15 April, 2018

The Abduction of Elizabeth de Burgh, February 1316

The third and youngest of Edward II's de Clare nieces, who were the daughters of his second eldest sister Joan of Acre and her first husband Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, was Elizabeth de Burgh, born in September 1295. Elizabeth married her first husband, the earl of Ulster's eldest son and heir John de Burgh, at the end of September 1308 just after her thirteenth birthday. She stayed in England for just over a year after her wedding before travelling to join her husband in Ireland, evidently considered too young to live with her husband until she turned fourteen. She bore her only child with John, William de Burgh, future earl of Ulster, the day after her seventeenth birthday on 17 September 1312, and was widowed nine months later. Elizabeth remained in Ireland with her father-in-law the earl, Richard de Burgh, until her uncle Edward II ordered her back to England; her son William was three years old when she left Ireland, and seems to have spent the next few years travelling between Ireland and England.

On 24 June 1314, Elizabeth's brother Gilbert, earl of Gloucester, was killed at the battle of Bannockburn, and she and her elder sisters Eleanor and Margaret were heirs to his vast landholdings in three countries, though matters were complicated by the claims of Gloucester's widow Maud de Burgh - daughter of the earl of Ulster and thus Elizabeth's sister-in-law twice over - to be pregnant with his posthumous child. Edward II ordered Elizabeth to return to England around the end of 1315 or beginning of 1316, obviously realising that she was one of her late brother's three co-heirs despite pretending in public that he believed in the dowager countess of Gloucester's pregnancy more than eighteen months after Gloucester's death. Elizabeth arrived at Bristol on 4 February 1316 ("Wednesday after the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the ninth year of his [Edward II's] reign"), where her uncle the king would pay for her expenses at the castle there. Bristol Castle was under the command of Bartholomew Badlesmere, a baron of Kent who had once been in the retinue of Elizabeth's brother the earl of Gloucester, and was alleged to have abandoned the young earl at Bannockburn; a contemporary poet stated venomously that he was a Judas figure who deserved to be "put to the rack" for his actions. Badlesmere was married to the Clare sisters' first cousin Margaret de Clare. Despite what strikes me as his endless gross incompetence* he was an important figure in English politics from 1316 until 1321, was appointed steward of the king's household in 1318, and has an excellent reputation among some modern historians which, I have to admit, I find difficult to understand.

[* Allegedly abandoning his lord to die on the battlefield. Allowing the king's niece to be abducted from the castle for which he was accountable. Provoking a full-scale rebellion against himself in Bristol in the 1310s which went on for years. Refusing to give up custody of Bristol Castle despite several direct orders from the king to do so. Changing sides to the Marcher lords in 1321, for which he was grotesquely executed in 1322. Conspiring with Hugh Despenser the Younger to free one John Lashley from prison in Colchester in 1319 or 1320 and gaining control of Lashley's Essex manor, then hypocritically blaming Despenser alone for it in August 1321. Committing blatant fraud and trickery in trying to get the younger Despenser accused of treason at the same time, a trick which was soon spotted and which backfired completely. Etc.]

Along came Theobald de Verdon, former justiciar of Ireland and an important English nobleman, whom I wrote about in a recent post. Verdon had been a widower for more than three years since the death of Maud Mortimer in September 1312, and oh so conveniently just happened to find himself in Bristol when Elizabeth de Burgh arrived there. Or not. What happened next is uncertain, but on 4 February 1316 immediately after Elizabeth's arrival in England - on the same day - she married Verdon without the knowledge or consent of her uncle the king. Her biographer Frances Underhill, in her 1999 book For Her Good Estate: The Life of Elizabeth de Burgh, states that Elizabeth was not forcibly abducted and most probably consented to the marriage as she had surely known Verdon in Ireland in his capacity as justiciar there, and that it is 'unlikely' that the marriage took place against Elizabeth's will. She offers no real explanation for why it is 'unlikely,' and I disagree. Elizabeth had only just returned to England for the first time (as far as is known) since she left to join her husband in October 1309. I find it hard to believe she was so desperate to marry Verdon that she would have done so before she had even met or had any contact with her elder sisters Eleanor and Margaret and her uncle the king, or had even settled into her homeland for the first time in more than six years. I find it hard to believe she would have married Verdon without obtaining her uncle's permission. Edward II treated Elizabeth callously in later years, but in early 1316 he had done nothing at all wrong to her that might have made her wish to defy him. Tenants in chief required permission from the king to marry, and Edward II was not only Elizabeth's liege lord to whom she owed obedience and allegiance, he was her nearest male relative. Verdon was appointed justiciar of Ireland in April 1313 ten months after Elizabeth's first husband John de Burgh died and fourteen months before the earl of Gloucester fell at Bannockburn, and could have married Elizabeth at any point if he'd so wished. Interesting that he was only overcome by the strong urge to marry her after her wealthy brother died and she was one of his co-heirs, and as soon as she was no longer under the protection of her powerful father-in-law the earl of Ulster and her uncle the king was 170 miles away.

