Manuscripts and Special Collections

Property Ownership

Decorative flourish from LM6 in the Wollaton Library Collection

'... for Dame Joan for the term of her life, as her dower and allowance'

In medieval feudal society, female landowners had to depend on men (either family members or hired retainers) to fulfil the military service owed to their lord.

Married women were also legally considered subordinate to their husbands, and a woman’s land automatically became the property of her husband on marriage. Married women were not legally entitled to own landed property until the passing of the Married Women's Property Act in 1870 and the Married Women's Property Rights Act in 1882.

However, single and widowed women were able to buy and sell land and participate in the ‘outer’ world of business, in contrast to the ‘inner’ world of the domestic household. Wealthy women would also have spent some of their money on expensive furnishings, clothes and books.

Widows received income from their ‘dower’ – money or land to which they were entitled after the death of their husband. Specific estates were sometimes identified for dower in the negotiations preceding the marriage.

The following extracts from literary and historical texts give some insights into women’s ownership of property in medieval society.

Transcripts and translations for manuscript items are also available for download:


Document 1: Lease of property in Skegby, Nottinghamshire, from Matilda (Maud) de Nevill to John le Bret (undated, c.1275-1300, Latin) 

Matilda’s beautiful seal is in the oval shape normally used by women to authenticate deeds. It shows a standing woman holding a bird of prey, and is attached to the deed by an original textile thong, probably silk. Matilda (known as Maud or Maude in English) was the sister of Sir John de Eyvill. According to the Nottinghamshire historian Robert Thoroton, Sir John de Eyvill, knight, of Egmanton, was one of the lords of Skegby in 1315/6. He was perhaps the son of the first Sir John de Eyvill. Matilda was probably a widow when she made this deed. One of her husbands was Gilbert de Norss’, father of her son Thomas, but the first name of her Nevill husband is not known.

Ref: Me D 4/5



Transcript and Translation
transcription and translation
Sciant presentes et futuri quod ego Matilda de Neuill dedi concessiet hac presenti carta mea confirmaui Johanni le Bret omnis terras meas et tenementa
quas habui uel habere potui in Skeggeby . ut In diuercijs homagijs seruicijs liberorum hominium . Wardis . releiuis . Eschaetis . cum villanis uillenagia illa
tenentibus et omnibus eorum sequelis et cum libera capella mea habendum et tenendum de me et heredibus meis ad totam uitam Ipsius Jhoanis libere quiete integre bene
et In pace cum omnibus pertinencijs suis siue aliquo retinemento. Reddendo inde annuatim Mihi et heredibus meis Centi solidis sterlingorum ad duos an
ni terminos scilicet ad Pentecostum quinquaginta solidoset ad festum sancti Martini In Hyeme quinquaginta solidos pro omnibus scalaribus seruicijs consue
tudinibus exactionibus sectis curia et demandis mihi uel heredibus meis aliquo iure pertinentibus . Ego uero dicta Matilda et heredes mei omnis predictas terras et
tenementa cum suis pertinencijs plenius pronominatis dicto Jhohani ad totum uitam suam contra omnes gentes. In omnibus warentizabimus et predictam annualem
firmam adquietabimus et defendemus. Et ad maiorem securitatem huius rei presenti carte sigillum meum apposui . Hijs testibus dominis Roberto De
Sutton . Nicholo de Eyuill . Roberto de Sutton In Aykring . Gicard de Weston . et Waltero tuk Militibus . Radulfo de Arnhale . Waltero
de Kelum . Roberto de Draiton . Radulfo clerico et alijs.
Know all present people and those to come that I, Matilda de Nevill, have given, conceded and by this my present charter have confirmed to John le Bret all my lands and tenements which I had or could have in Skegby, with diverse homages, services of free men, wards, reliefs, escheats, with villeinage of villeins holding there and all their successors, and with my free chapel, to have and to hold from me and my heirs for the whole life of the same John, freely, quietly and wholly, well and in peace, with all of its appurtenances without reserve anywhere. Paying annually thereafter to me and my heirs one hundred shillings of sterling at two terms of the year, that is 50 shillings at Pentecost and 50 shillings on the feast of St Martin in Hyeme, for all stipends, services, customs, dues, courts and demands appertaining to me or my heirs by any right. Truly I the said Matilda and my heirs will warrant in all things all the said lands and tenemants with their appurtenances fully to the before-named John, for his whole life, against all people, and will acquit and defend the said annual rent. And for more security to this thing, I have put my seal on this present writing. These being witnesses, dominus Robert de Sutton, Nicholas de Eyvill, Robert de Sutton in Aykring [Eakring], Guichard de Weston and Walter Tuk, knights, Ralph de Arnhal [Arnold], Water de Kelum [Kelham], Robert de Draiton, Ralph the clerk, and others.

