16 August, 2009

Maurice Berkeley and Elizabeth Despenser

Here's a post about a couple who fascinate me: Maurice, Lord Berkeley (pronounced 'Barkley'), son of the man who was Edward II's custodian in 1327 and grandson of Roger Mortimer; and Elizabeth Despenser, daughter of Hugh Despenser the Younger and great-niece of Edward II. I started writing this post a few days ago, and was amazed to see that Susan Higginbotham had had the same idea and also wrote a post about the couple - great minds and all that! Oh well, on the grounds that you can't have enough information about people who lived in the fourteenth century, here's more about them.

Maurice and Elizabeth married when they were still children in August 1338, their marriage intended at least in part to heal the wounds of their families' pasts, and it's not hard to see why. In 1322/24, Elizabeth's father and great-uncle imprisoned (either in castles or convents, depending on gender) Maurice's parents and all three of his grandparents who were still alive; Maurice's grandfather had Elizabeth's father and grandfather grotesquely executed in 1326; and, if you believe the traditional story, which I don't, plotted with Maurice's father to have Elizabeth's great-uncle the former king murdered, at the very castle where she later lived with Maurice.

According to John Smyth, historian of the Berkeley family (he wrote Lives of the Berkeleys in the early seventeenth century), Maurice was born near the end of the fourth year of Edward III's reign, or late 1330 - that is, around the time that his grandfather Roger Mortimer was executed and his father Thomas, Lord Berkeley was mysteriously telling parliament that he hadn't heard of Edward II's death in his own castle three years earlier. Thomas was somewhere in his thirties in 1330, born between 1292 and 1296 as the eldest son of Maurice, Lord Berkeley - the family alternated the names Thomas and Maurice for their eldest sons - and Eve la Zouche. Maurice (the younger)'s mother Margaret was the eldest of the eight daughters of Roger Mortimer, earl of March, and Joan de Geneville, born either on 2 May 1304 according to the Wigmore Chronicle, or sometime after 5 May 1307 - according to another source, she was under thirty when she died on 5 May 1337.

Elizabeth Despenser was one of the many children of Hugh Despenser the Younger and Eleanor de Clare, probably their youngest, and was a great-grandchild of Edward I, great-niece of Edward II, and granddaughter of two earls - Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester, and Hugh Despenser the Elder, earl of Winchester. She may have been the child born to Hugh and Eleanor shortly before 14 December 1325 when Edward II made an offering to the Virgin to give thanks for Eleanor's safe delivery, or she may have been Hugh's posthumous child, born after November 1326; at any rate, it is almost certain that she was too young to have any memories of her father. Her extreme youth at the time of Hugh's downfall proved a blessing, however, as it enabled her to escape Isabella of France's spiteful forced veiling of three of her older sisters on 1 January 1327 (see Susan Higginbotham's article for more details). Elizabeth's mother Eleanor died on 30 June 1337, when Elizabeth was probably ten or eleven, and she lived for a while at the priory of Wix in Essex and for about eighteen months in the household of her aunt and namesake, Elizabeth de Clare. She was at least three and possibly five years older than her husband.

Maurice Berkeley lost his mother when he was probably only six: Margaret Mortimer, Lady Berkeley, died on 5 March 1337, about eighteen months before her son's marriage (unfortunately - it would be great to think of Roger Mortimer's daughter and Hugh Despenser's daughter getting to know each other). Eleven days after Margaret's death, parliament finally acquitted her husband Thomas of any complicity in the death of Edward II, for which he had never been punished anyway. Maurice seems to have accompanied his father on the Scottish campaign that year and was knighted at a very young age, and supposedly spent two years as an adolescent in Granada, Spain, between 1342 and 1344 - according to the historian John Smyth, this was to prevent cohabitation with his wife Elizabeth, who was some years his senior and therefore, one supposes, much more physically and emotionally mature (and tempting?) It's also possible that Maurice accompanied the earls of Salisbury and Derby, sent to Castile to negotiate a marriage between one of Edward III's daughters and Alfonso XI's son in 1343, who took the opportunity to head off to Algeciras to fight the Moors while there. Maurice was back in England by 11 April 1344, when he and his father witnessed the grant of a messuage from his uncle, also called Maurice Berkeley, to William de Syde, Maurice's tutor.

Perhaps it isn't surprising that Maurice went on campaign to Scotland at such a young age, as Berkeley men tended to start their military careers early and finish them late - Maurice's great-grandfather Thomas, Lord Berkeley fought at Bannockburn in 1314 when he was close to seventy - and Maurice himself evidently was born to the military life: chronicler Geoffrey le Baker calls him "that hero worthy of his illustrious line" and says that he was always in the forefront of any battle. Maurice served with Edward III's eldest son Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales, who once gave him a gift of a destrier, and took part in the prince's Gascon campaign of 1355. He had the misfortune to be taken prisoner at the battle of Poitiers on 19 September 1356, when, according to the chronicler Jean Froissart, he galloped off in pursuit of a Picard squire named John de Helennes, who skewered him through both thighs with his sword. Geoffrey le Baker, however, has a very different story: Maurice "did deeds worthy of eternal praise against the French. He plunged into the Dauphin’s battalion and laid about him with his sword, not thinking of flight so long as a Frenchman remained standing in his sight…Having broken his lance, sword and other weapons on them by the strength of his blows, he was over-powered by force of numbers, and taken for ransom, horribly wounded and unconscious." Baker is probably more reliable here; Froissart names Maurice as Thomas, Lord Berkeley, confusing him with his father, and Maurice's captor was in fact named John de Bouch, not John de Helennes.

