09 May, 2019

Elizabeth Comyn and the Despensers

The Scottish noblewoman and heiress Elizabeth Comyn, later Talbot, born 1 November 1299, died 20 November 1372 - see here and here for my previous posts about her - is arguably the most high-profile of the many victims of the two Hugh Despensers' extortion and land grabs between 1322 and 1326. Here's a post about Elizabeth and the actions the Despensers took against her.

Talking of the Despensers, I've had an article about Hugh the Younger published on the History Hit website; see here.

Elizabeth was one of the three co-heirs, with her older sister Joan, countess of Atholl (d. June/July 1326), and their cousin John, Lord Hastings (d. January 1325), of their uncle Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, after Pembroke died childless on 23 June 1324. Elizabeth married her husband Sir Richard Talbot, a 'very poor' English knight, to quote Edward II, sometime before 9 July 1326. [1] After the downfall of the two Hugh Despensers, Elizabeth and Richard stated that the two Hughs captured her at the manor of Kennington in Surrey, which Edward II gave to Hugh Despenser the Elder on 4 April 1322 though by rights it should have belonged to his own niece Elizabeth de Burgh. [2] Elizabeth Comyn stated that she was captured in c. April 1324, i.e. even before the death of her uncle the earl of Pembroke in June that year. She was held at Woking and then at Pirbright five miles from Woking, two other Surrey manors in the possession of Hugh the Elder, for a year until 20 April 1325, when she finally caved in. Elizabeth gave Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire to Hugh the Younger and her manor of Painswick in Gloucestershire to Hugh the Elder, and also released her manor of Swanscombe in Kent to Edward II himself. This grant to the king was witnessed by the two Hugh Despensers, Hugh the Elder's long-term adherent Sir Ingelram Berenger and Hugh the Younger's cousin Sir Giles Beauchamp (who was a knight of the royal household), and on 5 July 1325 Edward II gave Swanscombe to the two Hughs: "Gift, for good service rendered, to Hugh le Despenser earl of Winchester and Hugh his son of the manor of Swannescomp, co. Kent." [3]

Goodrich Castle was in Hugh the Younger's possession at the time of his downfall in November 1326, and the grants of Goodrich, Painswick and Swanscombe are recorded in Edward II's reign, not afterwards, so this part of Elizabeth's story is definitely true. Elizabeth also claimed that even after the grant of her three manors to the Despensers and the king in April 1325, Hugh and Hugh kept her in captivity for another six months or so, meaning that she was finally released in or about October 1325. [4Edward II's itinerary places him in Pirbright, Surrey on 6 and 9 August 1324, so assuming that Elizabeth was already being held there as she stated later, he must have known that she was there and what was going on. An entry on the Close Roll dated 8 March 1325 states that Elizabeth recognised an impossibly huge debt of £10,000, which in modern terms is something like £20 million, to Hugh Despenser the Elder. [5] This clearly reveals that some decidedly funny business was going on. Edward III, on 27 October 1330 just a few days after he took over control of his own kingdom, pardoned Elizabeth "of diverse recognisances made to the Despensers in the late reign while she was unmarried, on trustworthy evidence that she was compelled to become bound therein by force and duress." [6]

A petition presented by Elizabeth and her husband Richard Talbot at an uncertain date, probably in 1327 or not long afterwards, states that the two Hugh Despensers "came evilly, by their false counsel, [and] procured the king to take Elizabeth and put her in ward and retain her inheritance against the law of the land; and then deliver it to themselves. So they bought her to Purefrithe [Pirbright], and there imprisoned her, and threatened her of her body, and made her to understand that she should never go out of her prison or have her inheritance if she did not make them a recognisance of her right to the manors of Castle Goderiche and Painswick." Another two petitions by Elizabeth and Richard on the same matter also still exist, and one states that Elizabeth "remained thus in prison and, for the fear that she had of her body, she was made to say that she vouchsafed the manor of Swannescombe to the king." One petition says that "she was held to them in £20,000", and her acknowledgement of a debt of £10,000 to Hugh the Elder is certainly recorded in March 1325. [7] Presumably there was another debt of £10,000 to Hugh the Younger, though it's not recorded that I've been able to find. It's, unfortunately, absolutely clear that Edward II was involved in this appalling situation up to his neck, even though the Talbots' petitions held back from criticising him personally and made out that he was a passive victim of the Despensers; they were, after all, presenting their petitions to Edward's son.

