There are many women in history of whom we only have snippets of information. However, those snippets prove to be fascinating and demonstrate how closely the lives of noble houses were tied together – and how they were torn apart. Maud Clifford is one such lady.
Born about 1389 at Brough Castle in Westmoreland, Maud (or Matilda) was the daughter of Thomas Clifford, 6th Baron Clifford, and his wife Elizabeth de Ros. Maud’s brother, John, has also been given 1389 as his possible year of birth. It may be that John or Maud were twins, or that they were born within a year of each other.
Their early childhood cannot have been very pleasant. Their paternal grandfather, Roger Clifford, died in July of 1389, probably of a stroke. In October 1391, their father, Thomas, died. Whilst in Königsberg Thomas had had a disagreement with Sir William Douglas, illegitimate son of the earl of Douglas; Douglas was killed in the ensuing brawl and Clifford, overcome with guilt, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in penance. He died on an unidentified Mediterranean island whilst on the way to the Holy City.
Nothing else seems to be known of Maud’s childhood. Sometime before 1406 she was married to John Neville, Lord Latimer. For some unknown reason the marriage was never consummated and Maud successfully sued for an annulment. The marriage was dissolved with very favourable terms for Maud; some of the Neville lands had been put in trust for Maud and, even though the marriage had been declared invalid, she was allowed to keep them.
Maud was, therefore, a very attractive bride for a landless earl. Richard of Conisbrough, earl of Cambridge, was the poorest – and the only landless – earl in England. He lived at Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire as the tenant of his older brother, Edward, Duke of York. Richard was a widower with 2 small children; his wife, Anne Mortimer, had died sometime after 1411, when she had given birth to their 2nd child, Richard (future Duke of York), probably at Conisbrough Castle. It is not known when Anne died, but it was before 1414, which is the probable date of Maud’s marriage to the earl of Cambridge.
Unfortunately the marriage proved to be short-lived, with Richard of Conisbrough becoming involved in the Southampton Plot, a plan to overthrow King Henry V and replace him with Richard’s brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. However, March revealed the plot to the King and Richard and his accomplices were arrested, with Richard beheaded for treason on 5th August 1415.
Richard of Conisbrough was not attainted, so his lands, such as they were, were not forfeit to the crown. Maud was allowed to remain at Conisbrough Castle, and her step-son, Richard, would be allowed to inherit the Dukedom of York from his uncle, Edward, following his death at Agincourt in October 1415.
It is not clear how much contact Maud had with her step-children. The eldest child, Isabel, had been born around 1409; she had been betrothed in 1412 to Sir Thomas Grey and it is possible that she was raised in the household of the Grey family. As Duke of York, Richard’s wardship and marriage was a great prize, and would eventually go to Ralph Neville, earl of Westmoreland; with York marrying Neville’s daughter, Cecily. The Yorks’ eldest and youngest sons would become the Yorkist kings of England; Edward IV and Richard III, respectively.
Maud would continue to use Conisbrough Castle as her principal residence throughout her life; she received an annuity of £100 from the Earl of March, perhaps to assuage his guilt in the part he played in her husband’s downfall. She seems to have led a full and active life, and remained very close to her Clifford family; they stayed with her often and she was a regular visitor to the Clifford home of Skipton Castle. Her nephew, Thomas and his family, lived with her at Conisbrough for a year in 1437, while his castle at Skipton was undergoing extensive works.
On 8th April 1435 Maud’s great-nephew, John Clifford – the future 9th Baron Clifford – was born at Conisbrough Castle. He was the grandson of Maud’s brother, John, and son of her nephew, Thomas, and his wife, Joan Dacre. Baby John would have been born either in the solar of the keep itself, or in the family apartments above the great hall of the inner bailey.
Either way its most likely he was baptised in the small private chapel within the keep; with Maud as his godmother. The chapel is built into one of the keep’s 6 buttresses and, despite the years and water damage, it is a wonder to behold, with exquisite designs carved into the stone columns, and the vaulted ceiling.
Maud’s brother, John, was killed at the siege of Meaux in 1422 and her nephew, Thomas, would be killed at the First Battle of St Albans in 1455, supposedly by Richard, Duke of York, himself. And so it was, that on the 30th december 1460, at the Battle of Wakefield, John Clifford is said to have taken his revenge by killing York’s son Edmund, the 17-year-old earl of Rutland. Whether or not Clifford uttered the words ‘as your father slew mine, so I shall slay thee’ as he killed young Edmund, is entirely debatable, but the event serves to highlight how closely the noble families of the Wars of the Roses were related.
