18 October, 2007

Women of Edward II's reign: Elizabeth de Clare

Continuing my series on women of Edward II's reign, here's a post on his niece Elizabeth de Clare, founder of Clare College, Cambridge - also known as Elizabeth de Burgh, her first husband's name. I'm focusing more here on her life during Edward II's reign, as her later life from 1330 to 1360 is very well-documented (and this is an Edward II blog...;) Elizabeth lived to be sixty-five and was widowed three times by the age of twenty-six.

Elizabeth was born, probably in Tewkesbury, on 16 September 1295, as the fourth and youngest child of Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and Edward I's daughter Joan of Acre. Her siblings were Gilbert, Eleanor, and Margaret. Elizabeth's father Gilbert died on 7 December 1295 at the age of fifty-two, when Elizabeth was only a few weeks old. Her mother Joan was then twenty-three, made a secret marriage to Ralph de Monthermer in early 1297, and bore his first child in October of that year. In addition to her three full siblings, Elizabeth had two half-sisters and two half-brothers from her mother's marriage to Monthermer, and two half-sisters from her father's first marriage to Alice de Lusignan - the elder of whom, Isabel, was some thirty-three and a half years her senior.

Little is known of the childhood of the de Clare sisters. Elizabeth probably attended the weddings of her sisters Eleanor and Margaret to Hugh Despenser the Younger in May 1306 and Piers Gaveston in November 1307 respectively, and was eleven when her mother Joan died in April 1307. Her uncle Edward II acceded to the throne shortly afterwards. Unlike her sister Eleanor, Elizabeth was never close to her uncle, though she was a good friend of her aunt by marriage Queen Isabella, who was probably very close to the same age.

On 30 September 1308, just two weeks after her thirteenth birthday, Elizabeth married John de Burgh at Waltham Abbey, in the presence of her Uncle Edward, and probably Queen Isabella. John was the eldest son and heir of Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, though little else is known about him. He was probably born sometime between 1285 and 1290, and became his father's heir when his elder brother Walter died in 1304. At the same time, Elizabeth's seventeen-year-old brother Gilbert married John's sister Maud (or Matilda). He had been betrothed to one of her sisters, but his agents reported that Maud was prettier! There were many de Burgh sisters: the eldest, Elizabeth, was Queen of Scots, and others were Countesses of Louth, Kildare and Desmond. John Multon, the son of yet another de Burgh sister, was betrothed to Elizabeth de Clare's niece Joan Gaveston.

Presumably, John de Burgh returned to Ireland shortly after the wedding. Elizabeth, almost certainly because of her extreme youth, remained in England. I'm not certain, but it seems that she lived at Amesbury Priory in Wiltshire with her Aunt Mary, Edward II's sister, a nun there. Elizabeth left England on 15 October 1309, aged fourteen and one month, to embark on married life in another country. Coincidentally, her sister Margaret did spend the period 1308 to 1309 in Ireland - in exile with her husband Piers Gaveston.

As so often with medieval heirs who died in the lifetimes of their fathers, John de Burgh is very obscure, and as so often with medieval married women, Elizabeth mostly disappears from the records. Her father-in-law the Earl of Ulster granted them lands and manors in, among other places, Antrim, Coleraine and Portrush, and a few manors in Connacht and Munster. Elizabeth founded an Augustinian friary in Ballinrobe, now in County Mayo.

John and Elizabeth's only child, William Donn ('Brown', i.e., a reference to his hair colour), was born on 17 September 1312, the day after Elizabeth's seventeenth birthday, two months before his cousin Edward III was born, and three months after the murder of Elizabeth's brother-in-law Gaveston. John de Burgh died on 18 June 1313 in Galway, in obscure circumstances, though it's possible that he was murdered by his own retainers. Elizabeth was a widow at seventeen. She would have had to adjust to the fact that she would not now become Countess of Ulster, and a further huge change in her life came a year later, when her brother Gilbert was killed at Bannockburn. Although his widow Maud claimed to be pregnant for nearly three years afterwards - I wonder what Elizabeth thought of the antics of her sister-in-law twice over - Gilbert's three sisters were joint heiresses to his vast lands and fortune.

