10 January, 2007

Abandonment and Abduction: The Eventful Life of Alice de Lacy

[This is part two of my series 'Women of Edward II's Reign'. Part one, on Eleanor de Clare, can be read here.]

Alice de Lacy, countess of Lincoln, Salisbury, Lancaster, Leicester and Derby, was born on Christmas Day 1281 and died 2 October 1348, at the age of nearly sixty-seven. Her father, Henry de Lacy, was earl of Lincoln; her mother, Margaret Longespée, was countess of Salisbury in her own right. Margaret was the great-granddaughter and ultimate heiress of William Longespée, or Longsword, one of the illegitimate sons of Henry II (died 1189). His nickname became his descendants' family name.

Alice's two brothers died in childhood, in bizarre accidents: Edmund drowned in a well at Denbigh Castle and John fell to his death from a parapet at Pontefract Castle. Alice thus became the heiress to two earldoms, and a great prize on the marriage market. King Edward I snapped her up for his nephew Thomas of Lancaster, and they married on 28 October 1294. Alice was twelve years and ten months old, Thomas probably fifteen or sixteen. Her father Earl Henry came to an agreement with the king for the earldom of Lincoln to pass into the royal family, should Alice die childless (as in fact she did). In 1296, Thomas inherited the earldoms of Lancaster, Leicester and Derby from his father Edmund.

Unfortunately, the marriage of Alice and Thomas - which seemed such a splendid match for both - proved completely disastrous. Alice mostly lived alone in her castle of Pickering, Yorkshire, while Thomas took a host of mistresses ("He defouled a great multitude of women and noble wenches"). He fathered at least two illegitimate children, Thomas and John, but Alice remained childless. The two seemed to have detested each other.

Alice's father Earl Henry died on 5 February 1311, at the age of about sixty. Although he was a staunch enemy of Piers Gaveston - who had disrespectfully nicknamed him Monsieur Boele-Crevée or 'Mister Burst-Belly' - he was generally a moderate and a royalist, by far the oldest and most experienced of the English earls, and his death deprived England and Edward II of a respected mediator. Henry's son-in-law Thomas of Lancaster inherited all his lands, and paid homage to Edward for them shortly after Henry's death. He angered Edward by refusing to acknowledge Piers Gaveston, who - naturally - accompanied the king. Thomas of Lancaster now possessed five earldoms, and was by the richest and most powerful man in England. His annual income was a huge eleven thousand pounds.

Lancaster's inheritance of his father-in-law's lands and titles really marks the time when his relations with his cousin the king worsened considerably. From 1311 until his execution eleven years later, Lancaster remained in permanent opposition to Edward. The two men loathed and despised each other.
As is usual in the Middle Ages, married women mostly disappear from the records. With a total absence of personal letters or anything else, Alice's attitude to her husband's relentless, and ultimately fruitless, opposition to his cousin Edward II is not known. Little, in fact, is known about Alice's life, until she was involved in one of the most bizarre events of Edward II's reign....

In early May 1317, Alice was abducted from her manor of Canford, Dorset, by John de Warenne, earl of Surrey - or rather, by some of his household knights, including one named Sir Richard de St Martin - and taken to the Warenne stronghold of Castle Reigate. John de Warenne was Edward II's nephew by marriage, though only two years the king's junior; he was unhappily married to Joan of Bar, daughter of Edward II's eldest sister Eleanor, and had been trying to divorce her since 1311 in order to marry his mistress Maud de Nerford, by whom he had several children. For some reason, he held a grudge against Thomas of Lancaster and blamed him for his inability to secure a divorce. This may be because Lancaster had persuaded the Bishop of Chichester to prosecute Warenne for his adultery (Warenne was actually excommunicated in 1316).

Alice's own feelings about her abduction are uncertain. Most modern historians believe that she was not unwilling, given the unsatisfactory nature of her marriage to Lancaster; Roy Martin Haines says that "her acquiescence is highly likely". Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to cut through all the gossip, conjecture and innuendo in contemporary chronicles to get to the truth.

Alice's whereabouts from 1317 to 1322 are uncertain. I'm not certain if she and Lancaster divorced, though it seems likely. She is often assumed to have left Lancaster for another man, Eubolo Lestrange, who is inevitably described in Edward II novels as a "lame squire". However, their marriage took place more than seven years after her abduction.

Lancaster became obsessed with getting revenge on Warenne - he attacked his Yorkshire estates, including Sandal and Conisbrough castles, and a private war broke out between the two earls, which was never really settled. After his defeat at the battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322, Edward II sent Warenne to accompany Lancaster to Pontefract Castle, for his trial.

