From Letters to Loyalty: Aline la Despenser and the Meaning(s) of a Noblewoman’s Correspondence in Thirteenth-Century England

  • Kathleen Neal
Part of the Genders and Sexualities in History book series (GSX)


Sometime between the summer of 1273, and early August 1274, the Countess of Norfolk, Aline la Despenser, sent a letter to the Chancellor of England.1 This was, in many ways, a completely unremarkable letter concerning a rather banal administrative matter; hardly the place one might naturally look for evidence of intersections between gender, emotion, and authority. Yet, as I argue in this chapter, Aline’s letter was in fact a finely tuned articulation of affective persuasion. The beauty of its design lay in a delicate weaving between observing the expectations shaping letters of governance, and transgressing them in targeted and gendered ways which become clear when the letter is read against its particular context. Through simultaneous reproduction and disordering of the rules of letter-writing, it sought to evoke a range of positive responses in one person — the chancellor to whom it was addressed — in ways uniquely reflective of the relationship between him and its sender, the countess. Close reading of Aline’s letter thus reveals how all senders of letters to royal officers might manipulate affective rhetoric to achieve their political, legal, or fiscal aims: it is a case study of how emotion and authority regularly interacted in medieval England. Further, it illuminates the circumstances in which women could enter epistolary exchange of this kind, and the gendered rhetorical strategies they might use when the opportunity to do so arose.


National Archive Thirteenth Century Textual Activity Safe Conduct Royal Rule 
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© Kathleen Neal 2015

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  • Kathleen Neal

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