In this post, I'm looking at the relationships between Edward II and his four eldest nieces Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth de Clare and Joan of Bar. I'm excluding his nieces Eleanor and Margaret de Bohun as, until the end of his reign, they were too young for him to form much kind of relationship with them - at least, one that I can discern from surviving records - and Mary de Monthermer (half-sister of the de Clare sisters) as I haven't found much information about how she got on with Edward. Mary's younger sister Joan de Monthermer was a nun at Amesbury Priory and I know nothing else about her at all. Edward's remaining nieces Margaret and Alice of Norfolk and Joan and Margaret of Kent, daughters of his half-brothers Thomas and Edmund, were either born in the last few years of his reign or afterwards, and are thus also excluded. Just to clarify, of Edward II's five older sisters, three (Eleanor, Joan and Elizabeth) had daughters, and so did both of his younger half-brothers.
Joan of Bar (born 1295 or 1296) was the only daughter of Edward's eldest sister Eleanor (1269-1298) and her husband Count Henri III of Bar, and the three de Clare sisters, born 1292, 1294 and 1295, were daughters of his second eldest sister Joan of Acre (1272-1307) and her first husband Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester. The four women were not too much younger than their uncle, who was born in 1284.
Eleanor de Clare, Lady Despenser (1292-1337)
I think it's very clear that Eleanor, who was only eight and a half years his junior, was Edward II's favourite niece and that the two were very close. In 1310, he paid a messenger named John Chaucomb twenty marks for bringing him news of her (the news is not specified but was perhaps that she had borne a child), and early in his reign he even paid her expenses out of court, a sign of great favour. Eleanor was selected as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella in 1311/12, a year when Isabella's accounts happen to survive, and certainly in other years as well; she was with Isabella at Tynemouth in the autumn of 1322, for example. At some uncertain date, probably in 1326, Edward put Eleanor in charge of the household of his second son John of Eltham, and in October 1326 left her in charge of the Tower of London when he and Eleanor's husband Hugh Despenser fled from the city, both signs of his trust in her. In 1323, a royal ship named after her appears on record, La Alianore la Despensere, and in the same year, Edward paid her expenses at the royal manor of Cowick and gave her a large cash gift when she was ill following childbirth.
Edward's last chamber account of July 1325 to October 1326 fortuitously survives intact, the only one of his chamber accounts to do so (there are some fragments from 1322 to 1324, and that's it otherwise), and it is from here that a much fuller picture of Edward and Eleanor's very close relationship emerges. They spent quite a bit of time together - it's hard to tell for sure but perhaps even more than Edward spent with his 'favourite', Eleanor's husband Hugh - and wrote each other letters and sent each other numerous gifts when apart. In July 1326 they dined privately together in the park of Windsor Castle, and Eleanor is recorded several times as being present with the king when he sailed up and down the Thames west of London that summer, and he sometimes bought her fish. (You really can't get away from fish for very long in Edward's chamber accounts.) On 2 December 1325, Edward made a quick trip from Westminster to the royal palace of Sheen for the sole purpose of visiting Eleanor, taking only eight attendants with him, and gave her a gift of a hundred marks; he had also been paying her expenses there since at least October. She was heavily pregnant at the time of the visit or had just given birth, as a few days later the king made an offering of thirty shillings to give thanks to God for the prompt delivery of Eleanor's child. Did he sail down the Thames to see her because he'd heard that her baby had been born? The entry says "Paid to my lady, Lady Eleanor Despenser, as a gift, by the hands of the king himself, when the king went from Westminster to Sheen to my said lady and returned to Westminster the same night...". (Guess what Edward bought on his way to see Eleanor in Sheen? That's right! Fish!) A Flemish chronicle actually claims that Edward and Eleanor had an incestuous affair and that Eleanor was imprisoned after Edward's downfall in case she was pregnant by him, though no English chronicler states this. For myself, I really wouldn't want to accuse them of incest without more compelling evidence, though it does seem to me that perhaps there was a little more going on between them than an uncle-niece relationship. Hmmmm.
