Divorce, Medieval Style

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading The Well in the Desert, a historical novel by a Victorian writer, Emily Sarah Holt, available online through Google Books. The unsubtle religious message of the book makes it pretty unreadable today except as a curiosity (even readers of modern inspirational fiction, I suspect, would find its lay-it-on-with-a-trowel style off-putting). Nonetheless, it tells 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 kept meaning 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 the person who for some twenty-first-century women has become their knight in shining armor: a high-priced divorce lawyer.

10 thoughts on “Divorce, Medieval Style”

  1. And marriage contracts. 🙂

    Look at that McCartney guy so enamoured of his second wife he never made one, and now the bitch is taking all the money.

    I wonder what was in for the pope in the deal; don’t tell me he believed in the reasons for the divoce. 😉

  2. Great post! Some new information for me, too; I didn’t know that the manors Edmund broke into in 1376/7 were the ones that had belonged to his mother.

    Is it known for sure that Edmund was born in 1327? Richard and Isabella were extremely young – 14 and 15!

    The Arundel divorce is extremely odd. I just don’t get why Richard waited till 1344 to do it, when Isabella’s father had been dead since 1326 – it wasn’t as though she’d suddenly become powerless or an encumbrance, or if anything changed in 1344. And why would a medieval magnate willingly disinherit a perfectly viable male heir?? As Edmund had children and was able to defend himself legally, it doesn’t seem that there was anything much wrong with him. Richard ended up having 3 sons and 4 (?) daughters by Eleanor, but of course he couldn’t have known that beforehand – the fact that she had 2 children by her first husband wasn’t a cast-iron guarantee that she’d have any by him.

    And I suppose it might have increased Isabella’s humiliation that Eleanor was her own first cousin! (Unless she detested Richard so much that she just didn’t care, perhaps) I wonder who was meant to have beaten them until they ‘cohabited’? Eleanor de Clare and Alice Arundel, presumably?

    Edmund might not have agreed with me, but as his half-brother got caught up in the politics of Richard II’s reign and ended up being beheaded, I think he was best off out of it.

    The career of the older Edmund (ex. 1326) is fascinating – one of the men who condemned Piers Gaveston to death, then becoming so loyal to the king that he was executed by Isabella and Mortimer! Edward II must have completely forgiven him. And you’ve got to love the way Isabella and Mortimer have a ‘get out of jail free’ card for his execution – the illegality of it never seems to be noticed or at least commented on. As you say, his only crimes were his family connection to Hugh and his loyalty to the king – and the fact that he was a rival of Mortimer’s in Wales. Still, one of Ed III’s first acts after overthrowing his mother and Mortimer was to restore Richard to the earldom.

    I seem to be writing an essay here, so I’ll stop now. 😉

  3. Don’t worry, Alianore, it’s interesting. I’m learning a lot here – the time my NiP deals with is earlier, second half to the 12th century.

    But the Plantagenets were a dysfunctional family, as well. 🙂

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Gabriele, I doubt the Arundel petition passed the papal straight-face test either. I’m sure there was some sweetener added. And they sure were a dysfunctional bunch!

    Alianore, no need to be brief (especially if Blogger’s in a good mood)!

    I didn’t realize either until I was writing the post last night that the lands Edmund was accused of breaking into were his mother’s life estates. Puts his actions in a lot more understandable light, I think.

    In the papal register entry for August 1347, which details the procedural steps in Edmund’s attempt to overturn the annulment, he’s described as being 20, though the language isn’t crystal clear.

    Arundel’s execution (and those of his two henchmen) is one of those events that get deemphasized by Queen Isabella’s apologists. Alison Weir characterizes it as being Mortimer’s act, although she does acknowledge that it was an act of tyranny to which Queen Isabella was party. She doesn’t elaborate much beyond that. I don’t think that Allocco in her Ph.D. dissertation on Isabella even mentions Arundel’s execution.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    And Doherty too leaves out Arundel’s execution in his Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II! Either that or I need some new glasses bad.

  6. Doherty mentions it in passing at the beginning of his account of the younger Despenser’s execution – he says Arundel had already ‘faced summary execution’. However, he doesn’t give any details, and he inaccurately calls Arundel Despenser’s son-in-law. This reference to Arundel isn’t in the index.

    Natalie Fryde only mentions Arundel’s ‘hurried execution’, and calls him Despenser’s brother-in-law, and in the index he’s called ‘Thomas Fitzalan’. I can’t remember Allocco mentioning the execution either, but I can’t check as the thesis is no longer online. When you’re demanding someone’s canonisation, as she seems to be doing with Isabella, it’s difficult to talk about your would-be saint’s involvement in an illegal beheading!

    That’s true – John Daniel and Thomas de Micheldever were executed along with Arundel, apparently for no other reason than they were with him when he was captured. Ditto Despenser’s friend Simon of Reading, although at least they concocted some conveniently vague charge of ‘insulting the queen’ when they hanged him, ten feet below Despenser, because ‘his guilt was less’. No really?

    The attitude of most historians these days seems to be along the lines of ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’, i.e., ‘you can’t lead a revolution without executing people’. The same historians who indignantly recount every detail of Edward and Despenser’s 1322 tyrannical executions…

  7. Isn’t it said that a lawyer is a person who saves your money from your enemies and takes it himself? 🙂

    Is it cynical to suggest that Richard Arundel waited 17 years to put in for the annulment because he had just met and fallen for Eleanor and it was a convenient excuse? Actually, that’s just made me wonder if petitioning the Pope was the medieval equivalent of the divorce lawyer – nowadays the person who can afford the most expensive lawyer tends to win, in the 13th-C the person who could afford the most expensive sweetener for the Pope tended to win.

  8. Eleanor was widowed in April 1342, when her husband John Beaumont was killed in a tournament in Northampton, so the timing seems plausible. Let’s say, a few months or a year mourning for her husband, becoming Richard’s mistress in 1343, Richard falling in love and deciding to divorce Isabella…

  9. Susan Higginbotham

    Seeing the eye doctor re Doherty . . .

    The Richard-falling-in-love theory would certainly explain his willingness to abandon a perfectly good son and heir and take a gamble on Eleanor’s future fertility, as Alianore pointed out. Or maybe he’d been wanting to annul the marriage all along but didn’t want to take the chance until a suitably well-connected woman with a track record of fertility, like Eleanor, came onto the market.

  10. Thank you for this information. Sorry to be six months late.
    As you probably know, the tomb of Richard FitzAlan and Eleanor of Lancaster is the subject of a poem by Philip Larkin, An Arundel Tomb which as part of one British examination syllabus (English Literature) has aroused a great deal of speculation. Larkin asserts that their sculpted intimate relationship was a sham: “The stone fidelity / they hardly meant”.
    It appears that the tomb was restored in the 19th Century, the arms at some time having been broken off; some commentators argue that the clasp of hand in hand may be a faithful reconstruction, others not. (I apologise for not having the refs to hand).
    Do you have any authorities beyond Emily Holt?
    Larkin has predicated his ambiguous conclusion upon his sceptical view of their relationship; although the historical truth may not of itself invalidate his world view, it would provide a healthy framework within which to assess his use of evidence.
    Have you any further information about the reality of their feelings for each other?

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