There is some suggestion that Maud remarried in 1429. The supposed groom was John Wentworth of North Elmsall, Yorkshire. However, this seems to be more of a family legend among the Wentworth family and only arose over 100 years after Maud’s death.
Maud’s will demonstrates her closeness to her family, and serves as an insight into her comfortable life and the sumptuous furnishings of the castle.
To Thomas, Lord Clifford, my relation: a ‘hall’ of arras [a fine woven wall-hanging from Arras] bought from Sir Robert Babthorpe; my bed of Arras with three curtains; four cushions of red silk; two long cushions of cloth.
To John Clifford, my godson: 12 silver dishes, 6 salt-cellars signed with the ‘trayfulles’ [trefoils] and a shell.
To Beatrice Waterton, my relation: a gold cross, which belonged to my mother; my green Primary [a book of readings from the Bible]; a diamond; my best furred robe with ‘martes’ [marten fur].
To Katherine Fitzwilliam: the brooch that I wear everyday; a small black Primary; a jewel called Agnus Dei covered with silver and written around with pearls; my best robe furred with miniver [white stoat fur].
To Maud Clifford, my god-daughter: my best gold belt.¹
Maud died, of an unknown illness, at Conisbrough Castle on 26th August 1446 and was buried at Roche Abbey, of which she was a benefactor.
Footnote: ¹English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei
Sources: Sources: TheHistory Today Companion to British History, edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by J.P. Kenyon; The Oxford Companion to British History, edited by John Cannon; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Wars of the Roses by Martin J Dougherty; englishmonarchs.co.uk; womenshistory.about.com; findagrave.com; conisbroughcastle.org.uk; hrionline.ac.uk; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; oxforddnb.com.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US and worldwide from Book Depository.
From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository.
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Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, was born into wealth and privilege. Grandson of 2 kings and 1st cousin to 2 kings, his life story is full of ambition, glory and war, duty and service – and a hint of treason. All the ingredients needed for a rollicking good novel; with also the possibility of a strange love story.
Edward was born, probably at King’s Langley, in about 1373. A birthday of 1375 has also been suggested, but 1373 seems most likely. The fact he has Norwich after his name has suggested he could have been born there, but there is a theory that it is a derivation of “d’Everwick”, meaning “of York”.
Edward’s father was Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York and 5th son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. His mother was Isabella of Castile, daughter of Pedro the Cruel, king of Castile, and his mistress – and later, wife – Maria de Padilla. Although the couple had 3 children, their marriage doesn’t appear to have been a happy one and there were rumours of scandal surrounding Isabella, with a question mark raised over the paternity of her youngest son, Richard of Conisbrough. Edward also had a sister, Constance, who was close in age to him and born around 1374.
Edward was born into a time of great change in the English monarchy. His grandmother, Philippa, had died in 1369 and his grandfather, Edward III, king since 1327, was slipping into senility, allowing his mistress, Alice Perrers, and her cohorts too much control of his affairs. In 1376 Edward’s eldest son and heir – and England’s hero of the time – Edward, the Black Prince, died after years of debilitating illness. The prince’s death broke the old king, who died the following year, leaving his 10-year-old grandson Richard of Bordeaux, son of the Black Prince, as king.
The government – and the country – was largely in the hands of Edward and Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. John was the 4th son of Edward III and married to Edward of Norwich’s aunt, Constance of Castile. It was a time of uncertainty; many feared John would usurp the crown for himself, but he stayed loyal to his nephew and Richard was crowned as King Richard II.
At only 4 years old Edward of Norwich attended the coronation, receiving his knighthood as part of the celebrations. Edward would be a loyal supporter of Richard II and received numerous royal grants, including the title of Earl of Rutland in February 1390. He was also given the title Earl of Cork when he accompanied Richard on his Irish campaign in 1394/5, leading several successful missions.
In the 1390s Edward emerged as a leading member of Richard’s circle of intimates. A man of considerable ability, Richard named him “the most able,wise and powerful man that he could think of”¹ and is even said to have considered leaving his crown to Edward. After the death of Richard’s queen, Anne of Bohemia, in 1394, Edward was one of the 3 feoffees of her estate, allowing him control of considerable patronage.
Richard practically showered Edward with lucrative positions, including: admiral of the North & West (1391), Constable of Dover and Warden of the Cinque Ports (1396), Constable of the Tower of London (1397) and Constable of England (1398). He was also involved in the king’s diplomacy in France and the Holy Roman Empire, undertaking diplomatic missions to both.
Richard even took personal interest in Edward’s marriage prospects. In 1381 Edward had been betrothed to Beatriz of Portugal as part of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance against Castile. However, when the Portuguese made peace with Castile, Beatriz was married to Juan I of Castile instead.
Richard II suggested the sister-in-law of Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan and also considered 3 relatives of Charles VI of France before suggesting Jeanne de Valois, younger sister of Richard’s proposed bride, Isabelle de Valois. Edward was addressed as ‘the king’s brother’ in recognition of their proposed marriages to sisters, even long after Edward’s planned marriage had fallen through.
By October 1398 Edward was married. His bride was a very curious choice for England’s most eligible bachelor. At 25 and likely to inherit his father’s dukedom in the not-too-distant future, Edward must surely have had the choice of every heiress in the kingdom of marriageable age. And yet his bride was twice widowed, 20 years his senior and with no dowry or inheritance to speak of.
Philippa was the 3rd daughter of John Mohun, 2nd Baron Mohun and a founding member of the Order of the Garter, and his wife Joan Burghersh. She had first been married to Walter Fitzwalter, 3rd Baron Fitzwalter, who died in 1386 and secondly to Sir john Golafre who died in 1396. Having no male heirs, Philippa’s mother had sold the reversion of the Mohun estates to Lady Elizabeth Luttrell, leaving her daughters with no landed inheritance.
The fact this was hardly a glittering match for such an illustrious magnate greatly suggests that it was a love match. And, as with Philippa’s previous 2 marriages, the union was to remain childless; Edward would eventually name his young nephew as his heir.
While Edward was finalising the domestic arrangements for his new bride, England was falling into turmoil. Richard II had imprisoned one uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, in Calais and was distrustful of another uncle, John of Gaunt.
In the 2nd half of the 1380s Gloucester and the Lords Appellants had been the focus of opposition against Richard’s personal rule and had attempted to curb the king’s excesses, forcing restrictions to his rule. John of Gaunt had restored order following his return from campaigning in Spain, but in 1397 Gloucester was murdered whilst imprisoned in Calais, most likely on Richard’s orders. It was said Edward had played a leading role in the arrest of Gloucester and the earls of Arundel and Warwick and he certainly benefited from the aftermath, receiving a significant share of the forfeitures that followed.
In September 1397 he was made Duke of Aumale and given the post of Constable of England – formerly held by Gloucester. As Constable, Edward would preside over Richard’s legal reforms, extending the court of chivalry to include treason and other offences which touched the king’s dignity.
Of the other 2 ringleaders of the Lords Appellant, Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel was beheaded and Thomas de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick was stripped of his titles and imprisoned on the Isle of Man. Two of the younger members of the Lords Appellants, Thomas of Mowbray, earl of Nottingham and Henry Bolingbroke earl of Derby, had initially escaped any severe retribution. However, in 1398 Richard found a pretext to exile them both from the country.
Bolingbroke was the son of the most powerful man in the kingdom – John of Gaunt – he was also cousin to both Richard II and Edward of Norwich. On Gaunt’s death in 1399, instead of passing his inheritance onto Bolingbroke, Richard appropriated it for the crown, putting some of the lands into Edward’s care – and extending his cousin’s exile to life.
Later that year Richard set off on campaign to Ireland, taking with him his cousin Edward and Bolingbroke’s 13-year-old son, Henry of Monmouth. We don’t know how Edward had reacted to his cousin Henry’s disinheritance, but it can’t have been an easy time for him, caught in the middle of his warring cousins, and he may have felt uneasy with the sudden change in Henry’s circumstances at the hands of the king. He later claimed that he had not drawn any of the revenues from the Lancastrian lands which had been put in his custody.
Whilst Richard was in Ireland Henry of Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire, announcing that he had returned only to claim his inheritance. While Richard headed back to England to face him, Henry was progressing through the country, gaining support. Edward advised Richard to send John Montague, Earl of Salisbury, into north Wales while Richard gathered his forces. Montague raised 4,000 men, but his force had disintegrated by the time the king arrived. On arriving in south Wales, Richard had immediately pressed northwards, leaving Edward and his main force behind him.
