Mary of Woodstock – The Princess nun

Mary of Woodstock (public domain)

Although marriage was the most usual pathway for a royal daughter of England to pursue, in very rare cases a princess was chosen for the religious life, as in the case of Mary, the fourth surviving daughter of Edward I. For a king with an abundance of daughters it was a very practical choice to send one to the Church to further solidify the Crown’s power in religious matters. This appears to be a very gender-specific role as no royal sons of England were ever members of religious houses. In some cases, princes were sent to be educated by the Church, but none were ever destined to join them.

There are numerous references to Mary, although brief, in texts about nunneries, or women and religious life in the medieval era. It is known that she was admitted into the abbey in 1285 at the age of seven.1 She officially took the veil in 1291.2 Mary entered the Benedictine nunnery at Amesbury Priory with her grandmother Eleanor of Provence, as well as her cousin Eleanor of Brittany who was the daughter of Beatrice, Edward I’s sister.3 Eleanor of Provence had actively pursued Mary to join her at the Abbey despite hesitation by Mary’s mother Eleanor of Castile.4

Like her sisters who made foreign marriages, Mary had a vital role to play in acting as intercessor as well as legitimising the family dynasty by extending the crown’s influence through the Church rather than to a foreign kingdom. The dynamics of her relationship with the court and her operations with the Amesbury Priory reveal the unique role that Mary played as a royal daughter that straddled both the religious and secular world.

The first instance of Mary’s possible entrance into a religious life was first recorded in 1282 in letters of correspondence between Gila, Prioress of Fontevraud and Edward I.5 The prioress had written to Edward I to express the abbey’s interest in taking in Mary to be a nun upon hearing that Mary was to be destined for the Church. Edward had written that he could not confirm his decision to send his daughter to Fontevraud as the decision lay with his wife and mother.6 In a letter dated March 3rd, 1283, Gila replied to Edward’s original letter to again stress that they wished to have Mary join their nunnery. A royal daughter in their nunnery would prove to be immensely politically advantageous for Fontevraud and would foster a direct connection between the nunnery and the monarchy. Gila’s threat recorded in her letter that their devotion would ‘grow cold’ if Edward were to go back on his promise is particularly ominous.7 However, Edward was ultimately swayed by the wishes of his mother, Eleanor of Provence, who encouraged him to allow Mary to accompany her to Amesbury Priory, a branch house of Fontevraud in Kent. 8 By the time Mary had entered Amesbury Priory, the previous prioress of Fontevraud, Gila, had died, but her successor Margaret de Pasey wrote to Edward when she learnt that Mary was not to join them. She wrote that she understood that Mary had gone to accompany her grandmother, but requested that after Eleanor’s death that Mary would be sent to Fontevraud as promised.9 Eventually, Mary’s cousin Eleanor of Brittany, whom she entered the abbey with, was transferred to Fontevraud upon the death of their grandmother. Eleanor of Brittany would eventually become a Prioress of Fontevraud.

We can come to understand why Fontevraud was so keen to have Mary as part of their nunnery by examining the impact she had on Amesbury Priory. The abbey’s royal connection with the princess proved to be an attraction for others as thirteen other aristocratic daughters also took the veil along with Mary, her cousin and her grandmother.10 By 1256 the number of nuns at Amesbury had expanded by 220% over 80 years.11 Mary and her grandmother Eleanor also expanded the nunnery physically by having private quarters built for them as they continued to live in a similar level of comfort that they had known at court.12 Mary’s presence at Amesbury allowed the abbey many royal favours. Mary also came into the abbey with her own income of £100 per year as well as other lands and estates in her name.13 Her income doubled after the death of her grandmother in 1291.14 In 1302 that income was exchanged so Mary instead received the income of a variety of estates, stipulating as ‘long as she stayed in the realm.’15

Mary retained a close relationship with her father and later her brother when he became king. Mary wrote to her father in 1292 that he must send word about how he was doing by ‘every messenger.’16 Her father, Edward I, often came to visit Amesbury. He is recorded visiting in March 1281, January and March 1286, October and November 1289, April 1290 and February 1291.17 Mary was also a frequent visitor at court or was on pilgrimage around the country. Some historians suggest that Mary clearly disregarded her vocation of a nun as she was often away from the abbey. R.B Pugh describes Mary as ‘spiritually unedifying, devoted, as it was to travel, junketing and dicing.’18 They often refer to the instance where in 1305 Edward I had to provide Mary with £200 to get her out of a gambling debt.19 It is clear that Mary had a taste for the finer things in life, however, it can be argued that Mary’s absence from the abbey was her utilising her role as intercessor between the priory and the crown to use her unique position to strengthen ties between them. Furthermore, she could also still continue her role to foster the Crown’s relationship with the kingdom through her public interaction. In 1290, Mary spent Easter with the court at Woodstock and with her sisters distributed 106 ells of cloth, 567 ells of thick russet and 80 pairs of shoes to the poor.20 Mary visited court in 1293 and dined with the King, she also brought with her five other nuns.21 In 1297 she was at court for five weeks to farewell her younger sister Elizabeth who was about to make her way to Holland with her new husband. She also followed this visit by giving alms and a gold clasp in her father’s name at the shrine of St Edith.22 In 1321, her brother Edward II paid her expenses to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury.23

