I can’t confess to taking an active interest in Medieval history. Much of what I read about today is rooted in some serious academia, and sometimes it can feel emotionally disconnected with our world. Yet, this is not always the case. I would like to present to you the tragic (and very ‘Game of Thrones’) story of Margery de la Beche, a 14th century heiress, owner of castles, three times a wife, all in a time of Black Death, corruption, and violent outlaws.
Lady de la Beche was born into the ‘de Poynings’ family in Poynings, West Sussex, around 1310. Her father, Sir Michael, owned a considerable amount of land in this area, hence it’s name. As well as a landlord, Sir Michael was also a knight and ultimately ended his days during the Battle of Bannockburn¹ in Scotland when Margery was just a child. Not the best start.
As many young and wealthy Medieval women did, Margery married as a girl between 13-16 years of age. Her first husband was Edmund Bacon, who owned the Manor of Hatfield Peverall, and by which she had two children, Margery and Nicholas. Edmund had died by the time Margery met and wed her second husband, Sir Nicholas de la Beche, in 1339. It was during her second marriage that she found herself laden with more castles, land, and fancy chattels (goods). Sir Nicholas held vast amounts of land throughout England; Very fitting for the man who would later be appointed Governor to Edward, ‘The Black Prince’, the first born son of King Edward III.
Nicholas then died in 1345. The catastrophic second plague epidemic hadn’t quite hit yet, but given that Nicolas was aged around 55 at the time of his death, it is quite likely he died of relatively healthy ‘old age’. Margery was thus left with vast amounts of land, as can be seen from her inquisition post mortem (a sort of Medieval list of assets used when establishing heirs)². A number of sources report that Margery may have had another two husbands in quick succession, and there is the suggestion that they in turn succumbed to the plague³.
This made Margery a sitting duck. A very rich, widowed, landowner was an attractive prospect for a deviant Medieval nobleman. Enter Sir John de Dalton, a knight with some very alarming friends. Very early on Good Friday in 1347, Sir John and his fellow scoundrels entered the manor in which Margery and her household were staying and began to wreak havoc. They may not have realised that also residing with them was Lionel of Antwerp, the third son of the king.
The gang proceeded to swipe expensive goods and chattels, totalling somewhere between £500 – £1000, an extraordinary amount in today’s money. But they didn’t stop there, Sir John later forcibly abducted Margery. There is one account that implies that she was sexually assaulted³. The goal was to leave Margery with no other choice than to marry Sir John by instilling terror. He murdered her paternal uncle, along with anyone else who got in his way. He even frightened the chaplain to death (probably a heart attack).
Sir John de Dalton, a knight with some very alarming friends.
The law at this time barely protected women, especially when it came to sexual politics. So, rather than than condemn their actions on the grounds of horrifying violence, royal officials deemed it treason. Not only had Sir John stolen items that ultimately belonged to the King, trespass on land and property ultimately owned by the King, he had by default threatened the king’s son.
The crown demanded the return of Margery, and warned the kingdom against harbouring the fugitives. Yet, due to poor legal advice and the need to save face, months went past and no one turned Sir John in. Margery was also nowhere to be found. It is the depressing truth that it appears they did indeed marry, and Lady de la Beche died two years after the traumatic event. One of her inquisition post mortems records her place of death as Calais – it is unknown why she died here. However, it is quite plausible, probably even likely, that she contracted the plague during it’s peak and she died in her late thirties having endured the extremes of a Medieval existence.
¹. The Battle of Bannockburn, June 1314, was the first battle of independence for Scotland, and they won.
². Inquisitions Post Mortem, Edward III, File 99, www.british-history.ac.uk
³. The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages By J. G. Bellamy