Baby’s First Conference

I finally became a grown up academic a couple weeks ago and spoke at my very first conference. It was terrifying and I loved it.

As I possibly mentioned in the last post (which was a while ago – as you’ll see, I’ve been busy), I was scheduled to speak at a couple conferences in the middle of March. Unfortunately, one of them fell through (by which I mean ‘I had to cancel because my laptop and notes and wallet were stolen’), but I did speak at the University of Southampton’s annual postgrad conference and it went pretty well. I gave a talk on interpretations of the adulterous relationship between John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford, which basically is my dream topic.

Some thoughts, in list form:
1. Giving your first talk at your home institution is the way to go. I was nervous about some things (see below), but    things I wasn’t nervous about included: where the room was, what the facilities were like, who was going to be in the audience. I knew the building and room, I was very familiar with the smallish screen (and adjusted my PowerPoint accordingly), and my friends were there (thanks, guys!). Probably it would be much the same giving a talk in your hometown – no need to panic about where to go – or at an institution you knew well.

2.The downside to giving a talk at your home institution? Knowing people in the audience creates extra pressure – you know who’s there and (especially if they’re faculty members/your lecturers) you want to make them proud. This is something to consider. My Latin lecturer from my MA year actually rearranged a lesson so that she and my friends could come. It was incredibly kind and very flattering – and also significantly added to the pressure.


My poster. It is gorgeous. No arguments.

3. Nerves happen. You can plan for them all you want, but they’ll still happen. I don’t particularly mind public speaking once I get going, but the idea of it and the waiting for it are awful. I planned for it a little, practicing my talk multiple times, timing myself, trying to use my nerves to pump myself up (like athletes do, right? Maybe?). But some things I didn’t anticipate – like when I stood up to speak and realized if my hands shook everyone would be able to tell, because the paper my notes were written on would be flapping all over. Fortunately, I was on the committee for this conference, so I couldn’t sit around in the morning feeling nervous because I had to do things.

4. I was lucky that I was a last-minute replacement speaker. The theme for the panel (‘Deviant Identities’) had already been decided, so I got to work my presentation around it. And I was speaking on a topic that I (a) really really enjoy, and (b) know really well, since it formed a large part of my MA dissertation. The confidence that came from knowing that I’d already received positive feedback on my ideas and that I definitely knew more about the topic than anyone in the room (maybe anyone anywhere) was key.

5. Do what you need to do to feel confident. My partner and I bought new clothes, and I bought new nail polish. Was it shallow? Yes. Did I feel better, knowing that, whatever else happened, I at least looked good? Yes. It’s about setting yourself up for success.

6. If you’re invited (in my case, it was required) to do a poster, do it. Especially if it’s being paid for. It’s such good practice for thinking about how to ‘sell’ your work and considering what the really essential elements of your research might be. At the end of the day, you have a poster to display. Also, it’s kind of like being in grade school again, only this time it also counts as professional development.

6. Don’t leave your laptop unattended. Just don’t. But do go to the wine reception.

Conferences, Busy-ness, and Happy Birthday JoG

There won’t be much to this post today, because I’m working on learning to take days off and I have a ridiculous week coming up and I know I need today.

I’m speaking at my first conference as a grown up PhD student this week, either on Friday or Saturday. I’ve been scheduled to speak at the University of Reading’s postgraduate conference on medieval marriage for a while now, but may be filling in at the University of Southampton’s postgrad conference on Friday. So now I might be putting together two (!) presentations and a poster for this weekend. Hopefully I’ll be too busy to feel nervous?


In unrelated news, it was John of Gaunt’s birthday this week (this post was originally published in March, p.s., which is when JoG’s birthday actually is). I mean, it actually wasn’t really his birthday because the medievals weren’t terribly concerned about birthdays, but it was the anniversary of his christening, which is basically the same. So happy 673rd, JoG!

Hopefully I’ll be back next week with thoughts on conferencing!


Meet Alice de Lacy

We know a lot about Alice de Lacy’s life, but so far, it raises more questions than answers.

Having spent the summer of my Masters dissertation on John of Gaunt and his wives (which, by the way, was pure bliss), I decided earlier this year that I needed to do something different, partly because I was getting too close to JoG (how could you not?), and partly in the hopes that researching other Lancastrian marriages would raise new questions I could bring back to JoG and friends later. I decided to focus on Thomas of Lancaster and his wife Alice de Lacy, which was a fabulous decision because they had some serious drama going on. I knew that Thomas had been executed for treason in 1322 by Edward II, and originally planned to look at his wife from that angle – how does a woman react to a traitorous husband? Turns out, Alice had more going on than just that.

