Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Cecilia de Ridgeway and Her "Extraordinary Abstinence"

Cecilia de Ridgeway (pardon signed 25 April 1357)

Sometimes there is a tiny crack in the historical narrative that allows us to glimpse beyond the stories that are the usual stuff of history. Such is the case of Cecilia de Ridgeway, a fourteenth-century Englishwoman who was imprisoned in Nottingham Castle. Except for a very few details. we know nothing about her--but those few details are tantalizing. 

I first came across the name of Cecilia de Ridgeway in Ian MortimerIan Mortimer's Edward III: The Perfect King. What could be more representative of the traditional view of  "history" than a biography of one of history's "great men"? A king, wars, power, political scheming, political allies, political rivals, law, economics . . . 

Mortimer's biography of Edward III encompasses 402 pages (that's just the text--including notes, appendices, bibliography, charts, and index, the book has 536 pages).

A nineteenth-century "reconstruction" of
Nottingham Castle--like Cecilia de Ridgeway's
life, the medieval castle has been lost

Of these 402 (or 536) pages, only 6 lines on page 328 refer to Cecilia de Ridgeway, 3 complete sentences. Three sentences to relay a person's life. 

A second reference--only a phrase--appears on p. 341. In this case, the king's pardon of Cecilia Ridgeway is included among the Edward's "significant religious acts."

As Mortimer's reference to her demonstrates, what remains of Cecilia de Ridgeway's life can be relayed in a few short sentences.

In 1357, Cecilia de Ridgeway was accused of having killed her husband, John. When she was indicted for his murder, she refused to plead. 

She was imprisoned in Nottingham Castle until such time as she would make her plea, subject while imprisoned to peine forte et dure--that is, a person accused of a crime could be imprisoned and punished until such time as the defendant would plead. In most cases, this involved starving the person into submission. (In the fifteenth century, a defendant who refused to plead could be subjected to the punishment of pressing--this is what happened to Margaret Clitherow, who was pressed to death.)

Cecilia de Ridgeway is supposed to have been deprived of food and drink for forty days. But Cecilia neither died nor pleaded--her case was reported to Edward III. 

Regarding her survival under such circumstances as "against human nature" and thus a miracle, the king pardoned Cecilia: "We, for that reason, moved by piety, to the praise of God and the glorious Virgin Mary his Mother, whence the said Miracle proceeded, as it is believed, by our special grace, pardoned the execution of the aforesaid Cecilia" (“Nos, ea de causa, pietate moti, ad laudem Dei & glori[osae] Virginis Mariae Matris suae, unde dictum Miraculum proc[essit], uc creditur, de gratia nostra speciali, pardonavimus eidem Ceciliae Executionem Judicii praedicti.")

Further, the king issued his pardon "desiring that the same Cecilia should be freed from prison, and that her body should not be attacked any further, on the occasion of the above-mentioned judgment" (“Volentes quod eadem Cecilia a prisona praedicta deliberetur & de Corpore suo ulterius non sit impetita, occasione judicii supradidite”).

Edward III's judgment was made at Westminster on 25 April 1357. 

For the pardon, click here.

Sir Walter Scott somehow came across the case of Cecilia de Ridgeway, including it in his 1809 Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts, on the Most Interesting and Entertaining Subjects: But Chiefly Such as Relate to the History and Constitution of These Kingdoms . . .  (click here).

A brief headnote about Cecilia de Ridgeway and a transcription of the pardon are included in a 12-page collection of  cases of "extraordinary abstinence" (click here).

A rather gruesome account of Cecilia de Ridgeway's crime, which seems to have been embellished by details the source of which are unknown, was published in J. G. N. Clift's article on fasting in The Journal of the British Archaeological Association in 1909 (click here). According to Clift, Cecilia poisoned her husband "secretly and with malice aforethought," giving him "a certain loathsome, noxious drug." There are no citations--I'd love to know where the details come from. I also quite like Clift's suggestion that Cecilia de Ridgeway's jailer might be able to "throw some light" on how she managed to survive forty days without food or water . . . 

There are a few other references, aside from these, but they all rely on the pardon as their source or on the account by Scott, who is also relying on the pardon.

If this brief detail about Cecilia de Ridgeway isn't the stuff of historical fiction, I don't know what is . . . Who was her husband? Did she actually murder him? If so, how? If not, how was it that she was accused? How did her story make its way to the king? What happened to her after she was pardoned? Somebody, please write this novel!

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