Department of Medieval History
In Anglo-Norman society heiresses such as Christiana de Marisco and Matilda de
Lacy acted as conduits who might bring to their husbands title, lands and sometimes
even their family names. The heiress was an important element of the Anglo-Norman
landholding and marriage systems, and especially so in Anglo-Norman Ireland in the
century and a half after the initial incursions. What survives today are mostly the
records of the upper echelons of this society, the nobility.(1) Protection of these women served a double purpose: it provided
security for the women involved and also served the needs of their predominantly
male guardians and rulers who were always conscious of the need to secure and stabilise
the passage of lands.(2) In a society
concerned with the organisation and strengthening of kinship and alliances, marriage
was an integral part of life and, in the minds of many men, heiresses were the embodiments
of vast potential in the newly-conquered Irish territory.
Female inheritance was already common amongst the Normans by the time of their incursions into Ireland as, in the absence of male heirs, women acted as the conveyors of the family lands.(3) Before the second quarter of the twelfth century an inheritance descended only through one daughter or other female heir; after that it was to be divided equally between all valid female heirs. This change seems to have occurred sometime between 1130 and 1135 and after this date parceny became more common, although it was not completely free from problems.(4) This alteration, though, was one which would have far-reaching effects on the Irish lordship and its heiresses.
The king generally took a great interest in his rights of wardship and marriage over heiresses, and could either disrupt or cement the marital arrangements of his landholders. This was a position which was open to abuse, the levels of which fluctuated according to the king involved.(5) Therefore, co-operation was needed between both sides, aristocrat and royal, to maintain a balance of interests when disposing of heiresses who could affect the balance of power within the kingdom.(6) Undoubtedly the marriage of an heiress had a much more significant social effect than that of their male contemporaries, especially if lands were to be divided between more than one heiress.(7) So, for important heiresses especially, the question of whom they were to marry could often be a thorny one for both the greater community of nobles who sought to protect their marital and dynastic arrangements based upon them and the crown, upon whose favour these plans rested. In the hands of a king as insensitive as Henry III, for example, his blatant disregard for the wishes of his nobles in these matters, allied with his controversial preference for foreigners when distributing heiresses, caused resentment and displeasure.(8)
Despite the evidence of ingrained misogyny in medieval society, the rights of vulnerable women to inherit the lands of their ancestors was enshrined and protected.(9) Ireland, it could be argued, in the immediate post-conquest era witnessed both the birth of a golden age concerning the rights of women as heiresses and then its demise. Heiresses were a common occurrence in the families of the invaders and settlers of Ireland and they enjoyed their legal rights as did their contemporaries in England, Wales and Normandy.
This tide of support for heiresses in the Anglo-Norman world began to ebb in the latter stages of the thirteenth century. The colony in Ireland had witnessed the confusing, litigious and often unsatisfactory effects of not only single but, as happened more often, multiple female succession, and consequently, as the use of the entail became more popular amongst landholders in general, so it began to become more widespread in Ireland. Thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ireland, however, did produce a large number of substantial heiresses, women who acted, in many cases, as the entry point for various men into Ireland. One such example can be seen in the case of the de Genevre brothers’ marriages to those great heiresses of Irish and Welsh lands, Christiana de Marisco and Matilda de Lacy.(10) These were marriages which may have pleased the king, but not his barons who held lands in Ireland and who probably had other marital plans for these women which didn’t involve the two Savoyard brothers to whom they were awarded.
The de Genevre Brothers
The de Genevre brothers were two of Henry III’s household knights and were members of that group of Savoyards whom the king favoured so well. Luckily for them, the ‘great mortality’ of the earls and magnates of the realm in the twelve forties enabled them to be rewarded with two of the wealthier of the heiresses then available. Peter was the eldest son in the family of Humbert, count of Geneva by Agnes the sister of Thomas, count of Savoy. He had been dispossessed by his uncle in 1225 and was a great favourite of the king, like his brother, Ebulo. The latter was given Christiana whereas Peter obtained Matilda.
