates a bond between the two women that had endured for many years.
Agatha is the earliest royal wet nurse for whom at least a faint sketch of her life can be drawn, and she presents a rare view of a non-noble, non-royal, non-religious English woman of the late twelfth- and early thirteenth centuries. The masterful detective work of Mary G. Cheney in a 1967 article on Geoffrey de Lucy, first chancellor of Oxford University, reveals that Agatha is noteworthy not merely because of her post as a lesser-ranking member of the queen’s domestic household. She was a priest’s wife at a time when the Church in England was having some success in its battle against married clerics, but she was not the spouse of some obscure churchman. Cheney demonstrated that an early chancellor of Oxford University, Geoffrey de Lucy, was the son of Agatha and Godfrey de Lucy, bishop of Winchester, 1189-1204, with whom she had a long lasting relationship. Chronology indicates that Agatha was the nurse of John, Eleanor’s last child, born in late December 1166, although she is nowhere identified as his nurse. If she was nursing a child at the time of John’s birth, her relationship with Godfrey de Lucy must have begun sometime before the preceding summer. As wet nurse to a royal son, Agatha was well positioned to win the queen’s affection and favor; and she succeeded in parlaying her proximity to the royal family into financial security and social status, dying a prosperous widow with her own seal.