The Kidnapped Countess

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Denbigh Castle

The story of Alice de Lacey is like something straight from a novel, with rebellion, kidnappings and love all wrapped up in the life of this one was born Countess. Alice was born at Denbigh Castle on 25th December 1281. She was the daughter of Henry de Lacey, 5th Earl of Lincoln and, through her mother Margaret, granddaughter of William (II) Longspee, Earl of Salisbury.

Alice was one of 3 children. With 2 brothers, Edmund and John, she was, of course, not  expected to inherit her father’s earldom. However, 2 family tragedies made Alice one of the richest heiresses in England. Young Edmund, it appears, drowned in a well at Denbigh Castle and John fell to his death from the parapet at Pontefract Castle, leaving Alice as her parents’ sole heir.

In 1294 Alice’s marriage was arranged by no-less than the king – Edward I – who saw her as a suitable bride for his nephew Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and son of the king’s brother Edmund Crouchback. Alice and Thomas were married on or before 28th October 1294; he was about 16 years old and Alice was not yet 13.

Edward I had shown his unscrupulous nature in the marriage settlement in that Thomas was given part of the Lacey inheritance on the marriage, with the rest to pass to Thomas on Henry de Lacey’s death. The settlement further stipulated that the de Lacey lands would pass to Lancaster in the event of Alice’s dying without issue; thus excluding all collateral heirs to the earldoms of Salisbury and Lincoln.

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Seal of Henry de Lacey

Alice’s mother Margaret, Countess of Salisbury in her own right, died in 1309 and by June 1310 her father had remarried; probably in the hope of securing an heir for his earldom. In the event, it wasn’t to be and the Earl of Lincoln died in 1311, with his estates passing through his daughter, to Thomas Earl of Lancaster and Leicester.

With 5 earldoms to his name, Thomas now became one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom. Although he was initially a supporter of the new king, his cousin Edward II, he would soon turn against him and his favourites, making enemies along the way.

Poor Alice got caught in the middle of one of Thomas’s feuds.

According to the chronicler Walsingham:

The Countess of Lancaster … was seized at Canford, in Dorset, by a certain knight of the house and family of john, Earl Warenne, with many English retainers called together for the detestable deed, as it is said, with the royal assent. … With them was a certain man of a miserable stature, lame and hunchbacked, called Richard de St Martin, exhibiting and declaring constantly his evil intentions towards the lady, so miserably led away.

Alice was kidnapped in 1317 from her manor in Canford, Dorset, by John de Warenne’s man, Sir Richard de St Martin, supposedly with the king’s knowledge. Several reasons for the abduction have been put forward; one is, of course, that Alice and St Martin were having an affair while another is that the affair was between Alice and John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, himself.

Given the king’s involvement, a more likely explanation is that the kidnapping was organised by de Warenne in retaliation for Lancaster’s objections to de Warenne’s attempts to divorce his wife, Joan of Bar, in 1315/16. Joan was a cousin of Thomas of Lancaster and niece of King Edward II, but her marriage to John de Warenne was a disaster and John openly lived with his mistress, Maud Nerford. When he attempted to divorce Joan, Lancaster was one of his most vocal opponents; the divorce was eventually refused and de Warenne was even excommunicated for a time.

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Arms of Thomas and his father as Earls of Lancaster and Leicester

Alice was held at Reigate Castle, Surrey. Her abduction set off a private war between the 2 magnates, with Lancaster targeting Warenne’s Yorkshire estates and successfully besieging the Earl’s castle at Conisbrough in retaliation. Although he seems to have made little effort to actually rescue his wife and there is no record of how and when she was eventually released.

Alice and Thomas’s marriage does not appear to have been a happy one and there is some evidence that they were actually divorced in 1318, with Thomas retaining Alice’s earldoms after enforcing the marriage contract. The divorce was supposedly on account of her adultery with the Earl of Surrey’s squire, Sir Eubolo Lestrange (although this may be a confusion of facts from her abduction and her later marriage). It has also been claimed that Alice and her abductor, Richard de St Martin, were pre-contracted before her marriage to Thomas of Lancaster. However, although this is not impossible, it does seem unlikely, given Alice’s tender age on her wedding day.

