05 March, 2017

Elizabeth Comyn and Sir Richard Talbot

A post today about the Scottish noblewoman Elizabeth Comyn and the English knight Sir Richard Talbot, who married in or before the summer of 1326 and were the ancestors of the Talbot earls of Shrewsbury.

Elizabeth was the younger daughter of John 'the Red Comyn', lord of Badenoch and nephew of John Balliol, king of Scotland, and Joan de Valence, one of the three sisters of Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke and a half-niece of Henry III of England. Elizabeth's date of birth is often given as 1 November 1299, and if that's accurate she was only six years old when her father was killed in February 1306 by his great rival Robert Bruce, who shortly afterwards made himself king of Scotland. Elizabeth spent most of her life in England. Her only brother John was killed fighting for Edward II against Robert Bruce at Bannockburn in June 1314, and Elizabeth's nephew Aymer Comyn, John's only child and named after their uncle Aymer de Valence, died as an infant before 25 October 1316. (John's widow and little Aymer's mother Margaret Wake later married Edward II's half-brother the earl of Kent and was the mother of Joan of Kent and grandmother of Richard II.) Elizabeth and her older sister Joan, countess of Atholl, were little Aymer Comyn's heirs, and jointly inherited four manors in Northumberland. [CIPM 1317-27, 3; CPR 1313-7, 164; CFR 1307-19, 308] They were also the heirs, with their cousin John, Lord Hastings (b. 1286), to the vastly greater inheritance of their maternal uncle the earl of Pembroke when he died in June 1324. [CIPM 1317-27, pp. 314-40] Aymer Comyn's IPM taken on Monday 15 November 1316 says that "Joan the wife of David earl of Atholl" was then twenty-four and her sister Elizabeth sixteen, which would seem to indicate that she was born in 1300. This is the only certain evidence I know of for her age, other than Aymer de Valence's IPM in 1324, in which the jurors' estimates of Elizabeth's age are all over the place, between sixteen and twenty-two or just "of full age", and jurors in some counties didn't even know her name and called her and Joan "daughters of the Redecomyn", or called her Isabel. Elizabeth can't possibly have been sixteen in 1324 as this would place her birth two years after her father's death. The 1 November 1299 date of birth may well be correct, but I can't confirm it, and if anyone knows the source, please tell me! I'm a bit puzzled as thirteenth/fourteenth-century dates of birth were generally only recorded in IPMs, and as Elizabeth's wasn't recorded in her nephew's or in her uncle's, I don't know where it would have been. (It won't be in her father's, if he had one, as she wasn't the Red Comyn's heir when he was killed in 1306, her brother John was.) In 1979, Natalie Fryde (in her Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, p. 114) claimed that Elizabeth was "only a teenager in the 1320s," but this is highly unlikely. Even if Elizabeth was John the Red Comyn's posthumous child, she can't have been born later than about September or October 1306, and in that instance would have been only ten when named as her nephew Aymer Comyn's heir a decade later, not sixteen. IPMs are usually a sight more accurate on the ages of children and teenagers than on adults'.

After her uncle the earl of Pembroke died in June 1324, and in fact even before, Elizabeth became a target of the royal favourite and chamberlain Hugh Despenser the Younger. An inquisition taken in March 1328, early in Edward III's reign, stated that Hugh, his father the earl of Winchester and three other men (Nicholas de Sudynton, William Staunford and John Hasselegh), captured Elizabeth at Kennington in Surrey and "thence conveyed her against her will" to Woking in the same county, a manor of the elder Despenser, and then to 'Purefrith', i.e. Pirbright, which also belonged to the elder Despenser. They kept her in prison "for a year and more" until 20 April 1325, when Elizabeth agreed to grant her Gloucestershire manor of Painswick to Hugh the Elder and her manor of Goodrich Castle to Hugh the Younger. She was kept in prison for another half a year, then finally released, presumably in or about October 1325. As late as July 1348, the inquisition of March 1328 was exemplified at the request of Elizabeth's husband Richard, and on this occasion it states that on 20 April 1325 "by force and duress they [the Despensers] compelled her against her will and by threats of death to grant in fee to the earl the manor of Payneswyk, co. Gloucester, and to Hugh the younger the castle and manor of Castel Godrich in the march of Wales...". [CIM 1308-48, no. 1024, pp. 254-5; CPR 1348-50, p. 122]

