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date: 13 July 2024

Bryene [Brian, Bryan; née Bures], Alicefree

(c. 1360–1435)

Bryene [Brian, Bryan; née Bures], Alicefree

(c. 1360–1435)
  • ffiona von Westhoven Peregrinor

Alice Bryene (c. 1360–1435)

monumental brass, photograph by Christopher S. Moss, 2015

© All Saints' Church, Acton, Suffolk

Bryene [Brian, Bryan; née Bures], Alice (c. 1360–1435), landowner, was probably born at Acton, near Sudbury, Suffolk, the only child of Sir Robert Bures (d. 1361) and his wife, Joan, née Sutton. Her great-grandfather Sir Robert Bures (d. 1331) was a member of Edward I's household and custodian of Queen Eleanor's castle at Haverford West, and at his death owned property in fifteen East Anglian villages, most of which became Alice's patrimony, including the manor of Acton where she lived for most of her life. Two years after the younger Sir Robert's death, Alice's mother married Sir Richard Waldegrave, a distinguished soldier, courtier, and politician.

In 1375 Alice Bures married Sir Guy Bryan (c.1352–1386), whose father, Guy Brian, Baron Brian, was at various times steward of the royal household, sub-chamberlain to Richard II, and admiral of the westward fleet. A very wealthy and ambitious man, Bryan paid Waldegrave a considerable sum for his stepdaughter's marriage and endowed her with properties in Hazelbury Bryan, Sutton Poyntz in Dorset, and Oxenhall, Gloucestershire. She and Guy had two daughters, Philippa (c.1378–1406) and Elizabeth (c.1381–1437). Sir Guy died in Spain on 2 February 1386 and was buried in his father's collegiate chantry in Slapton, Devon. Alice was executor of his will and twice had to protect her daughters' inheritance from skulduggery on the part of both her brother-in-law, Sir William Bryan, and her step-grandfather, Sir John Sutton.

Thus far Alice's life differs little from those of many other English gentlewomen in the years around 1400. But the accidents of documentary survival, in the form of her ‘household book’ for 1412–13, a leaf from her letter-book, four stewards' accounts for the manor of Acton, and nearly ninety bailiffs' accounts, make it possible to recreate her lifestyle and examine her fortunes in unusual detail, and to extrapolate from them an exemplar of the activities, experiences, and concerns of medieval women in general, one capable of illuminating the way they lived and worked in the later middle ages.

The documents that enable this reconstruction were probably collected by the lawyers engaged in settling a dispute between the four claimants to Alice Bryene's former estates, after the death without issue in 1457 of her great-granddaughter Avice Butler, née Stafford, countess of Wiltshire. They show that Alice ran an elegant, though not extravagant, household, with winter and summer liveries for twenty-four retainers, including two maidservants, gifts of furs and gloves, the refashioning of silver vessels and spoons, ample and highly spiced food, and the curious purchase of two suits of armour, one described as ‘old’. There were festive meals on specific saints' days and family anniversaries; ‘business lunches’ with estate employees—both men and women, officials and labourers; meals with members, of parliament, her council members, and other distinguished men; a dinner with several women friends to meet acquaintances of the newly canonized John of Bridlington; and another gathering of twelve women, together with a harper and scrivener, at which preparations were made for new year celebrations to which 300 guests were invited.

Alice Bryene was actively engaged in overseeing the running of her estates, working to maximize her income by introducing innovations like marketing charcoal and making cider. She owned about 6000 acres, divided between Devon and East Anglia, and also property in London's Vintry ward, which in 1410 she allowed her son-in-law Robert Lovell (husband of Elizabeth) to use for a meeting of the royal council. The west country lands were leased out, as, increasingly, were those in East Anglia, but Alice farmed Acton and nearby manors herself, thereby ensuring supplies of food and other necessaries for her household.

