I know it’s been a while, and I’m sorry about that but it’s partly because of this:
And also because of this:
As I’m sure you can appreciate, these have left little time for blogging. However, I’ve been writing about family and kinship lately and unpacking all the layers of understanding within early modern relationships, and I thought I’d give you a taste. I like this vignette not only because I can imagine it taking place (scene in a film, anyone?) but because it illustrates the points I’m currently trying to make so nicely.
In December 1529, Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported a quarrel at court between the two Duchesses of Norfolk, the most senior women of the dynasty. On some unspecified court occasion, Elizabeth Stafford-Howard, the junior or ‘current’ Duchess, had tried to take precedence ahead of Agnes Tylney-Howard, the widowed dowager Duchess. Unsurprisingly, the Queen (Catherine of Aragon) refused to allow this. Elizabeth and her husband Thomas II, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, were ‘much offended’, noted Chapuys, ‘especially the Duchess who comes of the House of Lancaster’. She and the Duke spoke many ‘angry words’ that the Queen, in Chapuys’s opinion, was unlikely to forgive. This was important to the Spanish in the context of bringing the Duke of Norfolk onto their ‘side’ of the King’s ‘Great Matter’, but it also reveals that relationships between female kin could be complicated, with several co-existing ‘layers’ of perception and expression.
On the most obvious level, this was a spat between two holders of the same title about their relative status. While there could only ever be one male titleholder at a time, it was possible for several women to share the same title, and therefore the same duties and responsibilities, at the same time. When a nobleman died, his title passed to his heir. If he left a widow, she retained her courtesy title, but his successor’s wife also gained it, creating a situation where two women possessed a title concurrently. If several male holders died within a short space of time and each left a widow, there could be several women all using the same title. It is easy to see that this might cause friction between the individuals concerned. In this case, Agnes, therefore, was the dowager or ‘the old’ Duchess of Norfolk, while Elizabeth, as the wife of the current male titleholder, was ‘the young’ Duchess, and Elizabeth felt that she ought to take precedence. This may also have been about conflict between different family lines or branches, for while Elizabeth’s immediate Howard relations formed the inheriting line, Agnes, as the previous duke’s second wife, now headed an alternative Howard branch which might well have been considered the ‘junior’, and thus the subordinate, branch by Norfolk and Elizabeth.
An aside in Chapuys’ report suggests that there was more to it. Both Norfolk and Elizabeth were offended by the Queen’s decision to place Agnes first, but ‘especially the Duchess, who belongs to the house of Lancaster’. This was a reference to Elizabeth’s natal status as a daughter of Edward Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham, who had strong links to the royal line through his Woodville ancestry. Though women nominally gave up their natal family name and thus status when they married, this statement suggests that Elizabeth felt that her pre-marital status remained relevant even after marriage into a new family. Agnes, the dowager Duchess, did not come from such exalted stock. Her natal family, the Tylneys, were Lincolnshire gentry. If not for their marital titles, Elizabeth would have been far above Agnes in the pecking order of precedence. It would appear that Elizabeth felt that this ought to carry weight even after marriage had brought both women into the same family and nominally levelled the playing field. This dispute, therefore, was not only about title precedence, but apparently also about these women’s noble status ‘underneath’ their titles; another ‘layer’ to consider when examining noblewomen’s kinship networks.
On yet another level, Agnes and Elizabeth’s marriages to successive dukes of Norfolk meant that not only did they share a title, but that they were also step-mother-in-law and step-daughter-in-law. Then as now, this relationship could be particularly fraught. Moreover, women’s relations to stepchildren also had the potential to be difficult, since the presence of a stepmother often complicated matters of inheritance. Elizabeth, therefore, was not only quarrelling with another noblewoman over status; she was picking a fight with her mother-in-law. But did she see it in this way? The incident with the Duchesses of Norfolk was reported by Chapuys. The insinuation that natal status and familial relationship played a role in Elizabeth’s reaction is therefore made by an outsider to this network. Though we cannot therefore be sure it accurately reflects Elizabeth’s own feelings, it does tell us that outsiders thought that it did, and that they accepted the continued importance of women’s natal status after marriage. Chapuys also highlighted the personal relationship between the two women as mother and daughter-in-law, again showing that all of these layers were perceived by outsiders as well as those involved. Ultimately Elizabeth may not have been thinking of the kinship relation between them at all when she fought for her own precedence, or alternatively she may have been perfectly well aware of it and this may denote a poor personal relationship.