Whether or not Alice and Thomas did divorce is still open to debate. If the divorce occurred, it did not protect her from the reprisals meted out after her husband’s failed rebellion and defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge on 16th March 1322. While Thomas was executed Alice, along with her step-mother, Joan, was imprisoned in York Castle.

It must have been a truly terrifying time for the 2 women; with no protectors they were at the mercy of the king’s favourites, the Despensers, father and son. Threatened with execution by burning they were forced to turn over the majority of their estates. Having paid an enormous ransom of £20,000 Alice was finally released, securing her titles, a small number of estates and the right to remarry.

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Lincoln Castle

Her step-mother, Joan, died in October 1322; we can only surmise as to whether or not her demise was as a consequence of her imprisonment.

Alice would eventually recover Lincoln Castle and the Earldom of Lincoln, but many of her estates were given to her erstwhile abductor, John de Warenne, and only returned to her by Edward III, many years later.

By November 1324 Alice had married again, this time to a minor baron from the Welsh Marches, Sir Ebule, or Eubolo, Lestrange of Shropshire. The  marriage demonstrated that Alice had managed to come out of the disaster of her first husband’s downfall with enough income and  property to make her an attractive proposition as a wife. Although, it does seem possible that this marriage was a love-match.

This marriage appears to have been a happier one, given that Lestrange moved over to Lincolnshire to look after his wife’s interests, and that it was with Sir Eubolo that Alice chose to be buried, when the time came. Alice and Sir Eubolo were married for over 10 years, although towards the latter part Lestrange was away campaigning in Scotland, where he died in September 1335. Alice was named as one of his executors and he was buried in Barlings Abbey, Lincolnshire.

Following his death, Alice took a vow of chastity and looked determined to settle into a life of quiet retirement. However, her adventures were not quite at an end. In 1335, or early 1336, Alice was kidnapped for a 2nd time; she was abducted from her castle at Bolingbroke and raped, by Sir Hugh de Freyne. Freyne was a Herefordshire knight and royal keeper of the town and castle of Cardigan.

There appears some suggestion that Alice was in collusion with Sir Hugh, with the theory being that her abduction was a way for her to escape her vow of chastity. It seems more likely that Alice acquiesced to a situation over which she had little control. Edward III was furious and ordered the imprisonment of the couple, but they were reconciled with the king 1336 and allowed to marry. The marriage did much to improve Freyne’s status and brought him a summons to Parliament in November 1336.

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Barlings Abbey

However, such success was short-lived as he died at Perth in December 1336 or January 1337.

Shortly after her 3rd husband’s death, the Bishop of Lincoln issued a demand that Alice keep her prior vow and chastity. As there were no further marriages – or abductions – we can probably assume that she did. Alice died on the 2nd October 1348 at the grand age of 66. She was buried with her 2nd husband at the Premonstratensian House of Barlings, in Lincolnshire.

Having had no children from any of her 3 marriages, Alice’s lands and titles, as according to her marriage settlement 54 years earlier, passed to the house of Lancaster and her husband’s nephew, Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster and father of Blanche of Lancaster, John of Gaunt’s 1st wife.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except Lincoln Castle © 2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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Sources: The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson;  findagrave.com; oxforddnb.com; royaldescent.net.

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The Complicated Love Life of John of Gaunt

200px-JohnofgauntThe third surviving son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault John of Gaunt was born in 1340 at the Abbey of St Bavon, in Ghent in modern-day Belgium. At the height of his career he was the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king. He was virtually regent for his father, Edward III, in his old age, thus getting the blame for military failures and government corruption. His reputation was further damaged when he blocked the reforms of the Good Parliament of 1376, which had tried to curb the corruption of Edward III’s and limit the influence of the king’s grasping mistress, Alice Perrers.

