29 October, 2016

She's Called Elizabeth, not Isabel! A Big Oopsie in 1314

Edward II's nephew Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, was killed during the king's disastrous defeat at the battle of Bannockburn on 23 June 1314, aged twenty-three. Gilbert was the eldest grandchild of Edward I, scion of the ancient noble house of Clare, and the greatest nobleman in the country behind Edward II's first cousin Thomas, earl of Lancaster.

Gilbert had married Maud de Burgh, one of the many daughters of the earl of Ulster, on 30 September 1308 when he was seventeen, but their marriage was childless. Edward II stated on 13 July 1314 that his nephew had died without heirs of his body. [Fine Rolls 1307-19, p. 202] However, soon the idea arose that the widowed Countess Maud was in fact pregnant by her late husband; the king had apparently not heard of this on 13 July. The majority of the jurors in the many English counties and elsewhere who issued Gilbert's Inquisition Post Mortem between August and October 1314 correctly stated that his heirs were his three younger sisters Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth, but five counties had heard that Gilbert's widow Maud was or might be pregnant, so added the disclaimer that the three de Clare sisters were only the late earl's heirs if Maud was not expecting a child or stated "heir not known, because it is said that the countess is pregnant." This child, whether male or female, would inherit the entirety of Gilbert's vast landholdings in three countries (England, Wales and Ireland) and his two earldoms. I don't know how the story of Maud's pregnancy arose; whether she genuinely was or at least thought she was expecting, whether the jurors of Suffolk, Hampshire, Worcestershire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire had misunderstood or heard a rumour, but Edward II must have been absolutely delighted. As the heir of a tenant-in-chief, Gilbert's child would become a ward of the king, and Gilbert's vast income would pour into the king's coffers until he or she came of age (twenty-one if male, fourteen or fifteen if female). This would be a massive windfall for Edward, and although he surely mourned the death of the nephew who was only seven years his junior, the prospect of receiving Gilbert's seven thousand pounds a year (minus Maud's dower) for many years  must have sweetened the loss. [For Gilbert's IPM and all the following, Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem 1307-27, pp. 325-54]

By 20 May 1315, it had become clear to Gilbert's brother-in-law Hugh Despenser the Younger (Eleanor's husband since May 1306) that Countess Maud could not be pregnant by her husband eleven months after his death, and so he temporarily seized Tonbridge Castle which had belonged to the earl, presumably as a way of drawing the attention of Edward II and his council to the issue. A few weeks later, Hugh sent a petition to the royal council "asserting that the time had long passed and Maud late the wife of the said earl had not borne a child." Unfortunately, not only did Edward II continue to claim that Maud's pregnancy was "well-known in the parts where she lives" well into 1316, the partition of the earl of Gloucester's lands was further delayed by an error made by some of the jurors of the earl's Inq. Post Mortem. All of them had correctly named Eleanor and Margaret as the eldest two sisters, but five counties - Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Devon - incorrectly named the youngest sister Elizabeth as 'Isabel'. Further inquisitions therefore had to be held in these counties and also in London and Hampshire between 2 and 8 August 1315, when the jurors admitted their error and pointed out that "there is no Isabel sister of the said Eleanor and Margaret by the same father and mother; Elizabeth is their sister and co-heir." As is usually the case in IPMs, the given ages of the three sisters varied wildly, and a few counties stated that Elizabeth was as young as sixteen in September 1314; she in fact turned nineteen that month. The Suffolk jurors not only claimed that Elizabeth was called Isabel, they named her as the widow of Thomas de Burgh, when in fact her late husband, son and heir of the earl of Ulster and thus the brother of the supposedly pregnant Countess Maud, was called John.

What probably caused the confusion, and was almost certain to cause legal difficulties in the future if it was not corrected, was that Gilbert, Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth de Clare had a much older half-sister named Isabel de Clare, born in 1262. She and her sister Joan, born c. 1264, were the daughters of Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, from his first marriage to Alice de Lusignan. These two women were thirty years older than their half-siblings, the children of Gilbert the Red and his second wife Joan of Acre, and were not the joint heirs of the younger Gilbert when he died in 1314; only Gilbert's three full sisters were entitled to a share of his enormous inheritance. This confusion between Elizabeth de Clare and her half-sister Isabel, thirty-three years her senior, was probably one of the factors which led to Maurice Berkeley marrying Isabel de Clare in c. 1316. Maurice was born in 1271 and succeeded his elderly father as Lord Berkeley in 1321. His wife Eve la Zouche died in 1314, and he was almost certainly hoping to try to force himself into a share of the de Clare inheritance by marrying Gilbert the Red's eldest daughter, just in case it turned out that she was one of the late earl of Gloucester's heirs after all. Isabel de Clare was fifty-four in 1316, and had never been married before. Ultimately, she and her sister Joan, dowager countess of Fife, inherited nothing. As for the three full de Clare sisters and their husbands, they had to wait until November 1317 for the lands of their late brother to be partitioned and given to them, and Hugh Despenser the Younger was emphatically Not Amused by the long delay.


Anonymous said...

I do have to feel sorry for Maud, she might have been hoping for a child with her husband Gilbert and then after knowing it wasn't to be, her 'pregnancy' was the gossip of the court for months until it became obvious she wasn't having a child. Edward wasn't very kind in this instance insisting she still might have a child when it was clear she would have had the longest pregnancy in history. But, has to be said, of course ulterior motives - keep the lands, wealth etc in his control. Understandable in those times.

