Marie de St Pol: carving out a space in a man's world

Eliza Dickinson explores the challenging world of Marie de St Pol and Elizabeth de Clare, the founders of Pembroke and Clare Colleges.

In many ways, medieval noblewomen led a fortunate life. They were sheltered from the hard labour of the peasantry and from the brothels of the towns. However, the stereotype of the medieval lady reclining while waited on hand and foot is not true either. They were often called upon to take up administrative responsibilities on their estates, especially if their husbands were at war. This gave them a great deal of agency as they dealt with expenditure, revenues, servants, agriculture, and husbandry.

Nevertheless, medieval England was still a man’s world. The early 15th century writer of Dives and Pauper spoke for the views of the vast majority in saying ‘by nature man has greater strength and greater intelligence and reason.’ Women who were active in society were described as ‘viragos’ – ‘angry’ women, pseudo-men who should not be taken seriously. Ladies were banned from sitting in parliament, being sheriffs, coroners, or justices of the peace, all of which were roles embraced by their husbands, fathers, and sons. At times of war, they were susceptible to kidnap and imprisonment in attempts to punish or manipulate their male family members.

Noble women were also hugely disadvantaged when it came to property rights. While they were technically allowed to inherit property if there was no direct male heir, any property they owned would be passed on to their husbands upon marriage. This was a fact of life that was rarely avoided: out of all of the daughters born to ducal families between 1330 and 1479, 93% were married by the age of 35, and their property removed from their hands. Land was so central to the order of this patriarchal society that a woman’s lack of it left her devoid of much power when compared to men of the same social status. Even upon her husband’s death, a noble lady in the late medieval period was usually only given between a third and a half of the family estates.

This paints a rather bleak picture of the power of medieval women among the highest classes. However, there were ways in which women could carve out their own space, especially in patronage and the arts. Pembroke’s foundress is a key example of this. Marie de St Pol founded the Hall of Valence Marie (now known to us as Pembroke College) in 1347, and the significance of this event as a display of female agency should not be underestimated.

Of course, it is very difficult to truly appreciate the life of Marie de St Pol without understanding the times in which she was living. Born in France, she was married to Aymer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke, in 1321, and moved to England to live with him. This was a fraught time, as the country was under the reign of Edward II, Marie’s cousin, who had been one of the key players in her marriage negotiations. He was wildly unpopular among the nobility due to his failure in war against Scotland as well as his lavish patronage of his favourite, Piers Gaveston, and, above all, his support of the Despensers who violently seized property in their ‘reign of terror’.

It was into this environment that Marie came in 1321. When her husband died just three years later, she was left in charge of much of the Earl’s vast estates, leaving her in a fairly unique position. Young, heirless and heavenly burdened with her husband’s debts, she faced difficulties in dealing with Edward II who forced her to hand over her rights in Stamford and Grantham. Lands were seized from her by the Despensers leading her to sympathise with Edward’s estranged queen, Isabella of France, when she invaded England and took the crown for the baby Edward III in 1327.

However, Marie was still in a very fortunate position compared to many noble medieval women, including her good friend Elizabeth de Clare, who went on to save the struggling University Hall in Cambridge between 1336 and 1346, renaming it Clare College. Elizabeth was a highly desirable marriage prospect after her father, Earl Gilbert de Clare, died in 1314, leaving her with a third of his £6000-per-year estate. Her first husband had died in 1313, and Elizabeth was pressured into marrying two different men in quick succession – initially, Theobald de Verdon, who kidnapped her but then died in 1316, and Roger Damory who, at the time, was one of the king’s favourites. After Damory’s death at the hands of the Despensers in 1322 Elizabeth never remarried, only really finding peace after the end of Edward II’s reign in 1327.

Marie de St Pol and Elizabeth de Clare had much in common in the years to follow. Despite being disadvantaged by their gender in the area of public power, as widows they were able to carve a space out for themselves as religious figures, patrons of the arts, and founders of Cambridge colleges. Edward II’s son, Edward III, had a far more generous relationship with his nobles, focusing his attentions instead on the beginning of a war against the French (which went on to become the Hundred Years War), leaving Marie and Elizabeth fairly free to pursue their own interests.

While Marie de St Pol’s most famous achievement was the founding of Pembroke College, she managed to create a role for herself among nobles as a responsible and pious lady who actually held immense power. As well as the lands she held in Hertfordshire, Essex, Northamptonshire, and London, she also had property in France, and would often be sent there by Edward III to assist in conversations and negotiations. The king evidently trusted her a great deal as he placed his daughter, Joan of Woodstock, in her charge. He granted her the royal licence to build Pembroke College so that she could follow in the footsteps of Elizabeth de Clare, who had established Clare College just a few years before.

Her decision to found Pembroke College links closely with her dedicated patronage of religious foundations, as she aligned herself with the Franciscans. The most important of these foundations was the manor of Denny, which she granted to the nuns of Waterbeach and dedicating funds to them for the rest of her life. With her management of Pembroke and Denny, Marie created a space of power and influence for herself overcoming the constrictions of a man’s world. She was also a patron of religious arts and books; although the ‘Breviary of Marie de St Pol’, a beautiful illuminated religious manuscript, is the only known possession of hers that still exists.

While little is known of her personality and day-to-day life, an impression of Marie de St Pol can easily be gained from her actions and her decisions to found institutions like Pembroke. Faced with a lifetime as a widow in a foreign country, she fought back against those who tried to steal her inheritance by carving a space for herself as a trusted aid to Edward III, a powerful religious figure who was patron of education and the arts. She lived in a man’s world, but she made it her own.

Eliza Dickinson is a third year History student and the JPC Welfare Officer.