Women's Liberation in the Late Fifteenth Century
iety and Independence

In 1485 Agnes Scrope Boynton Ratcliffe took the veil [Raine, 1865]. Her second husband, Richard Ratcliffe, lay dead on the field of battle with Richard III, whom he had served. Agnes decided that two men in her life was enough.

In 1495 Margaret del See Boynton took the veil [Barker, 1976]. Her first husband, Henry Boynton, had died -- a rather less dramatic death than Richard Ratcliffe -- but he was no less dead. Margaret decided that one man in her life was enough.

James Raine explains taking the veil:

A lady, after her husband's death, was allowed to take the vow of chastity, and she was then called a vowess. A kind of investiture took place, generally, I believe, during or before the celebration of mass, when the officiator gave the vowess a pall or mantle, a veil, and a ring, and she then made a vow of chastity in a set form of words. The celebrant was not necessarily a Bishop, but an Abbat or a Prior might act in his stead. This vow merely obliged the lady to live in chastity. She was not severed from the world, but could live in it and make a will, and dispose of her property as she chose. We sometimes find that the vowess, for the sake of a stricter and a more retired life, took up her abode in or near some monastery, particularly a nunnery. She was, however, merely a lodger, or, to use the old term, a perhendinaria. [Raine, p. 312.]

They became vowess Agnes and vowess Margaret.

While the vows varied in wording they generally seem to be much like these vows of Elizabeth Scrope of Masham in 1455.

In ye name of God, amen. I, Elizabeth Scrop, late wife to my worshipfull lord, John newly lord Scrop and of Masham, avow to be chaste from this tyme forward, in ye presence of you, worshipfull fadir, John be ye grace of God bisshop of Philopolen be ye auctorite yt ye have of my most reverent fadir in God, William archiebisshop of Yorc, primate of England, and legate of ye court of Rome; and I bihote to lefe stably in this avow during my life. And in wittenes hereof I with myne owne hand make this subscripcon +. [Raine, p. 333]

The Scropes of Castle Bolton and the Scropes of Masham were closely linked families. So Agnes, very likely, knew about the vows of Elizabeth Scrope. The text is in English -- though the English of the fifteenth century. Apparently, they made an + rather than signing their names; that seemed a standard part of the vows.

Raine compiled a list women taking the veil from the records of the archbishops of York, the bishops of Durham, and the archdeacons of Richmond. This covers a considerable proportion of northeast England. The first entries were in 1374 and the last were in 1531. One hundred and eight women took the veil during the 157 year period. Agnes and Margaret were not unique, but they were members of a small company.


Agnes and Margaret were devoted church women. Both were members of the Corpus Christi Guild, for example. Corpus Christi was a major religious celebration in Yorkshire; it was a combination of religious plays devoted to the life of Christ and a religious processional. The Guild sponsored the processional -- in part through payments of members. Membership was county wide, and the membership list was a roll call of the distinguished families in the county [A Boynton Story: Everybody Who was Anybody and the Guild of Corpus Christi]. Agnes joined in 1498 and Margaret joined in 1512 [Skaife, 1872].

Agnes had a copy of The Pilgrimage of the Soul -- a hand made, religous book that she had received from her father. In the recent critical edition of the book the editor reports that Agnes became a vowess at Marrick priory, and that she made a present of the book to the priory when she died [McGerr, 1990]. Marrick priory is approximately half way between Sedbury -- her home after marrying Christopher Boynton -- and Castle Bolton, which was the home of her parents. She was surely an influential member of the church at Gilling West, which was the nearest village to Sedbury. Henry, her son, was an important member who established a chantry there. And she may have settled at Marrick priory after her son became old enough to inherit the Boynton property.

The church at Barmston was part of Margaret's inheritance from her father. She gave Cuthbert Tunstall his first parish appointment at the Barmston church. He subsequently served the church and the king and became prince bishop of Durham. Their relationship lasted for her lifetime, and he served as an executor of her will. Her will included a gift to the nunnery, Nun Appleton, which was just south of York. She was a votary and patroness to the priory of Nun Cotham, according to the archivist who put together the introduction to the Boynton papers at the University of Hull. Nun Cotham was a nunnery in northeast Lincolnshire.

Both took the veil. Both became members of the Corpus Christi Guild. Both had strong connections to religious institutions. It adds up to strong piety.


Piety is not liberation, of course. Where does women's liberation enter?

Agnes and Margaret were both born to wealth.

Agnes was the daughter of lord Henry Scrope of Bolton. The Scropes of Bolton were a well connected, rich family in Yorkshire -- of many generations. Agnes had two brothers who would inherit the family fortune. So marriage was an important step for her. She married Christopher Boynton. The Christopher Boyntons were new wealth. Christopher's father, also named Christopher, was a second son who made it big as a lawyer working in Yorkshire and Durham. And he accumulated a considerable fortune that Christopher, the son, was managing when he married Agnes. We do not know about feelings. We do know that first she married money; Christopher was wealthy. Christopher died at a relatively young age. Henry, his first son, was only eight years old when Christophe died in 1476. Then Agnes married for stature. Richard Ratcliffe, her second husband, was one of Richard III's men. Agnes became the wife of a man playing on the largest stage the country had to offer. Unfortunately, the play was a tragedy and Richard Ratcliffe died with Richard III at Bosworth.

Margaret was the daughter of Martin del See. He had large land holdings in the East Riding; his holdings were centered at Barmston, which is on the east coast of Yorkshire. Henry Boynton, her husband, was the heir of the Boynton Triangle fortune -- Acklam, Roxby and Boynton. Boynton was only one of their land holdings, but it was only five miles from Barmston where Margaret grew up. His great grandfather had been the brother of the first Christopher. So the two families were separated by several generations. The Boynton wealth was substantial. The del See wealth was substantial. When the two were joined the family had one of the ten largest land holdings in the East Riding of Yorkshire [English, 1990]. Margaret and Henry had a son -- Thomas. Henry died quite young leaving Margaret with large land holdings and a young child. Her son died before he was old enough to inherit, but not before he had had a son named Matthew.

Agnes and Margaret faced the same future. They had substantial wealth in the form of land. Someone had to manage it. The heirs were too young to manage the land. They could remarry, and their husbands could have managed their fortunes. Another marriage would have been quite conventional, and probably was expected by their families. But they did not; they took the veil, instead. That meant they became the managers of large land holdings. It also meant independence. They were in control: Agnes for a shorter period because Henry inherited when he reached the appropriate age; Margaret for a longer period because her grandson did not become old enough to inherit until much later.

The veil was a way for piety to produce independence for Agnes and Margaret.


Barker, Eric E. (1976) The Register of Thomas Rotherham Archbishop of York 1480-1500, vol. 1, for Canterbury and York Society, vol. 69, p. 82.

English, Barbara (1990) The Great Landowners of East Yorkshire 1530-1910, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Herfordshire.

McGerr, Rosemarie Potz, ed. (1990), The Pilgrimage of the Soul; A Critical Edition of the Middle English Dream Vision, Garland Publishing, pp. lxxx-lxxxiv.

Raine, James (1865) Testamenta Eboracensia; A Selection of Wills from the Registry at York, vol. III., Publication of the Surtees Society, no. 45, 1865, p. 350.

Skaife, Robert H., ed. (1872) The Register of the Guild of Corpus Christi in the City of York, Publications of the Surtees Society.

June, 2002 G. R. Boynton