Two (Maybe Three) Little Nuns

On January 1, 1327, Queen Isabella, having executed her enemies and imprisoned her husband, King Edward II, turned her attention to much smaller matters: Hugh le Despenser the younger’s little daughters. On that day, the queen issued an order that Eleanor le Despenser be packed off to Sempringham, a Gilbertine priory in Lincolnshire, and veiled as a nun “without delay.” A similar order sent Margaret to Watton, another Gilbertine priory in Yorkshire. Coming just a few weeks after the brutal execution of the girls’ father and the imprisonment of their mother, the queen’s orders completed the unraveling of the privileged existence these girls had enjoyed.

Hugh le Despenser had left four sons and five daughters behind him. Isabel, the oldest of the girls, was about fourteen. She had been married as a child to Richard Fitzalan and thereby escaped her younger sisters’ fate.

Joan had been intended to marry the Earl of Kildaire’s son, John, but he had died in 1323 or 1324, age nine. Joan herself also was veiled as a nun at Shaftesbury Abbey, but no order from Isabella appears to be extant in her case, so whether she was caught up in Isabella’s net too or was veiled for some other reason is uncertain. (It seems unlikely, though, that her parents, having arranged for her marriage, would later decide to veil her, unless some physical or mental problem had appeared after John’s death that made them consider her unsuitable for marriage. And it seems highly unlikely that Isabella would have veiled her younger sisters but left Joan alone.)

At the time of the queen’s order, Eleanor was contracted to marry Laurence Hastings, the future Earl of Pembroke; he was about seven years old. Isabella ignored this contract, and Hastings ultimately married one of the many daughters of Roger Mortimer, the queen’s lover.

Judging from a record dated March 1, 1327, in which one Thomas de Houk was forgiven a debt for having boarded Margaret for three years, Margaret was probably only about three or four at the time of her forced veiling.

Elizabeth, the youngest Despenser girl, was not veiled. She eventually would marry Maurice de Berkeley, the heir to the man in whose custody Edward II was killed in 1327. We can only speculate as to why Isabella chose not to include her in the forced veiling. Perhaps it might have been her extremely young age; assuming that Elizabeth was fairly close to the age of her future husband, she was probably no more than an infant in January 1327. It is also possible that she was in her mother’s womb at the time of the veiling of her sisters.

That the queen’s orders were carried out quickly, as instructed, is apparent from an entry in the Calendar of Memoranda Rolls dated February 23, 1327. There the prior of Sempringham obtained forgiveness for a debt of nearly forty pounds because of the charges the priory had incurred in veiling Eleanor.

Despite Isabella’s efforts, the girls were not forgotten by their family. Margaret died at Watton some time in 1337; her aunt Elizabeth de Burgh sent items to be used for her burial. Margaret may have lived in some style before her death; in 1332, the prior at Watton, having been hit up for money by Edward III, who was fund-raising for his sister’s wedding, pleaded penury, offering as an excuse the large number of nuns at Watton and the necessity to maintain Margaret le Despenser. In 1337, the crown granted Eleanor twenty pounds per year, presumably at the request of her eldest brother, Hugh, who was also the recipient of royal largesse at that time. Hugh granted Joan twenty marks per year in 1343. In 1345, Hugh, aided by Queen Philippa, the Earl of Lancaster, the Earl of Derby, and the Earl of Warwick, presented a petition to the Pope to have certain privileges for Sempringham confirmed. The petition was granted. Eleanor was still living in 1351; Joan lived into the reign of Richard II, dying in 1384.

There were precedents for the queen’s command. As readers of Sharon Penman’s epic historical novel The Reckoning know, after the Welsh prince Llywelyn was slain, Edward I sent his infant daughter, Gwenllian, to Sempringham, where she was veiled and would spend the rest of her life. (Indeed, she lived until 1337, and probably encountered little Eleanor le Despenser when she was sent to Sempringham in 1327.) Following the capture and execution of Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd, Edward I had his young daughters sent to English priories, where they like their cousin Gwenllian were veiled. (Dafydd’s sons suffered a worse fate, imprisonment for life.) Edward II himself sent Roger Mortimer’s daughters and a host of other female relatives of his enemies to priories after the Battle of Boroughbridge, but never forced them to take the veil.

