10 December, 2006

Women of Edward II's reign: Eleanor de Clare

Beginning an occasional new feature, in which I look at some of the women of Edward II's reign. Today, Edward's niece, Eleanor de Clare.

Eleanor was born in the great castle built by her father, Caerphilly in Glamorgan, in October or November 1292. Her mother was Joan of Acre, the second oldest of Edward I's five surviving daughters, and her father was Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford. Joan was twenty at the time of Eleanor's birth, Gilbert forty-nine. Eleanor was Edward I's eldest granddaughter, and about eighteen months younger than her brother Gilbert, future earl of Gloucester. She had two younger sisters: Margaret, probably born in the first half of 1294 and the wife of Piers Gaveston, and Elizabeth, born in September 1295. Eleanor was only eight and a half years younger than her uncle Edward II.

Little is known about the childhood of the Clare sisters. Their brother Gilbert grew up, after 1299, in the household of their step-grandmother Queen Margaret, who was probably only about nine years older than Gilbert. Their father Gilbert the Red died in December 1295 at the age of fifty-two, only a few weeks after the birth of his youngest child Elizabeth, and in 1296, the widowed Joan was assigned Bristol Castle as a residence for her children. In early 1297, when Eleanor was four, Joan married her husband's squire Ralph de Monthermer, without her father's consent; he was hoping to marry her to the count of Savoy. Joan is supposed to have taken her young children with her to plead her case to her father, presumably hoping that the presence of his young grandchildren would persuade the king to be lenient. It didn't work, and de Monthermer was imprisoned for a time, although Edward I finally had to accept the inevitable, as he couldn't unmarry the couple.

At the age of thirteen and a half, Eleanor was married to Hugh le Despenser the Younger. Their wedding took place on 26 May 1306 at Westminster, in the presence of the king. Queen Margaret was probably not present, as she had given birth to the king's youngest child - another Eleanor - several weeks earlier. The king was close to sixty-seven and would die just over a year later. (Little Eleanor, Eleanor de Clare's aunt, died at the age of five in 1311.) Eleanor's mother Joan of Acre was surely present; she had another eleven months to live. I don't know if Hugh le Despenser's mother Isabel Beauchamp, daughter of the earl of Warwick, witnessed the wedding; she died a mere four days later. Another guest was Eleanor's uncle, the future Edward II, who had been knighted with Hugh (and almost 300 others) four days earlier. Already Prince of Wales, earl of Chester and count of Ponthieu and Montreuil, he was created duke of Aquitaine at this time. His beloved companion Piers Gaveston was knighted on the day of Hugh and Eleanor's wedding.

Hugh, who was somewhere in his late teens, was hardly a brilliant match for the king's eldest granddaughter. Although he was an earl's grandson, the step-grandson of another earl (Norfolk, who died this year) and brother-in-law of the king's nephew Henry of Lancaster, he had no hope of inheriting a title. His father's lands, mostly in the Midlands and Buckinghamshire, were extensive, but until the elder Hugh died, Hugh could expect to hold practically no land. Edward II gave him the former Templar manor of Sutton in Norfolk in 1309, his only gift to Hugh before he became royal favourite. In 1310, Hugh the Elder handed over half a dozen manors to his son, who evidently lived in somewhat straitened circumstances.

In an age where land was power, Hugh was a nonentity, which limited Eleanor's own influence. However, she was a familiar face at court, where she often attended Queen Isabella as lady-in-waiting, accompanying her on the royal trip to France in 1313. Isabella, Eleanor's aunt by marriage though several years younger, had a group of noblewomen who attended her on a rota basis, as they all had husbands and families and feudal responsibilities of their own. Eleanor had her own retinue, headed by her chamberlain John de Berkhamsted.

Away from court, her relationship with Hugh was pretty successful, to judge by the large number of children they had together. She was also close to her uncle Edward II, who paid all her expenses when she was at court, and even sometimes when she wasn't - a privilege not extended to his other nieces. She appears in contemporary documents as 'Lady Alianore le Despenser'. Edward's affection for her did not, however, extend to her husband at this time.

