Tuesday 27 October 2020

Three women of Ryburgh: a memory of lives in a Norfolk landscape

It begins with a story of families. All local Norfolk families, intermarried enough times to make them, in reality, just one family with a series of different names. Cousin marries cousin, marries cousin, marries cousin, and in a few generations everyone is a cousin, an uncle, or an aunt - and possibly has more digits than is totally normal, even for Norfolk. Marriage within the family keeps the bonds and ties of land strong. Joins up small manors to make greater manors, greater manors to make great estates, and over the generations dynasties are born, and prosper. Unless of course things go wrong. Unless fate looks unkindly upon your house. Unless the hard work of generations is all undone, and instead of being blessed with strong and healthy sons, you have nothing but daughters...

So the traditional narrative goes. A medieval noble family without a male heir was one to be pitied. Daughters divide up manors and lands, lead to the death of family names, and the undoing of generation upon generation of careful dynastic construction. Daughters were, through no fault of their own, simply the second best option.

The Walkfayre family had played their part in the county life of Norfolk for generations. They weren't the richest, or the best known, but they were a well off and respectable county family who could draw upon the resources of half a dozen manors in north-west Norfolk. By the middle of the fourteenth century they could consider that they had done well for themselves in recent generations. They had expanded their holdings, and in the years after the Black Death had capitalised upon a fluid land market, putting themselves in a position that could be described as comfortable. In another few generations, and with favourable marriages, they looked set to become a formidable local dynasty. And then disaster struck, and all was seemingly bought crashing down in a single generation. The family produced no male heir, and not one, but two, daughters - joint heiresses to the whole family.

In the normal course of medieval events that would have really been the last that was heard of the heirs of the Walkfayre family. The daughters would have been married off, undoubtedly advantageous matches due to their likely inheritance, and they and their husbands would have continued the task of dynasty building, albeit in his name rather than hers. However, the Walkfayre women were made of sterner stuff. They had an iron in their personality that wasn't so easily bent to another's will.

The river Wensum at Great Ryburgh

Joan Walkfayre did indeed marry well. Her new husband was already well known to her, being distantly related, and living only a few miles from her own manor of Wood Hall in Ryburgh Parva (Little Ryburgh) in north Norfolk. Sir Thomas de Felton of Litcham was in fact a very fine match. He and Joan were almost of an age, and he was already building a reputation for himself as a talented soldier and military commander. In the Anglo-French chaos of the late fourteenth century, that saw the peak of the Hundred Years War, such a gentleman could do very well for himself. A capable and ambitious man - and Sir Thomas appears to have been both - could do much to improve his own position and that of his family.

And improve his position he did. In a quite spectacular fashion. His list of achievements and honours reads like a classic history of a fictional knight. A companion of the Black Prince, esteemed military commander, diplomat, seneschal of Gascony and Aquitaine, constable of castles, Knight of the Garter - the list is extensive. He piled up honours and wealth, using the profits of warfare to acquire lands and titles, and all the while Joan was at his side. The exact role Joan played in the rise of Sir Thomas' fortunes is far from clear, but it was most certainly far from usual. She clearly more than ably controlled his Norfolk lands whilst Sir Thomas was absent, but her involvement in his business affairs appear to have been far deeper than simply acting as a housekeeper to his acquisitions. Quite unusually her name appears alongside that of her husband in many of the land and financial transactions that they undertook. She appears to have been an equal partner in their dealings, at least as far as the law of the time would allow, and had full jurisdiction over all his business affairs. It was, as far as any marriage of the period can be considered so, a partnership of equals. A strong and determined woman working alongside a successful man.

And as well as her financial and business dealing Joan also excelled herself with the more traditional role of dynastic wife, and children soon blessed their union. A boy, named Thomas after his father, was soon joined by sisters enough to fill a nursery - Sybil, Mary and Eleanor. A male child to carry on the family line, and build upon the foundations laid by his father, and three girls, to be brought up by their independent and very capable mother, and married off to their father's influential friends to further the ties of blood. The makings of a powerful and far reaching dynasty.

Although Sir Thomas did well for himself and his family, his life wasn't without its setbacks. In the lead up to the battle of Najera in 1367, whilst leading a scouting unit of some two hundred knights, Sir Thomas and his men unexpectedly came across an enemy force of some six thousand men. Although catastrophically outnumbered Sir Thomas and his followers attempted to fight off the enemy, until simply overwhelmed by force of numbers, they were forced to surrender and the survivors were taken prisoner. Although released shortly afterwards, the ransom demanded by his captors was hefty. Sir Thomas' reputation had made him a valuable captive, and his wife was forced to raise a considerable sum to secure his release.

And personal tragedies also befell Thomas and Joan. With high child mortality rates in the fourteenth century, compounded by many heartbreaking return visits of the plague, it would have been a miracle had all their children survived into adulthood. Sadly miracles were few and far between. Their only son, little Thomas, died before reaching even his teens.

