Eleanor de Clare, Lady Despenser
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
This is a post about a remarkable woman, without whom Hugh’s rise to power (and later notoriety) would probably have never happened.
This is a very, very long post (which is why it took so long to write!), so you might want to grab a cup of coffee (or something stronger) before you read it. I have divided it into sub-sections to make it a bit easier to digest.
Girlhood and Marriage
Eleanor (the medieval spelling is Alianore) de Clare came into the world in November 1292 at Caerphilly castle in south Wales. Her father was the tempestuous Gilbert ‘the Red’ de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford and her mother was Joan of Acre, the second eldest surviving daughter of Edward I. Eleanor already had an elder brother - another Gilbert - the heir to the Gloucester Earldom, and she was soon to be joined by her younger sisters Margaret (who was two years younger), and Elizabeth (three years younger).
In 1295, Eleanor’s father died at the age of 52. A year later Joan was given Bristol Castle in which to live and bring up her children. However in early 1297, her mother created a royal scandal when she married a squire from her late husband’s household - Ralph de Monthermer - without her father, the King’s consent. He had wanted to marry her to the Count of Savoy, but instead she defied him and married for love. One account says that when Joan went to father to plead her case, she took her young children with her to try to soften his mood. However, this still did not stop him from being furious and throwing Monthermer into prison for a few months. After a great deal of pleading by Joan (who was pregnant), he eventually relented, realising that the deed was done and couldn’t be reversed. Monthermer was freed and pardoned.
Eleanor married Hugh Despenser the younger on May 26th 1306 at Westminster. She was just thirteen and a half - young to us now but a normal age for a girl of noble birth to marry then. It was also just a few days after Hugh had been knighted along with 266 others at the Feast of the Swan, so it had been a pretty big week for him. The king was present, as was probably Joan of Acre and Ralph de Monthermer. Her step-grandmother, Queen Margaret was, in all likelihood, absent as she had not long given birth to a baby daughter (another Eleanor who sadly died in 1311). The future Edward, Eleanor’s uncle, was also there as was his dearest friend, Piers Gaveston who was also knighted on this day.
Eleanor’s marriage to Hugh Despenser was in lieu of a repayment of a debt the king owed to Hugh’s father, Hugh Despenser the Elder. It meant that now the Despensers had married into the royal circle - not that that necessarily gave Hugh the younger any immediate advantages. Although from a noble family, Hugh was at that point, a zero in terms of being a good catch. His father had no titles to pass on to him, and until he died, no lands either. In a time when position and wealth mattered, Hugh seemed destined to fade into obscurity. Eleanor’s position wasn’t much better, even though she was the daughter of an Earl and grand-daughter of the king, it was her brother who stood to inherit the de Clare lands, not her.
Therefore their early life must have been quite impoverished compared with other nobility. In 1309 the new king Edward II granted them the manor of Sutton in Norfolk and in 1310 Hugh the elder gave (or rather, loaned) his son a few more manors (he had quite a few so I’m sure he could have spared them quite easily!). It was just as well, for Eleanor had now borne their first child - a son, and they called him….. Hugh.
At this stage, despite her lack of position, Eleanor was still often at court as one of the new Queen’s attendants. She was also a great favourite of Edward’s and he paid for her upkeep at court as well as sometimes giving her gifts of money. In fact, at this stage, it could be argued that it was Eleanor who had all the royal favour, leaving Hugh somewhat in her shadow.
Her sisters and the de Clare Inheritance
Her sisters also did well, although neither of them was as favoured by Edward as Eleanor. Margaret was married to Edward’s beloved companion Piers Gaveston in 1307 while Elizabeth was wed a year later to John de Burgh, heir of the Earl of Ulster. The younger Gilbert de Clare also married at this time, taking as his wife John’s sister Maud. However, this arrangement did not last long: Gaveston was executed in 1312 and John de Burgh died in 1313 - both sisters were widowed before they had even reached 20 years of age. They did not remain alone for long, however; Elizabeth - after a brief wedding without consent to Theobald de Verdon in 1316 (he died six months later!) - was given in marriage to one of Edward’s current favourites, Sir Roger D’Amory. At about the same time, in early 1316, Margaret was married to the second of his current favourites, Hugh Audley.
Death seemed to stalk the de Clare family at that time. The new Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, the young Gilbert de Clare (brother to Eleanor, Elizabeth and Margaret - just to make things really clear!) was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn without producing an heir. This meant that the three sisters were now co-heirs to the vast Gloucester estates. However, before they could claim their shares, there was one fly in the ointment, namely Maud de Clare, their sister in law, who claimed that she was pregnant. While there was any chance of an heir of Gilbert’s body being produced, the lands could not be touched. This was all very well, except that the ‘pregnancy’ lasted a record-breaking three years!!
I don’t know how Maud got away with it for so long, but by 1317 even Parliament had become fed up with the on-going situation and ordered the lands to be partitioned. For her portion, Eleanor received Glamorgan, which Hugh then held in right of his wife. Eleanor and Hugh now suddenly found themselves very wealthy and at last had some influence at court. In 1318 this was consolidated by Hugh’s appointment as Edward’s chamberlain, a key position in the royal household. They had risen from near-obscurity to the inner royal circle in manner of years. It must have made a welcome change from the early years of their marriage, when they had to ask Hugh’s father for more land. Now they had just about everything. But, for Hugh, after so many years of being virtually landless, even this was not enough.
Although Hugh had not been in high favour with the King to begin with, somehow he managed to turn Edward’s indifference, if not dislike, into infatuation. Soon Hugh had displaced Audley and Damory from the King’s side and found himself in a place of power from which he could do almost anything he liked. One of his first acts was to force his brother-in-law, Audley to exchange some of his Welsh lands for English manors of far less worth. Thus began a career of avarice, corruption and tyranny.
The rest of Hugh’s land-grabbing exploits and the consequential civil war of 1321/22 are well known but what Eleanor thought of Hugh’s exploits or of his relationship with Edward is not. It would also be really interesting to glimpse the relationship dynamics between her and her sisters at this time as Hugh’s ruthlessness must have made things difficult. She certainly could not have been unaware of his political machinations, however, and it’s not impossible that she could even have encouraged him to some extent.
She certainly seemed to have enjoyed a close relationship with her husband, both in the bedroom and out of it. She bore Hugh nine, possibly ten children - certainly more than the required ‘heir and a spare’, and several of these were conceived during the time when Hugh was possibly having a sexual affair with Edward. She was also involved with her husband’s business affairs. A letter from Eleanor to John Inge, Sheriff of Glamorgan in March 1322 reads thus:
Eleanor Despenser sends greetings and love to our well-loved lord, John Inge, Sheriff of Glamorgan. Because we know well that you are always pleased to hear good news from us, we are letting you know that on the writing of these letters we were in very good health, thanks be to God, and we always want very much to hear the same of you. And we thank you very much and are very grateful because you are so industrious on our behalf in these parts. And we ask you, as far as we can, that you will aid and help Lessam d’Avesne, bearer of these letters, in the matters he will put to you; may the rights of my dear lord in every way be safe, so that we may be grateful to you. And send us your news in the meanwhile as soon as you can, for love of us. May the Lord protect you. Written at Canterbury on 6 March
(PRO SC 1/37/3;Tanquerey, no. 108; French) taken from Letters of Medieval Women edited by Anne Crawford (Sutton publishing Ltd., 2002)
This charming letter shows a certain diplomatic flair - something which she must surely have had in the circles she moved in, particularly as her own star had a brightness of its own, and was not wholly dependent on her husband’s position. She was appointed at the head of Isabella’s household attendants, a position she retained until the Queen deserted Edward for France. Edward continued to dote upon her, at one point sending her 13 pieces of sturgeon as a gift while he was on campaign in Scotland in 1322 (luckily he had the tact to send Isabella 20 pieces!).
However his constant gifts (jewels, money, and 47 goldfinches) and the fact that he often dined alone with Eleanor set a few tongues wagging.
There are also wardrobe accounts for 1319/20 which show that medicine was bought for them both ‘when they were ill’ - a strange entry that suggests the two were very close indeed. Two chronicles (the Chronographica Regum Francorum 1322/23 and the writings of Willelmi Cappellani, 1326), both from Hainault allege that Edward was in fact having an affair with his niece. However, it must be noted that there are no contemporary English chronicles that state the same thing so boldly, and they may be attempts to discredit Edward’s suitability as a King.
There are, however, a couple of English sources that seem to allude to something scandalous going on, although the allusions are, in themselves, pretty vague. Robert of Reading, a chronicler who was extremely hostile to Edward, wrote that the King had ‘wicked and forbidden sex’, and that he ‘rejected the sweet conjugal embraces of Queen Isabella.’ Of course, the wicked and forbidden sex could refer anything outside of marital relations - from possible homosexual acts with Hugh or else adulterous incest with his niece. In other words, Edward was being naughty, but it is not clear who he was being naughty with. And Henry Knighton, writing from a later viewpoint, stated that when Isabella had decamped to France, Eleanor was treated like a queen. Again, this is ambiguous and it could mean either that Eleanor shared the King’s bed, or else just that his affection for her was far beyond what he showed to others (apart from Hugh, of course). Such an argument could go round in circles forever, and I’m not even going to go into some modern historians’ fantasies of threesomes and wife-swapping!