It is unclear what Isabella’s motivations were: expedience, caution, spite, or some combination thereof. Edward I’s decision to “disappear” the daughters of the Welsh royal family by veiling them at least had a cold-blooded logic behind it; by their lineage they would have posed a threat to the king’s dominance over Wales had they been allowed to live free and marry. The Despenser girls, however, posed no similar threat to Isabella and Mortimer. With their father dead and disgraced, they were of no political importance. They were not even potential heiresses; all their parents’ lands were in the hands of the crown at the time, and even if there had been some land in the family, there was a male heir to inherit it, with three spares as backup. In any case, if Isabella had perceived the veiling of the girls to be important as a security measure, she would surely not have let the youngest girl, Elizabeth, escape the habit. Perhaps the queen simply wanted to dispose of the girls cheaply; the expenses of their imprisoned mother, Eleanor de Clare, were being paid by the crown, and dumping her daughters into convents meant that someone else other than the crown was burdened with their care.

Oddly, in her sympathetic biography of Isabella, Alison Weir refers to the girls’ being “placed in convents while their mother was in the Tower” and states that they “later became nuns”—ignoring altogether the coercive role Isabella played in their veiling. (She also cites the pardon of their brother Hugh as an instance of Isabella’s leniency, disregarding the fact that the pardon was one in name only, since Hugh remained in prison until after Isabella and Mortimer’s downfall.) This misinterpretation of the unambiguous orders issued for Eleanor and Margaret is puzzling, to say the least, as other historians, such as Eileen Power and Frances Underwood, have mentioned them.

Long before these modern historians took note of the orders veiling the Despenser girls, however, they were duly noted in the nineteenth century by a prolific historical novelist of the time, Emily Sarah Holt, who made Margaret and Eleanor le Despenser’s confinement the subject of a novel called In Convent Walls. Like the other novels of Holt’s I’ve read, In Convent Walls is a weird mixture of sharp-eyed observation of human foibles, painstaking research, anti-Catholicism, and not-at-all-subtle Protestant evangelism, and it will probably be to few modern readers’ tastes. Still, it’s oddly comforting to see that by one nineteenth-century literary lady at least, two little medieval girls, starting the new year of 1327 by being torn from all that was familiar to them, were remembered with compassion.

16 thoughts on “Two (Maybe Three) Little Nuns”

  1. Having just finished “The Follies of the King”, I found this information very interesting. I agree with you that it seems kind of strange, but maybe it was just some sort of twisted revenge on her part.

    I am finding Isabella a little less sympathetic in “Vow on the Heron” although I’m glad her conscience is getting the better of her!

  2. *kicks Blogger*

    I think there was a minimun age for being veiled because it involved a ceremony a toddler could not have undergone. You can coax or threaten a 4 year old into agreing to everything, but there’s no way to make a baby that can only cry say, yes I swear. 🙂

    Imprisonment a worse fate than veiling? I’m not sure; I’d have prefered a dungeon to a convent and that eternal praying and intrigues among women. Also, if powers shift, ‘lifelong’ can have an end, a nun never gets out again.

    Can you tell I’m pissed at Isabella, lol?

  3. I wonder whether veiling was considered worse than imprisonment. It may have depended on the girl. At least a nun was guaranteed food and some sort of medical care, which wasn’t always the case for medieval prisoners, whose expenses weren’t always met by the Crown. Isabella could probably have imprisoned the girls and refused to pay for their upkeep, leaving them at the whim of their jailers’ tender mercies (or otherwise), which might have bee a much more precarious and frightening existence than life in a convent. Not to mention the difficulty of finding marriages for them if their parents’ lands stayed attaindered and they had no dowries or inheritances – that might have made them as unmarriageable as being nuns but a lot less secure. A nun’s life could be quite comfortable for some people (perhaps e.g. Margaret if she lived in some style). Unlike a state prisoner, a nun might be able to travel to other priories, go on pilgrimages, and might rise up the hierarchy to senior administrative positions (Prioress and so on), which might have been not that dissimilar to managing a big secular estate. What you didn’t get was the husband and children; but then you also didn’t get forced into an abusive marriage or die horribly in childbirth. Young children in particular might have been able to adapt to their new environment and live reasonably contented lives. It also wasn’t unheard of for children to be dedicated as nuns or monks. There are records from the early medieval period of children entering monasteries at seven or even earlier, and I don’t suppose they had much choice at that age or could have had much idea what they were choosing if they did. I don’t suppose there are any records to say whether the Despenser girls came to terms with their fate, are there?

