12 September, 2021

12 September 1316: Edward II's Letter to Elizabeth de Burgh

Elizabeth de Burgh née de Clare was born on 16 September 1295 as the fourth and youngest child, and third daughter, of Edward I's daughter Joan of Acre (1272-1307) and her first husband Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford (1243-95). Elizabeth and her three older siblings were all closer in age to their uncle Edward II, born in April 1284, than their mother, his sister, was. Elizabeth was just two weeks past her thirteenth birthday when she married the earl of Ulster's eldest son and heir John de Burgh at the end of September 1308, and gave birth to their son William 'Donn' de Burgh, future earl of Ulster, on 17 September 1312, the day after her seventeenth birthday; she was widowed nine months later. In late 1315 or the beginning of 1316, Edward II ordered Elizabeth to return to England from Ireland, as she and her older sisters Eleanor Despenser and Margaret Gaveston were heirs to the vast fortune of their late brother the earl of Gloucester and Hertford (d. June 1314).

On Wednesday, 4 February 1316, the same day that she returned from Ireland, Elizabeth de Burgh was abducted from Bristol Castle by Theobald de Verdon (b. September 1278), a major noble landowner in the Midlands and former justiciar of Ireland, widower of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore's sister Maud Mortimer (d. 1312), and the father of three daughters. Theobald died less than six months after abducting and marrying Elizabeth, on 27 July 1316, but left her a few weeks pregnant; she gave birth to his fourth daughter and co-heir Isabella de Verdon, later Lady Ferrers, at Amesbury Priory on 21 March 1317.

Edward II was in Beverley, Yorkshire on Sunday, 12 September 1316 when he sent his steward Sir John Charlton to Elizabeth with a letter (this was four days before her twenty-first birthday). Edward was at this time infatuated with several court favourites: Sir Roger Damory, Sir Hugh Audley, and Sir William Montacute. Montacute was already married and the father of eleven children, but at some point in 1316 the king became determined to marry off his two widowed de Clare nieces, Elizabeth and her older sister Margaret Gaveston, to Damory and Audley. Evidently Edward didn't know on 12 September that Elizabeth was pregnant with Theobald de Verdon's posthumous child. Or if he did know, he didn't much care. For the record, when Theobald's inquisition post mortem was held in October 1316, the jurors in some counties hadn't yet heard of Elizabeth's pregnancy (though others had).

Below, Edward II's letter to his niece of 12 September 1316.

Edward claimed near the start of his letter that he favoured Elizabeth above his other nieces* ("Dearest and beloved niece, for the special affection that we have for you before all our other nieces..."), which was a manipulative lie. There is an absolute mountain of evidence to demonstrate that the king was intensely fond of Elizabeth's eldest sister Eleanor throughout his reign, and until the Contrariant rebellion of 1321/22 he also enjoyed the company of their other sister Margaret, but he rarely if ever showed any affection to Elizabeth, and in 1322 he outright threatened her and allowed her brother-in-law Hugh Despenser the Younger to take her valuable Welsh lordship of Usk from her. So pretending that Elizabeth was his favourite niece was simply empty flattery and a way of buttering her up to get her to do what he wanted.

[* Edward's eight nieces alive in 1316 were: Joan of Acre's daughters, i.e. Eleanor Despenser, Margaret Gaveston, Elizabeth de Burgh, Mary MacDuff, countess of Fife, and Joan de Monthermer; Jeanne de Bar, countess of Surrey, only daughter of his eldest sister Eleanor, countess of Bar; and Eleanor and Margaret de Bohun, daughters of his sister Elizabeth, countess of Hereford, who were born in c. 1310 and 1311. The daughters of his half-brothers Thomas and Edmund - Margaret and Alice of Norfolk and Joan of Kent - weren't born until the 1320s.]

