A Father’s Day Look at Gilbert de Clare

Having posted about Eleanor de Clare’s mum for Mother’s Day, I’m posting about her dad for Father’s Day. (Symmetry is everything.)

To put it very briefly, Gilbert de Clare (1243-1295) had a stormy relationship with both Henry III and Edward I. During the Barons’ Wars of the thirteenth century, he allied himself with Simon de Montfort, then broke with Montfort and went over to the side of the royalists. Gilbert de Clare was among the leaders of the royal forces that defeated Simon de Montfort at Evesham. Interestingly, one of the men who died with Montfort was Hugh le Despenser, whose grandson, Hugh le Despenser the younger (“name the baby” books were not on the Despenser bookshelves) eventually married Gilbert de Clare’s daughter Eleanor. One wonders if the match was arranged partially to heal wounds still left over from Evesham, though Gilbert de Clare was long dead when it took place.

Gilbert’s first marriage, to Alice de Lusignan, was evidently an unhappy one, though it produced two daughters. It was eventually annulled, and Gilbert married Edward I’s daughter Joan of Acre in 1290. Alice’s daughters, though not impoverished, were barred from inheriting their father’s lands. Despite the marriage to Joan, which produced four children in five years before ending with Gilbert’s death, king and subject’s relationship remained a tense one to the very end: in the last months of Gilbert de Clare’s life, Edward I seized Glamorgan from him, restoring it to him six weeks before Gilbert’s death.

There may have been a softer side to Gilbert, however. Toward the end of 1292, he wrote to the royal chancellor to apologize for not attending the king, giving as his reason the fact that the illness of one of his young children (either his son, another Gilbert, or his newborn daughter Eleanor) had kept him in Wales longer than he had expected. This could have been a sham, of course, but one hopes it wasn’t.

A full, and very interesting, account of Gilbert and his family can be found in Michael Altschul’s A Baronial Family in Medieval England: The Clares, 1217–1314.

Like his wife, Gilbert has made it into several historical novels. Falls the Shadow, Sharon Penman’s novel about Simon de Montfort, contains what is probably the most accurate depiction of Gilbert: shown there as a young man, he’s hot-tempered, sensitive to slights, and violently anti-Semitic (a trait he sadly shared with many others of the time, however), though not without some higher principles. Jean Plaidy in Hammer of the Scots, a novel about Edward I and his family, depicts Gilbert as so softened by his marriage to Joan that he loses all interest in butting heads with the king, a portrait that doesn’t mesh with history.  In Vanessa Alexander’s The Love Knot, a love story/mystery involving Joan of Acre and Ralph de Monthermer, Gilbert is dead when the book opens, but the picture of him that emerges is hardly a flattering one: he’s a hard-drinking, brutish husband who dabbles in the occult and whose sexual relations with his wife are little better than rapes. Most recently he turns up in Virginia Henley’s forthcoming Infamous, a historical romance in which Joan of Acre, who has more than adequate bases for comparison, highly approves of his prowess in bed.

With Gilbert’s shifting political allegiances, the dramatic events he was involved in, and his stormy first marriage, he really deserves a novel all to himself. Anyone game?

1 thought on “A Father’s Day Look at Gilbert de Clare”

  1. Very interesting post! I’d never heard of his child’s illness before – I hope it was true.

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