Born on the 28th June, 1328, at Donyatt in Somerset, William Montagu – or Montacute – was the son of William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury and Katherine Grandison (died 1349), 3rd daughter of William Lord Grandison. Young William was the eldest of the couple’s 2 sons and 4 daughters.
William Montagu was a friend and contemporary of Edward, the Black Prince, son and heir of Edward III, who was raised alongside William in the Salisbury household. Also among the young aristocrats in the care of the Earl of Salisbury was Joan of Kent, daughter and heir of Edmund, Earl of Kent.
Before 10th February, 1341, young Montagu and Joan were married; a union arranged by the young couple’s parents and the King, Edward III, seeing as they were both only 12 years old at the time. Although it is possible Montagu and Joan lived together as husband and wife from the moment of their marriage, they were still very young and may well have delayed consummating the marriage for another year or so. It is more than likely that they carried on with their education, much the same as before, with Lady Joan learning how to manage a noble household and Montagu continuing his knightly training.
On 30th January 1344, still only 15, Montagu became the 2nd Earl of Salisbury when his father died after receiving heavy bruising in the Windsor jousts. He was knighted at La Hogue, during the 1346 expedition to France, though whether this was by the King or the Prince of Wales seems to be in question. During the hostilities Montagu assisted in the Siege of Caen and may have been at the Battle of Crécy.
Following the successes of the French campaign, Montagu became one of the Founders of the Order of the Garter when it was created by Edward III in April 1348. However, in the following month poor Montagu became embroiled in the biggest bigamy scandal to hit medieval England, when Thomas Holland, Montagu’s steward and recently returned from crusading in Eastern Europe, petitioned the pope for the nullification of the marriage between Montagu and Joan, on the grounds of his prior marriage to Joan.
William contested the annulment; after all, Joan was only 12 when he married her and Holland was claiming that his marriage to Joan had been consummated about 2 years earlier, making Joan 9 or 10 at the time. However, when it came time for Joan to testify, she supported Holland’s claims; the annulment was granted on 17th November 1349 and Joan returned to her 1st husband.
Montagu wasted little time in finding himself another wife and married Elizabeth de Mohun shortly after the annulment had been granted. Elizabeth was the daughter of John, Lord Mohun of Dunster and, given that she was born around 1343, was only 6 or 7 at the time of the marriage. They would have one child, a son, William, who was born in 1361.
No longer a minor, in 1349 William Montagu had made proof of his age and was given the livery of his lands, as Earl of Salisbury. His mother passed away in the same year and he succeeded to her dower lands.
The 1350s saw Montagu pursuing a highly successful military career. In 1350 he had served at Winchelsea, which saw the defeat of the Castilian fleet. In 1356 he distinguished himself serving as commander of the rearguard, alongside the Earl of Suffolk, in the Black Prince’s march through southern France; however, it was Montagu alone who commanded the rearguard during English victory at the battle of Poitiers. Some sources credit Montagu with having chosen the English defensive position, along the gap of a hedge, which proved invaluable to the Black Prince’s forces. He defeated the 1st major French attack, led by the marshals, Clermont and d’Audenahm; Clermont was killed and the other leaders captured.
William Montagu saw more fighting with the king, Edward III, in his expedition of 1359, before taking part in the negotiations for the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360.
During the relative peace of the 1360s Montagu served as a justice of the peace, at various times, in Hampshire, Somerset and Devon; and he served on various commissions in Somerset and Devon. He was also embroiled in a legal dispute with the Mortimer earls of March over Denbigh, which had originally been a Mortimer possession, but was given to Montagu’s father for his part in the overthrow of Roger Mortimer in 1330. Montagu had done homage for it in 1353, but by 1355, due to his gaining royal favour, it was back in the hands of the Mortimer heir, Roger.