Eleanor and Hugh's lives changed completely when her brother Gilbert, earl of Gloucester was killed at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, when he was twenty-three. Eleanor's second cousin, Robert Bruce, king of Scotland, kept an overnight vigil over Gloucester's body, and sent it back to England with full honours and without demanding payment for it, as he was entitled to do. Gloucester's widow Matilda - sister of Robert Bruce's queen, Elizabeth - claimed to be pregnant, a pretence she kept up for a full three years. (Honestly, you couldn't make this up.) Her motives are obscure; perhaps she miscarried and couldn't accept it. Edward II was happy to support this pretence; the Gloucester lordship was extremely rich and he would have been much happier if Gloucester's son had inherited the lot. As things stood, though, Gloucester's three sisters were equal heirs to the inheritance. Under medieval law, sisters inherited equally; the law of primogeniture applied only to men.

Finally, in 1317, the lands were divided. Countess Matilda had earlier been assigned her widow's dower, one third of the lands, which would be divided out among the three sisters when she died in 1320. Hugh and Eleanor's share was Glamorgan, and a few manors in England. Her younger sisters were by this time married to men Edward II trusted, Margaret to Hugh Audley and Elizabeth to Roger Damory; Audley and Damory were thereby catapulted to wealth and huge influence. The division of the Clare lands can be seen as one of the most significant events of Edward's reign, as Hugh le Despenser, ambitious and unscrupulous, used Eleanor's inheritance to force himself into power. He was chosen as Edward's chamberlain in 1318, used this proximity to the king to make Edward infatuated with him, and attempted to take over the entire Clare inheritance in South Wales.

The story of Hugh's rise to power has been told many times, so I won't repeat it here. The great Edward II historian J.R.S. Phillips has described him as the "classic example of a man on the make who succeeded in making it". It's a shame that we have no idea what Eleanor thought of her husband's misdeeds, his extortion of lands and property including some that belonged to Eleanor's sister Elizabeth, and his relationship with her uncle. That Hugh was Edward's lover seems 99% sure to me; Edward was infatuated with him. However, Hugh and Eleanor's sexual relationship also continued, as a few of their children were born after the start of Hugh's relationship with Edward.

There are even hints that Eleanor herself was involved in a sexual relationship with her uncle. This is stated directly in the Chronographia Regum Francorum, and the two are oddly linked in a document of the 1320s which mentions medicines bought for them 'when they were ill'. Edward sent her many presents, and after one short visit gave her the substantial sum of a hundred pounds. This was approximately half of Hugh and Eleanor's annual income prior to her brother's death. It has been postulated that the chronicler who castigates Edward for his 'sinful and illicit unions' had Edward's affair with his niece Eleanor in mind, rather than - or as well as - his sexual relationships with other men. However, this affair is far from certain, and in the absence of firm evidence we should give Edward and Eleanor the benefit of the doubt.

Edward II and Hugh definitely trusted Eleanor, however. In 1324 she was put in charge of the household of John of Eltham, Edward and Isabella's younger son, and it's often stated that she was put in Isabella's household as a 'housekeeper', or rather spy, with permission to read all Isabella's correspondence and keep an eye on her. Edward and Isabella's relationship had spectactularly deteriorated by 1324, and, sliding into war with her native France, Edward didn't trust her at all. However, I'm not sure how Eleanor is meant to have watched Isabella day and night - as she's alleged to have done - and also been in charge of Isabella's son somewhere away from the 'long-suffering' queen.

In 1326, Hugh and Edward II suffered the inevitable consequences of their tyranny, and fell from power. How Eleanor felt about the hideous death of her husband of twenty years can only be surmised. Whether she was a willing participant in Hugh's misdeeds, or if she had ever tried to mitigate Hugh's harshness, is unknown; if she did try, she was apparently unsuccessful. Perhaps she loved him; later, she had a splendid tomb built for him at Tewkesbury Abbey. In October 1326, she was in the Tower of London with her ten-year-old cousin John of Eltham, who had been left by his father the king in nominal charge of London. She surrendered the Tower to the mob, and was imprisoned there, for two years. Three of her daughters were taken from her and forcibly veiled, and her eldest son was imprisoned until 1331. Later, she lost her lands; Glamorgan was given to Edward III's queen, Philippa, although Edward III restored them to her after the downfall of his mother and Roger Mortimer.

