Medieval Women and the College of St Stephen’s

In this first post Elizabeth Biggs, one of our post-grad workshop facilitators, discusses the presence of women in ‘all-male’ medieval colleges.

A Medieval college was a hybrid beast; neither a fully secular institution nor a religious one. Like monasteries, they mimicked familial structures and households: a group of men, usually but not always priests, who lived and celebrated the Mass together. Sometimes, and in addition to being concerned what was called the opus dei, the round of Masses and other religious services, they also provided education.  Oxbridge colleges were of that type, having both teaching responsibilities along with religious ones. The college I’m concerned with, based around the chapel of the same name in the palace of Westminster, had a staff of about forty, including boy choristers who received an education.

So in an all-male institution why am I talking about women? Women are easily written out of the story of late-Medieval English politics. You just need to look at the uncomfortable reaction of contemporaries and historians alike when Queen Margaret of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth Woodville are discussed, predominantly because they dared to wield ‘male’ forms of power. St Stephen’s was a political institution, the senior staff of St Stephen’s usually held political or civil-servant roles. They are the kinds of people talked about when historians write about politics in this period. By looking at the women involved in this college we can start to revise our understandings of women in politics during the medieval period. 


A dramatic case study at St Stephen’s in the early 1440s involves Eleanor Cobham, duchess of Gloucester. She was the wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the young king Henry VI’s uncle and head of the council that was ruling England at the time. Henry VI was not yet an adult, so his uncle and aunt were important figures at court. She was accused of witchcraft, for conspiring with a canon of St Stephen’s to produce a horoscope for Henry VI which said that he would be seriously ill in 1441. Her trial was held at St Stephen’s itself, in the grand chapel decorated with pictures of Edward III’s family, including his daughters and wife. Condemned to imprisonment for the rest of her life and divorced against her will from Humphrey, Eleanor was to spend the rest of her life in castles far from London.  Her ultimate downfall was to help her husband’s enemies have him executed six years later. Yet we can see that as Humphrey’s wife, Eleanor was involved with politics and her choices did have impact, even if it was not the impact she intended. In St Stephen’s she would have seen the images of Queen Philippa and her daughters. As royal women, with access to the king and lands of their own, they too played political roles, and they too would have known and been respected by the canons of St Stephen’s.

Less exalted women also interacted with St Stephen’s and its staff. For example, women could own land and property in their own right. John Gunthorpe, a canon in the 1470s, left land and money in his will to his sister, Helen. She was married, and her husband was probably still alive, but the land went to her specifically and gave her some economic independence from him.  Land and money could also be given by women acting on their own. For example, Margaret Swyffte, who was from Westminster, then a relatively prosperous town next door to London, gave money to the college so that every year on the anniversary of her death, they would say a mass for her. This obit (remembrance mass) was a customary thing to do, and you generally asked for an obit in a church that you had some connection to.  I don’t yet know why Margaret was attached to St Stephen’s, but her presence in their records is a reminder that women could have active roles in managing land and money, roles which we think of as the preserve of men in this period. It is so easy to look at the vast numbers of male names linked to the college. What is perhaps more interesting  is to look very carefully at the women who turn up in the records and think about their own activities and the possibilities open to them.

Elizabeth Biggs


Elizabeth is a first-year PhD student at the University of York working on a whole variety of topics from diplomacy to building logistics and careers in the church, trying to understand a particular institution, the College of St Stephen’s in Westminster during its late Medieval existence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s