John of Gaunt’s wealth meant he could form the largest baronial retinue of knights and esquires in the country. He alone provided a quarter of the army raised for Richard II’s Scottish campaign in 1385. A stalwart supporter of his nephew, Richard II, he was the target for the rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt; his London residence, the Savoy Palace, was burned to the ground in 1381.

He was a soldier and statesman whose career spanned 6 decades and several countries, including England, Belgium, France, Scotland and Castile. However, by far the most fascinating part of his life is his love life. John married three times; his wives being two great heiresses and a long-time mistress.

John of Gaunt’s first marriage, at the age of 19, was aimed to give him prestige, property and income and was arranged as part of his father’s plans to provide for the futures of several of his children. John and 14-year-old Blanche of Lancaster, youngest daughter of Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, were married on 19th May 1359 in the Queen’s Chapel at Reading.

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Wedding of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster

It is quite likely that John had already fathered one child, a daughter, Blanche, by Marie de St Hilaire before his marriage. Blanche was born sometime before 1360 and would go on to marry Sir Thomas Morieux before her death in 1388 or 1389.

Blanche of Lancaster was described as “jone et jolie” – young and pretty – by the chronicler Froisssart, and also “bothe fair and bright” and Nature’s “cheef patron of beautee” by Geoffrey Chaucer. She brought John of Gaunt the earldom of Lancaster following her father’s death from plague in 1361, and those of Leicester and Lincoln when her older sister, Matilda, died of the same disease in 1362, making him the largest landowner in the country, after the king.

The marriage proved very successful, with 7 children being born in just 8 years, 3 of whom survived infancy; daughters Philippa and Elizabeth and a son, Henry of Bolingbroke.

It has always been believed that Blanche died in 1369, when John of Gaunt was away in France, having moved her young family to Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, to escape a fresh outbreak of the Black Death, but that she succumbed to the plague while there. However, recent research has discovered that Blanche died at Tutbury on 12th September, 1368, more likely from the complications of childbirth than from the plague, following the birth of her daughter, Isabella, who died young. Her husband was by her side when she died and arranged to have prayers said for the soul of his lost duchess.

She was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. John of Gaunt arranged for a splendid alabaster tomb and annual commemorations for the rest of his life. John also commissioned Geoffrey Chaucer to write The Book of the Duchess, also known as The Deth of Blaunche; a poem that is said to depict Gaunt’s mourning for his wife, in the tale of a Knight grieving for his lost love. In it Chaucer describes Blanche as “whyt, smothe, streght and flat. Naming the heroine “White”, he goes on to say she is “rody, fresh and lyvely hewed”.

Before 1365 Blanche had taken into her household a lady called Katherine Swynford, wife of one of her husband’s Lincolnshire knights. John was godfather to the Swynfords’ daughter, Blanche. Katherine later became governess to Blanche’s two daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth and young Blanche Swynford was lodged in the same chambers as the Duchess’s daughters, and accorded the same luxuries as the princesses.

Surrender
Surrender of Santiago de Compostela to John of Gaunt. Constance is the lady on horseback (Froissart)

Katherine was the daughter of a Hainault knight, Sir Paon de Roet of Guyenne, who came to England in the retinue of Queen Philippa. She had grown up at court with her sister, Philippa, who would later marry Geoffrey Chaucer. Whilst serving in Blanche’s household, she had married one of John of Gaunt’s retainers, a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe, at St Clement Danes Church on the Strand, London.

Following Blanche’s death Katherine stayed on in the Duke’s household, taking charge of the Duke’s daughters. However, it was only shortly after her husband’s death in 1371 that rumours began of a liaison between Katherine and the Duke; although it is possible the affair started before Sir Hugh’s death, this is far from certain.

