The Curious Case of Mary Felton
By Elizabeth Makowski
Paper given at the Fourteenth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, held at the University of Toronto (2012)
Makowski presented her research on the interesting life of a 14th century English lady: Mary Felton was at one point or another during her complex life was married to Edmund Hemgrave, Thomas Breton, Geoffrey Worsley, and John Curson, consectively, though not always exclusively; she was also ‘sometime’ widow, mistress, divorcee, nun, apostate, and mother.
Mary (born circa 1356) was the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Felton, who was Knight of the Garter and a high ranking officer in Edward III’s armies in France. By the time she was six years old, Mary was betrothed to Edmund Hemgrave, but he died in 1374, leaving Mary as a child widow, but also with some property.
However, Mary did not stay single for long – within a few months she had clandestinely married Thomas Breton. However, this marriage does not seem to have lasted, as in 1376 she had married Geoffrey Worsley in a parish church. Meanwhile, Thomas Breton died in 1380 while fighting on the continent.
The marriage with Geoffrey did not last either, as in 1381 the Archdeacon of Chester granted Mary a divorce, and the the 25-year-old lady entered a Franciscan nunnery at Aldgate, London where she was strictly cloistered.
Over the next few years Geoffrey Worsley remarried, and Thomas Felton died. Although Mary was Thomas’ only heir, as a strictly cloistered nun who had taken a vow of poverty, she was unable to own property. Her mother, Joan, set up several trustees to manage the properties of Mary, with Makowski adding that Joan was eager to maximize the profits from these various estates.
In 1385 the situation changed dramatically, as Mary left Aldgate and made a bold bid to reclaim her secular status. When the crown issued an arrest warrant against Mary for being a runaway religious, she responded by claiming that she was not an apostate because never freely joined. Mary Felton stated that she was forced to divorce Geoffrey and enter the nunnery. She also complained that she was not receiving any profits from the properties being run by her mother.
This case would spend several years in the episcopal courts, and Mary received support from some relatives of Geoffrey Worsley – Geoffrey had died in 1385 but had an infant daughter who would have inherited his estate. By Mary making a claim that she had never truly divorced Geoffrey, this daughter would be declared illegitimate, which meant that Geoffrey’s other relatives would get his inheritance.
In 1392 the episcopal court decided the Mary was indeed a secular person. This allowed her to marry for a fourth time – now with John Curson, who happened to be one of the trustees appointment her mother. Mary never did get control of her properties herself – she died in 1398 and her mother outlived her. When Joan died a few years later, the property of Thomas Felton went to Mary and John’s legitimate son, also named John.
Elizabeth Makowski, a professor at Texas State University, found this to be a very interesting case of matrimonial intrigues and legal entanglements, showing how an individual used canon law to regain her secular status.