I find Frances Underhill's attitude towards Theobald de Verdon and his abduction of Elizabeth surprisingly indulgent, and she treats Elizabeth's third husband Sir Roger Damory far more harshly and, to my mind, unfairly. She calls him "a grasping, reckless mediocrity with a petty crook's mentality." Ouch! Whatever Damory's numerous faults, he did at least seek Elizabeth's consent to their marriage, and yes, he only married a great noblewoman because her uncle the king was currently infatuated with him, but none of his contemporaries would have turned down marriage to the king's wealthy niece. Underhill considers that Edward II "pursued his heavy-handed tactics" by taking Damory to visit Elizabeth at Amesbury Priory in the spring of 1317 a few weeks before her wedding to him, but somehow Verdon taking Elizabeth out of Bristol Castle on the very day of her return to her homeland and either forcing her or at the very least strongly encouraging her to defy and disobey her liege lord and uncle isn't 'heavy-handed'? Abducting the king's rich niece and marrying her without his permission isn't "reckless" and "grasping"? Perhaps Damory wished to get to know Elizabeth better and to make sure that she was marrying him of her own free will. I don't know. Maybe he didn't, but I've never seen anything that makes me think Theobald de Verdon gave a damn about Elizabeth's feelings, but somehow he's judged far more indulgently than Damory. Would it somehow have been preferable if Edward II hadn't taken Damory to meet Elizabeth, or would there then be the criticism that he forced his niece to marry a man she'd never met or talked to? I just think sometimes that absolutely everything Edward II ever did is castigated by modern writers and it's not always entirely fair, and there seems to be this assumption that everyone he loved, e.g. Roger Damory, must have been irredeemably bad and have only ever done bad things whereas anyone opposed to Edward and his 'favourites' must necessarily have had purer and nobler motives.

Verdon went to the parliament then being held at Lincoln and claimed to Edward II that Elizabeth had voluntarily come out of Bristol Castle to marry him and that they had been betrothed in Ireland. This is merely a case of "he would say that, wouldn't he?" and should not be taken too seriously. Given that Elizabeth's eldest sister Eleanor was abducted and forcibly married to William la Zouche in January 1329, and their niece Margaret Audley was abducted and forcibly married to Ralph Stafford in February 1336, and their second cousin Alice de Lacy, countess of Lincoln was abducted and forcibly married to Hugh Frene also c. February 1336, and Margaret Multon, the  daughter and heir of Thomas Multon of Gilsland, was abducted from Warwick Castle in c. 1315 and married to Ranulph Dacre, I'm not sure why it's so 'unlikely' that Elizabeth de Burgh would be as well. Not that I want to turn her into a victim - that's the last thing she was - but abductions and forced marriages did happen to noblewomen in her lifetime, and not infrequently either.

In the end, Verdon never benefited from his abduction of the king's niece as he died on 27 July 1316 long before the Clare lands were partitioned, leaving Elizabeth a month pregnant with his daughter Isabella de Verdon, born on 21 March 1317. He never paid a fine for marrying without royal licence, though was deprived of some of his liberties on one of his Shropshire manors. Theobald's daughter Elizabeth (his second daughter with Maud Mortimer) and her husband Bartholomew Burghersh later claimed rather disingenuously that Edward II had only done this because of his "rancour of mind" against Theobald, as though there was not an excellent reason for the king's "rancour." For sure some people disagree with me, but I don't see anything pleasant or even romantic in the marriage of Elizabeth de Burgh and Theobald de Verdon, and nothing I've read on the subject convinces me that Elizabeth was a willing party to it.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such an interesting and well balanced post. So many writers see everything Edward ever did in a bad light, always giving him the worst motives, when at this distance in history we can't always uncover what someone's motivation might have been. It's not only Edward either. I was astonished when I read The Sunne in Splendour! I had no idea Richard III had been so successful or popular before he became king.

The list of abductions and forced marriages also made me stop and think. I knew they happened but when you list it like that, it's very sobering.

Jo

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Jo! It never fails to astonish me, the way some modern writers go out of their way to find fault with Edward II and those he loved, and interpret everything he did in the most negative light possible. Edward arriving slightly late for his wedding isn't because he couldn't cross the Channel in the depths of winter, oh no no, he was deliberately insulting Isabella. Setting up separate households for their children the way all medieval kings did wasn't a normal thing to do, he was deliberately and cruelly inflicting pain on Isabella. Etc. etc. Theobald de Verdon abducts the king's niece but never mind, let's make excuses for him. Roger Damory goes to see Elizabeth before they marry but that's clearly 'heavy-handed'. Honestly.

The list of abductions of noblewomen is indeed sobering. I have a post here about Ralph Stafford's abduction of Margaret Audley here on the blog, and might have to write one sometime about the others.

Anonymous said...

It would be great if you have time to write a post about the others. It tells us such a lot about attitudes to women, marriage, property etc. As you point out, often Edward's actions (and those of his allies) are just not seen in the context of what was usual then. Damory's contemporaries would surely have found it incomprehensible to refuse marriage to Elizabeth!

Jo

Kathryn Warner said...

Then I definitely will! I only found out about the Multon/Dacre one by accident recently, so would like to delve into it more, and was writing about the Eleanor de Clare/William la Zouche one in my bio of the de Clare sisters recently.

sami parkkonen said...

It seems to me that once again certain writer has, as usual with the writers who confuse fiction with history, decided that there are Good abductions and Bad ones, and she is the one who can make the call which one is which.

Anonymous said...

Great post, but I am also curious as to whether de Verdon's abduction is treated differently from the other abductions.

Esther