Lancaster suspected that Alice's abduction took place with Edward II's knowledge and consent, and had in fact been planned at the Council meeting which had taken place in Clarendon in 1317.
Lancaster's biographer, J. R. Maddicott, believes that Warenne was the "instrument of court policy", but it's also possible that it was the men who were dominant at Edward's court in 1317 - Roger Damory, Hugh Audley, William Montacute and the Despensers - who planned the abduction, not Edward himself. The aim was surely to prevent Lancaster's becoming reconciled with Edward, which the courtiers feared as this would mean the end of their influence over the pliable king.

Thomas of Lancaster apparently made little effort to have Alice returned to him. He probably missed her earldoms more than he missed her! After his execution, Alice - unfortunately - suffered harsh and vindictive treatment at the hands of Edward II and the two Hugh Despensers. Although the earldom of Lincoln was restored to her in December 1322, she was, according to Paul Doherty, imprisoned and threatened with execution by the Despensers; "they claimed she was the real cause of her husband's execution and should suffer the fate specially reserved for the murderers of husbands - being burnt alive."

Alice, with no protector, had no choice but to hand over many of her lands, including the extremely rich lordship of Denbigh in North Wales, which was given to the Elder Despenser. The king forced her to pay a huge indemnity of twenty thousand pounds, countless millions or hundreds of millions in modern money.

Unfortunately for Alice, the 'regime change' of 1327 brought little or no improvement to her situation. Given Queen Isabella's very public criticism of her husband and Despenser's treatment of the wives and widows of their enemies, and given also that Isabella was Alice's niece by marriage, Alice probably expected her lands to be returned to her. In fact, Isabella's lover Roger Mortimer took possession of Denbigh, and Isabella herself appropriated much of Alice's rightful inheritance.

Alice was re-married, sometime before 10 November 1324, to Sir Ebolo Lestrange, in what may have been a love-match; Ebolo described her in documents as his 'dear and loving companion' and never claimed the title of earl as he was entitled to do, in right of his wife. He was involved in Edward III's 1330 plot to bring down Isabella and Mortimer, and he and Alice were rewarded by the return of many of her estates. The early 1330s were probably the most secure and happy of Alice's adulthood; she and her second husband were the recipients of many honours, grants of land and money, and responsibility.

Ebolo died in September 1335 and was buried in Barlings Abbey, Lincolnshire. A short time later, in or before March 1336, Alice was abducted by Sir Hugh de Frene(s); historian Michael Prestwich describes the incident thus, in his The Three Edwards:

"...[I]n a dramatic scene in Bolingbroke Castle in 1336 she was again abducted, this time by Hugh de Frenes. He entered the castle with the complicity of some of her servants, and seized her in the hall. She was permitted to go up to her chamber to collect her things together, and when she came down was placed firmly on horseback. Only then did she realize the gravity of her situation, and she promptly fell off in an attempt to escape. She was put back, with a groom mounted behind her to hold her on, and led off to Somerton Castle. There, according to the record, Hugh raped her in breach of the king's peace. Since she was by then in her mid-fifties, it is likely Hugh was attracted more by her vast estates than by her physical charms. As frequently happened in medieval cases of rape, the couple soon married; it is possible that she was not a wholly unwilling victim."

It's also possible that Alice had no choice whatsoever in the matter! The abduction is a further demonstration of the dangers of being a great heiress in fourteenth-century England. A few weeks after Alice's ordeal, the teenage Margaret Audley was herself abducted by Ralph Stafford; Margaret was the sole heiress to her mother's third of the vast de Clare inheritance. Her aunts Elizabeth and Eleanor de Clare were also abducted and forcibly married, by Theobald de Verdon in 1316 and William la Zouche in 1329 respectively.

Unfortunately for Hugh de Frene (or de Freyne or de Frenes), but fortunately for poor Alice, he didn't live very long to enjoy his abducted wife's vast inheritance; he died in December 1336 or January/February 1337. Alice lived until October 1348 and was buried next to Ebolo at Barlings Abbey.

Alice is referred to in documents of Edward II's reign as "Dame Aleyse comtesse de Nicole" (Lady Alice, countess of Lincoln) or "Aleise de Lacy, countess de Nichole". In later life, she called herself 'countess of Lincoln' and 'widow of Ebolo Lestrange' but never 'countess of Lancaster' or 'widow of the earl of Lancaster/Hugh de Frene'. Her life is fascinating, and she really deserves to be better known! Anyone interested in her should read the excellent article by Linda E. Mitchell, in her Portraits of Medieval Women.

EDIT: After reading some more about Alice's later life in Edward III's reign, I've realised that I painted rather too rosy a picture of her position. In fact, Edward III assumed control of most of Alice's inheritance and gave it to William Montacute, his great friend who had helped him overthrow Mortimer. Montacute also received Alice's earldom of Salisbury. She never recovered her great lordship of Denbigh, which was also given to Montacute. A few years later, Montacute's son and Mortimer's grandson clashed over it, in a legal battle, and Edward III awarded it to Mortimer.

