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One son died young, one became an earl, one a bishop and one an abuser – the life of a medieval mother

Today, we’re going to spend some time with a woman called Elisabeth. Back in her day, there were many, many Elisabeths. And Eleanors. And Matildas.
Our Elisabeth had the misfortune of a somewhat burdened surname. Being a de Montfort in 13th century England was not necessarily a good thing—at least not after the battle of Evesham in 1265.“I’
m not a relative of Simon de Montfort,” Elisabeth probably said like a hundred times, purposefully omitting Simon’s titles—after all, he used to be an earl. “We just happen to share the same surname.”

Hmm. Now, truth be told, Elisabeth shared a bit more than a name—or rather her granddaddy did, because Peter de Montfort died at Evesham together with his non-relative Simon de Montfort. They were neighbours, almost, Peter’s new castle Beaudesert within riding distance of Kenilworth.

In the aftermath of Evesham, England was left reeling. The country was torn apart by these last few years of bloody conflict, and one thing that soon became eminently clear was that unless the king showed some sort of mercy and welcomed those rebellious barons back into his peace, things would remain very, very unstable. A feudal society depends on the hierarchy, and at present, half that hierarchy was potentially attainted.

Hence the Dictum of Kenilworth, which allowed the rebel barons to regain their lands for a stiff fine. Very stiff, but still. Elisabeth’s father was one of those who was able to claw back his lands, thereby regaining his position in the English nobility.

This was good news for Elisabeth (not that she was around at the time of Evesham) because it meant her marital prospects improved significantly. As a further plus, Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, suddenly decide to act the matchmaker, promoting Elisabeth’s marriage to William Montagu, the eldest son of Simon Montagu, 1st Baron Montagu. Simon had won his title thorough dedicated service to Edward I, and his son was to follow in his footsteps, earning quite some renown as a warrior.

Elisabeth and William were married in 1292. He was around seventeen, and I imagine she was some years younger, seeing as it took some years before the babies started arriving. But by 1301, Elisabeth was the mother of two boys, and over the coming years she would give birth to a further two boys and seven daughters.

Now, William and Elisabeth were wealthy, but seven daughters was a LOT of daughters, which may be why three of of them ended up as nuns. Their third son, Simon, became a bishop and their second son, William Montagu, was to become one of Edward III’s most trusted men, ending up as the Earl of Salisbury.

Their fourth son, however . . . I suspect Elisabeth had moments of despair when considering Edward—at least during the sunset years of her life. More of that later.

In 1317, Elisabeth’s eldest son, John, died at the age of eighteen. Two years later, her husband died, and Elisabeth was now a wealthy widow, surrounded by an impressive brood of children. She seems to have had an independent streak as she quietly remarried in 1322—without the king’s permission. Her new hubby, Thomas de Furnivall was fined 200 pounds by the king for this, but pardoned—after all, in late 1322 Edward II had far weightier things on his mind than an illicit marriage, like the escape from the Tower of his greatest enemy, Roger Mortimer.

There were no more children for Elisabeth. I imagine she uttered a “Thank the good Lord,” for that, and as her second hubby already had children and the all-important heir, he was probably content to enjoy life without the pitter-patter of small feet.

Instead, Elisabeth watched her own brood develop into major players on the English political scene: her William, the king’s chosen confidante who covered himself in glory and riches; her Simon, first bishop of Worcester, then of Ely; four of her daughters safely wed: her youngest son, Edward, wed to a cousin of the king, no less.

Truly, by the late 1330s, Elisabeth could sit back and relax, quite the successful matriarch.

But in 1344, William died of wounds incurred during a tournament

In 1345 Simon died.

And in 1351 . . . That Edward! How could he do thus?

In 1338—or maybe even a few years earlier—Edward Montagu married Alice of Norfolk, co-heiress to Thomas of Brotherton, uncle of Edward III. In 1338, Alice was fourteen. He was probably pushing thirty. He was also probably doing little capers of joy, because with the death of Toma Brotherton, his wife was suddenly very rich. And while big brother William might be best buddies with the king, he, Edward, was married to the king’s cousin. His children would be related to the king—take that, William!

