Marie de St Pol

Marie de Châtillon at prayer (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke (c.1303–1377) was the wife of Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, and is best known as the foundress of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Family and early life

Marie was born into the powerful French house of Châtillon, Counts of Saint Pol. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Châtillons married more often into the royal line than any other noble family, and they were renowned for holding prominent positions as Cardinals and Constables of France.[1] Marie herself was cousin to Charles, Duke of Brittany. She was the fourth daughter of Guy, Count of St Pol and Marie of Brittany. She had four sisters and two brothers, but nothing is known about her childhood. She was also the great-granddaughter of Henry III of England through her mother.

Marriage to the Earl of Pembroke

Marie and Pembroke were married in Paris in 1321. Both Philippe V of France and Edward II of England were involved in the negotiations for her marriage. Marie was only seventeen when she married, whilst her husband was already fifty.[2] It was his second marriage after the death of his first wife Béatrice de Clermont in 1320. Almost nothing is known of their three years of marriage except the occasion of his death in France on 23 June 1324. They had no children.

Legend has it that she was maiden, wife, and widow all in the space of a single day when her husband was killed in front of her in a friendly jousting match, on their wedding day. However, this is apocryphal as documentation indicates he died of apoplexy after three years of marriage.

Foundation of Pembroke College Cambridge

Edward III’s charter in 1347 gave Marie the authority to found a house of scholars in Cambridge, allowing them to study in the faculties of the university and also awarded them property in Cambridge for their habitation.[1] The resulting college was known as the Hall of Valence-Mary, and is known today as Pembroke College, home to over 700 students and fellows. This makes it the oldest Cambridge College with an unbroken constitution from its foundation to survive on its original site.[3] In 1355 and 1366, Marie acquired papal bulls to allow the college its own chapel, which was the first college chapel to be built in Cambridge. This chapel building still exists as the Old Library to the left of the college gatehouse. It should not be confused with the later classical chapel to the south by Sir Christopher Wren.[1]

The first statutes of the college gave preference to students born in France who had already studied elsewhere in England. The foundation of the college demonstrates Mary's piety as well as her interest in education. Mary favoured the Franciscan order of Christianity, so she required that at least one proctor always be a Franciscan friar. In addition, this kind of charitable bequest to house and support thirty scholars benefited her soul, according to the tenets of medieval Christianity.[4]

Later life

Marie had important ties with both the English and French kings. In 1326 Edward II exempted her from the royal order to arrest all French persons, and from the 1337 confiscation of the lands of aliens.[5] As well as lands in France that she held in her own right, she also acquired the estates that had belonged to her husband. However, in 1372 her lands in France were confiscated by King Charles V.

In 1336 Marie was granted the manor of Denny in Cambridgeshire by Edward III, and there organised the foundation of a Franciscan nunnery in 1342.[1]

Marie drew up her will on 20 February 1377 at her estate in Great Braxted in Essex, which stipulated that she wanted to be buried in the choir of the chapel at Denny in the habit of a Franciscan nun.[5] Marie died on the 16 or 17 March 1377 and was buried in Denny Abbey, to the north of Cambridge on the road to Ely. The abbey became a farmhouse and all traces of Marie de St Pol's tomb have been lost. She is believed to have been buried next to the high altar; the site is now grass.[6] (Cf. Isaiah 40:6, "All flesh is grass".)

In 1992 a memorial was placed on a pillar opposite her husband's tomb effigy in Westminster Abbey, situated in the north ambulatory. Designed by Donald Buttress, Abbey Surveyor, the memorial was made from slate and stone with partial gilding, and bears the inscription:


See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Attwater, Aubrey. Pembroke College Cambridge: A Short History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108015332.
  2. "Elizabeth Comyn and the Despensers Pt1". Lady Despenser's Scribery.
  3. "Pembroke Past and Present". Pembroke College, Cambridge.
  4. Field, Sean L. (2010). "Marie of Saint-Pol and Her Books". English Historical Review. 513: 5.
  5. 1 2 "Mary de St Pol". The Oxford Biography Index.
  6. Ward, Jennifer. English Noblewomen in the Later Middle Ages. Routledge. ISBN 9781317899150.
  7. "William de Valence". Westminster Abbey.
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