    (I should perhaps say that none of this is to excuse Isabella, merely to wonder whether the little girls might have managed to lead reasonable lives in spite of it. They say ‘to live well is the best revenge’.)

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Interesting comments, ladies! My own guess is that the girls did live comfortable enough lives in their convents. They were, after all, relations of the king (their mother was Edward III’s first cousin) and I think that in itself would have worked in their favor. The fact that their brother obtained grants and favors for them also suggests that they continued in contact with their family, especially once Mortimer and Isabella were out of power. Sadly, I haven’t come across any records mentioning their lives in the convents, other than the ones I’ve made use of here.

    Toward the end of the Isabella/Mortimer “reign,” after the execution of the Earl of Kent, Isabella and Mortimer had his wife and children, including little Joan of Kent, imprisoned. It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened if Isabella had decided to veil Joan, thus preventing her eventual marriage to the Black Prince and the birth of Richard II. (Not to mention the famous garter-dropping story.)

  5. Lol, it’s because I’m so not a Christian that the idea of spending my days in company of other women, praying to a god in whom I don’t believe, seems worse than being locked into a solitary dungeon. But Carla has a point, I admit.

    Either way, I’d probably have tried to escape and become a pirate- 🙂

  6. I just read the scene in Plaidy’s “Vow on the Heron” about Joan of Kent dropping her garter. Too funny! Any idea if it really happened?

  7. Susan Higginbotham

    Sadly, the consensus now seems to be that she probably didn’t, as women apparently didn’t wear them at the time. Ian Mortimer in his bio of Edward III points out, though, that Joan probably did play a “lead romantic role” in the first Garter tournament in 1349, where both men claiming to be her husband were present.

  8. Now, that’s a plot bunny! The Nun-Pirates of the English Channel . . .

    Hehe, it was quite the fashion in those noble circles, after all. 🙂

    You can have that bunny. I already have pirates on the Baltic Sea among my fuzzy pests. 🙂

  9. WAS veiling always irreversible? Could a woman (probably with much grief and a plea to the pope) get de-nunned?

  10. Susan Higginbotham

    Frank, I’d have to look at Eileen Power’s book again. From what I remember, it was possible, but I suspect that the difficulty of the process and worries about the afterlife dissuaded the overwhelming majority of women from trying. I do know that some women simply ran off, though.

  11. elena Maria vidal

    Great discusseion. Has anybody read The White Ladies of Worcester by Florence Barclay? It is a VERY Victorian take on medieval monasteries and involves a lady who became a nun under false pretences. She was told her betrothed had been killed in Palestine but he was really alive and comes to get her out of the monastery. But she is the Mother Superior so it is very tricky. However, a Cardinal who is her friend helps her to be dispensed from her vows. Yes, technically a nun could be “defrocked” just like a priest, but it was rare and usually a scandal was involved.

    I feel very sorry for women who were forced to become nuns against their will. It was wrong, wrong, wrong and not fair to the women who were there by choice, either. Such forced veilings caused a lot of troubles and corruption for the monastic life which led to the Reformation.

  12. Susan Higginbotham

    Elena, I’ll have to look that one up!

    On the other side of the coin, there’s Mary of Blois, King Stephen’s daughter, who had become a nun but was forced into marriage, evidently by Henry II, to Matthew, younger son of the count of Flanders, after she became an heiress. The marriage (which produced two children) resulted in a papal interdict, which was lifted after Mary returned to the cloister.

  13. elena maria vidal

    Wow! I never heard of that case! Something like that also happened to St Margaret of Hungary in the late 1200’s I think, or maybe the 1300’s. She was happy as a nun and her father the King of Hungary tried to force her into marriage. She refused and I think she went into hiding until her father was forced to relent and leave her in peace in her monastery.

  14. elena maria vidal

    Also, I was thinking about other cases where girls were sent to the monastery at a young age and it actually worked out. The German Benedictine abbesses Hildegard von Bingen and Gertrude “the Great” were both sent to monasteries as very small children. They had access to books and music and so received an education that otherwise might not have been available to them. They were both known in their lifetime for their wisdom and many rulers and prelates consulted their advice. They both wrote books and, in Hildegard’s csae, composed music that people still read and listen to today. So sometimes childhood veilings did work out….

  15. Pingback: Elizabeth le Despenser, Daughter of Hugh and Eleanor | History Refreshed by Susan Higginbotham

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