The Close Rolls reveal that on December 14th, 1286, while Edward I was in Gascony, his cousin Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, witnessed the enrollment of a settlement among the heirs and parceners of Stephen de Bocton, a tenant-in-chief, lately deceased.[1] Stephen was survived by his wife and three daughters, two of whom were married. There were thus six people with a direct interest in the division of Stephen’s estate. Interestingly, among the lands and income to which they were now entitled were a number of rents specifically attached to various feast days, including Christmas. Presumably such rents enabled lords to entertain their important allies and tenants at banquets to mark these important moments in the liturgical, social and political calendar. After all, we know that ostensive feasting was an integral part of alliance formation and maintenance, and by no means insignificant in maintaining the dignity of lordship that enabled land holders to command the respect of their neighbours and dependents.[2] Even those who weren’t invited may have ‘feasted’ on the news of the rich dishes and their staggering variety.

I imagine, then, that the division of the Christmas rents may have been among the articles of inheritance that were hotly contested or at least seriously debated and considered in the course of reaching the settlement, because it is far from clear that all parties got an equal share of the festive goodies:

  • 26 ½ hens and a cock to Idonea, Stephen’s eldest daughter and her husband Thomas de Gatesden.[3]
  • 25 hens and two cocks, and a hundred horse-shoes to Joan, Stephen’s second daughter and her husband Ralph de Otringden.
  • 29 hens and a cock to Isolda, Stephen’s third daughter.
  • nothing for Matilda, Stephen’s widow – or at least nothing recorded in this entry on the Close Rolls.[4]
image from wikimedia commons

Fowl, I say! Image from wikimedia commons

Reading this it seems odd that Joan and Ralph get two cocks and bags of bonus horse-shoes, and that Isolda gets more hens than anyone else. What exactly was the ‘calculus of fowl’ that lay behind this?[5] How much was a hen worth? Was a hen always worth the same? Was there some hidden operational principle determining that the youngest was entitled to more hens? Why does the eldest seem to come out with least here? Was this to do with the relative social ranks as married (or unmarried) women and the grandeur of their Christmas tables, or was it a pragmatic solution related to the location of the various tenants who owed rents at Christmas and the adult homes of the three co-heiresses, or something else?

Now I grant that all parties received many other lands and rents in the settlement so that their share overall might have been equitable. However, the fact that someone paid to have this settlement entered into the Close Rolls by the authority of none other than the King’s cousin and regent suggests that at least one party was suspicious that it would fail to hold, or that its terms might be contested. This was belts and braces bureaucracy: the Fine Rolls already recorded three separate writs to the escheator this side of Trent on the same day in favour of each of the co-heiresses.[6]

Strangely, given the suggestive nature of these administrative measures, it doesn’t seem that the settlement had been unusually difficult to reach. In fact, the process seems to have been a relatively swift one (certainly nothing to the iconic problematic inheritance dispute that arose on the death of William Marshall, dragged on for years and probably contributed, albeit indirectly, to the Barons’ War). The Inquisitions Post Mortem tell us that Stephen had died on ‘the Friday [or perhaps Thursday] before Michaelmas [29 September] last’, and the detailed partition was enrolled at Westminster seventy eight [or nine] days later.[7] This does not seem to me to be an excessive period of time considering the audit of properties, franchises, services and rents that would have needed to be carried out before any settlement could be determined. To be sure, it was not a particularly large or dispersed estate by thirteenth century standards, with holdings only in the counties of Kent and Essex, but it was complex enough when we take into account all the various services and rents to which Stephen had been entitled, and which the Inquisition had not specified.

