13 January 2024

Big Women (2)

 Once upon a time ... are you sitting comfortably? ... once upon a time, there was a couple called the Percivals. They were very wealthy;  Sir John owed much to judicious matrimony. and perhaps even more to the surge in the wool trade at the end of the fifteenth century ... and to mercantile acumen. He owned land in Cornwall, Devon, and Kent. He lived in London and rose through the ranks of the Company of [Merchant] Taylors to be its Master. Through his personal connections, he received knighthood and, after personal interventions by the newly-crowned Henry VII, became Lord Mayor of London.

After his death. his widow and collaboratrix, Dame Thomasina, continued to run the business and to train the apprentices. His will endowed chantries in significant places and provided for for good deeds in places both conspicuous and inconspicuous; he founded the (still existing) school in his native Macclesfield.

Not to be outdone, Dame Thomasina, before she died in 1512, founded a school in her native Cornish St Mary Weke. Together with the King's Mother, Thomasina was thus one of the first women to make such a foundation.

We should note Sir John's Christian name: the Merchant Taylors were intimately connected with S John Baptist, who had remarked Ecce Agnus Dei. And Dame Tomasina's chantry at Weke was dedicated to the Baptist. She endowed a daily anthem to S John to be sung at the Percival church in London, S Mary Woolnoth, and a taper to burn before his image in the chapel where both Percivals were to be buried.

Percival had risen to the very top of the mercantile aristocracy. He desired to associate himself with the new Tudor regime, and hissupport was acceptable.

His first duties as Lord Mayor were to preside over ceremonies to honour young Prince Arthur who, but for his early death, was destined to be the first monarch of a great new Arthurian dynasty.

When Percival died in 1503, the first monarch of the House of Tudor was in the process of an elaborate attempt to embellish his tenuous ancestral claim to he throne. The steps leading up to his rebuilt Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey were endowed with the same generous indulgences as the Sancta Scala. And, as she approached death, Dame Tomasina provided for the endowment of a chantry nearby, near the tomb of the king's mother who was also the foundress of a school. She also provided for the preachers at Paul's Cros to rehearse the names of herself and her husband, and of Geoffrey Boleyn and his wife. 

It seems clear from the records of their lives that the Percivals, Husband and Wife, shared status and shared the administration of the their considerable empire. They were intimates and associates of the great merchant princes of London as they sat together in the capital and did the deals which built up their estates all over England; and spent money they on churches, monasteries, and schools in the last half-century before the bankruptcy engendered by the Tudor government's warlike foreign policy led to the looting of the churches, the suppression of the monasteries ... and the imposition of a crippling tax on sheep.

Thomasina is a powerful example of the sort of mulier fortis described in the Mass of S Helena. In the lection of Proverbs 31, we should not miss the (exiguous!) reference to her Husband. We learn practically nothing about him except that he is nobilis in portis quando sederit cum senatoribus terrae

I do not think that the womenfolk of medieval England were demure or retiring or insignificant. I suspect that, as their menfolk sat grandly in Council (or livery companies!) and made big decisions, their women fulfilled the daily duties of commercially viable enterprises. They were not all as grand as Dame Thomasina Percival, but I suspect that Abendon held enough women, big fish in their own pool, to estimate fairly accurately their own economic importance.

And to understand the roles of mulieres fortes.

1 comment:

E sapelion said...

The judicious marriages to which you allude seem to be those of Thomasina. Thomasine Bonaventure/Galle/Barnaby/Percyvale (or many other spellings) gets an entry in Wikipedia whereas her husbands, all tailors, do not apart from the last listing as Lord Mayor. Tying the school to a chantry in Weke/Week fell foul of Tudor greed, as it lost its endowment and relocated to Launceston.
I see that the Great Western Railway named a locomotive after her - 3342 Bonaventura - appropriately of the 'Bulldog' class, and it survived into my lifetime.