If the dating in the inquisitions is correct, Elizabeth's capture at Kennington and removal to Woking must have predated the death of her uncle Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, who died on 24 June 1324. Even though he was a close kinsman of Edward II and the king's envoy to France that year - he died on his way to the French court - Pembroke was evidently unable to protect his niece or to free her from the Despensers' clutches, which says a lot for the Despensers' dominance at court in these years. Natalie Fryde speculates (Tyranny, p. 114) that Elizabeth was intended at this date as "the future wife of the Despenser heir", by which I assume she means Hugh the Younger's eldest son Huchon (b. c. 1308/9). This is not impossible but I haven't found any supporting evidence, and Huchon was much younger than Elizabeth. Actually, it's rather curious that, as a noblewoman and heiress and in her twenties, Elizabeth was still unmarried in 1324/25. Even if she was born as late as 1306, which I don't at all think she was, she would have been eighteen in 1324, and even that would be an advanced age to be unmarried by the standards of her class and era. (And incidentally, in this part of the book Fryde was confused about the Hastings family, and thought that Laurence Hastings, son of Elizabeth's cousin John and future earl of Pembroke, was Hugh Despenser the Elder's grandson. He wasn't; he was the step-grandson of Hugh's second daughter Isabella.)

Elizabeth Comyn was treated utterly appallingly in 1324/25 by the Despensers: imprisoned for about eighteen months and forced under duress to hand over two manors to them, and even, according to the inquisition of 1348, threatened with death. It says a great deal about Edward II, all of it unpleasant, that he was willing to tolerate and even facilitate such inhumane nastiness inflicted on a young woman. Then, something which was possibly rather romantic happened, or at least I like to think it was romantic. An entry in Edward II's last chamber account, dated 9 July 1326, records a gift of ten marks from Edward to Sir Richard Talbot, a retainer of the younger Despenser, because Richard "was very poor" and because he had "secretly married the lady Comyn" at Pirbright. [SAL MS 122, p. 75] Richard Talbot came from a staunchly Lancastrian family, and his father Sir Gilbert (b. 1276) had been captured fighting against the royal army at Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322 and was, like many other Contrariants, landed with a hefty fine for doing so. Still, knights needed to put food on the table as much as anyone else did, and Gilbert and his son Richard pragmatically switched sides to the all-powerful Despensers, at least for a while. (They abandoned them pretty sharpish in 1326, though in fairness so did almost everyone else.) In addition to the gift of ten marks from Edward II, Hugh Despenser the Younger lent Richard Talbot ten pounds on 17 July 1326. A loan, not a gift - that's Hugh for you - though I doubt he ever got it back as he was dead mere months later. I really do hope that Elizabeth Comyn consented to the marriage to Richard Talbot and was happy to marry him, because if she didn't, it was yet more abuse heaped on her. I like to think that Richard, as one of Hugh Despenser's household knights, witnessed her plight at close hand in 1324/25 and tried to help her, and they fell in love. I have no evidence for that, of course, but it would make me happy. The reference to a 'secret' wedding indicates that Edward II and Hugh Despenser only found out about it after it took place and that therefore they didn't impose it on her, which I hope means that it was Elizabeth's own choice. As Richard was 'very poor' in 1326 and was only a household knight of Despenser, she certainly didn't marry him for his money either. I have an image in my mind of Richard throwing himself on Edward's mercy, unsure of the king's reaction and expecting him to rage about it, but instead Edward accepted it without problem and blessed the couple. Not that the king giving Richard (and by extension Elizabeth) ten marks, or the loan from Hugh, in any way mitigates what was done to her, of course. Did Edward II have a guilty conscience? Was he capable of a guilty conscience? Who knows. And what's interesting is that Elizabeth and Richard married at Pirbright, where Elizabeth had been confined until c. October 1325 and which was a manor of Hugh Despenser the Elder. Either she continued living there voluntarily after her release, or their wedding took place a few months before it was mentioned in Edward II's chamber account on 9 July 1326 and perhaps when she was still a prisoner of the Despensers. Either way, I don't find it hard to imagine Elizabeth giving a mighty cheer at the downfall of the Despensers in October/November 1326.

