Poor little rich girl – of a medieval heiress
I must admit from the start that I have little fondness for Thomas of Lancaster, one of the protagonists in today’s post. For those of you who do not immediately go “Aha! Dear old Thomas,” Lancaster was the nephew of Edward I, and eldest son of Edmund Crouchback. While I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Lancaster face to face (sort of impossible, seeing he’s been dead close to seven centuries) I get the impression this was a man who spent most of his life feeling entitled – to whatever took his fancy. Whatever the case, Thomas will probably end up having a post of his own here at my blog, but today he is relegated to being one of the many men who impacted the life of Alice de Lacy.
Alice de Lacy was born in 1281. Her mother was the Countess of Salisbury in her own right, her father was Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, and seeing as Alice was the only surviving child of this union, she was quite the catch on the marital market – a double countess, no less. We have no idea what Alice may have looked like, if she laughed easily, preferred cherries to pears or was great at chess. In fact, all we know is that she was rich and therefore desirable.
Such a grand prize did not go unnoticed by King Edward I, and when she was nine little Alice was betrothed to the king’s nephew, Entitled Thomas. He was four years or so older, not an insurmountable age difference in any way. He was also the heir to various titles and considerable wealth in his own right, so Alice was destined for a life in velvets and furs – or so one thought.
At the time of her betrothal, Alice’s father had given up on any other heirs, and so he made a rather odd arrangement with the king: the Earldom of Lincoln and Henry’s fortune was to pass to Thomas – not Alice – upon the present earl’s death, and from there to whatever issue Alice and Thomas might have. Should there be no children, the Earldom of Lincoln would revert to the crown.
Not quite thirteen, Alice married Thomas of Lancaster. Not, it would seem, a loving relationship – nor was it fruitful. While Thomas sired bastard children, Alice remained childless, and we don’t know if this was due to lack of trying or because she was barren. Whatever the case, Thomas and Alice quickly began living separate lives, having as little as possible to do with each other.
To be fair to Thomas, in his day and age a barren wife was a major, major inconvenience. In this case, the wife was so rich an attempt at annulling the marriage would cause quite a dent in Thomas’ fortune. I’m guessing he was hoping she’d die young enough for him to find another wife – but we don’t know, and however obnoxious Thomas seems to have been, this may be a totally unfair assumption.
Thomas had other things to concern himself with, primarily being a constant burr up the arse of his royal cousin, Edward II. Specifically, Thomas was of the opinion that if anyone should counsel the king it should be him, not some upstart Gascon type named Piers Gaveston. Edward II did not agree: he seems to have disliked Thomas, a sentiment returned in full by the haughty Lancaster.
Thomas led a rebellion which ended with Piers being summarily executed – not something Edward would ever forgive. He may have been an ineffectual king, but he was a man of strong passions and he had genuinely loved Piers.
Anyway, by the time Piers was dead, Thomas had five earldoms under his control: other than the three he’d inherited from his father, he was now also the Earl of Lincoln and Salisbury, this as Alice’s both parents had passed away. He celebrated by removing Alice to live in Pickering Castle while Thomas made himself comfortable in Pontrefact, Alice’s favourite abode.
By now, Alice was pushing thirty-six or so, and I’m assuming she’d resigned herself to never hearing the pitter-patter of little feet on the polished floors of her recently renovated solar, complete with plastered walls. Life was hundrum but safe – or so Alice thought.
Lancaster collected enemies like present day filatelists collect stamps. One such enemy was John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. Yet another unhappily married man, Warenne had strived to divorce his estranged wife to marry his mistress instead, but Lancaster had thrown a gigantic monkey-wrench into Warenne’s plans and had even managed to have him excommunicated for adultery. Other than this, Warenne had been disgusted by the execution of Gaveston which had him firmly in the king’s camp, while Lancaster was heading the increasingly vociferous baronial opposition to Edward II.