John and Katherine would have four children – 3 sons and a daughter – in the years between 1371 and 1379. They were supposedly born in John’s castle in Champagne, in France, and were given the name of the castle as their surname; Beaufort. However it seems just as likely that they were named after the lordship of Beaufort, which had formerly belonged to Gaunt and to which he still laid claim.

Meanwhile, John had not yet done with his dynastic ambitions and, despite his relationship with Katherine, married Constance of Castile in September 1371. Constance was the daughter of Peter I “the Cruel” and his ‘hand-fast’ wife, Maria de Padilla. Born in 1354 at Castro Kerez, Castile, she succeeded her father as ‘de jure’ Queen of Castile on 13th March 1369, but John was never able to wrest control of the kingdom from the rival claimant Henry of Tastamara, reigning as Henry III, and would eventually come to an agreement in 1388 where Henry married John and Constance’s daughter, Katherine.

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Tombs of Katherine Swynford and her daughter, Joan Beaufort, Lincoln Cathedral

Katherine was born in 1372/3 at Hertford Castle and was the couple’s only surviving child.

John and Constance’s relationship appears to be purely dynastic. There is some suggestion John formally renounced his relationship with Katherine and reconciled with Constance in June 1381, possibly as a way to recover some popularity during the Peasant’s Revolt, following the destruction of his palace on the Thames.

Katherine left court and settled at her late husband’s manor at Kettlethorpe, before moving to a rented townhouse in Lincoln. John of Gaunt visited her regularly throughout the 1380s, and Katherine was frequently at court. With 4 children by John of Gaunt but still only, officially, governess to his daughters, Katherine was made a Lady of the Garter in 1388.

Constance, however, died on 24th March, 1394, at Leicester Castle and was buried at Newark Abbey in Leicester.

John then went to Guienne to look after his interests as Duke of Aquitaine and remained in France from September 1394 until December 1395. When he returned to England, John wasted no time in reuniting with Katherine and they were married in Lincoln Cathedral in January 1396.

John then made an appeal to the Pope and his children by Katherine were legitimated on 1st September 1396, and then by Charter of Richard II on 9th February 1397. However, a later clause excluded the Beaufort children from the succession.

John was a man of renown, of culture and refinement. An amateur poet and friend of Chaucer, who had married Katherine’s sister, Philippa, he was also a patron of Wycliffe and encouraged the translation of the Bible into English.

His complicated love life would cause problems for future generations, with his son by Blanche of Lancaster, Henry, forcing the abdication of Richard II and usurping the throne on 30th September 1399. His Beaufort descendants would be prominent players on both sides of the Wars of the Roses. While his son John, Earl of Somerset was the grandfather of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, his daughter, Joan, was grandmother of the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III.

Tomb John of Gaunt
Drawing of the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, etching by Wenceslas Hollar, 1658

Katherine would outlive John and died at Lincoln on 10th May 1403. She was buried, close to the High Altar, in the cathedral in which she had married her prince just 7 years earlier. Her daughter Joan, Countess of Westmoreland, was laid to rest beside her, following her death in 1440. Their tombs, however, are empty and they are buried beneath the floor of the cathedral.

John himself died in February 1399, probably at Leicester Castle. He was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, beside his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. This has often been seen as his final act of love for his first wife, despite the problems John went through in order to finally be able to marry his mistress, Katherine Swynford.

Personally, I think the two ladies, Blanche and Katherine, were his true love at different parts of John’s life. And I hope he had some feelings for poor Constance, who frequently appears as only a means to his dynastic ambitions.

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Article originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors in September 2015.

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Sources: Williamson, David Brewer’s British Royalty; Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn History Today Companion to British History; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; Paul Johnson The Life and Times of Edward III; Ian Mortimer The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III; WM Ormrod The Reign of Edward III; Edited by Elizabeth Hallam Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry; Amy Licence Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort; womenshistory.about.com/od/medrenqueens/a/Katherine-Swynford; katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except the tomb of Katherine Swynford, © Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly