Originally posted 11th January 2024

Edmund Spenser was an Elizabethan poet best known for his epic The Faerie Queene. He has been described as both an Elizabethan propagandist and as a critic of the Tudor government and advocate for reform, but most commentators agree that he is one of the greatest English poets.

Spenser was a middle-class boy born in London, possibly in around 1552; the parish records that would give us a precise date appear to have been lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666. His father may have been John Spenser, a weaver from Lancashire and member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, but there were many men of the same name in the guild at the time. Spenser later claimed noble ancestry, but he was a self-made man who attended the Merchant Taylors’ School as a “poor scholar”, paying reduced fees. He was first published as an unnamed translator while in his teens, when he was attending Pembroke Hall in Cambridge.

His first major work was The Shepheardes Calender: a cycle of twelve poems known as eclogues, one for each month of the year. Spenser’s intentions in writing the poem and the message he was trying to transmit is a topic of debate, but he was writing in a time of social dissatisfaction and may have been sharing concerns and possible reform through the medium of a long poem that combines influences from Chaucer, Virgil, and other well-known works he would have encountered during his education.

His most famous poem is The Faerie Queene, which like The Shepheardes Calender has been the subject of academic debate as to its meaning: whether it is pure Tudor propaganda - it extensively and explicitly praises Elizabeth I and appears to have as its centre the marriage of “Gloriana” (who represents Elizabeth) and King Arthur - or whether it is critical of the queen and her politics. In any case, it is a combination of the pre-existing poetic genres of romance and epic which draws on Celtic and classical sources which Spenser identified with epics such as The Iliad and Orlando Furioso in his “Letter to Raleigh”.

Spenser spent much of his later career in Ireland, having been the private secretary to Lord Grey, lord deputy of Ireland, but he returned to England when rebels burned down his house in 1598. He died on 13th January 1599, probably in King Street near Westminster Abbey. He was buried in what is now Poets’ Corner - at the time only Chaucer was buried there - and many contemporary poets attended the funeral, possibly including Shakespeare. Unfortunately we do not know exactly where his grave is; the only marker is a memorial on the wall.

Originally posted 18th January 2024

Joan of Kent is most remembered as the woman who, according to legend, lost her garter during a dance and inspired Edward III to found the Order of the Garter. It’s unlikely this event ever happened - apart from anything else, Edward had been trying to found an exclusive knightly club on the model of King Arthur’s Round Table for some time - but it reflects an ongoing fascination with Joan and her romantic and marital mishaps.

Joan was the daughter of Edmund, Duke of Kent, who was executed when she was two years old, apparently on the orders of Edward III but really on the orders of his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, who effectively ruled the kingdom. When Edward gained actual control of his throne, one of his early acts was to take Joan and her brothers into his household to be raised alongside his own children.

When Joan was thirteen or fourteen, she had secretly married a household knight named Thomas Holand. Thomas was ten years older than her and in need of money and royal connections, so may have been hoping to present himself to his new in-laws with a fait accompli that would make it difficult to reject him. However, he wasn’t able to present his case to the king and Joan’s mother and get their approval after the fact and the marriage remained secret while he first took part in Edward’s war against France and then went on Crusade against the Tartars in northern Europe, perhaps hoping to distinguish himself and make himself a more tempting suitor for Joan. Joan, however, was left in an extremely vulnerable position, having just disobeyed the king while living in his household and reliant on him for support.

Since Joan’s marriage was secret, her family continued trying to arrange a husband for her. Her mother found the perfect groom in William Montague, the son and heir of the Earl of Salisbury, who Joan had actually known when they were children. She was furious and disappointed when Joan finally revealed that she was already married and decided to go ahead anyway, putting considerable pressure on Joan to disown Thomas. She may have had genuine doubts about the validity of Joan’s first marriage - there was no evidence beyond Joan’s word, with Thomas abroad, and she was young enough that there was an argument she hadn’t consented. Whatever Joan’s family - and William’s - believed, Joan and William were married in a lavish ceremony a little under a year after her secret marriage to Thomas. She was given away with an unusually large dowry, possibly due to the additional risk caused by her insistance that she was already married to Thomas, and it’s possible that William (also only about thirteen) was told not to consummate the marriage until the situation could be cleared up, making it easier for him to seek an annullment if necessary.

Whatever the circumstances that had led Joan to this situation, she remained staunchly loyal to Thomas. If she hadn’t done so, her family could have had her first marriage annulled. When Thomas returned, he made it clear that he considered Joan his wife. It’s possible that the Duke of Salisbury planned to pay him off, but he died before any agreement could be reached, leaving Joan still stuck between her two husbands. By the time of the tournament at which twenty-year-old Joan is said to have inspired the Order of the Garter, the problem had spilled into public view as William and Thomas (now enriched by his success in further French wars) petitioned the Pope to clarify whose wife she was. The two men jousted on opposing teams and both joined the Order of the Garter, adding spice to the event.

Finally, on 13th November 1349 the pope issued a bull determining that Joan’s marriage to Thomas was valid and requiring the Bishops of London and Norwich, together with the Bishop of Comacchio, the papal nuncio, to formally and publicly solemnise it. This meant a considerable drop in status for Joan from Countess of Salisbury to Lady Holand, but she finally had her man and to all appearances the couple were very happy together, with Joan accompanying Thomas on three tours of duty in France, until his death in 1360.

Originally posted 25th January 2024

Feudalism - the hierarchical holding of land from the king down a succession of less-powerful lords to the peasants at the bottom - is often associated with the Normans. The name ‘feudalism’ is an anachronism; it was never used at the time. The simple system of land tenure it’s used to describe is also anachronistic; it was systematised by lawyers into its final form in the 1400s. Originally, land tenure was not a legal concept but a simple social fact, and something similar already existed before the Normans arrived in England.

Saxon land tenure is classically split into two types: folkland (or folcland) which was held under local custom, and bookland (or bocland) which was held under a charter from the king. Originally bookland was mostly granted permanently to the church, for example to found monasteries, but it could also be granted to laymen in exchange for military service. What’s not clear is whether the duty of service arose in exchange for the land or separately because the land was granted by the new landholder’s lord, to whom he owed service.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that some men held land independently of any senior lord. For example, in Cambridgeshire many men are recorded in the Domesday Book as sokemen: a term referring to their rights of soke over their land. This was a right of jurisdiction and meant they were not subject to a senior lord’s court. However, they usually still had a relationship with a senior lord in which they exchanged services for protection and patronage. This was not related to their land tenure; a man might hold land from one senior lord while being “commended” to another and it is still unclear how much the Saxons connected service to land tenure. This system was rearranged after the Norman conquest, when the massive disruption caused by the imposition of a new Norman elite required a clearer chain of service and tenure even if it was never as clean and tidy as modern discussion of the “feudal system” might suggest.