Whichever is the true story, Maurice had to pay £2000 as his ransom, and spent four years as a hostage in France, finally returning to England in the autumn of 1360 with £1080 still owing to his captor, de Bouch. He signed a notification to this effect in the Calais house of Henry of Grosmont, duke of Lancaster (formerly earl of Derby), on 28 October 1360: "Notification by John count of Sairebruche [Saarbrücken], on behalf of John de Bouch, knight, of the release of Sir Morizes de Berquelee, John de Bouch's prisoner, for a ransom of £1,080, for which Henry duke of Lancastre and Sir Francis de Hale are pledges."

Maurice's long-lived father Thomas finally died in October 1361 and Maurice succeeded as Lord Berkeley, though had evidently been left an invalid by his wounds at Poitiers and played a minimal role in politics, both local and national. His tenure as Lord Berkeley was thus brief, less than seven years, and he died at Berkeley Castle on 8 June 1368 at the age of only thirty-seven or thirty-eight, apparently of his old wounds. He had been too ill or infirm to attend the wedding of his fourteen-year-old son and heir Thomas to Margaret Lisle in Buckinghamshire the previous November, though he did buy himself a suit of cloth-of-gold to celebrate the day, and sent Thomas off in great splendour wearing "scarlet and satin and a silver girdle" and accompanied by numerous household knights and squires splendidly dressed in "fine cloth of ray furred with miniver." Maurice, Lord Berkeley was buried at St Augustine's Abbey in Bristol - now Bristol Cathedral - next to his mother Margaret Mortimer, and their tomb and effigies still exist and can be seen in this pic (scroll down to 'Elder Lady Chapel'). His widow Elizabeth Despenser was one of the four co-executors of his will, which, if it still exists, I've never seen.

Elizabeth Despenser Berkeley married her second husband Sir Maurice Wyth, knight of Somerset, sometime before May 1372. Wyth left no children, and died shortly after writing his will on 11 July 1383; he left Elizabeth "all my husbandry from the present date until the feast of St Michael to come...with all necessaries pertaining to my chamber, wardrobe, hall and also to buttery and kitchen," and "all my silver vessels of the better sort to the value of £40." Wyth's will ended "it is my last wish that my said wife hold herself contented with all bequeathed to her," as though he was anticipating that she wouldn't be. (Well, she was the daughter of Hugh Despenser the Younger, motto 'what's yours is mine', after all.) Elizabeth lived into the thirteenth year of her second cousin Richard II's reign and died on 13 July 1389, probably aged sixty-two or sixty-three, and was buried with Maurice Wyth at the church of St Botolph without Aldersgate in London. Although this church still exists, the present building dates only from the late eighteenth century.

John Smyth called Maurice Berkeley 'Maurice the Valiant', though judging by his actions at Poitiers 'the Reckless' might be more appropriate, and called his heir Thomas 'the Magnificent'. Maurice Berkeley and Elizabeth Despenser had seven children: Katherine, Elizabeth, Agnes, Thomas, James, Maurice and John, and through their sons Thomas and James are the ancestors of, ooooh, just about everyone. The eldest son Thomas, future Lord Berkeley and patron of John Trevisa, was born on 5 January 1353, married Margaret, Lady Lisle in November 1367 - she was the great-granddaughter and heir of Warin Lisle, executed by Edward II in 1322 - and died at the age of sixty-four on 13 July 1417, the same day as his mother had died twenty-eight years earlier.


Susan Higginbotham said...

I'd missed the fact that Elizabeth was one of Maurice's co-executors!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Our Maurice must have been a bit of a hothead. :)

And no wonder he died of his wounds even if years later. Medical treatment was more than a bit questionable and the wounds probably never healed well.

Kate Plantagenet said...

Great post! Poor Maurice must have been in agony for years after his wounds.

I love the thought of Thomas Berkeley as a 70 year old fighting a battle - perhaps he was bonkers (he had forgotten Edward's supposed death in his castle after all) and had dementia and thought he was 18. Either that or an extremely brave man.

Carla said...

Poor Maurice. Life as an invalid can't have been much fun. I wonder if he had some sort of deep-seated chronic infection, perhaps in the bone? Those can be difficult to shift even with modern antibiotics, and can be fatal if they eventually result in blood poisoning.

Kathryn Warner said...

Susan: I was lucky enough to find a ref to that when browsing the National Archives!

Gabriele: yes, the main reason I'm happy I don't live in the 14th century! :)

Kate: both Thomas Berkeleys, grandfather and grandson, fought at Bannockburn, the one who was nearly 70 and the one who was probably a teenager, Ed II's custodian of 1327.

Carla: that makes sense - I was wondering what it might have been that killed poor (hot-headed!) Maurice in the end.

kate Plantagenet said...

Thanks for clearing up the Thomas Berkeleys. What was that I said about dementia...?

Kathryn Warner said...

Kate: it's the Berkeleys' fault, not yours, for being so damn unimaginative with their sons' names. :-)

Jules Frusher said...

What a complicated family! But an excellent story for writers today to make a novel! Very confusing with all those Maurices and Thomas's but they all sound fascinating - and with a Despenser added into the mixture... well... lol!

Maurice sounds like a great warrior of his time though, considering foolhardy bravery seems to have been much admired! Shame he sustained such bad wounds though.

Kathryn Warner said...

Lady D: I really like the sound of Maurice and his bravery, and it certainly gained him the admiration of his contemporaries! Such a shame his wounds shortened his life, though - his father lived to be about 65 or 68 and his son to be 64, which gives a reasonable indication of what his lifespan might otherwise have been.

炒米粉Ken said...
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