It's also interesting that an entry on the Fine Roll of 23 March 1327 [CFR 1327-37, p. 35], the 1328 inquisition and its 1348 exemplification all refer to "Richard Talbot and Elizabeth Comyn his wife" or "Elizabeth Comyn now the wife of Richard Talbot." It's very unusual for married women in the fourteenth century to be called by their maiden names. This may have been done because by birth Elizabeth was of much higher rank than her husband, who was only a knight; she was a great-niece of both Henry III, king of England, and John Balliol, king of Scotland, and heir to one-third of the huge Pembroke inheritance (though she and the other heirs never held the full inheritance as their aunt by marriage Marie de St Pol outlived all of them). As the only child of John Balliol's nephew the lord of Badenoch still alive after her sister Countess Joan died sometime before the summer of 1326, Elizabeth also had a fairly decent claim to the Scottish throne, though of course the Balliols never regained it after 1296.

As noted, Sir Richard Talbot was the son and heir of Sir Gilbert Talbot, who was born on 18 October 1276 ['aged 29 on the feast of St Luke last', CIPM 1300-07, 377] and was himself the son and heir of Sir Richard Talbot the elder who died shortly before 3 September 1306. Gilbert was Edward III's chamberlain from 1327 to 1334, and died either during the night of 20/21 February or on 24 February 1346, aged almost seventy. [CIPM 1336-46, pp. 519-24] His son Richard was said to be forty at the time, which would seemingly place his birth in 1305 or early 1306. I'm not really sure, though, how seriously we can take the IPM as evidence that Richard Talbot really was precisely forty in February 1346. He was obviously many years past being sufficiently old enough (twenty-one) to take over his father's lands immediately, so his exact age wasn't of great importance. 'Forty' is a nice vague-ish round number that might equally well mean forty-three or forty-five. All things considered, all we can say for sure is that Richard Talbot was born sometime in the early 1300s, and he was probably some years younger than Elizabeth Comyn, though how many years is impossible to say.

Sir Richard Talbot died on 23 October 1356, in his early to mid-fifties. His heir was his and Elizabeth's son Sir Gilbert Talbot, who was born either in 1326 or 1332, as he was said to be either twenty-four or thirty at the time of Richard's death (thanks, IPMs!). [CIPM 1352-60, pp. 277-9] It's impossible to say which date of birth is more probable. There are no references in Edward II's 1326 chamber account to Elizabeth being pregnant or giving birth, though that doesn't necessarily mean that she wasn't or didn't. Elizabeth herself died on 20 November 1372, aged over seventy; she had outlived her brother John by fifty-eight years and her sister Joan, countess of Atholl, by close to fifty. Her son Gilbert born in 1326/32 had a son Richard Talbot, who died in 1396 and had three sons. One was archbishop of Dublin, one was betrothed to one of the daughters of Edward III's youngest son Thomas of Woodstock (she died before marriage), and one was John Talbot. Elizabeth Comyn's great-grandson John Talbot, born in the 1380s and sometimes called 'Great Talbot', was killed in battle in France in 1453 and was the first earl of Shrewsbury, and was the father (by his second marriage to the earl of Warwick's daughter Margaret Beauchamp) of Eleanor Talbot or Eleanor Butler who supposedly married Edward IV before Elizabeth Woodville. And just think, that secret marriage to Edward IV could never have happened, if it ever happened at all, if Eleanor's great-great-grandparents Elizabeth Comyn and Richard Talbot hadn't "secretly married" in or a little before the summer of 1326, and founded the Talbot dynasty.


sami parkkonen said...

History... Better than fiction any day. You can't make up stuff like this. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I've read that, during the Tudor era, at least three highborn widows married men from a lower social class; as well as personal reasons being involved, marriage to a lower born man had the advantage of protecting the women from being forced into a marriage. Maybe, Elizabeth Comyn wanted Sir Richard to marry her for a similar motive.