Princesses and money, did they have a hole in their purse ?

Satin sheets, fine wines, beautiful fabrics… When we think of princesses, we imagine women living in luxury. Was this really the case? How did they manage their money?

In the Middle Ages, noble women didn’t do as they pleased once they were married. They were subject to their husbands, including economically. He could be fussy about expenses.

Medieval lead coins (12th – 15th centuries) © Musée Cantonal d’Archéologie & d’Histoire, Lausanne

Living lavishly?

In Savoy, the state coffers supported the princesses. The sovereign’s wives were responsible for leading their entourage. They were surrounded by maids, servants and officers in important positions. Called a “hotel”, this group included a large number of people. Children were also included, as well as daughters- or sons-in-law. Countess Bonne of Bourbon, who resided at Chillon Castle, had more than 170 people in her personal suite!

Princess Bonne of Bourbon owned 9 horses and had 170 people in her personal suite.

The hotel provided all aspects of the princesses’ daily life: food, travel, clothing, furnishings, education, body care and writing and forwarding mail.

Watch out! No question of emptying the state’s vaults. Accountants kept a close eye on the money coming in and going out for all these fine people. Countess Yolande of Montferrat was integrated into the Savoy accounting system from the day of her marriage, in 1330. She remained in it until her death.

Princess patrons

Some princesses still intended to use the money they got to do what they want and leave a trace of their passage. They had precious manuscripts made, such as richly illustrated prayer books. Others had chapels built or gave large sums of money to the Church. Religion plays a central role in their patronage, because it is considered acceptable and appropriate for a woman.

Sometimes they deviated from the norm, at their own expense. For instance, the Duchess Anne de Chypre was judged negatively by the Savoy court because of her high expenditure on her wardrobe. To redeem herself, she had religious monuments erected. No need to push the envelope too far…

Illustrated extract from the prayer book “Les Heures de Savoie”. © New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Library, MS 390, 1335-1340, Paris, Éditions Quaternio

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