14 March, 2021

Eleanor Despenser, Edward II and Queen Isabella (1)

Edward II and his eldest niece Eleanor Despenser née de Clare were always close and often spent time together, but in the last couple of years or so of his reign, is it possible that their relationship had become something more? Something incestuous? One Flemish chronicle states outright that the two became lovers, and that the reason for Eleanor's imprisonment in the Tower of London after her uncle and her husband's downfall - she was incarcerated from November 1326 until February 1328 - was because she might be pregnant by the king. [1] No English chronicle, however, even hints at an incestuous affair, with the possible exception of the Leicester chronicler Henry Knighton. He wrote a few decades later, rather cryptically, that while Queen Isabella was staying in her native France in 1325/26, Eleanor behaved as though she were Edward II's queen (quae ut regina habebatur in regno dum regina in remotis agebat). [2] Despite the lack of information in chronicles on the matter, there is evidence from Edward II's extant chamber accounts of 1324 to 1326 which perhaps suggest that something more might have gone on between the two than mere familial affection. In two posts, I'll take a look at Eleanor's relations with her uncle, and also with her aunt-in-law, Isabella of France.

Born in Caerphilly Castle in October 1292 as the second child and eldest daughter of Edward I's second daughter Joan of Acre (b. 1272) and Gilbert 'the Red', earl of Gloucester and Hertford, Eleanor de Clare was only eight and a half years younger than Edward II (b. 25 April 1284). She and her younger sisters Margaret and Elizabeth were all closer in age to their uncle than their mother, his sister, was, and confusingly, Eleanor was about three years older than her aunt-in-law Queen Isabella. There is much evidence throughout Edward II's reign of his great affection for his eldest niece and his fondness for her company, though for many years he more or less ignored the existence of her husband Hugh Despenser the Younger. Given the closeness which developed between the two men in and after late 1318, Edward's distrust and dislike for Hugh for many years is fascinating and puzzling. Edward, as prince of Wales and duke of Aquitaine, attended Eleanor's wedding to Hugh in May 1306. I suspect he was the godfather of their second son Edward Despenser, born before November 1315 and possibly as early as 1310, but before Hugh rose to power as royal chamberlain and favourite in the late 1310s, information about the Despenser children is hard to come by.

On 1 April 1308, while Edward II was at Windsor Castle and fortifying it against his own barons who had demanded Piers Gaveston's exile, he found the time to send 20 marks to Eleanor Despenser to cover her expenses while staying at the royal castle of Rockingham, Northamptonshire. A few weeks later on 8 May, Edward gave Eleanor 10 marks to travel from Rockingham to visit him at Westminster. In 1313/14, a year when his accounts survive, Edward gave his eldest niece frequent sums of money, between £3 and £10 every few days or weeks, and this probably wasn't unusual. [3] On 21 October 1310 he gave a messenger 20 marks, a huge sum, for bringing him news of Eleanor - perhaps that she had given birth - and she must have visited him on or shortly before 7 March 1309, when he granted a favour to one of her damsels, Joan, at her request. [4] This means Johane 'Jonette' Priour; she and her mother Emma 'Emmote' Priour were Eleanor's attendants for many years, and Johane later went to work for Queen Philippa. On the other hand, from 1314 until 1317 Edward refused to partition the massive inheritance of his late nephew the earl of Gloucester, not even to benefit Eleanor, one of the earl's three sisters and co-heirs. The king's undoubted affection for Eleanor wasn't enough for him to hand over her lands to her and her husband until he absolutely had to. In an article of 2006, Michael Prestwich drew attention to an account of Edward II of 1319/20 in which he and Eleanor were linked together in a rather unusual way when medicines were bought for 'the king and Eleanor Despenser, when ill'. [5]

In or before 1323, Edward II acquired a ship which he named after Eleanor, La Alianore la Despensere, the contemporary spelling of her name. It was a Spanish ship, lost off the Isle of Wight, which the king bought or otherwise acquired, and renamed. Edward owned a ship named La Isabele presumably after his queen, but I've never seen any evidence that he had ships named after his sisters, his other nieces or even his children, so calling one the Alianore la Despensere is pretty revealing of his feelings. Edward also owned a ship called La Despenser, supposedly a gift to him from Hugh the Younger, but it was Edward who paid out £130 for it. Figures. [6]