Document 2: Agreement in French relating to ownership of land, between Joan, widow of Ralph Cromwell, and their son Ralph (2 May 1417, French) 

Under the common law in England, widows were entitled to receive the proceeds of one-third of all the land owned by their late husbands, as their ‘dower’. However, some families preferred to make agreements giving the widow specific estates instead. All the dower lands would normally pass to the eldest son after the widow’s death. Women receiving dower were known as ‘dowagers’, and could be very wealthy.

This agreement concerns land owned for life by Joan, widow of Ralph, 2nd Baron Cromwell (d 1416). It was made between Joan and her son Ralph, 3rd Baron Cromwell (1393?-1456). Ralph, 3rd Baron Cromwell, also features in document Pa L 2 .

It is interesting that the deed is written in French. The family were prominent landowners in the English Midlands. Educated people in the early 15th century normally used Latin or French to record important things, although English was becoming more common. It took another three centuries before English was used for all legal documents.

Ref: Ne D 742 


Transcription and Translation
transcription and translation
 Transcription Translation
Cest endenture fact perentre Dame Johane qui fuist la femme Mon seignour Rauf seignour de Cromwell dun paret monseignour Rauf de Cromwell fitz dez ditz
mon seignour Rauf et Johane dautre part tesmoigne qui le dit mon seignour Rauf le fitz ad assigne a dit Dame Johane sa Mier pour sa dower toutz les terrez et tenementz
rentz et seruices oue toutz lours apportenauntz les queux furent a dit mon seignour sone pier en Baseford et Bleseby en le Counte de Notynghaet en
Wynthorpe en le Counte de Nichole ensemblement oue le Molyn de Arnalle esteant Sir lewe de Werbek en mesme le Counte de Notyngham
a auer et tener toutz les ditz terres et tenementz rentez et seruicez oue toutz lour lour apportenauntz ensemblement oue le dit Molyn de Arnalle a dit
Dame Johane pour terme de sa vie come sa dower en Allowance de toutz autrez Manoirs terres et tenementz rentes et seruicez oue toutz lour apportenauntz
les queux furent a dit seignour de Cromwell sone barone a quelle endowement la dit Dame Johane soy ad bien agree En tesmoignaunce de
quelle chose a yoestez endentures les partiez suisditz entrechaungeablement ount mys lour sealx Done a lamley le secunde iour de May
lan du regne le Roy Henri quint puis le conquest quint
 This indenture made between Dame Joan, who was the wife of my lord Ralph, lord of Cromwell on the one part, and my lord Ralph of Cromwell, son of the said lord Ralph and Joan on the other part. Witness that the said lord Ralph the son has assigned to the said Dame Joan his mother, for her dower, all the lands and tenements, rents and services with all their appurtenances, which were [owned by] the said lord his father in Basford and Bleasby in the county of Nottingham, and in Winthorpe in the county of Lincoln1, together with the mill of Arnold … in the county of Nottingham, to have and to hold all the said lands and tenements, rents and services, or all their appurtenances, together with the said mill of Arnold, to the said Dame Joan for the term of her life, as her dower and allowance from all other manors, lands and tenements, rents and services or all their appurtenances which were [part of] the said lord de Cromwell’s barony, for which endowment the said Dame Joan is of good agreement. In witness of which thing, the parties abovesaid have jointly set their seals to these indentures. Given at Lambley the second day of May in the fifth year of the reign of King Henry V after the Conquest.

1. ‘Nichole’ or ‘Nicole’ is the Anglo-Norman translation for Lincoln



Document 3: Extract from a gift from Maude Brewes to Geoffrey and Agnes Bristowe of five shops and a garden in St Clement Danes, London (8 March 1388, Latin)   

This deed shows a woman buying and selling commercial property in London. The boundaries of the property are clearly given, placing the shops on the north side of the Strand. The names of the parties in the original deed are given in their Latin forms (Matilda, Galfridus and Agneta), rather than the English or French versions (Maude, Geoffrey and Agnes) which the people would probably have used in speech. 