Alice was born in 1281, the daughter of Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, and Margaret Longespee, countess of Salisbury. By the 1290s, she was their only surviving child, and thus heiress to both earldoms, making her quite the catch on the marriage market. She was betrothed to Thomas of Lancaster by 1292 and they married in 1294, when Alice was 13 and Thomas 16. Their marriage agreement dictated that, no matter what happened to Alice, her earldoms would become a permanent part of the house of Lancaster, a huge win for Thomas.

We then hear little of Alice until 1317. In that year, she was abducted by John, the earl of Warenne, who was possibly working on the orders of King Edward II. Scholars have mostly seen this as a political move on Warenne and the king’s parts, an attempt to harm Alice’s husband Thomas, an increasingly-dangerously outspoken opponent of Ed II’s policies. It’s not really clear what the result of the abduction was, or whether Alice ever returned to live with Thomas, He was executed a few years later. Many of Alice’s estates were confiscated along with Thomas’s, and she was pressured into signing other lands over to Ed II and royal favourites.

A few years after Thomas’s death, Alice married again to the remarkably-named Ebulo Lestrange (who, yes, sounds like he should be a Harry Potter character). This marriage lasted ten years, until Ebulo died in 1335. The next year, Alice was abducted again, by Sir Hugh de Frene, whom she then married. He died the next year, in 1336. She died in 1348, possibly from plague, though she was in her 60s, which was quite old for the time. Alice was buried in Barling Abbey, next to Ebulo. She had no children. Thanks to the strict marriage settlement that had been agreed more than fifty years previously, all her lands and titles went to the house of Lancaster.

It all seems like a lot of information, but for me, it raises a lot of questions, and sadly, I doubt I’ll get answers to all of them.

For instance, what was the nature of Alice’s relationship with Thomas? Historians have stated, pretty much across the board (by ‘across the board’ here I mean, ‘the three or four people who have ever considered this’) that they were unhappy. Probably this is based on the fact that Alice was abducted and it’s been claimed that Thomas did nothing to get her back. This is a bit unfair, as Thomas used the incident to start a private feud with Warenne that distracted him considerably from his opposition to Ed II, which probably was the point all along. I’ll probably get more into the ‘abduction’ of Alice de Lacy in another post, but it’s also unclear whether Alice was complicit in her own abduction, or if it happened against her will.


TNA: DL 28/1/13, m. 1

I’m also curious about the nature of their relationship after her abduction. It’s unclear whether Thomas and Alice remained married afterwards, though I’ve found no record of an annulment (divorce wasn’t a thing at this point). I’m particularly intrigued by this reference I came across a couple days ago in an account of Thomas’s wardrobe expenditures of 1318-19 that refers to sending letters to the ‘Countess of Lincoln’ (Comitesse Linc’). Alice was countess of Lincoln at this point, but I would expect her to be called ‘the lord’s wife’ or ‘the countess of Lancaster’. Referring to her as countess of Lincoln, a title she had personal claim to, rather than the more prestigious countess of Lancaster, a title she claimed by marriage, certainly suggests that she and Thomas considered themselves separated.

I’d like to know a little more about Thomas and Alice’s relationship before the abduction as well, though this might be quite problematic. The one thing that I have to go on at this point is that she was clearly infertile. She had no children with any of her husbands and Thomas, at least, had an illegitimate child, so it would have been clear that the problem lay with Alice. Accepted thinking on the subject would suggest this was a source of tension in their relationship, since the major goal of aristocratic marriage was producing legitimate heirs. I’m not so sure though – the major goal of this marriage seems to have been acquiring Alice’s earldoms of Lincoln and Salisbury, which was accomplished. Thomas’s brother Henry produced a lot of children (6 daughters and 1 son), who generally made excellent marriages, suggesting that it was common knowledge that the Lancastrian line would go through Henry, not Thomas. If that was the case, maybe Alice and Thomas had no reason to be unhappy. I don’t know. 

Stay tuned for more about Alice – I’m far from done with her.



Military Retinues, Marriage, and Family Identity

What do marriage and military service have to do with each other? More than you might think. Some thoughts on Andrew Spencer’s article, ‘The Comital Military Retinue in the Reign of Edward I’

In the late Middle Ages (starting with the late 13th century),retinues were originally groups of fighters who served individual lords in battle. The more important the lord, the bigger the retinue, broadly speaking. Throughout the 14th century, retinues evolved to include service for life in both peace and war. Noblemen contracted to serve lords in peacetime, as tenants and political adherents, and were obligated to provide soldiers in wartime as well. In the opening decades of the Hundred Years War, retinues grew dramatically in size. The earls and dukes of Lancaster typically had large retinues – 100-200 in peacetime under John of Gaunt – which could grow into the thousands during war.


Why do I care about this? Well, partly it’s just interesting. I’ve taken a couple (I mean, OK, just one) courses on military history, so this is interesting. Also, all the men I study were military leaders, because that was expected of important noblemen in my era. Since they were at the top of society, they collected the largest retinues and were at the forefront of advances in military recruitment. Where this affects my research most directly is in looking at family relationships and family identity. One of the questions I’m looking at is how ‘Lancastrian’ identity was (or might have been) passed from one generation to another, and what relationships were formed through marriage. Military retinues should illustrate some of this.