There seems to be some confusion as to Edward’s actions. He was reputedly attacked as he made his way through Wales, but by which side is unclear. He was said to be part of the delegation sent – by Bolingbroke – to Richard at Flint, wearing Bolingbroke’s livery.
Jean Creton, in his Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre Richard II, says Edward ‘said nothing to the king, but kept at as great a distance as he could from him’². Creton stated there was no man alive that Richard had loved better and depicted Edward as a Judas deliberately betraying his king in 1399.
However, the transition of power from Richard II to Henry IV was far from plain sailing for Edward. Henry and Edward were 1st cousins, but Edward was one of the key personalities of Richard’s tyrannical reign, and a focus for revenge. According to the chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, Edward came close to being lynched as tempers ran hot during Henry’s 1st parliament. Edward was accused of urging Gloucester’s murder, a claim he was forced to vehemently deny. Henry resisted calls for the death penalty for Richard’s adherents, and settled instead for punishment by the confiscation of all titles and rewards granted since 1397.
Edward was one of the greatest losers; he lost the constableships of England and the Tower of London and his manor of Burstwick was granted to the earl of Northumberland. He was no longer Duke of Aumale and back to being, simply, earl of Rutland. However, when parliament finished, Henry confirmed Edward’s custody of the Channel Islands and his lordship of the Isle of Wight, suggesting the new king had confidence in his cousin’s loyalty, even if parliament didn’t.
By the end of 1399 Edward had become embroiled in the Epiphany Rising, the plot to murder Henry IV and his sons during a tournament at Windsor on Twelfth Night. Edward is said to have been a conspirator, but it was he who betrayed the plot to the king, and he was rewarded with the restoration of the lordship of Oakham in Rutland. The plot’s failure meant death for Richard II; Richard had been held at Pontefract Castle since his deposition, but the uncovering of the plot meant he was too dangerous to keep alive. He died around 14th February 1400, probably from starvation.
Edward served the Lancastrian dynasty in much the same way he had Richard II. In October 1400 he was appointed Keeper of North Wales and July 1401 he was dispatched to France as Henry’s lieutenant in Aquitaine, in response to an appeal from the archbishop of Bordeaux who described Edward as ‘the man closest to the king after the king’s sons’.
Whilst in Bordeaux Edward succeeded as the Duke of York, following his father’s death on 1st August 1402. In May of the following year Edward gave up his office to return to England and by the autumn he was campaigning in Wales. In October he was appointed the king’s lieutenant in south Wales for 1 year, but by November the appointment had been extended to 3 years.
Still owed money from his time in Aquitaine, and with Henry unable to meet the costs of the war in Wales, Edward was left in serious financial straits. His men were on the verge of mutiny. However, Edward was one of those rare commanders, who knew how to inspire men and command loyalty. Forced to mortgage his properties to release funds, he made a promise to his troops that, on his honour, he would receive none of his own revenues until they were paid.
The Duke of York’s duty in Wales stood him in good stead in February 1405 after his sister, Constance, implicated him in a plot against the crown. York was imprisoned in Pevensey Castle for 17 weeks. But it was the Prince of Wales who came to his defence in parliament. Henry of Monmouth described Edward as “a loyal and valiant knight”. Speaking of clashes against Owen Glendower, in 1407 Prince Henry said “If it had not been for the duke’s good advice and counsel he and others would have been in great peril and desolation.”
As far as the Prince of Wales was concerned, York “had laboured and served in such a way as to support and embolden all the other members of the company, as if he had been the poorest gentleman in the realm wishing to serve him in order to win honour and renown”.³
The Duke of York was an authority on hunting, translating the work Gaston Phebus, Count of Foix, Livre du Chasse” into English and adding several chapters himself. He dedicated the work, Master of Game to the Prince of Wales, the future Henry V. The book gives us a glimpse of the Duke of York’s personality and shows us why his men and peers thought so much of him:
“I ask of every person who reads this little treatise, or comes to hear of it, whatever their estate or condition, that in plain and simple language they will add to it anything they find useful and remove all that seems superfluous … so that this work may always grow through the advice and counsel of all hunters, and with this in mind, I tried to set out, as simply and clearly as I knew, what I understood of this craft, for the use and remembrance of all.”³
Edward and Prince Henry were particularly close. Edward was something of a mentor to the young Prince of Wales, as well as being his hunting master.