In early 1329, Eleanor was abducted from Hanley Castle, Worcestershire, by William la Zouche, and married to him. Zouche was a distant cousin of Roger Mortimer, and was one of the men who arrested Hugh le Despenser in South Wales. He also besieged Eleanor's teenaged son at Caerphilly in late 1326/early 1327. Whether Eleanor consented to the marriage is unknown, but it was a fairly common problem for the Clare women, because of their huge wealth. In 1316 her sister Elizabeth was abducted and married to Theobald de Verdon, and in the 1330s Eleanor's niece Margaret Audley, daughter of her sister Margaret, suffered the same fate when she was taken by Ralph Stafford. Eleanor, who was thirty-six in early 1329, bore a son, also William, to her second husband. He was her tenth or eleventh child, and became a monk at Glastonbury Abbey.

Eleanor outlived her second husband, and died in June 1337 at the age of forty-four. She is buried at Tewkesbury Abbey, with many of her ancestors and descendants; she and Hugh le Despenser, and their son Hugh the Even Younger, were major benefactors of the abbey. Eleanor's fascinating life is the subject of Susan Higginbotham's novel, The Traitor's Wife.

18 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

I've heard of her! Loved the post.

Carla said...

That's interesting that three different Clare women were abducted and forcibly married for their wealth. I didn't know that. It puts the various plots to abduct and marry Mary Queen of Scots (ISTR Huntly (?) thought about it but either didn't try or failed, and Bothwell did it) into context, if it was common practice in the historical past.

Susan Higginbotham said...

There's also the fun fact that both Eleanor de Clare and her cousin Joan of Kent were the subject of litigation over which of two men was her true husband--Joan, between William de Montacute and Thomas Holland; Eleanor between her second husband, William de la Zouche, and John de Grey of Rotherfield, who claimed to have married her before Zouche did. The latter two got into an argument before Edward III and his council that resulted in Grey pulling out his dagger on Zouche and being hauled to the Tower for a brief stay as a result. (To make matters more fun, Montacute, Holland, and Grey were all founding Knights of the Garter; Zouche had died years before.)

Alianore said...

I'd forgotten about Joan of Kent's scandalous marital affairs - funny.

It's interesting that Edward III took Ralph Stafford's side when he abducted Margaret Audley in 1336. Stafford took an armed force to the Audley household in Thaxted to grab Margaret, who was somewhere between 14 and 18 at the time. Stafford was a widower of not quite 35. There was an enquiry into the incident on 6 July 1336, and apparently, Edward III protected Stafford from Hugh Audley's fury. The two men seem to have been reconciled later, though - Audley settled a lot of property on Stafford.

Gabriele C. said...

Looks like Hugh was genuinely bisexual. And who knows, Eleanor might have been interested in gay love - slash can't have been an invention of the late 20th century when the first fanficcers paired Kirk and Spock. I bet it was always there. :)

Alianore said...

I bet you're right, Gabriele! *naughty grin* In the Ed II novel I'm reading at the moment (The King's Minions), it's hinted that Isabella is somewhat aroused by Edward's sexual preferences...:)

Gabriele C. said...

Oh, oh, looks like a book I should read? *grin* And so much for poor abandoned Isabella. ;)

I have to deal with Arminius and Germanicus who sure never had that sort of relationship. *glares at her characters - get out of that meadow, both of you, and where have you left your tunicas?*

Alianore said...

Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to find nowadays - Susan finally located a copy in Australia, and sent me a photocopy. Shame - it's really good. The narrative says things like 'the king couldn't concentrate because all he wanted to do was make love with Piers.' :)

Arminius and Germanicus could be persuaded to have that sort of relationship, maybe?? :) Or only in our imagination...?

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, every German historian would kill me if I let them have that sort of relationship. It wasn't very Roman and I doubt a habit among the German tribes, either, to begin with, and second, they're enemies.

Well, they probably did serve together in the Pannonian war, Germanicus a legate and Arminius as auxiliary officer supposedly in the rank of a tribune, and I won't think it impossible they became friends during that time. It can't be proven, of course, but it adds a nice additional layer to the later part of my NiP.

So I did some freewriting to get an idea about the Pannonian backstory, and what happened? Yes, lines like these:

Arminius unwrapped the bloody scarf and examined the wound. "At least it's a clean cut, no ragged ends. But it will need stitches." Germanicus' arm braced on his knee, Arminius set to work cleaning, stitching and bandaging the wound with deft movements that showed it was not the first time he cared for a wounded comrade.

