When Gilbert de Clare, the last Clare earl of Gloucester and Hereford died in battle at Bannockburn on 24th June 1314, he unknowingly set in motion a series of events that were to lead to the meteoric rise of Hugh Despenser the younger. At the time of his death, he had no living heir of his body, which meant that his huge estates would be broken up among his familial co-heirs: his sisters Eleanor, Elizabeth and Margaret. So far, so (sort of) simple. However, there was one problem, one thing that kept the lands from being divided: his wife, Maud (daughter of Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster) declared that she was pregnant. As her baby could possibly turn out to be a boy and therefore a true heir, the partition was postponed until she gave birth.
And so began a rather farcical period as nine months went by, followed by another nine months, with no birth. This continued for nearly three years with the countess contending that she was still pregnant for all of this time. Maybe people of the 14th century did not have the medical knowledge we possess now, but they certainly would have known what the normal time for a human gestation was! Therefore, the reasons why this ‘pregnancy’ was believed can only be a source for speculation. It is possible that the countess truly thought that she was pregnant – maybe she was suffering from a phantom pregnancy or some other illness that gave her the appearance of being with child. Although people at this time were not unintelligent – they did believe in miracles and the like: perhaps it was thought that her swollen belly would produce some miracle child of a longer gestation period than others. Or maybe she had suffered from a miscarriage and was unable to accept it. Or politically, maybe the countess’s fantasies of pregnancy gave the king the excuse he needed to delay the partition (for reasons below).
The man who stood to gain the most by the division of the inheritance was Hugh Despenser the younger. As the husband of the eldest daughter, Eleanor, he was in line to receive the largest and wealthiest portion, notably the lordship of Glamorgan. In total the lands stood to bring him an annual income of £1,415 4s. 11 ½d of which Glamorgan by itself was worth £1,267 6s 9 1/4 d. And that total did not include the estate reversions which totalled just over £880 pounds. For a man who had had few lands of his own before, this must have seemed like a gift from God. No wonder then that he was eager to claim it.
Unfortunately, Maud’s ‘pregnancy’ stood in his way and it seemed that Edward was not going to make it easy for him to claim his wife’s share. Despenser did not, of course, take the delays lying down (no jokes about that line please 😉 ) but was a frequent petitioner at chancery and parliament calling for the farce to be ended. Edward fielded various excuses, including that the countess’s pregnancy was well known in the places where she lived, and also that the matter was a complicated one, so complicated in fact that certain prelates and men versed in canonical law who had investigated the matter could not agree on what the final outcome should be. The best statement of all though was that Hugh:
could, and ought to, if he thought it would help him, according to the law and custom of the realm, and the course of chancery used in such cases, have sued out a writ of the lord king’s chancery to have the belly of the aforesaid countess inspected by knights and discreet matrons, that is to see whether the said countess were pregnant or not: and if so, then when she was expected to give birth.
Following this with:
And since the aforementioned countess was always prepared to undergo such an examination, and the said Hugh and Eleanor had not observed that due process, their negligence ought not to prejudice the said pregnancy, but rather to redound to the harm and prejudice of the same Hugh and Eleanor.
In other words Hugh and Eleanor should put up and shut up, as they had not followed ‘procedure’. As this was said in Parliament (Lincoln, January 1315), one can only imagine the anger and humiliation Hugh must have felt at being publicly treated in such an offhand manner.
It should be realised that in 1315 Hugh was far from being the favourite that he would later become. In fact it seems that Edward did not have much regard for him at all, despite his father’s position at court. As far as I can see, there are three main possible reasons why Edward was keen to play along with Maud’s ‘pregnancy’ and delay the settlement:
1. Edward did not want a man he neither liked nor trusted having such wealth and power (remember, Hugh had sympathies for Warwick and the Ordainers some years before).
2. Edward wanted to retain the revenues of the lands for as long as possible.
3. Margaret and Elizabeth, Eleanor’s sisters, were both widows at this point. Edward may have decided to prolong the process of partition until he had found suitable husbands for them, ones that he trusted and perhaps hoped would keep the younger Despenser in check.
It was actually probably a mixture of all three reasons. This is why Maud’s ‘pregnancy’ was very convenient in its timing – no matter who believed it and why. Of course even Edward must have realised that it could not go on forever. And also Hugh was really becoming a thorn in his side – especially after he besieged and took Maud’s castle of Tonbridge later that year.
Therefore he redoubled his efforts to get the other two de Clare women safely remarried. He had ordered Elizabeth back from Ireland in late 1315 and must have had someone in mind for her (maybe even her future husband Roger D’Amory). However, in February 1316, Elizabeth was abducted from Bristol castle by Theobald de Verdon who very soon after married her. Verdon was probably no stranger to Elizabeth as he had been Justiciar of Ireland while she lived there. Therefore it is very possible (and I think likely) that they planned the illicit marriage in order to forestall her being given to anyone else. Edward, of course, was understandably furious to be undermined in such a way and fined them both a huge sum of money.
Verdon was 17 years older than his new wife – even so, when he died six months later at 37, he was still a youngish man. There is unfortunately no record what he died of but I would guess it to be a sudden illness rather than an accident. The young Elizabeth (she was still only 20), pregnant with his child, retired to Amesbury Priory where she gave birth to a daughter (Isabella) in March 1317. At least she would have had good company there – her aunt Mary was a nun there and her niece, Gaveston’s daughter Joan had also been sent to the Priory.
It seems that in this instance Edward somewhat lacked sensitivity, for even before Verdon was cold in the ground he was already planning her marriage to his current favourite Roger D’Amory. Elizabeth was obviously not too keen on the match for her uncle wrote her several letters on the subject, even calling her ‘his favourite niece’ (what Eleanor – who was usually his favourite – must have thought about this is not recorded!). Edward and D’Amory also visited her at Amesbury during her pregnancy (as if being a pregnant widow wasn’t stressful enough) to make her see sense. Eventually, finding herself outnumbered by those who supported the king’s proposals (including the queen, Isabella and her aunt Mary) she reluctantly agreed and the pair were married probably between the dates of her Churching ceremony, the 30th April and 3rd May 1317, as a grant made at that time describes her as D’Amory’s wife.
Margaret was a little easier to deal with. She was widowed in June 1312 when her husband, Piers de Gaveston was killed by Edward’s enemies, the earls of Warwick and Lancaster. Since then she had stayed with Edward’s court, with the king paying all of her expenses, as well as giving her a large allowance to live off. Therefore she was probably more familiar with the man Edward had chosen for her to marry. Hugh Audley (or d’Audley) was another of Edward’s favourites of the time and would therefore have been seen around court quite a lot. He was close in age to Margaret and had been one of Edward’s household knights since 1311. He was also related to Roger Mortimer – at this point still in Edward’s favour. There do not seem to have been any objections about the marriage but it still took until 28th April 1317 for it to happen.
The countess was not the only reason why the partition was delayed. It appears that the Inquisition Post Mortem into the earl of Gloucester’s death became confused over who were actually the heiresses and quite a few returns named an Isabella instead of Elizabeth. Because of this confusion, an escheator was ordered to carry out an investigation – presumably just to make sure that such a person, as Isabella did not actually exist. As you can see, bureaucracy could be just as finicky and annoying then as now!
Finally, with all the heiresses wed – two of them to Edward’s favourites, and their identities confirmed, Edward now started the process of the partition of the lands. There was no longer any reason to carry on with the pregnancy farce and it was finally concluded by the king’s council that there was no baby (finally!). The men appointed to oversee the portioning of the lands were Hervey de Staunton, John de Foxle and William de Ayremmyne. Despite the time that had already passed, the process of carving up the estates still took another few months. Finally, on November 15th 1317, the order to grant the divided inheritance to the three de Clare girls was made.
Hugh’s portion, as expected, was the biggest and best, containing the lordship of Glamorgan (including the castles of Llanblethian, Kenfeg, Neath, Llantrisant, Caerphilly and Whitchurch) as well as a few scattered properties in England. Through their marriages, Audley and D’Amory also inherited well – mainly the English de Clare estates but also some in and bordering upon Wales. For example, Audley was given the county of Gwennllwyg which was a bit controversial as it had previously belonged to Glamorgan – an issue that was soon to cause trouble (see next post) and D’Amory was given Usk – a territory that bordered Glamorgan on the east. To make such ambitious young men neighbours in a time when land equalled status and power was, in effect, to ask for trouble. And it wasn’t long before trouble stirred – as I shall show in the next post – Hugh’s Rise to Power.
The Parliamentary Rolls
‘The Despenser War in Glamorgan’ – J. Conway Davies
Edward II Blogspot