Sexual Morality amongst the English Royal Family and Nobility
It is sometimes stated that the social effects of the Black Death of the Fourteenth Century included a breakdown of sexual morals. What is the evidence for this? We can’t do a survey now to find out, but if you look at some of the activities of the English royal family and higher nobility in England in the latter half of the Fourteenth Century, there seems to be a remarkable number of mistresses and second marriages and divorces. In particular it seems that a lot of these are motivated by women themselves who are exerting their freedom – for instance Alice Perrers, Katherine Swynford and Joan of Kent.
The Fair Maid of Kent married for Love?
Edward, the Black Prince and Joan of Kent, were happily married for love (in fact his father disapproved because she wasn’t foreign royalty, and also she has a rather dubious past. Her nickname the “Fair Maid of Kent” was perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to her numerous relationships.
In 1340 she secretly married Sir Thomas Holland, a household knight. But her mother arranged for her to marry William Montagu, son of the Earl of Salisbury, which she did in 1341, despite her earlier marriage to Holland! Holland actually became the couple’s steward, and perhaps he continued his relationship with her. In 1347 he had mustered enough funds to fight a court case at Avignon (the home of the Papacy at this time) to try to win her back. Holland claimed that Joan was held by Montagu against her will and the Pope eventually decided in favour of Holland.
Presumably their marriage which lasted until Holland’s death in 1360 was happy and she really did want to leave Montagu – they had five children together. Yet as soon as Holland was dead she was married to the Black Prince, again secretly. This time there were a few issues to deal with: she was the Black Prince’s cousin and therefore within the prohibited degrees, and the Black Prince was also supposed to be marrying a French heiress, Margaret of Flanders. Supposedly Edward III was furious, but he did help his son get dispensation from the Pope to allow the marriage, so he can’t have been too upset about it. Perhaps he respected his son’s wishes? All reports of the marriage tell us that it was happy and that both parties loved each other.
What can Joan’s story tell us? Well it seems that if the woman wanted to and their chosen party was influential enough, they could marry who they wished and break out of an arranged marriage. But it is also noteworthy that for Joan this happened before the Black Death of 1347 and doesn’t seem to be linked to any breakdown in morals.
Other representatives of the royal family seem to be a bit more immoral. In both cases there was disapproval from commentators of the day, and both were adulterous relationships on at least one side.
Edward III had a mistress, Alice Perrers, who he probably started a relationship with even before his wife Philippa of Hainualt died.
And his son, John of Gaunt, started an affair with Katherine Swynford after his wife Blanche of Lancaster died. Katherine was married.
John of Gaunt’s daughter Elizabeth also had a chequered history. She deserted her first husband, was seduced by her second husband, John de Holand, later Duke of Exeter, whom she hurriedly married as she was pregnant. She married thirdly (before 12 Dec 1400) as his second wife, Sir John Cornwall.
Amongst the nobility there were also cases of adultery. Margaret, Countess of Norfolk – had notorious affair with Sir Walter Manny and divorced her first husband Sir John Segrave to marry Manny in 1354.
So from these cases it does seem that the cases of adultery were on the rise in the last half of the Fourteenth Century, but why was this?
What caused this outbreak of Adultery?
Did the effects of the Black Death mean that people were less respectful of orthodox morality? Perhaps attitudes to organized religion had changed? The Lollard heresy was on the rise, and although it didn’t advocate adultery it did criticise the authority of the established Church. Perhaps figures like John of Gaunt felt less bound to the Church’s rules?
Or perhaps circumstance and power enabled Edward III and John of Gaunt to do what they wanted. After their first wives died, they turned elsewhere. They were powerful enough to not be bound by the Church, and in particularly in Edward III’s case they did not seem much to care to maintain a charade of propriety.