Richard II’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1382 brought to England a group of foreign courtiers who were generally distrusted for their supposedly outlandish ways and malign influence over the queen. There is every indication that this poor reputation arose as a result of a major scandal involving one of the queen’s ladies, Agnes Lancecrona, and Richard II’s closest friend, Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, marquis of Dublin and duke of Ireland.
Agnes’s origins have been much discussed but remain undocumented: the idea that she may have been of German or Netherlandish, rather than what we would now call Czech, descent, remains a matter of speculation, and had no impact of contemporary comment, which simply took for granted that, as a waiting woman of the queen, she was a Bohemian. Some English chroniclers alleged low birth, but it is more likely given her station in the royal household that Agnes was born into a petty noble family. These writers all readily assumed that Agnes was responsible for luring the king’s favourite into her bed. What made this act especially abhorrent was not merely the fact of de Vere’s resulting betrayal of his own wife – the English court at this period was especially adept at condoning and justifying adulterous relationships – but the fact that the duchess was herself of royal blood.
Philippa de Vere, the wronged lady, was a young woman of the highest birth. She was the younger daughter of an immigrant, Enguerrand de Coucy, who is the subject of another of our case studies. Her mother was Isabella of Woodstock, the eldest daughter of Edward III. Philippa was thus a first cousin to Richard II. The couple had been married in 1376 when Philippa was still under ten years old; by the time the Lancecrona scandal broke, she was still only in her teens. Robert’s decision to spurn this prestigious marriage and seek the intimacy of a comparatively low-born foreigner brought shame not only on him but also, in turn, on his friend the king. Since her own father had abjured the realm on Edward III’s death in 1377, Philippa’s only recourse was to the protection of her nearest male relative, Richard II. His failure was a blatant breach both of the obligations of kingship and of the conventions of chivalry. Indeed, chroniclers commented darkly that Richard’s betrayal of his family responsibilities could only be explained in terms of a magic spell – deemed by some to have its own sexual overtones – cast by the duke over his royal patron.
In the summer of 1387 Agnes was reportedly abducted by Robert de Vere’s agents and taken to Cheshire. This does not necessarily mean that she was taken against her will: the record may be a later construction intended to vilify the then discredited de Vere. The precise date at which the duke secured the papal annulment of his marriage to Philippa that allowed him to marry Agnes is unclear, but it is more than likely that he anticipated the documentation and forced through an illegal, bigamous marriage. The affair contributed significantly to the growing resentment against de Vere’s influence over the king and to the duke’s political demise in 1388 and forced exile from the realm. Quite what happened to Agnes in all of this remains unknown, but it is just possible that she left England with Robert: there is a tantalising glimpse of her presence in the reference to saddles in the Bohemian style found among de Vere’s effects in Cheshire in 1389.
The cultural legacy of the Agnes Lancecrona scandal was considerable. The perception of sexual corruption in the four-way relationship of the queen, her lady, the duke and his king, helped provoke a kind of crisis of political morality. The Bohemians thus became a convenient target of abuse and blame. Contemporary commentators, for example, attributed to the Czechs the new and decadent fashion of pointy shoes – which, like all such frippery, was seen as a deviation from the stoicism of the noble ideal. Agnes herself was but a walk-on character in the political drama of fourteenth-century England; but the national stereotyping that her case provoked can still tell us a lot about the reception – and suspicion – of high-ranking foreigners in later medieval England.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
J. Lutkin, ‘Isabella de Coucy, Daughter of Edward III: The Excception Who Proves the Rule’, in C. Given-Wilson (ed), Fourteenth Century England VI (Woodbridge, 2010), pp. 130-148.
W. M. Ormrod, ‘Knights of Venus’, Medium Ævum 73 (2004): 290-305.