Eleanor was with Edward and her husband at the royal manor of Cowick in Yorkshire when she gave birth to one of her many children at the beginning of August 1323 - just about on the date when, several hundred miles away, Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower. The king gave her £100 for the expenses of 'her childbed' (son gesine). [7] This was Eleanor and Hugh's fourth daughter, Margaret Despenser. She spent her early years in the care of a Yorkshire knight named Sir Thomas Houk, whose manor of Hook lay just eight miles from Cowick. At Christmas 1324, Edward II sent Houk a gift of 20 marks. [8] Earlier that year, Eleanor had been in the Tower of London with Queen Isabella: on 17 February 1323, the two women sent virtually identical letters on behalf of Roger Mortimer's wife Joan Geneville. Eleanor was then several months pregnant. As of 1324 or earlier, Eleanor and Hugh's third daughter, Eleanor, was in the care of Hugh's sister Lady Hastings, with the king and queen's two daughters.

On 26 October 1324, as I wrote in a recent post, Edward II crossed the Thames from the Tower to a house called La Rosere in Southwark, to make love in private with a woman whose identity is unknown. A few days later, on or before 1 November 1324, Eleanor Despenser sent her uncle a gift of clothes made of medley cloth and lined with expensive miniver fur. In Edward's account, when he gave Eleanor's servant 40 shillings for bringing him the clothes, they were described as j robe de iiij garnamenz, i.e. a complete set of clothes. [9] On 2 December 1325, Edward visited the heavily pregnant Eleanor at the royal manor-house of Sheen and dined with her, and sailed along the Thames back to Westminster. He gave an offering of 30 shillings to the Virgin Mary on or before 14 December in gratitude that God had granted Eleanor a prompt delivery of her child. On 3 December the day after Edward's visit, Eleanor again sent a servant to her uncle with vne robe de iiij garnamenz, a set of clothes, and the servant received 20 shillings this time. [10] So hmmmmm. A coincidence? 

Several things occur to me. In 1325, Eleanor and Hugh Despenser owned manors right across the south of England and also held most of South Wales, so I wonder why Edward accommodated his niece at one of his own manors for the last two months of her pregnancy when there were untold dozens of her own manors where she could have given birth. Eleanor moved into Sheen on or just before 12 October 1325, and Edward visited her there from 12 to 17 October, gave her money for her expenses, bought firewood for her chamber, and gave her gifts of caged goldfinches, caged larks and three swans. A few weeks earlier on 16 September, Eleanor had sent Edward letters while she was staying at Tonbridge in Kent, a castle which by right belonged to her sister Margaret and Margaret's husband Hugh Audley, but Audley was in prison and Margaret had been held at Sempringham Priory in Lincolnshire since May 1322. 

Eleanor sending the king gifts of clothes on two occasions seems an oddly wifely thing to do, and for Edward to visit his niece days before she gave birth (or possibly on the day she gave birth) also seems a little unusual, perhaps. On 9 April 1325, he had given her a gift of 100 marks, and on 8 July bought her two gallons of honey to make a sweet called sucre de plate. [11] A child born around 2 or 14 December would have been conceived around early or mid-March, and it is possible that Eleanor had just learned that she was pregnant on 9 April 1325 (this was at least her ninth or tenth pregnancy), and perhaps three months later craved something sweet. Hugh Despenser, by the way, was at Westminster on 28 and 30 November and on 3 December, and his and Eleanor's eldest son Huchon was also at court in December 1325. Hugh was also with the king and Eleanor at Sheen on 16 October. [12] Eleanor probably remained at Sheen for a while recovering from the birth while Edward II and Hugh Despenser spent the festive season in Suffolk, and on 1 January 1326, Eleanor sent her uncle a dappled-grey palfrey horse with saddle and equipment. She also sent him letters, and Edward sent her letters in early February. Later in 1326, she and Edward's younger son John of Eltham, her cousin, who turned ten years old in mid-August 1326, travelled together from Sheen to Kenilworth Castle and stayed there for a while.