Sunken road leading from Little Ryburgh church towards the manor of Wood Hall

And misfortune piled rapidly upon misfortune. Having risen to the highest rank in England Sir Thomas had so very far to fall. In the last blood splattered moments of confused melee with the enemy, Sir Thomas, the darling of the English court and military elite, found himself in French hands once more. Held for ransom. Again. And this time the French were not quite so eager to let him go. He was, after all, one of the most successful English commanders in the field, a friend of the Black Prince, and a senior member of the court. As a result his ransom was set exceedingly high; the highest amount asked for any Englishman outside the immediate royal family. A ransom fit for a prince.

Having already been reduced by the previous ransom demand, Dame Joan appears to have been at something of a loss. The Walkfayre/De Felton lands alone couldn't possibly act as guarantor for such a huge sum, so instead she had to appeal to the king for financial aid. However, the promise of a loan from the Crown was forthcoming, the king being keen to have such an able warrior back amongst his army, and Sir Thomas was released on the understanding that the money would eventually be paid. Money that Sir Thomas himself was undoubtedly sure could soon be made good, and better, by taking a few French hostages of his own.

Sadly it was not to be. Sir Thomas himself died a short while after his return to England, with his family finances in a ruinous state, and monies outstanding. He left behind him a wife and three daughters, to make their own way in the world. His formidable widow spent the rest of her life enmeshed in a series of financial and land transactions, determined to use her resources to establish a chantry chapel for her dead husband and son at the nearby shrine of Walsingham. It was a struggle she eventually won, largely by outliving all those who stood in her way, and in a little twist of her own making, the chapel was dedicated to St Anne - the matriarch of the Holy family.

But what then of the three daughters of Sir Thomas and Dame Joan?

Eleanor was convention itself, in what little time allowed - and it was very, very little. So much so that she barely leaves a mark on the documentary record. She married well, had a male child who survived, and died a good death. Her husband, Sir Thomas Hoo, served his king at Agincourt, but poor Eleanor had already been dead some fifteen years. She died aged twenty-two, leaving her infant son to become a baron of the realm.

By the standards of the day her sister, Sybil de Felton, was a woman who surpassed even her own mother in terms of personal achievement. As a dutiful daughter she married well, allying her own family with that of the powerful Morley clan, but it was not to last. Within a handful of years her husband was in his grave. As a widow, having fulfilled her family obligations and with relative financial independence, she chose to enter the church; a place where she could apply her own intelligence and determination, and on her own terms. The exact details of her early career are unknown, but what is clear is that she rapidly rose to become one of the most senior, and certainly the most influential, female religious of her day. Placing herself at the centre of female piety in England, she became prioress of Barking Abbey in Essex - arguably the most influential and powerful female religious institution in the country. Not content with simply holding office Sybil began to amass a library at Barking; a library of religious texts that were of specific interest to women - and designed to be read by members of her own convent. The very first library of its type, and one that was to have a profound effect on many generations of women who followed in her footsteps. Sybil, the daughter of a failing house from Norfolk, rose as far within the church as her sex and rank allowed. I cannot do justice to her achievements. She was without parallel.

And then there was Mary. Poor, troublesome, Mary de Felton. Contrary Mary, for whom I cannot deny having a certain sneaking admiration.

Married off when very young to one of her father's military companions, a man many years older than herself, she was a cliché just waiting to happen. Her elderly husband returned to fight in France, leaving her in the care of a handsome young steward. An ambitious young steward. A lustful young steward. Need I say more? A bit of rough and tumble, the beast with two backs, might even have been overlooked in the circumstance. However, the young steward was as ambitious as he was lustful, and convinced Mary to try and seek an end to her marriage. It may even have been love?

Whatever the case, it ended on Staines bridge, when Mary's lawful husband encountered the wayward steward upon his return to England and violently struck him down. He didn't succumb immediately, but lingered on, to suffer and die of his wounds weeks later. In those last hours, as fortune, friends and breath finally deserted him, and slunk off into the night like a whipped dog, did he call her name or curse her? We'll never know, and she had misfortunes enough of her own to face.

As cliché piled upon cliché, her husband, in the face of so very a public humiliation, had Mary confined to a nunnery. Put away from the world, but leaving him very much married, and very much in control of both her destiny, and perhaps more importantly, her lands. Mary, however, didn't 'do' clichés. So she escaped. In my mind's eye I see her with a novice's habit tucked up at the waist, an arming sword in one hand and a dagger between her teeth, as she leapt the convent wall (it's my imagination - bugger off). The truth may be somewhat different, but the result was as spectacular. Her husband appealed to the king to have her arrested and returned to confinement. The king, sympathetic to one of his loyal soldiers, dispatched Sergeants-at-Law after the wayward Mary, ordered to hunt her down and return her to the convent. But Mary was having none of it. She instead defied her king and appealed to a higher authority - the Pope. A cry for justice in an unjust world. An appeal that fell upon open and listening ears.