At a distance of seven centuries it is of course impossible to assess the state of the Alice/Edward marriage. But at least there were children—one son and, one after the other, four daughters. The latest of these, Joan, was born in 1349, and as Alice was only twenty-five or so at the time, one supposes there were expectations of more children. Edward needed at least one more son—a spare to the heir.

In 1351, all hopes of future children for Alice came crashing down. Literally. For reasons unknown, her husband and two of his cronies (one of whom seems to have been a priest!), subjected poor Alice to a beating so violent it left her in a coma. Within the year, she was dead.  I fear poor Alice had been the regular recipient of slaps and punches through the years—domestic abuse usually escalates—but as to what triggered this horrific outburst of violence, we do not know.

What we do know is that when Alice died, she was survived by three daughters, so maybe it all came down to Edward being enraged by her inability to give him a new son. There have been speculations about her being unfaithful (with her cousin the king, no less) but this sounds like a convenient exercise in “blame the victim”.

Poor Alice was not even thirty when her husband and his cronies bludgeoned life out of her. Clearly, the event caused disgust among Edward’s peers—but was he punished? Nope. In fact, the king approved him taking seisin of Alice’s lands and was to pardon one of the other participants for his “great services”. Huh. I have always rated Edward III highly, but to rewards someone for killing his own wife? Seriously? However, like Kathryn Warner states in her excellent blog about this whole mess (I warmly recommend you read it!) it was probably impossible to convict a medieval man of murdering his wife, seeing as in many ways, she was considered his property.

(But sometimes, women struck back against their abusers. And sometimes, they got away with it, like Matilda Mortimer did back in 1304. Read and enjoy!)

Back to today’s protagonist: In 1351, Elisabeth welcomed her three little granddaughters into her home. I have no idea how she comforted them, but for the coming few years they lived with their grandma.

Elisabeth’s effigy

In 1354, Elisabeth Montagu, nee de Montfort (“Not that de Montfort!”) died. She was predeceased by three sons and one daughter, and was laid to rest in the priory of St Frideswide, Oxford (present day Christchurch Cathedral) There she still lies, undisturbed by the passing centuries.


Her surviving son died in 1361, having suffered no consequences for that awful day when he battered Alice to death. Edward’s son in his second marriage did not long survive his father, thereby rendering this particular branch of the Montagu family extinct on the male side. Good riddance, I say.

There is of course a reason for me deep-diving into Elisabeth’s life, and that is the fact that I have gifted her with a younger brother, Peter. This young lad serves the king as one of his pages, among which figures my Lionel, foster son to Robert FitzStephan and his Noor. Peter did not exist, but he plays an important role in my upcoming novel Their Castilian Orphan, thereby representing those “other” de Montforts.

They were finally done. Lionel slunk off to the stables. Halfway there, he ran into Peter de Montfort, a page some months older than him. Several inches taller, Peter was substantially thinner, but those narrow shoulders were stronger than you would think, and Peter had the temperament of a cornered dog to go with it. He’d been fighting since he arrived at court, face going bright red with anger whenever one of the other lads whispered “traitor’s get” behind his back.
“Not that it isn’t true,” he’d once confided to Lionel. “My grandfather died at Evesham, side by side with Earl Simon.” He grimaced. “Aye, I share a surname with Simon de Montfort, but he is no family of mine.”
Lionel couldn’t quite understand why that mattered, seeing as Peter’s grandsire had been fighting for the earl, thereby obviously dying as a traitorous rebel.

“Hmph,” Elisabeth says. “Those were difficult and complicated times. And seeing as close to half of England supported Earl Simon, who is to say who was right and who was wrong.” She sniffs. “It’s like that song ABBA sings: ‘The winner takes it all’:”

Yeah. That happens frequently in history, doesn’t it? And if you wonder how Elisabeth has even heard of ABBA she would have you know that after spending several days in my head she’s had it up to here with ABBA. Huh. Guess that means I’ll never write a book featuring her!

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