20 April, 2018

The Abduction of Eleanor Despenser, 1329

Recently I wrote a post about the abduction of Edward II's niece Elizabeth de Burgh née de Clare from Bristol Castle in February 1316, and a while ago, one about the abduction of Elizabeth's niece Margaret Audley from Thaxted, Essex, c. February 1336. Margaret Audley was the sole heir of her mother, Margaret de Clare, Elizabeth's sister. Their rich inheritance from their brother Gilbert, earl of Gloucester, proved a poisoned chalice for the three de Clare sisters. Elizabeth was abducted, Margaret's daughter and heir was abducted, and Eleanor Despenser née de Clare was abducted, and like the others, forcibly married. Here's a post about it.

Eleanor de Clare married Hugh Despenser the Younger on 26 May 1306, and they had been married for twenty and a half years and had had at least ten children together when Hugh was executed on 24 November 1326. Eleanor was still only thirty-four when she was widowed, and was imprisoned at the Tower of London until February 1328. She was restored to her own lands that year, including the rich lordship of Glamorgan. Little is known about Eleanor's life for the next few months, but shortly before 26 January 1329 she was living at Hanley Castle in Worcestershire (her own castle) when she was abducted by the Leicestershire baron William la Zouche, lord of Ashby. The abduction reached the ears of the chancery clerks by 26 January 1329, when they recorded it on the Patent Roll. Eleanor and William married, though whether Eleanor consented to the marriage is, as with her sister Elizabeth thirteen years later, unknown.

William la Zouche used the name of his mother, Joyce la Zouche; his father was called Robert Mortimer and his elder brother (d. 1304) was Hugh Mortimer of Richard's Castle, Herefordshire. William's date of birth is not known but was probably in the 1270s, so he was quite a bit older than Eleanor Despenser, born October 1292. His first wife was Alice Beauchamp née Toeni, dowager countess of Warwick (d. 1324), widow of Sir Thomas Leyburne (d. 1307) and Guy Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (d. 1315). Guy Beauchamp was the maternal uncle of Eleanor's first husband Hugh Despenser the Younger. By her first marriage Alice Toeni was the mother of the great Kent heiress Juliana Hastings née Leyburne, countess of Huntingdon (1303/4-67), and by her second the mother of the earl of Warwick, Thomas Beauchamp (1314-69) and of several other children. She had two children with William la Zouche, Alan and Joyce, as well. Eleanor Despenser and William la Zouche had one child together, William the younger, born around 1330 and a monk of Glastonbury Abbey, and still alive in 1381. (Three of Eleanor's Despenser children, Joan, Gilbert and Elizabeth, also lived into the 1380s.) Eleanor was in her late thirties when her youngest child William was born, and the elder William was in his fifties.

The really strange thing about William la Zouche's abduction of Eleanor Despenser in early 1329 is that a baron called John Grey of Rotherfield began claiming her as his wife as well, and persisted in this claim for more than four years. In fact, Eleanor Despenser's abduction from Hanley Castle was recorded twice on the Patent Roll, once as Hugh Despenser's widow and once as Grey of Rotherfield's wife, the chancery clerks evidently not realising that what seemed to be two women abducted from the same place at the same time was in fact just one person. John Grey was born in October 1300 and was eight years Eleanor's junior, and already a widower with one son. He took his claim to be married to Eleanor to the papal court in Avignon but lost and finally gave up, but not before his quarrel with William la Zouche over Eleanor became so acrimonious that he came close to drawing a dagger on la Zouche in Edward III's presence and was arrested. He later became a Knight of the Garter and steward of Edward III's household, and married his second wife and had two more sons, so in the end didn't do too badly despite missing out on marriage to the wealthy and partly royal Eleanor Despenser. I don't know why he claimed to be Eleanor's husband: perhaps she'd had an affair with him, or they'd made an informal arrangement to wed which was foiled by William la Zouche.

I doubt there was much if any romance involved in la Zouche's abduction of Eleanor. (Or in John Grey of Rotherfield's determination to be married to her, for that matter.) While Eleanor's lands were in the king's hands during her imprisonment in the Tower, la Zouche had been appointed as keeper of Glamorgan, and by marrying her he would become Glamorgan's outright owner. He was firmly on Queen Isabella's side in 1326/27 and was one of the men who captured Eleanor's husband Hugh and her uncle Edward II in South Wales on 16 November 1326, and was appointed as the leader of the siege of Caerphilly Castle in 1326/27 with Eleanor's son Huchon Despenser inside. I'm not sure that "hi honey, it's la Zouche of Ashby, the man who besieged your teenage son for months with a view to handing him over to the woman who had your husband disembowelled and three of your little daughters forcibly veiled, so that she could have him executed. Will you marry me?" was likely to go down particularly well with Eleanor. Numerous large debts acknowledged by William la Zouche recorded on the Close Roll in the early 1330s indicate that, despite having forced himself into a share of the vast de Clare wealth, he was living well beyond his means, and despite being appointed keeper of the peace in Wales and the Marches that decade, Edward III had to warn la Zouche to cease his bitter quarrel there with Hugh Audley (husband of Eleanor's sister Margaret and father of Margaret Audley, abducted and forcibly married to Ralph Stafford in 1336). Eleanor's first husband Hugh Despenser the Younger had a supreme talent for quarrelling with people, and it seems that her second shared the same quality.