On 8 March 1328 in the second year of Edward III's reign, a commission was given to four men to investigate Elizabeth's claims, and they held an inquisition in Guildford, Surrey on Thursday 21 April 1328. The details above about Elizabeth's eighteen-month captivity were stated, and the men who had helped the Despensers to capture Elizabeth were named in the inquisition as Sir Nicholas Sudington, William Staunford and John Haselegh or Hasselegh. [8] It is surely not a coincidence that Hugh the Younger gave Nicholas Sudington a gift of £10 on 26 October 1324, and Sudington or Sudynton or Sodynton in modern spelling is Siddington, a village near Cirencester in Gloucestershire which belonged to Hugh the Elder. [9] Who William Staunford and John Has(s)elegh were, I don't know; they're not Despenser adherents I've ever heard of before. Perhaps they were simply hired muscle.

The findings of the inquisition taken at Guildford in April 1328 were repeated on 12 July 1348 at Richard Talbot's request. [10] This time, the names of a dozen jurors who testified under oath to the 1328 inquisition were given, and the details were repeated: Elizabeth was captured at Kennington and taken to Woking and then Purbright. This exemplification of the inquisition's findings twenty years later adds that "by force and duress, they [the two Hugh Despensers] compelled her against her will and by threats of death" to give them Painswick and Goodrich Castle, on 20 April 1325 at Pirbright. 

A writ sent to the sheriff of Buckinghamshire on 19 February 1331 in response to a petition by David de Strathbogie, earl of Atholl (b. 1309), son and heir of Elizabeth Comyn's older sister Joan, states that the Despensers had deliberately made an unfair division of the Pembroke inheritance in Elizabeth Comyn's favour. Atholl requested that the division of lands be made again, and Elizabeth and Richard Talbot sent in their own petition in 1332 protesting against this. [11] Some of the words of the 1331 writ are missing or unclear, but it seems to state that Hugh the Younger engineered a division in Elizabeth Comyn's favour because he had married Elizabeth. Of course he hadn't, and couldn't possibly have done as he was married to Eleanor de Clare from 26 May 1306 until his execution on 24 November 1326. An inquisition held in Yorkshire also in 1331 as a result of the questions hanging over the Pembroke inheritance states that Elizabeth married Hugh the Younger's eldest son Hugh or 'Huchon' (b. 1308/9). "Memorandum of errors which were made...by Hugh Despenser father and son...by reason that Laurence son and heir of John de Hastyngg married the daughter of the said Hugh the son, and the son of the said Hugh married Elizabeth Comyn." [12Huchon Despenser was almost a decade Elizabeth's junior and didn't marry her either, though perhaps a betrothal was on the cards in 1324/25. The inquisition is also wrong to say that Hugh the Younger's daughter Eleanor married Laurence Hastings; they were betrothed in 1325/26 but the wedding never took place. It does seem that in 1331, a few people believed that Elizabeth Comyn had married into the Despenser family.

On 29 March 1332, Edward III sent a letter to the escheator south of the River Trent. Again, it concerned the division of the Pembroke inheritance and the unfairness the earl of Atholl was complaining about, and repeats that the two Hugh Despensers "had Elizabeth Comyn, another kinswoman and co-heiress of the said Aymer...in their power at their will, and wished to assign the better castles, manors, lands, fees and advowsons to the purparty of Elizabeth." Another petition, incidentally, was sent by John Hastings' executors, and states that John's will was "sinfully altered" and that Hugh Despenser the Younger ransacked John's manors in 1325/26 after John's death, when they and custody of John's son Laurence were in his hands. [13] 

Four years later on 22 March 1336, there is an entry on the Patent Roll relating to one of Elizabeth and Richard Talbot's petitions. It states that "the said Hugh and Hugh, moved with cupidity, caused the said Elizabeth, while she was single, to be taken at Hertfordyngbury [Hertingfordbury], brought to Purifrith [Purbright], co. Surrey, and there imprisoned, until by force and duress" she gave Painswick and Goodrich Castle to the two Hughs. [14] Otherwise, Elizabeth stated that the Despensers had captured her at Kennington, so it's odd that Hertingfordbury in Hertfordshire now appears. Kennington certainly belonged to Hugh the Elder in 1324/25 - by rights it shouldn't have belonged to him, but it did - but Hertingfordbury belonged to the earl of Pembroke and later to Elizabeth herself, though she only received it after Pembroke's death in June 1324. 