Christiana de Marisco (11)
Christiana de Marisco was the daughter of Robert de Marisco and granddaughter of the sometime Justiciar Geoffrey de Marisco. Through her mother she was an heir to the property of Walter de Ridelisford, whose lands included the manors of Tristledermot (Castledermot) and Kilkea in Leinster, as well as tenant of the Crown of lands at Bray and in the vale of Dublin. Outside Leinster, his lands included the northern part of the barony of Clare in Galway, the manors of Headford and Corofin. His heirs were his daughter, Emmeline, widow of Hugh de Lacy and wife of Stephen Longespee and his infant granddaughter, Christiana, daughter of Robert. Emmeline was assigned Corofin and Christiana, as represented by her father, received Headford.(12)
Christiana, like many another heiress, was essentially at the mercy of her guardian. Her custody and marriage were first granted to the Poitevin, Fulk de Castro Novo (of Newcastle) in 1243, when she was still a minor after her father died.(13) In 1244 an inquisition was held into the lands of Walter de Ridelisford to ascertain the proper inheritance of Christiana and seisin was ordered to be given to Fulk of all the lands she was to inherit, from both her de Ridelisford grandfather and her father, Robert.(14)
Ebulo de Genevre was then granted custody of her lands and of her marriage, by the king in 1246.(15) Such a move would not have been approved of by Henry’s barons who were already angered by the king’s favoured attitude towards those, like Ebulo, who had come to England in Eleanor of Provence’s wake. By 1248, though, Ebulo and Christiana must have been married as the king granted them a yearly fair at Tristledermot; moreover, Christiana would have been of an age to marry by then as she was probably around fifteen. She was born in 1233/4 as she was cited as being six years old in the inquisition held into her grandfather’s lands in 1240. Among the witnesses of this grant by the king was Peter de Genevre, brother of Ebulo.(16)
Ebulo and Christiana’s union was short-lived and without heirs and for the rest of her long life, it seems, Christiana was on her own. She enjoyed great favour with the king and queen and looked after her inheritance remarkably well, considering that she was only a young woman when left to administer it herself. As was usual with other substantial heiresses whose lands were incorporated in the Angevin empire, she was concerned with her lands everywhere and as her life would mainly have been a peripatetic one, like many other nobles, she was not always available to watch over them herself and, in Ireland, this was to cause her some problems.
That Christiana was a favoured subject of the king and his family seems beyond doubt. Royal attention ensured that her needs were well taken care of by the king’s representatives in Ireland and probably helped her in securing exemption from remarriage. Such royal attentiveness manifested itself in 1278, when Christiana pursued an accusation of disseisin against a tenant of hers. Like many another female landholder, she was conscious and watchful of her rights and willing to go to court if need be. This tenant had once been her bailiff and he was also accused of falsely using her seal in Ireland. However, the issue at hand was the seisin of her manor of Kinelehan in Co. Wexford(17). The tenant, William de Doverent, had let the land to a Sir Andrew Avenel, described simply as a knight, and Christiana wanted compensation from him for the damage inflicted upon her land by Sir Andrew and also wished William to explain the other accusations against him.
To ascertain the full extent of the damage done to the manor, an inquiry was undertaken by Christiana’s attorney and two of her free tenants, who were to survey the damage. William, meanwhile, was ordered to appear before the Exchequer in Westminster and account for his actions. If he was found guilty of falsely using her seal, then all his lands and properties in Ireland would revert to Christiana, according to the details of a charter apparently drawn up by him and Christiana, perhaps in anticipation, on her part, of something like this occurring.(18) William was forced to put Christiana in seisin again, despite his having demised the manor to Sir Andrew. He was also commanded to return any false impressions of her seal which he had made.(19) Like all other landowners, Christiana was obliged to keep a close eye on her household officers who administered her lands in her absences.
In 1280 Christiana got rid of all her Irish lands. Edward I agreed, in effect, to do a swap with her. The deal was very simple: Christiana agreed to:
render to the king and queen all her castles, fortresses, lands, with advowsons of churches, knights’ fees, homages and services, villeins and their offspring, etc., in Ireland, on condition that the lands shall be extended and the king and queen, when they have seisin thereof, shall give to her lands in England to the same value, for her life and for three years after her death, so that she may make her will and assign the goods or profits of the land for three years after her death.(20)
She furthermore agreed that if her heirs did not honour this agreement, they would
pay £3,000 sterling. Therefore, her half of the de Ridelisford and de Marisco
lands in Ireland, built up since the late twelfth century, were now lost to the family
and in the firm grip of the king.
