Medieval Women, Hodierna Mother of Alexander Neckham

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Intriguing Women

Who was the woman who guided and loved Richard the Lionheart as a son?

Behind the lives of great men are great women and this Medieval woman stood squarely behind two of them.

Her name was Hodierna and she fulfilled a unique role in the lives of two male babies born the same day, one her own son Alexander and the other a little boy called Richard whose parents had little time for and who emerged as Richard the Lion Heart King of England and much of  today’s France.

Both children were born on 8th September 1157, Richard in Oxford, very probably at Beaumont Palace and Alexander at St Albans.

Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, would not have nursed her own child and therefore needed a wet nurse. To be a wet nurse the woman had to have a young baby of her own whom she was feeding.

The choice of Hodierna is an interesting one, St Albans in Medieval times had at its heart a scholastic abbey, Oxford, though not yet a seat of learning, was emerging as a place where learned fellows congregated. They lie on roughly the same latitude separated by sixty miles.

If the plan had been to select a woman to be wetness from the outset, surely it is likely that she would have been brought to the place of the Queen’s confinement before the event, even more so when the wet nurse is equally pregnant?

Yet the baby Alexander was born in St Albans and Richard Oxford.

Did Eleanor and Hodierna therefore know one another before hand?

Hodierna’s own child entered the monastry at St Albans and emerged as one of  the Medieval world’s most eminent scientific teachers. Little is known about his family but it must have been of some standing.

Beyond being Richard’s wet nurse Hodierna continued to care for the young prince and in their early years they would have lived like brothers. It was maybe this that meant whatever early education Richard had, that Alexander would have himself benefited from.

Richard was hugely attached to Hodierna and she to him. When he became king he lavished gifts upon her and she became a very wealthy woman in her own right.  She even had a village named after her West Knoyle in Witshire was formerly known as Knoyle Hodierne.

Richard had a quick and lively brain and hugely influenced by the troubadour culture that thrived in his mother’s beloved Aquitaine, Richard was  musical, a poet and political satirist.

His young play mate was to become a theologian, writer, scientist and teacher, the two must have been a great match for each other.

Queen Eleanor in turn must have been very pleased with the whole set up, Hodierna played the nurturing mother role and yet was quick witted and encouraging, probably ambitious in her own right also. Until the age of about seven, the nurse would teach them how to behave, how to speak in a courtly fashion, learn their letters and ensure that they had in place all the skills necessary to know how to learn.

It is quite possible that Richard became part of Hodierna’s household, that he loved her like a mother is not in doubt.

Once Richard reached seven or eight, Eleanor took Richard with her on her many long and protracted journeys to France but Richard never lost touch with Hodierna as we have mentioned he lavished her with gifts once he became king.

Her own son was sent to the school in St Alban’s monastery, he became schoolmaster of Dunstable and later spent several years at Petit Pons in Paris. By 1180 he had become a distinguished lecturer on the arts at the University of Paris. He was appointed abbot of Cirencester Abbey in 1213.

Although a theologian his works were neither particularly original or profound. Neckham’s major contribution was in the field of science. In his De naturis rerum and De utensilibus, written c.1180, Neckham described the use of a magnet as an early compass when sailing. This description is the earliest outside of China.

Alexander must have known Richard as an adult, even though Richard spent barely anytime in England, as he is  known to spent some time at court.

Even in adulthood King Richard did not forget about the woman who loved him as a son, Richard  pensioned Hodierna with land, it is recorded that

‘Hodierna nutris was pensioned with lands in this parish (West Knoyle)

and that he  granted her an annuity of £27 per annum from the royal domains at Chippenham.

The influence of this largely unknown Medieval woman, on two young boys, had a profound affect on the men they became, that love, encouragement and constancy in their lives probably had greater impact than anything else.



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