A Medieval Love Story: Joan of Acre and Ralph de Monthermer

We had a dark post last week, so here’s a switch: a medieval love story with a happy ending.

One of the more unlikely romances in the late thirteenth century was that between Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I, and Ralph de Monthermer, son of the Lord Knows Who. For Ralph, a squire in Joan’s household, was of such obscure origins that his parentage is unknown.

Joan of Acre was born in 1272 in Acre, or Akko, in what is now Israel. Her parents, Eleanor of Castile and the future Edward I, had gone there on crusade. Joan was soon sent to her maternal grandmother in Castile, where she remained until 1278. Her father, now King of England, had plans to marry her to Hartman, son of the King of the Romans, but the young man died in a shipwreck in 1282 before the couple could marry. Undaunted, Edward I soon began searching around for another suitable husband. Soon he lit on one: Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Gilbert de Clare, probably the most powerful baron in England at the time and one whose relations with the king had long been stormy. Gilbert had the disadvantage of already having a wife, Alice de Lusignan, but the couple had long been estranged, and in 1285, the marriage was annulled. In 1290, after drawn-out negotiations and the obtaining of a papal dispensation, eighteen-year-old Joan was finally married to forty-six-year-old Gilbert. Before Gilbert’s death in December 1295, the couple efficiently produced four children: Gilbert, Eleanor, Margaret, and Elizabeth.

Joan has taken hard knocks at the hands of both historians and novelists. Mary Anne Everett Green in her Lives of the Princesses of England characterizes her as a neglectful mother and a “giddy princess,” and other Victorian-era historians, along with many novelists, have acquiesced in this judgment. There seems to be little evidence to support this with regard to her motherhood; though Edward I did arrange for Joan’s son Gilbert to live at court when he was seven, this was hardly an atypical arrangement for a noble boy who was also the king’s grandson. As for Joan’s giddiness, Michael Altschul has commented on the “marked ability” with which Joan controlled the Clare lands after Gilbert’s death. There is certainly no evidence that supports the picture of Joan that is painted by romance novelist Virginia Henley, who depicts her as a promiscuous young woman ready to jump into bed with any willing knight.

What can be said about Joan, however, was that she had spirit and willfulness. During her parents’ absence in Gascony, when Joan was in her early teens, she became involved in a dispute with the treasurer of her household and refused to accept money from him; her father had to pay her debts when he returned to England. After her marriage, she left court to be alone with her new husband at his manors, to the displeasure of her father, who in reprisal seized seven robes that had been made for her. When her younger brother, the future Edward II, became estranged from Edward I, Joan offered to lend him her seal.

Among the squires in Gilbert de Clare’s vast household was one Ralph de Monthermer. Nothing is known of his background, but he soon caught the eye of his widowed mistress, who sent him to her father to be knighted. Sometime at the beginning of 1297, the couple were secretly married.

Edward I, cheerfully ignorant of this match, had meanwhile been searching around for another husband for his daughter, and it is safe to say that Monthermer was not one of the candidates. His words when he heard the rumors about his daughter’s attraction to her squire are unrecorded, and in any case are probably best left to the imagination. He seized Joan’s estates and formally announced his daughter’s betrothal to the Count of Savoy in March 1297. Joan, however, had become “conscious that she was in a situation which would render the disclosure of her marriage inevitable,” as Green delicately puts it, and she apparently broke the news of the marriage to her father, who promptly clapped Monthermer into prison at Bristol Castle.

Either before informing her father of her marriage, or after Monthermer had been put into prison–the accounts vary–Joan sent her little daughters to visit their grandfather the king in hopes that they would soften his mood. Evidently, though, more was needed than just the youthful antics of the three Clare sisters. After a great deal of discussion at court about the matter, Joan, as the chronicles report, was at last allowed to plead for herself before her father, at which time she is said to have told the king that as it was no disgrace for an earl to marry a poor woman, it was not blameworthy for a countess to advance a capable young man. This defense is said to have pleased Edward I, though it is probable that Joan’s pregnancy, which would have been visible at the time of this exchange in July 1297, also convinced the king to accept the situation. He restored most of Joan’s lands to her and pardoned Monthermer, who from November 1297 onward was referred to as the Earl of Gloucester. In the meantime, the couple’s first child, named Mary, had been born. She was followed by three others: Thomas, Edward, and Joan.

Ralph soon found himself busy fighting Scots for his new father-in-law, which brought him quickly into favor with the king. In 1301, Edward I restored Tonbridge and Portland to Ralph and Joan in consideration of Ralph’s good services in Scotland. Ralph also was on cordial terms with young Prince Edward, who frequently wrote to him. Joan too was friendly with her much younger brother Edward, even offering him her seal when Edward was estranged from his father.

On April 23, 1307, Joan of Acre died. Some Internet sources claim that she died in childbirth–unfortunately, hardly an implausible scenario–but none that I have seen mention a source for this information. Neither Green, Altschul, nor Frances Underwood specify a cause for her death. She was only thirty-five. Ralph was probably not present, being engaged in Scotland at the time. Joan was buried at the priory of Clare in Suffolk. According to Underwood, Osbern Bokenham, a friar there, relayed the odd story that in 1359, Elizabeth de Burgh, Joan’s last surviving Clare daughter, inspected her mother’s body and found the corpse to be intact. Bokenham also reported that miracles were said to occur at Joan’s tomb, including the healing of toothache, back pain, and fever.

Edward I, who ordered that masses be said for his daughter, was himself in poor health; he died in July 1307. Having been styled an earl in right of his wife, Ralph lost his title shortly after her death; Joan and Gilbert de Clare’s son, another Gilbert, became the next Earl of Gloucester. The new king, Edward II, granted Ralph five thousand marks for his surrender of the Clare lands to Gilbert, then still a minor. Though his importance had been much diminished, he remained active in Edward II’s reign, holding positions such as keeper of the forest south of Trent, and seems to have been neutral or on the king’s side during the latter’s disputes with his barons. In 1314, he was taken prisoner at Bannockburn but was treated as an honored guest by Robert Bruce, who allowed him to return to England without having to pay a ransom. A story goes that years before, Monthermer, having gotten wind of a plan of Edward I to capture Bruce while he was in London, had sent him coins bearing the king’s head and a pair of spurs as a hint that he should slip away. Bruce, having profited from the hint, later remembered this good deed when Monthermer became his prisoner.

Around November 1318, Monthermer made another runaway match, this time to Isabel de Hastings, a widow. Whatever motivated the match, it was an opportune one for Ralph, for Isabel was a member of the Despenser family. Her father, Hugh le Despenser the elder, had long been loyal to Edward II; her brother, Hugh le Despenser the younger, was rapidly becoming Edward II’s most trusted advisor (and possibly, his lover). Monthermer, a contemporary of the elder Despenser, was probably at least twenty years older than his new bride. Because the couple had married without the king’s license, Isabel’s dower lands were seized, but the couple were pardoned the next year in exchange for paying a fine of a thousand marks, which was remitted in 1321.
In 1324, Edward II showed his displeasure with his queen, Isabella, by reducing her household. Among the changes made were that the royal daughters, Eleanor and Joan, were put into Ralph and Isabel’s care. Although the timing suggests that Edward II was motivated in part by hostility toward Queen Isabella, it was also typical to give royal children households of their own. The girls and their new guardians stayed at Marlborough Castle.

Ralph died on April 5, 1325, aged sixty-three, and was buried in the Grey Friars’ church at Salisbury. The timing of his death was also opportune: it spared him from having to choose whether to remain loyal to Edward II or to support Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, who overthrew the king in 1326. Ralph’s connection with the Despenser family might have been a fatal one had he elected to side with the king. The king and queen’s daughters remained with the widowed Isabel until October 1326, when Queen Isabella was reunited with them at Bristol Castle, where they and Hugh le Despenser the elder were staying. Isabel was presumably at the castle with her charges and may have had the misfortune of seeing her father’s surrender to Isabella and Mortimer and his execution the following day. Her brother was executed less than a month later.

Isabel herself does not seem to have been punished by the new rulers, although in June 1328, she acknowledged a debt of nearly three hundred pounds to Queen Isabella. Whether this was a real debt stemming out of her care of the queen’s children or whether she was forced to make the acknowledgment to avoid the wrath of the queen’s regime is unknown.

