Thursday, November 21, 2013

In search of a woman in the time of King John and Henry III

In search of a woman in the time of King John and Henry III

Niall C.E.J. O'Brien

Last Thursday, 14th November 2013, an idea came into my head of writing a history blog article about people remembering the dead in the nunnery of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. Those who gave land to the abbey in return for prayers for the dead, like the founder, Ela, Countess of Salisbury, who gave the abbey site to remember her deceased husband and other members of her family. Also those who gave money like Thomas Chancellor of Bath who gave the abbey £5 to say prayers forever to aid his soul in the next life.

Chapter house of Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

The article advanced well to three A4 pages until my eye caught the sight of an early 13th century woman, Constance de Lega. About 1230 she gave land to Lacock Abbey in return for perpetual prayers for her deceased father and mother - no prayers for her unnamed dead husband. This was a very early grant to Lacock abbey and was made even before the abbey officially opened in 1232.

A medieval woman - wife, widow, nun

Who was this widow, Constance de Lega, who gave all her manor of Woodmancote in Gloucestershire to the as yet unbuilt nunnery in Wiltshire? Last Monday, 18th November, out came all the source books I have for the early 13th century to find the mystery woman. The task of finding information on anyone in the early 13th century and before is not an easy one. The vast bulk of medieval documents start to come in after about 1220 and increase greatly after 1250. The class of documents known as the Inquisitions Post Mortem, which are a great help for genealogists and local historians only start in 1236. Thus in the search for Constance de Lega we are working at the very edge of the known world.

The early task was to find Woodmancote and more particularly, which one. There are three places in Gloucestershire called Woodmancote. The first is near Bishop's Cleeve, the second near North Cerney and the third in the south-west near Dursley. The Domesday Book for Gloucester helped identify each place as did the book on the Place-names of Gloucestershire by W. St. Baddeley. But the family ownership evidence in these books was insufficient to link it with the ownership by Constance de Lega in 1230.

With the identity of the correct Woodmancote own by by Constance put to one side, the next task was to find all and any reference to Constance in other documents other than those of Lacock Abbey. This search led from Wiltshire up through Gloucestershire and on into Worcestershire. In the latter county Constance had connections with Brocton and Pershore. She granted land in Brocton and granted separate land to Pershore abbey. Her father's name was William de Lega and a person of that name was seneschal to the abbot of Pershore in about 1200.

Pershore Abbey, Worcestershire

Could this seneschal called William de Lega be the father of Constance? William's mother was Lady Constantia which name is different from Constance but not too different. Yet if the father was going to called his daughter and heir by the name of his mother then the would be the same names and not just similar. There is a place in Worcester called Leigh from which the surname of Lega is a derivative. But the earliest Inquisition Post Mortem relating to Leigh is from 1279 and thus too late to help make any connection with Constance de Lega forty years earlier. Yet all documents have some merit and the 1279 inquisition tells us that Leigh was owned by Pershore Abbey and rented by Henry de Pembridge.

Monday and Tuesday were taken up getting thus far. On Wednesday the internet was pulled out and more documents referring to Constance de Lega appeared. Many of these documents had strong Worcestershire connections with various sheriffs of Worcestershire acting as witness to different documents. These documents made reference to the mother of Constance, namely Mabel de la Mare and the witness list provided other names of people called de la Mare. These other de la Mare people may provide links to further information on Constance de Lega but have yet to be explored.

On internet document, dated c.1242, in Birmingham City Archive related to the exchange of land from a place in Worcestershire to Woodmancote in Gloucester by Constance de Lega. This document was witnessed by Richard son of Andrew de Lega. In all the documents found so far that relate to Constance de Lega no mention is ever made of any children of Constance. It would appear that she had no children by her as yet unnamed deceased husband. This Richard son of Andrew de Lega was very probably a relation of Constance but what that relationship was is still unknown.

On tonight, Thursday, 21st November, I returned to Gloucestershire to find the correct Woodmancote and had identified it as that place near North Cerney. This identification provided another avenue of research with William de la Mare of Rendcombe in Gloucestershire having an interest in Woodmancote via his cousin, Constance de Lega. The village of Rendcombe in 5 miles north of Cirencester and about a mile north-east of Woodmancote. The de la Mare presence in Gloucestershire may suggested that Constance's mother, Mabel de la Mare, came from Rendcombe or may be from Woodmancote itself and that Mabel brought Woodmancote to her husband, William de Lega, as her marriage portion, her dowry. This is still to be confirmed but it certainly looks that way at this present time.

Also tonight while trawling through the documents of Lacock Abbey, one by one, I found the elusive unnamed husband of Constance de Lega. His name was Geoffrey de Abetot and his names appears only on one document out of the 476 documents printed as the Lacock Abbey charters by the Wiltshire Record Society. Yet one good lead is far better than ten poor ones. With a name we can now search the records for Constance's husband and may be find more documents about the lady under her married name.


The search for Geoffrey de Abetot has taken us out of Wiltshire and back into Gloucestershire. Here Geoffrey's name appears as a witness to a number of documents in the archive of Gloucester Corporation. One document of about 1220 was a grant by Geoffrey de Abetot of land at Redmarley D'Abitot, a village and parish within the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, to Richard de la Mare, son of Ralph de la Mare on the marriage of Geoffrey's sister, Lucy, to Richard de la Mare. Elsewhere in the Corporation documents Geoffrey de Abetot witnessed the release of land in Worcestershire by Jordan de Lega to Sir Robert Foliot. In 1242 Constance de Lega gave land to Roger de Foliot in exchange for land in Woodmancote.

The land around North Cerney, Rendcombe and Woodmancote belonged to Gislebert son of Turold in 1086 but he joined the Norman revolt against William Rufus and lost his lands. The district was then granted to Robert Fitz Hamon and became part of the Honour of Gloucester, later held by the Earls of Gloucester. The Earls of Gloucester held land in Ireland and so I took my search for Constance de Lega to Ireland. There in the time of King John was a person called Walter de Abetot. In June 1215 Walter de Abetot was made sergeant of Munster by King John. Thus Walter de Abetot was a nephew of Philip de Worcester, an important grantee of land in Ireland in the days of Kings Richard and John.

Thus our search for Constance de Lega has taken us from Wiltshire to Gloucester and onto Worcestershire. Then back to Wiltshire again for another journey north through the three counties and back to Gloucester again. At 2200 hours on this Thursday the search went to Ireland and has now taken us back to Worcester. Thus after a week I still have only three pages done of the Lacock abbey article and more still to do before posting to this medieval news site. I have one page written on the biography of Constance de Lega but the research outlined above has still to be examined and rearranged to make the biography sound and fit for posting. Yet what more happier few hours can a person spend than wandering around the medieval world in the company of a few old books and a nice warm log fire on a cold November night as this.

Hopefully in the next few days I will finish the Lacock article and make progress on the biography of Constance de Lega. I have a number of business meetings from Tuesday onwards next week and so will have little time for medieval fun. Live in hope even without Bob Hope.

Bob Hope - his father came from Weston-super-Mare, Somerset and another local connection


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