09 June, 2018

Elizabeth de Burgh's Protest, May 1326

On 22 May 1326, Elizabeth de Burgh née de Clare dictated a document protesting against her appalling treatment at the hands of her uncle Edward II and her brother-in-law Hugh Despenser the Younger. The document fortuitously survives in a late fourteenth-century transcript of the Liber Niger de Wigmore, the cartulary of the Mortimer estates.* Here's a post about it.

Context: Elizabeth's third husband Sir Roger Damory, formerly the king's great favourite but edged out of Edward's affections by Hugh Despenser the Younger in and after late 1318, joined the Contrariant rebellion of 1321/22 against Hugh and Edward II, and died of wounds sustained while fighting against the royal army on 12 or 13 March 1322. Even before Roger's death, Edward II sent men to seize Elizabeth and her two young daughters (Isabella de Verdon and Elizabeth Damory) at Usk, and Elizabeth was sent to Barking Abbey in Essex for the next few months. She was released and officially restored to all her lands in November 1322, but in the summer of 1324 lost her great lordship of Usk thanks to the machinations of her brother-in-law Hugh Despenser the Younger. Elizabeth seems to have spent much of the period from late 1322 to late 1326 living quietly at her castle of Clare in Suffolk with her daughters, while her sister Margaret - whose husband Hugh Audley also joined the Contrariant rebellion - was incarcerated at Sempringham Priory and their eldest sister Eleanor enjoyed great influence as Edward II's beloved niece and Hugh the Younger's cosseted wife.

In May 1326, Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger - Elizabeth's sister Eleanor Despenser was also with them - were in Gloucestershire/Wiltshire, on the other side of the country from Suffolk. Perhaps feeling somewhat safer because they were so far away, Elizabeth decided to dictate a text to her close advisers and clerks Thomas Chedworth and John Diccus and a notary called John Radenhale, detailing what the two men had done to her. The text is in Anglo-Norman. Elizabeth wrote of Hugh as "Sir Hugh Despenser the son" and Edward II as "our lord, Lord Edward, king of England, son of King Edward" with more courtesy than they perhaps deserved, and without acknowledging her close familial relationships to both men. She described herself as "formerly the consort of Sir Roger Damory," and went on to describe in detail how the king had threatened her in York at Christmas 1322, just a few weeks after he released her and restored her to her lands.

Edward II ordered Elizabeth to spend Christmas 1322 with him in York, and after her arrival imprisoned her officials and councillors, thus leaving her alone and vulnerable. The king tried to force her to sign documents – documents "contrary to the law of the land" according to Elizabeth – renouncing all her claims to Usk and the rest of her inheritance in Wales. This was because Hugh Despenser wanted Usk, and a year and a half after this nasty little episode, he managed to take it from his sister-in-law (to cut a very long story short, he forced her to exchange Usk for his lordship of Gower, then deprived her of Gower as well). Elizabeth argued her corner, bravely stood up to her uncle and refused to sign, and eventually fled from court "in great displeasure." She had been on the long road back to Clare in Suffolk for five days when Edward sent men after her ordering her to return, or he would confiscate all her lands and never again allow her to hold even a foot of land from him (ne iammes plein pie de lui ne tendroie). An entry in the chancery rolls confirms her narrative: on 7 January 1323, Edward seized all her English lands into his own hands again. Here we see Edward II at his absolute worst: bullying his widowed niece, yelling threats at her, deliberately separating her from her advisers, even being willing to ride roughshod over the laws of his own kingdom and to deprive his own niece of a large part of her rightful inheritance. Truly appalling, inexcusable behaviour which shows the king in the worst light possible.

Elizabeth also claimed that Hugh Despenser the Younger was now in May 1326 "seeing the great calumny of the wrongs" he had done to her, and to deceive and damage her and to mislead the people was offering her lands of much lower value in compensation for Gower; but it was far too little and far too late. There is no record of this offer in any extant document, so perhaps Hugh went to see Elizabeth in person sometime before May 1326, or at least sent men to discuss it with her. Hugh and the king were in East Anglia from late December 1325 until early February 1326, and were certainly just a few miles from Elizabeth at her castle of Clare on a number of occasions. The 22nd of May 1326 when Elizabeth dictated her protest was, coincidentally, the twentieth anniversary of the mass knighting of Edward of Caernarfon, Hugh Despenser the Younger and more than 250 others, and four days away marked Eleanor de Clare and Hugh the Younger's twentieth wedding anniversary.

It was brave of Elizabeth to set down the wrongs committed against her by her uncle and her brother-in-law, and for sure she knew that Hugh Despenser had spies and informants everywhere. If he and Edward II had found out about it, she would have been in serious trouble. Just four months after Elizabeth dictated her protest document, on 24 September, her aunt-in-law Queen Isabella returned to England at the head of an invasion force, and landed in Suffolk just forty miles from where Elizabeth lived. It's hard to imagine that she wasn't delighted someone was at last taking action against her despised brother-in-law Hugh Despenser the Younger, and by mid-November 1326, even before Hugh's execution, Elizabeth was back at her castle of Usk.

* Cited in G. A. Holmes, 'A Protest Against the Despensers, 1326', Speculum, 30 (1955), pp. 207-12, which prints Elizabeth's text in the original French.


sami parkkonen said...

Elizabeth shows trough her actions to us that not all women in medieval times were hapless damsels who could not or would not stand for their rights. In this situation it was also very dangerous as Hugh was not someone to play with. I hope Elizabeth lived her days after this in peace and more secure way.

Caroline Newark said...

I sometimes think Edward reminds me of Donald Trump - goes out of his way to be unpleasant, doesn't care who he offends, behaves outrageously, doesn't behave the way his predecessors did and how his peers expect him to, fond of making grand gestures, unpredictable, unconventional, admired and loathed in equal measure. In fact if I were Trump I would watch out for Melania.