28 March, 2021

Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger (1)

I'm not sure I've ever written a post about Edward II's relationship with Hugh Despenser the Younger, or at least not for a very long time. Here's the first part of two or three posts about the two men's relationship.

A later chronicler stated that Edward and Hugh were companions in childhood. There's no confirmation of this that I know of, though Hugh's older half-sister Maud Chaworth (b. 1282) was certainly one of Edward's noble companions in childhood. Hugh's maternal grandfather was William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (c. 1240-98), who was close to Edward I's age and was one of the great English magnates between the 1260s and late 1290s, and William's younger brother Sir Walter Beauchamp, Hugh Despenser's great-uncle, was steward of Edward I's household from 1289 until his death in 1303. Hugh's father Hugh the Elder was often at court from the mid-1280s until Edward I's death in 1307, and the king frequently sent him as an envoy overseas, to the pope, the king of France, and so on. So even if Edward of Caernarfon and Hugh weren't companions as such, Edward would certainly have known exactly who Hugh was from the earliest years of Hugh's life.

Hugh the Younger's date of birth isn't known, but his parents Hugh the Elder (b. 1261) and Isabella Chaworth née Beauchamp (b. c. 1263/65) married without a licence from Edward I in or shortly before December 1285, and he was almost certainly their second child after Alina, later Lady Burnell. So probably, in my opinion, Alina was born around 1286/87 and Hugh around 1288/89. If I'm correct on that, he was about four or five years younger than Edward II, and this would mean he was a bit too young to be a companion of Edward's in childhood and adolescence. None of Edward of Caernarfon's letters of 1304/05, a year when his correspondence fortuitously survives, mention Hugh the Younger, though Edward did correspond with his father Hugh the Elder. Edward, as prince of Wales and duke of Aquitaine, attended Hugh the Younger's wedding to his eldest niece Eleanor de Clare on 26 May 1306, four days after he had knighted Hugh (and more than 250 others) in Westminster Abbey shortly after his own knighting. Hugh the Younger was about 17 or 18 in 1306, and that year is the first time he appears on record that I've been able to find: he was knighted, married, and summoned to his first military campaign, receiving letters of protection on his wedding day from his new grandfather-in-law Edward I to fight in Scotland.

Although he was the grandson and nephew of earls of Warwick, Hugh wasn't in line to inherit the earldom, and although his father was a very wealthy baron, Hugh the Elder lived to a good age (he was sixty-five when he was executed in 1326) and Hugh the Younger never came into any of the extensive estates which Hugh the Elder inherited from his father Hugh (d. 1265) and his mother Aline Basset, countess of Norfolk (d. 1281). Sometime before early 1310, Hugh the Elder granted his son and heir the revenues of six of his manors in Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, but didn't actually give him the manors. Hugh the Elder had promised Edward I in 1306 that he would give his son and daughter-in-law Eleanor an income of £200 a year, though I've worked out that the combined revenues of the six manors only came to about £155 a year. So Hugh owned no lands at all, and had an income that was tiny by the standards of his peers and of his own family. By way of comparison, his brother-in-law the earl of Gloucester earned close to £7,000 a year, and Piers Gaveston, another brother-in-law, £4,000. As I pointed out in my bio of Hugh, his comparative poverty and his rather humiliating lack of any lands whatsoever until he was almost thirty might go some way to explaining his appalling behaviour as royal favourite in the late 1310s and 1320s. I don't mean that it justifies it - nothing can justify the things Hugh did: piracy, extortion, false imprisonment, and so on - but perhaps does go some way to explaining why he behaved like that.

But all of that lay years in the future, and I cannot possibly exaggerate just how obscure and completely powerless Hugh Despenser the Younger was for the first few years of Edward II's reign. For most of those years, I have no idea where he and Eleanor lived or what they were doing, apart from producing a large brood of offspring. Hugh attended the famous jousting tournament held in Dunstable in the spring of 1309, and it's revealing that all the knights in his retinue there were his father's knights, not his own. As the husband of Edward II's eldest niece, Hugh the Younger was a member of the royal family and one of the highest-ranking barons in England, but disappears from the record for years on end. Very occasionally, he appears in the chancery rolls when Edward II granted a favour at his request, and when I say 'occasionally', I mean once in 1309 and three times in 1312/13, and that's it. For all that Edward was deeply fond of Hugh's wife and often invited her to visit him, and Hugh's father was one of the king's closest and most allies, Edward almost completely ignored Hugh the Younger's existence. For the first few years of Edward's reign, Hugh the Elder was usually just called 'Hugh Despenser' as though he was the only one, though from about 1313 he became known as 'Hugh Despenser the father' or 'Hugh Despenser senior'. On the rare occasions when Hugh the Younger appeared on record, he was called 'Hugh son of Hugh Despenser'.

 According to the later chronicler Geoffrey le Baker, Edward II hated Hugh the Younger at first. Whether that's true or not, I don't know, but I think it's blazingly obvious that for many years he neither liked nor trusted him, and for the most part, acted as though his nephew-in-law didn't even exist. Hugh was only very rarely at court: he was in Edward II's presence once, with his father, during the parliament held in Stamford, Lincolnshire in August 1309, and appears to have visited the king briefly at Windsor Castle in late 1312 also when his father was there, but he didn't witness a single royal charter until May 1316, almost nine years into Edward's reign. By 1326, he was witnessing almost all of them.