Poor Alice - abducted and raped, then deprived of much of her inheritance. She really illustrates the precarious position of women in the fourteenth century - even wealthy well-connected ones....


Susan Higginbotham said...

Fascinating! I wonder why Edward III treated Alice so unfairly--perhaps she was on poor terms with her brother-in-law Henry of Lancaster, who it seems could have stood up for her rights? Montacute did end up paying Alice 200 pounds for Denbigh, but he paid Eleanor de Clare 350 marks for her interst and Hugh le Despenser the even younger 1000 pounds for his--and their interests were far inferior to Alice's.

Kathryn Warner said...

*Kicks Blogger for eating my comment*

The article I mentioned, by Linda Mitchell, states that Alice's brother-in-law Henry of Lancaster appeared as a petitioner in a request for oyer and terminer a few months before her death, "as a mark of respect for the woman wronged so shamefully by his family." Unfortunately, of course, Henry died three years before Alice! I suppose Mitchell means his son.

Maybe Edward III treated her unfairly simply because he could, because she had no means of stopping him? I didn't know, or I'd forgotten, that Montacute paid the Despensers more for the 'loss' of Denbigh than he paid Alice - the poor woman couldn't catch a break!

I forgot to say in the post that Alice took a vow of chastity after Ebolo's death - which didn't stop de Frene from raping her. A letter from the Pope seems to reproach her for "allowing" it to happen. Honestly...:(

Gabriele Campbell said...

Why am I not surprised Isabella kept Alice's lands? ;)

Sarah Johnson said...

Poor Alice! Thanks for another fascinating post.

I wonder if you or anyone else has read Alesia de Lacy, Countess of Lincoln and Salisbury, a (self-published) novel by JG Ruddock. I appear to be the only one on Librarything with a copy. (As yet unread.) It's quite long and I'm curious whether it's worth the time.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Never read it, but now I'm curious!

Anonymous said...

Great article! Alice's life is the perfect example of how little women were thought of isn't it? It is great to hear her story. As a modern woman it seems extraordinary to me what those amazing women went through. I also descend from William Longspee from his descendants the Fitzhughs! Can't wait to read more. They are all fascinating. Regards

Kathryn Warner said...

Just been flicking through Weir's bio of Isabella, and she follows the story that Alice eloped with Ebulo in 1317. She says that he claimed to have slept with her before her marriage - I've heard that story before, and it's highly improbable given that Alice was 12 when she married!

Gabriele: nope, it's not really surprising, is it?! *Rolls eyes* Also not surprising how Isabella's defenders point out only that she 'received most of the Lincoln inheritance' and conveniently forget to mention that it was Alice's.

Sarah: great tip, thanks! I hadn't heard of the novel, but I see that Amazon UK has a couple of copies, so I'll probably order it.

Kate: thank you! Alice's story certainly makes me glad that I'm alive today, not 700 years ago...but it's great to research these women's lives. I find Alice particularly interesting, as there were so many strong, competent women in her family.
You have some fascinating ancestors, by the way!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Poor Alice! Emily Sarah Holt describes her as "steeped in vice and crime" and accuses her of trying to poison her first husband and poisoning her second.

Carla said...

Certainly an eventful life! It seems rather unfair that she should be accused of poisoning and crime by Emily Sarah Holt. Where did that come from?

By the way, is it known why Lincoln was referred to as 'Nichole'?

Kathryn Warner said...

*Kicks Blogger again*

Oh, poor Alice - dumped on from a great height during her lifetime, and her posthumous reputation maligned, too! I assume Holt made it up about her poisoning Thomas and Ebolo - I don't remember reading anything in 14C chronicles.

I think the name 'Nicole/Nichole' was just the way it was written in early 14C documents, which were in French - when I first saw the name, it took me a while to work out that it was 'Lincoln'! In documents of Edward II's reign, York was always 'Everwyk', Dublin was 'Dyvelin' and Westminster was often 'Westmoster' or similar (usually just 'Westm', though). Other than that, placenames were the same as they are today, with some variations in spelling, of course.

Here's some examples, from a fairly random letter of Edward in 1309: "a nos cheres & foiaux monsire Gilbert de Clare count de Gloucestre & de Hertford nostre chere neveu, monsire Henry de Lacy count de Nichole, monsire Johan de Bretaigne count de Richemund, nos cheres cousins, & monsire Edmond conte de Arundel...Nos cheres & foiaux monsire Thomas conte de Lancastre nostre chere cousin, monsire Aymar de Valence counte de Pembroke, monsire Humfray de Bohun count de Hereford’ & Essex’, & monsire Guy de Beauchamp count de Werrewyk" [the last one is Warwick]

Carla said...