The dispute rumbled on during the minority of the next Mortimer heir, Edmund, earl of March. Resolution was delayed even after Mortimer came of age, due to technicalities and Mortimer’s subsequent departure for duties in Ireland; where he died, and the Mortimer lands fell subject to yet another minority. By 1396 the earl of Salisbury was prepared to give the Mortimer’s a quitclaim, but this remained undelivered at William’s death and was left to his heir to resolve.
By the late 1360s war had resumed and William Montagu was sent to Calais with the earl of Warwick, in a futile raid commanded by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He was part of the king’s 1372 expedition to the relief of Thouars, which was forced to return to England due to unfavourable winds. In 1373 after commanding the English fleet which destroyed 7 Spanish ships in the harbour of St Malo, he relieved Brest; which had promised to yield if not relieved within 40 days. Negotiations ensued, thus avoiding a battle but enabling Montagu to resupply Brest and prevent its capture.
Still fighting the French, in 1377 Montagu served alongside the Earl of Arundel in a raid around la Rochelle, but was beaten off by local forces. By 1379, following the accession of Richard II, he was serving as Captain of Calais when he captured and burned the French fortified monastery of Beaulieu.
Montagu must have wondered at the strange twist of fate that had him serving a king, Richard II, who just happened to be the son of his 1st wife, Joan of Kent, and his childhood companion, Edward, the Black Prince.
On a personal front, 1378 had seen the marriage of Montagu’s son and heir, another William, to Elizabeth Fitzalan, daughter of the earl’s companion in arms Richard, Earl of Arundel. Their happiness was short-lived, however, when William died after only 4 years of marriage. In a tragedy that must have rocked Montagu to the core, on 6th August 1382 at Windsor, young William was killed in a tilting match by his own father, the earl. It must have been a horrendous scene to behold.
In the same year, 1382, Montagu had become involved in a legal dispute with his younger brother, John, concerning a statute merchant whose conditions were violated by John. The proceedings would rumble on and on; although a court of chivalry was established, with John Montagu being steward of the king’s household, no one was in a hurry to pronounce judgement on him. The case was not settled until after John’s death in 1390 and John’s son surrendered the disputed statute merchant in 1391.
The family disputes appear to have prevented Montagu from playing a major role in the reign of Richard II, as you might expect from the earl of Salisbury. He is thought to have stayed with the king throughout the Peasants Revolt of June 1381, and advised Richard II to show mercy to the rebels. Loyalty to the crown was a family tradition, but he seems to have been well-regarded by the Lords Apellant who opposed Richard’s favourites. And when Richard II resumed power on a more moderate basis, Montagu cooperated with him. He served in various commissions during the 1390s, but appears only on the periphery of national politics.
Unfortunately the case had served to alienate William Montagu from his brother and nephew – both called John – who were also his heirs. As a result, Montagu started selling off substantial parts of his property, in order to keep them out of his brother’s hands. In 1393 he sold the Isle of Man to William Scrope and in his will, he left half of his goods to his wife and the rest to servants and the church, leaving nothing of his disposable property to his nephew, the new earl. John Montagu was left to inherit the title and landed estates not mentioned in the will.
Montagu had lived through the worst years of plague and the resultant Peasants’ Revolt; he had survived war with France on numerous occasions and suffered the personal tragedy of accidentally killing his only child. The last survivor of Edward III’s great captains of the Hundred Years War, William Montagu died on 3rd June 1397, just shy of his 69th birthday. He was buried at Montacute Priory at Bisham in Berkshire; unfortunately nothing remains of his tomb. His wife, Elizabeth, survived him by 18 years, later becoming a nun; she was received into the sisterhood of the convent of St Albans on 10th October. Having made her will in 1414, leaving her sister, Philippa, Duchess of York, and her nephew Richard, Lord Strange of Knockyn, as her heirs, she died on 14th January 1415.
Pictures taken from Wikipedia.
Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Life and Time of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s’ Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; oxforddnb.com; britannia.com; themcs.org.