In late 1315, Edward II ordered her back to England. Perhaps he already had a husband in mind for her; as she was a rich heiress, naturally he was determined that she should marry a man he could trust, as her lands would give her husband a great deal of power and influence (Eleanor de Clare's lands, which her husband Despenser used as his route to power, being a clear example).
In early 1316, while Edward II was at Parliament at Lincoln, Theobald de Verdon abducted Elizabeth from Bristol Castle where Edward had accommodated her, and married her, on 4 February 1316. He was seventeen years her senior, born September 1278, and had previously been married to Roger Mortimer's sister Maud, who died in 1312 (I've written a post on their daughters).

Whether Elizabeth consented to the marriage or not is uncertain, but it's probable that she did. Verdon was Justiciar of Ireland and they may have arranged their marriage while there, as Verdon later told Edward II. There's no record of Elizabeth claiming otherwise.

Edward II was furious, and fined them a large sum (for the king to fine the nobility for marrying without his permission was perfectly normal in the Middle Ages). No doubt, a lot of faces fell when the news was announced; an incredibly eligible heiress was off the marriage market.

However, Elizabeth was soon back on it. Verdon died less than six months after their illicit wedding, on 27 July 1316, leaving three daughters by Maud Mortimer and a pregnant Elizabeth. She gave birth to her daughter Isabella at Amesbury Priory in March 1317, eight months after Verdon's death. At the time of her second widowhood, she was still only twenty.

Edward II was determined to marry her to his current favourite, Sir Roger Damory - indeed, this may have been his intention as early as 1315. Verdon's funeral took place in September 1316; even before this, Edward was writing to Elizabeth, trying to cajole her into marrying Damory, even describing her as his 'favourite niece', which certainly wasn't true - in fact, it was a bare-faced lie - in an attempt to make her do what he wanted.

Edward II and Damory visited Elizabeth at Amesbury during her pregnancy to put further pressure on her to marry, as did Queen Isabella, most probably. With her Aunt Mary the nun adding her voice to the chorus, Elizabeth gave in and agreed to marry the man who may have been her uncle's lover. In fact, she had little choice. Rich noblewomen were incredibly vulnerable to abduction and forced marriage (not only Elizabeth, but her sister Eleanor, her sister Margaret's daughter Margaret Audley, and Alice de Lacy suffered this fate between 1316 and 1336) and to remain unmarried was unthinkable. Her brother was dead and the only man powerful enough to protect her was her uncle, Edward II. The only alternative would have been to renounce her inheritance and take the veil - and while her brothers-in-law Despenser and Hugh Audley would have been delighted to see their share of the inheritance dramatically increased, at twenty-one Elizabeth had no wish to shut herself away in a convent. Perhaps she could have taken a vow of chastity - as she did a few years later - so that she couldn't be forced into marriage, but no doubt she was unwilling to further antagonise her uncle.

When Elizabeth and Damory's wedding took place is, oddly, unknown. Her sister Margaret married Hugh Audley at Windsor on 28 April 1317, and probably Elizabeth's took place around the same time. She gave birth on 21 March, and I would assume that she married as soon as her churching was over, forty days after childbirth, that is, 30 April. It's even possible, though unlikely, that the ceremony took place while she was still pregnant with Verdon's daughter. She and Damory were certainly married by 3 May, when a grant of land was made to "Roger Damory and Elizabeth his wife, the king's kinswoman".

The de Clare lands were finally partitioned in November 1317. As was customary, the sisters' husbands took control of the lands, and performed homage to Edward II for them. Elizabeth and Damory received Usk and Caerleon in South Wales, lands in Ireland, many manors in East Anglia, and other lands in Kent, Essex, Norfolk, Dorset, Hertfordshire, Somerset, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. Edward II continued to shower Damory with gifts of lands, money and wardship.

Elizabeth and Damory's only child, Elizabeth, was born a little over a year after the marriage, shortly before 23 May 1318. Although Elizabeth was only twenty-two and would remain married to Damory for almost four more years, this would be her last child, and it's possible that she had a very difficult birth and was unable to have more children. Damory very probably had several illegitimate sons, but little Elizabeth would be his only heir. Even if their marriage was unhappy, Damory - like all medieval landowners - needed a son, so it's hard to imagine that he didn't perform the necessary Marital Duty, his relationship with Edward II notwithstanding.

Damory's date of birth is unknown, but he was a few years older than Elizabeth; his father Robert died in 1285. Whether he was married before Elizabeth is unknown, but seems likely, given that he was over thirty in 1317. However, he had no other legitimate children. He was far below Elizabeth in rank, though he had been knighted in 1306, and served in the retinue of Elizabeth's brother Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester - so Elizabeth may have met him before.