Margaret de Clare, countess of Cornwall (probably 1294-1342)
Joan of Acre and Gilbert the Red de Clare's second daughter was Margaret, born probably in the spring of 1294 or thereabouts, perhaps in Ireland, and who was thus almost exactly ten years younger than her uncle. Edward arranged her marriage to Piers Gaveston on 1 November 1307 when she was about thirteen and a half; he was desperately keen to bring Piers into the royal family by marriage, and Margaret was his eldest unmarried close female relative. It's well-nigh impossible to establish the nature of Edward and Margaret's relationship at this point; did Edward care at all about how Margaret might feel about being married to a man involved in some kind of very intense relationship with her own uncle? Would it have mattered to him in the slightest if she hadn't wanted to marry Piers? Margaret's personality, feelings and thoughts at this period of time are also impossible to determine: all we know is that she did her uncle's bidding and married Piers, and if she objected to it, this is not recorded.
After Piers' murder in June 1312, Edward II showed himself keen to look after Margaret financially, and gave her a very generous settlement. Was this out of affection for her as his niece, or because she was Piers' widow? I don't know. After Margaret's brother the earl of Gloucester was killed at Bannockburn in June 1314 and she and her sisters became great heiresses, Edward took her into his own household, which could be seen as a sign of his affection and concern for her but more realistically is because he wanted to keep an eye on her, a desire which can only have increased after her younger sister Elizabeth married Theobald de Verdon without his permission in early 1316. On 28 April 1317, Edward attended Margaret's wedding to his household knight and 'favourite' Sir Hugh Audley. I can't say for sure whether Edward II was really fond of Margaret or not, only that he seems to have been pleased with her, to have been willing to ensure that she and her daughter Joan Gaveston were well provided for financially, and that there is no evidence of any conflict between the two until 1322. Perhaps this is because Margaret did what he wanted and married two of his 'favourites' without (recorded) complaint.
All this changed in and after 1322, when Margaret's husband Hugh Audley joined the Contrariant rebellion and fought against the royal army at Boroughbridge in March 1322. Margaret still retained enough influence over her uncle to be able to plead successfully for Hugh's life to be spared, but Edward ordered her to remove herself to Sempringham Priory in Lincolnshire soon afterwards: she arrived there on 16 May 1322. He allowed her three servants and a generous enough five shillings a day for her expenses, but told her she was "not to go without the gates of the house." And there, as far as I know, Margaret remained until her uncle's downfall four and a half years later, while her elder sister Eleanor rose ever higher in the king's favour. Edward II clearly was furious at what he saw as Hugh Audley's betrayal, and some of this rage spilled out onto Margaret, whether reasonably or not (possibly this was just Edward being vindictive as he often was towards family members of people he didn't like, or possibly he had good reason to suspect that Margaret had played an active role in her husband's rebellion). And thus the relationship between uncle and niece ended abruptly.
Elizabeth de Clare, Lady de Burgh (1295-1360)
Third daughter of Joan of Acre and Gilbert the Red. I get the strong feeling that Edward II wasn't fond of Elizabeth at all, though I have no idea why. He attended her wedding to the earl of Ulster's son and heir John de Burgh in September 1308 - her brother Gilbert married John's sister Maud at the same time - but other than that, I can't think of any occasions when he showed her favour, or support, or kindness. He ordered her back from Ireland in late 1315, most probably with the intention of bringing her into his household and keeping an eye on her as he did with her elder sister Margaret, but Theobald de Verdon married her without royal permission in Bristol shortly after her return. To what extent Elizabeth was complicit in this marriage or an innocent victim of abduction is unclear, but it is likely that the event destroyed any trust or affection Edward may ever have had for Elizabeth. When she was widowed from Verdon after less than six months of marriage, Edward became determined to marry her off to his latest favourite Sir Roger Damory, and wrote to her to this end, describing her as his 'favourite niece', which is simply a bare-faced lie. The utter brazenness of the lie, told in a transparent attempt to get Elizabeth to do his bidding, just makes me laugh. Some months later when Elizabeth was heavily pregnant with Verdon's posthumous daughter, Edward tramped over to Amesbury Priory with Roger Damory, in order to persuade her to marry Damory. Vulnerable, pregnant, widowed for the second time, still only twenty-one, her parents long dead, her only 'protector' the uncle determined to marry her off to a man far beneath her in status, Elizabeth had little choice but to agree.
