The most-often heard version of what happened to Elizabeth Comyn goes something like this: Elizabeth was taken prisoner at the manor of Kennington by the Despensers and held in captivity at Woking and Pirbright until, by violence or threats she was forced to hand over the manor of Painswick to the elder Hugh and Goodrich castle to the younger Hugh. Oh yes, and there was that fine she had to pay them too – varying from £2000 to £20,000, depending upon whom you read.
Such a story has been presented in historical works, both old and new (Fryde, Weir etc) as positive proof that the Despensers were evil men who would stop at nothing to get their hands on land and money. Imprisoning vulnerable girls and frightening them into submission was all in a day’s work or so it would seem at first sight.
However, when one explores the incident properly, nothing is as black and white as the writers of the above would have us believe. In fact, a lot of exaggerated conclusions seem to have been reached from just a few facts. Maybe it is time to redress the balance a little and look at other ways these facts could be interpreted. In other words, it is time to give the Despensers a fair hearing.
First of all, the imprisonment issue. From the first part it can be seen that Elizabeth was an important woman not only because she was an heiress to Pembroke but she also had a claim through her bloodlines to the Scottish throne. In other words, politically, she was a potential hot potato. It is possibly because of this that we find her, in 1324, still unmarried in her mid-twenties (Fryde tells us that she is a teenager but this is wrong – Elizabeth was born in 1299). Most women of position and wealth were married long before this age, usually forming alliances that were politically or financially beneficial to their family. As her father was dead (and due to her importance), King Edward would have most certainly had a hand in deciding who she should marry. Obviously he wouldn’t want anyone that could cause him trouble either in England or in Scotland.
It is my theory that, because of her ancestry and potential inheritance, she would have made an attractive target to any would-be abductees or, for that matter, anyone loyal to Bruce who wanted her out of the way. Therefore I feel that she was placed in the custody of the elder Despenser more as an act of her own (and the King’s) protection than anything else. After all, the King trusted the Despensers above all, so who else would he have chosen? In all the accounts of her ‘imprisonment’ there is no reason to believe that it was anything other than fairly comfortable. If they had been really mean they could have forced her to take the veil (as was common then, especially when Mortimer got hold of the reigns later on), but instead they chose to keep their options open.
So the reason that Elizabeth was at Kennington in the first place is possibly because she was under protective custody. Another theory put forward by Natalie Fryde in The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-26 is that she was there because she was betrothed to Hugh the younger’s son and heir, Hugh (the even younger). In this case the Despensers’ would have obtained her share of inheritance through marriage (it has also been put forward that when the Despensers gained the wardship of Laurence de Hastings, the little lad was also betrothed into the family – this time to one of Hugh’s daughters). Fryde dismisses that either marriage took place and that nothing further was heard about it. However, there is a writ of 1231 which states:
Memorandum of errors which were made in the making of the pourparty of the inheritance which was the earl of Pembroke’s by Hugh le Despenser, father and son, and Master Robert de Baldok, then chancellor, and of their agreement who had assumed to royal power, by reason that Laurence, son and heir of John de Hastygg, married the daughter of said Hugh the son, and the son of the said Hugh married Elizabeth Comyn.
This creates a puzzle. Did the two heirs marry into the Despenser family or not? Inquisitions have been known to be unreliable, so this statement is possibly a clerical error or a misunderstanding. Further, such prestigious unions would surely have been lavish and very public affairs and would certainly have been recorded somewhere. To my knowledge, there are no such accounts. In my discussions with Susan Higginbotham, she points out that when Hugh the even younger married Elizabeth de Montacute in 1341, there was no mention in the dispensation of any previous marriage or betrothal. So, looking at the facts it is possible to draw a reasonable conclusion that Elizabeth may have been betrothed to Hugh the even younger, but for some unknown reason the marriage did not proceed.
The accusations against the Despensers are very clear in stating that they obtained Elizabeth’s lands through threats of violence and prolonged imprisonment. For example, an endnote in Fryde quotes an entry from C.A.P., p. 274; Rot. Parl., p.22: ‘Et par enprisonement et par duresces et par cohercions tant come ele demurra en dure prisone a Purfrith fust la dist Elisabet costreint a faire le reconissances des Fyns avant nomez…’. I have not yet been able to ascertain a date for this but I will place money on it being after the Despensers’ deaths, as do most of the accusations. Isabella and Mortimer seemed determined to heap the blame on them for as many evils as they could think of. Of course, not all of them were made up: the Despensers were certainly responsible for many unjust acts of land-seizing and holding people to false recognizances (however, we must also remember that others committed the same crimes – both before and after the Hughs. In other words they weren’t unique in what they did, except maybe in the scale of it!). Nevertheless, Isabella and Mortimer, as well as all those dispossessed by Edward and the Despensers were certainly not above a bit of negative propaganda – spin wasn’t invented in the twentieth century after all. Unfortunately, the accusations, even some of the most ridiculous, seem to have been accepted verbatim by historians down the centuries. Interestingly, the contemporary chronicle Vita Edwardi Secundi has no mention of any wrong being done to Ms Comyn, and its author was certainly no friend of the two Hughs.