Military retinues have been studied most extensively in the context of the Hundred Years War and the reign of Edward III (which obviously overlap considerably, since Ed 3 started the HYW). Spencer’s article pushes this back, looking at military retinues in the later reign of Edward I, from 1294-1307. He concludes that by the 1290s, the shape of military retinues and their role in medieval armies had more or less fully developed. It’s the role of the retinue in peacetime as well as its composition (during the 14th century, armies started incorporating a lot more archers) that develops later, he says. Spencer challenges the idea that fighters tended to join different retinues for different military campaigns, noting that a significant proportion who served more than once served under the same commander. It’s a really well-written article that is blessedly easy to read and follow.

My only real criticism is that Spencer doesn’t explore this phenomenon of continuity of service as much as he could. He points out that by the late 14th century, this had changed: fighters usually served with a different commander on each campaign. Spencer briefly suggests that geography played a role – people tended to sign up to fight with the baron or earl whose lands were closest – and then drops it. I would suggest, instead, that this might be evidence of a shift in how people approached military service. We know that by the 1370s, decades of war had taken their toll and military commanders had a difficult time recruiting enough men. It seems to me that skilled fighters, then, would have been in a good position to negotiate and likely went to new commanders because those commanders offered to pay them more. The period that Spencer examines, by contrast, was preceded by decades of peace – fighters wouldn’t have been in a position to negotiate the way they were later on.

The article has raised a few questions for me that affect my research into marriage and the house of Lancaster. Spencer briefly touches upon the question of continuity of service across generations, noting, for instance, that a fair number of fighters (or fighters who shared a surname) who served Edmund of Lancaster on crusade in the 1270s went on to serve his son Thomas of Lancaster in the 1290s and beyond. It’s not clear whether this had to do with convenience – perhaps men served the same earl because they held land from him – or if it was related to personal loyalty. Perhaps there was a sense that men from a certain family always served Lancastrians in battle? It would be interesting to look at how many men continued to serve in Lancastrian retinues after Thomas of Lancaster was executed for treason in 1322. I would hypothesise that if men served out of a sense of personal loyalty, they would have been eager serve elsewhere after the earl had been executed. If we can speak of ‘Lancastrian’ identity across generations of earls and dukes, can we speak of it in the men that served them?

One thing that I can definitely look at is relationships that may have been created by marriage. Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, was Thomas of Lancaster’s father-in-law and, as an important noble, had his own large retinue. When Henry died, Thomas inherited his lands and his earldom. I would be curious to see if Thomas also inherited members of the Lincoln retinue. That would definitely speak to networks of men created by marriage, and it would make me happy. This has also created new questions about networks in later generations – I can see whether later Lancastrians who were connected by marriage also shared members of their retinues.

I think the biggest thing that articles like this highlight for me is the importance of not getting too bogged down in genre. I’m not a military historian (this will be obvious to any military historian who has been cringing at all the generalizations I’ve been making – sorry!), but military history is relevant to me. Why? Because actual medieval people didn’t divide their lives into neat little boxes of ‘military’ and ‘social’ and ‘political’ history. Why should historians draw lines where they didn’t exist in the Middle Ages?

The Many Memorials to Blanche of Lancaster

John of Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche of Lancaster died in 1368, and John spent the next thirty-odd years mourning her. Or did he? Well, yeah, he probably did. Sort of.

One of the questions I’m looking at in my thesis is the role of memory within the house of Lancaster – how were people depicted after their death and why were certain depictions chosen? A really interesting example is Blanche of Lancaster, the first wife of John of Gaunt, partly because JoG (Don’t judge, it’s what I call him – pronounced ‘jog’) put so much effort into memorialising Blanche, but also partly because I think these memorials have been misunderstood.

Blanche’s importance in JoG’s life can’t really be overstated. She and her sister Maud were co-heiresses of their father Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster. When her father and sister died in quick succession in 1361-62, Blanche and her husband John of Gaunt, the son of Edward III, inherited the whole thing. Edward III made JoG duke of Lancaster in his own right, and the Lancastrian inheritance made him the wealthiest, most powerful citizen in England. Blanche was also the mother of JoG’s only male heir. Moreover, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that John and Blanche had an affectionate, loving relationship. To say that he owed a lot to Blanche would be a huge understatement.

