England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages

Lucia Visconti, Countess of Kent

While much of the work of the England’s Immigrants project has involved the thousands of relatively unknown people who moved to, and lived and worked in, England during the later middle ages, amongst them appear a number of more famous and high-profile individuals. Jessica Lutkin has already discussed the career of one such person, Edward III’s son-in-law Enguerrand de Coucy, but amongst the various people receiving letters of denization during the reign of Henry IV was another such aristocratic immigrant, Lucia Visconti, countess of Kent. If de Coucy’s move to England was unusual in many respects, Lucia’s was perhaps less so. The marriage of English monarchs to continental brides was certainly nothing new, and such alliances for members of the English aristocracy, particularly those with links to the royal family, were becoming increasingly common, such as John of Gaunt’s marriage to Constance of Castile in 1371, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester’s to Jacqueline of Hainaut in 1422, and John, duke of Bedford’s to firstly Anne of Burgundy in 1423 and secondly Jacquetta of Luxembourg in 1433. Italian matches were still relatively unusual, but not unknown, and Lucia’s own cousin and eventual sister-in-law, Violante Visconti, had briefly been married to Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence in 1368.

Lucia was one of the numerous daughters of Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan, but was only young when her father was deposed and murdered by his cousin, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, in 1385. In 1382 her father had begun negotiations for her to marry the future Louis, duke of Orleans, but after his deposition Gian Galeazzo used his predecessor’s extensive family as bargaining chips in his negotiations with various European rulers. Lucia was linked with various potential husbands, including both Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) in 1399, and then Frederick, later elector of Saxony. However, Gian Galeazzo’s death in 1402 brought all these plans to nothing, and in the midst of a turbulent period in Milanese history, a contract was eventually drawn up in May 1406 for her to marry Edmund Holland, earl of Kent. The terms were lavish, with a dowry of 70,000 florins payable over a number of years, and it was probably this which most appealed to the young earl, who had succeeded to an earldom burdened by various dowager countesses and was in serious financial difficulties. The attraction of the alliance to the Milanese is less clear, but as a great favourite of Henry IV, a renowned warrior in his mid-twenties, he was presumably an attractive match for Lucia, and the very size of the dowry can only indicate that the Milanese were either very happy with the arrangements or unusually eager to be rid of her!

The marriage took place at the church of St Mary Overy in Southwark on 24 January 1407, attended by Henry IV himself, and was followed by lavish celebrations hosted by Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester. Little is known about the remainder of their marriage beyond the fact that it was tragically short. In September 1408, just twenty months into their marriage and only four months after Lucia had received her letters of denization, Edmund was killed during an attack on the island of Bréhat off Brittany, leaving Lucia a childless widow in perilous financial straits. She secured her dower portion of the Kent estates, which presumably covered her personal expenses, but Edmund’s finances had improved little, the majority of the Milanese dowry had never been paid, her husband’s creditors were circling and the chances of her being able to execute his lavish will were negligible. However, despite being a resident in England for less than two years, Lucia had little alternative but to fight her corner – there was little prospect of a warm welcome back in Milan. In 1409 Henry IV helped by pardoning all Edmund’s debts outstanding to him, and also redeemed various items pledged by Edmund to two Southampton burgesses as security for a loan, but this could only have been a small victory. In 1414, along with various noble relatives of her husband, she petitioned the king for help in securing payment from Milan, but with her husband dead and no children to support, the Milanese were never likely to pay. The king, Henry V, did respond by issuing letters of marque against Milanese ships and traders, letters which remained in force for decades and caused trouble to Anglo-Milanese trade for most of the fifteenth century, but these had little success. She also sought help against her husband’s creditors, even giving up her claims to part of her dowry in order to satisfy some of their claims, but these had only limited success, and she continued to be troubled for payment.

Lucia remained in England for the rest of her life. In 1411 she gained papal permission to reside within a nunnery of her choice, and probably soon afterwards took up residence in the precinct of the London Minoresses in Aldgate, a common place of retreat for noble widows. She appears to have lived in some comfort, with a large staff of servants and keeping the company of a number of prominent Italian merchants. She died on 11 April 1424, and was buried in the church of the Austin Friars, a popular burial place not only for the English nobility but also for Italians resident in the city. Her will included bequests to numerous churches and religious houses, including the Minoresses, St Mary Overy where she was married, Bourne Abbey where Edmund was buried, and several in Milan. However, these and many other bequests were to be funded from her still-unpaid dowry, and her executors were to have no more success in securing this than she had, with troubles surrounding this rumbling on for many decades in the royal courts. Her view of her own life can perhaps be seen most clearly in her epitaph, recorded in a late-sixteenth century manuscript, which remarked extensively on her Milanese roots and the family connections of her siblings, but made no mention of Edmund or her title as countess of Kent. It can only be assumed that she spent her widowhood a relatively isolated figure, troubled by her husband’s debts and probably dreaming of a return to her native Milan.

Jonathan Mackman

Select Bibliography:
London, The National Archives, SC 8
London, The National Archives, E 30
London, The National Archives, CP 40
Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry IV, 4 vols (London, 1903-9)
Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem,  xxii (London, 2003)
Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland, 14 vols (London, 1893-1960)

H. Bradley, ‘Lucia Visconti, Countess of Kent (d. 1424)’, in Medieval London Widows, 1300-1500, ed. C.M. Barron & A.F. Sutton (London, 1994), pp.77-84.
J. Mackman, ‘“Hidden Gems” in the Records of the Common Pleas: New evidence on the legacy of Lucy Visconti’, in L. Clark (ed.) The Fifteenth Century VIII: Rule, Redemption and Representations in Late Medieval England and France (Woodbridge, 2008), pp.59-72.
M.M.N. Stansfield, ‘Holland, Edmund, seventh earl of Kent (1383-1408)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/13518].

Citation: Jonathan Mackman, ‘Lucia Visconti, Countess of Kent’, England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 website, October 2013 [https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/lucia-visconti-countess-of-kent/]

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England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 25 February 2017), https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/lucia-visconti-countess-of-kent