John of Marston
In 1220 a minor Bedfordshire knight, John of Marston (de Merston), was involved in a rather colourful incident in which he acquired both a wife and a lawsuit. John, who held land in Marston Moretaine which belonged to the manor of Wroxhill, his brother Wiliam and some other men were accused of attacking the escorts of a young woman who was in the custody of the earl of Winchester, of abducting the girl and of robbery. John’s detailed response to the accusations gives a fascinating glimpse into early 13th century life and marriage.
The girl, Matilda de Bernevill, and her older sister Alice had become wards of the earl of Winchester, Saer de Quincy, when their father left England to go on crusade. Wardship of heiresses (or potential heiresses) was a valuable commodity as whoever held it could benefit from the proceeds of their lands and had the ability to choose their husbands. The earl gave the wardship of the two Bernevill girls to a John of Littlebury, who intended to marry the two girls to two of his sons; Alice was to marry his heir, John, and Matilda to marry his younger son, Saer (presumably named in honour of his father’s lord). The marriage between John and Alice took place, but when a suitable church vacancy came up, John of Littlebury changed his mind about Saer’s future and decided he should pursue a (celibate) career in the church instead.
Matilda de Bernevill was now surplus to requirements and was sent to Sopwell Abbey to become a nun. Matilda was clearly no meek medieval maiden, and realising she was about to be disinherited she summoned John of Marston to visit her at Sopwell, explained her predicament “and so fell in love with him that he married her in that abbey”. When John of Littlebury heard what had happened he had Matilda removed from Sopwell and taken to the abbey of St. Alban’s where the abbot was his wife’s nephew.
The party taking Matilda to St. Alban’s “met” John of Marston on the road - quite how he came to be conveniently in the vicinity is not explained. When Matilda saw John she shouted that she was being abducted and her captors would kill her or make a nun. Sadly John was no romantic hero. He saw the number of men with her and replied that he did not want to fight for her. Matilda was made of sterner stuff. She jumped from her horse and ran after John, “and in this way he recovered his wife”. A servant of John and Matilda was then sent to collect some linen cloths belonging to Matilda, but he was met by John of Littlebury and his men who were on the same mission. They took the servant prisoner and accused him of stealing the linens.
His accusers acknowledged that John of Marston’s story was largely true, but claimed the marriage had not taken place until after Matilda’s “abduction”. Rather unconvincingly, they based their case on the somewhat dubious premise that the earl of Winchester had not actually given custody of Matilda to John of Littlebury, and that he was merely caring for her as a good servant of the earl, who wanted her sent to Sopwell only for her own safety.
Sadly the record gives no indication as to what connection there was between Matilda and John of Marston that caused her to contact him and ask for rescue. However it came about, their marriage was clearly recognised as valid and Matilda was saved from life as a reluctant nun.
[Reference: Curia Regis Rolls, vol. ix, 65-57]