What's really interesting about the letter is that it's written by three different hands and has a lot of crossings-out and additions above the line, indicating that Edward thought hard about what he wanted to say and dictated parts of it to three different clerks on different occasions. Although the letter does not specifically say that Edward wishes Elizabeth to marry Sir Roger Damory, given the way events were later to pan out, it's virtually certain that this is what the king had in mind, and it's also apparent from the letter that his steward John Charlton had been ordered to discuss matters with Elizabeth in person. The revisions Edward made to the letter, the above-the-line additions, made it sterner, more menacing and far less amicable, and one sentence written entirely above the line says "...do willingly what he [John Charlton] requests of you on our behalf if you wish to have generous lordship from us and wish us to take to heart all matters which concern you." This is clearly a veiled threat, or in fact not all that veiled, that Edward would not be a good lord to Elizabeth if she did not do what he wanted. It is also worth noting that there is no closing salutation in the letter, such as "Very dear niece, may the Holy Spirit have you in his keeping" or even a more abrupt "May God keep you", as would have been conventional and polite. This tends to give the lie to Edward's claim that he felt "special affection" for Elizabeth.

Edward II was not only Elizabeth de Burgh's king and liege lord, he was her closest living adult male relative, her father having died when she was only a few weeks old, her husband dead in 1313, and her only full brother Gilbert de Clare dead at Bannockburn in 1314 (her younger half-brothers Thomas and Edward de Monthermer were only fifteen and twelve in 1316). The Magna Carta of 1215 officially forbade the forced remarriage of noble widows, but there is no doubt at all that Edward II was in a position to put a great deal of pressure on Elizabeth to marry the man he was currently infatuated with, and that he did so. Although Sir Roger Damory was a knight of Oxfordshire with a solid pedigree going back centuries, he was far below Elizabeth in rank, and furthermore was not even his father's eldest son and heir. She, on the other hand, was the granddaughter and niece of kings, daughter and sister of two of the greatest noblemen in the country, and would have been countess of Ulster if her first husband had outlived his father. 

Elizabeth's reply to Edward doesn't survive, but at some point she consented to marry Roger Damory, whether willingly or not. Edward and Roger visited her at Amesbury Priory in Wiltshire, where she had born her daughter Isabella de Verdon on 21 March 1317 - and where her aunt, the king's sister Mary, was a nun - on c. 10 April 1317, just three weeks later. Elizabeth is most unlikely to have been purified, a ceremony which took place approximately thirty to forty days after childbirth, by that time. One of the jurors at Isabella de Verdon's proof of age a few years later when she turned fourteen recalled the king's and Damory's visit to Elizabeth, and although the date of it isn't recorded, Edward granted a favour to one Robert Scales at Elizabeth's request on 10 April 1317, so she was in his presence on or a little before that day. [Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem 1317-36, no. 395; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1313-1317, p. 641] Edward II's itinerary shows that he was at the royal palace of Clarendon near Salisbury on 10 April and in Andover on 11 April, and Amesbury would only have been a short detour. The date of Elizabeth de Burgh and Roger Damory's wedding isn't recorded, peculiarly, but her sister Margaret Gaveston married Sir Hugh Audley at Windsor Castle on 28 April 1317, and Elizabeth and Roger were certainly married by 3 May 1317, when an entry on the Patent Roll talks of "Roger Damory and Elizabeth his wife".

Edward II's letter to Elizabeth de Burgh doesn't, in my opinion, show him in a good light, but reveals him as a person who could be manipulative and ruthless when he wanted something. Which isn't, to be fair, something that was particularly unusual in a medieval king. Whether Elizabeth wanted to marry Roger Damory or not, they seem not to have had a bad marriage, all in all; it would take another blog post to detail why I think that, and maybe I'll find the time one of these days!


Henry Funk said...

Excellent post. Plus ça change: from Kabul to Texas, women obstinately refuse to do as men order them :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Henry!

Lindsay Hoyer Millar said...

Thanks Kathryn.
Here in Sudbury, Suffolk, one of the possessions Edward ll handed over to Elizabeth a year after the letter you describe, our main pub on Market Hill is being renamed The Elizabeth de Burgh. It was she who granted Sudbury it’s market, which is still held twice a week. Quite a woman.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Lindsey, thank you for that information! I didn't know that! Edward and Hugh Despenser spent late 1325 and early 1326 in Suffolk and Elizabeth appears also to have been living in the county at the time, and Hugh subjected Elizabeth and her supporters there to more blackmail and oppression during this period. On 31 December 1325, Hugh forced the mayor, bailiffs and many other men and women of Sudbury to acknowledge a joint debt to him of 1000 marks (£666.66), which was cancelled not long afterwards in Edward III's reign as it had been 'made under duress'.