Needy knights and rich old ladies: Sir John Sandys and social mobility in late Medieval England

In 1980, Terry Jones, actor, presenter, writer and Monty Python member, published what has become something of a literary event. Chaucer’s Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary is a book that had medieval historians foaming at the mouth for many a year afterwards. It generated much debate and forever altered the landscape of the knightly class and ‘chivalry’ in academic circles.

Jones proposed that Chaucer’s knight, far from being the chivalric gentleman, was in fact a ruthless careerist in pursuit of titles, land and wealth via the conventional trade of war. Ransom, kidnapping, extortion, profit and abduction was the new stock in trade, rather than saving the honour of the defenceless or fighting evil. Chaucer’s General Prologue and Canterbury Tales (c.1380s) are packed with similitudes and, like the best fiction, tell more of real life than non-fiction can.

One of the chief tasks of the medieval knight in literature was to rescue or at the very least, preserve the honour of the damsel, but in reality it was the often the knight himself who placed the damsel in distress.

One such real person I encountered during my research is Chaucer’s Knight to the life, an exact contemporary with the Canterbury Tales. In November 1375, orders were sent to William Upton to keep safely all the goods of John Sandys, a ‘fugitive’ from Cheshire, which were in his keeping; the king’s sergeant-at-arms were then commissioned to arrest all goods of John Sandys in William Upton’s keeping and bring them to London to the king for disposal.

John Sandys was charged with the abduction of the recently widowed Joan Bridges from Romsey Abbey (Hampshire), where she had been staying. It was found that he had on his person possessions worth over £120 (£100,000 today), which belonged to the lady’s previous husband. One of the Black Prince’s esquires was sent to Chester to bring the lady back to London for examination by the King’s Council. It was then discovered, however, that Sandys had already married her.

On 8th April 1376, Sandys secured a royal pardon for all homicides, rapes and felonies of which he stood indicted. He subsequently acknowledged that he owed the King a fine of £1,000 (around £900,000 today) but this sum was never paid, for it was assigned to the Black Prince, who before his death expressed a wish for it to be pardoned in full. (Sandys was fortunate; the Black Prince died in June 1376.)

It was his service with the Black Prince that was Sandys’ salvation. Sandys is first recorded in the service of the Black Prince, who was earl of Chester (Sandys’ place of origin), as well as Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of England. On 27 January 1367, before Prince Edward sailed from Gascony to Spain, he granted him a substantial annuity of £50 (£50,000 today) for life from the issues of the earldom. Sandys probably fought in the battle of Najera, thereafter remaining for some time in the prince’s company in Spain and France.

 

“A knight there was, a worthy man…he loved chivalry, truth and honour….”

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Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (Luttrell Psalter f202v) c.1350

 

The later fourteenth century abounded with ‘proto-professionals’ – free-booters and mercenary leaders such as Sir John Hawkwood in Italy, Sir Robert Knolles in France or Nicholas Sabraham whose campaigning life took him from Brittany to the Black Sea. Included in these groups were opportunists and criminals, deserters, mutineers. It was a diverse, volatile world in a shifting culture and it was from this world that John Sandys emerges, his military career typical of many who served during this time.

However much Sandys military careerism may prove to be part of a developing trend in late 14th century warrior society, his abduction of a wealthy widow is the key to his stake in local society, politics and dynastic security. Without land, he was nothing, and the widow he apparently snatched from Romsey Abbey gave him that anchor.

Joan Bridges was the widow of both Peter Bridges and of Giles Norman and brought to Sandys four Hampshire manors with the marriage. Joan, however, was worth much more. She was the cousin and eventual heir of Sir William Fifhide, on whose death she stood to inherit three manors in Sussex and five in Hampshire, something Sandys would have been aware of in 1375.

John Sandys’ marriage to Joan and his previous military career positioned him well for a busy political career in Hampshire; he was commissioner of array between 1377 and 1392 (with involvement in putting down the rebellions of the summer of 1381); coroner from 1378, sheriff 1382-3 and 1394-5, JP 1384-95 (and JP in neighbouring Wiltshire 1391-4), MP eight times between 1381 and 1393 and deputy constable of Southampton castle in 1386.

