Today I thought we’d spend some time with a man named Richard. Okay, so very many men in medieval England were named Richard, including three Plantagenet kings, but nope, we won’t be talking about them today. Instead, we’re going to spend time with a baron so powerful, so wealthy, he probably could (and now and then likely did) outshine his king. As his king was Henry III, this was not all that hard to do: Henry may have been possessed of an extremely well-developed aesthetic sense, but his political and military acumen were somewhat weaker. Our man of the day was substantially more successful in the area of worldly power-mongering.
Mind you, it had not always been like that. Born in 1222, Richard de Clare was the heir to the huge de Clare estates. His father was Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hereford. His mother was Isabel Marshal, daughter to the William Marshal. None of this, I suspect, really helped when Richard’s father died in 1230. In one fell swoop, the boy was converted into one of the richest magnates in England—well, he would be, once he was invested with his inheritance. At the time, Richard was a child, a minor, and many were the barons eager to put themselves forward as a suitable guardian for this very, very rich ward.
England in 1230 was ruled by a young king. Henry III had ascended the throne in 1216, all of nine years old. Since reaching his majority, Henry ruled in his own name—with Hubert de Burgh as his principal counsellor. Hubert had been unfailingly loyal to John and been rewarded accordingly. He was equally loyal to Henry, but like all barons of the time, Hubert always had an eye out for his own interests and when little Richard de Clare’s wardship came up for grabs, Hubert was in a position to award himself this very juicy plum.
Richard had to leave his mother, his siblings, and was instead transferred to Hubert’s care. It was de Burgh who was responsible for Richard’s future education—his widowed mother had no say. Not that this was uncommon: usually, a boy of noble birth would be raised in another noble household, spending his formative years as a page and squire far from home. And mothers rarely had a say in how their sons were educated beyond the first years—at least not officially.
Now, like all powerful men Hubert de Burgh had collected plenty of enemies during his long political life. In 1232, these enemies managed to discredit the earl of Kent who ended up imprisoned. This impacted Richard in two ways: one, his wardship was transferred to two others of Henry III’s favourites, Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and Peter de Rivaux, nephew to de Roches. Secondly, this is when Richard was probably married for the first time.
What? You might say, having made some quick calculations prior to concluding Richard was a child of ten. Youth was not a hindrance when it came to marriages as such—many a young child was married in medieval times. The church, however, required two things for such a marriage to stand: that consent was given and that it was consummated, neither of which a boy of ten was considered capable of doing. (Phew!)
Richard’s first bride was Margaret de Burgh, daughter to the disgraced Hubert and his third wife, Princess Margaret of Scotland. Some say this clandestine wedding was arranged by Hubert’s wife as a desperate measure to safeguard some sort of future protection for her daughter. It has also been said that, no matter their tender age, Margaret and Richard were genuinely in love. Makes me spontaneously break out in “They try to tell us we’re too young, too young to really fall in love. They say that love’s a word, a word we’ve only heard, and can’t begin to get the meaning of…” (Nat King Cole, in case you’re wondering)
Seriously, I have my doubts about two children experiencing emotions so strong they asked Margaret Mater to help them wed. But whether true or not, it does seem they were married. Without royal consent. Oh, dear…You see, a magnate as powerful as Richard would one day become needed royal approval before he wed. At least in theory – Henry’s own brother, also called Richard, seems to have ignored this when he married our Richard’s mother. (So yes, Richard had an in on the royal family. Henry III was his step-uncle)
Henry III threw a fit. It was him, only him, who would decide who Richard was to marry. (By then, Henry III had taken custody of Richard himself, the Peter double-act having fallen out of favour in 1234) Pressure was brought to bear on the young couple. As the marriage was unconsummated, it was easy to annul—assuming Richard and little Margaret agreed to do so.
From the distance of eight centuries it is difficult to know what really happened. Edith Pargeter has written a heart-wrenching version of events in The Marriage of Megotta according to which our star-crossed lovers were kept forcibly apart to ensure they did not seal their love with more than a kiss. (Read it! Wow book) A somewhat more pragmatic take on things would suggest the marriage was just annulled. In the event, whether it was annulled or not became a moot point as Margaret de Burgh died in 1237 at the age of fifteen. It no longer mattered if the marriage had been valid, had been consummated: Richard was free to wed as it pleased his king.