Events moved very quickly after this. For the exchange to take effect, Christiana’s Irish lands had to be assessed and surrendered by her to the representatives of the king. She relinquished her Irish lands in a deed of release in fee of lands which she had held of the king. These alone amounted to twelve manors. The lands of her inheritance from her de Ridelisford grandfather, those of Kilkea, Garnegagh and Tristledermot and other lands and tenements in Connaught,were also surrendered.(21) An inquisition had to be held into the lands to determine the proper value so as to match the value of the English lands she was obtaining in their stead. Therefore an exact valuation of all her lands was duly made which returned that these lands lay scattered over Wexford, Connaught and Kerry. However, the inquisition documentation concerning her lands is now incomplete due to damage.(22)
In return for the grant of her Irish lands Christiana received, from the king, the manors of Langley and Wyrardisbury (sic) in Buckinghamshire with the guarantee that, if by reason of another claim on the lands she was to be ejected, she would be assigned manors of equal value as compensation.(23) These manors were worth a combined £100 per year onto which was added the manor of Oveston in Northampton, valued at £50 per year. This exchange was enough to please both sides; the king gained extensive and useful lands in Ireland and, in return, Christiana was guaranteed equivalent lands in England which were much more accessible to her.(24) The king was not finished with her lands, though, for in 1282 he commanded a valuation of the knights’ fees and advowsons due to her in Ireland, to be undertaken by the justiciar, Stephen, bishop of Waterford.(25)
It seems that this exchange placed Christiana even higher in the royal affections.(26) Gifts were made to her of more manors in England during the years after the exchange. In 1281, for example, she was given the manor of Banstead to hold in tenancy, with the crops and farm implements. Christiana also received payments from the king for her Irish lands, amounting to one hundred marks a year.(27) Meanwhile, the king was as concerned as ever to obtain the full value from his new Irish acquisitions.
An extent was made on these lands in 1284, four years after the exchange. The report stated that there was an increase of £27 7s. 4 1/2 d, from lands ranging across the country from Connaught to Bray. These lands were given by the king in 1284 to his wife, Queen Eleanor, for life.(28) Christiana did gain back some of her Irish lands as in 1285, the king allowed her to sell her land of ‘Lossemak’, in Ulster. It is not stated why he allowed her to do so; perhaps she was in some form of financial trouble.
After Queen Eleanor died in November 1290, Christiana received back some of her Irish lands. They were still ‘in the king’s hands’, but Christiana had leased them to the queen for the term of her (the queen’s) life and so the king ordered that the manor of Kilkea and part of the town of Tristledermot (Castledermot) should be restored to her.(29) William de Vescy, Justiciar of Ireland, was ordered to ensure that this was done. Her influence in Ireland had waned but never disappeared, and in 1293 she suddenly received all of her other Irish lands back.(30)
The agreement between her and the king was abandoned but no reason was given for this; she may have requested them back after the death of the queen. Yet she still appears to have held her English manors as, in 1299, the right of her executors to hold them for three years after her death was ratified.(31) However, as it was only a gift for life, those manors would eventually revert back to the king and his heirs.(32) Despite her age, Christiana was still a very active woman, keeping a close eye on her lands. She also, at that stage, set about disposing of some of her Irish inheritance. She granted the annual rents of £40 per year from the lands of Kilkea and Castledermot to her cousin, Emmeline, who then granted them to John Wogan, the justiciar. These lands would have reverted to Emmeline as Christiana’s heir on her death anyway.(33) Emmeline’s son, Alan la Zouche, stood to gain as the heir of both and the land was once again united in him. He married Eleanor de Seagrave and their heirs were three daughters, thus ensuring the parcelling out of the inheritance again amongst women.
Christiana was a forceful, independent heiress, one who utilised her family connections and the favour of the royal family to advance her landed interests. As an heiress and the widow of a relatively minor French knight who achieved his fortune through hers, she showed no timidity or reluctance in facing fellow nobles or recalcitrant servants who betrayed her trust. Her problems with her household officers were due primarily to her long periods of absenteeism from Ireland and the consequent lack of anything approaching total vigilance, on her part. The exchange of lands with the king, then, undoubtedly served her purposes as well as his.