In the early fifteenth century Alice Bryene enjoyed an annual income of about £425, and though an accumulation of arrears in her later years suggests that she was receiving less than that by the time of her death, she does not appear to have become financially hard-pressed. Despite her close supervision of her properties, her life was not one of all work and no play: in the year for which records survive minstrels and harpers came to Alice's manor of Acton on six occasions, and she entertained the twice widowed sixty-year-old Sir Robert Corbet (twice a knight of the shire for Suffolk in 1414) on five occasions. Despite living only 5 miles away, he three times stayed the night, 'for supper and extras'. A year later, however, he successfully wooed and married another wealthy widow. Alice, it appears, was content with her femme sole status.

Unlike Chaucer's prioress, whose 'Stratford atte Bowe' French was considered inferior, Alice was cultured and wrote in ‘Parisian’ French, hence perhaps the frequent use of the spelling ‘Bryene’ in many of her documents. Bequests to her by another son-in-law, Henry Scrope, third Baron Scrope of Masham (Philippa's second husband), of books in Latin and French, suggest she was literate and well educated. She probably spent time at Richard II's court, housed and educated two girls in the king's wardship before their marriages, and funded the Lavenham grammar school education of two local boys, one of whom, John Baker, she appointed rector of Foxearth church, Essex, of which she was patron.

Bryene also owned the patronage of churches in Raydon and Middleton in Suffolk and Hazelbury Bryan. Responsible for renovation works at Hazelbury church, she made a bold political statement there by having the arms of her late husband's cousin, John Montagu, third earl of Salisbury—who was lynched in January 1400 for his role in the ‘Epiphany plot’ against Henry IV—set in the upper lights of the east window next to her own. Her charity to paupers and clergy, though modest, was wide-ranging. She was meticulous in observing fast days, high days, and holidays, and maintained her own chapel and chaplains at Acton.

Alice Bryene died on 11 January 1435. In the previous year she had instructed twelve trustees to oversee her chantry foundation, appointing a chaplain to celebrate divine service daily in perpetuity at All Saints' Church, Acton, where she was buried. Her will does not survive, though she is known to have made one. A fine monumental brass, showing her in widow's robes, survives in Acton church. Its inscription (now lost, but recorded in 1593) named her as 'Alice de Bures, daughter and heir of Sir Robert de Bures who was the wife of Sir Guy de Bryan', even though she had not chosen to be buried beside her husband—an enigmatic message, perhaps, to set beside the surviving record of the externals of her life.


  • F. Swabey, Medieval gentlewoman: life in a widow's household in the later middle ages (1999)
  • F. Swabey, ‘The household of Alice de Bryene’, Food and eating in medieval Europe, ed. M. Carlin and J. T. Rosenthal (1998), 133–44
  • F. Swabey, ‘The letter book of Alice de Bryene and Alice de Sutton's list of debts’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 42 (1998), 122–45
  • V. Redstone, ed., The household book of Dame Alice de Bryene, trans. M. K. Dale (1931)
  • E. Rickert, ‘Documents and letters: a leaf from a fourteenth-century letter book’, Modern Philology, 25 (1927), 249–55
  • J. C. Ward, English noblewomen in the later middle ages (1992)


  • BL, charters and account rolls
  • Dorset RO, concord of agreement
  • Suffolk RO, estate papers and deeds
  • TNA: PRO, account rolls, SC6/833–1297; DL 29/430/6904
  • University of Chicago, Bacon collection, estate papers


  • C. Moss, photograph, 2015 (of monumental brass at All Saints' Church, Acton), All Saints' Church, Acton, Suffolk [see illus.]
  • monumental brass, All Saints' Church, Acton, Suffolk; repro. in Swabey, Medieval gentlewoman, 166

Wealth at Death

income of about £425 per annum in about 1413; can be described as impressive but not fabulous; probably lower at the time of her death.


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Suffolk Record Office
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Dorset Record Office, Dorchester
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British Library, London
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National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London