Through the haze of wine on an empty stomach and pain, Germanicus became aware what beautiful hands Arminius had, slender yet strong, with long fingers and wellkept nails, a trace of vein showing on the backs. Their touch warm on his skin. An image of those hands caressing his arms, his chest. Germanicus shook it off.

"There, that should do." Arminius tied the ends of a clean linen strap. "I'll go and clean these things. You should try and sleep some more." He gathered the medical instruments and the scarf and went to where the river ran swift and clear.

Germanicus watched him, for the first time consciously aware of Arminius' body, the well defined leg muscles that bespoke a good deal of time spent on horseback, the broad shoulders of a swordfighter wielding the heavier blade of the Cherusci, the long, golden hair. Germanicus had fought at Arminius' side for months and sometimes thought the prince was a good looking man, but in the abstract way he would admire a fine statue. This new,
alive, feeling scared him. His father would have considered it un-Roman.

And it only goes downhill from there. :)

They meet once again during Germanicus' campaignsin Germany, and that scene isn't turning out any better. *sigh* I really have to find the tab where to switch off the slash mode. I may get away with a friendship because there's no proof for or against it, but that ....

Alianore said...

Great extract, Gabriele! Even if you can't use it in your real work, I'll definitely read more! :)

Gabriele C. said...

Are we having naughty ideas here, Alianore, lol?

Well, I can post the scene on my snippet blog, but then I'm going to polish it a bit first. Even if it's a scene that will never appear in the book.

Alianore said...

*Whistles innocently* Not so much 'having' naughty ideas as 'had' them....:)

I'll look out for it on your snippet blog! I keep meaning to have a good look over there, anyway - I've only had a quick read, so far.

Carla said...

Gabriele - the scene as you've posted it hints at desire but leaves open the question of whether there was any relationship as such. (A bit like the way it's possible to look at a handsome man in the street - or an actor in a film, for that matter - and think he looks eminently fanciable, even though it never even gets as far as a fantasy). Just wondering if you can keep the hints without, ahem, going all the way, and leave it open for the reader to decide whether it went further than friendship?

Sorry, Alianore, this is off-topic :-)

Alianore said...

No problem, Carla. :)

I agree - even if, ahem, love between men wasn't a 'Roman thing' to do and they were enemies, they might have still had the feelings, even if they didn't act on them. After all, no historian can prove what they did or didn't feel...:)

Gabriele C. said...

Carla,
the scene doesn't stop there. *grin*

But that one will not appear in my novel for the reason it's backstory. Maybe I can leave the matter more vague in the book.

Gabriele C. said...

Ok, the naughty little something is up on my snippet blog. :)

MRats said...

Gracious me! Aren't we all the ardent "fag hags"? (British translation: "poof goofs".) :-)

But I'm surprised to read that bisexuality was not considered the Roman way. Unless of course, Gabriele is speaking of early Christian converts. Unfortunately I don't know the backstory behind the author's "backstory". Caligula and Nero are alleged to have had relations with both sexes but they're poor examples. Since they were both a bit touched in the head they probably never gave two figs what was considered "the norm". But didn't Roman men keep houseboys? There's supposedly a scene deleted from the film "Spartacus" where Lawrence Olivier propositions a slave played by Tony Curtis, who turns him down. (As though he would have had a choice in the matter!)

But contrary to popular belief, we CAN change history, as more and more information comes to light. For instance, when I was in college historians believed that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun's brother, while now it's said that Tutankhamen was a son Akhenaten had by a woman other than Nefertiti.

And, as I've said before I'm watching your views of Edward change little by little in your blog. I'm especially delighted to see you coming to except the idea that Edward escaped Berkeley Castle and lived! Which, of course is true--because I want it to be.

Kirk and Spock? It's not logical.

(And please forgive my ignorance but what does "slash" mean? Is that the REAL British translation of the American term, "fag hag"?)

Kathryn Warner said...

'Slash' means fiction, usually fan fiction, where people or characters from novels are written as having a same-sex relationship when in reality (or in their fictional world) they don't. Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, for example, or as Gabriele said (interesting to read these comments again from nearly seven years ago!) Kirk and Spock. :-)