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The royal giant – of Lionel, prince of England

History is littered with people whose lives are forgotten. Most of the people who have lived and died in the past have done so in obscurity and this also applies to the high-born. We know they were born, we may now when they died, but unless they were in line to become king or queen or did something out of the ordinary, younger sons and daughters are rarely remembered.

This is not entirely true for today’s protagonist. Lionel of Antwerp did not only leave a surviving child, he is also remembered because of his extraordinary height—and for the extravagant wedding festivities at his second wedding.

Lionel was the third son born to Edward III of England and his queen, Philippa. And yes, he was born in Antwerp. Edward III and his wife had a good and very fruitful marriage, resulting in many sons. Likely, Edward III did not see this as a problem—and had his eldest son and namesake lived, it would likely never have become one. But Edward the Black prince died young, and so Edward III was succeeded by a child, his grandson Richard II. This young king may have had many redeeming qualities, but he was not a good or wise ruler, which is why he was deposed, his crown usurped by his cousin, Henry IV. Soon enough, the descendants of Edward III’s various sons were locked in a bloody battle for the crown, a conflict that would dominate the political climate for close to a century.

All of this was in the future when baby Lionel uttered his first bawls in November of 1338. I have given birth to four babies, there of whom were boys and very big. None of my boys, however, has grown to Lionel’s impressive height (he was close to seven feet as an adult) so I imagine Lionel was a very, very big baby. Philippa was probably quite exhausted by his birth. Exhausted, but proud—and delighted at how healthy and lusty her new son was. After all, her previous son, born a year or so before Lionel, died in infancy.

In 1342,not quite four-year-old Lionel was married to the ten-year-old Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster. A perfect bride for the king’s son, a rich heiress. Through his wife, Lionel became the Earl of Ulster. Elizabeth had inherited her lands as a baby when her father died and had been raised at the court of her future father-in-law, so she was probably well-integrated into the royal family. I do, however, suspect that a ten-year-old girl was less than delighted at having a “baby” as her groom, but a royal ward had little choice but to do as the king wanted.

As Earl of Ulster, Lionel was to spend a lot of time in Ireland, sent over by his father to bring order to this somewhat wild and savage place. By all accounts, Lionel wasn’t quite up to the task, but for his efforts Edward III made him the Duke of Clarence.

In 1355, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Philippa. In the fullness of time, Philippa was destined to marry Edmund Mortimer, third Earl of March. Their granddaughter would marry Richard of Conisburgh, son to yet another of Edward III’s son, and give birth to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, principal contender for the crown of England.

Lionel probably wanted a son—men did, back then, especially men with titles and lands. There was no further issue with Elizabeth and in 1363 she died. Was Lionel devastated? No idea. But he was young and life had to go on. Plus, an unmarried prince was an asset to be deployed as it best suited the king.

In this case, Edward III needed money. The royal coffers were seriously depleted after years of war with France, so when  Galeazzo II Visconti of Milan approached him, suggesting an alliance, Edward was happy to listen. Galeazzo was very, very rich. He also had a young daughter, Violante, who came generously dowered. Galeazzo wanted his children to marry into the European royal houses. His son he had married to a French princess, so marrying Violante to an English prince could be seen as Galeazzo hedging his bets, indirectly bankrolling both the French and English war effort. (At the time, though, England and France were happily at peace—for now)

Galeazzo – he rocks those feathers!

Galeazzo II Visconti is one of those very complicated men who combine an extremely ruthless—cruel, even—side, with a passion for art and culture. The Visconti men were usually referred to as the Vipers of Milan, not only because their armorial device included a serpent eating a Saracen but because the family had a reputation for bizarre and sadistic behaviour. In comparison to his brother, Bernabo, Gian Galeazzo comes across as a mild lamb, but that says more about Bernabo, who seems to have been a horrible and borderline insane despot, than it does about Galeazzo. Galeazzo’s duality is exemplified by the fact that on the one side he introduced the Quaresima, a so-called torture protocol, whereby a man condemned to die was publicly tortured for forty days before finally being allowed to expire, on the other, he founded the University in Pavia.


Galeazzo’s character was not particularly relevant to Edward. His money was. Which is why Lionel was betrothed to little Violante early in 1368. In return, a dowry amounting to a staggering two million gold florins would be paid to the groom (and his father). Lionel was pushing thirty. Violante was thirteen. I dare say Galeazzo hoped for many, many grandchildren from this union.

Lionel’s journey down to Italy was one luxurious cavalcade. With a retinue of close to 500 people and 1 200 horses, he set off, beginning with an April visit to Paris where he was feted not only by the French king, Charles V, but also by said king’s brothers’ the dukes of Anjou, Berry and Burgundy, more than eager to showcase their wealth and splendour before the English prince. They were of an age, these young aristocrats, so the nights were long and the days were mostly spent recuperating—or shopping. Here our Lionel had the best guide available in his bride-to-be’s uncle, Amadeus of Savoy, who was also in attendance. Amadeus was a fashionista and spent ridiculous amounts on jewels, feathers, cloth of gold, capes lined with fur and other of life’s essentials.

Eventually, Lionel arrived in Milan, there to greet his pretty bride and her somewhat overbearing father. It was June, and as Lionel’s party approached the Visconti capital – now further swelled with close to 1 500 fighting men from the White Company, captained by John Hawkwood — Galeazzo sent out 60 maids to meet him. Each damsel was dressed in scarlet and gold and accompanied by an equally well-dressed knight.

The wedding feast was so magnificent we still have records of what was served. Thirty double courses of meat and fish alternated with lavish gift-giving. During the long outdoor meal, falcons, horses, hounds, jewels, silks, velvet capes, spurs, were given away to various members of Lionel’s entourage. All the served dishes were gilded, using a paste of egg and saffron and gold leaf. (Not entirely sure that was good for you…) Suckling pigs landed on the table together with crabs, hares with pikes, peacocks with cabbage, French beans with pickled tongue. There were roasted calves, venison, capons and beef. Ducks and herons, trout quail, lamb—an endless list. Reputedly, the leftovers were sufficient to feed 10 000 people.

Once the feasting was over, Lionel and Violante retired. After a further few days in Milan, they travelled onwards to Violante’s—oops, Lionel’s—Italian lands. We know nothing about the Violante-Lionel union, beyond the fact that it was destined to be short. Only five months after the wedding, Lionel died of an unknown bowel affliction. Yes, there were mutters of poison, discreet finger-pointing in the direction of the Visconti. Given the amount of money Galeazzo spent on the wedding, I find it unbelievable. Whatever the case, we will never know.

A year or so after Lionel set off for Italy, his remains returned to England, there to be buried at Clare Priory in Suffolk in accordance with his will. Beside him lay his first wife, Elizabeth. His second wife, Violante, was not destined for much happiness. Her second husband was a known sadist who was assassinated at the behest of her own brother, a fate which he shared with her third husband. Thrice widowed, Violante died at the age of 31, leaving a little boy behind. By then, I suspect she barely remembered her first husband – well, except for his size. A dashing golden giant, was Lionel of Antwerp. Difficult to fully forget, once you’d seen him, but rather unforgettable in all other aspects.

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