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Her Highness, the Traitor~

Divorce, Medieval Style

by Susan Higginbotham



The more things change, the more they remain the same.  The following is a medieval story that has its echoes in our modern world: that of the unhappy marriage of Richard Fitzalan, son of Edmund Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, to Isabella le Despenser, daughter of Hugh le Despenser the younger.

Though Edmund Fitzalan had sided against Edward II in the past and had been among those who approved the execution of Piers Gaveston, by the 1320’s he had become loyal to the king. As Hugh le Despenser the younger was the king’s closest friend and advisor, it must have seemed an eminently wise step for Arundel to marry his son to Despenser’s daughter. Hugh for his part must have been pleased with the marriage; as Richard Fitzalan was an oldest son (younger sons would not do for Hugh), Hugh could anticipate that his daughter would someday become Countess of Arundel.

The marriage took place on February 9, 1321 at Havering-atte-Bower, a royal manor. Edward II paid for the cloth to be held over the heads of the couple as they knelt at the altar and supplied the money thrown at the door of the king’s chapel. A papal petition brought years later stated that Richard was seven years old at the time; Isabella, eight. This must have been the bright spot in what was otherwise a grim year for the Despenser family, as Hugh the younger’s land-grabbing would bring England near to civil war in the next few months and lead to the temporary exile of Hugh and his father.

Though the Despensers were soon back in England, the wheel of fortune’s next spin, in 1326, was a fatal one. That year, Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded England with the express intent of destroying the Despensers and their allies. The Earl of Arundel, on extremely vague charges, was the first to go. His main offenses seem to have been his familial connection with Hugh the younger and his continued loyalty to Edward II. Slight as these were, they cost him his head on November 17, 1326. A week later, Hugh the younger was hung, beheaded, and quartered. His widow, Eleanor de Clare, was made a prisoner in the Tower of London, along with some of her children. Arundel’s widow was more fortunate: though Arundel’s estates were seized by the crown, the countess and her sons were given some Despenser lands to live upon; presumably Richard, and probably Isabella, lived with them. In 1327, Richard and Isabella’s son, Edmund Arundel, was born. With his grandfathers both dead, one grandmother in prison, and his other grandmother dependent on the good graces of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, one suspects that the celebrations of the birth were subdued at best.

Toward the end of the Isabella and Mortimer regime, Richard had either fled to France or been put into prison for plotting against Mortimer, depending on which historian one reads. With Mortimer’s downfall, however, he was restored to the family earldom and regained many of the lands forfeited by his father. By the time of his death in 1376 he had become stunningly wealthy, with over 60,000 pounds in cash to his name.

His eldest son would enjoy none of this wealth. In December 1344, Richard Fitzalan succeeded in having his marriage to Isabella annulled on the ground that the couple had expressly renounced their vows at puberty but had been “forced by blows to cohabit, so that a son was born.” If the Pope or his deputy had any doubts as to why Richard had waited seventeen years after the birth of that son before attempting to secure an annulment ("Well, I was going to get around to it, but . . ."), he kept them to himself. Tardy as he had been in getting out of his first marriage, Richard was no slouch in getting into his second marriage, for in February 1345 he married Eleanor, the daughter of Henry, Earl of Lancaster. Eleanor was a widow with whom Richard apparently had been having an affair; the two had gone on pilgrimage together earlier in 1344. Edward III was among the wedding guests. The king had supported the annulment and the remarriage; the Lancasters were far more powerful than the Despensers, and Richard Fitzalan had become a financier to the crown.

Meanwhile, Richard and Isabella’s son, Edmund, had been bastardized by his parents’ annulment. Though Richard had provided six manors for his former wife to live on, and the annulment indicates that some unspecified provision was to be made for Edmund, nothing indicates what it was. Edmund was knighted, however, and by 1347 had married Sibyl, a daughter of the deceased William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. Perhaps Richard Fitzalan had a hand in arranging this advantageous marriage, but it is just as likely that Edmund’s uncle Hugh le Despenser, who had been married to Sibyl’s sister Elizabeth since 1341, made the connection.

Edmund, however, was not disposed to take his disinheritance quietly. In 1347, Edmund, then twenty, complained to the Pope that the annulment had been surreptitiously obtained. Edmund was allowed to take an oath despite of his nonage, and the proceedings were commenced, but to no avail.

Little is heard of Isabella and Edmund after this. Isabella is noted as giving fish to her aunt Elizabeth de Burgh in 1351-52. Edmund and Sibyl, who had two daughters, received papal indults in 1364. An “Aymund de Arundellis” was sent by the Pope in 1368 “to communicate to King Edward the present state of the Roman church in Italy.” Probably Edmund was in the retinue of his cousin Edward le Despenser, who had gone to Italy with Edward III’s son Lionel.

Richard Fitzalan died in 1376, having had a number of children by his second wife. His heir to the earldom was Edmund Arundel’s younger half-brother, Richard. In November 1377, the new earl complained that Edmund Arundel and his servants had broken his closes and houses at High Rothyng, Ouesham, Childescanefeld, Yenge Margarets, and Wolfhampton, fished at High Rothyng, taken fish, money, and goods, and assaulted his servants. These manors were the ones that had been granted for life to Edmund’s mother, Isabella, following the annulment; perhaps Isabella had died and Edmund was trying to claim them for himself. The result was a stay in the Tower of London for Edmund Arundel. He was released after three men, including John de Montacute, his brother-in-law, and Guy de Bryan, who had married Elizabeth de Montacute after Hugh le Despenser’s death, stood mainprise for him.

Edmund Arundel disappears from the records after this. He presumably died before 1382, when a lawsuit involving land in Sussex was brought by his heirs against the Earl of Arundel, who prevailed.

Reading the story of the Arundel marriage, it’s hard not to think of the parallel in many modern divorces, where the divorcing spouse in search of a trophy mate casts off not only the other spouse but the children of the marriage. One wishes that Isabella le Despenser and her son had had the benefit of who for some twenty-first-century women has become a knight in shining armor: a high-priced divorce lawyer.



Calendar of Close Rolls

Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland

Calendar of Patent Rolls

Given-Wilson, C. Entry on Richard Fitzalan in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online,
accessed September 25, 2005

Given-Wilson, C. "Wealth and Credit, Public and Private: The Earls of Arundel 1306-1397."
English Historical Review
, January 1991.

Underhill, Frances. For Her Good Estate: The Life of Elizabeth de Burgh. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.


Copyright © 2006 Susan Higginbotham



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