However, when Henry IV and the Prince of Wales quarreled over foreign policy, Edward sided with the king. In 1412 he accompanied the king’s 2nd son, Thomas, on campaign in France, to aid the Armagnacs against the Burgundians. Following the king’s death in 1413 he was preparing to defend Aquitaine in the June, and by August he was in Paris, negotiating a possible marriage between the new king, Henry V and Catherine of Valois.
Edward was back in England by October 1413, but was constantly involved in the diplomacy between England and France that led to Henry’s invasion of the country in 1415. In August 1415 Edward’s brother, Richard of Conisbrough, earl of Cambridge was executed for his involvement in the Southampton Plot to replace Henry V with his Mortimer cousin. For once, the Duke of York was above suspicion.
Shortly after the executions the fleet set sail for France and landed there on 13th August 1415. Almost immediately the army besieged Harfleur, finally taking the small town on 22nd September, but at great cost. During the siege dysentery had spread through the army, decimating Henry’s forces and leaving him with barely 6,000 men to continue the campaign.
As a result, Henry decided to make a run for Calais and safety, hoping to find a crossing of the River Somme whilst avoiding the French army amassing near Rouen. Edward, Duke of York, led the vanguard, taking part in several skirmishes from the harassing French troops and marching his men at an incredible pace. His men were starving and desperately ill – with more succumbing to dysentery every day.
According to historian Michael Jones, the Duke of York used his extensive hunting expertise to formulate the battle plan that would give Henry V the great victory that is still remembered today.
His battle plan depended on a contingent of English archers being able to provoke the French into attacking down an enclosed valley, channelling them into the path of massed volley fire from a 2nd contingent of archers. The knights and men-at-arms would then enclose the survivors and destroy the remainder of the French army.
York was in the thick of the fighting, 90 men were killed defending his banner – the majority of the English casualties on the day. York fought valiantly but was killed as his helmet was smashed into his skull. His men protected their fallen leader’s body, preventing the French from breaking through the thin English line.
The London Chronicler wrote:
The Duke of York was slain,For his king he would not retreat, even by a foot, til his bascinet into his brain was brent [impaled].³
Edward Duke of York had led an illustrious and often controversial career. He had served 3 kings. He had written the first book on hunting in the English language. He could quote Chaucer, was a generous lord and a great military leader. The Chronicler of Godstow regarded him as a “second Solomon”. However, his reputation suffered damage during the Tudor era, when he was accused of being fat and dissolute – it was said he’d died at Agincourt after being suffocated in his armour because he was too heavy to rise after a fall.
The reverence with which Henry treated Edward after his death proves the lie of the later propaganda. Edward’s will was honoured; his nephew Richard inherited his lands and title, gifts to his men were fulfilled, such as Sir John Popham who received armour, a horse and a life rent from one of the Duke’s manors.
Edward asked to be buried in the church at Fotheringhay, where he had recently founded a college of priests. He was laid to rest beneath the choir steps, the grave marked by a marble slab with his figure upon it, engraved in brass. A larger memorial was added in Elizabethan times.
Edward’s wife Philippa survived him by 16 years, spending her widowhood at Carisbrooke Castle as the Lady of the Isle of Wight. She died 17th July 1431 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Edward’s nephew Richard, 3rd Duke of York, would go on to challenge Henry VI for the throne, dying at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460. His son Edward would take up the mantle and succeed as Edward IV in March 1461, just 3 months after his father’s death.
Footnotes: ¹ Given-Wilson quoted in Oxford Database of National Biography; ² Jean Creton Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre Richard II quoted in Oxford Database of National Biography; ³ 24 Hours at Agincourt by Michael Jones.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
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; 24 Hours at Agincourt by Michael Jones; Agincourt: My Family, the Battle and the Fight for France by Ranulph Fiennes Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; englishmonarchs.co.uk; oxforddnb.com; britannica.com; upenn.edu.
Coming in November!
Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World, is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
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Constance of York was born around 1374, possibly at Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire (although that is far from certain). She was the 2nd of 3 children born to Edmund of Langley, Duke of York and 5th son of Edward III, and his wife, Isabella of Castile. Edmund and Isabella also had 2 boys, Edward of Norwich in around 1373 and Richard of Conisbrough, who is thought to have been born around 1375/6, but could have been born as late as the early 1380s.
Contemporary sources suggest that Edmund and Isabella were an ill-matched pair and their relationship was a rocky one, with Isabella accused of having an affair with John Holland, Duke of Exeter and half-brother to Richard II. Holland has also been suggested as the father of Isabella’s youngest son, Richard.