Hugh the Younger and his father both fought at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, and were both among the 500 or so knights who accompanied Edward II during his gallop to Dunbar Castle to evade capture after the battle. It was Bannockburn that changed Hugh the Younger's fortunes forever, because his extraordinarily wealthy brother-in-law the earl of Gloucester was killed, and left no children (I've discussed his widow Maud's hilarious pretence to be pregnant for years on end here before). Some writers have claimed that Hugh was already Edward's 'favourite' at the time of Bannockburn, or rose in his affections shortly afterwards, but this is emphatically not the case. For one thing, it ignores the existence of the influential courtiers Roger Damory and Hugh Audley and their importance in the king's life between 1315 and 1318/19, and for another, it is apparent from the way Edward made Hugh the Younger beg over and over and over from 1315 to 1317 to receive his and Eleanor's share of her late brother's inheritance that the king still did not much like Hugh. If Hugh had already been a royal favourite, Edward would have fallen over himself to give him the lordship of Glamorgan as soon as possible, and wouldn't have repeatedly humiliated Hugh in public by pretending to believe that a woman was pregnant by her husband twenty months after his death.

In the next post, I'll take a look at what happened between Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger in and after 1316.

23 March, 2021

Eleanor Despenser, Edward II and Queen Isabella (2)

The first part of the post is here

Eleanor Despenser appears in Queen Isabella's extant accounts of 1311/12, when she attended the queen in the north of England for a while, and Isabella, rather hilariously, paid 12d for ale for Eleanor's breakfast on 31 July 1311. Twelve pence is a lot to spend on ale at a time when a gallon of it cost 1d, so I assume the drink was intended for some of Eleanor's retinue as well. She had her own damsels, chamberlain, John of Berkhamsted, carters, palfreymen, and other attendants while she was with the queen. [1] Isabella's accounts don't survive for most of her husband's reign so it's hard to know how much time Eleanor spent with her, and when, but it seems likely that Eleanor began attending the queen, at least on occasion, soon after Isabella's arrival in England in early February 1308. 

From Edward II's accounts and other sources, we know that the two women spent much time in each other's company in the 1320s: they were together at Tynemouth Priory in the autumn of 1322, in the Tower of London in February 1323, and at Nottingham Castle with Edward II for Christmas 1324. Shortly after Christmas, the two women left court and travelled together to Kenilworth Castle, where they spent New Year 1324/25 a couple of months before Isabella departed for France. There is no reason to think that Edward II imposed Eleanor on the queen against Isabella's will in c. 1324 as a couple of chroniclers claimed, evidently unaware that the two women had been companions for at least thirteen years by then, although the story has often been repeated uncritically by modern writers. As the king's eldest niece, Eleanor Despenser was one of the highest-ranking ladies in the realm and an entirely suitable person to attend the queen, and had done so for many years. Besides, the notion that the king forced his wife to accept a woman she disliked and didn't want anywhere near her as her chief companion paints Isabella as helpless and passive, which is the last thing she was. I mean, do people really think that a woman who brought down a king was incapable of ordering another woman out of her presence if she wanted to? How on earth does anyone imagine that the powerful and awesome Queen Isabella was that much of a feeble wet blanket?

There's also the idiotic idea, invented in the 1970s, that Edward II removed Isabella's children from her in September 1324 and gave custody of their second son, John of Eltham (b. August 1316), to Eleanor Despenser, intending to be cruel to the queen. No-one has ever explained how Eleanor managed to be in two places at once: constantly in Isabella's presence so that the queen had no privacy from her, reading her correspondence, and reporting on her movements to the king and Despenser; and at the same time, looking after Isabella's son somewhere away from the court so that Isabella could never see him. It should be obvious that these stories cannot both be true, and I believe they're both untrue. In fact, Eleanor had been looking after John of Eltham, her decades-younger first cousin, at least on occasion, since July 1322 or earlier (when she received 100 marks for the household expenses of herself and John), and he wasn't, as claimed, cruelly removed from his mother's custody in September 1324. [2] Why does anyone think the queen would have been the full-time sole carer of her children anyway? 

John of Eltham was the same age as some of Eleanor Despenser's own children, and her third daughter Eleanor Despenser the younger (b. c. late 1310s or early 1320s) was raised with Edward II and Isabella's daughters Eleanor of Woodstock (b. 1318) and Joan of the Tower (b. 1321). Her eldest son Hugh 'Huchon' Despenser, born in 1308 or 1309, spent time with Edward of Windsor, the heir to the throne, in July 1324 - when the king sent them both letters in Shoreham - and likely on other occasions as well. [3] Eleanor and Hugh the Younger's children were companions of the royal children, their first cousins once removed, when they were all growing up. This seems perfectly normal and natural to me; the Despenser children were great-grandchildren of Edward I and grandchildren of the earls of Gloucester and Winchester, so were perfectly suited to be the royal children's companions. And again, why do people think that Queen Isabella, of all people, was so utterly helpless and passive that she couldn't demand a say in how her own children were raised, and where, and by whom, and which noble offspring were raised with them? Why is there an assumption that her children were taken from her against her will and given into the care of people she disliked? Where's the evidence? The long list of charges against Hugh Despenser the Younger at his trial in November 1326 gives a good indication as to what Isabella blamed him for, and persuading the king to remove her children from her was not mentioned.