Whatever the private nature of Eleanor Despenser and William la Zouche's relationship after he abducted her, she had no way to stop being married to him, so had to find some way of living with him and accepting what he had done. By the time they both died in 1337, it seems that Eleanor had at least come to terms with her second marriage, whether she had consented to it or not. Zouche appointed her as one of the executors of his will before he died in February 1337, though as it was the norm for men to do so, I'm not sure this necessarily tells us anything about his feelings for his wife. Eleanor buried la Zouche at Tewkesbury Abbey, where her first husband, brother, father, grandfather and numerous other de Clare ancestors were interred and which stood on her own lands, and this probably does give more insight into her feelings and might indicate that she and William la Zouche had made a decent stab at things over the previous eight years. But the abductions and forced marriages of two of the three de Clare sisters and the daughter and heir of the third had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with an opportunistic grab for wealth and influence by three men with few scruples. The abducted women basically had no comeback; even if their abductors were temporarily imprisoned, they were now their husbands and the women had no way to stop them being their husbands, so ultimately had little choice but to accept the situation. Being a woman of means in the Middle Ages was, in many ways, an unenviable position, and Eleanor Despenser, Elizabeth de Burgh and Margaret Stafford née Audley were far from being the only women abducted for their wealth in the fourteenth century.


Caroline Newark said...

William Zouche was the same William Zouche who was involved in the Earl of Kent's plot, wasn't he.?

Kathryn Warner said...

Yes, the same one. It's a little confusing though as there were several other William Zouches around!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I hadn't realised Eleanor was forced to marry 'that' William la Zouche! It makes the whole thing even more appalling. Also, John Grey is total news to me so thanks for that too.

On a different note entirely, I visited Mont Orgeuil (aka Gorey Castle, Jersey) at the weekend where they had a display of the names of archers etc who were stationed there in the fourteenth century. It made me smile to see all the William / Guillaumes and Jean / Johns vastly outnumbering any other names. If you're ever in Jersey, it's a fantastic castle to visit.


Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Jo! I've never been to Jersey, but the castle sounds great and I'd love to see it. You probably saw my post a few weeks ago about Edward II's archers - eight of them, and four were called John. :-D No wonder there were so many nicknames for men called John.

sami parkkonen said...

Medieval England was not a happy place for women of upper classes. They were used and abused and seen as pieces in a game of social advancement or wealth etc. I read years ago from some book that commoners married more often out of love than upper classes.

That being said, it does not mean that noble women could not find love in marriages. Just look at Isabella and Edward. Before it all went down hill, they at least appeared to be in love, so much so that the French saw Edward rescue Isabella from burning building in the nude. Quite a few kings would have wanted to appear Naturel but obviously Edward was thinking about his wife more than appearances.

Anonymous said...

Is this an unusually high number of abductions for one family? Or, was it something special in light of the great wealth involved. Also, did the church ever do anything? I have read that, by the 1470s, such marriages could be annulled, but I don't know when the church authorized such annulments.


Kathryn Warner said...

I would think that it was most unusual, yes - because of the immense wealth of the de Clare inheritance (Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester was the third richest man in England after Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster).

Phyllis Eddings said...

Have you found that abductions occurred more frequently when "weaker" kings were on the throne? Were they less likely to defy kings who were more respected/feared?

Kathryn Warner said...

No - three of the four abductions I've written about (Eleanor Despenser in 1329, Margaret Audley in 1336 and Alice de Lacy in 1336) occurred during Edward III's reign. The criminal gangs the Folvilles and Coterels were also active during Edward III's reign, for example.

Alan Hedley said...

I think Zouche may have been favored more than it looks by the Dispensers,William de Ercalewe(Hedley) and Eleanor Burnell. Joyce Zouche was the brother of Alan de Zouche who had lost his Scottish lands after his loyalty to Edward first. He was married to Elena de Quincy daughter of roger Earl of Winchester. The Quinceys where close to the Hedleys via a Peverell line. It was William de Ercalewes ancester Pagan de Hedley who was given Tranent in 1170 by
Robert de Quincy Justiciar of Lothian. The Quinceys are also connected with the Despencers.
Ferrers and Gray also crop up. Our man Ercalewe(Hedley) was probably connected to the Despencers not just via the Burnells but via Eleonors great grandfather Hugh Despencer Sheriff of Shropshire and Staffordshire (1223). William de Hedley was deputy sheriif for William Fitzalan 2nd (1190-1201). It is possible that he then went on to serve Despencer. Our man william de Ercalewe(Hedley) was Sheriff (1326 a year to remember). I think Zouche may have been torn between loyalty to Mortimer and to the Desoencers. Taking his mothers name may give us a clue. If only I could get that spare part to my time machine.