Constance’s childhood was short-lived. At the age of 4, in April 1378, she was betrothed to Edward le Despenser. However, young Edward appears to have died shortly after the betrothal as by November 1379 Constance was married to his only surviving, younger brother, Thomas, who was about 6 at the time.
It is highly likely that 4-year-old Constance remained in her parents’ household for several years after her marriage, although she may have spent time also in the household of her mother-in-law, who retained wardship of young Thomas despite her husband’s death.
Thomas le Despenser was a great-grandson of the infamous Hugh le Despenser the Younger, despised favourite and alleged lover of Edward II, who was executed on a 50-foot high gallows in 1326. The marriage was seen as a good match on both sides: the Despenser family had a considerable fortune and were among the 12 richest families in the country, while Constance was a granddaughter of Edward III. Her hand in marriage completed the rehabilitation of the Despenser family.
In 1386, at just 12-years-old Constance was made a Lady of the Garter by her cousin, Richard II; she was one of the youngest ever recipients of the award. In 1392 Constance’s mother died and the following year her father re-married. His new bride was about 6 years younger than Constance and was a niece to Richard II; Joan Holland was the daughter of Thomas Holland, 2nd earl of Kent and granddaughter of Joan of Kent, Princess of Wales. In a bizarre twist, she was also the niece of John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, the late Duchess of York’s alleged lover.
Thomas, meanwhile, was learning his trade as a soldier. He served with Richard II in Scotland in 1385, probably as a page or squire, given his tender years. In 1388 he was knighted by the Earl of Arundel, following his involvement in a naval expedition against the French. In 1391 Thomas travelled to Prussia to join the “crusade” against the Lithuanians.
It seems likely that, by 1394 with Thomas back in England, Thomas and Constance were finally living together as a couple. In March of that year, Thomas had been granted full possession of his lands; he had been a ward of his mother, Elizabeth de Burghersh, since his father Edward’s death in 1375.
It’s possible the couple had as many as 5 children, but only 2 survived infancy; a son, Edward, died young, Hugh died around 1401 and a daughter, Elizabeth, born around 1398, also died young.
The 1st definite date of birth of a child is Richard, possibly their 2nd son but the 1st to survive childhood, who was born 30th November 1396. Richard would inherit his grandmother’s title of Baron Burghersh on her death in about 1402. Richard married his 2nd cousin Eleanor, daughter of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmoreland, and Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.
Unfortunately, Richard and Eleanor had no children before Richard died, still only in his 20s. His title passed to his younger sister, Isabella, who had been born around 1400 and was married successively to 2 men, cousins, of the same name; she married firstly Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester and secondly Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Isabella’s daughter by Warwick, Anne, would later marry Richard Neville, known as the Kingmaker, and be the mother of Richard III’s queen, Anne Neville.
Thomas le Despenser was a great supporter of Richard II, he was involved in the arrest and prosecution of the Appellant lords, the Duke of Gloucester and the Earl of Arundel in 1397; in return for which he received a share of their lands. And on the 29th September 1397, le Despenser was created Earl of Gloucester.
In spite of his close links with Richard II, Gloucester initially supported the accession of Henry Bolingbroke as Henry IV, after usurping Richard’s throne. However, after he was attainted for his role in the death of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and deprived of his earldom he became disillusioned with the new regime.
Fearful of losing his estates, and possibly his life, in January 1400 he joined in a conspiracy with the earls of Kent, Salisbury and Huntingdon. Known as the Epiphany Rising, the earls planned to seize the king during a tournament at Windsor, intending to kill Henry IV and replace him with Richard II – still imprisoned at Pontefract Castle. The conspiracy was betrayed to the king by Edward of Norwich, Constance’s older brother and the conspirators were arrested and executed. Richard II himself became the prime victim of the plot, which led Henry IV to believe it was too dangerous to keep the erstwhile king alive; he died shortly afterwards, still in custody at Pontefract Castle, probably from starvation.
Thomas le Despenser was executed on 13th January 1400. It is tempting to feel sorry for Constance of York, former Countess of Gloucester, mother of several infants and pregnant with her late husband’s child. And, indeed, it must have been difficult for her; a young, pregnant widow of a convicted traitor. With her husband’s lands forfeit, she could well have wondered what was going to happen to them all, especially following the death of her father in 1402. However, Constance herself was not beyond plotting.