Writers who claim to like and admire Isabella of France do her a massive disservice in the way they write her as a helpless, feeble, endlessly put-upon victim. Poor Eleanor Despenser has also been really hard done by in fiction and even in non-fiction; she's usually depicted either as a wet, wimpy dishcloth of a person drifting helplessly around the court and totally under her husband's thumb, or as a sinister, malicious and physically unattractive figure doing her utmost to inflict as much cruelty as possible on Isabella. That both the king and queen enjoyed Eleanor's company for many years, which probably reveals that she was an appealing, fun and charming person, never seems to be considered. The idea that Eleanor and Hugh had at least ten children together and continued producing children long after the obligatory 'heir and the spare', right up to the mid-1320s - their last child was born in December 1325, though it's possible that Eleanor was pregnant again when Hugh was executed in November 1326 - which means that they spent a lot of time in each other's company and maintained an active sex life, never seems to be considered. In the 1320s during her husband's period of power, her itinerary, where I can establish it, shows that Eleanor was almost always at court, or at the very least she was just a few miles away and both Edward II and Hugh Despenser sent her frequent letters. If her husband and her uncle were lovers, it's hard to see how she could have been unaware of it. 

It seems that Queen Isabella and Eleanor Despenser remained close even after Hugh the Younger became Edward's favourite and perhaps lover, and did his best to come between the royal couple. Both Isabella and Eleanor gave Edward II gifts at Christmas 1324, though unfortunately, Edward's clerks didn't record what the gifts were. His chamber account of 1324/25 also shows that he gave generous gifts of cash to the two women's female attendants, making sure, as he always did, that Isabella and her servants received more money or more items than Eleanor and hers did. In June 1325, a while after Isabella had departed for her native France, Edward II gave 20 shillings to her household squire Matthew Berenal because Eleanor Despenser "talked great good of him to the king". [4] One of Isabella's attendants at Christmas 1324 was Cecile Chaucomb, who was married to a man named John Chaucomb. Possibly Cecile's husband was the man of this name whom Eleanor Despenser sent to Edward II with news of herself in October 1310. If so, this is another link between Isabella and Eleanor.

As I pointed out in the last post, the later chronicler Henry Knighton stated that while Isabella was away from England between March 1325 and September 1326, Eleanor Despenser was treated as though she was Edward II's queen, a rather cryptic statement which could be interpreted in several different ways. There is, bizarrely, some evidence that Edward and Eleanor might have had a relationship that went far beyond the usual uncle-niece connection, though there's no way of proving it conclusively. Eleanor was imprisoned in the Tower of London from November 1326 to February 1328, and given that she was her husband's loyal ally and seems to have been implicated in a good few of Hugh's acts of extortion and false imprisonment, this isn't too surprising. What is perhaps more surprising is that Isabella treated her with what appears to be a measure of spite and vindictiveness in and after 1326. A few months after Eleanor was freed from the Tower and restored to her own lands (the lordship of Glamorgan and many manors in southern England), she was accused of stealing high-value items from the Tower and was imprisoned again. Although this second imprisonment was, as far as I can make out, not a long one, her lands were taken from her, and most of them were used to dower Edward III's young queen Philippa of Hainault. Isabella kept the remainder of Eleanor's lands herself, and Eleanor only regained them after Isabella's downfall in October 1330.

At the beginning of 1327, the queen had Eleanor's third and fourth daughters Eleanor the younger and Margaret Despenser forcibly veiled as nuns at, respectively, Sempringham Priory in Lincolnshire and Watton Priory in Yorkshire. (Eleanor's eldest daughter Isabella was already married to the earl of Arundel's son; her youngest daughter Elizabeth was only a baby; her second daughter Joan became a nun at Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset, but this is likely to have been Eleanor and Hugh's own decision after Joan's fiancé the earl of Kildare's son died in 1323, as 1) an order for her veiling in 1327 doesn't exist, and 2) Shaftesbury Abbey, founded by Alfred the Great in c. 888, was a very wealthy and prestigious house.) Eleanor the younger was somewhere between about five and eight years old and Margaret was only three when they were forced to take binding, lifelong vows as nuns. In addition, the queen had Eleanor's eldest son Hugh 'Huchon' Despenser, aged seventeen or eighteen, besieged for months inside Caerphilly Castle in 1326/27 with the aim of capturing and executing him. Luckily for the young man, the garrison held out and refused to surrender him to Isabella, and she eventually gave up and imprisoned him instead.

Probably at least some of this was a consequence of Queen Isabella's loathing for Hugh Despenser the Younger even after he was dead, though I do wonder if some of Isabella's actions against the Despenser family after Hugh's execution represent her lashing out at Eleanor Despenser rather than at Hugh. It seems to me that Isabella was angry with Eleanor for some reason, not only because Eleanor had been married to Hugh - I'm not sure the queen would have blamed Eleanor just for that - but because of something Eleanor herself had done. What that was, I don't know. Eleanor was surely relieved when her cousin Edward III overthrew his mother in October 1330, and for the remaining seven years of her life, it seems that the two women ignored each other and there is no sign at all that they ever regained their former closeness.


1) The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England for the Fifth Regnal Year of Edward II, ed. F.D. Blackley and G. Hermansen, pp. xiv, xv, xxvi, 19, 31, 157, 203.

2) Calendar of Memoranda Rolls, Michaelmas 1326 to Michaelmas 1327, no. 2133.

3) The National Archives E 101/380/4, fos. 10v, 16r.

4) Society of Antiquaries of London Manuscript 122, p. 8.

14 March, 2021

Eleanor Despenser, Edward II and Queen Isabella (1)

Edward II and his eldest niece Eleanor Despenser née de Clare were always close and often spent time together, but in the last couple of years or so of his reign, is it possible that their relationship had become something more? Something incestuous? One Flemish chronicle states outright that the two became lovers, and that the reason for Eleanor's imprisonment in the Tower of London after her uncle and her husband's downfall - she was incarcerated from November 1326 until February 1328 - was because she might be pregnant by the king. [1] No English chronicle, however, even hints at an incestuous affair, with the possible exception of the Leicester chronicler Henry Knighton. He wrote a few decades later, rather cryptically, that while Queen Isabella was staying in her native France in 1325/26, Eleanor behaved as though she were Edward II's queen (quae ut regina habebatur in regno dum regina in remotis agebat). [2] Despite the lack of information in chronicles on the matter, there is evidence from Edward II's extant chamber accounts of 1324 to 1326 which perhaps suggest that something more might have gone on between the two than mere familial affection. In two posts, I'll take a look at Eleanor's relations with her uncle, and also with her aunt-in-law, Isabella of France.

Born in Caerphilly Castle in October 1292 as the second child and eldest daughter of Edward I's second daughter Joan of Acre (b. 1272) and Gilbert 'the Red', earl of Gloucester and Hertford, Eleanor de Clare was only eight and a half years younger than Edward II (b. 25 April 1284). She and her younger sisters Margaret and Elizabeth were all closer in age to their uncle than their mother, his sister, was, and confusingly, Eleanor was about three years older than her aunt-in-law Queen Isabella. There is much evidence throughout Edward II's reign of his great affection for his eldest niece and his fondness for her company, though for many years he more or less ignored the existence of her husband Hugh Despenser the Younger. Given the closeness which developed between the two men in and after late 1318, Edward's distrust and dislike for Hugh for many years is fascinating and puzzling. Edward, as prince of Wales and duke of Aquitaine, attended Eleanor's wedding to Hugh in May 1306. I suspect he was the godfather of their second son Edward Despenser, born before November 1315 and possibly as early as 1310, but before Hugh rose to power as royal chamberlain and favourite in the late 1310s, information about the Despenser children is hard to come by.

On 1 April 1308, while Edward II was at Windsor Castle and fortifying it against his own barons who had demanded Piers Gaveston's exile, he found the time to send 20 marks to Eleanor Despenser to cover her expenses while staying at the royal castle of Rockingham, Northamptonshire. A few weeks later on 8 May, Edward gave Eleanor 10 marks to travel from Rockingham to visit him at Westminster. In 1313/14, a year when his accounts survive, Edward gave his eldest niece frequent sums of money, between £3 and £10 every few days or weeks, and this probably wasn't unusual. [3] On 21 October 1310 he gave a messenger 20 marks, a huge sum, for bringing him news of Eleanor - perhaps that she had given birth - and she must have visited him on or shortly before 7 March 1309, when he granted a favour to one of her damsels, Joan, at her request. [4] This means Johane 'Jonette' Priour; she and her mother Emma 'Emmote' Priour were Eleanor's attendants for many years, and Johane later went to work for Queen Philippa. On the other hand, from 1314 until 1317 Edward refused to partition the massive inheritance of his late nephew the earl of Gloucester, not even to benefit Eleanor, one of the earl's three sisters and co-heirs. The king's undoubted affection for Eleanor wasn't enough for him to hand over her lands to her and her husband until he absolutely had to. In an article of 2006, Michael Prestwich drew attention to an account of Edward II of 1319/20 in which he and Eleanor were linked together in a rather unusual way when medicines were bought for 'the king and Eleanor Despenser, when ill'. [5]

In or before 1323, Edward II acquired a ship which he named after Eleanor, La Alianore la Despensere, the contemporary spelling of her name. It was a Spanish ship, lost off the Isle of Wight, which the king bought or otherwise acquired, and renamed. Edward owned a ship named La Isabele presumably after his queen, but I've never seen any evidence that he had ships named after his sisters, his other nieces or even his children, so calling one the Alianore la Despensere is pretty revealing of his feelings. Edward also owned a ship called La Despenser, supposedly a gift to him from Hugh the Younger, but it was Edward who paid out £130 for it. Figures. [6]

Eleanor was with Edward and her husband at the royal manor of Cowick in Yorkshire when she gave birth to one of her many children at the beginning of August 1323 - just about on the date when, several hundred miles away, Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower. The king gave her £100 for the expenses of 'her childbed' (son gesine). [7] This was Eleanor and Hugh's fourth daughter, Margaret Despenser. She spent her early years in the care of a Yorkshire knight named Sir Thomas Houk, whose manor of Hook lay just eight miles from Cowick. At Christmas 1324, Edward II sent Houk a gift of 20 marks. [8] Earlier that year, Eleanor had been in the Tower of London with Queen Isabella: on 17 February 1323, the two women sent virtually identical letters on behalf of Roger Mortimer's wife Joan Geneville. Eleanor was then several months pregnant. As of 1324 or earlier, Eleanor and Hugh's third daughter, Eleanor, was in the care of Hugh's sister Lady Hastings, with the king and queen's two daughters.

On 26 October 1324, as I wrote in a recent post, Edward II crossed the Thames from the Tower to a house called La Rosere in Southwark, to make love in private with a woman whose identity is unknown. A few days later, on or before 1 November 1324, Eleanor Despenser sent her uncle a gift of clothes made of medley cloth and lined with expensive miniver fur. In Edward's account, when he gave Eleanor's servant 40 shillings for bringing him the clothes, they were described as j robe de iiij garnamenz, i.e. a complete set of clothes. [9] On 2 December 1325, Edward visited the heavily pregnant Eleanor at the royal manor-house of Sheen and dined with her, and sailed along the Thames back to Westminster. He gave an offering of 30 shillings to the Virgin Mary on or before 14 December in gratitude that God had granted Eleanor a prompt delivery of her child. On 3 December the day after Edward's visit, Eleanor again sent a servant to her uncle with vne robe de iiij garnamenz, a set of clothes, and the servant received 20 shillings this time. [10] So hmmmmm. A coincidence? 

Several things occur to me. In 1325, Eleanor and Hugh Despenser owned manors right across the south of England and also held most of South Wales, so I wonder why Edward accommodated his niece at one of his own manors for the last two months of her pregnancy when there were untold dozens of her own manors where she could have given birth. Eleanor moved into Sheen on or just before 12 October 1325, and Edward visited her there from 12 to 17 October, gave her money for her expenses, bought firewood for her chamber, and gave her gifts of caged goldfinches, caged larks and three swans. A few weeks earlier on 16 September, Eleanor had sent Edward letters while she was staying at Tonbridge in Kent, a castle which by right belonged to her sister Margaret and Margaret's husband Hugh Audley, but Audley was in prison and Margaret had been held at Sempringham Priory in Lincolnshire since May 1322. 

Eleanor sending the king gifts of clothes on two occasions seems an oddly wifely thing to do, and for Edward to visit his niece days before she gave birth (or possibly on the day she gave birth) also seems a little unusual, perhaps. On 9 April 1325, he had given her a gift of 100 marks, and on 8 July bought her two gallons of honey to make a sweet called sucre de plate. [11] A child born around 2 or 14 December would have been conceived around early or mid-March, and it is possible that Eleanor had just learned that she was pregnant on 9 April 1325 (this was at least her ninth or tenth pregnancy), and perhaps three months later craved something sweet. Hugh Despenser, by the way, was at Westminster on 28 and 30 November and on 3 December, and his and Eleanor's eldest son Huchon was also at court in December 1325. Hugh was also with the king and Eleanor at Sheen on 16 October. [12] Eleanor probably remained at Sheen for a while recovering from the birth while Edward II and Hugh Despenser spent the festive season in Suffolk, and on 1 January 1326, Eleanor sent her uncle a dappled-grey palfrey horse with saddle and equipment. She also sent him letters, and Edward sent her letters in early February. Later in 1326, she and Edward's younger son John of Eltham, her cousin, who turned ten years old in mid-August 1326, travelled together from Sheen to Kenilworth Castle and stayed there for a while.

In early June 1326, Eleanor Despenser was staying at Leeds Castle while Edward II and Hugh Despenser were a few miles away at Saltwood Castle meeting the pope's envoys, and Edward sent Eleanor a gift of 20 marks. He sent twenty-five crew members of the ship La Despenser to bring her to him at the Tower of London in a barge on 17 June, and they and Hugh Despenser stayed there for a few days. Edward and Eleanor dined secretly or privately - that word priuement again, which is used to describe the king's encounter with his lover in October 1324 - in the park of Windsor Castle on 11 July 1326. Exactly two weeks later they sailed along the Thames together: Edward sent letters to Eleanor's husband Hugh, who had made a quick visit to Wales, while he and Eleanor were in a boat near the bridge of Kingston-on-Thames, and spent 18d on roach and dace for Eleanor in Byfleet. On 28 July, they were still together in Henley-on-Thames (it was a terribly hot dry summer, and it seems that the king was sailing rather aimlessly along the Thames a lot that month, presumably because it was cooler on the river).

On 25 July 1326, when Edward II gave out three shillings in alms to a group of fisherwomen in Kennington, his account states that the women received the money en la p[re]sence le Roi e ma dame, 'in the presence of the king and my lady'. [13] Ma dame here means Eleanor Despenser. In every other document of Edward II's reign, ma dame or la dame used alone without a name always meant Queen Isabella. The same applies to Edward I's household ordinance of 1279, where la dame means Queen Eleanor, and in Edward III's accounts, where ma dame means Queen Philippa. [14] This perhaps tends to give weight to Henry Knighton's statement that Eleanor Despenser was treated as though she were Edward's queen in 1325/26. In Edward II's accounts, his daughters Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower, his niece Jeanne de Bar, countess of Surrey, and his sister-in-law Alice Hales, countess of Norfolk, were not called ma dame. It's unfortunate that Edward II's only surviving sister in England, Mary the nun, doesn't appear in his accounts of 1324 to 1326, which would provide a useful comparison. Although they were children, Edward II's daughters outranked Edward II's niece, so you might expect them to be addressed as ma dame as well. They weren't. Eleanor Despenser was. And so was Queen Isabella. They were the only two ladies thus named. 

As Edward II's extremely illuminating chamber accounts unfortunately don't survive from before 1322 (assuming they ever existed), and then only in fragments until 1324, it's hard to tell whether the numerous references to Eleanor Despenser in the extant accounts of 1324 to 1326 are unusual. Her gifts of clothes to the king do, however, strike me as a bit odd, and the timing of the first delivery of them, just days after Edward made love with an unknown lover, might be revealing, given that we know she sent him clothes just after his visit to her on 2 December 1325. Was his lover of October 1324 Eleanor? That would certainly provide an explanation for why he wanted to keep her identity hidden from his household staff. And although, as far as I can work out, the custom for royal and noble ladies to seclude themselves for weeks before giving birth was a later development, it seems odd for a royal man to visit a heavily pregnant royal woman days before she bore a child, or even on the day she bore the child, if he wasn't the father. I honestly don't know. I can't prove conclusively, of course, that Edward II and his eldest niece had an incestuous relationship, but I will say that Henry Knighton's statement makes more sense in the light of what I've found in Edward's accounts.


1) See Seymour Phillips, Edward II, p. 483.

2) Chronicon Henrici Knighton, Monachi Leycestrensis, vol. 1. ed. J.R. Lumby, p. 434.

3) James Conway Davies, The Baronial Opposition to Edward II: Its Character and Policy, p. 91, notes 3 and 7.

4) Issues of the Exchequer, ed. F. Devon, p. 124; Calendar of Chancery Warrants 1244-1326, p. 283.

5) Michael Prestwich, 'The Court of Edward II', The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, ed. Gwilym Dodd and Anthony Musson. p. 71.

6) The National Archives E 101/379/7, fo. 7; E 101/380/4, fos. 19r, 32v; Society of Antiquaries of London Manuscript 122, pp. 4, 7, 16.

7) TNA E 101/379/17, membrane 2.

8) E 101/380/4, fo. 22r.

9) E 101/380/4, fo. 19v.

10) SAL MS 122, pp. 40, 41, 43.

11) E 101/380/4, fo. 31r; SAL MS 122, pp. 9, 14, 28-9, 36.

12) TNA SC 1/49/146, 146A, 147 and 148.

13) SAL MS 122, pp. 45-6, 51, 66, 75, 78-9.

14) T.F. Tout, Chapters in the Administrative History of Medieval England, vol. 2, p. 162; Life-Records of Chaucer, ed. M.M. Crow and C.C. Olson, pp. 164, 169.

08 March, 2021

John of Gaunt and the Lancastrian Inheritance

Recently it was the anniversary of John of Gaunt's birth on 6 March 1340. John, the fourth but third eldest surviving son* of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, was born in the abbey of St Bavo in Ghent, in modern-day Belgium. Ghent was called 'Gaunt' in England in the fourteenth century and afterwards, and therefore John of Ghent has always been known as John of Gaunt.

* His older brothers were Edward of Woodstock (b. June 1330), William of Hatfield (b. and d. early 1337) and Lionel of Antwerp (b. November 1338). His older sisters were Isabella of Woodstock (b. June 1332) and Joan of Woodstock (b. c. January 1334).

Below, from the parliament rolls in 1383: la ville de Gaunt, 'the town of Ghent'.

A lot of people, I noticed in the flurry of posts and articles about him recently, misunderstand John of Gaunt's possession of the Lancastrian lands, so here's some information about it. John married his first wife Blanche of Lancaster (c. 25 March 1342 - 12 September 1368) in Reading on 19 May 1359. Blanche was the younger daughter and co-heir, with her sister Maud (b. c. 4 April 1340), duchess of Lower Bavaria and countess of Hainault and Holland, of her father Henry of Grosmont (b. c. 1310/12), first duke of Lancaster and earl of Lincoln, Leicester and Derby. After Henry's death on 23 March 1361, his lands in thirty-four English counties and in Wales were divided equally between his two daughters. Although there's no record of her death, Maud and Blanche's mother Isabella Beaumont must have died before Henry, because otherwise she would have been assigned dower, and, as a third of the Lancastrian lands, it would have been considerable and we would have a record of it. 

Blanche and her husband John of Gaunt received the Lancastrian lands in the north of England and some of the lands in the Midlands, including the Yorkshire castles of Pontefract and Pickering, the Lincolnshire castle of Bolingbroke, the Staffordshire castle of Tutbury, and Dunstanburgh Castle in Northumberland, built in the 1310s and early 1320s by Blanche's great-uncle Thomas of Lancaster. Maud, who in 1352 married Wilhelm von Wittelsbach, a son of the late Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig or Louis of Bavaria, and lived on the continent, received the lands in Wales, the south of England and some in the Midlands, including five castles in South Wales and the castles of Newcastle-under-Lyme and Leicester. In an inquisition of 1362, the Savoy Palace in London, re-built on a magnificently opulent scale by Duke Henry after he inherited it from his father in 1345 but described rather hilariously in the inquisition as 'certain tenements called the Saveye', was said to have been held jointly by Maud and her brother-in-law John of Gaunt in the year since Henry's death. Maud also received the French lordship of Beaufort, once held by her great-uncle John of Lancaster (d. 1317). As well as the Lancastrian estates held by their father Duke Henry, grandfather Earl Henry, great-uncles Thomas and John of Lancaster and great-grandfather Edmund of Lancaster, the two sisters also inherited the lands of the de Lacy family which formerly belonged to their father's aunt-in-law Alice de Lacy, countess of Lincoln (1281-1348), and the lands and lordships in England and Wales once held by their paternal grandmother Maud Chaworth (1282-1322). See family trees below.

Maud of Lancaster outlived her father by only a year, and died at the age of 22 on 9 or 10 April 1362. According to a continental chronicle, she was buried in the Benedictine abbey of Rijnsburg near Leiden, a city now in the South Holland province of the Netherlands. She and her husband Wilhelm (b. 1330), duke of Lower Bavaria and count of Hainault and Holland, had had a daughter in 1356 when Maud was 16, but the little girl died in infancy. Wilhelm of Bavaria, incidentally, was John of Gaunt's first cousin: Wilhelm's mother Margareta of Hainault (1310-56), Holy Roman Empress, was the eldest sister of John's mother Queen Philippa. The unfortunate Wilhelm became insane around 1357/58 and had to be incarcerated for his own safety, and Edward III sometimes addressed letters to Wilhelm’s younger brother and heir Albrecht as the man in charge of looking after him. For thirty years until his death in 1388, poor Wilhelm was held in a tower of Le Quesnoy Castle (Le Quesnoy is a town now in the Nord department of France near the Belgian border), and Maud of Lancaster - the situation was so awful and tragic for both of them - lost her husband in all but name when she was still only a teenager. She remained near her husband on the continent, however, and the fact that she was buried in Rijnsburg surely indicates that she didn't die in England. Poor Maud, despite the unimaginable wealth she inherited, her life was short and sad. Incidentally, I'm not even going to bother to deal with the rumour that John of Gaunt had his sister-in-law poisoned; it's too silly to waste my time on. In Maud's inquisition post mortem of April/May 1362, jurors announced that "[t]he lady Blanche of Lancaster her sister, aged 20 years and married to Sir John, earl of Richmond, is her heir." Blanche and John now held all the Lancastrian inheritance, and John was made the second duke of Lancaster in November 1362 when his father Edward III celebrated his fiftieth birthday by raising his three middle sons to higher titles.

The Lancastrian heir after Blanche was her and John of Gaunt's only surviving son Henry of Lancaster (or Henry of Bolingbroke, as Shakespeare calls him), later King Henry IV, born in Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire in April 1367. A medieval custom called the 'courtesy of England' allowed a man who married an heiress to keep her entire inheritance after her death, for the rest of his own life, as long as they had at least one child together who lived long enough to take a breath. (Women, by contrast, held only a third of their late husband's lands as dower, but this right applied in all circumstances and not only when a couple had children.) John of Gaunt was the father of Blanche of Lancaster's children, and therefore, had the right to hold all her lands after her death at the age of 26 in September 1368 until his own death thirty years later in February 1399. John did not and could not inherit the Lancastrian estate, because he was not the child of Henry of Grosmont. His wife and his son, not John himself, were the Lancastrian heirs. 

On John's death in February 1399, his and Blanche's son Henry of Lancaster should have come into his inheritance from his long-dead mother, though in fact did not because his cousin Richard II had exiled him from England some months earlier. As well as the extensive Lancastrian lands, Henry held another rich estate. His wife Mary de Bohun (c. 1370-94) was the co-heir, with her older sister Eleanor (c. 1366-99), of their father Humphrey de Bohun (1342-73), earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton. Like his father, Henry of Lancaster benefited from the 'courtesy of England', because he was the father of Mary's children. After her death in 1394, therefore, he was entitled to hold Mary's one-third of the de Bohun inheritance for the rest of his life; another third was held by his sister-in-law Eleanor and her husband Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, John of Gaunt's youngest brother; and the remaining third was held by Eleanor and Mary's long-lived mother Joan Fitzalan, Humphrey de Bohun's widow, as dower. When Joan died in 1419, her dower lands were shared out between two of her grandchildren: Henry V, Mary de Bohun's eldest son and heir, and Anne, countess of Stafford, Eleanor de Bohun's only living secular child and heir. Another beneficiary of the 'courtesy of England' was John of Gaunt's older brother Lionel of Antwerp (1338-68), whose first wife Elizabeth de Burgh (1332-63) inherited the earldom of Ulster and a third of the earldom of Gloucester, and another was Gaunt's nephew-in-law Edmund Mortimer, earl of March (1352-81), who outlived his wife Philippa of Clarence (1355- c. 1379), Lionel and Elizabeth's daughter and heir.

There were several factors which neither John of Gaunt nor anyone else could have anticipated which allowed him to hold *all* the Lancaster lands for decades: the early death of his sister-in-law Maud at age 22; the death in infancy of Maud's only daughter some years earlier; and the insanity of Maud's husband Wilhelm von Wittelsbach, duke of Lower Bavaria and count of Hainault and Holland, and the fact that Wilhelm had to be incarcerated in c. 1358 for the remaining thirty years of his life. Otherwise, assuming that Maud and Wilhelm's daughter wasn't stillborn, Wilhelm would have been entitled, as Maud's widower and the father of her child, to hold half of the Lancastrian estate until his death in 1388. He was, however, unable to travel to England and claim his late wife's lands. Obviously, Wilhelm wasn't English, but there was a process called denization that allowed foreigners to hold, though not to inherit, lands in England. Two of the many people granted denization were Lucia Visconti, widow of Edmund Holland, earl of Kent (d. 1408), and Beatriz of Portugal, widow of Thomas Fitzalan, earl of Arundel (d. 1415), so that they could hold their dower lands from their late husbands. I'm not entirely certain about the law regarding the holding of lands in the case of insanity, though there are numerous examples in the chancery rolls of guardians being appointed to look after lands held by those deemed to suffer from 'idiocy' (not my word). Even if Wilhelm had been able to leave his tower at le Quesnoy and travel to England, given his condition it seems doubtful that he would have been able to hold Maud's lands. Certainly, there's no record of him ever receiving any income from them. It may be that his and Maud's daughter was stillborn in 1356, and if that was the case, the little girl's birth wouldn't have 'counted' for the purposes of the courtesy of England.

And finally, let's examine what would have happened if John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster had had no children. This, admittedly, is a big what-if, as it wipes out Blanche's son Henry IV, his son Henry V, her daughter Philippa, queen of Portugal, and Philippa's Portuguese children the Illustrious Generation, among numerous others. Primogeniture, whereby the eldest son inherited everything, did not apply to female heirs, who inherited equal parts of an estate, and being the eldest daughter conferred no advantage. This was why Maud and Blanche of Lancaster were joint and equal heirs to their father Henry of Grosmont in 1361. They had an older sister, Isabella of Lancaster, who is mentioned on record in 1338/39 but who must have died young; if she had lived, Isabella would have been another joint and equal heir to the Lancastrian fortune. 

If Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster, had had younger brothers, the eldest of the brothers if alive, or his children if dead, would have been heir to a putative childless Blanche. Duke Henry, however, had no brothers, but six sisters: in birth order, they were Blanche (d. 1380), Isabella (d. 1348/9), Maud (d. 1377), Joan (d. 1349), Eleanor (d. 1372) and Mary (d. 1362). Blanche the eldest was married to Thomas, Lord Wake for thirty-three years but had no children, and Isabella the second was veiled as a nun of Amesbury Priory and became its prioress. Maud's heirs were her daughters, Elizabeth de Burgh, duchess of Clarence and countess of Ulster (1332-63), and Maud Ufford, countess of Oxford (1345/6-1413); Joan's heir was her only son, John, Lord Mowbray (1340-68); Eleanor's heir was her eldest son, Henry, Lord Beaumont (1339-69); and Mary's heir was her eldest son, Henry, Lord Percy, later the first earl of Northumberland (1341-1408). 

If, for whatever reason, Blanche of Lancaster had never had children, her surviving aunts and the children of her other aunts would have been co-heirs to the vast Lancastrian estate on her death, in line with the law that female heirs, or their children if they were dead, received equal portions of an inheritance. If John of Gaunt and Blanche had had no child who lived long enough to take a breath, John would have had no claim to any part of his wife's lands after her death. 'Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster' would not have been Lancaster. And finally, assuming that John and Blanche did have their children but that Wilhelm von Wittelsbach and Maud of Lancaster's daughter lived for a while after her birth in 1356 and Wilhelm didn't become incapacitated in c. 1358, John would have had to share the Lancastrian estate with his German cousin and brother-in-law until Wilhelm's death in 1388.

Sources: Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem 1361-65, nos. 118, 299; Calendar of Close Rolls 1360-64, pp. 201-11.