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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: July 2019

Mary Percy and John de Southeray: Wardship, Marriage and Divorce in Fourteenth-Century England


In January 1377 John de Southeray and Mary Percy were married in full splendour before the court of Edward III. John was the illegitimate son of the king and his notorious mistress, Alice Perrers, while Mary was Alice's ward. The marriage was not to last long, however. Within just a few months Edward III had died and Alice, no longer protected by the king, was put on trial for corruption in the opening parliament of Richard II's reign. Despite her protestations of innocence, she was found guilty and sentenced to forfeiture and banishment from the realm. Following Alice's downfall, a petition was submitted to the Pope on behalf of Mary Percy for a divorce from Southeray on the grounds of his illegitimate birth. This essay sets out the course of Mary and John's relationship, from Mary's becoming a royal ward in 1369 until their final separation in 1380. In doing so, it provides a case study for research into royal wardship, marriage and divorce in late fourteenth-century England, highlighting the significance of wardship as a tool of power and patronage and the perceived status and position of royal bastards within late medieval political society. Uncovering these complex political and personal motivations provides new insights into the wider criticisms being levelled at the crown and government during the 1370s, and the perceived role that Edward III's relationship with Alice had on the breakdown of royal authority. Furthermore, it suggests that a more nuanced understanding is needed of how events unfolded during the Good Parliament of spring 1376, and, in particular, of the role played by Mary's half-brother, Henry Percy, the future first earl of Northumberland.

John de Southeray was one of three children of Edward III and his mistress Alice Perrers. It is not known exactly when John and his two sisters, Joan and Jane, were born. For a long time it was presumed that John's date of birth was around the time in 1366 when the king granted Alice an annuity of two tuns of Gascon wine: ostensibly for her ‘good service’ to Edward's queen consort, Philippa of Hainault, but clearly a reflection of her intimate relationship with the king.