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Of divorce and martial ladies – meet the Countess of Norfolk

Allow me to introduce you to Margaret, Countess of Norfolk and Earl Marshal of England. Not that I can offer you any pics, as this lady lived in an age where the committing of faces to oil and canvas was rarely done – and if it was, the depicted faces were usually male and royal. Mind you, Margaret was royal – in the sense that she was the granddaughter of Edward I. But seeing as her mother was a commoner, I’m thinking Margaret’s claim to royalty would have been considered somewhat weak by her contemporaries.

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Not Thomas – but what’s a post about an Earl Marshal without a knight?

Margaret’s father was Thomas of Brotherton, the eldest son in Edward I’s second marriage to Princess Margaret of France. Thomas is often dismissed as being a rather unimportant person in the overall context of things, something I find rather intriguing seeing as he was a royal earl, rich and apparently quite capable. I’ve decided to rescue Thomas from this anonimity, and in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy this Plantagenet prince is given plenty of airtime. Not so much his daughter, who was at most a child in smocks and coif at the time…

Margaret was named for her grandmother, a lady who must have been quite something else. Married to a man well over 40 years her senior – and a man who by all accounts remained very devoted to his first wife, even after her death – she managed to create a happy home for her new husband and give him three children to brighten his old age.

As rumour has it, Princess Marguerite was not about to let something as inconsequential as a pregnancy stop her from following the hounds, and so it was that she was astride and in full hunt mode when her labour pains began. Thomas was born a few hours later, and his father was delighted at having been presented with a male child, a spare to the much older Prince Edward, soon to become Edward II.

Anyway: without going into too much detail here about Edward II and the invasion that led to him losing his crown, let us say that Margaret’s childhood saw quite some exciting times. Her cousin, Edward III, was crowned in 1327 – a boy under the control of his mother and her lover, Lord Mortimer – and her father was probably a tad disgruntled at how high Mortimer was rising.

Margaret knew none of this. By the time she was old enough to understand, Mortimer was dead – as was her mother. Some years later, in 1338, Thomas Brotherton died as well, leaving his two daughters as his heiresses (his son had predeceased him). Margaret, who became the Countess of Norfolk and Earl Marshal upon her father’s death, was by then already married, to  a man called John Segrave, and she was to have several children by him until one day, in 1350, she sought a divorce from him. Yup. A divorce.

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“I want out!” or “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Margaret was at the time around thirty, and she argued for a divorce based on the fact that she’d been too young to consent to the marriage when she was originally married. Seeing as that was fifteen years ago, and seeing as there’d been quite a few children, one can’t help but wonder why she chose this moment in time to demand her marital freedom. Was there perhaps a sniff of illicit love in the air?

Her husband was understandably upset. So was the king, who forbade her from leaving England to plead her case directly with the Pope. So Margaret disguised herself and made it over to France anyway, where she was helped by the retainer of a certain Sir Walter de Mauney – who incidentally was to become her second husband. Love was definitely in the air, don’t you think?

Edward III was incensed and set up an inquiry into the events of Margaret crossing the channel despite his prohibition. Meanwhile, the ecclesiastic courts took their time, Margaret tapped her foot, and poor John Segrave must have felt like an utter fool. He died in 1353, making the whole ongoing divorce procedure moot. Instead, Margaret hastened to marry her Walter, without consent from the king. Did not make her the most popular royal cousin of the year…

Margaret and Walter went on to have 18 happy years together – and three children. Seeing as Edward III was of a naturally benign disposition, Margaret was eventually reconciled with the king.

While Margaret may have been fortunate in her second husband, she was less succesful as a mother. Of the four children she bore her first husband, only one, a daughter, was alive at the time of her second marriage. And as to her and Walter’s children, the precious son drowned in a well at the age of ten, leaving two more daughter, one of whom was to die relatively young. So, all those children, and only two girls to marry and have issue – preferably a male heir who could inherit not only the earldom of Norfolk, but also the hereditary title of Earl Marshal.

Being the Earl Marshal was a martial job. It was the Earl Marshal’s job to take part in battles and war, ensure the troops were disciplined as needed. As we all know, Edward III was quite the martial king – either he was up north giving the Scots a go, or he was on the continent, pushing his claims to the French crown. Reasonably, the Earl Marshal would have been expected to take part in these activities – Thomas of Brotherton most definitely did – but a female Earl Marshal raised a number of obvious issues, the main one being that Margaret was not trained to be a war leader.

The title of Earl Marshal, however, was one Margaret held on to. Not so much for herself, but for all those future heirs to whom it could be of value to have such an exalted office to claim as their own. Problem was, as Margaret grew older, all those future heirs took their time coming. Her surviving daughter from her first marriage married John Mowbray and died in 1368 leaving behind two very young sons. Her surviving daughter from her second marriage also had a son – who died before the age of eight. The hopes for a male heir now rested on little John and Thomas Mowbray.

Despite the loss of children and grandchildren – plus the death of Walter in 1372 – Margaret lived on, testament to those long-lived Plantagenet genes. In 1383, she was around to witness yet another death – that of John Mowbray junior – and now the number of male heirs was down to one. At the time, young Thomas Mowbray was seventeen or so, as yet without issue. This, one presumes, made Margaret a tad antsy.

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Thomas Mowbray being created Earl Marshal

Some years later, in 1385, Thomas Mowbray was created Earl Marshal, him being the last surviving tail male. I don’t think Margaret minded – the title remained in the family, if you will. Besides, she had enough on her plate managing the extensive Norfolk holdings. Plus, she had reason to relax regarding the future, as Thomas had recently fathered a son, thereby offering some hope of future generations.

In 1397, when she was well over seventy, Margaret was created Duchess of Norfolk for life. And when she died, in 1399, her grandson Thomas became the first Duke of Norfolk. Not that it helped him much, as at the time he was living in exile. He was to die of the plague in Venice, leaving his fourteen-year-old son to inherit his titles and lands.

Margaret need not have worried about the longevity of her bloodlines. To this day, the Dukes of Norfolk can count their descent from her – albeit from the distaff side. And to this day, the Duke of Norfolk remains the Earl Marshal of the realm. Fortunately, the role these days rarely requires that he don armour and a helmet…
P.S. Other than Margaret, only one female has ever held the title of Earl Marshal. The other lady so honoured was a little girl named Anne Mowbray who was the sole surviving child of her father, the 4th Duke of Norfolk. Little Anne was married to Richard, Duke of York and son to Edward IV, and when she died at the age of eight, her titles passed to her distant cousin John Howard.

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