25 October, 2019

Eleanor Despenser (née de Clare) and her Two Husbands

Edward II's eldest niece Eleanor Despenser née de Clare was widowed from her first husband Hugh Despenser the Younger on 24 November 1326 when she was thirty-four years old, after twenty and a half years of marriage. A week previously, Eleanor - closely associated with the greedy and despotic regime of her uncle and husband - had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, and was released by her much younger first cousin Edward III (or rather, by someone acting in the fifteen-year-old king's name) in February 1328. She was restored to the lands she held as her inheritance from her late brother Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester (1291-1314) later in 1328.

Sometime not too long before 26 January 1329, Eleanor was abducted from Hanley Castle in Worcestershire by her second husband William la Zouche, lord of Ashby in Leicestershire (now called Ashby de la Zouch). [1William had previously been married to the dowager countess of Warwick, Alice Beauchamp née Toeni (d. 1324), mother of his children Alan and Joyce, and was much Eleanor Despenser's senior, born probably in the 1270s or in 1280 at the latest. He was old enough to fight at the battle of Falkirk in 1298. William la Zouche was the son of Robert Mortimer of Richard's Castle in Herefordshire and Joyce la Zouche, and began using his mother's family name in the early 1300s; his elder brother Hugh Mortimer (d. 1304) was their parents' heir, and Hugh's two daughters and heirs were the same age as Eleanor Despenser. In contemporary records, William often appears as 'William la Zouche de Mortimer'. The Mortimers of Richard's Castle were only fairly distantly related to the much more famous Mortimers of Wigmore, earls of March. [2]

Eleanor Despenser married William la Zouche before 26 January 1329, when her abduction (or 'abduction') reached the ears of royal clerks, who recorded it on the Patent Roll. It is not at all clear whether she consented to the marriage or not. William had been appointed as the custodian of all her lands, including the great lordship of Glamorgan in South Wales, in May 1327 during Eleanor's imprisonment in the Tower of London. By marrying her, William became the outright owner of all her lands rather than merely their custodian, so it is hard to imagine there was much romance involved in his wish to marry her. [3He had been one of the men who captured her uncle Edward II and husband Hugh in South Wales on 16 November 1326, and led the siege of her teenaged eldest son Hugh or 'Huchon' inside Caerphilly Castle from late 1326 to 20 March 1327 with a view to handing the young man over to Queen Isabella to be executed. This all makes him sound like the husband from hell as far as Eleanor was concerned, but who knows, perhaps they had an understanding. William's previous marriage to a woman above him in rank, the dowager countess of Warwick, perhaps indicates that he was a man of some charm and appeal. Or perhaps he was ruthlessly determined to marry Eleanor the wealthy, fertile and partly royal widow and didn't much care what she thought of him and whether she consented or not. I honestly don't know.

Bizarrely, the young nobleman Sir John Grey of Rotherfield (Oxfordshire) also began claiming in early 1329 that he was Eleanor Despenser's husband, and royal clerks recorded the abduction of his supposed wife from Hanley Castle at the same time as they recorded the abduction of Hugh Despenser's widow Eleanor, without realising they were the same person.

Sir John Grey was eight years Eleanor's junior, born on 29 October 1300, and in January 1329 was a twenty-eight-year-old widower with a young son. [4Bad feeling persisted between John Grey and William la Zouche, and in October 1331 Grey accused Zouche of stealing his goods and six of his horses from Lechlade. Several months later, the two men quarrelled so badly that Grey came close to drawing his dagger on Zouche in Edward III's presence, whereupon he was arrested. [5] Why Grey claimed to be married to Eleanor is unclear; it may be that they had arranged to wed and that William la Zouche got in first, or perhaps they had been having an affair, or perhaps he was simply trying it on.

The bishop of Coventry and Lichfield finally settled the matter in mid-May 1333, declaring that William la Zouche was Eleanor Despenser's rightful husband. John Grey had complained to the bishop that William 'seized and ravished the said Eleanor, and detains her.' [6] By then, Eleanor had borne William a son, the youngest of her many children, named William after his father. The younger William la Zouche became a monk at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, was acknowledged as 'uncle' by Eleanor's grandson Edward, Lord Despenser and was granted an annuity by his Despenser kin, and was still alive in 1390. As for Sir John Grey of Rotherfield, he did marry again and had another two sons, and in later years was steward of Edward III's household and one of the founding members of the Knights of the Garter, so in the end did not do too badly despite losing out on marriage to Eleanor Despenser. He died in 1359 at the age of fifty-nine.