Unusually, for such an important heiress, her husband, Ebulo de Genevre, was not her landowning equal nor anywhere near to approaching it. Rather, his relationship with her can be viewed in the light of the court politics of the reign of Henry III and the favouring of various ‘foreign’ groupings by the king and queen. In the example of the marriage of Christiana, co-operation between the king and his nobles broke down and the delicate interweave of marriages amongst the colonial Anglo-Norman nobility was broken by the granting of Christiana to Ebulo. It is an example of how heavy-handed the king could be if he chose, but by doing so he ran the risk of further alienating his nobles, and not only in the lordship of Ireland. Christiana de Marisco, though, remains an important example of the power which could be wielded by an important and favoured heiress, after she became a widow and gained control over her own inheritance.
Matilda de Lacy
Peter de Genevre was rewarded with marriage to one of the most significant heiresses in Ireland, Wales and England, namely Matilda de Lacy. Like his brother, he was no match for his wife in terms of wealth or prestige in the Anglo-Norman world. Matilda was the granddaughter of Walter de Lacy, the lord of Meath. Between her and her sister, Margaret, the liberty of Meath, amongst other holdings, was divided after Walter de Lacy died in 1241.(34) Margaret married John de Verdun in 1244 and Matilda married Peter de Genevre (d. 1249). These heiresses were interconnected to some of the most substantial and powerful landholding families in Ireland, England and Wales and marriage to either one would assure a man’s future.
Like the marriage of Christiana de Marisco to Ebulo de Genevre, this match was an unequal one in terms of landholdings and influence.(35) Matilda, like Christiana, was the fortune-maker of a much poorer aristocrat. The heiresses’ equal shares halved the lordship which also had to take into account the dower of their grandmother.(36) The women and their husbands were assigned their shares in 1244.
Although both Christiana de Marisco and Matilda de Lacy served as rewards for two favoured brothers, their lives after the deaths of their respective husbands were very different. Unlike Christiana, who stayed single and independent, Matilda married again. It is doubtful whether she had much say in the matter as she was a valuable prize and was not as close to the royal family as Christiana was. This time it was to Geoffrey de Geneville (Joinville) that she was awarded.(37)
Again, this was a match of inequality as, despite de Geneville’s illustrious parentage, he was a younger son and, as such, could never hope to equal the holdings of an heiress such as Matilda de Lacy. He was French, the son of Simon, the Seigneur de Joinville, seneschal of Champagne and his second wife Beatrix, who was daughter of the Count of Burgundy and Auxonne, so he did have sufficient aristocratic pedigree to marry a de Lacy heiress, if not the equality of riches. He was also related to Matilda’s first husband through marriage as his half-sister, Alice, was the wife of Peter of Savoy, Peter de Genevre’s cousin. Like Peter de Genevre, de Geneville was also a favourite of the king. In 1252, the king duly granted
to Godfrey de Geynville, and Matilda de Lacy his wife, all the liberties and free customs enjoyed in the land of Meath by Walter de Lacy, Matilda’s grandfather, one of whose heirs she is.(38)
Matilda de Lacy thus found herself in the position of acting as a maker of favoured
men’s fortunes not once but twice. That was the price to be paid for being such a
valuable heiress to Henry III.
As the elder sister, Matilda was entitled to the chief castle; therefore she held the caput of Trim in her half.(39) The former liberty of Meath was roughly divided into east and west: Matilda’s portion was in the east and Margaret’s in the west. However, the division was not exact and both sisters held lands within the other’s boundaries. The lands of Margaret did not obtain liberty rights, whereas Geoffrey and Matilda were granted liberty rights in 1254, along with the castle of Trim which the king had previously retained.(40) The liberty of Trim had greater jurisdiction than any other Irish liberty because the four pleas of the crown were not reserved there. Such privileges and power allied to the area’s strategic importance, ensured many disagreements between the de Genevilles and the administration in Dublin over the ensuing years.