Mary's appeal was supported by the papacy, to the annoyance of the king, and she was returned to both her freedom and her rights. Her appeal was reinforced by the timely death of her husband, from natural causes we must assume, and she became, once more, Mary de Felton. A woman who could choose and make her own destiny. And so she did. She did marry again some years later, but records suggest to a man much younger than herself and of middling status, and one may hope that he was as lustful as had been her young steward all those years before. She may even, eventually, have entered a nunnery of her own accord, and become the abbess of Campsey Ashe in Suffolk. The records are unclear. She passed into memory.

And what survives today of these quite remarkable people? What marks have they left upon this world? Thomas and Joan, who stood at the very centre of power and politics, who mixed with queens and princes, and who grasped the opportunities that life offered with both hands? Sybil and Mary, who took their mother's strength of will and moulded it to their own use? Challenging convention within and without the bonds of medieval society. In truth, very, very little.

The chantry chapel that Joan fought so long and hard to establish at Walsingham, to remember her dead husband and lost child in perpetuity, has been gone nearly five hundred years. It stood for less than a century and a half, until it was swept away by the reformation in the middle of the sixteenth century, along with almost every other sign of the once great shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham. Pulled down by fearsome and fearless religious reformers, and sold off for building materials to the highest bidder. A few fragments survived. A small number of broken and smashed parts of a statue of St Anne, built into a barn at East Barsham, a few miles from Walsingham. Rediscovered when the barn collapsed in the late twentieth century, the fragments were put on display in the local church, only to disappear once again into the hands of opportunist thieves.

Somewhat ironically, in the same church can be seen a stone slab. A sheet of weathered marble that once held an ornate funeral brass, and now shows only their bare outline. A knight in armour under an ornate canopy, surrounded by heraldic shields denoting his rank and his august lineage - with a small child in armour shown by his side. The brass itself has also long gone, and nobody knows exactly where or when it was lost, but the outline does remain. A blank testimony. Recent research has shown that this was originally the brass of Sir Thomas de Felton, placed in the chantry chapel of St Anne at Walsingham by his wife Joan, and with their son - little Thomas - shown beside his father. Exactly how it ended up in East Barsham church is a mystery, as it should have gone the way of all the other brasses in Walsingham at the reformation - but someone, at some point, obviously felt that it deserved to be saved.

The remains of Little Ryburgh church

A few broken fragments of remembrance. A few tokens of lives long gone. Blank slabs and broken statues. The church in Little Ryburgh, where Joan must at least have occasionally walked, is now a ruinous mass of ivy and tumbled flints. And the manor of Woodhall in Ryburgh? The place where it all began; that was home to Thomas and Joan, and where their two daughters grew up, before setting out to shake their world? Gone. Long, long gone. The manor was deserted centuries ago, and not one single thing survives above ground to suggest or even hint at the fact that it ever existed. There isn't even a single map outside the realms of dusty archives that carry its name. There are no memories of it in the landscape barring a crooked field boundary, and a farm track that sweeps to the north when logic dictates it should sweep south. Even as a ghost in the landscape its hold is tenuous. And yet, as I have walked across that shady corner of an irregular shaped field, and picked up the broken fragments of medieval pottery that litter the plough-soil, looking out across the shallow valley that they knew so well, I have touched their memory... and that at least will live on for a few years more.

(You can read more about Dame Joan de Felton, and her struggle to establish the chantry chapel at Walsingham, here - https://digital.kenyon.edu/perejournal/vol3/iss2/7/  )


  1. This was brilliant. Thank you. I loved your skills in story telling. I would like to hear more of this way of history. 10/10

  2. Wonderfully told, you really brought these people to life

  3. I always look forward to these pieces, and this is a treat. At a time of the year when we remember our ancestors, this really hits the spot. Thank you

  4. What a fabulous insight into a fascinating family. Thanks for taking the time to write about it.

  5. This was fascinating and bittersweet. I enjoyed your storytelling of this interesting piece of history and your bits of humour. I got tickled when I saw the Morley name, being married to one. A friend of mine in New Zealand shared your blog post on Facebook and I'm in South Africa, so it's done its rounds. I also shared it on Facebook. Take care and keep safe!

  6. No names — just "Morley", and "husband" and "parents". No dates, just references to people who lived at the same time. How to follow these people more deeply if we can't reference anything about them?

    1. I tend not to reference blog posts. They are just me writing for pleasure. However, if you check the end of the post you'll find a reference to an academic article. If you check the referencing there you'll find all the details of the original documents, most of which are now in the British Library or National Archives. They should tell you all you want to know.