William la Zouche died in February 1337 leaving his and Alice Toeni's son Alan, born in 1317, as his heir, and Eleanor buried him in Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire, the de Clare and Despenser mausoleum and where she had buried her first husband in late 1330 as well. William had made Eleanor one of the executors of his will, though as it turned out, she only outlived him by four months and died at the age of forty-four in June 1337. It may be that they had made something of a success of their marriage, despite its unpromising start and despite John Grey of Rotherfield's years-long attempt to marry Eleanor instead. William and Eleanor appeared together before an 'official of Canterbury' sometime before May 1333 and described themselves as husband and wife, so it seems that Eleanor was happy to be William's wife and wasn't complaining about it, or using the whole strange situation to attempt to have her marriage annulled.


1) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1327-30, p. 422.
2) Complete Peerage, vol. 12B, p. 957.
3) Calendar of Close Rolls 1327-30, pp. 81, 121.
4) Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem 1317-27, no. 336.
5) Calendar of Fine Rolls 1327-37, p. 298; CPR 1330-34, pp. 203, 292; CCR 1333-37, p. 110.
6) Calendar of Papal Letters 1305-41, p. 394.

15 October, 2019

Book Giveaway: Philippa of Hainault

Today is the official release date of my biography of Edward III's queen Philippa of Hainault (c. 1314-69), the first biography of her since 1910. It was really exciting to have the chance to tell her amazing story. I have TWO free signed hardback copies of the book to give away! As always, the competition is open to everyone, wherever you are in the world; all you need is a postal address. To enter the draw, do one of the following:

1) Email me at: edwardofcaernarfon(at)yahoo.com.
2) Leave a comment here, with your email address, please, so I can contact you if you're a winner.
3) Send me a private message on my Edward II page on Facebook, also with your email address.
4) If you're on my friends list on Facebook, or if we follow each other on Twitter, you're also very welcome to send me a message there.

The deadline is 31 October 2019, so you have more than two weeks to enter. On 1 November, I'll email the winners and ask you for your postal addresses so I can send you your copies. Good luck!

09 October, 2019

9 October 1325: Edward II, Eleanor Despenser, and the Goldfinches

On 9 October 1325, Edward II gave ten shillings to one Jack the Trumpeter of Dover, who had bought forty-seven caged goldfinches for Edward to give to his niece Eleanor Despenser, and also paid his clerk Will of Dunstable to look after the birds until Eleanor took possession of them. I've often wondered why Edward bought forty-seven goldfinches particularly, as it seems such a random number; had he originally bought fifty, but three had died? What's also interesting is that the word appears in English in the otherwise Anglo-Norman text of the king's chamber account (now kept in the library of the Society of Antiquaries of London): goldfynches. Perhaps Edward's chamber clerks, good at French though they undoubtedly were, could not think what the French word for 'goldfinches' might be. I sympathise; neither do I, without looking on Google Translate. ("Errrrm, err, errrrm, finches d'or, maybe? Oh, apparently it's chardonneret. Who knew?")

Eleanor Despenser, now thirty-three years old, was about seven months pregnant at the time of this gift, and gave birth to a child - probably her youngest daughter Elizabeth, Lady Berkeley - at her uncle's manor-house of Sheen sometime shortly before 14 December 1325. She moved into Sheen soon before the gift of the goldfinches, and stayed there until she gave birth and presumably for a while afterwards as well. Edward also gave her gifts of caged larks and three swans on other occasions in 1325, and gifts of cash too. Eleanor's itinerary, where it can be discovered, reveals that she was at court with the king and with her husband, Edward's mighty favourite Hugh Despenser the Younger, most of the time in the 1320s. My book about Eleanor Despenser and her sisters Margaret Gaveston Audley and Elizabeth de Burgh, currently titled Powerful Pawns of the Crown, is coming out on 30 January 2020. In it - among much else, obviously - I take a look at the intriguing evidence for Eleanor's complex relationships with her uncle Edward II and with Hugh Despenser the Younger. My view is that Eleanor was a devoted supporter of both men, and was involved with Hugh's extortions up to her neck, even when they were aimed at her own sisters.