By Danièle Cybulskie
The early thirteenth century was a tumultuous one for England’s nobility, ruled as they were by the youngest of “The Devil’s Brood”: King John. One of the hot-button issues of the day that was closest to noble hearts was the marriages of their children. Ever-anxious about keeping noble blood noble, increasing wealth among the peerage, and (naturally) ensuring the well-being of their children, the English aristocracy was unimpressed with their king’s habit of selling eligible noble wards off for marriage to the highest bidder in order to fund his wars (this applies to the recently deceased Richard I as well as to John). As a result of this, a clause against “disparagement” (marrying a noble to someone of a lower rank) was enshrined in the Magna Carta in 1215 (it is Clause 6). After John’s death, his son Henry III reissued Magna Carta several times, but this doesn’t seem to have lessened the suspicion of the nobility all that much.
British Library Additional MS 8167 is a remarkable manuscript which dates from this time period, and it contains a series of form letters which scribes could use as practice exercises while learning their trade. Most of these form letters are for everyday business, such as debts and payments, but one of these practice letters is composed from the perspective of a suspicious knight who is worried that the king is about to begin selling off noble brides to the lowest commoners.
For the suspicious “knight” composing this practice letter, the situation is a dire one. He calls the possibility of disparagement “a common threat” and “an emergency” (the full text is transcribed below). He accuses the king of wanting to marry off noble girls to his “hangers-on” (“satellitibus”) or, even worse, to “shoemakers” and “swineherds”. Finally, he entreats his reader to help him stop the king’s folly “with the humblest of prayers” or, if that fails, “with bribes”. Clearly, this knight knows how much the Plantagenet royalty loved money.
Much as teachers nowadays try to make their exercises relevant and practical, the fact that this letter is included among the other sample letters suggests a good possibility that the scribes learning from it would need to write a letter for at least one suspicious knight (on this topic or another) during their careers. It also suggests that at some other time they might need to compose the letter that follows this one in the manuscript: the calmer, reassuring reply from another knight. (The reply letter asks the suspicious knight not to fly off the handle, but to trust in the “charters”.)
In a time in which news traveled relatively slowly, it makes sense that people would prepare themselves for emergency based solely on rumours – as this suspicious knight seems to be – in order to be ready when confirmation came. As such, this is a useful exemplar to have for a learning scribe. That the writer of this manuscript chose the issue of disparagement for his exemplar speaks volumes about the unease which lingered long after the ink had dried on the first copy of Magna Carta, and about the ensuing suspicions held by the nobility.
Here is the full letter, in its English translation by Martha Carlin and David Crouch in Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200 – 1250:
A knight to a knight, greetings. It is necessary to combine when under a common threat. As a province to Rome, so a neighbor is bound to give aid and counsel to his neighbor in the face of an emergency. The lord king wants to introduce certain new and unprecedented customs, proposing to unite our noble daughters and granddaughters to his hangers-on in a bond of marriage. It is unknown to us of what condition are those men to whom our daughters might have to be joined in marital union. For some were shoemakers in their own shires, some swineherds, and the man has yet to be found who would couple a girl of such noble birth to a man of ignoble origins. So let us busy ourselves to thwart in every way this unwise proposal of the lord king, and endeavor to divert the king’s will with the humblest of prayers – or, if necessary, with bribes.
For more fascinating thirteenth-century form letters, check out the full book by Carlin and Crouch.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist