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Thrice married, thrice widowed

Edward I and Eleanor

Some while back, I wrote a post about Joan of Acre, Edward I’s daughter who was married off to the much older Gilbert de Clare, went on to present her doting husband with a male heir and three daughters before becoming a widow, and then had the temerity of upending her father’s plans for her second marriage by wedding a lowly (but, I hope, loving) knight named Ralph de Monthermer.
Joan went on to have more children – back in those days, it was sort of difficult for a fertile woman to avoid pregnancy if she was into making love with her husband – but today I thought we would focus on her youngest daughter by Gilbert de Clare, Elizabeth.
At the time of her father’s death late in 1295, baby Elizabeth was no more than three months or so, which of course precluded a close daughter-father relationship. Instead, she grew up with her mother and her step-father, and seeing as mama was rich (Joan’s marriage contracts gave her control of her first husband’s earldoms until their son came of age) I imagine Elizabeth had a comfortable childhood.
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As all young girls of impeccable bloodlines, Elizabeth was destined for marriage. In September of 1308, the just thirteen-year-old Elizabeth married John de Burgh – the day after her brother, Gilbert, had married John’s sister, Maud.
Seeing as John de Burgh was the son of the Earl of Ulster, Elizabeth moved to Ireland, taking her place among the Anglo-Norman nobility. Four years after her wedding, Elizabeth presented her husband with a son, William. There were to be no more children seeing as John died early in 1313. Not yet eighteen, Elizabeth was now the widowed mother of the future Earl of Ulster, at present a babe in swaddling bands.
Obviously, such a young woman could not be allowed to remain unmarried for long. Even less so when in June of 1314 Elizabeth’s brother died at Bannockburn. Suddenly, Elizabeth, together with her two older sisters, was the heiress to the vast de Clare lands and the equally vast income. Her eldest sister was safely married to Hugh Despenser, but both Elizabeth and her second sister, Margaret, now became exceedingly attractive marital prizes, and Elizabeth was ordered to return to England while her uncle, Edward II, decided just who was to have her as a wife.
While he mulled over his choices, Edward delayed the division of the de Clare lands by maintaining Gilbert’s young widow, Maud, was pregnant. Obviously, by the time the anniversary of Bannockburn had come and gone, this was not the case – after all, Maud was no elephant – but Maud insisted she was expecting, and Edward was happy to “believe” her – as long as he did, the de Clare incomes poured into his coffers.
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Bristol Castle (under attack, which it wasn’t while Elizabeth lived there)

Once in England, Elizabeth was lodged in Bristol Castle so as to keep her safe from salivating potential bridegrooms. What she might have thought of this is unknown, nor do we know if she had a significant other she dreamed about. What we do know is that despite the formidable walls that surrounded the castle, in early 1316 Elizabeth was abducted by a certain Theobald de Verdon who quickly married her.
Edward II was holding Parliament in Lincoln when he received the news that his niece had tied the knot (whether reluctantly or not, we do not know. Theobald maintained they’d been betrothed while she was still in Ireland, which in itself does not mean she was head-over-heels in love). Apparently, he was not pleased. Not at all. Theobald was treated to a dose of the king’s ire – and slapped with a hefty fine. I dare say Theobald was good enough at maths to conclude his actions were still going to pay off, and Edward’s ire was usually of the short-lived variety.
In the event, Theobald himself was to prove short-lived. He died in July of 1316, after a mere five months of wedded bliss. In difference to poor Maud, Elizabeth really was pregnant at her husband’s death and would give birth to a daughter in March of 1317. I suspect Edward was more than delighted at Theobald’s death. This time, he intended to ensure Elizabeth wed his choice, and in May of 1317 Elizabeth contracted her third wedding in nine years, to a certain Roger Damory. She was not quite twenty-two…
medieval marriage a0004359This Damory was “a poor and needy knight” – i.e. originally he had little wealth or land of his own. He’d served under Elizabeth’s brother at Bannockburn, distinguished himself in the battle, and had therefore been rewarded by Edward II, receiving lands worth approximately 100 pounds a year (In comparison, the de Clare lands were worth approximately 6 000 pounds per year, Elizabeth’s share therefore being a sizeable 2 000 or so) More importantly, Roger was part of the threesome that were the king’s favourite companions, a little troika consisting of Hugh Despenser, Hugh Audley and Roger himself.
Edward II was nothing if not fair to his favourites. Where Damory was given the hand of Elizabeth, her sister Margaret was married off to Hugh Audley while big sister Eleanor was already married since years back to Hugh Despenser. The three de Clare sisters were safely in the arms (and beds) of the men Edward wanted to favour, and late in 1317 the farce of Maud de Clare’s extended pregnancy came to an end, the former so huge de Clare lands carved up between the sisters – or their husbands.
Initially, it was Damory who received the lion’s share of the king’s largesse – he seems to have been a favourite among the favourites, so to say. So covetous and greedy was Damory that the other barons, notably among them Thomas of Lancaster, protested loudly. Things weren’t exactly improved when Damory got his hands on Elizabeth’s patrimony – he was now so wealthy it became dangerous to threaten him, and Damory seems to have had few qualms when it came to adding to his wealth.
All in all, this does not exactly paint Damory as a loving husband – instead, he probably considered Elizabeth no more than a means to an end, which in his case probably was to become so rich no one ever described him as “poor and needy” again.
In 1318, Elizabeth was delivered of yet another child – Damory’s daughter. She now had three children by three husbands, and as far as we know, she had no other. Meanwhile, Damory’s position at court was no longer what it had been. Of late, Edward II preferred Hugh Despenser to Audley and Damory, and Despenser was not above using his increased influence with the king to push his demands for a larger share of the de Clare lands, thereby eating into the land held by Damory and Audley.
This did not go down well. In fact, so incensed were both Damory and Audley that they sided with Thomas of Lancaster and Roger Mortimer in 1321, an explosive rebellion that ended when Edward II agreed to exile Hugh Despenser (and his father).
Edward II and Piers

What Elizabeth thought of all this we do not know. Her royal uncle seems to have shown little consideration for her in his choice of groom, but on the other hand, Elizabeth would have expected the king to decide who she should wed, so this was not something she’d have held against him. Edward is known to have been very fond of Eleanor and Margaret – the latter had been Piers Gaveston’s wife, and Edward had adored Piers – and it is reasonable to assume some of that affection would have spilled over on Elizabeth, albeit that he didn’t know her as well. However, it is reasonable to assume she sided with her husband against her rapacious brother-in-law, and maybe this brought about a closer relationship with Damory.
Whatever the case, in 1322 Edward II had brought his rebellious barons to heel. His detested cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, had been executed, Mortimer languished in the Tower, and Roger Damory was dead, having died of an infected wound. Elizabeth and her children were captured at the castle of Usk and taken to Barkings Abbey where she was forced to sign over Usk to Despenser. For a while, all of her lands were under attainder, but late in 1322 Edward restored her English lands. Her Welsh lands, however, stayed with Despenser. I’m thinking this did not lead to the warmest of relationships between Elizabeth and big sister Eleanor – but maybe Eleanor couldn’t care less, now that her husband had come out on top.
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Edward II being arrested and brought before a triumphant Isabella

Elizabeth was never to remarry. She supported Queen Isabella’s invasion in 1326 and was rewarded by having the lordship of Usk restored to her. By then, Despenser was dead, sister Eleanor and her youngest children were in the Tower while three of the Despenser girls had been forcibly veiled. I guess Elizabeth was relieved at having escaped such a dire faith, and over the coming years, she concentrated on raising her children and negotiating good marriages for them.
Her son, William de Burgh, was wed to a daughter of Henry of Lancaster and soon enough Elizabeth was dangling a namesake granddaughter on her knee. Unfortunately, William died young – he was murdered in Ireland in revenge for letting a rebellious cousin starve to death. It fell to our Elizabeth to manage her granddaughter’s inheritance – just as she managed her own lands, spread throughout England, Wales and Ireland.
Her eldest daughter, Isabel, was married at the age of eleven and brought to bed of her first child before she turned fourteen. Fortunately, little Isabel survived this experience and went on to have several children, most of whom survived infancy. Isabel herself, however, died already in 1348, one of the many, many who succumbed to the plague.
Elizabeth’s youngest child, also an Elizabeth, was also married young. In difference to both her siblings, she did not die young, surviving all the way to her forties. I suppose that was a great comfort to our Elizabeth.
Truth be told, most of Elizabeth’s family died well before her. Other than her three husbands, both her sisters died before 1342, yet another reminder of how short human life could be. Maybe that is why she devoted so much of her latter life to works of piety – hoping, maybe, to reap the fruits in an afterlife devoid of strife and violent death. She took a vow of chastity in 1343 (which seems something of a grand gesture, no more. By then, she’d been a widow for over twenty years…) made regular pilgrimages to Canterbury and Walsingham, was a generous benefactress of various religious communities, founded a Franciscan friary in Walsingham and gave generously to a convent of Minoresses just outside Aldgate in London. This latter establishment seems to have held a special place in her heart, as she built a house close to the convent and passed a sizeable chunk of her time there.
An eager proponent of learning, Elizabeth was also one of the principal benefactors of present day Clare College of Cambridge university. She gave land and monies, she drafted the statutes whereby learning in all its forms were to be encouraged, and when she died, the college was one of the principal beneficiaries of her will, ensuring that her “ten poor scholars” would continue to thrive for the foreseeable future.
Already in 1355, Elizabeth began preparing for her death. She drew up her will, making bequests that would ensure not only her own salvation, but also that of her three husbands. By then, John, Theobald and Roger cannot have been much more than hazy memories – she’d lived far longer without a man than with one. In early 1360, her youngest child died. Some months later, Elizabeth followed her, dying late in 1360 at the age of sixty-five. Hers had been a long life – and a rather lonely one, IMO.

2 thoughts on “Thrice married, thrice widowed”

  1. I love hearing about these women and their complex, challenging lives – pawns in dynastic marriages; serial widowhood, and children (if they survived) by so many different fathers. An inspiring tale for those who were able to make something of their lives!

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