In February 1405, during Owain Glyn Dwr’s rebellion, Constance became involved in the plot to abduct Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March from Windsor Castle. March had the greatest claim to the throne of all Henry IV’s rivals, being descended from Edward III’s 2nd surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp. The plan was to deliver March and his younger brother, Roger, to their uncle, Sir Edmund Mortimer, who was married to Glyn Dwr’s daughter.
The boys were successfully released from Windsor, but recaptured before entering Wales. Although Constance does not seem to have suffered retribution for her part in the plot, she did implicate her brother Edward of Norwich, Duke of York, who was imprisoned in Pevensey Castle for 17 weeks as a consequence.
Constance was also to cause scandal in her love life. As a young widow, she started a liaison with Edmund Holland, 4th Earl of Kent and the brother of Constance’s step-mother, Joan. A daughter, Eleanor, was born to the couple at Kenilworth in about 1405. She would later marry James Touchet, Lord Audley.
Whether or not Eleanor’s parents married became a bone of contention for the young woman when she attempted to lay claim to her father’s lands and titles in 1430. Although she produced witnesses to prove the marriage of her parents, in about 1404, on the petition of Edmund’s sisters, Joan Duchess of York (Eleanor’s step-grandmother) and Margaret Holland, Duchess of Clarence, Eleanor was adjudged illegitimate and unable to inherit from her father.
Edmund was killed at the Battle of Ile-de-Brehat in September 1408 and buried on the island of Lavrec.
Constance outlived her lover by 8 years, dying on the 28th November 1416, the last survivor of the 3 York children. Her younger brother, Richard, had been executed in August 1415, for his part in the Southampton Plot to assassinate Henry V; and older brother Edward, Duke of York, was killed at Agincourt in October of the same year.
Constance of York, Countess of Gloucester, was buried at Reading Abbey in Berkshire.
Sources:Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Life and Times of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; yorkistage.blogspot.co.uk; richard111.com; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon.
From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now, on Kindle and in hardback, from Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing,Book Depository and Amazon US.
Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World, is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
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Growing up near Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, we always thought it was just a bland old place – it was great for exploring and rolling down the hills, but being so far from London, the centre of power, it didn’t seem to have much history. The most famous thing about it was that it was used as the Saxon castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
English Heritage have spent a lot of money on it in recent years. When I worked there in the early 1990s it was open to the elements and there was just a very narrow walkway around the inside of the keep. Now it has a roof, floors on every level, sensitive lighting and a fantastic little visitor centre. It looks so much better (although I still wouldn’t want to stand on the battlements on a windy day like today).
When I joined as a tour guide, I started looking into the actual history of the Castle, seeing it more for what it has been, than for the visitor attraction it is now. Instead of being a forgotten, unimportant little castle in the middle of nowhere, Conisbrough Castle comes to life through the history it has been a part of, and the people who have called it home.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Conisbrough – then known as Conigsburgh, or Kynsburgh – belonged to the great British warrior Ambrosius Aurelianus. Geoffrey of Monmouth wasn’t known for his historical accuracy, of course, but it is fascinating to think that this little town may once have belonged to a candidate for the legendary King Arthur.
What we know, for certain, is that by 1066 the Honour of Conisbrough belonged to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and King Harold II of England. On a prominent, steep hill, it guards the main road between Sheffield and Doncaster to the east, and the navigable River Don to the north.
Following Harold’s defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings, it was given to one of William the Conqueror’s greatest supporters, William de Warenne. Warenne was a cousin of Duke William of Normandy and fought alongside him at the Battle of Hastings. He was given land in various counties, including Lewes in Sussex and Conisbrough in Yorkshire; and although he developed his property at Castle Acre in Norfolk, little was done at Conisbrough. In those days the castle itself was little more than a wooden motte and bailey construction, surrounded by wooden palisades and earthworks.
A thoroughly modern Castle
It was not until the reign of Henry II that the Castle began to take on the majestic appearance we know today. Conisbrough came into the hands of Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; Hamelin had married the de Warenne heiress, Isabel, Countess of Warenne and Surrey, and became 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey by right of his wife.
It was Hamelin who built the spectacular hexagonal keep. The stairs to the keep were originally accessed across a drawbridge, which could be raised in times of attack. The ground floor was used for storage, with a basement storeroom below, housing the keep’s well, and accessed by ladder.