So what evidence is there that this settlement was a matter of family tension, aside from the curious distribution of Christmas birds among Stephen’s daughters and the fact of the enrollment itself? The best evidence comes a couple of pages earlier in the Calendar of the Close Rolls, where it is recorded that on December 6th, Thomas de Gatesden (or Gatesdene) “acknowledges that he owes to Isolda de Bocton 11l.; to be levied, in default of payment, of his lands and chattels in co. Kent,” and that “the aforesaid Thomas acknowledges that he owes to Ralph de Otringden 100s.; to be levied, in default of payment, of his lands and chattels in co. Kent.”[8] In other words, Thomas and Idonea were already in hock to their relations, and agreeing to settle these debts had been part of the discussions in the partition of the Bocton inheritance. Tellingly, this episode appears to be Thomas’ only appearance in the chancery rolls, so he wasn’t acknowledging these debts just in the course of normal business.[9] A special effort had been made to put the matter on official record. Equally tellingly, the debt was never cancelled on payment, although debts by other debtors nearby on the same roll were. Thomas and Idonea’s financial situation was thus not sound at the time of her inheritance: it continued to be poor until the time of Thomas’ death, when the Inquisition Post Mortem records only a small estate to be divided between Idonea, who survived him, in dower, and their son Stephen, Thomas’ heir. Whereas the Inquisition on Stephen de Bocton’s estate occupies more than a page of modern print, Thomas de Gatesden’s estate is finalised in under a third of a page. This looks like downward mobility in action.

So one possible explanation of the apparently lop-sided division of Christmas cheer among Idonea and her sisters lies in irrecoverable background financial arrangements through which Joan and Ralph, and Isolda helped to prop up the household of de Gatesden. If so, one wonders whether the twenty six and a half hens and one cock that arrived –assuming they arrived– each Christmas served to remind Idonea of her financial difficulties and caused her to brood on life’s iniquities. Sounds like a recipe for a stereotypical tense family Christmas, medieval style. Plus ça change!?

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1.Calendar of the Close Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office: 1279–1288 (London: HMSO, 1902), p. 468.
2. Lars Kjær, “Food, drink and ritualised communication in the household of Eleanor de Montfort, February to August 1265″, Journal of Medieval History, 37.1 (2011), pp. 75–89. <Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jmedhist.2010.12.001&gt; See also references therein.
3. One wonders how half a hen was to be delivered to Idonea and Thomas, and what happened to the other half…!
4. I also note that the Inquisitions Post Mortem mentions that Isolda/Iseult was still living with her mother at the time, so perhaps we should consider them as a single household for the purposes of this rent in kind. See Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analogous Documents, Vol. 2, Edward I, (London: HMSO, 1906), pp.362–3.
5. Science geek moment! The hypothesis that all the daughters received equal rents at Christmas can be expressed as (26.5x + y = 25x + 2y + 100z = 29x + y), where x = hens, y = cocks, and z = horse-shoes. But we can see instantly that this doesn’t hold, because 26.5x + y ≠ 29x +y unless the xs and yx are of different value, in which case the whole thing falls down. OK, now returning you to regular programming…
6. Calendar of the Fine Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office, 1272–1307. Reprint edn (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1971), p. 232.
7.CIPM, Vol. 2, pp.362–3.
8. CCR, 1279–88, p. 466.
9. The few other mentions of him I have been able to locate so far include an indictment for hunting a hare in the warren of the Abbott of Battle at Wynchenden [see Robert Furley, A History of the Weald of Kent: With an Outline of the Early History of the County (London: John Russell Smith, 1874), pp. 242–43.]; named among the jurors of the Hundred of Tenterden in the list of the jurors of Kent c. 1274–5 [see the Kent Hundred Rolls Project, Available at http://www.kentarchaeology.ac/khrp/hrproject.pdf%5D; his own Inquisition Post Mortem [see Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analogous Documents, Vol. 4, Edward I, (London: HMSO, 1913), p.91.]; and, after his death, a writ in the Close Rolls ordering a quarter of his manor of Bocton Alulphi to Idonea since he had held it in her right [see Calendar of the Close Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office: 1302–1307 (London: HMSO, 1908), pp.55–56.].