During a military campaign in Aquitaine in 1380 Sandys was knighted, and his rise in society sealed. Sandys was now a made man; he dined with Bishop Wykeham’s household. (We have the only surviving household account roll, for six months in 1393 and he is specifically mentioned as a guest on Monday 16 June. He was in good company. On 25 July, King Richard II and his wife, Queen Anne of Bohemia lunched with the bishop and 234 others.) One imagines the fugitive-soldier of fortune turned landowner, MP and sheriff silently toasting his good fortune with the son of a stonemason turned Bishop over the wine and capons supplied to the kitchen that day. Sandys obtained a preacher’s licence from the Bishop for his own chaplain in 1385.

He may not have been born with a silver spoon, but he quickly learnt how to use one. Whatever his background as soldier of fortune from Cheshire, alleged rapist and murderer, by the 1380s, we would surmise that Sandys was very the epitome of Hampshire county society, an upstanding pillar of the community – one might even say, poacher turned gamekeeper.

Would any, or all this political activity have been possible without the widow Joan and her inheritance?

Joan was a prize worth having. Her life was lived out in the unequal patriarchal society, as heiress, wife and widow. If Sandys was Chaucer’s Knight, with all the ambiguities of the ‘chivalric’ career, then Joan was Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (like her, thrice married). Joan was the person with property, not John; Joan had the gentility that Sandys needed to enter into Hampshire society, once Sandys had washed himself of the blood and sweat from his numerous campaigns.

It was the heirs of their union (and her property) who would maintain the social status in the county community. Joan retained her rights over her freehold property from before the Sandys marriage, the land that had come to her during the marriage (from the Fifhide estate) and she would recover them if she became a widow, which indeed she did. Medieval land was ‘held’, not owned; what was at stake was the ‘right’ to their land and it was this that defined their possession. Sandys was seised in of Joan’s lands in right of her. Whilst married to John, she could not dispose of the land herself without his agreement; he couldn’t sell her land without her consent, or else the conveyance could be void at a later date.

As a widow, Joan was vulnerable because she was a woman of property in her own right and heiress. As an independent widow, Joan would have to take her own legal action in court (and women did) rather than her relatives take the action on her behalf.

 

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The Wife of Bath, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

 Literature includes stories of knights dressed as friars assaulting women. See Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale – “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte”, a phrase which has a modern echo in a notorious comment by Donald Trump!

 

There is no record of Joan taking any such action. Perhaps it was a consensual match. Sandys was clearly a powerful man with a reputation, who would protect her. Perhaps not. When Sandys died, Joan married a fourth time, to the well-known lawyer, Sir Thomas Skelton, who had no connections with Hampshire and made no intention of making any. Does this mean Joan suffered silently with Sandys or just that once again she needed protection as a widow of means whose property was at risk?

Sandys not only wanted Joan’s property, which would be his during her lifetime, but his heirs by her would have the rights over her first two husbands’ property and inherit the Fifhide manors, which they did. Clearly Joan was either childless when Sandys carried her off, or with infant children who died because it was Sir John’s son by her – Walter – who inherited the properties and during the 15th century the family prospered (it was always harder for ‘new’ men to get established – older families often had a male heir, however distant, to take on the estate).

In 1501, at the dawn of the Tudor age, Sir Walter Sandys was 26 when he inherited eleven Hampshire manors, the bulk of them Joan Bridges’ inheritances. His younger brother Sir William went on to become Lord Sandys, 1st Baron of the Vyne in 1523, who built a new house at Sherborne which was visited by Henry VIII in 1510 and 1531.

The Sandys dynasty was firmly established, begun by an advantageous (forced) marriage by a career soldier with powerful backing and continued by good fortunes of fertility and survival (the average survival rate of the male line was 21% amongst peerage and gentry).

But what made Sandys unusual in Hampshire at least, was that he was one of very few, if perhaps the only, man to have married into the local gentry from a background without social parity in the period c1300-c1500, whose family became a leading local family. Widows and heiresses were key to the transmission of landed estates throughout later medieval England, but most marriages were conducted between families of equal status and from the local, or regional area. Sandys was neither.

Sandys was an exception to the rule. He not only broke out of the murky world of career soldiering but managed to build a local dynasty thanks to his marriage to Joan. In a man’s world of derring-do, high politics, and foreign adventures, the most important feature of later medieval landowning – and therefore local power –  was the women – often nameless, mostly unknown – but they were crucial to the family fortunes. Real power lay with them.

 

Dr Toby Purser, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education and Humanities