The first floor holds the great chamber, or solar, with a magnificent fireplace and seating in the glass-less window. This is where the Lord would have conducted business, or entertained important guests. Henry II, King John and King Edward II are known to have visited Conisbrough: King John even issued a charter from Conisbrough Castle in March 1201.
The second floor would have been sleeping quarters for the lord and lady. Both the solar and the bedchamber have impressive fireplaces, garderobes and a stone basin, which would have had running water delivered from a rainwater cistern on the roof.
On this floor, also, built into one of the keep’s buttresses is the family’s private chapel. This may well have been the chapel endowed by Hamelin and Isabel in 1189-90, and dedicated to St Philip and St James (although there was a, now lost, second chapel in the inner bailey to which the endowment could refer). The chapel is well-decorated, with quatrefoil windows, elaborate carving on the columns and a wonderful vaulted ceiling.
There is a small sacristy for the priest, just to the left of the door, with another basin for the priest’s personal use, and cavities for storing the vestments and altar vessels.
The winding stairs, built within the keep’s thick walls, give access to each successive level and, eventually, to the battlements, with a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
These battlements also had cisterns to hold rainwater, a bread oven and weapons storage; and wooden hoardings stretching out over the bailey to aid in defence. The keep and curtain walls – which were built slightly later – were of a state-of-the art design in their day. The barbican, leading into the inner bailey, had 2 gatehouses and a steep passageway guarded by high walls on both sides; an attacking force would have been defenceless against missiles from above, with nowhere to run in the cramped corridor.
Although the encircling moat is dry (the keep is built high on a hill), all the detritus from the toilets and kitchens drained into it; another little aid to defence – imagine having to attack through that kind of waste?
None of the buildings in the inner bailey have survived, although you can see their stone outlines in the ground. Along one wall there were kitchens and service rooms leading into a great hall, with a raised dais at the far end, and a solar and living quarters above.
Another range of buildings attached to the western wall also held living quarters, possibly for the garrison and any guests. There’s even a small jail cell just to the side of the barbican.
Although Conisbrough is not a large castle, the extensive range of buildings, the magnificent decorations of the fireplaces and chapel, suggest it would have been impressive in its day; and reflects the importance of the castle’s owners and occupants.
The Castle’s Residents
The de Warenne Earls of Surrey were close to the crown, and the centre of government, for centuries. The daughter of the 2nd Earl, Ada, had married the heir to the Scots throne and was mother to 2 Scottish kings; Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lyon.
Hamelin’s son and heir, William, married Maud Marshal, daughter of the Greatest knight, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent during Henry III’s infancy. Their son John, the 7th Earl, was Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland and beat the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296. His daughter, Isabella, married John Balliol, King of Scots, and was mother to Edward Balliol, another Scottish king.
The 8th – and last – de Warenne earl was a colourful character; John. Although he was married to Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I, he lived with his mistress and even kidnapped Alice de Lacey, wife of Thomas Earl of Lancaster, possibly in retaliation for Lancaster’s prevention of Surrey’s longed-for divorce. The result was the 1st – and only – siege of Conisbrough Castle; the Earl of Lancaster assaulted the castle, but was opposed by a garrison of only 6 men, who soon capitulated.
The last Earl of Surrey died without heirs in 1347 and Conisbrough passed to John de Warenne’s godson, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III. Edmund’s wife Isabella of Castile gave birth to her 3rd child, Richard Earl of Cambridge, at Conisbrough, most likely in the lavish bedchamber within the keep itself. Cambridge had the dubious reputation of being England’s poorest Earl; however, he is remembered to history as the grandfather of the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III.
Following Cambridge’s execution for treason in 1415 his 2nd wife, Maud Clifford, made Conisbrough her principal residence until her death in 1446. Maud entertained her Clifford family here and her great-nephew and godson John Clifford, the Butcher of Skipton was born there in 1435. In a strange twist of fate, John Clifford is the one accused of murdering the Earl of Cambridge’s 17-year-old grandson Edmund, Earl of Rutland, following the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460.
The castle underwent repairs during the reign of Edward IV, in 1482-3, but by 1538 a survey revealed the it had fallen into neglect and decay, with parts of the curtain wall having slipped down the embankment.
From then on, although it has had successive owners until it came under the protection of English Heritage, Conisbrough Castle has been a picturesque ruin, a wonderful venue for picnics and exploring its many hidden treasures.
All photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US and worldwide from Book Depository.
From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository.
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