It's interesting that 'coming of age' was 21 for boys, 14-15 for girls; both I believe could marry at 14-15 and younger so the difference is peculiar (perhaps I am mistaken). To clarify, to come into inheritance at 21 for boys and much earlier for girls (I suppose a girl could die in childbirth at 15 or earlier so her inheritance is earlier).

Maurice Berkeley marrying Isabel the half-sister, what a gold-digger!


Kathryn Warner said...

Well, we don't know for sure that Edward publicly insisted on her years-long pregnancy without her consent and knowledge, though he might have done. I suppose finer feelings could be cast aside when it came to thousands of pounds a year. :o I remember reading once that Maud and Gilbert had a son called John (after her brother John de Burgh, maybe?) who was born and died in 1312, though I can't for the life of me remember where, or what the primary source is. The difference of either fourteen or fifteen for girls depended on whether they were already married or not, I think. But yes, still a big difference compared to twenty-one for men!

I laughed at that last comment! :) So true!

sami parkkonen said...

Looks like when money was at stake in medieval times, the legal wrangling and trickery was as popular as today. On more serious note, this whole mess would/could have political ramifications, right?

Anerje said...

I thought the same - that Edward didn't persist with the pregnancy story without Maud's consent. It's one of my favourite stories from Ed's reign.

Brad Verity said...

With Gilbert's tragic death at Bannockburn, the Gloucester earldom was in play, and the three surviving full sisters were pawns. Lancaster, rejoicing at the king's resounding defeat in battle, needed to get as much of it as possible in order to further weaken Edward. As Gaveston's widow, Margaret de Clare was firmly under her uncle's wing, but the young widow Elizabeth de Burgh was ripe over in Ireland. Lancaster's friend and loyal retainer Theobald Verdun had been appointed Justiciar of Ireland (presumably by the Lancaster-controlled government) in 1313, but didn't take up office until a week before the battle of Bannockburn. Verdun no doubt immediately started on the seduction of the young widow Elizabeth, but clearly could not get her to march down the aisle - either she wasn't interested, or her father-in-law Ulster had her under too close watch. Edward II, desperate to get this now vitally important niece back to his court, recalls her from Ireland, only to have her abducted from Bristol Castle before she could get to him.

Elizabeth is now married to, and impregnated by, Verdun, which means he (and so his boss Lancaster) are guaranteed to control a third of the Gloucester earldom for decades. Lancaster has to be thrilled, the king and Ulster have to be furious. All Edward II can do is delay the partition and pray for a miracle. Five months later he gets one - Theobald Verdun drops dead at his seat of Alton Castle (personally, I hope it was Elizabeth herself who slipped him the poison). Verdun had three daughters from his first wife, so now everyone needs to wait and see if the child Elizabeth is carrying is a son - she already was mother to the heir of the Ulster earldom, she may well be carrying the heir to the Verdun barony as well. But, no, it turns out to be a fourth daughter, so the mighty barony of Verdun is now facing the same kind of partition among sisters that the Gloucester earldom is facing. But Fortune's Wheel never stops turning, and this time it's Edward, not Lancaster, who can push his way into it. He gets Elizabeth to agree to his choice for her husband - Sir Roger Damory, a longtime leading retainer of Gloucester, going back to the days of old Gilbert the Red. The tenantry and retainers (not to mention Elizabeth) know him, respect him, and more importantly, Damory has proven himself to Edward far more capable and trustworthy than Badlesmere, the longtime steward and advisor to the Gloucesters. To top it all off, Damory gets to control, through Elizabeth, much of the Verdun barony, too, no doubt making Lancaster seethe.

Edward II waited until he had all his ducks in a row before he partitioned the Gloucester earldom: Damory and Elizabeth would control a third (plus much of the Verdun barony) - if Elizabeth suddenly died, Ulster's grandson and heir would get her third; Margaret and her selected-by-Edward new husband Sir Hugh Audley would control a third (plus whatever they could negotiate as Margaret's dower from the Cornwall earldom), and if Margaret suddenly died then her daughter Joan Gaveston, betrothed to another of Ulster's grandsons, would get her third; and the final third was under the control of the Despensers, whose loyalty to the House of Plantagenet stretched back decades (it was none other than Edward I who brought them into the family circle through marriage). Delaying the partition of the Glloucester/Clare inheritance was one of the shrewdest political maneuvers of Edward II's entire reign.

So glad you've been commissioned to write a book on the Clare sisters, Kathryn. There's so much material there that hasn't been fully explored, and you will do it justice!

Kathryn Warner said...

Comment by Brad Verity, which should have come before his previous comment but didn't get through Blogger (I got no notif and Brad messaged me :/):

According to the compiler of the Flores Historiarum, there was a son John who was born in April 1312 and who died before the end of the year. The accuracy of the chronicle on matters of this sort is often suspect, but the authenticity of the statement has been accepted by modern peerage writers (Flores Historiarum, ed. H.R. Luard (Rolls Series XCV, 1890), III, 335; G.E.C., V, 715)” [Michael Altschul, A Baronial Family in Medieval England: The Clares, 1217-1314 (1965), p. 40].

I think Altschul is being too over-cautious. The Flores might slip on chronology, but there's no reason the chronicle would have invented a son for the young earl of Gloucester. The line of succession to that important earldom, second only to the crown, would have been followed closely. John de Clare's existence is confirmed by the Tewkesbury Chronicle: "Johannem, ante patrem immatura morte praeventum, sepultus est apud Theokes. in capella gloriosae virginis Mariae” [Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum Vol. 2 (1819), p. 61], and as John was buried in Tewkesbury Abbey, the Chronicle is a definitive source.