In early June 1326, Eleanor Despenser was staying at Leeds Castle while Edward II and Hugh Despenser were a few miles away at Saltwood Castle meeting the pope's envoys, and Edward sent Eleanor a gift of 20 marks. He sent twenty-five crew members of the ship La Despenser to bring her to him at the Tower of London in a barge on 17 June, and they and Hugh Despenser stayed there for a few days. Edward and Eleanor dined secretly or privately - that word priuement again, which is used to describe the king's encounter with his lover in October 1324 - in the park of Windsor Castle on 11 July 1326. Exactly two weeks later they sailed along the Thames together: Edward sent letters to Eleanor's husband Hugh, who had made a quick visit to Wales, while he and Eleanor were in a boat near the bridge of Kingston-on-Thames, and spent 18d on roach and dace for Eleanor in Byfleet. On 28 July, they were still together in Henley-on-Thames (it was a terribly hot dry summer, and it seems that the king was sailing rather aimlessly along the Thames a lot that month, presumably because it was cooler on the river).

On 25 July 1326, when Edward II gave out three shillings in alms to a group of fisherwomen in Kennington, his account states that the women received the money en la p[re]sence le Roi e ma dame, 'in the presence of the king and my lady'. [13] Ma dame here means Eleanor Despenser. In every other document of Edward II's reign, ma dame or la dame used alone without a name always meant Queen Isabella. The same applies to Edward I's household ordinance of 1279, where la dame means Queen Eleanor, and in Edward III's accounts, where ma dame means Queen Philippa. [14] This perhaps tends to give weight to Henry Knighton's statement that Eleanor Despenser was treated as though she were Edward's queen in 1325/26. In Edward II's accounts, his daughters Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower, his niece Jeanne de Bar, countess of Surrey, and his sister-in-law Alice Hales, countess of Norfolk, were not called ma dame. It's unfortunate that Edward II's only surviving sister in England, Mary the nun, doesn't appear in his accounts of 1324 to 1326, which would provide a useful comparison. Although they were children, Edward II's daughters outranked Edward II's niece, so you might expect them to be addressed as ma dame as well. They weren't. Eleanor Despenser was. And so was Queen Isabella. They were the only two ladies thus named. 

As Edward II's extremely illuminating chamber accounts unfortunately don't survive from before 1322 (assuming they ever existed), and then only in fragments until 1324, it's hard to tell whether the numerous references to Eleanor Despenser in the extant accounts of 1324 to 1326 are unusual. Her gifts of clothes to the king do, however, strike me as a bit odd, and the timing of the first delivery of them, just days after Edward made love with an unknown lover, might be revealing, given that we know she sent him clothes just after his visit to her on 2 December 1325. Was his lover of October 1324 Eleanor? That would certainly provide an explanation for why he wanted to keep her identity hidden from his household staff. And although, as far as I can work out, the custom for royal and noble ladies to seclude themselves for weeks before giving birth was a later development, it seems odd for a royal man to visit a heavily pregnant royal woman days before she bore a child, or even on the day she bore the child, if he wasn't the father. I honestly don't know. I can't prove conclusively, of course, that Edward II and his eldest niece had an incestuous relationship, but I will say that Henry Knighton's statement makes more sense in the light of what I've found in Edward's accounts.


1) See Seymour Phillips, Edward II, p. 483.

2) Chronicon Henrici Knighton, Monachi Leycestrensis, vol. 1. ed. J.R. Lumby, p. 434.

3) James Conway Davies, The Baronial Opposition to Edward II: Its Character and Policy, p. 91, notes 3 and 7.

4) Issues of the Exchequer, ed. F. Devon, p. 124; Calendar of Chancery Warrants 1244-1326, p. 283.

5) Michael Prestwich, 'The Court of Edward II', The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, ed. Gwilym Dodd and Anthony Musson. p. 71.

6) The National Archives E 101/379/7, fo. 7; E 101/380/4, fos. 19r, 32v; Society of Antiquaries of London Manuscript 122, pp. 4, 7, 16.

7) TNA E 101/379/17, membrane 2.

8) E 101/380/4, fo. 22r.

9) E 101/380/4, fo. 19v.

10) SAL MS 122, pp. 40, 41, 43.

11) E 101/380/4, fo. 31r; SAL MS 122, pp. 9, 14, 28-9, 36.