In 1297, the king was forced to address himself to complaints by Matilda and Geoffrey against the justiciar and chancellor that they were seriously impeded in their legal rights and privileges in the liberty of Trim. The king ordered the administration to desist from any behaviour which compromised their rights. Despite this, the conflict continued and even into the early fourteenth century the king was still forced to warn his officers in Ireland not to “molest Geoffrey de Geynvill and Matilda his wife touching their liberty of Trym (sic) contrary to the charters they have of the king’s ancestors”.(41)
Geoffrey and Matilda seem to have spent a great deal of their time in Ireland. They did travel, though; like many other of their noble counterparts, theirs was a nomadic life. Unusually enough, they appear to have travelled together.(42) Travel, especially overseas, was not easy and most women chose not to undertake it. Matilda’s reasons for doing so are not given, perhaps she wanted to keep a close personal eye on her holdings or perhaps conjugal affection prompted her?
Their son and heir was Peter, who died in 1292 leaving as his heirs three daughters, Joan, aged six, Beatrice, aged five and finally the baby, Maud, who was one year old. In that year, unsurprisingly, Matilda and Geoffrey stayed at home for, apart from the obvious emotional trauma, there was the added worry of the new heiresses and the consequences of the now inevitable partition of the lands. Also the assignment of dower to Peter’s wife, Joan, who lived in Gascony, had to be dealt with.(43) Eventually, in 1307, Geoffrey surrendered all interests in the liberty to his granddaughter and heir, Joan, and her husband, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore. After which he retired to enjoy the religious life in the house of the Friars Preachers at Trim, where he died in 1314.
If the theme of Christiana de Marisco’s de Genevre widowhood is one of watchful independence, then the theme of Matilda’s may be of marital affection and a type of partnership in her and her second husband’s dealings concerning her lands. From a medieval point of view, Matilda’s situation was by far the more acceptable for a woman, as marriage was a preferable state for a woman, in the eyes of her contemporaries, than single widowhood. Geoffrey and Matilda’s governance of Meath was characterised by an intense defence of their rights and properties which led to a stable and well-governed liberty. Matilda and Geoffrey, like Christiana, were always ready to enter into litigation at the slightest threat to their lands or privileges, whether posed by family members, the church or even the administration in Dublin. One finds here, in the example of Matilda, an heiress willing and able to defend what she saw as her right, ably helped by a capable husband in Geoffrey de Geneville. Even though it is very hard to discern what type and level of influence she may have possessed, the impression is one of a partnership of sorts.
From two such able heiresses as Matilda and Christiana, one gains a clear impression of the kind of challenges these women had to deal with. Firstly, neither had any real control over her marital fate, as that was in the hands of the king who chose to grant each to foreigners, thus adding to the unease already rampant amongst the barons, resentful of a king who seemed to have no respect for their own carefully plotted networks of intermarriage and kinship ties. Two heiresses of the stature of these would have been expected to go to a favoured subject and not to two Savoyard usurpers, such as the de Genevre brothers. Despite this link between the two women, though, both led very different lives after their alliances with Ebulo and Peter.
Christiana spent most of her life as a single woman whereas Matilda spent most of hers as a married one, yet both showed remarkable traits of independence in differing ways. Christiana, merely by the long-standing fact of her single status as a widow, must have had a difficult battle to hang onto it. As a widowed heiress, she could enjoy far more freedom than Matilda could hope for as a married woman under the legal guardianship of her husband. On the other hand, the indications are that Matilda did exercise some independence of choice. This is conveyed a little by the fact that she accompanied her husband on his travels on the continent and in England and appears to have taken an interest in her inheritance and the governance of Trim, but she was a lot more circumscribed than Christiana. What we are left with is the impression of two independent-minded women, born to greatness and to the fact that because of this they were to be given to men who were their inferiors financially and hence in terms of power and influence.
They are linked more obviously because of the de Genevre brothers, who found their fortunes with these two marriages. These two women, caught in the political games of the day, played them to their best advantage, securing their lands no matter in which country they lay, leading full lives and generally adapting themselves as best they could to the situations in which they found themselves – marital or otherwise – to their own personal advantage. As the holders of power, influence and wealth, heiresses such as these women were immensely valuable to their guardians and land-hungry knights; and as such, the treatment of them makes the lot of the heiress in general before marriage, when they were at the mercy of sometimes unscrupulous guardians, seem a vulnerable and a restricted one. Only in widowhood or through a compliant husband could they hope to exercise any form of independence or initiative. Before that many of the more important heiresses, like Christiana and Matilda, were simply used as pawns in the plans of the king and his advisers.
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