Damory was a younger son, with no hope of inheriting his father's lands; the Vita Edwardi Secundi calls him a "poor and needy knight who by his industry and valour had received the king's special favour", though it's clear that his rapid rise to a very influential position at court by 1317 had little to do with his "valour" and everything to do with his personal relationship with Edward II. Elizabeth's biographer Frances Underhill describes Damory harshly but accurately as "a grasping, reckless mediocrity with a petty crook's mentality" - proving once again that Edward II was a desperately poor judge of character. After Gilbert's death at Bannockburn, Damory transferred to Edward II's service, apparently because he had come to the king's attention by his bravery during the battle. Certainly he was an excellent soldier, which was about the only thing he had going for him (except in Edward II's eyes).

After 1318, Elizabeth's brother-in-law Despenser began his rise to power via Edward II's wayward affections; despite the fact that Edward had known him most of his life and had never shown the slightest hint of liking for him before, Despenser somehow managed to make Edward infatuated with him. Damory was slowly pushed out of favour, though he accompanied Edward to France in the summer of 1320. Despenser's land-grabbing is well-known, though Damory and Elizabeth weren't his victims at first. However, Despenser's actions in Wales threatened and alarmed Damory; as the Vita states, he "could have no affection for his deadly rival". Damory was still on good enough terms with Edward II to be allowed to hunt in royal forests in January 1321, but by March had moved into a position of opposition to Edward and alliance with the Marcher lords, which led to his death a year later. Whether Elizabeth supported his actions or not, or to what extent she might have encouraged him, is not of course known.

In March 1322, Damory was captured at Tutbury, Staffordshire, and sentenced to death for his part in the Marcher campaign. Edward II respited the death sentence, but Damory died anyway on 12 March, of wounds sustained in fighting against the royal army. Edward allowed him to be buried honourably at Ware in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth de Clare was a widow for the third time at the age of twenty-six; she was captured at her castle of Usk a few days before Damory's death, and imprisoned at Barking Abbey, with her children. By her uncle. She heard of Damory's death while at Barking.

Later that year, Elizabeth was freed and her lands restored to her - unlike her sister Margaret, who had pleaded successfully with Edward II for the life of her husband Hugh Audley, and spent the rest of his reign imprisoned at Sempringham Priory. However, Elizabeth's troubles were far from over. Hugh Despenser's appalling treatment of wealthy widows, and more particularly his sister-in-law Elizabeth, is well-documented elsewhere, so I won't go into it here, except to reiterate that Edward II's toleration and even encouragement of Despenser's treatment of his (Edward's) own niece reflects extremely badly on him. Despenser's quasi-legal chicanery in depriving Elizabeth of much of her rightful inheritance was typical of his methods, and it says much about Elizabeth's strength of character and determination that she did her best to stand up to him and her uncle.

Edward invited Elizabeth to spend Christmas 1322 with him at York. However, it soon became clear that this was not out of a desire for her company, or to restore her dower and jointure lands, as she hoped. Edward's aim was to try to force Elizabeth to exchange her lordship of Usk (worth £770 a year) for Despenser's lordship of Gower (worth £300 a year; Despenser's determination to gain control of Gower in 1321 was the main cause of the Despenser War). Elizabeth fled York in fear, but some of her council members were arrested, and she returned. Edward told her that if she refused the exchange, "she will hold nothing of him" - a potent threat by a man so infatuated with one person he was prepared to disinherit his own niece and anyone else who got in Despenser's way, a man who had lost all sense of reality and fairness, a man consumed by harsh vindictiveness. Edward II's behaviour - towards Elizabeth, and many other people - was shocking and completely unjustifiable. And it's worth noting that in 1324, Elizabeth also lost Gower to Despenser. Even so, she suffered far less than many others in and after 1322, perhaps because of Edward's remembered fondness for Damory, perhaps because Elizabeth's powerful father-in-law the Earl of Ulster was still alive. She never lost her English lands, presumably because Hugh Despenser wasn't much interested in owning lands in England, instead concentrating his efforts on his empire-building in Wales.

Understandably, Elizabeth supported the 1326 invasion of Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and may have had foreknowledge of when it would come, as in May 1326 she took the risk of writing out an indictment of Edward II and Despenser, which she kept hidden; had it been discovered, she may well have been arrested for treason. She described Despenser's dealings with her and Edward's acquiesence in them, though most of her venom was directed at Despenser, who by then, aware that an invasion was coming, was offering her compensation, a "ploy to deceive the people", as Elizabeth wrote.

Her lordship of Usk was restored to her in February 1327, by her friend Queen Isabella; in this, she was luckier than Isabella's aunt Alice de Lacy, some of whose lands were granted to Mortimer. After 1330, until her death in 1360, Elizabeth lived the life of a very great lady, travelling between her vast estates, helping the poor, being visited by a large number of noble men and women. After 1330/31, she appears to have had no contact with her sister Eleanor, Despenser's wife - perhaps inevitably. Although she and their other sister Margaret sometimes wrote to each other, there's little evidence of visits, or closeness - surprisingly, as Margaret was also a Despenser victim. Elizabeth cared for their half-brother Edward de Monthermer for years, arranged his funeral, and had a strong sense of family: clearly not a vindictive woman, she was close to her Despenser nieces and nephews and did a great deal for them, not taking out her hatred of their father on them. In December 1327, when she attended Edward II's funeral, she left her young daughters in the care of Isabella Hastings - Despenser's sister.

Elizabeth always used her first husband's name, de Burgh, through her two subsequent marriages and her widowhood (however, it's Clare College, not Burgh College, at Cambridge). In her will, she calls herself Elizabeth de Burg, dame de Clare (meaning the manor of Clare in Suffolk, not her maiden name) and a letter of her brother-in-law Despenser in 1322 calls her la dame de Bourg. She became a grandmother in the early 1330s, still only in her mid-thirties. By the time she died in 1360, she was a great-grandmother several times over - one of her great-grandchildren was Philippa of Clarence, granddaughter of Edward III. In later life, one of her most trusted confidants for many years was Nicholas Damory, who may have been Roger Damory's nephew, and a young man named Roger Damory lived in her household from 1331 to 1336 - perhaps another nephew, though he may have been Damory's illegitimate son. On 12 March every year, the anniversary of Damory's death, Elizabeth gave out alms and food to the poor. She didn't do this on the anniversaries of her other husbands' deaths, though maybe that's only because she thought Damory's soul needed more help!

Two of Elizabeth's children pre-deceased her: William, Earl of Ulster, was killed in 1333, and her daughter Isabella de Verdon died in 1349, perhaps of plague. Even Elizabeth Damory didn't outlive her by long. All of Elizabeth's children have modern-day descendants.

Lady Elizabeth de Clare died on 4 November 1360, at the age of sixty-five, and was buried at the friary of The Minoresses Without Aldgate, London. Her will is dated 25 September of that year, and is extremely long - she left bequests to many dozens of people. She called her husbands Mons'r John de Bourgs, Mons'r Theobaud de Verdon, Mons'r Roger Dammory, mes Seignours ("my lords"), and left her daughter Elizabeth Damory a carriage, a bed of green velvet striped with red and minever-lined coverlets, and hangings of tawny worsted decorated with blue popinjays and cockerels.

Very much is known about Elizabeth's later life, thanks to the survival of many of her household records, and anyone interested in her - or in the lives of medieval noblewomen in general - should read Frances A. Underhill's excellent biography For Her Good Estate: The Life of Elizabeth de Burgh.


Anonymous said...

Oh...what a wonderful LONG post. I love hearing about medieval women...you have real skill to create 'faces' for these mostly 'faceless' women.

Does the document Elizabeth wrote about Gaveston still exist? I would love to see what she said!

I am going to get her biography...it sounds like a great read. Thank you for all the wonderful info.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Kate! It's a lot shorter than it was originally - I got carried away and thought I was writing a PhD thesis. ;)

Unfortunately the Underhill bio is very expensive, but maybe you can find it in a library.

Elizabeth's indictment of Despenser was published in Speculum in 1955 ('A Protest against the Despensers') but only in the French original - as far as I know, there's no English translation, though parts of it are quoted in Underhill, and in Michael Prestwich's Plantagenet England 1225 to 1360.

Carla said...

"a grasping, reckless mediocrity with a petty crook's mentality" - proving once again that Edward II was a desperately poor judge of character.
What do you suppose Edward saw in his favourites? They presumably must have had some attractive qualities to catch his interest in the first place, before infatuation makes blind.

