Elizabeth le Despenser (who appears a couple of times in Hugh and Bess) was the youngest surviving daughter born to Hugh le Despenser and Eleanor de Clare. Her birth date is unknown, but either she or her brother John might have been the child born to Eleanor in December 1325, as all of the other Despenser children can be accounted for before that date. It is also possible, in light of the fact that she was not forcibly veiled as a nun like the three middle Despenser daughters, that she was Hugh the younger’s posthumous child, though this is pure conjecture.
Nothing is heard out of Elizabeth until August 1338, when the prioress of Wix sent her to the care of her aunt, Eleanor’s younger sister Elizabeth de Burgh. Eleanor had died the previous year, and Elizabeth’s oldest brother, Hugh, had probably sent his young sister to board at Wix in Essex following their mother’s death. (The manor of Wix had been part of the inheritance of Elizabeth’s grandfather, Hugh le Despenser the elder, though it was no longer in Despenser hands in the 1330’s.) That same year, Elizabeth was married to young Maurice Berkeley, born in 1330. The marriage was probably an effort by Maurice’s father, Thomas Berkeley, and the Despenser family to mend old grudges: Thomas Berkeley had fought against the Despensers in the 1320’s and had been the keeper of the imprisoned Edward II at Berkeley Castle in 1327. Maurice’s mother, Margaret, was a daughter of the Roger Mortimer who had ordered the death of Elizabeth’s father and grandfather, Hugh the elder Despenser and Hugh the younger Despenser. Elizabeth never got to exchange pleasantries with Margaret about this, though, because Margaret died in 1337, before Elizabeth joined the Berkeley family.
Elizabeth’s brother Hugh gave his sister a marriage portion of 1,000 marks, 200 marks of which were payable each half year. Meanwhile, Thomas Berkeley settled the manor of Hurst in jointure on the young couple.
Elizabeth de Burgh sent little Elizabeth to Tewkesbury around 1340; Frances Underhill suggests that she was sent at this time to join the Berkeleys. Elizabeth again visited her aunt in the summer of 1348, in company with some of her relations. Meanwhile, according to Smyth, Maurice went to Granada in 1344 and stayed there two years; Smyth theorizes that he was sent there to prevent cohabitation with Elizabeth. (Was the girl such a siren?) When the couple finally did get together, though, it was with the usual effect: On January 5, 1353, Elizabeth gave birth to their first son, Thomas. The couple eventually had three more boys, James, John, and Maurice, and three girls, Catherine, Agnes, and Elizabeth. It’s notable that there is not a “Hugh” in the bunch; Maurice and his father must have been the ones picking the children’s names.
Maurice fought at Poitiers in 1356. Unfortunately, he was wounded there and taken captive; he was not released until 1360, when he was ransomed. His wounds had apparently left him an invalid, for he took little part in national affairs even after his father died in 1361. Because of his inability to travel, he was unable to attend his son’s wedding in 1368, but he had himself made a suit of cloth of gold for the occasion.
The abstracts of the Berkeley accounts contain few glimpses of Elizabeth’s married life. She received 20 shillings each quarter for expenses in her chamber, and she is recorded as having a new gown furred with coney skins from the kitchen “during the year of her husband’s sickness,” whatever year that might be. One suspects that Elizabeth’s father might have turned up his nose at the coney skins.
Maurice died at Berkeley Castle on June 8, 1368, aged only about 37, and was buried with his mother at St. Augustine’s in Bristol. As her dower, Elizabeth was granted Wenden in Essex, two-thirds of Portbury and Portishead and Uphill in Somersetshire, the small holding at Chicklade in Wiltshire, and the manors of Coaley, Upton and Awre, and the small holding at St. Chloe in Gloucestershire. Her jointure and dower was worth about £335 a year. She was at least 41 at the time, having been born no later than 1327.
By 1372, Elizabeth had married Sir Maurice Wyth, a knight in Somerset. In that year, the Earl of Pembroke wrote to the abbesses at Romsey and Wherwell requesting them to allow Elizabeth to stay in their houses while Wyth was away in the earl’s service. As Elizabeth had no shortage of places to stay, perhaps she simply preferred the atmosphere of a nunnery to her own manors during her husband’s absence. In 1378, Maurice and Elizabeth dated a grant of land from Portbury.
Maurice Wyth made his will on July 11, 1383; it was proven on August 6, 1383. After requesting to be buried at St. Botolph without Aldersgate in London, he left Elizabeth “all my husbandry from the present date until the feast of Saint Michael to come, now growing in Portbury and Portishead with all necessaries pertaining to my chamber, wardrobe, hall and also to buttery and kitchen. To my said wife all my silver vessels of the better sort to the value of £40.” He ended his will with the request, “And it is my last wish that my said wife hold herself contented with all bequeathed to her.” Whether this was a boilerplate clause or whether he was genuinely worried that Elizabeth might covet the rest of his goods is anyone’s guess, but when Elizabeth herself died on July 13, 1389, aged at least sixty-two, she chose to be buried not with the Berkeleys, but at St. Botolph with her second husband.
(Wars of the Roses aficionados may be interested to know that Eleanor Talbot, claimed by Richard III to be the wife of Edward IV, is a descendant of Elizabeth and Maurice Berkeley. Now you know who to blame.)
The Complete Peerage.
Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, Abstracts and Extracts of Smyth’s Lives of the Berkeleys.
Roy Martin Haines, King Edward II.
National Archives, Berkeley Castle Muniments.
Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries.
Frances Underhill, For Her Good Estate: The Life of Elizabeth de Burgh.
F.W. Weaver, Somerset Medieval Wills.