King Edward I and his first wife, Queen Eleanor of Castile, had their 13th child – a little girl, whom they named Mary – on 11 March 1279 at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. Due to rampant child mortality, the tiny princess was one of only six royal children to live to adulthood out of a family of 16 siblings. Known as Mary of Woodstock, this 4th surviving monarchial offspring would be dedicated to God and veiled as a nun while still a child.
When Mary was still a tiny tot, her paternal grandmother and the dowager queen, Eleanor of Provence, decided to retire to Amesbury Priory in Wiltshire, and thought it would be swell to have a couple of granddaughters go with her into the convent. This wasn’t simply for selfish reasons – dedicating a child to monastic life was considered an act of piety and religious devotion by the family. How the son or daughter selected might feel about the matter wasn’t really taken into account. In the Medieval mindset, God gave you children for your use as much as for your happiness. Thus, at the tender age of seven, Mary and her cousin, Eleanor of Brittany, were dedicated to service at Amesbury in 1285, and took their final vows to become Benedictine nuns in 1291 when they were 12 years old.
Don’t feel to bad for Mary, however. Being consigned to a nunnery could be a pretty sweet gig for lady as highborn as Mary was.
For one thing, she had her own private apartments in the nunnery, “with a magnificent bed hung with velvet and tapestry, and sheets of linen.” Additionally, her parents gave her more than £200 per year for living expenses, which was basically more than £180,000/yr for her to spend as she pleased. She was also allowed to travel, coming to see her parents on a regular basis and making multiple pilgrimages across Britain. As anyone who has read Canterbury tales can tell you, a high-ranking nun traveled in comfort and style on those journeys and enjoyed all the same trappings her secular counterparts did. Mary also had fun at court when she visited, managing to rack up some gambling debts – which Daddy paid for on top of her already lavish allowance.
As the daughter of the king, Mary was guaranteed advancement in the priory, and she had became vicegerent and visitatrix for the abbess before she was even out of her teens. Nevertheless, Mary didn’t really have the bent for scholarship and prayer that it takes to make it all the way to abbess, and refused the post in 1293. Mary obviously had better things to do that devote all her energies to running the convent. Instead, Joan de Jennes, “a wise and vigorous woman, in whom her superior had great confidence” was sent from France to be abbess of Amesbury in 1294, with Mary’s express approval.
Although Mary never sought to become prioress herself (she refused the post again, after de Jennes death in 1309), the princess continued to have a great deal of influence over Amesbury’s management. For example, around 1301 she used her royal influence to make sure that the tenants of Melksham Manor, which the nuns of Amesbury leased, were able to maintain the legal rights to graze their livestock on the manor’s commons. Concern for the peasants under the abbey’s dominion shows a Christian charity most pleasing in a nun, and somewhat surprising in a princess. Moreover, in Mary may have liked to play games and dance more than she liked to fast and hold vigil, but she seems to have taken her duties to the less fortunate seriously.
Unlike her cousin Mary, Eleanor of Brittany sought a more concrete leadership role in the Benedictine order, becoming abbess of Fontevrault Abbey (located in the Anglo-Norman stronghold of Anjou) in 1304. This technically made Eleanor Mary’s superior, because Amesbury was a ‘daughter’ abbey of Fontevrault. The less frivolous and fun-loving Eleanor was tried to curb Mary’s travels and secular lifestyle, but failed. Whenever Eleanor would try to rein in her cousin, Mary would simply use her royal connections to circumvent the abbess’s orders.
Mary of Woodstock continued to live an unconventional religious life — including a purported affair with John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey (which was probably untrue) and having Nicholas Trevet dedicate his book to her – until her death in 1332. Although she had been given to the church while still too young to make that choice for herself, it had worked out well for her. She had an amazing amount of autonomy for a medieval princess. She never got shipped away to marry a stranger, and without a husband she was spared years of repeated and potentially deadly childbirths. She got to live life largely on her own terms, and seems to have had a lot of fun doing it.
Good for her.