Content notice: this post makes reference to sexual violence in the middle ages.
Who is Constance Mauduit?
This is a question I first asked myself in 2019. Perusing the magisterial edition of the medieval text Winton Domesday, a Winchester-specific record of people and property from the twelfth century, I found a footnote written by the editors:
‘William [de Pont’ de l’Arche] had a chequered history under Stephen…Cuckolded by his own wife and imprisoned by her lover in his own castle (?Winchester), in 1143, he was dead by 1148.’
This Mrs de Pont’ de l’Arche sounded like a person I needed to know. Some of my research focuses in hostageship in the Middle Ages, with a particular interest in women as hostages and hostage-holders. As written by this footnote, this woman sounded like someone who had wielded extraordinary extrajudicial power. My search began. But what untangled from this past was not the story of a women who had displayed incredible authority over herself and her husband’s castle, but instead someone who had been the brunt of sexual violence, and victim-blamed through the centuries.
Most of what has been told about Constance Mauduit, when she is even mentioned at all, has her at the very margins of political and military history of the early twelfth century. Reference to her by historians is usually via the men in her family. Constance married William de Pont’ de l’Arche in 1130. She was the daughter and heir of the former castellan of Portchester, and with this marriage came that position for her husband. Constance was at Portchester in 1143 during the ‘Anarchy’ between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, when some of the Empress’ troops came to staff Portchester Castle. Led by a man named Robert Fitz Hildebrand, the captain soon made himself at ease in the castle, treating William de Pont’ de l’Arche like a brother. Then, taking advantage of this access of ease, Robert raped Constance and imprisoned William.
That Constance came down to history in footnotes as someone who had a love affair and gleefully imprisoned her husband, rather than the victim of sexual violence, has a lot to say about what we think about women, then and now. The Latin text that narrates this event, the twelfth-century Gesta Stephani (Deeds of Stephen), makes no mistake about telling its readers of the violence and coercion of Constance’s rape at the hands of Robert Fitz Hildebrand. That the incident has been translated and written about as ‘cuckolding’ is another story entirely. Since as early as the nineteenth century, translators and commentators have claimed that Robert ‘fell in love with William’s wife’, or that this kind of love affair was ‘not an uncommon outcome’ when there was an elderly man with a young wife.
Once again, faced with a medieval text that outlined the rape of a woman who had been wrongly victim-blamed over the centuries, I found myself asking, ‘Who is Constance Mauduit?’ Who was this woman whose life had been wrongfully narrated? How could we find her in the archive and restore her dignity, and life, to her?
Constance Mauduit, like many noblewomen of the early twelfth century, did not leave much of an archival trace. But fortunately, one of the few documents which recorded her life and times is held at the Hampshire Record Office. This cast whole new light on Constance Mauduit beyond her sexual assault.
The Cartulary of Southwick Priory at the Hampshire Record Office (HRO 1M54) is key to understanding Constance Mauduit as a medieval noblewoman beyond the circumstances of wartime sexual violence. In actuality, Constance Mauduit was a wealthy heir whose inheritance allowed she and her husband to become patrons of major Augustinian monasteries in England. The Augustinian order were newly arrived to England at the time, and they were heavily favoured by King Henry I. Nobles and gentry such as the de Pont’ de l’Arches patronising Augustinian houses were reflective of not only personal piety but familial wealth and political strategy. Favouring the places that the King favoured would not do you any harm. Constance and William were no different.
Previous to his marriage to Constance, William had already helped to found the important Augustinian priory at Southwark, London. But together, Constance and William founded the Augustinian priory at Portchester in the early 1130s. This beautiful medieval survival is still the parish church of St Mary’s inside the castle outer walls at Portchester, and its nearly-untouched architecture tells of its wealth and status at the time. The priory eventually moved to Southwick, Hampshire, around 1150, where it naturally became known as Southwick Priory.
Constance and William’s gifts at its foundation at Portchester, which were reconfirmed by Popes Eugenius III and Alexander III in the later twelfth century, included Preston Candover and Southwick, both in Hampshire. The latter made possible the priory’s move to that location ca 1150. Digging a bit further into the past tells us more about those estates. According to Domesday Book, Preston Candover was held by William (I) Mauduit in 1086 – Constance’s grandfather. Southwick was not mentioned in Domesday Book, but was listed in the priory’s records as another gift from both Constance and William. So it was, in fact, Constance’s inheritance from her father that made both these gifts possible, as well as the priory’s later move to its location at Southwick.
Constance and William’s patronage of Augustinian priories became family tradition. Both their children, Emma and Robert, patronised Southwick and other Augustinian priories in the south and southwest. Robert confirmed his parents’ gifts to Southwick very early after its refoundation in the 1150s. Emma also gave land to Plympton Priory in Devon, another Augustinian house that linked her birth family’s patronage of Augustinians to her betrothed family’s position as earls of Devon. Together, the family’s strategy of patronage meant that they were remembered at these priories as important founders. Prayers for Constance and her family would have been constant on the lips of these monks through the Middle Ages as some of their most important, and earliest, patrons. Even the location of the notice of their gifts in the Southwick Cartulary tells us how important she and her family were: the record of their gift appears on the first folio, front side, of the Cartulary – front, centre and first.
Constance was far from being a seductress who cuckolded her husband. She was a rape victim. But she was more than that, as are all rape victims. Constance Mauduit was an heir and patron whose wealth and position in society allowed the growth of Augustinian priories in England. In many ways her life may look like many other Anglo-Norman women who are underrepresented in archival records. But thanks to those records, even if they are few, we can create a better understanding of medieval women, from the tragedy of sexual assault to the elite roles as patrons.
Author: Dr Kate Weikert
Bio: Dr Katherine Weikert is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History and Deputy Head of the School of History and Archaeology at the University of Winchester. Her research focuses on people, places and buildings in the earlier Middle Ages, working in History and Archaeology. Her book, Authority, Gender and Space in the Anglo-Norman World, 900-1200, was shortlisted for the Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion for contributions to architectural history by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. You can find her @kateweikert on Twitter and @katherineweikert on Instagram.