A marital prize such as Richard could be used for all sorts of alliances. At first, Henry toyed with the idea of marrying Richard to a member of the powerful French family, de Lusignan. As an aside, this is the family Henry III’s mother, Isabella of Angouleme married into after the death of John, effectively stealing her daughter’s intended. Not so sure little Princess Joan was all that depressed by this turn of events—her intended was old enough to be her father and then some—but Isabella’s behaviour was frowned upon. It just went to prove how lecherous women in general and beautiful women in particular were. Right: back to our Richard and the hunt for a suitable bride. Turns out the de Lusignans weren’t that interested.
Someone else, however, was very interested. John de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln was eager to see his eldest daughter as Richard’s wife—and he was willing to pay the king handsomely for the honour. Which was how Richard ended up marrying Maud de Lacy in early 1238.
Richard remained under royal wardship for several years more. In 1243 he came of age and was knighted by the king plus received official seisin of his vast inheritance. At last, Richard was in control of his own life. At last, he need answer to no man but himself—and his king. Thing is, a baron as powerful as Richard was destined to be, could use that to his advantage: there would be numerous occasions when Richard’s support would be the difference between success or failure for whatever plans Henry III might have.
In 1243, Richard already had an heir, named Gilbert after Richard’s father. All in all, Maud and Richard would have seven children and while Richard concentrated on expanding his territories—he added substantially to them via his mother’s Marshal inheritance—Maud dedicated a lot of time to arranging advantageous marriages for her children. I get the impression theirs was a successful marriage, which does not mean it was a happily ever after marriage. Few medieval ladies and lords had such expectations—to them, a marriage was an alliance with the purpose of forwarding the family interests.
Richard was good at managing his huge estates. He developed an impressive administrative system that allowed him to keep tabs on what was happening but left the running of his estates in the south-east and in Ireland to his efficient stewards. He himself focused on his Marcher lordships and on expanding into Wales. This he did through a combination of ruthless campaigning, castle building and implementation of English law. He stomped any Welsh rebellions on his lands into the ground and made sure everyone knew that in this part of the world only one man’s word was law: his word.
As many of you know, Henry III’s reign was plagued by upheaval, all of it coming to a head in the late 1250s when a certain Simon de Montfort set himself up as the leader of the baronial opposition. Initially, Richard sided with de Montfort and when he threw his weight behind the Provisions of Oxford the king had little choice but to accept them. But Richard had spent most of his youth at the royal court, had a close relationship with his step-father who was also Henry’s brother. And he had little liking for de Montfort, who was not only an eager reformer but also very acquisitive, both when it came to land and power.
In 1261, Richard abandoned the baronial cause and returned to the royal fold. What role he could have played and how things would have developed had Richard been in a position to influence events we will never know. In 1262 he died, not yet forty years old. Some say he was poisoned—there had been a previous attempt some years earlier—but as the main chronicles don’t mention anything about a suspicious death I dare say we can rule it out.
Richard died in a time of turmoil. Civil war was to rage for many years more and his own son the fiery Gilbert de Clare was to play a central role. First as de Montfort’s loyal second-in-command, then as Prince Edward’s equally loyal second-in-command. Seems those de Clare men had an ambivalent relationship with the crown…
By the time he died, Richard’s memories of his first little bride would have been very hazy. Since those childhood days when he’d wed Margaret de Burgh, so much time had passed. It was with Maud he’d built a life, fathered children so any last thoughts would reasonably have been of her. Whether he did think of her or not, he died knowing that his capable and tenacious wife would keep on protecting the family interests.
Maud de Lacy never remarried. Her dower contracts left her an immensely wealthy widow, to the chagrin of her eldest son who would go as far as to sue her to push through a reduction in her dower income. I guess this was a case of like mother, like son: Maud de Lucy has the dubious reputation of being the most litigious lady in 13th century England!
In the fullness of time, Richard’s and Maud’s grandchildren were to play important roles on opposing sides in the conflicts that afflicted England in the 1320s. One of their granddaughters would be the first ever woman to be imprisoned in the Tower, two would be left widows after the executions of their husbands. All of them would be smack in the middle of the unfolding events. Not exactly unusual if you were a de Clare…