Ralph and Isabel had apparently had no surviving children. Ralph’s two sons by Joan of Acre, Thomas and Edward, were on good enough terms with the new regime to be knighted in 1327, but Thomas later joined Henry, Earl of Lancaster’s rebellion against Queen Isabella and Mortimer, while Edward became entangled with the Earl of Kent, Edward II’s half-brother, who had plotted to release Edward II, whom he believed to be still alive, from captivity. The earl, who had likely been entrapped into the plot by Queen Isabella and Mortimer, was beheaded in 1330 for his fraternal loyalty, but Edward de Monthermer got off more lightly, being imprisoned in Winchester Castle at the crown’s expense. Fortunately for Edward, Mortimer’s days were numbered; he was seized by Edward III in October 1330 and hanged the following month. Edward de Monthermer’s lands were restored to him in December 1330. Thomas, who had been fined for his role in Lancaster’s rebellion, had his fine remitted in January 1331.

Edward de Monthermer, who had taken part in Edward III’s wars but who had fallen ill, came to live with his half-sister Elizabeth de Burgh in 1339 and died before February 1340. He was buried near Joan of Acre; Elizabeth de Burgh, who took charge of his funeral, had his tomb made. Ralph and Joan’s younger daughter, Joan, became a nun at Amesbury; their older daughter, Mary, wed the Earl of Fife. Thomas de Monthermer married Margaret, the widow of Henry Teyes, and died in 1340 at the sea battle of Sluys. His daughter, Margaret, married John de Montacute, the younger son of William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. John and Margaret’s son, John, later succeeded to the earldom of Salisbury. From him would descend Warwick the Kingmaker and his daughter Anne, queen to Richard III. It was an impressive lineage for Ralph de Monthermer, the obscure squire who had married a princess.

11 thoughts on “A Medieval Love Story: Joan of Acre and Ralph de Monthermer”

  1. elena maria vidal

    Very fascinating and romantic! Is Elizabeth de Burgh the same one who was Robert Bruce’s second wife?

  2. They were sisters-in-law, Elena. The Elizabeth de Burgh in Susan’s post was born Elizabeth de Clare, and married John de Burgh, whose sister Elizabeth was the second wife of Robert Bruce. Another Burgh sister, Matilda, married Elizabeth de Clare’s brother Gilbert, earl of Gloucester, in a double wedding in 1308. After he was killed at Bannockburn in 1314, Matilda claimed to be pregnant…for three years. 😉 Their father was Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster.

    Love the post, Susan! Do you know the source for 1262 as Monthermer’s date of birth? Somehow, I picture him as a handsome squire several years younger than Joan, not ten years older.

  3. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, ladies! Complete Peerage cites “Will. of Worcester, Itin. (ed. Nasmith), pg. 81” as its source for stating that Monthermer was 63 at his death. (But it is hard to think of him as being older than Joan.)

  4. elena maria vidal

    Thank you, Alianore, for clearing that up. I did not know anything about the siblings of Elizabeth de Burgh, Queen of Scots. Very interesting. I can’t wait to read more about them all.

  5. The de Burghs really are an interesting family, Elena. There were several other siblings, too – another daughter (I’ve forgotten her name) had a son, Thomas Multon, who was betrothed to Piers Gaveston’s daughter Joan.

    Thanks for the source, Susan. I know I read somewhere once that Monthermer may have been illegitimate, but I can’t remember where. I’m glad that he died before he had to make the horrible decision who to support in 1326 – either to betray the brother-in-law (Edward II) he’d always been on good terms with, or to stay loyal and perhaps face summary execution because of his other brother-in-law, Hugh Despenser. I’m also glad that his sons turned against Isabella and Mortimer. 🙂

  6. Joan and Ralph sound very appealing characters! Wonder if anyone’s told their story in fiction? It wouldn’t need much embellishing. I was trying to think where I’d come across Ralph and your anecdote about the spurs reminded me – I met him in Tranter’s Bruce Trilogy.

  7. Susan Higginbotham

    Vanessa Alexander (otherwise known as Paul Doherty) wrote about it in The Love Knot. It’s told using letters from the couple to each other and letters to the king by a royal clerk investigating the relationship between the couple.

  8. Jennifer Knutson

    I have just finished your “The Traitors Wife” and loved it so much. I usually like historical fiction tied to the Tudors but this one caught my eye and I’m glad I did. I have just started some family research and have found that my 25th great-grandmother was Joan of Acre – what a great surprise. I follow her line thru her daughter Lady Margaret which makes me sad because I loved Eleanor!!

  9. Mary-Jean Macedonia

    Joan of Acre is one of my ancestors thru her children with Gilbert de Clare. I would love to read your story! I will check my local bookstores.

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