12) TNA SC 1/49/146, 146A, 147 and 148.

13) SAL MS 122, pp. 45-6, 51, 66, 75, 78-9.

14) T.F. Tout, Chapters in the Administrative History of Medieval England, vol. 2, p. 162; Life-Records of Chaucer, ed. M.M. Crow and C.C. Olson, pp. 164, 169.


Karen Hill said...

Piecing together these, what seem like generous gifts,and the odd visitations of Edward to Eleanor do make you raise an eyebrow of suspicion and curiosity of what exactly was the nature of their relationship. The clothing gifts is definitely a something that makes you ask...why? - This is the King, he probably has more clothes than anyone, they would have all been carefully handmade just for him. A clothing gift,as you say, is something more intimate between a husband and wife, someone who would know your body having these things made by hand especially back then.
Do we think that Hugh allowed access to his wife and this was his form of blackmail over the King. I think I've mentioned before about a little nagging doubt that maybe the last child had less to do with Hugh and more to do with Edward.
Does the working back from DOB to their whereabouts around 9mths before give any clues?
It does put rather a dampener on the idea that Edward was drawn only to men and didn't really have an eye for the ladies of the court.

Kathryn Warner said...

Karen, I also can't help feeling that Edward might have thought the child born in December 1325 - presumably Elizabeth, Lady Berkeley - might have been his. I wonder if it means anything that Queen Isabella left England on 9 March 1325, about the time Eleanor must have become pregnant. When I can find Eleanor's whereabouts in the 1320s, she was almost always at court, and she was certainly with Edward on 25 March 1325, having spent Christmas 1324 with him and Hugh, and having been at court on every occasion in 1324 when I can place her. And yes, I think Edward was definitely more sexually fluid than many people think. Oh, and thank you for making the great point about having the clothes hand made and knowing his measurements - I hadn't considered that!

Karen Hill said...

The speculation about clothes being handmade and knowledge of someone's body shape and size comes about from other folk knowing my slight obsession with Edward and companions sometimes ask in jest....have you got his inside leg measurement yet.😁😁 To which the answer is....no but I'm working on it.!!

Kathryn Warner said...

:-D :-D One of these days, we'll find it. :)

sami parkkonen said...

It certainly looks the two were more than close and that the feelings went both ways. And this relationship was not a short one either.

I wonder did Isabella find out or was she aware of all this? I assume she was but did not think it was serious before the whole thing came to the breaking point. I think she put two and two together before leaving to France and realized that not only Hugh was manipulating her husband but his wife was also in there. That would have been crushing.

And what about Hugh? Did he not know about this affair? I bet he did. And pimping his own wife would not have been out of his gangster ways. Besides: if there really was a secret love affair going on and he knew about, he certainly would have used it as a leverage. No doubt about it. And this would also explain many weird things about Edward and Hugh and what went on between those two.

If there was one big fault in Edward it was his love life. He just could not figure out whom to love, whom to live with, and just went where ever his heart pointed at. Men, women, noble ones, lower born, when he got the crush on someone he just went for it and eventually crashed one way of the other. I am pretty sure this kind of behavior was not making any friends around the nobility and the church.

Anonymous said...

Great post. However, I am wondering if there is any specific reason why more explicit accusations were not made at the time? In the mid 1480's, for example, there were explicit statements in one of the contemporary chronicles that Richard III wanted to marry his niece. Was there a change during the years between Edward and Richard in what chroniclers would write? Greater fear of Edward II (or Hugh Despenser) than of Richard and his supporters?


Kathryn Warner said...

The Westminster chronicler wrote in his account of events in 1324 that Edward II loved 'illicit and sinful copulation', which I should have added to the post, come to think of it. A lot of the chronicles of the era were written in the north of England and they might simply not have heard any rumours, assuming there were rumours and assuming something did happen between Edward and Eleanor.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I am curious whether "illicit and sinful copulation" noted in the Westminster chronicle would necessarily refer to incest. How would the chronicler have referred to other sexual relationships that the church would dislike, such as adultery or same sex relations?


Kathryn Warner said...

In the same way. That's why the meaning of what the chronicler said is unclear. It might mean incest, or sex with men, or both of those, or something else entirely.