A Possibly Belated Happy Anniversary to Eleanor de Clare and William la Zouche

I’ve wished a happy anniversary to Eleanor de Clare and her first husband, Hugh le Despenser the younger, previously in this blog. It seems only fair to extend the same greetings to Eleanor and her second husband, William la Zouche, who married some time in January or February of 1329. Their short marital life–William died in 1337, followed a few months later by Eleanor–was an eventful one, to say the least, full of lucre, lockups, and litigation.

Zouche was a particularly unlikely suitor for Eleanor. Not only had Zouche been one of her husband’s captors in 1326 (presumably sharing in the large cash reward that had been put on Despenser’s head), he went on to besiege Caerphilly Castle, where Eleanor’s eighteen-year-old son was holed up, and took his surrender in March or April of 1327. He was one of the men appointed to negotiate the unpopular treaty with the Scots on behalf of Isabella and Mortimer, and when Thomas Wake, a son-in-law and a supporter of Henry, Earl of Lancaster, fell out of favor with the ruling duo, they replaced him with Zouche as constable of the Tower of London.

What brought William and Eleanor together–“Hi, I’m the guy who captured your husband and your son” sounds like the pickup line from hell–is unknown. William did have another connection with Eleanor, though: he was the second husband of Alice, the widow of Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Warwick was uncle to Hugh le Despenser the younger. As one historian has pointed out, William evidently had a knack for marrying high-born widows. He himself was a younger son who had been one of Warwick’s retainers. Zouche was old enough to have fought for Edward I at Falkirk in 1298; his father had died in 1287.

Eleanor de Clare had been a prisoner in the Tower of London since about the time of her husband’s capture, but had been released at the end of February 1328. A couple of months later, she was restored to her third of the Clare inheritance–a somewhat surprising act of generosity on the part of Isabella and Mortimer, and a rather puzzling one given the obvious temptations posed by the sudden appearance of a rich, blue-blooded, relatively young, and demonstrably fertile widow on the marriage market. Perhaps Parliament or Eleanor’s first cousin, Edward III, had pressed for her release and restoration to her lands; perhaps Isabella and Mortimer planned to marry her off to someone of their own choosing. (Or perhaps Isabella and Mortimer were simply in a good mood at the time.) In any case, Eleanor de Clare’s tenure as a free and single woman was to last less than a year.

On January 26, 1329, Edward III ordered that a commission of oyer and terminer hear a complaint by John de Grey of Rotherfield that William la Zouche had abducted Grey’s wife and his goods from Hanley Castle. That “wife” was none other than Eleanor de Clare. Sadly, what exactly happened between John de Grey and Eleanor de Clare is unknown, though it’s my fond hope that enlightenment awaits somewhere in some long-forgotten Vatican file. Eleanor’s biggest attraction for both John and William was presumably her lands, of course, but it’s not entirely impossible that lust or love was involved also.

Despite William’s status as a loyal supporter, Isabella and Mortimer were none too happy about his “abduction” of Eleanor–a hint, perhaps, that they had had other plans for her? William was promptly stripped of his positions of Tower constable and forest justice, and orders of arrest were issued for him and Eleanor. Meanwhile, for a second time William found himself besieging Caerphilly Castle, presumably because it and Eleanor’s other lands had been seized by the crown.

William evidently abandoned his siege, but soon began keeping very strange company for a former Isabella and Mortimer loyalist. In March 1329, and again in July 1329, he and Ingelram Berenger borrowed money from two Londoners. Berenger had been a close associate of Eleanor’s executed father-in-law, Hugh le Despenser the elder–so close, in fact, that he was quite lucky to have avoided the noose himself. Meanwhile, Edward II’s younger brother, Edmund, Earl of Kent, was doing some plotting himself–to release Edward II, whom he believed to be still alive, from prison. Two of Kent’s most active co-conspirators, as evidenced by his written confession in 1330, were none other than Zouche and Berenger.

Eleanor was less lucky than her husband. At some point in 1329, she was arrested in London and once again imprisoned in the Tower. The charge, however, seems to have not been her marriage to Zouche, but her theft of jewels (i.e., plate as well as gems) and florins from the Tower, presumably during her last imprisonment there. (When she stole them, why she stole them, how she stole them, and even if she stole them are mysteries; the few historians who have speculated on the matter think they came from Hugh le Despenser the younger’s confiscated goods.) Eleanor was transferred at some point to Devizes Castle, where she remained until December 1329 or January 1330. In exchange for her release, she agreed to give her most valuable lands to the crown, with the proviso that they would be restored in the extremely unlikely event that she paid the crown 50,000 pounds in one day. Perhaps not at all coincidentally, Glamorgan was used in part to satisfy Queen Philippa’s endowment when she was crowned at last in 1330, while Tewkesbury and Hanley Castle were given to Queen Isabella as compensation for Pontefract, which Isabella had turned over to Philippa.

On February 22, 1330, William and Eleanor were pardoned. Their stay in the crown’s good graces was exceedingly short. In March 1330, the Earl of Kent was executed and his supporters arrested. William was one of those arrested, but he was released on mainprise fairly quickly.

Mortimer’s downfall in October 1330 was welcome news to William and Eleanor. William was pardoned for his involvement in the Earl of Kent’s plot, and Edward III restored Eleanor’s lands to her, though he ordered that she pay a fine of 5,000 pounds for her theft. The order of restoration specifies that it was “made to ease the king’s conscience,” language that tends to support Eleanor’s claim, brought in her petition to have her lands restored, that she had signed them over at Mortimer’s demand out of fear for her life. Some historians have claimed that none of the 5,000-pound fine was ever paid, but entries in the Rolls show that Eleanor made installment payments on the fine, though the bulk of it remained unpaid at her death.

John de Grey, meanwhile, seems to have reasserted his claim to Eleanor at about this time, having been unable, as he claimed, to get it heard previously by the Bishop of Lincoln. The case traveled around the papal courts and also resulted in John pulling a knife on William in the presence of Edward III and his council. Edward III, unamused, had both men hauled off to the Tower for a short time. After no less than three appeals to the Pope (one wonders how John was affording this), the case seems to have been decided or dropped sometime after 1333. William ended up with Eleanor, while John married elsewhere and enjoyed a successful career at court and in the military, culminating in his election as a founding Knight of the Garter.

William and Eleanor, meanwhile, had had a son, William, who ended up as a monk at Glastonbury. (William’s heir was his son from his marriage to Alice de Tony, while Eleanor’s heir was her oldest son, Hugh.) William died in February 1337, Eleanor in June 1337. If Eleanor had indeed been abducted by William, instead of eloping with him, nothing indicates that either was unhappy in the marriage. William made Eleanor his executor, which suggests that he trusted her, and he was buried not in a place connected with his own family but in Tewkesbury Abbey, resting place of Eleanor’s Clare ancestors and of her Despenser descendants. (The Lady Chapel, where Zouche was buried, was torn down in the Dissolution, but his effigy was moved to Forthampton Court, evidently by the abbot.) More tellingly, Eleanor immortalized both of her husbands in stained-glass windows at Tewkesbury Abbey, where they both can still be found, Despenser in one window and Zouche in the other, today.

12 thoughts on “A Possibly Belated Happy Anniversary to Eleanor de Clare and William la Zouche”

  1. Great post! Once again, the early 14th century proves that the truth is often stranger than fiction. Who would dare to make these events up?? 🙂

    It’s funny, I was thinking about Eleanor and William this morning. I remembered that bit from your novel where Isabella mentions Eleanor’s (future) husband, and Mortimer says “Despenser? Could he possibly be more dead?” which makes me giggle every time I think about it.

    William la Zouche is a very interesting character, IMO. He certainly changed sides pretty dramatically after he married Eleanor. Didn’t his son Alan (by Alice de Tony) marry Roger Damory’s niece?

    BTW, which historian is it who mentioned Zouche’s knack for marrying rich widows?

  2. Indeed, you couldn’t make this stuff up! I must say, stealing jewels and money from prison has real style, if she did it (I hope she did).

  3. If they were part of Depsenser’s confiscated good, she only took them back. It’s not that Isabella had any more right to them than Hugh did. 🙂

    Looks like William had that sort of badass sexiness that appeals to some women, and John le Grey, that bad loser, didn’t have it. Three appeals to the pope – boy, get a life already.

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Alianore, thanks! I can’t remember which historian made the remark about Zouche. I think he may have been Ralph Griffiths in Conquerors and Conquered in Medieval Wales, but I would have to get the book and check.

    Carla and Gabriele, I agree about the jewels, particularly if they were her own husband’s! Isabella did have a bunch of confiscated jewels of his taken to the Tower, so it’s entirely possible that Eleanor might have had access to them.

    I like to think that John de Grey’s persistence had to do with the fact that Eleanor was such a babe. Interestingly, he was eight years younger than Eleanor. (I took the liberty of making him quite good-looking in my novel. :))

  5. Out of interest, do you feature the jewel-stealing episode in your novel, Susan? I’ve got a copy but haven’t got anywhere near that far yet.

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Yup, it’s there! It was fun trying to come up with a scenario for that and for the Grey/Zouche episode.

  7. I really liked your portrayal of William in the novel, and I thought it was very realistic. I especially like the way he’s kind to Hugh the even younger at Caerphilly. 😉 (I’m a big fan of Hugh the even younger.) And I was cheering Eleanor on when she had some of her own husband’s jewels taken out of the Tower – naturally she wasn’t stealing, she was liberating them. 🙂

    Haha, love Gabriele’s comment about William’s ‘badass sexiness’!

  8. elena maria vidal

    What a story! Susan, I can’t wait to read your novel as soon as I finish the several things through which I am currently wading. I guess a younger son had to marry wealthy, or become a priest…or a brigand…..

  9. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Alianore and Elena!

    In his history of the Clare family, Michael Altschul writes that William was “undoubtedly inspired” by the example of Theolbald Verdun, who as Alianore has mentioned on her blog ran off with Eleanor’s sister Elizabeth in 1316. Perhaps William also had in mind Eleanor’s mother Joan of Acre, who had secretly married Ralph de Monthermer after Eleanor’s father died. A lively bunch, the Clare women.

  10. Susan Higginbotham

    Gata, I have to confess to adding my book in Wikipedia myself (as well as some of the other books mentioned, if I remember correctly)! Shameless, I know.

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