Roger Damory also joined the Contrariant rebellion some years later, and died at Burton-on-Trent on 12 March 1322. Even before his death, Elizabeth was captured at Usk in Wales and sent to the abbey of Barking with her young children, where she learned of her husband's death. On 16 March 1322, Edward told Elizabeth (as he told her sister Margaret two months later) not to go out of the gates of the abbey, and she remained there during the summer of 1322; Edward paid seventy-four pounds for her expenses. He restored her Welsh lands to her on 25 July 1322 and the English and Irish ones on 2 November, and, unlike her sister Margaret, released her. Worse was to come, however. Elizabeth herself related in 1326 how she was ordered to spend Christmas 1322 with her uncle, but when she arrived, she was separated from her council, forced to exchange her valuable Welsh lands for some of her brother-in-law Hugh Despenser's lands there of lesser value, and threatened by the king that she would hold no lands of him unless she consented. Such appalling behaviour towards his own niece shows Edward II in the worst light possible. It is hardly surprising that after the arrival of the invasion force of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer in September 1326, Elizabeth kept in close contact with Isabella via letters and probably had prior knowledge of the invasion, though she was also clever and cautious enough to correspond with her uncle the king as well. Like her sister Margaret, for whom Edward II's downfall meant freedom and the resumption of her marriage, Elizabeth can hardly have been anything but pleased at the events of late 1326 and early 1327. She attended Edward's funeral in December 1327; I don't know if her sister Margaret did, and their other sister Eleanor was then still imprisoned.
Joan of Bar, countess of Surrey (1295/96-1361)
Edward attended Joan's wedding to John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, in May 1306, when she was only ten or eleven. Unfortunately, Joan and John's marriage soon went badly wrong, and sometime before May 1313, Edward sent his valet William Aune to John's castle at Conisbrough to collect Joan and bring her to him (Edward). He subsequently paid her living expenses at the Tower of London for at least some years. In July 1313, Joan accompanied Edward and Isabella on their long visit to France, at Edward's special request.
In 1316, John de Warenne began trying to have his marriage to Joan annulled, which left Edward II in a rather awkward position: the earl of Surrey was a very useful political ally who for most of Edward's reign was steadfastly loyal to the king, but Joan was his niece, and he didn't want to alienate either of them. Edward did his best to steer the difficult course between loyalty to both earl and countess. In August 1316, he allowed John to surrender his lands to him, and granted them back with reversion to John and Thomas, two of his sons with his mistress Maud Nerford – meaning that he accepted John's illegitimate children as his heirs. On the other hand, Edward paid all Joan's legal costs, and appointed his clerk Master Aymon de Juvenzano "to prosecute in the Arches at London, and elsewhere in England" on his niece's behalf from 10 July to 26 November 1316. In November 1316, Joan left to go abroad, probably to stay with her brother Edouard, count of Bar, and Edward gave her more than £166 for her expenses.
Joan's life subsequently becomes rather obscure; I don't know where she was living in and after 1316 and whether Edward was still paying her expenses. Her estranged husband John remained loyal to Edward during the Contrariant rebellion. In March 1325 she accompanied Queen Isabella to France, but kept in touch with her uncle: Edward paid her messenger later that year for bringing him her letters. She seems to have returned to England with Isabella's invasion force in September 1326, or perhaps had returned before, but at any rate was with the queen when Edward's great seal was brought to Isabella in November 1326, shortly after his capture. To what extent Joan sympathised with the queen's aims and supported her uncle's downfall, I have no idea; other than favouring her estranged husband - which Joan must surely have recognised as a political necessity anyway - I can't think of any instances when Edward was unkind to or unsupportive of her.