Hugh and Eleanor's Marriage - and Subsequent Children
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
First of all, the marriage between Hugh and Eleanor was arranged NOT by Edward II as some have presumed but actually by his father, Edward I. It seems that Edward owed Hugh the elder a sum of 2000 marks. This state of affairs actually wasn’t that uncommon as money was often loaned between nobles, or between nobles and royalty. Also, it may have been owed for military service performed by Hugh. Anyhow, the King owed Hugh money, but instead of repaying it the normal way, he instead suggested that maybe Hugh’s son might want to marry his eldest granddaughter, Eleanor de Clare. This was to be a union of prestige rather than money. At that point neither Hugh nor Eleanor had much in the way of lands or money and it was unlikely that that situation would change anytime soon (or until Hugh the Elder died anyway). However, the marriage did have the benefit of bringing Hugh the younger (and also his father) into the royal circle. I’m sure that Hugh the elder also saw this as a reward for his long years of loyal service to the King.
The wedding most probably took place on May 26th at Westminster Abbey, four days after Hugh had been knighted at the Feast of the Swan. A reference to this comes from an entry in the Keepers Book of 34 Ed I: E101.369.11, on page 32 of a thesis by Richard Rastall:
£37.4.0d to Richard de Whiteacre, Richard de Leyland, harpers, and various other minstrels making their minstrelsy before the king and other nobles on the 25 May, on which day Joan, daughter of the Count of Baar, was married to Earl Warrenne, and on the 26 May, on which day Eleanor, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester, was married to the younger lord Hugo le Despenser in the king’s Chapel at Westminster: London, May.
However, just to muddy the waters a bit, there is another reference in the Patent Rolls of June 14th which seems the indicate that the marriage had not yet taken place:
Grant to Hugh le Despenser, son of Hugh le Despenser, between whom and Eleanor daughter of Gilbert, sometime earl of Gloucester and Hertford, the king's niece, a marriage is contracted, with the king's and the said Hugh's assent, the said Hugh having promised before the king to give them 200/. a year in land, for life, of 2,000/. sterling out of the issues of the escheatry this side Trent, to wit, of custodies and of marriages, whether of heirs or widows, to be valued when they fall in by the treasurer and the escheator this side Trent, and if refused on such valuation by the said Hugh, to be sold within a mouth, and the money arising therefrom to be delivered to him.
This obviously needs more looking into and if I find any other documentation regarding the date in future you can be sure I will add it here.
At the time they were wed, Eleanor was about thirteen and a half (she was born in 1292) and Hugh was between 17 and 19. These were quite normal ages for marriages at that time, although they weren’t always consummated immediately because of the girl’s young age. Not being a fly on the wall at their wedding night, it is impossible to say what happened, but it is my opinion that nothing did. Eleanor was still pretty young to have gone through childbearing at that age and I’m sure that her welfare must have been uppermost in the mind of her brother, Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford and also the King himself. I’m sure Hugh must have received some ‘friendly’ advice to make her happy or else!
Weddings of such status were always a lavish affair. According to Henrietta Leyser, in Medieval Women (Phoenix Press, 1996, pps.108-109):
The bride and groom met at the church door for the wedding service. Here the groom made an announcement as to the dower his bride was to receive and gave her, arranged on a book or a shield, gold or silver as symbol of her dower and the ring that, once blessed and asperged, he would place on her finger. Vows in the vernacular were then exchanged: although a wife was expected to obey her husband, the bride’s vow of obedience was not introduced until the Reformation, in 1549.
The couple now entered the church. Prayers and Mass followed and, after the Sanctus, the couple knelt (under a pall) for a further blessing on their marriage.
After the wedding came the wedding feast - which for a wedding as high status as Hugh and Eleanor’s was probably very grand, with three courses containing between ten and fifteen dishes for each course. Minstrels were in attendance (see above) - so there would have been music and dancing and general making merry.
Later during the celebrations, the priest (or higher equivalent in this case, I’m sure) would have blessed the marriage bed and chamber. As for the infamous bedding ceremony, often described in novels, there isn’t much evidence that this happened in reality and I’m sure that with a girl as young as Eleanor, some discretion would have been used.
It seems that Hugh and Eleanor had a fairly good marriage, with genuine affection, if not love for each other - although that cannot be proved by dry documents. Eleanor bore Hugh their first child - a son and heir in 1308 or 1309 (another pointer that the marriage was not consummated immediately, although of course it might have taken her a while to conceive). This son was, of course, named Hugh. Other children followed, of which I’ll write a more detailed post in future. But to sum them up - here’s a list (note that it is hard to fix more than an approximate date of birth for most of them):
Hugh (1308/09) Isabella (1312) Edward (prior to 1315) Joan (1316) Eleanor (1318/20) Gilbert (prior to 1321) John (unknown) Un-named son (born and died 1321) Margaret (1319/25) Elizabeth (1325/6/7)
After about 1318 it has been alleged that Hugh became the King’s lover - it is hard to explain Edward’s obsession with him from any other angle. Even so, as can be seen from above, Hugh was still sharing Eleanor’s bed and producing children way past the obligatory heir and a spare that was required. It is also possible that he produced an illegitimate son, Nicholas de Litlington (again, more about that in a future post). Edward, too, had several children. It seems that these men, even if they were engaged in a homosexual affair, were also still capable of (and even keen on having) heterosexual encounters too. Sexuality in Medieval times is such a fascinating topic that it deserves a post all to itself, so I will say no more other than sexuality then did not seem to be as rigidly defined as it is today.
Of course, what Eleanor made of all this is hard to say. Maybe she would have felt that Hugh having an affair with her favourite uncle was far less threatening than another woman! Then again, some chronicles of the time suggested that it was Eleanor the King was having the affair with, not Hugh! Once again, sorry to hold back but there is enough material on this for another post. In summary though, there is no way to tell what was going on between Eleanor and Edward, but in the records there are plenty of entries that show that they were very, very close indeed. And there is no doubt that Hugh and the King trusted her completely. She seems to have had a firm hand on the reins of many of Hugh’s estates and in 1324 the King gave her charge of the household of his younger son, John of Eltham. She also had permission to read Isabella’s letters, leading to the charge that she was a spy for Edward against the Queen.
When Hugh fled with the King before Isabella and Mortimer’s invasion force, Eleanor stayed at the Tower of London with her children and her ward. She was taken prisoner and held for the next two years. Three of her daughters were taken and forcibly veiled, which must have been traumatic both for her and them. Isabella had wanted Hugh to be brought to London for trial and execution. It is interesting to speculate that maybe she had wanted Eleanor to be present to add to her punishment (and Hugh’s). After Isabella and Mortimer were overthrown by Edward III, Eleanor was eventually given permission to collect Hugh’s scattered body parts and bury him. She did so in a splendid (or it would have been at the time) tomb in Tewkesbury Abbey, showing that she still preserved some (if not all) of the affection she once felt for the man who had taken both of them from relative poverty to the heights of power before crashing to earth spectacularly in blood and shame.