Mary continued to rise up the ranks of the priory and by 1301 she was the vicegerent of the abbess and performed the role of visitor to sister houses to inspect them.24 However in 1317, when her cousin Eleanor of Brittany was Abbess of Fontevraud, this position seems to have lapsed. On behalf of Mary, her brother Edward II wrote to Eleanor to ask her to reinstate Mary in the role of visitor. Eleanor continued to ignore the request until 1318 when she was ordered by papal mandate to restore Mary to her position.25 Mary almost certainly used her unique relationship with the crown to her advantage.

Perhaps Mary’s most poignant role as intercessor came in a letter dated to circa 1316, wherein Mary wrote to her brother Edward II about the election of a new prioress for Amesbury. Mary’s letter concerns the abbess of Fontevraud who was their cousin Eleanor, thus the decision lay with her to choose the new prioress. Eleanor wished to appoint a new prioress from Fontevraud rather than Amesbury, which Mary sought to undo by using her connection to her brother, the King to overrule Eleanor’s decision.

Not only is the letter of interest as it demonstrates the role Mary plays as intercessor in representing Amesbury Priory’s interests, the family dynamic of the letter should also be recognised. Mary is using her relationship with Edward as his sister to overrule Eleanor who is their cousin, although Eleanor outranks her as a prioress. By this stage, Fontevraud and its branches are in the complete charge of the Plantagenet family. Mary ultimately succeeds in attaining a local prioress for Amesbury, through her act of intercession.

Although Mary did not follow the traditional path of a royal daughter by marrying into a foreign kingdom, she still fulfilled all that was required of her in her office of princess. Mary’s position as a royal daughter infused all her actions with an inherently political nature. Despite her role as a nun, Mary still successfully used her influence to mediate between the crown and Amesbury Priory to cultivate connections between the monarchy and the religious sector, which manoeuvred situations in her favour. She also continued to reinforce the crown’s authority through her public appearances, both at court and on pilgrimage, and even through her acts of patronage.

1 Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward I, 1281–92, p.190.

2 Michael Prestwich, “Mary [Mary of Woodstock] (1278–c. 1332), princess and Benedictine nun.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 4 Jan. 2018.

3 Bernice M. Kerr, Religious Life for Women c.1100-1350: Fontevraud in England, Oxford, 1999, p.109.

4 John Carmi Parsons, Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth Century England, New York, 1995, p.38.

5 Mary Anne Everett Green, The Lives of the Princesses of England from the Norman Conquest, Vol 2, London, 1846, p.406. ( the reference of the original letters was not provided)

6 ibid.

7 PRO SC 1/17/115 as published in Green, Vol 2, pp.406-407.

8 Kerr, p.109.

9 SC/1/30/78 Description listed on British National Archives website.

10 R.B Pugh, ‘The Abbey, later Priory of Amesbury’, in Victoria History of the Counties of England: A History of Wiltshire, Vol 3, R.B Pugh, ed., London, 1956, p.247.

11 ibid.

12 Calendar of Close Rolls, Edward I, 1272-1279, p.524, Edward I, 1279-1288, p.14, p.96.

13 ibid.

14 Prestwich, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Retrieved 15 Feb. 2018

15 Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward I 1301-1307, p.52.

16 SC/1/19/111 as cited in Parsons, ‘Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society’, p41.

17 Pugh, p.247.

18 ibid.

19 Green, Vol.2, p.421, p.431, p.434.

20 ibid, p.413.

21 Issues of the Exchequer being a collection of payments made out of His Majesty’s revenue, from King Henry III to King Henry VI inclusive, London, 1837, p.110.  

22 Pugh, p.234.

23 Issues of the Exchequer, pp.133-134.

24 Kerr, p.136.

25 Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 2, London, 1893, p.427.



About Hannah 2 Articles
My name is Hannah and I'm from New Zealand but I now live in London. I did my Masters in History at the University of Auckland where my research concerned English medieval princesses. I love all things medieval and have also conducted research on the history of queenship. My first love was the Tudors when I was a teenager inspired by reading historical fiction novels but in my academic career I have slowly moved further back in time and now the majority of my work concerns the fourteenth century, where things are just as dramatic in my opinion!

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for such a wonderful, detailed article! I knew this princess had become a nun, but not what an extraordinary career she had. This is the reason I love this newsletter.

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