How the Clare Sisters Became Pawns of the Medieval Crown

Kathryn Warner

Middle Ages
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Between 1292 and 1295, three women were born who were granddaughters of the reigning king of England, Edward I, and daughters of the greatest English nobleman of the late 13th century – Gilbert ‘the Red’ de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford.

When Gilbert died in December 1295, his 4-year-old son Gilbert the younger became heir to his vast landholdings in England, Wales and Ireland.

His youngest daughter Elizabeth was only a few weeks old. Earl Gilbert also left his daughters Eleanor, aged three, and Margaret, about 18 months.

When they grew up, the three Clare sisters were married to a total of 7 men, 4 of whom were involved in intense and perhaps sexual relationships with their uncle Edward II.

All three sisters were imprisoned and had their lands and goods confiscated either by Edward II or his wife, Queen Isabella.

First marriages

Portrait in Westminster Abbey, thought to be of Edward I, grandfather to the Clare sisters (CC).

Edward I arranged Eleanor’s marriage in May 1306 to the young nobleman Hugh Despenser, grandson of the late earl of Warwick. The following year, the old king died and his 23-year-old son, the Clare sisters’ uncle, succeeded as Edward II.

The new king was involved in a passionate relationship with the Gascon nobleman Piers Gaveston, and arranged Gaveston’s marriage to his niece Margaret de Clare in November 1307.

In 1308, the youngest sister, Elizabeth, married the earl of Ulster’s son and heir John de Burgh, and moved to Ireland in 1309, when she was 14.

She was widowed in 1313 when her son William de Burgh, later earl of Ulster, was a few months old.

Edward II Piers Gaveston
‘Edward II and his Favourite, Piers Gaveston’ by Marcus Stone, 1872 (Credit: Kunst für Alle)

In June 1312, Piers Gaveston was killed by some of the English barons who were disgruntled at Edward II’s infatuation with him, and Margaret was also left a teenage widow with a young child.

Eleanor’s first marriage lasted far longer than her sisters’; she was married to Hugh Despenser for just over 20 years and had at least 10 children with him.

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A change of fortunes

When their elder brother Gilbert, earl of Gloucester, was killed at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, his sisters became his joint heirs.

Gilbert had been the second richest nobleman in the country, and one-third of his vast estate made the sisters wealthy landowners.

Battle_of_Bannockburn
A depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn from a 1440s manuscript of Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (Credit: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).

Edward II needed to arrange the marriages of his two widowed nieces to men he trusted. In April 1317, Margaret and Elizabeth wed Sir Hugh Audley and Sir Roger Damory, the king’s current court favourites – perhaps his lovers.

Hugh Despenser used his appointment as the king’s chamberlain in 1318 as a platform for great influence and ousted his brothers-in-law Audley and Damory from the king’s affections.

He and Edward began to spend much time together, and the king grew dependent on the nephew-in-law whom he had never much liked or trusted before.

Despenser became Edward II’s last and great ‘favourite’, and from 1319 until his execution in November 1326 was the real ruler of England.

Edward II
Edward II shown receiving the English crown in a contemporary illustration (Credit: British Library).

Margaret and Elizabeth de Clare’s husbands Hugh Audley and Roger Damory joined an unsuccessful baronial rebellion against the king and Despenser in 1321/22; Audley was imprisoned and Damory killed fighting against the royal army.

Edward II sent his niece Margaret to captivity in Sempringham Priory, Lincolnshire. Although he set Elizabeth free after a few months’ incarceration at Barking Abbey in Essex, he menaced her and allowed his beloved Despenser to seize some of her lands.

She dictated a document in May 1326, protesting against the treatment meted out to her by her uncle and brother-in-law.

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The king’s new favourite

While her younger sisters languished in disgrace, Eleanor de Clare remained very high in the king’s favour, to the point where one continental chronicler stated that they were lovers and that she was pregnant by him in 1326.

Edward’s extant accounts of 1324/26 give some credence to this rumour. He was certainly extraordinarily close to both Eleanor and her husband, and an English chronicler stated that Edward treated Eleanor as his queen while his real queen, Isabella of France, was overseas in 1325/26.

Despenser was permitted to extort money and lands from numerous people, and even convinced the king to treat Queen Isabella, previously her husband’s loyal supporter, as his enemy.

Hugh Despenser
The execution of Hugh le Despenser the Younger, from a manuscript of Jean Froissart (Credit: Public domain).

Isabella responded by promising to destroy Despenser and formed an alliance with Edward II’s baronial enemies on the continent. They invaded England and executed Hugh Despenser.

In early 1327, the king was forced to abdicate his throne to his and Isabella’s 14-year-old son, Edward III.

Under Edward III

Philip_iv_and_family
Isabella of France, pictured third from left with her family including Philip IV of France (Credit: Bibliotheque Nationale).

It was now the widowed Eleanor’s turn to be imprisoned; she remained in the Tower of London for 15 months, while Margaret was freed from Sempringham Priory and Elizabeth was restored to her lands.

A few months after Eleanor was released, she was abducted and forcibly married to her second husband William la Zouche.

Queen Isabella, wielding power in the name of her teenage son, the king, seized the opportunity to deprive Eleanor of her lands and granted them to herself and her daughter-in-law, Edward III’s queen Philippa of Hainault.

Edward III
Edward III by William Bruges, c. 1430 (Credit: British Library).

Eleanor was imprisoned for a second time. It surely came as a relief to her when her cousin Edward III overthrew his mother in October 1330 and began ruling his own kingdom, doing his best to restore normality after the chaos of the previous few years.

After 1330, the lives of the Clare sisters were far less dramatic than they had been during their uncle’s turbulent reign.

Eleanor died in 1337 and Margaret in 1342. Having lost three husbands by the age of 26, Elizabeth lived the last 4 decades of her life as a widow; she outlived her sisters by many years and died at the age of 65 in 1360.

Elizabeth founded a college at the University of Cambridge, named Clare after her family, in 1338.

Kathryn Warner holds a BA and an MA with Distinction in medieval history and literature from the University of Manchester, and is the author of biographies about Edward II and his queen Isabella. Her latest book, Edward II’s Nieces, is published by Pen & Sword.

Edward II's Nieces The Clare Sisters cover

Tags: Edward III

Kathryn Warner