Warenne decided to teach Lancaster a lesson. His motivations are sunk in the mire of time, but I’d hazard there were forces in the country – notably a certain Hugh Despenser (two Hugh Despenser, actually: father and son) – who wanted to ensure the king and his recalcitrant cousin remained at loggerheads. What better way to ensure this than by having Warenne abduct poor Alice, thereby humiliating Lancaster in front of the entire English nobility?
So Alice was abducted, whether willingly or not is a bit unclear. Among the men who were sent out to carry her away from the hunting lodge at which she was presently residing was a certain Richard St Martin, who stated he’d had carnal knowledge of Alice prior to her betrothal & marriage ergo some sort of pre-contract existed, making her marriage to Lancaster null and void. Hmm. Alice was NINE when she was betrothed. Nine. This Richard character was clearly lying through his nose, but just like that, poor Alice’s reputation was severely tarnished.
Lancaster seems to have made little effort to get Alice back. But he was beyond angry with the king and his cronies for this public humiliation, which served to drive him even further from the king’s peace. As some of you may know, Lancaster and Roger Mortimer, together with Humphrey de Bohun, led a rebellion in early 1321 which ended with the Despensers being exiled, the king to be counselled by men such as his beloved cousin. Didn’t last long, and for once in his life, Edward II acted with impressive determination, so that in January 1322 Mortimer was imprisoned, and in March of 1322 Lancaster and de Bohun were defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Some days later, Lancaster was executed – as summarily as Piers, all those years earlier.
One would have thought all of this was good news for Alice. A widow at last – a rich widow. Nope. Edward and the rapacious Despensers were as bad as all other men in her life so far. She was imprisoned as a traitor’s widow, and only when she’d signed away the lion’s share of her fortune and lands was she released. Despenser ended up with most of her lands, but Alice was at last free to go – and to marry the man with whom she was to experience a decade of happiness. Seeing as she was old as the hills (well over forty) the king allowed the marriage, there being little risk of Alice producing an heir to claim the Earldom of Lincoln.
In 1324, Alice married Eubulus LeStrange (or Eble or Ebolo – the last seems most unfortunate). Now this gentleman had been known to Alice for years, seeing as he’d been a member of Lancaster’s household. Had they been lovers before? Personally, I hope so, as otherwise poor Alice had lived a most restricted life – but I don’t know. Whatever the case, Mr LeStrange seems to have been quite happy to leave Alice to do the “earling” in their relationship, and from what little we have it seems they were content together – despite all those lands stolen from Alice.
Come 1327, Edward II was history – as king, at any rate. One could have hoped Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer would have found it in them to restore some of Alice’s estates, but nope, Isabella appropiated some of it, Mortimer other parts. At the time, Alice was smart enough not to protest. Some years later, and Eubulus was party to the plot that unseated Mortimer from power, and Edward III seems to have been adequately grateful.
In 1335, Eubulus died. Alicie hastily took a vow of chastity, but some months later she was brutally abducted and raped by a certain Hugh de Freyne – not because Alice was a marvellously attractive woman, but because she was rich. Canonical law compelled her to marry her rapist, and yet again her lands were under the control of a man who cared little for her. Fortunately, Freyne died a year or so later. Alice reiterated her vows of chastity and retired to live out the rest of her life in relative obscurity.
In 1337 Edward III made his good friend and loyal servant William Montagu Earl of Salisbury – despite Alice being very much alive. With the title came the lands – once again, despite Alice being alive. Yet another example of how defenceless a woman was in the face of male determination back then, but I suspect that Alice was beyond truly caring: she had no children for whom to fight, her beloved Eubulus was dead, and she was quickly approaching sixty and imminent death (well…)
Alice de Lacy died in 1348 and was buried beside her second husband, the only man who seems to have truly cared for her. Betrayed – however unwittingly – by her father, by her first husband, by her kings and their favourites, Alice de Lacy must have had plenty of days when she cursed her magnificent inheritance. All in all, it brought her little joy and plenty of sorrow. Poor little rich girl, hey?