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla: that's an interesting question. I would think they were charming, and amusing company, and perhaps flattered and sucked up to Ed, who I imagine was desperate to be loved and liked and needed. Perhaps they built Ed up, telling him what he wanted to hear, maybe something about him not being a dreadful king and general, just unlucky, and it was all his enemies' fault...And most likely there was an element of sexual/romantic attraction, though whether acted on or not, I don't know.

I'm particularly fascinated by Despenser's ascent into Ed's affections, given that Ed had known him for many years and apparently hadn't found anything especially likeable about him before. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during their conversations...

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post! But didn't Elizabeth de Clare found the Poor Clares (ducks)?

Actually, there is an English translation of Elizabeth's indictment against Despenser in Jennifer Ward's Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 1066-1500. It's a great book--it translates a lot of primary source documents into English.

Kathryn Warner said...

Shoot, how did I leave out the Poor Clares?! *Giggles*.

Oops, I forgot the Ward book. *Smacks forehead*. It's so difficult to find these days - not available on Amazon or Abebooks. My local university library claims to have a copy, but it's never on the shelf...agh.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Yeah, I've been thinking what a nice birthday present the Ward would make, and I can't find it for sale! Luckily, the libraries here have copies, but they're often circulating.

You can get online access to it for a fee from Medieval Sources Online:

Unknown said...

Great post! What an interesting life she led! Being widowed three times by the age of 26 must've been unusual even for those days!

"quasi-legal chicanery " - love that phrase! :D

Kathryn Warner said...

Susan: that's a great site, really helpful. I'm debating whether I want to pay £76 for a year's access - on the whole, I think I'm too cheap. ;) But maybe...

Liam: I have a horrible feeling I might have lifted that phrase from a book, but I can't remember which one! :)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh, to be a fly on the wall during their conversations...

Yeah, it's high time someone gets that time travel thing working. I have a few questions I want to ask Arminius, and I definitely want to know why Cartimandua divorced Venutius and married his armour bearer instead. Those guys didn't even leave some letters behind. ;)

Kathryn Warner said...

Tsk, how inconsiderate! :)

Anonymous said...

I own Underhill's biography. :)

Something I noted was that Roger d'Amory had served Elizabeth's brother Gilbert de Clare. His bravery at the battle of Bannockburn caught Edward's eye, and he presumably had accompanied Gilbert de Clare to that battle. Perhaps it was Roger who put the idea in Edward's head to marry him to the widowed Clare sister...

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Mipp! The Underhill bio is really good, isn't it?

Yes, Damory (or d'Amory) served Gloucester for several years - he's first mentioned in 1306, when Gloucester granted him the manor of Eaton. Bartholomew Badlesmere, who became politically important in the years after 1314, also served in Gloucester's retinue, but contrary to Damory, was accused of cowardice and abandoning Gloucester during the battle - I don't know if that's true, though, or an unfair accusation.

The contemporary Vita Edwardi Secundi describes Damory as a "poor and needy knight", and indeed he was a younger son with no chance of inheriting his father's estates. So his marriage to Elizabeth, granddaughter of a king and very rich, was a stunningly good match for him, and I'm sure he worked very hard to persuade Ed to arrange it. ;)

Ed visited Elizabeth at Amesbury in Feb or March 1317, when she was very pregnant with de Verdon's daughter, to talk her into the marriage.

SJR said...

Great post on Elizabeth de Clare!!! There are many descendants of Elizabeth de Clare by all three of her children in the U.S. via immigrants of aristocratic descent. . . My parents were descendants of two immigrants to Virginia from the English gentry who had documented descent from Elizabeth de Clare. My father's ancestor William Farrar was descendant of Elizabeth's first marriage to John de Burgh and my mother's, Diana Skipwith Dale, from Elizabeth's 2nd marriage to Theobald de Verdun. She is one of my favorite people and you did a wonderful job presenting her life and character. She was very devoted to family and we have other documentation of contact with her nieces and nephews, some of whom were also ancestral to my parents. She was an interesting woman and, if I had known her, would have had the utmost respect for her I think. Thanks for this great post!

Anonymous said...

Was she also married to a john demaltbie and have a son called Thomas demaltbie. Its in my family tree.

Kathryn Warner said...

No, she didn't, or I would have mentioned it in the post. She can't be in your family tree married to someone called 'de Maltbie'.