Everwyk is just the Old English name for York (Eoforwic) in a different spelling - now that's got me wondering why they didn't use the Norse name Jorvik which is where 'York' is derived from, and when and how York became known as York. Fascinating :-)
Norman scribes often did strange things with English spellings. Poor men - you can sympathise with them trying to make any sense of names in a foreign language and probably in a regional dialect as well, and they probably couldn't say 'Could you spell that for me?' as not that many people were literate in the first place. I was just curious as to how the two elements of Lincoln seem to have been reversed to make Nichole.

Kathryn Warner said...

Like the scribes who misspelled 'Caer Luel' as 'Carlisle' (as far as I know, that's how Carlisle came to spelt the way it is!) And I love seeing Newcastle-upon-Tyne called 'Noef Chastel sur Tyne' in 14C texts - brilliant. :)

I don't see how the two elements of 'Lincoln' became transposed as 'Nichole' though - it's quite puzzling.

Carla said...

Indeed - though as spelling was labile, for all I know 'Lisle' might have been an acceptable alternative spelling for 'Luel' anyway!
I can sympathise with the clerk translating Newcastle - seems very reasonable. I've often been tempted to do the same with Gaelic place names. The Round Grey Hill is a lot easier to say and spell than Monadh Liath :-)

Unknown said...

Just wondering - if Alice and Lancaster were indeed divorced, did he lose control of her lands? Was this normal practice in medieval divorces?

Kathryn Warner said...

That certainly is a lot easier, Carla!

Hi, Liam! I have to confess I don't know if Lancaster lost Alice's lands. *Blushes* I couldn't see a reference to it in his biography, but I only took a cursory glance. I'll let you know when I find out! :-)

Christy K Robinson said...

Oh, naughty Hugh d'Audley, if he was a conspirator in Alice's first abduction. He got his justice when his own daughter and sole heir was abducted by Ralph Stafford. "What goes around, comes around."

aldela said...


I found your blog very interesting as I am indeed a decendant of the de Lacy family and have heard many stories about Alice throughout the years. I would love to know if you have any other information about my family as most of the information I have came from my grandmother who was tracing back our family history, but sadly she died a few years ago. I'd love to look further into it in order to complete the work she started. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Gavan Duffy said...

I just wanted to say thanks for your posts. I'm here by way of Wikipedia and can see your influence on those page's content. I appreciate the way you've been able to blend the more conversational style of your blog with the evidence based requirements (sometimes loosely held!) of Wikipedia.

It first saddened then maddened me to recognise that these centuries old attitudes to women still persist, promulgated by the entitled...

On the above conversation about place names, 'Dyvelin' doesn't surprise me at all. On the assumption y' is pronounced 'oo' it's simply the Irish Dubh Linn spelled as an English man might.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Gavan, thank you for visiting and for the kind comments!

BadWolf said...

Fascinating and sad story about Alice. Poor lass, really couldn't get a break! I just wanted to add this note about the rape as it gives an insight into how it too was sadly practical.

"Rape cases were usually adjudicated under Canon Law, and the punishment for the rapist was marriage to his victim."

What a strange and cruel world that time was!

Unknown said...

Her name was Alesia!

Kathryn Warner said...

Was it really? I've only ever seen it written in 14th-century documents as Aleise or Aleyse or Alis. When has 'Alesia' ever been an English name?

Terence Stokes said...


Where do you get the date for the marriage between Alice and Thomas?

Best wishes


Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Terence! The marriage was arranged in December 1292 (Charter Rolls 1257-1300, p. 427). The exact date of the wedding isn't known, though as far as I remember, the autumn of 1294 is the approx date given in JR Maddicott's bio of Thomas of Lancaster. He might have got it from Somerville's History of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Bruce Trewin said...

Bolingbroke has been the home of several interesting women. Lucia (Lucy) of Bolingbroke also had 3 husbands and retained the Honour of Bolingbroke as heiress of Turold (Thorold) of Bolingbroke.

Claire Thomas said...

What a fascinating biography! She really couldn't catch a break.

How was LeStrange involved in Edward III's plot to overthrow Mortimer? I'd love to know more about that. Thank you!

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Claire! I love Alice, she was amazing, and what a life!

I'm not sure if he was involved in the arrest at Nottingham, but he was one of the men Edward III assigned to bring Isabella to him at Windsor for Christmas 1330, which implies that he was trusted by the king and in his favour at the time.

Anonymous said...

The countess' name in contemporary records in the vernacular is Aleise or Alayse or Alys. Alesia is the Latin form of her name and should be avoided. Much like Matilda is simply the Latin form of the contemporary name Maud. Aleise's 3rd husband's name, by the way, was Eble or Ebles, either form is fine. Ebolu/Ebolo are Latin forms and should be avoided. Best always, Douglas Richardson