Eleanor and the Queen
Eleanor’s relations with the Queen are more difficult to fathom. She was the queen's foremost lady-in-waiting, and so spent a lot of time with her. It is difficult to imagine that this would be the case if they didn't have some closeness. But there must also have been some awkward times. After all, Eleanor was the wife of the man Isabella hated (and supposedly feared) the most. One of the first flashpoints must have come when the Queen and her ladies (including Eleanor) were stranded at Tynemouth Abbey, between the advancing Scots under Robert the Bruce and the defeated and retreating English army, led by Edward. Isabella managed to get away by boat, but in the process, two of her ladies-in-waiting died. She was later to accuse Hugh at his trial of encouraging the King to abandon her, but records from the time show that the truth was very different.
At the time that Isabella received word that she was in a perilous position, Edward was over 80 miles away at Rievaulx. The Scots were advancing fast and for Edward to have attempted a rescue himself - risking capture or death - would have been extremely foolish (and if he had, he would probably been condemned throughout history for that). But that did not mean that he didn’t care about Isabella’s safety: he did all that was within his power at the time to affect her safe return to him. To begin with he sent a messenger to Thomas Grey, the constable of Norham castle to shelter Isabella in the event of the Scottish forces reaching Tynemouth. Next, he commanded the earls of Atholl and Richmond, as well as his steward to raise a force of troops to ride to her rescue. The troops contained an element of the younger Hugh Despenser’s men - after all, his wife was trapped with the Queen too, and he would have been hoping for a successful outcome as much as Edward. However, when Isabella heard that Hugh was sending troops, she sent a message back to Edward that she would not accept any help if it came from Despenser (even though he wouldn’t have been present himself). Edward then had to find some different troops, this time commanded by Isabella’s countryman Henri de Sully to take up the task - all wasting valuable time. Unfortunately for Isabella, de Sully never arrived: he was captured by the Scots at the battle of Byland. It was at this point that Isabella and her ladies were forced to take to the sea.
I am sure that from that point, relations between Isabella and Eleanor weren’t the best they could be, to say the least. Isabella’s foolhardy refusal of the first offer of help had probably been, in part, to blame for the deaths of her ladies. And yet she never accepted any responsibility, preferring instead to hit out and blame someone else - Despenser. Perhaps she just couldn’t admit to her guilt, or to making a mistake.
A far worse breakdown between the Queen and Eleanor came in 1324. With war looming between England and France, Isabella was treated - rightly or wrongly - as a possible French spy. Her properties were taken away and her French servants dismissed. She was also relieved of any control over her children or their households. The household and care of Edward’s younger son, John of Eltham, was subsequently given over to Eleanor. There have also been suggestions, that Eleanor was given permission to intercept and read all of Isabella’s correspondence. With so many responsibilities outside of her usual ones, she must have been a very busy lady!
Things were to change dramatically, however, after Isabella and Mortimer’s invasion of England in 1326. From existing records we know that, just before Despenser and the King fled London before the invading armies, Eleanor was made constable of the Tower of London. With the threat of a foreign army approaching as well as the ever-present restless mob in London, it was deemed safest for her to stay there with her ward, the ten-year-old John. It is also possible that she was either pregnant or nursing at this time.
Despenser and Edward had probably expected (over-optimistically) that they would reach safety and raise an army against the rebellion, or else the country would eventually, turn and support them against Isabella. If the King had stayed in London and been captured all would have been lost. Despenser knew that if he was captured, it would mean certain death, so personally, I think their flight had less to do with cowardice and more with the hope that they would live to fight another day. And of course, Eleanor in her state would not have been able to travel. It is interesting to speculate what her last conversation with her husband would have been!
After Hugh’s capture and terrible execution, Eleanor was imprisoned in the Tower for two years. Of her children, Hugh, the eldest who had been defending Caerphilly Castle for his father, was also imprisoned to finally be released in 1331. Not much is known what happened to Edward, the second eldest son at this time other than that he survived to become a celebrated soldier under Edward III. The other two sons - Gilbert and John are also obscure at this time but they would have been very young and were most probably put into the custody of one of Mortimer and Isabella’s supporters.
Of the daughters, more is known about their fate. The eldest, Isabella, was already married to Richard Fitzalan, the son of the earl of Arundel and so was lucky enough not to share the fate of the others. Joan, Eleanor and Margaret were forcibly veiled by Isabella and sent to separate nunneries. As they were all very young - ten and under - it must have been a terrifying experience for them. The fact that they were cruelly and forcibly veiled, instead of just being boarded at nunneries and kept out of the way (as Edward had done with Mortimer’s daughters), perhaps shows the extent of Isabella’s vitriol against her former lady-in-waiting. The youngest, Elizabeth, escaped the Queen’s wrath - perhaps because she was just a baby, or not even born at that point. All in all, Eleanor must have suffered dreadfully in those two years - imprisoned, disinherited, widowed and deprived of her children.
Two years later in 1328, after the issue of Eleanor’s imprisonment was brought up in a Parliament at York, she was released and her dower lands reinstated. But Eleanor was now a single, rich, heiress and at 36 was still of child-bearing age - a rich prize for any suitor. In 1329 she was abducted from Hanley Castle in Worcestershire by William de la Zouche, one of the men who had captured her husband and also led the siege against her son at Caerphilly Castle. Although abductions were technically illegal, it was often the case that the abductee was in on the scheme. In other words, a ‘forced’ marriage often masked a consensual elopement. It is not known whether Eleanor consented or not.
However, consent or no, the marriage caused further trouble. Her lands were confiscated again and in a strange twist, she was accused of stealing some jewels from the Tower. Of course, if the accusation was true, it is possible that the jewels she ‘stole’ may have been hers in the first place and had been taken by Isabella after the invasion! Whatever the case, Eleanor was imprisoned in the Tower yet again in the spring of 1329 before being moved to Devizes Castle. Luckily her stay at Mortimer and Isabella’s pleasure did not last as long this time. In January 1330 she was released and pardoned, but on one condition: that she hand over her lands in Glamorgan to the Crown. These lands formed the richest part of her inheritance and it must have been with great reluctance that she let them go. There was a chance for her to recover them but in order to do so she would have to pay a fine of fifty thousand pounds in one day. That was a massive, in fact impossible, amount of money for her to find and the whole thing must have seemed like a twisted joke designed to cause her further distress.
Eleanor’s Last Years
After Edward III’s coup against Mortimer and his mother in 1330, Eleanor’s fortunes changed for the better. Claiming that Mortimer had threatened her into signing away her lands, she petitioned Edward for their return. He agreed and the fine was reduced to ten thousand pounds. This was later reduced still to five thousand and it seemed that Edward was in no rush for his money for most of it was still unpaid at Eleanor’s death.
Eleanor was once again reunited with Zouche. It is noticeable that she made no petition to Edward to have this ‘forced’ marriage annulled, as she would have been within her rights to do. This puts further credo to that fact that it was a consensual abduction. However, not everyone was happy with her nuptial bliss: a Sir John Grey protested, claiming that he had married her first. What grounds he had for this strange claim have been lost to us, but he was still chasing it in 1333 when he made an appeal to the Pope. This was, however, dismissed and Eleanor and William were left alone to enjoy their life together.
They had two children: William, who became a monk; and Joyce, who married John de Botetourt. Eleanor died on 30th June 1337: her cause of death is not known although there has been some speculation that she died in childbirth. Her place of burial is also, strangely, unknown, but is assumed to be at Tewkesbury Abbey along with her husbands and descendants.
Tewkesbury Abbey had been the resting place for generations of de Clares, and after them, Despensers. It is little surprise then, that Eleanor, Hugh Despenser the younger, and their son, Hugh Despenser the even younger, were patrons of the Abbey and its community of Benedictine monks. Much rebuilding was done during Hugh and Eleanor’s glory years from 1318-1326 and is attributed to their financial gifts. After Hugh’s execution, parts of his body were displayed around the country as was usual for a ‘traitor’, but in 1330, Edward III gave Eleanor permission to gather them together and bury them within the Abbey. She did so and constructed a fine tomb, which can still be seen on the south ambulatory (the coffin and sarcophagus top is not Hugh’s however, but a later addition of an Abbot John Coles). Eleanor and her son also commissioned stained glass windows of both her husbands and de Clare ancestors, which can still be seen above the choir. In the corner of the east window is a praying, naked woman, kneeling down in what appears to be a scene from the Last Judgement. This has been described as being a portrait of Eleanor, although positive identification, is, unfortunately, impossible. Sadly, Eleanor died before the windows could be finished, so she never lived to see her creation completed. As mentioned above, it is almost certain that she was buried at Tewkesbury, but there are no records as to where and no monument exists, an ironic twist to the end of the tale of one of Tewkesbury’s greatest patronesses.
Tewkesbury Abbey: History, Art and Architecture, edited by Richard K Morris and Ron Shoesmith (Logaston Press 2003)
Letters of medieval Women, edited by Anne Crawford (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2002)
King Edward II by Roy Martin Haines (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006)
Edward II Blog (various articles) - Alianore
Susan Higginbotham (various articles)
Notes on sources: To ensure the validity of facts, I have cross-checked references on certain events wherever possible. Although Alianore and Susan Higginbotham both seem like unacademic references, I have found their research to be of the highest quality and have therefore included it here. Obviously, when I complete the biography, it will contain my own research of the primary sources - which I hope to access soon and will be more ‘academically’ referenced. My aim with the blog, though, is to make it as unstuffy as possible!