The next thing we must look at is Elizabeth being deprived of her land, through the aforementioned threats of the Despensers. To read the historians, you would think that the poor girl had been stripped of everything. However, to look at this a little less hysterically, it is a good idea to see just what the earl of Pembroke actually left to her. She inherited:
Goodrich castle; the manors of Painswick, Noyton and Whaddon in Gloucestershire; the manor of Bampton in Oxfordshire; the manors of Collingbourne Valence and Swynton Valence (Swindon) in Wiltshire, Hertfordingbury in Hertfordshire, Polycote and Doynton in Buckinghamshire, Swanscombe and Nelton in Kent; part of Shrivenham manor as well as property in Fernham in Berkshire. Added to this was also Arnyng in Suffolk various estates and parts of estates in Ireland.
As can be seen, Elizabeth was endowed with a great amount of land and property. Thanks to Kevin for the list by the way!
So, what did the ‘greedy’ Despensers take? The whole lot? Well, if they were as bad as they were made out to be, they certainly could have found a way to achieve this. Instead, only three properties from this list were handed over: Goodrich Castle, Painswick and Swanscombe. Hardly the theft of the year, I feel. How the Despensers got Elizabeth to hand these over will never be known and indeed some sort of intimidation may have been used. However, as I just said, if they had gone to that extreme, why not take even more – or even the whole package (as they would have had through the marriage). Maybe, and this is just speculation on my part – maybe the manors were handed over either as some sort of compensation for Elizabeth being allowed out of the marriage contract, or else they were taken as ‘expenses’ for her time in captivity.
I even questioned as to why the Despensers wanted those exact lands. After a bit of digging through the parish records of British History Online, I came to the following conclusions:
(1) Swanscombe was a pretty wealthy little estate and therefore just right for Hugh the Elder.
(2) The Painswick lands bordered, or were certainly very close to other estates that Hugh the Elder owned in Bisley, Gloucestershire. Such an acquisition would have broadened his holding there and perhaps made their administration more efficient. Once again, Painswick was quite profitable.
(3) Goodrich castle not only sat on the way to Hugh the younger’s lands in south Wales, it was also situated on the edge of the Royal Forest of Dean, over which he was given superior custody in 1322. The forest was also very profitable and a rich source of iron and coal, as well as being a royal hunting ground.
Then there is the question of Elizabeth’s acknowledgement of a debt owed to the Despensers. I have seen this written as £2000, £10,000 and £20,000 in various quarters. The Despensers seemed to use these recognizances to bind others to them in loyalty but why one was imposed on Elizabeth can only be guessed at. Maybe it was to ensure she didn’t try and get her lands back again when she eventually married. Or maybe it was just another money-making scheme. Either way, it is my feeling that the sum was more like £2000 as the other amounts seem a huge amount for her to pay (especially as they could just have taken more properties). Elizabeth did sue for the return of her lands -after the death of the Despensers, indicating that she gave them away under coercion. But then again, everyone seemed to be jumping on that particular bandwagon at that point, so here, motive would be a question (although she could have been telling the truth – who knows!).
Elizabeth did eventually get married – after the Despensers were dead – to Richard Talbot, (later to be 2nd Lord Talbot). He and his father had fought at Boroughbridge against Edward and had been captured and imprisoned. However, in 1325, Richard is mentioned as part of Hugh’s retinue so he must have been pardoned and changed sides. It is tempting to think (although there is no evidence at all for it), that Richard somehow met Elizabeth when she was in the ‘care’ of the Despensers and that they managed to arrange some sort of betrothal that only came to fruition after 1326. By the way, many historians inaccurately state that Elizabeth was married to Richard when she was ‘kidnapped’ and ‘imprisoned’, but this is not so. According to the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy they were wed between July 1326 and March 1327. As their first and only son, Gilbert was born in 1332, this does seem to be right.
So, in conclusion, although it is unlikely that the Despensers were whiter than white when dealing with Ms Comyn, it is also unlikely that they behaved in the despicable manner as described by their enemies. This post was compiled mainly on secondary sources (which are often so hostile to the two Hughs) but by using some common sense and not being seduced by the sensationalist propaganda of a maiden in distress, the truth may still be glimpsed. Of course I still have more work to do on this theory, especially on primary sources in the summer. If anything changes, I will do another post (and eat humble pie!), but until then, in the case of this individual charge against the Despensers – I arrest my case!
Thanks again to Kathryn Warner, Susan and Kevin for their help in preparing this post.