So either the Despensers were entirely careless of the possible consequences of kidnapping the earl of Pembroke's niece from one of Pembroke's own manors in April 1324, or Elizabeth was being slightly economical with the truth or mixed up her story somewhat, or someone else got the story mixed up a few years later. Kennington and Hertingfordbury are about thirty miles apart, and it seems an odd error to have made; Elizabeth must have known perfectly well whether she was captured on a manor belonging to one of the Despensers or a manor which belonged to herself or her uncle. It's also rather hard to believe that the Despensers would have captured her as early as April 1324 as she claimed, two months before her uncle the earl of Pembroke died. Pembroke was in good enough health for Edward II to send him to France as an envoy in June 1324, when the earl collapsed and died so suddenly in the arms of an attendant, on his way to Paris, that there was no time even to summon a priest and he died unshriven. The Despensers can't possibly have known in April 1324 that Pembroke was going to die and leave his niece Elizabeth an heiress two months later.

The division of the large Pembroke inheritance among the three heirs was not completed until March 1325 nine months after the earl of Pembroke's death, and Elizabeth's cousin John Hastings never benefited from being one of their uncle's co-heirs as he died in January 1325, leaving his not yet four-year-old son Laurence as his heir. Elizabeth received her share of her late uncle's estate on 21 and 22 March 1325. [15] This was two weeks after she'd acknowledged the staggeringly enormous debt of £10,000 to Hugh the Elder. Her share included Goodrich Castle, Painswick, Swanscombe, and Hertingfordbury. When Elizabeth gave the Despensers Goodrich Castle and Painswick on 20 April 1325, she had been in possession of the manors and the rest of her inheritance for just under a month.

There's no doubt at all that Elizabeth Comyn did give Painswick to Hugh the Elder, Goodrich to Hugh the Younger and Swanscombe to Edward II, who passed it on to the two Hughs. The gift of Swanscombe to the Despensers is recorded on the Charter Roll on 5 July 1325 (above), and Edward II issued a licence for Elizabeth "to enfoeff Hugh le Despenser the younger of the castle and manor of Castel Goderiche in the march of Wales", and the same regarding Hugh the Elder and Painswick, on 6 April 1325 (the Saturday before Easter Sunday). [16] Edward was at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, about sixty miles from Pirbright, at the time, and the two Hugh Despensers may also have been there with him; they were both with the king on 2 April and Hugh the Younger at least was also with him on the 3rd. [17] It seems most unlikely that Elizabeth would have given away three valuable manors without coercion or duress by the men, and Goodrich Castle was worth £41 a year, Painswick £59 a year, and Swanscombe £38 a year. [18] They were her most valuable manors excepting Bampton, which was worth £65 a year. Hertingfordbury was worth £20. As noted above, her story that she'd been held captive for a year before she signed over her manors on 20 April 1325 is rather dubious, though perhaps she was captured shortly after Pembroke's death in June 1324 and she thought that ten months' captivity was actually a year. The confusion of the place of her capture, either Hugh the Elder's manor of Kennington or her uncle Pembroke's (and later her own) manor of Hertingfordbury, also strikes me as an odd mistake. Perhaps it was an error by the royal clerk who wrote that entry on the Patent Roll in 1336, but if it was, where did the error come from? If Elizabeth was captured at Hertingfordbury when it was her own manor, she only received seisin of it on 21 March 1325, a month before she handed some of her other manors over to the Despensers. 