Ref: Ne D 4716


Transcription and Translation
Transcription Translation
 Sciant presentes et futuri quod ego Matildis Brewes de Comitatu Sussex dedi concessi et hac presenti carta mea confirmaui
Galfrido Brystowe Fuller et ciui London et Agneti uxori sue quinque shopas cum gardino adiacente et omnibus alijs pertinencijs
suis situate in parochia sancti Clementis Dacorum extra Barram nom Templi London inter tenementam et gardinum quondam
Hugonis de Putford ex parte occidentalis et regiam viam ex parte Australis et gardinum quondam Hamonis atte Well ex parte
borialis et occidentalis et tenementam quondam Rogeri Marschall ex parte orientalis
imperpetuum In cuius rei testimonium hinc presenti carte mee sigillum meum apposui Hijs testibus Galfrido atte
Angell Willelmo Pecche Thoma atte Nasshe Johane Shelden Willelmo atte Cornere Johane Kentis Ricardo
Knapp Henrico Gardinere Johane Barnacastell et alijs Datum in parochia Sancti Clementis predicta octauo die
Marcij Anno regni Regis Ricardi secundi post conquestum vndecimo
 Know all present people and those to come that I Maud Brewes of the county of Sussex have given, conceded and by this my present charter have confirmed to Geoffrey Brystowe, fuller and citizen of London, and his wife Agnes, five shops with adjacent garden and all their other appurtenances situate in the parish of St Clement Danes outside the Bar called Temple [in] London, between the tenement and garden formerly Hugh de Putford’s on the west side, and the King’s highway on the south side, and a garden formerly Hamon atte Well’s on the north and west side, and a tenement formerly Roger Marschall’s on the east side …

… In witness of which thing I have appended my seal to this present charter. These being witnesses: Geoffrey atte Angell, William Pecche, Thomas atte Nassh, John Shelden, William atte Cornere, John Kent, Richard Knapp, Henry Gardinere, John Barnacastell and others. Dated in the parish of St Clement aforesaid the eighth day of March in the eleventh year of the reign of King Richard the second after the conquest.



Document 4: Extract from a deed by Joanna, daughter of Nicholas de Rudyngton and widow of Stephen de Boneye (29 July 1380, Latin) 

The elderly and infirm had no welfare state to turn to in the medieval period. The woman making this deed was luckier than many, because she had property at her disposal. She was able to make an agreement with a trusted friend or neighbour, John Attestyle of Radcliffe, giving him the bulk of her land in Bunny and Bradmore, Nottinghamshire, in return for board and lodging in his household for the rest of her life. This form of ‘sheltered housing’ was a common way to ensure that people who were unable to take care of their landholding could grow old in dignity and comfort. The mention of keys to the stores reminds us of St Zita.

Ref: Pa D 29


Transcription and Translation
 Transcription Translation
 Inueniendo dicte Johanne victum competentem ut sibimus ipsi a festo sancti Michaelis proximo futuri ad totam vitam suam et terram sufficientem ad seminandum annuatim vnium
fernedel de semine lini de terra ipsius Johanis et etiam annuatim sustentacionem unius vacce cum vaccis suis properis et vnam cameram in mesuagio ipsius Johanis subter ignem etetiam
vnum clauem ad hostium celaui ipsius Johanis cum libere introitu et egressu pro victualibus sibi necessariis in absentia vxoris dicti Johanis capiende

 [John] is to give the said Joanna a competent living for herself from the next Feast of St Michael into the future for the whole of her life, and sufficient land for annual sowing of one ‘fernedel’1 of flax seed from John’s own lands, and also annually the sustenance for one cow with her own calf, and one room in John’s own house below the fire, and also [she may] take one key to the ‘hostium celavi’2 of the said John, with liberty to enter and exit for her victuals or necessities in the absence of the wife of the said John.

1. Probably a variant of ‘fardel’, ‘ferling’ or ‘farthingdeal’, all words for a fourth-part of a measure of land, often a quarter of an acre or a quarter of a yard-land.

2. ‘Celavi’ means ‘hidden’, or ‘concealed’. ‘Hostium’ is possibly an error for ‘Hospitium’, meaning ‘the household’, so the phrase probably means something like a locked pantry.


Document 5: Inscription on the final folio of a volume containing ‘Speculum Vitae’ and ‘The Lay Folks’ Catechism’ (15th century, English)   

Objects such as clothes, jewellery, furniture and books were treasured possessions in the medieval period because everything was hand-made, and therefore expensive. Wills and inventories are a good research source for finding out what a person owned.

The notation shown here is in the hand of William Fletcher, and reads ‘God safe my lady fyssyheu & all hyr wymmen god saue master wylle’. This is evidence that this book may have been owned in the late 15th or early 16th century by Elizabeth (d 1507), wife of Sir Richard Fitzhugh, 6th Lord Fitzhugh of Ravensworth, North Yorkshire (c.1458-1487). In 1491 Elizabeth married Sir Henry Willoughby of Middleton and Wollaton as his second out of four wives. She may have brought the book with her.

Ref: WLC/LM/9, f. 257v




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