In 1368, Blanche died, possibly from complications from childbirth, when she was only about 24. From 1369 onwards, for the rest of JoG’s life, the house of Lancaster mourned Blanche’s death. He built a massive, lavish tomb in old St Paul’s Cathedral, London; Geoffrey Chaucer’s allegorical dream-poem The Book of the Duchess captured John’s grief; and annual memorials were held by her tomb. The temptation is to view these memorials as expressions of mourning, but I think that’s a bit simplistic. A detailed account of expenses for one of the annual memorials survives in JoG’s Register, and it provides remarkable insight into JoG’s feelings and motivations.

The account tells us of a feast held at the Savoy, the Lancastrian’s lavish London residence, where 38 chickens, 9 pigeons, 3 pigs, 11 geese, beef, mutton, beer, and wine were all consumed. It gives us interesting details about the service itself, which involved draping St Paul’s in black cloths and paying 24 paupers to stand around the tomb holding candles. My favourite bit details the sweets that JoG served to the staff of St Paul’s the night before:

Item in 2 lbs. of ginger comfits

And 2 lbs. of anise comfits

2 lbs. of gobbet royal  (a type of sweetmeat)        

2 lbs. of cloves

2 lbs. of sugar-plate (hardened sugar, often flavoured with flower petals)

2 lbs. of large dragée (a comfit that often contained a seed in the middle), at 18 d. per lb. 

1 lb. of flower of cinnamon comfits

1 lb. of clove comfits at 2 s. per lb.

All obtained and consumed by the magnates and by the chapter of St. Paul’s, London, on the vigil of the anniversary in the usual manner after vespers of the dead, 22 s. 

It’s not only interesting as a showcase of the medieval sweet-tooth (which was clearly large) , but it also speaks to the secret motivation behind the annual memorials. These sweets are a statement of wealth – few people could afford to serve things like this. Few of the staff at St Paul’s would have tasted candy this delicious on a regular basis. And that’s where it gets interesting to me.

While Westminster Abbey was a church for kings, St Paul’s was a cathedral for the people of London. Its preachers were in a position to influence public opinion, and I think the Lancastrians – especially, but not only, JoG – took advantage of this. John of Gaunt was famously unpopular with Londoners, especially in the 1370s and 1380s, and I think we have to interpret feasts like this one as attempts to keep the cathedral staff on side.


The tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, from a 16th century sketch, now in the Wenceslaus Hollar collection in Toronto. The tomb itself was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, which is basically tragic.

Is it a bit cynical? Yes. Does it mean that we have to forget the notion that John of Gaunt was crazy about his first wife and grieved her death? No. But I think there’s room for a more nuanced interpretation.

This Is What I Do.

As a PhD student you quickly learn that no one – unless they are your parent or supervisor and, to be honest, not necessarily even then – cares to hear about your research in detail.

The Marriage of John of Gaunt to Blanche of Lancaster at Ready Abbey, 19 May 1359, by Horace Wright (1914) Not what medieval marriage looked like. But it's pretty.

The Marriage of John of Gaunt to Blanche of Lancaster at Reading Abbey, 19 May 1359, by Horace Wright (1914)
Not what medieval marriage looked like. But it’s pretty.

It’s difficult to know whether to give the boring, uninformative short answer (‘I’m a PhD student in _______) or the equally boring long and informative answer (‘I study the history of ________ in the period of ________ with special attention to _______ and _______, focusing on the work of ______.’)

I’ve developed a series of progressively more complex descriptions, based on how interested  I think people are likely to be. You’re welcome.

To the casual questioner (the one who’s only asking to be polite): ‘I’m a History PhD student.’ Closely related is the answer for the casual questioner who is also a student: ‘I’m a medievalist.’

To the fellow humanities student: ‘I study medieval history.’

To the fellow history student: ‘I study medieval marriage.’

To the fellow medievalist: ‘I study aristocratic marriage in the 13th-15th centuries.’

To the fellow late-14th century specialist: ‘I study the ways in which the house of Lancaster both used and experienced marriage, from 1265 to 1399.’ (They will know the significance of these dates, already, which is nice)

To myself (and anyone else silly enough to ask for more information): ‘Historians have generally looked at marriage in the Middle Ages in two ways. First, social historians usually examine the relations between husbands and wives of the lower and middle classes, for which there is a surprising amount of evidence, mostly from ecclesiastical courts. More traditional political historians have generally ignored marriage, except to note occasionally that (man) married (woman) for her (property/money/family connections). Social historians, then, have paid little attention to the reasons for marriage, and to the effects that these motivations may have had on marriage; political historians, meanwhile, have generally failed to acknowledge that marriages made for material reasons (though, hint: they weren’t all that straightforward) still created meaningful relationships. My research aims to use some of the techniques used by social historians to address aristocratic marriage, especially the varied and complex motivations for marriage; the relationships produced in marriage; and the results – both political and personal – of marriage across generations. To that end, I am researching the marriages formed by the house of Lancaster, a powerful earldom and duchy whose descendants eventually became kings of England, from 1265 to 1399.’

I think we can all agree that the lesson here is: never ask for more information.