Hidden historical heroines (#14: Eleanor de Clare)


Eleanor de Clare (3 October 1292 – 30 June 1337) was a granddaughter to Edward I of England, joint heiress to the vast de Clare estates and the wife of the powerful, infamous Hugh Despenser the Younger.


Eleanor was born in Caerphilly castle in south Wales. Her father was Gilbert ‘the Red’ de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford and her mother was Joan of Acre, the second eldest daughter of Edward I. She was Gilbert and Joan’s second child, their son and heir, another Gilbert, having been born in 1291.


Gilbert de Clare lived long enough for his wife, Joan, to pop out another two daughters – Margaret and Elizabeth – before dying in 1295. The widowed Joan was given Bristol Castle in which to live and bring up her four small children. Of course, this was only a nicety, as Edward I wasn’t about to let his innately marriageable daughter – still only in her early twenties – go to seed in the west country. He began to line up potential bridegrooms, the European creme de la creme.


About a year into her widowhood, however, Joan took up with one Ralph de Monthermer, a squire of her late husband’s household. The match could only have been one for love. They secretly married. Edward I was furious. An obviously pregnant Joan took her four small de Clare children to court to soften their grandfather’s anger. Still, Edward I tried to undo the damage, seizing her lands and throwing poor Ralph into prison. Joan famously argued her case: “It is not considered ignominious, nor disgraceful for a great earl to take a poor and mean woman to wife; neither, on the other hand, is it worthy of blame, or too difficult a thing for a countess to promote to honor a gallant youth.” Eventually – probably due to a combination of fondness for his headstrong daughter, and the inconvenient fact of the pregnancy – Edward relented and accepted the marriage.


Legend holds Eleanor as the most beautiful and accomplished de Clare girl, the one most like her royal mother. As the eldest, she was married first; in 1306, when she was just thirteen, she was given to the son and heir of the Despenser family, ignominiously in lieu of a debt of money owed by Edward I to Hugh Despenser the Elder. Although the Depensers were an old and noble house, they had no titles or land; to have the opportunity to unite their bloodline with that of the king was a great prize indeed, even though Eleanor de Clare didn’t have any titles or lands either.


Eleanor’s uncle took the throne as Edward II in 1307 and he seems to have been quite fond of his little niece. He began to settle lands upon her and her husband, also giving her a coveted place as one of the Ladies in Waiting for his new queen, Isabella of France (soon to take on the infamous portmanteau, the ‘She-Wolf’). Edward II also paid for her general upkeep at court.


One of the first things Edward II did was to marry off his other de Clare nieces and nephew. No happy, long marriages for Margaret and Elizabeth, who were both widowed before the age of twenty and promptly married off again, to favourites of Edward. There is no sign that the marriage between Eleanor and Hugh was anything less than amenable, though. Eleanor gave Hugh a rather wonderful nine children between 1308 and 1325, a run of four boys followed by five girls and remained loyal to him despite the political turmoil that eventually enveloped their marriage.


In 1314, Eleanor’s brother, Gilbert de Clare the Younger, was killed during the Battle of Bannockburn. His young widow, Maud, immediately claimed that she was pregnant. The Crown patiently waited for this ‘heir of Gilbert’s body’ to be produced. Clever – or sadly deluded – little Maud kept Parliament hanging on for three whole years (what a pregnancy!) before they ordered that the de Clare estates be partitioned and divided equally between the late Earl’s three younger sisters.


Eleanor and Hugh received the lands of Glamorgan. Suddenly, they were wealthy and influential. In 1318, Hugh was named Chamberlain to Edward, a prestigious position. Although records show that Edward didn’t think particularly much of Hugh in the earlier years of their acquaintance, after he became his Chamberlain the two men grew very close indeed.

It is generally accepted that Edward II was a homosexual. Although contemporary propaganda comes down to us and tells of a torrid, sexual affair between Edward and Hugh, all we can say for certainty is that Edward was infatuated – or, in love – with his niece’s husband and began to show him great favour. Hugh found himself in a position of power – and became a textbook example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. He became a tyrant, grabbing land and money and corrupting the whole system from within. Queen Isabella struggled in vain to remove her husband from Hugh’s influence, eventually resorting to instigating civil war with the intent of dethroning her husband in favour of their son.


The Edward/Hugh partnership is the familiar one, but there were and are some who believed that it was Eleanor who was having the sexual affair with the king at this time. The oft-quoted contemporary chronicler, Robert of Reading – who should always be taken with a large pinch of salt, due to his pro-Isabella leanings – says only that Edward indulged in ‘wicked and forbidden sex’, and that he ‘rejected the sweet conjugal embraces of Queen Isabella.’ This ‘wicked and forbidden sex’ is most often taken to be sodomy with Hugh, but way well have been incest with Eleanor. Certainly he spent a lot of time with her – alone and with Hugh – and favoured her more and more, year on year. When Isabella was considered a French spy, her children were taken off her, and her second son, John, was given over to Eleanor as a ward.