There's also the interesting fact that people in both Buckinghamshire and Yorkshire (i.e. in counties far apart who are unlikely to have influenced each other) in 1331 were of the belief that Elizabeth had married into the Despenser family. It does seem rather odd and unusual that a noblewoman of the early fourteenth century didn't marry until her mid-twenties, so I wonder if if there was some arrangement for Elizabeth to marry Hugh Despenser the Younger's son and heir Huchon, and she had to wait for him to reach maturity - he turned fifteen in 1323 or 1324. Having said that, a marriage between a woman and a boy getting on for ten years her junior would be most unusual, albeit not entirely unheard of (John of Gaunt's daughter Elizabeth of Lancaster, b. February 1363, marrying John Hastings, b. November 1372, is an example I can think of). The man Elizabeth Comyn really did marry in 1325 or 1326, Richard Talbot, was a Lancastrian knight who pragmatically switched sides in and after 1322 and who served in the retinue of Hugh Despenser the Younger. As stated above, Edward II gave Richard a gift of £10 once he heard of his marriage to Elizabeth on 9 July 1326; on 17 July 1326, Hugh the Younger lent Richard another £10. [19] Lent, not gave as Edward did, which is typical of Hugh.

To sum up, there seems little or no doubt that Elizabeth Comyn's story of being coerced or forced or manipulated or threatened into handing over three of her most valuable manors to the Despensers is essentially true. She might not have been held in captivity for as long as she claimed, and it cannot be the case that she was captured a full year before she signed over her manors on 20 April 1325. Unless the statement in 1336 that she was captured at Hertingfordbury was a clerical error and nothing to do with Elizabeth, it would seem that she changed her story, which is perhaps a tad suspicious. I also wonder if Elizabeth had a rather closer association with the Despenser family than she admitted to later, given that people in two counties in 1331 believed that she had married into the family, and in Buckinghamshire it was believed that she had married Hugh the Younger himself. If she was captured at Kennington, Hugh the Elder's manor, the question arises as to why she was there, apparently voluntarily, in the first place. Perhaps this confirms that a marriage was on the cards and that she was living at one of the manors of her future grandfather-in-law. But coercion to acquire other people's manors was a common Despenser tactic between 1322 and 1326, sadly, and it seems that the two Hughs used and abused the royal power they were unlawfully wielding to engineer an unfair division of the Pembroke inheritance, and then grabbed three of Elizabeth's best manors. It's also obvious that the king of England himself was deeply involved in this nefarious scheme to take valuable lands away from one of his own subjects and kinswomen (Elizabeth Comyn was his second cousin of the half blood), and not merely as a passive observer.


1) Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem 1317-27, no. 518; Society of Antiquaries of London MS 122, p. 75.
2) Calendar of Charter Rolls 1300-26, p. 442.
3) The National Archives E 40/4962 and SC 8/160/7956; CChR 1300-26, p. 478.
4) Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous 1308-48, no. 1024.
5) Calendar of Close Rolls 1323-7, p. 357.
6) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1330-4, p. 14.
7) SC 8/163/8132, SC 8/160/7956 and SC 8/310/15484; quoted in English translation in Calendar of Ancient Petitions Relating to Wales, ed. William Rees (1975), pp. 268-9, 274-5, 493-4; the original documents are available to view on the National Archives website.
8) CIM 1308-48, no. 1024.
9) E. B. Fryde, 'The Deposits of Hugh Despenser the Younger with Italian Bankers', Economic History Review, 2nd series, 3 (1951), pp. 360-1; CPR 1317-21, p. 212.
10) CPR 1348-50, p. 122.
11) CIPM 1327-36, no. 391, p. 287; C 49/45/24.
12) CIPM 1327-36, no. 391, p. 292.
13) CCR 1330-3, pp. 455-7; Calendar of Ancient Petitions Relating to Wales, p. 277.
14) CPR 1334-8, pp. 234-5.
15) Calendar of Fine Rolls 1319-27, pp. 338-40; CCR 1323-7, pp. 272-5.
16) CPR 1324-7, p. 116.
17) C 53/111, no. 9; E 101/380/4, fos. 30r-v.
18) CFR 1319-27, p. 338.
19) Fryde, 'Deposits of Hugh', p. 362.

See also my article: ''We Might be Prepared to Harm You': An Investigation into Some of the Extortions of Hugh Despenser the Younger', Journal of the Mortimer History Society, 2 (2018), pp. 58-9; and my book Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger: Downfall of a King's Favourite (2018), pp. 103-4.

1 comment:

sami parkkonen said...

This look like gangsters work. These were pretty ruthless men. And strangely careless or for what ever reason did not even care if they got caught or anything else.