The queer little ‘menage a trois’ between Edward, Hugh and Eleanor is a historical fiction writer’s dream – some even bring Queen Isabella in on the action, imagining some strange sort of wife-swapping which ultimately lead to Isabella’s single-minded hatred and fear of Hugh Despenser. Sometimes they just have him plain rape her. Either way, the relationship between these four individuals was obviously a tangled, tangled web that we will sadly never know the intricacies of.


In 1326, Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded. Edward II and Hugh fled London – on the face of it, a cowardly act, but they well knew the depths of Isabella’s hatred for them both and simply could not risk being captured. By fleeing, they hoped to be able to fight another day. Eleanor was heavily pregnant with her and Hugh’s final child and was in no fit state to travel. Edward made her the constable of the Tower of London, where it was thought she would be safe.


The English people hated the Despensers and derided their weak king. They deserted over to Isabella and Mortimer in droves. In November, Edward and Hugh and their few remaining men were captured. Hugh’s father was immediately hanged. Edward was forced to abdicate the throne. Hugh was brought to trial and summarily judged a traitor and a thief, and sentenced to public execution by hanging, as a thief, and drawing and quartering, as a traitor. As if that wasn’t enough, he was sentenced to be disembowelled for having ‘procured discord between the King and Queen’, and to be beheaded, for returning to England after having been banished.


The moment the trial was over, Hugh was dragged behind four horses to where a great fire had been lit and a great crowd had amassed. He was stripped naked and Biblical verses denouncing arrogance and evil were carved into his skin. He was then hanged from a fifty foot gallows but cut down before he could choke to death. He was then tied to a ladder where he got to watch his genitalia be sliced off and thrown into the fire to burn. Then his abdomen was sliced open and his entrails slowly pulled from his body. Finally – and Hugh was alive up until this point (he is said to have let out a “ghastly, inhuman howl”) – his heart was cut out and thrown into the fire.


Finally, Hugh’s ravaged corpse was beheaded and quartered. His head was covered in tar and mounted on the gates of London. The ‘She-Wolf’ and her lover were said to have merrily dined with their chief supporters as they watched the grisly execution unfold.


The newly widowed Eleanor remained imprisoned in the Tower for two years. Her eldest son and heir, another Hugh, was also imprisoned. Her younger sons, due to their age, were given as wards into the households of Isabella’s favourites. The eldest daughter was already married, and the youngest still nursing – but the three girls in between were forcibly veiled and sent to different monasteries. The unusual cruelty of this action definitely suggests a deep hatred between Isabella and her erstwhile Lady in Waiting.


After two years Eleanor was released and her dower lands reinstated to her. Eleanor’s release was definitely a cat amongst the pigeons: a royal-blooded, rich widow – still only in her mid-thirties and proven extremely fertile. It is little wonder that she was soon snapped up – quite literally; in 1329 she was physically abducted by one William de la Zouche, one of the men who had captured her husband and also led the siege against her son at Caerphilly Castle.


It is unclear as to how involved Eleanor was in the organisation of this ‘forced marriage’. She certainly seems to have been happy with William – giving him two children – and she didn’t petition Edward III to annul the marriage, which she had the legal right to do. Either way, this new marriage caused yet more problems. Eleanor’s lands were confiscated once more. The ever vitriolic Isabella accused Eleanor of having stolen some royal jewels from the Tower during her last stint of imprisonment. Whatever the truth of these matters, Eleanor found herself in the Tower again, until she was pardoned in 1330. The pardon came at a steep price; Eleanor had to hand over her de Clare inheritance to the Crown. She could ‘buy’ Glamorgan back, but at the price of £50,000 – a staggering, joke of an amount.


 Luckily for Eleanor, her fortunes were due to change again. The young Edward III rose up against his mother and her lover that same year, taking the power that was due him as king. Eleanor immediately petitioned her cousin, saying that Mortimer had threatened and bullied her into signing away her lands. Edward apparently agreed, returning Glamorgan and reducing the fine to a nominal £5,000, most of which remained unpaid at the time of Eleanor’s death. In that same year Eleanor received permission from Edward to collect what remained of her first husband’s body, finding only his head, thigh bone and a couple of vertebrae to repatriate at his family’s ancestral Gloucestershire home.


Still Eleanor seemed unable to enjoy a quiet life. A relatively unknown, minor noble – one Sir John Grey – rose up, claiming that he had married Eleanor prior to her abduction by William de la Zouche. Whatever evidence he presented has been lost to us, but it obviously wasn’t conclusive, as the case was dismissed first by Edward and then by the Pope, and Eleanor and William were finally left to enjoy their twilight years, William dying only a few months before Eleanor herself.


Eleanor presumably rests in the traditional resting place of the de Clares, Tewkesbury Abbey, which she and Hugh had financially aided during their height. If you ever chance to visit, take a look at the stained glass window above the choir, which shows both Hugh Despenser and William de la Zouche (as well as some of Eleanor’s de Clare ancestors). In the corner of the eastern-most window there is a naked woman, on her knees, praying; traditionally, this is held to be a portrait of Eleanor herself.




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